Waking, Val-mes could open only one eye. The left, he noted, was fiercely swollen shut. He moved to survey the damage with his fingers, but the moment his hand came into view, a new concern presented itself.
His skin was shale gray.
This, of course, was natural. Every Elvaret had skin like his, but he was deep in human lands, far from home and the safety his status afforded him. Here such skin marked him as an enemy. He could only pray his host had not seen him like this. Reflexively, he called on intent, pulled those fibers of reality and threaded together a different appearance—the one he’d been wearing. Perhaps Taelic, perhaps Fellish, dark hair and rounded ears.
A knock sounded at the door. Val-mes had to swallow his heart from his mouth before he could answer, “Enter,” in his feigned Fellish accent.
The door opened, and Katisandra Kol’tir strode into the room. She was a Taelic noblewoman of perhaps sixty, strands of gray running through her black hair, with a carriage of such confidence that Val had been unable to refuse her invitation to return to her home, in spite of the obvious danger it presented.
“You look terrible,” she said. Then grinned.
Their paths had crossed yesterday evening. Val had foolishly inserted himself into a conflict between a housemaid and her employer. He had known better than to get involved, but he had seen too many injustices in this part of the Fell to stomach even one more. Naturally, the course of events had seen the housemaid fired and Val-mes on the wrong end of a beating from several of the employer’s guards. Hence the swollen eye—and countless other sore places, which he noticed as he squirmed.
“The young woman?” he asked.
“Oh, fine. Fine,” Katisandra replied. “Finding her way around the larder as we speak.”
The housemaid had tried to stop the guards. They’d punished her efforts. Only Katisandra, arriving on the scene and ordering the lot to disperse had had any effect. She had helped both Val-mes and the young woman to their feet and offered to bring them home.
“Good,” Val said with some relief.
Katisandra took a seat in a fine armchair not far from the bed. She propped her elbow on the armrest and her chin on her fist. She studied Val-mes for a moment with worrying insight.
“You are either stupid or altruistic,” she said. “Though, in my experience, such traits are not often mutually exclusive.”
“I’m sorry to cause strain,” Val-mes replied, blushing, manipulating his illusion to match.
Katisandra waved her hand. “Nothing of the sort,” she said. “I haven’t had this much fun since I disbanded one of Al’gheer’s slave routes. Ah, the things one can accomplish by sponsoring a few public infrastructure acts.” She grinned again. “I am quite stupid and altruistic myself, you see.”
Val-mes did not know how to respond.
“Where do you come from?” Katisandra asked.
He did not know how to answer that, either.
“Nobility recognizes nobility,” she continued. “Clearly you have some refined upbringing.”
“My parents are—” He would have to choose his words with care. “—unhappy with the way I view the world, so I chose to leave. That life is behind me.”
“So now you go about poking your nose into petty domestic squabbles?”
Val-mes blushed again, deeply, down to his core. He did not shift his illusion this time, hoping to keep his shame to himself, but Katisandra sensed the change in his expression.
“Surely you knew you could not win.”
“I could not stand by and do nothing,” Val replied, his voice hard.
“And what difference have you made?” Katisandra asked. “Had I not intervened, you would still be face down in the mud and that young woman would be without work for good. Even with my intervention, what have we achieved?”
“She’ll have a better life here,” Val-mes said.
“And the person who takes her place?”
Val pursed his lips. Katisandra was right. Things had worked out well, this once. That was fortunate, and he was grateful, but removing one housemaid from a volatile situation did not help any other mistreated servant anywhere in the Fell. An individual change of circumstance failed to shift the larger system any meaningful amount. Val was becoming aware of systems. Such knowledge did not make him happy.
“An idiot’s altruism will not be satisfied with one housemaid,” Katisandra said.
“I want to end the war between humans and kin,” Val replied.
Katisandra blinked. She sat back slightly and regarded him with wide eyes. Val did not have it in him to regret the admission. It was the first time he had ever spoken that particular desire aloud.
“I do not think real change can be made while time, attention, and resources are dedicated to killing people at the border,” he added.
“And so the war must end.”
“How do you plan to achieve that?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
The air between them changed. The spark in Katisandra’s eyes shifted from dismissive amusement to understanding. He might have ventured to say she seemed impressed, but that was not quite it. In a strange way, she looked as if she had found a kindred spirit. Val’s stomach turned, thinking of the gray skin just below his illusion.
“Master Eventide,” Katisandra said, using the alias Val had given her, “I mean no offense, but I must ask what you are willing to sacrifice.”
Val-mes furrowed his brow.
“I see some of myself in you,” she continued. “A brazen youth with controversial politics. My family branded me a libertine and cut me off. I was fortunate to have caught the eye of a distant uncle, who bequeathed his land and title to me upon his death, but society did not welcome me back. I have used my position to affect what change I can, but… The path I walk, the path you find yourself facing, is a lonely and a thankless one.”
She held his eye.
“No one will call you ‘hero’.”
Val turned his eyes to his lap. His mind drifted, strangely, to his mother. The decade of her imposed quarantine had hardened his affections toward her, but distance had softened cruelty’s sting. His heart ached—missing her, the scent of her perfume, the sound of her voice, the way she used to look at him, the pride she’d taken in his silly illusions. He had left her, left his father, left everything to pursue this course of action.
“I don’t want to be a hero, I want to do what’s right.”
“At what cost?”
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“You are young,” Katisandra said. “You have much to learn. You will make difficult decisions. You will give up pieces of yourself. By the end of it, you may not recognize your own reflection.”
Val looked at her.
“Is that all right with you?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
Smiling, Katisandra relaxed into the armchair. Her eyes softened, sympathetic. She said, “Those are the words I wish someone had spoken to me before I started down this path.”
“Do you regret it?” Val asked.
She smiled again, holding his eye, and answered honestly, “I don’t know.”
The next moment, she had risen and resumed her aura of confidence. She moved to the door, saying, “Think on it. Rest. Let’s make sure you can see the world with both eyes before you make any decisions. But know this, Master Eventide…”
She opened the door and paused in the frame.
“There is such great work to be done.”