Chapters:

Prologue

PROLOGUE

Jessu looked back with cold numbness at what was coming.

It was done.

Certainty was a place of calmness that she found she didn't mind. Not as much as she would have thought. Her whole life had been leading exactly to this moment, she now knew. The truth was, she had always known.

As the ground beneath her began to groan and whine in simultaneous tones of shrill soprano and grumbling baritone, it was almost as if she had been here a million times. She now understood what the Elders referred to as dichafuh: like looking through a mirror reflected in a mirror and trying to find the end point that just wasn't there. She had thought she had glimpsed this bizarre and infinite moment at little times in her life. It often felt almost like remembering a small set of experiences in waking life as though they had been dreamt before, but more groggily. She had always been admonished by Marquea for believing her meaningless moments of sitting in the kitchen and pouring chai or brushing her hair at her bedstand could be true dichafuh. She spared a moment of remembrance for her Elder, lost now forever.

Except, this time, she could see it clearly. That point where the endless mirrors' reflections ended was here. It was now. She had been here before she was born. She had been here ten billion times before that. Syarenewna's words had been utterly true. She had always known this fraughtness to the air, this pale and fiery light from the sky, this trembling moaning of the planet itself, these strange sounds rumbling through her body. The knowingness was a center, an origin point in the vast calm that possessed every fiber of her at this minute instance of chaos.

Some sensation in her fingers like electric impulse drew her attention away from the perfect yet unmanageably terrible truth unfolding not only before her, but also inside of her. The point of origin of this perception was clasped in her long fingers: the stylus. The sacred tool was imbued with all of the intention of the culture she couldn't imagine the loss of: centuries of progress, philosophy, science, study, insight and power lay, all as one, inside this simple structure in her hands. Even so, despite all they had accomplished and built on this blue planet, utter destruction is what had now arrived for them all -- and nothing could be spared.

Despite this, or maybe exactly because of it, the tool at once seemed to vibrate in her hands like she never knew a fuselrod could. The beautifully worked details of the hilt started to nearly hum with intensity and the feeling worked its way down to the delicate and arching yet profoundly and structurally sound tip, and Jessu's mortal frame was nearly overcome by the combination of the sudden snap back into a sort of human realization of the physicality inherent within the impending moment - I am going to die.

Alongside this return to her senses, this urging, no this devout begging, of the fuselrod demanded that she do ...she didn't know what. She wasn't quite sure, but she knew it demanded that she do something.

Jessu realized, just as instantly as she had realized the moment of their collective doom and just as quickly as she had snapped back into her being to feel the momentousness of it all, she realized also that this was the calling. This was the feeling that some waited their whole lives for. But how could it have come to her? She was barely a Scribe at all. She had only just been bound to her fuselrod to start with. She could barely even have begun, had there been time, to participate in the mass meditations of direction for the placing of the sacred stones after mastering the construction of a spheroid. She had only recently mastered the study of stars and the precession of the Days of Equality through the heavenly skies.

How could the stylus already be calling to her? Surely it should have been Marquea, Marquea who should have lived instead of her, or even Janmin, for the love of Leo! But even in the midst of her internal struggle, she knew that a call was a call. As much as she might want to run from the solemnity of it, the hugeness of it, the absolute duty of it, to run back to the perceived safety of the mass meditations taking place in the city behind her, where at least she could experience unity before she died, where at least she could die with others, not alone as she was now, she could not. This was it. It was all up to her. She even knew, without a second's hesitation, what it was she was meant to inscribe on the giant temple she stood at the entrance to: the most valued symbol of the Inner Realm that seemed to have been given to her repeatedly, over years. Though no one was shown the symbol without a lifetime of service to Spirit, she now intrinsically knew, she had been given the image in dreams and Visions for what seemed like an age.

As the shape of interlocking arches and circles came to mind with more clarity than it ever had, Jessu turned to go back into the temple, leaving the now fire-brimmed sky of ruinous disaster behind her to seek out the place of carving where she would leave the last mark her hands would ever give forth.

She wished that Galen had not gone, had been here with her, at the end, to see her life's work come forth from the fuselrod that now quivered so quickly in her hands that it nearly seemed to glow as heat emanated from it and warmth seeped throughout her body.

She spared a moment to think of it, that she would only want him near her in the end. That, even in the midst of the strangest and most suddenly immense moments of her life, he would be utmost in her being. How sweetly she beheld their mere sprouting of growth toward one another in this life that was now proving too short for them all. No, Galen couldn't be here, though he would be in her heart as she carved, no one could stop that. She would remember the strength he had given her and she would dedicate the work to him in her soul, though none would remain to know it.

She held these sad but resolute thoughts in her mind as she turned and, just as she began to make her way into the cool and deep interior of the structure, the darkness was thicker and more black than she had expected, even from the shadowy parlor within. She had only time to register the sound of a hiss and splutter and then the cold rock floor that should have been below her was, disorientingly, upon her cheek, upon her whole body. She seemed to be standing no longer, or else the walls had quickly moved close to embrace her. Something warm trickled into her eyes and dampened her light curls with stickiness. The world was a thick and heavy kind of peace. The fuselrod, seeming alive, tried to hold on to its connection to her fingers before slipping, like a forgotten note, just out of her unclutched hand, clanking gently onto the clean stone floor. The earth gave a sudden heave below her, lurching like she had never known it to do, adding to her dizziness and the pain now spreading through her head.

And then she knew no more.

PART ONE

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”

― August Wilson

ONE

Galen strode down the tiled pathway toward the school both with happiness widening his round, brown eyes and, alternately, sadness tugging at the corners of his soft lips. With his wide curls in his longish hair, his square face was framed in this state of dichotomy. At this, the end of their eighth year, all of the children he had learned and grown with would begin to split up. They would all be given their assignments for further study. Galen knew that some might even end up on the other side of the planet, far from all they knew, if they were selected for the special programs of Diplomacy and Exchange or found other callings to tug them away.

At least a few of them were destined for such things, Galen knew as he passed by rows of cottaged dispensaries and exchanges. Presnia Patteris, for one, would most definitely be chosen for Diplomacy and Exchange. Imagining Presnia and how perfect she would be, running around the world and offering helpful ideas and insights to everyone she could find to listen, with her serious and long face and her garb worn only ever as a necessity, Galen smirked. Everyone in their cohort knew that Presnia would be chosen for such a noble position. In fact, Presnia herself, always the logician and guideline expert, always staring down her pointed nose at a book or at what she thought were your irrational antics, was probably the only one that would admonish them that they could not know until the official seals were broken and the official letters of welcome read.

He himself would not mind some assignment that allowed him to travel far and wide. Who would pass up experience abroad? Galen looked around himself at the mountains and foothills on the horizon, visible on this rare, sunny morning, and thought of all the other climes and cultures on the planet. Seeing the world via screens and full-body immersions was one thing, being able to actually interact with true surroundings and gain cultural knowledge firsthand, that was something else entirely. His step unconsciously picked up, fancying the fun he could have. He became just a touch carried away as he imagined: he could travel to the deserts and see the lizards whose tails became fatter when they found water, storing the life-giving substance for stretches of dryness that were unavoidable, or he could travel to the highest peaks on the planet, those snow-covered beauties that stretched so far up into the atmosphere that oxygen became sparse and breathing became difficult.

The only problem was, he remembered as his steps slowed again, Galen didn't want to leave anyone behind: not his family, not his favorite elders, and not his friends, especially a few of his friends. Most especially one in particular and, as he thought of that one, the best friend he had ever known, the most beautiful girl in their small town of Barowlin, his heart grew warm. It always did. Jessu held his attentions eternally.

His mother had urged him, had reminded him only that morning to cheer up as she peered at him through narrowed and knowing eyes, but with a warm smile, "You're beginning something new," she had said as she finished the breakfast cleaning, "there is always sadness in that: looking back at what has ended. But, the promise of excitement lies in the same place, you see? You can choose to see the excitement, my dear." Knowing more than she let on and having put aside her towel, she had looked at him piercingly, "Promise you'll try?" She had reached out and held his chin in her soft and time-worn hand, admiring his coming manhood and beaming with pride.

How could he disappoint her? Not wanting to let down the woman he saw as the strongest and most pure in the world, peering up at her through his curling dark locks, he had replied, "Of course, mother. Of course I will," he had put on a brave and accepting face, a broad smile, his eyes brightening for her, though inside he was still full of a strange temper. "Doubtless, you are right," he had said as he had turned away.

Even so, something in him was sure, something he could not know the origin of, that the endings found within the beginnings offered them today would change his life's path forever away from all he had held dear. He felt he was not quite ready for such tumult. He had, nonetheless, grabbed his sack of personal items quickly and had rushed out the cottage door so that she could not see him waiver in case he had faltered and shown any outward signs of his hesitancy. He had passed by their humble food garden and few chickbirds on the way, yelling his goodbyes and love to his mother as he had gone.

Entering the walking thoroughfare that morning, he had reflected and knew that only a few people in life were gifted with the true vision. He definitely was not one of them, couldn't have been, of course. His being a man precluded it entirely. Knowing that he couldn't truly perceive who would be invited toward which life paths irked him only somewhat, he had long grown accustomed, like most people, to experiencing life as a constant unknowable. It was true that some invitations shocked everyone: the elders, their peers, themselves and their communities. One year, for reasons Jessu absolutely loved to philosophize about, a boy from another school was chosen for the Men's Assembly despite having the lowest accumulation of study hours in Analysis and Planning, no family background for it, no expressed interest in the field, and a track that seemed to indicate Horticultural applications.

Jessu loved to imagine, usually under a star littered sky of night as they sat together on his backyard shed, the reasons why the Assembly men or the women Scribes tasked with organizing the invitations from various societies and guilds every year had made the choice. The mystery was nearly profound. Neither Jessu nor Galen had quite been able to decide what the real reasons were and, because of this, Jessu loved to tease Galen that he would be chosen for the Scribehood. Obviously, this wasn't possible, him being a male. Still, he pretended to get riled up about it so that he could watch her face, her expectation and resultant mirth, emerge adorably at his responses to her mental ticklings. How could he resist her scrunched nose?

While he could not actually know whether Presnia would be chosen for Diplomacy and Exchange, whether any of them would be chosen for any of the paths with which they seemed a fit, didn't he somehow know? It was, after all, rare for people to fall outside their projected pathways. A Philosophical study by the Adept Analingua had long since shown that projections were simple, if one only looked at environmental and educational indicators. There were clear trends. People generally tended to do that which their families had done before them. It made sense. Biology had shown that genetics was a large determinant of a person's genotype and phenotype, but nothing could make up for the environment in which an individual grew.

Still, as he walked down the polished stone tiled walkways with all the other short-distance commuters, kicking rocks and wishing he wasn't walking toward his last day at school, he thought he did know how everything would turn out. He both hoped and feared his projections. He hoped because it obviously wasn't Presnia's fate he was much concerned with. It wasn't even his own. He was ready for whatever offers he would receive, especially because he could be fairly certain that he would be offered something local, something with large amounts of freedom built into the position, something like Mech Technician or Growth Sculptor. His family was full of people who worked directly with practical, everyday life and that was good, it made them happy. Anyone, of course, could be selected for any path in life, nothing was barred or promised from birth except the two gendered paths: Men's Assembly for males and Scribehood for females. For this reason, Galen could allow his heart, for so many years now, to dream of a future in which Jessu and himself might share a life. Her curly, light-brown hair and her electric blue eyes took up all of his mind, if he let them, and, if she would not have him for a partner, then they could at least always be close, always be as good of friends as they had been thus far, always laugh and think and talk together. He would never tire of watching how absently her hair fell into her face when she started talking of an idea that excited her or laughing at a joke he had told to amuse her and see her face light up...

Her family had generally gone into the Philosophies. They were Stargazers and Writers and Teachers. Because neither Jessu nor himself were exceptional in any specialty like global meta-analysis or musical theory and application, Galen could dare to dream that they might both be invited to a quiet life of applying themselves to more local aspirations and plans. Though everyone wanted the best for themselves and one another, though everyone knew that being invited to partake in some of the most prestigious roles was an honor unlike any other which one could receive for the rest of their lives, Galen still hoped, in a way, that both of them would be plain, average, humble, normal. There must be great honor in leading a life that served society, no matter how much it might be lacking in grandness or excitement, mustn't there?

These matters filled his boyish frame with a torpid electricity and sense of anticipation so that he had to excuse himself more than once on the walk as he bumped lightly into his neighbors and townsfolk. He flushed and apologized profusely each time, it was so unlike him to lack awareness of his surroundings, that was much more Jessu's shtick. But on the most momentous day of his short 14 years on Phi'Telas so far, he only had eyes for his inward most yearnings and fears.

*

"Child, come back here!" Jessu heard her father yell in an assumed exasperation as she went running out the door. This uncharacteristic admonishment stopped her nearly instantly as she literally skidded to a halt and swooped around to look back at him, holding her hat on her head so it wouldn't fall off in her haste as she was still tugging her jacket over her robes.

"What is it, da?" Jessu asked, wide-eyed and alarmed.

He just looked at her for a moment, shaking his head. "You've forgotten your rucksack, child!" He guffawed and put a hand on his hip as he added, " If I didn't raise you from a baby, I'd think you weren't even mine. It's all gone to your head, this invitation day, hasn't it?" He pretended to be upset, bewildered, but Jessu only smiled at his raised-eyebrow approbation as she sheepishly returned to his outstretched hands, grabbing the rust-colored bag by its tattered strap.

"Oh, da, I don't know where my mind is! It's trying to enter the Void to know what can't be known, I swear!" They both laughed at the absurdity, knowing it wasn't true and that Jessu would never try such a dangerous feat. Not if she valued her time on Phi'Telas.

"Jessu, Jessu, Jessu," he beamed proudly, in a sudden show of affection, and ruffled her hat.

Usually this would cause her to reprove him, mockingly. She, like so many girls her age, absolutely abhorred for her already unruly hair to be thrown off its particularly placed style of any given day. But, today, she let it go. She needed and wanted all the reminders of affection she could get. She knew it was normal for children to want to hold on to their childhoods at the same time as they wanted to become adults, she knew that. She had studied the analog stages of development and the theories of Trudemal, expert on childhood and adolescence, endlessly; she was fascinated by humanity.

Still, it was hard for her not to inwardly despise how much fear and resistance upwelled within her soul on this day. She was ready for productive life, she really was. This is what she told herself every time her feelings of wanting to hold on to what had passed, what was passing, returned.

She burst into a hug of her father's firm frame, her forehead scratched by his silver beard stubble, closing her eyes and questioning, "What if I can't do it, da? What if I'm invited to something I'm just...incapable of?"

Her father answered the same way he had hundreds of times before. "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right, my dearest."

He then reached to hold her face in both of his large, gnarled hands, looked her in the eyes, seemed to search for something there, and seemingly found it. He nodded and kissed her on the forehead.

"Go." He said, picking his head up and indicating the path to the school with a flick of the eyebrows. "Go find the invitation that has been waiting for your childhood's end."

She looked once more at him, saw the absolute conviction of his belief in her, held back a tear, nodded, broke into a full grin, and turned around again. She wouldn't look back. As silly as it might seem to some, she knew that times like these were important for the whole community. She had read in some of the more arcane texts about the times of the Great Disasters. Theoretical, at best, those times were thought to be unlike everything one could find today: humans who weren't rewarded for each stage of their development would often experience such internal turmoil, such uneven flowing of their bodily energies, that they might actually choose to harm themselves and, at the worst times, others. Trudemal had shown it in his Philosophies. Jessu couldn't imagine the times past that were supposedly rife with such trouble. Likely none she had ever met could truly understand these tales in their bizarre veering directly away from all that the people of today knew and understood about life and society. Stories like those of the time before, Jessu believed, weren't just over-interpretations of the myths that had been passed down, weren't just Scribal fancy at misunderstood Visions. She believed that the Visions given to those brave and skilled souls who journeyed into the Void were not just symbolic, that they were in fact warnings, lessons. She went to her invitation day knowing that the events and ceremonies to come were vital to the holistic functioning of the planet.

Such weighty thoughts were always on Jessu's mind, not just on days of import like today. It was virtually in her blood. Her family had been the pondering type for ages. Her aunt was a Philosopher Adept in the Halls of Knowledge where the most arcane texts and pieces of information were kept, her mother was a Teacher in a local school, her father was a member of the Stargazers Society who charted the heavens with their telescopes and simulations, and her family even had a long-distant relative who was an actual, purple-robed Scribe.

Jessu had no delusions that she would even be a Stargazer, let alone a Scribe. She was relatively positive that she would be invited to become a Teacher. She had shown interest in such a wide array of topics, never mastering any of them, but showing skill at understanding, conceptualizing, and applying all. She had also placed highly in measurements of empathy and compassion. These were traits highly valued by Teachers. Jessu thought it would be quite fine to be a Teacher and looked forward to the work despite that, like all girls, her secret dream encompassed the Scribehood.

What girl wouldn't envision herself in the flowing robes and silver trimmings of a Scribe? Who didn't want to learn whether or not they had the internal fortitude to seek the Void and be given Visions? Jessu's own dreamings at night sometimes made her wonder, most sacrilegiously, whether she was already seeing Visions. She wouldn't dare to tell anyone about it, not even Galen! She couldn't bear the shame of even beginning to wonder whether the vivid experiences from her dreamscapes could mean anything more than that she had a wild imagination and a vibrant internal world. Besides, these were a child's wishes, and she was ready to leave childish things behind her.

Thinking of Galen, she suddenly knew that the entire day would be so much easier to face if she walked with him. Why hadn't they thought of it already? They had sometimes met before regular school days or big events, wanting to gossip or prepare for presentations ahead of time. They must've simply been so overwhelmed by the day arriving, by neighbors and friends stopping in to see them before the ceremonies, by last minute preparations, that they had just forgotten about the possible comfort of meeting beforehand. It was an oversight, she decided right then, that she meant to remedy. As she continued between the cobb and mud-bale homes of her immediate neighborhood, she knew there was no one else she would rather see.

Jessu turned sharply and headed down a sudden alleyway, past repositories and food banks where people were beginning to pick up their provisions. In the lively market areas, items and boxes overflowed the color-coded stalls and shops, hung from the eaves and rafters, and sat waiting for whoever needed them next. Even in her newfound haste to find Galen, Jessu's mind wandered into the shops and across the faces of those she passed. A small child was filling out the request forms at a fabrics and clothing booth, running errand for his parents, no doubt. He handed the form to the shop-watcher and took his bundles, presumably heading back home with his acquisition.

Jessu rushed past him, remembering that she once read the theories of Adept Gallina, a lengthy piece about whether the myths and legends could be interpreted to indicate that people of the time before this age, from before the Great Disasters, had actually used a sort of value system to exchange items. Gallina had purported that some sort of tokens, little items of one kind or another that Jessu couldn't remember or hadn't been elaborated on, would have been used for exchange. It had been and continued to be a shocking idea for Jessu to even consider. Could people even think of it, really? Community members, so the theory went, would have been made to collect enough tokens to then trade them for their needs and the needs of their families. For even the most basic necessities! Most people in Barowlin-- nay, most people in Phi'Telas itself -- could not even imagine such a thing and, if asked to, they'd likely refuse to consider it because of how awful it sounded. It was like a recipe for a world at war with itself, Jessu had decided. She wondered if it could be true. She had even learned that they might have turned down anyone without enough tokens for even the most basic of necessities such as warmth, refuge, and, it was genuinely believed by Adept Gallina, food itself. Jessu couldn't begin to imagine what the purpose of this system would be and sometimes cast it aside as pure impossibility. People walking the planet without food only because they couldn't find or collect enough of a specific token? Why not decide that people must collect pygmy elephants for their necessities? The absurdity made Jessu laugh out loud to herself as she walked the aisles, turning a few heads to her mirthful outburst.

She tried to bring herself back from the pondering, though the absurdity of it lingered with her, causing her to laugh and smile as she zigged and zagged around the shoppers and passersby. She turned her corner to the road she was sure Galen would be traversing and was startled to bump into someone so solidly that she dropped her bag and gave a cry.

"Oh!" she exclaimed.

She began to fall, but the person she had bumped grabbed her arms to hold her upright as she twisted nearly away from him. She quick stepped her feet as she was brought back toward the man so as not to step on his and she began to lift her head to apologize profusely to the stranger. When she looked up from under the rim of her hat, she was taken aback to realize she had bumped directly into her truest friend, the object of her search himself. Galen stared down at her, astonished. She smiled at this funny synchronicity, but then Galen must have realized it was her and jumped a bit.

What should make him jump at finding me in his arms, she wondered? His grip became softer somehow, his fingers relaxed around her arms. Then, he seemed to stop moving as she gathered herself and got her bearings, finding herself solid on the ground, once again. His hands were still on her arms even though she was clearly out of danger of falling. He seemed not to notice.

She laughed again, still chuckling about the pygmy elephants but also about running right into Galen, but his face wasn't the warm and open place she expected in a moment like this, as she met his eyes. Something in that face was far too serious. She stopped her broad smile instantly, replacing it with a careful lift at the corners of her mouth, questioning.

Though mildly concerned, she tried to move past the feeling and said, deflecting, "Galen, of course it would be you I would bump into." She looked at him with amusement on her face, "at least it wasn't someone who could have done you real damage." She thought this would make him smile, they had often joked about how tiny she was, how wiry and thin. She searched his eyes for a lightening of the burden that she had found when they had collided. He was still holding her arms and looking right into her eyes and, for the first time in her life, of all the moments they had spent together, she felt suddenly nervous and excited, somehow caught off guard. What is going on with him? She felt something was wrong.

Realizing that he was staring at her dumbly and that it was making her feel awkward. He suddenly snapped out of whatever had momentarily befallen him and came back to the reality of the moment. Letting her go, at last, and stopping to pick up her fallen bag, he took a moment to reorient himself.

He was suddenly too self aware and, to correct the mood, he joked back with her, "I'm sure you love to let your meandering mind take you to the farthest reaches of the universes as you walk, becoming more of a public danger than an unmediated imbalance in the earth-plates themselves."

It worked. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed as she grabbed the bag from him and replied, "Wouldn't you like to know what goes on in my mind? Then you might have a chance at being invited to more than sweeping streets." She said this as though it were possible that anyone could be invited to do only those menial jobs that the whole community shared. It just added to the hilarity, she imagined.

There was their normal, easy, joking friendship. Nothing was wrong after all. We were simply both surprised, she told herself. He was now already falling into an easy pace with her by his side as they headed toward the school, together.

"Yes well," Galen said, as though relieved, "sometimes I only desire as much as something so simple. That might suit me just fine, honestly." Galen sighed, referring to the street sweeping comment as they began to amble together. He looked around, wistfully taking in the distant forests and hills once again, and asked her, "wouldn't you sometimes think that it would be nice to always be here, always be in Barowlin, always be surrounded by those who have known us, never have the pressures of a high honor job...?" He trailed off, dreaming. When she looked away to ponder and begin a response, he stole a glance at her, interested perhaps too keenly in her response.

She did in fact seem to take in the village, the market stalls, the children running by, the homekeepers gathering their supplies while she reflected. She remembered her earlier musings about the differences between children and adults and exhorted, "Today is the day we leave all that behind, Galen. Our childhoods are times of envelopment, of safety, of cocooning. Of course we love those things, of course part of us never wants to leave these aspects of our lives behind." She looked at him with her curly strand of bang hanging right in the middle of her forehead and dividing her baby blue eyes. He loved that absentness of physicality that stole over her when she got into one of her philosophizing moods. She rushed on, getting more excited, "I hold on, with part of myself, too. But..." she faltered a moment, searching, "...but I also can't wait to find out what happens next." She was nearly exploding suddenly, her eyes wide and her mouth half open in an expectation of the joy she saw ahead of them both. She nearly skipped, turning toward him with exuberance and proclaimed, "We get to begin our real lives today!" She was looking at him, expecting him to mirror her feelings.

How could he let her down? He could not have resisted even had she not begun to infect him with her excitement. He did his best to return the sentiment. He laughed with her and he kept most of his feelings of dread at what he knew might be their impending separation contained inside himself. However, he couldn't help but say, "Of course we will hold on to some things, won't we? It cannot be wrong to keep the best parts of your childhood, even into adulthood, can it?" He looked up at her, he had stopped walking suddenly. He was trying to keep the seriousness out of his voice and eyes, but he failed miserably.

She felt something deep within him, something very troubled. She took his hand and felt, again, something tense and almost jolting there that she didn't think she ever had felt before now. She was dedicated to ignoring that unease in their touch and to giving her friend comfort when he needed it, though. She asked, genuinely, "What can it be Galen, that you want to hold on to so much that it upsets you?"

He actually blushed. She interpreted this as his overwrought emotions about the invitations, but he knew it was because he had gone too far. He hadn't meant for this conversation to happen just now. He hadn't even expected to see her before arriving at the ceremony. How could he respond? He looked around helplessly and tried, lamely, stammering out, "oh, you know, like our...our habits and...and our relationships with our community or..." he trailed off and he couldn't believe what he was doing, right now, before they had even a reason to consider the future and couldn't know what it would bring, before he could even know if he would already have years more of easy time with her in which to win her to what he fully embraced as his love for her and his secret plans for their future together. He might have years to prepare a moment as laden with hopes and longings as this one was already, but something in him was forcing him to go on. He couldn't believe he finished, nearly pushing it out of himself in breathless speech, "...or..." he somehow also found the strength to look at her directly, staring straight into her endless, brown eyes right at the moment that he ended the difficult sentence, "or each other." His heart was a ball of jittery ants and a hot current went all throughout his central flux of energetic glands.

But Jessu only looked at him as a mother might look at a child who has covered their clothes in mud and debris from playing outside: with warmth and bemusement. That look from her, while quite beautiful, was not the one he hoped to find. "Oh, Galen," her words made him stir anyway, hoping he was misreading her. Maybe she did feel the same as him. Could she? He waited to hear her continue as even more frothing insects seemed to explode into a frenzy inside him. She carried on, "Of course we hold on to each other and our habits...to all the things that make us happy in life. We will never be apart from those things because they are essential to who we are. They are a part of us as much as our...our organs."

She had thought lack of surety surrounded the issue of their friendship with one another and couldn't fathom why he would even question the matter. If he could even doubt that they would remain friends forever, she believed she must tell him firmly, so that he mightn't forget it again: "You will always be my best friend, Galen Ra'Deramos, no matter if we stay in Barowlin or one of us travels the far reaches of Phi'Telas, searching out Dragon Lines and sacred geometries for the Temples of Energetics for years on end." She gave him a look that asked him if he had lost his mind as she finished, "We will always be true friends." She felt sure this little speech should reassure him, and so let go his hand.

Walking gaily forward again, she said, "Now let's hurry or we will be late!" She moved down the pathway as sure of herself as she ever had been, glancing back, expecting him to follow as he would, her brown curls bouncing below her hat as she jaunted away.

Galen's heart slowed. The warmth through his core diminished. He breathed a huge, clearing, breath of relief and, at the same time, disappointment. He closed the hand that she had so recently held, holding his hopes within it. But he shook himself. He would always be her friend, and that would be good enough. He might not have what he truly desired with Jessu, but he could live with that. Many were disappointed in love to such extents that it ruined them, at least for a time. He was one of the lucky few who could enjoy a fulfilling relationship, even if it were as one sided as theirs seemed to be, he told himself.

He followed the girl who owned his heart without knowing it, committed to concealing the devastation he knew would hurt her to see within him. He would meet head on whatever lives they were invited to before the day's end, without regret, grateful for what kinship he had found with her thus far and grateful for what he would continue to find within her forever.

He was ready, now, to leave youthful ideas and desires behind him.