‘I’m sorry,’ Jaisa sniffed, putting a hand to xer face as xie let out a low, mournful sound from xer gills.
‘No, no Jaisa,’ Distro pulled xer close. ‘Don’t be sorry.’
Coi’Lili’s wing hovered over the seces gently. ‘You have done no wrong.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ Distro repeated, her hand running down Jaisa’s back.
‘Take a breath,’ Coi’Lili reminded.
‘Squeeze my hand,’ Distro instructed.
Jaisa tried. And managed half a breath. And half a squeeze.
‘You are okay, now,’ whispered Coi’Lili. ‘You are okay.’
‘I don’t feel okay,’ xie admitted. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever feel okay again.’
‘I promise you will,’ Distro’s lips met the seces’ cheek, and she gave xer a tight squeeze. ‘I promise. It gets easier in time. It does.’
Jaisa’s gills let out another mournful squeal. ‘I… I….’
And then xie trailed off, xer eyes focusing on something far away, and neither Distro nor Coi’Lili said anything else. Instead, Distro rested a hand on Jaisa’s knee, and Coi’Lili collected his things and quietly made his way inside.
They sat for a long while in the quiet garden. Well past midday, until the air grew chill and the sun began to set orange and pink behind the palace wall.
And then the garden gate gave a creak, and Distro turned to meet eyes with Penel. The felinic was carrying her canvas and brushes slung over her shoulder with a thick leather strap, though when she saw Distro and Jaisa sitting together on the bench, she abandoned her things at the gate before making her way over.
She watched Jaisa carefully with each step; though xer vacant expression didn’t change.
Xie didn’t respond to Penel’s greeting. And xie barely blinked when the girl sat beside xer. The seces just stared ahead at nothing, worrying the hem of xer fraying shirt to tatters.
Penel’s brow furrowed as she craned her gaze over Jaisa to speak to Distro. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Xie lost xer baby.’
‘Oh…’ Penel sunk into her seat, her eyes trailing to Jaisa’s hands as xie continued tearing at the cotton seam. ‘Oh. I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.’
‘No,’ Jaisa finally spoke. ‘That’s not…. That’s not even the terrible part.’
‘Later, honey,’ Distro comforted, moving her hand to Jaisa’s shoulder. ‘You don’t have to tell us a thing until you’re ready.’
Jaisa nodded, taking a deep breath and turning back to the garden. Xie muttered something as xie continued to tear at xer shirt. And then repeated it. Again, and again.
And the fifth time, Penel finally heard what xie was saying.
‘Forgive him,’ Jaisa breathed. ‘Please, Scara, forgive him.’
Before Penel realised it, she had taken Jaisa’s hand and squeezed it. And Jaisa’s vacant gaze turned to her, though it was obvious xie barely saw her.
So she let go, and let Jaisa’s gaze turn back to the garden, and the three sat in quiet again. The sky grew dark and the dim light of the gentle blue soulstone lamps illuminated the garden, reflecting on the pond’s surface and casting long shadows between trees.
And then, as the stars slowly came into view, Jaisa’s head met Penel’s shoulder and xie let out a sigh.
‘I used to want to learn the star-charts,’ Jaisa muttered. ‘When I was first learning to lung-breathe, I met a dassen. Blue as the sky, he was. Bluer than me. He showed me some of the constellations. That one’s Nuwl’s wing. That one’s Soro’s tail…. I can’t…. I can’t quite remember his name…. The dassen, I mean. I think it was Tali… Tali-something…. He said he was descended from some Har’py hero. Sca…. Scaymie?’
‘Scaychie,’ Distro corrected. ‘I remember Scaychie. Brave woman. Good mother. Married the Heck’ne’s mala’kala.’
‘Mala’kala?’ Penel frowned. ‘What’s that?’
‘The Prophet,’ said Distro. ‘The mala’kala’s the Prophet. The ruler of Heck’ne. Tuwa’ell’s the current one, I believe…. Or was he the last one? Hm. Pretty sure he’s still alive. Maybe I should double-check. Don’t want any nasty surprises next time we have a meeting.’
Jaisa gave a half-gill chuckle and buried xer face into Penel’s arm. ‘I worked with a Tuwa’taya, once…. Half-harpy. Never needed the crowbars to get the crates open, she just used her talons. It was sort of scary. Though she was nice. She brought me lunch, once…. I think she was flirting with me, but she was reassigned only a few weeks after we met, and we sort of… lost contact…. I wonder if she still remembers me….’
‘She might,’ Penel’s hand took Jaisa’s again. ‘You remember her, after all.’
‘Mm…. I guess that’s true,’ Jaisa felt Penel’s fingers press against xer delicate webbing. ‘It’d be nice if she did. Maybe we could be friends again…. I think I need some more friends… I don’t…. I don’t have many left….’
‘You have us,’ offered Penel. ‘It’s probably not the same as you’re used to —Distro can be kind of annoying— but we’re here for you.’
Jaisa let out another chuckle as Distro huffed and rolled her eyes in mock-offence.
‘Annoying, am I?’ Distro teased, reaching over the seces to poke Penel‘s cheek. ‘You haven’t seen how annoying I can be, girl!’
Penel tried to lean away from the queen, but was met by the arm of the bench as her face was assaulted in playful jabs.
‘Hey, no!’ she giggled, trying to block her face with a hand. ‘Stop it— Distro— No! Face-poking isn’t hip and happening!’
‘You’re not hip and happening!’ Distro retorted, giving Penel a final poke before settling back down. ‘You bloody drongo.’
‘Drongo?!’ Penel gave an over-dramatic gasp and mock-swooned. ‘Uh! UH! Never have I been so insulted!’
‘It’s not an insult if it’s true,’ Jaisa joked, earning xer own jab from Distro.
‘Shush, you,’ Distro snorted, grinning wide enough to show off her fangs. ‘I should bite you. How would you like that, you little cretin?’
Jaisa gave xer own happy snort before pushing xerself up and sitting straight. Then, xie sighed. Though xer smile didn’t fade— At least not completely. ‘Thank you. Both of you. For caring about me, even if you don’t…. Even if you don’t know me….’
‘Oh, please,’ Distro gave a scoff. ‘What’s the point of living without compassion?’
‘Yeah,’ this time, it was Penel who rested her head on Jaisa’s shoulder. ‘It’d be a pretty sucky world if nobody cared about anyone.’
‘But I’m… I’m basically a stranger to you both,’ Jaisa looked to xer feet. ‘Isn’t it odd, to care so much about someone you barely know?’
‘Nah! It’s like my daughter used to say,’ Distro pulled her feet up onto the bench and stood proudly over her companions. ‘A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t gotten to know yet!’
Jaisa found xerself giggling again as the queen’s foot met xer cheek, and xie batted her away and wiped xer nose. Then xer face fell and xie looked back at xer feet. ‘Heh…. Hm….’
‘Hmm?’ Distro echoed, leaning forward. ‘Hmm, what?’
‘I…’ taking a deep breath, Jaisa took Penel’s hand again and squeezed it. ‘Has Coi’Lili gone? I think I’m ready to tell you the rest of what happened.’
‘I’m not sure—’ Distro frowned and leapt onto the back of the seat, cupping her hands around her mouth and shouting towards a nearby window. ‘OI! HEY— YEAH! YOU! HEY! WHERE’S COI’LILI?! IS HE STILL HERE?! YEAH?! COOL! GO GET HIM!’