133 ~ Aro

Packing up his things shouldn’t have taken so long. He didn’t own that much to begin with.

Every few seconds he was stopped, the breath stolen from his lungs, as he thought of her. They’d never spent much time in his room but for some reason, everything he owned made him think of Anala.

He stopped beside his closet, hand resting on the wall, and leaned his forehead against the cool stone.

There was nothing he wanted more than to march back into her room and beg her to take him back. Apologise for being so stupid. Ask for forgiveness.

He moved his head back from the wall a bit and then bore it down again – not hard, but enough to wake him up.

No. They both knew it was time. They’d been drifting apart since Midspring. And while there was nothing that said they couldn’t stay together as lovers even as he handed her his resignation, he knew that it wasn’t possible. Anala didn’t understand why he had to resign. As much as he wanted to be with her, he wouldn’t stay in the military, in a career that was slowly crushing his spirit, to stay with her.

He’d meant it when he’d said forever. He’d never stop loving her.

He didn’t think she could return the sentiment. It was apparent that, love or no, they could not stay together.

So he packed his belongings into his bags and said goodbye to the room that had been his for too short a time.

No sooner had he closed the door than a messenger ran up to him.

“Package for you, Major,” the boy said, holding out a large item wrapped in cloth and twine.

He frowned and set down his things to take it from the boy. “Who’s it from?” he asked, starting to unwrap it.

“The master clothier at Corrisa’s.”

Realisation dawned on Aro as he pulled away the last bit of cloth. There, folded neatly, was a cape made of jackahare-fur, dyed a deep, dark blue with a violet trim.

Anala’s birthday gift.

He wouldn’t be able to give it to her now. Her birthday wasn’t until Septema, and she’d probably never want to speak to him again. Even if she did, this was not a gift for an ex-colleauge to give. It was a gift for a lover to give.

Numbly he thanked the boy with a gold piece and carefully rewrapped the cape in its cloth. Finding some paper in the room he’d just vacated, he jotted a quick note to Anala and left the package outside her door. She should have it, even if he couldn’t give it to her in the way he’d imagined.

Then he turned and walked down the hall, not looking back once.

~

He didn’t know who was more surprised when he walked into the hospitalis and asked for a job, Ghia or her assistant Jera.

He’d barely been able to keep steady at the sight of Ghia – she walked with a cane to support a leg that was misshapen, gnarled like an old apple tree. Her right arm was clutched tightly to her side, hand curved like a claw. Her lower lip was swollen and a large scar ran vertically through her mouth, marring her pretty face. She looked tired and defeated, and she spoke not a word.

At his request she nodded and gestured to Jera, who called for an acolyte.

“Yana here will take your bags, Major,” she started, but Aro cut her off.

“Not Major anymore, Jera. Just Aro.”

She smiled graciously, in better spirits now that Ghia had been returned to her rightful place at the hospitalis. “Aro then. I’ll make sure you get set up nicely in the dormitories.” She and Yana left with his things.

Aro turned back to look at the head healer, who was regarding him in an almost hawklike fashion, her face twisted as an after-effect of the beating she’d received. “Can I speak to you privately?” he asked, and she nodded and gestured for him to follow her.

He walked after her slowly, careful not to step on her heels as they headed to her office.

Once there she closed the door and waved the torches to life with her hand. Aro breathed a sigh of relief, glad to see her Magi powers were still in working order. Was it trauma that kept her silent, he wondered.

She waved for him to sit and got her chair out herself, settling into it with a whump and setting her large cane down beside her.

Throughout this long procedure she made not a single sound, not one grunt or wheeze or sigh, though Aro was sure she must be in considerable pain. He could see it in her face – or was that grimace permanent now?

She reached out across her desk and grabbed a quill and some paper, then, with enormous difficulty and agonising slowness, scrawled out with her left hand a short note. She then passed the paper to him.

What’s on your mind?

“What’s happened, Ghia? Why won’t you speak?” he asked, launching directly into it.

She turned her head, her profile no less proud now than it had been before, and paused a long time before writing something else on the page.

I cannot.

He frowned. Had Zardria cut out the girl’s tongue? His stomach lurched at the thought.

“Are you still…whole?” He was unable to be more direct than that, fearing the answer.

A brisk nod and a wave of her hand was her answer, and he relaxed in his chair. Only slightly.

She was staring at him, intently, a strange gleam in her eye, and he got the sense he could ask no more, that she could say no more. What had been done to her?

Painfully she scrawled out another note, longer this time.

As for you? Why have you left Anala? Are your Oaths no longer important to you?

It was harsh and to the point, which he expected of her. He almost smiled.

“Comes a time, Healer Ghia, in every woman’s life where she’s got to choose which oaths to keep, and which to break,” he said, falling on an old aphorism to explain his actions. “I’ve made my choice.”

She made a jerking motion with her head, the look on her face showing the comparative value she held for his Paxwoman’s Oath to her over his Major’s Oath to Anala. Her next note confirmed it.

Anala needs you more than I.

He looked at her present physical state and pointedly raised his eyebrows. She glared.

Besides, can you not see she loves you desperately?

He shook his head and sighed, letting his gaze wander and settle on something of no import in her office. “I don’t think she does anymore, Ghia. She’s been incredibly distant of late, only getting close when…” he trailed off, raising his hand to his chin and lowering it to his lap again in an incomplete nervous movement. “I’d still be with her, if she’d allow it. Anala’s proud, and my resignation hurts that pride. She doesn’t see herself as I do – bellica and woman, each separate from the other, and so can’t imagine Aro the man is separate from Aro the Major, and that each one loves her differently.” He sighed, feeling helpless. “I couldn’t be a major anymore. It felt wrong,” he said quietly, then looked back at Ghia. “I’ve already failed once in my duty as your paxwoman. I won’t do it again.” He regarded her seriously.

She shook her head, a small smile on her face, and patted his knee awkwardly. He suddenly felt young again, as if he sat at his foster-grandma’s feet, looking for comfort and solace.

How strange to feel that in the presence of a girl ten years – or more – his junior.

Her next note signalled the end of the conversation.

On account of your skills, I’m putting you on clean-up, gardening, and security duty. That includes making sure certain healers take their scheduled breaks.

He smiled slightly at that. “Like you?” he couldn’t resist asking, and she shook her head vehemently.

I’m special, she scrawled. Dismissed.

He stood and saluted. “Yes, Ma’am.”

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