Chapter Eight

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Laræl froze and for an instant Pather was sure she was going to push him off. Pather took a step back, half-formed apologies already on his lips. He was about to speak when he saw Laræl shake her head. "Don't." she said. Then, she was kissing him, actually kissing him. Her hands moved into his hair and her lips were soft and warm. The kiss lasted for all of time and no time at all, just the two of them locking in their perfect infinity.

It was Pather that moved away first, the need to breathe overcoming the desire to be with her. Laræl crossed the room in a few steps, putting space between them. Pather was grateful for it, he couldn't think with her so close. After a few moments, Laræl spoke, not meeting his eyes.

"I know you were trying to make me feel better, and I truly do thank you. It will not be better for either of us if you keep up this deception."

"Deception?" Pather gasped. "I would not do something like this out of sympathy. Laræl...I love you." For a moment, Laræl's eyes rose and her expression changed into one of blissful happiness. Just as quickly, a shadow passed over it.

"You do not. And even if you did, there is no future for us."

Desperately, Pather crossed the tent. He reached out to her and pulled her close. Her head rested on his chest. "Do you hear it?" he asked, "my heart beats for you Laræl."

"It cannot! We cannot do this!" Laræl exclaimed. Although her words were in protest, her body relaxed into his. The way she fit against him was so right, so natural, Pather knew it could not be any other way.

"Even you do not believe that," Pather said.

"What if...I'm afraid? What if I'm afraid because I feel the same way? That every day I'm walking in circles because I'm too afraid to set my feet straight?" A few tears fell from Laræl's eyes, but she did not give into sobbing like Pather expected. "I love you, Pather Flintsong," she said forcefully, "it is because I love you that we cannot do this. It is not allowed, both of us would be punished but you the most. Imagine the rage of not only your people, but those of my kingdom across the sea and the gods above. You and I, we defy the world."

The words should have sent fear through Pather, but instead they came with a thrill. "Then let the world stand at our feet!"

Laræl pressed a finger to his lips. "It cannot be." she said. She slid away, the loss of her warmth a physical reminder to Pather of the fact she had shunned him.

"So what are we to be?" he asked brokenly.

"You are to be a stonecarver, a great warrior as well. I will go back to being princess."

"How can you be so strong about this?" Pather asked in anguish. Laræl's mask cracked, and her own sadness shone through.

"Don't you see? It is tearing me apart!"

"So we won't talk again? It will go back as before?" Pather asked, bluntly. He felt like he was dead, each of his movements robotic.

Laræl nodded. "I need... I need some time alone, to think." she turned her far away from him, a curtain of hair falling in front of it. "Goodbye Pather."

Pather reached out for her, catching a lock of her hair with the tips of his fingers. She cast him one last look before turning and exiting the tent. The flaps swung back, leaving him in darkness.

Mechanically Pather sat back at his desk. It was never to be, he thought, but why does it hurt so much? After a few moments he stood and turned the sign on his door to display the word "closed". He turned back towards the desk, beginning to organize his wares once again. All he had left was his work, and he was determined to do it to the best of his abilities.

Belatedly, an image of Gaja popped into Pather's head. He remembered something the old stone carver had said when Pather was about twelve years old, still learning. He had asked why Gaja had no children, no mate.
"I have given everything," Gaja had said, "my bones, my body, my blood, they are all stone."

Pather hadn't understood  then, but now he did. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, as though a heart of stone was thudding away within his body. He was empty, so empty, a cold, hard husk left to make more husks.

They are all stone.

Never had words rang more true. Pather turned back to his logbook. Meeting with Gaja was written on it in black in. Pather held the quill, poised to scratch it out. He had made the first line only when he stopped. He did need to talk, and he thought Gaja would understand more than anyone.

***

When Pather reached Gaja's old workbench, the carver was busy putting the finishing touches on a circular guard. He polished with such efficiency that Pather could see the lines and forms taking shape below his tools. For a moment, Pather was simply content to sit and watch. Though Gaja's joints were knobbled and swollen to the point that the healer had written him off, he still held a file with an elegance seldom matched by others. Although Pather's weapons had more success, Gaja was still the main supplier for all luxury stone items.
After a few moments, Gaja looked up.

"I may be old, but I'm not dead yet, Pather Flintsong. You're going to have to do better than that if you want to go unnoticed by me."

Pather frowned, he didn't think he had made any sound. "How did you know I was watching?"

Gaja tapped his nose. "Smell. The Carae oil you use to keep your weapons safe from water damage emits a strong, although pleasing, scent."

Pather would have normally smiled at the joke, but now he just stood. Gaja noticed and put the file and the half-finished guard back down on the table. "Why the long face?" he asked.

Pather looked at him, reading the lines in his face and the creases around his eyes. We are all made of stone, stone people, stone world. "What would you do if you were rejected by someone that did not make the choice themself?"

"That was abrupt." Gaja looked at Pather, squinting slightly to compensate for the sunlight. "I suppose I would try and convince them otherwise, or give them up. If they are listening to another's opinion instead of their own, they are not worth it."

Pather felt although Gaja did not understand. "What if you couldn't let them go?"

It took Gaja a while to reply, and when he did there was gravity in his voice. "Then...I'd burn myself up looking for something I would never find."

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