27. Ashes of the Past

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Life in the Hollow went on in its familiarity of wooded seclusion from the rest of the province. Though she missed Dwain dearly, Regina dove into the needs of her garden and distracted herself with studies and the responsibilities of maintaining the Hollow.

Each ride to KeetoTown presented a teetering stack of letters in the post office, all for Regina, and all to Astral's chagrin. Every letter told stories of Dwain's studies with the Alliance, the friends he had made at the academy – the loss in his heart to be so distant from Regina, and how he promised to return whenever he could.

Half a season passed since Dwain's departure. And in the six months that had come and gone, Regina grew to blossom into a beautiful young bloomer – a vaguely-recalled prediction someone in her old life had made. There was no doubt – Regina had bloomed in many ways – her wits, her capabilities, her unabashed love for life and nature ... She was a lily that had sprouted from the ashes of war, into something so completely beautiful amidst an ugly landscape.

Regina's thirteenth birthday fell on one of the coldest, wettest, nights of late summer. Throughout supper that evening, Astral had snuck peeks and glances at her beneath his hat's brim, all while veiled in a constant whisk of duskroot smoke. Regina, who had pretended not to notice Astral until that point, finally looked up from the latest volume of Herbs of the Wilds Quarterly when he started to speak.

"'Twas so long ago that I came across you upon that bridge. So long ago, that you were lost and forsaken ... and now, look at you. My, how precious and resourceful you've become."

Regina folded her book closed and smiled at him.

Astral reclined in his seat, chewed on the stem of his pipe with deep thoughtfulness in his all-seeing eyes. "Regina. Today is your thirteenth birthday. Under the authority of Galheist, you are now an adult."

Regina's smile widened.

"Ah, me. Such as it is, these seasons that pass so quickly now. Soon you will come to know how quickly time fleets, the older you get. Ah–!" Astral sighed, lost in nostalgic memories of his own. His gaze settled deeply upon Regina again. "One cannot help but to try and fathom the sort of life you and your brother may have attempted, had we not crossed roads so many seasons ago. Coincidence is not a thing of absolutes, no, for there is no such thing when destiny of the star charts rules our very existence."

"Dwain is no more a brother to me than ... than ... than Phalanx is, an uncle." Regina blushed and rose from the table to go fetch some steeped tea for them to have with the carrot-and-cheese cake she'd made earlier that day.

"Oh, bother. Do you not think of me as your father, as I think of you as my own kin?"

"Of course I do." Regina placed everything onto a wooden cutting board and returned to the table. She lay the board between them and put Astral's tea down first. She let a shy smile pass as she poured milk for him. "But it's different. Dwain and I are different."

Thoughts of him flooded her heart. Sadness and regret tightened between her lungs.

"I wish he was here now. Master, I miss him so much, but – today ... today, I become an adult, and my Dwain isn't here to celebrate the occasion."

"Did you get his letters?"

"Letters mean nothing, compared to the real thing," Regina muttered. It was a nasty thing to say, despite how much truth came from it, and she felt badly in an instant. But still, her feelings were honest: "I wish he was here, right now. Sitting across from us at this table. I want to see the smile in his eyes. I want to hear his voice – I-I-I want to hear him laugh. I want to feel his paws around mine again, feel the beat of his heart against my cheek..."

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