Awards ceremonies come in many forms, from small private occasions to lavish public spectacles. For Zyla though, they always came with an undercurrent of anxiety.
“Zy, are you ok?” Yael asked.
“Yes,” Zyla said, staring at the door beyond which her future awaited her.
“Good, cause there’s nothing to worry about,” Yael said. “After today you’ll be a free woman.”
“Yes,” Zyla said, still staring at the door.
“You know I remember your trial,” Yael said. “You were much more relaxed then. I think I even got you to crack a smile.”
“Yes,” Zyla said and glanced over at Yael. A small and obviously forced smile gracing her face briefly before Zyla returned her gaze to the door.
“When I was a kid, we had awards ceremonies all the time,” Yael said. “It got a little boring after a while to be honest.”
“You grew up on Safsalla didn’t you?” Zyla asked. “I thought that was one of the barren worlds.”
“It was,” Yael said. “Still is in fact.”
“The Empire hasn’t provided aid for you?” Zyla asked.
“Safsalla is barren of macroscopic life, except for the colony warrens where we lived,” Yael said. “On a microbiological level though its a wonderland. There are reagents and anima filtrants there that are found nowhere else in the galaxy.”
“That sounds like a treasure trove of wealth but you said your family was a poor one I thought?” Zyla asked.
“They were,” Zyla said. “The colony warrens, basically the cities, had a long history of isolation from each other and the galaxy at large. We lived like spacers for the most part, reclaiming and recycling everything because we couldn’t draw much sustenance from the planet around us.”
“And then the Empire conquered you and everything was better?” Zyla asked.
“Come on, we’ve worked together for how long now?” Yael asked. “You know the Empire doesn’t work like that.”
“I guess they don’t,” Zyla said.
“They showed up, judged we weren’t a threat to anyone and offered us membership in the Empire,” Yael said. “Some of the warrens took it, most passed. I was born in the one of the ones that passed on membership for a while, so we didn’t have much.”
“So what were the awards ceremonies for?” Zyla asked.
“At the time I thought they were for great achievements but looking back I think they were just little rituals to help divide up the time and keep people from going crazy,” Yael said.
“Did it work?” Zyla asked.
“I don’t know. I think in place of a generalized lunacy, we developed a more focused variety,” Yael said. “Most people were mostly reasonable about the awards, but some got far too obsessed with them.”
“What were the survival ratios like?” Zyla asked.
“I don’t know of anyone killing over a contest,” Yael said.
“You weren’t that crazy then,” Zyla said.
“What about you?” Yael asked. She voiced the question lightly, the subject of Zyla’s youth being a painful one in general.
“We had awards ceremonies too,” Zyla said. “Frequent ones.”
“How did you do in them?” Yael asked.
“I’m still here,” Zyla said. “So therefor I won an award at all of them.”
“How harsh was the Khan on his children?” Yael asked.
“He didn’t lay a hand on us,” Zyla said. “Most of the time. He let us compete for our place in his Circles, and encouraged us to use whatever tactics and methods were available to secure our positions.”
“So those who didn’t measure up?” Yael asked.
“They stayed in the lower circles,” Zyla said. “Or we destroyed them.”
“I should have guessed that,” Yael said.
“Yes,” Zyla said and closed her eyes for a moment.
“This isn’t like that,” Yael said and laid a hand on Zyla’s shoulder. “There’s no competition here. This is a celebration and recognition of the work you’ve done since your case was first adjudicated.”
“The work we’ve done,” Zyla said.
“I’ve gotten my accolades,” Yael said. “Today is about recognizing you. But I can understand how that could feel uncomfortable with your history.”
“Yes,” Zyla said.
“It’s already a small ceremony,” Yael said. “We can make it a brief one too if you like?”
“That’s not…” Zyla started to say. “That’s not necessary.”
“We could skip it altogether and hop the next freighter to the rim?” Yael said, trying to put a real smile on Zyla’s face.
“I wish we could,” Zyla said.
There was a silence that stretched on a hair longer than was comfortable. Yael broke the awkward moment by first standing up and then turning to kneel in front of where Zyla was sitting.
“What’s stopping us?” Yael asked.
“What?” Zyla twitched back away from Yael.
“Why can’t we just grab a ship and head out?” Yael asked. “The paperwork’s already been put through. You’ve been a free woman since yesterday. This ceremony is just a formality. Why don’t we blow it off?”
“We can’t do that,” Zyla said.
“Zy, I haven’t seen you this upset since we first met,” Yael said. “We can totally do this.”
“I don’t mind the ceremony,” Zyla said. “Or I do, but I know it’s not like the ones my father hosted.”
“What’s wrong then?” Yael asked. “Please, tell me. I want to help.”
“It’s…” Zyla struggled to find the right words before settling on, “It’s premature.”
“Premature?” Yael said. “Are you nuts? This is long overdue!”
“No it’s not,” Zyla said.
“Zy, you’ve proven yourself so many times so far. You’ve satisfied every condition of your parole a hundred times over. The Empire has every reason to trust you now!”
“I didn’t do any of those things for the Empire,” Zyla said. “And I don’t think you’re right. I haven’t balanced the scales.”
Yael sighed and settled back to sit on the floor. She drew her knees up to her chest and regarded Zyla over them.
“Tell me about it,” Yael said. “Tell me what is weighing down the other side of the scale.”
“It’s not one thing,” Zyla said.
“I’ve never pried into your past,” Yael said. “Do you know why that is?”
“Afraid of what you’d find there?” Zyla said.
“Yeah,” Yael said. “I was. I was afraid I’d find something that would really hurt you.”
“My past can’t hurt me,” Zyla said.
“Really? Cause it looks like it’s killing you at the moment,” Yael said.
“I’m fine,” Zyla said.
“No, you’re not fine,” Yael said. “I’m not fine either. My magic is all screwed up and I can barely see anything two seconds ahead.”
“I’m messing things up,” Zyla said.
“It’s not your fault,” Yael said. “I can’t see anything because…”
Yael stopped herself and took a breath.
“Can you see anything?” she asked. “What does the future look like to you?”
“I don’t know,” Zyla said.
“What do you want it to look like?” Yael asked.
“I don’t know,” Zyla said.
Yael dropped her head onto her raised knees.
“We’re a great pair of fate wizards aren’t we?” she said after a long moment.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard,” Zyla said.
“Really?” Yael asked.
“I’ve been blind to this for a while. I couldn’t see how today was going to go at all,” Zyla said. “I still can’t.”
“My Master taught me a technique for dealing with blocks like this,” Yael said, relaxing as she spoke.
“Why do Guardians refer to their Elders as Masters,” Zyla asked. “That’s always seemed wrong to me.”
“The word has meant a lot of different things over the years,” Yael asked. “We take it from its early use in describing a ‘Master and their Apprentice’. It’s not required, and some Guardian mentors dislike the formality of it, but with Opal it always felt right.”
“You respect her a lot don’t you?” Zyla asked.
“I do,” Yael said. “She’s a very wise lady. She was the one who suggested I work with you for example.”
“So what was her technique for seeing through blocks like this?” Zyla asked.
“We start with meditation,” Yael said and scooted backwards on her butt to make room for Zyla on the floor.
The two women folded their legs into a half lotus position and sat upright facing each other.
“Simple breathing exercises to start with,” Yael said, and together they inhaled for a long ten count and exhaled for a slightly quicker five count. They repeated the measured breaths again and again, silently seeking the stillness in the center of their being.
“There are a lot of things that can block our foresight,” Yael said.
“Like a certain Void anima caster who hasn’t left the planet yet,” Zyla said.
“Yes,” Yael said. “Mel is a pain in the butt.”
“But a useful one sometimes,” Zyla said, a rare smile breaking across her lips like a wave.
“External influences are only one of the things that can cloud our vision though,” Yael said. “More often we’re blinded by what’s inside us.”
“I know,” Zyla said. “We were taught from as early as I can remember to kill our emotions.”
“The Khan wasn’t alone in sponsoring that approach,” she said. “A lot of people see how chaotic the mind can be and they seek to lock it up, to carve away the pieces they can’t control. They try to remove emotions from their equations or they go the other direction and embrace utter madness.”
“Only a rare few can manage that sort of purity,” Zyla said. “I came close for a while but I’m much weaker now.”
“You are far from weak,” Yael said. “Denying who you are? Or giving up all control of yourself? Those are illusions of strength. You can walk those paths and gain power but you lose part of yourself in the process and are limited by that loss.”
“The children of the First Circle were far more powerful than I was,” Zyla said.
“Yes, because they’d trained more and been more fortunate,” Yael said. “But they weren’t more powerful than you can be. They were at the peak of what they could ever hope to be. You have so much more potential than that.”
“Right now, I can’t see anything,” Zyla said. “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, I don’t even know what’s going to happen ten seconds from now.”
“I know,” Yael said. “That’s what this technique will help with.”
“So what do we do?” Zyla asked.
“We be honest,” Yael said. “With ourselves above all else. I can’t see my future because this moment is too important for me. It feels like I’m blind, but when I look, when I really try to see what’s to come, I see too many futures, all overlaying each other and its too much. Too many that I want too strongly and too many that I can’t live with and too many where I can’t tell the difference.”
“I was taught to look only for the future that fulfilled the objective you were given,” Zyla said.
“What objective have you given yourself then?” Yael asked.
“I don’t know,” Zyla said.
“Is that the problem?” Yael asked. “Do you not know what future you want or is there some other conflict holding you back? You don’t have to tell me, but you’ve got to tell yourself.”
Zyla was still and silent for a long time. After a minute of holding her breath she finally spoke.
“I know what I want, and I know that I don’t deserve it,” she said.
“I’m prepared to argue with you pretty thoroughly on how much you deserve to get what you want,” Yael said. “But my thoughts aren’t what’s important here. All I can ask is that you consider how you’re measuring what you do and don’t deserve.”
“I’ve done some good,” Zyla said. “But almost all of it has been with you. And before then, on my own, I was very different.”
“We met as enemies,” Yael said. “So I think I know a little about what you were like then. I know how you clung to your honor like a lifeline. How you hated being what the Khan had forced you to be.”
“He didn’t have to force us,” Zyla said. “It was how we were born.”
“You weren’t born cruel, that was taught to you, from before you could even cast a spell or speak the word for it,” Yael said.
“That doesn’t change what I did,” Zyla said. “That doesn’t make me right, or even ok, or worthy of special consideration. I’m not a good person. I’m just good when I’m around you.”
“I destroyed my home warren.” Yael said.
“What?” Zyla asked.
“I destroyed my home.” Yael said. “When I was little. I figured out how to cast Aetherial spells and I hid my abilities from everyone. Made sure the tests didn’t show any aptitude for casting because I was afraid the Empire would come and take me away. And then one day I got mad, really mad, and I cursed the warren.”
“What happened?” Zyla asked.
“The Empire came and took me away,” Yael said. “They figured out what I did pretty easily. You’ve seen what an Imperial Auditor can do. I was too dangerous to leave on Safsalla, so they paired me up with Master Opal.”
“So you were on parole too?” Zyla asked.
“For a few years,” Yael said. “Longer than you in fact. Master Opal helped me work a lot of thing out though.”
“What about the people from your home city?” Zyla asked.
“I made amends where I could,” Yael said. “The Empire evacuated everyone to an orbital station though so I’m not exactly the most popular person there anymore. Someday I’m hoping to go back and undo the curse, but I’m not quite strong enough yet, and there’s not much left of the warren to make it a worthwhile endeavor.”
“You saved an entire planet,” Zyla said. “How can you not be strong enough?”
“I’m only that good with you,” Yael said. “See I can’t break the curse because a part of me is still mad at the warren. Until I really forgive them I won’t have the strength to undo what I did.”
“So are you saying I should forgive my father?” Zyla asked.
“No, I’m saying you should forgive yourself, who you are now matters as much as who you were then and who you chose to be matters more than either of those,” Yael said. “And I should take my own advice.”
“To be forgiving?” Zyla asked.
“No, to be honest,” Yael said. She breathed in, held the breath and then raised her head and opened her eyes to look directly at Zyla. “I know why I can’t see the future at the moment, I know what’s got my heart so flustered, and I hope I’m guessing correctly at what you want the future to be. I know all that, but I don’t want to cause you any pain or put any pressure on you. All I can ask is whether you want me to share that with you.”
“Yes,” Zyla said, her voice clipping on even so small a word.
“I can’t see the future because of my feelings for you,” Yael said. “You’re too important to me, and this conversation, this moment, could go too many different ways. I could lose you forever here, and I would give almost anything to avoid that.”
Zyla looked down, hiding her eyes from Yael and forcing her breathing to a pace that was close to even.
“They said I would be free after the ceremony and that I could go wherever I wanted,” Zyla said. “But since the day we met, I haven’t wanted to be anywhere except by your side.”
“So the future you want has me in it then?” Yael asked and reached her hands forward.
“Forever,” Zyla said, taking Yael’s hands into her own. “If you’ll have me.”
“For as long as you’ll have me,” Yael said.
Little motes of light, anima that had been bound and trapped inside them began to float around the room as the future opened up before them at last.
“I thought we couldn’t be together,” Zyla said. “That your oath as a Crystal Guardian forbid it.
“Not at all,” Yael said. “We’re supposed to lead the most balanced lives that we can, and you help keep me sane better than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I thought I was going to go crazy being with you, but then the thought of losing you felt even more insane,” Zyla said.
“How do you feel now?” Yael asked.
“Like I’ve woken up into a dream,” Zyla said. “I didn’t even want to hope that we’d get to stay together. I thought you’d be sent off on another mission and I’d be left to find my way in the galaxy all alone.”
“I never want you to feel alone,” Yael said. “Even if we’re apart, I want you to know that the best part of me will always be with you.”
“Can I kiss you now?” Zyla asked.
“I’ve been waiting three years for you to ask that question!” Yael said and slid her arms around her partner, her companion, her best friend and her truest love.