Hoperise

(Note: Well, this is the end of this mini-arc connecting events from the previous chunk to the final arc. This last arc would be pretty much my favourite as it brings all the characters from their far-flung origins together for the final events… but for any of that to make sense, you would need the beginning. So time to rewind and make some sense of all this. Thanks for your patience and without further adieu, the end of an arc. Total Word Count: 54,603)

“Edmond! I didn’t expect to see you up here.” Jocelyn’s voice was mild; pleasant enough, but subdued by the early hour – or perhaps something weightier than that. She scanned him quickly, taking in the seemingly innocuous way his hand rested on the hilt of his dagger. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

He smiled thinly. “Not at all. There’s just too many blasted people trying to kill me these days. Please, forgive my inhospitality. Would you care to join me?” Edmond asked, making a sweeping gesture to the bench beside him.

Nodding, the young woman made her way up the stairs. Her olive skirts brushed the stone and soft slippers padded gently across the tower and sat on the stone. She tugged her gray scarf tight against her shoulders in the predawn chill, and Edmond had a vision of a jade ball gown and the taste of licorice. Her deep emerald hair was shorter now, falling almost to her shoulders in loose, heavy curls.

Perhaps it was only him, but even though Jocelyn was in exile, wrapped in common clothing and with her hair ruffled from sleep, she still was stunning as the last time they’d met.

“How did you sleep?” She asked, a tone of concern in the casual statement.

Wiping the rheum from his eyes and rolling his shoulders back into alignment, joints grumbling in protest, Edmond said with some degree of surprise, “Apparently, well!”

Jocelyn made an abortive movement, as though to draw closer to his side, and then thought better of it. She frowned, pert lips pursing in thought. “You didn’t sleep out here, did you?”

Edmond chuckled. “That wasn’t my intention, but that was the outcome, yes. ” He rubbed his neck with a grimace. “I suppose I’m more used to falling asleep in the wind and rain than indoors, swathed in feathers.”

She raised an eyebrow, half-teasing, half-calculating. “So what did you learn from this most recent adventure?”

He closed his eyes and made an indeterminate sound, then grinned. “That I’m not as young as I used to be.” Opening his eyes once more and looking to the Northern sky, Edmond’s gaze was filled with childlike wonder that belied his acclaimed years as he demonstrated his art for understatement: “And it’s good to be home.”

Taking in a breath as though he drew strength from the air itself, he turned his focus upon his unlikely companion, who appeared momentarily struck. “But enough of me. How are you, my lady?”

“Please, you don’t have to be so formal. It’s only us up here.” Her reply was subdued as she averted her gaze and fussed with the end of her scarf.

“I know – but it’s especially with you that I want to be formal. I seem to remember being somewhat less than polite the last we met.” Edmond said gently, a self-deprecating smile on his lips and something mysterious in his eyes.

Jocelyn chuckled quietly, shaking her head, but not letting him off the hook that easily. “That’s one way of putting it.”

His lip quirked in response. “Here’s another: I had all the class and decorum of a rat’s rectum. And I never had the chance to properly apologize.”

She smiled. “You’re forgiven.” Jocelyn paused for a moment and then began again, her singular emphasis reflected the amount of thought she’d put into her query. “You knew, didn’t you? All those years ago? That’s why you-“

“Got slobberingly drunk, disgraced my kingdom and insulted a friend? Yes.” Edmond ran a hand through his shortened locks, recalling his impromptu haircut that signaled the end of an era, of life as he had known it until that point. “I was tipped off about the coming attack. And I was an idiot. Instead of acting on the warning, I laughed it off – but the seed of doubt was planted. I was terrified.  I tried to forget about it, to cope the only way I knew how, but that was the worst decision I could have made. I’m sure they would have gone through with the assassination attempt even had I not made a public spectacle of myself that night, but even so… I’m sure that I validated the decision in someone’s mind.”

A brief pause. His eyes met hers and his voice had thickened somewhat. “Josie… Jocelyn, when my life was threatened, I too ignored the warning. But my source was a smarter man than I. He had a backup plan should the situation have escalated as it did. And on that point, I failed. I should have-”

Jocelyn looked away to maintain some semblance of dignity as her eyes misted over. In a moment of defensiveness, she peeked his direction and was surprised to see Edmond’s eyes moistening as well. His weather-beaten hands, hands that could scale walls and maneuver a blade with devastating precision, clenched and unclenched as he struggled to regain his composure.

She felt she should offer some kind of words of comfort, but in her grief her reserves were empty. “Don’t. Don’t give me a reason to hate you, Edmond.” Her voice was soft, but heavy with emotion. She smiled, but it was the distant smile of one on the abyss of grief stunned into abject disbelief by the size of its black maw. “I really want to hate someone right now, and I just got you back from the dead. I don’t want it to be you.”

Jocelyn stood abruptly and moved to the opposite side of the tower.

Silence reigned for the moment. As dawn broke over the Southern Range, piercing rays shattered the morning sky and cast a spellbinding golden glow over rooftop escape. The sky in the east was flooded with pink and reflected off the snowy mountaintops. For a minute, the mountain ranges were iced with pink and gold contrasting majestically with the crisp azure sky. A sense of unreality, of time suspended between two extremes, settled over them.

“How,” Jocelyn murmured wistfully, her cinnamon eyes tracing the horizon as if searching for her words, “How, in the midst of such breathtaking beauty could there exist war and death and devastation and cruelty?”

Edmond’s sapphire eyes fell upon Jocelyn. She was strained past the breaking point. Time and toil and wrought their work on once-fair skin, but with the warm hues of the sunrise flushed against her face, for a moment he glimpsed the same passionate girl who’d told him off at his coronation ball.

True evil existed. He had stared into its face many times. But now he gazed upon a face soft and true, that concealed a warrior’s heart that would fight to the death to see such evil defeated.

“My mind tells me that evil exists because darkness lies in the potential of all men.” He replied. He knew all too well his own capacity for darkness, and had wrestled with it for years. Approaching where she leaned against the rail, his hand moved slowly to her shoulder. “But… my heart tells me that evil exists to be defeated by the good, and to make the victory that much sweeter once good eventually triumphs.”

She shook her emerald head and smiled softly, catching his eye. “You’re an optimist, Edmond – an optimist and a fool.”

To her surprise, he laughed. “I have to be. I understand the magnitude of the evil we’re up against. I have to choose to be an optimist or a fool to believe we have any chance of winning. And I’ll take my fool case to any brave or stupid enough to follow. And one day, we’ll win. No storm lasts forever. Sooner or later, they will fall. I choose sooner. I choose to end this now, to act now in order to save as many lives as would be lost by my apathy, by my irresponsibility. And because there are people like you and I who will stop at nothing to end this reign of terror, I know that we will win.”

He squeezed her shoulder comfortingly before removing his hand and leaning back against the rail and casting a glance at the sky. “Because we have to win. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Jocelyn’s gaze followed him as he moved away. “Edmond, you’ve grown up.”

His smile grew even brighter as the sun rose in the sky. “I would dearly hope so.”

“I met your little girl. Natika, is it?”

“I call her Tika.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“She is my princess. She can be a right terror when she wants, but she brings me far more joy than she’ll ever know.” Edmond said warmly, his eyes staring into a place long ago and far away, before continuing quietly, “She keeps nagging me to take her into battle, but I don’t want her anywhere near it. In my fool optimistic heart I hope that by the time she is old enough, she won’t have to fight.”

Jocelyn mirrored his wistful smile. “It’s a valid hope. She looks like her mother, than?”

Edmond shrugged. “I suppose so.”

Her cinnamon eyes took on a faraway look as well. “Her mother must have been beautiful, too.”

His brow furrowing, he thought for a moment. “I suppose. I never met the woman.”

Looking over sharply, Jocelyn shot him a puzzled and slightly disapproving look. “Then how-?”

His confusion mirroring hers, Edmond returned her puzzled glance for a few moments before his mind put the pieces together and he barked out a laugh. “No, she’s not mine.”

Jocelyn’s shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly as she waited for him to continue.

“I met her in Kiripati four years ago. She was begging to make enough to cover an operation for her father, and I… started paying her to run errands. Eventually she had enough to cover the medicine.” Edmond paused, folding his arms over his chest and his gaze falling to the ground.

“What happened?” She prompted gently.

A sigh. “It didn’t work. She had no one left in the world, so I took her in.” He shrugged stiffly. “There was no adoption because she never existed according to the Southern kingdom. I asked her if she wanted to come with me, and she just… came. That was the end of it.”

Something icy melted from Jocelyn’s heart as she stared at the man she once swore to destroy and who had so easily destroyed himself. “You seem to have a habit of picking up strays,” she observed, a soft smile in her voice.

“I ask and they follow. Then, even after following me for a while and watching me bang off the walls a bit, they still keep following. It kind of astounds me at times.” Edmond admitted, relaxing slightly.

He hesitated, then spoke aloud. “I’m sorry about your brother.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry about your kingdom.”

A sad chuckle. “Yes, you and me both. But we’ll fix it.”

“You know, I think I believe you.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“…Thanks.”

An easy silence fell over the rooftop and they watched the sun rise.

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