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34: Acceptance

Renn, 1174

The funeral was set for today, in only a few hours. As the new Naga leader, I had to be fearless, confident, successful, and capable of anything. Of great violence, of great mercy, of greatness. I had little to no concept of how to proceed. How would I be able to live up to Kane Marsa’s expectations? His shoes were too large for me to fill, a young seventeen year old orphan who had simply fallen into this situation. I wasn’t deserving of any of this. I couldn’t do it. The tears rolled down my face slowly, dripping on the vanity I sat at.

I peered at my reflection in the mirror. Puffy eyes, dark irises... I squinted at them, trying to make them look less pathetic. It didn’t work. I blinked the tears away for the moment and reexamined myself. My black hair was usually sleek and smooth, but this morning it was dull and frizzy. My skin looked pallid against the darkness of the tresses that fell past my shoulders, though it was usually a deep tan.

I could do this; I just couldn’t do this as myself. Renn doesn’t have these qualifications to lead these people and lead them well. But The Raven does. I could hide behind the mask of The Raven, this new mask and persona I’d adopted. Anything I have to, I can do under her name. She will protect me. She will be the strong, independent woman who has no doubts, no fears, no failures.

I had decided earlier that I would give Marsa the highest respect I could at his Serran funeral. I would paint my face honoring the two gods of the Serran religion, Tarah and Myr, goddess and god of the land and sea respectively. I had asked for some face paint from one of the other Naga; fortunately, they knew where to find some and had given it to me over breakfast this morning. I held the dusty glass jar that kept crimson clay paint in my fingers, turning it over and over. The paint was so thick that it didn’t move as I turned it.

I would wear this face paint as part of my mask. The Raven would honor the Serran religion, as Marsa had, and maybe it would lend her strength. I didn’t know if any religion held the answers, but the paint in the jar had already given me comfort. It was as if Marsa was still there, advising me, like he used to.

I dipped into the jar with my fingers, smearing thick red clay all over them, ready to apply to my face. The red, for the goddess Tarah, was traditionally supposed to be on the right, according to the woman who had found this paint for me. I applied the paint to my face, starting at the forehead and swiping down in one smooth motion, all the way down my throat. It applied smoothly, albeit in a thick paste, and the smell of earth filled my nostrils. It was a nice scent, although unexpectedly strong.

After wiping my fingers on a towel, I repeated the process with the deep blue paint on the left side of my face. This color didn’t smell as earthy, whatever was in the dye had a strong, fruity smell that almost overpowered the clay base.

I looked back to the mirror now, my face and throat painted in traditional Serran paint, and wondered why I still felt incomplete. I still looked too much like, well, like me. I needed more. I twisted my face in different expressions, feeling the paint crack and bend in the folds of my skin. The vivid colors on my face made my eyes seem even darker. They weren’t black, necessarily, but they were extremely deep brown. They looked black now, though.

I heard a tentative knock on the door.

“Enter,” I answered, nonplussed.

It was Dean. He walked towards me, slowly, and I noticed that he tried not to react to my intense face paint. His eyes had widened, then deliberately normalized, but I hadn’t missed the surprise that had lit upon his face.

“I need your help,” I said, despondent. But I didn’t know how to explain to him exactly what I needed. “I can’t.... look like me,” I said, staring at my hands in frustration, noticing how the paint had seeped into the cracks of my dry skin.

He must have understood what I really meant. “You need something more drastic, something you can control.” He tapped his index finger on his lips as he thought. “What about your hair?”

“What about it?” I asked, turning to face him.

“You certainly would look different as a blonde.”

Blonde? That was definitely an intense change. I felt afraid, nervous that it wouldn’t look good on me, that it would look ridiculous. Those thoughts made me realize that it was exactly what I needed. The Raven had no fear. She would look amazing because anything she wears was with confidence. This messy face paint, armor, and now, bleached hair. It was perfect. Renn would be too scared to attempt something like this, but The Raven?

“It’s perfect,” I said, turning to face him completely. “Please, would you find me some bleach.”

He ran out of the room, eager to help me. That’s just the kind of friend he was. I smiled at his rapid departure. Almost immediately, he returned, but empty handed. I tilted my head, puzzled.

“Sorry, had a better idea,” he huffed, out of breath. “Just how blonde would you like to be?”

I scratched my head, stroking my long hair. I pulled a long strand in front of my face and examined it. “As opposite of my hair color now as possible, I suppose.”

“So, like, white?”

“Sure,” I said, shrugging. My hands trembled, and I couldn’t tell whether it was from excitement or fear.

He approached me with his hands stretched outwards.

“But, if you could... could you leave my roots my natural color?” Though I wanted to cover up the girl that I used to be, I couldn’t completely erase her.

He nodded and closed his eyes, preparing the illusion for me. This was better than a mask; it was a gift and a blessing from my best friend. A few minutes went by, and he stood still, eyes squinted shut, face screwed into an expression of intense concentration.

Then, he suddenly inhaled deeply and held it. He hovered his fingers above my head, still holding his breath. He put his hands on my hair, then through it, running his fingers through each strand. As he did so, he let his breath out slowly, still gently and slowly brushing my hair with his fingers. Gradually, I saw my hair lighten, approaching the platinum blonde I desired.

When he finished, my head was framed with delicate, angel-colored hair, like perfect, silky tresses of white gold, sprouting from black roots. It was amazing.

“Now you’re ready, Raven,” he said, a smile on his face.

I returned the smile, thankful for so much more than his simple spell.

The funeral was elegant and short. Marsa was buried at the top of the hill nearest to the garden. The wind blew fiercely, waving my newly blonde locks in the wind. I didn’t have to speak a word, but I could see that my new appearance was having an effect on those around me. I received looks of respect, of wary fear, and I knew I would be able to honor Marsa’s memory. His grave was marked with a simple flat stone, his name forever etched into the surface.

I thanked Dean, who never left my side, for gifting me this newfound bravery. I wondered what my father would think if he could see me now. I wondered if he would give me the same advice, he used to give us. Whenever we were afraid, or nervous, he reminded us that there is no bravery without fear.

I had fear, that’s for sure, but with Dean’s help, I was now confident I could do what was necessary. I wondered if that made me brave. I looked up at Dean’s face, the wind blustering around us, testing our balance. The funeral was over, and I noticed that everybody was looking at me. They wanted something, but I wasn’t sure what to say.

“Skyward may your soul be,” I wished upon him, staring down at the sad, gravestone that marked Marsa’s final resting place. “I will honor you, Marsa. The Naga will prevail, and the people will prosper. I will not fail you.”

That seemed to satisfy them. I turned away, hiding the tears that threatened to spill out from my eyes, and marched down the hill to return to the manor.

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