Natir turned to Alfred, and so did everyone else.
Alfred had taken a triumphal stance. “Alaunius has spoken,” he called aloud. “This is the only fate awaiting your enemies!”
Surrounded by cheers, Natir could not believe her ears. The man had lied through his teeth in a situation like this!
As the guests went back to the way they were and Alfred instructed the servants to clean up and resume the celebration, Natir felt a rage burning in her chest.
Natir couldn’t understand how could he be so stubborn about going on with his campaign despite the clear signs and despite how opposed he himself was to the whole thing as recently as last night.
Natir was sure that something must have changed to cause him to act like this, and she was going to find out what that was and perhaps talk some sense back into Alfred’s head. She no longer waited for him to call her or even for an appropriate chance to approach him. She headed straight to him instead.
When Alfred saw her coming, he exchanged a quick word with the man he was talking to and made his escape, echoing a pretended laugh as he went, with Natir just a few steps behind.
“We need to talk.”
Alfred turned to her and humored, “What about?”
Natir stole a look at the hall. They were just beyond everyone else’s sight.
She gritted, “You know.”
“Not really.” He shrugged and left her.
Her jaw dropped and she chased after him. “Alfred? Alfred, we really need to talk.”
“Can it wait until after we have sex?”
“No, it can’t.”
“I’m not in a mood for this.”
“I want to know why you lied to everyone.”
“Careful, Natir, you are overstepping your place.”
“I was with you, I know what question you asked.”
He stopped and wiped his face with his palm while she moved to stand in front of him.
“There’s no way you can convince me that you misinterpreted her answer.”
“The priestess was wrong before.”
“I don’t know about before, but when someone with spiders in her mouth and eyes popping out of her palms throws poison all over me and tells me she can see the future, I think I better stop and listen.”
Alfred suddenly grabbed her throat. “Now you listen to me. This is a matter that concerns the Toic clan and only the Toic clan. I am the earl of the Toic, and you are yet to become one.” He gave her a push that made her bounce against the wall and he left. “Know your place, don’t interfere with what doesn’t concern you.”
She snapped, “But it does concern me!”
Natir hurtfully cried her heart out to him. “You concern me… Alfred? Alfred, my hands are shaking for how worried I am for you.”
He said, his back to her still, “There’s much you don’t understand, Natir.”
“Then help me understand. Tell me why are you blinding yourself of her warnings. Tell me why are you suddenly committed to something that you yourself veraciously opposed just last night. Tell me. Make me understand… Please, for the feelings I have for you, please give me this much.”
He let out a heavy breath and returned to her.
“The world is bigger than me, Natir.” he said softly. “It is bigger than my hall. Bigger than my village and bigger than my entire domain. I can’t ever let myself be blinded to that fact. All I really am is but a grain of sand on its beach, so small, so insignificant, and so easily tossed around however the wind and the waves so desire. There’s much that I cannot control.”
“You can stop this war before it happens. I know you can control that much, I saw you stop it before, with my own eyes.”
“Did I really?”
“You said it yourself, what happens a dozen rivers away doesn’t concern us.”
“Yes, I did say that.”
“Then what changed? Why are you so determined on throwing yourself in the face of danger? Why can’t you just say no?”
“That was before Lord Valdes weighed in and decided to go to war himself. And where Valdes marches, the Toic will march behind him. It’s that simple.”
“Why? Why not let everyone suffer their own decisions?”
“DOES IT LOOK LIKE I WANT THIS?” he roared, then sucked in a deep breath to regain his composure.
“They forced my hand, Natir,” he resumed tiredly. “There’s nothing I can do, and the warnings of a thousand priestesses can’t change that. It’s just the way the world is.” He pat her cheek. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. It’s just a matter of a few fortnights.”
With an aching heart and a hand glued to her chest, she watched him turn his back on her and leave, feeling every step he took striking her like a needle to the heart.
The words escaped her mouth, “THEN I’M GOING WITH YOU.”
She ran and intercepted him. “I’m going with you.”
She breathed fire on her lips. “You are not leaving me behind. I won’t let you.”
“Natir, those are but the words of a child messing with your head. Grow up. Learn better than this.”
“I don’t care. I don’t care what she or you or anyone else says, I’m going with you.”
“And what will you do? Hm? This is a call for war, Natir, and you are but one woman.”
“This woman has killed twice before.”
“And so has every man in my hall, and so has every Boii who dares to call himself a man. Natir, my wing is over three hundred warriors, and Lord Valdes commands a hundred times as many. Ardent is but a small, timely force, he will never match—”
“GOOD… Good. Then we should be fine.”
“I’M NOT LEAVING YOU… Alfred, please try to understand that I...I’ve finally found you. I can’t let you face this alone.”
“Where I’m going is no place I want you at.”
“Agatha is going too, isn’t she?”
He exhaled, “Yes.”
“Then so will I.”
“I’m a free woman, too, and you are yet to accept my pledge and become my earl to command me otherwise. I have this choice, Alfred.”
“Yes, you are a free woman, and you’ve pledged yourself to no man or earl. But think for a moment, what about Aina? Do you really expect me to allow a four-year-old to accompany me?”
“She will be safe here and well taken care of.”
“Natir, this isn’t like what happened before. You don’t have to go. You have a choice this time.”
“And I’m making my choice. I have come to trust Diva with my life and the life of my daughter, and Aina loves her. She will look after Aina until we return. You let things take their natural course, don’t you? You never interfere unless you must, that’s your way, isn’t it? Well, like it or not, this is the course this thing has taken. So, what will you do now?”
Alfred eyed her still but Natir wouldn’t back off. He let out a great sigh and headed off, waving his hand. “Do as you wish, but leave me alone for now. I’m tired.”
Left behind, Natir watched him leave the way he always did, with a proud and steady stride, never looking back. Only this time it felt different, it felt as if he were carrying the burdens of the world on his shoulders and that all she really did was add to it all.
Her heart ached to see him like this.
Natir could no longer see him as he soon became just another shadow in the dark.
She wanted with all her heart to go after him. She wanted to make him understand why she did what she did and somehow make it right. She wanted to hold him. Comfort him, and make him smile again.
But she didn’t…
She just kept staring at the empty space for a long time, thinking of nothing and hurting for him.