I was floating in the darkness. Just barely skimming the edge of consciousness. There was a clicking in the darkness. Incessant and impatient. Click, pause. Click, pause. Click, pause. I wanted to see what it was, but my eyelids felt heavy. It took a gargantuan effort to lift them, fluttering against my will. White light bled into my vision. Feeling was coming back slowly, right along with my vision clearing. I was in a bed, a heavy blanket over my lower half. From the angle I was in, I could see down my left arm. A clip for my pulse and oxygen levels was on my finger, an IV in my arm. Beyond that, Grandmother was sitting beneath a window, knitting. Which is where the clicking sound was from. My mouth was dry, my tongue thick.
“Knitting makes you look older than you are,” I croaked out. Her hazel eyes shot to mine. Her white hair was down, pouring over her shoulders. She rarely had it down outside of the house.
“I am old. I told you to say goodbye to your ghosts, not become one.” She smiled softly then, setting her knitting down. Approaching me carefully. “Impetuous child.”
There was a wariness in her eyes. So, Kagan had given her the file then. She knew who, what I was. Tears pricked at my eyes. I didn’t bother trying to hide them. I let them flow freely, slipping down the side of my face to soak the pillow. Tears filled her own as she leaned over me, smoothing my hair back, shushing me.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered. There was no anger though, not in her voice or eyes. Just grief and curiosity.
“I didn’t know.” I whispered back, gripping her arm with my left hand. I tried to left my right hand, pain lanced through my shoulder.
“My hair turned white when I wasn’t much older than you,” she said, standing up. She pulled a chair close to the bed, holding my hand as she sat down. “My mother’s did too, but not the men. Genetics are funny. I’ve been called Grandmother since then. Being a healer, I felt it gave me a certain something, so I let it be. When my Tama was taken, I never thought it was something that would actually become truth. How did you know to come to me when you ran?”
“I didn’t,” I tried to sit up, pain shooting through me again. She got up, grabbing a remote and pushing a button on it. The bed started moving me into a sitting position. It was then that I looked around and realized I was in a hospital. “I was swept up in a tide, and just let it pull me out to sea.”
She moved to sit down again, studying my face, my eyes. Tears filling her eyes again.
“Tama brought you to me then. She knew we would need each other.” She wiped at the tears on her face.
“I am so sorry.”
“Whatever for? You didn’t take her, hurt her. You just came from her. Despite the horrors she faced, I am grateful that I have you. I have been since I met you.” She squeezed my hand.
I let a small smile touch my lips. I might not have taken part in any of it, but I was the result of it. And I was sorry for everything that she had faced.
“Where are we?” I looked around the room. The blinds were closed on the window, blocking my view.
“A hospital in the Borderlands. What do you remember?” Grandmother asked, wariness in her eyes again.
I touched my right shoulder, feeling the bandage there beneath the gown I was in. Tenderness radiating out from a focal point.
“She had them shoot at me.” I looked back up to find a steely gaze looking back at me. She just nodded once in confirmation.
The door opened before I could ask anything else. Darian stood in the doorway, looking a little worse for wear. He was wearing jeans and a gray long-sleeved t-shirt, sleeves pushed up to the elbows. His hair was dishelved, like he had been running his hands through it over and over again. Blue eyes a bit dull, dark rings under them.
“You look like how I feel.” I said, noting the paper cups of what smelled like coffee in his hands. His posture noticeably relaxed.
“That’s because you can’t see what you look like,” a mischievous smile tugged at one side of his lips. He handed the cups of coffee to both me and Grandmother instead of keeping one for himself.
“You look like you need it more than I do,” I said, waving off the coffee. “How long have I been out?”
“A couple days.” He shrugged, sipping the coffee. “Between debriefing the Sullied military and being here with you, I haven’t slept much, other than a few hours on that couch that Minoa and I traded off on.” He gestured to Grandmother. She had him calling her by her given name, which means she didn’t like him yet.
“Did my friends get home okay?” I asked Grandmother. She and Darian shared a look before she looked back to me. Dread swelled up in me. “What happened?”
“Kalea and Nakoa are home with their families now.” Grandmother said carefully.
“And Kagan? Is he here? Can I see him?” I looked to the door, expecting him to walk through.
“No, Astra, he isn’t here.” Darian answered, a muscle fluttering in his jaw. “There isn’t an easy way, so I’m just going to say it. The bullet that hit you went straight through you, and into Kagan.”
“He’s okay though, right? I’m okay so that means he is too.” I tried to swing my legs over the edge of the bed. I needed to find him.
“Astra,” Darian started, grasping my upper arms, preventing me from getting up. “Kagan died. Almost immediately. The bullet tore through his aorta. He bled out internally in seconds. There wasn’t anything anyone could have done.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense. He was out. We were getting out.” The pain in my shoulder was spreading with my struggling against his grip. Sparks were firing in my vision. My breath coming in short, rapid bursts.
“Astra, he’s gone.” Darian’s voice was heartbreakingly soft. I looked up into his eyes. He was looking at me with such regret. I looked to Grandmother, who wore a similar expression and nodded slowly, agreeing with him.
“No,” the word croaked out of me, tears blurring my vision. “He wasn’t supposed to come back for me.”
“Don’t you dare try to take the blame for this.” There was a hard edge to his voice.
A sob rolled through me, prodding the fire in my shoulder. I leaned back into bed. I didn’t love Kagan the way he had me. But I could have. I cared very deeply for him. He came back for me. If he hadn’t, he would be alive right now. Would his sister be able to forgive me for that? Was it true that twins shared a special bond? Was there a hole in Kalea now where he had once been? Shouldn’t there be one in me?
When I had thought Elia had died, rage ripped me open and grief poured out of me. Losing Kagan felt so different in comparison. And that truth made me feel so much worse. What did that mean about who I was? Did I not care as much as I should have? Or was I becoming numb? I wanted to feel that sort of grief for Kagan, because he deserved so much better than what he got. He deserved so much better than me. I wasn’t to blame for getting them all into this mess, but I certainly was to blame for his death. A bullet meant for my life had taken his instead. No matter how you spin that, it would always land at my feet.
I closed my eyes to block out the light that felt like it was mocking me. When I opened them again, hours had passed. The sun had set and I was alone. Or so I thought. The smell of sage was heavy in the air. I could hear a voice softly singing in an old language. I rolled over to find Grandmother, her hair still down, fanning smoke from burning sage over me and the room with a large white feather. I had seen her do this many times before. Sage was believed to purify, chasing away negativity and bad spirits. Was she trying to chase away me for the bad in me?
“No, silly girl.” She answered me, smiling. I hadn’t realized I had asked out loud. “I am trying to help your spirit heal.”
“Oh,” was all I could reply. She placed the smoking sage in a glass bowl next to my bed and sat next to me.
“A long time ago, my people used to believe that names held power over us.” She was watching me carefully. “Since I have met you, you have had two names. And they each have meant something different for you. Astra is the name given to you by evil and greed, not by love as it should be. Elodie is the name you gave to yourself when you were running from yourself, again not from love.”
“Are you saying that all these terrible things happen around me because I am not loved?” I felt hollow.
“No,” she crossed one leg over another. “I am saying that in order to heal from everything that has happened, it is time to let go of the past, and to move on. To become new. I would like to give you a new name. One from the love I have for you, and for the love I had for my daughter, your mother.”
I nodded, contemplating it.
“Where is Darian?” I changed the subject.
“Answering more questions.” She answered, not reacting to my obvious deflection. “Tomorrow, they want you to do the same now that you’re awake.”
“What is going to happen to the Puritans? The Borderlanders taken?”
“Most of the stolen have been released. But there are many that they have kept. Those that were pregnant. They plan to keep the babes. And have demanded you and Darian be returned. What happens next is not yet decided.”
Marianne had allowed my father to torture innocent women to have me. Once she had me, she neglected me. After he was gone, she tried to control and manipulate me. Elia used me to get what she wanted. Even Laura, who I do believe cared for me, used me to get close to my parents for information for her people. The Sullied were going to use me as a pawn in their conflict. Before when I had said I was a commodity, I couldn’t have been more right. But that is not what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be valued only for what I could do for other people. I didn’t even want to be a hero for those stolen. I just wanted to do what was right.
Grandmother had been right about the past. I had spent my whole life being what other people wanted me to be. I wasn’t Astra, the miracle child, a vessel for the hopes and dreams of infertile women, a mate. And I wasn’t Elodie, the runaway, the mystery girl, the receptacle of someone’s misguided affections. Tomorrow, I’d go and answer whatever questions the Sullied had for me. And then Grandmother and I would go home where I could say goodbye to Kagan. But tonight, I was saying goodbye to all the pain and crushing expectations that had followed the identities I wore like a costume.
“So, what is my new name, born out of love?” I asked softly.
A tender smile touched Grandmother’s lips as she stood. She took the sage, waving smoke over me again, whispering something I couldn’t hear. She then snuffed the sage in the bottom of the bowl, and dipped her finger into the ashes. Turning to me, she waited for me to say something more. I just nodded. She rubbed the sage ash on the center of my brow.
“I name you Inaya, gift from God.”
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