Exiles – Issue #40: The Pain of Comfort

Exiles - Issue #39: Lofty Halls
Exiles - Issue #41: The Great Escape

 

Exiles

Issue #40

 “The Pain of Comfort”

Written by Aaron McQueen

Illustrated by Jennifer Lange

Copyright April 3rd, 2018

www.patreon.com/McQueenBooks

This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.

Jeannie McQueen

Donald McQueen

Theresa McQueen-Uber

Duana McQueen

Jeff McQueen

Eden Odhner

 

I.

 

Lon took Azarelle to the back kitchen. It was one of the few rooms in the house that was still warm, and he didn’t want to take her to the office. It was too…professional, and he didn’t want this talk to feel like a trip to the principal’s office.

Azarelle stood across from him by the stove, leaning against the weathered countertop. Lon walked slowly to the table in the middle of the room and rested against it. She waited quietly. He had no idea what to say.

He turned to her.

“How can you expect me to trust you?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

He chuckled.

“You’re sorry? That’s it?”

She looked up.

“What else can I say? I made a mistake. What more do you want?”

Lon growled. It was the same as before. She was holding back. It was impossible to know how much.

“Azarelle, I need to know what happened. Don’t you see that I have to sell your story to my brothers? I have to give them a reason to spare your life!”

She rolled her eyes.

“Right, your brothers.”

He glared.

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

She looked at him.

“Don’t you ever do anything on your own? Why do you always have to bring them in?”

He growled.

“Because they’re family. They’re already in! Don’t you understand that at all? We built a life here, and it isn’t just about me. What I do affects them, and while we’re on the subject what you do affects them! I fought like mad to convince them to give you a second chance, and a third, and instead of coming clean, you lied to me!”

He took a long breath.

“I need you to tell me what you did, who was involved and what they’re planning to do next. I need you to show me you want to help us. I need you to show me some kind of…”

She turned.

“Some kind of what?”

“Regret.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Regret?”

He blew out an exasperated breath.

“Yes!!! Is it too much to ask? You betrayed us. You betrayed me! If you really want forgiveness, the least you could do is come back with more than the same tired lines that you were shilling before and show me that you’re capable of giving a damn!”

Azarelle frowned.

“You really do put them before yourself.”

Lon forced himself to take a calm breath and nodded.

“I do.”

She shook her head.

“But why? Why always?”

Lon turned around, facing away from her. He waited a long moment before he answered.

“Because it’s my fault that they’re here. Seven years ago I made a stupid decision and it cost us everything. I won’t do that again.”

He turned back to her. She was still frowning, but her expression had softened.

She asked.

“What was the mistake?”

Lon chuckled.

“I trusted a woman.”

She puffed out a little laugh. He went on.

“I was selfish. I can’t afford to be that way. Not anymore, not here. No one can, even someone as brilliant as you.”

Azarelle smiled wordlessly and took a long breath. Lon watched her. A shadow of remorse settled on her fair elven features. He felt sick that he couldn’t trust it.

When she finally spoke, the anger had gone from her voice.

“What do you need from me?”

Indeed, what. What should a man ask for? Could he dare? And what in the end would she be willing to give?

He answered.

“I need the truth. Were you working with them the whole time or did they just recruit you? What did they want you to do and why did you agree to help them? Didn’t we treat you well enough?”

He paused.

“Didn’t I?”

She shook her head.

“It wasn’t like that.”

Lon crossed his arms.

“Well then what was it like?”

She turned to the fire in the stove and didn’t answer for a long time. In the end she only mumbled.

“I’m not supposed to be a criminal.”

Lon raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

She looked up, eyes hard once again. Her voice was knotted with frustration.

“I’m not supposed to be a criminal!”

Lon took a step back. Azarelle went on, pacing back and forth and waving her arms. Her cloak picked up the darkness as she walked away from the stove and dropped it again as she returned. She flashed orange and red like she was on fire.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen to me! I’m not a criminal! I’m not a prisoner!”

She spun around and planted her hands on the table, leaning forward.

“I am a university professor. I had a career! I had students! People came to me when they needed help. I had my work. I had prospects! I had teaching assistants!”

She threw up her arms.

“I can’t let myself get comfortable here! I can’t let myself get comfortable with you! It’s unendurable! Don’t you see? This isn’t my life!”

She stopped, catching her breath.

Lon stood in front of her. He sympathized. In fact, he knew exactly the feeling she was wrestling with. He’d felt it on the day he and his brothers arrived on Kalkonu, and he’d felt it again the night they had all decided that there really was no going back. It felt like giving up. The permanence of it was as undeniable and as intolerable as death.

Still, he found himself beginning to smile. He’d never seen Azarelle so…animated.

It was kind of cute.

He took a step towards her and leaned against the table.

“You were getting comfortable with me?

She looked up and gave him a flat stare.

“Of course. Jerk.”

He took another step.

“But not now?”

She straightened up.

“Well, planting a tracking spell on me certainly didn’t improve your odds.”

He frowned and stopped walking.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Well, sorry doesn’t exactly cover it.”

He grumbled. There was no way out of this one.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have done it. It was an invasion of your privacy and it was wrong, but it was for your protection. My brothers and I have enemies, and with the night coming and the chance of an invasion…I was worried. I didn’t want to lose you.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Uh huh.”

He took another step forward.

“It’s the truth. Azarelle, I…”

He paused.

She would never believe him after everything that had happened. It was foolish and stupid, but he had to tell her now. He wouldn’t get another chance.

He took a final step forward and stood in front of her.

“Azarelle, I love you.”

She flinched and took a step back.

“No you don’t. You and your brothers just needed a pet sorcerer to advance your business.”

He shook his head.

“That’s not true.”

She put her hands up, almost covering her ears.

“Yes it is!”

He shook his head again.

“It’s not! I love you, Azarelle. I can’t stop thinking about you. When you left…it killed me that I might never see you again. I can’t even describe how happy I was when they told me it was you at the door.”

Her hands felt to her sides, gripping her arms.

She whispered.

“No. It’s not true. I was just a tool to you. I was a passing fancy. That’s why…that’s why it was okay.”

He took a step away. She was shaken. Maybe pushing everyone away made it easier. No attachments meant no distractions. No fear.

But no love either.

He knew what to do.

“Alright, professor. I tell you what. I’ll prove it.”

She looked up.

“What?”

He nodded.

“You heard me. I’ll prove it.”

He went to one of the tall cupboards on the wall and pulled it open.

It was filled with coffee.

A laugh escaped her lips. Then she started to cry.

He went to her.

“I love you, Azarelle.”

She didn’t pull away.

He kissed her. Lon felt her arms loosen and close around his back as she leaned into his embrace. Her lips were soft and tasted of the chase weed he’d given her, conjuring up memories of vanilla and orange cream.

He looked for a long time into her eyes: luminous pools of grey and blue, cloaked in ribbons of liquid dark hair.

He brushed the locks aside.

“I know this isn’t what you planned, but Azarelle…I want you to stay with me. Would you like that?”

She hesitated for a moment; then nodded.

Her voice wavered as she spoke.

“Lon, I have something to tell you. Tormar is—”

She paused abruptly, seeming to strain. One hand went to her temple and she squinted hard, pressing her eyes shut.

Lon put a hand out to steady her.

“Azarelle, what’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t…know. I have to tell you… Tormar isn’t the—”

She winced, stopping again.

Lon held her.

“What is it? Tormar isn’t what?”

She struggled.

“I…can’t…remember.”

The alarm began to sound.

Lon jumped back and looked up.

“The vault…”

Azarelle’s eyes went wide. He turned back to her.

“You!”

She shook her head.

“No! I mean…I was going to tell you!”

He took another step back.

“You used me.”

She cried out.

“No! Wait!”

The sound of boots thudded in the hallway. Two men came crashing through the door. Lon turned to them.

“I’m fine. Get upstairs!”

They ran off. Lon turned back to Azarelle.

“You used me! Again!”

She came towards him.

“No! I mean yes! But please just listen. I have to tell you—”

She winced again, clutching her forehead.

Lon growled.

“Tell me what?”

Her teeth were clenched tight.

“About the augury. There was something else…”

She grunted in pain.

Lon took a step back. It was obvious something was wrong, but it didn’t matter. It was too late. She’d had too many chances already.

He pointed to the door.

“You should go.”

She was nearly doubled over as she looked up at him.

“Lon…please…”

He stepped aside. His gut wrenched. He could feel his heart twisting in his chest.

“You have to leave, Azarelle. I’m sorry, but please…just go. I’ll tell the men to let you out.”

Tears were streaming down her face as she moved to the door. She stopped at the threshold and looked back.

She spoke through sobs.

“It wasn’t all an act.”

Lon regarded her. His face felt hard. His chest ached. It was a pain he hadn’t felt in a long time. He shook his head. Was there more to be said? Was there not?

Believe her.

Don’t believe her.

It didn’t matter now. With this…when his brothers returned there would be nothing he could do.

He went to the cupboard.

“Here.”

He took down a bag of coffee and tossed it to her.

“For the road.”

She caught it. A fleeting moment passed and then she left.

Lon crumpled slowly to the ground, pounding his fists while tears made soft spatters on the floor.

Special Thanks To:

Kristi Bubrig

Ryan Lewis

Nathan Liss

Kayla Liss

Zachary Grey

Timothy Tortal

 

Exiles - Issue #39: Lofty Halls
Exiles - Issue #41: The Great Escape

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