The Exarch hears the pitter-patter of excited footsteps (too excited, he thinks, for this time of night) before their source enters the room. Two ears appear over the edge of his desk, followed by grasping hands, and finally eyes, peering on tiptoe towards him.
"It's well past your bedtime, Lyna," he chides gently, and the small sliver of face creases into a frown.
"Can't sleep," comes the stubborn reply.
The Exarch hopes that his hood hides his smile, continuing to gently argue even as he sets aside the papers he has been drowning in for hours now. Too many mouths to feed, too much distance to cover, too little time before everything is lost. And above all, too many dead.
"And what," he replies, "do you suggest we do to fix that?"
"Tell me a story."
The response is practiced, a familiar step in an old dance that they've been doing for years now. It used to be nightly, when she first arrived at the Crystarium, when he first started telling her stories to chase away the nightmares. He tried to spin the stories himself, at first. It should have been easy. He'd been a bard, once. But after so many years of struggle, of fighting, of //failing//, stories didn't come so easily anymore. So he had started to dip into the well of truth. Barely enough to break the surface, at first. He was scared to dip down beneath.
What laid beneath the surface was loss, and he couldn't let that weight crush him. Not now. Not when he was so //close//.
But the girl demanded her stories, and gradually, he had made peace with the telling. Perhaps even enjoyed it.
Some of his lost hero lives on with him, if only through words. And if that hero was to be believed, words are the most important legacy.
The Exarch chuckles softly and stands, making his way around the desk. "Alright, alright," he acquieses. He takes Lyna's small hand in his, and begins to lead her back towards her room. "Which tale shall I tell you tonight?"
[[The Beginning]]The child sits on the floor of the cabin, hands stained black with ink. Its hair trails dangerously towards the inkpot as it leans over the leatherbound book before it, seemingly engrossed in the precise sketching of line and curve. Magic is, in a sense, art, but it requires a kind of rigidity that other such practices do not. Seemingly, the child is the perfect picture of such discipline, until you see the way its eyes dart towards the window, until you catch it mouthing along to a count, ears swivelling ever so slightly to catch the steady breathing of its mother.
Asleep. Finally asleep.
It sets the quill down carefully, gets to its feet. Breathe carefully, step softly. It flinches as one of its brothers - Puhla'sae, it thinks, he's always running behind - sprints past the window, feet slapping against the packed earth outside. However, even its most careless brother is a hunter, knows to keep his voice down. The child stills, waits, counts. Still asleep. It may still have time to catch up.
//"Our daughters do not hunt. Not such small prey. Forget bows and arrows, child. Your weapons will be greater."//
It bites its tongue at the memory, a discomfort it cannot place coiling in its gut. It does not know what it wants to be, //who// it wants to be, but those are questions it wants to answer by itself.
It will not be told who to become.
Perhaps, if those around the child knew its destiny then, the steps it took to get there would have faced less opposition. Would have been easier. It didn't deserve the pain it found in forging its own path.
Perhaps, however, without that pain it wouldn't have found that destiny after all. Sometimes it's hardship that shapes us, allows us to grow. So long as it does not make us bitter. So long as it does not bleed us dry.
It's not the first time that the child has snuck away from supervising eyes to follow its brothers on the hunt. Other times, however, it has lost their trail in the forest. Others still, they have been unsuccessful, cursed the Gridanians for encroaching on their hunting trails. Once it was caught, its oldest brother laughing at the youngest brother's fury.
//"No sense in telling Mother, Puhla'ra. She'd just worry. Besides, it's only natural that our sister would be curious, no? She's a quick study. But it's too dangerous out here for her. See her home, would you?"//
Always weak. Always bound by ink and tradition, steeped so deeply within the child that it worried the stain would never wash off. Always a daughter.
It creeps forward now, the dirt long turned to grass under its bare feet. It has learned to follow its brothers' trail, now, listening for the soft sound of Huntspeak. Its ears perk up as their tone shifts. They've found prey. The child darts forward, hears the whistle of an arrow, stops short as it hears the cries of a dying thing. It isn't sure that it wants to carry on.
But it has to. It needs to know that it //can//. That it isn't weak.
The deer lies dying on the forest floor, five brothers closing in upon it. The child barely recognizes them like this. They are something //more// than hunters, something that makes bile rise in its throat. They have killed. They are butchers. They are up to their elbows in gore and the child is frozen, hidden in the underbrush.
It got what it came for. It is not the outcome it had imagined. In its eyes, in this moment, its brothers are monsters. They field dress the animal and prepare to return home, and the child comes to its senses, sees its brothers as men again. By the time they arrive at the cabin with their prize, it is once again bent over parchment, its fingers wrapped around a quill. But now its hands shake.
After all, it realizes, after all this, they were right. It is weak.
More than a decade later, the child has become a man. He stands in front of an inn room mirror with a knife in one hand and a lock of hair in the other. His hands still shake. But he realizes now that compassion is not weakness. Whether it is for a dying thing on the forest floor, or for the thing he must now kill in order to //become//. He sees the child behind his eyes for a moment, but pushes it down. In one deft movement, he shears the strand of hair from his head.
In one phrase, he tore apart the family he'd had.
//"I'm not your daughter."//
It was always the daughters, his mother had said. A shame, he had replied, that she had none.
Kill the old self so that the new self can grow from the spilled guts that the hunter leaves behind. Let the carrion birds feast upon his remains and sing of the man who crawled forth from the slit belly of the animal he once was.
He is Puhla'ir. He is the sixth son.
The story he tells will be his own.