Even though she’d never been drunk, Olena knew that she couldn’t escape her own problem in that fashion. She was done with denying it, could no longer ignore it, not in the light of what she had just learned.
The right moment was never coming. She had to tell him.
First, though, she had to find him. I should have gone with him! she thought, and not for the first time. But he’d made it clear that it was something he wanted to do alone, so she waited at the palace, until Baugetha showed up and changed everything.
It was strange, but her joy at seeing Kyrian (and the others, of course) alive and well was somehow muted by her concern for Oren. Having made her way to the bridge without seeing the paladin, she decided to wait there, since he’d probably use it to get back across the river. But now daylight was dwindling, and she could feel time slipping through her fingers. He’s not coming back to the palace, she realized. You have to find him.
Olena unfurled her wings and gained altitude swiftly, cradling Spellreaver in her arms. She flew to what was left of the Temple District, and hope fled her heart when she saw the husk of the Order’s building. Searching the area, she found no sign of Oren – no sign of anyone.
Think! she commanded herself. Where could he have gone? She found it so hard to impose order on her mind, to think like a paladin. Maybe she’d be better off trying to feel the way he would. Oren had been distant since they’d arrived at Athkatla; that much she knew. Concerned for his brothers, dismayed when he was outvoted and the party accompanied Nopalxochitl instead of making haste for the Temple District…
How Oren’s heart must have crumbled to see his Order in this state! No headquarters, no survivors… where would he go from here, if not back to the palace? Damn it, now she was back to thinking.
Olena flew up again for a better look and scouted around for a moment before seeing a brilliant splash of color in the city’s wreckage. Going in for a closer look, she found herself above a modest shrine dedicated to Chauntea. The building itself bore the scars of dragonfire, but its tiny courtyard, a lush and beautiful garden, was still pristine. And there, seated on a stone at its center, she saw a man in a familiar green tunic, staring right through a lovely flowerbed into nothingness.
She set down near enough to be seen, but not blocking his view. Still, Oren made no acknowledgement of her arrival. Olena fought off the urge to tell him all the news; he needed her help, he knew, and badly. “What happened, Oren?” she asked with what she hoped was a caring tone, laying her massive weapon on the ground.
He looked up at her, but said nothing, and turned away again. Olena had the impression that he should have been crying, but wasn’t. Why?
Olena sat on the rock, separated from Oren by about three feet. “Please, tell me.”
After a pause, Oren explained what had happened between himself and Sir Ryan. “The Order is my whole life, Olena. It’s the only family I’ve ever known. And I’ve failed them.”
Olena’s words boiled out in fury. “Where are they? I’ll straighten them out but good–”
“Stop it. Please, Olena, don’t make this any worse,” Oren groaned, still not looking at her.
“Then you’re willing to concede that it could be worse. Perhaps you might also concede that Sir Ryan could be wrong.”
Oren shook his head. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? What if you had stayed with your brothers? There’s no guarantee that one of you would have made it back here. You might have ended up in the same ditch–assuming that’s what really happened to them,” she added quickly, seeing more pain in Oren’s eyes. “Athkatla still would have been invaded, and lives still would have been lost. And you must agree that if we hadn’t persuaded Nopalxochitl to stop, there would have been many more deaths.”
He nodded, but didn’t seem comforted.
“Well,” Olena continued, “we never would have gotten her attention without her eggs, and we might never have gotten those without you.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Oren, focusing on a ladybug. “I didn’t do anything.”
“But you could have. What if Demaris had gotten herself killed by the trap or, or the otyugh?”
Oren laughed mirthlessly. “I hardly think that things I might have done would make any difference to Sir Ryan.”
“Are you sure? Because that’s the only reason he’s angry at you.”
“It’s not that simple, Olena. I also disobeyed an order.”
“And did they kick you out of your Order?”
“No, but it’s only a matter of time before–”
“And did Tyr forsake you for doing that?” When Oren didn’t answer, Olena asked, “You are still a paladin, aren’t you?”
“I am,” he said with a sigh.
“Then you cannot abandon hope.”
For the first time, Oren looked into her eyes, and Olena felt as if the ground fell away from her. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
Because, Olena thought, I can’t bear to see you suffer like this. She settled for saying, “Because you would do the same for me.” That was true enough. “Do you feel better?”
He shrugged and said “Maybe.”
“I’ve taken less than that and called it a victory.”
“I suppose I have, too.” Oren fell silent, and his attention turned to a patch of flowers joined by a glistening spiderweb. “I don’t what I’m going to do, Olena.”
“I do,” she announced. “You’re coming with us. Kyrian and the others, they’re here! They’ve got this mask, and they said that Sythillis is dead! So is Nymbus, though. There’s a demiplane that he created and we’re going to check it out soon and—”
Oren turned and placed a hand on her shoulder, jolting her into silence. “Slow down!” he commanded, and Olena caught the ghost of a smile on his face.
Taking great pains to make sense, Olena told Oren everything that had happened at the palace. She used a hushed tone to draw him closer, but it also heightened the drama, which she liked. By the time she finished, Oren’s face had drawn fairly near to her own.
“And you want me to come along,” said Oren, more statement than question.
“Of course I do. We seem to be moving towards a destiny—the hobgoblin seer said as much—but I can’t shake the feeling that you’re meant to be part of it.” She pointed at the hulk of the Order’s headquarters, just visible in the distance. “And I know you feel like you don’t measure up to your brothers – but with us, you’ll find what’s best in you. I just know it.”
She was getting through to him now. “And do the others feel the same way you do?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t speak for them, but I know they respect your conviction, and your wisdom.” When Oren seemed discomforted by the praise, Olena took his hand, wishing she’d thought to pull off her gloves. “I certainly do.”
“You’re very kind to say that,” said the paladin.
Olena could feel herself falling into his eyes. This is it, she thought. It’s now or never. Tell him!
But the words wouldn’t come. She’d had days to think about this; why was her mind failing her now? Idiot! came a voice in her head that sounded like her mother’s. If you can’t tell him, show him!
Olena offered him a shy smile and sat up a bit, closing the distance between their faces to mere inches. “I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me,” she said as softly as she could. “But all I can do is show you.”
Taking a deep breath, Olena closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and moved toward him – and wound up kissing the fingers of Oren’s free hand.
Suddenly, both of Oren’s hands pulled away from her as he jumped to his feet. Olena opened her eyes to see Oren’s startled face exclaim “What are you doing?”
By the Oak Father, she thought, what am I doing? “Trying to show you how I feel about you!” she said, not quite able to keep a rise out of her own voice. “Gods, I’m sorry…”
Oren paced in a tight circle. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” he said. “I’ve been so fixated on my mission, and the situation, and… forgive me, but I had no idea you felt this way! If I had, I would have said something . . . done something . . . to stop you from being hurt like this. It’s not right for me to . . . with everything that’s happened . . . it’s just not right.”
“Don’t talk about it like it’s a disaster!” Olena said, and already she felt tears stinging her eyes. “I love you, Oren. I do; I know I do. Even if you don’t love me, I couldn’t go another day without telling you. I didn’t want to make things harder for you, I thought it might give you hope, give you something to feel good about.” She went to him and gripped his hand. “You always talk as though you’re a failure, a disgrace, but you’re not . . . you just don’t see it. It breaks my heart to know that you always feel yourself to be unworthy.”
“I don’t know how I feel. About anything.” Oren said, and Olena felt her heart clench. He put his hands on her shoulders gently and looked down at her. “Olena, even if I did know, this . . . you and I should not be. The Order teaches that our female comrades in arms are comrades, not women.”
“I’m not part of your Order!” Olena felt that it shouldn’t be necessary to tell him that, but she was taking no chances now. “Is that all I am to you? Your comrade?”
“Yes! No. That’s how I’ve been trained to think of you, and for good reason!”
Olena tilted her head, saying “I suppose it could cause problems on a campaign if they didn’t teach that…”
“Even if I knew my own heart, going any further down that road could have disastrous consequences, for you, for your friends . . . I don’t want that. I don’t want to be responsible for that. I’ve been responsible for enough mistakes already.”
Olena made a great effort to pull herself together. “You don’t trust yourself. Well, I trust you. Perhaps in time, you might come to see me as more than a comrade?”
“Perhaps,” Oren said, not looking at her. “I am sorry, Olena. Please be patient with me. I truly will do my best to make my way through this… this chaos I feel surrounding me on all sides. Then we can talk.” He sat down, rubbing his face with his hands. “I’d like to be alone now, please.”
“As you wish,” Olena sighed. Drawing another deep breath, she retrieved her weapon, spread her wings, and took to the sky, leaving a trail of tears behind her.
* * *
Olena’s weeping fell into another lull when Kyrian found her in one of the palace’s bedrooms. Without a word, or a moment’s hesitation, he sat beside his sister on the bed and put his arms around her. They talked for hours in the dark before falling asleep, curled up together like a pair of cats.