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from Born to Die by Kat Frost

Chapter 7
Everything Has a Cost

My head hurt.

The smell of herbal tea filled my nostrils, pulling me from my muddled dreams and into a painful awakening. My mouth had a sour aftertaste in it, too. I coughed, but it only served to make my head explode with even more pain.

“Interesting night?” Paathke’s accented voice caught my attention. I rolled over to face the room rather than the wall, and saw her sitting cross-legged on the floor, a covered lantern beside her. A pot of tea, still steaming, perched on a thick trivet on my bedside table. She nodded at it. “I expect that’ll help with your hangover.”

I stared at her, unable to find words or expression. She half-smiled. “Don’t give me that look. It wasn’t a roughy-toughy puzzle to put together. I know liquor when I smell it and your room?” She raised her eyebrows, glancing around as if she could see the smell. “It is powerfully imbued with the odor of alcohol breath. So, stop staring at me like a goldfish and drink up. Then tell me what happened.”

I reached obediently for the tea, and discovered I would not, in fact, have to drink from the pot as I thought. A mug was tucked behind the pot, obscured by my hoard of smuggled and slightly possibly contraband books. I poured myself a cup and sipped experimentally at it. It was hot but not too scalding to drink.

“Now.” Paathke retucked her legs, rocking in place. “Spill. What happened to send you off with the bar-bands? How’d you convince them to take them with you, when they hate the sight of you? And what in Arrakan were you thinking?”

I sipped again. Her voice was like a crowbar inside my skull. “I got beheaded,” I said shortly. “I don’t know what got into me. I wasn’t myself. I’m still not myself.” I fell silent, remembering every detail of the event as if it had just happened seconds ago. Maybe the traveler at the inn was right – the instant the whiskey had worn off, the pain slammed you in the face again. This time with a headache singing backup.

Don’t lose yourself in it, he’d warned. Don’t fall. Don’t throw it away. Don’t miss it.

“Paathke...” I began slowly. I glanced to the door; shut. No listening through those without elf ears. “Do you think... Do we have a choice? About this? About the lives we live? About anything? Is it possible to not have a choice?”

Paathke whistled. “You should ask Borri. I’m not usually one for these deep introspective questions.”

“Me neither,” I admitted. “But someone said... I just was wondering. Got to thinking. I always thought I had no choice. Do I?”

She considered. “I don’t know. I think it has a lot to do with what you believe, what you are willing to sacrifice. Where you say the middle point is on your scales, ya know? When you’re like, ‘I won’t murder innocent people’ on the one hand, and ‘I stick to my own tribe’, and you have to find a middle ground you can stand on that doesn’t betray either of those. I guess what I’m trying to say is, is that it’s about what’s important to you, and what you’re willing to sacrifice for it. I think, anyway.”

“What’s important, and what I’d sacrifice for it,” I mused. “Wow, Paathke, you really are deep when you take the trouble.”

“I can be plenty deep!” she started indignantly, face flushing. “Oh. You were joking. I can never tell when you’re being sarcastic.”

I sighed. “It’s a genetic defect.” I propped my chin in my hands and stared into nothingness. My head still drummed, and I was confused and uncertain inside. I knew that this would matter, would make or break the future, what happened now. Borri and Paathke were here, and so was I. I couldn’t live this life anymore. I was never meant to be a warrior, certainly not an Eternal super-soldier. I needed to get away, to get free, but Borri had made it clear just how impossible that was, and what it would cost. I could be Gwen, or I could be Paathke. I could disappear forever into some void of torture never to be seen again, or I could endure for the short term and search for another way out.

Another choice. A better alternative. A third option besides compliance and eternal torture. Looking for another option, a third road. A slim hope, a hard, brutal journey, probably futile, and an awful lot like defeat and giving up. But not.

Which?

The traveler was right. I had a choice.

“Would it help if I gave you a hug?” Paathke asked uncertainly. “I know you don’t like people touching you, but you look like you could use one.”
“I don’t like other people touching me,” I said. “You, Borri, you’re my family. You’re different.”

“Oh.” She perked up a bit and, getting up, she came over and hugged me so tight my ribs popped. “Okay.” She released me and stepped back, hands on her hips, and tossed her shaggy mess of blond hair out of her eyes. “Now drink your tea. Breakfast was over an hour ago, but I’m sure you could order – oh, wait, it’s you – could ask one of the servants to get you something. Borri’s waiting for you in the practice room.”

I groaned. “Such is life. When it’s mine, that is. And don’t make fun of me for asking the servants to do stuff. Imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes!”
She grinned cheekily at me, hovering at the door. “It merely amuses me that you try so hard to disguise your charmingly sweet and disarmingly adorable personality with false bravado and detachment, with a complete and total lack of success.”

“I’m a warrior!” I called after her as she tried to flee with the last word. “How else to expect me to be?” How could a warrior afford to be sickened by killing? There was so many problems with trying to make me be a warrior. One day I’d get the hang of it. I’d be able to think like Paathke, separate all my thoughts and feelings into little boxes. But for now, I still struggled with being and acting like a warrior should. Apparently my failures enormously amused Paathke.

I got up and washed at the washstand, combing and braiding my rippling masses of copper hair. I wondered...







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