Citrios sat on the crest of the hill, looking down over Juriss harbour. Leaning forwards, he cupped his head in his hands and sighed softly.
â€œHey, man. Donâ€™t know what that thing with Alina was, but you have really put her on the warpath.â€ The voice came from behind him, and Citrios half-turned to look as Steel strolled up the hill holding a pair of mugs and a bottle. A vivid red mark was visible on his forehead, and Citrios raised an eyebrow.
â€œYou must be Captain Steel.â€ Steel nodded, flopping down next to Citrios. â€œAre you alright?â€
â€œHm? Oh, fine. Alina just bounced a teapot off my forehead.â€ Steel offered a mug to Citrios, who accepted it, and set his own mug down next to him. â€œIâ€™ve never seen her so assertive.â€
â€œHm.â€ Citrios sighed again, letting Steel pour cider into the mug, and then taking a deep swig of it. â€œNeither have I.â€
â€œYeah, I gathered.â€ Steel glanced over sympathetically. â€œSorry your creepy fetishistic relationship didnâ€™t work out.â€
Citrios coughed on his cider. â€œHuh?â€
â€œOh, Iâ€™m not judging.â€ Steel took a swig of cider, holding his free hand up. â€œI mean, Iâ€™m literally dating a walking corpse. Would be a bit pot to kettle, wouldnâ€™t it? Just offering my condolences.â€
â€œIâ€™m not in a creepy fetishistic relationship!â€
â€œWell, no, not anymore. Thatâ€™s the crux of the problem, isnâ€™t it?â€
Citrios sputtered. â€œI meanâ€¦ Iâ€¦ I didnâ€™tâ€¦â€ He paused, and gathered himself. â€œJust what are you implying?â€
â€œI donâ€™t imply things.â€ Steel took a sip of his cider, glancing sidelong at Citrios. â€œI just say them flat-out, generally in a highly tactless manner.â€
Citriosâ€™s eyes narrowed. â€œI was never in a â€˜creepy relationshipâ€™.â€
â€œOh, no, of course not.â€ Steel laughed, but there wasnâ€™t much humour in his voice. â€œI mean, there are plenty of perfectly healthy relationships that are founded on one member literally owning the other.â€ Before Citrios could reply, he pressed on. â€œI mean, itâ€™s not as though she was taken from her family, her entire world, really, and given away to a man twice her age, sight unseen, from whom the best she could imagine hoping was that he wouldnâ€™t abuse her very often. And to discover that he was willing to feed her scraps of dignity and respect from his table, well. Itâ€™s like a fairy tale about the scullery-maid and the prince. If the prince was in the habit of purchasing scullery maids. And if, instead of making them princesses later, he kept them as scullery maids forever.â€
â€œUm.â€ Citrios raised a finger to protest, but found himself at a loss for words. Taking advantage, Steel pressed on.
â€œYouâ€™re right, though, not creepy at all. Itâ€™s not as though her entire existence was forcibly restructured to have you at the centre of it, without any consideration for whether she cared. Or â€“ wait. Yes, it is. I always get those confused.â€ Steel took another swig of cider. â€œUnder the circumstances, are you surprised that she developed a bit of forcible worship of the man who defined her life? I mean, itâ€™s either love or hate them. Or both. And you were nice to the little slave girl, so love it is. And then you return it â€“ ish. Oh, the stars in her eyes when she talks about you, friend.â€
Citrios tried to gather himself. â€œI didnâ€™t try to â€“â€
â€œOh, I know. Thatâ€™s the tragic irony. You just pampered your little pet seer, and consoled yourself by thinking, Hey, I treat her well. A golden cage is totally different from an iron one, right? And she falls for you hard. So hard that when she Exalts, when sheâ€™s completely surrounded by people who would â€“ and could â€“ kill her in a heartbeat if they knew about her, does she run? No. Youâ€™re everything to her. Her world is completely meaningless without you, because thereâ€™s nothing else for her. So she stays. She risks her life every day just to be near you. The only thing that can finally drive her away is the need to act to save someone you care about more than your own life, and she can only do that because sheâ€™s losing you either way.â€ Steel stood up abruptly, looking down at Citrios, all traces of joviality gone. â€œAnd you go and start moping because sheâ€™s slipped out from under your thumb. Because even though she lived every moment of her life for you, she didnâ€™t let you decide how.â€ Very deliberately, he set the bottle of cider on the ground.
Citrios stared at the mug numbly, looking up at Steel. â€œThat wasnâ€™t â€¦ I love herâ€¦â€
â€œDo you? Do you even know who she is? Did you ever see her, or did you just see the starstruck little girl who would do anything for you?â€ Steel snorted, turning and stepping back down the path. â€œThatâ€™s something you need to decide. Did you ever love Alina, or did you just love having someone under your power, and feeling all warm and fuzzy that you didnâ€™t abuse it? Maybe before you yell at her again, you should take a long, hard look at yourself.â€ Striding off, he called over his shoulder. â€œFeel free to finish the cider. Itâ€™s a good year.â€
Citrios didnâ€™t move from his seat for a long time. Finally, he reached for the bottle, disdaining the mug, and took a deep drink.