The room was absolutely still. Citrios, Lodaris, and Alina knelt in front of the table, three cups of tea sitting untouched in front of them. The air was heavy with unspoken words, hopes and fears swirling together.
Finally, it was Citrios who broke the silence. â€œWhy didnâ€™t you tell me the truth, Sifu?â€
â€œWhich truth?â€ Lodarisâ€™s voice was gruff. â€œAbout why I left?â€
â€œAbout the Order.â€ Citrios looked halfway towards Alina, then quickly returned his gaze to his old master. â€œAbout the Exalted.â€
There was a slight intake of breath from Lodaris. â€œI would not have had you follow me in this, Citrios. You deserved better.â€ He paused. â€œI know how I learned? Who told you?â€
Citrios looked down. Taking a sip of tea, he sighed quietly. â€œAfter Alina rescued you, I began making inquiries. You already know how deeply I have studied the paths of the Anatheâ€¦ of the Celestials. Deeply enough that I found inconsistencies, knew that there were secrets being covered. That our sorcery was first crafted by the Solars, not by Mela, that many of the great devices that we use were theirs as well, and not forged by the Dragons. I had assumed that these secrets were kept in order to keep the masses from worrying.â€ He looked up. â€œBut my second search brought me to the attention of the one who helped you escape from the Isle, Sifu.â€
Lodaris breathed out slowly. â€œThe Watcher.â€ He frowned. â€œAnd just what did he tell you?â€
â€œHe told me about the lie that was the Anathema, and that you had learned of it in your time in the North. He told me not to search for you.â€ Citrios frowned slightly. â€œHe said I wouldnâ€™t remember him, but I do. Mostly. Thereâ€™s some sort of magic about him that clouds specifics, though.â€
â€œHm, thatâ€™s the one.â€ Lodaris sat back thoughtfully, taking a sip of his own tea. â€œAnd, of course, having heard the story you hurried right here to discover for yourself if it was true.â€
â€œYes, I â€“â€ Citrios began to reply, but Lodaris cut him off.
â€œDid you stop to consider what light that casts you in, Citrios? You were already at risk after your teacher and slave absconded from your Wyld Hunt. Now you vanish after them?â€ He shook his head slowly. â€œI had hoped to guard you against my disgrace.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to be protected, Sifu.â€ Citrios kept his face down.
â€œClearly.â€ Lodaris stood suddenly, with a sigh. â€œWell, the damage has been done now. We are mere months away from what will likely be a cataclysmic battle, and your aid would be appreciated. You can see for yourself how truthful we are, I think. I should return to my students for the time being.â€ He bowed to Citrios, who bowed back from his seat.
â€œOf course, Sifu. I will endeavor not to interrupt you again.â€
â€œIâ€™m not your Sifu. You have clearly grown past that.â€ With that comment, Lodaris turned. The door whispered shut behind him.
This time, it was Alina who broke the silence, although her heart pounding in her chest felt louder than any drum. â€œI didnâ€™t think that youâ€™d come.â€
â€œI guessed.â€ Citrios looked down. â€œHow long ago didâ€¦â€
â€œTwo years.â€ Alina stared down at her hands, waiting for a comment. When none came, she dared a glance up, only to see Citrios looking downward just as resolutely. â€œI didnâ€™t know how to say it.â€
â€œYou lied to me.â€ Citrios shook his head as Alina watched him. â€œWhat were you planning to do when we went after a Solar?â€
Despair flared in Alina, but something else stirred under it. â€œI donâ€™t know. I didnâ€™t want to leave you.â€
â€œI would have left with you, if youâ€™d told me. Instead, you abused the trust that my teammates placed in me by spying on them.â€ Citrios looked up, meeting her eyes, his expression hard. â€œYou betrayed us.â€
Anger replaced despair, and Alina surged to her feet. â€œI protected you! There were a solid half-dozen times that people on that squad would have died if it werenâ€™t for me!â€
Citrios rose in response, leaning inwards. â€œYou didnâ€™t trust me! I thought that you believed in me!â€
â€œYour entire life was dedicated to killing enemies of the Realm!â€ Alina waved a hand. â€œHow could I know that you were as stupid as you were loyal?!â€
â€œFine!â€ Citrios spun around, stalking for the door. â€œIâ€™m not here for you. Iâ€™m here for my Sifu. He, at least, never tricked me into living a lie!â€
â€œFine! Iâ€™ve been doing just fine without you!â€ Alina grabbed the teacup, throwing it at the closing door. It smashed against the frame, falling to the ground in a shower of ceramic shards. Turning, tears burning in the corner of her eyes, she kicked over the table in a surge of anger.
The door hissed open again, and she spun, ready to resume yelling. Twice-Forged Steel looked around the room, and down at the shattered glass, and raised an eyebrow. â€œDid I miss something important?â€