She looked down again and gripped the pendent. “You are my big brother and I know you feel bound by duty… A word I barely understand. I know that whether or not you want to do this, you will because you think it’s mandatory.”
Toikem could have sworn he saw her hand tremble.
“You don’t want to do this anymore and it’s eating at you.”
Toikem felt a sharp pain tearing at his chest – an emotional pain. Was she crying?
“I heard these words spoken before… I hope they are enough… I relieve you of your duties. I don’t want you to start resenting me because of this life. I know how people are when they sacrifice too much for somebody else. At one point, they just realize it wasn’t worth it and…”
Kayla stopped when she felt his gauntlet around her forearm. She didn’t move at first, but finally let go of her pendent. Toikem took her hand in his. He felt so bad hearing her distress that he didn’t know what to say. When her black hair revealed her face again, her smile remained. There were no tears. As sad as she could get, it seemed Kayla simply didn’t cry. They had that in common.
He didn’t know what to tell her to make her feel better, so he just said the truth he had kept from her.
“I have a daughter.”
“I was stupid. I thought I wouldn’t be gone for more than a year.”
“You can’t abandon her,” Kayla suddenly exclaimed.
“I am not. I never will. As you said, now that we can see the end of this from where we stand, it’s harder and…”
“It’s almost solstice again,” she suddenly realized.
He nodded. Like most commoners, they had no idea what their actual birthday was. They celebrated each year during the summer fair. People’s age was based upon the number of summer solstices they lived through – the longest day of the year – omitting the first one. Toikem was not sure the wildlanders followed that custom.
“You can’t miss it twice,” she declared.
He shook his head. “Although it pains me, I will. I think she is too young to remember.” Toikem paused. “If I see them again, I don’t think I will be strong enough to leave.”
“You don’t have to! I told you. I don’t want you to abandon your family for me!”
“I’m not abandoning my family,” Toikem responded with a bit of anger. “Can’t you see that this only means I want to help you even more?” He gently tightened his grip around her hand. “If I left you, I would abandon my family. You are my sister, Ella.” Although he didn’t cry, Toikem tasted salt as though bitter memories were palpable. “I miss them but I still want to help you. I will help you. We will see this through.”
Kayla clasped his hand too, stronger than he did.
“She needs your help too.”
“Her mother and aunt take care of her. They are not poor or in a bad place.”
“Still, you are her father.”
“And I will still be her father when I get back. You weren’t planning on letting me die anyway, were you?” Toikem smiled at her.
Kayla squinted at him. “I even plan on murdering you when you wake me that early for no reason, Tom.”
Their hands parted and they stayed silent for a while, sitting next to each other with their head down. That was the longest personal conversation they had shared in over two months, the most meaningful too. Eventually, they smiled at each other once more and Toikem stood up. He tied his belt around his hips and left the room.
Most of the staff had already started working. They had different reactions to Toikem’s presence, but they all had one. The women he met in the corridor whispered quickly as he exited the room. The guards in the courtyard straightened and raised their chin as to seem more imposing. A stableboy ostensibly turned his head away from him when he walked by.
Toikem observed the surroundings. Although he could not take in the whole palace town infrastructure from where he stood, he had a good understanding of its inner workings. The place was entirely artificial – it had not grown organically like most villages and cities did. An architect – or several – had designed the whole layout. Everything radiated from the palace, at the center. The immediate surroundings were purely practical: the stables, the staff housing, the barracks, the mill, the laboratory… The core insured the protection, service, transport and nurture of the nobles that lived in the palace. It also made sure they could live their entire life without ever leaving these walls.