Elaine 25: "Long Road Ahead"

        The red hawk regarded me with silent dark eyes, unmoving as I carefully detached the message case from its leg. Freed of its task, it launched itself with a piercing shriek, and soared away.

        I unrolled the small slip of parchment it had carried. Tonight, -H.

        I escaped my companions as soon as we reached the stables, and fled to my rooms before Justin could say anything else. I was extremely displeased with how I had reacted to his jabs, and cursed yet again his ability to get a rise out of me. And for a moment Harlan's voice echoed in my head, from that seemingly so long ago conversation in Benedict's shadow "If you could but *see* how sweet and innocent you appear right before the shark inside you strikes..."
        Damn Justin, and damn the shark.

        A bath and a change of clothes helped return my composure, and feeling somewhat more myself, I left a message for the absent Kier and went to lunch. No one was about, and I had relaxed for a quiet meal when I heard light footsteps approach me, and my mother sat down next to me.
        My appetite suddenly gone, I pushed my plate away and listened in silence as she apologized, after a fashion, for causing me so much unhappiness. I met her entreating gaze for a long silent moment. I doubt she and I will ever have a bond as mother and daughter, or ever be anything more than civil, but I realized that most of what I felt for her was a mix of sympathy and pity. "Do not trouble yourself," I said finally. "I make my own happiness or despair."
        She left at that, apparently at a loss for words, and I left as well, no longer hungry or relaxed.

        I found Merlin as he was on his way to find me, both of us intending to apologize for our recent behavior. Our amusement at our similar goals lightened the mood a bit, and we sat and talked for a while.
        In our days of travel I had spent more than one late night talking with my cousins by the fire. Christoph never really lost that somewhat distant air he always wears, but Merlin had proved to be an engaging and jovial companion. Like Kier, I found him to be one of the more genuine of the cousins, and had come to like him greatly.
        But Merlin pulled no punches in his opinion of Justin's recent behavior, when the subject invariably came up "Jealousy," he corrected me at one point, when I spoke of Justin's contrariness.
        "Indeed," I conceeded after a moments pause, "but that still gives him no right to take me to task for my decisions." A bit of that earlier anger flared. I had not wished to admit the true nature of Justin's recations, for I feared that fact had destroyed the friendship he and I had been building. I knew he did not like Harlan, and would never approve of my choice, and that would always be a an impenetrable wall between us. And I will always regret that.

        As usual, my afternoon with Gillian occupied my mind away from matters of the heart. I told her some of what I had been up to, and she did not press me for more details. I felt much more settled when I returned to my rooms, and found the note from Harlan.

        Those first few minutes, when he stood hesitantly in my doorway, were some of the most uncomfortable beetween us. But the tension faded when he finally pulled me close. He looked weary, and his eyes seemed so much older.
        We finally spoke in detail of all that had happened since he had left, that conversation leading deep into the night. By then, it made no sense for him to leave, since we would be up in a few hours to ride into shadow.
        I am not so naieve to believe things wil now proceed happily ever after, at least on a personal front. Harlan and I have many issues yet, in our own lives and between us, to work through, and all things given, I know there is a long road ahead of us.
        But I am glad we have fnally taken that single step.