Yvette barely paid attention to the world around her while they road through the evening. Gervas had only made a single quick stop at the inn, grabbing the remains of their supplies. He said he’d told the inn keeper that they would be back this evening, that they were gathering needed medical herbs.
She’d been so stupid. She couldn’t believe she’d allowed herself to think that he saw her as herself. Her own teacher had never listened to her, her parents had never listened to her. Even her only friend had never listened to her.
How could she have believed that he would? Why had she allowed herself to think he would accept her? No, he had accepted her. But it had just been words. She really thought he had seen her as a girl, accepted her as a girl. Believed that she was Yvette.
But in the end, it had all just been words.
She felt stupider the longer they traveled, the more space put between them and that town. She had known he was only pretending to believe in her. Had known he was only just saying the words she wanted to hear to keep her under control. But she’d really allowed herself, for just a brief moment, to believe that someone had finally accepted her for what she was. Who she was.
Now she just hurt more than ever.
“Yvette? Are you okay?”
She shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“Do you need to rest?”
“No,” she said softly.
“I’m sorry, we had to get out of there as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to risk us getting stalled. We’ll stop soon and we can rest.”
Gervas just shook his head and continued to lead them away from the town. She glanced over to him, before glancing down at the reins in front of her. She hadn’t had to use them for anything but ensuring she kept her balance.
However, now she gave them a light tug, the horse slowly coming to a stop. Gervas pulled on his own reins, stopping as well. “Yvette? What’s wrong?”
“What is it going to take?” she asked softly.
“What does it take?” she asked again, slowly lifting her head up to look at him. “What do I have to do? Do I have to say? Do you think I want this?”
“What in the world are you talking about? We need to go, we can’t just--”
“You called me Tebaud!” she said, her voice rising. “You called me Tebaud again!”
He stared at her for a few moments before shaking his head. “No I didn’t. I--”
“You did! You did! You DID!” she yelled, tears forming in her eyes. “I… I thought I… I thought you finally believed in me. I thought you finally--”
“Yvette! Listen. Now is not the time. I didn’t call you--”
“Yes you did!”
“I’m sorry! Okay? I’m sorry! But we need to keep going!”
“Why? WHY? What is she going to do to me? What are any of them going to do to me? This entire journey, ever since I’ve met you, you’ve done nothing but… but get mad. Assume. Believe that people have to be a certain way. You’ve assumed that just because I’m a mage, I have to be spoiled and be doing this for attention. Now you’re assuming that she’s going to come after us. Why? WHY?” she asked.
Gervas turned Redwood back and began to trot towards her. “Yvette, listen to me.” He reached out and tried to grab her arm, but she pulled back hard, nearly falling out of the saddle.
“No! Answer me! What do I have to do? I try and I try and I think I say the right thing and I’m willing to put up with anything I’m told and I work as hard as I can and it doesn’t make any difference!” Her entire body was shaking, unable to stop it. “I thought, just this once, someone listened. I thought you were listening. But you’re not. No one is ever going to, are they? It doesn’t matter if I cry, or beg, or fight, or work harder. In the end, you’re never going to--”
“I screwed up. I’m sorry. In the heat of the moment, I panicked and I called you the wrong thing.” He reached out to grab her again and she pulled away once more. Unfortunately this time she lost her balance and started to fall out of the saddle, only for his hand to grab her arm and pull her back up. “I’m sorry. I swear. You’re a girl.”
“You don’t mean it...” she whispered. “Why? What do I have to do? Why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t--”
“It’s not!” he said firmly, his grip on her arm tightening. “I panicked. I swear. I don’t think of you as Tebaud. I--”
“I’m not! Just listen to me, please,” Gervas said. “I did. I thought this entire thing was stupid. I thought you were a guy. I really did think all of this was just some stupid act you put on for no reason. I’ll even admit, I humored you. I thought if I stopped caring and focusing on other aspects of your training, you’d let it go.”
She nodded, feeling more cracks in her heart. Why had she ever let herself believe that he’d believe in her? He was just like everyone else.
“But you didn’t. That was just the end. It stopped there.”
“Stopped there?” she asked softly. “I don’t understand. What stopped?”
He let her arm go and motioned for her to keep following him. “Nothing. Everything. I...”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve never thought about something like this. It seems obscene to me. Wanting to be a girl? I’ve never wanted to do that. I can’t imagine why any guy would want to do that.” He then sighed. “I don’t think any guy would. So I figured I’d just play along for a bit and wear it out. See if I started acting like you weren’t one, you’d stop and give up. If I stopped giving you attention, you’d lose interest.”
“And?” she asked softly.
“You were happy. It was weird. I’ve trained a lot of mages over the years on how to defend themselves. I’ve been called every name under the sun. Threatened to have things torn apart, ripped off, removed. I had one man threaten to put my head on a pike once he managed to be able to stand again. But you?”
“Yes?” she asked softly.
“You were overjoyed. I didn’t go easy on you. I made sure your bruises were just as bad as any other mage’s. I treated you like I did anyone else. Sometimes I think I actually treated you worse. I kept wondering where your breaking point would be. Where that part of you that says ‘I’m a mage, I’m better than everyone else’ would rear its ugly head.”
“I’ve met a few mages who know better. Ones who understand that they aren’t as important as their masters make them sometimes think. But you? You were something else entirely,” he said softly.
“I was? How? I didn’t do anything really special.”
“No, it’s not that. It wasn’t what you did. It was just how happy you were. Relaxed. I’ve seen a lot of people who have different motivations. Food, shelter, money, revenge. But I’ve never, in my entire life, seen someone who’s motivation was just in being treated like… well...”
Her eyes lowered and she stared ahead, her heart pounding. “Like what?”
“Like a girl,” he muttered.
“I am a girl.”
“And I think I’m starting to get that. It’s weird to me. Really weird. I’ve never met a guy who wanted to be a girl, never met a girl who wants to be a guy. I’d never want to be a girl, I’ve spent enough time near them to know that. Think I’d rather be dead than anything like my mother. So, I kind of just had to accept that maybe I was wrong. You weren’t a guy trying to be a girl. Maybe you were just a girl trying to be a girl.”
“Really?” she asked softly. “But you called me Tebaud. Why?”
“I don’t know. A big part of me is still confused by this. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t get it. But I guess if… everyone said I was a girl and started calling me… I don’t know. Gabriel. I’d probably start getting frustrated too. No, I know I would. I know my face wouldn’t just light up with joy whenever someone called me by that name. I wouldn’t keep pushing myself harder just so I could hear it.”
“It’s because I just want to be me, that’s all.”
“You’re Yvette. I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner. I’m sorry I kept assuming it wasn’t true.” He reached out and put a hand on her head, lightly giving her another head pat she treasured so highly. “But it’s the only answer I can come up with. A man wouldn’t be able to do what you do. And if a guy wouldn’t, then it has to mean you’re a girl. It’s the only thing that really makes sense to me. And I’m sorry I called you that. I really am.”
Yvette nodded, smiling up at him. All those cracks in her heart beginning to heal, the pain replaced with a pleasant warmth. He did believe in her. He really did. “Thank you. And I forgive you. If you’ll keep trying to see me that way.”
“Of course. Besides, there’s been more than a few times I’ve watched you do things and I couldn’t imagine why.”
“The way you walk, the way you talk. Even the way you laugh. I didn’t notice at first but… well… If I didn’t know better, I’d have probably thought you were a girl from when I first met you. There have been times I forgot you weren’t fully a girl. Weird as that sounds.”
“Thank you. For trying. Really. It means a lot to me. It really does.”
“Of course. The alternative is I just let you be miserable and sad all the time. My job is to protect you, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be a very good bodyguard if I made your life miserable, would I?”
“No, you wouldn’t,” she said. She turned her gaze back again, relief once again flowing into her heart. However, she found her mind drifting back towards the manor and how he had reacted. “You were panicked, before. Scared. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen you that upset. Why? Even when we were staying with that… with Peter, you didn’t seem nearly as worried. The entire time we were in that town, you only took off your armor when we slept. Why?”
“I had a bad feeling,” he said softly.
“A bad feeling?”
He glanced over at her, his face serious and eyes narrowed. “You mages, you operate… differently than the rest of the world.”
“You answer to the Mage’s Association. That’s the end of it. At least, in most countries.”
She gave a nod. “Yes. As of… I believe… five centuries ago, when the Mage’s Association came about. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Things don’t work like that for everyone else. Within their domain, most lords and ladies have no limits to their power. There are limits to things even they will let us get away with. That first day we were here? I was furious,” he said, making her flush and another warm glow flow through her stomach. “I probably reacted harsher than I should have, considering we were in her lands. I was hopeful, however, if we ignored her she’d leave us be.”
“But then there was an accident...” she whispered gently.
“If it was an accident.”
Her heart beat faster and her eyes widened. “W-wait, you think it wasn’t? How else would he have gotten stabbed?” she asked. “And I know he fell down the stairs, I could see the wounds all over him!”
“I’m not saying he didn’t fall. I’m saying I’m not sure it was an accident.”
“You think she’d go that far in order to have me come back to her manor?”
“Possibly. It didn’t occur to me until after you were already gone. It was why I grabbed my weapons and the horses before coming after you.”
She nodded, her heart pounding harder and glancing back, along the path they had to walk. Now, more than ever, she felt they were truly being pursued and half expected a band of armed soldiers to come around the bend. “She couldn’t… could she? I mean, he was one of her servants! How could she?”
“I don’t know if she did. But I do know when I got there, they refused me entry. That’s why I had to come and ensure we got out of there as soon as possible.”
She nodded, then gasped. “You left your shield and spear behind. Can you--”
“I can send for them once we’re at the vault. It’s better they be left behind than we end up trapped there, unable to escape.”
“The Mage’s Association would have… would...” she whispered, a frown forming on her lips. If Gervas hadn’t come to get her out of there, what could she have possibly done? She was exhausted. From there it would have been easy to get her to-- Her eyes went wide with alarm. “She’d had a room prepared for me. Once I finished healing him, she was going to let me rest in one of her rooms.”
“And from there...” he said, shaking his head. “It’s possible I’m paranoid. But in my line of work, it pays to be paranoid.”
“We have to go back. If she did that, if she hurt him just to get me there, who knows what she’ll do next? She--”
“And what will you do?” he asked, his voice turning cold.
“I… I’ll… I’ll...” Her mind raced through different options, each one quickly cast aside for the next. “I could demand she… she let them go. All of her servants. I could… could...”
“On what authority?”
“On my authority as a mage!” she said firmly, though she couldn’t keep the uneasiness out of her voice. As a mage, she had protections against anyone who tried to force her to stay in one place or harm her. If they didn’t, every mage would have found themselves grabbed by a different member of the nobility with enough resources and held as personal mages. While that system had worked hundreds of years ago, the bloodshed it lead to was the reason the Mage’s Association had come into existence in the first place.
But it also meant she had no authority in the different nations, aside from what she was given. It also meant her ‘protections’ only lasted so far as the Mage’s Association KNEW she was in danger or being held. If she was killed there likely wouldn’t be anyone who’d know. Mages like her died all the time, from monsters or accidents.
He rode a little closer, the two of them side by side, so close their legs almost touched. “Aside from protecting you, that means nothing. All we can do, at this time, is warn the Mage’s Association of what happened. What could have happened. I am not letting you go back there. Do you understand?”
She stared up at him, her hands on the reins shaking with barely contained anger. But, slowly, she nodded. Her eyes lowered and she let out a soft, gentle whimper. “What if he dies? What if she hurt him because of me? What if I messed up? That means it’ll be my fault,” she whispered.
“No, it’s not. It--”
“I could have come to see her a second time. Given her another chance. I didn’t,” she said, her stomach clenching into knots. “I let my own fear, my anxiety control me.”
“Listen, Yvette, I didn’t mean--”
“But it’s true, isn’t it? If she… if someone dies because of this, it’s because of me. If I had just gone back to see her. She sent enough invites. Or if I hadn’t been so insulted in the first place. If I had just ignored you and--”
“My job is to protect you. Ignoring my advice would just get you killed.”
“So instead it’s okay if I get other people killed?”
“You didn’t kill anybody. We don’t even know if she did it or not! It’s always possible I am being--”
“But it IS possible, isn’t it? It’s possible, because of me, that he died? Because I let myself get too offended, because I--”
His hand reached out and gripped her chin, forcing her to look at him. “No. It’s not. You denied her requests because she was vile. She decided that it was better to insult and degrade you the very moment she met you, rather than treat you as someone worth showing the bare minimum of respect. She would likely have demanded far, far more from you the more you gave. She would have used every word, every action, as a weapon,” he said coldly, his eyes narrowed. “You did nothing wrong.”
She stared up into his intense eyes, barely noticing that the horses had stopped. His grip on her chin was tight, but not painful. Finally, she spoke up delicately. “But if I was normal, I wouldn’t have--”
“She likely would have found another flaw in you to cut at. Some other reason to try and put you beneath her. Despite what you did for her, you saw how she tried to attack you for forcing me to break in to get by your side. It’s only when a person like that has something to lose that they hold their tongue. Do NOT blame yourself for her actions. I likely would have dragged you away, anyway. There are many different things that could have altered what happened. Perhaps if you weren’t a mage. Or perhaps if I hadn’t been hired to keep you safe. But you cannot go through your life wondering ‘what if’. Things are as they are. You can no more change the past than you can change the will of the gods.”
“Actually there are spells to change the past. Or, were. They were some of the first forbidden magics.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Can you change the past?”
“Then focus on your future.” He finally let her go and, with a light flick of his reins, they started again.
She followed closely behind him, though her mind was a mess. All she could change was her future.
Her mind went back to Ferant. All she could remember was the blood. Not his age, not his hair color. Not how tall or fit he was. All she could remember was the blood and the wound. Had she even noticed when she was standing right in front of him? She didn’t think she had then, either.
What if she was the one responsible? If she had come here as Tebaud, would things have been different? She felt a small, gnawing pain in her heart. She didn’t mind if she had to suffer or be hurt for what she needed. If she had to constantly fight to be herself, she could accept that.
But she didn’t know if she could accept knowing others might be hurt because of her. How could she hope to fight back knowing her fighting would result in other people getting hurt? She leaned her head forward, resting her forehead against the neck of Chestnut. “Why can’t anything be easy?” she whispered. “Why does it all have to be a constant fight? Why does anyone have to get hurt?”
“What?” Gervas asked, glancing back.
“Nothing. Just thinking out loud.”