Chapter FIVE – Liss
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Misty dark clouds rolled through the sky, obscuring the stars and moon in intervals. The fog wasn't far behind, drifting down the sides of the mountains like a procession of ghostly spirits. The raw chill in the air hinted at rain, but Liss hoped she'd make it to bed before the showers began. 

She kept to the side of the torch-lit cobbled paths that twisted through the village. She could have sought Mell or Dev, or any number of clansfolk for company, but she was glad for the shadows and solitude which allowed her to tip back Mell's draught in privacy. 

The syrup's taste was pleasantly earthy with a hint of honey. A drop of the liquid ran down her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. Despite the horrifying events of the evening, she found herself laughing. Dev had kept his knowledge of the announcement a secret, because he actually believed things might have gone worse. How ridiculous! And then there was Mell… She'd known, too! Clearly, that's why she'd given Liss the draught.

Did no one think her capable of facing things on her own, of making her own decisions?

Dev had been right, of course. She would have run away if she'd known the details of the announcement. She would have refused to attend the ceremony, anyway. What would the punishment have been, she wondered. She'd never heard of anyone deserting their Sixteenth, but Dev seemed to think the Council would have refused her the chance to choose her own Seed. 

Why did he care so much? Surely, he didn't expect her to choose him. Their relationship was not like that.

She blew a flustered note of air through her lips as the dining hall reared up before her in all its darkly gleaming glory. At least she was feeling better physically. Warmer. Less stifled. A little loopy, maybe. Mell's concoction was working, but it was anyone's guess how long its effects would last.

Elves filed past her into the open expanse of the dining room. The feast was laid out on long buffet tables covered in luscious teal tablecloths embroidered with gold ribbons to mirror the embroidery on the councilors' stoles. Steam rose from an assortment of colorful foods artfully displayed on oversize platters. Several of the flower arrangements from outside the sacral tent had been moved inside the hall to line the aisles between tables. Every chandelier was ablaze with fragrant candles.

Liss cautiously stepped into the celebration, noting who was already seated and eating. Mell stood in a corner of the room with her fellow healers, a handful of women and a few men, all of them huddled together with nervous faces. The seven members of the Council, and the greater proportion of less concerned clansfolk, were scattered about the dining room, chatting or filling their plates. Liss didn't see Dev.

"There you are. Congratulations!" 

Rana looked entirely too happy, like she might implode in a blissful burst of light at any moment. Liss wasn't sure she'd have minded. Did that make her a terrible person? 

"Thanks," she muttered, glancing over her shoulder for a diversion, any way to excuse herself. Any at all. Eventually, she sighed and took the bait. "The food smells good."

"It does," Rana agreed, sounding all too eager. "The topfish was freshly caught today. I heard Len and Pile talking about their bounty this afternoon when they got back from rounds. With the way the fish harvest has been going, there should be enough to cure for the winter." 

She followed Liss toward the buffet tables with close, shuffling steps. 

Why the girl wasted so much time trying to spark a friendship, Liss had never understood. Maybe she liked the challenge?

"So... Liss." The quiet hesitancy set off warning signals. What was Rana going to bring up now? "About the announcement, will you be signing up?"

And there it was...

"Will you?" Liss couldn't feign ignorance, she would sound like a fool. But she didn't have to answer.

Rana's smile was a little unsteady. "Yes, I'm excited to serve the clan. I just need to make sure I'm not stepping on anyone's toes."

"I see." 

Liss filled her plate with fish, roasted red carrots, and a buttered puff bun, mindful to curtail her aggression with the serving utensils. The last thing she needed was to make a racket and draw attention to herself.

Pitchers of water and clean glasses waited for them at the tables. Liss sat down and Rana joined, the dainty portions on the latter's plate making everyone nearby look gluttonous in comparison. For a minute or two, there was only background noise and the sounds of hungry elves eating. But Rana wasn't the type to tolerate a lull in conversation for long. 

"There are many attractive men for us to choose from, wouldn't you agree?"

"I guess so." Liss stared at her plate, herding chopped bits of carrot onto her fork. "I hadn't really thought about it."

"I suppose when you have a best friend who looks like Dev, you don't need to look much further." 

"What exactly are you trying to say?" 

Liss set down her utensils and crossed her arms over the fancy tablecloth. It was an etiquette offense the Council would balk at, but no one was watching. At least she didn’t think so. 

Rana cleared her throat, twin points of color rising on her cheeks. She tucked a curl behind a pointed ear, causing one of her dangling crystal earrings to shiver and scatter rainbows. "I was wondering whether you’ll pick Dev for your first Engagement. I doubt you’re surprised that many girls find him favorable."


Liss chuckled, covering her hollow laughter with her hand. The unwanted image of the pretty silver-haired elf with Dev rose once again to the forefront of her mind, taunting her in lurid detail. Unfortunately, Mell's draught wasn't strong enough to subdue that waking nightmare.

"I don't own Dev. He's free to make his own choices." 

But she couldn't deny that saying it hurt. 

Why couldn't they stay children forever? Then, no one's heart would have to break over impossible choices.

"But don't you think he'd pick you if you chose him?" Rana leaned forward, uncharacteristic wildness dancing in her eyes. She looked like a girl who thought the answer she awaited would contain secrets ripe for unraveling. 

"I don't know..." 

They weren't friends, she and Rana, but they'd grown up together and in some ways knew each other well. A familiarity existed between them that lowered Liss' guard, perhaps more than it should have. It was probably Mell’s draught, and she was sure she'd regret what she was about to say, but who else would listen? 

"We've never talked about it. Dev has never said..." She glanced toward the buffet table, trailing into silence. 

Dev was there, waiting in the lengthening line with a couple of his friends, tawny-haired Len and red-headed Pile, the boys Rana had been talking about a moment ago. Another couple of sixteens. Actually, Pile had to be seventeen by now, his Sixteenth felt like a century ago. 

Len must have cracked a joke, because suddenly Pile was punching him in the shoulder while Dev rumbled with laughter. Liss frowned, resting her chin on her upturned palm. 

Dev had never suggested that they should choose each other when the time came for them to enter an Engagement. They had never realistically discussed their futures, although maybe they ought to have. Did he assume she would request him without asking his permission? Was that why he had looked so trapped earlier?  

She turned her attention back to her own table. Rana's gaze had found Dev, too. The look on her face was full of yearning and insecurity. 

"I was going to pick Dev, but I won't if you don't want me to."

"I..." Liss swallowed the bile rising in her throat. "I just told you, it's up to you." The words came out in a choking snarl. "Pick whoever you want."

"That's very diplomatic of you."

Liss shrugged, feeling heavier by the moment. Somewhere a clock was ticking down the minutes until fate ripped her heart in half like a blade through paper. 

Why did growing up and doing the mature thing have to hurt so much?

Happy Sixteenth, indeed.

They finished their meals in relative silence broken by Rana's fractured murmurs failing to reignite the conversation. Eventually, Rana picked up her scavenged plate and walked away, like she always did, whispering a half-hearted farewell that Liss left unanswered. 

Tomorrow. Tomorrow Liss would apologize for her attitude, maybe. But not today. Today was a festering heap of awful, and she lacked motivation to break the cycle. 


The stream was a fifteen-minute walk during the day with clear skies. At night under cloud cover, with the raw threat of rain hanging in the air, it took Liss nearly twenty-five. No one would confuse her for one of their clan's trackers, that was certain. Her night vision wasn't much help either, not when every bush and tree in the forest looked the same. She half expected to run into Dev on her way, but either he was faster–of course he was–or he'd left before her. Probably that, too. 

Eventually, she found him sitting on a fallen log, skipping pebbles along the surface of the water. His ear twitched when she neared. He turned his head, raising a hand in greeting.

"Gosh, I feel like I'm twelve again," she teased, easing her way down to the edge of the stream. 

"In that case, watch your back. Len might jump out of the shadows and push you in."

There was room for her on the log, but Liss wasn't in the mood for sitting. 

"He'd better not." She chuckled mirthlessly, crossing her arms against the chill in the air. She'd left her hair down for the ceremony, so at least the back of her neck was warm. "I'd have to pummel him into next week again."

"I don't know. He's a lot taller than you now, you might have to use a different strategy."

"Please don't remind me." Liss blew a lock of hair out of her eyes, grumbling. "I would much rather pretend we're twelve for the rest of my life, if it's all right by you."

Dev's dark eyes warmed as he looked up at her, their humor fading. "Hitting too close to home?"

"Something like that." Liss shrugged, turning toward the gently flowing stream. 

She could just make out the outline of larger rocks under the surface. Did they realize the water was slowly smoothing all their hard edges, or was the change so subtle as not to be noticed?

Well they were rocks, so...

Dev cleared his throat. "Look, I asked you out here because we need to talk. I've put it off for a long time because I know it makes you uncomfortable, but we're running out of time."

"Yeah. About that." Liss spun toward him, her boots sinking into the clay ground. "When did you find out what was happening with the announcement, and why in the name of Hona didn't you give me fair warning? And don't give me that crap about being afraid I'd run away. Tell me the truth."

"The truth remains the same. I didn't want you losing the only leverage you might get. I know you don't want any of this to happen, but this is the life we were given."

"Yeah, okay." She didn't even try to hide her sarcasm. "When did you find out? Who told you?"

"This afternoon. Healer Mell told me."

"Mell? You can't be serious. I also spoke with her this afternoon, and she asked me if I could trust you. But apparently, she trusts you so much that she'll tell you things she won't tell me and I'm her great-granddaughter!"

Liss felt her food threatening to come up again. Why did digestion take so long?

"You're her great-what?" Dev ran a hand along the back of his neck. 

If she was making him nervous, then good, he deserved it. Mell did too. Both of them would hear it for keeping this from her.

"She's related to me. My Bearer is... Oh, never mind, it doesn't matter. I can't believe she told you. Did she ask you not to tell me?" Dev paled at the question. "She did! Oh, my goddess!" Liss tossed her hands into the air, pacing quick steps along the stream-bank. "Do you know what she gave me? Not the truth, no. She gave me a draught for anxiety!"

"I think that was probably a good idea," Dev muttered. 

Liss’ cheeks flared hot. "Just stop, before I say something I'll regret. I need a second to let this betrayal marinate."

"You have a skewed sense of loyalty if you think we betrayed you. We're looking out for you, as much as you hate it." He stood up, his height dwarfing her. She felt like a tiny mushroom next to a magnificent pine tree, and she hated it. "I want you to choose me."

He what?

Dev peered out over the stream running down the slope of the valley, his hands loose at his sides. "I've wanted to get this off my chest forever, but I knew how you'd react."

He couldn't have. Liss had never seriously thought about what she would say or do in this scenario, although it had occurred to her once or twice that Dev might think it a wise strategy for them to choose one another. It made sense in a twisted, self-serving way. If neither of them wanted someone else, then why not at least give it a shot, right?

"If this is what you want, why did you look so haunted earlier?"

"I'm not sure what you mean. I've been worried for you, I guess." A half-hearted smile failed to reach his eyes. "I know that getting Engaged is the last thing you want to do, and we're not... you know, we've never..."

"Yes, I get it," Liss snapped, uncrossing her arms then crossing them again when the emptiness felt awkward. "But I don't need or want you to be my knight in shining armor. There are no dragons I need to be rescued from. I won't accept what you're offering when it's being offered out of pity."

"I don't understand the references from Before very well, but that last part? Ouch. That hurts, Liss."

"It hurts me too!" she cried, spinning away from him so fast her hair slapped her in the face before settling around her shoulders. She didn't want him to see her cry.

"I don't know what you want me to say anymore," he said so softly it made her feel guilty.  

Overhead the clouds sagged, loosening their rains. A light mist fell over the valley. Curse it all, if this wasn't nature's cruel joke. 

Liss sat down on the log, drawing her jacket up around her chin. Dev probably would have given her his jacket if he'd been wearing his grays, but his ceremonial tunic left him no choice. He sat down beside her, folding his arm around her back.

"What are we going to do?" she muttered, leaning into his shoulder. She never could stay angry at him for long.

His deep voice rumbled through her. "Figure this thing out. We still have a bit of time."

A bit was not nearly enough time. 

A sudden thought hit Liss like a flash of lightning. She stiffened and sat up. "Rana is going to choose you, and probably every other girl after her. You'll have to accept one."

"I don't know about every girl, but yes." He grimaced, refusing to look at her. "I'll have to pick one. Unless..."

"Unless it's me," she finished for him.

"Unless it's you," he agreed solemnly.

So this was what it came down to. Dev didn't want her for his own, perhaps he didn’t even pity her. They were simply in the same predicament. But if she chose him, they could... what?

A plan formed in the foggy back of her mind. If they chose each other, the onus was on them to follow the letter of the law and begin an Engagement. But what if they didn't? What if their supposed Engagement was plan-work that led to escape? Escape and freedom, the two liberties Liss craved most. Not just for herself but for Dev as well. For the entire Darkbane clan.

"I have an idea." Liss clasped her hands, excitement bubbling through her like a potent brew. "I'll choose you. But you have to help me find us a way out of here."

Dev looked her up and down, amusement and disbelief warring on his face. "You're serious."

"Of course I am. And if you really want to help me, which you seem so intent on, you'll smile and agree."

"I don't know about smiling. You're sort of scaring me right now."

"We can twist that to our advantage as well. Seeds are nervous when they're just starting out, right? Just pretend I'm making you nervous for different reasons."

"You're making me nervous for just about every reason." Dev chuckled, but Liss didn't miss the hint of anxiety behind his bravado. She really was making him nervous. But that suited her just fine.

"Don't worry," she said, resting her hand on his knee. "I wish I'd thought of this sooner. I was so busy sulking over my Sixteenth and the announcement, I wasn't thinking clearly. It didn't dawn on me we could use our choice to our advantage."

"Right." Dev glanced down at her hand. "What happens if we don't find a way out? It's been over three-hundred years, and no one has ever escaped Cradelow alive. There's nothing out there."

"That's ridiculous, of course there's something out there."

The rain trickled in fatter drops that exploded on her eyelashes, blurring her vision. Liss stood up, pulling Dev by the hand down the rough path toward the village. She'd purposely ignored his question, and he wasn't one to let that type of thing slide. Proving the point, he stopped her under the shelter of a wide-brimmed conifer, tugging at her wrist. 

"This might not work. In fact, it probably won't. Will you be ok with that?"

"I..." She reached up, swiping wet locks of hair off his brow. They'd been nagging at her since the rain started. "You need a haircut," she said offhandedly. He was starting to look like someone she hardly recognized. "I'll make it work," she added, redoubling her efforts. "I won't forget the sacrifice you're making for me."

He caught her hand, holding it in the air. "It's not a sacrifice. It's an offer of my own free will."

Liss nodded. "I know, and I appreciate it." 

A tight, indefinable feeling in her chest stole the breath from her words, but she ignored it and extricated her fingers from Dev's gentle grip. 

They spent the rest of the walk back to the village in stifled silence, surrounded by the forest’s familiar sounds and the rain's quiet pitter patter. It was just as well, Liss had a lot to think about. 

What if Dev was right? What if no matter how hard she tried, or how well she prepared, she'd never get them out of Cradelow? 

What if the future she feared was the only future they'd get?

No, she couldn't think like that. Success wasn't born out of doubt, only failure was. 

As they neared the barracks, Liss looked up at the crying sky, imagining how simple escape would be if she were a bird. Surely, they knew a broader horizon than she did, one of limitless possibility and adventure. But the birds weren't talking, so Liss would just have to do the way-finding on her own.