The uniform men are here and they are not very friendly-like. They are conferring with one another, looking at Dace and Ermane with censure and disgust. Behind them, Mother is gone forever, the red line cut.
“Ermie, what’s happening?” Dace’s voice is little and plaintive and painful to hear.
Ermane grips her hand tightly. “Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” Through it, Dace can feel the tremors Ermane’s smile does not show.
They are separated once they reach headquarters. They try to be brave but they cling to each other and have to be pulled apart. By the time Ermane is brought to the cold, empty room, she is trembling so hard she cannot sit properly.
For hours, or perhaps days, they question her: where did they learn such dark arts, who’s idea was it. Ermane does not speak, dares not. She can only think of Dace, what she will or has told them. They tell Ermane what happens to nasty necromancers like her. Vaguely she thinks: what a tactless way to extract a confession.
They leave her with a cup of sandy water. All around her, she smells old sweat and piss. She can taste her own desperation. Please let me out. I’ve done no wrong. And she knows this to be true. Her passion is metal and magic, not bodies and souls.
One day, a man walks in with hot chocolate and a roast beef roll. He wears not a uniform but a kindly smile and, for the first time since arriving, Ermane sees her own sorry state reflected in the pity on his face.
“Your sister is fine, if a bit tired,” he says straight-off, pushing the roll towards her. Ermane devours it in her head, with her eyes, but does not accept.
“Where is Dace?” she asks instead.
“In another room just like this. We’ve done the best we can to mend her finger. A most resilient child is Dace.”
Ermane slumps in relief, though she remains wary of him. “Who are you?”
The man crosses to her side and drapes his large coat over her shoulders. “Don’t be afraid, Ermane,” he says when she shrinks away. “My name is Oromon. I’m not with those oafs outside. I’m here as a friend, possibly your only friend right now. You know, I had a daughter about your age. She died in the war, with her mother. I was very much afraid too when I lost someone I loved.”
“But you’re a grown-up.”
He smiles. “And grown-ups aren’t allowed to be scared? I would’ve done anything to get them back. Insane things. Because do you know who finds death most scary, Ermane?” She shook her head. “It’s us. The ones who get left behind.”
“Are you a friend of Father’s? Are you going to get us out?”
Oromon adjusts himself carefully and Ermane understands this move. It’s what adults do when they’re about to let you down.
“I’m not going to lie to you, Ermane. You’re too clever for that. What you and your sister have done is a very serious offence,” he says. “If you weren’t only children, they would’ve beheaded you already.”
That word, together with his warm eyes, stabs Ermane in the chest. It was so much harder hearing it from a nice person. Suddenly, all that trying to be brave and mature overwhelms her. She wants to go home and build a pixie net with Dace. She wants Mother to make tea and toast and goat stew. She wants to play word association games with Father. Oromon pats her on the back while she bawls and snivels.
“I know you’re afraid, Ermane,” he says, “but it’s very important you tell me exactly what happened.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” Ermane says in a small voice.
Oromon leans forward. “Who, then? Did someone help you, tell you what to do?”
“Dace. Dace knows these things. I had no idea.”
And she tells Oromon everything, unleashing all the days she kept silent. Oromon writes it down and says nothing. Afterwards, they finally let her sleep on a proper bed. In between waves of slumber, she can hear Oromon whisper furiously with a uniform.
“Are you mad! Dace is just a child.”
“There can be no leniency. She’s dangerous.”
“But exile, on Ortheus–”
“And there she will remain for the rest of her natural life. But I tell you, Oromon, should she step foot on Arandia again, she will be executed. And neither you or the Academy will have any say.”
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Oromon stands over Ermane as she sleeps and she knows he’s thinking of his daughter.
“Dace…?” she murmurs.
“She’ll be fine, little one.”
to be continued…