Freebie Fridays: More Than Twins; A Tale of Temperance

Freebie Fridays: More Than Twins; A Tale of Temperance

Just a couple of quick notes this week.

First, I’ll be away next week, entertaining friends, so the blog will be silent.

Second, it has recently become apparent that I’m spending a lot of time and effort producing content that isn’t the most beneficial. With everything going on in my life this year, it’s hard to keep on top of two blog posts every week, and I think one usually ends up getting lost in the cracks. So after speaking with my Facebook Group and friends on Twitter, I’m going to be pulling back to one post a week. Starting when I return, the blog will update only on Mondays. The next post will be a regular blog musing, and the post after that will be more free fiction.

Don’t worry, nothing is actually going away. I’m just going to try a little harder not to work myself to death. In light of Monday’s post, that should make sense ;)
. . .

When I asked my Facebook group which character they’d like to hear more about, they almost unanimously chose Rose.

After my Seven Deadly Domerins series, I played around with the idea of another series of Heavenly Virtues prompts. I only ever did one in the past, and they’re an interesting group of traits to consider. But I write a lot about Domerin (as you may have noticed) so I wanted to dedicate the project to someone else. At first, I wasn’t sure if I had enough available Roses to make it work. No one has quite as many incarnations as Domerin. But after considerable thought, I managed to find just enough.

The first Heavenly Rose featured the virtue of chastity. The next one tackled humility. Next came patience. This week we’re looking at temperance, which is defined as: moderation or self-restraint in action, statement, etc.; self-control.

I will admit to a tiny bit of cheating here. This Rose comes from the same world as the one featured in the humility tale. But she’s not exactly the same, and much further along the timeline. Someday, that will all make sense. But for now, I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse at the future.
. . .

On the outer edge of a distant galaxy sits an isolated star, orbited by a single, lonely planet. Oh, there are other celestial bodies in the near vicinity. Asteroids, moons and dead rocks aplenty. But the star and its planet are the only signs of life, cut off from the rest of their neighbors by a thick field of celestial detritus that makes navigating the surrounding space both difficult and treacherous.

Somewhere on the northern and western most continent of that planet, can be found the most brilliantly beautiful caldera lake. The water is so blue, it resembles the sky at noon on the brightest, sunniest of days, and so clear that a person standing at its edge can peer clear to the base of the lake bed some thousand feet below. Mountains ring the lake on three sides but, on the fourth, it is surrounded by several miles of forest, before the final set of mountains completes the ring.

On a clear day, the breeze often rustles the leaves of those nearby trees before sweeping the lake’s surface, causing tiny waves to lap against the lakeshore. Light glistens off the water’s surface at varying intensity as the bright orb makes its trek across the sky, and every puffy white cloud that wanders by seems to stop briefly to examine itself in the blue mirror’s surface.

So it was easy to understand why Valin frequented the area, sometimes even braving autumn rain squalls to take in the breathtaking nature of the lands surrounding his new home. That the caldera lake had been born from one of the most destructive forces any planet had ever known was of little concern to him. The fires that carved the lake’s indentation had long since burned themselves out. And while he was aware of the galaxy that lay beyond the bright dust cloud in the hazy night sky, and the politics practiced by most of its planets’ inhabitants, he mostly tried not to think about it.

Valin liked this place specifically because it was quiet, which made it easy to forget about everything that lay beyond the mountains and the trees. From the shore of that massive lake, it was easy to believe that he and his wife were the only two people still alive – a welcome blessing after some of their previous adventures. And also, the fishing was fantastic.

When the weather was fair, Valin’s wife often accompanied him to the crater lake. She wasn’t fond of fishing, but had long since learned to abide by her husband’s long-cherished habit. She tucked a hearty meal into a basket and carried it through the underbrush, somehow managing to keep her long skirts from snagging on the bushes and twigs that lined the path.

While Valin set his fishing lines in the usual places – marked with deep indentations in the stone-littered dirt – his wife unfurled a blanket and spread it across the soft grass near the water’s edge. When she had arranged it to her liking, weighting the edges down and sprinkling its surface with cushions – he didn’t know how she fit the cushions into the basket, some magic she refused to share – she would pull the meal from its mooring and open the containers.

The two of them spent much of the day conversing in quiet voices, eating when they were hungry and laughing as often as they dared. Whenever Valin’s wife noted a tug on one of his lines, she was quick to point it out. Lately, she even helped reel in the big ones, taking great pride as she helped him drag their flopping figures from the water.

She made him toss the little ones back; anything too small for a meal would be greedy to keep, and he agreed without hesitation. But the big ones she made him hold while she lifted some device she had brought with her from her old life, so that she could record and track his achievements.

Valin didn’t much care about the size of the fish. It was the process of catching them that soothed him. And the company, of course. Because the only thing more beautiful than the wind sweeping across the lake to set the sun dancing across its surface was the smile on his wife’s face whenever she helped him lift one of the big boys from the water.

*   *   *

The trees forming a crescent on the near side of the caldera were four times taller than a man. Their leaves formed a thick canopy through which only the tiniest dapples of sun penetrated, and their branches were thick enough to provide comfortable seats for anything that might want to watch the lakeshore from the shelter of their height.

Both Valin and his wife sometimes felt eyes on the backs of their necks when they made these joint outings, but neither would ever admit to it. Both wrote the sensation off as old paranoia, left over from the days they spent fleeing enemies or expecting knives to fly at their backs.

Though Valin’s wife wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she ever glanced over her shoulder and locked eyes with her twin. Like her husband, she valued the peace offered by the isolation of their mountain dwelling and its surroundings. And if there was a being in the universe that deserved that kind of solitude, it was Rose Drathmore, former queen of AlphaLaura, regent of the Flower of Six and wife to the abdicated heir of the galactic imperial throne.

At least, that was how she saw it. What further justification did she need to go lurking in the trees on a fine summer afternoon? In all the planets she had visited – and they had been many – she had never seen another location like this. True, there were thousands of caldera lakes. Most planets had been formed by the same molten hellscape that forged this one, and many of those ancient titans had eventually given way to water and wind, the eternal shapers of the land. But there was something special about this one. It might have been the nearby forest and its wildlife. It may have been the majestic sculpting of the distant mountains.

Or it may have had something to do with the husband and wife who occupied the lakeshore. At the moment, they lounged across their brightly-dyed blanket, pointing to clouds, likely telling each other what they thought each looked like. From the tree line, their answers were muted, but Rose had good enough ears to pick out the details if she really wanted to. And magic to boost her natural hearing, if she wanted to go that far.

From what she gathered, both their answers had become so ridiculous they had devolved into laughter. It bubbled from both their throats, hesitant at first, then all-consuming as the mirth of one fed the other. Soon they would abandon the clouds and roll into each other’s arms, where they would look longingly into the depths of each other’s pupils for a few moments before moving swiftly onward.

The version of Rose that occupied the tree didn’t tend to linger much past the first loving look. That would have been both creepy and stalkerish. And though she shared more with the woman she watched below than any pair of twins ever had, she couldn’t justify watching an act of passion without permission.

And even if that hadn’t been the case, even if her twin had granted her blessing a hundred times over, Rose would not have been able to stay. Because the first look that passed between the two lovers was always a sharp enough knife to pierce her heart and send her fleeing back to the inner reaches of the galaxy where plenty of politics awaited her.

Because no matter how she fought with herself, no matter how she argued and pleaded with the voices that lived in the depths of her soul, she could not manage to convince herself that it shouldn’t be her who lay beside the man with the white hair and the scars etched deep into his cheeks. It should be her eyes into which his pierced, and her lips against which his pressed. She should have been the one to slide across the grass with her hands against him and his hands roaming her.

While she couldn’t dispute that her strange twin had endured nothing short of hell to earn her position, it was only a trick of luck that allowed her to gain freedom and isolation at the end of the journey, while her watching twin was forced to further endure the demands of her position. She might not be a queen anymore, but several pieces of the universe still rested heavy on her shoulders. More than when she had been a queen, in fact, and their perch was far more precarious.

But it was more than rest and retreat the watcher longed for. Had it been only the quiet and the stillness, she might have been content to keep away, to endure the duties that plagued her and give her strange twin her blessing. She had plenty of other reasons to long for what was about to happen between the two lovers.

Because she had loved Valin first. And he had loved her, as strongly and as deeply as any love that ever passed between she and her husband. And if anyone was ever allowed to be by his side, it should have been her.

No matter that it was her who shared his day-to-day life. Her piece of consciousness didn’t occupy the particular biological block that inhabited the same dimension he did. Her twin’s did. And long though she did, there was no way to switch them – and she would have been crueler than cruel had she managed it.

The best she could hope for was to share that brief moment of passion from afar, to silently send them her blessing as she turned away.

It was in her mind when she rose, one hand on the rough bark of the tree, her eyelids already squeezing closed. But a sharp voice nearly tipped her from her perch.

“So this is where you’ve been disappearing!”

*   *   *

Though they held the rest of their conversation light years from the lakeshore of the deep, clear caldera, fire still clung to Rose’s cheeks. She would have liked to claim that all of it belonged to the embarrassment of having been caught watching the alternate version of herself with the man they both loved, but she was forced to admit that no small amount of it came from anger.

The woman walking beside her dragged that silent admission from the depths of her mind with a single shrewd look, largely because Xe’Nera knew her so well, she would instantly detect even the smallest lie.

“It’s not that I blame you,” Rose’s best friend started, shaking her head so that her midnight hair spilled back and forth across her purple-furred shoulders. At that moment, the wind picked up, drawing brilliant navy and deep crimson streaks of hair in front of her face, forcing her to tuck them back out of the way. “I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if my love were still alive.”

Rose swallowed hard, wrapping both arms around her chest, resisting the urge to dig her claws deep into her own flesh to keep her feelings at bay. “Thanks-” she started, but Xe’Nera cut her off.

“Trouble is, love, that your husband is still kickin’ around. You made sure of that yourself, remember? Gave a significant portion of the immortal energy that sustains you to maintain his mortal form before it could fade out of existence for all eternity. How do you think he’d feel if he saw you staring longingly after Valin and his version of you, hmm?”

Xe’Nera’s tone wasn’t as harsh as Rose initially expected; there was something shockingly sympathetic about the way she spoke. But somehow, that only made the words cut deeper. Xe’Nera wouldn’t yell at her – couldn’t – because she understood what it felt like to have her heart divided between those she loved, though she couldn’t devote herself to them all. But she also wouldn’t let Rose escape the reality of the risks she had been taking. Because Xe’Nera also knew what it felt like to lose someone who took an eternal part of her heart with him into death.

“He’d be furious,” Rose admitted softly, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Which is why I make sure he doesn’t know where I’m going. All those outings are in the past, ‘Nera. So far in the past they couldn’t possibly matter anymore. Is it really that big a deal if I want to check in on them every now and again? Besides, I make sure it isn’t easy to follow the route that I take whenever I-“

“But I did it,” Xe’Nera protested, setting one hand against her chest. “Maybe I’m better with my magic than he is with his, maybe because it’s mine and I don’t have to reach for external sources. But if one of us could follow you, sweetheart, any of us could. That includes him.”

Rose swallowed against a lump rising in her throat. She knew it was true – had known it all along. But she had never before been willing to face the consequences. Why couldn’t it be enough that she kept herself away? Why couldn’t it be enough that she watched from afar and never interfered? It would have been so easy, just a snap of her fingers and she could have brought Valin here, had her time with him and then sent him back. If she could make him swear to secrecy, or if she could get her twin’s blessing, it would all be so perfect.

Except for the man who looked at her the way Valin looked at her twin.

“I wish I could make him understand,” Rose said, her voice a harsh whisper. “Loving Valin doesn’t make me love him any less.”

“I think he does understand that,” Xe’Nera insisted, setting a hand on each of Rose’s shoulders and squeezing them gently. “He never would have married you if he didn’t.”

“I met Valin when I couldn’t remember him,” she went on, needing to say the words, though Xe’Nera already knew the whole sordid story. Hells, she had participated in most of it. “I’ve never been able to tell if it was good fortune or dumb luck that I never had to choose between the two of them-“

“Good fortune,” Xe’Nera murmured with a weary smile. “You wouldn’t have wanted to get into the personal politics of that kind of choice.”

Rose mustered a weary smile to match her friend’s. She knew Xe’Nera was right, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. Some part of her still wished she could go back and change it all. The worst part was that it probably was within her power, but that kind of meddling would undo all the actual work she had sacrificed so much to achieve.

“I’m happy for them, I am,” she insisted. “I just wish… I just wish we could have had something too.”

Xe’Nera squeezed her shoulders again. “I’m not gunna lie, love, I admire your fortitude. I’m not sure I could resist the urge to disguise myself as her for one afternoon. I mean…” Xe’Nera paused to look her up and down. “You embody the part.”

Rose mustered a bitter chuckle. Valin’s wife had chosen to permanently adopt their shared human form when she agreed to marry him. The people of his planet were unfamiliar with other forms of life and would have had a hard time accepting her otherwise. At the moment, Rose looked little like her. She wore her natural form of blue fur with red spots, of black and red streaked hair, and from her back sprouted a pair of golden-feathered wings. But with a mere snap of her fingers she could have adopted that pale skin and singularly midnight hair. Flowing between forms was as easy for her as breathing. Valin would never have been able to tell the difference. At least not until his wife informed him that she hadn’t been present for whatever activities he later mentioned.

“All I’m saying is, it’s time to turn that wall of willpower toward resisting the urge to go back there. Before you dig yourself a much deeper hole than you already have.”

Rose squeezed her arms tighter around her chest. She cast her best friend a look of utter misery, punctuated by the bloodshot sting of tears forming in her eyes. But she nodded, knowing Xe’Nera was right.

“There’s only one alternative,” Xe’Nera acquiesced, her tone softening ever so slightly.

“And that is?” Rose prompted when her friend didn’t go on.

Xe’Nera sighed. “Tell him.”

“Tell Russel?” Rose shivered. “You know what he’d say!”

Xe’Nera held up both hands in a helpless shrug. “The way I see it, you can either tell him you still have feelings for Valin and deal with it together, or you can stop sneaking around behind his back tearing yourself to pieces over it. I mean, your third option is to keep doing this…” Xe’Nera motioned to the portal behind them. “But that isn’t going to end well and we both know it.”

Rose sighed. If she refused to answer, that might mean she wouldn’t  have to make a decision, at least for a little while longer. But Xe’Nera’s glare bore into the side of her head until she relented. “Fine. I’ll at least think about it.”

Xe’Nera drew a deep breath, slid an arm across Rose’s shoulder and guided her back toward the portal that would carry them home. “Look at it this way; part of you does have something with Valin. Something great. Let that be enough.”

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