Lith just listened, pondering about what he could do about their mental state. The situation appeared to be hopeless.
When they walked out through the last Warp Steps, Jirni Ernas was waiting for them. The surprise froze Orion long enough to allow her to take the initiative.
"Dear Lith, I heard a lot about you. I'm Duchess Jirni Ernas. It's a pleasure making your acquaintance. I think our meeting is long overdue." She gave him a curtsy before offering him her right hand.
By introducing herself first, the lady of the house had done him a great honour. It was a really uncommon situation, to which there was only one possible answer.
"The pleasure is all mine. I'm at your service, my Lady." Lith half kneeled while kissing the back of her hand.
Their eyes met, studying each other's expressions and reactions.
- "This woman is being too polite toward a commoner. She clearly has a hidden agenda. If she hopes to catch me off guard with her petite build and kind visage, she's sorely mistaken. Whatever she sells, I don't buy it."– Lith's thoughts were spot on.
- "So young and so knowledgeable of rituals and etiquette." Jirni thought. "This is the perfect occasion to see if the reports about him are correct. I should be able to test his worth and if he is a potential suitor for one of the girls."–
"Jirni, dear, what are you doing here?" Orion said with a stiff smile, making them both furrow their brows in disapproval for his poor acting skills. It only lasted for a split second, but they noticed each other's reaction.
Lith and Jirni became immediately aware of the ongoing mutual deception and changed their plans accordingly.
"My dear husband, I understand how sensitive this matter is for you and the children. I just wanted to introduce myself to our esteemed guest. He must know how grateful we are for his help in times of need."
Her voice was worried, but her eyes were hard as steel.
- "Which translates into: I don't trust putting my family in the hands of a stranger without letting him know he cannot afford to screw up."–
Lith's interpretation was once again correct.
"I'm grateful for your trust, my Lady. A true friend can't remain idle when you ask for his help. I'll do the best that I can, it's all that I can promise you." Lith's voice was kind while his eyes were cold.
Like Jirni, he kept up the polite façade but didn't try to fool her anymore. Due to their similar nature, they had established a silent understanding and respect between them.
- "So you came here only at my husband's insistence and you don't think there's much that can be done. So far so good, young man."–
Their conversation between the lines was driving Orion insane, but he didn't know how to make them stop without being terribly rude. Luckily, Phloria came to his rescue.
"Hi, Lith." Her cheeks reddened seeing him. Phloria was still self-conscious about their last call. She was wearing a sleeveless emerald evening dress, that highlighted her fair skin and back hair.
Lith gave her a cold but polite bow to which she awkwardly responded with a curtsy.
Jirni didn't miss a single detail.
"Sorry to bother you, mom, but the staff is having problems setting the dining hall, they need your supervision."
Her words forced Jirni to take leave of them and follow her daughter.
"That's the boy who made you change your undergarments?" She asked with a whisper as soon as the door was closed behind them.
"No!" Phloria blatantly lied turning beet red up to her ears.
"Really? Then why are you finally wearing a gown instead of your beloved pants?"
"Maybe because you pestered me all day about putting a dress on at least for dinner?" Jirni clicked her tongue, Phloria was right.
"Too bad he doesn't seem interested." Jirni continued, not willing to let her have the last word.
"I always told you, to capture the heart of a man, the best undergarment is no undergarment at all."
"Usually by this time Yurial is already sleeping." Orion guided Lith through richly decorated corridors until they reached the guests' quarters.
"Wait here, I'll let you in as soon as he is fully awake." Orion knocked on the door before entering, leaving Lith alone with his worries.
- "The only thing I know for sure is that Yurial's father and Orion must be really desperate. My schoolmates already performed a background check on me, hence the parents should know my past as well. Seeing how I turned out, what kind of help do they think I can provide?"
"Consider this an opportunity to help them and yourself at the same time. You never had anyone to share your burden with. First you had to protect Carl, then to feed yourself and save Tista." Solus said.
"Your quest for power lead you to a lonely path. You couldn't allow anyone to know what you were going through, always shouldering everything yourself. Think of them as of the young Derek. Tell them what you would say to your younger self if you had the opportunity."–
Solus' words reminded Lith what his therapist back on Earth had told him multiple times. That for his wounds to heal he needed to be open and honest about his feelings.
Following Doctor Shore's advice, Lith/Derek had even volunteered at a shelter for victims of domestic abuses, but instead of empathizing with them he ended up being proud of having caused his father's death.
He was as miserable as they were, but at least he had a life and a home. Unlike them, his days as a victim were over. The people he worked with, instead, were trembling lumps of fear, constantly watching their backs.
By listening to their stories, Lith/Derek would only become angrier, hating humankind more and more. After only a few weeks, Doctor Shore had noticed the negative changes in his behaviour and asked him to stop.
When Orion let him in, Lith noticed the presence of a man who closely resembled Yurial. Before Orion could introduce them, Yurial lashed at Lith.
"Some friend you are! Showing up now is too little and too late. Where were you while I was curled up in a pool of vomit and tears? I remained like that for hours before my father contacted me. It's been five f*cking days and you never called or visited. What's wrong with you?"
Velan Deirus was very embarrassed by his son's rude behaviour, but at the same time also very happy.
Yurial seemed to have found his strength. Seeing him angry was already a great improvement.
Yurial's words made Lith feel guilty, even managing to hurt him a little. Having decided to follow Solus' advice, Lith put his guilt aside and took his gloves off.
"Friend? That's rich coming from you. Do you even remember how we met? How you threw trash at me and never apologized until you needed my help?"
Lith didn't yell, yet his words made short work of Yurial's outrage and self-righteous attitude.
"Since when are we friends, exactly? You have been using me the whole time and I returned the favour. Otherwise tell me something about me unrelated to the academy. What are my sisters' names? What are my dreams for the future? Heck, do you even know what is my favourite colour?"
Yurial suddenly realized that despite all the time they had spent together, Lith was still a complete stranger to him.
"See? You know nothing about me and so do I about you. Don't worry, though, things are about to change. Lord Ernas, could you please bring the girls here? I think that some things need to be said, but I'd prefer doing it only once."
Lith and Yurial sat down in silence, waiting for the others to arrive. The more Yurial thought about his previous outburst, the more it appeared childish and ridiculous.
- "Lith is right, we were never friends. It was just an assumption I made on my own. We shared hardships and schoolwork, but I never once cared for his life outside the academy. Some friend I am."–
When Friya saw Lith, the temperature in the room dropped by several degrees. She didn't yell or attack him, choosing instead to sit as far away as possible.
Lith didn't cut her any slack, repeating the same speech he had given Yurial, making her turn red from anger first and pale at the realization of how shallow their relationship was.
When the group was gathered, he could finally start.
"Let me introduce myself properly. Hi, I'm Lith and I'm a murderer." At those words, the room turned awkwardly silent.
"I want to tell you a story. Your background checks are wrong, I didn't kill my first man when I was six, but when I was only four."
Lith couldn't tell them how he had killed his father on Earth, so he needed to mix two truths to make a half lie.
"Back then, life was terrible for me. I was always starving, so I ran in the woods whenever I could behind my parents' back and I hunted using magic. What no one knows, not even my family, is that I wasn't alone.
There was a poacher, an obnoxious, violent man that stole my game whenever we met and gave me a complimentary beating every single time. I couldn't tell anyone. I was too ashamed of my weakness and afraid my parents would lock me in the house, so I made up excuses to keep them from discovering the truth and keep hunting.
I endured it for months, until one day I managed to catch a few white rabbits. With their meat and pelts my family would have been well fed and clothed, allowing even my ill sister to take a walk from time to time.
Too bad the poacher found me again, robbing me of my prey again. What he didn't know was that we weren't alone. A magical beast had been following me too and when he walked away from me, I decided not to warn him."
Lith's eyes became watery thinking back at his father, at how much he had to suffer before those wet stairs did the dirty work for him.
"While the beast devoured him, I didn't call for help nor did I attempt to drive it away. I just took back my game and stood watch to make sure that the poacher would never harm me ever again.
I may have not killed him directly, but I consider him my first victim."
Seeing all his friends sniffling with watery eyes, Lith shook his head.
"I'm not trying to belittle your suffering. This is not a measuring contest about who had it rougher. I just want you to know me, the real me, before giving you an unsolicited piece of advice."
He took a deep breath, watching each of them in the eyes.
"Friya, Yurial, you too have killed someone. Maybe because you felt pressured by the academy or simply because after killing so many monsters it seemed the right thing to do, it's not up to me to judge.
Phloria, Quylla, sooner or later you'll kill someone too, either out of self-defence or because it's your duty. When that moment comes, please remember my words.
Life is a cruel crucible that breaks us apart over and over, forcing us to put the pieces back together. Sometimes we come out of it stronger, sometimes weaker and most of the times there's so little we can do about it.
Failure is not falling down, it's not getting up. I couldn't share my burden with anyone. How could I say to my brother, to my family, that our happiness was built on the death of another man?"
"You are not like me. You have a lot of people that care for you, that know of your struggle and are willing to help. I don't know how long it will take for you to recover, but you don't have to face this alone.
Instead of walling everyone out like I did, try to accept the hands they are offering to you. Otherwise you'll end up like me, and believe me when I say it's not pretty at all. I am missing so many pieces, I'm mixed with so much sh*t that I barely feel human anymore.
Do whatever you want with your lives, but remember that today I gave you a part of me and a choice. A choice I never had."