The Price of Freedom
I cover as much of Olena’s body as I could, letting the shower of debris pelt me—the air turned from oceanic to burnt in a matter of seconds. A few bruises would dot my skin, but I counted us lucky. The explosion from the magic could have killed us if we had been but ten steps faster. Thank the goddess that a Guardian patrolling the streets created a shield containing the worst of the blast. Buildings can rise again, people cannot. I will honor this Guardian’s sacrifice until my last breath.
“Danylo, we need to leave the country,” Olena whispered, the hand around her throat seemingly the culprit for the thin words; her eyes glued to the scrolling message on the vision tablet.
“Why?” I’d heard whispers of conflict at The Jade Mist, my favorite niterie. Savé mumbled something about it while we drank Black Arrows, but the information today was hazy. I had to give a hand to the bartender. Those magic drinks were potent because I remember little and I only had three. Olena had not been happy with me when I came home last night.
“Half Rift has declared we should exclude the provinces of Lone Fields and Drift Haven from the fanaticism of Shore’s Rest. The official statement is that we have forced the two provinces to accept our trade and, therefore, our culture.”
“That’s ridiculous! What fanaticism? Lone Fields and Drift Haven have always had their own culture. The only thing they have to do is pay taxes!”
“Maybe, but it is what they’re saying,” Olena countered.
I abandon my cleaning and join Olena to read the words for myself. Grainy images from the nearest spell caster display on our vision tablet showing the High Mage of Half Rift standing on a balcony making the proclamation. I wish I could better see the replay, but I shouldn’t complain. The network of spell casters linked to the vision tomes was faster than word of mouth, but I would not call it the most reliable. Things often became hazy and more undefined as the information moved from spell caster to spell caster. I sneer as the display of words flashing punctuate the viciousness of the High Mage’s speech.
Shore’s Rest had an uneasy relationship with Half Rift ever since we declared our independence a little over thirty years ago. The provinces of Lone Fields and Drift Haven have always been vocal about the separation and often undermined Shore’s Rest government with well-timed blockades or magical strikes. The two small provinces, abundant in fuel sources, wanted to be governed by Half Rift, but the Sovereign Treaty states they are part of our lands. Until seven years ago, we mostly ignored them; the government finding their incitations minor annoyances in the grand scheme of solidifying a new government.
Personally, I hated the two provinces. Sure, they were pretty, with their tall thick trees surrounded by black soil. I’d done plenty of contracts there during my time as an active Guardian. The trouble they stirred didn’t seem worth keeping them in our republic. I knew, though, I was in the minority on that belief.
“We have to leave,” Olena whispered again, turning it into a mantra.
“We cannot just leave.”
“This is our home, Len!”
“Home can be anywhere we are. You love me, yes?”
“Of course I do, but I cannot leave Shore’s Rest. My family—our family—is here.”
“‘Love is, first of all, responsibility, and then pleasure and joy,’” Olena replied.
“Do not quote Sukho-what’s-his-name to me.”
“Whatever! Olena, if there is going to be a fight, I have a duty to stay and protect my country. You’re asking me to abandon everything that I helped to create—for love?”
“Yes! You did your service. Let others handle it,” Olena quips.
I narrow my eyes at her. I still have good friends serving as active Guardians, Savé being one of them. Right now, I wish I knew literature as well as she did. I hated when she quoted her favorite authors and teachers to me. It made me feel inadequate for not having the same knowledge.
“Loyalty is as important as love, Len.” I picked up my dao and cleaning supplies. “You’d know that if you had the same experiences as me.” I slammed the door to our bedroom. Right now, I wanted nothing to do with her if she wanted me to choose her over my family, friends, and nation.
The tension between us never abated, our abrasive and stubborn words have worn us raw, and now warnings of an imminent invasion flashing on the vision screen have built something indestructible between us.
Yesterday, Half Rift officially declared Lone Fields and Drift Haven to be independent provinces, completely disregarding any attempts at peace talks. They did not hide intentions, either. I could practically hear the pound of leather sandals against packed sands, the sing of blades as they left sheaths, and the crackle of magic as our Guardians prepared for a battle. It was a call I heard with clarity, but wished it would go away. Len really wouldn’t be happy if I answered.
Olena and I may still be licking at wounding words, but I was doing my best to make her happy without giving into outright abandonment of our home. Shore’s Rest fought hard for the freedom we enjoy, and I didn’t think it should be abandoned so lightly. There had been a brief period of hope that peace could happen, but apparently our High Chancelor reminding Drift Haven of Shore’s Rest’s attempts at peace seven years ago were not the way to go. Our neighboring country wouldn’t outright say it, but I guess they were still bitter about our people wanting a different type of governing body. Well, if they wanted to keep our lands, they shouldn’t have signed the treaty.
A gasp settles in my ears.
This is not good, I thought. I breathe out, preparing myself for another round of bitter words, and pushed myself from the bed.
“What is it, Len?” I walk into the room to find tears in her eyes and teeth sinking into a fist.
This really wasn’t good.
“Half Rift has invaded,” she said, using a shaky hand to point at the vision screen.
I maneuver to stand beside her, shoving my hands in my pockets, and I watch as the mage controlling the images on the screen flash quickly to different parts of the border, showing rows and rows of enemy soldiers and mages marching across into the lands of our republic. Along with it, words appear confirming that Lone Fields and Drift Haven requested Half Rift to send additional soldiers to their provinces. I grimaced. An attack was inevitable.
“We should have left when we could,” she says with a hint of bitterness, “now they won’t let us leave.”
“They’ll have ships to ferry people out of the republic. I’ll make sure you’re on one.”
Her shoulders slumped. Her plea was so quiet that I had to strain to hear it. “Will you not come with me, Danylo?”
I stiffen. I didn’t want to fight with Olena about this, and I didn’t want to hurt her. I relax my shoulders and as gently as I could, replied, “I cannot abandon my republic, Len. I’ve fought against the very people invading our home now. I have to be loyal to my republic and my friends.”
“And what about loyalty to me? The woman you love?”
“You have it, always. Just don’t make me choose between you.”
A tear slipped down her cheek. “‘What is love? This is a fairy tale, inspired by life and life, inspired by a fairy tale.’”
I recognized it as Turyansky. Since our argument a few months ago, I had been reading more of the authors she liked. I wanted to understand her thoughts better. I loved Olena. She inspired me, even as she angered me. “I disagree. Love is not a fairytale. ‘Love is not about the short-wave gust of passion that can cloud your judgment for a moment. No, it’s something else. It is the source of a winged dream, deep respect and unselfish devotion.’”
“I thought I spotted you reading some of my books,” she said, with a pained but please smile.
I didn’t know what to say. Any of the words I wanted to say seemed inadequate. I pulled her into the circle of my arms. Her slight frame swallowed by my Guardian-built body. I congratulated myself for holding my tongue, for telling her my feelings without being mean, which I had a tendency to do, but this was no victory. She was lost to me. I felt the shift between us months ago after the first act of aggression from Half Rift scrolled across our vision screen. I just didn’t want to admit it until now.
“I’m leaving, Danylo. Is there no way I can convince you to come with me?”
“I’m sorry, Len. I love you so much, but I’m sorry. You will have a spot on one of the departing ships, I promise.”
“I’m not. ‘I’m not sorry for loving you, but our roads have different directions.’”
“Ukrainka,” I said.
We almost didn’t make it. That magic bomb had nearly killed us, and almost made us late for the departure. I watched her board, and in the span of her walking up the narrow ramp, and squeezing into a place along the rail, my foot involuntarily lifted in preparation to join her.
Olena had made an excellent point. I served my republic for many years, even seeing the completion of a war. Was I really needed? How could I let the woman I love leave? Was it really selfish to stay behind to protect my republic? Would I ever see her again? Questions that made me nearly put one foot in front of the other—but I don’t.
Instead, I lift my hand to wave goodbye. I’m satisfied knowing she’s going to be safe and I feel good about the decision I’m making, but I’m not happy to see her go. I would keep her at my side forever if she wasn’t so afraid of the fighting. I told her to find me if she returns, and I hope she will, but I certainly do not expect it. She told me not to die. It’s never my intention to die, but the goddess controls our fate. Rather, I tell her it is my intention to see her step onto the shores of a free and safe republic, hopefully waiting with a clutch of her favorite flowers—vibrant red poppies.
I stand at the harbor until only the sails of her vessel are visible. The clench in my chest hurt and I want to cry, but it was too late to change things now. I let the light from my dao glint in my eyes until it hurt. This beautiful sword, the sword of our republic, fashioned after the gentle waves of our beryl ocean, would see red once again. I turn my back on the ship, growling as I step away from the waters, purposefully marching my feet toward the worst of the fighting.
I fought hard for this republic so my people could be free from the oppression of the High Mage. Peace and compromise were something the leaders of Drift Haven just did not understand. I twirl the dao in a dramatic arc. Once again, I will join my brother Guardians, and my sword will thirst for blood until every Drift Haven thug has bled. I will fight until I cannot not hold a sword or I take my last breath.
The courage I feel bubbles up my throat. “Long live the freedom of Shore’s Rest!”