The Last Door
It's been too hard living,
But I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
There been times when I thought
I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon' come
~Sam Cooke “A Change Gon’ Come”
Out of the Darkness
A freshly fallen layer of snow blanketed the land, making the road indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. Manasa made her way through the untouched expanse of white, treading the path by memory. Only her footprints followed her through the quiet village, down the hill to the small farm nestled below.
The house looked much as it had the first time she had laid eyes on it two winters before – with the windows frosted and the thatched roof covered in snow. A curl of smoke rising from the chimney signaled that the rest of the family was awake. She would probably make it home in time for breakfast.
Sometimes she could still barely believe that this was her home – that she had a family. Not that it had been easy coming into it, and even harder at first to make herself stay.
When she had followed Reznik back here to this little village two years ago, she had thought it would be nothing more than a chance to say goodbye to a life that she would never know. After mourning her father for most of her life, then finding out he was alive only to watch him die, this life he had built felt like nothing more than a dream that she was never meant to be a part of. And she certainly hadn’t planned to make it so.
She could still remember that first night, standing in the snow, on this very hill, looking down at the farm below as Reznik was welcomed home. His mother had opened the door and pulled him into her arms as the children poured out to greet him. She had watched his mother buckle under the news of her husband’s death, and seen the tears in the eyes of Badru’s little children when they realized that he was never coming home.
Manasa had fled then, her curiosity satiated and her heart overflowing with pain. But the night was cold and the snow turned into a blizzard. She had taken refuge in the barn simply to keep herself from freezing to death.
Not that she had cared much that night whether she lived to see the morning sun. She could still remember the bite of the cold and the empty feeling she had inside as she curled up to sleep in a pile of hay. With Marth’s death, what was left of her heart had been broken beyond repair. She already felt dead inside, and so she waited for the night to close her in.
To her surprise, she had woken up the next morning with a blanket around her and food waiting beside her. It had probably saved her life.
Every day she would watch the family from a distance - her family. She watched them work, watched them play, watched them mourn her father, and watched them carry each other through their grief. And somehow, it helped. Even if she wasn’t ready to be a part of them, just seeing them, knowing they existed, it kept her going.
Then, one morning, Reznik didn’t leave any breakfast out for her, but instead came and invited her in out of the cold, she accepted. First it was just for meals. Then she stayed to help with the chores. And somehow, so slowly that she hadn’t realized it was even happening, this place had become her home.
Manasa smiled a little as she shifted her pack and started down the hill. She wasn’t whole, she didn’t think she ever would be, but she wasn’t empty the way she once. Still wounded, still broken, but better….
Then a chunk of snow flew out of nowhere and hit her in the shoulder. She sighed and kept walking.
“I see you, Dev,” she called.
“And what are you going to do about it?” A man stepped out from behind a bank of snow, throwing another snowball up into the air and catching it.
“How old are you?” Manasa looked over her shoulder with an eyebrow raised.
“Well that’s entirely beside the point, isn’t it?” He hurried to fall into step next to her. “The real issue here is that you didn’t even see me sneak attack you back there until after I hit you. You’re losing your touch.”
“If you mean that I’m losing my reflexive instinct to believe that everyone around me is trying to kill me, then I’ll gladly give it up.”
“So you’ve gone native.” He threw his second snowball into a snowdrift and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Sacae’s made you soft.”
“Don’t get any ideas.” She glanced up at him. “I could still take you out.”
“I thought we left that life behind us.”
“I’m trying,” she said heavily, “but it never really goes away, does it?”
“Yeah,” Dev slowed beside her. “Yeah, I know.”
Manasa pushed on guiltily. She never set out to deflate Dev’s happiness, but she always seemed to end up doing it anyway. Just another reason why she was better off alone.
“I need to go,” she mumbled. “They’re expecting me.”
“Here, let me help you with that.” Dev hurried back to her side and tried to take the pack from her.
“No.” She shrugged away. “I’ve got it.”
“Well, I know you’re capable of carrying it. I’m just trying to be nice.”
“Well, don’t.” She tightened grip on the bag and quickened her pace.
“What have you got in there, anyway?” He kept right up with her, which was easy enough considering his legs were about twice as long as hers.
“Milk,” she replied stiffly.
“Still haven’t got your own cow?”
“No. Rez thinks we’ll have enough to buy one by spring.”
“Is it ever weird to you?” Suddenly Dev had a bottle of milk out of her pack and she hadn’t even seen him take it. “Buying things?”
Manasa couldn’t help her mouth from curling up at the corner. “Yes. Weird and kind of exciting in a strange way.”
“Exciting?” Dev laughed. “I was going to say more like ‘boring’.”
“Ugh. I spent most of my life stealing food for the Black Fang. This is much better.”
“Of course it’s better – but that doesn’t make it exciting.”
“Excitement is overrated.”
“So you admit that it’s boring?”
“All right, at first it was,” she conceded, “but now I much prefer it.”
“Well, I’m still getting used to it.” He plucked a dead twig from a tree and used it as a toothpick.
“It’ll come.” She smiled.
Dev had shown up in the village a few months after Manasa had, but it seemed to be taking him a longer time to adjust to certain aspects of clean living. Not that he wasn’t happy to get out of his old life. He’d never told her the name of the bandit he’d worked for, but it didn’t matter. In the end they were all the same, and he was lucky to get out with his life.
“What made you decide to leave?” she asked.
Dev looked at her, shocked. She rarely brought up her own past in any detail and even less frequently asked questions about his.
“Sorry,” she said instantly. “You don’t have to – ”
“No, it’s all right.” Dev slowed, coming to rest beside the barren trunk of a tree. “It’s a long story.”
Manasa set her pack down in the snow and waited.
“Well, I’d wanted out for a long time. Who didn’t?” He shrugged. “But I was scared to leave. I’d been there since I was a kid – I didn’t know anything else. There was a time when I loved it,” he admitted. “Loved the thrill of it, the power, being able to do anything that I wanted whenever I wanted without any fear of the consequence. That’s every teenage boy’s dream, right?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said dryly, though she could guess. She had seen plenty of them taking advantage of that freedom during her time in the Black Fang. It had been in those years that the shapes of her nightmares had changed from the nameless fears of a lonely little girl to the faces of the very real monsters all around her.
Manasa looked away and Dev cleared his throat.
“I never really did anything too bad,” he stipulated. “I liked to act much bigger than I was. I think most of us did. You know, it kept us from sticking out or drawing too much attention to ourselves. Eat or get eaten, right?”
“Right.” Manasa felt the bite of the cold air through her cloak, and she shivered.
“Then one day I looked at myself and realized that I didn’t like what I had become. Or what I was pretending to be.”
“What made you change?”
Dev smiled. “A girl.”
Manasa almost rolled her eyes. “Seriously?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
Manasa wasn’t quite sure how to answer that.
“Who was she?”
“Just a girl. Pretty. Sad. She needed help.”
“And you helped her?” She looked up at him from beneath her dark hair.
Dev paused a moment. “I tried to.”
“So what happened to her?”
“I stayed long enough to get her out. Once she was gone I was free to make my break.” He chucked the snowball into a snowdrift.
“Where is she now?”
Dev almost smiled. “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”
Manasa rolled her eyes, and Dev laughed.
“She never knew about me,” he said disappointedly. “Not in any good way at least. I did what I could to protect her, but it probably didn’t look that way to her. I’m pretty sure she hates me – if she ever spares me a thought at all.”
Manasa just looked at him without response. She stared so long that he started to look uncomfortable.
“What?” he asked.
“Just trying to picture you like that,” she replied. “It doesn’t seem like you at all.”
“Well, don’t try too hard. I’m a different man than I was.”
Unfortunately it was all too easy to imagine an unseen demon lurking behind Dev’s kind eyes. He had never been anything but gentle and understanding of her since they had met. Still, she knew too much about a man’s ability to hide behind a mask.
She grabbed her pack and took a step away, not looking him in the eyes.
“Manasa – ” He reached out for her arm but stopped short. “We all did what we had to to survive, didn’t we?”
She nodded slightly, but still wouldn’t look at him.
“That’s why we’re here… to make a fresh start.”
“I know.” She forced herself to meet his eyes. “It’s just… it’s still hard.”
“I know,” he sighed.
“I need to get home,” she replied shortly, trudging ahead.
Dev dropped his hand to his side and let her go.
“He really did a number on you, didn’t he?” he asked quietly.
Manasa stopped in her tracks. “Who?”
“Whoever did this to you.” He gestured to her. “You know, you’re safe now. Whoever he is, he can’t hurt you anymore.”
Manasa’s shoulders tightened and she bowed her head into the falling snow.
“I wish that were true,” she almost whispered, and headed down the hill to her home.
“Mana!” A little girl with straight black hair jumped up from the table as Manasa opened the door. “You’re home!”
“Hi, Mira.” Manasa smiled and gave the little girl a hug.
“What did you bring?” Mira tugged at the bag in excitement.
“You didn’t have to go out in this weather just for milk.” Mira’s mother, Amari, shut the door behind her to keep out the snow.
“I don’t mind.” Manasa took three bottles out of her pack and set them on the table. “Besides, I know you’ve been wanting to make some cheese.”
“But milk is so expensive.” Amari examined the bottles with a sort of guilty awe. “How could you afford it?”
“Did you steal it?” A boy at the table asked with a tilt of his head.
“Tama,” his mother warned.
“What?” He did his best to look offended. “I was just wondering!”
“I have some money saved from the harvest.” Manasa did her best to brush it off.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Amari replied.
“I know, but I wanted to.”
“Well, thank you, dear.” The girl’s mother smiled, showing the deep creases in the corners of her eyes.
“Did you bring anything else?” Mira’s older sister, Lina, rifled through the empty bag.
“Lina, leave it alone. Breakfast is almost ready.” Amari took the empty bag away from her daughters and they went reluctantly back to their seats.
“So, can I go, Mother?” The boy at the table interrupted. “Please?”
“Tama, you’re only twelve years old,” his mother sighed tiredly.
“I’ll be thirteen by spring,” he argued.
“Tren is a dangerous place.”
“But we need the extra money. If I go, too, we can bring back twice as much.”
“You’re worth more to me than a season’s worth of fishing money.” Amari busied herself stirring a pot of porridge over the fire.
“This is so unfair!” Tama shouted. “You let Rez go when he was my age!”
“He went with your father,” she stipulated.
Tama shot Manasa a dark glance. “Well, it’s not my fault he’s dead.”
“Tama!” Amari nearly tipped over the pot. As it was she spilled a hefty portion of the boiling gruel into the fire, and it lay in a smoldering glob on the fireplace floor.
Manasa’s face went hot and she took a step back against the wall.
“What’s all the yelling about?” The door opened again, allowing a cold blast of air into the warm kitchen.
Reznik shook the snow from his hair and stepped inside. Crammed into the tiny space of the already-full kitchen, he looked larger than usual. He removed his fur cloak and plucked a bit of hay from his hair, a tell-tale sign that he had been in the barn feeding the horses.
“She won’t let me come with you to Tren!” Tama raged, pointing accusatorily at his mother.
“I’m not going to Tren.” Reznik drawled in his deep voice, knocking the snow and mud from his boots on the threshold.
“Not now.” Tama rolled his eyes. “In the spring, for fishing season.”
Rez sighed at his little brother. “I told you to let me talk to her about it first, dimwit.”
“What is this?” Amari frowned. “The two of you are plotting against me together now?”
“No one’s plotting, Kacha.” Rez kissed his mother on the cheek and sat down at the table, the snow melting from his cloak into a puddle on the floor. “I’m starving, when’s breakfast?”
“Not until Tama gives Manasa the apology she deserves,” Amari seethed.
Tama glowered down at the table and muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?” his mother demanded.
“It’s fine,” Manasa said quietly, her heart pounding. “He doesn’t have to – ”
“Yes, he does.” Amari marched over and grabbed her son by the ear. “You apologize!”
“Ow, my earring!” Tama bellowed, clutching his earlobe. “It’s still sore!”
“That’s not all that’s going to be sore,” Amari threatened. “Apologize!”
“Why?” Tama backed away, his eyes shining through his furious glare, giving him away for the boy that he truly was. “It’s her fault he’s dead, but I’m the one who gets in trouble? I hate this stupid family!”
The boy twisted on the spot and vanished into thin air, leaving the kitchen thick with silence in his wake.
“Whoa. What was that all about?” Reznik asked in surprise.
“Oh, he – I don’t know what to do with him!” Amari cried, her voice a tremulous mixture of anger and sadness. She looked around frantically for a moment then returned to tending the fire with shaking hands.
“It’s all because he got that earring,” Lina said with the all-knowing wisdom of a ten year old. “Now he thinks he’s really something special.”
Reznik couldn’t seem to help but chuckle at that.
“Look at this,” Amari griped, taking the pot of gruel from the fire. “Breakfast is almost burnt. Come on now, girls. Eat up, before it’s ruined.”
She started ladling out bowls with unusual aggression.
“I’m sorry,” Manasa said, her voice dry. “Maybe I should just – ”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Amari cut her off. “This is your home. You know that. I promised him that this would be your home and I – ”
Her voice broke and she sank into a chair with her face in her hands.
The little girls shrank back, looking unsure of what to do, but Reznik put a hand on his mother’s shoulder.
“It’ll be all right, Kacha,” he addressed her tenderly. “He’s just at that age. He thinks he’s bigger than he is. I was that way, too, remember?”
“Yes, but at least then I had your father to – ” Amari broke off. “Oh, Manasa, I didn’t mean – ”
Manasa’s heart felt ready to burst. Unable to look at any of them, especially the wide-eyed little girls peering back at her from the table, she fled.
The door slammed behind her and she trekked out into the snow without thought of where she was headed. She only stopped when she ran headlong into someone else coming down the path.
“Sorry.” She looked up, her eyes blurred with tears, to see Dev standing there. “Oh.”
“Are you okay?” Dev looked at her guiltily.
“I’m fine.” She lied, wiping at her cheeks.
He didn’t look convinced. “Where are you headed? I thought you were going home.”
Manasa looked around, then shrugged and shook her head.
“What happened?” he asked.
It took her a moment to find her voice, to put words to the emotions and the fears swirling around inside of her, but finally it came out. “I don’t think I belong here.”
“What are you talking about? Everybody belongs here – that’s the point.”
“You don’t understand. You don’t know what I did.”
“We’ve all done bad things, Manasa. Half the people in this village have a past. But that’s why we’re here, to have a second chance.”
“Not me.” She scratched at her arm. “I don’t deserve one.”
Dev looked at her with mingled sorrow and frustration. “What could you have possibly done that’s that bad.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said darkly, glaring into a blur of tears and falling snow.
“Only because you won’t tell me. We’ve been friends for a long time now, and you still won’t tell me anything about you.”
Manasa lifted her scowling gaze to his, meeting his dark red eyes with a flash of fury.
“Why should I?” she spat. “I don’t owe you anything.”
“That’s what you think,” he muttered darkly.
“Nothing. I just thought we were helping each other, that’s all.”
“I don’t need your help.” She shouldered past him.
“You need something.”
He grabbed her hand but she pulled it away.
“Don’t touch me!” she snarled.
Dev held up his hands. “Sorry. I’m sorry….”
Manasa stood for a moment, watching him watch her until she couldn’t stand it any longer. She twisted on her toes and vanished, leaving nothing behind but a set of footprints in the snow.
She landed in the barn nearby, the same place she had taken refuge on her first night in the village. Alone, she broke down in tears.
While she knew that she had not been directly responsible for her father’s death, she couldn’t begrudge Tama his feelings towards her. She knew as well as everyone else that if Badru had not come looking for her in Aritia, he would still be alive. And she, almost certainly, would be dead.
That knowledge had haunted her for the last two years. However, strangely, it was the only thing keeping her going. Her father had died to save her. Ending her own life now would be a disrespect to him and everything he had done for her. If he had traded his life for hers, she had to at least try to make it worth something.
She had tried, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good.
It was moments like these that she missed Marth the most – longed to be in his arms once more. She had never felt as safe, as happy, as whole as she had with him. With every passing day she was realizing that, without him, she would never feel that way again.
The thought of that now made her almost angry. He had shown her happiness, given her hope, and then left her alone like this. In some ways it was worse than it had been before, because now she knew what it was that she was missing. She had had a taste of it, been given a glimpse of what love truly felt like, only to have it ripped away from her.
It wasn’t fair, she thought as she wiped the tears furiously from her face.
She was tired of hurting, tired of crying, tired of longing for something that could never return.
“I thought I might find you here.” Dev appeared out of nowhere, breaking the silence around her.
“Would you just leave me alone?” she screamed, jumping to her feet. Her face twisted with rage, as she hoped to hide her tears behind her anger. “Get out!”
Dev folded his arms across his chest. “No.”
“Get out.” She balled her fists, her voice going deadly quiet. “Or I will make you get out.”
“Not until you give me something.”
Manasa’s heart twisted and her gut wrenched with unwanted terror.
“I told you about me.” His face still and unthreatening, but strong. “Now I’d like to know something about you.”
“Like what?” she snarled. “How much I hate you right now?”
“That would be a start. At least it’s something.”
“What do you care, anyway?”
“Because, I’m your friend,” he paused, and took a step closer to her. “Aren’t I?”
Manasa didn’t answer, but she didn’t back away.
“You helped me when I came here,” he said. “We helped each other… didn’t we?”
“Stay back,” she warned.
“Look, I know you’ve been messed up, and there’s nothing that I can do about that at this point, but that’s all over now. He’s gone – he can’t hurt you anymore. So why are you letting him?”
Manasa stared at him, afraid to let go of him with her eyes. She felt terrified and furious and excited all at the same time.
“He doesn’t control me,” she said through her teeth. “And neither do you.”
Dev sighed. “I don’t want to control you. I just want to be with you.” His voice softened and he reached out to touch her hair with the tips of his fingers. “To be close to you….”
Manasa grabbed his wrist and wrenched his arm behind his back, slamming him against the wall. Her chest heaved as she stood, pinning him there, glaring up into his eyes. He was bigger than her – much bigger than her. He could have pushed her away in an instant, broken her hold and set himself free.
But he didn’t.
He stood frozen, watching her with a look that she recognized, though she’d never seen it in quite this form before. And a feeling she had never quite had before seized her.
In his harshness Navarre had taken what he wanted from her without mercy or regret.
With his tenderness Marth had broken through her defenses and woven his way into her heart so gently that she had been powerless to stop it.
But this – this now - was her decision.
And so she kissed him.
She kissed him long and hard, holding onto him with a fierce and unrelenting grasp. She could feel the longing overflow from his lips and his touch, and she drew it out with every caress.
Lightning coursed through her veins, and the power she felt as he responded to her every move gave her chills. Her lips pulled at his and she intensified their embrace with an almost hungry satisfaction. Where she lead he followed, helplessly, as thought he had no will of his own.
And for once, she didn’t feel afraid. Didn’t feel as though she were teetering on the edge of a precipice with no way out.
In fact, she didn’t feel anything. Just the heat of his mouth against hers.
That realization scared her more than anything else.
She broke free from Dev’s arms, gasping, and he leaned back against the wall in a breathless daze.
“Manasa….” He touched her hair, and half-closed his eyes. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited to – ”
“I’m sorry.” She backed away. “I shouldn’t have – ”
“Don’t.” He reached out to her. “Don’t do that. Please.”
“You should go.” She wrapped her arms tightly around herself and took another step back. “Now.”
“What did I do?” he asked in frustration.
“Nothing. You didn’t do anything. Just go.”
“But – ”
“Go!” She shouted. “Get out!”
Dev stood for a moment, his face twisting as he searched for something to say. In the end he turned and stormed off, kicking over a barrel of grain on his way out.
With hot shame welling up inside of her, she threw herself behind a bale of hay and cried.
Manasa wasn’t sure how much time had passed. She must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew the light in the barn had dimmed and a growl of hunger gnawed at her stomach.
And she could feel someone watching her.
“Mana?” A tiny figure appeared around the corner. “I couldn’t find you all day!” Mira bounded over and threw herself into Manasa’s arms. “Why are you sad?”
Manasa rubbed the sore spot on her cheek where she had fallen asleep pressed against a sharp strand of hay.
“I’m not sad now.” Manasa hugged the little girl close. “Thanks for finding me.”
Mira giggled. “Were you playing hide and seek?”
Manasa smiled. “Next time I should tell you to count before I hide, huh?”
“Can we play again? I’ll hide!” She jumped up, pulling Manasa by the hand. “Oh,” her expression fell, “except Kacha wanted me to tell you it’s time for supper.”
“Good.” Manasa pressed her hand to her empty stomach. “We’ll play later, ok? Besides, we can’t leave Lina out.”
“Lina cheats.” Mira’s mouth turned up in a tight line. “She always reads my mind and guesses where I’m going to hide before I get there.”
Manasa laughed. The problems of growing up in a family of Sentei.
“Well, that’s not fair, is it?” She took Mira by the hand and they headed out of the barn towards home.
“But I’m gonna learn to teleport!” Mira proclaimed. “Then I can vanish so fast she won’t even see me. Like this!”
She raced ahead and did a dramatic twirl that ended in her tangling up her feet and falling into the snow.
“That was close!” Manasa pulled Mira to her feet and hugged her against her side. “I saw a flicker – I really did!”
“You did?” Mira’s eyes widened and she smiled so wide that Manasa could see the hole where one of her baby teeth had been. “All right! I’m gonna tell Rezzy!”
Mira raced ahead and Manasa followed in her tracks, feeling lighter than she had all day.
“Rezzy, I did it!” Mira burst through the door and tugged on her big brother’s arm. “I teleported!”
“No, you didn’t.” Lina looked up from her book with a smug expression. “You don’t even know how.”
“Yeah huh!” Mira put her hands on her hips. “Mana even saw it! Right?”
“She flickered!” Manasa confirmed.
“You did?” Reznik picked the little girl up and spun her around the kitchen. “That’s amazing, Mi-Mi!”
Mira beamed brightly. Lina frowned at her in silence, then stuck out her tongue.
“Stop it!” Mira wailed.
“You started it!” Lina shot back.
“All right, you two,” Amari interrupted. “Mira, go get your brother for supper. Lina, finish chopping these carrots for the stew. Both of you – scoot!”
Manasa tried not to laugh as Mira ran for the stairs, managing to covertly stick out her tongue at her sister before scampering out of the room.
Manasa sat at the kitchen table after dinner, watching the light of the fire in the hearth casting shadows on the walls. Supper had long since been cleared away and the little ones had gone to bed.
Reznik sat in the corner repairing a broken bowstring, mumbling to himself now and then about never allowing his little brother to borrow anything of value again. Amari had taken to her rocker, mending a rip in Tama’s winter cloak.
“Why don’t you go to bed too, dear?” Amari asked Manasa. “You look tired.”
“Actually, I wanted to ask you something,” Manasa said tentatively.
Amari put down her mending. “Yes?”
“Manasa!” Mira’s voice came down the stairs from the loft. “Manasa!”
“I’ll go,” Rez offered. “The light probably went out.”
He set down his bow and left the two women alone. Amari moved to the table next to Manasa, and the two sat in silence for a moment.
“What is it you wanted to ask me?” Amari urged gently.
Manasa let out her breath. “Why did you marry my father?”
Amari paused, as though the very nature of the question puzzled her. “Because I loved him.”
The simplicity of the answer took Manasa back, and she went quiet for a moment, thinking.
“Then why did you marry Reznik’s father? Was he a cruel man? Did he force you?”
“What? No, of course not. He was proud, strong – a warrior and a fighter, but no, never cruel. He loved Rez and I with his whole heart. He gave his life to save ours.” Amari looked troubled now. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t – ” Manasa’s brow furrowed as she tried to formulate the words. “If you loved him, then how could you have loved my father?”
She looked up in pleading, waiting for an answer that she didn’t think could exist.
“I loved them both.” Amari reached across the table and placed her hand on Manasa’s. “Badru was very different than Rafe. Badru was gentle, meek, and desired nothing more than a quiet, peaceful existence with his family. Rafe wanted to change the world, Badru only wished to carve a happy place within it. I think that’s what drew us together. We had both lost so much… but we helped each other heal.”
Manasa nodded slightly, though the words didn’t seem to penetrate any further than her ears.
“He was devastated when he lost you and your brother – and your mother,” Amari assured her. “He was broken when I met him, just like I was. I was all alone with Rez, who was only a baby, and your father took us in. He raised Rez as his own, and loved me more than I could have asked for. I think it helped his grief, to have us to love – not to replace you,” she stipulated quickly, “but to help fill the void in his heart by finding someone else to share it with.”
“What happens when you’ve already given everything you have to someone,” Manasa carefully avoided looking Amari in the eyes, “and then they’re gone… and there’s nothing left?”
Amari’s uneasy expression softened with understanding. “Love isn’t like riches, Manasa – that once it is spent it is gone forever. Love, real love, is replenished as fast as you can give it away. And the more you love… the more you open your heart, the bigger your capacity to love grows.”
Manasa didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer. If that was true, then why did her heart feel as though it had shriveled and died the moment that Marth had? She didn’t have anything left to give, let alone room inside to receive it from another.
Her throat tightened painfully as she forced herself to speak. “I am broken then.”
Amari looked startled. “Why would you say that?”
“There’s nothing left.” Manasa put a hand over the painful, gaping cavity where her heart had once been. “I’ve tried. I can’t love anymore… it’s gone.”
“That isn’t true.” Amari leaned closer, her expression stern.
“But it is.” Manasa raised her eyes to her stepmother’s. “I thought I loved someone once. I thought he loved me. I trusted him and he… ” She swallowed roughly. “I tried to make him love me because if he did then – then I thought I could make everything okay.” Tears streamed from her eyes though she could barely feel them. “But he didn’t. He never did. And I couldn’t make him. I was weak, and stupid and deserved what he did to me.
Manasa shuddered involuntarily. “And then I did fall in love with someone. I did, I loved him. And he loved me.”
Amari sat tensely beside her, listening.
“I didn’t think that I could and I don’t even know how it happened, but it did. And now he’s gone.” The tears in Manasa’s eyes grew hot and she choked on a sob. “He’s gone and I still love him and I can’t stop.”
“You don’t have to stop loving him,” Amari replied quietly. “A part of you will always love him, and that’s okay.”
“But I don’t want to,” Manasa growled. “I know it’s not his fault and I’m horrible for feeling this way but I can’t help it - I hate him for leaving me like this!” Her tears turned bitter and she wiped them from her eyes. “Sometimes I wish I’d never loved him at all.”
“Don’t you say that.” The firm, motherly tone returned to Amari’s voice. “If you truly loved him the way you say you did then you should never try to wish away those feelings. I know it hurts. Believe me… I know.”
She squeezed Manasa’s hand in hers.
“I’ve lost two husbands to a war I had nothing to do with,” she continued. “Two men that I loved dearly are dead – and it hurts. I miss them… every single day. Does it make me angry that they were taken from me? Of course it does. But was it worth it to have them for the time that I did?” Amari paused with a bob of her throat. “Absolutely.”
Manasa looked up at her and knew that if anyone understood, Amari did. But it didn’t stop her from hurting.
“How did you do it?” Manasa asked in quiet desperation.
Manasa shrugged helplessly. “Survive.”
“You’ve made it this far.” Amari brushed Manasa’s hair back in such a completely natural, motherly gesture that it tore at her heart. “I’d say you’re doing just fine.”
“But I’m not.” Manasa shook her head, tears welling up again. “I’m alive… but I’m not. I don’t feel. I can’t do it… there’s nothing there.”
“Now that, I know, is not true.” Amari cocked her head to the side.
Manasa’s mind went back to the barn that morning, to Dev and their kiss. It had felt good, but only in a way that left her feeling guilty. It had been empty, devoid of meaning. The way it had felt to kiss Navarre only worse… because this had been her fault.
“Yes, it is.” She bit her lip. “I kissed Dev today.”
“Oh….” Amari almost smiled. “So that’s what this is about.”
Manasa leaned her face into her hands. “I feel terrible.”
“Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” Manasa slammed her hands down in frustration.
“And how does Dev feel?”
“I don’t really know.” Manasa picked at a spot on the table. “I sort of yelled at him and told him to leave.”
“Well, that’s worse than the alternative,” Amari eased. “I know that he’s had feelings for you for a long time. It would have been worse to lead him on and make him think that you do, too.”
“But I kissed him,” Manasa admitted.
“Oh.” Amari winced.
“Yeah,” Manasa muttered in embarrassment. “I just wanted to feel… something. Or see if I could.”
“But you didn’t?”
Manasa shook her head.
“That doesn’t mean you’re broken, Manasa. That just means you don’t have feelings for Dev. That’s unfortunate for him but it doesn’t mean you’ll never love again. It just means you don’t love him, or maybe even that you’re just not ready to love anyone… yet. It takes time.”
“It’s been two years.” Manasa closed her eyes and let the tears come again. “I don’t feel any differently than I did the day that he died.”
“But you are different.” Amari stroked her hand. “When I first met you you were too scared to even set foot in our house. You slept in the barn for weeks, remember?”
“That’s because I couldn’t face you all, knowing I was the reason Badru was dead.”
“Your father made the decision to save you. That doesn’t make it your fault. He spent the last two decades believing he had failed you and your brother. He couldn’t save you the first time, but you gave him the chance to make amends for his greatest regret. I know that, wherever he is, he is happy knowing that now you are safe.” Amari gave her a bracing smile.
“But Tama is right. If it weren’t for me – ”
“Don’t you worry about Tama. You must understand, he was the oldest of the three when Badru died, so he knew him the best. In a way, he’s lucky, having those memories that the girls are too young to remember. In other ways I think it’s the hardest on him, because he misses him the most.” Amari’s brow creased with sorrow. “But that doesn’t give him the right to say what he did. Badru’s death is not your fault. Tama is just… he’s angry. And he’s looking for someone to blame.”
“He doesn’t want me here.”
“I want you here,” Amari replied firmly. “Reznik wants you here. And Lina. And Mira – especially Mira. I don’t think you know what good you’ve done for her. You mean the world to her… and that means the world to me.”
“I do love her.” Manasa’s mouth crinkled with a grimacing smile. “More than I ever thought I could.”
“There, you see?” Amari nudged her. “You’re not broken at all, my dear. You’re just hurt. And who can blame you?” She lifted a hand to Manasa’s cheek and touched her lovingly. “You’re so much like your father.”
“I am?” The words startled Manasa.
“You have his eyes. And his smile.” The comparison coaxed a smile from Amari herself. “And his sensitivity, his sense of loyalty to those around him. You feel… very deeply. And so you hurt deeply, too. Your capacity to love is great – greater than you know. You’ve just been hurt.” The smile fell from Amari’s face as she looked into Manasa’s eyes, still touching her face. “You’ve gone through so much, haven’t you? Oh, my dear – ”
Manasa stood up with a jolt, tearing herself away from Amari’s reach. She felt suddenly out of breath, her heart hammering with panic.
“How much did you see?” she panted, avoiding Amari’s eyes.
Amari sat horrorstruck for a moment before she found her voice. “Enough.”
She stood but Manasa backed away.
“You shouldn’t have seen that.” Manasa’s eyes burned. “You had no right.”
“I didn’t mean to.” Amari withdrew her hand. “I’m sorry, it just happened, I wasn’t trying to pry.”
Manasa’s face burning with shame, but at the same time it was a relief, having Amari understand.
“Who did this to you?” Amari asked in a whisper.
“It doesn’t matter.” Manasa swallowed, the very thought of Navarre’s name caused a bitter taste in her mouth.
“Oh – oh, Manasa – ” Amari reached for her once more but Manasa flinched and turned away.
“I’m going to bed,” she said flatly.
Amari kept her distance, and nodded.
As Manasa climbed the short flight of stairs to the loft she could hear Mira still crying. Reznik gave her a look of pleading, but as Mira spotted her coming the little girl leapt from her brother’s arms and into Manasa’s.
“Stay with me,” Mira begged. “I’m scared.”
“I’m here.” Manasa pulled her close, and curled up under the blankets with her.
Mira snuggled into her arms, just as she did every night since Manasa had come into her life. Within minutes she was asleep.
Manasa lay awake for a long time, stroking Mira’s hair. Since the moment she had met her Manasa had seen in Mira the shadow of what she had once been, before everything had gone wrong.
She was precious, innocent, but even she was not without scars.
But if Manasa could save her – just this one little girl – maybe it would make up for all the things she had done wrong. Maybe if she stayed, some of Mira’s light would make its way into her. Then maybe, just maybe, she could find her way out of the darkness again.