My baby, my little Rhapsody, there’s nothing in the world so perfect. No magic, no wealth, no artifact could hold a candle. He’s so small, this tiny, precious child of mine, fitting in my hands with ease, dwarfed by Nerida’s. He doesn’t look anything like Ulkair, as I’d prayed he would, no, he’s like me… a doppelganger. But he’s different. He’s not some faceless monster, he’s beautiful. His big eyes, his tiny hands, his inaudible cries… they are unique, and they shatter my ill guarded heart.
I thought I was so clever, I thought I was so talented, so together, so ready for anything. I thought I would leave Byss on the shoulders of my god, and I could handle whatever life threw at me, but I was so completely wrong. I weep as I hold him, a mess of overwhelming emotion. Those cries, those soft, weak cries as Agorran placed him in my arms, I’ll never in my life hear a music more rending. My chest aches as though my heart no longer fits in it, and all I can do is stare and cry, and whisper a thousand apologies. Oh, what could I ever have been thinking to risk you? How could I even begin to measure the grief of my life without you?
Looking at him, watching the impossibly small rise and fall of his chest, I am wracked with a love unlike any I have ever felt, and with it, a righteous anger, and a ferocious determination.
“I will never leave you.” I whisper, and a fresh wave of tears fall from my eyes to trickle down my infant’s brassy skin. “I will never, ever leave you.”
My parents were wrong.
Rhapsody is not what I prayed he would be, but looking at him, holding him, feeling his tiny heart beat… I can’t even remember what it is I’d hoped for. So what if he is not human? It doesn’t devalue him, he is only more precious, more likely to be spurned by the world… more in need of me, of my protection. I can’t imagine him different, or better. It’s impossible, he’s perfect. My mother… she should have felt this.
She was scared – so am I. I am terrified. I don’t know what I’m doing. What if I hold him wrong, raise him wrong, what if… what if no one else loves him? What if they look at him, this beautiful, wonderful baby… and see a monster?
What will I do when he cries? When he sees the anger and fear in their eyes, when he doesn’t understand why he’s different? How will I make him see that if all the planes and all the gods condemned him… they would be wrong?
I am afraid… but for him, not of him. Afraid that he will fall and fail, and I will have to hold him when he wants to give up, teach him all the lessons I’ve only just learned… afraid I won’t be like Alix, I won’t be strong at the right time, gentle or kind at the right time… I’m afraid I will fail him.
I’m afraid that I already have.
It was my nature that made him what he is… my carelessness that’s made him so small and helpless. If the others can’t love him… if they don’t see him as I do… I tighten my grasp protectively, but gently over my tiny treasure.
I’ll always love you, Rhapsody. Always. And if they can’t… I… they don’t deserve you. I’ll love you enough for all your family.
I lean down to kiss his head, gently, so very afraid I will hurt him, and try to stem the out pour of tears, but to no avail. Alix will love him, at the very least, Alix has to love him…. he loves me, even though he’s seen what I really am. I should have shown Ulkair and Nerida, should have prepared them, tried to make them understand… but instead I hoped for the impossible, and wrongly.
I carefully enclose Rhapsody’s tiny fingers in my own, and look up at them, guilty, anxious, but unable to bring myself to be sorry, only to steel myself. Alix’s hand closes over mine, and he meets my eyes with such kindness, so much pride and approval. I take a deep, shaking breath, and as I hold Rhapsody out to Ulkair, my chest aches to snatch him back, to hold him, forever a barrier between him and the pain of rejection.
“My son…” Ulkair whispers, his voice cracking as he lifts the infant to hold him against his chest. “ My son…”
I watch them, my heart rended from my chest by the tears I see in Ulkair’s eyes, and his smile, painfully helpless, paralyzed, just as I was.
“He’s beautiful, you.. you’re both beautiful,” he weeps, clutching our son, and I grasp Alix’s hand, relief washing over me.
I glance next to Ulkair, cautiously peering into Nerida’s eyes, searching them for any sign of her feelings. She has so many misgivings about children, she was so guarded, she told me not to fight in the arena, I…
Oh Nerida, please forgive me…
Nerida watches with wide, fearful eyes brimming with tears, looking over him still cradled in Ulkair’s shaking hands and my chest seizes painfully. There’s so much fear in her eyes, in her posture, I have hardly ever seen her look so shaken – my heart falls, and I resist the urge to look away, hide my face from her. What must she think of me, what must she think of him? She could never have expected this, but even though I did, the crushing pain in my chest stops my very breath. ‘What’s wrong with him’, ‘what is it?’, I can’t bear to hear her say the words that my mind taunts me with.
Her hands reach out to me, shaking, and for a brief moment, I want to recoil, unsure of her intent, before they brush the surface of my bloodied teal shirt, and grasp its hem.
“I…I’m so sorry,” she breaths, her voice breaking as she speaks. I recognize this sorrowful tone, heavy with guilt, I have heard it from her many times but… what did she have to feel guilty for?
“I should have protected you… him… you’re… please, I’m so sorry.”
Her words break down into sobs, and as she wraps her arms around me, pulling my torso up to greet hers, relief hits me as hard as that bolt of lightning had. She trembles, clutching me as tightly as she dares, and I can tell by her ginger movements she is afraid she will harm me, break me as though this experience has somehow made me into porcelain. I shift as best I can, an action which admittedly takes too much effort, to wrap my arms around her.
“Nothing was supposed to happen this way,” I breath unevenly against her chest, “I’m just so glad you don’t hate him… or me.”
The words bring a fresh bout of tears, and I cling to Nerida for all I am worth as she shakes her head and hushes me.
“I could never hate you, Cheshire,” she says, “either of you.”
I spend a few moments in her arms, calming myself before she lets me go again, and I lay back down, exhaustion suddenly pulling heavily against me. Alix smooths back my hair, and as I turn to him, the pride on his face brings a new wave of tears. If I would have ever stopped to think when or where I would birth my first child, I would never have said now, or here, on the stone floors of the arena’s prison.
I would never have thought that this place, where I once spent a night of misery and madness, would be where I felt the happiest I ever have, this place where we fought for Alix’s freedom, would be where I had these conversations. I never would have thought the arena where I proved myself to all of Byss would have been the place I brought a new Byssian into the world.
Nothing was supposed to happen this way – no, but after everything, I suppose I can’t think of any way that could have been more appropriate.
“Well, yesterday, if you’d have asked me to tell you a story about someone I loved, I’d have probably talked about Ulkair, or.. Nerida, or Alix, but now… I have Rhapsody to introduce to you, and…”
I look around at my companions, tightening my grip on the bundle of blankets in my arms. Nerida loves him, Ulkair and Alix love him, even Agorran… Surely Mimi, Aintai and Loin could, as well. Mimi knows what it’s like to be an outcast, Loin too, and Aintai, well, she didn’t seem one to judge based on appearances, especially not after what her family had done.
I shift, taking a seat nearby them with Alix’s help, and much, much too much difficulty.
“I’ve never loved anything more in my whole life,” I practically whisper the words, and my hand trembles as I shift to show him to them. “He’s perfect, and he’s changed my entire world. Everything seems… bigger, and scarier now that it isn’t just me, and I’m trying… Well, I… I’ve already made some mistakes, and they don’t seem acceptable anymore. I haven’t been… exactly honest with you all, and some of you I… flat out lied to.”
I hang my head guiltily – I hadn’t told Aintai, Mimi or Loin, too concerned of what people might think. So afraid to be asked questions I couldn’t answer, or lose their support in my upcoming ventures that I didn’t stop to think what they might think of me after the fact.
Loin found out on his own, of course, I should have known I couldn’t have hidden the pregnancy from him when he spent so much time shadowing Nerida, especially to and from the coastal city, visiting with her sisters these past few months. They both knew, of course, and I have no doubt Aine swam right up to them and asked how ‘the baby and Cheshire’ were doing. I didn’t begrudge her that, either, she’d been so kind to me through the whole affair, never so much as batting an eyelash at my relationship with Nerida and Ulkair, and she and Mayra were both so helpful when I didn’t know what to do, or was overwhelmed by nausea, pain or sleeplessness.Now, of course, I knew Aintai had decided to stay, and part of me thought that was best, although I would miss her. Like most of Byss, her miles are much greater than her years, and knowing that Alix’s home won’t go unlived in, abandoned, these place where so many of my good memories are… What I wouldn’t give to raise Rhapsody here, but I shake my head, pulling my thoughts back to the present.
“I thought you may not approve, may not… love him, if… I’m sorry. I lumped you all in with people who… I know you are better than, and you didn’t deserve that.”
“Why would you lie?” Mimi asks as I struggle my way through my explanation and I pull in a deep breath, feeling my resolve waver. I feel a wave of defending pride over my bond with Alix, and Nerida and Ulkair’s presence on either side of me wraps me in security. I am loved, Rhapsody is loved. Our family is strong, and whole – they’re not like mine.
“Because I… I thought I was keeping him safe,” I admit, “but now I realize I can’t do that on my own. I thought no one else would… love him, if he was like me. I realized yesterday that was not the case, and I also realized that… if any of you can’t love him, you’re just… wrong.”
And exactly what he needs protecting from.
“More than anything, I just.. I just want to protect Rhapsody,” I feel my arms tightening around him again, and force myself to ease my grip, too afraid to hurt him. “I know you all have your own goals and desires, but I don’t know what kind of things we may face in Sigil, and so I’m asking for your help, to please, please lend me your strength, and keep him safe.”
My stomach wrenches with the very thought of any ill befalling my precious infant, and as I hang my head, trying to curb my tears, Nerida puts an arm around me. I turn into her slight embrace, burying my face in her silk shirt, and she tightens her grasp, giving my arm a soft, reassuring squeeze. Even without looking, I can tell she is staring our comrades down, as if daring them to say anything but the right thing, or simply promising their swift end. As much as I think it will decrease their likelihood to be honest, I feel my heart swell, so very glad to have her here.
Loin closes the distance between us, and I peer up at him, suddenly very close, and wonder if he truly doesn’t realize how huge he is, or how imposing it is for him to loom over me the way he does. He reaches into his pants’ pocket and takes out a silver dragon scale, not unlike the one he gave me a year ago. I turn it over in my hand, and etched into it is a series of letters: “C A A L U N M”, surrounding the symbol of our homeland – a powerful silhouette of two warriors, a man and a woman, hand in hand. I peer up at him curiously, and he clears his throat.
“It’s for Rhapsody,” he says, “it has all of our initials, and the symbol of Byss. I want him to have it when he gets older, so that wherever he goes, whatever happens, he’ll always feel connected to each of us, and Byss.”
I run my thumb over the etched pattern and smile back up at him – a very thoughtful gift.
“Thank you, Loin.” He puts a hand briefly on my shoulder before moving away, and I find Aintai peering down at Rhapsody skeptically.
“Huh,” she mumbles, and I find myself resisting the urge to shrink back before she straightens up, nodding at me thoughtfully. “Well, making babies isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but… looks like you did alright.”
I smile, feeling my cheeks glow – from Aintai, that was certainly a high compliment. She pats my head and walks away, clearly unmoved by my supposedly ‘big news’, and probably especially eager now to try to avoid the subject of what happened yesterday. I can’t blame her, I know Aintai isn’t the type to want to be indebted to anyone, nor would she want anyone to feel as though they owed her anything.
I know she wants to stay in Byss, I would never begrudge her that, and I suppose she thinks if she stops to acknowledge the issue of those squamous spewers, she will be roped into planar travel with me. It saddens me a little to think that Aintai might feel we are leaving on strange terms, or that I would have not saved her life if she wasn’t willing to pay me back, but then, perhaps that isn’t it at all. Exhaustion and raw emotions tear at the edges of my mind, and for all I know, Aintai doesn’t even know what happened, I barely know what happened.
“So, did Tubatron give you this baby?” Mimi asks, and I feel my cheeks and ears burn.
“W-What? No!” I exclaim. I can see why she could have thought that, being that Rhapsody’s skin is so brassy and magnificent, and it was a well-known fact that I am Tubatron’s high priest, but… I think I am a far cry from mothering any avatars. I clear my throat, lifting my head to face her again. “Ulkair did.”
She gives me a look I can’t quite pin, her brow knitted – I suppose Mimi’s never had much to say about my relationship with Ulkair and Nerida, probably she doesn’t approve, or maybe doesn’t understand. But… would that effect the way she would view Rhapsody?
“…He’s beautiful, Cheshire,” she says, but her voice is cold, and I recoil toward Nerida’s protective embrace.
I thought I would understand if anyone told me they couldn’t be alright with him, or with me, but facing it, I’m not. She’s lying, her posture is stiff, her voice is strained – does she think he’s a monster? Does she… think I am? I peer into her thoughts, and before she pushes me from her mind, I sense a glimmer of betrayal, and then anger, most likely at my attempt to steal the truth from her.
“Mimi, I’m sorry–” I try, and she shakes her head at me, a glimmer of tears in the corner of her eyes.
“No, Cheshire,” she snaps, “it’s bad enough that you don’t trust me. That you think of me as some… shallow monster that would shun you if you told me the truth, but you lied to me, so desperate to keep your secret, and yet you think it’s fine to just invade people’s private thoughts!”
I feel Ulkair and Nerida tense beside me, I feel everyone tense, and I look away.
“I just thought…”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmur, my grasp on Rhapsody’s blankets tightening as much as I dare, “that I tried to read your mind.”
“I need some time,” Mimi mumbles back, turning away from us and heading for the door. Time? We don’t have time. Would she refuse to go with us to Sigil now? Had I so quickly burned this bridge..? I bite my lip, kicking myself as I watch her retreating back – how do I always manage to ruin my relationships?
“We’re leaving in a couple of hours,” I say, just barely above a whisper, and Mimi pauses briefly on her way out the door.
She shuts the door behind her, and I draw my shoulders in, holding Rhapsody close. The silence that falls over us in Mimi’s absence is awkward and heavy, and I bite my lip to try and control the shaking, tearful breaths that I draw in as I hide my face in Nerida’s shirt once more.
“I-I didn’t mean…” I try, my voice breaking under the strain of exhaustion and guilt, “I just wanted to… to…”
Nerida kneels beside me and draws me in to a protective embrace, hushing me softly.
““It will be okay, my little love,” Nerida whispers, her lips brushing my temple.
“She accuses you of betrayal while justifying your reason for caution. She is not an angel deserving of worship, just one hiding behind holiness and thinking herself pious for it. Perhaps you should have told her. Perhaps you shouldn’t have tried to read her mind, but she should have been more understanding. You did nothing so wrong she should have turned away. She will realize she was wrong or we will be better for the absence. Please don’t cry.”
With a sniffle, I nod, trying to collect myself for the journey ahead.
“I’m sure she’ll come around,” I whisper back, and then look around the room, “thank you, everyone, for your kind words, and for your gift, Loin. I think we should get ready to go.”