Serala — The Unvarnished Truth
????, Fire Season, Season/Movement Week
Fire Season/Movement Week/Freezeday/Mid Afternoon
At the White Grapes, after speaking with Varanis, Finarvi and Serala have a heart to heart. Serala doesn’t throw much at her cousin when he insists on telling it how it is.
Pagliacci the Warhorse
After a while of sitting on the edge of the bed while Varanis sleeps in her chair, lulled off by Serala’s neck rub, and Finarvi drooling on the bed, Serala has had enough. “You. You don’t need beds. Stables,” she grumbles. At least this time she doesn’t throw anything at her cousin’s head, reaching to shake him by the shoulder. “Come on. We’ll put Varanis in her bed and we can go where we belong.”
Finarvi rouses reluctantly, mumbles something about beds and drags himself to his feet. He looks at Varanis, who has one greave on and the rest of her armour on the floor. He rubs his face, grimaces, and apologises for the drool.
Varanis is poured into bed, Serala even being generous enough to remove the greave. “That pretty server downstairs looked like she liked you – ask her nicely to bring Varanis some water to wake up to and let her know we’re in the stables if she wants us?” That’ll be enough in the way of messages, Serala wanders on out towards the Den of Horses, ever hopeful that her cousin will twist people into doing his will.
Finarvi joins her outside after a longer than expected pause. He rubs the stubble on his chin unhappily. “I feel like an alynx’s leftovers,” he mutters. “Remember when we could go days without sleep and still manage guard duty?”
Serala quirks a grin. “We were young. And stupid.” Wait, aren’t they still only in their early twenties?? She whistles softly and Pag settles down in his stall, providing a comfortable backrest for the two Grazelanders if they want it. “Is it my imagination, or does everyone chase different outcomes?” She is obviously speaking in her native tongue now, relaxed at the thought that it is at least unlikely that anyone can understand, even if they can overhear her quiet voice.
Finarvi settles beside her and gives her a sideways glance. “Something you want to share?”
A shake of her head, “Nothing you don’t already know, assuming you had your ear pressed to do the door when I tried to talk to Xenofos. He’s more interested in hoarding information than accepting that differing viewpoints might shed light. Apparently Varanis has signed up to madness.. Mellia .. I don’t know. It sounds like she is more in Dormal’s way of thinking than he thought… Berra I have not seen, and I don’t understand why she was in such a hurry to start a quest that needs a plan and strategy… Rajar, well, okay, Rajar just wants to fight Lunars… but there are no Lunars in the direction we are going. Although, I accept, perhaps some chaos. Nala wants to ride her pretty pretty unicorn around, although she may have plans beyond that. And Irillo, of course, wishes to make money. Have I missed anything? Oh yes, the fact that Varanis seems to simultaneously want me to prop her up as leader while also being more interested in what lies under my riding leathers. Which I don’t necessarily object to, but if she wants impartial, rational advice, that is not the way to do it.” A bright smile, “Please, coz. Tell me your take on this madness? You may see threads drawing together which I miss?”
Finarvi leans into Pag’s warmth and sighs. “My take? Nala would rather be in Prax. I’m not sure Rajar has any agenda or plan. Mellia’s trying to remain impartial, to no avail I fear. Lhankor Mhy hoard knowledge; it’s what they do, but it sounds like Xenofos is on the sharp end of that for a change. Irillo sent him to the library to find out about the sacking of Boldhome, but he came back empty-handed if I’m any judge.” He gives Serala a warm smile. “From what Varanis says, everyone is giving her the same message, and she’s hearing it. She’s terrified she’s doomed us all. And I know a crippling crush when I see one. Be kind to her, cousin.”
Serala nods, “He either came back empty handed, or he lied to my face. Given the importance of truth to him, I’m inclined to think the former.” She wrinkles her nose, “I like Varanis. I do. But I find it hard to see her as Fearless Leader and.. nervous child and.. potential partner.. at the same time. Would it be ‘kinder’ to tell her ‘no’? Or try and turn her into what I want? Neither of those feels right. But she feels lost to me.” She closes her eyes, leaning back against Pag and reaching to wrap strands of his mane around her neck. “Why do we need to rush into this quest? Would it not be better for everyone to actually discuss what we can.. or even should.. do? You may have foolishly sworn to help Varanis, but I didn’t. Talking of which – just what did you promise? To help her complete her quest – or just to help her?”
“I pledged her my support. I wasn’t stupidly specific. I could see the looks of dismay on wiser faces than mine. I sensed that unity was more important in that moment – she would need all our help to get out of the mess she’d pledged herself to. Varanis is torn between who her family wants her to be, and who she is, who she is becoming. She is barely more than a child, painfully inexperienced, so how could we see her as our leader? Yet her family burdens her with expectation. And there’s more to this. I see a tension in her cousins that does not go away with time. Varanis acts like she is on a mission, Irillo and Dormal like they have jobs to do, but Xenofos looks like it’s a punishment. I wish I understood what Grandmother Saiciae’s game is. Why did she send them to Sartar in the first place? Did she know what a wasps’ nest she was kicking open?”
“I suspect Grandmother Saiciae has her own plans,” Serala admits thoughtfully. “And I suspect none of them can truly know what that devious matriarch truly plans. For all we know, she is sacrificing Varanis as a pawn so that Esrolia – and her house – can take over Sartar while all is in disarray.” For someone who dislikes politics, Serala perhaps sees Machiavellian impulses in too many places. Perhaps that’s why she dislikes politics so much. “And I doubt if any of the Saiciaes will tell us the truth of the matter, for family loyalty will definitely trump anything they feel for us.”
He nods agreement, sighs and stretches his long legs out straight in the straw. “And the answer to your question about the quest is it doesn’t have to be rushed. Eril might want us to move fast but he also wants us dead, apparently. I have no idea why Berra started the quest without agreement, unless she thought it was already started with the oath.”
“Eril is a Humakti high nobbity nob. And Berra is a Humakti initiate,” Serala says, very slowly. “If Eril wanted us all dead… guiding Berra to start the quest in a hurried manner… might be part of that? Of course, that would assume that Berra would listen to Eril, which seems unlikely in the normal scheme of things.. but he is a another devious old schemer… We need to ask Berra, she will have had a reason. Truth and honour are so much a part of her, she would definitely die rather than betray them.”
“Berra respects Eril and obeys him as High Sword.” He can’t help grinning at that. “I’m sorry, it still sounds odd to call Eril High Sword. In my mind, that title belongs to someone like D’Val. Eril -” He glances at Serala again, a wicked glint in his eye. “You know, the first time I saw Eril, I thought he was a follower of a different god entirely. One that rhymes with ‘Normal’ and has nothing to do with sailors.” He huffs a quiet laugh, mostly at himself for entertaining such a foolish idea. “It’s nonsense, but what a trick that would be.”
“I rode at Eril’s side into battle against what we perceived to be Jar-Eel,” Serala notes softly. “Do not underestimate his skills in battle. Just because one does not put everything on display does not mean it is not there, hidden beneath.” She grows quiet though, musing. “I do not know.. where.. the underlying mistruth is, but it feels as though there is one. Somewhere. One crucial facet that we are relying on as Truth that is leading us by the nose. You might try taking your thoughts to Dormal.” She half smiles, “I am too quick to judge, I think.” Her eyes narrow, almost daring Fin to make something of that. “I saw only that Dormal was upsetting Berra, my friend and family, and did not seek to know him beyond that. I still feel.. difficult.. talking to him, making oaths to him. But.. But. There is something awry and he, like you, appears to have the turn of mind to seek it out.”
“It’s like a burr under my tail,” Finarvi grins to use a Grazelander expression. “I might not be able to reach it, but by all the gods it’s annoying. And if Dormal’s set on getting to the root of it, I’m of a mind to help him. If I were to judge people by their actions, Dormal hasn’t done anything to earn the treatment he seems to get from the others. But I’ve seen little enough. Until now, I’ve been more interested in what that reaction reveals about others, especially Berra. Since she’s our Warleader, or at least, I thought she was. Should I have been looking to Varanis?” There’s only a slight hint of teasing in his tone.
Serala shakes her head, “That, in itself, is.. complex.” She sighs heavily, settling herself more comfortably. “Honestly… I have more knowledge of strategy than either of them, although Berra is the next most capable. And she can draw attention; you know me, except around family and those I truly trust, I am not at ease with shouting orders. Except for yesterday; and that aberration hardly endeared me to people. House Saiciae see Varanis as their … I don’t know. Anointed One? She has the bloodline, the training, the pretty armour. What she has not is any experience in the world. You and I Fin.. we saw war, loss, battle, before we had left our childhood. She is sheltered. She doesn’t look forward to see the consequences of her actions; she is a magpie picking up the shinies, never seeing the hunter with a bow looking for the pretty feathers.”
“I think that’s why her cousins are so protective of her. But she knows her weaknesses. Of course she has pride, and pedigree. It’s been bred and trained into her. And she has a diverse ring to advise her. But you’re right. Knowing you are young, inexperienced and impetuous does not alter those states. It can make you doubt your actions. It can make you punish yourself endlessly for your shortcomings, your bad decisions. Varanis understands what the consequences might be. Her advisers have all made sure of that. And it’s likely to paralyze her.”
“Does she know her weaknesses? Are you sure?” Serala sounds sincerely concerned. “She has little time to spare for the weaknesses of those around her; it is all about what Varanis needs. And that is a serious failing in a leader, and not one I am sure she is aware she has. She has – not even noticing – actively undermined me before now. So yes, Finarvi, I hear your words, but don’t go too far down the route of ‘poor little Varanis’.” Her nose wrinkles for a moment, and it has nothing to do with the gentle scents of the stable. “Is there an answer? She seeks advice, but you think when it is offered, it only offers doubt? I admit, I find it.. difficult.. to treat her as the leader she is not. Our own lineage, in our way, carries as much respect as hers. And she cares nothing for that. So tell me why I should baby her along, Fin? Leaving aside the fact I like her as a person. Mostly.”
Finarvi chuckles at her seriousness. “Because she is just a child, Serala. She’s trying her best, and then she forgets and falls into old habits. Just like we did as children.” He gives her a wry look. “You know, I only pity Varanis because she likes you too much.”
Serala lifts an eyebrow, “Are you saying I’m difficult, Finarvi?”
“You are being harsh and you know it, sister dear. She is full of self-doubt. The only time she was tested, it ended awfully. She carries failure with her. Imagine having the deaths of your friends on your conscience, and being told that you must lead, you must rule, and knowing you’re still the same person making the same mistakes that caused such disaster last time.”
Serala turns her blue eyes on her cousin at that. “She was tested? When? What happened?” she asks. “I never see self-doubt, she is always ordering everyone around. Are you telling me that is overcompensation?”
Finarvi half-closes his eyes, thinking. “I see something very different,” he admits. “I see someone who is trying to do what she thinks is expected of her, but doesn’t know how.” He lifts a hand, lets it fall, a gesture of failure. “It was Dragonrise. She was leading a unit of Vingans and they were taken by surprise. Her leadership abandoned her, her followers suffered for it. The shame and the guilt gnaw at her, but her Grandmother told her to lead the mission to Sartar all the same.” He turns to look at Serala, no hint of humour in his normally merry blue eyes. “She doesn’t want to be responsible for our lives. The thought she might be responsible for our deaths is breaking her.”
“But she’s not…!” Serala protests. “She doesn’t have to be responsible. No-one put her in charge, it is her trying to claim it over the protests of others, and her family encouraging her to ride roughshod over the barbarians. She is not responsible for my life… or yours, little Brother. If anyone should be feeling responsible for your life, it’s me.. you’d be safe at home right now if Grandfather hadn’t sent you after me. She takes too much on herself.” She rolls her eyes, “Maybe I should explain that to her in smaller words.”
“You can try,” Finarvi gives a weak smile. “I don’t think it matters, though. She knows we are here by choice, and we’re choosing to help her, but her grief demons are loud and greedy. As for you,” and now he does grin. “We’ve had this argument before, when I joined the rebels. Better I run off and have adventures where you can keep an eye on me. Besides, a whole year being the good little family redsmith was like lying in a pit of fleas. I was glad of the excuse to leave.”
Serala looks just a little reassured at that, but not a lot. She really should understand Varanis’ fears, as her face reveals just how concerned she is for Fin’s welfare. “Yes, well. If I had time, I’d ride back and put you firmly back in that fleapit.” she grumbles. “I like keeping you where you’re safe. When I came back from battle and couldn’t find you, I nearly went out of my mind. And then… then… I find you in a tent with those nice twins from the Five Trees’ clan…” Not that Serala keeps score. Ever. No.
Finarvi smiles widely at the memory. “You have nothing to feel jealous about, you know. Stop thinking ‘barbarian’ is an insult and remember it’s a strength. And the next time you feel envious of Varanis, remember it’s us that will be putting our shoulders under her arms and carrying her out of this mess, because we know what loss and failure mean, we know she’s not ready for this, and she depends on us just as much as anybody.”
Serala half smiles, “I never got over it, you know. Needing to feel needed.” She lifts a hand and ‘baps’ herself on the forehead. “Or, more to the point, needing to feel appreciated for feeling needed. I think that’s where I run into trouble. Varanis needs us, but she’s so busy telling herself that leaders shouldn’t ‘need’ anyone that it all just.. gets messy. And I can’t tell if she really likes me or just that I’m a partially stable shelter in a storm. Which means it’s difficult to know how to react to her flirting.”
Finarvi gives a soft laugh. “She’s skittish because she likes you too much. She’s not going to try and seduce you because she’s afraid to mess it up.”
“I’m not sure she should be trying to seduce me right now. If I’m the advisor who can be trusted to tell her the truth without fear, how can I do that if I am emotionally involved, Fin?”
He turns to Serala. “She has cousins to be emotionally stable shelters. And you could show her some vulnerability in turn. Who’s shoulder do you turn to when you need to vent floods of tears?” He shakes his head. “Intimacy is honesty. She might trust you more to tell her hard truths, who knows? Also, you are already emotionally involved, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” His serious mien drops for an instant, becoming teasing. “Just without any hope of release.”
Serala shakes her head, “Are her cousins shelters for her? All I have heard of late is how they undermine her, and stress her even further?” Serala’s gaze slides away from his. “Pag knows all my secrets and pain,” she mutters. “He can be trusted not to share, without even any oaths.” The warhorse, hearing his name, turns head sleepily and butts his mistress in the side. “And you. When you can be serious for five minutes together!” She picks up some straw and throws it at you. Luckily, straw doesn’t throw very well… “You should get more sleep. I think we’ll all need our wits about us later.”
“Sensible,” he admits. “Her cousins aren’t trying to undermine her. They see what you see, inexperience leading us into danger, and try to warn her. Terror of past failure makes her self-doubt roar up like oil thrown on a bonfire. Then she will meditate, maybe cry, meditate some more, and resolve to do better. And she will listen.” He gives Serala a disapproving look. “She does try to be the responsible leader. She doesn’t float about giving people orders; after every fight she goes round and talks to people, and finds out if they’re all right. You should have noticed that.” He settles down in the straw to sleep. “You might be better at strategy, cousin, but maybe you’re not quite ready to lead either.”
Serala pulls a face at Finarvi, but doesn’t actually contradict what he says. “I never tried to lead,” she grumbles. “I just want my leader to be someone I can respect. But fine, maybe I shall cry and resolve to do better. But only when no-one’s looking.” And while her cousin settles to sleep, the warrior settles to talk it all through with Pagliacci. Who doesn’t contradict her at all.