She didn’t immediately return home after her reunion with Ellie. Shreya took her time, stopping by a forest pond and splashing water on her face to renew her clarity.
As much as she was reluctant to admit it, she recognized the points in Ellie’s arguments. It wasn’t like Shreya had much of a reason to disagree with her assessments. If her death would lead to protecting the greater community, then the Elders would offer her head on a pike.
Would she be able to run if she tried? Her disobedience could end in her getting maimed by them, and then killed by the foxes. She doubted they would let her go easily. They’d likely make her answer for her lie. The liar’s death would be worse than the honorable woman’s.
I should stay away…but I can’t.
If she was some sort of princess to her community, then maybe she could shrug everything off and be fine. But she was normal, if not subpar, in the scheme of things. She had expectations to follow. She couldn’t just hide.
By the time she entered her village, it was dark. The last of the cooking fires were being stomped out. Smoke fogged the air, bitter and burnt-smelling. Most had retired for the night, the communal meal having long finished.
She regarded the wolves she passed with a nod. No one stopped for a chat. According to the Elder’s instructions from the prior day, those who couldn’t fight needed to abide by a strict curfew. The rest patrolled the perimeter of their community in shifts. Unfortunately, the hunters still hadn’t come back from their trip. The Elders sent someone to retrieve them, but Shreya doubted the hunters would be reached in time.
The foxes could attack at any time. With their meager defenses, would the wolves be ready in time? Without information on their enemy, Shreya wasn’t sure how they were supposed to prepare themselves. Ignoring the messenger fox, it had been over a year since she’d last smelled a fox, let alone seen one.
Shreya stalled in front of the Elders’ hut. Tall torches burned bright outside of the doorway. An older wolf missing the tip of his ear sat outside. If he was supposed to be a bodyguard, he didn’t act like it. He merely sat there, not saying anything beyond a brief hello. Shreya recognized him as someone who used to be a hunter. An accident years ago resulted him in breaking both of his legs. They hadn’t healed properly, leaving him with a pronounced limp.
She pushed through the doorway curtain and entered the Elders’ hut.
“Elder Ilkay,” she said, bowing her head. The others weren’t present. The strength of their lingering scents told her that they left within the hour.
Elder Ilkay’s robes practically swallowed her frail frame. She pushed back her hood. She remained seated in her chair, the rest of the chairs set in a half-circle formation. Had Shreya missed a ritual of some kind?
Shreya breathed in a waft of incense. Two sticks rested on the shrine behind Elder Ilkay, whisps of smoke dancing off of them. Stone figurines, representations of long dead wolves, sat on top of the shrine.
She spotted Angravel, a fierce warrior known for his unwavering courage, and Lubrigia, a star-reader known for having good fortune. The third, she couldn’t figure out if it was Blokitu the steadfast or Bloku the giant, his identical twin.
“Shreya Marjani Azima,” the Elder said. The slow, haunted way she said her name chilled her. “What brings you here?”
Shouldn’t she know? Isn’t it obvious I would be here about our conversation from the other day?
“May I have permission to speak with you about my transgression?” Shreya asked, hoping she spoke softly enough. She kept her ears flat and her tail tucked between her legs to show deference.
“Your transgression? Is it solely yours, child? Your actions are our actions,” Elder Ilkay said.
Shreya swallowed thickly. “I apologize, Elder Ilkay. I should have said our transgression.”
“Speak.” She waved her hand.
“I do not know how to say this…”
“Speak with conviction. We did not raise you to be a mouse.”
“Yes, Elder Ilkay.” Shreya cleared her throat. “I would like to ask for your mercy, please, for what I am about to admit. I wasn’t truthful. I only took credit for our transgression because I wanted to save us from the foxes. I thought my sacrifice would save us.”
Elder Ilkay narrowed her eyes into slits. “Dishonesty is not a trait you should cultivate.”
“I know. I ask for your forgiveness.”
“I do not appreciate the casual tone you are using, either. You may be young, but this is the last time I tolerate you speaking to me like that.”
Her nerves were causing her to slip up on her formality. She’d used the wrong pronouns at least twice, mixing up her “you” forms. The Elders had ones specifically reserved for them.
“I sincerely apologize,” Shreya said. “I won’t repeat my mistake.”
“I assume you won’t be dishonest again, either.”
Shreya shook her head.
“Good,” Elder Ilkay said. “Have you wondered why it has taken us some time to decide what to do with you?”
“Yes, but I am not saying that to rush you.”
“Relax. It is because you were not the only one who wanted to take blame. You were one of many.”
“May I ask who else?”
“No, you may not ask that. ‘Who’ does not matter. You were all dishonest, but I know that it was your desperation and love for your people that drove you to be. Some of the Elders were proud of you for that.”
Shreya didn’t ask if she was among the proud ones. “I am thankful.”
“I could tell that your desperation ran deeper than that, however. You carried bruises with you. Recent signs of fighting.”
“I have been training,” Shreya said.
“Are you being dishonest?”
“No… I have been doing archery.”
“Along with sparring?”
She couldn’t lie to her, not under her cold, disappointed gaze. “Archery is my focus. I am sorry.”
“Again, you insist on protecting your family. It is unwise to gamble with my trust like that. You should give me honest answers, and only honest answers. You are not in trouble, as long as you remain truthful. Is that clear?”
“We know that your sister forced you to confess for her crime. She has been dealt with accordingly.”
Shreya’s ears shot up. “What do you mean?”
“Elder Ilkay, may I ask you for an explanation?”
“Shanti is answering for what she did.”
She couldn’t keep her voice from raising. “Where is she? What did you do to her?”
“Do not be insolent, child.”
“Please tell me where she is.”
“It is not your place to know that,” Elder Ilkay. “It’s your place to go home and prepare for what tomorrow may bring.”
“This isn’t right! She didn’t force me to say anything. It was all me, by myself. She’s not the one who should be punished.”
“How can you expect me to believe you when you’ve been lying this whole time? Go home and do as you are told. There will be consequences if you dare defy me.”
A/N: We had 12 votes for Shreya explaining that she lied and 5 votes for her not doing that. Voting for this week’s poll ends on Sunday at 11:59 PM EST.
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