Nobody spoke for almost a minute.
Zin stood at ease in the center of the room with Thorn’s cadre arrayed before her, studying her long past when Thorn should have responded.
Avril saw Zin as the first-sworn must see her; a slim woman wearing a summery dress that left the skin of her arms and shoulders exposed and stopped above her knees. Zin was barefoot and unarmed. She was young, younger perhaps than her companions, and there was an openness to her that was disarming and suggested her offer of healing was genuine.
A pretty girl in a summer dress isn’t enough to stop Thorn, Avril thought. So why is he considering this?
“We have done as our lord commanded,” Thorn spoke, but there was a catch in his voice that confirmed Zin’s claim, they went too far.
“Lord Mikkel wanted us uninjured.” Zin looked at Laurill, Maxian, Gabe, and Avril.
Thorn’s jaw clenched, he regarded his prisoners and said, “They killed us.”
Zin met Thorn’s eyes and said, “I know, you died and that should have been that, but those machines inside your heads brought you back.”
Avril winced in sympathy at Thorn’s pained expression.
“It’s too much. How can we live with the… loss?” Thorn shook his head and looked around at his cadre-mates as if to reassure himself they were still there. “When people die, unbound people, their friends and family have to live with that loss.”
“It’s worse for cadres?” Zin asked.
Thorn nodded. “But that’s not my point. The living still have their lives. The dead experience the loss more than the living. They lose everything, and it’s forever. We died, and we feel that.” Thorn clenched his fists at his sides and snapped, “It’s too much.”
“You have each other; you’re not lost.” In contrast to Thorn’s voice, Zin’s was soft and calm.
Avril felt like he was listening to half a conversation and when he glanced at Laurill, Maxian, and Gabe he saw his confusion mirrored on their expressions, but every bondsan in the room focused on Zin to the exclusion of everything else.
They look like they’re drowning.
We could run, Avril thought with a sudden surge of hope, but he dismissed the idea before it had even finished forming in his mind. Zin had captured the cadre’s attention, but Avril and the others were still restrained, but more than that, he believed Zin could fix things.
It didn’t make sense, but he believed it anyway.
Trying to escape now would only undo whatever Zin was doing.
“It’s too much.”
“You can bear it together,” Zin said. “And I can help.”
Avril thought, She’s so much better than me. I knew Thorn and his cadre were in pain from the implants, but I sought to use their pain against them. Zin wants to help them.
He remembered his first meeting with Zin on the side of the road, and he wondered, How did I miss this?
You think too much, Zin’s voice sounded in his mind, and he couldn’t tell if Zin spoke to him the way the bondsan communicated telepathically or if he merely remembered her words.
It didn’t matter. Zin was right.
Avril calculated and assessed and much of what life offered passed him by while he was busy thinking about it. He’d lived his life alone in the wastelands telling himself it was better. That there were fewer complications, but he didn’t know if it was better. That was all he’d ever known, and he had nothing to compare it against.
“How?” Thorn asked, no longer trying to mask the pain in his voice.
“The machines in your head don’t belong there,” Zin said. “The pressure is too much.”
Thorn exhaled, and he seemed to shrink in front of Zin. Her statements weren’t revelatory or inspired by insights the cadre likely hadn’t already had, but Zin said the words with a confidence and compassion that suggested there was a path forward.
“What do you know of this?” Thorn asked, his tone soft, and the question designed not to dismiss her but to stall the moment a decision was necessary.
“I watched the surgery and heard the technicians and doctors argue. None of them were certain how the implants operation or presence would affect you, but they all agreed they would cause problems.”
“You were there?” Thorn asked.
Two more bondsan entered the room and stood quietly by the door. The bondsan already present were motionless as they waited for Thorn to decide.
Watching them, Avril wondered what it must be like to live life in a multitude of bodies with multiple perspectives on the world. A memory of the hallucination he’d experienced when the bondsan beat him flashed in his mind, and he saw the world reflected in the pieces of a broken mirror.
Zin answered Thorn’s question, “I saw in my dreams.”
The words were ridiculous, but everybody accepted them.
Her dreams are real, Avril thought and with a flash of insight realized, They’re real, and they give her access to multiple worlds and realities that all feed each other.
Avril had questioned Zin’s grasp on reality, but now he thought she saw more of it than anybody else.
Why am I so sure of this? Avril wondered, but he let the question go, realizing his thoughts and questions impeded the truth. He might discover the answer to his question later, but even if he didn’t, not knowing didn’t make it any less true.
“Will you let me help you?” Zin asked.
“They told us they cannot remove or deactivate the implants once they’re in place.”
“The doctors and the technicians spoke true. They do not have the skill or the tools to remove the implants,” Zin said.
“You do?” Thorn asked, but his tone revealed he believed she did.
Zin only smiled.
Thorn stared into her eyes for a moment longer, and finally, he inclined his head.
Zin’s smile widened, and she reached up to touch the bondsan’s left temple with her right index finger.