Theodore set the offering bowl down at his father’s grave. It was a tall slab of black slate, pointed like a blade and rising high above the other identical stones marking the final resting places of the Grayweathers that came before. The base was crowded with other tributes: weathered flowers and beads from the Hero Champion’s many admirers.
It was Feroxian custom that, once a year, should distance allow, the first born of every household honor the memory of a dead father by performing a small ritual. It was something Theodore had seen his father perform many times, but not a rite he had ever performed himself. Theodore had his excuse: in Laien, you took your father’s name and you took your mother’s tribe. By law he was Alenian, and had no obligation to do this.
That wasn’t the real reason he had never done it.
“Are you happy?” Theodore said. “This is what you wanted. That I get my act together. That I try to become a knight like you.”
The grave wasn’t capable of saying anything.
Theodore exhaled. He wondered why he was wasting his time. Fishing out a matchbook from his pocket, he tried and struggled to light one. He knelt, cradling the flame in his palm, and lit the incense.
A rosy wooden scent drifted in the breeze over his offering. It was a bowl of his father’s favorite food, a scoop of strawberry ice cream that was melting too fast. Theodore sat across from the grave and imagined his father.
“I told you I couldn’t do it,” he said. “Guess I was right.”
It was growing colder. The seasons were turning and what time was left was slipping away. He closed his eyes.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Everything is falling apart. Can you see that, wherever you are?”
Opening his eyes, it was still just a hunk of stone. His throat tightened.
“I’m supposed to be you, but I’m not. I never was. But you pushed me, and kept pushing, and told me how to live when I told you I hated it, but you never listened. And now I need to be you and I can’t! And you aren’t here to tell me how!” He got to his feet. “So what the hell am I supposed to do?!”
His voice carried over the cemetery, startling a flock of birds. They scattered from the bare limbs of a tree and leaving a single one behind. Theodore stared out at the city in the distance, knowing he was being stupid. He came here wanting something he couldn’t have. Something that was already gone. All that was left now was a useless son that would rather be filing reports and shelving books.
The incense dwindled down to a glowing stub. There was another part of the ritual to finish. Theodore picked up the offering bowl and found the ice cream had melted into a sick pink slurry. To carry his father with him, he had to eat the offering. He lifted a dripping spoon to his lips. It was sweet and miserable, but not as awful as he thought.
“I should’ve listened to you,” he said, wiping his mouth. “But that doesn’t mean I think what you did was right. You should’ve listened too. …We’re both stubborn like that.” A shiver ran through him. “But, I think I get it now. Why it was so important to you.”
Evening crept across the graveyard. Theodore took the incense burner and stored it in his bag with the bowl and spoon. The last bird flew from the tree and landed at his side.
“I told you to wait at the inn,” Theodore said.
Oboe changed shape. “You were so upset when you left,” She shuffled her legs, looking away. “I didn’t want to just leave you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nothing matters. I failed.”
“That’s not true.” There was fight in her eyes. “You can take the test again in three days.”
“We could be at war in three days,” Theodore said.
Pain flashed across her face. Something was churning inside her, something she beat back until her hands curled into fists and she looked at him again, resolute.
“Then I’m going to the Circle.”
He stared at her a moment, knowing how hard this was for her.
“Oboe, I can’t ask you to go back there by yourself,” he said. “Not after what they did to you.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m being selfish. You’re trying so hard and doing everything you can. I should too. You should train to fight Conrad again. I’ll go to the Circle and I’ll make them stop until you’re Ranger Deputy again. I know you can fix it.”
Theodore looked at his friend and felt a new flicker of hope. Gratitude welled up, filling the empty holes inside him.
“…Thank you.” He hugged her, and she pressed tight against him.