There was a crash and a curse before Quincy and Sedwick burst through the door. Elmiryn turned a quarter to stare at them as they stood panting in the space of the doorway. The wizard was favoring one leg. She must’ve tripped on the way up. Both pairs of eyes fixed on the warrior, then on her father, then back. Jaws went slack.
“Friends of yours?” she heard Warner grumble behind her.
Elmiryn jabbed a finger at them. “Get out!” she barked.
Sedwick gave a small nod and pulled Quincy by the elbow back out. She felt a flood of gratefulness toward the man. She didn’t want Quincy to see this exchange. The wizard was still staring between Elmiryn and Warner as she was led away, and her lips were beginning to curl up. If she says anything, the warrior thought ominously.
As the door shut behind them, she turned to regard her father. “You didn’t answer my question.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? Well, you never answered mine.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You didn’t ask one.”
“Mo-nths ag-o…” Warner drew out the words before he burped and pulled his last glove off with his teeth. He took the time for another swig before resuming, “Months ago. Months, and months, and months ago…I asked you…‘Why?’”
Elmiryn sucked at her teeth and looked away. Her room was in a state, no thanks to her father. He’d dipped into her stores, and so empty wine bottles littered her floor like pebbles in a cove. There were shards of glass along the foot of the walls where he’d thrown them, giving the illusion that the floor had teeth and the two of them were standing in the mouth of a beast. The white canopy of her bed was torn and hung limp, her dresser was overturned, the bedside stand was smashed to pieces and covered in dried vomit. Her clothes were thrown about and ripped to shreds–the silk shirts, the wool coats, the cotton velvet jerkins, the chenille tapestry cloak, the shimmering vanilla brocade dress she’d worn once and only once–and along the walls she saw bullet holes whimsically trailing like ants to a picnic. The room smelled musky. The floor was sticky. In the end, it was all just things, but Elmiryn’s mind turned, nettled and incensed by the blatant attack against her, and a beast she’d known to hide in the corners of her wants and her hopes blinked its eyes and grunted that satisfaction was warranted–even from her father.
Warner shifted in her chair, a rough chuckle coming up his throat as he regarded his daughter. Elmiryn drew herself up and met his eyes, not because she wanted to, but because it was hard to kill habits she’d learned so young.
“You…” Warner wagged the pistol at her. “You’ve come to haunt me.”
“I’ve come to haunt you? In my home, that I paid for?” Elmiryn towered over her father, her teeth bared. “You have availed yourself to everything I’ve ever had, why the fuck do you think I’d willingly haunt your ass?” And the irony of this was not lost on her. The man, like the people outside, was transparent and phantom-like…but unlike them, he could see her. Why?
“Don’t get crass with me, Elmiryn,” Warner stared at her beadily. “I allowed you to keep this little hovel, because you had to pretend to be common. And wasn’t it to my benefit in the end?” He gestured grandly around him, an ugly smile spreading across his gray cracked lips. “You were very careful in keeping your little hideaway a secret! So good, in fact, that the royal family has yet to seize it.”
Elmiryn tensed. “They seized our lands?”
“You think they wouldn’t?” he returned.
“We’ve lost the estate…” she said slowly.
“Everything,” he spat. “No thanks to you.”
“All…of it.” She felt her mind snow over. In all the time she had spent away from home, she hadn’t felt much concern for her family because she was confident they would protect themselves. She knew if the situation were switched, she would take measures to do just that. To hear otherwise, she found, was unsettling.
“Ha! Ha, ha, ha, yes!” Warner’s mouth screwed up as he barked out with laughter. When his humor continued, it came out in a long dry whine before turning into silent convulsions, of which he bore gracelessly, kicking up his heels, and rolling his head back and forth along the back of the chair. “All of it! All of it!” he managed to wheeze through his hysteria. He kicked at her, chair squeaking forward an inch, though his ghostly foot went through her legs, and she wondered who was really haunting who. “All of it, because of you! Damn your eyes!”
Elmiryn shook her head slowly. “The charge…the charge was on my head solely. You and mother had…pristine reputations in the courts. Connections. And if those didn’t work, why didn’t you just take what you could and…I don’t understand–” then her expression turned pained. “Mother, she–” then her face screwed up in anger. Her nostrils flared, her brows knitted, her lip curled. She raised her sword, like she meant to cut Warner in half. “You idiot! What’d you do? What’d you say!? You could’ve escaped their wrath, but instead you’ve sent mother to the streets in your stupidity!”
“Damn your eyes, damn your eyes, DAMN your eyes! You haven’t the right to have your mother’s eyes, for all your damned talk!” Warner lurched to his feet and threw his bottle to the floor. “I’ve always protected her! I’ve always kept her safe from the noble bloodhounds! But I am not a miracle worker! Nothing could have staved the king’s rage from your heinous actions!”
Elmiryn screamed and swung the sword down. Warner flinched back into the chair, his hands going to cover his face. The sword went through him harmlessly–but embedded itself into the chair’s back a full three inches. With her foot on the arm rest, she pulled the blade out, stumbling back a few steps. Strands of her hair feathered about her livid face as she shouted, “What was I supposed to do!? It wasn’t my fault!”
Warner didn’t answer right away. He clutched at the stitch in his chest, his eyes wild, as he caught his breath. Then he cut her a look of pure loathing and barked, “You should’ve turned yourself in and hoped for a quick death!”
She snorted and rolled her eyes. “That would’ve done nothing for us!”
“Nothing for us?” Warner spat at her. “They accused us of aiding in your escape! We went through weeks of examination, being violated in the worst ways, until the King decided to strip us of all we had. We have NOTHING now.”
Elmiryn took a step back with a grimace. She stood panting, her eyes darting from one side of her father’s face to the other.
Warner scoot to the edge of his seat, and his eyes narrowed. “The disgrace was unimaginable. You have stained our entire family!” The sag of his chin wobbled. The lines of his face seemed more pronounced. Elmiryn let her eyes trail from the hair growing in his ears to the large blackheads in his aquiline nose. His nostrils were as wide and as white as she imagined hers were. The parenthical lines about his mouth were deep, and his eyes had gotten baggy and dark. The hollow of his cheeks seemed ruddy, like he’d been rubbing at them, and his small ears were dry and flaking.
While others strove for the approval of their parents, Elmiryn found herself struggling to survive the expectations of just one of them. Perhaps, in her youth, she had greatly resented the man, and even gazing upon him now stirred no great sense of charity or compassion in her save the sort one spared an idiot mired in his own misfortune. His blood ran through hers. She had taken on his family’s fiery hair, their long legs, their small almond-shaped eyes. She’d learned his steely voice, his self-possessed air. She’d grown to accept his cold parenting, and with time, was even grateful he’d pushed her so hard. But her respect for him waned as her father sat before her in such disgrace.
Elmiryn didn’t know what to do.
She felt guilt rear its head in her and tried to quell it. It was not for her liaison with the princess, nor even for her decision to run from the authorities that fateful day. It was the irrational sort of guilt a child may feel upon learning the physical pain they caused at birth. She wished, without words and without reason, that her family–yes, even her father–had not been left to suffer so in her absence. It was appalling and ugly to see her progenitor living in such a squalid state. It made her feel his filth, made her feel his shame, made her taste his wretched outlook as if it were a genetic trait tainting her from the inside out. She wanted this not to be. To un-be. To never have been, so that she could still hold her father in the cold respect she had come to, and to think of her mother in comfort with great affection. She wanted the burden removed from her honor as a daughter.
She refrained from talking about her family with others for the same reason she wished to keep Quincy out of her affairs. Nothing jilted her more than her family. Even thinking of her mother brought about a mild sense of discomfort, for then Elmiryn began to worry, and the woman rarely worried about anything. She would’ve said it was not in her nature to worry if she didn’t know the sort of anxiety that came upon thinking about Brianna. Warner, on the other hand, jilted her in other ways. He stirred up rage, and sometimes that ghostly feeling of fear, like when one walks close to a high ledge and senses the height. He loomed over her military career, pulling strings to get her the right promotions, and she’d always felt his presence even in her personal life–like his eyes peered from the back of hers, and his shadow was what brought the night that led to her escapades. She’d heard rumors. Whisperings of a past hidden beneath medals and marriage.
“My! Well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…”
Were they not of the same fiery blood?
Her earliest memory of Warner was a memory of a memory. She recalled herself telling Saelin, her former lieutenant, of a time when she was a small child: “Warner never let me sit on his lap, y’know. He didn’t have a lot of patience for me. But there was one day when my mother was lounging against him, and I was curled up in her lap, and that’s the closest I’d ever been to the man. I had my arms around her waist as far as I could reach, and he had his arms around her shoulders, and I remember the both of us scowling at each other like we were trying to say, ‘I was here first!’”
The redhead looked into her father’s eyes and shook her head. “…You’re a mess without her,” she whispered.
Her father blinked and sat up straighter, his shoulders rolling back as if he were trying to shrug off any sign of weakness. “Come again?”
“Mother,” Elmiryn clarified. Her lip curled a little. She started to feel the anger trickle away, bit by bit, as a strange hybrid of pity and disgust settled in her heart the more she held Warner’s gaze. “You’re a mess without her around. So where is she?”
The man didn’t seem to know what to say. He looked down at the floor, then the ceiling, then out the window. Finally, he grumbled, “She was distraught, she–”
She heard the familiar diatribe and interjected firmly. “Where is she?”
He pursed his lips and wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Brianna is dead.”
This just annoyed the woman, and she tsked at him like he were a child. “Warner. You’re lying. Where is mother.” She even leaned over, head tilted to the side, to force his eyes onto hers.
He glared at her sidelong, eyes dull and far away. “Brianna is dead,” he said again.
She straightened, brandishing the sword. “Warner.”
“She’s dead. She’s dead.”
“Stop saying that.”
“For fuck’s sake–”
“Brianna. Is. Dead.”
The woman flared up again. “Then why do you keep saying it like you’re trying to convince yourself!?” Warner gazed at her, his face impassive. After a long staring match, Elmiryn sighed and sheathed her sword. Warner didn’t relax but fixed his eyes on the sword as if not trusting it to really be put away completely. The woman scratched at her eyebrow with her pinky and asked, “Did you drink everything?”
He seemed taken aback by the question. “What?”
“The wine.” Elmiryn grinned, and started speaking slowly, even going so far as to mime with her hands. “Did…you…drink…all…my…fucking…wine?”
“Don’t you dare talk to me that way, or–” The man snapped. But his indignation waned when he found there was nothing he could do to back up his threat. He slumped in his chair, and sucked at his teeth just as Elmiryn did. She frowned at this familiar habit and made a note to stop doing it in the future. “…No. There’s one cask left in the other room across the hall.” He gestured with his chin. Halward, how much of his nature was hidden in her?
“Good!” She said the word forcefully, as if she were telling her thoughts to die a painful death. She turned and proceeded out of the room. “I’m not going to ask why you bothered bringing it up here. I’m just happy I don’t have to resume this reunion under pain of sobriety…”
I felt the flames consume me, inside and out, and I suppose it was much like dying. But the there was a sigh over me, and the pain and heat vanished, and I was falling and falling and falling…but it was with a feeling of elation in my heart, for I knew that my plan had worked. Volo’s dream, his everlasting nightmare, ended upon the moment of entering the flames of hell…and beyond that?
Freedom. Freedom, that was, for myself and Farrel. That limit of imagination was our exit. But my head hurt from all the stress of the ordeal, and I was still feeling ill in my stomach, doubly so for the weight that pressed on it.
Then my eyes snapped open because I became aware of the fact that Farrel was sitting on me with his hands on my breasts.
And the only thing he said upon witnessing my eyes open was, “Damn! You’re awake!”
He was bare chested, but wearing pants–heaven knows where he got them–and it was a small blessing in a horrifying scenario. My mouth fell open and I felt heat rush up and down my body. We seemed to be in some filthy back road, the pavement beneath my hands and elbows cracked and rocky, a brown puddle not far from us smelling putrid–likely the contents of a chamber pot dumped from the above window–and there were ghostly rats fleecing through the discards of a butcher shop not far ahead.
I could’ve taken any number of reactions here. I could’ve whimpered and begged for Farrel to get off. I could’ve pushed at him and bucked like a wild animal. I could’ve screamed for help. I could’ve slapped at him and called him a cur. I could’ve done all of those things. But none satisfied my affronted morals more than taking his wrists, pulling them outward so that the weight he’d shifted onto his hands was unsupported, and slamming my head into his.
Sparring with Elmiryn had taught me a few things, and one was that I seemed to have a particularly thick skull.
His nose spurted blood as the man shouted out and rolled off of me. But I still wasn’t done. My skin still tingled with the feeling of his unwanted hands, and after the flurry of Ailuran curses flashed through my head, my next thought was, “How far did he go?”
But as I rose to my feet, I saw that my tattered pants were still on, and nothing felt out of place as I stood over the elf with raised fists. “Üle kinzcht nedret! Och lunama!” I shouted with a red face. Ailuran for, “You miscreant! I’ll kill you!”
…I want to take this moment to state again, for the record, that I find violence to be execrable. But you tell me what the appropriate reaction would have been in this situation? I honestly can’t tell you now if I’d meant what I’d said, but given my anger, it felt very satisfying to say it. I didn’t survive all that I did just to be pawed at by a drugged up halfling.
Farrel scuttled away from me, his back hitting a wall. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he squealed. “They just looked so nice! I–I didn’t think you’d wake!”
“Just because I’m unconscious, that doesn’t give you the right to touch me! Ever!” I felt the need to cuff him on the head, and did so, but then I had an awkward flash to my time spent with Atalo. Whenever he did something that greatly annoyed me, I did what my brother Thaddeus would do to me, and bopped him on the head. I didn’t like drawing parallels there, and so I kicked Farrel in an attempt to smother my own discomfort. “I don’t care if your brain is addled and your moral understanding is handicapped. Understand this–touch me and you’ll regret it!”
“Noted, noted!” Farrel whimpered, and he pulled his legs to him. He seemed to have flashbacks of his own, recalling the time I smashed his delicates.
“I also got that point! And would like to add to it!” I heard Tristi exclaim from the alleyway opening. I turned my head and saw him standing there, a large bag over his shoulder. He tutted and shook his head. “I told him to behave while I was gone. He was supposed to have dressed himself by now, with what I gave him. Sorry, sweetest. Had I known he’d have done this, I would’ve taken him with me!”
“Tristi.” The name fell flat from my lips and I fixed him with a hard look. “Where are we? How did you find us?”
He approached us, his body moving in that seamless way, even as he stepped over a large broken crate. But his eyes were on Farrel. “You were outside the brothel, spat out there by the building it seemed. I had a sneaking suspicion Volo didn’t let you live willingly, so I stole you both away. We’re near the Oristel Square–the place we first met.” He tossed the bag to me, and I caught it with a look of surprise. The contents felt soft inside. “Clothes.” Tristi said simply, before reaching down and grabbing Farrel by the hair with his gloved hand. The halfling squealed, his eyes rolling in his head as he struggled against the champion of luck’s four-fingered grip.
My delight over Tristi’s gift was immediately lost in my alarm. “Tristi–wait!”
The champion’s glove began to glow, and he smiled that terrifying smile as he lifted Farrel up with one arm so that their eyes met. He was at least a full three inches taller than Farrel, and the halfling, upon seeing what he was dealing with, went limp, his eyes wide and watery like a rabbit’s.
“Your luck has run out, friend. What would chance do with thee?” Tristi murmured. “Maybe you’ll be crushed into a bloody ball, or turned into a rat for met to gut, or perhaps your manhood will rot off–to the betterment of your nature?”
I dropped the bag of clothes to grab Tristi’s arm. “Stop it! Stop it! This isn’t what I want!” My hairs stood on end as I saw the symbols flashing around us. The chance magic was starting.
Tristi still didn’t look at me. “Ah, but maybe it is what I want. Didn’t I tell you this man was not worth the trouble?”
I looked at Farrel, and he looked at me pleading. “He can’t help it!” I cried.
“Oh? Are you going to tell me the witch’s smoke made him do it?”
I shook my head emphatically. “No!” Then, in a quirky recall, decided to say it eight more times for total of nine–it was lucky after all, right? “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!” I reached at the arm that held Farrel up and gave it a wrench. Tristi, more by suggestion than force, let Farrel go, and we both fell to the ground on our bottoms. There was a muted ring as the chance magic, with its glow and its flashing symbols, vanished from the air around us. The champion of luck, meanwhile, looked down at me with a look of delight. “You…” he wagged a finger at me. “Are a strange one! A strange one indeed, to show mercy to a man you’d just threatened to kill!”
“I was angry,” I panted, looking at Farrel. “But you see, Tristi, Farrel can’t help it. My friends and I came here against our wills, and this strange world has divided us–not only from each other, but divided us, as people, and so we’ve lost something important to ourselves. I have lost my animal counterpart, my Twin. And Farrel…he lost his moral compass. He can’t discern right from wrong.”
“What?” Farrel panted, rubbing his scalp. “That doesn’t make any sense. I feel fine.”
I pointed at him. “You wouldn’t if you were whole again. You’d feel like a wretch–and rightly so! But…” and here I bit my lip, my eyes flickering up at Tristi, who quirked an eyebrow at me. I resumed, though in a quieter voice. “I think there’s still good in you. I’ll just have to…watch you, and help you understand what’s what.” Then my eyes narrowed and I covered my chest up on realizing where the halfling was looking. “Even if that means a few painful reminders!”
The man blanched, his eyes snapping back up to mine. His nose was still bleeding and staining everything.
Tristi cleared his throat. “Ah, Nyx? The clothes.”
I perked up. “Oh! Right!” I twisted around and grabbed the bag to me. Opening the canvas flap, I sighed in relief. Inside were white stockings, dark black strap shoes, a black velvet doublet with silver trimmings and jeweled buttons, and brocade paneled black shorts with open slashes that would allow for it to fan out around the hip and upper thigh. Tristi–bless him–even included some new underthings for me. Aside from the tattered remains of the trousers, my unmentionables were quite…soiled. I stood, doublet in hand, ready to pull on my new accouterments when I realized that, while I was already bare up top, I wasn’t keen on baring my most delicate self to these men. I spared them an impatient look, doublet held before me like a new shield.
Tristi took the hint. Farrel didn’t.
“That’s not fair!” he whined. “You got to see me naked!”
The champion of luck pulled him up by the neck and spared a charming smile my way. “Go on, sweetest. Dress yourself. I’ll see about straightening out this fellow in the meantime.”
“Tristi don’t hurt him…much.” The last part I added in a mumble. Farrel certainly was making it hard to stick up for him, dysfunctions or no. I wondered if I would’ve been this tolerant of violence a month ago. My experiences in the last few weeks had really forced me to reevaluate the necessity of brute force, though I still wasn’t a fan of it, and never would be.
But these musings fell away as they rounded out of sight, and I began to pull on the clothing with a great squeal of delight. “Thank the gods!”