XLII.

They growled against the metal bars, each raspy screech a reminder of her failure.

“You’ve failed again, haven’t you?” The oppressive voice was too familiar, accompany to the cold gaze falling upon the animals: half human, a quarter Nokshan and a quarter insanity, hissing.

The limp pair of grey wings stitched to the first subject was already rotting, the spirits sustaining it having been misused. She had the chance to revive them, but not the skill to match such odds.

“This is just wrong…”

Claud paused in his pacing, raised a brow, “What else could we have done to amend for Emperor Luctus’s wrongs?”

“…” Eridani looked at her hands, wrists that had shed their bandages and wore scars instead.

At that the priest approached her, covering the jagged scripts of new skin with his forceful hands, “Child,” oh, the pretense of gentility was more revolting than the smell of this room. “You are simply restricted by your hesitation. You fear of betraying your brother.”

“And what’s so wrong about that?”

“Not wrong: it’s quite admirable, actually,” He brushed over the scars, read them. “But, he doesn’t deserve your devotion.”

She snatched her hands away, “You can’t be the judge of that.”

“Why, he’s abandoned you to chase after his revenge, then he became enamored with the daughter of the man who massacred your people.”

“You know nothing of him,” She snapped. “He was forced into a contract…he was desperate to save me. He would never…” Words caught at her throat when she recollected the last time she encountered him: time and her suffering twisted details and now she saw his arm too natural around the princess. “He would never…”

“How about this, Lady Eridani, shall we leave this dreary place?”

“What?”

Of course, it was a mere excursion for Claud’s businesses. Eridani found herself staring out a square of dull, flying scenery that was still better than the damp towers. She did not know where this insignificant town they stopped at was, but was just grateful to feel raw earth directly beneath her sole again.

An official greeted them with information that sped past Eridani’s ears as she was too distracted reviving her lungs with fresh air.

“This way, my lord,” They followed the man to a ran-down cottage.

“Who are we meeting?”

“The last person to have saw your brother and his new friends,” Claud mused.

A woman, seemingly young except for the dark clouds about her eyes, answered the door. At Claud’s introduction the fatigue melted off of the woman’s face temporarily as she invited the Grand Priest into her unworthy abode.

“Thank you,” The genteel Priest thanked the daughter of the older woman, who set tea down before them, cracked ceramics on a cracked table. “Madame, I am dearly sorry for your loss.”

“I have been helped with this township’s support, and now, Your Holiness’s presence, so my grief should be a burden for myself.”

Claud smiled solemnly, “It pains me to do this, but for the sake of bringing the criminals responsible for your husband’s death to justice, I must know how it conspired.”

The woman complied, “The day before, an one-armed man and his wife by the name of Elsinore came for my husband’s assistance. Mr. Elsinore appeared awfully ill, so I extended the courtesy of letting them stay. Then night came…my husband and I had a small argument, and Mrs. Elsinore interrupted. Out of embarrassment, my husband stopped but later decided that he needed to get some fresh air. He went downstairs on his own and I heard a loud bang, and I rushed downstairs…a shadow was there. Just a strange monstrous bird with…four powerful taloned limbs and amber eyes,” At this Eridani’s throat ran dry. “Then there was my husband, de…” Claud offered a hand in silent sympathy, and the widow found strength from the blessing and continued.

“Mrs. Elsinore was there, and beside her were two strangers that she later introduced as her fellow travelers: a young girl and a…Nokshan. I was too shaken to be suspicious, so I cleared my younger daughter’s room for the two strangers. The next–”

“– One room for the two of them, the Nokshan and the woman?” Eridani thought her voice unbearably cracked, but the inquiry necessary.

The woman did not find the fact crucial, though it meant the world to the inquisitor. “I thought only intimate relations would travel in each other’s sole company…still, I curse myself to this day for allowing them to defile my daughter’s room with their presence.” Claud thought he heard a crack, searched the unstable house and saw Eridani’s hands balled into pale fists; he smiled. “The next day, the guests left me a generous sum and I was almost thankful. Little did I know, the beast along with the Nokshan and the woman returned and attacked our house. My youngest daughter managed to convince the woman to stop and the beast vanished. She then seized my daughter when she saw the guards came, threatened to kill the poor girl–”

Eridani got up and left the damned house where her brother had murdered a man using Jiube and…her face burnt at the idea…shared a bed with the witch.

“Brother…he wouldn’t…” Was she blubbering like a fledgling? She hated so many things at once.

Claud was just glad. He stayed to interview the widow’s younger daughter, only to find discrepancies pointing to a more likely narrative given the princess’s stubbornness: she must have told the woman to place the blame on her, while the little girl refused out of naivety even though the widow knew better.

And Claud knew better, too, for he will continue to have the princess and her raven bear the blame: seeing the small, hooded frame of the young Nokshan wrecked by suppressed sobs and betrayal, he could only wait for the wrath to drown envy, to fix broken pride.

He smiled and counted at least one experiment successful.

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