Tart

For some reason, she was back in that too-polished, white room, blinded by the rude circle of light. Then there was those robed men and women. There was that woman. The woman always bring in a cloud of small storms, snapping at her own henchmen and tell them to break her. The woman didn’t know she could hear so well. Pity.

“Look, she is already healing.”

“But…she’s a…kid.”

“Do you really think I am so desperate as to torture a child? It’s just a disguise.”

“But…”

“If you do not have what it takes, I completely understand. Perhaps I should transfer you to another project — ”

“ — No, no…sorry.”

Sometimes, if she remembered right, when time don’t flicker in and out like the rude angry light and stretch and leave her like the sparse spirits that wanted to protect her giving away each day, she would tell those men with scalpels to stop and to call them cruel. She would suddenly take her to a different room. There would be something delicious and something sweet. And the woman would wait until she was done. So, sweetness meant something else, they tasted so bitter, so horrible.

The last time they dined, she her just a tart. A beautiful, flower blooming in bitter gull. She hadn’t ate in days, perhaps it was just a week, only a month. She was exaggerating. But she didn’t want her time in this room to end.

“We are almost finished, Vega. But, they almost found out. Sorry that I couldn’t get you anything better.”

“It’s alright.”

“After this, you will be free.”

“…Yeah.”

“Go on, then.”

“Okay.”

And sometimes, the woman dared to take things in her hand. She knew how.

“We are going to find it, don’t you worry,” The woman would observe her over the machines and tubes and tables, smile.

“What do you mean by that?”

“The core of who you are, Vega.”

“…”

“We all have…what we are meant to be as the Creator intended deep within –”
“– You believe in the Creator?”

“….Yes, of course. We are all his vessels.”

“I guess…you don’t know Them, then,” She would stop listening to her, but at some point she remembered the images: the woman made sure that she was well-informed of each cut and slice, every trickle of blood that escaped her. She tried to find ways to still trust.

“Until you are what the Creator want you to be,” The woman would say. Layer by layer, stripped in a cycle, methodical, regular.

Perfect.

Nothing but ribbons of what she was laid waste by man, unfurled, painted by agony and tears and eyes stinging when she was too dehydrated to cry. She couldn’t recall, she didn’t want to be here, she had to go. But everytime she opened her eyes it was the rude white light and scarlet-splattered room.

It felt much longer than it was.

When she finally opened her eyes to comforting darkness and those soft colors of familiar eyes in place of the bright cyclop, she just wanted to see her hands without the white of her bones, to feel their weight, the comforting of another human’s heart and warmth humming against her.

 

 

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Reunions and Resolutions

“Hey, Boss?”

“Yes, Fischer?”

“Remember how we recently dealt with the an unauthorized agent that was somehow capable enough of discovering us.”

“Yes?”

“I believe he might be your acquaintance.”

“And, what type of reasoning made you conclude such?”

“Well…while we were trying to extract more information from him he may have mentioned your name.”

“Well…it could have been pure luck, Marc. What is his name?”

“Sean. Sean Healy.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Are you alright, Boss?”

“…Arrange a meeting immediately.”

“That’s…alright. I will let you know.”

“Actually, no. I’m just going there right now.”

“That doesn’t seem like a wise idea, Boss…Boss?”

*******

“So, this is what you’ve been up to, huh?”

“Sean…”

“You were doing…whatever this is? This is how your family got all the money?”

“I just…inherited this role, Sean. I…this is a legacy that is much bigger than me, or you, or anyone!”

“Yeah, I figured that as soon as you disappeared without a word and now somehow reappear only to reveal that your henchmen are responsible for my imprisonment for the past week.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you.”

“…”

“…”

“I should have figured a long time ago. This…strange organization of yours…this is the reason for your random excuses, or all those times when you get mad whenever I try to ask about it, or…ugh…I should’ve known.”

“…Or I could’ve trusted you and told you everything.”

“…”

“I…tried. I couldn’t risk getting you involved seeing how my parents dealt with outsiders — ”

“ — Yeah, I’ve had a good, first-hand experience of that.”

“Again, I know a million apologies won’t change everything, but I don’t know what I can give you — ”

“ — Just stop acting on your own. You don’t have to do all of this alone.”

“…I don’t want you to get hurt because of me…”

“I already did. Just…tell me, you can trust me.”

“…I know.”

*******

Honestly, she was consumed by the passion of the moment: Sean came to symbolize something she knew she lost and could never retrieve. Yet by some miracle he was here, and it was not the rays of sunshine kissing his features but her lips. The usually teasing voice now a scorching breath against her neck. It was only after that she remembered that she had a date. She swiped for her phone and a rush of panic overwhelmed her as she scrolled through the various texts and calls she missed. The last was around 6 a.m., and that was already two hours ago.

She called in a panic before realizing she might be waking him up.

Of course, he picked up immediately, a slight crack in his baritone, “Antolia?”

“Canopus, honey, I’m so sorry. Something came up at work, and I had to stay –”

“– Oh thank God, I thought soemthing happened to you.”

“I’m sorry that I missed dinner, I just –”

“– Don’t worry about it, we have plenty of other opportunities. Just…get some rest, okay? I’m sure you are really tired. Don’t worry.”

“Mmk…” She felt dumb, ashamed, it’s almost more annoying when he act so saintly and doesn’t even get mad.

“Who was that?” God.

“Just…” She tried to find the most feasible word to define and pretend nonchalance. “…Another target for an experiment.”

“Hrm…if I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed a fiance or something.”

“That means that I’m doing well in my experiment, I suppose.”

He merely scoffed, her resettling frame pressing against him reassured him enough, while she was just telling herself that maybe, maybe this was what she needed. A distraction, no, someone she could actually love. Maybe she can coax herself to hate him, to see him like the monster that he was.

Perhaps one day she will be able to put a bullet in his head. Oh hell, maybe even an entire mag.

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.