It was a crisp, clear morning the day of King Aston's funeral, yet the palace was darkened with the veil of mourning. Black crepe had been draped over all of the king's furnishings in his bed chambers as well as the state rooms, and would remain there for the next one hundred days, after which Millerna would be crowned. Even the port bazaar, usually riotous with the color and sound of trade, had gone unnervingly silent, the merchants taking a day of observation.
Celena lay in her bed, having yet to make a move to rise, her body trembling all over. She'd barely slept, her mind too alive with the terror of what she had promised she'd do today; help Refina escape. And not only that, but to go along with her to gods only knew where. What had she been thinking to agree to help a convicted criminal? Could she really even do something like that?
Allen's return yesterday had only served to complicate matters even more, threatening to destroy an already delicate and impossible plan. No doubt he'd shadow her every move from now on, and with his watch added to that of Eries, her chances of escaping after today were very nearly non-existent. And, truth be told, she was afraid of being caught, afraid that the bars of her cage would shrink even further if Allen or Eries should find her roaming about where she shouldn't. What if she couldn't make it to the dungeons in time? And what if Refina, once freed, refused to uphold her end of the bargain?
She could kill me, Celena knew, her stomach heavy with the chill realization that there would be no one to protect her from the consequences of her actions should those consequences endanger her. And very likely they would. Refina would have no reason to keep Celena alive once she'd fulfilled her purpose. In the end it all boiled down to choice; she could chose the path of least resistance, and could be certain of a future where she would never have to worry about making any choice ever again. Or she could chose what in the deepest and darkest parts of her heart knew she desired, and fight for her freedom. It meant going against those who had sheltered her, those who sought to protect her and even her own blood. Yet it was those selfsame people who had provoked in Celena such feelings of resentment and anger that her fear seemed almost a mild thing beneath is raging red shadow.
Here, there was nothing.
Allen...she thought. That this should happen to us...but if I stay, you will never see me as a person. You would only see me as your precious treasure to keep behind lock and key. I cannot...will not, be your living doll.
With that resolve, she made to push herself up into a sitting position, enlivened by an undercurrent of excitement riding beneath her anxieties. Yet, no sooner was she able to put one foot on the floor than the door creaked open, making her pull back under the covers as Allen stepped in.
"Celena!" he exclaimed in surprise, apparently expecting her to still be asleep. "You're awake."
Yes, and if he only knew the reason why, he'd have had every window barred and every door between here and the palace gates firmly locked, she thought caustically.
She flashed him an uncomfortable smile, not really knowing how to behave with him. He'd come so suddenly back into her life after being away for so long, he was more like a familiar-faced stranger. And now that she looked at him, truly looked at him, she felt irritated at the brotherly concern in his face, at the need to hover over her like one of his damned airships.
"Good morning,"she said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
"How are you feeling?"
What a loaded question that was! She wanted throw her head back and laugh spitefully in his face. How was she feeling? How could he ever begin to know what she felt? Perhaps he should try being sequestered in his room for six months without sunlight or fresh air, with a mind ravaged with nightmares, and then try asking her how she felt!
Some of that spite must have glinted in her eyes, for now he brushed at a stray curl from her forehead as if to soothe her, his hand lingering against her cheek.
I wish you wouldn't look at me that way, Celena whispered to herself. Don't look at me like that, Allen! Don't you dare try to make me feel guilty!
"I didn't sleep very well,"she answered lamely, deciding that at this point at least, playing into his belief that she was a helpless invalid was probably the best way to get him to leave her alone. She rubbed at an eye for effect, hoping it made her look all the more pitiable.
"You do look pale,"he agreed. "Do you want me to send for Dr. Teschen?"
At the doctor's name she sat bolt upright, a wild panic darting over her face as she shook her head in emphatic refusal.
"No!"she cried, a thin hand lashing out to grip his sleeve. "No, don't send him in here!"
Allen looked taken aback at the suddenness of her reaction, a frown creasing his handsome face as he made a mental note to bring this to the good doctor's attention when next they met. He didn't like the thought of a close family confidant being the cause of such distress.
"I merely suggested it out of concern,"he said softly, pulling her hand away from him to set it upon her blanket. "If you don't need him, I will not send for him."
Celena visibly relaxed, settling back onto her pillows. The last thing she needed was yet another set of eyes watching her every move.
Allen smiled, though his eyes were still uncertain.
"It's all right. I'll tell Eries you're not feeling up to attending the funeral. It's a long ceremony, and I don't want you to strain yourself."
Celena glanced away from him for fear of revealing the sudden feeling of relief that she would be left unattended for the next few hours. She merely gave him a demure nod and he again smoothed her hair back before getting up to leave.
"I'll be back as soon as it's over,"he said reassuringly, as if he believed her silence a sign of her sorry to see him go. "Elena will wait on you if you need anything."
Celena held her breath, ears straining as his footsteps faded, giving herself a few moments to be sure he was gone and with a gusty exhale, threw her covers off. She hurried to her closet to find as simple a dress she owned; nothing that would call attention to herself. She slipped it on, fingers trembling as they stumbled to lace up the bodice. She then glanced around her room then to see if there was anything she wanted to bring with her, then decided against it. There was nothing in here that would be of any use, and she didn't want to carry around a reminder of what had been nothing more than a comfortable prison.
She shut her eyes against the hammering of her heart, trying to focus her mind with a few deep breaths, but it proved a pointless exercise. She was wasting time.
Creeping towards her door, Celena eased it open a crack, ear cocked to hear if anyone was milling about nearby. She heard the distant footsteps of a group of people down in the parlor and the muted voices of Eries and Allen. A younger voice piped up between them occasionally, no doubt that of Millerna. Celena struggled to make out what they were saying, but they were too far away, drowned out by the rush of blood in her ears and the racing of her pulse.
Eventually, the voices faded and disappeared, and Celena quickly slid out of her room closed the door behind her as quietly as she could. She crept along the empty hallway, steeling herself against any maid that might pass by, careful to keep to the drapes or behind any piece of furniture she came across.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she paused to listen for any voices or movement down below. She thought she could hear the swish of skirts somewhere, perhaps Elena tidying up the parlor. If the maid was down there, Celena was going to have to be extra careful to be as inconspicuous as possible.
She descended, movements lithe as a stalking dragon, some inborn sense guiding her muscles in a silent choreography that was at once familiar and novel. She had moved this way hundreds of times, she was sure. She'd been trained to do so...
Celena stopped short of the parlor door, having spotted the black skirts of Elena's uniform swirling around her tall frame as she busied herself straightening pillows or taking out a dust-cloth to wipe at the knickknacks on the tables.
She waited, crouched behind a vase that was nearly as tall as she was, seconds ticking by a slow eternity before the maid decided the room was to her liking and vanished through the door that Celena knew lead to the kitchen.
Taking tentative steps, she sidled her way into the parlor, ducking behind one of the sofas, eyes scanning around for even the slightest movement. When it seemed that Elena wouldn't be coming back any time soon, Celena dashed out of the parlor and into the front hallway that would take her to the rooms that served state functions, not sparing a glance behind her. She knew it wouldn't be too long before Elena would discover her missing and send word to her brother. And although she felt a stab of guilt at being parted from him yet again, it was a fleeting as her own quickened steps. Forward was the only way she could go now.
As she ran she consulted her inner map of where she needed to turn to reach the dungeons.
Left, she remembered, just as she reached the end of the hallway that opened into a larger chamber filled with large and impressive oil paintings that would have given any other visitor pause to marvel at their depictions of battles, ancient kings, or more intimate portraits of queens and princesses long past. Celena paused, not the least bit moved by the grandeur, and scanned the chamber to find the doorway she had used before. She found it, a bit past the Queen's salon, and hurried towards it, praying that there was no one close to hear the unfortunate echoes of her footsteps.
Her every movement felt taut and brittle, as if one wrong move would shatter the moment into a million gleaming pieces of glass that would disappear forever. She felt a familiar restless stirring in the uncharted depths of her psyche, like a newborn opening its eyes for the first time. She was forced to stop and lean against the wall just in front of the staircase that would take her to the passageways the servants used. She squeezed her eyes shut against the unknown intruder, a soft whimper escaping her lips.
Not now, she pleaded to the dull throbbing in her head. Not now! Go away!
An abrupt, searing pain stabbed viciously through her skull, sending Celena doubling over and clutching at the wall for support as she struggled to ride it through. Then, just as abruptly as it had come, the pain vanished, but a hollow ache followed in its wake, as though warning her it intended to return.
Gasping, she pushed herself back up onto tottering, shaky legs, raising equally shaky fingers to massage her temples while trying to fight off the frightened tears she felt welling in the corners of her eyes. She scrubbed them away in frustration, knowing all too well that trying to figure out why this was happening to her wouldn't help her right now. If she stayed put any longer she would risk being caught.
Exhaling sharply, she slowly lowered her hands and stumbled on, taking care to watch where she put her feet on the stair in case another attack inadvertently sent her tumbling to the bottom and putting a permanent end to her quest. After a long while, she reached the bottom, feeling a flicker of gratitude of having suffered no further mishap.
She was now in the narrow and dark service hallway, bare of any decoration since it was removed from the royal residences on the floor above. She glanced around to be sure that she was heading in the right direction before setting off once more to the stone stairs that would take her down to the dungeons and hopefully to her freedom.
Her heart began to pound when she reached them, a mad battering against her ribs that felt as if it would burst straight through. Her mind began to attack itself with second thoughts as she set her foot on the first step, warning her that this wasn't what she wanted to do, that she couldn't trust her future to the hands of an ex-Zaibach captain. This wasn't what a proper lady did. Proper ladies did as their families told them; they sat still, spoke softly, and never made any trouble.
But I've never been a proper lady, Celena reminded herself with a bitter grin. She forced her feet to move...down, down, down. I never will be.
Down, down, and down again, her hand trailing on the rough hewn wall, for even in daylight the stair was encased in shadow and candles had to be lit every few feet.
A few steps more...then a few more.
It struck her suddenly then that she had no idea of what she would do if she was accosted by a guard, and very likely she would be, judging by what Refina had told her. What would she say? She would look out of place, not to mention incredibly suspicious. Anyone who was a member of the court would be at the funeral, not down the castle basement striking up a conversation with convicted war criminals.
Maybe she should just pretend to be sick-after all, isn't that what everyone assumed she was? Isn't that what everyone in her narrow world kept telling her day in and day out? She may as well use that to her advantage.
Then again, considering what had just occurred only twenty minutes ago, maybe she wouldn't need to pretend very hard at all.
Almost there. A few more.
By now her stomach was tight with a trepidation that threatened to freeze her in place as much as it galvanized her into keeping herself moving. Her foot hovered above the second to last step, poised to turn around and flee back to where it was safe, but she willed herself to put it down. She'd come this far. She couldn't turn back. There was nothing to run back to.
Now it comes.
Refina sat aside the dented metal bowl that her gruel had been served in, unable, as always, to choke all of it down. The watery slop made the lumpy, bland mixture she'd eaten in the Vione seem like a delicacy.
She titled her head back, leaning it against the stone wall, wincing slightly as its roughness dug into her scalp. She wondered if today would be the day she would at last get to see the world outside of her cell, if Celena would come as she'd promised.
The guard stood just beyond, leaning causally against the rusted iron bars, curly black hair forming a cloud around the rusted metal, no doubt wondering why he'd gotten stuck with the early shift. Andoni. His posture betrayed his boredom at having to spend another day dealing with her reticence. Yet he could hardly be called amicable himself, having spoken little to her since shoving her breakfast through the slot. But she didn't hold it against him. What did they really have to say to each other beyond what was absolutely necessary?
Andoni was, of course, completely unaware that today could possibly be the last time he would feel much of anything. Refina felt her lips draw up into a tight, feral smile at the thought. Oh, what she would do to him if she were on the other side of those bars. Her fingers instinctively curled and uncurled as she thought of holding a weapon once more. This guard would be the first, whether or not the girl came. He'd made the stunningly careless mistake of turning his back to her, and his bare neck was well within an easy reach. She'd held herself back long enough. It was time to make them pay for what they'd done and take back her freedom.
The grin disappeared as her thoughts returned to Celena, irked that she'd had to place her fate in someone else's hands, someone who honestly didn't seem very reliable or stable. Although she'd seemed perfectly willing to risk everything and escape with her, Refina had to admit that the first fingers of doubt were brushing against the more reasonable part of her mind. The girl was skittish, easily frightened and prone to rather disturbing mood swings. How could she count on someone like that to come to her aid?
Well, she couldn't, and that was what had her irritated. She'd taken a gamble, and now she could only wait and see if the dice she'd rolled would win her the very thing she most desired.
She looked down and caught the fingers of her right hand tapping out a frenetic rhythm on her thigh. Refina frowned and stilled them. She hadn't been this edgy in a long time and that annoyed her as well.
If you're coming, girl, she thought. You'd better hurry. I've waited as long as I can.
Her gaze rested on Andoni again, sizing him up. He was paying her no mind, another stupid mistake on his part, complacent in the assumption that she wouldn't try anything only because she hadn't tried anything so far. She could take him now, wrap her hands around his throat, but as undeniably satisfying as that would be, there would be no way she could get his keys if he fell at an awkward angle.
Still, he was a tempting and easy target, and she began to mull over alternative solutions when the guard suddenly jerked upright with a gasp.
Startled out of her brooding, Refina jumped to her feet and saw what had drawn the guard's attention. A young girl came stumbling into the dungeon, dressed in a simple, pale blue gown, eyes flickering to and fro in a feverish sort of confusion, her posture wary as that of a wolf pacing around the edge of a campfire.
So, she'd come after all, Refina mused. Truly, she had begun to suspect that Celena had panicked at the last minute and elected to stay under the wings of her guardians. Despite the passionate frustration towards them she'd shown previously, she was still only a child. But Refina had to admit that her very presence testified that, child or not, there had been more iron underneath that trembling, filmy facade than she'd given her credit for. That alone merited some respect...as well as a generous upswing in Refina's mood.
So, the gods have decided to show me mercy for a change, she thought in dark satisfaction, eyeing the back of the guard's head as he took a few steps towards Celena. I just hope she brought enough strength with her to finish this.
"Milady!" cried Andoni, giving a hasty bow in surprise. "What—What are you doing down here?"
Celena blinked at the sound of his voice, appearing unsure of where she was, but made no reply, instead moving intently towards Refina's cell.
"Ah—Milady Celena…" Andoni stuttered, still trying to make sense of what was going on. "Shouldn't you be with Lord Allen and Princess Eries for the King's funeral? Didn't you hear? Sad business, isn't it?"
He moved to block her approach, totally at a loss as to how to get her to respond to him. Like everyone else in the palace, he'd heard rumors about this strange sister of Allen Schezar; how she'd turned up out of nowhere after missing for ten years, how it was said that she had been in some sort of accident and had been driven insane. How were you supposed to talk to someone who'd lost their mind? Why had she come down here alone? Where was the princess and her brother?
"There's really nothing for you down here, Miss," Andoni continued gently, attempting to dissuade her with as much politeness as he could, but his words did not seem to reach her. She moved slowly, but with an unstoppable sureness, as if she were being pulled by some unseen force.
When recounting moments of complete shock, people often talk of time slowing and elongating, as if everything moving through it were trapped within a thick, heavy glass. They recall the dissonance as their minds attempt to accept the impossible as it played out second by grinding second.
But what happened next allowed for no such acceptance, blindsiding Refina's unprepared psyche for the whip-swift swing of Celena's fists as they connected with Andoni's nose and jaw with the wet smack of bone on flesh. The guard doubled over with a startled grunt, as much from the pain as the unexpected violence from one whose appearance was totally at odds with the expertise behind the blows. The grunt became a strangled cry as Celena's knee rammed into his stomach, collapsing him into a boneless puddle to the floor. With equal swiftness, both key ring and sword were divested of the guard with a metallic rattling that sliced through his moans.
With a predatory smoothness, Celena's head jerked back up as she turned her attention to Refina, who stood staring back at her with a mixture of horror and confusion reflecting in her eyes. Yet there was nothing to find in Celena's features. No fear, no anger, no shock at what she had just done. Just a flat coldness, a ruthlessness that Refina knew by all the gods of Zaibach had not been there a few nights ago. Whoever it was that was standing in front of her, it wasn't Celena.
But if it wasn't Celena, then who in the Emperor's name was it?
She's...she's insane...She's really insane! There's no way I can let her come with me now! She might-
A groaning noise cut her from her horror as Refina realized that it came from her cell door being opened. Yet she felt no sense of relief or joy in the freedom she had just been granted. Instead, whatever happiness she might have felt recoiled at the now clear space between her and other girl, hands unconsciously clenching into fists as her body readied itself for any sudden movements. But Celena only nodded at the hallway in a silent gesture for her to hurry up. Edging cautiously around the bars, Refina kept as much distance between herself and the girl as possible, eyes fixed on the sword still clutched in her hand. It was only until she was certain that no attack was forthcoming that she allowed herself to turn her back.
They made to run, but a gasp from Celena stopped Refina mid-stride, whirling about to see that Andoni, recovered from his initial shock, had shot out to clap a restraining hand around Celena's ankle. But before Refina could act, Celena was already drawing the sword, a clear, silvery ring of metal that sealed the fate of the guard in one swift, killing stoke across his throat. Blood sprayed, bright and arterial, across the gentle blue of her skirt in a livid red streak. She stumbled out of the dying man's grip, hand flying to her head as she jerked about in an awkward circle, her movements losing their former cold gracefulness. Her groans joined that of Andoni's, back bent in a sudden stab of pain that flashed across her skull. Her sword hand groped blindly for purchase until it met the rough stone of the wall, the blade clattering to the ground as she sought to brace herself against its reassuring solidity.
Refina wasted no time then, swallowing back the renewed rush of fear as she lunged to retrieve the sword, turning the motion into a wild pivot for the hallway that would take her as far away from this madness as she could get. Whatever she'd just witnessed...she didn't want to think about it until she was someplace safe. Safe and alone.
It took her a few seconds to realize that the gods appeared to have different intentions. Lost in the pounding of her own feet against the floor and her own heart against her ribs, she'd almost missed the echo of a second pair of feet stumbling after hers. Risking a glance over her shoulder, she spied Celena, hand still cradling her head, lurching behind her with slow determination.
But that wasn't what gave Refina a fresh burst of speed.
It was something in the eyes she'd caught in those few seconds.
Something that gleamed crimson and hellish in the shrunken irises, glaring out from underneath the pale curls.
The solemn hymns of the choir echoed up through the nave to the dome high overhead the bowed heads of the supplicants, weaving their words in with the thick coils of incense towards the painted image of Jichia at the center. Shrouded in the gentle golden glow of a setting sun against the shore, the god of the sea gazed down at his people, beatific and protective with an outstretched hand.
It was a magnificent sight, and surely, under different circumstances, anyone would have thought to look upwards and remark on the exquisite skill of the hands who had rendered it, but any beauty that could be found in the temple today was only in the tightly drawn faces of the princesses as they stood on the dais above their father's coffin. Garbed in the full splendor of court dress, they were as still as the temple's stone pillars, their eyes downcast as two priests circled the coffin, censors swinging in flashes of gold as they doused it with blessed incense.
Yet as sorrowful as he was for them, Allen, standing just as still at attention with the other Knights Caeli down the grand center aisle, could not help his mind wandering back to his bedridden sister and his encounter with her that morning. In his mind's eye he saw again Celena's face, bruised from too many nights without sleep, her eyes wild with a nameless and shapeless fear. It overlapped the memory of her five year old self, a sweet and lively thing whose face had only dressed itself in a smile.
What did they do to you, Celena?
Black shapes sprang from the deepest recesses of his imagination, bony hands clutching at all things cruel, sharp, and metallic. Things for prying, pulling, penetrating. The Sorcerers of Zaibach, Allen knew, had kidnapped his sister at the Emperor's behest. They'd been responsible for Dilandau, crafting him from Celena and turning him loose on the world.
He knew that. And it was a terrible enough knowledge to bear on its own, but how had they done it? What had they done to give him back a young woman who still stared at him with the eyes of a stranger? A young woman so shattered and so preyed upon by what she could not remember that she stood a very real chance of never finding the peace she deserved?
I would have killed them myself if I could have! If only I-
His eyes flickered over to where Eries stood beside Millerna, so resolute, so perfectly composed and austere despite the grief he'd seen break free of that restraint just last night. Indeed, it was she who looked the queen, not Millerna, having such strength as she did to thrust aside her emotions and do what needed to be done.
If only I'd have been half the brother I should have been...
Blinking hard, he remembered himself and where his eyes should be, focusing again on the guests kneeling in the pews, hands still clasped at prayer. There was Van, ceremonially dressed in the robes of Fanelia, in the front row among the most honored of the invited, silently offering his own petitions, whatever they might be. Allen spared the young man a brief smile before settling both his expression and his mind back into their proper neutrality.
Having finished blessing the casket, the priests returned to the altar, wisps of incense trailing after them as they handed off the censers to their attendants. Soft strains of the next hymn lifted from the choir, and the voices of the faithful lifted to join with it.
So intent was he on maintaining his absolute calm that Allen mistook the faint stir of movement heading down the main aisle as nothing more than another gently twisting arm of incense smoke, but it soon resolved itself into the bobbing feathered hat of a Royal Guard trying to make his way discreetly towards the altar. A few heads turned at the disturbance, but, apparently sensing no alarm, immediately returned to their hymnals.
But as the guard drew closer, face set with grim determination, Allen did feel the first awful spike of alarm as he realized that the guard was looking directly at him. And while he kept his gait smooth and unhurried it was clear that whatever was going to happen within the next few minutes was going to push an already terrible situation to the very edge of a full blown panic.
Swallowing against the creeping tightness in his throat, Allen mustered all of his training as a Knight Caeli to maintain both his stillness as well as his emotional equilibrium as the guard, with an apologetic bow, grasped his shirtsleeve and leaned in close.
"Very sorry to intrude on the ceremony, Sir Allen," the guard whispered in his ear, voice as starched as the white linen sheet draped over the late king's casket. "But it's the matter of your sister. She's missing."