I could barely force myself back to sleep. It seemed to just be a bad night overall. I look up to see what looks to be an ominous reddish looking cat perched just outside my window, staring in at me and my siblings. I do not know if it could see that I was awake, for those eyes were truly frightening. I had never thought animals could have menacing expressions as people did.
In an effort to elude its eyes, I shut my own and tried to force myself to sleep. After about half an hour or so, I sneak a peek and the feline is gone. I breathe a slight sigh of relief. The night is still such an unsettling quiet, allowing my loud thoughts to keep me awake. I close my eyes and sigh before trying again. Counting poofy sheep, I come to sleep, only to be greeted again by a nightmarish fit.
This time, there are no flames. I hear crying in the background, like that of a woman sobbing. I look to see a body laying in the darkness before me. It smells acrid and looks burnt to a crisp. Shaking slightly, I will myself to look closer, for who this person might be.
"Shaw... oh Shaw..."
That sunken, burned face which stares up at me is nearly unrecognizable. But I feel the familiarity. I have seen this person before. There is little flesh where there might once have been wrinkles... But I am almost certain... from old pictures I had seen…
It's my dead grandfather.
And that voice, sobbing and calling for Shaw, is definitely a woman's… it sounds familiar. Mother?
The realization alone does not wake me. I don't open my eyes with a start. Instead, I hear my father knocking on the door telling us sleepyheads to wake up. The rapping on the wood pierces the dream and I open my eyes with slight strain. Shaw next to me sits up in bed. His shirt has gotten rumpled in his sleep, pulled up from the back. As he goes to pull it back down, I see that scar on his back, like something from a burn.
Something in my mind clicks. But could it be true?
At breakfast, Gerda set out trays of tea, lump sugar, clotted cream, biscuits, welsh rarebit, local jams, and coffee for takers. When we come out, she says she has a special feast for us children. I simply nod a bit. I must have seemed like quite the mess after the poor sleep last night. I nearly poured cream onto the tablecloth, missing my teacup entirely.
"Bad first night?" Mother giggles softly.
"There was a dreadful scarlet cat keeping me up …" I mutter. I could swear mother's face blanched at my mention of the feline, but she drinks her coffee in such a quick succession, I cannot be sure.
"Hm? Dearest?" My comment seems to have missed my father as he looks to my mother. She continues drinking and merely shakes her head slightly. Father adjusts his glasses and looks now to the guests, "How was the night for you two?"
"Oh don't bother, master Keel!" Bruno laughs, "I could hear Miss Germaine snoring from leagues away! Twas a well-rested night eh?"
Germaine gives a slight scowl out of playfulness, "Aw, shut yer trap."
Gumilia quietly sips from her cup. Her glasses fog from the steam and she takes off her spectacles to clean them. She seems to have slept fine despite sneaking out last night.
"It was nice sleeping in a bed again," She says, putting back on her glasses.
"I figured as much," Father says, helping himself to some of the cheesy bread.
Gerda brings out sausages and pancakes, much to the delight of Shaw and Aile, as well as some fresh fruit.
"Gerda, this is too much!" Mother exclaims.
"Nay, tis good for the young miss' first mornin' back!" The cook laughs.
"She will have plenty of time to enjoy it for the rest of her young life!" Mother laughs airily.
I suppose she is sure I am not leaving this time anytime soon. I see father sipping his tea in quiet at her comment. Normally he is one to follow up with quips of his own. The quiet and the look in his eyes is troubling. There must be a meaning there. And I have the feeling it is no coincidence… it must have to do with my dreams of grandfather and his death. It is something they have hid from me. After breakfast, I go convene with Germaine and Gumilia in the guest study, where we make sure no one is listening.
Gumilia stifles a slight giggle at Germaine falling asleep on her arm propped up on the armchair. She seems to be feeling the alcohol from yesterday. I think she polished half of father's liquor cabinet once she finished with the small selection of lower quality ales. I giggle a little too as she murmurs something in her drunken stupor.
"I suppose all that hypervigilance had to give away some time. At least now we seem to be safe…" I say, looking to Gumilia.
She looks to me after affixing her glasses, "… Yes. Safe."
I frown a bit, "… Do you mind me asking why I saw you steal out like a thief in the night to the nearby forest? It's dangerous you know!"
"Ah, naughty child. You weren't asleep yet at that ghastly hour?" Gumilia smiles, "Though I suppose… it was better you were not."
I look at her quizzically, "What's that?"
"You're not going to grow properly, child," She chuckles, "But it's not bad for you to be awake when danger is afoot."
"What? But you just said-"
She puts a finger to her lips to silence me briefly. Quietly, she walks past me. I almost think she's about to leave my query hanging as she opens the door. But then I see father just outside. He has the look of someone who has just been discovered hiding.
"Listening in, were we, Keel?"
"Ahaha, I came to see if Yukina-"
"I'm a bit busy father…!" I say, crossing my arms, "And I don't quite appreciate you trying to lie to us! What is it?"
He sighs, "Oh how you've grown… I should have expected this since you were traveling with Gumilia…"
"Come in and join us," Gumilia says slyly as she reels him into the room, closing the door, "We do have some things to discuss."
"Oh? Whatever for?" Father blinks innocently as Gumilia ushers him into a seat.
I don't know for what Gumilia wants him, but this will work. I've been wanting to confront him about my rather perturbing conclusion since breakfast. It's really nothing I want to discuss normally with even him, my most trusted chaplain. But the curiosity is insatiable, and I fear what will happen if I do not ask. At the same time, I am also a bit scared of the truth.
"Last night, Keel… I saw a cat near your house. Bear in mind it was a peculiar and rather particular feline," Gumilia's gaze seems to unnerve my father, "It had red fur."
"Oh… What an ... odd kitty," His voice paused, betraying surprise.
"I saw that too!" I exclaim, "Gumilia, was it of importance?"
She does not answer me, still looking only to father, "Keel. You know what we're talking about. And it has appeared to Yukina now. How much longer do you intend to detain me?"
Detain? I look to father. He looks the most uncomfortable I have seen him in a long, long time. It means she is onto something. No matter how much it may hurt me to see him like this…
I walk over and look him in the eye. He turns to face me almost reluctantly. I can see something like fear in his eyes reflected on the image of me.
"Father… you always told me to pursue the truth… So I must also ask my question."
There is silence save for Germaine's snoring.
"… How did grandfather really die?"
Father stiffens at my query. The fear spread all over his face and his hand clench at the arms of the chair.
"What…" He starts, but I continue.
"I've been having dreams, father. There is fire in them, and grandfather… he is screaming," I make a slight face as I try to recall, "His body has been burnt, horribly so… and I hear mother calling out for Shaw."
My father has broken off his gaze from my eye, casting his own downward. A hand runs through his hair, as it does often when he is stressed. I press on, seeing Gumilia look at me with something like awe. She nods, lips drawn into a thin line.
"Father, please… I want to know… I deserve to know."
"No, no… Yukina, no one should have to know that… that awful history…"
"What are you talking about father? What are we hiding? What are you and mother hiding?" I fight to keep my voice from rising, "Where did Shaw get his birthmark?!"
At that, my father takes off his spectacles and places them down beside him. He buries his face in both his hands and sighs heavily. It's as if he were a laborer with a burden all his life that he has finally, reluctantly, decided to put down, as a sign of resignation.
"… Father?" I say a bit more quietly.
"… No matter what you say… You know I… It's not like I'd hate you or anything silly like that… You're my father! I… You're my best friend!" I say, blushing a little at the admittance, "I tell you everything because I trust you… don't you trust me?"
"… Alright…" He relents and sighs, "I'll tell you… all of it."
Gumilia folds her arms and walks to the shelf in the study, leaning back attentively, "It's been eating at you for a long while, has it?"
"Yes… for the longest time… But I was momentarily able to forget those unpleasant things due to my family… but now…" He massages his nasal bridge with two fingers and replaces his spectacles, "If the danger is near anyway, then there is no longer any point to withholding this…"
I go and sit down on a footstool which I draw up by my father. It's something I did when it was story time. Shaw and Aile used to do it to mimic me when I came to become the storyteller. Father takes a breath, "Let me start from the beginning… It was back when we were still in Elphegort…"
The spun web of secrets begins to fall away.
"We were not the most fortunate merchants back in Aceid. Do you remember, Yukina? We left you often at home while we went to man our little storefront… and it was a struggling business."
I nod. It is odd. I do recall that time from when I was young. I also remember mother having told me of how she had originally eloped with father upon my birth. She had a family inheritance she lost, from an old family by the name of Sfarz.
"Things changed when we found out that your mother was pregnant again, with Shaw. Oh how troubled we were… My god, another mouth to feed in such a time! There was no way… So, she ran off before I could say another word. She went towards Yatsuki to find a midwife and abort the child."
"The gods must have known how much it tore her inside to decide so. She never made it to Yatsuki, she said. Instead, she met a stranger who told her that she would be fine so long as she kept a certain charm with her… With it, she would be able to keep the baby. By gods, how badly she wanted it..."
"A charm?" Gumiliar quirks an eyebrow, an accusing look beginning to appear on her face, "… Keel, it was a magic item… wasn't it?"
He does not answer exactly, hanging his head slightly and simply saying, "It was the damn most miraculous thing ever…"
He continues, "Once we had it, it was like fate changed its course. We were visited by the local leader of Elphegort soon after. We entertained him and he learned of our problems. He ensured that we'd no longer have to fear discrimination from the locals. Thanks to his words, the business flourished ten times over… It was what bought us the Freesis manor. From there, I grew my network."
His eyes are filled with nostalgia and he continues, "We were very happy… Everything seemed to be going swimmingly. And Shaw was soon born… But then one day, the curse of luck came with a great force, like we'd only been damming an inevitable wave that was pent-up, and we were washed away when it finally came."
Gumilia half rolls her eyes at the dramatic language, "Keel…"
"R-right, sorry… It's just the whole event sometimes… makes me truly wonder if it was all just a ploy… because that fateful day that changed everything… Your grandfather found us. And he was furious seeing our success."
I swallow a little at the grim tone of his voice. His face shows he and my mother's side must have gotten along horribly.
"He wanted her to return with him at once to Marlon. He grabbed Shaw and threatened to take him. Your mother was so distraught. And then…" He presses a hand to his face in half-shame, "And then she… set him up in flames… with the stranger's charm clasped in hand…"
"Keel, this charm," Gumilia says with slight urgency, "Was it a silver spoon?"
Father nods a little meekly, "Yes… blue fires leapt up within a moment's blink of an eye… and suddenly the room was aflame, and so was your grandfather. He screamed horribly and dropped Shaw, or else your brother would not be here today… but the flames… left that scar on him."
A spoon which created the flames that scarred my brother… and killed my grandfather? This is madness… and it's due to the same object that we attained this level of comfort in living? Both mother and father…
"Keel… You messed with a damn vessel of sin…" Gumilia scowls, eyes lightly clenched.
"… Yes," Father answers quietly, without defense, "We dabbled with fate and… well, then when the flames cleared, he was dead. Your mother was crying… I … I suppose you must have seen and heard the commotion, Yukina. But I hadn't thought you'd remember… especially what happened next…"
He takes a slight breath and continues, "The stranger suddenly appeared, the one who helped your mother and gave her the spoon. They were no normal street peddlers… it was the queen of Marlon herself… Prim Rogze. And her head mage, I.R. Abyss, had helped her."
I hear a slight noise from Gumilia, like a pop. I glance over and see the briefest spark of something like energy fizzling around her. But what makes me widen my eyes is her expression. I had not seen her ever seem to livid, even when we seemed to be faced with great dangerous evil. She looks almost uncharacteristic of herself, filled with rage.
"Continue," She ignores me, seething.
"We… we had to protect ourselves. Your mother… it was hardest on her, to discover this betrayal. I will never forget that look on her face. Prim terrified us, telling us about the demons and such… and how we were now involved in such a horrible spiral of events. To protect us, your mother agreed that we would aid the queen in locating the other sins, and our Freesis network would be completely free to their use. The espionage force uses our channels… and we are in turn allowed to live as though nothing is wrong…"
"Is the spoon still here?" Gumilia's voice remains tense and hard like an edge.
Father shakes his head, "No… eventually we returned it to the queen. By then our business had enough reputation that we could survive on our own. They helped us bury the truth about your grandfather… and they were also the ones who gave us the venom sword for safekeeping."
Gumilia scowls a bit and falls silent.
"The rest after… well," He derisively chuckles, "We had Aile soon after and lived quite peacefully save for the meetings we held in private with her majesty. When the war happened between Lucifenia and Elphegort… I was actually ordered to support any overthrow of Lucifenia so that Marlon could get a foothold in. Then when Marlon annexed Lucifenia, the queen ordered us moved back to Marlon before we could rebuild the manor… doubtless to keep an eye on us… and so… here we are now."
He sighs and removes his glasses to clean them. I sit there, positively stunned to silence by the deluge of revelations that just cascaded from my father's lips. Gumilia seems to be working on restraining herself from having a meltdown.
My whole life I had always admired my parents. My mother's story about eloping and how they seemed to have built a new life for themselves from the ground up… they were such alluring tales that I had held to be truth. But reality is that… we owed all our complacency and life to the sins. The very same ones ravaging the souls of men…
"We never wanted it to get so far… Nor could we have been able to foresee these larger events at hand. I suppose it was a fool's dream to think that so long as we kept our heads low that the great waves would pass overhead," Father holds his arms before his face, "Queen Prim promised us protection … but that red cat… is that of her court mage's. I fear the time has passed where we can stand by anymore…"
Gumilia strides over to him.
"Keel, look at me."
The moment he lifts his head, she slaps his face hard enough that his glasses go flying. The loud sound jolts me out of my thoughts. Father stares, a bit stunned at being hit. I've never seen even mother do anything like that.
"You… were one of the closest in my circle… to think! All along, Abyss had her seeds this deep along my side…" I cannot see her eyes as a slight chuckle escapes her lips, "I knew you had been aware of things, but I didn't know to what extent... and that you'd been helping Abyss all along... of all people...!"
Father does not raise his gaze to meet hers. Without another word, she uses a force projection spell to throws the doors open. She walks right out, slamming the doors shut with a bang behind her. Germaine finally wakes up from the loud noise, jolting into an upright sitting position.
"Whoa! What the… Oh, Keel."
Me and my father look to her with a bit of helpless exasperation. He stands and mumbles something before going to pick up his glasses. Germaine seems a tad confused as he leaves the room wordlessly. She looks to me.
"W-did I say something in my sleep?"
I sigh and shake my head.
Before dinner, I go looking for Gumilia. I had pondered on father's disclosures for a good while at my desk. I couldn't even face my siblings with a fake demeanor when they came looking for me. Is this the burden of the truth? My gods, how had father managed it all this time… How had he and mother been able to smile at us, knowing the horrible truth?
It was because he knew, probably… he knew it would be far worse if the truth were realized. Our peaceful lives might have been gone, and the queen could turn her wrath on us. It was easier to smile and shoulder it with the pretense of security hinging on deception… Seeing Gumilia's reaction, I can understand also that he didn't want it to come to this. It may as well have cost him a friendship…
Turning out to the manor garden, I see her about to leave again, towards the Column Forest. I run after her and grab her waist from behind in an embrace. She seemed not to have noticed me at first, probably having been deep in thought as well.
"G-Gumilia…" I pull off reluctantly, looking towards her face, "Can we talk?"
She turns to me, a bit impassive. But she nods. We both sit down on a stone bench in the garden. It is a bit quiet at first. I take a breath and begin.
"I want to know what your next steps are," I say at last, "What do you plan to do here in regards to the sins? Do you plan on going after the queen, as involved in this she seems?"
She looks pensively before her, but not at anything in particular, "I'm not sure those are the things I want to discuss at this moment, given the eyes possibly on us here…"
"Oh right… but we're here anyway! And I don't see you running for it despite that! Besides, I'm sure there's already gossip about the odd bunch who suddenly came to Marlon accompanying King Kyle of all people…" I sigh and smooth out the crinkles of my dress, "You just don't trust our family anymore, right?"
"… It's not your fault," She still does not spare me a glance, "In fact, none of this really should be your concern. You're only shortening what is already a brief lifespan…"
I puff one cheek slightly, "Well, yes. I suppose with your magic, you can bypass a lot of things like age right?"
She just nods.
"Then why did you travel with us humans at all? Me, Germaine… hells, even Kyle! And for the time it was, you did trust my father… He used to talk quite a bit about how often you'd contact him about business! So acting detached now is just… it's a bit silly, if I may say so."
"… For the longest time," Gumilia scoffs and a small smile appears on her face, "I thought it was possible. It seems that was what made me let my guard down in the end. Me and my silly beliefs…"
"I don't think it's wrong of you to believe in others…!" I pipe up, "If just one betrayal-"
She gives me a look. Unamused. So I revise my statement.
"…several betrayals… Uhm, well, even so, we can't just give up on others! How are we going to find the truth behind this otherwise-"
"Truth?" She cuts in with a slightly scornful smirk, "Your own parents were this close and they couldn't have cared less about the truth…! It's only things like money and your own skin… and this was after they no longer even had the spoon of greed…"
She looks at me for a moment and pauses. I'm not sure how brave the face was that I had on.
"… It's true. The truth scares a lot of people. It hurts and sometimes it destroys more revealed than if it were buried…" I mutter, "But I think… it's not worth it if people get hurt anyway. The sins are spreading their corruption because of people who benefit from withholding the true story! As a writer I could never…!"
I grit my teeth a bit. Gumilia seems a bit surprised still when I meet her gaze once more.
"… You don't have to trust my family," I say as steadily as I can, "But trust that there are people who believe in the truth."
After a few moments, she smiles slightly in a wry way. For a moment, I thought her expression resembled someone else.
"You make a fine writer, Yukina."
I blush slightly, "...And besides... you're keeping things from the rest of us as well, right?"
"How perceptive of you."
"I won't press you on it today!" I announce, "But! There will some a time when this is all over... that I want to hear it all ok?!"
"And what will you do with that knowledge?"
"I'll write it! The truth will be recorded with my own two hands," I look out before me, envisioning it, "I may not be able to fight as well with swords or magic... But no one can best me with the pen...!"
She merely chuckles, "... Very well. One day, you will learn the truth, whether you like it or not."
"I wouldn't have it any other way...! And I hope you make up with my father too eventually, someday."
"... I suppose I hope for that too," She chortles, "Keel is an insufferable businessman... but the world is dull without people like him stirring the pot now and then, I suppose..."
We both turn at Gerda's voice calling for dinner inside. She stands.
"Well, shall we? I hear there is meat pie tonight."
"Heehee, yes…" I stand as well, "Clarith left Gerda the recipe."
"But it's never quite the same is it, in truth?"
"No, it has that spin on it. Unique to Gerda," I grin a little.
We both share a laugh and go inside for dinner.