The stars spiralled in intricate swirls that swept across the night sky and through the Aethya in elaborate patterns painted by the Gods’ meandering fingertips, outshining the tiny slivers of the twin moons. Their shape promised the impending darkness that would loom on the morrow as the cycle rebirthed, as those who had died during this cycle would be reborn, and spoke of Lyria’s impending deadline —she needed to act.
She stifled a groan. After the event by the docks, the day had been an eternal slog. Beads of sweat slid down her back as the sweltering air molded her clothes to her skin, the fern she crouched beneath did little to shield her from the serpent’s lasting legacy, and her bones ached from holding her posture for so long. Damn the Arisse’s; damn their entire family! She was nothing but a sanctioned criminal, skulking through the darkness and hoping that no-one witnessed as she slipped into the manor and back out again. She had crept inside to familiarise herself with the layout and hoped to hide inside a bedroom cabinet, only to discover that if she wanted to stay hidden she needed to remain with the insects and dirt. The outside gardens and architecture were masterpieces that screamed wealth and grandeur, but the inside was unworthy of residing within. The three floors were devoid of decor and furnishings and not even a single scuffed rug sat on the dusty wooden floorboards. The house was a husk.
The manor door slammed shut in a violent crash that reverberated through the empty dwelling and a sudden chill pimpled her burning flesh. Arnauld was home, her duty was at hand —she could at last move her stiffened body!
Hurried footsteps paced the bare floor before fading into the nothingness, and she breathed a slow exhale before peering through the window. The room was empty and Arnauld was nowhere in sight. A faint light spilled out onto the floorboards from an opening she hadn’t noticed before, the once-concealed door now swinging back and forth like a limp leaf dangling in the wind, and she wormed her way into the manor, her trembling body no more composed than her racing heart as she scurried across the floor and hovered beside it. A musty odour drifted up the stairs, but she couldn’t place the smell; the only information that could be gleaned was the glimmer of candles and a man’s urgent, unintelligible muttering —Arnauld— his angry voice echoing up to the landing as his shadow swept back and forth across the flames.
The ramblings ended, followed by a dejected sigh, and silence blanketed the area as Arnauld’s shadow passed the candles once more and fell to the ground, no sound rising from the fall. Her heart skipped as she tiptoed towards the stairs and swallowed her rising fear, creeping down each step before huddling against the wall. She would be but a shadowed illusion if a glance were cast in her direction, she hoped. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the chamber. It was as bare and filthy as the upper levels —this man was no noble. A single decaying desk was home to a mess of parchment, an empty inkwell, and an emerald book gilded in gold. By its side stood a wooden stand, the candles atop reduced to nubs, and a pile of straw that left her own uncomfortable bed worth desiring. Arnauld lay on it with his back turned to her. It was too perfect. She watched him, waiting for him to leap up and accost her, but he remained on the pile seemingly asleep. Her nausea returned, the revulsion an unwanted companion that churned through her stomach and burned her throat, and she swallowed as silent as could be managed as she stared at his back and fingered the dagger within her sleeve.
She would complete her task and prove herself, her home would be earned, her place rightfully obtained as she lived a normal life in her childhood city. This man’s death was merely a stepping stone on the new path she must tread, and she would travel the route unburdened.
The affirmations did not sing clear and Lyria trembled as she approached the man with her dagger in hand. He lay before her. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see what her own hand was capable of, and struck down, unprepared for the arc of blood that flew through the air or his unexpected thrash beneath her blade.
Her dagger fell as she fought to hold Arnauld down, panicking as her blessed blood prickled in response to the sanguine sight. The candle-light danced in slow, elongated motions as she looked around the room, desperate to find something, anything, to assist with her task, her weapons forgotten in her distress. Beside the makeshift bed lay the man’s coat. That would do. She grabbed the garment and folded it until it was a thick square, placing it over his face as she cried, her tears flowing down her cheeks as she pushed on it with her complete strength and held down long after her world return to its natural speed, and long after he completed his last throes.
Lyria stepped back from the deceased —her victim— and shivered as she remembered her blade, her blood as ice despite the lingering heat. She wiped the weapon clean across Arnauld’s coat and inserted it back into her sleeve. His blood was all over her blouse! She stumbled back as her actions dawned upon her. She was a murderer. She was the mage-murderer’s personal mage-murderer, no better than Andru’s emotionless guardsmen who had killed her fellows when she was a child. This mage, this man, was an innocent! She fell to her knees, her nausea at last finding escape as she vomited all over the floor.
Hours passed as she sat trapped within her own turmoil, unaware of time as shock kept her frozen in place. Though she eventually climbed to her feet and stumbled out of the manor, her mind remained in the blood-spattered cellar as she followed the route that would take her to the palace, oblivious to the rising sun and all that surrounded her as she stepped through the gleaming doors. The bright candles in the hall held no effect over her as she stepped through to her Lord’s domain, and the two men and their cat were but dim silhouettes behind her glazed, empty eyes.
Lord Andru rose from his seat and motioned for her to join him in an adjacent room. She followed, but could not hear his voice, could not comprehend the emotions on his face, and could not understand her own dazed thoughts as he demanded her attention.
The exasperated tone lurking beneath the man’s words stirred her, and her voice was as cold as her frozen blood as she said, “I completed your task.”
“That much is evident. You have done well and I will send my guard to manage the rest.”
The same emotionless guardsmen as eight years prior? Unable to restrain her anger, Lyria shouted, “I killed an innocent man! How can you congratulate this? I am as filth-ridden as the monsters who murdered my family and you approve!”
Andru raised an eyebrow, his tone thoughtful as he said, “The man was no innocent; he was a mage,” and walked towards a table, the only fixture in the room, and swept aside the parchment strewn across its surface before he sat on its edge. “When I say that you have done well, I refer to more than your actions alone. I have no room for the cold-hearted among my people and I am pleased that you remain capable of emo-”
“Father, this man would speak with you.”
Cael barged into the room with an unfamiliar soldier and Andru clenched his jaw, clearly irritated by the interruption.
“Go on, speak.”
“Sir, I was patrolling in the northern districts. There was a blazing light! The noble house we were keeping watch on… it, uh, vanished.”
“Aye, sir. In a flash as gold as mage-work.”
Lord Andru sent Lyria a side-long glance. “Do you still believe good sir Arnauld to be an innocent?” He turned back to the soldier and waved him away. “We will deal with it. Continue your patrol.”
Cael closed the door as the soldier hurried from the room and stood by his father, his curiosity evident, and Andru sighed, resigned to his son’s presence.
“Young Lewell, I understand that you are suffering through varied emotions at this time, but, I don’t believe that man died. What did you see in his house?”
They both stared at her, eager to hear her response, and she shrank back, unnerved by both the implication that the man she had killed yet lived, and by the bizarre concern embedded within Cael’s eyes —a clear sympathy that was unlike the oaf she was familiarising herself with. She quickly looked away, moistening her lips as she said, “Sir, there was nothing in that man’s house. No furniture, nothing, just… dust. There was a door. It led to a cellar. He had a desk covered in parchment,” the emerald book shone bright through her scattered memories. “There was a green book with gleaming golden edges. That was the only thing of note.”
“Green?” Andru raised an eyebrow before allowing a half-smirk to form. “An odd choice. Not as impressive as he claimed, was he? A pity we are ignorant of his correspondence. Let your emotions settle and I will call upon you in time… and, if I may, do not allow my actions to reflect upon yourself —they are not your burden.”
Yes, they were. Lyria bowed her head and said nothing more as she left the room, feeling lost and alone as she exited the palace. The soothing music of the courtyard gardens embraced her, her torment fading as the melody wove through her mind and permeated her body, and this time there were no maids, commanders, or soldiers to turn her away as she fell onto the soft grass by the pond and its singing statue.
The song rose and fell with the flow of her thoughts as she stared up into the Aethya. Were the teachings true? Were her parents watching down on her before the cycle rebirthed? Would they understand and allow her their forgiveness? Hot, humid breath swept across her neck, near as hot as the serpent’s boil, and she stiffened as Ari sidled up beside her. The giant plainscat lapped at the pond before it stared into her eyes, seeming to smile as it perked its large, bat-like ears upright and chattered at her before slinking away into the shrubs. No evidence of the creature remained as the bushes swayed in the breeze and Lyria sighed, turning back to the pond. Why had it not exposed her? Were there other mages that Lord Andru was unaware of, that the cat had chosen not to reveal? Would it betray her at some point?
The questions went unanswered by the marble woman or her song as Lyria bathed in the sun’s glow. Arnauld’s blood splattered across her thoughts in a repetitive, crimson rain and the courtyard music soared in response to her quickening pulse. Staring into the iridescent sky, Lyria fell deep into the harmonic waves as it banished her horrors and allowed her mind the peace it desired, unaware of her silent tears as the musical tendrils twisted through her emptied thoughts and repaired her mind, and oblivious to the sympathetic, contemplative eyes that regarded her from the palace entrance as the music at last worked to restore her to herself.
If you have any critique I would love to hear it, please. I take all critique to heart and want to make this book worthy of transforming into an e-book. Were there any grammatical errors? A spelling mistake I missed? A weird sentence you had to read twenty times before it clicked? Did something not make sense? (keeping in mind that information may be in previous chapters) Please let me know! 🙂
Thank you for reading!
B.M.Matthews — @kaelci