"I go by many names and forms. The witch of Exultia is merely one of them."
My mouth fell open. "Why would you intentionally fool me?"
"Had you known who I was when we first started this journey, would you have placed the same trust in me as you do now?"
"Who's to say I trust you at all right now?"
Melina shook her head. "If you did not trust me, Helena, you wouldn't be here right now."
"But if you are as powerful as I'm led to believe, then I'd have no choice, would I? You would've manipulated me in some way to force me to do as you please."
The smile fell from her face. "I'm not manipulating you, Helena."
"Then what do you call everything that has happened until now?" I demanded. I felt a severe dislike toward her for what she did to Vinny. "You forced the Crown Prince of Astaire into giving up his firstborn child."
"It was his choice. He could've chosen to let his father die. You presume me to be some villain in your life when I've been doing nothing but trying to help you."
I laughed bitterly. "Help me? Melina, how have you helped me, exactly? You took away my mother's illness and saved the lands for the price of the turtle my brother made me. But really, it was to make me the most beloved in the lands. It was to fulfill your own curse that you placed upon me at birth! You agreed to make my legs even if I fulfill that curse. Then you take away my only means of doing so by making it so Vincent will never agree to kiss me!"
"I am not the villain in this," she repeated, her hand clenching at her side. "Do you think that I'm really so petty as to control you? Everything that's happened to you has been a result of all the choices you've made in your life. Did I not mention Devas to you? Did I not mention that we will be at war in a few years' time? In doing all this, I…" She faltered and shook her head.
"What?" I prompted. "Why are you doing all this?"
"I am sealing my own fate," she replied, walking away from me. "If you wish to see your aunts in the Zephyrian castle, follow me. If not, stay. Like I said, I'm not trying to control you."
Eve's hand found my own, and she frowned.
"Do you believe her?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Whether or not she sees it as such, she is trying to control at least part of your life. However, I don't know what to believe. If she says she's sealing her own fate…then it could mean that she's going to die, Helena."
Lycan scoffed from behind us. "Melina? Die? She's the one who made the fountain of youth and the conditions that would cause us to die. I think she is, once again, underestimating herself. Such a stupid girl." He shook his head and crossed his arms before turning his attention to Bliss, who was currently sitting in a tree, observing us all. "Are you going to escort them to the castle, or not, little bird?"
"If that is what you wish, Mr. Wolf," she replied, swinging her bare feet as she continued to sit.
He strode to her and lifted her from her branch. "Be careful, Bliss."
A dazzling smile crossed her lips as he reluctantly let her go. "Cyrus isn't going to harm me. He hasn't yet." Turning to us, she motioned for us to follow her. "It's this way." She hummed as she walked, and, giving a quick glance back toward Lycan, who seemed deep in thought, I followed her, dragging Eve with me.
"She's such a strange girl," Even whispered to me. "And yet, she's supposedly acquainted with the castle? How can that be?"
My gaze trailed to her bare feet, which, other than being dirty, held no obvious marring from stepping on the forest floor—no cuts, bruises, or calluses. "I don't know," I replied. "She doesn't act like a noble girl, or like a girl who has been taught the ways of proper etiquette."
"My mother called me a free spirit when I was young," Bliss commented, turning to regard us thoughtfully.
I blushed, mortified that she had heard us. "I didn't mean any disrespect-"
"I have been taught etiquette, and, when it is useful to me, I apply it. It makes my aunt Miranda happy when I act like a lady. But Queen Victoria likes me the way I am. Should I follow the wishes of my aunt and society, or should I be true to myself?" She shrugged and spun back around to further guide us on our way.
"So you choose to act this way?" Eve questioned, confused.
"Society is boring. What have they done for me that allows them to expect me to conform to what they find acceptable?" Bliss retorted. "They have all these rules that they want me to follow, but I receive nothing out of it. I'd rather not do what everyone else does. I make my aunt happy at social functions, and she leaves me to do as I please the rest of the time. Lycan is the only one whose opinion truly matters to me anyway."
"Why do you care what he thinks?" I asked her, intrigued.
"He saved my life," she replied. "I owe him everything. If he were to agree with society, then I would conform. Since he thinks little of humans and their ways, I am allowed to act how I see fit. If I were to become like you, then he would discard me. It's because I'm different that he tolerates me."
"Then this is all an act?"
"No. This is who I really am. If you don't like it, then I am unapologetic on the matter."
I had never heard anything so strange in my life. It was only natural for a girl to conform to the surroundings she found herself in. Unwilling to ponder Bliss's actions or rationale, I turned my attention to further up the path, where Melina stood waiting for us.
Ignoring me completely, she turned her attention to Eve. "You have something you wish to ask me."
"Lycan never did say why Arianna wanted to kill you. You killed her husband, the king. I remember vague retellings that he had been a horrible ruler and was trying to unite the lands under his rule into a vast empire. But what reason did she have for wanting you dead? She was still young when she married him."
Melina laughed. "He wasn't trying to unite the lands; he had already succeeded. Times were bad when I was born. There was a mass genocide of children because an advisor of his saw in the stars that a child would bring about the king's destruction. He placed heavy taxes on the people. Those that couldn't afford them were sentenced to the dungeons and left to die. It was not a nice time to be poor.
"And Arianna was a witch. She appeared young because she killed other witches and drank their blood. In truth, she was already 50 when she married the king. What she craved was power. She, too, had heard of my existence. According to the prophecy everyone claimed I would fill, I was to have unspoken power. Some compared me to what they thought a god would be like…not very truthful, mind you, but you know how these stories can exaggerate things.
"My parents and Eri's were terrified for our lives. An old man approached them, and he took us in and taught us things…lost arts of the old ways, is what we called it then. You refer to it as magic today. After that, it was a blur. The next thing I knew, the king was dead, and I was hailed a hero. Luckily, nobody knew what I looked like…nobody but that witch. I hadn't killed him; instead, I took him on an unwilling trip to see exactly what kind of devastation he was causing his own people. He decided to proclaim that the different places would be broken up and ruled by a king the people of that kingdom chose. He died that night before he could ever tell them of his change of heart."
"So Arianna killed him," Eve stated.
"Poisoned his wine," Melina confirmed. "After that, what he was about to proclaim happened all the same. The people withdrew from his empire and appointed their own kings. Arianna became ruler of the central-most kingdom. I forget what she named it, but it encompassed where Exultia and Cesnar are today. She became vengeful and unhappy. I was supposed to kill him, after all, not her. She was supposed to take my life and look more beautiful. Instead of staying in her kingdom and sulking, she went to the kingdom that would become Astaire. This was where Eri and I lived…and where Lycan and Ciel also took up residence.
"Ciel was easy for her to manipulate. Her beauty was certainly unmatched by any other girl of that time. But as beautiful as she was, she soon came to a horrible realization. She was dying. Her eternal youth couldn't save her from her mortality."
"Why didn't she just go to the fountain of youth herself?"
"She wanted more than youth. Remember, they all thought I had some kind of god-like powers. What she craved was me, so she made a potion that Ciel dipped his knife into. It was supposed to make it so that my 'powers' would stay with me when I died. She believed me to be infatuated with Ciel, and, if I became immortal, then so would she by drinking my blood. A very confusing plan, I'll admit, but had she succeeded, it would've worked.
"She had no personal vendetta against me. I was just another in a long line of witches she would devour to make herself more powerful."
"She was a witch cannibal," Bliss sang, reaching for a flower on a tree branch.
"More accurate than the idea that she was a vampire," Melina acceded. "She lived on in history…at least until Isodor fell to Kratin, and the ancient knowledge was destroyed. I'm sure your mother didn't tell you horror stories when you were a child."
Eve shook her head. "I'm glad she didn't. I'd have had nightmares."
If Arianna had thought that Melina held such power, then surely she couldn't have been wrong. I remembered how the witch of Exultia had frightened me and the few times when Melina had seemed like more than a mere apprentice. The time she told me that they had found us when I was hiding as Rose came to my mind. What had she done to our shop? I remembered it feeling wrong.
"How powerful are you?" I found myself asking her. "And how long have you been alive? Why have you been in hiding if you are so much stronger than the other witches magic-wise?"
"Helena…" Melina started, then she shook her head. "It's not hard for you to understand being different from everyone else."
"Of course not. I have uneven legs."
Bliss spun around, her flower forgotten. "I want to see!"
"Absolutely not!" I retorted, suddenly angry and self-conscious.
Melina chuckled. "Bliss, leave her alone."
The girl shrugged and sat on the ground, falling back after a moment to gaze at the sky and trace the clouds with her fingers.
"In Bliss's little exchange, you've come to realize why I want to be hidden. If I did go out and tell everyone exactly who and what I was, what do you think would happen? Everyone would want something from me. If you have the power to help people, you should do it. But when does it get to the point where you think that everyone's taking you for granted? If you see a beggar on the street, you feel bad for him. You give him a bean sprout that will sprout food that will never end, and what happens? Does he share it with other downtrodden people? No, he decides to make a profit off of it. Why would he give something of his to somebody else in need? It's not his fault they're like that. If they want things in life, they should earn them, he thinks. It's sad that he doesn't remember that he was once like them.
"If society never had to work for what they had, what would happen to society? It's because people have to work, get hurt, and lose loved ones that they're able to appreciate the things they have and the people close to them. Don't get me wrong, there are always exceptions to everything. If there is somebody desperate enough, they will find me. I will help them, but there always has to be a price. If not, every little thing that goes wrong will send them back to me. In order to get my help, you have to sacrifice something of equal value."
"Like a first-born son in exchange for a father?" I demanded.
She paused for a moment. "I understand you are angry about that, and I wish I could explain my reasons for doing so, but-"
"I don't want to hear them. How many other people have you demanded their firstborn child from?"
"A few," she relented. "Most people wouldn't go through with the bargain for a price so high. Not everybody lives forever. People die. It's a fact of life. If everyone lived forever, what need would we have for children? Sure, you love your parents, and when they die, you'll be sad. But life goes on. If you could live forever, would you want to? At some point, you're going to want it to end."
"But he wasn't ready to take the throne yet. If you're honest with yourself, you weren't ready for him to either."
Melina smiled. "I think you overestimate his importance. If King Edward had died and Prince Vincent had ascended the throne, how different would things be now? He wouldn't be helping Alexander and Drusilla with Exultia, true, but did I specifically need him for my plans and yours? Let's think about this a moment, shall we? Cinderella kidnapped you and brought you back to Exultia. Then you escaped. Had you kept going, where would you have gone?"
"I would've gone to where Lycan was. He helped me escape, so I thought that you would've wanted me there."
"Smart girl. None of what happens from this point in time forward has any need for Vincent."
"You're not going to kill him, are you?" Eve asked her.
The witch chuckled. "No, he does have a purpose…just not yet."
"And my purpose? What is it?"
Melina looked pointedly at the stone that hung from Eve's neck. "I think you already know."
"But why?" I demanded, irritated. "Why must Eve die?"
Bliss hummed from where she was lying.
"I will not divulge that information to you."
Her humming grew louder.
"Why not?" My voice rose in volume to be heard over Bliss.
"You'll find out soon enough," Melina declared and walked away, stepping over the humming girl. "That's enough, Bliss."
Rage boiled deep inside of me. "If you don't tell me, I'll never fulfill my end of the bargain!" I called out after her. I too, stepped over the blonde girl. "Why were you acting like that?" I asked her, frustrated with her behavior.
"I don't like thinking about death," she replied, her voice small and weak. "It brings back memories of things I'd rather forget. Voices from the past of people I loved calling to me, then screaming in fear and pain. I remember smoke…and not being able to breathe. It was painful…so very painful. Then, there was nothing. And then there was Lycan."
"You…died?" I asked, confused. "You said that Lycan saved your life."
"He did," she replied, "by giving me some of his own. He's a part of me." She smiled up at me and held a hand to her chest. "He brought me back to life."
"You mean to tell me that Melina could bring somebody back to life?"
"I suppose she could."
I turned to gaze at Eve, who had heard our conversation and met my gaze. Her eyes were wide with a realization I'm sure mirrored my own. Melina could bring her back to life! But a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind worried me. It wasn't whether or not Melina could do something, but the price she would make me pay in order to do it. What would the price be for saving Eve's life?
Author's Note: Alright, so I haven't been writing lately. My updates will probably continue to be sporadic at best, but I am still writing and updating. My roommate took her router and accidentally took the internet cord, so right now I'm on a very weak unsecured wireless network (egads, I'm a pirate!). When I once again have the correct internet (probably in the next few days), I'll do a special thanks. To those of you still reading, I apologize for being very late.