Chapter IV

In her Lady's absence, Madeleine Keeper sat at the royal vanity, trying on the Lady's new jewels, admiring her own beauty in the fine mirror. It certainly wasn't a proper thing to do – quite naughty, really – but she fancied herself worthy of the finery. Gold jewels suited her better than Duke Bayard's sallow daughter. The inlaid emeralds brought out the green in her round eyes, complimenting sun-kissed skin. The exotic hoops for her ears enhanced a gleam in her dusky curls, a redness in her cheeks. Certainly, if not for her questionable ancestry, she would have made a much finer Lady than Abaca. In beauty alone, she was far superior.

Alas, life was not so fair.

A strident knock sprung her from the oak seat. She scrambled to remove the jewels and cram them back into Abaca's gold box.

"Just a moment!" she cried, attempting to make her voice pleasant.

She ran first to the grand double-doors, but paused, noticing the knock came instead from the side door, which led out to a separate, minor hallway. Certainly no one of importance would come through there. Still, the urgent knock kept coming.

"Calm yourself! My bones..."

When she opened the door, she was stunned to see the face that stared back. There, panting, large awkward hands clutching his knees, was her lover.

"Edmund, what in the Xaviers' name are you doing here!"

His Larascan-green eyes glanced to her through his disheveled locks. It was a moment more before he regained his breath.

"Silas is in the forest," he sputtered.

She just stared at him, dumb.

"What...?"

It had been years since either of them had spoken of him, a boy she had called "Brother." A feeling of loss at first overcame her, weighted by regret. But it was soon overwhelmed by fear.

"So?" she snapped. "He ran off. He's no business of mine."

The brown-haired youth coughed as he righted himself, despite the heavy armor that continued to fight his balance.

"I saw him, Maddy," he said, pain in his simple expression. "He's really hurting. He looked sick to begin with, but...I watched Giovanni slice his hand open. He's still bleeding, somewhere in the forest..."

"Giovanni hurt him?"

Silas' father had done many things, few of them particularly loving, but she had never imagined he would assault his own child. Yet, Edmund's weak nod confirmed otherwise.

"I couldn't believe it."

She was stunned speechless. All those years, she had heard Silas make horrific accusations about his father, never imagining they could be truth.

With a clumsy grip, Edmund grasped her delicate hands; his gaze was steady.

"Please, come find him with me. We owe this to him. We just can't abandon him to—"

A powerful voice came from the other doorway.

"Lady Abaca is retiring for the night."

Madeleine panicked. She shoved Edmund out, slamming the door shut before he could speak. She turned, calm, smiling at the armored guard.

"I'm ready for my Lady."

She didn't much appreciate the slow roll of his eyes.

Lady Abaca's arrival was an ostentatious display. Her golden dress dragged over the floor, light glaring from its ornamentation and the sheen of her applied face. Her lips were painted red today, to hide their cracks. Maddy noticed with disdain that the extravagant gown hung looser on her, for thin was the fashion, and Abaca wanted the excuse to flaunt her utter lack of a figure.

"You may address me now, Madeleine," she said, gazing elsewhere entirely.

Maddy's disgust was masked by her smile. She knelt down to kiss Abaca's outstretched hand, although Abaca's questionable birth should have allowed for Madeleine to bow from the waist to do so. The Lady just preferred her subjects low.

Abaca withdrew her hand.

"I wish to try my new Akalinian jewels. Madeleine, you will assist me."

She sat at her gold-plated vanity, and with a wave, dismissed the tall guard. Maddy stood behind her, seeming subservient. However, she tensed when Abaca lifted a golden chain from the table, eying it with more than her usual, dull curiosity.

"My sights say these jewels have been moved, once," Larascan-green eyes flashed to her Maddy, "Twice."

Her servant's smile was carefully composed.

"I was told to check for imperfections, my Lady."

Maddy's false smile was returned, a blank stare showing how quickly the exchange had been forgotten. Abaca looked back into the mirror to admire her painted face.

"Proceed, then."

With a practiced hand, she pulled back Abaca's thin locks, which were a color neither rich nor fair. Then, she began to fasten the heavy Akalinian necklace, so thick it seemed to collar and overwhelm the girl's spindly neck. Her small frame couldn't handle such gaudy adornment. But Abaca smiled, posing her head this way and that, like a pigeon caught sight of its face in a puddle.

"If only that Silas could see me now," the Lady pined, the sound accompanied by a sigh of such weight the servant feared she might swoon. "Then he would realize what a fool he was to reject my affections..."

Another long sigh.

"But alas, he is gone...far away."

The Lady lifted a misplaced bauble from her vanity, when it caught her eye—a black king from an old chess set. Compared to the other pieces Madeleine had seen, the king appeared newer, freshly painted to a handsome sheen. But already, she could see sharp cracks on its surface: the consequence of mistreatment.

"Has your father been teaching you chess again?" Madeleine asked, forgetting formality.

Abaca gave an aching groan.

"How horribly dull that game is, dear Maddy. It's nothing but mindless strategy, not a lick of romance in it. The king doesn't even have any power...he's nothing but a fancy pawn..."

Madeleine knew little about the game, so she was left in rare silence. Still, she had no real interest in it. "Chess" was a game for bored noblemen and lanky merchants. It did not pertain to her.

But Silas had enjoyed that game. She remembered it now: his long rants about Giovanni's unbeatable strategies, the nature and history of each piece, key moves and the taste of victory. She had ignored most of it. What she remembered most clearly was the passion that illuminated his violet gaze, an emotion never replicated for reason other than that game. Until that Kala came.

"What an odd look, Maddy," Abaca said, glancing back to her servant. "Care to divulge a peasant's thoughts?"

Madeleine ignored her condescension.

"I was thinking of my late brother," she replied.

A strange look came over Abaca. It was a sort of smirk, only more irritating. She touched the golden collar that choked her neck as the Lady turned her head towards her.

"Do you have news of him, then?"

"Of Silas?"

A part of her sensed just how terrible the consequences of replying would be. However, her thoughts were so clouded that she couldn't see to care.

"Edmund said he's in the forest, and he's quite injured. It's just a hand wound though, so I don't know why Edmund looked so concerned. He'll pull through, of course. He's some rare breed of cockroach, that's what I've always said..."

She felt fine after saying it, for a short time. But regret crept up on her, catching her unaware. As Abaca's coy smile grew, so did Madeleine's shame.

"Guard!" called the Lady, voice ringing like little bells. It was forced.

Soon, the burly man appeared, bowing low.

"Summon a carriage," she demanded. "I want to be taken into the Great Forest."

The man seemed concerned, a feeling shared by Madeleine herself. The Great Forest was no place to be for any reason. However, training prevented that emotion from tainting the guard's features too deeply. He only bowed lower.

"Yes, my Lady."

Abaca smiled, waving him off. She settled back into her oak seat, not noticing the man's look as he left, or Maddy's.

"Oh, how exciting, dear Madeleine! It's been many seasons since I last met him. Do you think he's grown again?"

Madeleine managed a smile.

"Like any beast, I suppose."

Her Lady smiled, lifting her alabaster brush to tame her tawny locks.

"How very quaint..." she replied, entirely absorbed in her reflection.

It wasn't quaint. It was terrifying. Silas was terrifying, now—arms like tree trunks, teeth like knives. But he was hurting, and it wasn't fair to loose Abaca on him in that state.

Her gut was tight, making it hard for her to claim detachment. She was again reminded of that day long ago, when that tragedy had occurred. Before Sh'ka's dance, she had had this feeling. It was an omen, looming over her, smothering her.

Silas...I'm sorry.


6th Month, 648 I.R.

I can never tell anyone what happened today. It's inhuman. I wasn't human. I don't understand what I've done, but I've done it...

A wolf attacked Edmund. We were playing in the forest, and this huge wolf just jumps on him. He was going to die: I had to stop it! He was bloody and screaming, and the wolf wouldn't let him go. So I jumped on him. I put my hands around its neck and I choked it as hard as I could, until I could feel its throat close in. I grabbed it. I tore its fur!

I don't remember most of it...but something happened, then. Edmund saw it. I know he saw it. I thought the wolf was still scaring him, but it wasn't the wolf. The wolf was making weird sounds, like crying. Wolves don't cry.

Under my hands, its fur was all burnt. It wasn't like that before.

I burned it? Burned...burned how?

I told Edmund not to tell anyone. Not until I figure this out. But he looked so scared...

I saved his life! He can't be scared of me! Me?

But I'm scared too. I'm scared of this. My face felt hot and I couldn't think. I hurt that wolf, a lot. I don't want it to happen again. Humans shouldn't be able to hurt wolves like that. They can't...

What am I?


The blood kept coming. No matter how Silas attempted to stop the flow, blood kept draining from that gash. His hand was red, his arm was red, the ground was red – stained by a sticky, brilliant red that more resembled berries than blood. It just kept coming, flowing redder and redder as his body grew hotter and hotter until his rage gushed just like it.

"FAWK!"

Black birds fled the treetops, cursing him in song.

His energy spent, Silas collapsed to his knees by the murky pond. He tore off his shirt, ripping a disheveled strip from that to bind his hand. But he couldn't. No matter how he wrapped it, seething, snarling, he couldn't function with one hand.

"Damn it all..."

He bore his teeth at nothing.

"Damn it...all."

He dunked his bleeding hand in the water, watching the vibrant red seep into the pool. It stung, the pond scum that brushed the wound. The sting was no worse than the injury. He ignored it.

As the blood began to separate from his hand, he could again see the gleam of a gold ring on his finger. It stared at him defiantly, unmoved by his pain or spite. The two petals etched into its surface seemed to now glow redder than his blood, as if to taunt him. His hair bristled, a growl bubbling in his throat. Someday, he would rip that ring to pieces. If not, he would rip off his own finger, watch the blood pour out thick, thicker than now.

A squirrel scampered towards him, its tail bushy and brown. It sniffed around him, sniffing, sniffing. Silas tensed, irritation rising in him like steam. He snarled.

"Scat."

The nuisance would not be deterred. It just kept scuttling and scurrying, sniffing and sniffing. Sniffing like he knew Silas' vulnerability. Like he knew he was weak. The tormenting twitch of his tail as he came closer, closer. Sniffing, snickering. Snickering at his blood.

His bloody hand shot out, cloth falling as it clamped around the small creature's throat. He squeezed slowly, feeling each suppressed muscle grow tighter. He wanted to savor that frantic shrieking.

"Not so funny now, is it?"

But as its squirming slowed, the red haze began to clear. He could see his own foolishness with increasing clarity.

What are you doing?

..

He set down the defenseless creature. It staggered; it scurried away. Its belly stained crimson, it painted a red path to its whereabouts. Ashamed, Silas tried not to see it.

The world fell heavy on his shoulders.

Silas took up the bandage again, head hung low as he tried to wrap it. Once, twice more he tried. He slammed the bandage down in frustration. He was incapable.

He hung his head over the water, his fingertips buried in the soil. He stared into his reflection – royal amethyst staring back, seeing shame, seeing failure – and felt nothing.

The air around him began to change. It thickened, growing damper. A fog began to settle around him. And yet, he noticed nothing until he heard a child's voice.

"Why won't you help?"

It wasn't his language. He knew that immediately. The flow, the sound, was different. Its bounce was strangely familiar. He had heard it around the docks, from the Kala, from Sh'ka – the Akalinian language. Yet, he understood it.

"Won't you?"

There was a girl floating in the water. A child whose brown locks fanned around her in the pool, her eyes set on him: blue. He had never seen blue eyes before. Her white dress looked too fine to be soaked as it was – even the lace of its sleeves was a product of careful craftsmanship. She was no ordinary girl.

"Why won't you save me?" she asked again, that strange language so sweet on her lips.

A part of him knew this was an illusion, some sort of apparition. But he was too drawn by those eyes, somehow convinced to respond.

"...why would I save you?" he asked.

A mysterious smile graced her lips.

"Because I'm drowning."

All at once, the pond swallowed her.

Instinct took over. He jumped in, icy water engulfing him. He just managed to grab her white wrist before it vanished into the darkness.

They emerged. Gasping, he dragged her to shore, having more trouble than he usually did. By the time he reached land, he realized that he was changed. He had a boy's hands, a child's strength. He realized that he was now as small as she.

She opened her eyes, and their gentleness soothed his bewilderment. He wished he could be forever held in that gaze. Her smile alone almost broke him. She drew herself up by her own strength, removing a golden bracelet from her slender wrist. As he watched, she knelt before him, slipping it over his small hand.

"Now we are bound."

Her words unnerved him, somehow. And yet, they filled him with peace. A glance to her, and then to the bracelet. It was well-made, engraved with curving lines he had often seen adorning jewelry of Talonian make, traded by sailors to the townswomen. He moved to touch it, to confirm its existence.

It vanished.

The world around him snapped into focus. The fog was gone; the girl was gone. He was grown again, still gripping his bleeding palm.

His head throbbed. He rubbed his eye, as if to rub the pain away. He smeared blood into it.

Fawk!

He grit his teeth, a red tear running down as he cursed, clutching at his hair. When the unfortunate Lady Abaca arrived, he was as angry as he could get.

The girl's arrival was announced by the snapping of twigs beneath her clumsy step. She took a heavy breath to begin a speech; Silas cut her short.

"What do you want?" he snarled.

Her reply was accompanied by a grating little gasp, her voice strident on his sensitive ears.

"However did you know? You cast me not a glance!"

His lip curled back, sneering, snarling.

"I can smell your reeking perfume three leagues off."

His inhuman growl deterred her, for a moment. All too soon he felt her approach, seeing that sickly sweet smile even in his mind's eye.

"I came to apologize for what transpired three years ago," came her grating voice, "I even dismissed my guards so we could be alone."

Like a creature struck by lightening, he turned to her. At once he saw the plain girl he remembered, her face painted to seem pretty. He was repulsed.

"What are you talking about?"

"I was just so...infatuated with you," she said, daring to come closer. "I never thought Daddy would do something as awful as paying a Kala to...oh, you remember..."

First, there was the silence of shock.

He...did...

Then, came the slow building, building up of rage.

"You...you did pay her off..."

She was blind to the fire in his eyes, the danger of his snarl. She had the audacity to sit beside him—touch him. He stared at the insolent hand upon his arm, as if it were a spider waiting to be crushed.

"Such unusual eyes..." she purred, infuriating in her naivety. "Such incredible heat from your body..."

His claws dug so deep into the mud they struck clay. But she kept moving closer, that hand daring to touch his powerful chest.

"I just could not help my doomed attraction...we were just children. Of course you turned me away, then..."

She leaned too close.

"I can still ignore a freakish behavior or two..."

Her lips dared too close. As though she dared to kiss him.

He exploded.

"You BITCH!"

Silas struck her hard, hard enough to knock her over. She shrieked. Her skin sizzled like coal, black. Turning black. He stood to spit his words.

"Don't you touch me! Viper!"

She was unconscious, cold.

He began to be aware of the heat of his body, the throb throb throbbing in his fingertips. He began to recognize the stench that scorched his nostrils, rising from her cheek.

The world slowed with his breathing, settling, falling heavy around him.

Slowly, slowly he saw the scorched meat that had been Abaca's visage. Slowly, his skin turned cold.

Again. You did it again.

A rustle in the bushes. He turned, poised, snarling. Not a rabbit sound—human, boot-wearer. Protector.

"Henry, this way! I heard him!"

Not a thought. No time.

He fled.


Silas stumbled into a clearing, breathing hard, short breaths. He felt the ground moving beneath him, threatening to pull him down. His head ached too much to remember this place—its low branches to climb, the stars gazing through a palace of leaves. Yet, he was conscious of its familiar air. He was consoled enough by it to allow himself to fall, knees buckling to sink into the damp mud.

Coward.

His fist made a crater in the earth. Blood spurt from his fingers; he howled.

Freak.

The image of Abaca's disfigurement had burnt itself into his mind, searing him as she had been seared.

Monster.

He held his bleeding hand in defeat, his violet eyes glazed, dull. Their full color didn't return until he saw a yellowed envelope fluttering in the breeze, pinned to the ground by a heavy stone. It was black and smooth, polished to a shine. A paperweight—he had seen it a hundred times on Vaan's writing desk. Vaan had planted that envelope.

Why do you care?

But he was already opening that envelope, smearing it with bloody fingers. He had to know its contents. No matter what it was, he had to know.

#

My dear Reja,

I apologize greatly for my decision to leave you, but I know that I must. I wish I could stay by your side, for I love you dearly. Circumstances prevent this...and I am sorry...

If you still remember nothing when you wake, which I fear will come to pass, have faith in the man I have entrusted you with. Although he is young yet, he is brilliant. I know he will make a fine man of you—and when the time comes, he will lead you home to Joanissia, just as he led the Larascan people to peace and unity many years ago.

Know that you will be loved and missed. Your father cherishes you so dearly that I fear what may become of him when he finds you gone. I imagine he will do nothing but stare into the frosted windows, while the rooms grow colder with each passing day. Without you, his world will fall to pieces. As will mine…

Grow strong, Reja. Come home and set this right.

With love,

#

The signature was blotted out with Giovanni's pen. Though Silas felt no connection with the name the letter was addressed to, he couldn't help but feel it was meant for him. He read that letter once, twice, three times more. Soon, he felt a dull ache pain his chest.

Someone wants you...home.

A thunderclap: down poured Larasca's heavy rain. The thunder rolled, bellowing, mocking his joy. Denied peace, he bellowed curses at the insolent sky.

"STOP!"

He shoved the parchment into his pouch before leaping to a nearby tree. He climbed to its canopy, seating himself on a great, ancient bough. The leaves above sheltered him as the sky came down.

Disjointed feelings floated through his mind. The pain of his wound remained uncomfortably apparent; with that came the heavy resentment toward his adoptive father, the so-called "brilliant" man he had been entrusted to. From that sprang anger for this mysterious woman, the fool who had thought to abandon him to this life of abuse, neglect. But then came the hopeful image of his real father...a man who had deeply mourned his absence.

Someone wants you home.

"who? who?"

An owl floated down beside him, ruffling its jagged feathers as it settled into the great bough. Its horned head rolled, eventually twisting to rest its gray eyes on him.

Silas stared back at it, his jaw grown taut. The creature was a trespasser. He snarled, using no words to explain his disdain.

...Who? Who wants you home?

Its arched brows raised, intense eyes staring, seeing into his bloody past.

"who? who?"

Who could want you home? A man conquered by fire?

He snarled louder, demanding that it turn its eyes away. Clawed fingers curled into a bloody fist.

"That's not my fault..."

But the owl stared, stared deeper.

"That's not...my FAULT!"

His dagger impaled the beast to the mighty tree—he watched fresh blood drain, dripping, feeling pleasure. It dripped down, down, soaking and staining the bark with his malice. But as his breathing began to slow, awareness returning to him, he grew still. He saw the blood. It was no victory. This was a symptom of his damaged, irreparable soul.

If he had once been Reja, his father had mourned him well. That boy was dead now.

You can't go home.


A/N: This story is actually completed, but I'll only post up chapters if there's enough demand. Also, I have the beginning chapters of Princess Siria up, which is actually the sequel to this story. Don't worry, you don't have to know how this story ends before you read it. So, review, and more will come :)