A Meeting in Marandaby manapriestess
Entire Fiction (2005)
A heavy summer day stifled Maranda, choking scents and sounds. People stalked the silent streets like shadows in the thick heat, their faces gray masks of fear. Maranda had fallen to the Imperial invasion but a week before, and the dense, yellow atmosphere seemed to retain the smell of burning wood and dripping blood. The multitudes in the streets consisted chiefly of soldiers, whispering among themselves or standing guard, grim and rigid in the glittering light.
The invasion was overseen by a woman, a Magitek knight barely eighteen years old. Some called her the Ice Princess for her wondrous powers, and some called her the White Devil for her merciless conduct and the white clothes she wore. Her weapon was a scorching ray of ice that she conjured out of a mystical space. No one had ever seen such a power, and it was whispered that the Empire had experimented with its subjects to rediscover the lost force called magic. The invasion she led was ruthless. With that blazing ice-ray she slew anyone who opposed her without hesitation and, it seemed, without conscience. Her headquarters was the mayor's house. The Marandan mayor had been dismissed as soon as the invasion was completed, and a new mayor of Imperial loyalties was installed in his place.
The mayor's mansion was absolutely silent in the mid-noon heat of that heavy summer day. The only sounds were the quiet voices of the servants going about their household duties. But presently the entrance door flung open, startling a housemaid who was brushing the dust from the furniture in the front hall. She gasped slightly as she perceived the Magitek knight standing in the doorway. The young woman who entered took no notice of her, and after a slight curtsy, the maid made her escape into the kitchen.
The Magitek knight was a tall young woman, with a slim, elegant figure that was at present concealed by layers of heavy armor. Her thick hair, light golden in color, was coiled into a long braid and fastened around her head with brooches studded with pearls. Her face was ivory-pale, with a thin aristocratic nose, a finely curved mouth with its lips pressed tightly, and eyes shadowed by dark lashes, whose gray color was flecked with green in a strong light.
The young woman's stance was rigid, and her white face seemed drawn with terse lines. Her expression was distant, as if she was concentrating on an invisible target. After walking a few paces into the hall she suddenly collapsed into a chair and buried her face in her hands. A shudder ran through her body. In the shadowy hall she appeared young and small, lost in an inexplicable distress.
After sitting this way for a few minutes, she finally rose and ascended the wide staircase with slow steps.
When she reached her room she approached the mirror and checked herself. Her lips thinned even more, and her mouth twisted. Her face in the mirror appeared drawn and pale, and she fancied to see the skin stretched tautly across the skull. Her gray eyes had acquired a dark and hollow look, and the green lights in them had vanished. She knew that her appearance betrayed her condition; every nerve in her body felt as if it had been strained to its proper limit. Yet the worst of it was the sensation that she couldn't explain to anyone; the unnatural frigidity of her limbs, the fact that she feared to attain a physical collapse.
She lowered herself into the bed and leaned her head against her arm. Perhaps, she thought, sleep would provide the remedy, instill some energy into her lethargic frame. Closing her eyes, she soon sank into a heavy slumber that closely resembled an exhausted stupor.
After what seemed like a mere minute she opened her eyes, fancying to hear someone calling her name.
"Yes?" she murmured; then, looking around, realized where she was. She could tell by the dark shadows in the room that it was almost evening, and that she must have slept several hours; but the feeling of exhaustion has not passed, and neither had the frigidity pervading her limbs.
And yet, she recognized this sensation; she experienced it after the shock of the magic infusion. She clenched her fingers, then brought them close to her face, recalling that day, and the illness that assailed her afterwards. They told her it will pass eventually, and it did. But she recalled that prolonged, shadowy illness and wondered whether the infusion damaged her permanently in some way, physically and perhaps even mentally.
Suddenly she grew rigid, recognizing the signs of an oncoming attack. A moan escaped her lips, and her hands clutched her abdomen. She curled inside the bed, her teeth set, uttering short gasps of pain. Closing her eyes, she wondered whether she would faint this time. But gradually the pain eased and she opened her eyes again, passing her hand over her wet cheeks.
These attacks had been repeating too often, she thought, becoming even dangerous. I should report them. But still... what if I am ill beyond repair? What will I do? I will never be the same again. Never.
Celes closed her eyes, wishing she could sink into a warm, comforting sleep, a sleep of innocence that would free her from her shadowy world of pain and guilt.
* - * - *
The remorseless heat continued to suffocate Maranda throughout the night, and in morning a yellow, exhausted dawn rose over the town. The light breeze tossed about paper and other dislocated garbage amid the heaps of rubble. Most of the buildings remained intact but some, particularly in the southern side of the town, the part that had suffered the first onslaught of the invasion, were in a bad shape. The hollow shells that used to be houses gaped at the streets like disembodied heads.
A young man stood near a half-ruined wall in that southern section that afternoon, attentively observing the scenery. He was slight and rather tall, dressed in dark clothes, and good-looking in a pale, sharp-featured way. His light hair tousled over his brow from beneath a cap, partially covering alert blue eyes. A slight smile tilted the corner of his mouth, stealing into his eyes. He gave the impression of a man who made friends easily and took life as it came, without qualms; yet this carefree appearance was belied by his watchful demeanor. On the whole he formed an engaging and eye-catching, if disreputable picture.
Visiting Maranda was a rare opportunity, and he had come a long way, on an airship. Nothing less than bribery would have convinced the slick airship owner to take him on board, but bribery worked, of course. Locke was, however, incredibly lucky, as he had the treasury of Figaro to back him up. He had, of course, no penny in the world to speak of for himself.
Maranda was a sad spectacle of a town indeed. Few people walked about the streets, and there were soldiers everywhere — too many soldiers. The figure of the lone man drew the notice of some. They greeted him with suspicious glares that he returned unmoved, and one ordered him, in a sharp voice, to leave off lurking about and go on his business. The soldiers did not like "lurkers", as they termed them, especially when their leader was still in town.
Instead of obeying, Locke tilted his cap at the soldier in a mocking gesture of respect.
"Extremely sorry for disturbing you, officer," he said. "Waiting for my girl, you know what I mean?" He winked and smiled roguishly. The soldier did not relax his guard, but passed reluctantly on. He did not like the looks of that young man, who seemed too shrewd and prying. But he had other duties to attend to.
After the soldier was gone Locke immediately resumed his watchful, alert scrutiny. But he knew better than risking more negative attention, and retreated into the shadows.
Something caught his eye after some moments; a white-cloaked figure that passed on the farther side of the street.
"Hello!" Locke muttered to himself, his half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth again. "And there she is! It seems that I wasn't lying after all!" His sixth sense, always valuable for detecting matters of importance, told him that this was no ordinary girl.
Moving with his characteristic stealth, he began to stalk her. It was not really his purpose in waiting, but he told himself that at worst it would be nothing wasted, nothing gained. And if it involved danger, well, it probably meant that it was something worth the risk.
The young woman glanced behind her shoulder. The young man instantly acquire the look of an ordinary passer-by and walked on, whistling. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of her face as she stared at him suspiciously. She was young — eighteen or so — and her face was pale. Very beautiful, in a cold sort of way that resembled a sphinx. More a hawk than a dove, he told himself. But he also noticed the thick golden hair cascading down her shoulders, its richness somehow contrasting her drawn aspect. He sent a quick grin her way for good measure, but she did not return his smile, sizing him up narrowly instead.
The girl turned away from Locke and began to walk towards the shadowy houses. Locke had anticipated this action. He was used to tracking people, and reasoned that keeping her in sight would be easy. But the next moment he lost her.
Well, Locke told himself, after casting a brief and startled survey around, it's not easy to throw such a trick. His suspicions about her intensified, but he also smiled to himself.
Finally, a challenge.
* - * - *
Celes had not liked the appearance of the man who had given her such a measuring look; she therefore shook him off. It was easy enough, yet she could not help an uncomfortable suspicion that he had trailed her for quite a while before she became aware of it.
Perhaps he is someone sent to assassinate me?
A sharp pain shot through her abdomen. She suppressed a groan, halting. It was not good, she reflected, to wander around with this vulnerability. Suppose someone...?
But then she shook her head grimly, thinking, I am becoming paranoid, letting myself to be guided by my fears, paralyzed by my inventions. It's better to clear the brain, to think straight. She leant against a wall, attempting to monitor her breathing until the pain receded.
Through her half-closed eyelids she watched the houses hazily. The empty-headed shells grinned at her dourly. They did not accuse, they did not fling insults at her; like skulls they grinned on, horrible in their silence. Here, Celes knew, was death. Here was murder.
And she was the murderer.
A turning shadow caught her eye. Not a muscle of her face moved to betray this; she continued to lean against the wall, ostensibly exhausted. But her senses were seeking, probing, straining to see and hear and taste the danger.
She resumed walking, her gait languid. The shadow continued to trail her slowly, a creeping threat leaking through the heavy heat.
Whirling around suddenly, Celes drew her sword. The ice-blade glittered against the simmering sunlight. She sprang and dove for the prey, just barely missing her mark. The figure of the young man dodged it. He sprang back, landed a short distance away, and rose to his feet at once. His expression was startled. He was obviously not prepared for such a violent retaliation.
Celes lunged again. A terrible seething fury seized her, and she ignored the paralysis threatening to assail her. Despite his obvious confusion she was convinced that he was an assassin, and was determined to kill him before she was killed. Her side stung and her vision swam; but she relied on her excellent instincts and her movements were almost mechanical. Dive — rise — a swift thrust, like a hornet's sting — the sharp point tore through his sleeve, drawing blood, and he exclaimed in pain.
The shock of the wound finally appeared to propel him into action. He leapt aside, avoiding a thrust that would surely have skewered him, and rounded on her. Despite the danger he sensed a brief advantage produced by her careless rage, and retaliated. His sudden agility caught her off-guard, and the next moment his arm was locked around her neck, the other twisting her sword-arm.
Shocked by this sudden reversal she struggled silently, her teeth clenched. But then his voice whispered urgently in her ear:
"Please understand that I meant you no harm! You've over-reacted. Just stay still."
Celes hesitated. Then, after a moment, she appeared to obey his demand and her struggle subsided, her head sinking and her body relaxing. The brief scuffle ended as quickly as it began.
Straightening, Locke let out a barely audible sigh. He experienced a sudden exhaustion, the consequence of the equally sudden expenditure of energy. He eyed the young woman in his arms for a moment. She hung her head, her chest rising and falling with soft, short breaths, her long hair sliding over her face. Locke watched the rich, golden flow gleaming in the swirling heat, for a moment dizzied. The heavy scents of the summer day assailed him, and the atmosphere was full of silent, whispering sounds, punctuated by the young woman's low breathing. His arm ached, the sleeve saturated with trickling blood, and the heat seemed to rob him of energy.
Slowly, he began to loosen his fingers from her wrist, feeling his palm slick with sweat. But a slight movement of her fingers caught his eye, and he suddenly realized that the sounds he heard were not his imagination. He knew what she was doing...
He immediately regained his grip on her hand.
"Easy, easy, knight," he whispered. "Use your ice-ray, and it'll bring every crook in these parts upon us. And who knows, perhaps they will be mad enough today to try playing heroes? The imperial knight at their fingertips — surely a great prize."
"No one will find your body when I am done with you," hissed the young woman.
"But they'll find yours," he replied quietly. The next moment, the cold point of a dagger pressed against her abdomen.
Celes has had enough. Her fingers clenched, the knuckles livid. He would pay for her humiliation, and consequences be damned. She will freeze him and rip his flesh to pieces. This for daring to touch her. He should consider himself lucky that she won't leave him alive for more punishment.
Locke froze, for a moment struggling with indecision, torn between the need to stop her and an instinctive lunge away from the lethal magic —
But the next moment she gasped, her hands flying to her stomach; then she slumped forward, unconscious.
* - * - *
Locke remained crouched between the ruined walls. Time halted to a trickle as the young woman slid gently down in his arms, her eyes closed, her face livid. She slowly drifted to the ground and he had to follow her movement to accommodate her fall.
A sick pain in his stomach told Locke that he was a hair-breadth away from certain death. His arguments were good enough to keep her thinking for perhaps a minute more; but he had been preparing to run for his life. He had recognized her for the Magitek knight, but it was too late by then. Certainly she was a prey much more dangerous than he bargained for.
And then, this happened.
The girl's lips was white, her breathing shallow, her face haggard, almost bloodless. Her head slid to the side as he cradled her in his arms, and the long curtain of her hair flowed across her face again. Locke slumped for a moment, feeling exhausted. His arm ached, the blood saturating the gray sleeve of his shirt. But then he returned his attention to the girl again, and pressed his fingers against her throat. Her pulse beat fast and low.
He wondered briefly whether she had suffered a fatal attack, the onslaught of some mysterious disease which was beyond his help. He was not sure whether he should rejoice. The dreaded Magitek knight who conquered Maranda — dead!
But after a moment she gave a sign of life. Her eyes opened and her breathing became labored. Locke instinctively secured his grip around her, to prevent her from sliding off his arms. Her lips moved, but she appeared unable to speak. He noticed this and leant closer, examining her. She was gazing vaguely through half-closed lids, and appeared not to see him.
The curtain of her hair fell across his hand, warm and shining. In his other hand, the cool metal of the dagger pressed against his skin. Her white neck, exposed beneath the flowing tresses, shone palely. And he fancied to see the silver metal slicing through the white flesh, the red blood flowing, trickling warmly through his fingers, staining the pure clothes. It will take but a moment. Just one moment —
"Help me," she whispered.
The dagger slid from Locke's fingers and clattered to the street as he placed his arm around her waist to secure his grip on her. She turned her eyes upwards, appearing to focus upon him with some recognition. Then she raised her hand, her fingers gripping his arm with some force.
"Help — me — rise," she muttered.
He obeyed her, supporting her as she attempted to stand. She appeared to stumble as they rose together, as if unsure of her feet, but after a moment her hand left his arm and she made a quick gesture, as if to push him away. He understood and drew away, watching her as she steadied herself. She straightened slowly, and for a moment stood very still, appearing to regain her breath. But then she stood straight.
"Give me the sword," she said.
He obeyed. She held it somewhat gingerly, then, with a slow movement, returned it to its sheath.
"Are you better, then?" he asked her quietly after a moment.
She did not respond. He noticed that the color returned to her cheeks a little — at least, she was no longer livid — and took a step towards her, opening his mouth. He wished to say that he was glad that she recovered; but then she flashed him a glance beneath her half-lowered lids; a brief, hostile ray that froze him in his tracks.
"Stay where you are."
Her voice was cold. Locke halted. Then he fell a step back, watching her. She did not meet his gaze, but instead looked into the blazing sky. The brittle afternoon was sinking slowly, a warm red seeping at its edges. She watched it silently, for a moment as still as a statue; but she ignored Locke's presence as if he did not exist.
And with a sudden, illuminating flash, Locke understood.
He had witnessed her in her moment of weakness. She had been reduced to beg him for help. He, a man she twice tried to kill. But instead of feeling grateful, she was still caught with her pride — that pride that seethed at her humiliation.
If she could, he thought, she would kill me right now.
Slowly, he retreated towards the warm, concealing shadows which stole with the descending night. He may not receive payment for his help, but he knew better than to be caught again. But she noticed and turned towards him; more alertly this time.
"Where are you going?"
"Not going," he answered, and his characteristic smile tugged his mouth now. "Escaping."
Her eyelids fluttered for a moment at his tone. She understood the implication.
"This, then, is what you believe of me?"
"Yes," he answered without hesitation. His eyes scanned the hollow shells of the houses, now teeming with lingering shadows, then rested upon her again, their gaze serious and clear. "I do."
She followed the movement of his eye, and understood. But she raised her head high.
"Well, then... you are wrong."
Again, the nervous flickering of the eyelids. But then she said imperiously: "Swear to me that you will tell no one of what you have seen."
He said nothing, and suddenly he noticed that her face changed. She gazed at him directly, her voice dropping as she added with a whisper —
"I won't have another murder to tally on my soul."
Locke's mouth opened; but he could think of nothing to say. She has averted her face, and he watched her for a moment. But in the end all he answered was, "I promise not to tell, then."
She looked up. He was touching his fingers to his hair in mock solute and grinned at her; then he turned and slipped into the shadows of the town.
Celes stood transfixed, staring after him. For a moment she felt a hot flush suffusing her face, and it banished the lingering sensation of frozen paralysis which still lurked in the shadows. Then she signed a little, her features relaxing. And moving slowly, with a measured pace, she turned and proceeded to walk back towards the headquarters.