Chapter 13 ∞ Shadow
I was taken by the newcomer in the House and visited him at least a couple times a day out of curiosity. There was something so peculiar about him that had me drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He sort of looked like Mistress Lamia—but not exactly. Instead of pure, snowy hair, he had locks that shone a metallic grey and reflected light tones of purple under the right light. I almost couldn’t tell with all the blood caking it.
He was never left alone more than a couple of minutes in case he needed anything, especially during the first few nights. Kora said he wasn’t in the green zone just yet and would need to be constantly monitored. I had nothing to do in the House of Oblivion save for my personal hobbies. Considering he was a new object of interest, I inquisitively hovered around.
Not to mention there was that weird moment when I found him. Strange and eerily cold shadows. If I would have to describe them at all, I would name them the emissaries of death. They were a particularly familiar presence to me, considering I had to bear with their company for a while before eventually being reborn.
“Evyionne,” my mother began softly. “Tell me honestly. How did you find him?”
I looked up from my seat in front of the table, lowering my fork and the piece of meat I pierced it with. All my mistresses were looking at me questioningly. “He was right outside,” I said. “The alley. I heard something. I wasn’t going to go out and do anything, but it felt…weird.”
“What weird?” Veronika inquired.
“Weird…?” I trailed off. “I don’t know.”
“The House is surrounded by a cloaking technology, Evyionne. People will not know where that entrance is unless they know where to find it,” Hellenia firmly stated. She wasn’t blaming me for anything, but I knew she needed the truth. “It ensures our safe passage in and out of the Oblivion and it protects you.”
“I know that,” I said. “But I’m telling the truth.”
“It is rash to be doubting her,” Mistress Lili said. “I do not think Evyionne is telling lies. Clearly, it must have been a coincidence. Of all the times she has left the House, she has always informed us one way or another. She’s a very docile child save for occasional spells of stubbornness. She wouldn’t keep something like this from us.”
Hellenia sighed. “I’m sorry, dear, I am just very worried.”
I lowered my head and said nothing. I understood that much.
“Let us just assume he found a way around the concealment and ended up on our doorstep,” Lamia suddenly spoke. She usually didn’t bother embroiling herself in these issues, nearly always maintaining a certain detachment and leaving most of the trouble to the other mistresses. She was able to make impartial decisions that way and see things in a different light. “That path is not invulnerable and a person or two is bound to stumble on it at least once in this lifetime. What we have to deal with now is deciding what to do with the boy.”
“He was gravely injured,” Kora said. “A severed tongue, a punctured side. It looks like whoever did it was aiming for a vital point but missed. The assailant definitely wasn’t inexperienced, but not too successful either. I assume they were interrupted and the boy managed to escape somehow before they could truly finish him.”
“Not to mention in a dress,” Veronika interjected.
“Whatever this boy’s story is, it definitely isn’t a lighthearted one,” Mistress Liane softly added. “Are you sure we’re taking on this trouble? It might be something more than it’s worth.”
“You said it yourself,” Lamia told them. “It won’t be worth keeping a person who has been involved in such a matter. We can’t set aside the possibility of the assailant trying to find a dead body.”
“So what do we do?” Veronika asked.
“Don’t throw him out,” I blurted. All the eyes in the room were suddenly on me. I swallowed heavily. “I was the one who found him. I was the one who brought him in. If I have to be the one to be responsible for him, then so be it.”
“You little girl!” Mistress Marian exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you like him? He doesn’t strike me as your type!”
I frowned. “That’s not it!”
“Then why would a woman be so bent on keeping a man she doesn’t like?” Marian pointed out, raising a brow as she lightly covered her mouth.
“Woman?” Mistress Neilly calmly threw a piece of meat into her mouth and chewed. “She’s barely thirteen. She is still a young girl!”
“Well, she is due to enter womanhood anytime at that age,” Mistress Marian argued. “And by that time, we will be forced to send her off to the world to pursue what she likes. She can’t stay in the Oblivion forever. We never intended on having her become one of us now, did we? So many men yet no one stays! Evyionne will want stability. She won’t get that here!”
I sighed, shoulders squaring. “I saw something, ‘kay?”
“You saw what?” Marian continued. “His peewee?”
“Mistress!” I exclaimed indignantly.
“Oh. Look at her face,” she teased.
“Marian, you uncouth slut.” Kora threw his napkin on the table shortly after wiping his mouth with it. “Why must you bring up uncomfortable topics on the dinner table?”
“Can you tone down on the language in front of the girl?” Hellenia scolded.
“This woman won’t stop, honestly!” Kora exclaimed.
“What’s wrong with that? We’re all women except for that wannabe over there!” Marian harrumphed.
I hang my head low as I listened wearily to the banter. What had just been such a serious matter of discussion had become one of a joke. Mistress Marian and Kora were always arguing like this. These two just weren’t made of the same material and somehow clashed all the time.
“Enough,” Lamia’s bone-chilling declaration instantly pulled some much needed silence into the room. “Evyionne, what was it that you saw?”
“He had shadows around him that I chased away,” I replied. “I don’t know what they were…but they made me feel like that time.”
“Like what time?” Veronika urged.
“From the college. When I was six,” I said. “It was cold—colder than ice. I know…those things. I don’t think…I don’t think they’re from here.”
Utter silence dropped. I felt like I just released a Hiroshima of some sort.
“Hellenia,” Lamia began, authority in her voice. Being the leader of the household, the moment she opened her mouth, everybody in the room straightened their backs and strained their ears to hear her command.
My mother’s attention turned to the white-haired woman across me. She didn’t look very calm.
“In a year’s time, take Evyionne back to the War College and have her undergo the phasing test. I trust you can arrange that with Laksa.”
My adoptive mother lowered her head as though to confirm.
“Veronika,” Lamia continued.
I swallowed heavily as the silence crept back into the room. When they said ‘phasing test,’ they probably meant the confirmation of the three fates. The first test that I had taken back when I was little was just a haphazard check. The three fates were very easy to get wrong at that age, so they made a failsafe to check again just to make sure they got it correct. The times they get it wrong was very rare and the initial test was almost always correct. Essentially, the phasing test was a formality. However, I could sense that my adoptive mother was hoping I got that test wrong from before.
“May I be excused?” I asked.
Mistress Lamia glanced at me from across the table. “You may go.”
I pushed back at my chair and left behind a half-eaten plate, trudging through the long halls of the residential building. The night breeze sank through the open walls as the crickets sang praises of a moonlit sky. I routinely made my way back to my room and passed by the lobby where our patient was being accommodated for the meantime. Kora was against moving him, so we made a temporary lodging of the place. It was accessible and we could check on him from time to time.
I stopped to gaze at him, watching the rhythmic rising of his chest as he slept through the pain with furrowed brows. Sweat dusted his forehead and he was grinding his jaws through a dream.
And they came once again.
They were like small sprites, actually. They flitted about, hovering persistently as though they saw a feast they could not yet touch. The closeness of these things had such ill effects on the guy, I realized—a source of his nightmares and agony. Maybe even more than that.
Truthfully, I did not know what these things were either. I also didn’t know why I felt so compelled to help him. He was a total stranger, after all. For all I knew, I had always remained rather distant to the unfortunate. I was not heartless, but I was not that girl walking down the street feeling pity for every beggar I passed by. I could give them a piece of bread to survive for a day, but such acts of mercy only heightened their pain. I have seen much of life in these two lifetimes of mine. I knew there were many people I would not be able to help. Maybe not even myself.
I took a moment to sink beside the stranger, wondering what sort of name he went by. I then clawed at the tails of the shadow climbing at his heart, pulling it back.
It was in that instant that I knew I shouldn’t have done what I did, as the blood in my hands ran cold and frost faintly appeared on my skin. Cold breath left my lungs as the shadow struggled to leave my grasp. I squeezed my fist around it and, in an instant, it scattered from the weight my fingers. There was a faint cry so negligible, it lightly squeezed at my heart with pity and regret.
The other shadows hovering stopped short at my presence. Then, as if startled and frightened, scurried off.
The breathing of the guy before me eased. He calmed—like a boat traversing a boundless sea that encountered a threatening storm was suddenly faced with a clear sky.
I sat there, staring at him, offering the presence I knew would not be appreciated anyway. I sat there as my hand ached, waiting the minutes away as it thawed. Holding it up against the fire did not work as it was not the normal cold one would feel on mountaintops. I had to rely on my blood to warm the frozen fingers of mine, enduring the pricking needles of ice until it had gone.
It wasn’t excruciating, but it was definitely uncomfortable. I would never put myself through this experience again unless I could not help it. For some unbearable moments just now, I felt all the sensation leave my hands—like I stuck them in a black hole. I knew I had hands. I just didn’t feel like they existed.
By the time the coldness was almost completely gone, I had been sitting there for quite a time. I had sweat buckets in my dress. My back was soaked. I stood up to get changed when I heard the mistresses leaving the dining hall, but caught the brief parting of eyes that revealed beautiful silver violets. As I blinked to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, they settled back close.
I paused hesitantly. He wasn’t awake yet—was I wrong about that?
I shook my head and made my way back. I found myself in my room, drawing myself a hot bath. I had my own bathing pools—which could be considered a luxury in this place of the world. Well, the House of Oblivion wasn’t decrepitly impoverished, in fact it was the complete opposite.
There was a ring in my ear. It was the unique communicator that the mistresses got me for my last year’s birthday. It cost a bit of fortune, I heard.
I almost jumped out of my skin. I reached up to touch the dragon accessory curled around the lobes of my ear, sighing. I made a motion to accept the call with the wave of my hand. “Erenol? What got you calling me this time of night?” I asked.
“To check in on you, need that have to be established?” she said.
“Tell the truth, doofus. You never call to check in. You only call when you have a problem or something to tell me,” I said.
The steam rose from the waters and I took a deep breath, reveling in the comfortable temperature. I rounded the dividers and struggled out of my clothes before jumping into the water with a splash.
“Was that—all the maidens I know of gracefully enter the water, Evyionne,” Erenol said. “You are impossible. Every time I call you, you’re always in water. What is up with that?”
I rose and crawled to the corners of the bathing pool to relax. Warm water and my own little pool like a jacuzzi. Why wouldn’t I take a bath every night? Besides, it alleviated some of the cold sting I was still feeling in the flesh of my hands.
“Don’t you like it like that? I’m here to sit and bear with all your tales of idiocy for the day. So spill.”
“Idiot is the last thing I am, Evy. And it is far too early in the day to call me that.”
“It is never too early to be an idiot, Erenol. And you will forever be one.” I laughed.
“Never in love!” she exclaimed.
I shook my head. This romantic little girl believed in happy endings—which figures, because she was just a little older than the me now. She would know when she grew up a little more. I’ve gotten a taste of romantic relationships and all it left me was a bitter taste in my mouth, plus all the guys I’ve met so far except for my father and Kora were jerks.
Because I didn’t know my father at all—at least my previous life’s father. My memories of him were just too early to remember that he could very well be a stranger. My biological one in this world seemed very kind and loving. I wonder…how would it have been if I grew up on their side of the world?
Anyhow, enough about boys. I would focus on mixing perfumes and reading books for the rest of my life, thank you—although it would be a little too early, if not strange, to say that, considering I had just turned twelve years old this year. Erenol was two years older than me and she turned fourteen just this winter.
I was unable to determine how old my soul was, but my consciousness was definitely that of a thirty-year-old woman. I shook my head at the glaring numbers. I could only hope not to turn out like that girl in that orphan movie. Just thinking about it gave me the chills.
“Evy, the thing is—I was never honest with you,” Erenol began.
“Don’t worry. I always know when you’re lying,” I told her coolly.
“Shut it. I’m still older than you.”
“Asserting seniority now, huh?”
“I want to leave here,” she said.
“Since when haven’t you?”
“I mean it this time,” she continued, voice falling into a whisper. “Things are getting worse …I don’t think I will be able to make it if I stay. I overheard a couple of my brothers talking. My father’s health had worsened. The fact that he’s still alive is the only thing barring these factions from clawing at each other outright. If he really dies, there ought to be a civil war. Not to mention, for the other emperors, the position of First Among Equals is much too tempting to pass off.”
I sat up, my shoulders tensing.
“I’m sure you’ve already deduced it with all my stories to you for the past few years. You were always the smarter of us two…” she trailed off. “I feel silly confessing all of this through a communicator, but I haven’t been able to sneak out with how tight they’re guarding the entrances.”
“Tell me, Eren.”
“Once they confirm my three fates in the phasing test, I’ll be forced to take part in the competition and take a side—otherwise, it’s my life. They have every reason to believe that I am a Conduit. Not really a powerful one, but they’re raking everyone to their side to break the status quo.”
“Are you talking about the war for the throne?” I asked.
“So what is it really, Eren?”
She sighed. “They can use me and marry me off to some lord to secure an allegiance—use me to produce children that can possibly inherit my being a Conduit. And I cannot remain neutral because I’ll be crushed by both sides. I’m off to be treated like a commodity by these scheming men and I don’t want to be a birth factory of children they’re going to use to further their own power.”
I quickly washed up and rose from the water. Want as I did to stay in the warm pools, I was turning into a prune. Not to mention I wouldn’t be able to relax anyhow with what I was hearing. I snatched the towel from the rack on the moistened corner and wrapped it around myself before I casually marched into the adjacent door that led straight to my dressing quarters.
I faced the inventory of clothes I had gathered over time, discarding the towel on a waiting rack by the door and donning a new set of underclothes.
“You don’t see a way out of it?”
“I’ve tried to be the most unremarkable subject. It’s not working. My mother’s efforts of shielding me are becoming obsolete. There’s no way to hide the results once I take it.”
“How long do you have?” I asked, looking at my selection of clothes.
“Have you met your Deliverer?” I inquired further. “Has your patron showed themselves to you yet?”
“No. And I’m glad they haven’t. I don’t want to be a Conduit, Evyionne. It spells more trouble than it’s worth. This is what my mother has been telling me—for all those blessed will be hunted for their gifts…”
“Persecuted by the jealous and less fortunate,” I followed, remembering it to be a line from one of the books we’ve been reading together. “I’ll be taking my test in a year, too. We’re not that far from each other,” I said, picking at the rack of clothes before me uninterestedly. “So don’t worry. Whatever happens, I’m here for you.”
“Like you can do anything.”
Fashion had evolved some more in this short timeframe, small as they were. Dropped and large collars as long as a full hand, trimmed with lace details for a touch of complexity, have become the trend nowadays. They fully embraced the shoulders, pinned on the chest by a brooch or pin; whichever was chosen. Sleeves were bubbly and opened wide hungrily around the elbows. Excess cloth caused curling creases and made them a little heavy to be convenient. The skirts, if not high-waisted, were mermaid tails.
As a kid, I was exempted from the intricacy of full-blown gowns but as someone from a well-off…family, I was obligated to get used to their lavish impossibility for an even more impossible life ahead. I pulled out a hanging pair from the corner. Pearly beiges and warm tones were a frequent sight on local clothes, so I decided to take the dusty white and ashen purple themed night clothes pair for tonight.
“You should really blame your father for having so many kids,” I told her. “I think the reason why his health declined like that is because he has so many wives. Just one is already very hard to handle.”
“When I marry, I’ll make sure my husband has only me for a wife!” she exclaimed.
“Would anyone want to marry you at all?” I intoned.
Damn. It must be hard being the daughter of an Emperor with so many wives. I pity this girl. Compared to her, I’m hella lucky.