Chapter 32 ∞ First Laugh
To say my life changed with these two morons wasn’t an exaggeration. There wasn’t a day of peace as of late with them barging in on my business left and right. My teaching of Maun of sign language wasn’t really serious—just some casual drops of vocabulary. Nevertheless, whenever I spoke to him, I would use signs. It depended entirely on him if he was going to learn or not, though. My mistresses displayed brow-raised curiosity towards what I was doing, but they didn’t really say anything.
Maun, anyhow, was absorbing it all like a sponge. It was hardly a week and he could already form basic sentences and questions.
I regret teaching him because, now, he just wouldn’t shut up. This little muffin was as persistent as they come. I try to ignore him—and avoid him—as much as I could, but the moment he would catch me, he would latch on like a freaking leech.
Erenol was another problem. While dancing lessons with Mistress Neilly had kept her sufficiently preoccupied, she would always find a time in the day to pester me and talk about nothing but dancing—it’s what made up most of the topics she blabbered on about. Thankfully, she had some little sense. She would usually start talking about the weather. I now always know what she’s going to end up bringing up about next. I learned to find a way to slip off before that.
“The festival’s going to start soon,” Erenol said happily. “Remember when we went out to enjoy one six years ago or something? That was our first time together, right?”
I stretched my leg forward, right over the stairs of the front porch. This spot was shaded from the sun and had the coolest breeze blowing through. I didn’t feel like sitting under my favorite tree at the moment because the weather was turning cold. I tended to fall asleep when I felt too comfortable and if I did that in this weather, my mother would begin scolding me.
“Mmnh. That was for the spring. This one’s the autumn one. I think,” I replied as I worked to get some shade into the sketch I was drawing. I had a decent aptitude for the visual arts, but I don’t have much will and effort to improve on it. This drawing, painting, and sculpture thing happened to be another one of Mistress Neilly’s strengths. Watching her work on her stuff was enough for me to learn from.
If I devote enough time to practice this thing, I might reach the level of Mistress Neilly someday. There was nothing impossible with enough hard work, but I was unfortunately lazy. The moment I lose the desire, I’ll be throwing away this sketch I’ve haphazardly begun doing and forget all about it. I had always been very self-critical, so the moment I’m dissatisfied, I lose every bit of inspiration from my veins.
“I wonder if we’ll get to doing it again this year,” she whispered.
I managed to get some shade in, but the whole drawing ended up looking very awkward in the end. I twisted my lip in dissatisfaction and threw the sketch pad to the side, weary. “Probably not. It’s too risky. Especially with the kind of chaos that’ll be happening, we’ll be even more helpless. The mistresses will not allow us to leave this time around. It’s just too dangerous,” I told her.
“Yeah, I figured,” she said. “I’m really grateful they took me in, though. I wonder what sort of trouble they had to go through?”
“Even if you ask, they probably won’t tell you. You know how adults are,” I stated with a sigh. “Better just not ask any questions.”
“Why do they want you anyway?” I asked. “Any particular reason why they’re aiming after you?”
“Because I just happen to be unlucky enough to be born to the father I have. All other reasons are irrelevant,” she muttered. “I freaking hate him. I freaking hate this country. Sometimes, I wish I was born to a family like this.”
“Like this?” I laughed. “Well, you know, my situation isn’t exactly normal either.”
“But it’s a family all the same.” She leaned over, chest pressed to her knees as she took a peek at my face. Her hair curtained to her feet and she gave a bright smile. “It doesn’t matter how it looks like, you know, as long as the love is there. You have that and more. From what I can see, you’re very lucky either way.”
“Did you hear me ever complain?” I told her. “What I was trying to talk about is the normal, normal family. You know? Mother, father, brother, sister.”
“Being too normal is boring,” she replied. “You need a little bit of the out of the ordinary once in a while to stir things up.”
I breathed out loudly and stood. “That’s how I want mine to be. Kinda.” I picked up the sketch I had.
“What are you drawing?” she asked.
“Nah…came to me in a dream,” I lied smoothly. “Like a distant memory. I don’t think I did it well though.”
“Well…it’s better than a child’s drawing, definitely,” Eren commented.
“Oh, shut it.”
I was drawing the face of my biological mother in this life. I have her features vividly painted in my mind, but I don’t have enough skill to print it down on paper. My hands simply couldn’t do her justice, unfortunately. The only reason I started drawing her was that I just didn’t want to forget how she looked like. However, I’m probably distorting a memory by thinking about it so hard.
I looked into the distance and wondered where this urge came from. Perhaps I was yearning to get to know her somehow. It was the part of me that my dominant consciousness had suppressed all this time—the me of this life, with none of the memories from my past one. I knew this Evyionne would have been very different from the me I knew now.
“Who do you think she is?” Eren asked, nodding at the woman I had drawn.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Could be anyone.”
I stood up and dusted my long skirt, bringing my sketch along.
“Where are you going?” Eren’s gaze followed me, her neck bending to almost inconceivable angles.
“To get a snack,” I said.
“You’re always getting snacks.” She stood as well and followed me.
“Because I’m always hungry.”
Conversations with Eren weren’t always so useless, apparently. It might not be too bad having these doofus-es around. It was just like getting used to new pets at home. This should just be for the first few days, right?
Both Maun and Erenol were…just the kids they were supposed to be. As I was used to being the only ‘child’ in the House, I had a hard time adjusting to the sudden competition for the attention I was used to receiving until now. Thinking about it more thoroughly, it came with a lot advantages. My mistresses weren’t so overly intrusive into my business as they were, and I gained a little more privacy from them. My days also ended up becoming much more fun. My mandatory lessons weren’t as boring anymore, considering I had two other people with me to endure them.
“Alright, you three,” Mistress Veronika began.
She looked a little stricter today. She even had her hands resting on her back as she matched around the line that the three of us formed. I stood in the middle of our little lineup. Erenol stood on my right with the most amusing determined face while Maun on my left was quite timid.
“Do you know what happened a week ago?” Mistress Veronika barked with genuine displeasure. “You three almost got killed! Evy, step forward!”
Whoops. She sounded serious this time. Mistress Veronika had a brusque personality, but she normally didn’t have this kind of tone when speaking with me—and I doubted she would be any harsher with the others as well. Nonetheless, the matter at hand was quite dire, which made her behavior understandable. The incident from a while back wasn’t a joke.
I knew my mistresses were still dealing with the fright they’d gotten at that time, and they were handling this with utmost caution.
“Mistress,” I greeted.
“Tell me in detail how the incident unfolded,” she said.
I looked at her for a while and debated where I was supposed to start. They were very careful not to bring up the topic around me the past week, probably trying to see how I was after that traumatizing encounter—whether it was fine for me to recall it. Captain Leiran only asked me some basic stuff, nothing really too invasive in light of what we just went through. I was generally fine, mentally speaking. I was just a little shaken back then, but I was faring well enough. After all, my consciousness far exceeded my biological age.
“Maun and I went to meet Erenol at Scents and Papers,” I began. “We then went to Madame Dana’s to eat some strawberries. The waiter told us we were being spied on from outside by a couple of suspicious people, so we went out the back. We went to the main streets to avoid getting cornered, but there were guards looking for Erenol so we took a detour.”
I heard Erenol shuffle nervously beside me.
“We got lost somehow after that and wandered to the outskirts of the city…” I said. “We wanted to leave as soon as possible when we realized where we were, so we got a map and found the nearest transportation terminal to take us back to the center. We were caught by those guys, so we ran. I made the wrong decision to enter an alley to have a shortcut, and they managed to corner us from both sides.”
Mistress Veronika eyed me as I spoke. “Continue. What happened next.”
I went into detail about how I heard them speaking a language I recognized from somewhere and knew they were after Erenol. Maun had retreated to the wall and cowered back the moment everything went sour while I was pulled back. I told her how they had wanted to sell me which made me freeze for a moment before fighting back with what I knew.
“Close quarters combat,” Mistress Veronika said, walking around me and stopping behind me. “So the man held you like this.” To my shock, she stomped forward and held me from behind in a manner similar to how the man held me and covered my mouth like he did. “What did you do? Show me, Evy.”
My eyes widened. I didn’t expect she would do this.
“What are you waiting for?” she prompted.
I caught what little flesh I could between my teeth, but I realized I couldn’t really get a bite out of her hand like I managed to do with the ruffian.
“Those guys are inexperienced pieces of trash. If they held your mouth properly, you wouldn’t get a chance to do what you just did,” she told me. “If you want to hold your opponent defenseless, you hold them by the neck in a choke hold. Just restricting their throats enough will stop them from screaming so loud.”
I squirmed from under her grip. I tried recalling what little of these things she’d taught me before aside from those useless swordsmanship stuff she shoved in my head. They were mostly just self-defense necessities—just broken bits and pieces.
“I didn’t teach you how to break out one of these, did I?” she asked. “Well, it’s time I get serious.” She cleared her throat and finally let me go. “I’ve been very lax with you, Evy. You know enough to defend yourself from noobs. With how things are going, I won’t put it past you guys to encounter harder opponents! Especially you, Eren! You’re planning to enter the War College. The people you will face will be much, much harder to take down.”
Eren, called out by the mistress, stiffened behind me. The way she did was so obvious, I felt her move. Mistress Veronika, on the other hand, took a deep breath and stepped in front of us once more.
“Go back in line, Evy,” she told me and I obeyed.
She might really be serious this time around.
“Now, I’m going to start with the basics again. Evy, all the things you learned in the past year. They won’t entirely be useless. You can integrate and understand them better with what I’m going to teach you. In fact, judging by your performance, you actually managed to integrate some knowledge together when you needed it. You talk of using the Movement of the Seven Dragons to enhance your defense and offense—which is what it essentially does. You were also keen enough to fare well in an intricate two-on-one combat with that, which is very impressive! At least now I know that you were listening.”
I smiled sheepishly. Even with all the praise, I still hated exercising. I don’t think there was anything what would ever make me love it, other than the fact that it would probably help keep my belly from blowing out of proportion when I’m older.
“Evy, the first three stances of the Movement for me, please,” Mistress Veronika said.
I looked at her dumbfoundedly, but eventually marched forward to find a good spot. I executed the first three stances as I had learned prior. While I didn’t have the grace that Mistress Veronika or that old monk had when they demonstrated these moves, I was sure I did it pretty solidly.
“Good. Eren, did you catch that?” my mistress inquired.
“Ah? Um…” Erenol went red and shook her head. “No. I didn’t catch a thing…except for that breathing part. Can I see the rest one more time?”
“Maun, what about you? Would you like to try?”
Maun looked at Mistress Veronika and scratched the top of his head. He fiddled with his fingers and shyly looked over to meet my eyes.
“Go on,” I signed.
While the boy was still quite lanky, he gained a little bit of meat over the past few days. He wasn’t as emaciated as he once was when he came to us. I knew he would only continue improving, but the results were already quite significant. Admittedly, I was looking forward to how he would look like later on.
Maun took the breathing position and adeptly moved into the next stance as though he’d done it tons of times before. Then he went for the next stance and ended it as I did.
Mistress Veronika had raised brows. Even I was taken aback.
These people! What was up with you all? First Erenol and now you?!
“Yo! You talented freak!” Erenol exclaimed.
“Yeah, that was good. I had to do that one…twenty or thirty tries before I got it right,” I said, scratching my head. “And you got it after one look?”
First Erenol and now Maun. These doofus-es kept surprising me.
Those three stances seemed to have exhausted him though. He lacked some good work out. This might help him improve his health a little bit more. “No,” he replied in sign language. “Saw you.”
“Before?” I clarified.
He signed, “Yes.”
“What, really? When?” I asked.
“After you…” he paused, not knowing the word. He proceeded to spell it out. “R-E-T-U-R-N.”
“When we returned,” I said and signed at the same time. “You saw it. When we got back home from Lovarda?”
“You went to Lovarda?” Erenol gasped.
“Old news,” I told her.
“So mean! Why didn’t you bring me?” she whined.
I ignored Erenol, dismissing her demand with a sigh.
“But this is your first time doing it?” Mistress Veronika followed up.
He nodded again.
“That’s still quite something,” she said, looking at Maun with a very impressed face. “How old are you, son?”
Maun raised his fingers and counted. “Four…teen? I think?”
“Why aren’t you sure?” I asked.
“Don’t know…for sure,” he told me.
“Does that mean you don’t know your birthday either?” I interrogated him.
He shook his head.
Ugh! Poor little muffin! How sad was his life?!
“How can anyone not know their birthday!” Erenol cried indignantly.
“You really don’t know when your birthday is?”
He shook his head once more. With how much he’s had to do that, I would think he was feeling dizzy.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” I began. “Do you want to celebrate yours with mine?” I suggested.
Maun’s eyes popped wide and he stared at me dubiously. I don’t know why I suggested that, either.
“Ooh. Ooh. That means we have a birthday party?!” Eren exclaimed excitedly.
“We can bake a cake,” I said. “I get my own cake, of course. I won’t be sharing it with anybody.”
I caught Mistress Veronika looking between the three of us, brows raised with a small smile on her face.
“A cake! A cake! Can we have strawberries on it?! Maybe in it and around it too!”
“You don’t get to decide,” I told her, crossing my arms. “It’s not your birthday. Now, is it?”
The corner of her lips fell and she jutted out her lower lip sadly. “Can we have strawberries on my birthday, then?”
“As much as you want.”
That appeased her. Honestly. Was this girl really fifteen years old? She was much more childish than a ten year old! I rolled my eyes and looked over to Maun, realizing he was looking more and more unconvinced by what was happening. His silver violet eyes met mine before they dropped to the floor, tears rising and his head dropping.
Before I realized it, small sobs quaked him. His shoulders shook. His sniffles made all of us pause. His voice was small, really hoarse. He hadn’t used it before—at least I never heard him.
I walked over to him while nodding consolingly and proceeded to pat his back. “There, there. It’s alright. I know we decided your birthday today, but you don’t have to act like a newborn,” I told him, watching him cry.
Erenol looked over, confused. Mistress Veronika’s brows floated even higher. I broke into a cheesy grin.
I don’t reckon they got the joke?
“Get it? Because newborn babies cry?” I said. “They probably get tears of joy finally being born.”
“What? Not funny?” I intoned. Bummed, I shrugged off the bad joke.
“Babies cry because they get their butts spanked, stupid!” Eren told me. “If anything, they’re crying because they entered hell!”
“Thanks for that, obvious. Hear that?” I told Maun. “Don’t make me spank your butt and give you a reason to cry.”
He continued crying anyway.
“Fine. We can just—whoaah.”
Maun had unexpectedly thrown himself around on my arm like a monkey to a tree. He was squeezing it so tight that I could feel the blood flow being restricted, the tips of my fingers numbing while prickled with cold needles. I tried towing myself away, hoping the motion of me trying to move would make him let me go. Unfortunately, he clung to me no matter what I tried. My sleeve was soaked with both snot and tears.
I deadpanned. My mistress and Erenol were finally laughing.