Chapter 44 ∞ Lullaby
We made our way through the quiet street. There was hardly anyone around—only the occasional drunk traipsing on the sidewalk and a patrol who’d walk up to said drunk and scold them for loitering. No one took notice of us and we tried not to draw too much attention to ourselves either.
“Are you sure no one will see us?” my mother asked.
“No will see us, but they’ll definitely smell us,” Mistress Neilly replied.
“Yuagh…” Eren nearly vomited.
We eventually arrived in the house where Aunt Safia stayed. It was a small building with straight, square corners. There were plants with hanging vines draped over the window. The door was arched and was a beautiful mahogany. It was a very simple structure that possessed none of the intricacies the other buildings in the city had.
We all walked up the cobblestone path through the courtyard. My mother went first, knocking on the door.
“Safia,” she began. “Safia, it’s—”
Just as her knuckles landed, the door swung open—or, more precisely, it was left so. An ominous feeling rose inside me and I looked around us. I found nothing from my line of sight and my other senses did not pick up on anything either. I had a bad feeling, even so, and my mistress and mother picked up on it as well.
“Hellen, take the children,” Mistress Neilly began.
“Neil,” my mother firmly stated.
“I need to make sure Safia is alright. For now, make your way to War College. Laksa should be able to be of help.”
With that, Mistress Neilly proceeded to enter the house while we began to hurry away. Just as we bounded towards the gates, men appeared and surrounded us from all sides.
“Why are you leaving so soon?” someone inquired—that wasn’t Aunt Safia, I was sure of it. But it sounded female.
My heart thumped as they caged us in. They weren’t like the ones who’d infiltrated Oblivion, nevertheless. They didn’t have the Veils hanging around them nor did they have the neon irises and dark red where the white of the eyes should be. They were regular men.
I looked at back at Mistress Neilly and found her backing away from the door to our direction.
“What is this?” my mother demanded.
“Don’t mind my men,” someone intoned. “I just paid a visit to an old witch in the city before I made my way over. I just didn’t think I would be so lucky so as to encounter more as well. I didn’t even need to come. You brought yourselves to me.”
We turned and found a woman walking out of the humble house. It wasn’t Aunt Safia. Rather, it was someone dressed in golden robes with dragons embroidered on the ends of the fabric. The corners of her eyes were drawn with dark blue lines, her brows straight and wispy. She had a small but round nose, eyes the color of electrifying silver. The place didn’t seem to be able to contain her presence at all. Just the sight of her alone was suffocating and domineering, to say the least. Some people had to earn respect slowly by showing their worth, but this woman would have it by just being there.
We cowered back while Eren reacted the strongest. Looking at the tense expression on the other girl’s face, I realized she must recognize this woman.
I looked back at the woman dressed in golden robes. Her silver eyes met mine and they seemed to take on that curious albeit infuriated glint.
“So this is the little princess of Oblivion,” she said, her voice soft and sultry. “My ears picked up on a child living amongst you hags. If it weren’t for that other child—” she looked at Eren “—I would’ve never known about her at all. You kept her presence tight under leash. What are you afraid of?”
“What would the empress want to be in such a place in the middle of the night? Are you even allowed to step outside the Glass Palace?”
“Oh, but I’m not an empress today,” she said. “Hellen, don’t you recognize an old friend? Can’t I come by to check on the family I was raised with once in a while?”
She’s the empress?
Indeed, she looked like one.
But, crap.Why was she here? And what did she mean by old friend? The empress was a former member of the House?
And how does she look so young? Didn’t she have that son of hers? Unless she gave birth at a really young age?
Then I remembered these guys don’t really age that fast either.
“Old friend? Stop with the crap, Freyna. You turned your back on everything Oblivionstood for. You’re not here to visit. Now let Safia go,” Neilly spat.
“It took me a long, long time to find a chink in the armor of Oblivion. You don’t know just how long I’ve been trying. You are one, tough nut to crack, I’ve got to give you that, but you were just a little careless recently,” she said with a smile. “I was just asking the lady of this house about something.” She waved open a fan and Aunt Safia was brought forward, bloodied and broken. She chuckled.
“What did you come to ask about? Your dignity? You won’t get that one back. No one knows where it went,” Mistress Neilly told her.
“Ooh.” Freyna covered her mouth with her fan. “Still such a sharp tongue, Neilly. Unfortunately, I can’t let this woman go. You know how it is for traitors to the crown.”
“What traitors?” my mother inquired, voice sharp with indignance.
The empress laughed. “Let me give you an example.”
A man came forward with a knife. He pulled back Aunt Safia’s head by the hair and positioned the blade just below the curve of her throat.
“Hellen,” the blind woman began. “Ten silver rings and a golden road.”
Maun, Eren, and I were all pulled back, our faces tucked and covered as life was taken from Aunt Safia. I trembled when I heard the sound of something dripping, followed by the cold, lifeless thump. I lifted my eyes to see the woman who’d taken care of me when the mistresses couldn’t…dead.
Veils came in and fluttered around her—nipping on and ripping something that could not be seen, feasting like piranhas greeted by a piece of meat, before finally making their leave.
Erenol began sobbing, her head buried in my mother’s clothes as my breathing turned ragged.
“Oh, what was that? Some kind of riddle?” the empress laughed. “How amusing. You still struggle so much.” She gave another wave of her hand and all the men closed in. “And get the head of this thing. I want it as proof.”
I could only look on in horror as the man prepared to do as he was ordered.
I didn’t know what happened next. All I saw was darkness when they covered our faces and dragged us away. I didn’t know what this was for—were they taking us somewhere we didn’t know? For what?
They bound my hands on my back, tying it together so tight I could feel my fingers turning cold from the lack of proper blood flow. There was a bunch of screaming from Eren which was immediately stifled, and we were thrown on the back of horses like some criminals to be brought in for sentence. They were harsh with me. Their hands seized me so tight that my muscles knotted under their grips and my joints were very nearly torn apart. Still, unlike the others, I kept my silence even though the panic boiled inside me.
The horse began to canter until the speed picked up. I didn’t know where we were going, but after a few short minutes, we eventually came to a halt.
I was pulled off the back of the horse, carried and dragged over a distance before finally thrown to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
The cloth around my head was pulled off, giving me a clear view of what was around me. I looked up from where I had fallen and found my other mistresses—Kora, Lamia, Veronika, Liane, Lili, Marian, and Marga. We were back in Oblivion. The fire in the shed where I had blown things up still hadn’t died out, giving them a backdrop of inferno. Beside me were Maun, Erenol, my Mistress Neilly, and my mother.
Someone walked up behind me and I felt something cold on the back of my head. It shuffled beneath my air, nudging me forward a little which made me instinctively lean away.
“No, no, please,” my mother said. “The child has nothing to do with this.”
I tried to turn my head to look over to my mother, but the threat on my neck lingered and had me stilling like a statue.
“Shut it! She’s a part of you—she has everything to do with it!” The growl that left the empress’s throat was not befitting of her character and image. There was something inhuman about it. Nevertheless, she easily returned to her previous self. “You don’t know how much effort it took for me to finally catch you in a cage, Lamia,” the empress spoke sweetly. “You sincerely thought you could expose me? For what crime?”
The empress walked up to Mistress Lamia and met her face-to-face. They were just about the same height, nearly the same silhouette, but they were contrasting in image and disposition. Mistress Lamia was still the cold, aloof woman she had always been. She was tall and proud, white hair cascading over her shoulder in a now messy braid. The empress, on the hand, was one of fire. She had red painted on her lips, the dark blue lining her eyes, and hair like those of a raven.
“Where is the seal?” the empress asked.
“Seal?” Lamia echoed back. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you speak of.”
The empress’s hand cut across her face—sharp, stinging. Very hard to witness. I felt the pain from where I sat. I had to clench my teeth when the goosebumps rose on my skin.
“I know you have it,” the empress said. “Just tell me where it is and maybe I can spare a few heads from rolling.”
I was nudged forward, something burying at the base of my neck. It gave me the faintest of sting. There was not a lot of pain, but the promise of more was enough to send my heart running.
“I have no reason to,” Lamia began. She looked over my way briefly, but not a single emotion swept across her face. “What use will I have for it?”
“You poisoned the emperor,” the empress venomously declared. “You stole the seal from his person when you had the chance.”
Lamia huffed. “I poisoned the emperor? Where did you get such ridiculous ideas?” she asked. A faint smile appeared on Mistress Lamia’s lips. “I don’t need to get the seal, nor do I need your position for power, Your Majesty,” she told the empress. “I have the king waiting on me like an obedient little dog. All I need is to say it, to ask for it, and he will give it to me. What of you? Did he leave you cold after you clawed your way so desperately to his bed? Is that why you poisoned him? To keep him there? Perhaps he’s tired of your lies or that crap that leaves your trap every time you open it.”
Another slap ended up on Mistress Lamia’s face, this one on the other cheek. However, this didn’t seem to have satisfied the empress at all and she landed another one.
And another one.
I winced. My other mistresses had similar reactions to mine.
At some point, the ring on the empress’s finger had left a cut on Mistress Lamia’s cheek, causing blood to flow.
“By morning people will know of your deeds—what vile, cunning courtesan of a whorehouse like Oblivion will have perished at the hands of the captain of the dragoons for betrayal of the crown. Let’s see how much filth your already filthy names can gather.” She swung her fan and everyone came forward. “Search the whole place. I don’t care if you have to break it down. Bring me the seal.”
The men around her immediately got to work. They dove into the House of Oblivion and immediately began razing the whole place to the ground—and they went wild about it. I watched and listened as all the years’ worth of memories before me got destroyed.
Tears pooled in my eyes and swiftly rolled down my cheek.
Mistress Lamia was pushed to her knees to kneel before the empress. Even then, she lifted up her head in defiance, staring the empress straight in the eye—none of the respect and subservience that was expected of her.
“You’re still so feisty. I wonder just what will break you. Whose death will it be? Is it hers? Is it theirs? How I enjoyseeing you on your knees, Lamia. But this face…” The empress seized Mistress Lamia’s chin, fingers stretching around the jaws and grappling at her cheeks. “I hate it. It seems no matter how low you go you still somehow find a way to keep this head high.”
“You can force my knees to the floor, but the only way you can ever make me lower my head is if you take it,” Lamia replied.
“Your Majesty,” said one of the men who came forward. “We cannot find the seal.”
The empress grew even more furious. “Whereis it?!” she bellowed. “All I need is a simple dragonsdamned seal and you can’t find it?” She turned to Lamia, black hair whipping about. “Where is it, Lamia?”
“Try your ass,” she replied bitterly.
The empress gave a scornful smile.
She snapped her finger and I heard blade come whistling down, followed by a choked gasp. I knew what it was—a nice, clean stab. Blade tearing through flesh, parting it like butter. Coldness filled me. Fear rocketed straight into my head.
Numb. I was numb.
I looked over to my mistresses stiffly to see who it was that was harmed. All of the others on Mistress Lamia’s side was spared, so I turned with bated breath to the people beside me.
Sobs shuddered through me when I saw my mother slumping forward, her body sliding off the blade that had pierced through her stomach.
I screamed. I couldn’t even begin to describe the sudden grief that tore through me that very moment. It felt as though the blade just stabbed me as well and caused my heart to rapture along with it.
“Hellen!” I heard my other mistresses holler.
I didn’t mind the blade that was pointed to my neck. I dashed forward—only to be pulled back and pushed down. I couldn’t help breathing in sharply. I tried breaking away from the hold of the man behind me to creep over to my mother’s side in desperation. He wouldn’t let me go, nevertheless, holding my down harshly by the shoulders like a thrashing animal that couldn’t be tamed.
“Evy! Evy! No, don’t move!” I heard Kora yell.
I didn’t listen.
I caught the empress smile. “Let her go,” she said.
And they did. With no more threat of being killed, at least for the time being, I stumbled over to my mother on my knees, dragging myself across the grass.
She turned weakly to face me, rolling over to meet my eyes. I inched to her side and helped her, but couldn’t do much with both my hands tied. “I’m…sor—” she whispered and her voice broke. Her hands grasped at my clothes and stuttered breathing accompanied her words.
“You don’t have to talk,” I said. “Mistress Kora is just right there. He can save you. I know he can.”
I looked over to Kora and found him looking frustrated, wanting to go over if not for the hand bearing down on his shoulder keeping him on his knees. His face contorted and he hung his head, unable to meet my eyes.
Seeing his reaction, I shook my head. “Mom…” I sobbed. “I should be sorry. I lied to you about a lot of things.”
She didn’t speak. She couldn’t speak. She simply lifted her bloodied hand to brush at my cheeks, blood spilling from her lips.
I leaned forward to bury my face in her chest, feeling the warmth of her fade away quickly. Her hands reached around my head to give me an embrace and I took it, I savored her hold—I savored the pressure from her hands because a part of me knew this might be the last I felt of it. I bawled. I let my tears loose in her arms just as I always did—from a baby, to my early childhood when I would scrape my knees. Sometimes I cried just for the hell of it, because I knew she would not be able to resist me for so long and it hurt me knowing how much I took it for granted. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to say many things, but nothing seemed to work other than the cries of grief that left my throat.
There were no words. Just tears.
What was I supposed to say?
“I love you,” I whispered.
I felt her grip slack. The blood had already soaked her clothes, staining my cheeks. The Veils dove in for a feast, nipping at something beneath her skin. The more they did, the more she faded away. At some point, her breathing had faded to the point that it was actually not existent anymore.
“Leave her alone,” I said.
If I could save Maun, I could do it again.
“LEAVE HER ALONE!” I bellowed. I screamed at the floating shadows, but they wouldn’t heed me at all. I went crazy trying to push them away, but I was only able to slap away a few of them before one of the masked men came forward to hold me down. “LEAVE! LEAVE! I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE!”
None of the Veils listened. They continued floating about.
Listen to me. Listen to me. Why wouldn’t you? Weren’t I supposed to have the element of death? Didn’t Amber tell me I could control them?
The empress looked on in wonder, seemingly flabbergasted by my actions yet, at the same time, amused.
“Amber,” I muttered under my breath. “Please. Amber.”
I looked at the lifeless body of my mother and rocked back in tears. I howled in pain. My voice cracked like thunder throughout the silent might, grief rumbling through my chest. I had to let it out, but no matter how much sound I did, nothing could quite satisfy the pain in my chest.
“Evy,” I heard someone say. It was Mistress Neilly. “Evy, love…please…”
I didn’t heed her call. I continued looking at Hellenia, my sight of her blurred by tears.
Like a dam, something inside me broke.
And then I quieted.
“What is it then, Lamia?” the empress asked once more as my howls of grief faded to silence. “Do you see now? Which of your people will I kill next?”
“What utter filth you are. You talk of us in Oblivion being vile and dirty but have you looked at yourself?!” Kora screamed at her. “If you don’t die, I will kill you myself!”
“Shut up if you don’t want me castrating what’s left of that stump!” the empress yelled back at him.
I blanked out of their affairs and looked back down onto my mother’s pained face. I buried my nose in the crook of her neck and quietly sobbed. The Veils did not even let a moment pass as they feasted.
“Evy,” Mistress Neilly began, her face mirroring my grief. Her face was soaked with tears. “Oh dragons above.”
I then remembered what Amber told me just now.
I swallowed back my tears.
I mustered some strength in my throat to make a different sound other than the relentless sobs.
“Oh child…” I hiccupped, “…of the river…the riv…er’s young flow,” I whispered. A soft melody left with my words. Sobs cut in between the rhythm, which made it sound somewhat incoherent. “Delight…in all the blessing…it’s giving you. When the time comes it can offer nothing more, dear child…”
“Evy,” Mistress Neilly called again.
“Please take the river with you.”
There was only silence.
“Riverside flower, delighting in the water…” I asked and my voice tripped. Cold wind seemed to accompany every note and the temperature around me dropped by a few degrees. “Sing the song of the forever river.”
“This girl has gone crazy, apparently.” The empress laughed.
“Let the dragons deliver, and go on your way.”
Frost appeared around me. The Veils were compelled by the song I was singing as well. They stopped feasting on my mother’s soul and began to revolve around me in flocks, beginning to form a massive tornado that floated above my head.
“Evy, no!” Mistress Veronika yelled.
The frost was sharp. It spread around me and my mother’s body fast, branching around me to form a circle in the shape of a snowflake. More frost climbed at the feet of the guard behind me, who was keeping a tight watch over my mother and me. He brushed it off and kicked it away nonchalantly, not paying heed to the frost that grew on his clothes.
“Let fate shower…its blessings for you, but go on your way.”
I looked over to my mistresses before my eyes zeroed in on the empress.
“A Conduit?” I heard her intone. “What are you going to do? Summon the rain on me? Keep her down!”
A blade came swinging for me. My grief numbed my fear and I couldn’t even react at all. The song was still spilling from my lips. Every word and note from the melody seemed to ease my pain a little.
Nevertheless, the blade I was expecting did not come. Instead, whoever held the blade had been the one to fall over. I looked behind me and saw him crumbling away. His sword had turned to the dust and so had he—his flesh began to be sucked in from inside, leaving his skin wrinkly. His hair turned white from old age and his teeth fell off right before my very eyes. A flock of Veils had gathered around him, feasting on the life in his body.
“Evy…” I heard someone call.
Ignoring everyone else, I looked over to the empress.
I burned with hate. I burned with anger.
I coaxed the Veils to go to her, whispering my song, “Go on your way.”