You could have done a better job, Elissa berated herself, plunging herself deeper into the hot water. The pool welcomed her, the numbing pressure enveloping her naked body all around in a soothing embrace. She pressed her hands over her blindfold, trying to massage the pain away from her orbits – an aftereffect of the strain she had put her body under for the past few days.
She truly hoped it would be worth the effort. It better be, or the consequences… she’d really not like to think about any consequence.
Thank you very much.
And cleansing her body from Verna’s touch would help repairing her mind as well.
It had been such a strange sensation, cutting away a part of her self, turning her into the fitted vision of perfect obedience and smiling unawareness Verna had tried to cut her into time and time again.
And she did succeed, was the unwelcome thought.
A few bubbles left her nose and lazily climbed to the surface.
She could hold her breath for a long while, by now.
It had been the sort of gamble she could only try once – and she had used a lot of her energies to fool Verna, dull her Sight. In the end, tying the lost parts of her personality to Lenora’s old home had proven an invaluable strategy: her mind had never even wandered close to those walls.
She blinded her threads and played her ego against herself, using the same levers she had used against her for years: instead of pain and sorrow and the promise of more punishment, Elissa had just a single chord to play. But rubbing her self-confidence had been enough.
At least for the time being.
She still believed she could have done a better job, tying up a few loose ends, such as helping out Cloria more. Or quickening the moth-people’s journey through the forest.
She shook her head, feeling her hair wobble underwater.
She was being far too hard on herself. Another bad habit she had been forced to pick up. No need to keep doing this to herself – she was walking on the thinnest ice, unaided. And straying off the path just by a little would have her mind skinned and her memories razed.
No, all things considered she was doing great.
For a given value of great.
She pulled up and her face broke the surface of water.
“That’s enough,” she whispered to herself, the warring parts of her psyche struggling for emotional dominance. “I did one part. Now for the second.”
Considering what awaited her, it would be even less pleasant, especially because it would entail dealing with some of her most painful memories. Once again. And this time she wouldn’t be alone.
She adjusted the blindfold over her face and as the water droplets ran down her skin and pitter-pattered onto the pool, she focused on the threads.
The Hunter. About to face the consequences of his choice. All things considered she had been pleasantly surprised. She wasn’t entirely certain he’d choose well, as the distance, the influence of the Forest and the winter pulled any clear image apart into a fuzzy mess of scrambled possibilities, chances and overlapping fates. But she had a hunch. Sometimes, a hunch was the most precious thing even to someone like her.
On the other hand… Cloria would most likely choose for the worse. Almost all the ties binding her arms and her figure smelled like burnt oil, congealed blood, fear and repressed pain. And most of those led to a spindle of golden threads sipping motor oil. She knew better than to even come close to them. So Cloria would just have to have a little luck. The former Vestal was beyond her help.
And most importantly… a pale, grayish face with large blue eyes floated in her inner mind. With her choice to turn back and help the Hunter she had once again threw a big spanner in Verna’s works. If she had just ran away, most threads lead to her death – or worse. The two of them had had a chance to find a safer place, and this way she would also soon free the Hunter from Verna’s web.
He’d be free to be used for a better purpose altogether.
All in all… considering how bad things could have turned out, she was holding out pretty well (barely keeping it together, if she was honest with herself).
She ached to just go out and move on to the next part of her fate match with Verna.
But that would mean ignoring the refugees.
Elissa sighed, stepped out of the pool and dried herself, donning her usual clothing, plus the coat and boots she had used when she had started her night-time escapades.
She called her attendants and they pulled up a linen cover, shielding her from the wind and the snow. Elissa walked outside, escorted by four tall figures, descending on her way to the town proper. It was a clear day with a light chance for snow, and most inhabitants were out and about, repairing the damage made by the forest during the night. She saw people pulling carts covered with dead Eerie, to be thrown out of the city walls; others carried supplies and building materiel. Other still jars of haling water.
And all of them turned to her as she passed.
She smiled and waved back. Was this what Verna felt when she walked by Venice? A revered High Seer, the most powerful and wisest in generations, maybe since the Order’s very inception, basking in the love and trust of the people she was pretending to care for? All the while, underground, she pushed a young girl on a chair and sent bolts of pain running up her skull if she did not make a coin flip on its head over and over and over again…
She reached the main northern gate. There the crowd of workers was thicker than any other place in the town. She stepped over the steel mesh releasing thin columns of vapor, as the pipes below pumped pressurized water. All over the stone and metal gate, people worked with cranes and pulleys, adjusting the metal sheets against which the wave of Fae would break over and over again.
Most of the metal panes were bent and scratched and horribly rusted, though. Would they last an entire winter? She was tempted to take a look…
But there were more pressing matters to tend at.
She stopped a few paces before the main gate, waiting for each and every man and woman to turn at her, an endless sea of pale faces, waiting for her word. If she came here on her own it must be important. Their surface worries rippled under the skin of her perception.
“Open the gate,” she commanded.
That made them share murmurs.
“Lady,” said a man wearing a thick hardhat, likely the foreman. “It’s day yet, but in the middle of Winter? We can barely throw over the cursed corpses.”
“Open the gate,” she repeated. “There are people in need of our assistance.”
He shared a look with a few of his other men, then shrugged.
“You heard the Augur! Open the blasted gate. Ah, Spirits!”
The heavy doors rattled open, showing the thick layer of Eerie bodies covering the outside of the walls. Mist spiralled by.
And just beyond that…
“They have opened the gay! Look, the way is open!” Came faint voices. A group of gruff, bandaged and dirty men and women approached Belacqua. Among them, an elderly woman with two missing fingers on her hand and golden teeth. From her sprouted a fairly thick string leading all the way to the forest.
Elissa took a step forward, welcoming the Trefiumi refugees in.
“How did you know…” one of them said, stumbling on tired feet. He collapsed just in front of Elissa. Her escort made to pull her back from the poor man, but she halted them with a gesture of her hand. And, feeling just like her mentor, she crouched in front of him and helped pulling him up.
“Fear not. I had foreseen your coming. You will receive help and shelter here in Belacqua. We will spend the winter together.”
And the woman with the golden teeth would be just close enough to guide her threads through the winter forest.
Right at the man she needed to save her girl with the wolf tail.
Pic by Eagle XIAuthor’s Notes: another chapter I wrote easily enough, even thought I did not like it as much as the previous ones. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to take a walk through Elissa’s brain. I like to play her insecurities and how much of her behavior has been imprinted on by her mentor. It’s a very interesting dynamic. I surely hope its consequences are going to only be for the best. Once again, thanks for reading. Your feedback, even if just a like, it’s absolutely heartwarming.