The once-Augur did not reply.
She did not really expect her to, even in this place and in her presence as the Threads grew ever more frayed and uncertain, like strings pulled into a knot, or notes ruined by a growing discordance. So, she only had her own good sense to fall back onto.
Not the greatest help, all things considered.
“Walk with me,” she said, letting go of the wolf-girl. She set it so she laid on the throne of brambles, still asleep. “I’ll be back soon,” she whispered against her twitching ear, only to brush those lips of shaved bark against her human ones.
Valeriana shivered at the display of twisted lust, but the thing that had once been Elissa did not leave her much time to muse over it.
“Come,” she said hinting at a creaking bow, and she guided her through the town. She stayed silent, the only sound coming from here was the rustle of the branches that now served as her hair, and the creaking and popping noises of her limbs.
She had lost one of her hands, though. Not a fight wound. And as she thought back to what she had felt about that girl, when she still used to be human, the wound in the Threads, the dark hole that would not be pulled in any which way, she began to collect the dots.
They walked through the avenues carved between the roots, the trunks and the leaves – the people of knotted brambles and boughs sighed and chittered, going about their own merry way, repeating the same movements.
She spotted one that resembled an old woman hitting an anvil with a hammer and she thought about the old smith that used to stay by her bed all those years prior.
Others would be the baker, the constable with his group of fellow walking bushes, pointing at random directions and giving them orders, and so on and so forth. A few had smaller boughs running after them and even a couple resembling a dog.
Then something hit the former Augur. A was of dirt and wet earth and spoiled fruit. It smeared her body but she seemed not to worry about it.
Valeriana turned to look at where the attack came, and she managed to see one of the bough-people skittering away, the echoes of a childish laughter in its wake.
“I suppose your question hides more,” the once-Augur said, the flames in her eyes (it was hard not to call it a ‘she’ now that she had seen her walk and speak, and she wondered how much of the old human being remained.
“Maybe,” she replied without real commitment.
A pebble ran through the air and hit one of her ‘hair’, knocking it off.
She did not even turn, but Valeriana followed two smaller figurines running away, holding their belly as if caught in the thrall of excessive and mocking laughter.
When no further accident happened and Elissa did not seem to spend any more words, it was once again her turn to fill the holes in the conversation.
“The Sere Rite. I have come to reconstruct a bit of what happened on that dreadful night. Why using that? All the lives you squeezed away like grape juice-”
“Do I look like I am proud of it? But it was necessary. If something sits in the path of what I want, isn’t it my duty to remove it? If weed-”
“If weed grows on a wall, is it my duty to remove it?” Valeriana rolled her eyes behind her mask. “Spirits, even your arguments are but an echo of Hers. And you are not nearly as authoritative.”
“You have come here for your friend, haven’t you?” She said at last, taking a step forward. The golden glow in her eyes flared. “That little nosey Venatrix.”
“Cloria,” Valeriana replied in a sigh. “At least use her name. But no. I am ashamed I could do nothing to save her in the end, but she disappeared doing what she wanted.”
“How can you tell?” A grin creaked on her face. “I have seen her last moments. Don’t you think I have known her better than you? Maybe she begged. Maybe she squealed.”
Valeriana laughed in her face. Oh, it was so liberating. After all these years, biting her nails to the point of blood wondering how much of what had happened with Cloria had been her fault – and unable to divine her fate, with her being lost to the Forest like that – but she now finally had her answer.
“Ah, Spirits,” she said at last getting over her mirth. “Now I know for sure she refused you all the way. You wouldn’t be so bitter about it, would you? All this, the town, the Sere Rite! All because you couldn’t get your slimy hands over the one you loved.” She shook her head. “Look what you have now.”
As if on cue, a pair of the bramble-puppets hugged each other, surrounded by a clapping group. Then one of them fell apart in the arms of the other, and a roar of skittish cries rose in the air and frantic clapping and tall hisses and cheers of joy.
“Cloria is gone,” she repeated with an old shadow coming one last time on her face, “but she is not lost. I now know she has fallen through to the great gardens beyond, and she is not getting her soul gnawed upon inside some Eerie. That’s a relief.”
Elissa’s fists clenched.
Such a human gesture – for one who had fallen so low, to retain something like that.
She couldn’t decide if it was more sad or more ironic.
“And I also have an answer on what happened here. I care not for details. It saddens me, that so much of value was lost.”
“I did not ask to be taken out of that capsule,” she hissed.
Valeriana frowned as she tried to understand what she meant. What capsule? But, oh, she must be referring to-
An old conversation with a certain wolf-girl resurfaced in her mind.
“Hmmm. If I remember correctly, there were two girls in the same slow star, once Verna came to collect. One of them learned how to leave, and one of them learn how to cage.”
Another pebble hit the crown of leaves atop her head.
“I see I am not alone in judging you. Very well. I would love nothing more than to take her away from you, but I know that trying it would put in danger much more than myself, and I also know that’s the only way out you still have. I suppose that concludes our conversation. Have a nice day.”
She turned and made way to leave.
“Wait!” Called Elissa after her. “Don’t mock me! Don’t speak to me of ways! I did what I did because that was what I wanted! I have a right to follow what I want!”
“Don’t we all,” she replied cooly. “You wouldn’t know know this, but when Cloria decided to leave the Order she ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I felt pain like a burning spoke – months in, months out. I can still remember it clearly. Every time I saw her in the corridors was like eating on a wad of paperglass. But I still wanted to see her happy. I wanted to see her free, Elissa.” She sighed and turned away once more. “I’d ask you to bring my well-wishes to Sadja, but knowing you that would fall on deaf ears.”
She walked away. Through the brambles and the roots, holding back the tears threatening to spill past her mask. She had hated that mask for years, but now for the first time she was truly grateful to have it on.
“I gave her a good thought to die on,” came the raspy voice after her.
Valeriana did not stop.
“I made her think of you!”
She did not stop.
Because if she stopped, if she came back and focused all her power into ripping in two that mockery of the once-girl, she knew that she would fail. And on the wake of her failure wicked things would fly on the wings of vengeance all the way back to coast.
And there would not be another High Seer like Verna, ever again.
But she did spill her tears. Silently, and with a cold dignity, and with her head held out high, as the bramble figures danced their silly puppet show.
Pic by JollyD
Author’s Notes: two more chapters until the end. This final goodbye to Valeriana did hurt. I really liked her relationship to Cloria and I think that the way she reacted to her decisions was in fact a mirror to Elissa, but I never actually realized it until this chapter. Funny how this story has a way to creep up on you no matter what you try to do. At any rate, I hope you are enjoying the finale. Thanks for reading.