The Witch did not seem moved by Alba’s plight.
She shuffled her naked feet over the bedsheet, looking around as her mane of black hair swayed under an unseen breeze.
“I grow tired of hearing about salvation and dire threats. Thus o’ old, thus now: is not there always another collapse just behind the corner? I have done mine part, I have played mine play. Now I only wish for dreamless sleep.”
“I would also wish I could forget about it all,” Alba retorted, and for the first time in her blue eyes shone real anger. How dare she teach her about loss after all she’s been going through? “But I have a Duke on my back that’s hell-bent on invading the kingdom. And I need your help with that.”
“Care do I not. Why cannot the lot of you deal with it as you usually do? Fight in the plains, fight on the hills: a few of you shall die and the rest will be filled with glory. Such is the nature o’ conflict.”
“And you would have me just lay down in the face of annihilation?” Alba shook her head, astounded. “I do not understand you, Witch. Your kind always gave their all to protect our family and our Principality. And now you would just want to go back to sleep?”
“Like the others I am not. You said so as well: not in blood but in bond. Do you understand now?”
“No.” Alba tilted her head. “But I am willing to do. I am willing to stay up all night to convince you.”
“Your lot needs to sleep, mine does not. I am afraid you would lose that wager.”
“That only means you do not understand me.” Alba stood up and sat next to her on the bed, making the mattress creak. She felt her cheeks flush at the presence of a half-naked woman on her bed, and not just because her two most prominent advisors were looking straight at her.
“What makes you so different, anyway? All I see is a Witch just like any other.”
Cordelia did not reply. She shifted her green gaze out of the window, onto the stars. She seemed to lose herself in them, her eyes following patterns Alba did not recognize.
“The constellations have slightly changed. How long did I sleep?”
“Far too long.”
“Tell me: what year is it?”
“It’s one thousand and eight-hundred, forty-nine. You have likely been in that room for three hundred and…” she trailed off as the Witch took her face in her hands. it was such a human gesture that it stunted her.
“Three centuries and one half,” she whispered. “It was as she feared. All of it. No trace of mine family has remained. I am truly alone.”
“I… I have also lost mine,” Alba tried to say. Who knows if to paint herself in a better light for the Witch or just to relate to her. What kind of kinship she could feel with such a being, though? She was just a weapon.
“My mother died by childbirth. And my father suffered from the illness that comes with our blood.”
“The Malaise,” the Witch frowned, her gaze getting lost once again in strange thoughts Alba couldn’t follow. “It has always stalked your family, ever since the first drops of the Pact were spilled, on that leaden morning.”
“You were there.”
“I was. A child. I was, that is to say the truth. And I did not understand what Yrima’s plan would bring. We achieved little more than sorrowful memories and cindered blood.”
“Let’s change that, then! You and I!” Alba held out her hand. “Renew the Pact with me! Help me destroy the Duke Sparagmos and everyone wanting to take over Eridania, and then I swear I will let you go to sleep again. I am only asking you because this is the direst of time, indeed. It’s not just a figure of speech for me. It’s a responsibility!”
The Witch trailed her gaze from her fingers up to her face, as if she was looking for something she was not sure to find.
“Similar and dissimilar still.”
“I do not understand. Do you want to make a Pact with me or not? I do not want to force you, but I will if that’s the last chance I have.”
“Nay, nay! I would never, if I could!”
“What are you so afraid of?” Alba raised her voice, her emotions starting to get the best of her. “I have read the legends! I have seen the bas-reliefs! You are supposed to be the most powerful Witch to ever live!”
“And you would like to bear that power for yourself, would you not? Nay, I shall not be a leashed dog. You speak of peace, but what would stop you from using me to spill over onto neighboring countries?”
Alba started. What was she even talking about?
“That- that does not even make sense,” she replied, sincerely puzzled. Did she thin she was some sort of mad conqueror? Like… ah, but she hadn’t been there. “You couldn’t have seen it. There was someone who tried to do what you are talking about. Fifty years ago, a French general named Napoleon. He burned Europe from Madrid to Moscow. We do not want to go back to that. Nobody in Europe’s concert of nations wants to go back to that.”
“You speak like this now but…”
“I do not care! I sleep in a dilapidated castle that has to painted-over to cover the cracks! We had to sell our paintings, jewels, treasures and heirlooms just to pay for wages and to sedate revolts! I am a Regent of a tiny valley in the middle of the Alps that does not reach ten thousand souls, but I will give out my life to defend it, because it is my duty! So tell me what you need. We will make a contract and it will be over when Eridania is under no further threat!” She stuck out her hand. “Speak your mind, Witch.”
Cordelia looked at her fingers. She winced, but weakly her left arm tinkled upwards, the metal bands glistening under the candle light.
“Even if we do this, I would not be able to wield much o’ the power you necessitate. I am sealed, as you have seen.”
“Then we will find a way to deal with that as well. One problem at a time.”
“You are making a mistake.”
“Let me be the judge of that. You do not know me.”
“And I would greatly prefer not to.” She once more searched for something in her face that wasn’t really there. “But if that is what you wish. Then may this be a lesson.” The Witch brushed her porcelain fingers against her own and Alba felt a electric jolt run up her arm. “Not in Blood but in Bond. Alba Malcastria. Are you positive you want to do this?”
Alba nodded. No hesitation.
She took the Witch’s hand in her own.
She held it tight, palm gripping palm, fingers coiled to fingers.
And then the pain started.
And Alba began to scream.