Alba was roused by an anxious feeling; she jolted on the bed, opening her eyes to look around, searching her room was any threat. Her head felt cloudy and thick with layered doubts. A vague ache gripped each of her thoughts.
“Good morning,” said a voice like smoke.
There was a woman sitting on her window.
The Witch waved at her. In her left hand she held a thin book and many lay about her. Alba recognized it as a one of her books on Latin poetry, but the rest were more recent.
“Is it?” Alba croaked. She tried to sit up on her elbow and when she couldn’t her gaze moved to her right hand. Which lay grey and unresponsive against the sheets.
She picked it up with her left one and passed her fingers over the decayed skin. She could only feel the touches with her good hand, just like the night before. Memories of what happened rushed forward, filling her up like motley water would fill a bank. She grimaced thinking about the pain of the new Pact, the loss of her hand, and what that meant for her going forward.
She’d have to find a way to hide her skin, and to find a good excuse for what happened. And to sign documents with her left one, for the time being.
“I would know that answer already, Your Highness,” the Witch replied in a mocking tone. “Why would you ask that of me?”
“You are right. Let’s pretend I did not say anything.”
She felt nauseous, feeble and dejected. Was this the taste of victory? Alba sat up and made to reach for her daytime clothes, but even if her arm moved, her right hand hit the fabric with all the grace of a stunned fish.
She’d have to get used to this.
She wrapped it around her shoulders like a shawl and walked outside into the crisp air of morning. The heat of summer was yet another folk tale so far up in the mountains; and even through Eridania was as verdant and as rich as always, it did not mean much to her, walking out in the thin wind, bitterly scraping against her skin. She reached the parapet and leaned forward, looking down onto the valley. Her right hand lay against the stone.
She should feel more triumphant than this. Her eyes followed the clouded profile of the mountains, then the descending down the verdant slopes and the white herds already out grazing in the dim light of a dawn shielded by clouds and peaks alike.
Wasn’t she one step closer to protecting this realm? To make Father proud? Her mind went back to the crypt, where his marble visage rested. She had hoped he’d be proud of her, that she could feel his arms wrapping her and whisper to her ear how grateful he was to have her a daughter, once again.
The things he used to do before the illness claimed it. The Malaise, as the Witch had called it. She seemed to have some experience with it at least.
“So much has changed,” she heard a whisper to her right. The Witch had followed her, and she did not hear her – her steps as silent as two snowflakes kissing each other. Her flowing hair covered most of her body in darkness, but Alba still felt flush at the sight of her naked arms and legs.
“Put something on,” she barked handing her the vest she had haphazardly wrapped around her shoulders.
“Does my nudity bother Your Highness?” She teased, her platinum lips curling up.
“Just do it. It’s not natural.”
“Wrapping yourself in cloth and wool does not sound like something nature indicted you to do,” she retorted, but did as she was told, putting on her vest as the bands over her arms tinkled. Alba was thinner and shorter, so the fabric could only cover her halfway down to her pale calves, but for the time being she’d accept it.
She could feel her heartbeat running hot in her ears, but for the time being she could ignore it. This Witch did all she could to get on her nerves and make her feel… annoyed. Another necessary evil.
“Air feels colder,” Cordelia stated, lifting one hand to catch the wind. “And the slopes of the mountains are dotted with more houses. And what would those tall towers be? Are they smoking? Is there a fire?”
“Smoking towers?” Alba frowned, following the Witch’s finger until she saw it point at the tall smokestacks of the factory district. She scoffed. “Those are factories. Think large workshops.”
“Factories,” the Witch murmured, seemingly tasting the word in her mouth. “I have read about it, but it’s the first time looking at them.”
Alba frowned. There was something weird in the way she talked.
“Wait… you spent the entire night reading? Don’t you need to sleep?”
She replied with a self-pleased smile.
“I have my ways to recover, but sleep is not one of them. I took it upon myself to try and catch up for the past three centuries and a half. Your kind has not improved – only bloated.”
“Your tongue has not sweetened at all, only grown more bold,” Alba replied in turn and the Witch laughed.
It was a strangely pleasant sound. One that a part of Alba’s heart would have wanted to hear again and agai-
But she couldn’t lose sight of her duty, could she? Besides, so far the Witch had proven only marginally useful. And about that…
“We freed you and I renewed my Pact with you. What else do we have to do to make you stand up to your name? What about those seals, Witch – how do we break them?”
Her green eyes focused on the metal bands.
“These were not made by me. Yrima and the others put them on my skin. They were to discourage… abuses.” A shadow passed over her brow.
“What kind of…”
“You are not the first to make a pact with me, Your Highness. Certain desires may prove less wholesome than others.”
Alba did not reply. She mulled over the words – was that one of the reasons why the Witch did not want to be awoken?
And she had already lost one hand. If what she said was true, the Witch could and would take much more, all of it in fact, until nothing would remain.
Not in Blood but in Bond.
But then again, what about her? She was no craven Jacobin, greedy bourgeois or blindly-destructive serf – she was a Malcastria, and any price bowed to the weight of her duty.
She covered her ruined hand with the other one. The wind did not seem to bring any comfort.
“Let’s get back in,” Alba stated. “There is much to do.”
Author’s Notes: early publication today – I am out of town due to some business. Writing each day takes its toll on my time, for sure. But I am glad I can keep doing it, so far. Thanks for reading.