|The Heart Of A Firestorm
Author: Quna PM
The story of a simple Gaia, who walks a long way from a little curios girl to a young adventurer, fighting her way through the hateful conflict between the three races, and facing the worst nightmares of all the people on the whole continent. R&RRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Fantasy - Chapters: 2 - Words: 11,049 - Reviews: 3 - Updated: 12-20-11 - Published: 07-11-11 - id: 7168070
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I had already been awaiting an assault the next morning. Ever since the moment my father mentioned the word "war", I could not get rid of a vision with countless Asura warriors and mages crushing our gates like the waves of furious sea-storms, slaughtering everyone who got in their way. The nightmares full with dark faces and yellow, beast-like glowing eyes kept awaking me the whole night, only falling deeply asleep by the dawn, exhausted beyond my limits. When I woke up with the first sunlight, the peacefulness around seemed anything but believable. I got up slowly, approaching the window with careful steps, hardly daring to hope I would find the city unharmed. To my surprise and great relief, everything looked just the same as always. The streets were empty, only a few guards were visible in the far end of the street, their armor slightly glimmering in subtle light of the early morning. Looking around I noticed several houses with their windows open, including the one I knew to belong to Olim. She was one of the early birds, always the first to open up for trade, waving to greet me with a cheerful smile whenever she spotted me at the window. If she came out as usual, surely everything was fine – I could not imagine a war without her fighting with everything she had in front rows of the finest soldiers. I looked to the East, seeing if the Sun was rising already, I became restless realizing that its shiny disc had already become fully visible, while Olim was nowhere to be seen. As long as I could remember, she had never been late at work.
While I was standing there and waiting, sounds came from downstairs. A careful rustle of fabric and hurried light steps, as I identified them when I pressed my ear to the door, surely belonged to my mother. I wanted to spy a bit, to see if my parents would say anything about the previous day. But when the noise got closer, I jumped back fast and straight to my little closet. When mother opened the door and peeked, I was already holding my sleeveless dark green dress, trying to pull it over my head. She stepped inside and gave me an amused look, I returned a confused one.
"You have forgotten to unbutton it, Shaylee," she smirked. I growled at the dress, I had worn it only once, it was not the most comfortable, especially for playing, but mother loved it the most, she always said this was my color, and that was the only reason why I had decided to put it on now – a little compensation for my misbehavior the day before. She knew it, of course, but let me be the toady I was trying to be, knowing perfectly well that it would not be long before I faulted something else.
The dress was finally on me, mother helped with the buttons on my back (I had always assumed that this was a grave mistake and someone had sewn them to the wrong side, buttons were obviously made to be on the front side of any dress, or else I did not see any use of them), tied the girdle around my waist into a bow behind (another thing I thought to belong to the front) and was now tending to my hair, while I watched myself in the tall mirror standing next to the closet. She glanced at it a few times too, smiling her sweetest smiles as she did so.
"You look so wonderful in this dress, like a Fae of green valleys and forests." She had stated the same thing the first time she'd made me wear it, and I whole-heartedly disagreed with it, appraising my flame-haired reflection. I believed Fae to be tall, lean, majestic and breathtaking, neat beautiful as no human had ever been. I looked nothing like it, as I studied my looks, the only thing I looked like was quite an ordinary Gaia of my age, in a green dress embroidered with butterflies.
Mother finished braiding my hair and got up from her kneeling position. "We are going out after the breakfast, come quickly now," and she urged me to the door.
"Does that mean I am not punished anymore?" I asked, holding onto her hand as we both went downstairs.
"Unless you do anything like that again." She answered with a hint of strictness, I did not need more to understand she was being serious.
We ate breakfast without much talk, father had already gone, as usual. I only asked where we were going, she answered we were supposed to visit "friends". That news lost me all the good mood I had had. In my experience, when she said it like that, we were going somewhere boring, somewhere with pompous ladies with their noses high up, endless talking about nothing, and, of course, they would ask me questions – a lot of useless questions I did not understand the purpose of. Sometimes they would make me sing, or cite poems, or perhaps even dance. I was not allowed to refuse, for it would talk ill of my mother. So I was forced to entertain them while they stared at me. Dancing was my most hateful one. Not that I minded dancing, but I liked the way simple folk danced – jumping and twirling in groups and couples – it was fun, but these ladies required that I danced 'as a lady should', which meant slow and careful moving, as if there was a glass vase standing on my head and I was not to drop it. 'Boring' was the only word I could find for it.
I finished my meal without much enthusiasm, after washing my face and brushing teeth again, I put on the neat brown shoes that mother had bought for that green dress specifically. She was in one of her prettiest gowns – elegant, yet simple, of dark pink brownish color, neatly complimenting her form and dropping down to her feet in heavy folds, her brown hair in beautiful silk-waves on her shoulders. I was really proud to walk out with her, proud of my mother being the most beautiful woman in the world, even though all the other children I knew believed the same thing about their own mothers, but I would not even think whether I was right or wrong.
"Oh, what beautiful ladies are walking on this street!" Came a familiar voice from behind the stall laid with all kinds of weapons, as we walked close to it.
"Olim!" I exclaimed and ran up to her, relieved that she was there as usual. "Why were you late today? Were you out sick?"
"My goodness, someone has been spying on me, I see!" She laughed her most cheerful ringing laughter, "And here I thought I was a lucky free merchant with no boss! Hew are you doing, Vey?" She called past me, greeting my mother, who answered with a smile.
"Oh, we're both fine. I am terribly sorry, we cannot stay for a chat, we are in a hurry" She apologized, urging me back to her side. In a hurry to ruin the whole day, as if I had said it aloud, Olim grinned at me with understanding, seamless wrinkles appearing under her eyes, suddenly I noticed they were surrounded by circles of a slightly darker color, or perhaps the rest of her face was unusually pale. Or, perhaps, both.
"Run along then. Have fun sweetheart." She winked at me, laughing again as I scowled back.
The whole way I was trying to think of various excuses for not doing anything I would be asked to do. Hurting my leg for dancing? Soar throat for singing? Maybe, I thought desperately, if I start coughing or limping as soon as they see me, they will not ask me to do anything. Unfortunately, I knew mother would have none of that. We did not have a long walk, the house we were going to was a bit too close to ours for my tastes, we were there in no time, and as the door opened before us, my spirits fell to their final. We were invited inside by a plump woman who greeted my mother and I with a smile that never touched her eyes, or any other place of her face except for her lips, it was one of the reasons why I thought she was never really happy to see us, just pretending for some reason. We walked through a hallway, their house was so much larger than ours, luxurious, filled with absurdly beautiful things, none of which I was allowed to touch. I kept looking at various paintings on the walls – all of those were portraits of aristocrats, I did not know any of them, but everything from their expensive dressing and jewelry to their arrogant expressions claimed these were not simple people.
We were invited into a large hall with tall wide windows, decorated with almond satin drapes. The walls wore cornsilk color, a large tapestry hanging in the middle of one of them, someone had been skillful enough to embroider it with a whole family of nobles – proud lords and ladies standing together. I briefly wondered what happened to it when they had new members in the family, did they have it remade every time they had new additions to the family, or did they order a whole new tapestry?
Mother put her hand on my shoulder, urging for attention. Only now I turned to face several young women, fully dressed to attend court meals, or any kind of nobility gathering. I glanced at all of them, and then my mother, who simply gestured to remind me I had to greet them. I had practiced the manners, so I easily managed to drop a graceful curtsy and greet them politely. They smiled at me, and greeted with exclamations of how I had grown up since they had seen me last, how lady-like I had become etc. I managed to answer their compliments with awkward smiling and slight bowing with my head, already nervous what they would ask of me next. To my delight, they did not appear to be in a mood of pestering me, our host cleared her throat and addressed me directly for the first time, instead of talking to my mother as if I was not there at all, the way she usually did.
"Myralinne is in her bed chambers, she will not attend us today. Why don't you two spend time together, while grown-ups are having a little chat?" Perfect. Myralinne. That little girl, always dressed up like a little queen, nearly always present at such gatherings, there to rival me and any of my talents. I sang a lot better than her, and ever since she discovered it, she made sure I could not beat her at anything else. The look at her face whenever she was applauded with the enthusiasm my dancing skills never saw was irritating. I did not care if I could not dance well enough for those ladies' tastes, but being looked down upon by that pig of a girl was as good an insult as slapping my face. "I'll take her to Myralinne's room, if you don't mind." Mother pulled me to the door. Myralinne's lair was on the second floor, we went up the marble stairs.
"Now Shaylee," she whispered before knocking on the door, "be nice and polite."
"Do I have to play with her?" I mumbled as I put on a grumpy face.
"Yes, you do," She whispered fiercely and quickly smiled before the door opened and we met Myralinne's round face. Her straw-colored hair, to my horror, was put into a braid just like mine, only hers was also decorated with fluffy azure ribbons, like her dress. It was slightly longer and, naturally, more expensive, as every piece of it declared, starting from the matter itself, finished with pearls that decorated the rich flowery embroidery.
"Hello!" Her brows rose in surprise, though she collected herself quick enough to manage an oddly awkward reverence, clearly wondering what on earth the two of us had forgotten there.
"Hello, dear," mother smiled her sweetest smile, "your aunt wants you two girls to play here, while the grown-ups have things to talk about."
"Oh..." Myralinne looked absolutely bewildered, glancing at me with a lot of suspicion "well, come in, Shaylee" and she stepped aside. For a moment I wished she had slammed the door in our faces, but she always prided herself with the best manners of a noble lady, so, to my inner disgust I had to thank her and step inside, while mother hurried back to the stairs. Myralinne closed the door and turned to face me. For a moment neither of us uttered a single sound, we just stood appraising each other.
"So..." she managed after a while, "What do you want to play?" I just shrugged and paced slowly while she continued, "I was drawing, actually. Do you want to draw too?"
"I do not draw." I mumbled and noticed her spirits lifting at once, surely caused by discovering her yet another superiority, I clenched my teeth trying to subdue the urge to hit her.
"I could teach you and we would draw together..." She suggested in a lot more cheerful tone.
"No, thank you." I almost growled and leaned back onto the door. She considered something for a moment, and her grin turned slightly mischievous, it was the first time I saw her using any expression except for the typical aristocratic one – proud with her chin lifted high. Suddenly she looked like a normal child more than she had ever looked before.
"You know," she started slowly, her voice almost a purr of a cat being scratched, "they do not care for whether we play or not, they simply do not wish for you and I to hear what they talk about." She waited for me to understand what she was getting at, but I was particularly too slow for her.
"And?.." I shrugged, my clueless face made her chuckle.
"Have you heard what happened yesterday?" She tilted her head on her side, watching my reaction. The meaning of her words were revealed to me all of a sudden – they were discussing the massacre at the Horizon gates, that was why they did not allow children attend their little gathering. The realization must have been written on my face, for Myralinne grinned even wider and asked something I had not expected at all: "Do you want to listen?"
I stared open-mouthed, It was difficult to believe that she was being honest, and not preparing any prank for me. I could not hide my suspicions, "Are you trying to trick me?"
"Trick you? How so?" She looked genuinely confused, I had to give her credit for that.
"What if you give me away?" I narrowed my eyes on her as she smirked.
"Now that is a wonderful idea, but I will not." She became serious all of a sudden, "You see, I really want to know what is going on down there. Aunt Bellia thinks some matters are not for children, she would not let me hear a word. I shall be eavesdropping no matter what though."
"And what would you need me for?" I could not let my guard down so easily, all I could remember of the girl standing before me was rivalry and her well-hidden aversion for me. I cannot say I did not answer with the same feeling. But now she was offering a cooperation, so it was only natural to expect no good of her.
"If they had not stuck you into my room – nothing," she sniffed, "But since you are here, I need your silence, and I offer you something in return. You do want to know what is happening that the grown-ups want to keep away from us, do you not?" Her eyes lit up with a victorious spark in them, she knew she had me, and I could not stand such temptation anymore.
"All right," I groaned, "We will go down and overhear, and I promise to shut my mouth about it, if you promise there is no trick up your sleeve."
"Yes!" she exclaimed clapping her hands, "It's a deal then! Now remember, if any servants come by and we don't have time to run away out of sight, we say you went out to find a restroom and got lost, and I came after you, because you were late and I got worried." I nodded, it certainly was a convincing story, if I had been looking for a restroom in this house thrice as large as mine, if not more, I would have got lost for sure. So we tiptoed out, the door opening and closing without as much as a single click. The servants were nowhere to be seen in the corridor, we took the stairs, each of our steps slow and careful. It was rather easier here than in my house, the floor here was laid with marble, the marble laid with rich golden colored carpets with pitch black swirling ornaments upon them. The wide white doors I had entered with mother were now closed, and low, indistinct female voices were hardly coming through. We looked around, making sure that we had not been seen or heard. Myralinne knelt in front of the door and peeked into the keyhole, while I stood there with my ear pressed onto the thinnest crack between the doors.
"Aunt Bellia is talking now," she informed me, "Can you hear her?"
I strained my hearing, voice was muffled, it was next to impossible to distinguish her speech, I could only hear a word here and a word there, but could not make out a single sentence. There were, however, a few words that sent chills through my body: 'killed', 'Asura', 'merciless', 'war' – it all made perfect sense to me, and Myralinne did not seem surprised at all when I repeated them to her, perhaps she, just like I, had already received more information than the grown-ups had been willing to give. Soon a few other voices joined in conversation and now it really was impossible to tell what they were talking about.
"Can't you hear anything at all?" She sounded annoyed. I was no less irritated by my own lack of ability to make out their words, yet I was not in the slightest bit tolerating any reproaches from her, "If you think it is so easy, start listening yourself, I will watch!" I shot back and pushed her to the side, not too slightly, to say the least. Myralinne almost fell over, her eyes were wide in surprise and anger as she hissed, "Are you trying to get us caught?" But she dropped the subject and set about her own work again, I grumbled a few indistinctive sounds and squashed my ear on the door again, trying ever harder to distinguish anything. I could not tell for how long we had been spying with no results whatsoever. Myralinne was clearly getting tired of the little game, and, even though I secretly enjoyed watching her mood being spoiled bit by bit, the boredom of our unsuccessful venture was pulling on me as well.
Minutes passed and nothing changed, I had already opened my mouth to suggest we go back to her room when suddenly I heard quite a different voice – a low, clear voice that no doubt belonged to no female.
"Are there any men attending today?" I whispered in surprise, for as long as I remembered, every time I was brought for such intimidating gatherings, there were only the ladies present, unless there was an occasion that brought the whole family together.
"Men?" Myralinne looked even more surprised, "Do you hear a man talking? I can't see him from here."
"There is definitely a man in there, his voice is even lower than others!" I complained.
"If he's a guest, he must have come after your arrival and before you were brought to my room," she whispered excitedly, "perhaps he slipped in just when I walked away from the window, say, he was not there when you were in the hall, was he?"
"No, only the ladies. Wait..." I blinked in confusion, "there must be more than one man in there."
"What?" She stared at me, then back into the key-whole, "How many?"
"Two... No, three, I think, and..." I stopped, careful not to make a mistake, listening intently to make sure I was really hearing the chinking metal, "It sounds like they are wearing armor."
"Armor?" My heart almost jumped out of my chest for Myralinne nearly screamed the word, we both understood the price of her mistake when we heard the conversation behind the door dying abruptly, followed by knock-knock-knock of a pair of female's high-heel shoes on the floor. I panicked and jumped back, ready to dart out of sight and to the stairs, but unfortunately, I was about to learn how one can suffer choosing the wrong partner for a reconnaissance mission. Just as I was about to turn back and run, I was pushed forward to the door, I was too unprepared for the assault from the back, it lost me my balance and sent me flying into the now opening doors. Thanks to all the luck I had, or perhaps my stupidity that made me careless enough to let my guard down in presence of Myralinne, I collided with madame Bellia Dannith herself. My horror was almost as great as in the nightmares of the previous night, except for the fact that this nightmare could not be escaped by waking. The woman gawked at me and then her face quickly rose into flames:
"May I ask you what you are doing here, young lady?" She sounded absolutely outraged, spitting each word furiously, "Spying in our house, how shameless of you!"
"Shaylee?" Another voice came from the room as my mother strode to us, she took my hand, pulled me to her side and turned facing the madame, "She would never do such a thing, believe me. Shaylee, dear," she threw a quick look and the plead in her eyes was irresistible, "what were you doing out there?" Until she asked, I had been sure I would have staggered and given myself away no matter whatever lies I would have told them, but I found the fortune was on my side at least once, the answer rolled off my tongue without me even thinking about it: "I was looking for the necessary, and got lost."
"That does not answer the question of the reasons you burst into this room!" Madame Bellia spat, still reluctant to forgive me my clumsiness, although, truth be told, I should have been the one complaining, since our collision was more painful for me without any doubt - her... more than average size made it crystal clear. For a fracture of moment I had a mad thought of telling her how Myralinne (who had, of course, saved herself by taking off to her bed chambers the very second she'd given me away) got me agreed to spy with her and pushed me to the doors, but that would have meant admitting my guilt – something I have never been even remotely comfortable with – and what's worse, I doubted Myralinne would have been punished anyway, she was too good at playing a nice and proper girl, I was certain she would have come out dry out of water, therefore I chose pretence over honesty and lied further, "I tripped my toe and almost fell."
"Sweetheart," mother interrupted before our hostess would, "you should have simply asked Myralinne for help."
"I thought I could manage on my own," I muttered, eyes down, hands back on my waist – the best played out shame of guilt I had ever mustered till that point. Madame Dannith took quite some time before finally showing mercy and accepting my excuse as valid one, at least for other people's eyes. "Very well," she said, still stern, "you can go up and ask Myralinne for assistance, I hope you can find her room, at least?"
"Yes ma'am." I answered shortly, still with the same guilty voice and turned back, but before doing so, I took a quick glance inside, my eyes instantly caught the shapes of three soldiers, not fully equipped, but wearing armor nonetheless – absolutely out of place at that party, the curiosity tore all my nerves, but all I could do at that moment was going back to Myralinne's room without a single word, anger starting to build up with each step, by the time I opened the door to her room, my temper was on fire. As soon as I saw her round face smirking at me, attempting to say something I would never hear, I launched forward like a wild being. She was caught off guard, though I doubt she could have beaten me in a fair fight when the victory was for the better fighter, in less than a second she was on her back, and my hands were ruining her oh-so lovely hairdo, kicking with my legs as hard as I could, while she was trying to kick me off, her hands grasping my wrists attempting to pull them away, shrieking, "Let me go, you're crazy!" But I was not letting her go, screaming back instead, "You liar, I'll show you crazy!" And I punched and kicked ever so harder, proud that I was stronger and faster than her, seeing that she had no chance against me when the fight was about strength instead of talents in arts. Luckily for her, Myralinne squeaked magic words that left me no choice other than stopping, "I'll tell aunt Bellia about this!" I let go of her at once, remembering that I was on her field. My heart was still pounding loud and I was still guarded, prepared to start another fight if necessary, but I took a few steps back and pinned her in place with the most furious glare I could muster. She got up fast, looking angrier than I had ever seen her, though not saying a word, only watching if I intended to attempt anything else. It took a while for her to decide that I would not attack anymore, while she was on it, I threw a threat of my own, "If you tell her," I growled narrowing my eyes on her, "I will beat you again."
"You will not, she will never let you in this house again!" she answered and suddenly I wondered if I really did not wish her to tell on me, leaving this place for once and for all sounded like a great way to be punished. Unfortunately, I had enough conscience to understand how much I would have hurt my mother, that thought was enough to make me discard even a fracture of intention to attack Myralinne again, apparently, she read it on my face, I cannot be sure if she didn't make a mistake interpreting the reason of my change of heart, most probably, she accounted it to my non-existent wish to mingle in high society and fear of losing such opportunity - it mattered very little though, my worry was to make her keep the accident just between us. I took a deep breath, trying to pull out the words out of my mouth somehow, my inner voice cursing my own temper, I neither looked nor sounded anything like it, but I managed to grumble "I'm sorry", hating myself more than I had ever hated anyone or anything, even that round-faced girl, who had now narrowed her eyes on me, not questioning my honesty – it was obvious I had none – but contemplating to grant me mercy none the less, whether it was because she had less malignance in nature than I imagined, or I was somehow useful to her in something I could not see, I knew not. I was finally relieved as she folded her hands on her chest and muttered "Fine." under her breath. Another long moment stretched on in silence, until it was broken by Myralinne again:
"So," she tried to sound casual, despite of hard breathing, "did you see who was there in the room?" The blood rushed to my face and my temper rose up once again, just tame enough for me to hold back. I could hardly believe she still had enough impudence to look for cooperation from my side. I forced myself to keep my voice calm, "Yes, there were three armed men, I did not recognize any of them."
"Really?" Curiosity lit up her face again, already starting to forget our little incident, "What were they doing there?"
"How would I know?" I snapped, "They all stared at me when you threw me into the room!" She pressed her lips together, attempting to hide another smirk. My fingers curled by themselves, but I knew my fists were staying where they were, I could not afford another fight with her, no matter how good an opportunity it was now that she had turned her back on me, suddenly taking interest in one of the windows. "Come here! They're leaving!" she called over her shoulder bouncing somewhat. I marched to the window. Indeed, the soldiers marched out. Now that both of us had enough time to appraise their looks, I noticed how different their outfits looked from any other soldier's I had ever laid my eyes on. It was about half a minute later that I realized that the real difference was about themselves. It was about their light blond hair, the way sunlight made them look as if they were shining themselves, their height and leanness, and their graceful manner of walking - like dancers, even the man with the broadest shoulders of them all, wearing the heaviest metal armor looked like he was about to ask the very first woman he'd meet for a dance. Another man, walking beside him, wore a lot lighter armor, not so much plate, mostly leather and chain, and the third, tallest man wore no armor at all, it seemed. To me it looked like plain clothing, and simple leather boots. But something was radiating from him as well, something that made me feel there was much more about those three than I could see.
Myralinne pulled me out of my thoughts, poking me impatiently and pointing to the door. I turned back to regard my mother standing in the entrance as if she did not dare to come in. "Are we going home?" I asked, made wary seeing her being paler than usual, her lips pursed just a little bit and the whole face carved of stone. "Yes," she answered, her voice hardly steady, my uneasiness grew. "We shall leave, thank you for your hospitality, Myralinne." She presented the girl with a weak smile, and grabbing my hand, led me out before I could say a word. I only quickly glanced towards Myralinne, she seemed just as confused as I was, didn't even manage to utter a word of good bye. I had no courage to ask what had happened. Mother led me down the stairs, through the corridor and out. We hurried back home, for once mother did not wonder why I was unusually silent. As we walked the familiar streets, my nightmares came back, flashing before my eyes, and I started fearing the worst: what if the war was going to begin after all? The inhuman golden eyes from the book returned to haunt me all the way back home, even my little room didn't feel safe anymore. The worst of it was my mother's silence in which she did all her chores, fed me and sent to bed. It should have been one of the most awkward days I had ever had. I was dying to ask what was wrong, what news had made her so... 'wary' was not even a word close to her state.
Father returned very late that evening, in fact, it could have been midnight, but I had already lost track of time, rolling in my bed, failing to fall asleep. As soon as I heard him, I jumped up to my feet, to sneak out eavesdropping the way I had done the night before. Unfortunately, I had not sooner reached the door than I heard the heavy footsteps coming up. Thinking he was coming to check on me, I ran back, jumped into the bed and pretended to be asleep. A moment passed, then another, nothing happened, the door did not open, and by the sounds of it, the parents were already going to their room, as I heard them both passing by my door. It was a bit disappointing. Usually, if none of them wished me good night (which had rarely ever happened), I would feel offended. But currently, my mind still thinking of the coming war and, at the same time, trying to come up with any better alternative, my thoughts were distracted enough as to not feel neglected.
That night was just as restless as the previous one, with nightmares of the Asura tides invading Horizon, their claws ripping armors of the Gaia with one swipe, I was alone and lost in the middle of the city, crying and screaming for my parents, they were nowhere in sight. I woke up with a start, cold sweat streaming down on my forehead and neck.
The morning was yet as quiet, not only my mother did not talk at all, she was walking around like a ghost, still pale, and the darkness around her eyes talked about the sleepless night. Father was gone, mother had had her breakfast already, or, more likely, she could not touch the food any more than I could. To my surprise, she said nothing about my lack of appetite, although she eyed my still full plate a few times. She understood, of course, that I was not blind not to see the way she had been behaving since the evening before. But both of us remained silent, she busy with dishes, and I poking the vegetables as if expecting them to react. It was impossible to tell how long we spent like that until mother finally spoke, her voice hoarse as she tried to make herself sound more like her usual self by slight coughing:
"Are you done?" I stared at her, I can't imagine what my expression might have looked like, but she took pity on me, took the plate and everything else away and started cleaning the table. I watched her for awhile, considering how wise it would have been to ask anything. I paused at least four times with my mouth already open, until I finally muttered: "Is the war starting soon?" She looked in my direction, wide eyed, of course, I had just said the thing she could not bring herself to say out loud. "No..." She said simply, though I had a strong feeling that she meant the reply to be a little longer. I searched for words, not meaning to put too much pressure in my questions, but there were few options. "Why are you sad?" I asked finally. She straightened her back somewhat, as if her posture was not perfect already, and added a little more force to her voice: "I am not." I sat silent after that, nothing I could ask would receive a satisfying answer. This seemingly infinite silence was suddenly broken by the sound of our doorbell. Mother hurried to the door, and after a few seconds I received a shock when she ushered Myralinne inside. "Hello, Shaylee." She chirped, smiling sweetly, while I gaped at her, not managing to say a word. For one thing, Myralinne was in my house, secondly, she didn't seem to be dragged in by force, and thirdly, she seemed pretty content with the fact that she was here.
"Would you like some breakfast, dear?" Mother offered her with a smile.
"No, thank you. I've had breakfast at home" She answered, and I noticed her curios eyes as she looked at my mother's pale face. I guessed she noticed the change as well. She turned to me then, still addressing my mother: "Shaylee and I could go to her room and play there, if you don't mind?" there was something very strange in her eyes, as she stared directly at me, not taking her eyes off. It made me feel rather uncomfortable.
"Of course," mother replied, watching us with air of suspicion as well, "are any of your families coming over as well? Should I prepare something..."
"Oh no," Myralinne said quickly, "only me. I asked my aunt to let me visit Shaylee, one of our servants has brought me, and he will take me home in the evening. So can we go now?" She added the last bit rather impatiently, and I was torn between wondering about the reason she had come here and the uncomfortable feeling of having an intruder at home.
"All right." Mother said, only then I realized I had been sitting like a statue the whole time. I slid off the chair, watching back at the girl standing before me, her lips were pursed and the corners moving, it seemed to me as if she was about to start laughing, although I had no slightest idea what was funny.
"This way..." I muttered and headed upstairs to my room, Myralinne following me in a hurry. When we were in my room, the door closed and safe from my mother's sight, something absolutely unexpected happened: Myralinne screwed her face and what I had previously supposed to be her attempt to hold back her laughter, appeared to be the effort not to cry in front of my mother, tears were suddenly streaming down her cheeks. I watched absolutely bewildered as she sobbed there in front of me, my startlement was so great, I did not even pay attention to what she was saying, though it would have been too difficult to understand her words anyway, at least a half of them were impossible to distinguish. In the end I decided I shouldn't stand there and try to say something: "What's the matter?" Was all I managed, it did not even sound like I was genuinely interested. Either way, she tried to calm herself down, taking a few forced deep breaths, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and sniffing.
"M-my... father is going t-to war!" She choked out, leaving me speechless, I opened my mouth, without any idea what to say. Not receiving my answer, she added: "And probably so is yours." It felt as if the ground was taken from under my feet and I was about to fall into an endless abyss. After two days of imagining the fierce war where all lands of the Gaia had been covered with blood and dead bodies, after two nights of nightmares in which Horizon had been destroyed by Asura, I was yet unprepared to hear it as a fact. The horror of it struck me numb, every time I tried to cast doubt in truthfulness of her words, my mother's grim image rose before me, and I could not disbelieve it. "How do you know that?" I asked rather weakly, something already heating my eyes and tears already leaking from their corners.
"I heard aunt Bellia talking to father last night. He said they had to send letters to all our friends and family, they were all supposed to come here for his jubilee... But they canceled it." Now we were both crying. Heavens know how long we would have been standing like that if mother hadn't opened the door in a few minutes. Whatever had brought her there was out of her mind as soon as she saw us, two pairs of extremely reddened and wet eyes.
"What's the matter?" She exclaimed, closing the door shut behind her. I exchanged guilty looks with Myralinne, after all, we were crying over something we were not supposed to know at all, but holding it back seemed useless, not to mention impossible.
"Is father going to war?" I asked with the most pitiful voice I had ever heard from my own mouth. Mother's eyes widened even more, she kept shifting forceful gaze from one flushed face to the other. Then she suddenly composed herself, creating a visage of a woman far stronger than the one I had been watching since the previous afternoon, and when she spoke, her voice was determined, a little rough, even. "No, he is not. Where have you heard such a thing?" And she turned her look to Myralinne, who, as skeptical as myself, dared: "I've heard it at home, my father's going too..."
"Then you've heard it wrong, Myralinne." She cut the girl's words, calm and a bit stern. "They are not going to any war, since there is no war to go to."
"They are going on a very important mission, yes!" She went on, "They are going to try and prevent the war, that's all."
"That's all?" Myralinne repeated, her high-pitched tone sounding like mockery, though she realized she was being rude, and closed her mouth, hanging her head down guiltily.
"Now, if you don't mind," mother addressed us both, suddenly all business-like, "Follow me downstairs, and wash your faces, I can't very well take you two out looking like this," we stared, "and you, Shaylee, need to change your dress."
"Where are we going?" I asked, a bit alarmed. Was she going to take us to the Danniths now?
"You shall see." She answered with a weak, yet mystifying smile.
I kept thinking about what she had said while we were getting ready to leave. The fact was, I had no clue whether her words were supposed to be calming or not. On one hand, it was soothing to know that there was no war (if that was true), on the other hand, I tried to guess how anyone could have prevented war. Surely it could not have been an easy job, but what danger would be involved in it? Seeing Myralinne just as miserable and not at all relieved, though not crying anymore, did nothing to cheer me up either, only, now I had questions to think about, and it was keeping me too busy to burst in tears again.
As we walked out into the hot street, Olim waved at us, at her post, as always. Mother marched straight up to her, while she eyed Myralinne with interest. "And you are?" She addressed her, tilting her head to one side. Mother explained about her, while Myralinne herself narrowed her eyes on the trader, clearly considering Olim's manners disrespectful. Olim smiled mischievously in return and winked, annoying her even more, then she addressed my mother: "May I talk to you for a few minutes? Privately?" I was all eyes and ears at once, for the last two days anything grown-ups talked about privately about held great interest. But they would have none of it. They went inside the shop, while we were left outside at the stalls. I decided to steal a moment while they were out of earshot, "Do you think it's true?" I asked hesitantly. Myralinne looked at me with puzzlement at first, but she caught up quickly.
"You think it matters that much?" She scoffed.
"Does it not?" I asked, already feeling rather stupid.
"Please, you know nothing about war, does your father never tell you any stories of battles? Do you not read books, at least?" She snapped at me, impatient, and it looked almost as if she was going to start crying again, but she stopped herself. "'Prevent war'. That is not the matter the soldiers should be concerning themselves with, that's what the government is for. If they are calling for warriors, that means they are either fighting, or spying, or both. If the war has not started yet, it most probably will." She stopped and look at the shop door. "Besides..." She murmured a bit later, suddenly interested in her own shoes, "even if they really are only spying and not fighting, it might take years before they come back." She looked at my terrified face and explained, "That's what my father told aunt Bellia yesterday: 'who knows when I am back, my girl may be so grown I might not even recognize her anymore'." She hung her head again and let out what sounded like a muffled sob. I was not sure if I wanted to hear the answer to my question that suddenly struck me, I dared to ask anyway, "Do you know when they are going to leave?"
"Tomorrow." She answered simply. This was horror beyond words, it was explaining mother's state perfectly well, my father was leaving the very next day and we would probably not see him for years, if we would see him at all... But I did not want to even consider the last bit, the feeling was already nasty enough without it.