DISCLAIMER: This story is mine. Roswell is not mine, Yggdra is not mine; Gulcasa and Nessiah aren't mine—at least in the technical sense—and Rosary is most certainly not mine. Because most if not all of the above deserve a happily ever after, here we have this slightly (…) unconventional fairy tale. This one is for Whitewash, who wanted something Roswell/Yggdra that was not angsty. (see how far out on a limb that one put me? Canonical Roswell/Yggdra thrives on angsty… :x)
Once upon a time, there was a small country where the people devoted themselves to the study of magic. It was ruled by a noble lord and lady much beloved by those they governed; over time, the gods blessed their hard work to be good leaders by giving them a son and daughter.
The children were the delight of the lord and lady and all their people, for they were both skilled in the ways of magic. And as though the gods' blessings would never cease, both son and daughter grew to be heartbreakingly beautiful in their adolescence. The lord and lady and their people doted on the children, wishing only for their happiness.
But while the young lord was beloved by all he met, for he was as kind as he was beautiful, the young lady soon grew discontent with her lot in life. Although she matched her brother easily in power and loveliness, she did not have his gentle heart, and wanted for herself all that he was content to give away: Love, and attention, and the easy life her parents had worked so hard to bring her. She never wanted to face the fact that her pride and vanity could make her selfish, and even cruel.
Eventually, the day came when her long-harbored feelings of resentment grew too much for her to bear, and she broke the laws of her people that magic was never to be used for harm. She attacked her brother with the strongest spells she could bring to bear; shocked by her actions and wounded by her hatred, he was barely able to defend himself.
Their battle carried them into the castle, to the top of its tallest tower—the young lady hurling fire, and the young lord shielding himself in darkness and roses. Here, his kind heart proved his downfall: Though he knew his sister aimed to kill him, he could not bear to raise a hand against her. In the end, she broke through his defenses with a forbidden curse, one that wrought death wherever it landed.
But with the last of his strength, the young lord cast upon himself the most powerful countercurse known to humankind. Drained of power and nearly drained of life, he fell: Not dead, but in a deathlike sleep from which none could rouse him.
His power was not sufficient to break his sister's hold, but neither was hers sufficient to get through his last defense. With their magic at an impasse, he would sleep until someone broke the curse or his sister chose to lift it.
The young lady found that despite the depth of her jealous rage, she still didn't have it in her to kill her brother with her own hands when he was in such a helpless state. Unable to end his life herself, she instead determined bitterly that she would never allow him to waken. As her frightened people and her grieving parents fled the castle, she drew on the power hatred had granted her and turned her home into her fortress, a shadowed keep none could breach.
Weaving herself into ever-darker depths of jealousy, there the young lady remains, certain that if her brother had never been born, she would have been loved…
In all honesty, Yggdra hadn't really expected any of the country folk's talk to be true. You just didn't find cursed, haunted castles anywhere nowadays except in fairy stories. When in the last few villages she'd stayed in she'd heard tell of an abandoned palace peopled by a terrible dragon, a lich-ghost, and a dark sorceress, she'd figured that the locals were just having a good laugh at her. When in the town she'd left a few days ago she'd seen posters advertising a reward for would-be heroes to clean said palace out and make it safe for its former inhabitants to return to, she'd barely been able to believe it. And when she'd tracked down the town mayor, asked about the substantial purse offered, and been told it was genuine, she'd readily gone along with it, assuming the place had been abandoned and she would only need to chase away some wild animals and help whoever lived there find a better home to finally pocket some coin.
But once she'd drawn close to where the castle was marked on her map, the skies had gotten very dark and ominous, and thunder began to rumble overhead even though the weather wasn't right for heat lightning and there wasn't even the smell of rain in the air.
And now that she was standing only a few yards away from the outer wall, Yggdra could clearly see that although the place was entirely overgrown with ivy and wild roses, it wasn't run-down in the least. The stonework was exquisite and looked as though it had been touched up within the last five years or so, and the walls of the castle were strong and sturdy, made with white stone instead of brick. Old, tattered flags adorned with the rose crest that was this country's symbol hung from poles on the towers, clearly neglected. The fabric was so faded and abused by the weather that it was next to impossible to make out what color the field of the flag had originally been. Right now, it was a sad and dusky grayish orange.
Whoever left here did it in a hurry, and probably not by choice, Yggdra observed practically, shifting where she stood and fingering the sword strapped at her waist. Then she sighed, mournful and exasperated. The things one must do for a proper dowry price…
Really, most other princesses would've given up long ago. But then, most other princesses weren't Yggdra.
And most other princesses weren't the youngest of three girls in a kingdom that hadn't been having very good harvests over the past several years. Most of their yearly allotment of the treasury was being spent on feeding the people, and what was left was being divided squarely to fit into Yggdra's older half-sisters' dowries. Yggdra's parents were happily not the kinds of sovereigns who cared about forcing their daughters into political marriages—they didn't even care whether the men their children chose were noblemen or peasants, when it came down to it—but they did want to make sure that Yggdra and her older sisters Luciana and Aegina had a comfortable financial backing for when they happened to get married. Luciana and Aegina were almost at the point where they'd be able to marry rich princes if they so chose, but because she was the youngest and not looking to marry anytime soon, Yggdra had gotten the short end of the stick.
And it didn't look as though that stick end was going to get any longer anytime soon, not with the kingdom the way it was. So Yggdra and her sisters had decided that if Yggdra were ever to have a purse to be her dowry when she fell in love, she would have to go out and earn it herself.
It all sounded well and good in theory. But aside from odd jobs helping out villages in distress here or there and winning swordsmanship tourneys in neighboring kingdoms, there just weren't many places to get that kind of money. Yggdra's eighteenth birthday was only a few months off, and unless she was able to settle the mystery behind this strange castle, she'd likely face it next to broke and nowhere near home.
With that disheartening thought to spur her on, Yggdra sighed and got walking again.
No one would have been able to guess her heritage by looking at her. While she was only about five and a half feet tall and clearly very pretty, her fingertips were hard and callused and there was a thin layer of toned muscle settled over her slender frame. Her long, sunny blonde hair was pulled back from her face by two simple braids fastened together with a black ribbon, with the rest allowed to flow freely to just above her knees. She wore a deep green tunic that dropped straight down to her knees, a dark leather vest over it, and black hose beneath it; while all three were finely made, none showed signs of unnecessary embellishment and all had clearly been well broken in. Her sword had an easy place at her hip, and she had a way of absentmindedly resting her hand on the hilt as though the gesture were second nature. As would any other adventurer or mercenary—or any traveler not sharing the road with a caravan—she carried a leather knapsack on her back, filled with trail essentials such as food, her waterskin, maps, and flint and tinder. Her deep blue eyes were clear and decisive, and she was most obviously perfectly comfortable with traveling by herself—an air that rested only on the very competent.
Despite her birth, her softspoken manner, and her eloquence, she fit few common people's idea of a privileged young princess.
And she was just uncommon enough a girl to stare the storm-shrouded palace that unmistakably screamed trouble down levelly, then walk calmly towards it instead of turning and running away.
Perhaps some would call it a hallmark of madness; Yggdra preferred to consider it sense of duty. In either case, now that she'd accepted this job, she wasn't going to back down. She needed the money, but more importantly, if something bad was afoot in this sinister-looking place, someone had to set it straight. The trouble was, somehow she always wound up being someone.
With a slight prickle of trepidation, Yggdra loosened her sword in its sheath as she crossed the gate, inspected the grounds directly inside it, and headed to the bridge that led to the castle proper. She was skilled with a blade, but she truly despised fighting and preferred to try to talk things out diplomatically before things came to blows. She hoped she could settle whatever was plaguing this place without doing anyone harm.
As she crossed the bridge, she squinted and frowned, and slowed her pace. There was a person loitering at the castle gates, in front of the proud arched doorway with its ancient portcullis.
It was a man, she noticed as she drew closer. A tall man, with the lean musculature of a serious fighter and a particularly belligerent look on his face. He was wearing dark pants of some thick, rough fabric and a black shirt whose sleeves had been torn off, and they hung on his powerful frame as though they'd been made to fit a man with a lot more flesh to his body. His features were harsh, and they had the mark of the north on them—his brow was sharper, his nose more arched, his cheekbones higher, the line of his jaw harder than Yggdra's. His hair was long, matted, unruly, and pure scarlet; his eyes were smoldering gold.
There was what looked like a heavy iron collar around his neck, the kind that convicts and prisoners wore, but it wasn't attached to any chain that Yggdra could see.
Although he didn't shift his position from where he leaned against the inside of the arch, his scowl deepened as she approached, and the muscles in his bare arms bunched visibly.
"Not one more step, if you want your head to stay on your shoulders," he growled. "I haven't eaten in over a week, and my tolerance for sword-swinging idiots playing at being heroes has just about reached its end."
Yggdra stopped. This man didn't seem to be armed, but he could be concealing a weapon, and he sounded like he meant the threat. Still, she hadn't come here wanting a fight, and she would do her best to reason with this man—the castle's guard?—until he actually got violent.
"Please…" she called falteringly. "I don't want to cause any bloodshed. If it's possible, I'd like to speak with the master or mistress of this palace…"
"Did you not hear me the first time?" he demanded, a savage edge to his words. "I have no patience for sell-swords and insolent children. And even were I to be in a mood to greet such as you, the mistress" he curled his lip around the word "of this place would never deign to grant any request you might have."
"Then…" Yggdra made a face, not wanting to attack him but not willing to turn tail and run. "Would you mind—at least telling me what's going on here? If I'm to leave, I'd like to at least tell the townspeople near here something. They're frightened of this place, and so many tales are circulating…"
"I have no business sharing gossip of old blood feuds with little girls," the guard snapped. "I prevent entry; that's all I'm here for. It's all I've been bloody doing ever since I made the idiotic decision to make my night's rest here before returning home."
Yggdra frowned. She wasn't sure she liked the implications of that statement at all.
"If—you don't like staying here, then why not just leave?" she asked at last.
He just stared at her incredulously for a few moments. Then his lips twisted into a sardonic smile, and he began to laugh. It was a harsh, bitter sound, and she wasn't sure if its scornful edge was meant for her or if he mocked himself.
"Do you not think I would, if I had the choice?" he demanded suddenly, standing straight and striding towards her aggressively. Instinctively, Yggdra began to back away. "Do you have any idea who you're putting yourself against, or who you're even talking to?" he pressed, his eyes mad with battle light. "Do you?"
Yggdra continued to back up, clutching at her sword. Lost weight or not, he was big, and he walked like a man who knew what he was doing.
He narrowed his eyes and stopped halfway along the bridge as Yggdra scurried to the river's bank, planting his feet. His muscles rippled and his face contorted with concentration, and then there was a feeling through the air like something exploding, and Yggdra was craning her head back, staring wide-eyed into the mad gold eyes of a proud young dragon.
The creature was huge. Compared to other dragons, it—he—was barely out of adolescence, but he towered over Yggdra, the indignant mantle of his wings spanning almost all the way up to the castle's second story. Clawed front paws sank into the brick on either side of her, with his hind talons digging into the opposite bank, curling tight for purchase. Even in the moody storm clouds and the half-light they allowed, the crimson scales of his back gleamed as they and the sharp ridges down his spine bristled. Even the pale cream stripe from the base of his muzzle and down his belly to the tip of his tail seemed to shine. His lips were pulled back in a hiss, baring silver teeth longer than her sword.
The collar, Yggdra observed with the tiny slice of her being that still remained calm, was still around his neck.
"Do you think I would choose to spend my days like this?" the dragon snarled, every inch a proud and slighted male. "Me? That brazen wench imprisoned me here, and even were I to be able to break the hold she has on me, she stole something of mine that I cannot return without! Until I have it back, I am condemned to stay here, as if I'm some kind of damned gatekeeper!"
But the dragon's tirade halted when the collar he still wore started to glow red. He hissed, but curled downward, his wings twitching as his back arched, and he seemed to sink into himself—the next moment he was a man again, staggering at the center of the bridge, clutching his throat with one hand and coughing bitterly.
It had to be some kind of enchantment, and not a real collar at all, Yggdra realized. It most likely bound him to this place, and prevented him from assuming dragon shape for any length of time. Whoever it was that lived here commanded powerful magic, if she could manage to control a dragon.
His coughing hadn't abated yet. There was blood at his lips and nose, tracing from the corner of his mouth; it was obvious he was barely taking in any air.
Very carefully, Yggdra inched towards him until they were less than arm's length apart, but as she reached out tentatively, he lashed out, knocking her hand away. Although the paroxysm of his coughing was only worsening, he cracked one eye open to glare suspiciously at her.
Yggdra mentally wrung her hands at his hostility, but just pursed her lips and swung her knapsack from her back, opening it and pulling out the smaller of her two oiled waterskins.
"Please drink this," she murmured, holding it out. "It should help a little."
Although he still glowered at her, mistrustful as any wild thing, he still took the skin and opened it, draining every drop of water it held. Finished, he tossed it back to her and stood panting raggedly, regarding her out of bloodshot but wary eyes.
"What the hell is it you want from me?" he asked at last.
"I only want to help," Yggdra replied, replacing the empty skin and rummaging around for the food she knew she'd stashed in there somewhere. "You said you haven't eaten for some time, right? I have more than enough to share with you. I don't know if—dragons… can survive longer than humans without food, but… surely you'll die if you keep doing this."
"What's it to you?" he retorted, still looking as though he was trying to decide whether to string the conversation out or just attack Yggdra and have done with it.
"I came here to find out if anything bad was happening here, and what's been done to you is wrong," Yggdra told him simply, still pushing her belongings around in the bag. "If I can help you in any way, I'd like to, and I also need to know if there's anyone else here who's been treated badly. I'm sure you won't talk to me unless you know I mean you no harm. If I leave without doing what I can, how long will it be until someone else comes by who might?" Finally, she touched the corner of the bag holding her provisions. "Most of what I have is fruit or trail food, I'm afraid, but I bought some bread in town and it should still be fresh. Is there anything I have that you'd like?"
He shook his head at her and put his hands on his hips, looking utterly baffled. "You're serious."
Yggdra glanced back up at him and found herself holding his gaze. "You're forced to stay here without even being given coin or food or shelter," she said softly, seriously. "If you're left here on your own, you'll starve. I can't imagine how someone could possibly be so horribly cruel. Even if I've no real obligation, I feel like I must do something to help you."
His expression went sullen and stubborn. "I don't want your pity, and I'm not looking for a handout." When she didn't reply, he folded his arms and gave her a long, considering stare. "But I must admit that I'd like to be out of here. And since you're willing to offer some assistance, I'll make you a deal."
"What do you mean?" Yggdra asked.
In reply, the dragon man pulled his long hair back, baring the heavy collar around his neck. "Find some way to get this off me, and I'll tell you everything I know about this castle. And since I can't leave here until I get back what's mine and you seem to be intent on searching the place, I'll accompany you for as long as it takes me to find it. But—" and here his eyes went hard and cold— "if you can't, or if you try doing anything funny, you have exactly one minute to remove yourself from the premises before I kill you."
Yggdra closed her pack and slipped it back over her shoulders, then stared carefully at the enchanted collar the man was wearing. It would be risky, and she wasn't entirely sure she could do it, but she had to try. She couldn't tell him as much, but she couldn't bear the thought of leaving him here to suffer.
"Alright," she said at last. "I accept your terms."
And with that, she drew her sword.
"Please, kneel down," Yggdra told him as she drew closer. "You're too tall for me to be able to see if I reach up—it makes me nervous, and I might hurt you."
Still holding his hair back, he did, furrowing his brow at her. "I've tried to get this off with bladed weapons before. They don't seem to do much to it."
"This is no ordinary sword," was all Yggdra said. She stood in front of him with her hand at his clavicle, then bit her lip. "Please—hold as still as you can."
His only response was to roll his golden eyes at her.
Crouching a little, Yggdra shifted her grip on her sword and lightly tapped its edge against the solid iron of his collar, then tapped again, harder. Both times, the impact made a sharp clinking sound, and there didn't seem to be much damage done. Yggdra drew and released a slow breath, then bent a little closer in, increasing the force of her sword taps with each strike until they were actual blows.
As she did, the hilt of her blade grew warm, then hot in her hand.
Finally, Yggdra let out a cry and struck the side of the dragon's collar with all the strength she dared. A white line appeared in the metal where she'd hit; it threw a few sparks before it snapped, both severed edges crumbling away into dust until the entire collar was gone.
He stared at her with unabashed amazement, his mouth open slightly. "How did you…?" he managed at last.
Yggdra smiled and put her sword away. "Like I said… this isn't an ordinary weapon. I wasn't sure it would work, but I'm so glad it did… you're now free to do as you please."
He stood, shaking his head numbly, and seemed about to say something when there was a loud and petulant grumble from the direction of his stomach. Cheeks stained crimson, he hung his head despairingly.
Yggdra wanted to giggle, but didn't. "Perhaps it would be better if we ate something first?"
"Yes." A pause. "Please."
With that, the two of them sat down on the edge of the bridge, and Yggdra pulled out a good chunk of her supplies, passing much of them to him and keeping only a little to herself.
After watching her companion bolt two slabs of cured bacon, an entire mepple, and the half of her loaf of bread she'd given him in about three minutes' time, her eyes were huge and she was having a great deal more difficulty not laughing. "Goodness—you certainly can eat, can't you!"
He gave her a mild sidelong look, but finished chewing before he told her, "While starvation was quite a ways off, I was hungry. And I like food, not to mention that it takes a lot of human food to keep my body functioning. Even if I hadn't been bound, I doubt I could've assumed my real shape for much longer than a few hours at a time."
"You said it's been over a week since you ate last," Yggdra remarked. "How have you stood it this long? The hunger pains must be horrible."
He picked up an applecot, dusted it off on his pants, and crunched into it before answering her. "There was this knight…"
Yggdra wondered a little dubiously if she was to take this that he'd eaten the man, but he was pausing for another bite before continuing.
"He had full bags. Also, you know the saying 'I'm hungry enough to eat a horse'?"
"If you ever have the option, don't try it. They don't taste very good."
Well, he is a dragon, Yggdra thought to herself as he went back to the fruit. "Say… we haven't introduced ourselves yet. My name is Yggdra—Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz, Princess of Fantasinia. What's your name?"
"Princess?" he repeated, staring her up and down as he set aside the core of his fruit. "At least you came by the fancy sword honestly, then. I'm Gulcasa. Scion of the House of Brongaa…" he sighed and shook his head "…and crown prince of Bronquia."
Yggdra goggled. She didn't pay as much attention to politics as her sisters and certainly not as much as her parents, but she'd heard plenty about the warring dragon clans in the northern lands. All her people had been convinced they'd go on killing each other forever, but threats from an outside country and its dragonslayers had united them under one Emperor. Towards the war's end, he'd been killed, and his son had been expected to step into his role, but the Prince had gone missing not long afterwards. And Yggdra had all but tripped over him without realizing it.
She had just rescued the Prince—soon-to-be Emperor—of the dragons.
"I see I've become notorious in my absence." Gulcasa reached out and took the applecot in Yggdra's significantly smaller pile, having eaten his way through everything in his already. "And close your mouth. You look like a cow."
Yggdra flushed, and did.
"When my father was killed, his crown was all but destroyed, and our people didn't have the means to repair it," Gulcasa explained. "I took it down here to see one of the mage-smiths in a country south of here, and while I was heading back home, I decided to stop here and rest. Which turned out to be the most ignominious error of my life. The witch who lives here saw me, took it into her head that she wanted a guard with some muscle, and snuck up on me while I was asleep. She stole my father's crown, and I have to get it back—I can't go home without it."
"We'll get it back," Yggdra promised him, reaching out impulsively to lay a hand on his shoulder. "I swear to you, if it's here, we'll find it. What this person did to you can't just be ignored. And your country's in a state of uproar—your people need you."
Gulcasa raised an eyebrow at her. "Tell me something I don't know," he said wryly. "You wanted to know about this place?"
"Believe it or not, this castle used to be the capital of this country, from what I hear. Obviously, the people have all cleared out because that witch isn't exactly the friendly sort. I'm not altogether clear on why that is, because I've never paid much attention to human affairs, but if she's who she says she is, then she's a member of the ruling family.
"The woman's about our age—younger than me, older than you—and she's not bad-looking for a human girl. She flings magic around that other witches spend all their lives trying to learn, and she's got one unbelievable chip on her shoulder. She's the imperious sort, and she seems to like tying or chaining people up." Gulcasa rubbed his throat ruefully. "She styles herself Rosary Ésmeralda Verlaine, and since I arrived, she's one of the four residents of this castle."
"Who are the other two people?" Yggdra asked, packing up what remained of the food before Gulcasa could eat the rest of it.
"One's someone else who was unlucky enough to get snared by Mistress Rosary for the purposes of keeping people out. He's worse off than me, and I suppose he'd be our first stop in investigating this place—if you did for my collar, you can do for what's binding him, too. The other—I've never seen him, but apparently he's the reason Mistress Rosary is keeping us here." When Gulcasa called Rosary 'Mistress', he did it with a mocking sneer and a great deal of venom in his voice. "It's someone she hates, someone under some kind of curse or spell she put on him a few years ago. She's going to all this trouble to keep anyone from breaking it."
"…I see," Yggdra said, although she didn't. Why had this—Rosary, was it?—attacked this person in the first place, and why was it so important to keep him subdued that she was forcing others to do her bidding because of it?
With a muted groan, Gulcasa got to his feet and stretched. "We may want to go ahead and look sometime this year. The other guard—he's a friend of mine, and he's in bad shape. The sooner we can free him, the better."
Yggdra nodded and stood up herself. "Alright."
The princess and the dragon advanced quickly through the outer halls of the castle and up a long flight of stairs. Gulcasa explained as they went that he'd already explored the ground floor and basement of the palace quite thoroughly, and that aside from people's discarded belongings, there was nothing of interest there.
Following along with a hand on the hilt of her sword, Yggdra jogged at Gulcasa's heels as he strode swiftly and effortlessly through a few more corridors and into a wide antechamber in whose north wall was a thick wooden door. The room was dimly lit by two torches in wall sconces, and a tangled mesh of chains ran from studs in the brick to either side of the door into a pile of rags at its foot. Yggdra looked around uncertainly, glancing up at Gulcasa. There was something strange in the air of this room, and the faint smell of must and decay that hung about the walls and the floor disturbed her.
"It's alright," Gulcasa said to no one Yggdra could see, speaking clearly but not loudly. "It's me."
Yggdra barely choked back a cry as the heap of rags shifted and a pale arm and shoulder rose from beneath them, followed by the rest of a small human frame. A person had been hiding there—small, dirty, and pitifully thin, forced to retreat into a pile of shabby cloth to avoid notice.
"Gulcasa?" The voice was weak and cracked, but unmistakably male. "You've brought someone with you."
"Yes," Gulcasa replied. Yggdra looked at him curiously; his cynical expression had softened considerably, and his tone was very gentle. She couldn't help but wonder what this person was to him. "I believe she may be able to help us get back our freedom."
"Is that so? Well. Well." Gulcasa's fellow captive sat up a little straighter, raking back his hair with small hands to reveal a series of old scars crisscrossed over the upper half of his face and dark eyes that were strangely blank. "Come here and let's have a look at you."
Yggdra frowned and opened her mouth to ask why he couldn't look at her from a distance, but Gulcasa shook his head and she fell silent.
"Nessiah is blind," he said quietly, indicating the fragile-looking young man with a brief tilt of his head. "Go to him, and let him touch your face. It's alright."
With a nervous glance at Gulcasa, Yggdra made her way to the door and knelt down in front of his friend—Nessiah, he'd said—while wondering privately what kind of guard a blind man was supposed to make. If this Rosary witch was serious about keeping her hold on the castle secure, shouldn't she have trapped someone else with Gulcasa's strength?
"She's in front of you now," Gulcasa remarked from the door they'd entered through. Yggdra flushed, realizing that Nessiah had likely been unable to tell when she'd knelt. She should've said something to let him know.
"…" Slowly, almost hesitantly, Nessiah lifted his right hand. Embarrassed for him and ashamed of herself, Yggdra took it in both of hers and guided it to her cheek. Very carefully, he began to run his fingertips over the contours of her face, exploring her features by touch.
To give herself something else to concentrate on, Yggdra looked him over analytically. He was even smaller and paler than she'd first thought; he was probably shorter than her. Smudges of dirt marked the ivory skin of his bare arms like bruises, and like Gulcasa, he seemed as though he'd lost weight recently. His features were delicate and almost feminine; his lips were cracked and pale, and looked as though he'd been biting them. His nails were long for a man's, and fairly well shaped; they'd probably grown out over the course of his captivity, since he couldn't exactly cut or file them down on his own. His dull blond hair also seemed shaggy, and hung in an uneven, amateurish-looking crop around his face—longer in front, with his heavy bangs reaching the bridge of his nose, and shorter in back. Yggdra frowned and realized that the ragged-looking tufts of hair framed his cheeks in a way that was appealing enough that it had to be intentional, though. The scars crossing his face were old and delicate, and his deep blue eyes showed signs of scarring, too. Yggdra's insides squirmed and she swallowed back queasiness as she stared, taking in the jagged white cuts across his irises and pupils, and the way his pupils were filmed over. His eyes were perfectly expressionless and reflected no light, and were framed by generous white-blond lashes under exacting brows. Yggdra had never seen someone with eyelashes so pale—she was blonde, and even hers were fair brown.
His face didn't have the harshness of Gulcasa's features, but Yggdra could still tell that his life's difficulty had stamped itself upon him nonetheless. Nessiah had what would've been called a sweet face if he smiled—and, admittedly, if his blind eyes weren't so disconcerting—but despite the vulnerability and softness to his mouth, his lips were set just enough to be stubborn, and the downward turn of his brow was just outright cynical.
All in all, Yggdra wasn't sure she ever wanted to get on Nessiah's bad side—blind or not, physically weak or not. She was certain there was some reason he'd been chosen to guard this place—
Even as she thought the words, Nessiah's fingers traced her cheek down to her throat, rested there for a moment, then closed like a vise.
Yggdra yelped—or it would've been a yelp if Nessiah hadn't tightened his grip, cutting off the sound into a pitiful yip and gasp.
"Nessiah…?" Gulcasa began from the doorway, obvious concern and suspicion in his voice.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't rip out this girl's soul to feed my magic," Nessiah whispered, with a shocking amount of venom. His face was creased with concentration and his lips were trembling, and his nails were pressed so hard against the big arteries in Yggdra's throat that she was sure she would start to bleed soon. "One good reason. And do it fast. I've been waiting in the dark for far too long… you haven't brought me any for weeks…"
Lich, Yggdra thought faintly. She'd completely forgotten the rest of the townspeople's stories in the face of winning Gulcasa over and the threat of this unknown witch Rosary. I should've known…
"And don't you 'Nessiah' me in that tone, damn it!" His voice cracked as he snapped it. "You don't know what it's like—you can't know! It's like I've lost two senses, with my magic sealed—I can't stand this much longer, I have to be able to see, I can't take being so afraid all the time, and having to hide every damn time I hear footsteps—"
"Nessiah, calm down!" Gulcasa barked it impatiently, making both Yggdra and Nessiah flinch. As Nessiah's hand twitched, five long and painful scratches opened along Yggdra's throat, searing and then starting to throb. "Did you not hear me when I told you I brought her here to help us? She can free you!"
"What makes you believe that?" Nessiah demanded, trembling violently now, his voice hitting a hysterical pitch. "She could quite easily be lying to you, and how would you know? You haven't exactly had much experience with humans up until now—"
"Oh, for Brongaa's sake." Gulcasa crossed the room in wide strides, knelt next to Yggdra, and grabbed Nessiah's left hand, placing it against his own throat. Nessiah flinched again, and his right hand closed convulsively around Yggdra's throat, his nails biting white-hot pain into her skin. "Feel for yourself, I can't possibly be faking this!"
"Gulcasa, what—" Nessiah fell silent and loosened his death grip on Yggdra a hair as his fingers traced from the base of the dragon's jaw to his clavicle and back again several times. "Your collar. Your binding—it's gone…"
"She broke it," Gulcasa explained with a great deal more patience.
"She's got this magic sword that cut right through. Now will you please stop trying to choke her so that she can do the same for your chains?"
Nessiah flushed bright scarlet, and finally released his hold on Yggdra, who clutched her throat and gasped, shivering a little herself. Sure enough, her fingers came away bloody.
As Nessiah slumped against Gulcasa's chest and Gulcasa ran a hand soothingly up and down his friend's back, the dragon turned to Yggdra apologetically. "Nessiah's a sorcerer," he explained. "And he's damned powerful, a lot stronger than most. Ordinarily, he just uses his magic to see for him, but the same way my collar kept me from transforming for any long stretches of time, his chains cut off his magic and prevent him from using it. He's kept himself from going insane so far by using the life force of any humans I let through here or bring up to him in place of magic, letting him see for maybe a few hours. Mistress Rosary got him much the same way she got me—underhanded tactics. So then, Princess… despite the fact that he hasn't really displayed his best manners, would you mind getting these torture devices off him? Nessiah may be a little bit of an idiot about people in general, but he's my friend, and he doesn't deserve this."
Wiping the blood off her throat, Yggdra nodded. "Of course," she said readily. If Nessiah had been evil, or an enemy, or even just the lich the locals termed him, he wouldn't have listened to Gulcasa and released her. And it was plain that he was suffering—Gulcasa had been in bad enough condition, but Nessiah was confined to this place and crippled with absolutely no way to defend himself other than to kill. It was unforgivably cruel to treat someone like this.
With that, she drew her sword. Nessiah visibly went tense at the sound of the blade on the scabbard; Gulcasa leaned in and whispered something, and he relaxed.
There was no need to hold back or gauge how much of her strength she could use, as she had with Gulcasa's collar, so Yggdra knelt down and swung her sword as hard as she could, shearing straight through the chain attached to the manacle around Nessiah's right wrist. Sparks flew, and the link she'd hit shattered; the entire thing crumbled away shortly after. Yggdra had expected as much, after Gulcasa's had done so. It was only logical, seeing as the same hand had made them.
With one success, Yggdra got up and stepped carefully to Nessiah's other side, proceeding to sever his remaining chain. Once it had crumbled into dust, he sat up, his back straight; he looked as though Yggdra had taken a weight off his shoulders.
"The other one, too," Gulcasa said. Yggdra frowned—she didn't see any other chains.
But before she could ask, Nessiah turned around and leaned against Gulcasa's supporting arms, and Yggdra saw that a third chain bound his legs together, preventing him from being able to spread his feet further than shoulder-width apart. As he'd been sitting with his legs folded beneath him before, she hadn't been able to notice the thick black chain running between his ankles.
With a little more care, Yggdra severed the last of his bonds. Nessiah sagged against Gulcasa, closing his scarred, sightless eyes.
"Anything yet?" Gulcasa asked, raising his eyebrows.
"It's going to take a while, you fool." Still, a faint smile lightened Nessiah's expression. "But even so… it feels nice."
"It does," Gulcasa agreed. There was silence but for the soft sliding as Yggdra sheathed her sword, and then the Prince of Dragons frowned and gave his friend a nudge.
"What do we say?" Gulcasa prompted in an overly patient tone, as though he spoke to a toddler.
Nessiah elbowed him viciously in the gut, then folded his arms. "I suppose I should thank you, girl. I shouldn't have suspected you, either." It sounded something like an apology, but wasn't quite there.
Still, Yggdra just shook her head. "Oh, no—you had every right. The way you've been living, you would have to be a saint not to…" Her voice trailed off as she noticed that the skin of Nessiah's wrists and ankles was livid red, with sickly-looking white bubbles just under the skin. "Those sores…"
Gulcasa nodded. "It's probably going to take him a while before he can see properly—if you've a belt knife and first-aid supplies, we should treat them."
"I do, but…" Yggdra fidgeted uncomfortably. "These look serious… we should have them looked at by someone who knows what they're doing."
"Even if we had the time to go to a village and find a healer, neither Gulcasa nor I can leave until we've taken back what Rosary stole from us," Nessiah pointed out matter-of-factly. "I can handle a little pain, and clean bandages alone will do until we leave this place."
Yggdra glanced up at Gulcasa pleadingly, but he shook his head.
"Nessiah's right. Yggdra, get out whatever first aid things you've got, and any water you have. I can fix these up myself if you hold him still."
With a sigh, Yggdra gave in, digging out her kit and larger waterskin and handing them to Gulcasa as he passed Nessiah to her.
"Yggdra? Is that your name?" he asked as she settled him against her chest.
"Yes," she replied with some surprise, realizing she had yet to introduce herself. "Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz… I'm the princess of Fantasinia."
"Artwaltz…?" Nessiah repeated. That faint smile crossed his face again. "Well, well. Isn't this interesting…"
"Nothing—charmed, I'm sure," he drawled, and a wry smirk curved his lips. It disappeared in the next moment as Gulcasa lifted his left wrist in one hand, holding Yggdra's knife in the other. "You'd best do it quickly. It's much more painful if you drag it—" and he winced and gave a small, pained gasp as Gulcasa deftly peeled the blood blisters and sores away with the knife.
"Sorry," Gulcasa murmured as he spilled a little water over the open wounds, rinsing fluid out of them. "But if you'd gotten any more warning than that, you'd've tensed up, and that hurts a hell of a lot more, too."
Nessiah hissed. "I would hurt you for that if you weren't right." Gulcasa didn't answer, but just wrapped his friend's wrist in bandages.
Yggdra fidgeted uncomfortably as Gulcasa cut the sores on Nessiah's other wrist, this time provoking another hiss and a stream of curses. She wanted to say something, to help in some way, but she couldn't think of anything that she might do. Biting her lips, she hugged Nessiah a little tighter against her chest.
Once Gulcasa was done with that set of bandages, he ran water over the knife and wiped it against his pants. "Straighten your legs out. I can't get at your ankles with you sitting like that."
Yggdra felt Nessiah go stiff in her arms, his hackles rising. "I can't—really…"
Nonplussed, Gulcasa set his hand a few inches above the blind mage's ankle and began to unfold his legs himself. Yggdra saw the muscles in his thigh clutch a few seconds before Nessiah arched inwards with a shocked yell of "Fuck!"
Gulcasa pulled his hands back as if scalded, then began to frown suspiciously and ran his fingertips over the side of Nessiah's leg. "I should've known—your muscles are all knotted. How long have you been sitting like this? You should know better! Yggdra, keep him still." And with that, the dragon started to knead the muscles of Nessiah's thigh with efficient fingers.
"Gods above!" Nessiah swore, trying to jerk away from his friend's hands. His sightless eyes were bright with tears from the pain of his muscles cramping. "Gulcasa, stop that!"
"I will not, and stop squirming. If you can't even straighten your legs out for five minutes, how are you going to be able to walk?"
Nessiah clutched Yggdra's arm, breathing raggedly as tears coursed down his face. "It's just pins and needles, I can deal with it myself if you let me—ah…!"
Yggdra's belly clutched in sympathy as Gulcasa began to work at Nessiah's other leg, and she closed her eyes, resting her forehead against Nessiah's temple. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, her eyes stinging. "Please be strong. I'm so, so sorry."
Although Nessiah continued to curse loudly and vehemently, he didn't struggle against Yggdra's grip on him as Gulcasa finished his rough massage, and only lay still as Gulcasa opened his remaining sores and blisters. Even as Gulcasa washed blood and a sickly white fluid out of the deepest of the sores, he didn't so much as whimper.
"And after all that talk about being able to take a little pain," Gulcasa remarked under his breath as he tied the last bandage.
"That was not a little pain," Nessiah retorted, dashing tears away with the heel of his hand. "That hurt like hell. And if you think otherwise, try it yourself sometime."
Yggdra blinked back her own tears. "This is just horrible," she whispered. "What could possibly be worth all this pain? What is it that's so important to this Rosary that she has to hurt people so much for it?"
"You don't know?" Nessiah's voice was steadier, and it was puzzled. "Why did you come here, if you don't know?"
"Huh?" Yggdra looked down at him. "There was a reward in town to make this place safe again. I told the mayor I wanted to help, so he hired me on."
"You don't know." It was a statement this time, at once wondering and despairing. "…I suppose that means they're dead, then."
"Who do you mean?"
"Rosary's parents," Nessiah told her. "I've been here a lot longer than Gulcasa—probably close to a year. I heard the story after it happened, and I traveled here to see if I could set things right… Rosary's parents hired me to bring their daughter to her senses, and she'd been working some very powerful, very evil magic anyway, so having power myself I was obligated to come. Her father had come down with the consumption, you see, and he was so weak with grieving that they didn't think he would survive it. The lord and lady Verlaine wanted to see their children once more before his death." He sighed. "I came riding in ready to bring my strongest spells to bear, and was completely unprepared for a physical fight. The little chit hit me so hard I was concussed, and by the time I was stable enough to know up from down, she'd chained me up here."
"Consumption…" Yggdra shivered. Tuberculosis was a vicious disease, and if Lord Verlaine had been ill and his wife had tended him, she didn't doubt that she had gotten it too. And with all the questions she'd had for the townspeople about this castle, she was sure she would've been directed to them if they'd still been alive.
"It was a stupid mistake, and I paid for it in blood," Nessiah said flatly. "Her ladyship doesn't bother with outside affairs much, and she never believed me about her parents—her jealousy was that strong. And after the first three or four months, she stopped paying attention to me entirely, almost as if she'd forgotten me. I likely would've died without Gulcasa here. He brought me some of whatever food he could find, gave me access to magic, and kept me clean. It hasn't been easy for either of us. And even though we are free—Gulcasa needs his father's crown to return to his people, and I need my spellbook back. Rosary stole it from me while I was unconscious. I can work magic without it, but…" His voice grew quiet and genuinely mournful. "That book is the only thing in this world that I can call my own. I have to get it back; I haven't any choice."
Yggdra was silent for a moment, and then some of the details of Nessiah's story snagged at her consciousness. "Wait—you said… Rosary was jealous? And that the lord and lady wanted to see their children again?"
"Yes," Nessiah said simply. "I thought you would catch on quickly. The person suffering Rosary's curse is her own elder brother, Roswell Branthèse Verlaine."
Awash with shock and a kind of benumbing horror, Yggdra listened as Nessiah told her and Gulcasa the story. She tried to imagine it—the loving parents who tried to make sure their son and daughter wanted for nothing, much like her own… a kindhearted and beautiful young man, as Roswell must have been… a bitter younger sister, whose feelings of neglect and jealousy had overwhelmed her. It was difficult. Yggdra knew that it wasn't always easy to have siblings, but even though Luciana and Aegina had made her life a misery sometimes when they were younger, she loved them. Just the thought of raising a hand against them made her heart stutter with outright revolt. If they ever hated her enough to try to kill her—she didn't think that she could defend herself, even with all her training, all her strength.
That must have been how Roswell had felt, Yggdra decided. And maybe he hadn't even realized that his sister felt the way she did—or he had known, and if he'd tried to help her, his efforts had gone unnoticed. Her heart ached for him—ached for a man she'd never even met. It was a strange but not altogether bad feeling.
"Makes you think, doesn't it?" Gulcasa remarked after Nessiah had finished. His expression was at the halfway point between dreamy and solemn, and he crossed his legs where he sat, resting his chin on his hand. "I have a little sister, too, but… I helped raise her, and between me and the rest of our people, she's spoiled. She knows it, and she appreciates it. I guess Rosary was too busy seeing the attention Roswell got to appreciate what she had."
"Whatever the case, Rosary has only ever acted out of self-concern since then," Nessiah said, slowly flexing the muscles in his legs—they were probably still sore. "Ordinary folk don't think of magic as having laws, but it does. Rosary broke them. Attempted fratricide is a serious thing, and it's even more serious when the magic she tried it with is damning. Death curses are forbidden—they corrupt the souls of the mages who cast them. If another magician hears tell of someone abusing his or her magic and he's got the strength to stop them, he has to. It's why I came this way in the first place.
"It's a shame, too—I was here once before, a few years back. Roswell and Rosary were just children then, but they had so much potential… it's a damned shame."
"A few… years…?" Yggdra repeated, frowning. Surely Nessiah couldn't have been more than her age—but for the way he talked, she would have thought he was younger.
"I'm older than I look," he said with a bitter, cryptic smile.
There was a brief silence.
"Nessiah, we have to get moving—do you think you can stand yet? And—can you see?" Gulcasa asked, straightening up.
"I don't know, and yes. I think I've enough connection with my magic by now."
"You should probably eat something, get some strength back in you. Yggdra, you still have food—I saw you packing up the rest so I wouldn't get to it before."
"Yes—I'll get it out," Yggdra said with a nod, swinging her knapsack around and starting to dig around in it.
"Don't bother," Nessiah told her, sighing. "I do need to eat, but I don't think I could keep much more than weak broth down. We can take care of it in town. I couldn't say no to something to drink, though."
"Of course." Yggdra took the half-full waterskin from Gulcasa and handed it to Nessiah, who undid it by feel and sipped at it as delicately as any noblewoman with a wineglass. When he closed it, she took it back and packed it, then slid her knapsack back on and stood.
"Just in case, I'll carry you until we know you can walk on your own," Gulcasa said to Nessiah in no-nonsense but genuinely caring tones.
Yggdra almost expected Nessiah to argue, but he didn't—he just held up his arms; when Gulcasa stood, he bent down and scooped the mage up, holding his friend to his chest like a child.
"We go up the stairs next," Nessiah directed. "Rosary's work rooms are on the next floor."
It was different here, Yggdra realized. Not like the rest of the castle. The third floor was clean, furnished, maintained. Tapestries still hung along the walls, and fire snapped in the torch sconces. Long, fancy rugs covered the stone floors. Maybe out of vanity or maybe out of hedonism, Rosary seemed to want her surroundings lush.
After they were up the stairs and had finished exploring the first hall, Nessiah had made Gulcasa put him down. The two of them walked to either side of Yggdra now, flanking her, following along where she led. It made Yggdra a little edgy to think that they considered her their leader, but she kept her steps even and her sword edged just a fingertip's width out of the sheath.
Gulcasa seemed to ignore the surroundings. And even though his clothes were worn with months of weather and hung on him almost pathetically, he fit into them—it was his attitude, his regal pride, the way he stalked forward with his muscles rippling. Yggdra admired his presence—not even Luciana pulled off the air of royalty quite this well—but the stubborn focus and the hate in his eyes scared her. He was out for blood, and Yggdra didn't want there to be blood—not if she could prevent it.
In contrast, Nessiah couldn't have seemed more out-of-place. His clothes—Yggdra supposed they'd been fine robes once—were barely more than rags, and he padded barefoot along the floor, drifting like the ghost people claimed him to be. Still, his shoulders were rigid, and that vulnerable mouth had set into a grim line. Paler and dirtier than ever in the torchlight, defenseless but for his magic, he was nonetheless just as ready as Gulcasa to kill.
How, Yggdra wondered helplessly, was she ever to keep these two powerful angry men under control long enough to hear Rosary's side of things?
There was always the chance that there'd been a misunderstanding. Yggdra wouldn't let there be mistakes and bloodshed, if there was.
They turned the corner, and found themselves facing a heavy wooden door. It was something right out of tales, the top a proud arch with the door itself made of strong oaken boards, banded together with iron.
There wasn't a ring to pull, so Yggdra set both hands to the door and pushed. Slowly, slowly, it gave, creaking with protest all the way.
Swallowing hard, Yggdra stepped into the witch's chamber with her dragon and her sorcerer at her heels.
It was a dark and beautifully furnished room, with bookshelves and a desk of richly stained mahogany and a plush green carpet. But the room's beauty didn't even begin to compare with that of the young woman who turned towards the door in annoyance at being intruded upon.
Lady Rosary Ésmeralda Verlaine was like a vision from a dream. She wasn't beautiful in the traditional sense, where beauty meant blonde curls and helpless plumpness and demure eyes, but she had an arresting charisma and an air that inexorably drew onlookers in. Her face was heart-shaped and her skin creamy peach, her hair long and shiny in tones of strawberry brown. Her lips were painted pink and perfectly plush, arranged in a little frown that was nearly a pout. She was a good few inches taller than Yggdra, and had strong shoulders, wide hips, and a narrow waist. Her breasts were high and full, her legs long and curved and firm. She wore a long white coat with leg-of-mutton shoulders, fastened only down to her hips, and a vibrant pink dress beneath it, hemmed in delicate pink frills of lace. Her hose were gold, and fitted perfectly into white leather boots with tall heels. She had a crystalline brooch pinned at her chest, just to the side of her heart—it was a white rose, circled in gold.
Her eyes were the same deep rose-pink as her dress, and they were hard and cold.
And Yggdra—who had never in her life felt attracted to her own sex—found as she stared that her mouth was dry and her blood pounding. The basic, elemental reaction had her cheeks beginning to flush, and she swallowed again, trying to moisten her lips.
Rosary set a hand to the haft of the long broomstick resting against her chair, and extended her other towards them. Fire lashed from her fingers in a spiral.
Yggdra's body reacted faster than her mind ever could have, faster than Gulcasa or Nessiah could manage. Her sword was suddenly free of its sheath, and she raised it before her, catching Rosary's magic along the blade. It shimmered with the force of the fire, splitting the spell neatly around them as she squinted and Nessiah raised both arms to shield his face, pulling away, and Gulcasa turned partially away from the brilliant light.
When the fire cleared, Rosary was scowling, clearly piqued that her spell hadn't succeeded. With an irritable shout, she waved fire at them again.
This time it was Nessiah who stepped in, his blind eyes hard with fury as he threw blue-white lightning, cutting Rosary's spell dead.
"Your tricks won't work on us again," he growled.
"You have too much to answer for," Gulcasa added in a snarl, stepping up so he was even with his friend. "Try to harm us again, and we'll deal you ten times the pain you dealt us."
Yggdra's heart jumped, and she rushed forward, flinging her arms out while still holding her sword to keep them back. "Wait!"
"No," Gulcasa hissed.
"Please, wait!" Yggdra cried. "You can't—not until we know! We have to try talking to her first, don't you see? I won't have blood spilled here if we don't need to fight!"
"Pretty words," Rosary quipped from the opposite side of the room, holding her broomstick in both hands now. "But talking big isn't going to help you now." Her voice was sharp and young, filled with distrust and open hatred.
"Lady Rosary—" Yggdra took a deep breath. She'd managed this with Gulcasa. She'd manage it with Rosary, too. "My name is Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz, and I'm a princess of Fantasinia. I came here by request of the local people to investigate the castle, and while I've learned of what happened here since—I want to hear it from you. Why have you done these things? Why hurt Gulcasa and Nessiah, and your brother, and your parents? Is there some other reason you've done what you did? Please, I must know!"
"Princess, are you?" Rosary spun her broom in one hand, catching it sweep down. "Do you have siblings?"
"Yes," Yggdra replied. Rosary was frightening in ways that Gulcasa and Nessiah were not—her voice was filled with little pricks of accusation already. "I have two older sisters, Luciana and Aegina. I love them both very much."
"What a joke. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that it's all but impossible to love and like your own blood." Rosary curled her lip, coldly beautiful in disdain. "A little girl like you, too idealistic to use a sword the way it was meant—how the hell would you ever be able to understand?"
"I want to understand—I want to try," Yggdra protested. "Please—tell me. Was it really that bad, between you and Roswell?"
A spasm passed over Rosary's face at hearing her brother's name spoken.
"It was hell!" she hissed from between gritted teeth. Yggdra flinched back at the vehemence of the hot and unabashed hate in her voice.
"Since I was a child, it was as though I hardly ever existed! I'm just as powerful as him—just as beautiful as him—more than him!—and it doesn't matter. Because he's older—because he's softer—he was the one who always got the attention! Not me! Because I wasn't as perfect as him, no one ever paid me the slightest mind!"
The venom in the words bordered on being crazed. This really was jealousy that could kill. Yggdra shuddered, even as she thought to herself that Rosary had it all wrong. She'd had the pampered life too, the loving parents, the lifestyle so many young girls went without. Still, because Roswell possessed the kindness she didn't—and because he'd gotten more attention due to that—she hadn't been able to acknowledge any of that.
How sad for her—even after all she'd done to seclude herself, to convince herself of her own greatness, she was still imprisoned by the bars she herself had erected.
"Next to him I always seemed to come up wanting somehow. No matter how hard I tried, no matter what I accomplished, it never mattered at all! And he never seemed to figure it out! Just walked through all his days in total bliss, thinking it was so good to just be alive!" Rosary snorted, dismissing Roswell's sentiments. "I wish I'd gotten to kill him when I'd had the chance! Now—now I can't do it—I've tried to, but I can't! It's all his fault—everything's his fault! If he'd never been born, then they would have loved me instead!"
"Lady Rosary…" Yggdra took a deep breath, released it. "Lady Rosary—why does he have to keep you here, then? If you hate Roswell so much… then why spend so much time here? Why hurt others, so that you can stay here?"
"Because," Rosary snapped, actually stamping her foot a little, "if someone ever woke him up, things would be just the same! And I'd rather die than let that happen! Nobody wants me now—they'd want me less if they could compare me with him!"
Yggdra felt as if she were talking to a small and petulant child instead of a grown woman. Maybe Rosary felt that way, too—everything about her, from her defiant posture to her shouting, was reminiscent of a little girl in a corner, demanding for the world to notice her and shower her with the affection she felt she lacked.
"If he did wake up—if you stopped guarding Roswell, and he did wake up—what would bind you to this place?" she asked patiently. "What would stop you from leaving, and finding a place you could be happy without him being near? If nobody knew Roswell, they couldn't compare the two of you. It would be like he'd never existed—and this way neither he nor anyone else has to suffer for it."
Rosary stared at her suspiciously, as though the solution Yggdra presented was just too simple. "It's too late for that," she said slowly, angrily.
"But it isn't!" Yggdra insisted, taking a few more steps forward. "You're beautiful, and everyone says you're strong and smart—that's more than most girls our age have, and with those things you could easily start over! If you got far enough away, I know you could find a place where you could belong!"
"I don't believe you," Rosary snapped.
Yggdra spread out her arms. "But it's true. It can work! It's worked for me. This place is so far from my home—and I've made it here, and I don't have magic like you and I'm not as pretty as you. You could do as well or much better, I'm certain—if you just give it a try!"
There was a long silence.
"I'm sure…" Yggdra took a deep breath and decided to risk it. "I'm sure that… Roswell loves you very much."
Rosary flinched. "Don't you dare," she breathed.
"He must, or he would have fought you," Yggdra insisted. "I'm sure that if he were awake and he heard about all this, Roswell might leave this place himself to make you happy. But everyone here knows who you are, and they're afraid of you because of how you've lived these past years. If you find somewhere new…" She let the sentence hang. "Lady Rosary, I want you to be happy," she cajoled, venturing yet another step. "I want everyone here to be happy. I want you to be happy, and I want Gulcasa and Nessiah to be happy, and I want Roswell to be happy… and if there's a way that it can work…!"
Rosary just glowered suspiciously.
"Are you happy now?" Yggdra pressed. "Lady Rosary, are you happy right now?"
Rosary opened her mouth, and hesitated before saying "No" very quickly and quietly.
Even on the carpeted floors, you could have heard a pin drop.
"As long as he's around, I can never…" Rosary muttered, sounding almost confused. "I'm not happy. I don't like—being alone. I don't like being lonely."
"No one likes to be lonely," Yggdra agreed. Despite herself, despite all the horrible selfish things Rosary had done, her heart was full of nothing but pity for the witch. "But you can change that. It's not too late to change that! You're strong enough to start over from the beginning, and make it work. I'm sure of it."
Just for a moment, Rosary's lips went from hard and decided to quivering. She cast her eyes down, closed them, and squared her shoulders, gripping her broomstick hard.
"…I… will try. I don't want to be around—him anymore. I want people to love me. I want a world without him in it. And if I can't kill him—then maybe this is the way. I'll find a place. A place far away from here. A place where nobody knows him—knows me. I want—to be known for me. Not for how much better my brother is." Rosary took a deep breath and opened her eyes, stepping backwards into the doorframe that had been hidden behind her. "I—will try." She touched a magic insignia at the top of the frame, and vanished as though she'd never been there at all.
"Teleportation," Nessiah said unnecessarily. "If she sticks to her will as well as we've seen she does—then we've heard the last of Mistress Rosary."
Yggdra sighed and sagged where she stood, almost dropping her sword.
Gulcasa looked at her, and set his hands on his hips. "…You really hate fighting, don't you?"
Yggdra nodded weakly. "Waste of life is the worst waste there is," she replied softly.
"If you truly believe that, then you handled things the best way you could have," Nessiah told her, smiling a little. "Come on. Gulcasa and I have our belongings to find, but we should see to Roswell first. I believe he should be just past here."
It was like stepping into a dream, or some kind of fairy tale.
Gauzy blue fabric was hung from the ceiling straight to the floors, brightness filtering through where they covered the windows. The ceiling itself was painted dark midnight blue, and the walls and floor were in delicate tones of pale storm blues and gray. Other than the curtains, the room at the top of Rosary's tower was completely bare of ornamentation. It didn't need any. The room was completely dominated by the canopy bed in the middle of it.
And once Yggdra looked at it once, she couldn't tear her eyes away.
He wasn't handsome.
He was beautiful.
Roswell Branthèse Verlaine lay on his back against the plush, silken sheets and comforter of the bed, silent and sleeping deeply under his sister's curse. Having met Nessiah, Yggdra couldn't say that the young lord was delicate, but he was willowy rather than strong—maybe not as tall as Gulcasa, but still tall and slender of build. His hair was long and looked very soft, and it was arranged carefully around his face. Like Rosary's, it was brown, but a much softer and more muted hue: a sweet ash-brown, similar to the color of a young tree's bark. His face was thinner than Rosary's, but Yggdra could see touches of his sister in him—he had the same plush lips as her, and as his were unpainted, they were a flushed pale pink. On another man, it would've looked strange. His skin was very fair, and with his pure black lashes brushed against his cheeks, he seemed somehow fragile—more porcelain than flesh and blood. As though he would break if Yggdra touched him too hard.
He was dressed in silken blue robes, slit up the side to show that he was wearing full breeches of the same color and fabric beneath them. His shoes were soft oiled leather; Yggdra recognized them as very fine. Either they were the product of a long process of tanning, or they were of very expensive make indeed. There was soft gray lace at his sleeves, and more at the collar of his robes, extending along the line where buttons would normally be down past his heart. It was held closed by a brooch very similar to Rosary's. However, the crystal rose on Roswell's breast was black at the outer petals, fading from burgundy to delicate pink at its heart. While his right hand trailed off the edge of the bed, his fingers gently curled, his left rested low on his narrow chest, folded over the stem of a real rose. It, too, was black; the thorns had been shorn away, and its petals hadn't fully opened yet.
As she stared, Yggdra's heart turned over hard, and for a moment she forgot everything from why she'd come here to her own name. She'd never known that a man could be so lovely as this.
When Nessiah rested a hand on her shoulder, Yggdra nearly jumped out of her skin. She had to glance at him, then at Gulcasa, and look back and forth twice before she began to blush.
"I know," Nessiah told her gently, although his smile told her he was amused. "It's something, isn't it, to see a circumstance where beauty isn't just skin-deep?"
Yggdra nodded and moistened her lips. "It… certainly is."
"So how are we supposed to wake him up?" Gulcasa asked, clearly wanting to get them back on track. "If Rosary was strong enough to bind us…" He trailed off, then his eyes lit with inspiration. "What about your sword, Yggdra?"
"There's no physical representation of the curse," Nessiah said as Yggdra stared at Gulcasa in wide-eyed horror. "She might be able to break it if she were to draw blood with it, but Yggdra's not the kind of girl who could do that. Besides—that sword she's carrying isn't meant to harm."
Yggdra wanted to weep from sheer relief, but settled for giving Nessiah a grateful stare instead. "Then—how are we to…?"
"It should be simple enough," Nessiah said, a mischievous smile playing at his lips.
"Oh, yes," he replied with all cheerful sincerity. "A kiss should do it nicely."
"A what?!" Yggdra yelped, actually jumping a little, feeling her face burn.
"It's the most traditional form of curse-breaking," Nessiah explained helpfully. "Affection and the simple desire to be of help go much farther than the mundane give them credit for. Some curses are a little more finicky in their requirements than others—they require the unsullied lips of pure-hearted virgins—but as I've no doubt that you fulfill those requirements, there's nothing you need fear. Even before you saw him, you'd come to care for him, isn't that right? One kiss from you will be all it takes to save him."
"But—but—" Yggdra stammered, wheeling from him to Gulcasa and back. "But I've never—and didn't you come to—I can't just—"
"I would've done it myself, but…" Nessiah leaned in, his sightless eyes half-closed and sly as his lips brushed Yggdra's ear. "There's a much higher rate of success if there's love involved."
Yggdra squealed and covered her face with both hands, blushing like mad.
Nessiah reached around her to tug Gulcasa's wrist. "Come along, now—the crown and my spellbook should be somewhere in Rosary's workrooms; we should start looking now, and save time."
"Huh?" Gulcasa glanced at Yggdra, then back at his friend. "Ah—alright."
As he pulled Gulcasa after him, Nessiah gave Yggdra one last wickedly sweet smile. "Take your time—and remember, that's all you need to do…"
And then the two of them were gone, clattering back down the stairs. Yggdra heard Nessiah cursing a little as he slipped, then Gulcasa's chiding and the way one set of footsteps stopped. She supposed Nessiah was being carried again.
Heart thumping like mad, Yggdra carefully made her way to Roswell's bedside as if drawn there on a leash. She couldn't have stayed away if she'd tried; he was just too beautiful, too helpless.
And she wanted to help him. More than anything, she wanted to be the one to wake Roswell from his sleep—and not just to be a hero, or because there would be a fat purse waiting for her when she returned to the village. Nessiah's almost flippant assessment of the situation was painfully accurate. Yggdra's heart ached for Roswell, and she could hardly bear to think what it must be like for him, hated by the sister he'd plainly loved despite it all, sleeping straight through the deaths of his poor parents. She didn't even know him, but she was fairly sure that when she lay in her bed at the inn tonight, she would weep for him, stifling the sound in her pillow so none would hear.
And—as horrible of her as it might be, she wanted to kiss him.
But—Yggdra twisted at the hem of her tunic as she rested against the side of the bed. This just seemed wrong somehow, like she was taking advantage of Roswell.
Kissing the lips of a sleeping man… Yggdra fidgeted. I… don't think I can…
Even as she thought it, she reached out as if compelled and teased Roswell's hair away from his face. Like they had a will of their own, her fingertips danced lightly across his skin to delicately trace his lips.
They were so soft. It sent guilty shivers up and down Yggdra's spine.
But more—and it was this that kept her trembling—Roswell was barely breathing. Was it possible, Yggdra wondered as she rubbed her arms, that because of all the time he'd spent asleep he was weakening? Was Rosary's curse finally overpowering his defenses, readying to claim his life?
Pain—searing physical pain—rippled up Yggdra's breastbone at the very thought, and everything inside her cried no as fiercely as it could. Yggdra shuddered, squared her shoulders, and leaned down impulsively before she could think to reconsider. And finally touched her lips to his.
It was barely more than that—a touch—but briefly, so briefly and so gently that Yggdra was almost sure she'd fancied it, Roswell's lips moved against hers.
Her face flaming, Yggdra sat up again with a jolt. What did I—just do?!
Roswell didn't stir.
"Was that… not long enough, maybe…?" Yggdra ventured aloud, her voice timid in the expanse of the room. Or had she even done it right? Maybe this wasn't enough, after all—
But just as she turned towards the door with a mind to call for Nessiah, there was a faint sound from the bed, and she whipped back.
It was barely a moan, and barely a sigh, but Roswell shifted against the sheets, and a delicate line formed at his brow as he opened his eyes just slightly. Through his lashes, Yggdra caught the briefest glimpse of a beautiful blue.
"…Rosary…" he murmured softly, dizzily.
"Shh…" It was second nature to bend closer, to rub his shoulders in an attempt at comfort.
"Where's… Rosary…?" Roswell opened his eyes a little wider, and their soft lovely aquamarine had Yggdra's heart in her mouth. "Have to… apologize…"
"She understands," Yggdra lied, hoping it wouldn't show on her face, and that as tired as Roswell still seemed to be, he wouldn't realize if it did. "She's gone far away from here, to start over again. Everything will be alright."
"…" Roswell blinked once, and his eyes went hazy. Yggdra didn't realize why until a single tear traced down his perfect cheek to bead on the sheets, and when she saw, her heart broke for him.
She would have to tell him, she realized. She would have to be the one to explain that his parents were dead, and that even though Rosary was alive and well, he would probably never see her again. But she couldn't tell him now. He was too vulnerable, too raw from a betrayal that to him was perfectly fresh.
"You… saved me…?" Roswell asked, clearly making an effort to understand the situation.
"Yes," Yggdra replied, and flushed.
"I'm Yggdra," she told him gently with a wavery smile, lifting his hand to her cheek and holding it tightly. "Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz."
"…Yggdra…" Roswell weakly brushed his fingers along her cheekbone and smiled, closing his eyes. "Beautiful…"
Yggdra closed her own and leaned into his touch, fighting the urge to laugh and the tears that stung at her still.