Flight of the Phoenix (4)

Three years passed.

Though it seemed much longer as I recovered from my injuries and was shut away in my own house. I didn't mind so much the scars on my face. It was the loss of my arm that took a huge toll on me. Suddenly all the everyday things I took for granted became much harder. Like most people I wrote with my right hand. But with that gone, I had to learn writing with my left hand. Menial things like eating, changing clothes and even taking showers could get frustrating very easily. Maids of the Visari estate often had to accompany and assist me. Though I was grateful for their help, I couldn't handle the guilt that came with being totally dependent on them. I was raised to be an asset to society, not a burden.

To top off coping with my damaged body, I was supposed to live as if I didn't exist. Contact with the outside world was strictly forbidden. Only the closest associates of my mother, as well as the staff and soldiers working for the estate, knew I still lived. Mother imposed harsh punishment on anyone who dared to divulge any secrets about me. I know she was doing this to protect me, but I didn't like walls of deceit and isolation that had to be put up. Just like the Vektan-Helghast Wall. Construction reached completion around the time I turned twelve. Happy birthday to me.

In the loneliness of my huge but empty house, particularly my room, I surrounded myself with remnants of past Helghast heroes (usually in the form of books, audio logs and films). I've watched propaganda tapes of my grandfather to the point I memorized all his speeches. I couldn't deny it; I admired the way fire burned bright and strong in his words. There were others, too...Colonel Mael Radec, General Armin Metrac, Colonel Tendon Cobar...men who lived, fought and died in the name of Helghan. Would they do the same if they were still alive now? Tense and fragile as current times were, I still lived in an era of relative peace. I didn't know what war felt like, but I was sure that I never wanted to experience it.

With all that said, and because of those very reasons, I was still determined to enlist in the military.

The structure and doctrine of Helghan's military changed significantly since my grandfather's time. The Terracide decimated our population, severely crippling our military's power. I heard from Mother that New Helghan couldn't afford to needlessly spend lives of the few able-bodied men who survived. Soldiers had to be better trained, better equipped and more specialized.

Poorly trained, gun-toting zealots no longer made the status quo. New Helghan needed real protection.

I'm sure Pitru and Viglo would be the kind of soldiers we needed. Both were eighteen year old cadets, training to be in the Helghast infantry.

Pitru aimed to get into the Commando program. To emphasize his dedication (and amp his macho), he pierced his ears with multiple studs and dyed a white-blonde streak straight down the middle of his naturally brown hair. His training was brutal and intense; Commandos were the muscle of the Helghast military. Viglo, on the other hand, was studying hard to pass medical exams so he could be both a medic and an Engineer.

The twins were off to do great things. And me? I had to be a Visari. I had to succeed my mother, get married and have children to continue our dwindling legacy. Problem is, I didn't want to do any of that. What upset me even more was that I had to be pushed to do this at such an early age. With Pitru and Viglo away at the academy most of the time, I had to spend more time with Mother as she taught me lady-like decorum and protocol, so I could be prepared for arranged marriage and the rest of political court life. I found it all pointless.

I could be the most angelic, saint-like little lady in all of New Helghan and I still wouldn't get suitors. All because I've been tainted by Vektan blood. Loyal as they were to the Visari family, senators and other aristocrats were reluctant to offer their sons as candidates. Even if they did, I didn't like them anyway. Social protocol called for some "alone time" between the two of us so we could get to know each other better.

But I hated every single one of the boys. I couldn't stand sharing the same room as those snobby pomps, let alone talking with them. The worst one had been nice enough around his family and my mother. I did my best to behave well too. I was polite and courteous, doing everything Mother had taught me before. For a moment I thought things would go well for once. But as soon as he was alone with me, he said he'd rather fuck a dog than an ugly half-breed like me. I couldn't take it. I kicked him so hard in the groin that he bled between his legs.

I stormed away in angry tears. Instead of going to my room, I hid in one of the many secret spots in the Visari estate. Pitru, Viglo and I used to play in these spots when we were little. Thinking of the twins made me miss them dearly. I cried my heart out, hating myself and my life. I hated myself for being a sensitive wimp. I hated being a Visari.

It took a while for soldiers and security guards to find me, as usual. Mother was among them. I expected her to drag me back inside the house, and give me another bout of severe scolding. But she didn't.

"Leave us," she ordered the soldiers. "I will deal with my daughter alone."

I was too upset to fear what she would do to me. I tucked my legs close to my chest and avoided looking at her.

"Maya, why did you hurt that boy? This certainly isn't the first time you've done this."

I bit my lip. Much as I wanted to tell her, I couldn't bring myself to repeat that boy's awful words.

Luckily she didn't question me further. She already guessed. "It's about him insulting your heritage, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"Have you considered Pitru or Viglo for marriage?" she asked.

I mulled over her suggestion. It seemed reasonable. Both were descended from the aristocratic Metrac family on their mother's side, while their father was a renowned commanding officer. They understood me more than anyone else could, sometimes even more so than my mother. They were very dear and close to me. But that was exactly the problem. They felt too close to me, like family members or brothers. Considering Pitru or Viglo for marriage just seemed so strange. My relationship with either of them never crossed the line into romance. And I don't think it ever will.

Finally, I shook my head. "The twins are like family to me. I've never had any other feelings towards them." I glared at the floor. "Can I just not marry at all? Clearly nobody wants me, and I don't want anybody."

Mother sighed. "Maya, you must understand. You can't hide away from your duties forever. You see marriage as a burden when it's a great privilege. You are getting something I could never have..."

She trailed off, but I knew what she was talking about.

I sighed. "Mother...I appreciate what you're trying to do for me. But I don't think I'm ready for marriage. Could we at least put it off a few years until I get older?"

I waited anxiously for her answer.

Finally she said, "Very well. I respect your request. However, you will have to settle this eventually. You are the sole heir of our family; I'm afraid marriage is not a choice." Mother put a hand on my shoulder. "There will always be people in this world who aim to threaten or demean you. I can't deny that. My father used to say to me: 'Act like a lady, but take it like a man.' That is what makes Helghast women strong."

"Yes, Mother."

She rose to her feet and took my hand. "I think you've had enough for today. Let's go home."

I let her keep holding my hand as we walked back together. So I wasn't going to get married right away. But I'd have to face reality sooner or later. The thought left a bad taste in my mouth.

Never mind wishing I could be a boy. I couldn't even get to live and act like a normal girl if I wanted. Contrary to what most people would think, being high-class really wasn't that great. I had behavior to maintain, duties to fulfill, a legacy to live up to.

My life felt like a trap, and I wanted to escape. I wavered from guilt of being irresponsible to resentment of the circumstances bound to me.

But I suppose being the heir of Visari had some perks. Day in and day out, I was often close to New Helghan's most powerful and influential figures. If there was one person I could talk to, it was Anton Saric.

The commander of New Helghan Security Forces often visited my family's estate. He and my mother were quite close; only his loyalty to the Visari family outweighed his hatred for Vektans. I wondered if that made him overlook my Vektan heritage. It was hard to tell what he thought behind the mask and goggles he always wore.

As I had expected, he showed up late afternoon to discuss military reform with my mother. This was my chance. If I could just catch him after he finished...

I waited outside the meeting room, wringing my hands and feeling anxiety gnawing at my gut. Saric intimidated me, but I swallowed down my fear. I was afraid he'd say no. Or worse, he'd laugh.

I straightened my back and sat up when I heard commotion in the meeting room. Mother and Saric must be finished. I waited for Mother to leave first; luckily for me, Saric remained behind to gather his documents.

I sucked in a breath. 'Okay, here it goes.'

I mustered my courage and stepped into the room. His back was turned to me.

"C-Commander Saric...?" I hope he didn't hear the falter in my voice.

He turned around to look at me. His voice was deep and quiet, partially muffled by his mask. "What is it, young lady?"

I struggled for the right words, to present my case. But all lessons of oral rhetoric, my family's talent, left me at that moment. By sheer courage and impulse, I made a Helghast salute. "Please let me enlist in the special forces."

I had never been one for eloquence. I liked to be honest and to the point. It was the best way for me. If Saric was surprised, he didn't show it. I didn't know what to make of his reaction since most of his face was covered up.

"What makes you say that?" he finally asked.

This was my chance. I could speak my mind and make myself known. If Mother wasn't going to listen to me, I prayed Saric would. "This life I'm leading now...the kind of life my mother wants for me...I can't stand it. I'm done feeling like a caged bird."

"You don't want to be protected?"

"I don't want to be shut away." Emotional turmoil raged inside me, kindling my spirit like fire. Before I knew it I found myself talking to him with none of the fear I previously had. I clutched my shoulder, where my missing arm should be. "I can't live the rest of my life like this…being crippled and broken. I want to be made whole again. I want to get stronger so I don't have to rely on other people anymore. New Helghan needs me, but I don't think it's through politics. I really believe…that I'm called to make a difference on the battlefield. If I ignore that call, and live life for the wrong purpose, that's no life for me. I might as well be dead."

My voice had risen and swelled with each second, until the last word resounded with finality.

Saric didn't say anything for a while. Then he made a little grunt, as if he was impressed. "...I will give you a week of preliminary training," he finally said.

I bit back a gasp of surprise. Was he really...?

"You will be joining the special forces cadet program, which starts in a few weeks," he continued. "Prove to me that you are serious. This is not a decision to be taken lightly, young lady. I hope you understand that. If you can't even scratch the surface of military life, I see no need to let you continue."

I managed a little bow. "Y-yes, sir...thank you so much. I'll do my best."

Saric left the room to attend to other duties. I stood alone, lightheaded with joy and giddy with anticipation. He accepted my request. He'll actually let me join the special forces! Now came the really hard part: telling my mother. I'd imagine she wouldn't take the news well. Whatever it may be, I'll hold my head high as I've always been taught. Act like a lady, take it like a man.

A few hours later, I approached my mother in her personal study. I stood a few feet away from her desk as she worked. "Mother, do you have time?"

She looked up from a few papers she had been poring over. "You have something important to tell me, Maya?"

I steeled myself. "…I've been seriously considering enlistment in the army."

"Absolutely not!" she instantly replied. "Are you out of your mind? Perhaps you have you forgotten your place." She thrust a finger at me. "You are a Visari. The heir to your grandfather's legacy. Someday you will rule as leader for all the Helghast. Why lower yourself to fight and kill as a soldier?"

I gritted my teeth. "I want to be among the people before I can be above them. Mother, I need to get to the root of all this suffering."

"I forbid it, Maya. Do you have any idea how dangerous it is? You have more important things to do here than on the battlefield. I cannot afford to lose you. I will have no daughter of mine joining the military! That is final."

I paused, saying nothing for a time. Then I met her furious eyes. "I figured you would say that. I enlisted anyway, with Commander Saric's permission. Starting in a few weeks, I will be training in the special forces."

Very few things could surprise the Helghast Chancellor. But Mother was in utter, angry shock. "Insolent child!" she cried. "How dare you. I've had just enough of your rebellious behavior." She was absolutely livid. That would've scared me as a child. But not now. I was done running away and crying. I've made a commitment, and I'll stick to it.

Mother huffed an exasperated sigh. She leaned forward and pressed a hand to her temple. I was the reason her hair turned grey so quickly. "Very well," she finally said. "Do what you want. It's clear that no matter what I do, there's no way I can stop you." Mother steepled her hands and closed her eyes. "Until you prove me wrong and fulfill your ambition...you are no longer my daughter."

Now it was my turn to be shocked. She's disowning me...?

But I knew that Mother never joked around. She was dead serious. Her word was law. She continued solemnly, "It is only a fitting consequence for the choice you've made. The Visari bloodline and I can no longer guarantee your safety. From now on you will be treated like anyone else in the army, by me or any friend or foe you meet. And as a soldier under my command, you have no right to call me Mother. Am I understood?"

I said nothing, still struggling to take all this in.

"Speak, soldier!" she snapped.

I flinched. Then I dipped my head in submission. "Yes, Lady Visari."

"You're dismissed. Leave at once."

I opened my mouth as if to say more. Then I thought twice and kept silent. I made a brisk Helghast salute before leaving. I expected a harsh response. But the ordeal still left me in a sort of daze. I clenched a fist.

No turning back now. This was the path I chose. I knew what I was getting myself into. I had no regrets. From here on out, I'll work hard.

I didn't tell Mother that I only signed up for preliminary training. But for me, there was no room for quitting. It would be a huge stain on my honor and dignity to come crawling back to Mother, telling her that military life was too hard for me and that she was right to forbid it in the first place.

"Being in the special forces does not imply special treatment," Saric had said to me. "You will get no such thing. The special forces is still part of the army. You will train, fight, eat and sleep like everyone else. I will break you; I accept only excellence and no failure. I'll beat you down, and I'll expect you to get back up on your feet every time. You want to prove your Helghast side is real? Now's the time, Maya Visari."

"Yes, sir."

He surveyed my resolute jaw and even gaze. "You are quite stubborn," he said. "We shall see if that will give you strength to endure the path you chose."

A few days later I eavesdropped Saric and my mother, not feeling guilty in the slightest as I tried to hear what they said about me.

"What will be done about her missing arm? Surely she won't be able to keep up with other cadets in her current condition."

I was taken aback at hearing the worry and concern clear in my mother's voice. Though she had said otherwise, perhaps she still cared for me after all.

"I will have bioengineers from the army make a replacement for her," Saric said. "I make no guarantees when it'll be done for certain. Anyways, the first part of her training will not involve being on field. She won't be handling weapons and taking on missions anytime soon, my lady."

"Good." My mother was silent for a while. Then she said softly, "She asked you to recruit her, and you accepted. What made you do it?"

"I don't deny it, my lady. There was such a fire in her eyes and in her voice...I couldn't turn away from that kind of strength. New Helghan needs precisely more of that."

Mother sighed. "Maya is in your hands now. Take care of my daughter. But above all, give her strength...that's the reason why she joined, isn't it?"

"As you wish, Lady Visari."

I was determined to prove I could handle this. I won't run away. I'm ready to spread my wings and fly.