Risa had never seen her reflection before.
Once, when they were still living back in Reihem, Hime had made it a Law that Risa alone was never to look at herself in the mirror. She had said at the time that it was to “prevent any uprisings of vanity for her own good”; but Risa knew better. The Justice was only afraid of her lowly desideria becoming more beautiful than she--which was not a very difficult thing to accomplish, even if the desideria was homely and plain.
But Risa had never minded this Law, not until now. She had been free then to imagine what she looked like, replacing the ugly traits the Justice had told her about for pretty ones; but no amount of imagination could save her from the recognition of the person who stood before her now, with a brown sack cloth over their head.
The soldiers stepped forward, and Risa’s hands clenched tight at their sides; the sack was removed, and she took in a sharp breath.
For she found herself staring into the eyes of the one she once remembered as kindly and soft-spoken old woman.
“Celandine,” she breathed, taking a small step forward. But she hesitated; she had no hope now, for Celandine of all wouldn’t fail to recognize her.
But the old woman simply watched her with a stern expression on her haggard face; and though Risa expected it, the look of recognition never came. The woman nodded instead, slowly but firmly.
“Yes, that is her. I am...honored, that she has remembered my name.” A strangely cold shadow of something tainted her voice.
But she...she wasn’t the Justice. She looked nothing like the Justice. Celandine should have recognized her...she should have revealed her. Why had she not?
But she couldn’t betray these scattered thoughts now, after her fate had been so easily secured. She calmly lifted her head, wracking her mind for something to say.
“I have a favor to ask of you,” she stated at first, slowly drawing her hand to her neck. She unfastened a string and held it tight, drawing it forward. “Deliver this to my desideria’s younger brother, that he may find peace in the absence of his sister.”
Her heart ached, but she dropped the gift into Celandine’s expectant hands.
The old woman stiffened, her eyes growing wide with a silent wrath. “A bird-whistle?” she spat. She threw it into the sand with a powerful sweep of her arm. “Do you honestly think that this will replace her in his eyes? She was everything to him. He loved her!--though you would care nothing for that.”
“Do not speak to me so informally,” Risa demanded, her voice growing strong, though it threatened to crack. But she was not angry; she wished only for Celandine to stop, for her heart was wrenching terribly in her chest, and the weight of Hime’s identity was almost too much to bear.
“You do not deserve to be spoken to in any other way; and since I do not feel your Law here outside of your tent, I will do as I please,” Celandine retorted.
“Then I must take my leave of you,” Risa answered simply. She longed to ask more of Kalauda, but turned her face away instead, tightening her jaw so as to prevent herself from speaking any more. She feared the worst--almost believed it--but it was still too early. Hearing it spoken aloud by someone else somehow made it more...real. She looked up to the gates, away from the wrathful glare of the old woman Celandine; but that served only to anger her further.
“You coward!” she screeched, brandishing her wooden cane like a sword. “You dog! Your desideria died the death you deserved, and yet you dare to turn your back upon her memory!?”
Risa took hold of Tanmar’s outstretched hand and pulled herself onto the horse. Her vision was blurring and her hands were shaking, so Tanmar had to steady her more than once.
“As for that--” she said, pointing at the sand where Kalauda’s whistle lay “--you deliver it to the boy yourself; I will not apologize to him in your stead. Though I could not, even if I wanted to--for that boy is no longer of this world. He has gone with the others--though you would care nothing for that!”
The tears escaped Risa before she could stop them--but she nodded to the others, motioning quickly for them to leave. Tanmar reared his horse, and it whinnied and threw it’s front legs into the air; and Risa, her head held high despite the tears that streamed visibly down it, stormed through the open gates, leaving the final pieces of her old life behind. She would not search for them again--not as long as she remained in Kalpar. For she was to be Hime Lumina so long as her heart was in the ground, buried with the only person it had ever belonged to; and it would stay there until the revenge she saw due was brought about.
The Ponne-Boy watched her curiously as they rode, a puzzled expression on his face; he didn’t understand her sad eyes, somehow mixed with a forced sort of pride. His expression softened toward her, if only a little bit; and he turned to face the looming mountain.
They neared a contraption Risa had never believed before in her life, that looked almost like magic but was too real to be such; it was to take them up side of the mountain and to the Kuro Niche. It was manned by five thick Kalpan men who eyed Risa with cautious and shifting eyes, murmuring to one another in a heavily accented Korish; Risa didn’t bother with translating, for whatever they had to say didn’t amount to much anyhow. She only watched whatever was in front of her with eyes as dark as night, the tears having left cold trails down her face.
They slid off the horses one by one (Risa last, so they could help her with her leg) and the three of them shuffled onto the platform of the strange contraption; Risa stood quietly facing the rolling sands, her weight balanced entirely to one side. The man began to turn a lever that jutted out of the side of it, and the platform shifted.
Tanmar laid his hand carefully on her shoulder and she flinched, as though having awoken from a dream. He smiled down at her kindly.
“It may not be wise, Iuste,” he said, “to stare at the ground as it leaves you. It is unnerving to all at first; but there is nothing to stop you from getting sick.”
He looked toward his son expectantly, but the boy sighed, shaking his head. Tanmar never once took his eyes off of him, watching him with an insistent glare; and so the boy sighed a second time (though much more reluctantly) and turned to face Risa.
“You know, I...I always used to sit, so that I didn’t have to worry about falling.” He looked cautiously down at the girl, as though afraid his words might hurt her. “It might be better for you to do so also, especially with your leg.”
Risa nodded without saying anything. She lowered herself to the ground, her bad leg hanging over the side of the platform; it jolted, and she gripped the edge of it tighter now that it started to leave the ground.
“Good girl,” Tanmar said, ruffling her hair. She ducked her head away from his touch.
“But my, Papa, she’s like a scared dog,” the boy remarked, just loud enough for Risa to hear; but the harshness from before had left his voice, and was replaced by something else entirely. Risa didn’t say anything in response, and neither did she move; her eyes, though still quite alive, had a very distant look to them, and the boy had the unnerving feeling that she was somewhere very far away, where he couldn’t get to even if he tried.
The platform rose from the ground at a faster pace than Risa had expected, swaying lightly back and forth with the wind and creating tension on the ropes that held it; but Risa didn’t seem notice. She hadn’t even noticed the boy studying her the entire way up, taking note of every sigh, every movement, every shift of her position; and he seemed almost as though he was searching for something, for an answer to a question buried deep inside the girl. He knew that it wouldn’t be found, though he watched for it carefully; but he had only to be patient, for it would eventually show all on it’s own. Of that much, he was certain.
The platform jerked to a shaky stop at the smallest crevice to the mountain’s right side. It was just big enough for two people to fit through at once; and the boy climbed expertly into the opening, turning back to reach for Risa’s hand.
“Here, let me help you,” he said.
“I can do it on my own,” she retorted sharply, the fierceness having suddenly returned to her eyes (the boy could only wonder what for).
“Fine then,” he said. “Papa, you shouldn’t help her either; for you heard her, she can do it on her own.”
He watched the Justice’s eyes go wide, for the girl had begun shuffling quietly toward Tanmar; and it took everything he had to resist a small triumphant smile.
Tanmar caught the joke. “But Thali,” he grinned, “Don’t you know, I never help anyone? I only...direct them.”
“Yes,” added Risa, but neither of them missed the relief in her voice. “Directing.”
Tanmar lifted her up and through the opening, and she scrambled to get away from the platform. Once she was safely inside, she dusted off her dress (which was somehow still brightly colored despite all it had gone through) and looked around.
The Kuro Niche was much larger than she had expected, stone buildings dotted every direction she could see; she couldn’t possibly have judged such a magnificent size from outside, and the thought of being inside a mountain almost made her dizzy. The homes and stores looked to be a part of the mountain themselves, carved from it once as the Niche had been; they were sturdy, as though capable of withstanding almost anything.
There were no other openings to the outside, except the one she had just entered; but it was somehow very well lit, almost as though they were still outside. She looked to see if there was a fire somewhere, but there wasn’t any that she noticed.
“Magic, it’s all magic,” Tanmar said, as though having read her mind. “We may look uncivilized from the outside, but our strength lies within. We have revived almost half of the lost magics through our studies, and recovered the ancient texts.”
He looked down at Risa with a slight smile. “I myself re-discovered the magic once used in battle, known as Shôran; Thali and a few others are studying day after day to recover the ancient art of Ponne. And you yourself hold a special power; but that, we have not recovered yet. Our scholars are impatient for the day of your Awakening, in which we hope to learn something of the powers of Law.”
Risa’s eyes widened. The Awakening? She felt her insides churn with dread. How could she have forgotten such a thing?...how could she ever hope to trick them now? She wracked her mind for anything she possibly remembered about the Law; but she knew nothing, except how it had affected her back in Maura. How she regretted not having asked the Justice before!
“I await that day also,” Risa replied. “For then, perhaps, I may be allowed to return to my people.” Those who are left, she quietly thought.
“Shall we continue on then?” Tanmar asked, as though he hadn’t heard her at all. He turned to look down at the girl. “Is there anything in particular you’d like to see?”
“I want to see Mama!” the Ponne-Boy exclaimed.
“Ah, yes...but of course,” Tanmar replied. “We should probably see her first.”
Risa noted a tinge of something strange in his voice--almost like hesitation, but she knew that couldn’t be that.
“Then let’s go!” the boy cheered.
Tanmar’s home was a fairly large one, better even than Risa had expected and located close to the opening; there were two floors, the upper of which smaller than the lower, and the roof sloped down and touched the ground after it peaked at at flat spot near the top. There was something bright floating next to the door; and when they neared, Risa realized that it was a shock of snow white hair belonging to a young man who appeared to be waiting for them, an irritated expression engraved on his face.
“Tei’-issch gna dgi’r krohn rae-ynah,” he called as he noticed them, shuffling over to Tanmar. Risa furrowed her eyebrows; she had never heard such a language before. “Juris nje Aasir ynah dgi’ ro-ohha mne esschi, ra.”
Tanmar grimaced. “Thali,” he whispered, bending down so only his son could hear, “Take the Justice inside and show her around. And try to make her feel welcome.”
“Alright, Papa! You can count on me,” the boy nodded.
The young looked around, as though thoroughly bored with the proceedings; but then he stopped, having taken sudden notice of Risa. At first he only saw her ostentatious clothing, which stuck out in the dreary brown city like a shining lake in the desert; but then he noted the proud expression on her face, and the way her chin seemed to tilt upward without affecting the way her shoulders fell. He paused, his dreary eyes alight.
“Nje s’si...?” he began.
Tanmar placed a hand protectively on Risa’s shoulder.
“Thali,” he said, softly but firmly.
“Ku, Oja.” He turned to face the white-haired boy. “N’jar esscha, Aya. Tei’-isstcha Juris nje dgi’ rassa,” he said, grabbing Risa’s hand. “Merka, Iuste,” he whispered before dragging her toward the door. The white-haired boy called after them, but Tanmar took him by the arm, leading him away.
“Sorry about that,” the Ponne-Boy said when they were safely inside, the door shut tight behind them. “That was Aya Moshe, Juris’ understudy. He can be a bit of a downer--and I have never met anybody so lazy in my entire life.” He removed his cloak and laid it carefully across the table next to the door, muttering something about a disgrace to the name of Ponne.
“Come inside,” he motioned when he realized that the girl was still standing in the doorway.
Risa stepped cautiously into the room. Unlike the air outside the city, where everything was bright and visible, the inside was dark and shadowed. There were few decorations, if any; it seemed almost like something Risa would picture a poor family to live in. She had expected something more regal, more befitting to a Ponne apprentice and Shôran user; but at least it didn’t smell (for it certainly looked like it should).
“There are six rooms in our house--four down here, and two upstairs. That’s where the guest rooms are, where you’ll be staying--Papa, Mama and I sleep down here.” He paused. “Well then, shall I take you to your new room? It’s my favorite; I begged Papa to let me have it once, but he wouldn’t.”
There was a silence, which Risa found peaceful; but the boy, who didn’t seem to like such things, interrupted it with an irritated grunt. “You can’t keep quiet forever. Come on, at least tell me your name.”
Risa paused. “Lumina,” she answered quietly. “But don’t call me that.”
“Okay then, what should I call you?” he asked, a hint of happiness in her voice, as though he was pleased to finally hear her speak. This made her sort of self-conscious, but she tried to ignore it.
“Hime,” she stated. “You should call me Hime. It’s my title, my first name; it means ‘princess’.”
“Really? That’s funny, because you sure don’t act like one.” He grinned. “But that wasn’t so hard now, was it? You acted almost as though I asked you to scale the mountainside with your bare hands.” He chuckled to himself, and Risa looked very cross. “Now for my name. It’s Thali. Thali Tanmar. Tah-Lee,” he repeated, enunciating the accent more heavily, “Tah-n-mar. There now, you try it.”
“Why should I?” Risa glared. “Just show me to my room, I don’t care about your name.”
“Oh, so grumpy! Well, I’ll fix that,” he grinned. His happiness made Risa sick. “I can’t stand grumpy people. My life has been far too depressing for that. But I’ll make you laugh one of these days, just you wait.”
Risa’s face darkened. What did this boy care whether she laughed or not? Did he not stand by even as they killed her brother?
“This is Papa’s room. Do you see those swords up there, on that shelf? Those are his Shôran swords, don’t ever touch them. They might cut you; and because they’re magical, you won’t ever stop bleeding. I used up most of my Ponne ingredients on you earlier, so I wouldn’t be able to heal you. Hey, keep up! You’re going to get lost.” He looked down at her mischievously. “Or do I need to hold your hand again?
Risa’s face reddened in silent fury. The swords...so they weren’t rusted, as the teachers once said them to be. It was magic that caused the infection, not anything else. No wonder it couldn’t be cured.
“Huh? What did you say?” he yelled, cupping his hand to his ear.
“I didn’t say anything,” Risa growled.
“I thought so. Speak when spoken to--or didn’t you ever learn that? Where in Kor are your manners, ‘princess’? Or do you even have any?”
Risa’s face grew sour, and she glared at the boy with all her might. Who did he think he was, to talk to her in such a way? She was the Justice of Reihem!
“I guess you don’t,” he muttered, and Risa’s eyes widened in fury. “Now this is Mama’s room. Don’t you dare treat her the same way you treat Papa and me, unless you want your face smashed inward. And trust me when I say I don’t know how to fix that.”
He tiptoed quietly up to the door as Risa seethed behind him.
“I don’t hear anything, so she must be out. You’re lucky,” he remarked, walking quickly away just in case.
The two walked a little farther until they got to a room just across the way from the stairs; and here Thali stopped again.
“This,” he said proudly, “is my room? Want to see?”
He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A conglomeration of bright colors and vibrant patterns hit Risa’s eyes as she walked into the room. The sight of such ostentatious colorings in what had originally been a dark and dreary house almost made her dizzy. Pictures of all sorts covered the ceiling, and recipes for Ponne potions were tacked upon the walls next to the bed; and even that had bright pink sheets, with flowers and birds on them. Risa was appalled.
“Are you...are you even a boy?” she asked, her nose crinkling.
Thali’s eyes widened, and his face screwed up tight as he let out the loudest laugh Risa had ever heard in her life. “A boy!” he gasped, “you thought I was a boy? Ha!”
“You mean you’re a...you’re a girl?” Risa stammered, even more surprised.
“Of course I’m a girl! What else would you expect me to be? Well, besides a boy,” she chuckled. “A boy. My, isn’t that depressing. What did I tell you? My life is a tragic comedy,” she said, shaking her head.
“Well now, shall I take you to your room before you say anything else that turns out to be terribly embarrassing?”
Risa nodded enthusiastically, and Thali grinned.
“Alright then, let’s go!”
Risa followed Thali up the stairs that were opposite her room, her head spinning. She could barely believe that the Ponne-Boy was actually a girl. It was understandable that she had made such a mistake--for the girl had been covered entirely from the moment she’d first met her, except for her eyes and the skin that shone around them--but now she felt a strange twinge of guilt creep up and down her spine. It had been one thing to be angry at a noisy Kalpan boy; but a girl her age? It didn’t settle right.
“Here we are,” Thali said. She motioned to the farthest doorway from the stairs, down at the end of a long and very dark hallway.
The room was modestly furnished, with a bed and a table and an empty set of bookshelves. There was a vase full of flowers sitting on the windowsill; and a mirror hung on the wall opposite the bed, which Risa decided she would take a firm look into after Thali had left.
“These are my favorites,” Thali said, carefully picking one of the little blue buds. “They’re so sweet.” She paused, twirling the flower between her fingers. “Were there many flowers back in Reihem?”
“Of course,” Risa replied, somewhat surprised. “Our mountain was the pride of the mainland because of them. We had all sorts of flowers there--some colorful, some plain, others too beautiful for words. My favorites were the Cloudflowers--they had no stems or leaves, but looked just like little clouds that had settled in the grass. I used to pick them--lots of them--and take them home to mother, who would sew them together for me so I could wear them like a cloak. I used to pretend that I--”
She looked up, as though suddenly realizing where she was, and who she was talking to.
“Never mind,” she whispered, shaking her head. “You...wouldn’t care to know anyway.”
“That’s not true!” Thali exclaimed; but it was too late. The proud look had entered the girl’s eyes again.
There was a silence, through which Risa remained stubbornly quiet; and after awhile Thali said, “Well, I think I had better see if Mama’s home yet.”
But just as she was about to leave, she whipped around again, startling Risa.
“Just one more thing before I go. Remember my room? If the door is closed, don’t enter it. Ever.”
Risa watched her leave with a puzzled expression on her face. The girl was so open, so trusting--what could she possibly have to hide?
But it didn’t matter. Why should Risa care anyway? Of what importance was an overly talkative Kalpan girl?
Though the silence was lonely now.
Risa shook the thought of it out of her head. Lonely? The notion was laughable. Since when had she been lonely? She was fine the way she was. Besides, the only person she ever needed was Kalauda; and he was gone now, so she would just have to learn to cope with it.
She paused, taking note of the mirror for a second time; cautiously, she walked towards it. She didn’t want to look directly into it at first, for she was mildly afraid of what she should find there--of what was she afraid though?--and yet she needed the answers. Her eyes snapped upward, and immediately she caught those of the face that stared straight back at her.
The eyes in the mirror widened, and the face grew pale; and Risa drew a hand to her mouth and stumbled backward. For it was just as Celandine had said--and the Great Lady Hime was in that mirror...
Her mind flashed back to a memory of something that occurred once in Reihem, something she had long forgotten; and suddenly it all made sense.
Many years ago, when the Prince Tarashir was still alive, Hime had held a certain affinity for one of his friends, a boy by the name of Lan Kadon. Lan was several years older than she, as was Tarashir; and the two were inseparable, closer even than brothers. The boy was an impossible flirt; and he had made the terrible mistake of convincing Hime that he was madly in love with her. Hime would follow him around the castle whenever he was there; but he never paid much attention to her at all, for there were plenty of other girls, and she was one of many.
Then one day Lan caught sight of Risa. It was the first time he had seen her; but he had thought she was Hime (Risa wondered to herself why this had never seemed strange before). He had told her that she was more beautiful in that moment than he had ever remembered her to be before, and she had blushed, not knowing quite how to respond; but little did she know that Hime had followed him, as she always did when he was there, and seen them both together. That was probably why she had forbidden Risa to look in the mirror, and teased her mercilessly about her looks--the girl was heartbroken.
And yet there was nothing she could do about it. Risa supposed that Hime had begged her parents to let her desideria go, for it was no secret that she had plenty others at her disposal; but they must have purposely chosen a servant with a likeness to their daughter, that they could trade off the two if there ever was a need to. It was the surest way of securing the Justice’s life.
Risa sighed, sitting slowly on the edge of her bed. It had been a very long time since she had thought about Lan. After his mistaken compliment, the two of them had become very good friends; and though she never would’ve admitted it to anyone, she liked Lan too, for a time. Then the boy fell passionately in love with Tarashir’s betrothed, the princess Rithe; and everything fell apart after that. The prince had killed himself soon after giving her up to him (though no one knew why--there were too many rumors to decipher the truth) and Lan and Rithe had left the castle shortly after, never seen or heard from again. The King and Queen struggled with the loss of a son and the betrayal of a servant, and their kingdom crumbled; and it was only a matter of time before the people of the forest waged war on them, taking back the mountain they had always claimed to be their own.
She laid back on her bed, folding her arms behind her head. It had been a terribly long day; and a dull ache had settled into her leg, making it so that she didn’t want to move it anymore. After a while, her eyelids grew heavy, tired of watching the plain ceiling above her; and she fell into a fitful sleep.
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