Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XVII

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the seventeenth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen and Sixteen. Updates every two days, barring minor mishaps.

Even as a girl, Matilda Gentilberry had never had much of a sense of justice. She was hot-tempered, true, especially beneath her drab, ducking exterior - she could spit and scowl behind her servants’ backs like the best of them. But when examined carefully, when tasted and inhaled like mulled vinegar, Matilda’s anger was more of a girlish pettiness than anything. There was no righteous fury in her jabs and asides, not like her sister Lizzie’s calculated thrusts. Only a deep ache, a lingering acid taste like the sour-sweet stench of bile.

And why not? Lizzie didn’t even want to learn magic. She had as much talent as Mattie herself, if not more, but she was perfectly fine with being married off to another Wizard’s House, complete with retinue and grand wardrobe. Chained like a bitch to a man who didn’t love her, for nothing but the latent magic in her blood and loins.

“Besides,” she’d said one day, her blue eyes bright and defiant, “they can’t break us. They can put their seed in us, and spit on us, and laugh at us, but there’s no way they can break us. Think of Mother. She was always strong.”

“Not strong enough,” said Mattie, thin lips curled in disgust.

Mattie didn’t want to stay unbroken. She wanted to break the world. To break this foolish world, with all its pointless customs, which stopped women from becoming wizardesses, which treated wizards like kings and their daughters like chattel. She wanted to burn Raglia and everything in it, and take Lizzie away, to a place where she wouldn’t have to be wed to Granton Sickleseed, with his leering mouth and beady piggy eyes.

So, when her uncles caught her in the Arcanum, elbow-deep in tomes of destruction that she could barely even understand, they jumped to exactly the right conclusion. She really was dangerous. She really did want to destroy them all.

The only thing that they got wrong was her title. She wasn’t a witch.

She was a wizardess, with as much raw power as any other member of the House. It took seven of them to restrain her, her father and her two uncles and all of her cousins, and ten more auxiliaries to lock her in the soulstuff chains that would bind and sap her strength. She cursed them with every curse she knew, and they held up their hands in response, chanting away her maledictions, warding off her hexes with desperate lights in their eyes.

“Is this why you hate me, Father?” she screamed. “Because I’m stronger than you? Is that why you hate Lizzie?”

“You foolish girl,” said Dennis Gentilberry, eyes filled with tears. “I love you.”

But the unsaid, as always, proved stronger than mere words. The only time she had seen Lizzie cry was when cousin Simon had stared straight into her sea-blue eyes and told her that she wasn’t a Gentilberry.

And so chains, and a rattling cart, and a hare-footed escape through a cold dark forest, blood running down her black-furred chest. When she turned back to human form, she stumbled along, sobbing.

She had seen Lizzie in the howling crowd, somewhere in the rain of filth and garbage. She had screamed, called her name, but Lizzie had only stared back, her bright eyes burning wet with sea-blue fire.

The fire of justice.

#####

”Well, well. You’re a specimen, aren’t you?”

Matilda looked up sharply, thrown from her reverie like a girl from a rearing horse. Soulstealer and Woewarder flew into her hands as she leapt off the bed.

“Be careful,” she said, pointing Soulstealer. “All I need is one graze. You have no idea how powerful these knives are.”

The black-scarfed lady laughed. She was old, even older than Matilda. She was thin and bent and haggard, but somehow rigid as a soot-caked poker.

”You’re right,” she said. ”I really don’t know. Unlike my darling boy, I don’t know the least about sorcery.”

“I’m no sorceress,” said Matilda, “but you’re no human, either. What are you?”

She dropped her knives, let them float slowly back to her belt. She wasn’t sure if the bluff had entirely worked, but there it was.

”A figment of Necristo’s imagination,” leered the black-scarfed lady. ”And who are you?”

Matilda stared at the other woman. She looked completely real, but there was an air of implausibility about her. It was as if she was too vivid, too pronounced in form and feature, to actually exist. She looked like a living, breathing waxwork from a horror-show.

“If you think I’m about to give my identity away to the likes of you,” she said, folding her arms, “you’re sorely mistaken. Alright, I give in - you’ve won. Take me to Necristo.”

The black-scarfed lady laughed again. It was a dry, mirthless cackle, like an egg frying on a bed of salt.

“If I was going to take you to my son, wizardess, would I really spend all this time talking to you? You can call me Yhaga.”

Matilda stood stock-still, eyes as hard as new corn.

“How did you find me?” she asked at last.

Yhaga smiled. It was an ugly, furtive smile, like the admiring smirk of a thief staring at a watch too expensive for him to afford. She had no teeth.

”That hood of yours may hide you from my idiot son, but it’s still magic. The real me died a very long time ago, so I’m nothing but magic. A memory, held in the mind of a little boy with too much time and a whole world to play in. A very bored memory. You’re asking a raindrop what water looks like, dearie.”

So. A high-level simulacrum, then. An astounding one, flawless on every detail - one that could even plot treachery. This was beyond her knowledge. The best she could do was stay calm and play along. Act like she had some choice in the matter, some imaginary leverage.

“What do you want?”

”Why, the same thing as you,” said Yhaga, looking at her long yellow fingernails with relish. ”That is, if you know what you want yourself.”

Matilda bit her lip. It felt like she was about to say something that she had never admitted to anyone at all. Something that went a very long way back.

“Justice,” said Matilda. “I want justice.”

Yhaga’s smile widened. Matilda leaned forwards, wary. She kept her hands at her belt all through their talk.

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