Beginnings 6.3

In response to my question, a quick, wide smile cracked over what I could see of the man’s face. It lasted only briefly, soon disappearing back into the neutral expression he’d been cultivating, and a seemingly casual change in posture cast the rest of his visage into similar shadows. My bonds were no less restrictive now than they were before, but I felt emboldened in spite of them.

“I asked you a question,” I pointed out stolidly, staring directly at the space where I believed his eyes should have been.

“You seem quite fearless. Is that mere youthful innocence, or something else?” he pondered aloud as if to invite me. His voice was obviously that of an older man – gruff, a bit gravelly, crackling in a way I hadn’t been oft subjected to since my separation from… him. Them. Maybe this man was about the same age.

Either way, this was most certainly no youthful innocence on my part. This figure before me, assuming he owned and utilized everything in this shack, was an apparent man of science, and he was waiting for something from me, encouraging it. Moreover, he was surprised- no, intrigued at my responses to his presence and actions.

He had to have wanted something from me beyond my simple capture and restrainment. Whatever that was, whatever his goals were, and whichever were primary desires and which were secondary in this scenario – I couldn’t quite piece any of that together with the information I had at hand thus far. Still, I had one assurance: if he wanted me dead, I already would be.

“No innocence,” I responded with a clear tint of experience to my voice, “I’ve simply determined that there’s more to see here than the obvious fact that you’ve detained me against my will. You were the one who offered me water on the road earlier, right?”

“Yes indeed.”

“It was laced with a chemical to put me to sleep?”

“Yes.”

Okay, confirmation for what I’d already guessed, there. Given how we encountered each other that day – how much time had passed, actually? – I doubted that he stalked me with the intention of kidnapping; it seemed like a random encounter he took advantage of. That meant he was carrying drugged water already, for that specific purpose. Then he brought me here to a makeshift alchemy lab.

“Is this your laboratory?” I continued my questioning, having decided on a more roundabout method for this. If he was intrigued over something, I needed to continue engaging him.

The man nodded, though I could barely register the motion through the dimness. “How much do you recognize here?”

“You have samples of fur, claws, eyes, scales, tendons, strips of muscle, bones, ligaments – a wide assortment of body parts from a wide assortment of species.” He nodded again. Approval? “A sigil etched on the desk over there, belonging to a little known figure of a local faith. It relates, again, to animals, and to the conveyance of their strength and wisdom, I believe. The spirit’s name is Oignia.”

“Alright. Go on.” I bristled slightly at his prodding, but given that I already had every intention of doing so, I simply continued without comment. My eyes wandered over to the other side of the room.

“Tools for highly specialized purposes, forged from medium-quality metal – likely local rather than imported from across the mountains. Most distinctly, though, you don’t seem to have any texts on hand. I was expecting to see at least one or two. If you’re neither reading from nor writing into a book, it means you simultaneously have the processes memorized and are not necessarily treading brand new territory, at least not here. Am I wrong?”

“Well, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not a pioneer, but thankfully you stipulated that it simply wasn’t happening here,” he replied, voice dipping into a pride I knew very well. “You’re stunningly accurate, little girl. Who taught you so much?”

“The Celdan Academy of Natural Sciences had several courses, and I also spent a number of years apprenticed to a Belenese alchemist who was staying in the city as part of an exchange program,” came my utterly honest answer.

Seemed like those facts gave him a bit of pause. This was my intention, but it was also somewhat dangerous, depending on what type of person he was. If I caused him to disbelieve me too quickly for the sheer strangeness of it, would he decide I wasn’t worth the trouble? I had to bank on something to keep his interest, though, and in this case, the truth likely accomplished exactly that.

“…How old are you?”

“Forty-seven.”

“Mm, that pins down the matter of your intellect, then. I’d been a tad curious,” he said, not exactly casual but certainly with far less surprise than I was expecting. “Stasis or regression?”

“That sounds like you’ve seen similar cases,” I noted.

The man waved his hand dismissively. “It was simply an educated guess. You were either young with an enhanced mental capacity, or there was something which tampered with your body while preserving your mental capacity. Asking about your age let me know which it was. Now, again, stasis or regression?”

His forcefulness was rankling my ego even further here, but I was in no position to let that affect how I handled this. At the very least, I could say that he wasn’t this arrogant for no reason. It was even a bit nostalgic to talk to someone I could consider an intellectual peer. Well, I thought that, but these circumstances were too outlandish even still.

“Regression,” I began answering. “It was nearly a decade ago now. Certain… circumstances forced me to try enhancing myself more than I should have. It went wrong. I was going to die unless my apprentices did something drastic, so they did, and that went wrong, too. When I stabilized, it was, well… like this.”

He nodded slowly, or at least I could swear that he did, and his attention seemed to leave me for the moment. As the man turned and moved to one of the more densely stocked shelves, I was able to finally see his features; he certainly appeared older than me, even accounting for my true age, with slicked-back auburn hair just beginning to grey, and a meticulously clean-shaven face.

His attire, meanwhile, was that of restrained class: a grey button-up shirt, too light to be worn on its own in any perturbed weather, set the foundation of the look, with some comparatively thick and well-worn pants set against them. Whatever footwear he wore was hidden from me due to my vantage. Taking my eyes off him briefly, I was able to spy a heavy brown coat hung up near the door, likely something he shed before I awoke.

“What’s your name, by the way?” I suddenly spoke up again, intent on keeping the conversation going in any way I could.

“I go by Sven with most,” he replied as he picked through a variety of sharp instruments, “but you can just call me Leiv.”

“Mine is Mana. Mana Corsea.”

“Mana, hm… thank you.”

That was it. He fell silent afterwards, with the only further noise being that of metal against metal and against wood. Then, objects in hand, Leiv began approaching me from the side, and the look in his light blue eyes made me break out in a cold sweat all on its own. All the fears I’d been trying to combat through this conversation surfaced at once.

“What are you doing with those?” my words rushed out in an audible panic. I wasn’t keeping it subtle anymore. Any illusion of detached apathy that might have been protecting me earlier was gone, it would have been obvious to anyone now. Especially to him.

“You piqued my interest, so I decided that simply altering you like the others would be a bit of a waste. I’d like to use the opportunity to advance my understanding of human aging.”

I watched with growing horror as he dragged a bucket from the corner of the room I’d been unable to quite see from this vantage. This couldn’t be happening. Reality crashed down against me as I registered the fact that I really was here, at the mercy of a total sociopath, about to be dissected like an animal. About to die.

The tool- the scalpel was getting closer, slowly, heart was pounding in my ears, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t- couldn’t-

“Wait!”

My outburst – a pathetic, desperate near-scream – gave him pause, and I began breathing again. I knew to him it was a moment of patience before proceeding, but I just needed him to listen for a moment. Listening was good. Nothing in his expression as he looked down on me suggested anything but neutrality, so at least I wasn’t about to anger him.

“Objectively, I’m not that valuable to you as a cadaver,” I pointed out, just barely keeping my voice steady.

“I think studying you would be more than interesting enough to-”

“Not more valuable than having a partner.”

This time, the silence on his part was deafening. Those eyes that had just a moment prior been looking down at me like I was a piece of meat had suddenly filled with some inscrutable, yet unmistakable energy, his hands frozen in place above my skin. A few seconds later, he moved again, setting the blade he was prepared to slit me open with against the table’s surface. I might have had a chance here.

“Th-there, yes,” I continued, nodding enthusiastically, “see? We’re both creatures of curiosity, kindred spirits, so I understand what appeals to you about my- my case, all of that, but you know there’s so much more that could be had with the addition of a true colleague.

“And even from a purely practical perspective, destroying the one sample of a phenomenon you possess in the process of analyzing it is inefficient. With two of us, it can be studied more rigorously, more in depth, and in an ongoing manner. Doesn’t that seem more appealing than leaving yourself with a single data point?

“Come to think of it, we must have had similar starting points, since we both have an expertise in biological applications. I suspect I’d be able to quickly pick up your current advances. I’m far from useless. I can help. I want to help. I don’t care about whatever sorts of moral trespasses I might make in the process.”

He smiled again.

“Exactly what I was hoping to hear from you, Miss Corsea.”

I’d almost begun to work up a sweat by now, purely from the action of pacing back and forth like this repeatedly. It’d been, for what… the past hour or so, probably. Maybe more. I could definitely tell that the light shining in through the window had slowly changed as I stayed paralyzed in these thoughts.

This was ridiculous. I’d been preparing myself for this the entire time I traveled here, ever since I left the Ophentum. I’d been ready to do what I was intending to do my entire life, so I should have been more proactive now of all times, right? It was staring me right in the face, and all I could do was freeze up in indecision over every secondary detail.

Yes, as much as I might say I should be able to be proactive, the indecision remained. Things didn’t really go well between Elva and myself last time. Would she actually buy a lie that I just wanted closure or whatever bullshit? There were no other options, though. I’d probably be shot down, or swarmed, or something worse if I flatly announced my intentions.

At the same time, setting up an opportunity to be alone with- with that wouldn’t come if I snuck around and tried to catch her while she was alone or some shit. It offered no guarantees, and made me liable to get caught. Getting caught meant questions would be asked, assumptions likely made, and I’d be in the same no-good situation as otherwise.

So what was I supposed to say to her? How was I supposed to do this? What… would I even do afterwards? That was a much scarier thought than any of this. Not enough to dissuade me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here in the first place, but focusing entirely on what I needed to get done wouldn’t make that lingering question go away. There didn’t seem to be any great answers for me here.

The creaking of wooden floorboards alerted me to my host’s movement, likely approaching this guest room she lent me. Her footsteps really were quite quiet. I don’t think I would have been able to hear her without the added noise. As it was, those sounds gave me a bit of warning before she came close and spoke to me through the door.

“Aysa? It’s getting fairly late in the morning. Were you not gonna get any breakfast?” Shit. Another thing stalled by my incessant pacing.

“Sorry, sorry,” I called back to her, quickly seating myself on the bed in case she opened the door, “I’m a bit of a- you know, takes a long time to get up kinda person? I’m dressed now, though, so I’ll be out in a moment.”

“Mmmmm’kay, left you a little something for when you’re up. I’ll be stepping out now. You had something you needed to do today, right? Need me to point you in a direction or anything?”

“Ah, uh… yeah,” I decided. “I have an old friend here. Elva Krasel? You know her? Is she still around? I’ve- I mean, I guess I’ve been pretty worried about her, since it’s been forever, y’know?” That sounded slightly like bullshit even to me, thanks to my unconfident performance. Ugh.

“I figure everyone would know Miss Krasel considering she’s been acting as de facto leader for the community ever since most of the civil servants vanished in the first invasion,” Meg replied, giving me everything I already knew. “And she’s very much still around. There are a pair of buildings halfway across the village they repurposed into offices and whatnot, so you should be able to find her if you poke around there.”

After a brief description of where to go in order to find these offices, Meg once again announced her need to be heading on her way, and I let her go with brief gratitude. Didn’t seem like I caught any suspicion in the process, thankfully. It took several seconds for me to defeat the inertia of continued sitting, after which I headed into the house’s now-vacant primary space.

Seemed like a couple biscuits and what looked like processed hisha cream had been left out for me, which would make for a decent breakfast. The presence of some crumbs indicated her own earlier meal, and the fact that she was more eager to leave than to clean it up. I hoped I hadn’t delayed her too badly. Couldn’t quite tell whether she was the type of person to allow others to do that to her yet, but maybe. She did seem quite… nice.

In any event, I had everything needed for a refreshing start to my previously inactive and worrisome day. At least I had my direction to follow, both physically and immaterially. Nothing left for me except to go. About half a second of further hesitation directly before the door gave way to the act of opening it, and in the process, walking straight into a wall of warm air. It wasn’t even midday. We were supposed to be moving into early autumn by now, right? Fuck.

Wind lightly rustled the tall grasses and leaves of distant trees, provided a slight relief to the temperature, woke me up even further in its direct contact. Stepping down the lazily maintained dirt path that lead here, I briefly wondered how many more homesteads like this existed nearby, who lived there, how everyone worked and went about their days. It was so uncomfortably peaceful to me.

My mental image of the path to follow, generously provided by Meg, brought me into and through the collection of buildings that composed the town center, for as much of a town as it was. I made sure twice within the span of as many minutes that my headdress was on properly, that nothing weird was showing, and managed to appear normal and not fidgety while passing by various residents on the way over.

Another strange aspect to the unity of this place was how little of a fuss anyone seemed to be making over the Yleini. It was almost like who they were was being ignored. I knew this village was one of the early adopters of the migration deals we’ve been striking, but it still seemed… fake, almost? Just having Surgriel on his way to our camp, back before I left, seemed to get people on edge when the topic arose.

Useless to ponder that any further. I should have been getting close by now. It was by a large communal mill of sorts, she said. The particular pair of structures I was looking for would be directly facing another building with a small bench beside it. Other side of town from where I started, which was now the side I was on.

Clouds moved to block the light and temporarily shade the area as I began identifying the markers she’d referred to. Looked like I’d arrived. There was still a matter of which one I was exactly looking for between these two, though, so I had to pick one of the doors at random. And then I walked closer, up to it, up to the door, and paused. Voices were audible from behind it, but I didn’t pause for them.

I’d already made my decision. Stop wasting time. After briefly testing the handle and finding it readily moving at my touch, I gently, quietly slid the entrance open. Made sense for it to be unlocked during the day if it was a public office, and that also likely meant there was no need for me to knock before entering.

“-ill working on it,” a woman’s voice became clearer as I entered, “but we’re pretty much at the point of giving up. Mr. Trischam can’t figure out a genuine purpose for the changed structure. Don’t you think we should be- Oh!”

Her eyes had landed firmly on me, entrenched as I was in the doorframe, so I guess she interrupted herself over my entrance. So much for trying to be subtle about it. That, in turn, brought the attention of her conversational partner – sitting atop the desk ever so unprofessionally, her legs spread lazily – onto me as well, and her eyes widened a bit at the contact.

“Nakita,” Elva seemingly addressed her, gaze not leaving me, “you can go back and tell Mr. Trischam to set this on low priority. Uh, keep an eye out for any strange behaviors or effects moving forward, of course, but otherwise start laying out plans for an updated regimen like we were talking about.”

She seemed to take the hint. Her arms gathered a few additional papers off the mostly-occupied desk, scooped up into a pre-existing stack, before she rushed past me and out the door. Everything seemed so much more quiet all of a sudden. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were no other people in the building at the moment.

“…What are you doing here, Aysa?” Her expression had hardened by now.

“Would you believe me if I said I’m here to find some closure?” I responded, trying my best to sound honest even as my eyes instinctually averted.

A row of bookshelves lined with hastily organized folders, all lined up along the back wall behind her desk, greeted me as I looked at everything except Elva’s face. This seemed like a bit of a weird layout, though I imagined it was due to repurposing this all from… what was it supposed to be, again? Did Meg even say?

“I don’t know what I’d believe from you, Aysa,” she remarked. I forced myself to look at her again, and found a pointed scowl in the process. “I still remember being blatantly deceived by someone I genuinely respected, cared about, someone I thought was opening up to me and letting me know a bit of the truth. Do you want me to believe you again, Aysa?”

Her words stung. I wanted to just get angry at them, at her, but I couldn’t exactly defend myself here… then again, I couldn’t say I was wrong either. Even after all this happened, I still couldn’t bring myself to let her know everything. What was I meant to do differently back then? I knew that still wasn’t a defense, but it was easy to get defensive all the same.

My eyes started wandering again out of shame, out of a pure inability to voice what was still running through my head. And I had to keep lying to her on top of it all. It should have been easier than this. How long had it been since we last saw each other? And how long before that? We barely even talked at all except about business and what I made her oh-so-worried about, last time we met. That was it. As if she ‘cared about’ me. Bullshit.

Apparently I ended up taking too long thinking about that and deliberating my response, as before I could really get myself to say anything, Elva preempted me. Her voice seemed so much more tired, all of a sudden.

“Look,” she sighed, “if you want me to listen, then stay here for a bit. I’ll be back soon.”

It felt like my eyes had been glued to the wall – specifically, a chipped bit of wood that formed something of a four pointed star, at least from this angle – and they stayed locked there as Elva got up, as she moved past me, as the door gently opened and then shut behind me. The sudden airflow kicked up a bit of dust, enough for me to smell it all of a sudden. Enough to catch the light flooding in from a nearby window.

For a moment, I wondered whether she outright hated me by now. I’d been expecting… something along those lines, I guess, but she reacted so strongly to me. Thoughts of what to do about my continued performance, what has to follow after it, how I was gonna get through whatever the hell she has up her sleeve here, all of that took a backseat as my eyes scanned through the relatively sparse room looking for somewhere to seat myself.

Thankfully, as it was meant to be something of an official space, a trio of chairs sat against the opposite wall, seemingly meant for those waiting. Come to think of it, Teram said he was a carpenter, right? I wondered how much of this stuff was his handiwork. Even though these looked quite bare, the sturdiness was excellent.

This put me facing directly towards Elva’s desk, cluttered and busy as it was. Looked like it had seen a lot of action recently. We’d probably be able to understand and relate to each other if we talked about things like that, huh. Bond over it or something. It made me think about whether she hated these sorts of responsibilities as much as I did. Was that pathetic? Not knowing her even that well?

Eventually, I’d slumped down entirely, head resting between both palms as I simply waited for whatever it was she needed to go get. Didn’t even have a plan. Didn’t bother making one. It didn’t matter. I kept telling myself that every time the barest hint of a question about what to do afterwards showed up in my head. Maybe I’d just let them all have me, eh?

It felt like a dream. This whole space did. The light, the smell of dust, the warmth of the air, the gentle creaking of wood with each shift of my body… it was like returning home. Sort of. We didn’t live here, or even near here, but this was stuff I knew. It felt like being welcomed back after such an insanely long trip.

I smiled, imagining the way Dad would probably have corrected me just for feeling this way. Oh, we didn’t live here originally, we migrated over, blah blah blah… Should’ve known I was too young to really remember any of that. Maybe that would make him sad, though. And then Mom would say something nice about family being what really counted…

Hah, what, was I going delirious or something? This was stupid. I had a job I needed to do before I could slip into this sort of wizened reminiscing. A jolt of inhaled breath brought my senses back to me, for the most part, and I straightened my posture out again. Now, what the hell was taking Elva this long? Or did I just completely lose track of time?

As it turned out, it wasn’t too much longer before the sounds of a handle being turned drew my attention. My expectations were for Elva, so having someone else entirely walk in made me somewhat confused. More confused, even, since I could swear I’d seen her somewhere before, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps I was mistaken.

Her skin was about the lightest I’d seen in the whole village ‘til now, with only a mild tan and an abundance of freckles across her cheeks. She had almost unnaturally vibrant, dark red hair, pulled up into a messy ponytail and otherwise untended to. Her bright emerald eyes – lined with the evidence of much missed sleep – met mine almost immediately as she entered. Every little motion seemed to cause her light pink blouse to flutter.

Wait, I did recognize her, I definitely did. She accompanied Elva to that first meeting we all convened to deal with Surgriel’s request. I’m surprised I remembered that, given how… preoccupied I was during all that. Was she here for some unrelated business, or did Elva ask her to come here? The attention being paid me seemed to point to the latter in the scant few seconds before she was joined by Elva herself.

“Sorry for the wait,” the darker skinned woman said flatly, leaning her butt against the edge of the desk again as Lily stood beside her. “This is Lily Trischam, former interrogator for the Hateli town watch. Lily, this is-”

“Aysa Retinim, founding member and leader of the Ophentum.” Something inside me twinged at those words, the reminder of it all, and not a moment later did she tack on an, “Or not?”

Elva seemingly didn’t pick up on the implication, or otherwise just misunderstood her, as she quickly said, “No, you’ve got it right.”

I saw the implication though. She was boring holes through me with her eyes the entire time, and the ‘or not?’ was tinted with something far deadlier than mere confusion. Did I let slip some subconscious reaction that she picked up on, extrapolated from? That level of cunning would be terrifying.

My efforts from them on were focused on maintaining as calm an exterior as I could whilst Elva informed her – former? – subordinate of the details of what she wanted. Didn’t say so while they were out? Or was it for transparency? Either way, she basically wanted me to go through my intentions once again, only this time with Lily present.

Did she really distrust me this much, that she’d call in her interrogator to try and sniff out whether I was lying? If so, she might not just stop there. I needed to put on as convincing a performance as I could to get through this. At least now I felt I had a better handle on my expressions, and my body’s posture was fairly-

“Elva, I’m sorry, but would you mind if I did this solo?” Lily asked, gaze finally moving from me to the captain. She nodded in return after a good second of consideration.

“I’ll step in here ‘til you’re done.”

Elva stepped away from the desk and through one of the only two doors I could see leading out of the room, the one leading further into the building specifically. With that, I was left alone with this girl here, whose eyes returned to mine for a moment. Then, turning away entirely, she went to the trouble of walking behind the desk and pulling the chair all the way over, setting it directly across from me.

Lily, upon seating herself, casually crossed one leg over the other. I couldn’t tell whether this demeanor from her was legitimately just trying to get comfortable, or meant to worm under my skin and throw my off balance or something. Overall, I really had no idea what to expect, but my mind raced with the possibilities anyways.

All until she said, with no hint or menace or aggression, “You have quite a few lies prepared for me, it seems.”