T H E M O R E A R D E N T , T H E M O R E S E L F I S H
Written on September 15, 2019 (♍)
Content Warning: What happens is not directly described, but Delita does not have a great time. Also, there is some vampirism.
Author's Notes: Written for Lassarina for Press Start 2019; title taken from J. S. LeFanu's Carmilla.
After all but falling off the edge of the world—defying angels and killing Gods and all that rot—it seemed the strangest thing to walk up the steps of Orbonne again. That the monastery should not have changed as drastically as Agrias had in the past seven years made this bitter pilgrimage all the worse. It seemed an almost comically cruel detail that it should be raining as she arrived—as though no space existed between now and that late winter day when their fortunes had all changed so irrevocably.
She went inside, spoke to brethren whom she did not recognize and who—God willing—did not recognize her, explained she'd been born to a family in the service of the late queen and that she wanted to pay her respects. They were understanding. She followed them with uncharacteristic meekness, keeping her eyes fixed ahead of her as she refused to look at any of the vaults full of books and bad memories they passed along the endless stone stairs. When they finally reached the crypts, she handed one a small purse and let him stop a minute to count out just how generous a donation she made. Then, she asked very quietly if she might pray a while alone.
They gave her a candle and left her alone before the grave of the last Atkascha. Trembling, she touched one of the wreaths of flowers still heaped upon it, and watched as petals fell apart into yellowed fragments between her fingers. If she had still been given to such things anymore, she might have actually prayed. She wept instead, silently and bitterly remonstrating herself for having ever left Ivalice.
"You were my first broken vow, you know," she said softly, fumbling about in her satchel until she retrieved a small object wrapped in cloth. “…I suppose it was somewhat romantic, though, to believe that I or any knight could persist forever in the perfection of their honor.”
Agrias brushed aside the other funerary ornaments from the top of the elevated sarcophagus. She could see the figure they’d carved of her now: a marble queen so very unlike the trembling, doe-like girl she’d once led into Lionel. She wondered, had she met her in those brief years during which she reigned, if she might have seemed changed to her. Drawing a sharp breath, she unwrapped the little bundle and retrieved a deep blue gem carved in the shape of a teardrop, which fragmented the glow of the lone candle into a thousand brilliant points.
With closed eyes, she wished—wished with an intensity and intention deeper than any prayer she had yet made, clutching the holy stone in her fist until she thought either she or it might shatter. She tried to think of the miracle at Riovannes, of that piercing red light that seemed to pour the glow of the rising sun into a dead boy’s heart.
I believe it is the wielder gives its power shape.
Even without opening her eyes, she felt the world change to radiance. The dark of her vision blazed to white, and the silence seemed to ignite with a strange and unearthly music set to the roar of her own ragged breaths. When at last all was still, she looked to see the casket lid had been rolled away.
She trembled and was amazed as Ovelia approached her with a soundless step, her skin pale as the shroud in which she’d been laid.
In the days that followed, she did her utmost to tell herself that she saw the roseate flush of old in the queen’s cheeks, that she could see the near imperceptible rise and fall of her breast as she breathed, that the hands that held hers with every tenderness were warmed by hot blood and a beating heart. When doubt crept in, she fell to the perpetual and indisputable reassurance that Ovelia was still every bit as beautiful as she had been when last she saw her.
And yet, as they rode together—the girl’s arms gripping her tight, her face buried in her hair—she wondered at how silent and strange she had become. Moreover, she felt ill at ease with how easily she had acquiesced to her plans for her husband. Perhaps it was a testament to how much sorrow had changed her, and—after all—she should hardly marvel that Ovelia might readily agree to kill a man whose life she had already made an attempt upon. Still, it disconcerted her that she should regard the proposition so eagerly—hungrily even.
But even for all her misgivings—all those dark and secret suspicions she daily discounted—she had the joy of Ovelia returned to her. There were no confessions made on the long road to Zeltennia—no admission to being anything more than a lady and her knight—but it was clear that they regarded one another with an intimacy neither would have permitted in those far flung days when they had to cleave to their respective roles. In those fast, fleeting moments in which they were at rest, in the solitude of inns or under the shelter of ruins, Ovelia spoke to her with a soft admiration that seemed something more than gratitude, and all the coldness Agrias imagined in her fled.
When they finally arrived in sight of dark stone walls of the nation’s new capital, Agrias asked if Ovelia wished to remain behind—if she would not rather she meet the king alone and return to her later. There could be no surprise remaining when she insisted with a commanding solemnity that they go together. And so they did, walking the long road with hands clasped, Agrias contemplating the weight of their every footfall.
It seemed later, looking back, that some charm or enchantment must have lain over them, for two women of such fatal fame to find their way into the heart of the castle and catch the monarch alone. When she finally saw him, gazing darkly at her with a weary wonderment that didn’t quite rise to the level of surprise, Agrias found a great many bitter speeches and rapprochements died on her lips. Delita I, who had brought the world at last to peace and sat in solitude upon his throne, certainly had no words for her.
His eyes were fixed on the woman who stood by her side, who regarded him with an imperious look of something almost like bemusement. His mouth outlined her name as she strode toward him, her eyes blazing as though they carried the fire of every star in the girdle of heaven. Agrias felt her hand tremble as she reached for her sword, but she did not draw it.
She watched, her courage failing her. She remembered no prayers. No holy fire lent her the strength of arms. She watched, and stood as still as the marble hunters in bas-relief along the palace’s long walls.
It was only the clattering footfalls of knights running towards them brought her round to the stark fact that somebody had been screaming, although in that moment of dazed apprehension, she couldn’t quite place who it had been. In that room wreathed with red, she saw only Ovelia, and the queen approached her with a tenderness that would not acknowledge anything else in that terrible scene. When she embraced her, with all the trembling softness of that lost girl at Orbonne, Agrias did not resist. She clasped her fast in her arms, and closed her eyes. In that darkness, she could escape a moment from the horror around them, and when the sharp taste of blood on Ovelia’s lips brought it back to her, she found it had lost its sting.