Observations on Madness

She was only here for observation. She was only here for observation.

That was the official tagline and the mental lifeline that she clung to in this place. ‘You’ll be undercover as a patient at the Spire. Keep an eye out. Watch and observe. You’ll get closer than most to all the staff, access to the grounds and patients.”

Only it wasn’t that simple.

“When the curse wears off, you will be changed by it; you’ll never go back to who and what you were.”

She would leave each meeting with her assigned Doctor, and rush back to her room, barricade the door with a chair and just sit and pray for the Courage to remain, do her duty. But soon that became predictable, and they would follow to continue observing her. She soon varied her hiding places, always moving, never again predictable.

“The normal everyday control of impulses and emotions will have to be managed by others.”

It was slowing down whatever progress the staff hoped to make with her. But they were always looking for her, so she stopped trying to sleep after the first patient since her arrival disappeared. Since she first snuck into the records room to check the patient lists and noticed the faint markings of altered records. Since the first night she saw the strange lights by the regio.

“You are describing symptoms of hallucinations and mirages. Can you truly trust what you believe you are seeing?”

The next step was to skip meal times, avoid the debates that the Spire staff engaged in unless she was hidden well. But she soon avoided spying on even those meetings when on the fourth day of her stay they were discussing her, and ‘treatment options’ that left her paralysed with fear in the cupboard she hid in.

“The curse is leaving her highly susceptible to manipulation within the stipulations of the curse’s effects. It is an imperfect route to managing her, made more difficult by her lineage and the developing briar madness.”

On the fifth morning of her stay, she noticed the shift in language now being used by the staff that unnerved her most. No longer a case of managing curse symptoms, but managing madness symptoms. This was not an until-the-curse-ends but a forever thing. She ran until she collapsed from exhaustion after noticing the change, and it was nearly dark before she made it back to Frederick that night, questioning everything.

“We should move the patient’s treatment timescale forward, as symptoms are progressing rapidly.”

The sixth, the first day that conference attendees began arriving. She had forgotten the conference in her anxieties; she began doubting that it was truly happening, despite Frederick assuring her when she came running to him in fear that it was going to happen. But she kept forgetting.

“Your mental faculties are and will forever be compromised by the effects of the magic. Don’t you feel it already?”

Her nerves were a wreck by the time it began, unable to find the words to clearly explain what was happening to others that were there. Bursting into tears, lashing out, and the ever present desire to run that conflicted with what she knew she was here for. Observation… right? She was here with the Militia… and because she was going mad. Right?

“Vitória, I didn’t know you were coming– why are you here if not for the conference? Are you alright?” She crumples at the question Lisabetta asks her. She can’t discern the truth from the lie. She can’t remember why she’s here anymore.

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Evergreen

Damn this curse.

It had had its use, early on. Get everything done, chase what she wants with a singleminded determination that was quite unlike her– well, unlike the League citizen she tried to be, when everyone else was watching with their expectations apparent on their faces. But underneath that false persona, well, she wanted to be happy, wanted to deserve to be happy, and she chased that goal…

But now, having caught her prize, set in motion all the plans to make it so, she felt… Words words words. Words suck. There are no words. How can I explain it and who can I explain it to?

The season had withered her; the curse had exhausted her, burned away all her emotions in an inferno, flash fired, and left her with indecision, left her feeling a husk of herself. A parody of myself, of the bark on my skin and in my blood. Silly little Tori, lost to the madness, just another briar dying off in autumn.

Briefly it flared, the emotions and rage hidden under the skin, and she threw herself into her bedding, screaming into the mattress, her fingers ripping the silk sheets that stifled, confined her in this world where she didn’t belong, didn’t– and then the exhaustion set in, all energy spent like a toddler awake too long then asleep the next moment.

Are these thoughts and feelings mine? She couldn’t tell anymore, whether they were due to the curse, to lineage, to the manipulation a of those around her. Her fingers stroked her patches of bark where they deepened to brown from their new-growth green colouration. Who can I talk to about this? Who would understand?

She couldn’t talk to Frederick. This was still new to him, still temporary for him. She felt the same with Tess, though she tried to frame her mind to ask. But all the briars she could think of… Its all new growth.

She missed Robbie, missed the Thorns, Iulian, anyone who was a more august presence. She wanted old bark, old friends, trusted friends who weren’t hiding behind masks or afraid of themselves.

Ros. Ros! She’s like them. Evergreen, all winter. She doesn’t lose her leaves in the fall.

She climbed from the bed, made her way to her writing desk and grabbed a mostly-uncrumpled, unspoiled piece of paper.

Ros. King’s Stoke.
I need some evergreen advice.

The King-in-Chains

Did it really think that if it yanked your end of our chain, I wouldn’t be pulled along too?”

In the bleak of this despairing night, slowly the stars come out again.

It’s so soothing a balm on her soul that she is loathe to lose this feeling (and she is willing to ignore the possession for this fact alone). The blind faith in self and in others and the ties that bind that she hasn’t felt since she was dedicated solely to Loyalty, made whole again instead of broken.

She passes others with a peaceful smile and explains how to exorcise the Tulpas– this is a thing she can help with. She passes by the naga twins, and places their hands together. She finds Dan, suddenly so eager to tell him she is finally able to fulfil her promise to him. She smiles at people coming together, helping others, revelling in the sight of the shimmering golden chains that tie and bind so many together. A little nudge here, a small comment there, and it is so easy to help bolster the Loyalties of those around her.

Her heart stops, flutters, then leaps to life in her chest as her eyes fall on the one she sought. Her fingers pull out the silk pouch from her pocket, and she perches on the chaise edge beside him. It’s a good time to exchange rings, a paired set, even if all the words are wrong and not what she thinks he deserves to hear. This golden chain –their chain– burns brighter than any other. She feels like she’s come home as he slips the ring onto his finger, and she does the same to her thumb.

Later, she sits calmly (a sign something was wrong), perched over the room watching the possessed and their friends who have all congregated in her consecrated space. Friends helping friends, loved ones, even strangers. Slowly but surely the Tulpas are pushed from their souls. Still she keeps quiet, knowing that the priests are running out of Liao. It’s not a hard sacrifice to make, all things considered. And she knows what the Tulpa inside her wants, and she knows that she cannot provide it.

It’s with that thought that the Tulpa turns on her, and what once was golden turns to black. The cold weight of iron shackles fall onto her shoulders, weighing her down, pulling her to the earth. The black chains wrap around her arms, body, neck, each one an oath and a promise and a Reckoning debt to the dead that she cannot fulfil now– to Kayne, to Andrea, to Ysabel and Asher, Hansel, Sylvia, Isaac… All the names crossed out in her Reckoning leger. All gone, debts beyond reckoning.

It’s suffocating, and she cannot breathe, though she claws at the invisible chains, then at Frederick beside her, desperate for help. He shouts for Watcher while she chokes for breath, trying to mime ‘chains’ and ‘weight’ and ‘choking’ to them both. She doesn’t want to die this way. She wants to live–

It releases as Watcher pulls the Tulpa off her soul, and she gasps for air. She is herself again, with all her burdens and chaos and confusion and brokenness. Frederick clasps her hand. They are themselves again, but not unchanged by the experience.

The star wink back into the darkness, disappearing.

Frederick’s hand takes hers, and their rings wink up at them.

Springborne Curses, Pt 2

Part 2 of the downtime triptych. These events take place between King’s Stoke Wassail IV and Mindforged Manacles I Hear player events.


Springborne Curses, Pt 2
King’s Stoke / Tassato / Necropolis, Autumn-Winter 380YE

“So what does it feel like?”

Her hands flailed while she stuttered, trying to find the words to explain. “It’s like…. Endless frustration? No, worse, more… It’s….”

Fingers ran through her hair, trying to calm her, yet the flustered feeling in her stomach continued to grow, until Vitória felt ill, rushing up to open the window, the cold biting air stinging  her cheeks.

“It’s…”

***

Everything came on suddenly–that was how it was with briars. There was no stealth, no subterfuge; it was direct and blunt and that was how she liked it. It was odd to remember back –it felt like a lifetime ago, when she wasn’t one– what was she like then, can she even recall? Vitória remembered it being different. She remembered that the perpetual confusion only came on after the ritual, after her wounds grew bark.

Suddenly, Briars! Suddenly there was this support network that drew her in, cared for her, wanted to help her. She could rely on that, she could count on it.

But there, like a missing stair — sometimes, suddenly, there WEREN’T briars anymore. And then what?

Suddenly, Vitória had very few people to count on, to be direct with, to be herself with, unreservedly. With anyone not of the lineage, there was always that attempt to hold back, to be ‘normal’, to be what they wanted to be. All the briars who had her back, kept her grounded, sane… they were all gone now.

Suddenly, she had no one to admit to, that she was struggling.

***

They hitched a ride along the road back to Tassato, curled up in the back of a cart in a mound of blankets and cloaks. It sheltered them from the biting wind that’s coming down from the north.

“Are you okay?” He asked, searching out through the blankets for her hand. Her fingers were cold, and he tucked them tightly into his warmer palm.

She thought about the question a moment, her eyes tearing themselves away from the forest around them, the forest to the southwest specifically. “Um… no…” She mumbled distractedly, her eyes peeling back to the woods.

“You’ve been eyeing the south since we’ve left.”

“Yeah. I just, am getting a weird feeling about the forest. It might be from Felicity.”

“A remnant?”

“M-maybe? No, probably,” she acquiesced. ” I don’t think I really realised, before… how young she was. And,” her head tucked down into the blankets. “I just want to keep her away from the forest.”

“Maybe it’ll pass once we’re outside the Mourn.”

“Maybe.”

***

Vitória normally knocked on the door; this time she shouldered it open. She untied the heavy cloak around her neck that still smelled of wood smoke and Stoke, and tossed it on the workbench that smelled of iron shavings and oil and charcoal.

She didn’t say anything, and her brother said even less, just looked up from his work, then back to it, continuing the obscure project he worked on– Vitória was too distracted to try and figure it out, and any guess she’d make would probably be wrong. But he made no comment, let her pace in the far corner, hop up onto the drafting table and kick her legs out, climb and swing from the overhead rafters. She watched him work, then lost interest; she meddled in the projects that she knew he wouldn’t yell at her for disturbing; she swung around a couple of his new-fashioned weapons, and packed up a set of armour that’s to be shipped off to its purchaser.

It’s only much later, when he wiped sweat from his brow, took off his apron and changed his shirt, and sat down for a moment that she moved across his workshop to hug him.

“Want to tell me what’s wrong, Sister?” He mumbled over her head, hugging her with one arm, messing up her hair with the other hand.

“Only everything except what’s right.”

He was the only one who knew that the only time she actively wanted to talk, is if the answer to “Are you okay?” was “No.”

***

“Marcella!”

The housekeeper ignored the call for the moment needed to place the last bag down by the door, then turned her head at the sound of rushed bare feet above her. Vitória barrelled into the banister on the upper floor, peering out over the stairwell.

“Here, Signora.”

“Did you send that letter I asked you to earlier?”

Marcella picked up her skirt as she climbed the stairs, as the briar rushed to meet her at the top, taking her hands in her own. Her fingers trembled, her eyes pleaded, as if clinging to a shred of Courage. “Did you send the letter?” her voice warbled out, stressing each word.

“Yes, of course I did–” Vitória’s fingers, so cold, recoiled from her, her eyes fearful, immediately filling with tears. “Signora, what’s wrong?”

The briar just shook her head, hiding her face before she turned and ran off back to her rooms, fleeing.

***

It was over a dozen hours before anyone could find Vitória. Marcella knew the usual places to look when Vitória disappeared — the theatre, her brother’s workshop, her office at the Chantry, her usual haunts for drinking or bar fights. It was only as the list dwindled that Marcella admitted to a shred of worry forming in her heart. Vitória ran when she was upset, but she ran to very specific places.

Eventually she returned to the Signora’s bedroom, following a trail of disorganization to the window, which was left open. Anyone else would have read the room and thought the occupant had fled via the window, and the trellis that climbed down to the gardens from there. Marcella knew better.

She walked into the adjoining closet, tucking down underneath the shelves of boxes neatly stacked and dresses hung amid sachets of vanilla. She very nearly missed the stock-still woman, curled in a tangle of skirts and a pile of folded winter-weight blankets.

“Vitória… Signora…” The glassy eyes stared back at her, unseeing.

“Why’d I say yes?” The voice was mechanical.

She edged closer, gently picking up a dagger tucked under a box within easy reach, and tossing it out of the way. “I don’t know Signora. Why did you say yes?”

Marcella approached cautiously, as one would to a wounded animal frightened in the corner, which might not have been that far from accurate. She tucked her frame into the space beside the briar, still too still to be anything other than worrying. Her fingers reached out to Vitória’s hands, clenched too tight for too long against the woman’s side. Her fingers were ice, and a touch to the cheek showed it too lacked warmth. Arms held still for hours were stiff, and there was no way to cradle Vitória in Marcella’s arms, too paralyzed was her form, unable to move.

“Why did I say yes?” Again, the hoarse croak from her lips.

Marcella couldn’t tell. She just sat by her lady, trying to warm Vitória’s form, frigid from either shock or fear or some combination of both, staring at the door like ghosts from the Labyrinth were going to burst through.

She would call for a physick later on.

***

“You should not go.”

“I have to. Help me with these sleeves.”

Vitória clumsily slipped the warm travelling dress over her head, while Marcella picked up the sleeve from the dresser.

“You’re not well. Please, Vitória, do not go. Frederick will understand. The Militia will understand.”

“I already said yes, things are already packed.”

Realizing her mistake, Marcella’s hand grabbed Vitória’s, holding it firm. She turned the briar towards her, made her meet her eyes. “Squ–erm, whatever you do, do NOT squeeze my hand.” The conflict in Vitória’s eyes burned dimly as Marcella waited for the return pressure on her palm that never came. “You can’t, can you? Your fingers are numb again.”

“Of course I can!” She waited, defiantly, yet still no pressure was returned. The briar’s face crumpled, a shaky breath the signal that she was distraught. “Why does this keep happening?!”

Marcella sat her down, perched beside her on the bed to slip the sleeve strings through their loops. Vitória stared down at her hands, loose and limp in her lap, as if her eyes could will them to react. “I do not know, Signora. Shall I go fetch Lord Frederick?”

“No. You shall NOT,” though her shoulders fell a little more, “Though I could not stop you.”

“Shall I discuss this with Duarte? He would be kind, understanding…”

“No… he’ll want to run some experiment.” She hiccuped, drew her knees up at the thought, and whimpered.  “Why did I say yes?”

“Vitória. As your friend,” Marcella took her weakened hands in hers. “Please, I really….” She paused to think of her wording, but Vitória shook her head, hearing nothing.

“I have to go. I gave my word.” But her fingers remained cold and still in Marcella’s hand.

***

As quickly as she could amid driving rains, she picked her way through the monuments to the Virtuous, passing the few pilgrims and dedicants brave enough to weather the storm to marvel at the statuesque and grand tombs of the Necropolis. The weather made everything drearier than usual, and difficult to see. The way was only half remembered, and more than once she doubled back when the path became unfamiliar.

She wished Civetta was with her again, brawling and bashing her way through every tavern along the way. Problems were simpler, then. Not that Frederick was not welcome company, but Vitória had been lucky that the tavern keeper at the inn didn’t recognize her from her last visit.

Her feet finally found the path that she wanted, ducking around a plinth and into the Tomb in question. The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges when she unlocked it. Only the sound of rain outside echoed in the space, and the stone chilled her, sapping the warmth from the air around her. Vitória’s hand reached into the dim space, feeling for the wooden chest that should be by the door, which contained candles and torches. It was not quick work to light a candle with her weakened, numbed, frozen fingers, but eventually she could spread light around the tiny chapel, then shut the door to the outside world, so she could finally pray in peace.

‘This is where I end.’ The thought should not have been comforting. Yet — Here, there would be space for all their names, all their remains. Two new spaces had already been made. Some day a space would be made for her own ashes. Maybe she would be remembered, as each of the names already carved were. Knowing where the story ended, if not how, she could handle that.

Her sleeves served to dust off the mosaic mirrors around each candle holder, and she took painstaking care as her hands picked up each of the jars of ashes and cleaned them carefully.

She knelt on the floor, surrounded by the engraved names of her family, and continued her devotions, that she would find semblance of grace and Courage.

Though all before me is shadow,
Yet shall Virtue be my guide,
I shall not be left to wander the drifting twists of the Labyrinth
For my brothers and sisters shall find me
For there is no darkness in the Path of Virtue
And nothing that we have wrought shall be lost.”

***

In lieu of a bar fight

It’s barely even a duel between the two of them: she’s already forgotten any pretext of the quarrel they were supposedly having. But the activity feels nice, and is sating an itch she’s been trying to fight since arriving in King’s Stoke, that something is coming and she needs to practice, prepare.

It’s scratching another itch she’s been distracted from, the physical itch of craving conflict just for the sheer pleasure of the coming together afterwards. She’s never really fought against Frederick, knows so little about how he moves with a blade to hand, how he steps and dodges, fleet of foot and quick-wristed. If this is all she can have for now, she’ll relish it and dive into it and HA! He didn’t expect her to use her scarf to block his knife and that time she got close enough to smell his scent and feel the warmth left in the air by his body.

It’s flirting and it’s foreplay, and she’s enjoying the teasing playfulness. In lieu of a bar fight, in lieu of everything else she wants, she’ll take a blow to give one, though it stings, and when it’s over they collapse against each other a little and she can lean into the warmth of his torso as he leans on her.

She wills the stinging pain to last a little longer. She nestles a little closer.

Possession

King’s Stoke, Autumn Wassail 380YE, Saturday.

***

It is becoming progressively harder to separate out what is what.

It begins in the morning, at the first sight of the Jotun in King’s Stoke, when her one hand reaches for her knife, and the other draws Lupo’s sword from his side in a swift moment. But the grip is not hers — and she’s never fought with two weapons before. If only she could get them out of the village, away from the others! It’d be easy to cut them down like the harvest. Vitória asks why the orc is looking at her, staring– Frederick says a name, corrects her that that is not a Jotun Orc, but an Imperial Orc, a citizen, that she was with them in Kalino at the wedding. There’s a moment of disconnection — because she knows there were no Jotun were at the wedding, and Frederick would not lie to her. So what is true? That the orc staring at her is a Jotun infiltrator, come to threaten Stoke and her family, or that the man she loved would lie to her? The discord does not sit well, like missing a step on a staircase; it’s easier to ignore what does not fit the narrative.

When she finally gets her weapons practice, when Lupo finally obliges her, everything about it feels wrong. Her hands feel clunky, untrained, her footing unsure. She was never the best soldier or bravo in the world, but she’s not so… untrained as this. Youthful, unskilled like hands playing with father’s swords when he’s not looking. Everything about the weapon is wrong, everything about her stance is not right. And then there’s the push back, the surge of emotions and all of her fear is channelled to hatred, and this is no longer practice… the only moment the anger subsists is when Vitória’s blood is gushing out from just across her ribs, and Lupo is trying to staunch the wound with pressure. This is too similar to… something dark, unremembered. She’s unsure; her mind recoils in horror and it’s better to not think on it.

There is another bout of disconnect, after Beatrix has reset her nose forcibly, and she’s shaking and on edge and trying to be grateful for the help while simultaneously wanting to push Beatrix off the bed into a pile of mud when the same Jotun Orc who was staring earlier enters their borrowed house, is looking for Victoria Barossa, and thankfully everyone surrounding her is now as on edge as Vitória has felt all morning. The Orc has a message to pass on, urging her to not fight–too young, too inexperienced, and it’s all too easy to rebel against that wish. Gabriel is the one to step forward, run interference and draw the attention as if she wasn’t in the hut, and amidst the blood trickling down her throat and out her nose, she’s momentarily confused as to who is family and who isn’t. She could slip between Beatrix and Gabriel, she could be on the intruder in a moment’s notice — but Frederick, beside her, has his hand across her knife in her lap, his palm caressing the edge; one move and she’ll hurt him, and she can’t bear the thought, no matter the danger and fear pressing down on her.

It keeps happening, more swiftly, easily: Vitória passes Gabriel with a smile and a wave, while promising Grandpa Gregory that she’ll be back with her armour and weapons. She rows with her father– who’s also the Orc? This is the source of the discord– who’s still pleading with her to listen to him, to her brothers. And she understands, she does: of course it’s wrong to let a child go off to war, but she can’t make them see that there’s no use running from the incoming Jotun, that she’ll follow Grandpa Gregory anywhere and that she wants to fight, that she’ll never become a sla– at the word, the thought, she feels a powerful connection instead of dissonance, two souls working to the same purpose– never be a slave to anyone. Isn’t it better to die fighting, than submit and have no Virtue? Benedict is still rambling about his pigs, and Rachel–Bo?–no, Rachel is adamant that they would all survive if they joined the Jotun.

And finally, finally, the monk James gets back to her and confirms that yes, she is being possessed. It’s all Vitória needs in order to relax, and let it happen, just like in Ennerlund. Now she understands, she knows what to do.

***

“Tori?” Gabriel calls out to her as she passes, and she turns, smiles at him. “It IS Vitória?”

“Of course it is, Gabriel.” What an odd thing to question.

“Felicity? Felicity!” Vitória turns to the call, shouts back that she’s on her way.

“Don’t worry, Gabriel,” she tries to reassure him. “This isn’t my first possession.”

Coming Home

Vitória, when she put her mind to it and took the time to do it properly, was good at reading people. She had been trained to read the ticks of expression, she could see when body language was contradicting words, she knew when a soul was burdened.

So her exuberance quickly fell flat when Lord Frederick returned to Tassato from the wedding in Kalino, with a heavier, tired step. She could see the tension through his shoulders, could feel the slight tremor in his hand when he gripped hers and held on to her fingers.

She led him into the closest room, sat him down in the quiet space, and watched from where she knelt beside him at his knees, as he slowly, methodically, began to remove his circlet and favours, as she took them from his hands and laid them carefully aside.

She had never witnessed Dawnish girding. It wasn’t something she yet understood except in theory; she knew the closest she could probably frame it to League sensibilities was as an actor would mask and unmask themselves — but always out of view of the audience. So it was both disconcerting and humbling to watch as Lord Frederick ungirded himself before her eyes.

Her mind leapt between just how bad it must be, that with each article of clothing or jewellery his burden doubled, then tripled. Expression cracking, shoulders hunching as if under the weight of the world as he began to tell of what he had witnessed, what he had seen. She held his hand tightly with one hand, while the other ran over his knuckles tenderly. How bad it must be — and how humbled she was that he was letting her see, that he trusted her enough to see.

Emotions flared and fired within her like an inferno, each heartbreak he related fuelling the blaze. She thought back to the letter that had arrived from him after he had left, at the emotions that had welled up in her upon reading them — ‘You are a better Loyalty priest, my Lord, than I ever was.’– but still she listened, saying nothing; she hadn’t forgotten everything she knew of that time. When his tears fell, she leaned up on her knees, wiping the sorrows from his cheeks, but saying nothing, just letting him talk, unburden himself.

‘If I speak, I’ll fuck this up,’ her mind berated her, ‘too cursed, too many problems, I can’t solve them all, I can’t offer solutions fast enough, though I would. Though I want to. Easier to just be here. Please don’t cry.’ Each tear that fell Vitória gently wiped, feeling her own well up at his distress. When he could not speak anymore; when he collapsed she was there to catch him, her arms encircling him, just holding him close, because it was all she could do.

She caught her reflection in the mirror across the room, watched her masked reflection stare back at her, shifting between the persona of the Bishop and the Lover, the Captain and the Squire. The shifts were erratic, unable to choose a Persona, and surrounded by the ever-shifting, blurring halo of Night magic that the curse represented.

Frederick shifted then, drawing her attention away from the mirror, and she pulled back from him, her fingers reaching up to touch her face — ‘no, I left my masks upstairs… good.’ — then she looked back into his eyes, weary and drawn and so lost, so despondent.

“Come with me?” Vitória climbed to her feet, holding out her hand for his, waiting until his fingers slid into hers before she led him off. She knew where to take him, and it wasn’t far.

***

The streets were darkening, lanterns being lit at the encroaching dusk as she passed along the Via Abrizza, leading Lord Frederick along the quiet merchant stalls. Her purse was significantly lighter by the time she had purchased enough to fill her basket, as Frederick followed obediently. When she had all she needed, she took his hand with a gentle smile and led him until they reached the elaborate facade of a chantry. Tugging him eagerly inside, she guided him into the gilded hall, passing down one side aisle before he could truly look around at the shrine.

Vitória carefully caught the basket in the crook of her arm, pulling a key from her pocket and inserting it into a nearly invisible keyhole, marked with a tiny red fox sigil amongst a painted mural of an Exemplar of Prosperity in League garb. She pushed the invisible door inwards, into blackness.

“Where are we going?” He asked, but she tutted until he followed, the door shutting behind them both.

“Follow me. There’s a staircase circling right, take my hand. Hurry, it’s almost time!” Her voice had a lilt of urgency to it, as she led him up a dark stone stair.

They emerged onto a private balcony, unlit but for the soft glow of candles far below, and the occasional bustle of the workings of the church. She pulled him down into a nest of comfortably arranged pillows and blankets. She curled up too, making sure he was comfortable, the basket set aside within reach, then leaned on her elbows to overlook the Chantry below through the thin metal railings.

“I still don’t see what we’re doing… where are–” She leaned over and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.

“Shh…. tomorrow, we will face your problems together. Tonight, we will just listen.” The sound within the Chantry settled, then a voice below began singing a hymn of Virtue, of a pilgrim struggling with Virtue. A second voice joined in melodiously after a moment, then another moment before a choir joined in the hymn, the music echoing up to the balcony as Evensong began.

Vitória remained silent, curled into the cushions and arranging Fred’s head into her lap; her fingers ran soothingly through his hair as she let the music wrap around them, praying it would be a comfort to him. Her words would make it worse, but her music, here in the heart of her congregation, that she could share.

***

The waves of music and singing filled his heart and down into his very soul itself. After the hard weekend repressing his natural instincts to sing the praises of the Way, in order to handle Suranni sensibilities and heresy without provoking a war the Empire could ill afford, it was restorative to bathe in the unrestrained praise of Virtue. He slowly picked at bits of candied fruits and small savoury pieces, his appetite still not with him, but he knew he had to force himself to eat something at least.

With his head in Vitória’s lap he could close his eyes and slowly, slowly that emotional wind could calm, here in the eye of the storm he could get a control of it and perhaps be able to face all his hard choices with a somewhat calmer mind.

As the singing reached a crescendo, praise echoing over the walls, he felt the power of Loyalty echoing in his soul. ‘Nothing extraordinary is achieved without great sacrifice’, he whispered, as a contented smile crossed his face, as his eyes closed and he fell into a light sleep with the final chords of Evensong ringing through the chapel, and Vitória’s fingers gently running through his hair.

The Rose Garden

There are days when she can be easily distracted from despair, when a smile from Frederick can delay the darkness encroaching on her thoughts. There are moments when he notices the sudden stillness, the slow fall of expression, and can easily head it off until it’s gone. But there are times when he isn’t quick enough, or doesn’t notice the heaviness settling over her until it’s too late; sometimes not even his comforting embrace can head off the surge of emotions that flood and overwhelm.

In those moments, she tries to smile despite welling tears, squeezes his hand, and slips off before the tears threaten to fall. He never wants to let her go, but he does, and she is grateful, as she slips away down to the gardens, to the backmost corner and the locked door that hides amongst the ivy.

Only in this locked garden does she give in to despair, to the crushing weight in her heart that she can’t fight, especially now, especially cursed. Here, she’s safe to let loose everything she can’t fight, take these chaotic emotions and funnel them into action and growth, amongst sobs and tears and heartbreak.

Her fingers run over the closest rose bushes, the oldest ones, the established ones. Each trellis holds its own variety; each rose plant the finest she can find, the rarest she can source from around the city, and some, appropriately, appropriated from the most select gardeners who wouldn’t share otherwise.

This one, well established and thriving, she calls Felice. Though the weather fades to winter with each passing day, this one still clings to its blooms, a vibrant merlot that fades to violet by the ends of its petals. Soon it would be time to cut them down, prepare them for winter’s bite, but its flowers still retained some scent. Its branches mingle amongst the rosebush to its side, petals that would be Helouise’s pink, if any blooms remained.

Beside it, a newer plant, yet to bloom this year, that she calls Sylvia. She had made space for it beside Felice, and in time perhaps the two plants would intertwine as the pink did, create new colours and hybrids. But Sylvia had some catching up to do, before it would reach Felice’s heights. She clips the last of the dried cream blooms from Faustino, and checks that Polly’s stems are secured to the trellis, growing straight and proud. She prunes back Ysabel’s vibrant green leaves, and checks that Alesso has enough room to grow for the next year. Kayne’s roses, a snow white variety, would bloom throughout winter, as hearty as its namesake, but soon they might start choking space from Tilly and Lyn’s plants. Idoya’s roots never took well to this soil, it might not last through winter. Hansel was demanding, always needed watering.

She moves along to the cleared wall, old ivy torn away to make room for new growth. This was a wall for the red roses, each a different shade, each a different variety, each named after the Briar that had gone before. But they’d be together, a wall for all the Thorns in the Varushkan red they loved, and never anyone mind the solid-cast rabbit figure that nestled amongst the thorns and new growth. Nevermind that this wall was the shaded wall that would miss the full-sun, and might end up only being thorns and not blooms.

She sits down amongst the wet mud, picking up from where she left off. Trowel to hand, unwrapping the hessian sacking from the roots of the next bush to be planted. This new one, going beside Calista’s miniature roses and their delicate yellow-russet petals that littered the ground, and between Andrea’s Holberg Crimson, so red the blooms were almost black at the edges, this new one would be called Robbie. This one she hopes will be orange, but she won’t know for certain until next summer.

The thorns prick her wrists as she sets the bush into the soil, presses the roots deep into the ground and buries the roots. With each sob, each wail and tear, she tends her garden, until the cold starts to nip at her fingers, and the mud is smeared up to her elbows, and her blood drips into the soil that feeds the living memories of all she’s lost. When it’s finally passed, when there are no more rose bushes to plant –for this season, at least– she wipes her face, and lets her emotions burn out, then heads inside to Lord Frederick. He’ll tend to her scratches, and dry her tears, and one day soon, she’ll share her garden with him.

Springborne Curses, pt.1

Another three part story set over the downtime period. Moving on from this point, we are all caught up in archiving past stories, and while new posts will be fewer and far between, they’ll be new content. Bring on the winter player event season!



Springborne Curses, Pt 1
Tassato Regario, Autumn-Winter 380YE

The doors fling open with a loud bang, as her skirts swish into the entryway to the Villa Madeira. Bags are left where the porters stack them neatly, their owner already halfway up the steps to the upper floor before she stops, turns, and shouts.

“Marcella! MarcellaMarcellaMarcella–”

“Yes, yes, Signora! What is it? You are home safe, I see.” The woman slid out a side door from the kitchens, and went over to oversee the unpacking of bags, tutting at the traces of Anvil mud already tracked in onto the mosaics.

“Yes, home, and safe,” and there’s a little hiccup of hesitation in her voice, “but never mind that.” Vitória’s feet skip down the steps two at a time, nearly tripping over her skirts just before the bottom of the staircase. “I want you to send the ivy box under my bed with all the things inside, and my Rose mask, to Serena, soon as possible. Now, in fact. And the pageboys, Nica and Salerio, give them a holiday once it’s done, three months, with pay. Tell them to be scamps, or something, but I don’t want to see them until Midwinter when they can tell me all the trouble they got into — ooh, when the canals freeze I will take them ice skating!”

“It will be months until the canal freezes, even assuming they do this year, Signora–” Marcella tutted as her mistress raced back up the stairs. “And, the boys will be thrilled at the pay, but–”

“The rest of the servants can have a holiday, too– and you. See your families. Spend time with them. Hold them close.” The doors are flung wide open to her bedroom, immaculately cleaned just as it always is when she goes away to Anvil and Marcella can do her job without Vitória undoing all her good work.

“Vitória, why are you sending us away? Won’t you sit down, change from your travelling dress?”

“No!” Her fingers cling to the folds of her skirts, stubbornly, and Marcella can see the new verses in pale thread just about visible from the distance. “This one is my favourite, I like this one.”

“Why are we being sent away?”

“Because I don’t want you to hate me, and after this season you will. Because I want you to be happy, to hold your daughter and wife close. Because I said so, do I need a reason for–”

“Yes, you Barossas always need a reason! And it’s always a stupid one, with you!”

Vitória’s eyes widened, shocked and stunned, before her eyes crinkled and she leaned on a poster of her bed. With tears filling her eyes, “Yes, I suppose we do.”

Marcella watched the short briar slide down the bedpost, into a puddle of skirts and silk on the floor.

“You’re cursed, Vitória. Aren’t you.”

“You have no proof of this.”

“Unfettered Anarchy?”

“I decline to comment.”

“Why isn’t your family with you? Why aren’t they keeping you distracted, as Adelina was?”

The briar opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

***

Vitória sat down, straightening her skirts over her knees and getting comfortable, tossing her things aside.

“I’ve been trying to catch you for a chat for awhile now.” She exhaled in a huff, frustrated at the delay but pushing onwards regardless. “It’s about what I did, how I feel, and how I need to progress, what I need to do going forward. And it’s important that you be part of this discussion, because I can’t do this without you. I know I can’t do this without your blessing.”

Her fingers tapped anxiously at the wooden surface before her, then begin to fidget with her necklace, the heavy metal favour around her neck. She sighed and put her head in her hands, leaning against the dressing table on an elbow as she eyed her distorted reflection in the mirror. Her reflected image kept trying to get the attention of shadowy family members around her, to no avail.

“No, it’s okay. You’re busy. I’ll catch you all later.”

***

“I thought I dismissed you, Marcella,”

“Three times this week. You used to be such a good priest of Loyalty.”

“So you won’t go.”

“No, I will not. You’ve got a client tonight.”

Vitória’s eyes widened, as she reached for her prayer beads, nervously twitching them between her fingers. “I-I can’t see them.”

“Shall I plead you are indisposed?”

“Forever; all clients. I have already explained my change in profession to my patrons in Anvil.”

Marcella dropped the glass bowl in her hands, both women gasping at the shattering crash as it hit the floor. Vitória knelt down, observing the shards of blue-green glass and the patterns of chaotic broken splinters it made on the floor, mesmerized, again distracted.

“Apologies–Forever, Signora? Surely not. You are one of the foremost cicisbeo in the League– oh don’t look at me like that, it was in the Looking Glass and all– do you not just mean to let this season, this curse, pass? No, let me tell him you are away this season again, he is such a rich man–”

Marcella.”

“But Signora–

Vitória picked up the largest shard of glass she could see, palmed it, and squeezed. “Oh. Look. I’ve gone and cut myself.” Her eyes looked up to Marcella’s as the blood dripped out from between her fingers, voice cold and tightly clipped. “Clean this up, would you,” she asked before sweeping out of the room.

***

She sighed, splashed at the bath water as fingers ran over her skin, poking and prodding as she takes the latest account of herself.

‘The patch on my thigh; the first patch, the won’t-go-away patch. Look at it, another deep groove splitting the bark and skin. If it meets up with the bark on my knee, I’ll begin to lose flexibility. Andrea had that problem.’

‘Stomach, thankfully no bark, but they used magic there. The veins are getting darker, deeper, like infection setting in to healthy flesh.’ She prodded her abdomen, remembering when the spear had been driven deep and twisted, when she had screamed out Frederick’s name, when she had clutched at Gabriel as he tried to staunch the bleeding, sobbing for the pain to stop. The memory of burning Summer magic coursing through her suddenly made the bath water feel cold by comparison.

She picked up a small handheld mirror, following the veins as they stretched like vines around to her newest deep patch of new formed bark. Her back still ached, still burned, where they had removed shards of metal, digging deep into her spine. ‘It’s all my own fault, isn’t it? Must not have repaired my chainmail properly, the way Rodrigo had showed me to.’ She picked up a bottle of perfumed oil, threw it across the room where it smashed against the panelling with a satisfying crash. ‘Do it properly or don’t do it at all. Didn’t he teach you that?’

Vitória’s fingers ran over her face with a washcloth, catching on the new patch on her cheek; she had forgot this spot. ‘Another line on my face. Thanks, Lupo.’ It was always the right cheek, her reflexes good but never quite timely enough to fully avoid a blow, a punch, a blade. ‘Good enough to avoid dying, not good enough to outrun the hurt involved.’

‘More on my arms, more on my chest, more on my face, until soon what will be left of me?’ She sank into the tub, splashed once more, then rose from the scented water in revulsion. She missed her Rose mask, sent off to Serena. Without it, there were too many thorns and too much bark.

***

Marcella watched the briar pace erratically, skipping and dancing about the stairs in the courtyard in one of her finest dresses, as if waiting for something to happen.

It was exhausting to be witness to Vitória’s ceaseless energy and mood swings, so much worse than ever before. She adjusted the writing desk on her lap, ‘my dear Duarte, it clearly is progressing much more rapidly under the effects of the curse,’ her pen scribbled across the page, ‘and due to her unbridled penchant for anarchy there is little I can do to calm or distract her.’

The rolling of a cart nearing the house paused her pen a moment, before she passed it off as nothing. ‘It breaks my heart to hear her distress echo the halls when she eventually manages to sleep, ever plagued by nightmares; I thought she was beyond them, after so long, but they’ve returned with a vengeance. Is there not anything medicinal that would ease her–’

Vitória’s movements stopped, her body held taut, unnaturally still; Marcella noticed it first, then heard the quick knock on the thick doors to the Villa. “How odd, we are not expecting anyone to–” it was then she stopped, noticed the rosy glow that was rising in Vitória’s cheeks, the brightness in her green eyes sparkling, the nervous energy in her hands being clasped firmly together before her.

“He’s here. He really came!” Vitória’s voice is warmer, lighter, softer than Marcella had ever heard it. She turned her head towards the door, then moved to answer it, and is surprised at the young man at the door in red and gold, clearly Dawnish by the flower crown and sword which he won’t relax from his grip.

“Hi… I’m looking for Vitória Barossa.” It only took him a moment before his eyes found Vitoria, standing on the stairs with a bashful smile on her lips and a shy little wave.

“Won’t you come in, Ser.”

***

“You might not want to look in that mirror,” she said as she grabbed for Lord Frederick’s hand, tugging him away. Trust him to find the mirrors– she had forgotten to cover them, to warn him, during his stay.

“Why not?” His hand resisted against hers, attention drawn.

“It’s the… Well, the Masquerade and mirrors, they sometimes interact funny.”

“How?”

“Well I don’t know how, only it just does. It’s a hearth magic thing.” She tugged at his hand again, urging him away from the looking glass on the wall. “It’s not your hearth magic, you might find it upsetting. Come on, let’s go to the gardens…”

His eyes return to it, and she pulled more forcefully. “Please, Love,” she called to him, trying to keep her voice light, yet it sounded strained.

“I want to see.” She dropped his hand then, stepping back from the sight he might catch of her.

Vitória turned, looking away so as not to see his reaction at the mirror showing his true reflection, without magic and without girding and without bark.

It’s too soon to see such truths, and she doesn’t want to pry.

***

Vitória’s feet mindlessly led the way down the dark and dirty streets, too crowded and too busy even for this time of night.  The celebrations were over, and this side of Tassato was back to its usual pastimes and pursuits, on a grander scale due to the armies billeted within the city. ‘Still stinks. That’s Mestra for you.’

“How do you keep the city streets straight in your head?” Lord Frederick asked, ducking through the crowd to keep up to her, to not lose sight of his guide.

“Don’t know. If I thought about it, I might get lost.” She nudged his sleeve and took his hand to pull him through a narrow gap between two warehouses. “When you’re home in your room, in the middle of the night, can’t you mostly navigate around your room without bumping your shins?”

“Well, mostly–”

“So it’s like that. My room is just, the size of two cities.”

“But you hit your knee on a balustrade yesterday–”

“THE BALUSTRADE WAS BEING A JERK, FREDERICK.”

“OY! BAROSSA! YOUR KIND AREN’T WELCOME HERE!” She paused, mentally checked the map in her head, and smiled, before she turned to Frederick, who was already bristling at the danger.

“You are absolutely sure you want a brawl, yes?”

“Absolutely.” Both briars grinned.

***

Fingers

She was thankful that the sun has set, before she had finally managed to remove her armour, wash the blood from her fingers and take a moment to breathe and scream and sob. It meant that it was dark before she ran from her tent, where Robbie had slept the night before, within arms reach, where they had joked and laughed and talked as only briars could, openly and freely and pulling no punches. And it meant that no one could see her run from her tent in a state of un-League undress and with tears streaming down her face, desperate to find a family member.

She was thankful that the tent was dim, when she entered the back of the Foxes’ tent in her chemise, carrying her dress in shaking hands and trembling fingers that could not fasten her sleeves properly. It meant that no one could see her shock, or her embarrassment, no one could see the blush that sprang up to her cheeks at seeing Fred inside with the others, waiting for her. And it meant no one saw her slowly hug her dress closer to herself and feel utterly naked in present company.

She was thankful that none of the other Foxes said anything about it, if they noticed (and they surely noticed!), when she sat down beside Frederick with her dress tossed over her knees, struggling to make a start on the sleeves. It meant that she could sit here quietly with her mortification, and focus on getting dressed without embarrassing herself any further, without the usual snark and loving insults that, while normally a sign of acceptance and affection, would have pushed her over the edge. Only her fingers would not stop shaking, and the task would take all night at this rate if she couldn’t…

She was thankful when Fred’s fingers picked up one of her sleeves and set to helping her, his attention engrossed in fitting the ribbons into the tiny rings that held them along one shoulder, while she worked on the other side. It meant that from the corner of her eyes she could watch his fingers caress the ribbons of her sleeves, the fabric; she could compare her own trembling fingers to his assured ones, and wonder at all the things that fingers do…

She was thankful that the whole task did not take long, and that she could gracefully excuse herself to step out the back of the tent to put the dress on. It meant that she could try and get her mind off of the idea of what his fingers would feel like on her skin, of whether the world would stop and everything in the midst of the storm would fall into place, like in everyone’s stories. It meant when she sat down next to him again, she had mostly stopped her fingers from shaking, when she put her hand in his and he squeezed it reassuringly. His fingers were so warm.

It was a long while before her mind successfully moved on from thinking about it.