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~Suzette~

༻Chapter 31༺

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

{"My, are you leaving so soon?"

I look down to her, a tall woman with dark skin and curly crimson hair that glows under the lamplight, whose name I've admittedly forgotten. I look out to the room—normally elegant and beautiful, colored on creams and golds; but now, it's overrun with various nobles in various states of drunkenness, some completely passed out. Only a small handful of lamps alight the room; a tall grandfather clock in the corner points to it being past one o'clock in the morning.

"You've an odd idea of 'soon!'" I laugh, and she chuckles along in the lyrical way it seems all noblewomen do.

"It is not long now before I shall return to provinces…" she looks away, twirling a lock of her hair.

Is this about…? No, I'm probably overthinking it.

"Well, if you ever come back I'm sure I'll be around quite a bit now, considering—!"

"Indeed!" she chuckles again, "Vwârdnie, Lord Alex," she says softly. I can't help but smile a bit at the words—Lord Alex.

Who would've ever thought I'd make it this far?

"Vwârdnie!" I wave not just to her, but to everyone who's still awake, or sober enough to even know what I'm saying.

Although I'm not entirely drunk, I'll admit I still stumble a bit out of the estate, into the well-lit cobblestone street. Even in this state, though, I still have a bit of a skip to my step, a fluttering in my heart.

An icon for Soléiâ de Sâze Léidi, Our Lady of Soléiâ—the highest temple of the entire continent…! To think, I've only been here mere months, and yet the royal family already trusts me to create an icon for their private temple! A part of me almost feels guilty, like someone more pious should do this; but, I suppose they chose me for a reason. And regardless…I never imagined I would ever gain an honor this great, and certainly not so soon! At this rate, it's not out of the question to consider that one day I might become the head court painter…

And so I continue stumbling through the empty streets, glittering thoughts overflowing my mind. What an incredible, marvelous place this is—everything, from the largest buildings to the tiniest button, is an artistic marvel in and of itself; there is so much to do, from dances to plays to concertos, the most delicious food you may find anywhere—and on top of it all, I’ve not encountered any of the cruelty that I’ve been led to believe runs rampant here. Everyone has been incredibly polite, and incredibly refined while doing it…

Yes…I really think I have opened the door to paradise.

After some time I finally return home, up the staircase which leads to my little apartment, my heart beating faster and faster at the prospect of finally telling Hikaru the news. I know he is into all this religious stuff, so perhaps he can help me! Maybe he can tell me what symbolism and such to add that I don’t know about, he’s always good with that…!

As I arrive to the door and open up the lock, immediately I hear a gasp and scrambling—and once I walk in I notice merely one candle lit, nearing its end, and Hikaru sitting up on the couch, disheveled, a fearful look in his eye.

“Nykhte bon, Hikaru!” I smile, trying to be a bit quiet to not disturb the neighbors—but it’s hard not to with this excitement!

“Sâlêzj , Alex…” he says softly, in the same muted tone as always. Now it’s hard not to frown a little; I know that’s the greeting he has always used, but it’s so uncouth, it might make others think poorly of him…

“Guess what happened today?” I quickly divert my own thoughts, sitting next to him a bit more abruptly than I wanted to, in my excitement.

“Hmm?”

“I’ve been commissioned by the royal family! I’m making an icon for the Soléiâ de Sâze Léidi!”

“What?!” he says, eye growing wide, “Are you serious?”

“As much as I can be!” I laugh, putting my arm around him. “Isn’t it incredible?”

“It really is…” he trails off, gazing away from me and towards the clock. “Is that why you were away for so long? It’s almost two…”

“Yeah, some friends put on a little impromptu party—sorry I forgot to send a messenger again, but—!”

“Alex…” he says softly, “Can you…please not forget again? I’ve been worried sick about you, I almost called on the guards…”

“Hikaru…” I frown, “You should know by now I’m fine; I always am, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he says, closing his eye.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m just tired.”

“You’re still a bad liar…”

He turns away from me, and sighs.

“Nothing changes when I say something, aside from us all getting hurt feelings; so it’s not worth saying anything.”

Gently I take my hand and put it on his chin, slowing turning his face to me.

“Why do you say that?”

“When I asked if we could stay home a little more, you seemed upset…”

“But why stay here, when there’s a big world out there for us to explore?”

“You’ve…not even invited me to anything lately.”

“Well, you seem like you’re not really interested in these things, and besides—erm…”

You wouldn’t be allowed, is what I almost say. It’s only for the upper classes, you can’t just bring your own servant wherever you go.

“Uh…” I mumble under my breath again, now at my own thoughts.

When did you stop being a “servant” only in name, so others wouldn’t look at us askance…and become my actual servant?

“Pšyku,” Hikaru mutters, “This is what—”

“No,” I interrupt him. “Hikaru, uh…would you like me to invite you more often, find us more things to do together?”

“Even if I’m…”

“Even if you’re what?”

“I know I’m just a blight on your reputation,” he sighs softly. “Looking like this, being so sensitive I can scarcely do anything, I know I’m—”

“My beloved,” I whisper, clasping my hand around his.

For as wonderful as this marvelous, sparkling world is…is it worth losing you?

In spite of how magnificent it is…I don’t think so.

“I guess it’s easy to get caught up within it all,” I say quietly, “But no matter what…I love you most, Hikaru.”

“Are you sure?” he asks not rudely or sharply…but gently, genuinely, as though he really doesn’t know.

Suddenly I feel nauseous, like I might vomit.

I thought the goal was to make him happy, both of us happy; and yet…

“All right,” I sigh, “From now on…let’s just talk, all right? If either of us does something the other finds disagreeable, or if we’re unhappy about something, anything—we need to talk about this. I don’t want us to never discuss anything, until…until it’s too late.”

“All right, then…” he nods.

“So…what are you thinking, Hikaru?”

“I’m thinking I’m being left behind…I can’t keep up in this world, and you’re going to continue along without me, and I…”

“…And you?”

“And I don’t know if I want to stay in this cage forever.”

“Is that what Solzédniê feels like to you—a cage? It’s not always so loud, it’s—”

“It’s not only that…although that doesn’t help, no,” he says quietly. “Everything is so gaudy and fake here.”

I frown at his words—my immediate thought is simply you don’t understand. But I doubt saying that will change anything…

I just have to show him how great it is here, somehow.

“You really haven’t seen that much of Solzédniê, have you?”

“Well, I suppose not…”

“Then here!” I move my hand away from his, and once more put my arm around him, pulling him close, “Stay with me, and I’ll show you all it has to offer! I promise you, it’ll be great!”

“If you say so,” he smiles sweetly, although…something tells me it’s not entirely genuine.}

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Just as always, I continue along the imagined path, hand intertwined with Hikaru’s—although today the world appears more dim than usual. Perhaps it is simply the weather; ever since the shining day on the lake, the world has become perpetually cloudy and dim...

Or it is simply the dreams, as I am forced to witness Alex delighting in the gilded world I have little patience for now, and watch as Hikaru uncomfortably attempts to navigate it; and to make matters worse, last evening’s was especially horrid…

Ugh, to think that she met him! I suppose it is not terribly surprising Elise and Alex may have crossed paths at least once, and yet—she is among the last people I ever wish to see! And especially not her flirting with—well, perhaps not myself, yet who I once was—!

Even more dreadful, it is…strange to see how similar, at least in appearance, we truly are. Although she was surely a decade or so younger than myself then…yes, it is true the Lebruns have a strong family resemblance, especially our faces; it appears to me she looked almost exactly alike myself then. Of course, aside from the fact that in all other aspects she looks as a Lebrun is meant to look, unlike myself. And yet…

I gaze up towards Hikaru, who is looking out into the distance, his hair flowing subtly in the breeze as we walk.

What, perhaps, would my life be if I was more desirable? If I more closely resembled Elise, or someone most consider beautiful? Would I be walking like this with you, Hikaru?

I think back to the day on the lake, my mind flitting back and forth from place to place. The time when, for a moment, any ill thoughts melted away. Although I do not mean to, I cannot help but squeeze his arm a little tighter, and lean into him.

Yes, I believe in all respects, I am quite happy with the way we are now…

“Everything all right?” Hikaru asks, looking down to me.

“Yes, why?”

“It just seems like you tensed up, and came closer…”

At this, I cannot help but laugh.

“Are you still not used to the concept of cuddling, Hikaru?”

“What? N-No, it was just a bit out of nowhere—” he says, face becoming a little redder.

“You say this as though I am not always quite near you!” I cannot help but beam as I tease him.

“You usually don’t squeeze that tightly, though.”

“…Was it particularly so?”

“It was.”

“Ah, please forgive—”

“There’s nothing to forgive you for…but I’m happy it seems the weather isn’t souring your mood,” he chuckles.

Ah, that is not entirely true; the day is so cloudy and dreary, as so many days are now, it seems. It is quite disheartening, yet at least I believe I am becoming better at uplifting my own mood…

“Is it with you?” I ask, “I assumed you would enjoy the respite from the sun.”

“To an extent,” he says, “But after a week—I forgot how bleak it gets up here, sometimes.”

“Indeed…” I sigh, looking up away from him, and merely to the Sky. Ah, to make it worse, it appears it shall soon rain…even if he and I remain dry, the mud which always cakes around our boots in such weather is very unpleasant. But ah, it cannot be helped.

I sigh, and gaze ahead of myself—and just as swiftly as my mood darkened, suddenly something in the distance peaks my interest. To the north-east begins a forest, and peering out from above the woods is a building. Already a notable sight in this barren land, where the villages are increasingly growing tiny, and are much more spread apart than further south. Yet, even on its own, it is something to behold. It is absolutely massive, surely dozens upon dozens of feet tall; various towers propel from it in a disjointed fashion, and it appears to be made of dark stone.

“Hikaru, in the distance…could that truly be a castle?”

“It appears so.”

I take a sharp breath, in awe of the strange building…

Now I surely feel hypocritical—seeing the magnificent buildings of Solzédniê within my dreams simply annoys me now, I wish for little to do with the world of the aristocracy, royalty, any of it; yet, I feel quite amazed at the sight of this ancient palace. But, it is—

“I had no idea they even still existed…” I say under my breath, “At least, I had never witnessed one, nor heard of anyone I knew visiting one…”

“That’s because they don’t anymore,” Hikaru says, “Not in the southern provinces, at least. When Solzédniê became more centralized, they were taken apart to use for other things.”

“And in the northern provinces? I have never heard of an aristocrat who lives in a castle…”

“It’s probably abandoned.”

“Is it common to stumble upon abandoned buildings here? From your home, the places you have told me of exploring long ago…”

“Yeah,” he says, “That’s why I’m so sure everything that was in my house still is…it’s not that uncommon to come across abandoned houses, villages—and sometimes, even entire castles up here.”

I cannot gaze away from the castle, a queer curiosity overcoming me…

“What a desolate land this is…”

“That’s what I liked about it, when I was younger.”

“And now?”

He looks out into the distance for a moment.

“It seems like a terrible place for a bakery.”

I laugh, and pull him closer.

“Are you attempting to appease me?”

“You don’t agree?”

I laugh once more, “I simply did not anticipate that you would become as invested as myself!”

“Of course,” he replies softly, “To see you as happy as when you baked at Florence’s—I’d give anything for that.”

I look up to his face, unable to contain the slight tears within my eyes. After so many years, I have a husband—not merely a man society calls such, but truly, sincerely…

“Lêm sâ tsiâ né, Hikaru,” I smile softly to him.

“Lêm mo sâ tsiâ né, Suzette,” he says, now put his arm around my shoulder, and bringing me into his side.

We continue walking quietly for a time, the Sky becoming a wretched dark gray. And yet, I can scarcely gaze away from the castle…

“Hikaru,” I say after a time, “We should visit there…”

“The castle?”

“Indeed—have you ever visited one?”

“I’ve not…” he says, in a tone that sounds a tad confused. “Is there a particular reason?”

“It appears it shall rain soon…”

“Well, we always stay dry—”

“For one who travels so often, you are not particularly adventurous, are you, Hikaru?”

“Hmm…” he hums, “I guess I’m less so with you here.”

I cannot help but frown at this…

“And why is that?”

“Do you need to ask?”

“Could it truly be that dangerous?”

“Well, who knows what kind of condition it might be in; and besides, it could be…” he trails off, and does not finish his sentence.

“Are you worried about it being…haunted?” I attempt not to scoff, and yet—

“Suzette,” he sighs, “Surely of all the things you’ve witnessed, that is not the one that seems impossible…”

“I would not say that,” I mutter, thinking back upon my own life—even before I had met him I encountered what appeared to be phantoms; albeit, admittedly I have always discarded such things in the absence of more definitive proof. Still…

“It is…” I continue, “Do you truly believe them to be so dangerous? Have you had an ill experience with a phantom before?”

“I’ve not,” he says, “But it’s still—”

“Trust in yourself,” I smile to him, “And trust in me too…as we shall be settling down, when shall we get another opportunity such as this? We traveled through Florêt Folwêkhdin, attended a faerie party, and escaped Solzédniê quite all right…”

Hikaru laughs quite loudly at this.

“I didn’t realize how wild our journey has already been!”

“See!” I join along with him, “And besides, I—I quite like having such experiences with you, before…” I cease my sentence, leaving the rest left unsaid.

…Before we have a family together.

For some reason, I am a tad afraid to broach the subject with him, even though I may already be—

“All right then,” he says, “You’re right…I’m probably just being paranoid.”

“We can be quite decent at this…” I say softly.

“Yeah,” he says, “But I like your idea better; simply enjoying ourselves, seeing what to world has to offer.”

“Me too,” I reply, as we continue ever closer to the castle.

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

After some time walking through the meadows and into the woods, we come upon a river which I had not noticed before; and by following the river, we at last come upon the entrance to the castle. Not soon enough, it seems, at the sprinkling of water begins to rain down…

In spite of this, I cannot help but stare in awe for a moment at the structure before me. It sits slightly in a valley, yet upon a mound that propels it upwards into the Sky. On all sides it is surrounded by the river which Hikaru and I had followed—a moat, I believe—with a stone bridge connecting to the structure itself. It is incredible how intact it is; the stone bricks, now clearly a bit of a lighter color than they first appeared, all seem to be in their proper place. Vibrant green vines reach up the walls and make their way into the windows; and yet otherwise, it would appear the building is mostly sound. Even the roofs appear to be at least intact.

“I have never witnessed anything like this in my life…” I whisper, almost as though I do not wish to disturb the ground itself; much like in Florêt Folwêkhdin. “Are there even buildings this tall in Solzédniê?”

“I don’t believe so,” Hikaru replies in an equally hushed tone, as we walk up to the rotting door which leads to the grounds.

In spite of its incredibly dilapidated state—or perhaps to an extent, because of it—Hikaru still must push with what appears to be much of his strength to open it, grimacing as the door slowly moves through the dirt, some of the thick boards bulging under the pressure. After a moment, one of the boards he was pushing upon falls apart completely; yet, luckily, it is open enough that even I may come inside.

We walk into the grounds, quite a small area; although perhaps it is because of the location, on this little island that widens the river. Looking down, it is clear much of this land was once neatly paved in stone, just as the bridge. Yet over time, it has sunken within the Earth, plants have much overtaken its former splendor…and yet, in a strange way, it manages to be enchanting.

Hikaru reaches into his bag, takes out and alights his lantern—and with his other hand, he reaches for mine and clasps it tightly.

“Are you ready?” he asks.

“Of course!” I chirp in reply. Even though there is admittedly quite an unnerving aura emanating from this place, perhaps I myself am growing more adventurous…

We walk to the entrance of the castle proper, which is luckily much easier to open than the first. Inside the building it is incredibly dark and dusty, yet no sound can be heard aside from the two of us, and the soft pattering of the rain outside. Immediately I notice something that appears almost a bit miraculous; upon the ground is a large rug; although it has clearly fared better once long ago, it is still here, not fully rotten. As Hikaru and I walk further, the lamplight softly guiding us—I end up gasping at the sight before us.

In front of us lies a truly massive tapestry, done in a style I have only ever seen in illustrations in books—not quite realistic in the slightest, yet highly ornate, showing numerous leaves and flowers adorning the sides of the image. And in the middle, a massive figure perhaps twenty feet tall. Although she is depicted quite different from now, it is undeniably Lady Sun, her golden crown and butterfly wings illuminating the world of the tapestry. While it is a magnificent image, different from any I have witnessed…I cannot help but frown, and tense up…

While I myself have never had any religious devotion to Lady Sun, even I may admit that icons of her are often quite lovely—her eyes closed, a serene smile upon her face, hands outstretched to spread her light across the world. Yet here, an entirely different scene is illuminated…in her left hand she holds a raging fire, in her right a massive broadsword dripping with blood. Rather than smiling peacefully, her face is twisted into a heavy scowl—

And her piercing blue eyes are open, staring down so that it looks as though she is glaring straight through the soul of the viewer.

“T-They interpreted Lady Sun quite differently in the era of war…” I stumble a little.

“It certainly seems so…” Hikaru replies, even his voice sounding as though he is unnerved. “I knew she wasn’t quite the ‘Lady of Order and Prosperity’ she’s often painted as now, but…”

“…You did not know either?” I look up to him, even more disturbed. He always seemed so incredibly knowledgeable on religious matters; I suppose I assumed he knew practically everything…

“To me she’s always seemed very vain and cruel, but not…warlike, necessarily.”

“Perhaps it is a consequence of their culture?”

“I guess so,” he says, shaking his head.

“Well, Suzette,” he says, swiftly changing the subject, “Which way would you like to go?”

I gaze around, and to either side of us are very large staircases, taller than even the tapestry.

“Hmm—the left!” I say enthusiastically, still attempting not to become dour already. This is quite an experience, I need not become melancholic so soon…although as we come upon the staircase, I only frown further.

The stone steps are quite tall, at least for myself, coming nearly to my knees; so that, along with the staircase itself being so tall…

Ah, I pestered Hikaru so much about visiting here, so I do not wish to turn back—

Hikaru steps upon the stairs first, and I follow behind as swiftly as I can. That is, not terribly fast…

“Sâ pšyku,” I mutter, “Please forgive me, these stairs are so…”

“Would you like to turn back? We can leave if you—”

“No, no, I shall be fine! I may just hold you back…”

“I’m not in a hurry,” Hikaru turns back to me, smiling sweetly, “So take as much time as you need.”

At this I smile widely in return, a sense of ease returning—and so he and I slowly but steadily traverse up the steps.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is not long before my legs begin to hurt. Yet, more so than even this, I begin to focus upon something else; a faint, could breeze which occasionally caresses us, and what sounds like the occasionally tapping of shoes in the distance.

“Hikaru,” I whisper, “What is that sound?”

“Well,” he replies, “I did warn you we probably wouldn’t be alone here.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” I sigh. Although I cannot say I am entirely frightened of them, with the eeriness of the tapestry of Lady Sun—I suppose hearing the footsteps of the dead does not put me at any more ease.

Perhaps this is all a sign I truly should reign in my own curiosity…

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

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