Katarina descended behind Vlanca when the girl defeated the last remaining kordova. After casting several spells to cleanse the green syrupy substance from her body and eliminate the pungent smell, she then pulled the girl under a tree and sat on its thick roots. “Rest for a bit,” she urged, patting the space next to her.
Vlanca blushed immensely as she played with her fingers. Her feet swayed, her eyes kept going in different places.
“Come on…” The old woman beamed a warm smile. “Even if you have a lot of mana left, your body still needs some time to catch your breath.”
Vlanca nodded awkwardly as she sat beside her. Silence then followed suit; the dry wind brushed their skins while the massive tree protected them from the heat of the blazing sun.
“I wonder why your mana control seemed really rough though,” Katarina broke the silence after a while. “Didn’t they teach you how in the Kingdom?”
Vlanca bit her lower lip, staring somewhere else unseeingly. “I’m a slave, your ladyship. Being kept alive was the only right I have.”
“But even slaves are taught properly how to use magic, Vlanca. Everyone needs it. It’s a necessity.”
Vlanca parted her hair, showing the severed horns atop her head. “But I’m no human, your ladyship.” She sucked a deep breath that left her mouth wide open for a second. She shed a tear which she wiped off in no time.
And then there was silence again, but Katarina knew how much the girl was holding back. With a heavy heart, she asked, “So everything you know is self-taught?”
Vlanca shook her head. “Honestly, there’s a nobleman who would occasionally teach me how to perceive the flow of mana. He also secretly brought me food when he had the time…”
“Can you tell me who?”
“I promised him that I won’t tell a soul, your ladyship.” She shook her head again. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright.” Katarina smiled and brushed the girl’s hair. “Somehow… it’s nice to know that there are still people like that in Mondragon.”
“Is it truly alright to keep it a secret?” Vlanca whispered, her trembling voice almost inaudible.
“It’s your choice, Vlanca. You’re free now, and I’m no longer a noblewoman.” A warm smile crept on her lips again. “You could say that that makes us equal.”
The girl returned the gesture, both her ears and cheeks turning red. “Arthur said the same thing-“
“Arthur?” Katarina blurted out, her voice coming out louder than intended.
“I’m so sorry, your ladyship…” Her head turned down. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful to Arthur, I mean the lord-“
Katarina laughed amusingly. “It’s not like that, Vlanca. I’m just surprised and all. I know he’s been asking you to drop the courtesy, but you seemed determined not to do so. Can you tell me how my boy did it?”
Vlanca thought for a bit, unsure if she should tell Katarina. After looking at the old woman’s hopeful eyes, she finally spoke again. “Arthur said that if I’m his older sister, then I should call him by his name or nickname. He said that we’re family too.”
“I could imagine him saying that. But Vlanca…” Katarina paused, meeting her eyes.
“Wouldn’t you do the same thing to me? I mean, if you’re his older sister and I’m his grandmother, what does that make us?”
Katarina sucked a breath. “Vlanca?”
She clapped both hands in delight. “That’s right! I would be pleased if you’d call me granny too.”
“Granny?” Vlanca repeated, her whole face, ears, and neck flushed like a tomato. She lowered her gaze as she felt the old woman’s hand on her hair, gently caressing it.
“It is still your choice, Vlanca. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, you are free now. You don’t have to do as I say. However…” Katarina paused, giving her her warmest smile. “I’m asking you this because I earnestly feel like you are part of my family now.”
The girl bent her knees, clasped it with both arms, and rested her head on it. “I don’t think I deserved this kindness.” Vlanca bit her lower lip. She forced the tears back in her eyes that stubbornly wanted to fall, but in the end, she gave in. “I was brought here by hate, and yet… and yet… I was welcomed with kindness I’ve never felt before.”
Katarina patted her back. “You can let it out, Vlanca. You can let it out.“
She slowly tilted her head sidewards, looking straight in Katarina’s eyes for the first time. “I don’t know if I have the right to say it, after all the kindness you’ve shown me…”
The old woman didn’t say anything, instead, she gave her an encouraging smile.
Vlanca took successive breaths and gathered all her courage, the tree’s shadow bathing them in utter stillness. It felt strangely comforting as though she finally found solace in this cruel world. “I never really had any friends, even before I became a slave,” she began. “I grew up in the big city of Tarchan’nen. It was filled with many people, most of whom were humans who hated our existence. At the same time, my parents always talked about another City far into the North. They always mentioned how they wanted to move there. After all, it would be good for us, because the people there were friendly, even to our kind.”
Her fingers clutched against her knees while the old woman patted her back. “And then it happened…The civil war happened…” The tears stopped for a moment, her expression turning grim. “I was five, then, when a serpent dragon rampaged in the city. I don’t remember what exactly happened but… There were many people on the streets, crying, bawling, and running in panic. There was fire everywhere.”
“I know…” Katarina bit her trembling lips. “I was there too…”
Vlanca nodded slowly as she took a massive breath, her voice cracking. “And then… and then…” Her cries rose, her eyes became springs of waterfalls. Her breathing became erratic, while her palms brushed her legs. She looked up, as though desperate to find further peace. “My parents died because of me… They died trying to protect me. But because I was a demon… Only because I was a demon… A noble took me away and made me her slave.”
Katarina could only pull her into a tight embrace. “It’s fine… It’s going to be fine…” she hummed, her voice velvet soft. “I’m here. Arthur is here. You’re not alone anymore.”
Vlanca cried her heart out. Her soft sobs resonated behind Katarina’s ears. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” she repeated many times in between her sobs.
“Shhh…” Katarina gently patted her back. “Don’t be… No one judges you here because you’re a demon…”
“But…” She took a massive breath, desperately wiping her tears. “But I always loathed her ladyship, that’s why I tried to kill you and Arthur. My master made me believe that it was her ladyship who instigated the civil conflict that killed my parents.” She broke free from her embrace and looked at Katarina’s eyes a second time. “But it wasn’t her ladyship, wasn’t it?”
Katarina silently shook her head.
Her eyes flashed in pain and regret as she wiped the last drop of tears, followed by a hint of anger. “I guess I was too stupid for believing them then, too stupid for believing the people who enslaved me.”
“Then I guess I was partly at fault too,” Katarina replied with a bitter smile. “I believed the wrong people too. I didn’t realize I was keeping an enemy under my nose all along… And that’s why all of us are here. If only I was-“
“I don’t think it’s your fault-“
“That’s what I’m trying to say, Vlanca. Nothing of it is our fault. If there is one to blame, it was the traitors and the conspiring nobles.” Katarina extended her arm and held Vlanca’s hand. “We can blame ourselves or one another, but what’s truly important is what we do after that. Do we move forward or do we let our anger consume us?”
Vlanca bit her lower lip, slightly shaking her head. “But what should I do?”
“Only you can answer that, Vlanca. As for me, despite all the hate I felt, there is one thing I wanted to do – it is to protect my precious Arthur.” Her hand moved to Vlanca’s chest, feeling her heartbeats. “I don’t want you to lose sight of everything because of what you felt here. If you don’t want to stay here, in a few years, I could ask someone to take you somewhere else, perhaps in the Demon Continent.”
“Demon Continent?” Her eyes widened for a second. “Such a place exists?”
“Yes, and it is filled with your kind. The world is a very very big place, Vlanca. If one can’t find a place for themselves, then they could always create one. And this place? This is a place I build for myself and Arthur – a place that you can call yours too.”
“A civil war?” Arthur asked, staring at the staff with a curious gaze.
“Yes…” Duliri answered. “After the war against the Dorc Empire, both Lord and Lady Allegia’s titles were restored. But because of the friction between her ladyship and her family, they chose to come back to Mondragon instead where they became the Duke and Duchess of Allegia City.”
“And then years later…” Hula added with a dead-serious tone. “Well, we’re not sure what happened, my lord, as we have no recollection of your father’s memory five years before his death, however, what we’re sure of is that-“
“Stop beating around the bush, Hula,” Duliri interjected. He then inched closer to Arthur, the orb a few inches away from the boy’s face. “The lord and the lady were betrayed by their friends, by the same friends who helped them find the ancient dragon. They conspired with some nobles and the prince to frame them into organizing a coup d’etat. The prince then killed the king, pushed the blame on them, and took the throne for himself…”
Arthur’s jaw hung for a moment, his breathing paused. “Why would-“
The boy quickly cocked his head towards the window as a loud buzzing sound resonated outside the house. He listened, his heart thumping against his chest. Amid the buzzing noise, he could hear the birds squeaking, quickly flapping their wings as if they were fleeing from something.
“What was-” he barely muttered, but he hadn’t even finished when logs creaked outside. Slow snapping noise continued to echo. And then without warning, a series of crashing noise followed. Like a domino, trees fell one after another.
Arthur briefly looked at the staff, and not a second later, he raced to the window and peeked outside. Chills ran down his spine while his eyes widened. His breathing and heartbeats completely stopped. The three-year-old boy stood like a stone statue.
“Just what the heck are those?” he finally asked, still unable to blink.
“I don’t know, my lord…” Hula whispered, barely containing his composure. “But this must be the worst news… Ever.”