The wings of the angel, folded onto itself so its body was all but obscured, while its head peeped between the glowing white impression of marble, looking like a curly-headed child with rounded cheeks, was the sight that met the young woman's eyes constantly as she knelt on the red carpet of the old temple. But though her hands were folded in the lap of her white satin dress quietly, and though she seemed to listen to the repeated murmurs of the whispered prayers of the people surrounding her, the young woman's mind was, at that moment, very far away from the dim, echoing hall. Her large blue eyes, that seemed to be constantly fastened upon the intricate decoration carved upon the great marble arch fixed above the preacher's pulpit, had an absent look to them. Her pale golden hair, bathed in a flood of quiet sunlight that happened to channel itself directly upon her kneeling form, shimmered with a sparkle of dancing lights and, combined with the pure glow of her pale dress, seemed to turn her into an ideal picture of feminine serenity. But this impression was again belied by the hint of something else that lurked at the corner of her mouth and inside her eyes, a hint of a propensity for mischief that, even if it was never carried out, seemed to be at least contemplated upon. If anything, the brand of a model of propriety and femininity could have been more correctly attributed to her neighbor.
This last was an elegant young woman of about the same age, clad in a white gown similar to the one of her fair-haired companion, with dark hair that tumbled down her back and shoulders in bright, lustrous waves. Unlike her companion, her head was bent low and her eyes were closed; her lips moved quietly with an inner whisper. While she was praying, her fair-haired neighbor was earnestly studying a passing sparkle of light on the white curves of the marble angel, and meditating the fresh, inviting greenery of that early summer day, and of her longing to be outside in the meadows and hills, whose sweet, enticing smell were borne to her that morning on the warm breeze. She glanced at the young woman kneeling at her side, a beginning of a smile curling the corner of her mouth, as if she was meditating upon something that would be considered particularly improper by her dark-haired companion. This last sensed her movement, because she stirred at last and, opening her eyes and turning her head, she met the gaze of the blond girl.
"Are you ready to go, Alyssa?" she asked with a smile of evident amusement, that spread itself to her pretty features, and glowed inside her dark eyes. The fair-haired girl, Alyssa, became somber at once, though her words belied the serious air she assumed. "I have been asking the same question of myself this last half-hour," she replied.
"I have not doubt of that," remarked the dark-haired girl, rising to her feet and shaking her white gown, then fixing the violet cloak cut around it, and smoothing her hand down its golden borders.
"You are so GOOD, Phanna," said Alyssa with a voice of mock penitence, as she followed her dark-haired cousin through the trail of the temple's central red carpet and outside into the bright sunshine. "I don't think I'll ever be as good as you, even if I tried. But then again," she smiled at her now, a smile that had the secretive air of mischief, like a child that knew it was bad and enjoyed it. "I just think I don't want to be that good."
Phanna smiled at Alyssa again, the amusement curling her mouth at the corner with a quiver. "I don't know what I'll ever do with you, Alyssa. There's no use telling you to be good, seeing that you are able to get away with being bad."
Alyssa regarded her with a serious expression. "How can I be good?" she asked. "Being good take practice, and I've had almost none of it."
Phanna shook her head, still smiling. "With that, I certainly agree. Well, I think we better set out towards my house now."
The two young women begun to walk down the path of white stones that led towards the temple, passing a neat lawn with violets growing thickly at its borders, and out into a broader avenue, bordered on both sides with tightly-built shops and workhouses. They were immediately assaulted with a closed crowd that produced a din of noise and various smells which, in the quieter area of the Temple, had been absent. Phanna shook her head with an air of distaste.
"This is why I like the Temple," she remarked, pressing herself against Alyssa. "It's so quiet there. Oh, the noise here is awful today! Here, take my hand until we find our carriage; I don't want us to get separated."
"We're just too used to the rare luxury of having quiet, large mansions as our dwelling place, not to mention all the grounds around it," Alyssa replied, her thin, agile body moving adroitly within the tight crowds. "I wonder why the situation is so bad today; something important must have happened." Before Phanna could protest, she detained one of the passer-byes, and questioned him about the unusual havoc.
The man, paying reverence to the two richly-clad young ladies, explained that preparations on the further side of town were being made at the moment, for the General from the Empire of Perilyn that was to be visiting on the morrow. The soldiers that organized the preparations were pushing the people farther down that main avenue, which resulted in a heavier crowd on this side of it.
"The Imperial general!" Alyssa cried in a loud whisper, pressing Phanna's hand. "Oh, I almost forgot about it! What I wouldn't do to be able to see the procession!"
"Don't talk nonsense, Alyssa," Phanna replied with a slight air of impatience, as she scouted the street for the belated carriage. "My mother will never let me go. In fact, I have a suspicion that the carriage will be delayed by all this havoc, and that we will be so late in coming home that, instead of asking me why I went away early from the temple, she will be angry at me for coming late."
"But think of it," Alyssa urged, her face becoming animated. "The Royal Guard will be in the procession! I will give anything to see Dyluck in such an honorable position."
"His position is honorable enough as it is," Phanna replied, not without a dry touch to her voice, as she shot a glance at Alyssa's brightened countenance. She then turned her face away and spoke a little quickly, almost seeming to want to brush the subject away: "Alyssa, let's try to move away from the crowds. I feel stifled here."
"There's nowhere to move to," Alyssa remarked with a smile. But perceiving from Phanna's countenance that she was feeling some true distress, she held her hand tighter. "Don't worry," she declared. "I will find us a way out."
The two young women proceeded to push their way through the crowd, but this time it was Phanna who followed Alyssa at a short distance behind. Alyssa was indeed remarkably good at making her way through the tight knots of people. Her intrusion and insistent pushing was sometimes received with tolerance, but most of the time it was received with a marked lack of graciousness. Phanna, one of her hands in Alyssa's, the other pressed tight to the side of her gown, seemed wary of the dirty, sometimes poorly-clad bodies that pressed around her. As a nobleman's daughter, she grew in a quiet, spacious house, and crowds made her anxious. The grubby, coarse hands of people that pushed past her touched her cloths, and she tried to ward them off, conscious of the contrast the expensive silk made to the dirty, dull-colored clothes of the more common people.
Alyssa was aware of Phanna's discomfort. She herself was more used to crowds and gatherings of the common people, having stolen, forbidden, to many of them in the past. She kept up a continuos chatter in an effort to try and ward her cousin's mind off their discomfort.
"Phanna," she said, "what was the Imperial general's name? I don't seem to remember it, or maybe I just haven't heard it. Dyluck told me a little about it yesterday, but he was mostly discussing the details of the procession, so I didn't catch the name."
Instead of replying, Phanna said: "Oh, Alyssa, you don't really mean you were with Dyluck yesterday? Your father--"
Alyssa cut her off impatiently. "Yes, I know. And yes, I do go to see Dyluck often without his permission. You know that already."
Phanna didn't reply, and her eyes seemed to darken. But after a moment, recalling Alyssa's question, she recollected herself abruptly. "The general's name is, I recall, Fanha. I can easily remember it since it's pronounced exactly like mine, though it's spelled differently. An odd name, for a man."
"Yes, but I think I heard it used before," Alyssa remarked. "Isn't he one of the four great generals of the Perilyn Empire?"
"Yes," Phanna replied. "But he is rather a latecomer. Only came about two years ago, I think." She paused, then added: "At any rate, I am glad Thanatos isn't the one who is coming. But then again, he is never seen much outside the Empire. Have you heard of the rumors, Alyssa?"
"The Dark Cult?" Alyssa asked, lowering her voice a little and slowing her pace so that she fell at Phanna's side. "Yes, I did, but my father doesn't talk about it much. He says it's all nonsense. Did your mother speak about it?"
Phanna nodded in affirmation. "The rumors about the cult are seeping into Freya little by little." Her voice likewise dropped in tone. "I heard my mother speaking about it yesternoon."
"What did she say?" Alyssa questioned quickly. "If I know your mother, she would say that Thanatos was in league with the Devil. He probably is. They say his face is always shielded by a mask, and that no one has ever seen its true features. Some say he's not even human. His cult is sacrilegious."
Phanna looked at Alyssa intently, and noticed the eager gleam in her eyes. Alyssa had a thirst for knowledge about countries and places in the outside world, a longing to know more, that Phanna couldn't understand or sympathize with. She herself felt that she would be afraid to travel far from her home. That morning she only intended to go to the temple, and here she was, trapped in a mass of people and longing for some silence and air. "She did not say that," she replied. "But in all probability--"
She stopped herself. She did not want to talk about such matters, not even in daylight, and wondered why Alyssa had such a keen interest in horrors. She held Alyssa's hand tighter with a self-consciousness, then noticed that they were, indeed, farther from the crowd. "Alyssa," she said, speaking briskly, "let us go towards that house over there."
Alyssa noticed Phanna's reluctance, and, knowing her cousin, understood it. She abandoned the topic and veered towards the original discussion. "About Fanha. Isn't he related to Sheex, one of the Four?"
"Yes," Phanna replied. "So they say." The two young women headed towards a small, quiet-looking house that sat on the edge of the street, near a small yard that cultivated nothing but wild weeds. They leant against a half-painted fence. The other houses in the area were similar in appearance. Phanna did not remark about the area's general air of poverty; she seemed to be glad to escape the stifling crowds. A few people passed in the streets, but the place was small and narrow and backway, and the passerbys, mostly children playing in the street, paid no attention to them.
Alyssa continued to speak. "My father said Geshtar hates Fanha. But then again, they all must hate each other because of the power rivalry. Well, except Fanha and Sheex, who, my father says, are on remarkably good terms. No wonder, since Sheex is the one who brought Fanha in."
"I always fancied they are all unified and supportive of each other," said Phanna, with a slightly wondering glance at Alyssa. "Why do you think that they are rivals?"
Alyssa replied briskly. "Oh, it's just your common politics. Fanha must be as good as Geshtar, and Geshtar must be afraid for his place. It's easy to deduce, really."
Phanna shook her head. "You take such interest in such political matters, just like any of the men," she remarked. But she was smiling again.
"That's because they're more interesting than the affairs of the women," Alyssa replied succinctly. "This is why I like talking to Dyluck. He's seen so much of the world outside this city. Sometimes I envy him so much!"
Phanna made no reply, and Alyssa, turning her countenance in the direction of the street, said: "Phanna, I think the crowds are easing again. Let's go back towards the center of the road. The carriage must have been waiting for us there for a long time."
Phanna obeyed, and started to move after Alyssa towards the end of the road. They were only walking a little while up the narrow sidewalk, when a helmeted cavalier passed in the center of the street, riding a large grey horse. The few passerbys made way for him, and the children scattered and stood at the edges of the houses, gaping at the beautiful horse and the shining metal on the knight's breastplate. The rider paid no attention to them; but then he spotted the two young women. He reigned the horse sharply with a sudden movement, turning towards them. Then, he cried out:
Alyssa made a half-turn, surprised; then her face changed into a glad expression. "Phanna!" she whispered, "it's Dyluck! We're in luck."
The rider, approaching them, raised the visor of his helmet. "If it isn't little Alyssa," he said, his mouth curling. "And little Phanna too." He took the helmet off, revealing the handsome face of a young man in his mid-twenties, and ran a hand through his wheat-colored hair, that got ruffled under the helmet. His dark eyes smiled with a kind of an expression very similar to Alyssa's.
Phanna made no answer, but Alyssa ran up to him as quickly as she could, clutching the hem of her pale silken dress with one hand. She paused by the steed and raised her other hand to clutch at the reins. "Dyluck!" she said, smiling up at him. "We got caught in the crowds, and barely got away. We need to get back to the temple as quickly as possible."
"I am at your service, madam," replied the young man with mock grandeur. He leapt off the horse. "Here," he said, with a bow, "you ladies will ride, and I will lead the horse. We'll have no problem then." He offered his arm to Alyssa, but she smiled at him. "I don't need any help," she said, putting her foot in the stirrup. Within a moment, she was upon the horse, holding the reigns with an expert hand. She smiled brightly at Dyluck with childlike pleasure, seeming proud of her quick performance. Dyluck grinned back with approval and turned towards Phanna. He made another of his flourishing bows, extending his hand. "Will this lady take advantage of my gallantry, then?" he asked.
Phanna, who had been standing with perfect silence until that moment, nodded faintly. Dyluck led her up to the horse and, bending forwards, placed his hands around her waist. As he did so, he bent very low so his face was very near Phanna's cheek, and whispered with a very low voice:
"It's always such a pleasure to help this lovely lady."
Then, he aided her to mount the horse with one easy thrust. Phanna, seated behind Alyssa, hung her face low, but he could still see that she had flushed crimson. Alyssa didn't notice anything; she was staring intently forwards. Dyluck, placing himself by the horse's head, took the reign and begun to lead it down the street.
"At least introduce me to the general."
Dyluck made an uncommitted noise and turned around, smoothing his hair back in the mirror. Alyssa watched his turned back almost imploringly. At his side she turned into a wide-eyed child, and he sensed this and enjoyed the control he had over this bright, rebellious, childlike young woman. He meditated the contrast between her and her elegant, dark-haired cousin. It was odd, he thought, but to him it seemed that the latter, for all her ladylike grace, would be much easier to seduce than this girl. At present, however, he was still enjoying his new rank as head of the Royal guard, and he had no intention to get into serious trouble on the account of any woman.
When the time is right, he reflected, he will choose between them. But for now, he enjoyed Alyssa's company. He knew she was in love with him, but he understood her feelings better than Alyssa herself. Alyssa was not in love with him as much as with the idea he presented, of the knowledgeable outsider, whose disposition was very similar to her own. Dyluck knew it; and yet, he supposed that if she was brought to a crisis, she would be liable to imagine her feelings were stronger than they were, simply by clinging to that ideal of their present bond of friendship. But all that was idle musing, because there was little possibility of any crisis. Despite the fact that she imagined she was defying her father by seeing him, Dyluck knew there was very good, though covert, understanding between himself and the nobleman. Don't touch my daughter, the man seemed to say, and I will indulge her little whim for now.
That man, Dyluck reasoned, will not let me approach his daughter, had he suspected I had any serious designs. If anything, Phanna's respectable parents were more liable to bow to their daughter's wishes. And as such--
Alyssa's voice cut his thoughts. "Please, Dyluck. I would love to see that procession."
Dyluck finally turned around, smiling down into her upturned face. "If you get in trouble, don't blame me."
Alyssa's countenance brightened at once. "I promise to keep out of the way," she said.
"Just make sure to be here as soon as the procession is over," Dyluck said warningly. Alyssa nodded. Then, she turned around and ran out of the room.
Alyssa narrowed her eyes against the glaring sun, lowering the hood of her pale cloak over her eyes. She stood amid a stifling crowd, under the heat of the day, and the smell of sweat mingled with a summery moisture that hung heavily in the air. Every once in a while, the sweet odors of blooming honeysuckles wafted by, dispelling the bad odors; but even these momentary reliefs were not enough. She wriggled her body a little, trying to uncork herself from the tightly gathered crowd.
In the streets, the procession of women carrying flowers preceded the stern-faced soldiers of the royal cavalry. Dyluck was at its head, and Alyssa, trying to gain a better view, eagerly pushed herself forwards. She knew that the general was coming soon, and she wanted to gain a clearer view of the procession. The people around her murmured in protest, and a large man whose position she disturbed cuffed the back of her head. "Here, boy, keep to your place!" he growled.
Alyssa, dodging another blow aimed at her, dropped to her knees and crawled under the man's legs. He made a sound of surprise, but she rose to her feet, and, adroitly managing herself between the various bodies around her, she finally succeeded in pushing herself to the front row and stood before the crowd.
Just at that point, someone cried: "Here's the general!" The people crowded forwards. Someone pushed at Alyssa's back, and she lost her balance for a moment and stumbled.
"You, boy, stop disturbing everyone!" someone said angrily. Alyssa received another strong push from the back, and she staggered forwards and fell to her hands and knees on the street.
The next moment, a large shadow fell over her. She raised her face upwards.
The first thing her gaze met was the huge, dark form of a black horse. The next thing was the sun glittering off a metal armor, and she narrowed her eyes before the sudden glare, shaking her head. "You, boy," said a voice, hard and curt. "What are you doing in the middle of the street?"
Alyssa jumped to her feet at once. She found herself facing a young man sitting on top of the largest, most beautiful black horse she had ever seen. The young man himself was heavily armored, and the sun threw a blinding glare off the polished metal. His face was half concealed by long red hair, but Alyssa could feel glittering black eyes fastened upon her. She shuddered, and her eyes wandered down the metal-covered arm to the spiked glove on the his hand, and the black handle of the whip gripped between his fingers.
"Why aren't you answering me, boy?" the general demanded harshly. "Get out of the way!" He then raised his arm, and the whip lashed at Alyssa. She managed to dodge the blow aimed at her shoulder just in time, but the thin edge caught her on her arm, and she bit her lip, trying not to cry out. She evaded another whiplash and quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Fanha examined the advancing captain of the royal guard with hard eyes. Despite the fact that the fellow had easy, smooth manners and an intelligent demeanor, Fanha did not like him. Not one bit.
There was a woman with him, about sixteen or seventeen, probably, with large, bright eyes and long, pale golden hair woven into the customary braids and wound around her head with a silvery brooch. She was wearing a silken gown of pale colors that shimmered in the candle light; another sign of wealth.
Dyluck pressed Alyssa's fingers. "How do you like him?" he whispered slyly.
"He's odd, and terribly hard-looking," Alyssa whispered back. "The way he lashed his whip at me!"
"You were in the way. I don't know how you manage to do it-- always stumbling into the most difficult spot, and managing to extricate yourself just as adroitly."
"I do not," Alyssa protested.
"I can't make him out at all," Dyluck added, speaking in a very low voice. "He's been here for over a week, supposedly on a political mission, but his manner, well... it's strange. Perhaps it's this way with Imperial people, but he is incredibly haughty and unfriendly."
Both finally became silent as they approached the general. Alyssa was presented, and bowed graciously. The general returned a curt bow that barely moved his body forwards. She made a note of the sharp-featured, good-looking face, with the beautifully curving mouth and thin aristocratic nose, over which the general's long, blood-red hair hung down below his helmet. To her it seemed as if the general was concealing his face on purpose, as if he was seeking to examine people behind a shadow with his dark, hawklike eyes. To her slight surprise she discovered that the general was not quite as tall as she thought he would be; he was hardly as tall as Dyluck, probably half a head shorter. The girth of his body seemed to be exaggerated by the heavy armor, underneath which he was probably quite slim, because the fingers that held the whip were long and thin.
After the brief introduction, they seated themselves at a long table at the side of the wall, where the shimmering candle light threw moving shadows. A mural painted just above their heads depicted a scene from Heaven, with angels trumpeters announcing the word of God, and, in the background, the lavish foliage of the sacred Tree of Life, the tree of Mana, spreading out its bounty. Alyssa found herself looking into the eyes of one of the missionary angels. It was a little separated from the rest; its bright hair seemed to catch a fragment of the green sunlight, and it was sitting amid a spiraling branch of the tree, its hand clutching the golden trumpet. But the angel's eyes, Alyssa found with an odd inner shudder, were curiously dark and absent of meaning. Perhaps it was just a trick of the moving lights, but something in the empty pits of its dark eyes appeared almost sinister to her. She tried ot turn her attention back to the conversation that went on, meanwhile, between Dyluck and the general.
"I've heard of the situation, Captain," the general said with his strong, curt tones. His voice was on a medium level-- neither deep nor high, and his tones were cold and strident. "Has any measures been taken yet?"
Dyluck's voice was as courteous as always, but Alyssa, who had learned to recognize his moods, detected a guarded tone to it. "We only suspect that the source of the sleeping sickness is indeed in the haunted woods. If it is found to be so, measures will be taken, yes."
"It's said that a sorceress lives there," the general said.
"So it is," Dyluck replied. "It is, in fact, an almost confirmed matter. I used to live there, and I remember the rumors."
"You used to live there?" asked the general. "It is a very dangerous place, I have heard. Isn't it the dwelling place of dark creatures?"
Alyssa, who at that moment turned her gaze towards Dyluck, fancied she could see a passing shadow in his eyes. But after a moment it was gone, and he spoke again. "People prefer to keep away from it. And," he added, "if the sorceress is the one responsible for the sickness, then we will certainly take measures against her."
"Dyluck," said Alyssa suddenly, "didn't you once get lost in the woods as a child?"
The general fixed his eyes on Dyluck, narrowing them. Dyluck smiled, but Alyssa noticed, with a certain unease, that the smile seemed suddenly forced. "I did, when I was five years old; I got lost in the Woods and came back a while later. I don't quite remember it, though, because I was only five years old. All I remember is that I was terrorized by fear; but eventually they found me, and everything went well."
Alyssa leant forwards, interested. Dyluck never spoke of this experience before, and she sensed something behind his silence, something that made her apprehensive. As she moved, one of the silken sleeves on her dress, that was lightly fastened to prevent its grating the sore whiplash, came loose and fell back. Her arm with ugly red mark was exposed, and the general took notice of it at once.
"What is this?" he asked, pointing at it. "It looks like the mark of a whip." He raised his eyes and fixed them on Alyssa; she felt a burning flush coming to her cheeks, and she drew the sleeve over it. But the general already guessed, or understood, because after a moment, he said:
"So YOU were that boy that intruded upon the procession in the street."
Alyssa murmured something, trying to voice a refutation, and looked up into his face. To her surprise, his expression had changed. A slight smile raised the corner of his lip. Alyssa did not understand why he found it so amusing, but she closed her mouth and cut off the denial of the truth. At her side, she could almost hear-- no, it was merely her imagination, but in her mind's eyes she could see-- Dyluck grinning in amusement. The general cut the conversation short by suddenly rising to his feet.
"Thank you for the information, captain," he said, shortly. "I shall meet you tomorrow morning." Then, without a farewell greeting, nor with as much as another glance at Alyssa, he walked off.
Alyssa rose to her feet at once, and turned, facing Dyluck. "He guessed so quickly!" she said. "But he didn't seem to mind."
"What ought he have minded?" Dyluck asked, smiling. Alyssa made a small gesture of perplexity with her hand. "Well... I don't know. But I fancy he thinks me very odd."
"Women who actively seek places of danger are indeed a little odd," Dyluck replied. Alyssa flushed, turning her eyes towards him. "Am I actively seeking danger?"
"You seem to be."
"I merely try to... make something with myself. I hate sitting at home with that dull sameness, day after day."
"I can understand that," Dyluck said, smiling at her. Alyssa felt the warm flush of gratitude rising to her cheeks. "Yes, you do understand it, better than others," she said, pressing his fingers. Dyluck grinned at her. "Still, I wish you wouldn't do something like trying to follow me into the haunted woods, for example," he added.
Alyssa paused, fixing her eyes on him. "You are going to the haunted woods?" she asked, almost voicelessly. "To deal with the sorceress?"
"Did you think otherwise?" he answered. "If there is indeed a need for this mission, who is better to lead the troops than the captain of the royal guard?"
Alyssa didn't say anything. Then, with a sudden animation that was almost like an agitation, she said: "And yet... I do wish I could come and help you, if that happens!"
"You see what I mean?" Dyluck told her, but with a genial voice. "This mission WILL be very dangerous; yet you still wish you could participate in it. Sometimes you seem to verge dangerously close on the boundary between excitement and danger; and one day you may overstep it."
Alyssa's head was lowered, and she bit her lip. "You keep saying that," she murmured.
"It's because I care," Dyluck replied.
She raised her head with a sudden defiance. "Do you?" she retorted.
Dyluck opened his mouth; but then he suddenly decided he did not want to answer this question. After a short silence he smiled lightly, trying to dispel the sudden tension produced by her oddly sharp question, and took her gently by the arm.
"Let us go," he said. "It's no use of talking of what may never happen."
Her head lowered, Alyssa followed; but at her back, she could almost feel eyes fastened upon her, awakening a sensation of unpleasant apprehensions; the vacuous, dark eyes of the painted angel.
Tamerine's Note: "Since this story will never get anything else written for it anyway, I might as well divulge that Fanha is a woman in the disguise of a man."