Ilysveil: You Can Not Scream by J. H. Zech
Ilysveil: You Can Not Scream by J. H. Zech
Corvus Morgenstern stood in the shadow of the crystal-laden white tower before him. A blue banner with a sun and crescent moon symbol flew off to the side. Ah, that’s right. It’s almost time for Pax Festival XX. Automobiles and dragon-drawn carriages were parked side by side below the banner. The Parsentheon clan must be seething at the Morgensterns for breaking their dragon-based monopoly on vehicles.
The clock tower’s tolling brought him back to reality. The hands on the black obelisk in the distance read six o’clock. Mira Chelavye apparently had something interesting to show him, and he figured he shouldn’t keep her waiting. He adjusted his flowing black wig, ensuring he covered his silver hair. He pushed open the ornate gold-patterned doors and stepped in.
Corvus squinted as he walked onto the dark red carpet. He still hadn’t gotten used to the intense brightness of the magic chandelier. Everyone else sitting around turned the pages of their book paying no mind to the lights. He looked around the lobby. A gentleman in a blue suit sat in a comfy-looking sofa leisurely reading a book. Along the shelves, a librarian with a trainee badge pushed a cart stacked with books. A woman in a dark green dress pored over a thick volume at a desk. Mira in her usual frilly light-blue dress was waving at him near the librarian’s counter. He walked up to her, and she bounced up from her seat, her long black hair fluttering around.
“I’ve been waiting. Let’s go to the study room, Corvus!”
The purple-robed librarian stood up. “Well, to be more accurate, the ‘study room’ is more of a storage room that we don’t use anymore. This young lady asked for a private room, and the Chelavyes have been a great friend to the Ilysveil National Library, so I figured I could lend her that room.”
“I left what I was going to show you in that room. Let’s go!”
“Alright. Let’s just hope it isn’t the mystery of the missing bookmark.” Despite what he said, he smiled. He didn’t mind Mira’s company.
The librarian pushed up her glasses as she eyed him. “Ah, you’re with Mira. Follow me then.” She smiled as if suppressing a giggle. She walked out from behind the counter and toward the shelves behind her.
Please, not the ‘ah, young love’ look. It’s not like that! Corvus hoped his embarrassment didn’t show on his face.
“Thank you, Ms. Helvenia,” Mira said cheerfully.
As they walked behind the librarian, Corvus whispered, “Do you know her well?”
“I came here often as a child, and I started coming here again recently, so we’ve become acquainted.”
Helvenia pushed through a wooden door between a gap in the shelves behind the counter. Corvus and Mira followed her into a stone corridor. At the end of the corridor, the librarian flipped through a ring of keys on her belt and found the one to unlock the door on the left. The key turned silently, and the knob turned with it. She pushed open the door and motioned them in.
“Enjoy,” she said, leaving them.
Orange sunlight from the window glowed on the lone desk in the small room, while the dusty shelves full of old books stood in the shadows. Corvus grabbed a chair and sat down.
Mira scurried around the room, checking the shelves, the desk, under the desk, and even outside the locked window.
“That thing I wanted to show you. It was a book. There was something interesting that you should see in that book! I left it right on this desk, but now it’s gone!”
Corvus motioned for her to sit down. “Calm down. The book couldn’t have disappeared on its own. You probably misplaced it somewhere along the way. Let’s just go through what you did and think about it.”
“You’re right. Sorry about that. I’ll start from the top.” She settled down into her seat, blushing, then breathed in slowly. “Yesterday I was looking for books about the Pax Festival, and I found one with a story that you might like, so I asked Ms. Helvenia if I could borrow it and then told you to come here tomorrow, which is today. Then I came here with the book around 5:30 this evening.”
“Question one. Are you sure that the book you brought today was the same as the one you checked out?”
“I’m positive. The cover clearly said ‘A Fool’s Guide to the History of the Pax Festival’, and I don’t have any other books with that name.”
That title seems a little too appropriate, but whatever. “Then let’s continue.”
“I asked Ms. Helvenia for a study room, and she led me to this room and unlocked it. I was thinking to wait here initially, but then I remembered you didn’t know about this room, so I decided to greet you in the lobby. I left the book on this desk, and then Ms. Helvenia locked the door behind me. Then I waited in the lobby until you came.”
“Did you see anyone else enter the room?”
“Only librarians are allowed into this corridor, so no one besides them.”
“Was Ms. Helvenia with you the whole time you were waiting?”
“She went to help a few guests, but she didn’t go into the back rooms. And besides, I asked her if I could borrow this book. She wouldn’t take it by accident.”
Corvus crossed his arms and closed his eyes. A book disappeared from a room that no one should have entered, and Mira was positive she hadn’t misplaced it. That left only one possibility. He opened his eyes. “Let’s go back to the lobby.”
“Is the book there?”
“But how, and why?”
“I’ll explain if we find it. This isn’t a guarantee, after all.” Corvus rose and walked out into the corridor. Mira sprang from her chair and followed. Her frilly dress fluttered freely from the sudden motion. I wonder if her parents don’t scold her about her habits.
In the lobby, Corvus scanned the surroundings until he spotted his target. The trainee librarian placed a paper tag on an alchemic circle at the foot of the stair’s railings. The left half of the spiral steps glowed and transformed into a flat surface. He pushed the cart of books up the ramp onto the second floor. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Corvus walked up the right side of the stairs to the second floor.
“Can I talk to you for a moment please?” Corvus asked the trainee.
“How can I help you? I’m just a trainee, but I’ll do my best,” the spiky yellow-haired librarian answered. He looked about Corvus’s age.
“Did you find a book in the furthest left room in the back corridor?” Corvus didn’t even have to wait for an answer. Mira was already eyeing a burgundy book in the cart.
The trainee seemed irritated but quickly smiled when their eyes met. “Oh yeah. It’s this one. The old Pax Festival history book. I was just on my way to put it back.”
“Could I please have it back? I actually borrowed that book,” Mira said, extending her hand.
“Sure, but why was it there in the first place?”
“I got exclusive permission to use the storage room as a study room!”
Corvus wanted to bury his face in his hands. There’s such a thing as being too honest!
“Ms. Helvenia’s still soft as ever, I see,” the trainee said. He placed the book in her hand, and she clutched it to her chest.
Corvus smiled as he saw Mira in high spirits again. Even if satisfying her idle curiosity felt tiring, her pure joy brought some light into an otherwise dull everyday.
“How did you know, Corvus?”
“It was a simple process of elimination. When I got here, and Ms. Helvenia unlocked the door, the lock didn’t click, did it? In fact, the knob turned with the key, which meant it was unlocked. You said Ms. Helvenia didn’t enter, and that only librarians could enter the corridor. So you probably wouldn’t notice anything if a different librarian entered. You also need a librarian’s key to unlock that door, so that meant another librarian had unlocked it. Ms. Helvenia said that they don’t use that room anymore, so a regular librarian would have no reason to unlock it, but a trainee who’s not as familiar with the procedures might not know that and could gather books from that room too.”
“That was quite the deduction. Are you looking to work for the police?” the trainee asked.
“No, a job like that is too tiring. I’m fine with things as they are,” Corvus answered.
“By the way, I didn’t get your name. I’m Mira Chelavye.” She reached out for a handshake.
I guess someone in her position has to be used to making connections. Well, I’m glad she’s here to do it instead of me, so I can’t complain.
“So you’re the heir to the alchemist clan? I’m honored. The Chelavyes’ transmutation technology on the stairs has done wonders for us librarians. I’m Alexander Daniels. Who’s the genius in the ugly grey pants?” he answered with a smile, closing with a firm handshake.
It could’ve been my imagination, but did he just scowl at me for a moment? “I’m Corvus. I didn’t ask for your opinion on my fashion though.” Corvus reluctantly shook his hand.
“Not mentioning your family name? Must be a touchy subject then. Don’t worry, I won’t ask,” he said nonchalantly. His attitude struck Corvus as something akin to arrogance. It rubbed him the wrong way.
Corvus frowned despite his efforts to maintain a poker face. “Thank you for your help. We’ll be on our way now.”
He flashed a smile and waved them off. “Enjoy the book.”
Corvus merely nodded and marched down the metal stairs step by echoing step. Mira skipped down the steps after him.
They sat down on opposite sides of the table in the study room. Mira flipped opened the book and pointed to an image on the page. A young blonde woman in a black robe and hood kissed the forehead of an infant. The photo was clear and well-lit, but a smudge of blurriness obscured the woman’s mouth.
“Oh, I see. It’s a photo of Saint Felicia. There aren’t many photos of her around. But to think you called me out here just to show me a rare picture.” Corvus leaned back in his seat, exhausted from dealing with the missing book and Alexander.
Mira giggled. “You’re still not very energetic, I know. I wouldn’t call you here just for that.”
It feels like you’ve dragged me around for less, like that time you forgot a transmutation circle in your pocket and had me investigate its disappearance. Corvus looked at her waiting for her to continue.
“Read the paragraph below the picture. That’s what’s so interesting.” She slid the book to his side.
Corvus read it and frowned as he made his way to the end. “In the midst of negotiations to end the Dominion War, Saint Felicia kissed a silver-haired newborn to signify that she would love all, no matter their status or race. Most historians consider it a political act to unify the diplomats at the Dominion Peace Convention. When I interviewed her in my tea room, she attested that it was complicated but wouldn’t share more details on that matter. Her assassination in her sleeping chambers a week later truly saddened me, though her death united the diplomats and created the final push for the peace treaty signed a week later. Saint Felicia was humanity’s sacrifice for peace.”
“I thought that maybe this baby was you. After all, it says this photo was taken in 1856, so it’d be really surprising if there were any other silver-haired boys born seventeen years ago.”
Corvus wasn’t sure how to respond. He merely stared at the photo. It was true that he was likely the only silver-haired child born in the third year of the peace talks, but it didn’t make any sense. He knew full-well that his silver hair signified demonic influence. He was born to the Morgensterns, kept his hair hidden, and when he was outed to the public, his father exiled him from the house to avoid the fallout. Any relation to someone as lofty a martyr didn’t fit into that version of his life story. It’s too good to be true. There has to be more to this, and I’ll figure it out. I won’t fall for it. He looked up and locked eyes with Mira.
“This photo means somebody had to have brought a silver-haired child to the Dominion Peace Talks. Putting aside the issue of whether that’s me, it wouldn’t make any sense for that event to have happened by coincidence. No one would bring a symbol of demonic influence into a diplomatic gathering just because they felt like it. That means that this event was planned. The diplomats and Saint Felicia knew of someone that had recently had a silver-haired child and arranged for this to happen.”
Mira furrowed her brows and tilted her head. “Wait a minute, Corvus. You’re saying this was political, but why would the diplomats do this on purpose? When my family sends its negotiators, they’re very conservative. They just want things to be resolved without trouble. Even if it is a symbol of peace, using a silver-haired child seems really risky.”
“Then are you saying Saint Felicia just met this child by chance and asked for a photo without prior planning?”
“Hmm… That doesn’t quite sound right either.” Mira touched her chin with her index finger.
“It doesn’t make sense that it wasn’t on purpose, but it also wasn’t a coincidence.”
“Well, I’m hoping this is where you come in. Let’s do what you do best!” Mira said cheerfully, her hands balled up and held up to her chest.
“What I do best is sleeping in on weekends,” Corvus said, folding his arms behind his head and leaning back in his chair. Something about this case bugged him, and he felt as though he would regret finding out what.
“It’s Tuesday, so right now mystery solving is what you do best. Just think about it a little. I’m sure you can come up with something.”
Corvus’s shoulders slouched, deflated by his defeat. It seemed he would at least have to apply enough effort to satisfy Mira. “If we rule out the theory that someone randomly brought a silver-haired child to the talks, and the theory that it was politically planned event, then that only leaves the possibility that the child was there for someone’s personal reasons, but until we know who brought the child, I won’t know why.”
“Wouldn’t that person be your mother or father?” Mira asked him, staring at him blankly as if the answer were so obvious.
“That would probably be the most likely scenario, but I can’t imagine why. The Morgensterns were a minor clan back then, and endangering the talks over a personal reason would have resulted in punishment.” Corvus looked away from Mira. “Erwick Morgenstern is a very calculating man. I doubt he would’ve wanted to take me there, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have.” It reminded him again that even with the name Morgenstern, his father was a stranger to him, the man who had cast him out a year ago on his sixteenth birthday.
“Ah, so that’s how it is.” Mira’s voice trailed off. Corvus didn’t really care much for others, but he at least didn’t want Mira to pity him.
“Don’t worry about it. We’re just speculating about something that happened a long time ago, right?” Corvus tried to smile, but he imagined it looked rather awkward.
“Yeah. You’re right. Let’s keep moving forward.” She smiled gently.
I guess even she can look like a real noble lady sometimes. “This picture was taken in 1856, the year I was born, and that infant doesn’t look older than two months, so this had to have happened not long after I was born. Would my mother have had a reason to take me there?”
“Is that really important though?”
“Hm? What do you mean?”
“At least in my family, even though my mother can talk about politics, it’s my father who gets the final say in political decisions. I guess what I’m asking is, did your mother’s opinion matter when it came to decisions like that?”
“I don’t know if Erwick Morgenstern had absolute power in that regard, but definitely for a decision that risky, he wouldn’t have allowed it, even if Krista Morgenstern wanted it. Then that means I was there for a personal reason of someone other than my parents, but who would that be?”
Mira dashed over to his side of the table. “I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we ask whoever took the photograph? Maybe Saint Felicia said something about why she was doing this.”
Corvus stared at her in awe, perhaps a little too long.
“Ah sorry. I was just a little shocked. This was a surprisingly good idea from you.”
He turned the book over and examined both sides. “The author isn’t on the cover. It’s probably in one of the inner page—”
“Hey wait a minute! That wasn’t nice!”
Oh, she finally noticed, huh?
“No more good ideas from me then!” She crossed her arms and turned her head away.
“Sorry about that. It just slipped out of my mouth.” He suppressed a smile, then put his hands together pleadingly. “Please continue to help me on the work you’re making me do.”
Her eyes twinkled, and she put her hands on her hips as if reluctant, but she failed to suppress a smile. “I guess it can’t be helped then. Who’s the author?”
Corvus looked on the inside of the hardcover, then the first page of the book, and then flipped through the rest of the book. “That’s strange. I don’t see the name of the author anywhere on here.”
“That’s impossible! I mean, I know sometimes authors might publish anonymously, but wouldn’t they just use a pen name? And isn’t it strange that they did this on a history book? I’ve only seen anonymous names on novels.”
He felt a rough stub of paper brush against the tip of his thumb. “What’s this? A torn corner? One of the pages must’ve been torn out of this book. It was rather carefully done too. I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been for that tiny slip that the perpetrator missed.”
“Let’s go ask Ms. Helvenia then. She might know.”
Corvus handed Mira the burgundy book. She took it in her arms and walked out the door. He leaned back in his chair, tired after thinking so much after work, so he would let Mira do some of the work now. He soon heard the tapping of Mira’s light steps come up behind him, and she grabbed his hand.
“Come on, Corvus. ‘Let’s’ means let us. Your words, remember?”
Curse you, me of the past! This is all because you said something unnecessary. He couldn’t find the strength to resist her pull either, so he followed her out the room, pulled along by the hand.
Corvus and Mira stood in front of the counter while Ms. Helvenia examined the title of the book and its inner pages, then checked its spine. She pulled out a heavy-looking binder of papers and flipped through them. “That’s strange. I don’t see this book listed on the library’s catalogue. It doesn’t have a check out slip on the inner cover either. Perhaps it’s a new book?”
“No, I don’t think it is. Do you know where Alexander Daniels is right now?” Corvus asked.
“He’s… Oh, here he comes now,” Ms. Helvenia said, pointing behind them.
“What’s going on?” Alexander asked, parking the cart next to the counter.
Corvus held the book in front of Alexander. “Do you know who wrote this book?”
“Doesn’t it say in the book?”
“No, it doesn’t. The page has been ripped out.”
“How would I know?” He smiled but had a threatening look in his eyes.
“Because you’re the only other person here who knows about this book. When we asked about that book, you said it was ‘the old Pax Festival history book,’ meaning you were already familiar with it from the past. But this book isn’t listed in the library catalog, and Ms. Helvenia didn’t know anything about it, so it’s strange that a trainee librarian would have known about it for a long time. It also doesn’t have the checkout slip anywhere inside, making it highly unlikely that anyone checked it out.”
Alexander turned pale. He looked as though he wanted to bolt out of the room. “Just because I read that book doesn’t mean I personally know the author.”
“Alexander, what is this all about?” Ms. Helvenia asked.
He didn’t answer.
Corvus continued with a poker face. “This is just speculation, but I think this book actually belongs to you, and you were careless leaving it around the library. Mira found it by chance, and she said she asked to borrow it, not that she checked it out. You were probably looking for it and happened to find it by chance when you were at the storage room. You had no choice but to hand it over to us when we asked for it to avoid suspicion.”
“What do you want from me?” Alexander looked like a mouse that had been cornered.
“I politely request that you tell me who wrote this book. If you do, my speculation will simply remain a theory. Of course, I won’t say anything about that matter either. It’s probably a touchy subject.” The book likely belonged to his family, so he didn’t mind a little payback for pressing on family issues.
“I won’t ask what’s going on, but perhaps you two can compromise a little?” Ms. Helvenia said.
Mira tapped Corvus on the shoulder with a worried look. “Come on, don’t bully him. I feel bad if it’s his book.”
Her words stung, so Corvus softened his tone. “Don’t worry. After we’re done with the book, we’ll return it at the library right where we found it. We’re just borrowing it for a bit to investigate.”
Alexander sighed, staring at Corvus with a displeased look. “You’re really deceptive, you know. Someone so talented putting up a lazy front. It was my misfortune you just had an excuse to get serious this time.” He glanced at Mira. “Meet me here tomorrow at six. I’ll introduce you to someone.”
“Alright, I look forward to it. See you tomorrow, Alexander. You too, Corvus.” Mira bowed to Ms. Helvenia and walked out of the library.
Corvus turned to Alexander again. “Sorry about this. It’s nothing personal. You probably have your own reasons about this book, so I won’t ask.” He hadn’t lied, but he did enjoy a certain smug satisfaction.
Alexander gave a resigned half-smile. “I guess this is called getting a taste of my own medicine. The ‘I won’t ask’ routine kind of annoys me when I hear it. People probably thought the same when I said it.”
“You don’t need to overthink it. See you tomorrow.” Corvus waved and walked to the exit while Alexander weakly waved as if shooing him away.
That night, Corvus tossed and turned in his bed. Pale moonlight seeped through the gaps in the shutter, reflecting off his silver hair. He knew that the only logical conclusion was that the baby in the picture was himself, yet the image felt so distant, that it had nothing to do with him. No matter how much I try to deny it, it’s the truth, isn’t it? I have to accept it. After all, Mira accepted it. But what about Saint Felicia? What was she thinking when she took that picture? How did she feel about the silver-haired infant?
The next evening, after work, Corvus headed to the library. Mira and Alexander in his street clothes were waiting next to the library. The combination of his loud hair, velvet jacket, golden cuffs, and dark brown corduroy pants expressed his personality a little too perfectly. They stepped out of the shadow of the tower, leaving them soaked in the deep orange sunset.
“Where are we going?” Corvus asked.
“Where we’re going doesn’t really matter. It’s who you’re going to meet. She— I mean he’s kind of an oddball though, so be prepared,” Alexander said.
His vagueness annoyed Corvus, but it seemed pushing him any further would simply waste energy. Still, I did just consider making a fuss and arguing. That’s rather unlike me.
Alexander nonchalantly led the way down the winding brick road, his form merged with the long shadows of the late afternoon.
Isn’t he a little too relaxed for someone who just got blackmailed into helping us? What’s he up to?
Alexander gradually slowed down until Mira walked ahead of him. Walking shoulder to shoulder with a displeased Corvus, he whispered with a gleeful smile, “I wonder what it takes a gloomy guy like you to go this far out of your way to investigate something. Perhaps a certain woman in a blue dress?”
Corvus frowned. “Yes, I’m helping out because Mira asked me to. That’s the truth and the whole truth. Don’t read anything else into it. I can tell you’ve already let your imagination run wild.”
“I see even people whose talent is figuring out the truth can have their blind spots.”
Corvus tried to deliver a sharp retort, but nothing came to mind, as Alexander’s statement cut a little too close to the truth.
They arrived at a plain-looking white house with a small veranda on the second floor. A man in a dark blue robe was drinking tea out of a fancy cup at a round metal table. He nodded when Alexander arrived on the doorstep, then disappeared into the house. A few moments later, the worn white door opened, and Corvus got a better look at the man letting them in. The man smiled, surrounded by an unevenly shaved beard, but his darkened eyes didn’t budge.
“Welcome, you must be Alexander’s guests. I’m Gregor Daniels, his father.” He motioned them to sit on a couch covered by a cloth patterned with dark-green thorny vines. It somewhat resembled a barbaric cage. The living room itself was quite cramped, the couch being shadowed by a mostly-empty bookcase coated in a layer of dust. A row of windows perpendicular to the couch let in sickly yellow beams, illuminating particles of drifting dust throughout the room, obscuring their view.
Corvus and Mira took a seat on the couch, while Gregor took a wooden chair opposite them. A small black tea table divided them. Alexander disappeared into the kitchen. He soon came back and handed each of them a cup of steaming green tea.
“Thank you,” Corvus and Mira said in unison. Though purely by coincidence, it felt embarrassing for Corvus. He glanced at Mira, and she was looking away. They both turned to face Gregor.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Corvus.”
“And I’m Mira Chelavye.”
“Chelavye? Ah, the alchemists’ heir. Alexander told me all about you two. I’m the author of that Festival book. So what questions do you have for me?”
Mira seemed a little confused. She was about to speak, but Corvus put his hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Let me handle this for a second.” She nodded silently.
“I was hoping you could tell me about this photograph in your book,” Corvus said. Mira took out the book and flipped it to the page with Saint Felicia.
“Ah yes, the picture from 1856. I was surprised to see her holding that child.”
Corvus took a sip of tea. It tasted bitterly awful, so he set it down on the table. “Do you know why that child was there?”
“No, it’s just as written there. She wouldn’t say anything more than that it was complicated. Not to me, not to her sister, and not to her aids.” He threw his hands up in the air.
“Do you mean you had a chance to interview her family? What did her sister say about her?”
Gregor fidgeted in his seat, apparently caught off guard. “She said Saint Felicia was a pleasant person. She didn’t say too much. Saint Felicia came over for tea every now and then, they chatted mostly about things unrelated to politics, and that’s it.”
“Thank you. Now would you mind telling me the name of her sister, the author of A Fool’s Guide to the Pax Festival?” Corvus asked.
Gregor and Alexander’s faces froze. Gregor spoke first, “I see… So this is what you meant, Alex?”
“It was still worth a try. But yes, I guess this is what’s called a time for unconditional surrender,” Alexander said.
Mira finally spoke up, bouncing in her seat. She had probably been waiting to talk, bottling everything up until it exploded out of her mouth. “I knew something felt weird, but I didn’t think it went that far! Corvus, how did you figure that out?” She shook him by the shoulder.
Corvus sighed. He was already regretting saying anything. He could have just pretended to have been fooled by the Daniels’ and come up with an explanation to sate Mira. He probably would’ve preferred that to looking into the abyss of that photo. Yet I felt compelled to say the unnecessary truth. Why? “I noticed that your bookshelf was oddly empty and dusty for a writer; a bookshelf used often wouldn’t be dusty. Then something already felt weird when he called the book ‘that Festival book’ as he claimed he was the author. Writers typically have enough pride in their works to say the title when they claim authorship, or at the very least a shortened version of the title. That attitude was probably what made you uneasy, Mira.”
She nodded vigorously and stared at him to go on. Corvus obeyed. “The book’s author mentions inviting Saint Felicia over to her private tea room. As far as I know, Saint Felicia wasn’t married or being courted. She was a neutral peace-maker in politics. For her to go for tea in a man’s room alone could’ve been scandalous. In addition, you don’t have a tea room at your house. You’re serving us awful tea in the living room.”
“That’s going too far. They probably tried their best to make this tea,” Mira interjected.
“I think that just made things worse,” Corvus said. Alexander looked depressed, though it probably wasn’t mainly about the tea.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” Mira said, her eyebrows upturned.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on until you mentioned her sister. You were listing people she didn’t tell, and you said her sister specifically. It could’ve been a fluke, so I asked you about her sister to confirm. You were caught off guard and let it slip that she had tea with Saint Felicia often. Then it suddenly hit me that Alexander said ‘she’s an oddball’ instead of ‘he’s an oddball’, and it suddenly made sense. This is all guesswork, but I think it’s likely the sister is the author, and you know the sister. Maybe she’s your wife?”
Gregor leaned back in his chair. “It’s at least comforting to know you’re not omniscient. The author isn’t my wife. It’s my wife’s sister, my sister-in-law. Saint Felicia had two sisters.”
“If you would be so kind as to let us know her name and where she lives, we’ll be out of here,” Corvus said.
“Saint Felicia’s a sensitive topic for aunty. I won’t let you bother her,” Alexander said, stepping in front of Gregor.
Mira tugged on Corvus’s sleeve. She looked at him expectantly, though without malice. She wanted him to push forward, but he doubted she would like the necessary means. He didn’t want to disappoint her. “The state registry holds all the family records. The names of family members of martyrs are almost certainly public knowledge. It’s possible to find out who this sister is and pay her a visit.”
“So you’re going to bother her no matter what, is that it?” Alexander asked.
“If you don’t like it, you could always accompany us and introduce us to her yourself while keeping an eye on us. You could also verify that I keep my promise not to reveal your family involvement with this book. I’m sure you wouldn’t want the press on your doorsteps.”
Mira gave him a worried look. Corvus awkwardly smiled in return, hoping to reassure her that he wouldn’t do anything bad.
Alexander said, “This is essentially blackmail. Ah, what people won’t do for young love.”
Mira blushed. “Oh, um… We haven’t really…”
Corvus squinted. “You’re the same age as us, too young for senile delusions.”
Gregor clapped his hands twice. “That’s enough. We lost, Alex. Take them to Aunt Riesfel, and make sure they don’t overwhelm her.”
Alexander sighed. “Let’s go. It’s not too far from here.” He sauntered to the door.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” Corvus said to Gregor. Mira curtseyed as Alexander left the room. Gregor looked at them blankly, not even managing a forced smile this time.
Outside, the sun had almost set. The houses and streets were painted a darkened orange, and the clouds reflected on the windows like dying embers gasping for breath.
“By the way, is it okay for you to be out this late?” Corvus asked Mira.
“Yes, my parents gave me permission after I told them I wouldn’t be alone,” Mira said.
Wouldn’t her parents normally assume she would be with another woman if she told them that? I wonder what they’d do if they found out she was spending time with a man. Actually, I don’t think I want to know.
“This way.” Alexander marched on without looking behind him. The plain white house they had left now soaked in the fading rays of light, as if on fire.
“Of course, Alex,” Corvus said.
Alex looked behind him and flashed a smile full of malice. “You sure know how to get on a guy’s nerves.”
“I thought Alex sounded kind of cute though. Your father calls you Alex. Can’t we?” Mira asked, obviously not privy to Corvus’s intent.
Alex’s expression softened, as if sympathizing with Corvus. “If that’s what you want, then it’s fine. We’ll be at Aunty Riesfel’s house in a few minutes.”
Seeing Alex’s reaction, Corvus ruminated whether he had misjudged Mira’s action. Did she read the atmosphere and do that on purpose to help me? He was once again reminded that logic couldn’t make him understand a person’s feelings.
Past a black barred gate and a short white courtyard path, they arrived at a rather large house with many windows. It was too dark to see clear details, but he could tell from the metal ivy ornamentation on the doorknob that someone at least moderately wealthy lived here. Dark brown tiles overlapped on the slanted roof. Small towers on the edge of the walls ended in cone-shaped roofs. It reminded him of a small castle, though Corvus couldn’t fathom what exactly it protected. Alex knocked on the door. Slow but light footsteps came from within before an elderly lady in a black nightgown appeared.
“Alex? What brings you here so late?” the elderly lady with curly grey hair said.
“Aunt Riesfel, these two are my… friends. They need to talk to you about something. I’ll explain everything when we’re inside.”
She briefly observed them, dark shades under her tired eyes. “Friends of Alex are always welcome. Come in. I’ll make you some tea. Alex, show them to the tea room.” Riesfel waved them in with her bony hands and disappeared into the house.
They followed Alex in, and Corvus closed the door behind them. Alex led them through a spacious but dark corridor with portraits of famous men and women, and even the former Elven Prime Minister Halas Valyun. Candles affixed on the walls next to the portraits covered them in an eerie glow. Curiously, Saint Felicia’s portrait was missing, in its place a blank space on the wall, a deliberate removal which gave Corvus an uneasy sensation. I guess Riesfel is a biographer? But this feels like a memorial hall more than a hall of fame. And why did she omit Felicia?
At the right end of the corridor, Alex pushed open a pair of heavy wooden doors, decorated with ivy carvings and a shield crest, revealing a tea room lit by a large chandelier. They stepped onto a crimson velvet carpet and approached a round tea table covered in white cloth, with a vase of laburnum flowers in the center. They pulled out two of the wooden chairs with oyster cushions that surrounded the table. I didn’t know biography was such a profitable trade. This house must’ve cost a small fortune.
“Have a seat, you two. Aunty will serve you delicious tea, so try not to trouble her.” Alex pulled out two chairs. He then walked out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.
Mira and Corvus sat down next to each other and looked out the giant window on the wall opposite the door. Beyond the glass barrier, water tranquilly rippled through a small pond in a garden overlooked by a cherry blossom tree with a magic lamp hanging from it. The moon’s reflection shimmered on the water. This type of garden isn’t native to Ilysveil, is it? Has she been in contact with people from the Far East?
“This room’s so pretty,” Mira said, looking at the finely patterned table cloth, the dark red curtains, and the oyster walls. “Perhaps we’ll have a room like this someday.” She looked away from him.
You’re the heir of the Chelavye alchemist clan. Don’t you already have a room like this? And did she just say “we”? Even with her head turned away from him, Corvus got the feeling that she was looking back at him in the corner of her eye. His heart tightened, but he resisted the urge to say anything. She’s a noble. I’m nobody. Wishful thinking isn’t going to solve anything.
Alex returned and set the table with white porcelain tea cups with thin golden patterns on top of saucers with tiny spoons. Riesfel entered having changed into a black dress. She went over to the counter on the side and touched a small stand with a crystal below it. It glowed red, and she placed a kettle on the stand. Soon, the enchanted crystal brought the water to a boil as white steam blew out of the spout. She mixed in some herbal powder and walked over to the table, then poured the orange tea into each cup. Alex and Riesfel took their seats opposite Corvus and Mira.
Riesfel said, “I heard the basic story from Alex. I’ll answer what questions I can.”
“Thank you for agreeing to help us,” Mira said.
“We’re here to ask about this picture of Saint Felicia.” Corvus showed the picture in the book. Riesfel’s face darkened the moment she saw it. He continued, “Do you know why this baby was with Saint Felicia or who it is?”
“Well, that… I can’t say I do.”
Alex looked at Riesfel with sorrowful eyes.
I see this is going to be a troublesome subject. “Then, do you at least know how Saint Felicia became involved in politics? I looked at the reference books, but she seems to have no political history prior to the 1853 ceasefire.”
Riesfel sipped some tea, then set her cup down on the saucer. She looked down at her reflection in the cup, white steam obscuring her expression. “It’s true that you can’t rise up from no political experience to symbol of international peace talks with no reason. There were some complicated circumstances regarding that, but basically the talks really needed someone that could bring them together, and someone decided Ariel was the right fit for that role.”
Corvus looked into his teacup and thought over it while his orange reflection stared back at him. A few pieces had fallen into place, but he was still missing something key. “In the book you wrote, you said that Saint Felicia was assassinated. I couldn’t find any details on how she died. Do you know anything about that?”
“Yes, unfortunately. She was my sister, so they let me see her body when I requested it. She was raped and murdered by beating. Seeing that… it was so horrible. To this day, I still don’t know who did it.” Riesfel sobbed, and she wiped her tears with a black handkerchief.
“That’s so sad. I didn’t know Saint Felicia had been martyred like that,” Mira said. Her eyebrows upturned and her voice lowered, she looked down briefly, but then she leaned in, as if curious to know the full story.
“Go easy on aunty please,” Alex said, smiling awkwardly.
He still hadn’t answered the core question. What was that silver-haired baby, him, doing there with Saint Felicia seventeen years ago? There had to be some link between her and the Morgensterns. He didn’t want to be insensitive, however, so he had to lead the conversation there gradually. “Do you know why she might have been murdered? What kind of diplomacy tactics did she use that might have created enemies?”
“Goodness, she wouldn’t create enemies. She acted like an absolute angel every time I saw her at the peace talks, though she’d smoke and get all discouraged when she was alone with me. I’m not sure exactly what she did, but all the men there loved her.” She acted defensively enough that he doubted that she had told the whole truth on the matter.
Mira whispered into Corvus’s ear, “I might be overthinking this, but did the fairies not like Saint Felicia? I recall women have a supermajority in Al-Shath’s government, so maybe the men liked her and the women didn’t?”
An uneasy feeling rose up from Corvus’s stomach. It was just a faint inkling of a suspicion, but he had to pursue it. “Did Saint Felicia know the Morgensterns?”
She blinked abruptly. “Yes, she did. She knew all the key diplomats from the noble families, and she did say she spent a lot of time discussing with Erwick Morgenstern too.”
“What about Krista Morgenstern?”
Her eyes darted away from him. She cleared her throat, as though she were saying something impolite. “She didn’t talk about her very much. Apparently Mrs. Morgenstern felt a bit awkward around her, though they didn’t hate each other or anything of the sort.”
“One last thing. What does Mr. Riesfel do for a living?”
“That’s a rather strange thing to ask, but if this is your last question, I’ll answer it. He works as a state botanist, travelling the world to study plants.”
“Thank you very much,” Corvus said coldly. He rose up from his chair and walked to the door, then jogged out to the hall.
“Wait, Corvus!” Mira yelled, and she ran after him.
He heard Alex running after him too.
Corvus stood supporting himself with his hand on the wall of portraits. In front of him was the empty space where Saint Felicia’s portrait would have occupied. “Why… why did it have to be this way? Haven’t I lost enough?”
Mira stood behind him with her hands together on her chest. She reached out to touch him on the shoulder. “I don’t understand everything you figured out, but I knew from the start that this was about you, and from that conversation, I could tell it was a painful story. Mrs. Riesfel wanted to tell us something, right? I dragged you into this, so I’ll take responsibility and share whatever pain you’re enduring. So please, tell me.”
When he solved the mystery of Mira’s uncle, he had been someone observing from the outside, and he could accept that things just were the way they were, but this time, he was the subject. He tried to look in from the outside, but only the blank wall stared at him like an abyss. He thought he had settled things with the Morgensterns, but Mira had shattered his peace. No, she’s blameless. I just didn’t want to see the truth.
“I was just starting to enjoy this new everyday, but I don’t know if I can anymore. The truth is ugly, but it doesn’t involve you, so don’t feel like you have to take responsibility. It’s my pain to bear.”
Mira grabbed him by both shoulders and spun him around, pinning him against the wall. “It doesn’t involve me? Of course it does. You were there for me when I found out how Uncle died. Since then, I’ve enjoyed every day talking and solving mysteries with you. You’re a part of my new everyday. If you’re in pain, I’m in pain too. We’re going to solve mysteries together from now on, so please, tell me.” Tears had welled up in Mira’s eyes, but she sniffled and held them back.
Wide-eyed, Corvus lifted Mira’s hands from his shoulders. She had truly granted his wish. Without realizing it, he had created a new life with Mira, and his old colorless life had already crumbled.
Alex leaned on the wall with his arms crossed. “Tell her the whole story, Corvus. I think aunty will finally have some relief.”
“I don’t need to hear that from you,” Corvus said, smiling playfully.
Alex smiled back.
“I’ll go in order of what I noticed. Starting with this house,” Corvus said.
“It’s too big for a biographer and botanist, right?” Mira asked.
“Precisely. Where would they get this kind of money? The sum is too large for side jobs or even smuggling. Either you have to inherit it, or you have to be involved in something substantial with the state. Ilysveil’s inheritance laws designate a male heir, so Mrs. Riesfel couldn’t have gotten the money on her own, and if Mr. Riesfel had inherited it, he wouldn’t have to be working on a small-time research job for the state. He would be managing the estate or using the money for business. That leaves involvement with the state as the likelier option.”
“But what would a biographer or botanist do that would warrant that much money from the government? I really can’t think of anything. Even my family has to work on a major public works project for that kind of sum.”
“It’s what Mrs. Riesfel didn’t do. Remember the first answer she gave us? ‘I can’t say.’ At first I thought she just meant she didn’t know, but thinking about how much she dodged questions, and the kind of money involved here, I think she literally was not allowed to say. The state has paid her all this time to keep quiet about something involving Saint Felicia. Considering it’s Ilysveil’s martyr, they’d probably pay a lot to ensure she didn’t say anything. There was no publication date on the book either. Most likely she made this book in private and lent it to only her family.”
“That’s why Alex didn’t want to talk about it in the library!” Mira said.
“Exactly. Now what about Saint Felicia did the government not want people to know? Mrs. Riesfel said someone picked her for the role rather than the saint herself working her way up to that point. She also said that Saint Felicia was sad and smoking in private, so we can assume she was under a lot of pressure. That would seem normal for a highly visible diplomat, until we consider that she was well liked by the men. After I thought about it, you were right. Mrs. Riesfel visited the talks many times, so there’s no way she would’ve missed all the women from Al-Shath. Yet she still chose to use the word ‘men.’ Perhaps Saint Felicia was actually liked by the men specifically.”
Mira gasped. “You don’t mean that—”
“Yes, she died of rape and beating despite all the security she had. Even if an assassin got past the guards, they wouldn’t have enough time to kill her like that, and an assassin would be cold and efficient not personal and brutal. Going back to the idea that someone picked her for the role, the book wrote that she was humanity’s sacrifice. Wouldn’t you ordinarily write that a martyr sacrificed herself for humanity? It’s the martyr’s sacrifice to humanity. But humanity’s sacrifice could imply that humanity sacrificed her to achieve peace. In other words, humanity offered her up for the peace talks. But what diplomacy did she actually do? In everything we’ve read and everything we discussed with Mrs. Riesfel, not once was an actual political deal, persuasion, or action mentioned. That’s because she didn’t do anything. A woman with no political background being picked as a symbol and a gift, who didn’t conduct any diplomacy, that was popular with the men and died of rape. Saint Felicia was no saint. She was just humanity’s tool to appease the men’s desires at the peace talks, hoping to garner favor. When someone went too far, she was discarded and made into a martyr so that Ilysveil could get one last use out of her. That’s what Mrs. Riesfel’s being paid to hide.”
“That’s so terrible…” Mira covered her mouth with her hand. “This is her own sister we’re talking about. She’s had to carry a burden like that for twenty years. But I think I understand why she was willing to talk to us.”
Alex pushed off from the wall and faced them both. “She wanted to tell someone desperately but couldn’t. A lot of people from the press interviewed her, and she’d do the same thing, and no one understood what she truly wanted to say. She suffered every time she did that, so I didn’t want people bringing this up again, but I think she noticed that you were figuring things out, asking the right questions. She’s told you more than she’s told anyone else. I’m surprised too, but you guys were finally the ones to hear her scream.”
“Not just her. How do you think Saint Felicia felt? She was being abused, but for the sake of humanity, she had to endure her suffering quietly. Do you remember the blurriness around her mouth in the image? I thought that was just an error, but the rest of the photo is clear. That was an intentional alteration. I think Mrs. Riesfel wanted to show by blocking off her mouth that Saint Felicia couldn’t scream either,” Corvus said.
“That’s something she never even told me,” Alex said.
“But wait! We’re forgetting the thing we came here to find out. What about the baby in the picture?” Mira reminded him.
Corvus looked down and leaned back on the wall. “Remember what we concluded earlier?”
“We guessed that the baby was there with Saint Felicia for a personal reason.”
“Mrs. Riesfel said Saint Felicia talked often with my father, and that my mother was awkward around her. We already know that she didn’t do very much real talking over there.” Corvus grit his teeth. “So—”
Mira hugged him before he could finish. “You don’t have to force yourself to say it. I know what you mean. But it’s going to be alright. We’ll both keep moving forward.”
Alex’s feet froze in place as he watched incredulously with his jaw slack. “Wait, this means you have silver hair? And you were a member of the mechanist clan? And you’re my cousin?” He ran his fingers through his spiky blond hair, as though combing through his head would somehow organize his thoughts.
Corvus turned his head away to hide his weak smile. “Are you displeased that such a person is your cousin?” He almost didn’t want to hear the answer, but couldn’t ignore the inkling of hope in his heart.
“Well, I see why you didn’t want to talk about your family name. But you and I are family. I don’t know how it goes with the Morgensterns, but I don’t abandon family.” Alex smiled. It was as annoying to see as ever, but it made Corvus feel a little glad.
Riesfel smiled knowingly as she stood in front of the tea room door. “Even at my age, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.”
“I…” Corvus didn’t know what to say.
“Corvus is happy to know that he has a real family too. Thank you very much,” Mira said with a bow.
Corvus watched Mira with eyes of astonishment. She saved me again. He smiled wholeheartedly this time and bowed. “Thank you for having us today, Aunt Riesfel.”
“What are you going to do now?” Alex asked. “Get justice for Saint Felicia? If it’s you, you might be able to prove it.”
Corvus wore a bitter smile on his face. “No, proof only matters if the audience is willing to listen. My mother’s sacrifice is the foundation of this peace, and Ilysveil’s going to keep it that way no matter what I say. So I’ll tell myself that I’m honoring her sacrifice.” He had been powerless to get justice for Mira’s uncle, and he was powerless again now.
They said their farewells and departed. Riesfel waved at them as they left. Once they had left the courtyard behind, Mira and Corvus walked alone together under the pale moon.
“It’s dark. I guess I can walk you home, as thanks for being there for me,” Corvus said, scratching his cheek.
Mira looked away and poked her index fingers together.
“Sorry, I guess that’s not okay. I guess you couldn’t explain to your parents why a commoner man is walking you home. Let’s just forget about it. See you.” Corvus turned to leave, but Mira grabbed his green vest from behind.
“I think… my parents will understand that you’re someone important to me,” she said smiling.
“O-okay then. Shall we go?”
“Mm.” Mira nodded.
They walked together on a dark path, a brightly shining full moon waiting in the horizon toward Mira’s home. Mother, even though you couldn’t scream then, I’ve heard your voice. It’s reached Mira too. We won’t forget it even as we move forward.
Copyright J. H. Zech 2019