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Aria Wanderlust – Servant and Mistress
With great power comes great responsibility.
Never had I felt those words weigh more heavily on my wings than I did on that cheerless morning in my study. Quill grasped firmly between my fingers, I was attending to the monotonous business of tending to the administration of a country. Such was the burdensome duty that was expected of august rulers.
Outside the window, thick, leaden banks of thunderclouds drew ever closer, threatening rain at any moment. Flashes of lightning scored the skybound sanctuary of Lyfa with all the ferocity of a feral beast, accompanied by the dull roar of thunder, rolling across the plains for miles around.
It was almost as if the sky itself had decided to mirror the troubles that clouded my mind.
A wan frown darkening my complexion, I flicked listlessly through the countless scrolls of parchment that required my attention, giving each only the most perfunctory glance before dispensing with it in the appropriate manner. I paused only to hastily scribble on a pad of parchment for my own reference – a short note here, an ephemeral thought there – as I scanned the dense walls of Lyfii script that lined every scroll.
Even though I had been chipping away at the vast number of scrolls that had been brought before me for the better part of the morning, it seemed to me that I had hardly made a dent in my enormous workload.
I replaced my quill in its stand, and the clear clink of quill against crystal echoed throughout the spacious study.
Leaning back in my chair, I allowed my eyelids to flutter shut, seeking the small luxury of a brief respite from the mind-numbingly tedious work that still awaited me. But even as I tried to lose myself in darkness, a multitude of figures and diagrams, letters and numbers, all mixed into a mysterious, unintelligible soup, drifted through the recesses of my mind, denying me even a moment’s relief.
Bristling in frustration, I massaged my temples, hoping to soothe the throbbing headache that was already beginning to ravage my powers of cognition.
It was then that I heard a small knock on the wooden door of the study. Through a red haze of pain and discomfort, I consulted the ornate glass timekeeper that sat to my right.
It is time for Ellin to attend to me.
“In the name of Jibril, you have my permission to enter.”
There was no disguising the barely suppressed frustration in my voice as I commanded Ellin.
With the slightest of creaks, the door swung ajar. As I had expected, my youthful maidservant Ellin glided into the study, bearing a decanter of crimson liquid, together with a crystal goblet, upon a tray.
Silence reigned as the servant did her mistress’s bidding. It was a testament to the bond that linked Ellin and I that no words were exchanged as she set the tray down on the desk with the utmost care. With the quiet, understated grace of those trained to serve the descendants of Jibril, Ellin grasped the decanter and sent the red liquid flowing into the goblet.
“Thank you for your ministrations, Ellin.”
I picked up the goblet and swirled it, inspecting the liquid within with a steady eye.
“Crysteberry juice, I take it?”
Ellin nodded solemnly by way of response.
“Indeed, your highness. Made from the freshest of berries, grown beneath a full moon.”
I raised the goblet to my lips, and savoured a light, fragrant sweetness as the juice flowed, cold and refreshing, like the purest spring water, chasing away the aches that plagued me.
“Your taste is as discerning as ever. My sincere compliments.”
My maidservant bowed her head at my praise.
“Thank you, your highness.”
I took another long pull at the goblet before setting it down on the tray.
“You may leave me now, Ellin. I will call for you should I have need of you.”
Fluttering by my side, Ellin seemed reluctant to take her leave.
“Pardon my audacity, your highness, but is there something troubling you? You look in low spirits.”
A ghost of a smile curled my lips as I picked up yet another scroll and passed my hand over it; in an instant, bright crimson light suffused the document, before ebbing away to reveal the royal seal, glowing with the same vivid luminescence.
“… it’s nothing. I may be suffering from slight fatigue – a natural consequence of having to attend to matters of state on a daily basis. I expect a peaceful night’s repose will do me a world of good after today’s exertions.”
I lifted the document up to the light and examined my handiwork with wry satisfaction.
“If I may make so bold to suggest so, your highness … you seem rather different from your usual self today. It’s rare in the extreme to see you afflicted by such lethargy. Indeed, the malaise that I sense within your highness cannot be due to mere fatigue.”
Not for nothing had Ellin been my companion for the past two score years and ten. With her piercing words, she unmasked in an instant my lame excuses, and forced me to confront my own feelings.
“I can’t hide anything from my loyal servant, can I?”
Laying down the scroll, I swivelled around to meet Ellin’s gaze, a rueful smile on my face.
“Yes, your senses are as sharp as ever. I’m afraid my affliction is nothing as easily cured as fatigue.”
As the words left my lips, an involuntary shudder wracked Ellin’s nubile body.
“Your highness … can it be … that some grave illness has you trapped within its monstrous maw?”
I laughed, but it was a dry, rasping, humourless laugh, tinged with not a little bitterness.
“No, Ellin, you misunderstand; it is not an actual malady that has me in its clutches. Rest assured that you shall remain employed in my service for many moons to come.”
Rising from my chair, I laid a comforting hand on the puzzled Ellin’s shoulder and drifted away from her. Beyond the window of the study, the heavens opened, and a light rain began to fall.
“… it is but a passing pang that troubles my heart. There is no cause to worry yourself unduly.”
I averted my eyes from Ellin, knowing full well that I could not look her in the eye as I spoke.
“I shall be perfectly fine.”
“Your highness …”
From the way in which Ellin’s voice trailed away into silence, I could divine the deep concern that my maidservant felt for my wellbeing. A lingering sense of sadness, the scent of regret, hung heavy upon the air.
I rubbed my temples and sighed.
Of all the retainers and ministers clamouring to gain my favour, Ellin was the only one to whom I had given my absolute, unconditional trust. Through all the moons we had spent together, ever since we were but mere hatchlings, Ellin had been my faithful servant, my trusted confidant with whom I could share anything and everything.
Yet, in the depths of my heart lurked a dark, pernicious desire, so that even the mere thought of it blighted and corrupted me, the guardian of the sanctuary of the Lyfii. It was a desire that I thought I would never give voice to, never divulge … not until today.
“… make a sacred vow, Ellin.”
My question, coming out of nowhere as it did, took Ellin by surprise. Blinking rapidly, as though she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe what she had just heard, the young Lyfii stared at me, her eyes round with shock.
“A sacred vow, your highness …?”
“Yes. Only if you undertake a sacred vow can I share my deepest, darkest secret with you. Swear, with your forebears as witness, that you will not betray my confidence.”
Ellin hesitated for but a moment, weighing up the gravity of the situation, before she made up her mind. When she raised her bowed head, it was with a renewed determination that spoke of a fiery, unyielding spirit beneath her outward calm.
“If it is your command, your highness, your servant is ready and willing to obey.”
She matched my unwavering gaze, a steely resolve glinting in her almond eyes.
Without waiting for my reply, Ellin took hold of my hand and clasped it to her breast in reverent supplication, murmuring the words of an ancient incantation under her breath.
“In the name of my ancestors, Ranos and Mirune, I make this vow.”
Her eyes closed, Ellin’s fingers moved swiftly through the air, tracing out the symbol of her lineage. Once she had completed the outline, the curving lines of the symbol appeared, pulsing a bright, brilliant blue – not where her fingers had cut the air, but right above her collarbone, burning itself into her porcelain skin.
“My lips will be forever sealed, if your highness so wishes.”
As soon as Ellin finished speaking, mana coursed through her.
Where the mana flowed, it manifested on Ellin’s body as an intricate network of thin, faintly glowing lines of electric blue. From her forehead to the tips of her wings, Ellin was imbued with light. And when she opened her eyes and met my gaze, an exhilarated smile spreading across her face, I lost myself in twin pools of sapphire, blazing with conviction.
“Truly, your loyalty to me knows no bounds.”
Nodding in satisfaction, I gently caressed Ellin’s rosy cheeks with my fingers. No honourable Lyfii would invoke the names of their ancestors as she had just done without good reason. With the vow she had just made, only my express command could free her from her bondage.
“Remember well your oath until the day you rise to soar by Jibril’s side.”
The light enveloping Ellin faded away as my servant, with all the strength she could muster, wrapped her arms around me.
It was almost as though … she was afraid of losing me.
“Rest assured I will, your highness.”
“Now, it’s time for me to fulfil my promise to you.”
In the middle of the well-appointed study was an immense globe of pure crystal, floating in the air as if suspended by invisible string. As I approached the globe, I drew in a deep breath, taking a moment to compose myself. Once I felt ready, I reached out, towards the sparkling crystal, and brushed it lightly with my fingers.
Ellin let out a gasp of wonderment as she watched the crystal react to my touch. A stream of vivid colours erupted forth where my fingers had made contact with the cold surface. The colours frothed and boiled with furious intensity, as though mirroring the turmoil that beset me, before gradually settling down, forming a coherent picture.
Painted across the curvature of the crystal sphere was a painstakingly detailed map of the Nether Realms. Every ocean, every continent; every realm, every city; every mountain, every river – the entirety of the world beneath the wind spilled across the crystal globe, a true sight to behold.
As the globe turned slowly on an invisible axis, I turned, with a sad smile, to face Ellin.
“No, it is a burning wanderlust that has me helpless in its thrall.”
A few seconds passed as Ellin absorbed the full extent of the situation before her. When she gave voice to a reply, it was with no little trepidation, and, it has to be said, the slightest hint of revulsion.
“Your highness … surely you are not suggesting that you wish to descend to the Nether Realms?”
I could not bring myself to blame her. For a Lyfii, what I had just done was no less than sacrilegious. It was a callous rejection of the teachings of the ancient scholars, a wanton betrayal of the inviolable beliefs that had guided Lyfii ever since the dawn of time.
I bit the inside of my cheek, and tasted a metallic tang in my mouth.
“Yes, I do, Ellin. I cannot explain this intense longing for the benighted world that lies below our sanctuary – for is it not the case that I have all a Lyfii could need here, in the Celestial Eyrie, where so many of Lyfa’s most revered rulers have made their nests?”
From where I hovered, I fixed Ellin, whose eyes were wide in horror, with a steady, unwavering gaze.
“And yet, I feel compelled, by some inexplicable force, to make the journey down to the Nether Realms, where – if the elders are to be believed, many a vile beast roam.”
“A proud Lyfii should feel utterly repulsed by the mere thought of consorting with these abhorrent creatures who populate the Nether Realms. Why, then, do I – I who proudly soar through the skies bearing the mark of Jibril – feel so strangely intrigued by these foul beings?”
Possessed by a sudden burst of raw emotion, I ripped off the long, flowing robes that covered my nakedness. The silk garments floated, like falling blossoms, to the floor – revealing the sacred symbol on my lower back that marked me as Jibril’s chosen one on this mortal coil.
When I next spoke, breaking the silence that had fallen upon us, it was in the quietest of whispers, so much so that I could barely hear the words that passed my lips.
“… can you imagine the suffering that I have borne for so long, Ellin?”
I could feel the beginnings of burning tears prickling my eyes.
“I shall never be sated until I have travelled every inch of the Nether Realms.”
Ellin, who had been transfixed with dread as she listened to her mistress’s delusional ramblings, finally found her voice.
“Your highness, you cannot possibly leave the sanctuary – “
“I am only too well aware of that, Ellin. Cursed by my station, I am doomed never to be able to fulfil this wanton, misguided desire of mine. I am the protector of the Lyfii, bound by the sacred covenants to spend the entirety of my life in service to my people.”
I shook my head, slowly, regretfully, as I gazed at the crystal sphere, with barely concealed longing in my eyes. I could feel the tips of my wings trembling uncontrollably, such was the strength of the emotions that flooded me at that very moment.
“The weight of responsibility, bestowed upon me by our forebears, lies heavily upon my wings. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I cannot possibly countenance abandoning my people, all for the sake of a selfish wish.”
With no small effort, I tore my eyes away from the crystal globe. As I turned my back on it, the map crumbled away into fine dust, and the globe returned to its original, blank state.
“… there is nothing we can do to sate my thirst for the world beneath the wind.”
“Ellin, I hereby command you as your mistress – do not allow this matter to cloud your mind. Instead, I bid you concentrate your energies on fulfilling the responsibilities expected of you as a servant of Jibril.”
Drawing in a deep breath, I closed my eyes, trying my best to purge myself of the untoward desires creeping into my mind.
“As for myself, I shall devote myself, with renewed vigour, to serving the Lyfii. I pray that, by the grace of Jibril, she who shelters the world with her wings, I can one day be delivered from such impure impulses.”
“… I’m afraid I cannot obey this command of yours, your highness.”
My eyelids flickered open in surprise. Naturally, as the chosen guardian of the Lyfii, my exalted position meant that not even the most venerable noble would have dared to go against my will. And here was Ellin, who was but a lowly servant, defying a direct order to my face.
A nascent anger darkened my complexion. And yet, I knew only too well from my long association with Ellin that she was not one given to wanton disobedience. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Ellin … if anyone but you had dared to speak those words to me, they would have suffered the full extent of my wrath. Surely you, of all people, must realise that.”
Ellin’s lower lip trembled, as she fought to remain master of her emotions. Her previous sanguine façade crumbled to dust as she picked up the silk garments which I had cast off and, with the utmost tenderness, draped them across my bare shoulders.
“… I said, your highness, that I cannot follow your orders on this occasion.”
“I am a Lyfii just as you are, your highness, and I am proud of my identity as such. But before I am a Lyfii, I am a servant who owes her loyalty to you, who have been chosen to lead our race.”
Ellin’s words, reaching across the yawning chasm separating mistress and servant, touched me.
“It is by Jibril’s will that I have been born to serve you. If, truly, it is her who charts your path from the heavens, then who am I to steer you away from the course she has set for you? That would be the most heinous treason one of our race could ever commit.”
Wordlessly, I floated across the study and embraced Ellin, holding her close to me. At my touch, the tension and fear that had weighed so heavily upon my young companion broke; and Ellin sobbed freely, hot tears coursing down her face.
“As your servant, I am sworn to always act in your best interests. And on this occasion, I am bound to suggest to you, your highness, that you follow your heart. Act on the impulses that you feel, your highness; you will never truly know happiness until you have had your fill of the Nether Realms.”
Gently extricating herself from my tender embrace, Ellin hastily wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, struggling to regain some semblance of dignity before her mistress.
“If I may lay my heart bare before your highness … I confess that my simple mind cannot understand your insistence on traversing the Nether Realms. I cannot think of any reason good enough to compel you, she who rules over the Celestial Eyrie, to sully your exalted personage by mingling with the beasts that inhabit the plagued lands beneath our sanctuary.”
“And yet, as your most faithful servant, I cannot stand idly by as you suffer alone, in silence.”
Ellin’s almond eyes glistened with fresh tears, but the smile that crossed her features spoke of relief and happiness, her heart gladdened that she could be of service to her liege.
“Forgive my flagrant disobedience, your highness, but this humble Lyfii shall take it upon herself to ensure that your wish is fulfilled. Fear not any obstacle that stands in your way; I swear, upon my honour, that my wings are yours and yours alone.”
Emotion welled up within me as I wiped Ellin’s tears from her face.
“… thank you, Ellin. I can find no words to express my gratitude. The lengths to which you are willing to go for me are remarkable indeed.”
I laid my hands on Ellin’s shoulders and held her tight, gazing into the depths of her teary eyes.
“Truly, I am unfit to be your mistress, my Ellin. I am overcome with burning shame; how callous, how insensitive am I, that I would visit such distress upon you purely for the most selfish of desires? I do not deserve such unswerving loyalty.”
“N-no, your highness … this is nothing, nothing for lowly Ellin, who is sworn to serve by your side.”
I raised a hand.
“Be that as it may, I cannot allow you to make such a sacrifice on my account. I cannot allow my loyal servant to risk herself merely to expedite what would be a wild escapade brought about of my own selfish desires. To act in such a self-serving manner would be unbecoming of one who would rule over the Lyfii.”
Ellin bit her lip, unsure whether to protest.
“But … your highness …”
“I know, however, that you are a strong-willed one, my Ellin; and all the more so when it comes to matters that concern your liege. So, my dear servant, we shall compromise. You shall aid me only if and when I ask it of you, but in this matter you are not to do anything unless you have my explicit instructions.”
A tender smile crossed my lips as I cupped Ellin’s face in my hands, my slender fingers tracing the tracks left by her tears.
“It is I who wish to undertake this journey, fraught with danger, and it is I who will bear all the risks alone. So, Ellin, if it is truly your wish to aid me, I compel you to accept my orders without question, and to carry them out to the best of your ability at all times.”
Ellin looked up at me with teary eyes, her hands clasped together. Although she made no reply, I knew, instinctively, that this time, she would obey me.
I drew her deeper into my embrace, caressing her head as a mother would a child, and brought my lips to her forehead.
“ … thank you, my dear friend.”