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煤 ま み れ の 騎 士
Chapter 2 – Part 1
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“Good to meet you, Mia.”
Glad was I to hear her name at last. And for such an occasion, common sense dictates that I return the favour in kind. Only…
“I hear you’re attuned to the covenantal magicks. And that, well, ‘ill’ awaits me should I tell you my own name. Though… I certainly would like to, truth be told.”
My words proved to be of little avail, for upon hearing them, Mia but shook her head fleetingly.
“…Master…” she murmured, “…your name… please don’t…”
Hmm… “Master”, is it now?
The ring of it sat rather unwell. Indeed, I much preferred to be called by name, but alas.
Well-known it was that a thrallspell could be thwarted by one capable with the covenants. But to a soul enslaved like Mia, there was also danger: were it discovered that she knew and spoke the name of her master freely, then she would surely be disposed of with all haste.
Not by my hands, of course, but by those clad in iron—namely, that of Londosius’ legislature. Thus, more so for her sake, I could not give her my name.
“Well, I’ll think on it, then,” I relented.
Yet indeed were our eyes met, and her name heard. There was light at the end of this tunnel, however faint, however far. But there was little hurry in reaching it. Softly now, one step at a time.
“Right. Let’s have supper, then,” I said, rising up to my feet. “Mia. How about you make yourself comfortable while I cook something up?”
I pointed to a chair at the dining table. Mia’s eyes followed. Only, her feet didn’t. Not for a while. During that lull, she stared at it, until at last, she slowly stepped forth and took her seat.
Satisfied at the sight, I stepped forth myself—into the kitchen I went.
It would be a dire lie to say that Mia was in good health. I knew not how long she’d been captive, but doubtless it must’ve been a most trying time, to say the least, during which none gave thought to her care and comfort.
Thus for her supper, a bowl of porridge, warm and gentle to the stomach.
Just the other day in the markets did I happen upon a pumpkin, sound in its size and scent. And there was milk available. On the daily, no less.
It’s settled, then. For Mia, a meal of mild sweetness: rice pudding, bedight of milk and pumpkin. With a bold knob of butter melted in, it was sure to be a delight.
Resolved, I set out a pot and went to work.
Wisps of sweet steam swirled through the air as I brought the bowls to the table. One for Mia, set right before her, filled with rich rice pudding. Sure enough, it caught her attention, though her stare seemed empty as ever of emotion.
“Mia. Let’s eat,” I said, sitting myself down. Yet even then, I found her unmoved. “…Mia. A meal lifts the spirits just as well as it fills the belly, you know. Don’t be afraid. Have at it.”
‘Cheer up’ was the gist of what I wanted to say—brash overmuch of me, perhaps. Certainly her sullenness was not something to be solved with so little effort. But Mia needed to eat, and that was the simple truth of it. Only with a body healed can the heart itself start its mending.
Before long, Mia moved her eyes from the bowl and looked to me.
“…supper…” she began, vanishingly. “…Master’s suppertime…”
“Nay, Mia,” I shook my head. “It’s our suppertime. Yours and mine both.”
“…table… same table… why…?”
Words of doubt.
How could a master ever suffer a slave at the same table, and upon the same supper-hour, no less? For Mia, this was surely a situation most unthinkable. That any goodwill would ever come her way was evidently a hope long lost to her.
…there was hope, to be found in that one word, verily uttered.
To ask ‘why’ is to express a need for knowledge; there yet remained in Mia a wisp of wonderment for the world. In other words, she still had the will to live. Buried beneath her bosom, it smouldered on, tiny and dim. And it would be my duty to seek it out and have her awaken to its warmth.
“Supping at the same table means we’re friends, Mia,” was my answer.
“…but I… I’m a slave…” she reasoned.
“And I’m the son of a noble house—disavowed, that is. And a soldier of a fort nearby, as well. Ah, and I live by the blade and like to indulge in books,” I told of myself at length. “What about you, Mia? What sparks your fancy?”
“Right. A topic for another day, then. Come. There’s your supper. Eat up.”
“…proper food… not scraps…” she observed. “…I can eat it…? …really…?”
“Of course you can, Mia,” answered I, with mildness. “Carefully now. It’s quite hot.”
Soon enough, she very gingerly took up her spoon, dipped it into the rice pudding, and brought the spoonful into her mouth. And—fates be gentle—she repeated it, at last partaking of the pudding, little by little.
I looked on intently, or perhaps in wonder. But as I did, a question crept up from within: why, exactly, did I buy her?
Mia is a war-slave.
By the throes of war, waged between Man and Nafílim, she was made to bear the manacle.
What else am I but a kin of Man? A willful participant in that war, duty-bound to fight Mia’s own kin?
Indeed, within all that I’ve wrought may be found some inconspicuous deed, now the provenance of her pitiful plight.
Did I buy her, thinking to atone for it?
I very well should’ve known—always, even—that for as long as war was my livelihood, my actions would beget many others not unlike Mia: sufferers of fates most forlorn.
But knowing ill-amounts to beholding. Was the burden made unbearable only after I had seen for myself where led the long course of my deeds? If so, then I was but a wayward waif, a fool blind to his own folly.
Was this revenge?
A hateful strike against a hateful world, so willful as it is in rejecting my very being?
An act of vengeance, veiling itself as compassion for a little girl, who so suffers the same scorn that I do?
Should that be the way of it, then Mia, to me, would merely be a means to an end. Incorrigible, yes. Dreadfully so. And yet, I could not bring myself to wholly deny it.
On and on I set upon my soul these confounding questions. Moments mired in self-doubt as I watched over Mia taking a pudding-decked spoonful to her mouth, slowly on in silence.
Humble this abode may have been, but it was, in the end, a residence reserved for the respectable commandant of Balasthea. Thus was it hardly strange that the house had a guest room of its own—one I’d never availed myself of, admittedly, for not once have I had to welcome a staying visitor through my doors. But so much the better, for this home now housed two.
“Use this room, if you will, Mia,” I said, showing her inside.
Little about my words seemed to make sense to her.
“It’s yours from now on,” I reaffirmed. “And as well, over there—a bed for your bedtime.”
“…room…?” she asked timorously. “…I don’t… need a room… or a bed…”
“No, Mia. You very well do.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve not used this room once myself. Besides, no one should be without a bed.”
“…I can sleep… in a cellar… or outside…”
“As can I. Out in the fields, up on the rocks, everywhere’s a bed, really. But this home has all the creature comforts, and so I sleep on a bed of sheets and pillows—just as you should, Mia.”
Was it right to take her reticence as acceptance? To know not was panging proof of my witlessness for common communication. But to be witless now, of all times? Self-pity stung more by the second.
Down beside Mia I knelt.
“Mia. Resting in itself is also a duty to be done. No matter your means or your lot in life,” I attempted again. “And when you sleep, it’s best to do so on a bed.” Finding her unchanged, I rose back to my feet. “Right. It’s your bedtime. But if you need aught, just say the word.”
With that, I left the room, letting off a deep sigh upon shutting the door behind me.
A new day dawned over Arbel. The sunlit chirps had yet to be lost within the stir of the streets sure to come. In that dewy hour was the sound of a door creaking open.
“Mia,” I greeted from the kitchen. “Good morning.”
A proper response. Awfully timid still, but one of no small relief to me. Heartened, I began putting the last touches on our breakfast.
“Have a seat. I’ve got some soup ready.”
A glad sight it was, seeing Mia rightly sit herself down. Before her, I set her share of the morning’s meal: a warm bowl of soup, some slices of fresh-baked bread, a helping of halved figs, and a mug brimming with milk.
I then took my own seat opposite of her.
“Right. Let’s eat. Breakfast is important, you know.”
A lull upon her lips. But not for long.
“…many thanks… for this meal…”
Thanksgiving—ostensibly a custom unique to the Nafílim, said before and after each and every meal. Gratitude expressed for both the bounties of nature and the great pains taken to put them to the plate.
None amongst the Londosian citizenry found either prudence or profit from such a practice. After all, what was to be gained from offering thanks to food that could scarce offer any words of its own? That was the mind of this kingdom, and one that I shared, to be frank.
Until now, that is.
Only after hearing it with my own ears did the epiphany fall upon me. Simple words of simple beauty, wishful for serenity, thankful for sustenance. And so the question was no longer of ‘why’, but ‘why not’.
“Many thanks for this meal,” was my hand at imitating her.
Did I seem the maudlin mummer? To mindlessly mimick the manners of a foreign folkway? I could hardly know, but what I did know was that they were good words to utter, and that I was glad indeed to do so.
And across from me was Mia, looking on with a rather curious, if not mesmerised air about her face.
I then broke bread along with her. A morning meal, muted of conversation. As always, I’ve never been the sort of man to mislike silence, but this moment found me feeling otherwise. The quietude was as an empty pit, and there was I, egged on to try and fill it.
Thus did I broach the only thing that seemed fitting at the time.
“…Fruits for breakfast are a boon to the body. Did you know that, Mia?”
“Though I admit, I’ve not prepared any real ones today,” I went on. “That’s right. Figs aren’t fruits. Did you know that as well? The red bits inside—they’re flowers, actually.”
“They bloom inward. All with not a petal upon them. Peculiar, aren’t they? Figs.”
As of yet, no response was had from Mia. It would seem the finesse of improvisation was also all but dead in me. I felt then as if I truly knew naught with which to spark in her the slightest curiosity.
“…Mama…” she muttered out of the blue.
“…‘figs… are fruitless’…” she then seemed to reminisce. “Mama… Mama said it, too…”
“Did she, now? And here I thought to play the pointed scholar, but I see your mother donned the cap sooner than I could.”
An attempt at levity. A mask for concern.
‘Where is your mother now?’
A question I had not the courage to ask. Will the day ever dawn when I could? And not just of her mother, but of all her loved ones?
This, I wondered. But for now, Mia’s words were more than enough.
A half-step it was.
But a happy half, one closing the distance between us both.
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Thanks for the chapter.