Of Lost Childhood
I carefully ran my hand over the edge of the dressed log. I closed one eye and squatted down, checking to see that it was completely level. Satisfied, I turned to Ely and smiled.
“Good job. You are a genius.”
Ely, who stood behind me awaiting my judgment, wiped the sweat from her brow with one gloved hand and shook her head.
“Please. I only managed to do a passable job because your blade is sharp enough to cleanly cut through the wood. If I had to use a hatchet for the job, I’d probably have ended up with a misshapen mess of wood.”
I puffed out my chest a little when she praised my sharpness, but I quickly corrected her.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ely. It’s precisely that sharpness that makes it difficult to cut straight – it’s too easy to accidentally make a notch. Even a brief twitch of the wrist could cut the log in half, the wrong way. The fact that you’ve managed to avoid that, especially on your first try, is nothing short of amazing.”
“Well, if nothing else, I’ve had a lot of experience cutting things.”
The humour faded from her voice near the end. I could tell. With me in hand – my base form being a carbon copy of the weapon she had used back then – she had recalled her time as a soldier. As a killer. Even back in the old world, when she had been preoccupied with merely surviving and staying alive, fighting battle after battle with no time to rest, the killing had taken a toll on her. I couldn’t imagine how she felt in the years afterward – when she had the time and peace to sit and brood over her actions. How many times had she seen the faces of her enemies in her sleep? How many times had she woken up from a terrible dream, covered in cold sweat? In this life, I had taken my fair share of lives, but I was a weapon – such was my purpose. Although I had regained my human self, I couldn’t really attain that conviction that killing was wrong. Intellectually I knew it was, but I had lost the moral aversion I used to feel towards it when I was purely human and nothing else. Accordingly, I was now unable to really sympathise with my sister, even though I knew, intellectually, what caused her to make such a pained expression. Rather than offer cheap sympathy, I simply stood and watched over her, hoping to comfort her through my presence alone.
After a while, she shook her head vigorously, rubbing the bridge of her nose between two forefingers – an old ritual, one that she had developed to help her cope with the guilt of killing, back when she had done it on a daily basis. The self-loathing left her features, and she stretched her arms, frowning when her shirt stuck to her torso. Although we hadn’t been working very long, it was midday, and the sun was blazing bright in the sky. Although Ely had only just dressed her first log, she had spent the last two hours standing under the sun while watching me demonstrate it, as well as practiced cutting other pieces of wood to get used to the resistance of the material. I was fine, since my humanoid form didn’t have the function of sweating, but Ely was still properly a human. As a result, her shirt – an elven blouse, quite in vogue among the youngsters in recent times – had been drenched through with sweat. She gingerly pulled it away from her skin, only to watch it plaster itself back to her when she let go. She frowned, then took off the blouse in one smooth action, revealing her fair skin beneath, glistening with sweat. As it happened, the citizens of Kirtvel were not in the habit of wearing undergarments. Ergo, when she removed her shirt, the upper torso it exposed was completely bare. I flushed with heat, feeling my cheeks heat up – which, considering I didn’t actually have a drop of blood in my body, was an entirely unexpected sensation. Following some unfamiliar instinct, I averted my eyes.
That was a mistake.
“…hm? What’s this?”
Ely noticed my suspicious movement. A hint of playfulness crept into her voice. Then, suddenly, my sense of her presence vanished. I looked up. She was gone. The next moment, I felt her behind me. It took me half a second to register the feeling of twin objects being pressed into the back of my head, and another half to deduce what they were. I panicked and squirmed, but Ely’s arms were locked around my shoulders in a vice grip. Eventually, my wits returned to me, and I simply reverted to my weapon form, leaving Ely in the strange pose of snuggling a spear while half-naked. She pouted.
“Oh, come on, that’s cheating.”
She released me. After verifying that she had no intention of grappling me again, I switched to my humanoid form.
“Ely, what do you think you’re doing?”
I glared at her. Ely just smiled at me infuriatingly.
“It’s just, seeing my cute little sister react like that to me made me want to tease her. We used to take baths together. You used to refuse to get in unless I was with you. Don’t you remember all those good times? Alas, how cruel my dear sister has become!”
She made a show of sobbing into her hands. I just glared at her, unmoved.
“We were children, then. We’re not children any more, Ely. You’re what, thirty? Forty? And I’m verging on six hundred, give or take a couple decades. We’re adults now, Ely, we should act like it.”
Ely stopped her mock crying, letting her hands fall to her side. A pained smile surfaced on her face.
“‘We’re adults now’. You’re right, of course. We are adults now. The problem is, I don’t really remember ever being a child. Nor, I suspect, do you.”
I was silent. She was right. We had some semblance of a childhood, back in our original world, when we were growing up. But I was seven when I was taken. Ely was nine. Ely was forced to learn to fight, was forced to become a soldier. I was forced to learn court etiquette, I was treated as a hostage. Both of us had our childhood cut short. Both of us had been forced to grow up before our time. Both of us had become adults, even before fully settling into the role of children.
Real tears now began to roll from Ely’s eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Eury. If only I hadn’t been with you that day, maybe you wouldn’t have been taken with me. Maybe you would have had the opportunity to grow up normally, live a normal life, be a normal child. It’s my fault. They wanted me, not you. It’s my fault. I took your childhood away from you, Eury. It was me. It was all me. It was always me.”
I blinked. Ely wasn’t speaking sense. Even if she hadn’t been with me, it was likely that I would have been taken anyway – I was needed as leverage to make her fight, after all. But perhaps spending so long on her own, not knowing of my fate, had led her to the ridiculous conclusion that she was in some way responsible for our collective suffering. A coping mechanism, of sorts. I had seen similar cases in my 600 years. It was far easier to accept that some fault of one’s own caused harm to come to one’s loved ones, rather than to accept that this misfortune had just been the result of ugly chance, an unlucky die roll. In this state, logic would do nothing to calm her. Instead, I approached her. This time, I was the one who took her head to my chest.
“Ely. Stop it. I don’t blame you for anything. Nor should you blame yourself. Maybe we suffered at first, maybe we did have our childhood stolen from us, but can you honestly say you gained nothing from it? No new friends, no new experiences, experiences that were good enough to stave off the bad ones? If that were the case, we would have given up by now – both of us. But you never despaired. You fought to the end for me. You won the damn war. You couldn’t have dont that if you’d been crushed by the weight of our circumstances. So there must have been something at least. Good memories to keep you going. I know that in my six hundred years, I’ve had my fair share of both. memories that made my lose faith in the people of this world, as well as memories that restored them.”
Ely pulled herself away and held me at arm’s length, staring into my eyes. Her voice had a note of pleading to it.
“What memories, Eury? What have you done, what have you seen? If I haven’t completely stolen your happiness, then prove it. Tell me your story.”
“Of course. I promised I would, and this is as good a time as any. But first, let’s move into the shade.”
I clasped her hand in mine, and gently led her out of the clearing, toward a shaded part of the forest on the clearing’s edge. I had located a pair of rock that would serve as comfortable enough seats once I levelled them.
As we moved toward that spot, however, a voice that sounded like the first notes of spring came from behind me.
“If you’re going to tell your story, Eurydice, then allow me to partake in it as well. I, too, am curious about the life you have lived since you came here.”
We whirled around at the same time and spotted a woman with long, flowing black hair standing just behind us. Cherry blossom petals – a flower not found on this world – fluttered around her, circling her. She was dressed in a lime green robe, vaguely Oriental in design, similar to what I had worn when I was Empress. But I would not dare to compare myself to such a personage. The Goddess standing before us was none other than the Lady Yingquan.
I hurriedly dropped to a knee and bowed my head in respect. Next to me, however, Ely stood upright, her knee unbending. Because I had lowered my gaze to the ground, I was unable to see her expression, but knowing Ely, it was probably something disrespectful.
Her Eminence spoke.
“My Champion. My friend. Though I knew that you would eventually find each other, I am nonetheless glad to see that it has come to pass. Know that it was with a heavy heart that I- um. Uhhh… Champion? Why do you look so angry? Look, I understand that you’re upset, but- we can talk about this. Champion? Ely?!”
Her Eminence’s voice was getting more panicked by the moment. Meanwhile, Ely had moved from beside me, walking in the direction of Her Eminence. Unable to contain my curiosity, I prepared myself to grovel in apology for my disrespect, and raised my gaze.
At the exact moment that I looked up, Ely punched Lady Yingquan square in the jaw.