RISE OF THE UNFAVORED PRINCESS - Chapter 183 - 183 Ch. 182: Hamsters and Death
183 Ch. 182: Hamsters and Death
There isn’t a hint of a joke in sight, so I think seriously. The list of people I spend time with is rather short and I mentally peruse through everyone I know in a brief minute.
“No one… new honestly,” I conclude with hesitance.
Aria also reluctantly accepts my answer. “Then something has changed. This may be from someone you know and care for.”
I laugh humorlessly. “Believe me, that is a small list and I know them all too well.”
“Mayhap it is someone you would never suspect. But mark my words, this darkness, if it’s not removed from your life, leads down one path and one path alone: your death,” Aria promises. The concern on her face is unmistakable.
Death. A chilly terror creeps up my shoulders, turning my blood into ice. There is no one more persistently chased by the Grim Reaper than myself. But with every passing day, I grow more and more tired of running.
Everywhere I turn, no matter what I do, the threat always lurks. My chest constricts and I can hardly draw a full breath. My hands accidentally grip the embroidered birds on the skirt of my dress as I panic, a gift lovingly sewn on by Marie and ruined by me in seconds.
“Do you ever sometimes think that all of this is futile? Like we’re just hamsters running in our wheel in the same place?” Bitterness sours my tongue.
“Ham… sters? What? Is that a type of food? Or an insult?” Genuine perplexity draws her dark brows together as she struggles to make sense of my last sentence. But her silly face is also a life raft as her rational considerations free up my chest enough for me to draw a full breath and laugh.
“It’s just a bit of slang. Pay no mind.” I wave away my gaffe.
“Language is one of Helio’s great yet confusing gifts,” Aria preaches with a wise expression.
“Tell me about it,” I echo. I cannot imagine the trouble I would’ve found myself in if I’d been reading a webnovel translated from a language I don’t know. But death is universal, no, multiversal. It transcends space and time entirely. This makes me wonder, just how far does whatever Julian is involved in go?
“There is something afoot,” I suddenly whisper. My mouth is dry and I’m not sure if I’m making a mistake.
“There is always something afoot.” But I can see Aria sit up and pay attention.
I open my mouth a few times but no sounds come out. There is little doubt in my mind that if what I say next enters the wrong ears, I could be disappeared. It wouldn’t matter that I’m royalty. It wouldn’t matter that I’m the promised child. Today, there would be a Winter Royberg de la Erudian. Tomorrow, there would be none.
Still, Aria deserves to know. With her position and standing, coupled with the fact that she is growing out of a child they can easily manipulate, not knowing would leave her vulnerable in a chess game of ruthless adults. And if whatever this group is could bring such a look of fear into the steadfast Julian’s eyes, it could be catastrophic for Aria to not know what she’s up against.
“It may involve many, many powerful people. And magic.” She seems unmoved, so I further emphasize, “Forbidden magic.”
From Aria finally comes a reaction in the form of a loud exhale. “They play with something they don’t understand.”
“I know. And I’ve seen it. I think- I think I’ve even interacted with it,” I breathlessly admit. I too can barely wrap my head around this. It’s like entering a random door while playing a video game and suddenly unlocking a secret, max difficulty level.
But it makes sense. The strange purple energy I’d encountered in Julian when he was unconscious and in my father at Augustus’ coming-of-age ceremony. That means they have ties to the Sarsavalian War. That could also mean that this conspiracy extends beyond the empire’s borders and involves powerful entities all over this world.
“You are well acquainted with your histories, no?” Aria replies.
“Naturally.” I’m confused by the sudden change in conversation, but she veers back to the topic at hand.
“Do you know why certain types of magic were deemed forbidden? Do you know why we, unlike those in the Old Continent, close ourselves away from it?” she asks.
“It is not from the fear of usurpation?” I recall an old text that tells of how forbidden magic became ‘forbidden’ after a coup in the early days of the empire assisted by mages.
However, something about the way Aria asked heavily implies that there is more to the story. History is written by the victors after all, allowing them to mold the past into a narrative of their choosing.
“There are two sides to all magic, for balance,” Aria begins to explain. “Like a coin with 2 sides. When one faces the light, the other faces the dark. If the magic facing the light comes from Helio, from where do you think the magic that faces the darkness hails?”
“From Akira?” Her silence is my answer.
“Careful with names. People oft forget, but they hold their own power,” Aria warns.
The shadows seem to fall upon Aria’s face more heavily at this moment, obscuring her brows and part of her expression. Aria and I are seated less than 2 feet apart, but the distance feels like a thousand. Our positions and what they represent, we may never cross them to become true friends. This is the High Priestess, I think to myself, not your buddy. But perhaps, a comrade.
“Fine. The Devourer,” I sputter. The sobering realization has stolen away my eloquence. “But… But I always thought-“.
“That he wasn’t real?” This time, the pity lingers in Aria’s eyes, a complete role reversal from a few minutes ago when I was lamenting her stolen childhood. Aria rises to her feet, towering over my seated form. She tuts under her breath.
“You are still na?ve in some aspects. Do you think that because I represent the light, represent Helio, that I am good?” The High Priestess crosses her arms over her chest. “People kneel at my feet, they think a prayer from me will solve their problems. Their mouths praise my name. In their eyes, there is me and me alone. They are seeking the High Priestess of the Holy Church. A representative of their faith, the living and breathing idol. But they do not know that I am not the Aria they believe in. Tell me, am I still good?!”
She almost yells her last words at me, but I can tell that they aren’t just for me. They are for anyone and everyone who has ever turned her into a god. I would know, I’ve said the very same myself.
“We are… products of our environment.”
Some sense returns to her blind eyes and she blinks rapidly. Yes, it’s just me Winter, sitting before her, rather than a congregation coming to watch her mass with bated breath.
Aria deflates a little, settling back down in her chair with a thump. “Ah, sometimes I forget that you too know what it is like. Promised child… and yet the world has stripped you of your opportunity to be just that – a child.”
It’s as if she is reading my thoughts from just a few minutes prior. With eyes unseeing, I still cannot help but marvel at what Aria can see and understand.
“Light can kill much in the same way darkness can. Too much light, too much heat,” Aria shakes her head. “It will burn you alive. Darkness is necessary to balance that. But the consequences for too much darkness are far more dangerous than the consequences for too much light.”
A young boy suddenly opened the door, causing both of us to jump. He’s got an empty basket in hand and it’s clear that he came to collect some alms. At the sight of the two of us, he drops to his knees.
“Apologies, your highness, your eminence! I deserve death!” he yells.
“Run along, lad,” Aria says with a good-natured laugh.
“We’ll be finished soon. Do return in a few.” I know that there could be consequences for the boy if we really do obstruct him from fulfilling his task.
“Are you scared, Winter? Scared of the unknown?” Aria asks once the door closes once more and the boy’s steps fade away.
“Always,” I admit, throwing my hands up in a lamenting sort of way. “But it keeps me going in a way. I wouldn’t be here otherwise, responding to your strange request.”
A smile pulls at Aria’s cheeks. “So then what is your answer?”
“You asked me if I will support you in ousting Bishop Duvernay from power. Allow me to reassure you: your goal is my goal. I want what you want. To wrest some control of this Holy Church we serve so diligently into our own hands.” Excitement creeps into my tone without my notice.
I even show her my own hands as I speak, so small and empty, and one of them almost entirely useless outside of aesthetic purposes.
“And what of those you mentioned, the ones who seek the darkness? That can not be tolerated,” Aria says. I can tell she still doesn’t take this threat seriously enough.
“I know very little outside of their existence. But I know they are everywhere, tangled within the upper echelons of our very society and tucked away within this Grand Temple that we sit in right now. I know that they can’t be underestimated. We will have to be careful.” I stress the last sentence as I see a determined light shine in Aria’s blue eyes.
She is brave and she is smart, but even I know that we will have much more growing to do before we can even entertain uprooting the deeply sowed roots of chaos and corruption that have embedded itself in every crevice of the empire.
“One cannot fear when acting in the righteous name of Helio,” she predictably responds. There goes that religious inflection in her voice again. I’m realizing that I do not care for it, though I naturally say nothing.
Aria is young and pious, neither of which is a crime. But the dangers of religious fanaticism are not lost on me. Politics and religion are naturally intertwined; one cannot exist without the other. However, when their delicate balance is disrupted, the death and persecution that follow can be devastating. We should be careful. I should be careful.
Human faith can move mountains and build empires, or destroy them.
“No. But we are not god, just man,” I urge. “Men can bleed. And it was with great irony that while I can heal nearly every injury or illness known to man, I cannot heal so much as a papercut on my finger.”
“Do not fear, Winter. I will be cautious.” Aria nods in agreement. She looks slightly sober from before. Perturbation draws her mouth into a tight frown. Thankfully, for now, Aria can still be swayed by me. But what about when she’s older?
“I know you will.” I hope she will.
A sigh of relief escapes from me as I step outside, suddenly finding beauty in the humble entrance I must sneak through to enter when I’m on my own. I’d once possessed a fear that the good-hearted Aria would be eaten alive by the Church in an eerie mirror of my own fate. But there is fight in her. She’s a reminder I desperately needed, to face my future bravely even as the odds stack up against me.
If I accomplish nothing else, I do hope I can help clean up the Holy Church. House Duvernay, I promise, this shall be your first stronghold to fall.