Mistress collapsed on her bed as soon as she reached it. She’d said nothing as I’d taken her to the hospital building, but thankfully her injuries were minimal.
In truth, her physical health was the least of my worries.
“Can you…tell me what’s wrong, Mistress?”
Lying back and splayed out, she turned away. “Will you get mad when I tell the truth, Hilde?”
“Depends on how you tell it.”
“I guess I’ve just been thinking about how I pledged to keep you the same. How’s that gone, hmmm?”
“We’ve been over this, Mistress. I can’t condone undeserved guilt.”
Mistress’ brow furrowed as she scoffed. “Hilde, do you remember anything about your past, from before I was in your life?”
“I-I believe my hometown was Siebrücken, Mistress.”
“Because you remember when I said it. You said it too…but I’m asking for actual memories, not something you inferred. You can’t deny that I’ve robbed you of this part of yourself.”
“Is…it such a big deal, Mistress?” A glare told me her answer.
“Memories are what make a person. Your experiences, good and bad, you carry them with you, they inform your thoughts, your decisions.” Mistress sat up, her voice dangerously level. “If someone doesn’t have those anymore, then they become a different person. Even if they look and sound the same. Even if they still remember some things.”
“I’m...better than I was, Mistress. Or do you disagree?”
“There are 21 years of experiences that you can no longer recall because of me, Hilde. You can’t deny that…I’ve killed part of you, Hilde. I’m a murderer. Don’t you get it?”
“And so is every other magus, Mistress. The difference is that you care about it.” I grabbed her hand and pulled it towards me. “I actually wish you didn’t, with how heavily it’s weighing on your mind. I can’t stand it.”
“Gods dammit, stop telling me the things you think I want to hear!” Mistress snapped.
I held my ground. “You should be able to tell that I’m not, Mistress. I am using discretion that you granted me, to say what I feel.” I didn’t let go of her hand even when she pulled it away.
“You're right, and I know that’s what you feel. But it’s not something I’m going to be able to feel good about.” She put her head in the hand that wasn’t currently ensnared. “I wish I’d never developed any powers. I wish I’d been able to meet you in a better place than this. I can’t stand it here…”
“Once this year is over you’ll be free of it.”
“But you won’t be free of me. Only thing you can do is watch as I inevitably drive myself into the ground. And me knowing that, how horrible you feel seeing it…I’ll only go down faster.”
“Please trust me to keep you afloat, Mistress. Lissy. I won’t fail.”
If I could even really tell myself that.
“I don’t even know how I’m gonna deal with class tomorrow…”
I’ve let her down…
“You and I have suffered worse.” Tomorrow just had to be Monday, didn’t it? “And I’ll be there with you…”
Mistress sighed. “You’re trying your best, Hilde, and I really appreciate it. But I don’t deserve it.”
“I’m really not all that concerned with what you think you do or don’t deserve. My own actions caused us a lot of trouble today, y’know.”
“Don’t call me pushing you to go into town ‘your actions’.”
“I’ll stop if you stop blaming the world we live in on yourself.”
“Hilde…I’m done talking about this. Just…let’s get some sleep.”
“As…you wish, Mistress.” I watched her shed her clothes and take off her glasses, before settling under the covers. Sighing to myself, I took off my own things, not that they were really mine. I wondered when I’d stop disappointing her, but the person she wanted/needed me to be was evidently long gone. But she wanted me to settle into bed with her, so I did. And she clutched me tight.
“Good morning,” I said, watching Mistress blink herself awake.
As reasonable a response to the prospect of waking up as any, I supposed.
“Happy Monday, Hilde…”
“And a happy Monday to you, Mistress.”
She sat up, giving me a dry look, shaking her head. “Y’see, when you say it, it’s a reminder that it’s apprentice classes today and you don’t have to do anything.”
“Again, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why humans think being a familiar is a bad thing.” I saw her face fall after I said that. Dammit, I really was a dumbass sometimes…
“Humans think that because of how humans are, Hilde. Because humans know that humans are awful, and that being permanently subject to one’s every whim therefore a terrible fate.”
“If humans are so bad, then I take comfort in not being one. And even better is it that I’m bound to one who does not share the common cruelty of her race.”
My words failed to rouse her. “I wish I could share your optimism.”
“I cannot tell you what to think, Mistress. And if you want me to be as miserable as you think I should be, I will not disobey your command. But until then, I think I’m truly blessed.”
"I…thanks. That’s really sweet of you to say.” Mistress hopped out of bed, did some stretches. “How ‘bout we leave it at that for now, and get some breakfast?”
We walked down to the dining hall. Lissy had wanted me to pick out my own outfit, and gave a light scoff when I went for one of the simple dresses she had been clothing me in. They went from a high collar to mid-thigh, and they were just…really comfy.
Especially since I didn’t feel the cold. Perhaps in low enough temperatures I’d get a bit brittle, but I could deal with that.
Mistress wore her more extravagant robes, though she ditched her hat for a higher ponytail. I imagined she’d go back to grab it for the walk to class, though.
We managed to secure our usual table. “Why don’t you try picking something from the slate?” she asked, once she’d made her own choice.
“My selection doesn’t seem to light up,” I said with a shrug.
“It doesn’t work for familiars, I guess…but that’s tough. They’re gonna know I want you to eat with me.”
“I appreciate it, Mistress.” When Lissy’s order was brought over, she pulled the servant aside for a short moment, pointing at me, and the place on the tablet I had touched. The somewhat flustered waiter confirmed her suspicions.
Mistress had planned ahead. “Then…well, I just realized I’m awfully hungry this morning. And that I’d like one of these, too.” She smiled, and the server reluctantly nodded. “I know it seems a bit strange, but you have my thanks.”
My — or should I say Lissy’s second — meal arrived not too long after.
“Ah, what a shame,” she said. “Seems I’m not hungry enough for both of these after all. Hilde….?”
“I’d be happy to, Mistress.” Once the act was done,we tucked in. And, naturally, a woman and her familiar both eating attracted more than a few odd looks.
There was quiet for a time as we ate. “Are you feeling any better?” I tried.
“I’ll manage,” Mistress replied. “I hope you don’t think that the pub thing going so wrong was your fault.”
“I’m ashamed that I didn’t know what Ironbolt was really like.”
“He seems like a person who’d break both your legs. How’d you get back?”
“The prefect debated making me wait for the brand to activate. But she eventually activated it on her own.” It’d been raining on that day. “I just realized something.”
“I think I’d already had some experience with brawling at the time,” I said. “And I’d definitely coated my fists with ice, which was why they brought in Henri Iron…fucker.”
“That the best you got for a spiteful nickname?” Mistress giggled.
“That is interesting, though. Hey, what if we can patch together pieces of your old memories like that?”
“I’ll do what I can, Mistress.” There was a very small urge gnawing at me. It was growing, an inclination to speak up. Mistress had said back when this all started that I’d have an identity. “If I may, however…”
“Speak freely, Hilde.”
“Are my old memories all that important? Those were times from before you were in my life. Not having them weighing me down gives me so much room for better ones, y’know…with…you?”
Mistress blushed! Mistress blushed! Mistress…was starting to talk, time to listen. “When you got the news that your dad had been killed, you came to my room.”
“That’s…right. Yeah, that’s why I was with you all night that night…”
“It was absolutely crushing to see. I felt so useless, I wished I could’ve done something. Y’know what you said?”
“I…wish I could’ve done something.”
“Gods, I almost laughed! Felt terrible about even just…almost doing that, but…I guess what I saw then was…more evidence that we really were kindred spirits. And it made things hard, sometimes, when we wanted to help but couldn’t. All this magical ability we had, and we were just so impotent in the grand scheme of things.”
“I still have those urges, Mistress. Wanting to help. I want to help you.”
“Of course, Hildie, I know that. And I want to help you, and sometimes we get stuck in this loop of chasing after each other…I guess some things don’t change. It was just…oh gods, how do I even…at the pub, right?”
“What about it?”
“That’s what really hit me. Why I felt so horrible. You had gone from…I remember you cared about your dad more than anyone else in the world. And then you didn’t know who he was…”
“So you jumped to thinking that you were responsible for that.”
“I am responsible for that! It’s tragic, and it’s my fault!”
“Would you like to tell me about my father sometime, Mistress?”
“Ye…um, yes. Yes. I would like to tell you all that I can remember. And, I guess I have this idea for if we can get some leave…” With a mirthless smile, Lisette stood up. “It’ll have to wait, though, I’m afraid. We’ve gotta get going.”
“Thanks for the meal,” I said. “Time to conquer your classes?”
She had actual amusement in her grin, now, as she took my hand. “They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
We were back in the class that scattered our desks across the void. Some magi had their familiars in more compact forms, while others squeezed together on their platforms. I rested my head on Lissy’s shoulder while the rest of me hung back, almost horizontal.
The professor was demonstrating major wards, the likes of which were used to cover cities. Mistress hummed to herself while taking haphazard notes, still evidently distracted by her thoughts.
At some point she’d started another sketch of the two of us, watching something. The sunset, it looked like.
“Do you want to do that tonight, Mistress?” I whispered.
“I want to do it when we’re alone, when we both know who we are, if that makes sense.” She briefly cupped my cheek. “But tonight also sounds lovely.”
After class, Mistress led me to the dueling circles. One contest was already underway in one circle, two lower ranked apprentices in their last fight as apprentices. We passed that one by, however; Mistress instead favored a more secluded spot away from the crowd.
“Wanna make sure I stay in practice,” Mistress explained, “especially after yesterday.”
“You made admirable use of my old techniques,” I said.
“You were no slouch of a mage, Hilde. I can’t let those skills fade away, now, can I?” Accordingly, Mistress produced a person-sized crystal pillar, opposite her in the circle. Biting her lip as she poured energy into her arms, they began to crack in glowing lines, while the skin took on a prismatic sheen.
“You’re a natural, Mistress.” I observed as she kicked off, skating along the ground and delivering a swift punch into the pillar that shattered it into a spectacular rainbow mist. As she stepped back, her arms returned to a more “normal” state.
“I don’t understand why she’d waste her talents on such unrefined moves,” a new voice said. She had appeared alongside her magus, now standing at the edge of the circle as Mistress continued her personal demo.
“Emmaline,” I said, acknowledging the bird. Her wings she had draped over herself like a feathery cloak, and even with how I hovered, she towered over me.
“Don’t think about addressing Miss Adeline, Hilde,” Emmaline replied, as standoffish as I remembered her.
That was the name of her mistress? Adeline, Emmaline, Adeline, Emmaline…
“That’s how you start a conversation?” I retorted. Her wings stiffened as she glared down at me. The familiar’s magus was watching mine with a thoughtful expression, while Emmaline herself tried to block her from view, presumably so mine less-than-human eyes would not sully her noble visage.
“Do I have to outright say it? I…no. You’re not worth talking to.”
“Don’t antagonize our opponents before we properly challenge them,” I heard Adeline say.
Emmaline turned and bowed her head. “Apologies, Magus.”
I chuckled, but said nothing more for a while. Mistress had started deliberately hiding certain techniques, I noticed, now that an audience had shown up. Very clever. Even so, Adeline and Emmaline…Ademmaline?…were conversing quietly with each other, making observations.
“She was really torn up when you lost your duel,” I eventually said. “Thought it was her fault, that she’d taunted you into it.”
“So?” Emmaline contributed to the conversation.
This was getting aggravating. “You were her friend, and she was grieving. Does that mean anything to you?”
“‘She should move on,’ is what Miss Adeline says. Tell her that.” Was there the slightest bit of regret in her voice? Did I imagine it?
That was enough of this pointless conversation. I cast one more backwards glance at the bird and her master, before joining Mistress in the circle.
“What do our friends want?” she asked, pushing her glasses up.
“I think they’re just sizing up the competition.”
“Does Emma want to talk?” Mistress read the expression on my face and shook her head. “Oh well. She’s got new priorities, of course…”
Emmaline was still looking at us, or just looking at Mistress. I wished she would stop. Just stop, so that Lissy could one day properly move on…
“Mistress…is there any way I could help you make some friends?” I cautioned.
She ruffled my hair. “You don’t need to worry about that, Hilde.”
But I did. She was lonely, moreso every day that went by. She had me, but I wasn’t a full person, I could only do so much. “You’re hurting, Mistress. I do need to worry about that.”
“Let’s…discuss this tonight, okay? We can survive ‘till then.” She forced a smile. “I know how to get to the roof of the artifice building.”
“It’s open. Coming, Mistress?” I waited at the stairs, watching a sliver of moonlight pour in.
“I’m glad it’s not cold,” she said, catching up. We stepped up onto the roof, amid some small but well-tended gardens. The slight nip in the air was offset by our proximity to each other, the warmth of Lissy’s magic radiating from my core.
The sky from east to west was a gradient of the earliest stars in the east, stretching to the splendid bands of color radiating from the setting sun.
“I am so ready to be done with this place,” Mistress said, scanning the campus below. In the circles, another soul was extinguished. “I want to see the world with you, Hilde.”
“Even though…even though I’m…not her, Mistress?”
“Not her? What do you mean?”
“The…old me.” I shrunk in on myself, just a little, the colors of shame coming to surface on my face. “It’s like you said, right? I can’t be all that she was with how many memories I seem to have lost. I’ll never be the complete person you want. And I’m really…really sorry.”
“Hilde…that’s not what I meant…” Mistress’ words were quiet, almost disbelieving.
“You’re so lonely, Mistress, and I wish I could help, and be the full person you need.”
“Gods…I’ve been so stupid…I’m sorry, Hilde…” The tears were already in her eyes.
“You haven’t been stupid at all. Perhaps too quick to condemn yourself, but you’re working on that.”
Lissy shook her head emphatically, face reddening as she did so. “N-no, you don’t understand…no, I didn’t understand. I was so concerned with your memories that I wasn’t considering how you’d take my words.”
“What do you mean? Please, Mistress…it’s alright…”
Lisette leaned on the lip of the building, balling one hand into a fist. “I’ve made you feel worse because I set an impossible standard for you to try to follow! I was so mad at myself for not taking care of the past, while you were feeling like a failure because of it…gah, why the fuck am I so damn USELESS?”
“I’m sorry, Hilde…”
“You already said that. I’m sorry too, sorry for being too confused to help…”
Lisette turned around and sat down with her knees against her chest. I knelt down next to her, trying to do whatever I could. “Hilde…maybe it’s too late…I just want to say something. Even if nothing else I’ve said made sense, I want to make sure you know this.” I rested a hand on hers, and she held it tight. “I love you more than anything, whatever form you take, human, familiar, I don’t care. You are just…so important to me, please never forget that. Just by being around you make things better, and I’m so afraid I’ve let you down…”
“You haven’t, Mistress.”
She looked up at me, wiping moisture from her eyes. “Is that your honest opinion?”
“You already know.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Mistress said, giving just the barest hint of a smile.
“You know what else?”
“I love you way more than any soulbond could ever force me too. And I’d hate for you to end up killing yourself chasing after perfection. I’d die too, y’know?”
“I have no plans to die, Hilde.” Her smile finally took shape.
I peered at the sky, which cast its dimming glow across the academy. “The sunrise hasn’t ended yet, Mistress.”
“Yeah, let’s watch it.” I helped her up as best I could, and then we faced the west together. “Remember not to stare at the sun, or I’ll have to make you a new pair of eyes.”
Oranges and reds were making way for the shades of night. “Maybe I want to force you to make me things.”
“Sounds like what you want is to go blind!” She wrapped her arms around me, and I did the same. It was soon only stars and the moon left in the sky, and the two of us in the night.
“You must be getting cold, Mistress,” I said, after a while.
She poked me on the chest, a knowing smirk on her face. “Whaddaya gonna do about it?” I felt a warmth building where she’d made her contact.
“Everything in my power, of course.” We became a twisted mess of limbs as I maximized contact. I even, painstakingly, gathered the river of my hair to wrap around her, to her apparent delight. Using the strange properties she’d granted me, I became her personal heater.
“Scratch another off the list of places I wanna cuddle you,” Mistress said with a happy sigh. “Just you wait, Hildie, cuz our world snuggle tour is going to be the stuff of legend.”
I was certain it would be.
As we wound down, we found ourselves leaning into each other, quietly watching the sky.
Lissy broke the silence first. “Do you wanna know what happened to your father? What I can remember, anyway. I wasn’t there, but I heard things…”
“If you feel comfortable saying, I…would, yes.”
“It’s not a fun story. But you’ve got a right to know.” She sighed, a sad smile crossing her face. “It was sometime last year, I think in July? Maybe September. Pushing harvest time, I know that. It was a peasant revolt, and, like, those happen, right? While I go around complaining about my problems, they’re the ones who really suffer. But I think you told me that it was happening in your hometown. And they wouldn’t let you go and see for yourself.” She shook her head. “Bastards…but I guess you might’ve gotten hurt.”
She continued on. “I heard somewhere once that the crown will bury rebels and dissidents without names, erase any legacy they possibly can. Still, a letter found its way into your hands.”
The letter…there had been a letter. And Lissy had been there, doing whatever she could to comfort me. “I remember being appalled. And devastated. Mention of mass graves…traitors heroically disposed of.”
“And you said to me, once you could find your voice, ‘he had to know it would end this way.’ At first, I thought that was a really weird thing to say, especially with how much you’d seemed to miss him, but you then told me…ah. He had no love for the crown, you said, but…I’m really sorry, I don’t remember the details. But then you said he…”
“‘Must’ve taken the gun they’d given him as a conscript and pointed it at the taxman after a bad harvest.’ I…told you that, yeah.”
“Yeah, yeah! That sounds about right. One of those wars they must’ve just wanted bodies for. Anyway, they didn’t even send their regulars.”
“No,” I recalled. “No, they didn’t. They sent along some merc warband and said they could have what they wanted of the town after they killed all the rebels.”
“I’m so sorry, Hilde.”
I shook my head. “I think I understand why you must’ve suppressed those memories.”
“I didn’t even realize I had at the time. Soulbond is mostly all subconscious, and I really…wanted you to be happy. I still do, but…I want to do it the right way?”
“Whatever that could be,” I said, allowing a chuckle. “I don’t hold it against you, Mistress.” Part of me noted that I really should be mourning. So much was wrong with…all of this…I knew…but Mistress was here. I had no other choice than to bask in her brilliant light, and let it wipe away all sensible despair.
“Kind of amazing how magic could do so much for the common folk but instead we’re stuck here, learning to…duel. And feed our own little egos by getting to be the god of a single person. If you even leave them a person.” Her glasses caught the moonlight as she went on about societies and living in them. The passion written on her face…gods, she was incredible. “…I dunno. What do you think?”
“You want to know what I think, Mistress?” I batted my eyelashes, feigning innocence.
“I think you’re hot.”
Mistress cocked her head and stifled a laugh. “You’re given these grim revelations of your past and that’s where your mind goes?” She put a hand to my chin to turn my head, and made a show of looking in my ear. “I really did a number on you.”
“And it was amaaaazing!” I wrapped my arms around her once more, melting into the bliss of contact.
“I guess…it could’ve gone a lot worse,” Mistress said eventually.
“We’ll put you back together yet, Hilde…” Silence took over once more as she surrendered to my attentions, a renewed intimacy. At some point, likely noting that both of us were slowly but inevitably drifting off, Lissy started to murmur something. Placing a hand on my chest, I felt something besides the usual happy sensations flow inward. “Take us home?” she said sleepily.
Delicately placing my arms under her, I found that I had the strength to do so. Lifting her up in a princess’ carry, I delicately kicked off the roof and glided down to ground level, and returned us to her dorm.