Mom and dad eventually came back, and they were delighted seeing me healed and whole again. Now it was time to right my wrongs. Now I could fix the disaster I had brought to us.
“Alright dad, it’s time for you to stop looking like a pirate!” I bounced up happily. I was feeling light-headed. We had tried to minimize the blood loss, but well, I had still lost some. Dad frowned at me, Artemis and mom gave me strange looks.
“What part about me says ‘pirate’ Elaine? They’re nasty, evil people, and we should be thankful that they don’t attack the town.” Right, pirates didn’t traditionally have eye patches here, nor were they a romantic relic of the past – they were a real, present danger.
“Eh he, putting that aside, are you ready?” I deflected.
“Are you sure this will work?” He frowned. Yikes, no faith in me.
“Could it really get any worse?”
“Not really, do your worst.” Ouch. With that stunning display of confidence, I started.
No point in [Privacy], so I started off with a [Deaden Pain]. I focused on eyes. The more I knew, the more I thought about it, the better my efficiency would be. I didn’t want all of my mana to vanish, just for a fraction of an eye to show up, and eyes were a lot more complicated than the skin and muscles I’d mostly been doing.
There was the sclera. The lens. The optical nerve, although that wasn’t too damaged. There were little blood vessels. There were… so many more pieces, and I knew I didn’t know them. Damnit, this might end poorly for me. I narrowed my focus. I should try to just do the part that was injured, not a full eye replacement. I breathed in and out, rapidly, bracing myself, and then, in rapid fire succession - [Tissue Removal], [Detailed Restoration].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Medicine] has reached level 99!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 46!]
Yay levels! Not as much as earlier, but even two levels in a day, let alone a single event, was a big deal. I guess the complexity of the action, along with the ‘weight’ of it, gave me a little extra bump. Or I was just close to the next level anyways.
Dad blinked a few times, then groaned and put his head in his hands.
“Dad, dad, what’s wrong? You shouldn’t be feeling any pain!” I said, panicked. Did something go wrong? Did I just make things worse?
“Sorry, I’m fine, I have a splitting headache.”
Dad brought his head up, blinking a few times, squinting and looking around.
“It’s not perfect – kinda blurry – but Elaine, I can see again!” With that, he jumped up, picked me up, and twirled me around. It’d be ages since he did that, and I suspected it might be the last time he’d be able to. I leaned into it and enjoyed the sensation.
We sat down, and I could suddenly feel the atmosphere shift on me. Mom and dad were beaming at each other, but there was a tension in the air, a secret known to everyone but me.
I could feel it, a weight in the air, a pressure bearing down on us. There was something afoot, something to do with all of the secret keeping. Artemis and mom still had that perfectly silent communication down, and she stuck around after dinner. Dad cleared his throat, everyone turned to look at me, and I could feel the other shoe about to drop on me. The air was thick, hard to breath, and I just wanted whatever this was over with.
“So Elaine, you’re probably wondering what we want to chat with you about.” Gah, he was waffling, just say it outright, don’t leave me in suspense. “We wanted to talk with you about how you’re at a marriageable age.” I let out a huge sigh of relief. This wasn’t that bad. We’d had this conversation a few times, going round and round in circles. I was nowhere close to being married off, so it was just another lecture. I can survive another lecture.
“Anyways, your mom has been working hard on this, and we finalized an agreement today – you’re going to marry Kerberos, Citizen Prasinos’s son.”
Hun? What did he say? I must have misheard.
“Sorry dad, I wasn’t paying that much attention, it sounded like you said I was going to marry Kerberos! Could you repeat that?” I nervously chuckled in disbelief.
“You heard properly Elaine. We’ve arranged a marriage between you and Kerberos. Your mom’s been working on it for ages, and the stunt with the fire, and becoming a full Light healer, pushed it over the edge. Congratulations! You’re marrying into one of the most prominent families in Aquiliea!”
I felt the walls falling away from me, mom and dad enlarging to encompass my entire vision. I wished the floor would open up and swallow me whole. I wanted to get out, to escape.
“No!” I yelled, finding some of my fire, jumping up. “I’m not getting married now, and I’m not having who I marry picked out for me.”
“Sit down!” Mom snapped at me. Out of reflex, from her tone, I sat down immediately. Mom turned to dad. “Look, I told you she’d take it badly if you were that blunt.” Mom shook her head.
“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in. If it makes you feel any better, just about everyone has the same reaction as you. I had the same reaction as you, and I knew and liked your dad! Why don’t you come meet him with us tomorrow, see what it’s like? You’re not getting married tomorrow, it’s still a few months off at the earliest. Take some time, get used to the idea. Afterall, it’s exciting!” Mom’s attempt at soothing me, somehow, barely, worked, took the hot edge off of my panic and fear. I looked to Artemis. She winked at me.
“Fine. I’ll see.” I looked down at my feet, words coming through gritted teeth, unwilling to concede, but with everyone stacked against me, I didn’t have much choice.
I got up the next morning, and reluctantly dressed in my best. No kid tunic with the short-like legs, nope. Had to wear a full-length ‘woman’s’ tunic, with my green stripes blessedly sown on by Septima. The thick and hearty stripes when I had first gotten it had turned into a thin green line accenting my clothes. Slightly melted and reformed pendant on my neck, Arcanite-pommel knife at my waist, pouch on my other hip, hair done up and, with a slight raiding of mom’s cosmetics, I was ready to do battle. I wasn’t going to get pushed around, I was going to lay down the rules in this first (technically second) meeting.
Leaving Themis to fend for himself, we left town, and started walking down the north road. Artemis followed us for a bit, in full Ranger gear, backpack, weapons, and more. The rest of her team, and the wagon, had left in the morning, and she was planning to catch up with it after seeing me go. When we got to the fork in the road to Kerberos’s house, she turned and hugged me.
“Listen Elaine, it’s not that bad. You’ll do fine, I promise. I’ll see you in two years! I checked out their family, you won’t have Rangers knocking on your door for bad reasons here. And hey, now I know where you’ll be! Chin up, be brave, I’ll be avenging thunder for you if needed.” I hugged her as tightly as I could, not sure if she could feel anything between my low strength and her armor. I’m pretty sure she got the message.
We stood and waved Artemis off, her turning back and waving to us as she walked backwards, staying as long as we could until she vanished out of sight. Then we turned down the road to Kerberos’s house.
The day was bright and sunny, the breeze light and airy, and yet none of it reached me. The long road through cultivated fields was like an executioner’s plank, with nothing but sharks and the endless deep at the end, waiting to consume me, swallow me whole. Golden stalks of wheat all around us, bars to my prison cell. My tunic, previously steeling me and guarding me, was now a heavy weight, lead wrapping around me. It was getting harder to breath, panic mounting, breaths coming faster. This was just so quick! Less than 12 hours ago my biggest concern was dealing with my scarring – admittedly a problem, but one I had tools to fix – and now I was about to meet my fiancé. I didn’t want a fiancé.
The road was both too long, and too short. In a blink of an eye, we were in front of a sprawling estate, full of rich-looking low buildings scattered all over the place. There was a bustle of people around, and from the number of people and the work they were doing, I suspected most of them were slaves. Blah, they wanted me to live as a slave owner. I had fantasies of being waited on hand and foot – who didn’t? But it was always ethical, it was always because I had made millions of dollars and was paying people to do it. Sure, slaves were paid – either upfront, or while they were slaves, and could buy themselves out – but something about it just felt different, felt wrong. Gah, I needed to focus, we were almost at the door.
A well-dressed slave met us at the door, and lead us inside. The place was huge and gorgeous, rugs and frescos on every floor, paintings and sculptures on every wall. Classy luxury and wealth emanated from every stone, from every chair, table, and recliner. The pillows had gold threads embroidered on them, and everything was dyed, some even in the rich apple red's and azure blue’s that were so expensive. My eyes had turned into dollar signs as I tried to take it all in. I could see why mom and dad thought this was such a good marriage for me.
We entered into yet another fancy room, and there was Kerberos, and his mother and father, all dressed in rich togas, with a purple sash going from shoulder to hip. Yikes, I thought we had pulled out all the stops, but it was quite clear even now that there was a wide financial divide between our families.
Just how had mom managed to wrangle this? I was – however reluctantly -impressed.
Our parents were talking, but I ignored them, instead eyeing up Kerberos. He somehow was slightly fat, something I don’t think I’d seen before on Pallos. Must be all the good living here. I don’t think I’d seen him since the ill-fated System Day all those years ago, but maybe I’d seen him now and then in market, a face glimpsed in the crowd. Who knows. He somehow managed to both look bored, and to be leering at me. Wow. Great first second impression Kerberos.
I snapped back to paying attention when I heard my name being said.
“Does that work for you Elaine?” I sadly missed everything that had transpired before, too bored and distracted to pay attention. Might as well agree, what’s the worst that could happen.
“Yeah sure.” I started to drift off again, listening while looking everywhere else.
Mom gave me a Look, telling me she knew I hadn’t been paying attention, and better commit to whatever I had just agreed to.
“Alright, why don’t you and Kerberos have some time together to get to know each other? You can also discuss which two skills he thinks you should get.” Kerberos’s mom said that, while mom threw me another Look. The screeching noise of a train emergency braking on badly rusted tracks went through my head. Damnit! I had agreed to changing up two of my skills to suit Kerberos’s whims! Why didn’t I listen!
Another one of the endless slaves that seemed to infest the house came by to take us to another room, while my mind whirled, trying to interpret mom’s Look. Right. There was no way of telling if I’d actually lose and gained the skill or not. With enough practice, you could mimic a large range of general skills.
We got to a new room, and settled into a pair of recliners facing each other. Well, time to have my first real conversation with my so-called "fiancé."