Chapter 17 - Lost Innocence
The streets of Bulirin are a terrible place to grow up in.
There was once an orphan girl cursed to live a life of misery. Her father passed away in a mining accident before she was even born, and her mother died in childbirth. It makes you wonder if she did something terrible in a past life. Without any relatives willing to take care of her, the infant was placed in one of the most crowded orphanages in Ashbourne City.
Her early childhood was... tolerable. The orphanage's matron was a vile old woman who worked them to the bone, but the girl didn't complain. She dreamed of being adopted by a kind merchant who would take her on as an apprentice. Maybe she would even catch the eye of a handsome prince one day. But when she overheard the matron planning to sell her to a brothel, she ran. The girl grabbed what few possessions she had and fled by jumping out the second story window.
A pretty young lass alone on the streets of Ashbourne... by all rights, her fate was sealed right then. She was destined to become some rich man's pet or wind up dead in a back-alley, her corpse broken and violated.
But the girl refused to accept that fate. It didn't take long before she threw away her childish dreams of meeting a kind prince or becoming a merchant, and picked up a dagger instead. Like a fish in water, she quickly adapted to life at the dark underbelly of society. Theft, extortion, even murder... there wasn't anything she hesitated to do to ensure her survival. The girl killed plenty of men twice her size and thrice her age. Though that doesn't mean she avoided killing those younger than her; competition between street urchins can be fierce.
Her tenacity and viciousness continued to grow, and she eventually gained the attention of a well-known band of ruffians in the area. They reached out to her with an invitation. The girl knew that she wouldn't be able to survive for long on her own so she reluctantly accepted. But to her surprise, she fit in with the outlaws immediately. Her talents bloomed as she participated in heists, robberies, and turf wars with rival gangs.
At the age of fourteen, Hyacinth became one of the most notorious members of the Jagged Knives.
Her style of fighting was particularly cruel. The Jagged Knives taught her how to create several highly illegal poisons, and from then on she always used envenomed daggers. A single scratch could incapacitate foes with excruciating pain, making them easy to finish off. Eventually, Hyacinth even earned herself a title in the city's underworld - the "Poisonflower". Depending on who was speaking, that title carried respect, fear, or disgust.
Her body count grew almost every day.
If she had not chosen to break into a certain house on a certain winter evening, that is how the story would have ended. Hyacinth would have continued to kill, and would have eventually been put down by Bulirin's law enforcement with the rest of her gang. But for the first time, fate decided to be kind to her.
Having heard a rumor that an old apothecary's home contained great wealth, she broke into it in the middle of the night. However, the owner of the house wasn't asleep. Hyacinth had already drawn her dagger when she noticed that the old man didn't look afraid or even startled by her intrusion.
"Hello child. Would you like some tea?"
Accepting a drink from a stranger was suicide in her line of work, so she said no. But for some reason, the girl felt compelled to stay. Hyacinth spent hours silently listening to the man talk about his life, only leaving when the sun rose. She was back the next day, and the day after that. On more than one occasion, she treated the apothecary's home like a safehouse, fleeing there to hide from her enemies. The old man never complained, and even healed any injuries she suffered.
"If you're going to keep getting into trouble, then you might as well learn how to patch yourself up." He finally said in exasperation.
The lessons were fun. Hyacinth was a natural at herbalism. and found it more satisfying than making poison for her comrades. The old man never asked for anything in return. But one day, when the girl stumbled into his home covered in vicious stab wounds, he decided that this arrangement couldn't continue. After healing Hyacinth, he gave her an ultimatum; leave the Jagged Knives or never show her face in his house again.
"Your talent is wasted like this. Give up that way of life... you can save so many people with those hands. Why must you kill?"
She found it difficult to answer. Why did she insist on living like this? In truth, Hyacinth was scared of the person she had become. The girl only killed in the past to protect herself, but she was slowly starting to enjoy it. The apothecary offered her a fresh start, and a place where she would never have to worry about hunger, the cold, or being killed in her sleep.
And so she stopped. She accepted the apothecary's offer to become his formal apprentice. It wasn't a moment too soon, as most of her gang was destroyed a week later in a trap set by the city's guardsmen.
The following months were some of the happiest in Hyacinth's life. Their time together was short, but it was the first time she had ever felt the warmth of "family". Soon the old man reached the end of his lifespan, and he had one final request.
"In my eighty years of life, you are the only apprentice I have ever taken. Promise me... you will use your talents only to help others from now on."
"Heh, you won't call me father even now? Fine, that's more like you anyway."
Hyacinth promised, and she would keep that promise for the next few years. She inherited the old man's home and workshop, earning a living with the skills he taught her. Every time she dressed someone's injury or alleviated their sickness, she felt a deep sense of satisfaction. It was a form of atonement for her, a girl who had killed dozens of people - not all of whom truly deserved it.
For someone with a childhood like hers, this was already a "happy ending". But she made one mistake.
The war with Elswain erupted and Hyacinth became busier than ever producing medical supplies for the Bulirin Army. Because of those dealings, she got to know a certain captain. One day, the young man asked her nonchalantly if she was able to make poison as well - preferably of the colorless and undetectable variant. The army needed a large quantity of it for an operation against the Elswain army, and would pay very generously. He assured her that it wouldn't be used against non-combatants, and he would keep his source secret.
Why shouldn't she help them? Bulirin was her home. Even if the use of poison was technically a war crime, every dead Elswain soldier meant that one of her own people might be saved. Hyacinth hesitated for a long time, but the payment was too tempting. She accepted the request.
The officer lied. Spies used the poison on the water supplies of three villages, seeking to starve the Elswain army and weaken their front line. It would have worked if not for the changes enacted by Prince Nicolai - the improved efficiency of the enemy's suppy lines reduced their reliance on frontier villages and foraging. In the end, this act merely deepened the hate between the two nations.
When she learned what had happened, Hyacinth felt numbed. This was the result of breaking her promise. Hundreds of innocent men, women, and children died because of her greed. It was a sin she would have to bear for the rest of her life.
She felt an overwhelming amount of guilt. But more than anything, she felt rage. A seething, black anger that had laid dormant for so long...
* * *
Gaining access to the officer's tent was easier than expected.
The captain was a well-known philanderer, and he would have a different courtesan almost every night. Dressed like a common whore, Hyacinth was able to walk straight into the army camp without being stopped or questioned by any of the patrolling soldiers - though their lascivious stares made her skin crawl with disgust. Ignoring the cat-calls, she soon arrived at her destination.
Standing outside the captain's tent were two guards. They eyed Hyacinth with mild surprise, though neither reached for their weapons.
"Strange, the captain didn't mention... ah who cares. Go on in." One of them sighed.
"Thanks, darling~." Hyacinth blew a kiss at the guard, who only rolled his eyes.
Her target was cleaning a sword when Hyacinth walked in. The captain looked up with a mixture of surprise and suspicion... which was quickly replaced by desire when he saw the woman's partially exposed chest and supple legs.
Hyacinth's heart rate rose the moment she locked eyes with the man. Barely suppressing her rage, she was able to show him a sweet smile.
She only had one shot at this. If he recognized her too early...
"What's this? A surprise from my brothers?" He grinned, standing up to greet the mysterious beauty in front of him.
"Yes, my captain." Hyacinth answered seductively, drawing closer and running her hand along the officer's jawline. "Think of it as a reward..."
"For all the people you killed, you bastard." Hyacinth lowered her thin veil, her expression turning ice cold.
"You-!" The man tried to reach for his sword, but staggered backwards and collapsed to the ground.
Of course, the dagger was coated in a paralyzing venom. It incapacitated the captain and made him unable to scream, while leaving his sense of pain intact. Hyacinth made the next hour a living hell for her prey before finally slitting his throat and putting him out of his misery. After quickly fixing her clothes and cleaning the blood off her hands, she walked out like nothing happened.
"Oh? You're done early." One of the guards outside the tent remarked. "The captain usually keeps 'em overnight."
"Your dear captain is in a bit of a foul mood right now. I wouldn't disturb him if I were you." Hyacinth winked.
"...Ah. I see." The man's face flushed and he nodded. "Must be the ale."
Miraculously enough, she was able to leave the camp without getting caught. However, it didn't take long before the Bulirin army discovered the officer's corpse and put two and two together. Hyacinth stole a horse and fled for her life across the border. She would forever be exiled from her homeland. It was a small price to pay for revenge, but the guilt hadn't eased at all.
Perhaps it was misdirected anger. After all, Hyacinth was the one who decided to accept the request in the first place. The captain only lied about the targets, but it was a covert operation... wasn't that expected? And in the end, poisoning those villagers really was supposed to help Bulirin win the war. From a certain point of view, the man was only doing his job. But even if Hyacinth understood that logic, she couldn't accept it.
When a killer feels used or betrayed, violence is the only possible reaction.
* * *
She spent the next year traveling across Elswain, healing people for free in random villages. No matter how many she saved or how much they thanked her, it never lessened the guilt weighing on her heart.
Hyacinth constantly felt suffocated, and nightmares plagued her every night. At the height of her exhaustion, she even began to hallucinate. Ghosts of the countless people she killed haunted her every step. Yet the girl pushed on, determined to atone as much as possible before death finally claimed her.
Her suffering continued until she met him, in a tiny village named Southcreek.
Gina's father was a timid, delicate-looking man without much common sense. When he stumbled upon the half-dead Hyacinth wandering through the forest, he took her home and practically force-fed her deer soup in a panic. Despite Hyacinth's protests, the man kept fussing over her, saying that she was as thin as a rake and needed to eat properly if she wanted to survive.
Can love blossom from annoyance? Because during those first few days, Hyacinth had to fight back the urge to hit him multiple times.
As days turned into weeks, however, she became fond of the young hunter's presence. His pure and simple minded nature was amusing to her, a girl who had grown up seeing the worst humanity had to offer. Hyacinth didn't know why, but just being with him gave her some semblance of peace - or at least a good distraction from her thoughts. She settled down in the village as the nightmares slowly began to fade. It wasn't long before she laid claim to the young man, snatching him up before one of his many admirers could make their move.
Hyacinth got along with everyone in Southcreek, since healers are quickly accepted by the community. Her closest friends were a young couple who shamelessly invited themselves over for dinner three nights a week. When Gina was born, those two often babysat the girl to give Hyacinth and her husband time to themselves... though that became more difficult once they had a child of their own.
"Honestly 'Cinth, I think Thomas likes you more... I feel defeated as a mother."
"Oh, nonsense. Kids will always be more fond of their par- Gina! No running inside the house!"
"Haha, she's growing up so fast!"
In the entire village, the only one who treated Hyacinth with any hostility was Whitelaw. The smith had recognized the faint traces of her Bulirin accent. Although Whitelaw didn't think that she was a spy, someone from a former enemy kingdom showing up in their neck of the woods was highly suspicious. If he had known what kind of past the young herbalist was hiding, he would have probably killed her on the spot.
Apart from that, life was perfect for a while. But Hyacinth always felt that it was better than she deserved. Perhaps that was true...
The plague struck without warning. People died in hours after contracting it, and the sickness spread without regards to health or age. Hyacinth's efforts and Whitelaw's healing magic kept the casualties to a minimum, but they were unable to save the people most important to them. Gina's father died and so did both of Thomas' parents. It was so sudden that there weren't even any tearful goodbyes.
This is my punishment, isn't it? Because I dared to forget.
The following months were a dark time for Hyacinth and Whitelaw. Only the need to look after the children left behind by their loved ones kept them going. Ironically, it was this tragedy that would finally reconcile them... the two confided in each other about their troubled pasts, finding support in shared misery and regrets.
While they never could become "friends", they did their best to work together and raise the poor souls left in their care.
It's been so many years since then.
Hyacinth chewed on a blade of orange grass as she reminisced about everything that had led to this point.
I can barely even remember their faces these days. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, really.
Maybe it was time to let go. She had been stagnating for almost a decade.
While the grief will never go away, at least she was used to it by now. There was still plenty she could do to make herself useful in this messed-up world.
Going to the Elswain capital and starting an orphanage there might be a good idea.
But first, her most important job was to look after the two brats until they were old and strong enough to stand on their own feet. Maybe she would even live to see them get married. Gina seemed to be completely attached to the boy, and while Thomas was acting aloof now, that will probably change in several years.
Hah, seeing those two together would be all I could ever ask-
"Tie it properly! If the harness gives at the wrong time, we're dead!"
"Wait, has anyone seen the elders?"
Her thoughts were interrupted by panicked shouts coming from outside her home. What is this commotion? Just as she stood up to check, the door flew open and two small figures staggered in, practically collapsing on the floor in exhaustion.
Hyacinth's blood ran cold.
* * *
I've never been so glad to see my teacher lazing around at home.
And in normal circumstances, I would have found her horrified expression pretty funny. The last time I saw Hyacinth so flustered was when she walked in on me cutting my own arms to test the healing powder I made all those years ago. But given the seriousness of the situation, I couldn't even crack a grin.
"Mom!" Gina immediately ran over and jumped into Hyacinth's chest before breaking down in sobs. All of the tension and fear she'd been holding in finally gave way.
"Gina! Thomas, what in the world happened to-"
"No time." I interrupted her hurriedly. "Monsters are here, first hunting party was wiped out. Grab whatever we need and go!"
My tone was commanding and more than a little disrespectful - but what could I do? Every second counted.
Hyacinth's eyes sharpened. After patting Gina on the back, she disappeared into one of the adjacent rooms. It was only a few seconds before she returned with a small burlap bag and a new belt around her waist. The leather belt held several daggers, and I could tell at a glance that these weren't meant for gathering plants.
"Come on. You've told the others?" She said, grabbing Gina's hand.
I nodded. "The word should have spread by now."
It was finally time to leave. But our biggest problem remained... getting over three hundred people to safety with the limited number of horses we had.