When Alta hopped off her mount she stumbled, but for a 10-year-old she was surprisingly balanced. Although it certainly looked like she would faceplant into the dirt track, a mad pinwheeling of her arms managed to stabilize herself.
Lucretia’s mouth twitched. For all the girl’s faults, fearfulness was not one of them.
Alta scampered across the dirt track to the edge of the sunflower field, her eyes wide. Lucretia reigned in her mount and spared a glance for the servant following her and Alta in the carriage. While Alta’s father and older brother were up ahead hunting god knows what, the women dithered behind.
“Look! Look! Tiny sun babies!” Alta said with a wide smile. She spun around and practically beamed at Lucretia. Even though Lucretia was expecting it, it still hit her with a physical force. Although there weren’t Skills in this world, there was a much more elusive and altogether useful sort of magic. Of which, Alta was a particular beneficiary. Her emotions were booming waves of force that hit you when you were near her. Volatile, sure, but powerful.
As her shadow, Lucretia was subjected to it almost every hour of every day. She rose with Alta and put Alta to bed. From the outside, Lucretia had perfectly fallen into the diffident servant to this small bundle of power. Even Lucretia wondered sometimes whether she was committing to this too emotionally, or whether the girl was influencing her overmuch.
But no matter what, Lucretia would never leave the girl. As Alta turned back to the field, Lucretia’s eyes focused on the girl’s heart. There, a thick thread of karma sat. It was slowly developing, almost like a flower blooming. When Lucretia had met Alta almost ten years ago, it was so faint that Lucretia worried that she had imagined it. But as time passed, her fervent hope turned out true.
Because that blooming karma was not with her.
It was with Randidly.
Lucretia eyes crinkled into crescent moons as she peered at the girl’s back. Not that she was tossing aside all other avenues. Lucretia had found to her delight that Engraving was still effective in this world, and had been working diligently every night. However, this was an obvious lead given to her by the world. She would not take her eyes off of it when it was building toward a possible connection.
And it was also clear in that karma something would happen today. Lucretia could hardly wait.
“Alta? Darling? Perhaps we should keep going. Your little sister is tired; if we continue to the summer home-”
Alta spun around and rolled her eyes at the face poking out of the window. “Whatever Darcy. Daddy said I could stop and look at the flowers if I wanted, right Creta?”
Lucretia nodded woodenly. “This is correct miss.”
“See? So there.” Alta spun around and skipped into the field, her expensive dress catching on some of taller weeds that choked the ground around the wildflowers. Not that she noticed. She was too lost in the delight in foiling Darcy.
Lucretia’ gaze slid to Darcy’s rapidly reddening face. Alta Bounty was the second child of the Bounty Family, who owned the transportation system between the different lands of the World Tree, and the power plants built on the connecting branches of the tree. Although Lucretia wasn’t too clear on the details, it seemed to feed on the electromagnetic energy given off by the bark of the World Tree. There might be individuals with more influence than the Bountys, but they were the richest Spriggit family in this strange world.
Alta’s mother died in childbirth, after having had Alta and Puar, her elder brother. A few years ago Alta’s father remarried Darcy, who took her step-daughter’s lack of respect as… well, an insulting lack of respect.
Darcy noticed Lucretia’s glance and narrowed her eye at her. “Are you not supposed to protect her, you stupid half-blood? Don’t stay here, your smell offends Dalmanica.”
For several long seconds, Lucretia just looked at Darcy with a widening smile. It only took a second before Darcy shivered and pulled her head back into the carriage. As soon as she was gone, Lucretia ignored the carriage driver’s apologetic glance and hopped down off of her mount to follow Alta.
Although Darcy hated it, Lucretia was attached to Alta from birth. Alta wouldn’t hear of firing her, and the way her oath to the family was written only required her to show reasonable deference to the family other than Alta.
Besides, time and time again Lucretia had demonstrated to Imnor Bounty, Alta’s father, why she was indispensable as a shadow for his precious daughter.
Likely out of annoyance and childish anger, Alta had given up on skipping and switched to running as she opened up some space between the carriages. Although Lucretia was wearing a long, plain dress, the young girl’s speed was nothing to her. Within twenty seconds, she felt the wind and… caught it. It was hard to explain, and Lucretia understood it was a Skill, of a kind. But immediately the energy of the world filled her and she could arrive next to Alta without much work.
That was the trick of the magic here. It was not truly yourself growing, although that was one way it was understood. Lucretia knew that was foolish. What you were truly doing was borrowing a fraction of Randidly’s power that animated the world. As soon as she had this realization, Lucretia seemed able to freely learn the “special skills” reclusive experts had taught her, on the dime of Imnor.
“You are getting faster,” Lucretia teased as she caught up with Alta.
The girl pouted, but it was only play acting. When Alta suspected Lucretia’s guard had been lowered, she screeched and leapt towards Lucretia’s legs in the hopes of tripping her. Although she could have dodged, Lucretia allowed the young girl to tangle her legs and knock her to the ground. All the while, she was very aware of how gentle she was.
The two of them rolled around and wrestled for a while. But there was only so many openings that Lucretia could leave for Alta to “take advantage of”. Very soon, it became impossible to pretend like she wasn’t capable of overpowering the younger girl.
With the straight face she used around the rest of the family, Lucretia stood while holding Alta upsidedown by her ankles. “Apologies for tripping miss. To prevent you from injuring yourself, I will carry you for the remainder of the trip.”
“No!” Alta bellowed, but she was giggling furiously and clawing at Lucretia’s dress to get a grip. “Put me down! I’ll have you fired if you don’t!”
“Of course,” Lucretia intoned monotonously, dumping the girl unceremoniously on her head. This caused Alta to howl in anguish, but then her giggles overtook her again. They played this game a lot, and both of them knew their parts.
After being dropped, Alta settled on the ground and looked up at the sky. Part of the effects of the electromagnetic radiation of this place was the miniature climates formed above each of the seven lands in the tree. Right now, it was a bright and warm late afternoon in the finest countryside the Spriggit Land had to offer. But Lucretia barely noticed. Her eyes were locked on that blooming karma in the girl’s chest.
“Am I special?” Alta asked. From Lucretia’s time on Tellus, granting wishes, she heard a familiar note in the girl’s voice: longing.
As Lucretia considered how to answer, she felt pity for the girl. Given everything she could ever desire, but rarely anything she needed. Her father was busy, her mother dead. Her older brother loved her dearly but was driven hard by Imnor to inherit the business. There was always something else that they should be doing so that Alta barely had the time to have meals with them.
Vacations like these where Alta got to spend time with her father and brother were rare. And even now, Imnor considered this a good opportunity to bond with his son, so he had left his two daughters and his nagging younger wife behind to find some peace hunting.
Perhaps no one was at fault, but Alta was the one who was forced to understand why everyone looked at her with jealousy, but she was always so sad.
“Yes,” Lucretia said quietly with glowing violet eyes.
Alta sat up and looked at her with a mock serious face. It always made her laugh because it was an impeccable impersonation of Imnor’s butler. “Creta, I do believe we pay you to perform that task.”
Both women giggled, and Lucretia reached down and ruffled Alta’s hair. But then her hand paused. Lucretia’s eyes narrowed.
In a fluid motion, her dress was ripped open from behind as she spread her ‘talons’. The two strange wing bones were about as thick as a wizened plum, but they were almost three meters long and all muscles. As her outer clothes fell away, the skin-tight leather armor she always wore beneath was revealed.
Lucretia’s gaze turned to the West. “Alta, we need to get back to the carriage.”
The air smelled like blood.