Later, Lucille would be unable to explain what made her realize that something was wrong. Maybe it was the way that Lady Alicia’s arm went rigid, or the chill from the mana release, or some other subtle clue that she picked up on from taking care of the lady every day from dawn to dusk. But the feeling was there, deep in her core, and without even considering the consequences she broke into a sprint towards her lady. She ignored the Duke’s cry of surprise, the Duchess’ yell of indignation, the priest’s shout of alarm; she could deal with those later.
With a flash, the ground around Alicia erupted into a spiraling inferno that quickly rose and dwarfed the girl. Lucille faltered for a moment as a wave of hot air washed over her, but then the moment passed and the fire disappeared. The ground had been scorched and Alicia’s dress was singed and stained with soot. The girl herself seemed uninjured by the fire, but Lucille’s concern only grew. The flowers themselves were untouched, other than two--a pink rose and a dark blue petunia--to the right of the stage whose petals had begun to wilt slightly. However, as she watched, the small lotus seemed to wilt slightly before it crumbled to dust.
Lucille scrambled up onto the stone platform, moving awkwardly in her dress, and then rushed forward past the chalk outlines. She made it just in time; Alicia’s body had gone rigid and she began to fall backwards with the inevitable motion of a domino. Lucille caught the girl with one arm wrapping around her back, just in time to keep the young lady’s head from crashing into the hard stone floor.
For a moment, there was a total silence within the cathedral.
Then everything erupted into motion, shouts and gestures and commands. The Duke quickly dispatched Mr. Rowchest to discreetly find a doctor. The Duchess looked at the scene with an expression that was mixture of distant concern and calculating interest, while her son’s only had concern and fear. The bishop had joined Lucille and had one hand against Lady Alicia’s small wrists, checking for a vital sign which he, thankfully, quickly found. The young priestess still stood shocked, her eyes wide, still holding the silver tray.
Lucille just held Lady Alicia, keeping the back of her dress from touching the floor. The young lady’s breathing was shallow but steady, and beneath closed eyelids her eyes were darting rapidly, watching something no-one else could see.
She didn’t know who she was, right now, and that should have been alarming. She felt like that was important, fundamental even, but it was like that information had been cleanly excised from her mind. And yet, for some reason, she wasn’t too disturbed; somehow she knew that her concept of self had been borrowed, or perhaps suspended, but that it would be returned to her at some point.
She also didn’t have a body right now, or not one in the traditional sense of the word. There was a vague collection of thoughts and emotions that was roughly her, but it was not currently attached to any fleshy vessel. This also would have been alarming if she was in a physical realm at the moment, but it was so immediately clear that she was not that it didn’t quite alarm her.
She had been here forever and for no time at all, and this was not a contradiction. All around her, threads of all different colors were woven in and around each other, some meeting up and tying in a knot of unfathomable complexity, others isolated and stretching off into infinity on either side. Some seemed to be pulled taught between two knots, while others were slack or looping. Between them was nothing less than an expansive void that continued as far as she was able to perceive in all directions. Close to her, she saw five of the threads--a dull green, a sickly yellow, a deep purple, a strong orange, and a light teal--all enmeshed and tangled around each other in the same massive, practically Gordian knot. It drew her attention, both because of its proximity and because all five threads, when they emerged from the knot, went off to be enmeshed with countless other threads in the vicinity, so that everything seemed to be directing her focus in to the cluster.
Looking closer, she could also see a bright white thread around which the knot was formed, although it seemed to go through unobstructed. This thread was thin and narrow, but it almost felt as if the whole knot had been constructed around it. As alien as it should have been, the whole wide space, and the tangled knot in particular, were oddly familiar to her.
“Am I dead?” she thought to herself. “No, that doesn’t feel quite right. And yet, it doesn’t feel wrong either. How peculiar.”
Another thread, this one a dark red, also connected to the five threads, although all of its ties were flimsy and just outside the central knot. It also wrapped around the bright white thread for a while, like a five-leaved ivy choking an oak tree, but eventually that was thrown off as well. Something about that red thread seemed crucially important, and so she reached out and, without considering how she was able to do such a thing without any body, plucked the thread.
The thread began to vibrate faster than she could perceive and a high-pitched noise filled the space. At the same time, she felt her sense of self return to her all at once, crashing into her like a falling wave upon the unsuspecting beach, but this did not bring the relief she was expecting.
She was Alicia Senius, twelve years old, the daughter of Duke Edmund Senius and Duchess Lucia Senius (now deceased). She had been too young to understand what it had meant when her mother passed away, nor had she understood the arrival of a new woman and shortly afterward a younger brother. She was the fiancée of Prince Alsander, the second prince of the kingdom of Estellar, although that had yet to be publicly announced. She was proud and miserable.
She was also Christine Hemmings, a digital artist who lived in upstate New York, the daughter of two loving, working-class parents from the Bronx. She had graduated from Flynn College with a degree in studio art and a minor in computer science, after which she got a job as an artist and animator at a company that designed video games. Later, when she had risen in the company, she was able to produce several games herself, including a passion project that she ended up working on for several years. She had several relationships that ended poorly before she found the woman that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. And then for some reason, at age thirty seven and the height of her career, the memories abruptly ended.
These two selves were both true. However, they differed so heavily in age, class, temperament, and the world itself that trying to hold both truths together nearly tore her apart. She tried to scream as the identities began to clash, each trying to assert its own memories and emotions, but she had no form and thus no mouth, so the void held only the ever-ringing thrum of the plucked thread.
As a result, she barely noticed the secondary effect of her plucking the thread. As the vibrations rippled out along its length, they affected the knots that the red thread was connected to, unraveling parts and tying new loops in their place. Some of the knots were completely undone, separating two threads completely, while at other places the red thread seemed to wrap around new threads and connect with them instead. And every change sent new vibrations out along those threads as well, which in turn created new changes, all of this propagating out from her beyond what she could perceive. But she had little time to focus on this, as the vibrations of all the strings created a cacophony of noise which, combined with the two identities at war in her soul, began to overwhelm her perception entirely. And then she only knew void.
It was late at night and Lucille was still awake. How late, she didn’t know; when she’d passed the grandfather clock it had been some minutes past midnight, but that was surely several hours ago. She was exhausted, both from the events of the morning and from being awake for close to a whole day, but she couldn’t even consider trying to fall asleep. She sat in a cushioned chair, alternating between staring out at the waxing moon and checking on her charge, although she was always alert for the slightest sound of movement.
Currently, Lady Alicia seemed to be peacefully sleeping in bed. Her pallor was disguised by the dim light, making her seem as quiet and calm as any other night. This was one of the lies that the night tells; Lucille knew from both the doctor’s words and from periodically placing a hand on her young charge’s forehead that the girl was burning up. She had felt useless the whole afternoon, hovering around as the doctor had checked up on the girl and then informed the Duke and the Duchess of his treatment; for Lucille’s part, this had mainly consisted of returning with the young lady to the manor and staying by her side. She was charged with stoking the fire when her lady seemed cold and shivering and laying wet cloth against Lady Alicia’s forehead if she complained of the heat, but so far that treatment had seemed to do nothing to actually break the fever. It was frustrating, although at the least in all the commotion it seemed that the Duke and Duchess were willing to overlook the maid’s prior breach in propriety during the ceremony.
Once again, Lucille was struck by the innocence of her face. Lying still, the young lady seemed like nothing less than a cherub, emerged from a painting of Saintess Paleve. She found it hard to reconcile the young girl here with the tyrant that she could become to the servants. It wasn’t as bad between Lucille and the lady, she knew, but there were other servants who made only token efforts to disguise their displeasure. Lady Alicia was no fool, though, and she treated those servants with nothing but scorn and derision. It was hard to tell from which side the loathing first emerged, a proper chicken and egg situation, although Lucille privately suspected the Duchess may have had some hand in it as well.
Lucille herself felt more sympathy than resentment toward the girl. Perhaps it helped that she had a younger brother who had been a real brat when he was younger. That didn’t mean it was any easier to do what was basically a thankless task, and one which kept her largely isolated from the rest of the servants at the estate.
She held a small brooch in her lap, an iris made from gold inset with countless tiny gemstones of sapphire, garnet, and amethyst. She had found it earlier in the evening when she’d returned to her quarters. It had just been sitting there on the pillow of her bed, worth indescribably more than anything else in her room. She didn’t know exactly who had taken it, although she had some suspicions. It wasn’t the first time that Lady Alicia’s possessions had disappeared briefly after one of the maids had come to visit, although they always seemed to show up in a few days--none of the servants were foolish enough to actually steal from a noble, grudge or not. It was, however, the first time that they had taken something of such value, and the first time it had reappeared outside of Lady Alicia’s room.
“Please return to us, my lady,” Lucille said quietly. She noticed that some of Lady Alicia’s hair had fallen in front of her face and pushed it back behind her ear. It would be several hours still before morning. Outside, the moon continued it’s slow, inexorable arc through the star-dotted sky.