Up in the Citadel, Asterius was rabid with rage.
-I want every inch of the wall searched and I want you to find the tiniest crack that can serve as escape route for these monsters!-he shouted at his nephew, Rolf Asterianus who was serving as his aid. I cannot believe that they keep getting off , avoiding our surveillance!
-It’s been increasingly difficult to stop them, even to uncover them lately.-grumbled the young man in response. I’m not sure anymore who’s surveilling who. Since Sa…
-Don’t speak his name!!!!
Asterius slammed his fist on the table, cracking its top. His son’s departure to join the Changers outside the Citadel had been a hard blow to his pride. There was no love lost between them but the foolish boy was still bearing his name. And to make things even worse, others followed him, supporting the escapees. Even the Silver Tree seemed to mock him, withering and losing vitality despite the best efforts to keep it alive.
-Leave me alone! -he growled, sending Rolf away. I have to make a plan to crush these vermins once and for all!
He turned his back on the young man and stood before the high window, scrutinizing the dark expanse of the forest.
“ I’ll find you! I’ll find you!” he thought, gritting his teeth.
They’ve reached the tree house late in the afternoon after crossing much of the forest, passing by the various small communities of Citadelians and Changers living there. People greeted Satoru with much sympathy and followed the winged girl with unhidden curiosity. Savian’s house appeared before them in a small clearing. It well adjusted to the shape of the tree and it was cleverly camouflaged by the crown of branches and leaves. Memories of her own home surfaced in the mind of the Queenie and she muffled a sigh. The Shadowcat stopped and Satoru signaled their presence with a whistle. Opening the tree-crown above, a special ladder unfolded till it reached the ground. It was built to accommodate the feline and its rider. Cora followed them closely.
Behind the curtain of leaves, the door opened to a room lit by glowing yellow globes, pending from the ceiling. The walls were full of books and colorful pieces of arts and crafts. There was a thick , soft carpet on the floor and low chairs to sit.
-Good afternoon, Master Savian!-said Satoru. I came with a guest, if you don’t mind.
-Good afternoon, Satoru! Good afternoon, young lady!-replied a deep, velvety voice.
Savian entered the room to greet them, leaving the Arberian girl speechless. A man in his early fifties, he was tall and majestic, wearing an ink-blue robe embroidered with silver feathers. His kin was dark brown with a copper gloss and his long, black hair was braided in numerous thin tails. His eyes were incredibly blue and their gaze was piercingly clear. He bowed courteously before Cora, but he assessed her in a blink of an eye.
-Your coming was signaled already, Satoru along with the presence of your graceful companion. Welcome to my humble home, Miss Cora! What a pair of beautiful wings! It brings back happy memories of my youth. I used to fly a lot but now, I am more an earthling….
Cora blushed but to replied quickly:
– Thank you for receiving us, Master Savian! I am on a personal quest here and I think I could be of help in your effort to bring back the balance of this land.
-Hmmm…You seem to be a very determined young lady. How much do you know about us?
-Not much, Master Savian ; but Satoru told me that you’re the beholder of knowledge.
-Then let me share with the two of you my modest place and while having dinner, I’ll try to shed some light on our recent history.
Sipping the warm, fragrant tea poured in colorful cups, Cora and Satoru were listening to Savian’s recount of memories. His voice was full of emotion as he was telling about the tragic days twenty some years before….
-My most powerful memory of all is that of a young woman, facing the “disappearance “ of her beloved husband. They were recently married and madly in love. This Curse of invisibility was a harsh and long forgotten penalty, used hundreds of years before only in the worst cases like vicious murder or treason. Those days were largely forgotten so the impact of the revival of the curse was even more powerful. This woman had watched the entire act, eyes in eyes with her husband and the moment his last visible piece vanished, she broke the line and rushed to embrace him. She held him close and she didn’t want to let go, no matter how hard others tried to drag her away! This image stayed fresh in my mind and gave me the strength to continue the fight.
-So…are you a Changer?
Cora and Satoru were sitting on the steps of the house, days after visiting Savian. The encounter made a great impression on the Queenie and she grew even more determined to be by the side of the outcasts. As for Satoru, he came back strengthened in his trust towards her; he could see Savian opening before the girl like never before. Maybe this was the sign he had been waiting for…Satoru turned his attention to Cora:
-No, I am not-he said. One doesn’t have to suffer to become aware of others’ pain and to step in to help those who are suffering. One simply has to act upon its true self. By the way,you’re not a Changer either and here you are, ready to get involved in our fight.
She shook her head with a smile.
-Hmmm, yes….You’re right. So…what if I fly over the walls and rescue people like I did with Avik?
-Avik is a small child. Hauling an adult would be hard and dangerous. The White Guards are all over the place. We’ve got messages from inside that Asterius has sent them to check every corner of the wall. He is a madman, Cora. I wouldn’t put you in his way!
It was a passionate outburst from this calm and balanced young man, bringing back a small detail Cora recalled hearing in that previous discussion between Satoru and Petunia, Ogren’s wife.
-You seem to know well Asterius….-she said quietly.
There was a moment of silence then Satoru murmured in a low voice:
-He is my father. Growing up separated from him helped me see clearly who he really is.
The pain was clearly audible in the restraint of Satoru’s voice and Cora decided to go further tactfully.
-What happened?-she asked softly.
-He couldn’t accept that I was born crippled-sighed the young man. I never thought that I would be scorned for something that wasn’t my fault. No matter how hard I would’ve tried, I couldn’t change the fact that I was born impaired. But for my father this was the ultimate humiliation. Not only that the woman he sought refused him, but his son was crippled, a failure, good for nothing. The moment he realised that I will never be able to follow his footsteps, he moved out from home and left my gentle mother in shame and despair. He was sending her money to live and to raise me, but forbid her to get in touch with him. When my cousin was born, he took him under his protection and raised him with all the attention he should’ve given to me…
– That must’ve been awful…-sighed Cora, remembering her joyful connection with her father.
– No. Not so much….I was a child, I had friends of my age who weren’t disturbed by my limitations and I always loved to read, to learn and to dream. But I saw my Mom slowly fading like a withering flower and many times I caught her wiping her tears or muffling her sobbs. She loved me dearly and the pain my father inflicted on us, shortened her life. This is something I can neither forget, nor forgive.
-I can understand that, Satoru….-whispered Cora.Something dark and very dangerous must inhabit your father’s heart.
-It’s cold ambition and vanity, nothing more. His heart is devoid of love and warmth-said Satoru bitterly. Oh, well! Enough sadness ! Come with me, Cora! I want to show you something.
The Silver Tree was dozing in the dim light filtering through the ceiling. For the first time in countless years, it was sleeping peacefully. Deep inside its core, a seed of hope was growing. The flash of message it received recently, brought the Tree back to life. In these rare moments of comfort, the Tree was dreaming of happy times, of love, of joy, of freedom. Cuddling inside its silver shell, the Spirit of the Tree was dreaming too. Somewhere close, a girl with fiery hair was coming to save them.
Riding his shadowcat, Satoru lead Cora to Goren and Petunia’s home. A safe enclosure provided playing ground to the orphans. The children were playing in the warm sun, watched by two women. One of them was Petunia, holding her baby who seemed to enjoy the happy noises and the fresh air. Cora’s eyes were searching for Avik inside the group of children.
-Did you spot him?-asked Satoru, guessing her preoccupation.
-I cannot find him- she answered. I can’t believe that I’ve already forgotten how he looks…
The girl was visibly upset.
-You cannot recognize him because he is hiding. He’s a Changer. Look under the tree in the corner. What do you see on the ground ?
Cora looked carefully and saw a small brown rabbit hiding in the shade. She turned questioningly to Satoru. He nodded affirmatively.
-He’s changing because he’s upset. He’s a sensitive little boy; he needs time to adjust, even if he’s well taken care. Petunia is a great mother to all of them but she’s not his mother.
Cora felt a lump in her throat. She turned to Petunia who was coming to greet them.
-Good morning, Petunia! Satoru brought me to see the children. Could you introduce me to them? I don’t want to frighten them with my strange appearance but I would love to see Avik!
-Good morning, my friends-said Petunia warmly. I’m glad you came; this might ease the boy’s anxiety. Come, Cora! I’ll introduce you to the kids.
She handed her baby to the other woman and took Cora to the playground, presenting her to the children. They surrounded the Queenie, they asked her lots of things about her wings and she allowed them to touch. The kids giggled and after a while, they returned to their games. Cora headed to the tree and carefully sat down next to the bunny rabbit. She felt awkward for a moment; it was hard to believe that this little animal was in fact a human child. What if they are making fool of her? She quickly dismissed the thought. Trust is a two way street; one has to trust in order to be trusted. She gently caressed the bunny.
-Hello, Avik….It’s me, the lady with the cookies. Do you remember me? Look, I’ve brought you another one.
She took a cookie from her pocket and placed it in the grass,right under the nose of the bunny. It worked. The little rabbit shook and reversed appearance. The little boy hopped in her lap, cuddling in Cora’s arms, holding her strong. She embraced him lovingly and kissed the top of his head, rocking him gently.
-Don’t worry, Avik. I will always be here for you.
-I must admit she’s working miracles-said Petunia, watching the bonding outside the playground.
-She does -said Satoru.
He was feeling it to. The following days and weeks, Cora spent as much time as possible with Avik. The little boy has grown to her heart and she was determined to help him leave his cocoon. Having a little sister at home and missing her, helped Cora to build the love and trust Avik needed to regain his innocent joy. Cora was often spending the evening reading stories from the book Avik had from his mother or simply improvising funny stories about her own land, Arberia. The children loved the stories and Petunia was grateful for the help. She could rest more and spend time with her baby and her family. So from the rough beginning, Cora and Petunia ended up as good friends and the Queenie won a well deserved respect inside the community of the outcasts.