Tia had been perfect. Tia had been wonderful and kind and smart and pretty and funny and perfect. Their parents had adored her, and Anphility had practically worshiped her. Many times over her life, Anphility had marveled at how someone so pathetic and useless as her had been born related to someone as perfect as Tia. Anphility was not wonderful or kind or smart or pretty or funny or perfect. Anphility was brutal and vicious and plain and serious and not that smart and not at all as good as Tia.
But there was one thing Anphility had become that Tia had never been. Anphility was strong. Anphility had taken to the sword at an early age, while Tia had assumed her position as the eldest as a shrine maiden. Anphility had decided, soon after taking up the sword on her either birthday, that it was her purpose in life to protect Tia. After all, what else was she good for? In fact, it was probably presumptuous to presume that she could fulfill a destiny as important as protecting Tia. But protecting Tia was everything.
“I will protect you, sister! From everything!”
And she had. For years and years, sword at her side, Anphility had followed Tia wherever she could like a loyal little dog. She stuck by her side, watching warily at the many courtiers and nobles, thinking darkly about how any and all of them could secretly be plotting to hurt her beloved sister.
And she’d been right.
Anphility had known that night, the last night she’d seen her sister alive, that she could not let Tia go to the kingdom of King Petchu alone. After all, there were rumors of that newcomer, Lady Aia, and every time her name was mentioned Tia’s pretty face paled with fear.
But Tia, as she got into the carriage on that rainy night, had merely laughed with a sound like bells.
“Dear Anphility, you worry far too much! No harm will come to me, I promise you.”
Anphility had nodded obediently because, after all, this was Tia. But deep inside where she kept the thoughts she hardly dared to think, let alone say, she thought privately that her beloved sister must be wrong.
And she had been. Tia had been so very wrong.
Now Anphility stood in the hallways of the castle of King Petchu, watching as the coffin was carried solemnly past. The coffin holding her sister.
She had died with no marks. Anphility thought that that was good, because even in death nothing should mar her sister’s beauty. But now she was gone, gone where Anphility could not follow her and protect her from further harm. Gone where Anphility could no longer see her beautiful smile or hear her wonderful voice.
She stood, straight as a ramrod in her ceremonial armor, as the coffin was carried out the doors to the courtyard where it would be buried. Even after the carriage passed, she continued to stare straight ahead.
Anphility was brutal and vicious and plain and serious and not that smart and not at all as good as Tia.
But if the world had allowed someone like Tia to die while leaving someone like her alive, she must still have a purpose in her life.
Anphility blinked, and suddenly the young Princess Vasilia stood before her in a somber black gown. Vasilia moved forward and hugged her gently.
“I’m so sorry! I never liked that Aia, and I never trusted her! I’m so sorry for your loss…”
Anphility disentangled herself from the hug and walked away, leaving Vasilia there to stare after her in confusion and hurt. She did not want to talk to anyone, not even to Vasilia who she had not hated that much.
But as she stalked down the halls, lost to the twisting red spirals of her own thoughts, Anphility heard another voice.
“My dear,” said Lady Hecato, drawing level with her and slipping an arm round her shoulder. “Would you like to have some tea with me?”
* * *
When Vasilia returned to her rooms later that night, freeing her hair from its constricting bun and looking forward to going to sleep, she found Anphility sitting on her bed.
“Oh! Lady Anphility!” She smiled at the girl. “Is there anything you need?”
“Yes,” she said.
Vasilia smiled. “Well, what can I do for you? I mean, after all you must have been through today, what with…”
“My sister is lonely,” said Anphility, getting to her feet. She was still in her armor, still had her sword. “In the next world. She is very lonely, and it will be very dangerous for her.”
“Oh…” said Vasilia. Something about Anphility’s stance was unnerving her, even more than the girl usually did. But even so, she smiled. “Anphility, there’s no need to worry. Tia makes…made friends wherever she went!”
“Yes,” said Anphility again. Her voice was dull, a monotone. “You were her friend.”
Vasilia nodded. “Well, I liked her.” She smiled dreamily at the memories. “She was always very kind to me and Eric. She used to bring me candy!”
“She was perfect,” said Anphility, nodding. “And someone so perfect should never be lonely. Never be without friends.”
She drew her sword in one, fluid, perfect movement.
“You were her friend,” continued the strange girl that Vasilia now realized was completely insane. “And you are worthy to be her friend. Please keep my sister company.”
She lunged, before Vasilia could even think to flee.
The last thing Vasilia saw was the sword, steel gleaming in the faint candlelight.
The last thing she heard was her own earsplitting scream.
* * *
Eric awoke with a start as the scream echoed through the hallways of the castle. He blinked, trying to free the sleep from his eyes, and then it hit him in a flash who the one in trouble had been.
“Vasilia!” he cried, leaping out of bed and wrenching open his bedroom door. Her’s was right next to his, always had been so they could see each other in an instant. Be with each other, never be apart. He stumbled out into the hall, groped for the doorknob of her room, wrenched it open…
Something tumbled out into the hallway. Eric scrambled over it, into the room. “Vasilia! Vasilia!”
The candles had been extinguished by an open window. A cold breeze flew in, making the curtains flap. Eric groped for the matches, found them, lit the candle…
Blood was everywhere. A trail of it led from the open window.
No, not from the window. To the window.
Slowly, painfully slowly, Eric turned. His eyes followed the wet, red trail to the small, pathetic heap in the hallway. The thing he had stumbled over so carelessly, in his haste to find his sister.
And then it was his turn to scream.
* * *
“Hm? Wha’s goin’ on?”
“Malcolm, get up!”
He was forcibly rolled out of bed. He hit the floor painfully, and his eyes flew open. Reyko stared down at him, eyes wild. “Get up, get dressed!”
“What’s wrong?” asked Malcolm, rubbing his head and sitting up.
“Just get dressed! Right now!”
But his brother was already gone from the room. Sleepily, grumpily, Malcolm got dressed. Then, he padded out into the hallway.
Chaos reigned. Helios’ guards were everywhere. He heard people talking, voices raised. He heard weeping and wailing.
“Reyko?!” he cried. “What’s happened?!”
He pushed his way through the crowd, until Reyko’s head of silvery hair came into view. His brother was kneeling beside a figure huddled on the floor, a figure that was weeping and sobbing horribly.
“What’s happened?!” Malcolm demanded again, fear making his heart clench. “Reyko!”
The one on the floor reacted, getting to its feet and flinging its arms around Malcolm where it continued to sob.
And then Malcolm realized that it was Eric.
“Eric…Eric, please…please, I need to know what’s happened…”
“Vasilia…” sobbed Eric. “Vasilia, Vasilia, oh god Vasilia…”
And then Malcolm saw Captain Helios emerge from Vasilia’s room, saw him shove a path through the milling crowds. Some of Helios’ guards came after him, six of them all carrying a limp form. A limp form hidden from view under a white blanket.
“No…” he whispered, as Eric sobbed even harder.
* * *
Anphility danced. She danced and twirled, arms flung out before her, face turned towards the sky. She danced lightly on the new sod that was Tia’s grave. She danced and she laughed as she had never laughed before.
She was still dancing when Helious’ guards found her.
“Lady Anphility!” one said, saluting. “I’m afraid I must ask you to come with me! We have just discovered a horrible murder, and everyone we find on the grounds has been declared suspect!”
“There’s no need for that,” said Anphility. She continued to dance. “I killed her.”
She spun towards her sword, which she’d stuck in the ground. She hefted it, let it flash in the moonlight, let the light catch the bloodstains still fresh on the steel.
“See? I did it.” She giggled childishly. “I did it, and now Tia won’t be lonely. Tia will have a friend. I did it, because I love Tia. I’m a good sister. I did it, and Tia will be happy. Tia will be pleased with me.”
She giggled and laughed and continued to dance, knocking the guards aside as she did, until they had to summon Helios himself to subdue her.
* * *
Lady Hecato stayed in her room, watching the chaos outside from her bedroom window. A slight smile on her face, she watched with a cup of wine in her hand. She swirled the blood red liquid idly around its glass base as she watched Anphility apprehended.
“One to go,” she purred, taking a sip. “And there’s plenty more where that little nutjob came from. Congratulations, Anphility. ‘Tia’ is very pleased with your work.”
She watched as light poured onto the grass, watched as two dark figures streaked out into the night. She knew all too well who they were.
“One to go,” she said again. “Well, Eric. If I have my way, you won’t have to be parted from your dear little sister for very much longer…”
* * *
The next few days were a swirling nightmare in Malcolm’s memory.
Anphility was tried, and he had never seen Petchu involve himself so forcibly in court affairs. Nor had he seen the usually merry king so furious. Anphility was convicted, largely because she refused to allow anyone protest otherwise. She was locked up, most likely for good.
Eric was livid, and that was just as scary. Malcolm had never seen Eric argue so forcefully or passionately for someone else’s death. Hearing how happy Anphility had been with Vasilia’s assassination had made it so much worse.
And Malcolm merely stayed by Eric’s side, trying to keep his friend calm and together when Eric went into a screaming rage or dissolved into helpless tears. His day to return home came and went. Reyko and Lana Dee left without even asking him to come, because they knew the answer.
Anphility was interrogated. She freely admitted that Hecato had set her on Vasilia that night. A few days after that, Raul the Assassin, a noble of Tori, came forward to confess that he had been responsible for the assassination of Tia. Who had sent him, however, he would not say.
Malcolm thought privately that Raul did not need to confess.
The Assassin was locked up in a cell far from Anphility’s, and slowly the kingdom returned to normal.
At least, so Malcolm hoped.
Until one day…
* * *
“Eric…” Malcolm drawled one day, standing at the door of Eric’s room. “Eric…what are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?!” Eric snapped, with an uncharacteristic sting to his words that still made Malcolm flinch.
“It…looks like you’re packing.”
“Eric, why are you packing?”
Eric, who was currently clutching a wrinkled tunic beside an open backpack, sighed and let his shoulders slump. He looked up at Malcolm, and suddenly he was as fragile as he’d been on the night of Vasilia’s death.
“I can’t stay here,” he said quietly. “I can’t. I have to go.”
Malcolm’s face fell. He entered the room, held out a hand. “Eric, I know how you must feel…”
“No. You don’t. I can’t stay here. Every night I see her in my dreams, and she’s so beautiful, Malcolm. She’s my sister again, and when I wake up I want to die. I hear her singing in the hallways, I hear her voice. She’s a ghost in my head, and I can’t get away from her.”
Malcolm slipped an arm around Eric’s shoulder, and Eric leaned against him. His voice grew bitter. “And let us not forget Lady Hecato. Has any action been taken against her?”
Malcolm shook his head. “No. King Petchu cannot act against her. Lady Hecato has too many friends.”
“If she killed Vasilia, she’ll come for me, Malcolm. I know she will. And I can’t stay here to let it happen. It’s not just that…” Eric looked up at his friend. “…I won’t stay here. I won’t stay in a place that lets a murderer go free because it’s easier. I won’t stay in a place where Vasilia’s killer goes free to come for me someday.”
Malcolm considered Eric’s words…then, he nodded.
“Yes. I agree. It’s safest if we leave.”
“I’m not running!” Eric protested hurriedly. “I wouldn’t run! This place is my home, but…‘we’?”
Malcolm smiled at him. “I guess Mother and Father and Reyko and Lana Dee will have to wait a bit longer for my return. I’m coming with you, Eric.”
Eric protested, as Malcolm had known he would. Malcolm cheerfully shot down each and every protest, until Eric was forced to pause for breath. Once he did, Malcolm placed a hand over Eric’s mouth.
“I’m coming,” he said. “We’re friends, Eric. Since the day we sang our song on the riverbank. So I’m coming.”
And so, not a few hours later, Eric and Malcolm walked together through the door’s of Petchu’s castle, over the grounds and towards the gates. Their heads were hooded, their clothes were simple. The only things they carried to declare their identities were the clarinet around Eric’s neck and the lute on Malcolm’s back.
It was later said that when Hecato heard of their departure, she screamed with rage. Others said that her eyes turned red, like that of a demon’s. King Petchu publicly regretted his son’s departure, but was sent Reyko of Kelas to act as substitute.
Again, in the palace, life slowly returned to normal.
But outside the palace, whispers of rumor were starting to swirl through the cities. Whispers of two men, two musicians, who would appear and disappear in the towns. They righted the wrongs they came across, and delivered justice to those who deserved it. Silent avengers.
But as for the truth regarding Eric and Malcolm…
…to this day, no one can say for sure.