come and visit
Eliza sat in the nearest chair with a whispered, "Oh my."
"What is it, dear?" her mother asked.
Eliza looked up to meet her questioning gaze. She slightly held up the letter. "Lord Saryu... he's invited me to dine at the castle tomorrow."
Her mother moved to the chair across from her daughter. "Eliza... Will you go?"
Eliza moved her blue eyes back to the carefully transcribed letter. "I... I don't know."
"Eliza, do you forget what he did? How can you consider--"
"Mother," Eliza interrupted, raising her gaze from the letter, "Lord Saryu personally apologized to each and every woman and family. I told you that. He has done his best to make amends."
Eliza's mother nodded. "Yes, dear, I know, but that doesn't change the actions done or decisions made."
"But mother," Eliza began, eyes wide within her unique, almost doll-like complexion, "you know he wasn't to blame for what happened. Dohati tricked him into wearing the sim-seru. The moment he was freed, Lord Saryu turned off the machine feeding Juggernaut and returned the girls to their families. He hadn't done anything dishonorable before, nor has he done since."
Eliza's mother slowly nodded. "Yet how did Dohati convince Lord Saryu to wear the sim-seru? Wasn't it with the promise of power? That desire caused our misery and grief."
Eliza looked down to the letter again. "Mother, I can't believe him to be that way. I can't believe that of anyone," she countered softly.
Eliza's mother reached out to grip Eliza's hand. "I know, dear." She gave her hand another squeeze. "Why don't you take a walk around town before dinner."
"Yes, mother," Eliza said as she stood.
Eliza retrieved her dark green shawl from the hook near the door and wrapped it around her shoulders before stepping out into the twilight loveliness. She took in a slow breath and released it before stepping out onto the main street with a slight smile.
The small city of Ratayu was in bloom. Blossoms of pale blues, yellows, and purples lined the walk and teased the air with fragrance and peace. The greenery of the trees was rich, and the lushness of their number felt soothing. Though the 10 years possessed by a seru within the mist had seemed to pass in a matter of moments, some part of Eliza had missed the natural loveliness and splendor of her home.
It had risen like a hollowness.
Now the mist was gone and life pulsated around her. Eliza felt strengthened by it; refreshed and rejuvenated with the miracle of living. A miracle that had nearly been stolen a second time. Eliza could hardly imagine the guilt Lord Saryu must have felt at his part in it.
Eliza stopped outside the main walk leading to Saryu castle and turned to stare up at its gray massiveness. Then she slowly stepped away and made her way back home.
Eliza released a deep breath as she stared at her reflection. Emerald hair gathered on the crown of her head. Blue eyes wide with apprehension. Face pale with nervousness. Eliza shook her head and turned from the mirror. She straightened the skirt of her forest green velvet gown with the off-the-shoulder neckline and inset pattern of leaves. Then she fidgeted with the string of pearls at her throat.
There was a curt knock.
Eliza turned, her cheeks flushing with much needed color as she stepped forward and opened the door.
An escort in red and gold livery stood at attention. "Miss Eliza?"
Eliza inclined her head. "Yes."
"This way, miss."
Eliza took hold of her ivory shawl with green fringe before she preceded him to the carriage. She accepted his help aboard. "Thank you."
"Lord Saryu will meet us at the reception hall," he informed. Then he climbed aboard and urged the carriage forward.
Eliza clenched her hands in her lap as she wordlessly watched the passing scenery, occasionally adjusting the green fringed shawl of ivory around her shoulders.
The carriage halted at the main entry corridor, and the escort jumped down to immediately help her descend. Eliza could only nod her thanks before looking to the massive gray castle. Then she felt a touch at her elbow and the escort led her forward. Eliza lifted the front of her gown with a white-knuckled grip as she stepped along after him, her green slippers making no sound on the polished stone.
They reached the main entry doors in silence, and her escort opened them to usher her inside and to the reception hall beyond. Eliza looked around her with wide eyes at the polished stone floors of misty gray, lush red carpeted passageways, and pedestals holding beautiful sculptures of crystal.
Eliza turned, eyes still wide with wonder and amazement as Lord Saryu approached. His expression showed welcome, and his violet eyes danced with the same smile which drew his lips upward. He wore black trousers, well-shined black shoes, and a blood-red uniform coat with gold braid around the bottom hem and cuffs. Beneath, an ivory shirt of silk with a high collar set off his blonde hair and violet eyes as well as the nobility of his features and stance.
Eliza lowered her gaze to the floor as she curtseyed low. "Lord Saryu."
As Eliza straightened, Lord Saryu captured her hands in a gentle grip. "You look lovely, Miss Eliza. Green becomes you."
She inclined her head with a slight smile. "Thank you, Lord."
Lord Saryu released her hands, drawing one into the nook of his arm as he motioned her forward with the other. "I am delighted that you accepted my invitation."
"I was honored to receive it, Lord," she answered softly.
The two didn't speak again as they passed through the reception hall to the chamber beyond. Eliza couldn't look up from the polished floor to examine her surroundings, so she accepted Lord Saryu's leading to the small table in the middle of the room. She sat in the offered chair. Lord Saryu adjusted her seat and then moved to sit across from her, unfurling his napkin with a practiced motion as he motioned to the butler with a simple nod of his head. The butler disappeared.
Lord Saryu focused on Eliza, who attended to adjusting her napkin 'just so' within her lap. "You've a lovely home," Eliza stated softly, finally raising her gaze from her napkin. "I know now why you don't leave very often."
Lord Saryu smiled. "I leave more often than is realized. I am simply limited to the time spent outdoors."
"Oh?" Eliza queried.
"Due to visitors and tradesmen, as well as city business, I most often am unable to leave the castle until evening. Although I do make a point of venturing out early in the morning."
The footmen began to arrive with their meal, placing the covered trays in front of and beside Eliza and Lord Saryu. The other dishes were arranged within easy reach of both so the meal could easily continue.
Lord Saryu uncovered his tray with an approving nod. "Excellent." He looked to Eliza. "I do hope the meal is acceptable."
Eliza stared down at her first course of greens attractively mixed with purples and yellows. "It looks wonderful, Lord." She met his gaze. "Are you sure it's to be eaten?"
Lord Saryu laughed as he retrieved his spoon and bowl of dressing. "Quite, Miss Eliza."
Eliza refocused on her salad, and then she served dressing from her own bowl. "Do you enjoy your morning escapes, Lord? Or do you prefer the evenings?"
"I must confess I'm torn. Both are peaceful and full of the whispers of nature. One is bright with newness yet to be explored, and the other is enshrouded in intrigue and mystery as to what the next day holds." Lord Saryu ingested his first bite of salad. "Yes. I'm quite torn."
Eliza wordlessly nodded as she set aside her dish of dressing and absently mixed it into her salad with gentle touches of her fork tines. Silence descended, unbroken except for the occasional crunch of salad. Eliza only pushed the salad greens from one part of her plate to the other.
Metal on china. "Miss Eliza?"
Eliza raised her eyes. "Yes, Lord?"
Lord Saryu's expression seemed concerned. "Does something trouble you?"
Eliza lowered her gaze again to the intricately designed china plate before her. "No, Lord."
He continued to watch her face. Then he gestured and their plates were cleared. Eliza looked up to meet his gaze, eyes wide with a question.
Lord Saryu smiled and set aside his napkin. "I haven't given you a tour of the gardens as of yet. Alfonse will let us know when the second course is ready." He came around to her side and offered a hand. "Shall we?"
Eliza slipped her hand into his as she stood. "Certainly, Lord."
Lord Saryu again directed her hand into the nook of his arm, this time covering it with his hands as he looked to her down-turned face. "Are you certain you are not troubled by something, Miss Eliza? You are most silent."
Eliza met his gaze. "I'm sorry, Lord. I didn't mean to worry you," she told him quietly.
Lord Saryu looked ahead as he led her back to the reception hall. He glanced toward her. "I can have the carriage return you home if there is a problem."
Eliza slightly shook her head. "It isn't necessary, Lord, and I don't want to be rude."
Lord Saryu halted and faced her. "Miss Eliza, if your presence at my table is causing conflict between you and your parents, please confess it. I have no desire to alienate them; from you nor from me."
Eliza smiled. "Thank you for your concern, Lord," she said softly, "but they respect my decisions. They might be concerned, but they aren't angry."
"What might I do to alleviate their concern?"
Eliza softly laughed. "Lord Saryu, I'm sure you don't need to be bothered for one dinner. Thank you, but don't trouble yourself."
Lord Saryu smiled as he again led her toward the hall. "Ah, and so quickly we've come to the main point I wanted to discuss at dinner this evening."
Eliza watched his profile. "Lord?"
"This dinner was not another apology or attempt to make amends, Miss Eliza. I had intended to announce my intentions and ask if they would be welcome."
"Intentions, Lord? Intentions for what?"
Lord Saryu met her curious expression. "Intentions to court and perhaps wed."
Eliza blinked in surprise. Then she quickly pulled her hand from his arm and stepped back from him. "What?"
Lord Saryu faced her fully. "I have thought of this possibility since the afternoon we shared tea," he confessed.
"B-but why, Lord?" Eliza shook her head. "I haven't any rank or station or wealth. I'm an innkeeper's daughter."
"And my great-great-grandfather was an architect," he countered gently. "Rank or station are not priorities in a Lady and hostess of Saryu castle. Since the coming of the mist, they are rather hard to come by."
Eliza didn't respond. She only lowered her gaze and clenched her hands in front of her.
"Miss Eliza," Lord Saryu began carefully, "I based my decision solely on our brief conversation over tea. I have met many if not all of the other eligible young ladies within Ratayu by way of my offering of apology and restitution. You were the only lady whom accepted my apology with sincerity, even going so far as to attempt an assuaging of my guilt. To do so takes great care and concern."
Lord Saryu watched her down-turned face. She still didn't speak or lift her gaze. He released a deep breath. "As I said before, your actions moved me. I did not realize to what extent until I found myself continuing to think of you and your reaction. I even found myself wondering what reaction my different decisions regarding Ratayu would draw forth from you. I had never previously given thought to anyone outside myself when contemplating Ratayu's future. That I did so now brought me to this choice."
"Lord..." Eliza finally raised her eyes to meet his. Her blue eyes were nearly black. "Lord, I'm honored at the asking, but I can't."
He watched her face before speaking. "The sim-seru? My involvement with the raising of a juggernaut?" he asked in a serious tone.
Eliza shook her head, again lowering her gaze. "No."
Lord Saryu slowly nodded. "I see. Then it is my person." Eliza quickly looked up. "I understand, Miss Eliza," he continued before she could speak, "and I will not bother you again."
"No, Lord," she countered, reaching out a hand to stop him from turning away. She flushed and lowered her hand from his arm. "It isn't you."
He fully faced her again. "Then what is it? Might I know?"
"I..." Eliza looked away. "After Noa rescued me from being..." She clenched her hands in front of her. "I decided that I would never be a bride. That I would never marry," she finished softly.
Lord Saryu blinked in surprise. Then he reached out to enfold her small clenched hands with his and slightly leaned forward. She didn't raise her gaze.
"Why?" he asked softly. "You have so much to offer, my lady. Gentleness. Compassion. Intelligence. Sincerity... Why would you make such a decision?"
Eliza pulled her hands from his touch and took another step back. She curtseyed very briefly, not lifting her gaze from the floor. "I-I'm sorry, Lord," she whispered.
Eliza took hold of the front of her skirt as she passed him, making her way for the door of the castle. Her throat tightened, and she clenched her hands deeper into the folds of her dress.
"Miss Eliza." Steps behind. "Eliza, wait."
Eliza slowed and then stopped, her hands still clutching the front of her skirt. She didn't face him as he came to stand beside her. "Yes, Lord?" she whispered unevenly.
"My lady, is there nothing... Is there no way to reverse your decision?" Lord Saryu reached out to gently hold her upper arm. "Please, Eliza. What must I do?"
Eliza blinked the tears from her eyes and wordlessly stepped forward and away from his grasp. Lord Saryu stared after her as she left the chamber. He could hear the hollow sound of her steps through the reception hall and then the closing of the main door behind her.
Lord Van Saryu of Ratayu set aside the ledger, releasing a deep breath as he stared at the words and numbers with unseeing violet eyes. He looked away to the window and the fading light of the afternoon sun. A tree limb hung over the window, causing the light that filtered through to twist and turn into a cacophony of shapes and visions on the floor and the walls of his office.
They brought to life the misty visions of those things done while under the sim-seru's control. Women slowly ingested to give life to a monster. Lives broken. Families destroyed. Dreams shattered-- Lord Saryu shook his head of the memories and stood, striding from the window and the shades of a merciless past. He stepped out into one of the many side halls.
An apology. A dinner. A proposed intention. An unexplained refusal. They had plagued him for weeks, sapping his attention from his duties and robbing his appetite. Hopelessness fed him by day, and despair by night. Lord Saryu rubbed a hand thru his head of close-cropped blonde hair. He couldn't stop thinking of her and the possible reasons for her decision. Neither could he justify revisiting the question via letter or messenger. He had to respect her wishes.
Lord Saryu halted in the side hallway within Saryu castle and leaned hard against the wall. "Eliza..."
He closed his eyes, visualizing again her porcelain-like features, ruby lips, blue-gem eyes, and lush green hair... Lord Saryu pushed the image away and straightened, moving away from the library and back to the hallway that would lead outside. 'I decided that I would never be a bride,' she had said. '...I would never marry.'
Lord Saryu balled his hands into fists at his sides. Such a decision was a waste of a gentle creature formed to love and care for others. A lady of unimaginable depth he had so wanted to discover. Someone he had hoped to court and wed. 'I can't,' she had said.
No other explanation had been offered.
Lord Saryu entered the reception hall and made his way toward the main doors. The beautifully crafted sculptures of crystal were ignored. All he could see was the vision of Eliza in forest green velvet staring in entrancing awe and wonder at the scenery around her. Her blue eyes wide and bright...
He blinked the vision away and tightened his fists, halting at the main door to stare out at the city beyond the polished stone walk of the castle. Where she lived, so close yet distant. Beyond his reach.
The fists relaxed. "Eliza, my lady, what must I do?" he whispered. And again there was no answer.
Lord Saryu released a slow breath as he turned away, but he couldn't proceed into the castle. Instead, he stared at his feet. Then he faced the outside, staring down into the streets that had begun to clear of people. His eyes focused on a corner house, and he breathed in deeply.
He stepped out from the main doorway and traversed the long walkway to the streets below, nodding and slightly bowing to those few pedestrians whom greeted him. Conversation opportunities were ignored. Vocal greetings were brief. Lord Saryu only continued toward the one house holding the voice he wanted to hear.
Lord Saryu halted in front of the inn, smoothing the front of his crisp white suit coat. Remembering a similar hesitation when he had come to apologize for things done while under the sim-seru's control. Would she be as welcoming and accepting as before? Whether she was or not Lord Saryu knew he had to=97
The door opened, revealing Eliza as she reached to her right to retrieve something from the wall beside the door. Just as lovely dressed in pale yellow as in forest green. Hair aglow in the dwindling light of the afternoon. Blue eyes as bright as he remembered.
Lord Saryu stepped backward, swallowing hard in an attempt to find his voice.
Eliza retrieved her dark green shawl and stepped forward, closing the door behind her as she stared at the path at her feet. Then she adjusted the shawl around her slim shoulders and raised her eyes-- She gasped, and her hand clenched the shawl as her cheeks went first pale and then rosy.
"Lord Saryu," she greeted softly.
Lord Saryu forced a smile and bowed. "Miss Eliza," he greeted gently. "I hope you have been well."
Eliza curtseyed. "Yes, Lord. Thank you. And you?"
Lord Saryu felt hope grow at the tone of genuine interest as she stared up at him with those gem-like eyes of blue. "I have been well enough. Thank you."
Eliza seemed to scrutinize him, even though her expression didn't change. "Lord? Have you been ill?" she asked, a deeper concern evident. "You look thin and pale." She motioned behind her to the house. "Can I offer you something?"
Lord Saryu's smile wavered. "It is nothing, Miss Eliza. Don't trouble yourself." He motioned down the main street. "Might I walk with you?"
Eliza hesitated before answering, "Certainly, Lord."
Eliza fell into step beside him, and he matched her slow and easy pace. She breathed in deep and slow, releasing it through parted lips. Crickets and night-birds sang around them a supposed soothing melody. It matched the slow click of their shoes on the stone path, the swish of her skirt, and the steady beating of his heart. It was the first time in days his mind held no agitation.
"Have you heard anything from Noa or the others?" Eliza asked, moving her gaze to his profile. "Noa mentioned Sol and Octam. Do you know if they arrived safely?"
Lord Saryu met her gaze. "No, Miss Eliza. I have heard nothing, but I can certainly make inquiries."
"Only if it isn't a bother."
She offered him a soft smile before looking away and adjusting her hold on her shawl. Lord Saryu forced any questions away as he also looked to the path ahead of them.
Her hesitant tone drew his attention back again. "Yes, Miss Eliza?"
She raised her eyes to his. "Lord, I'm sorry for leaving dinner so abruptly the other day. It was rude of me."
"I hold myself to blame, Miss Eliza," he assured her. He looked away and briefly clenched his jaw. "Assuming my intent to seek your favor would be accepted was presumptuous."
Eliza halted, stopping him by way of her hand on his arm. He looked down at her. "No, it wasn't, Lord," she countered softly.
Lord Saryu faced her fully, his hand moving to cover hers on his arm. "Then why do you not give cause for your refusal?" he gently pressed, and desperation colored his tone.
"Lord, I gave you cause."
"Yes, that you had decided to never be a bride. To never marry. Yet you did not answer if that decision was a vow, and therefore irreversible." Lord Saryu looked deep into her gaze, attempting to find any reason or hope. "Eliza, you must tell me if there is no hope. The memory of your understanding and compassion make me even more certain that you alone should be my choice of bride." He drew her hand from his arm and pressed the palm against his lips, closing his eyes at the warmth and softness. "You continue to be my inspiration for Ratayu's future. Why can you not also be my Lady?"
A gentle touch on his cheek opened his eyes. Eliza's glistened as she looked up at him. She lowered her hand to her side, but she didn't pull her other from his. "Lord, please don't suffer for me. I can't bear it," she whispered.
He gathered her other hand into his. "Then tell me a vow was spoken. This and only this might quench my hope."
"I... I..." Eliza lowered her gaze to their clasped hands. She shook her head. "I can't, Lord. There was no vow."
"Then why can you not--" Lord Saryu pressed his lips together and then released a slow breath. "I apologize, Eliza. I do not mean to badger." He kissed each palm before releasing her hands and facing away from her. "I know so little of you, and yet your very presence imbues my spirit with peace. The fact overwhelms, causing me to behave badly." He shook his head and clasped his hands behind his back. "Please forgive me."
Lord Saryu turned his head to look at her. Her blue eyes were dark, and her cheeks wet. "By Rem's goodness, I have made you cry." He faced her again, gathering a hand in his as he tenderly caressed the tears away. "Please, my lady, do not waste such on me."
"Crying for anyone in pain is never wasteful, Lord," she choked out. Eliza sniffed and lowered her gaze, drawing her hand from his to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
Lord Saryu offered her a kerchief with his monogram in the corner. She accepted it to dry her flushed cheeks and dab at the corners of her dark eyes. He watched her as she did so.
"My only consolation is that no one else will have you," he admitted softly.
Eliza carefully folded the kerchief, smoothing each corner before speaking. "Everyone will have me, Lord, for I've always done my best to serve the needs of others."
Lord Saryu looked away. "Except for my own."
Eliza watched him, ignoring a fresh tear that escaped. She rested a hand on his arm, but he didn't meet her gaze. "Lord, why are you so certain I am meant for your future? What of the other cities now freed of the mist? What if your Lady is there?"
Lord Saryu allowed his gaze to be drawn to hers. "My future is here. So is my Lady," he told her softly. "I have always known this."
He lowered his eyes to her small hand. Then he covered it with his, again drawing it from his arm. This time he caressed it between his hands as he stared down at it.
"I alone am to blame for your decision," he admitted in a low tone. "Had I not forced you to become feed for the monster juggernaut, you would not have been compelled to decide against what your soul was surely birthed for." Lord Saryu's face paled. "The bride of Saryu will never be..."
Eliza also stared at their clasped hands, silent.
Lord Saryu breathed deep. "Ah well. Such is life," he said tightly. He drew her hand toward his lips, but then he shook his head and released his hold. "No. I cannot withstand another." He bowed low. "Good evening, Miss Eliza," he whispered.
Then he turned away, each step wrenching his heart and spirit and soul into pieces and rubble. He balled one hand into a fist while the other rubbed at his scalp, pushing himself yet another collection of steps further from her.
But he ignored the soft voice, though it nearly burned his ears with the sweetness of its melody.
step -- step "Van. Please."
Lord Saryu halted, chest tightening as his back went rigid.
step -- step -- step -- step until she stood beside him. "Lord, I-- I don't know what to do," she confessed brokenly. "I owe you so much, as any subject does for her Lord and Protector, but I..."
Lord Saryu turned his face toward her. "'Lord and Protector'," he repeated softly, and he took in the paleness of her face and the grief in her expression. "What have I ever protected you from, my lady? I sought out your very essence for my sim-seru master."
Eliza's eyes filled afresh as she slightly shook her head. "No," she said brokenly. "No, you didn't."
He leaned slightly toward her, holding her gaze as his tone lowered. "You should kill me for what I planned for you and your future."
She shook her head again, the tears spilling over. "No." Her voice barely whispered.
Lord Saryu touched one of her tears away, and then he looked down at the wetness on his finger. "Again you shed tears..."
He focused on her pale face; her lips trembled as more grief cascaded down her cheeks. Lord Saryu cupped her face in his hands and kissed her face, his lips lingering in the wetness on each side.
"Shed no more for me, my lady," he whispered.
Eliza choked out a sob as her hands drew his from her face. She kissed each palm and then again before drawing him close and wrapping his arms tight around her.
Lord Saryu closed his eyes as he relaxed into her embrace and warmth. A farewell to hope. A last adieu to love. Her breathing a requiem to memories that could have been made together. The bride of Saryu whom would never be.
Lord Saryu pressed his lips softly against her hair, and then he gently pulled back. Her eyes didn't raise to meet his. "I will always remember your kindness and compassion, my lady. For it is this which never ceases to move me." He kissed her forehead. "Think well of me," he whispered. He kissed the soft skin again and then released her to turn and move away.
"I will always think well of my Lord and husband," came a hushed voice.
Lord Saryu halted and snapped around. One step and he was again holding her arms. "Speak again."
Eliza raised her eyes to meet his. They were nearly black. "I... I will..."
Lord Saryu shook his head. "Eliza, my lady, do not say it only to save me my grief. I will not allow you to compromise yourself." His grip increased slightly. "My grief is deserved. Yours is not."
Eliza choked back a sob. "I grieve because you grieve. Because I made you grieve." She stood on tiptoes to caress his cheek with hers. "I will always think well of my Lord and husband."
Lord Saryu closed his eyes and drew her into his arms. "My Lady..."
She pressed a caress of lips and tears against his neck. "I will be the bride of Saryu," she whispered.
He held her closer. "The first. The last. The only."