A/N: Sorry for the long wait in between chapters! One small announcement: I am no longer returning reviews for Poppyland. For those who are still owed reviews by me, I will get to you. The typical wait time is about 2-3 months after your review was posted. Thanks!
FOUR WALTZ WITH THE BLOODLETTER I
If things had been different, maybe I would have been content to let things be. It hurt my pride to bow to an aristocrat like him, but at least Shirley was safe. She up there in that castle, her birdcage… I down among the commoners, a dog tethered to its leash. I hated that life. But when you're powerless, curling up in order to avoid being trampled on is the only thing you can do.
Somehow, being helpless kept us alive. As long as nothing disturbed that delicate balance, everything was fine. So I thought.
Scattered clouds veiled the clean blue infinity of the sky above Lorden, the Engelian capital. Selwyn Rutherford watched their large, irregular shapes sail serenely by as he lay on the ground. However, approaching footsteps soon broke this brief moment of lazy peace.
"Selwyn!" rang a boy's voice. His footsteps stopped just short of Selwyn.
Pushing himself up on one elbow, Selwyn scrutinized the boy standing in front of him. He was not much more than eleven or twelve, wearing a commoner's tunic, plain working trousers, and a rope around his waist in lieu of a belt. The boy wore no shoes.
"What's up, Bert?" asked Selwyn sleepily.
"The bullies, they're back! They were picking on Papa again… I tried to stand up to them like you told me, but they just laughed and I ended up running away…."
With a sigh, Selwyn sat up straight. He muttered an expletive before deciding to return to his feet. "Look here, Bert," he said, clapping his hands on the boy's shoulders, "I'll help you and Pops out one last time, but then you gotta take care of your own business, all right?"
Bert looked back into Selwyn's eyes with his earnest green ones, slightly glassy with tears yet also glowing with respect for Selwyn. After a moment, the boy nodded. "Okay!"
"Come on, let's go." Selwyn followed the boy down a flight of stone steps off the roof of the building on which he'd been resting, and onto the busy street outside. Here, all manner of merchants, traders, commoners, peasants, armor-wearing knights, and even official-looking men jostled against one another as they headed in all directions. The street appeared to be among the many busy arteries of Lorden, with weapons smiths polishing their wares outside their buildings, and foreign tradesmen peddling theirs underneath makeshift storefronts.
"Would you like to purchase this beautiful, sexy table, sir?" one of them shouted after Selwyn and Bert.
"No, buy mine! It has five legs!"
"Mankinis for sale! Your armory is not complete until you have one of these defending your loins from the purveyors of injustice!"
Selwyn and Bert arrived in front of one of the stands at the grocers' section. An older man with balding hair and a thick white beard cowered as a gang of men mocked and jeered at him. Even as Selwyn and Bert arrived, one of the men grabbed a raw fish and slapped the bearded man's face with it. Laughter erupted.
Bert broke through the small circle of onlookers that had gathered around the scene. "Papa!" he shouted, coming to his father's side. Selwyn followed at a distance, mingling with the crowd and observing for the time being.
"Well, well, look who's back!" shouted another of the men, who appeared to be the leader. He was a thickset individual, with a bandana wrapped around his head and a scraggly mustache across his upper lip. "Hey boys, look! It's little Berty! What's the matter, brat? You fishing for some more trouble, eh?"
The leader's associates broke into raucous laughter. "Good one, Boss!" they chanted.
"Fatimo…" said Selwyn. His hands subconsciously clenched by his side.
Strutting towards his comrades, Fatimo grabbed a whole bucket of fish and dumped its contents onto the ground. Water and fish splashed onto the pavement before the thug spit on it. "Listen, Old Man Blackwell," he said, "I'm—"
"A big poo poo head?" Selwyn interrupted, entering the middle of the circle.
Fatimo rounded upon Selwyn, his tiny eyes squinting at Selwyn with an ugly look. "Stay out of this, Rutherford!"
Instead, Selwyn laughed. "Heh. You'd like that, huh? Unfortunately I have a problem with you constantly terrorizing Bert and Pops here. They're just a bunch of poor fishermen minding their own business. They've got enough problems without you piling on. So stop giving them grief, all right?"
"I told you to stay outta this, Rutherford," Fatimo warned again. He frowned, drawing himself up to his full height as he faced Selwyn. Unfortunately, that height only allowed him to reach Selwyn's shoulder. "I'm collecting taxes for this city and this bum here hasn't been paying his share! It ain't none of your business!"
"And I'm a member of the Engelian Knights," Selwyn growled, dragging Fatimo closer by the collar. "If it ain't my business, I'll make it my business. I'm here to make sure that there's order in this city and you're kinda making that hard right now."
"Hands off the Boss, Rutherford!" said one of Fatimo's delinquents. The thug pulled out a knife and rushed straight for Selwyn, who released Fatimo and sidestepped the attack at the same time. Selwyn swung around just as the thug spun back too, and grabbed the latter by the arm. Within seconds, the man was lying on top of the heap of fish on the floor.
"Screw you, Rutherford!" roared Fatimo. Selwyn pulled his sword out from its sheath, and punched the approaching Fatimo in the gut with the hilt. Fatimo let out a yelp of pain before crumbling to the ground as well. The rest of his gang soon disappeared into the crowd.
Replacing his sword in its place at his side, Selwyn glared at Fatimo on the ground. "Figures. You're nothing but just a coward."
"I… I could say the same about you, you fake…" Fatimo choked on the ground. "You try and act all cocky, but inside you're nothing but a coward! Deep down, you know that Lord Stanley can crush you like a bug whenever he wants, and you live every day fearing that he will!"
Fatimo shrunk away as Selwyn's blade struck the ground near his nose. He looked up at the dark look on Selwyn's face, and cringed. "You think you're a perceptive little rat, don't you?" Selwyn said. "Then I hope you perceive the fact that you're gonna die if you don't get the hell away from me right now."
"A-all right, I'll leave!" said Fatimo. The thug scurried back to his feet surprisingly quickly and hurried off without a backward glance.
Selwyn watched Fatimo leave, his sword still in his hand. "That bastard…"
"Th-thank you, Mister Selwyn!" said Old Man Blackwell, bowing low to the knight. "I don't know how I could ever thank you! I… I don't have much, but please take this fish!"
His eyes on the half-alive fish flopping about in Blackwell's outstretched hands, Selwyn sighed. He shook his head. "No. You keep that, Pops. You can definitely use it a lot more than me."
Selwyn sheathed his sword again and strode back towards the scattering crowd. Before he went on his way, however, he paused in front of Bert and ruffled the boy's hair. "Stay out of trouble now, Bert."
Still watching Selwyn with some inexplicable sense of awe, Bert only gazed back at his idol with a wide grin on his face. As Selwyn walked away, though, the boy shouted something after him. "I-I don't think those guys were right about you, Selwyn! You're the bravest guy I know!"
Without turning back, Selwyn gave Bert a thumbs up.
"I think it was admirable of you to stand up to those bullies, Selwyn," said the girl. She raised the teapot in front of her with both hands and poured its contents into a porcelain cup. "Biscuit or tea, Selwyn?"
Selwyn paused in the middle of his pacing about the room. He looked at the girl, in her plain but elegant dress of palest blue. Her long blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail that hung over her back, where a patch of pale delicate skin was revealed. A pair of bright green eyes glittered at Selwyn as they watched him.
"Neither," Selwyn finally huffed, resuming his pacing. He glanced at the two knights standing guard on either side of the door. They were in a large sitting room, illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the windows that stood from the floor to the ceiling.
"You seem to be agitated," said his companion. She continued to watch him with her worried eyes, observing with her silent but gentle air. "Were you that bothered by what Fatimo said?"
"Catherine—" said Selwyn. The girl stared back. He shook his head while muttering under his breath, "Not really. Even a spider runs away when someone tries to step on it. It has its pride, but it knows when it is overmatched."
"Do not say that," Catherine answered, her eyes only growing sadder. "You were very brave for standing up to Fatimo and his gang, Selwyn. Not many even within the Knights would speak up for a commoner like that."
Again, Selwyn glanced at the knights standing by the door. He sighed, though an ironic smile stretched across his face. "Some people might just call that stupidity, Cat. Anyway… even though it wasn't my own choice to join the Knights, I couldn't stand by and do nothing. But when it comes to dealing with the higher-ups and those aristocrats, I… there's not really anything I can do. I'm scared of them, Cat. I'm scared of what they'll do…"
"You're not afraid of me."
Selwyn showed his teeth, but his smile was no longer ironic; it was simply one of pain. "Well, you're different, Cat. You may be the King's niece, but to me you're just Cat. Besides, you haven't got my only sister trapped in a birdcage somewhere in this castle, unable to even go out and see the world anymore…"
"It must be a difficult predicament." Catherine bit her lip, no longer meeting Selwyn's eyes.
With a heavy sigh, Selwyn plopped down on one of the sofas near the windows. Sitting with one hand on either knee and his shoulders slumped forward, Selwyn stared at his feet. "My parents were taken away from me for a reason I don't even remember. 'They were guilty of treason,' that's all anyone ever tells me. I don't know what my own parents were executed for. I'll be damned if I let them take away Shirley as well. If it means being Lord Stanley's toy, then so be it. As long as it keeps her alive, I'll even sell her in marriage to Stanley. It's not like I'm an aristocrat or a high-ranking member of the Knights. This is about all I can do."
As Selwyn fell into a brooding reverie, Catherine suddenly stood up. She strode towards him, tentatively at first, but then with gathering confidence as she hit full stride. "Selwyn… I—"
"I think you'd be better off sticking with your engagement to Lord Alexis, Cat," Selwyn said, standing up as well. He did not meet her eyes, but instead fixed his own on the doorway. His hand wandered absentmindedly to the hilt of his sword. "I should go see my sister."
"Of course…" Catherine muttered as Selwyn left the room.
A different person in a different room in the same castle. Selwyn felt a strange, prickly unease as he made his way down a carpeted hallway. Gilded ornaments and paintings occupied the walls of this corridor, but it was noticeably plainer than the one outside Catherine's room. Eventually, Selwyn arrived in front of a door near the end of the corridor.
Instead of entering, however, he paused. Leaning with one hand against the wall, Selwyn let out a sigh. "The hell am I doing…? We might be happier if the three of us escaped this castle and ran away, but… Shirley and Catherine are only safe so long as they're here. I'm not strong enough to protect them by myself."
For several wordless moments, Selwyn stood there. At last, he removed his hand from the wall and straightened up. He pressed a hand against the door and entered.
"Brother!" Shirley, Selwyn's sister, was brushing her hair by the window of her room. By comparison, it was much smaller than Catherine's. However, it also had a much homelier feeling, featuring plain wooden furniture and simple embroidered fabrics.
"Yo, Shirley." Forcing a grin onto his face, Selwyn strode up to his only sibling. He stopped near the cabinet next to the window, where he knew she kept many of the tiny trinkets and souvenirs that she'd managed to smuggle into her room from the outside. Atop the cabinet was a book, a thick, dusty old tome that looked like it had not been touched for many years.
Shirley glanced at her brother, her face aglow with warmth and youthful vitality. "You look rather cheerful today, Brother. Did something happen?"
"Don't play coy with me, Shirley," Selwyn grinned, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I've been talking to Old Dimitri in the kitchen. He said you've been sneaking pudding for the servants again. Haven't I told you not to do that anymore? Madam Williamson had them whipped last time. Besides, you're just skin and bones! You should worry about eating enough for yourself first."
Shirley blew up her cheeks like a blowfish as Selwyn playfully jabbed at her with a finger. She lowered her hairbrush and turned to Selwyn with a scowl, though the twinkle in her eyes belied the smile underneath. "Stop joking around, Brother! I couldn't stand by while the servants starved… I just have to hope Madam Williamson doesn't find out again."
When her brother failed to reply, Shirley looked up. Selwyn was standing still, his eyes gazing into the distance through the window, at the world that lay beyond her reach. "He's… taking good care of you, right, Shirley? He's not hitting you, or bothering you, or—?"
The curls of Shirley's brown hair shook along with her head. "You needn't worry, Brother. Lord Stanley can be a difficult person to deal with sometimes, but deep down I believe he truly wants to do the right thing. Like all of us, he only wants what's best for Engelia."
"I find that hard to believe when he keeps you locked up in this room all the time."
Some of the twinkle vanished from Shirley's eyes as she stared into her lap. "Well… Lord Stanley can also be very jealous. But I am sure he has his reasons for keeping me here as well."
Though he did not say anything, Selwyn's fists clenched tight at his sides. With a sigh, he looked around the room for something to distract him. He picked up the book on top of the cabinet. "What's with this book, anyway? It's heavy as hell. You learning evil magic tricks or something?"
"Oh!" said Shirley, the light rekindling in her eyes at once. She tugged the voluminous tome out of Selwyn's hands and rifled through the pages while Selwyn looked on perplexedly. Finally, she stopped on a particular page. "I nearly forgot! But I think I found a clue about our parents."
Selwyn's eyes narrowed. He quickly took the book back and stared at it. The book's pages were stiff and yellowing; the text was written by hand in a loopy, cursive script. Unmistakably, though, at the top of the page in question were the following words written in that loopy handwriting: Dr. Rutherford—
The rest of the page, however, had been scratched out or otherwise blotted out with large splotches of ink, rendering it unreadable. Selwyn took several seconds longer to stare at the name on the page. "Shirley… where did you get this book? And more importantly, why's everything been scratched out like this? It's almost as though…"
Selwyn lowered the book from in front of his face. At almost the same exact moment, however, he found himself staring down the blade of a sword. His eyes followed the length of the blade to its owner. Before Selwyn stood a tall man, his face gaunt but handsome, with long bangs of rich dark hair that caressed his ears and hung over his temple, giving him a darkly romantic look.
"Stanley," Selwyn growled.
"Selwyn Rutherford," said Lord Stanley, a knowing smirk creeping across his face. "Dear me, I take it that the news has reached from the top to even you, a lowly worm groveling at the bottom of the tree?"
"The hell are you talking about?"
The smirk on Stanley's face grew wider. "Your punishment, of course," he drawled. As he spoke, Stanley withdrew his sword from Selwyn's neck, but not before leaving a stinging trail of blood as it grazed against Selwyn. "Did you think I would not find out, dear Selwyn?"
Selwyn frowned. His eyes wandered across the room, taking in for the first time the full situation in which he found himself. Stanley stood in front of Selwyn about an arm's length away, holding his sword in one hand and hugging Shirley close with his other. Behind Stanley stood two guards in full armor, their faces concealed behind heavy metal helmets. Each held a polearm in between his hands.
"Find what out?" Selwyn said.
At once, the smirk on Stanley's face vanished. Instead, it was now replaced by a grotesque scowl, almost of loathing. "Now's not the time to feign innocence. You've been going around roughing up my men, haven't you? You may think you're performing some foolish, noble deed, Selwyn Rutherford, but my men are tax collectors. They collect taxes for Engelia, taxes which provide for your lodging, for your meals, for your life. If they don't collect taxes, the kingdom cannot render its services to the people. Fatimo and his men work for me, collecting taxes under my name. And I cannot possibly allow for the honor and integrity of my name to be slandered so."
Shrugging, Selwyn replied, "I guess not. So what's my punishment, then, huh? Expulsion from the Knights? A public flogging? What's it gonna be, Stanley?"
"This goes beyond that, dear Selwyn," said Stanley, a dark gleam in his eyes. "You've been a thorn at my side for far too long now, and I've decided that you're no longer worth the effort. Come, men. Let us leave."
Before Selwyn knew it, Stanley and his knights were escorting Shirley out of the room. Selwyn raised a hand after them. "W-wait, where are you going with Shirley?!"
"Hmph," Stanley said, a sneer playing about his lips as he turned back for one final look at Selwyn. "Lock the door. Make sure he doesn't leave this room."
The door slammed shut.
Selwyn rushed straight for it, his shoulder crashing into its wooden surface and causing the door to shudder. He grabbed the doorknob and wrenched at it furiously. The door would not give. Selwyn pounded it several times with his fist. "Open up, Stanley! Where the hell are you taking Shirley?!"
"I'd begun to lose interest your sister anyway, dear Selwyn," came Stanley's voice. "She may have a pretty face, but she simply is not as well-bred as the other ladies in court. This is goodbye, Selwyn Rutherford."
Throwing his ear against the door's surface, Selwyn listened hard. With each passing moment, the footsteps of Stanley, his men, and Shirley grew fainter. However, there was one last parting breath: "Selwyn!"
"Damn it!" Selwyn cursed, the sound of his sister's voice calling his name ringing in his ears. Tears were in his eyes. Selwyn sniffled, his forehead still resting against the surface of the door, his fist still clenched against it. The hand slid from the door as Selwyn sank to his knees. Everything was quiet in his sister's room.
The seconds drifted by. Nothing could be heard except the faint but steady ticking of a clock. Selwyn could not move. His muscles bound him to the floor. But finally, he raised his head.
"No…" he said. "I have to…!"
Metal shone inside Shirley's room. In two strokes, Selwyn's blade cut the door in half. The pieces of the ruined portal burst out of the doorframe as Selwyn kicked his way out. The two knights standing on guard outside turned as one, their own weapons raised.
"Oops!" said Selwyn, punching the one on his right in the face. Helmet clanging, the knight fell to the ground like a brick.
"I'm floored by your sparkling appearance, Mister Knight!" Selwyn said to the other, swiping at his feet from underneath with his own and knocking the hapless knight to the ground as well.
With the two knights on the ground, Selwyn turned and fled. As he sprinted the length of the corridor, Selwyn shook his head. "That's it, no more puns for me for a while."
In Engelia Square outside the castle, a large crowd had already formed. Selwyn's breath grew short at the sight of dozens, if not hundreds of people standing there, and many more pouring into the vicinity from all directions. Many of them were cheering raucously, while others had the looks of curious spectators drawn in for a show. It was the sort of crowd that only gathered for one type of public event.
Selwyn did not take the time to wait. He sprinted down the steps in front of the castle and into the square, pushing aside anybody or anything that stood in the way. A group of older men shouted and waved their fists at him as he nearly knocked them into the ground.
The closer Selwyn got to the center of the square, the denser the crowd became. Soon, he found that he could move no further, as the crowd of people had formed a closed, compact wall barring the way forward. Clicking his tongue impatiently, Selwyn slunk back to the edge of the crowd and searched for another way through.
At the same moment, the crowd gave a loud cheer that sank Selwyn's stomach. He looked up just as the others around him voiced their approval. While Selwyn watched from afar with a look of frozen terror, the people around him jeered, stamped their feet, and pointed with their fingers.
"This isn't some sort of show," Selwyn growled under his breath. He drew his sword. "Let me through or you'll be cheering for your own funeral!"
However, the crowd only roared louder, drowning out Selwyn's voice. Lord Stanley had appeared atop a wooden stage erected at the heart of the crowd. Being dragged by the collar behind him was Shirley. She stumbled onto the platform before being forced to her knees by Stanley.
Meanwhile, the roar of the crowd had grown still louder, their excitement building in crescendos of ecstasy as their promised show drew closer. They shouted Stanley's name as though he were an expert showman from a traveling troupe. "Stanley! Stanley! Stanley!"
Selwyn's fist tightened into a ball as he watched the sickening display of revelry and fanfare. "Don't you even dare touch her like that, you sick bastard…"
But the show went on. Stanley stepped to the front of the stage to widespread approval by his audience. At once, the crowd of hundreds quieted in anticipation of his speech. Not far from Selwyn, a boy of about ten or eleven clung to his dog's leash while looking back towards a family member.
"Hurry up, Gramps, the show's almost starting!" he said.
Selwyn searched, but there was no way through the crowd. He was powerless to reach Shirley. The only choice left to him was to watch like the others, and to pray.
Don't take Shirley away from me…
You're not taking Shirley from me…!
"Welcome my brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen," Stanley began in a booming voice. "I bring to you today the daughter of the traitors Doctor Rutherford and his wife. As you can see, she is a sorry girl, lacking the intelligence to serve His Majesty, and destitute in beauty."
The crowd responded generously with laughter and jeers. After taking a moment to soak it in with a smirk on his face, Stanley continued, "However, seeing her pitiful condition, I was gracious enough to accept her for my own, hoping perhaps one day she may have become fit for marriage. Such was the arrangement until recently.
"But unbeknownst to me, her insolent brother, a bottom-feeding member of the Engelian Knights named Selwyn Rutherford, deemed it necessary to slander my name and insult my honor. I say, is that a way to show your gratitude to a man who has fed your own blood, clothed your own blood, and housed your own blood?"
More jeers echoed through the square. Once again, Stanley paused in his speech to enjoy the rippling waves of boos and jeers. Faking a sigh of hesitance, Stanley said, "And so today I do what I ought to have done long ago: send this pathetic girl to sleep underneath the earth with her treasonous parents."
"NO!" Selwyn shouted.
But again, he was drowned out as a roar of excitement shook the crowd. One of Stanley's knights approached him with a sheathed dagger and knelt, presenting the weapon to his master. Stanley accepted it with a flourish. The knife emerged from its quarters.
Sunlight beamed against the dagger's polished surface as Stanley lowered it. With his other hand, he pulled Shirley to her feet by the hair and placed the naked blade against her delicate skin.
"Any last words from the daughter of traitors?" Stanley sneered.
Selwyn watched helplessly as his sister spoke her last words to him. "Don't fret over me, Brother," she said. "I shall be fine. Even if we no longer may be in this world together, I will always be with you in spirit."
Their eyes never met as Shirley spoke her final words. She had not managed to find him in the crowd. But Selwyn's eyes were only on her, as Stanley swept the dagger back, as the first droplets of blood fell from her throat, as a stream of crimson plasma gushed into the air.
The crowd signaled its approval. Selwyn shut his eyes and turned away. There was nothing left to be done. He ran.
Running water filled Selwyn's ears. He sat at the grassy bank of one of the rivers that flowed through the imperial capital, watching the water flow by him. It was a comforting sound, and a comforting sight.
Above Selwyn, the day had begun to wane. Red and gold blotches stained the otherwise blue sky, while the shadows of nearby buildings grew longer. On either side of the river, people went about their business: merchants closed up their stores; children played and laughed as they made their way home; knights abandoned their posts as their replacements arrived.
Selwyn wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He saw a tiny rock sitting on the ground next to him. Without thinking, he picked it up and threw it into the river. It sank straight into the water with a tiny plop.
Footsteps sounded on the grass behind Selwyn, though he ignored them. It was not until he felt a shadow loom over him and a soft voice ring in his ear that his attention was aroused: "Are you dead?"
Selwyn spun around, nearly falling into the river himself in his haste. In front of him stood a beautiful woman. She had long black hair, eyes blue as sapphires, and a face as delicate and pale as a doll's. The woman played with her hair impatiently. "Well?" she asked. "Are you dead?"
"N-not exactly…" said Selwyn.
Edelweiss sighed. "A major shame indeed. You see, I have quite a thirst for human blood at the present moment. Will you allow me to drink of your blood anyway?"