Balance - [complete] Chapter 1
Posted July 6th, 2018 by AlgebraAddict
Balance: Part 1
No one knew what caused the sickness. At the time, Helen was certain that the gods were punishing her, but that notion faded with time. Six years later, she couldn’t even recall what sin had prompted her hunch of divine retribution. In fact, she barely remembered anything from the days of the sickness, and nothing from the days before. It was amazing to her that for eleven years of her life, she had lived a normal childhood. She had played in the yard with other children—or so she was told—but when Helen stared out her window and saw kids playing in the grass, it didn’t give her flashbacks to a happy childhood. She couldn’t identify with them, even just from a memory. Her late caretaker, the ever-cheerful Rosalind, had tried so hard to uncover even a single memory for Helen to cherish. She would tell her stories about Helen’s youth.
“You would run down that hill, right there,” Rosalind might say. “Sometimes you’d fall halfway down and tumble the rest. See, just like that little boy did just now.”
Helen would nod, maybe smile a little, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell her caretaker the truth: seeing a boy run was the same experience for her as seeing a crow fly. They were just two different creatures doing things that were natural for them, but things that Helen couldn’t fathom doing for herself. At least she had flown a few times in her dreams.
Sometimes Helen had wished Rosalind would let it go and talk about something else, anything else. Now, a week after Rosalind’s burial, Helen found herself missing those conversations. Rosalind was Helen’s caregiver and mother-figure and best friend and teacher, and she had plenty of strategies to keep Helen’s mind busy that did work. Before Rosalind, Helen had gotten a lot of sympathy, and anyone who visited rarely came again. When Rosalind came along, she immediately saw something in Helen that no one else had: creativity. It was Rosalind who started Helen’s instruction in piano and calligraphy and started Helen’s collections: a box of smooth stones, another of shells, and her shelf now packed with poetry anthologies.
Through the door, a muffled voice announced, “Your parents are eating breakfast in a few minutes, and they would like you to join them.”
“I’ll just eat in here, if that’s okay,” Helen answered, trying to sound polite and unbothered. Her parents had failed to hire another caretaker between Rosalind’s death and now, so the people who talked to Helen were just rotating staff members, and Helen didn’t want to give any of them reason for worry.
“They really wanted to talk to you. They seemed to think it was important. May I come in?”
“I—” Helen’s thoughts interrupted her speech, while she tried to think of reasons her parents would choose today to pressure her into a family breakfast. “Yes, come in.”
The maid opened the door, and Helen noticed the two guards on the other side of her bedroom door and wondered if they had been there all night. If they had, she doubted they would be much use in case of an attack.
“Have they increased security again?” Helen asked the maid, as she helped Helen out of bed.
“I’m not sure.” It was a smooth lie, but Helen caught it nevertheless. She knew for a fact that the maids gossiped to no end, and if there was even a whiff of change in the household, they would know for sure what was going on and why. Helen didn’t feel like pushing it, though.
“I can take it from here,” Helen assured the maid, taking the shaky two steps across the wood floor to get into the chair.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not paralyzed,” Helen said with a small smile. “I can even walk; it’s just that I’m physically…”
“Weak?” the maid finished. A second later, she seemed mortified at the word she had just uttered.
“Unstable,” Helen corrected, before the maid had time to apologize. “When the witch doctor found my cure, he warned it would affect my physical strength and balance. For as long as I take the prescription, I’ll need the wheelchair to get places, but I can still move a little on my own.” Helen didn’t bother to mention that most days, those two steps to get into the chair were enough to make her want to stay in bed. Her legs violently shook, ready at any second to collapse beneath her, but trying to balance upright was a thousand times worse. The world swayed from side to side; the floorboards rippled beneath her feet as if they were determined to throw her to the ground. Before Rosalind had been killed, she would urge Helen every morning to just try. Helen had tried once, almost a year earlier, and the experience was such that she refused to do it again.
“We all fall on our faces,” Rosalind said once. “Some more literally than others. But if you don’t fall now, you’ll fall later, and then you’ll have no idea how to get up.”
Helen had known in her heart that Rosalind knew what she was talking about. Nevertheless, every time it came down to it, Helen’s own terror drowned out any small inspiration Rosalind gave her. And so, she didn’t stand up. She made Rosalind carry her from her bed to her chair— just two steps. Those steps were a deep, dizzying chasm that Helen refused to cross. On the morning of Rosalind’s death, she pleaded with Helen for the last time: “Two steps, dear one.”
Helen woke up cross that morning, so much so that the politeness and meekness that defined her character lapsed and she snapped at her caretaker, “Rosa, I’m sick! I can’t walk- not even two steps, and you know this, so just stop.”
Rosalind nodded, and lifted Helen into her chair. “What’s first today?”
“I want to go to the city,” Helen had said.
“They paid me for the cards I did, so I’m going to buy more ink.”
“Maybe we should stay in. You can take your piano lesson now instead of later–”
“I want to go to the city.”
And so they went to city. Rosalind seemed a little agitated—anxious, even—but Helen assumed it was just frustration with her. Later, no one seemed to talk about the caregiver’s rumored powers of foresight, because if she really had been a prophetess of some kind, she wouldn’t have died in the ambush. But Helen, who had never believed the rumors, finally started to give them some thought.
Helen wheeled herself out the door, trying to ignore the armed guards at the door. As she approached the small dining room, where her parents at breakfast, hushed voices caught her attention. She prepared to enter anyway, but she stopped before she reached the door.
“Despite our increased security, our daughter has not been herself since the attack.” It was her father’s voice, eternally gruff and anxious.
“She was almost killed,” another voice answered. This one was different—low, but feminine. Helen had never heard it before. “She may just need time to heal.”
“She won’t leave the house,” Helen’s mother chimed in.
“Did she use to?”
Her mother hesitated, but answered, “yes, almost every day.”
“And who accompanied her?”
“Her caregiver, Rosalind.”
“And Rosalind was killed in the attack?”
There was no audible answer, but Helen guessed that someone had nodded yes, because the feminine voice continued, “That’s sad, but if you are trying to replace her, I’m not the one. I’m closer to a mercenary than a caregiver. So why don’t you tell me why you’re trying to hire a warrior instead of a nurse? Surely a single random act of violence wouldn’t cause such a change of heart?”
A silence fell on the room. Without even seeing them, Helen could feel the tension. Finally, her father spoke up. “There was another attack.”
“Two nights ago. An assassin was in the garden, preparing to enter Helen’s room by way of the window.”
Helen caught her breath. No one had told her anything about this.
“Did you capture him?”
“We did, but he slit his own throat before we could interrogate him.”
“How do you know he was after your daughter?”
There was a sound of something sliding over the table. A piece of paper, perhaps.
“He had the drawing of her on his person?” the woman with the low voice asked.
Again, there was silence. After a moment of hesitation, Helen raised a shaking fist to the door and knocked.
The silence that followed the three hollow knocks Helen made was, if possible, more tense than before. When a chair squeaked and footsteps approached the door, she realized she had been holding her breath. When the footsteps stopped, she could hear her mother’s familiar breathing on the other side of the door, but it did open. Helen’s mother managed a thin smile and stood aside to let Helen through.
Her father was sitting at the head of the table, a plate of untouched breakfast foods pushed away from his seat. His face, even in profile, seemed more grim than usual—which was impressive. Helen didn’t pay him much attention; it was the woman sitting with its back to her that caught her attention. The woman was wearing a simple cloak, but the hood was down. Long, snake-like dreadlocks coiled out from her head and down her back; this was not a hairstyle that Helen was accustomed to seeing from anyone in her parents’ social circles. The woman rose from her seat and turned to face Helen.
“My name is Eli,” she said.
Helen didn’t know how to respond. The woman—really, a girl—was younger than Helen initially thought. Eighteen, perhaps? Certainly, no older than nineteen. Her cloak was fastened at the throat and hung around and behind her shoulders. She was dressed less formally than, say, the royal guardians, but her heavy boots, belt, and muscles reminded Helen of them. Helen also noticed that her skin, although dark, as marked all over. Her arms and face were covered in deep blue-black tattoos. Although they were visible, Helen couldn’t make out the exact nature of most of them. Some of them had no obvious significance at all, just thick black lines, like dozens of tally-marks just below the surface. On the right side of her face, a drawing of some kind of weapon had been traced from her jawbone to her forehead, curving around the corners of her mouth and eye. A dagger, maybe? It looked sharp, dangerous, and beautiful—just like Eli.
“I—what’s your business here?”
The corner of Eli’s mouth twitched outwards towards the edge of the tattoo, and Helen could somehow sense that Eli was aware of the eavesdropping.
Eli returned to her seat, pivoting it so she could speak directly to Helen. “Your parents are interested in hiring a different kind of caregiver.”
“A different kind?”
“I was trained as a guardian,” Eli explained. “Since my expulsion from their leagues, I’ve made my living protecting anyone who needs it… and can afford it.”
“Protecting them how?”
“I stay by their side, wait until the threat presents itself, and then eliminate it. Your parents seem to want that for you, after two attempts on your life.”
Helen’s parents looked both shocked and uncomfortable, but the guardian’s honesty filled Helen with gratitude. It wasn’t blunt just for the sake of being blunt; it was considerate. If Eli hadn’t told her, it was possible that nobody would have told her at all. It made her feel that Eli would owe her allegiance to something other than Helen’s parents (or their money).
“Do you want that?” Eli asked her.
Helen was shocked. She resisted the urge to look behind her for someone who it would make more sense to consult, and then she looked into Eli’s tar-black eyes and she said, “yes”, despite not really knowing what she was agreeing to.
“I need to speak with my client…alone.” Eli delivered a pointed glance towards Helen’s parents, who exchanged glances and then stood to leave. Helen realized her heartbeat was kicking through her chest even harder than before, and she wasn’t sure why. Once her parents had left, Eli moved her chair a few inches closer to Helen’s seat, and stared at her as the door closed. Helen couldn’t help but feel she was being examined, but she didn’t feel judged or pitied. She felt something else entirely.
“Helen, who is trying to kill you?”
After a few seconds of trying to figure out what the hell Eli had said—Helen had been too hung up on the way Eli said her name—she tried to respond. “I—I don’t know. I really have no idea.”
Eli crossed her arms. “I will not leave your side Monday through Saturday. During the day I will accompany you on all errands; at night I will either sleep in your room or keep watch outside your door, depending on the level of perceived threat. Sunday is when I will do all my personal research and individually pursue threats for elimination.”
“What does that mean?”
“If anybody is trying to harm you, I will hunt them down, and I will kill them.”
Helen drew in a quick breath, which hung in the silence for a few tense moments before she exhaled.
“What?” asked Eli. “Does that make you uncomfortable?”
As a matter of fact, it made Helen extremely uncomfortable. Skin-crawling, brain-twisting uncomfortable. It wasn’t the thought of Eli killing somebody though—no, it was something else. Helen couldn’t place it for a second, but then she realized.
“What if they kill you?”
“I am more equipped for this than Rosalind was.”
Helen’s gut churned at the name. “Please—I don’t want to talk about her.”
“I’m sorry about her death,” said Eli. “Do you think you’re somehow responsible?”
Helen’s next words were barely more than a breath: “Of course I do.”
“Why? It was an accident.”
Helen refrained from bitter laughter. “My parents don’t know what happened, so whatever they told you was a lie.”
Eli seemed confused. “Why would it be a lie?”
“Because that’s what I told them.”
“I told them that it was an accident,” Helen explained, spitting out the last word like a curse.
“The first arrow missed us both.” She took another breath, willing herself not to cry. “But when the assassin drew his bow for the second time, Rosalind saw him, and she moved in front of me, putting herself in the arrow’s path.”
“Did it hit her?”
Helen nodded, conscious of a single tear escaping her lashes. “It hit her in the chest, but she was still alive then. She fell, but she managed to get back up and stumble backwards into my chair—on top of me. I think she said something to me then, but I didn’t really hear it. She took two more arrows before someone took out the assassin. I think the shot to her neck killed her—that was the one with the most blood. When they pulled her body off me, I was covered in it.” Helen realized that her hands and legs were shaking wildly, but she didn’t try and calm them.
“Do you think she was trying to protect you?” Eli asked.
“She died covering my body with her own,” Helen responded through gritted teeth, putting off the sobs that she knew were coming. “She was trying to protect me, and that’s why she’s dead and I’m not.”
“And you’re not,” Eli repeated, letting the reiteration of Helen’s words hang in the air a moment, before she stood up and pushed her chair back to the table. Without a word, she moved to the door.
“You have tutoring in twenty minutes.”
Eli opened the door, and Helen moved through it into the cool air of the hallway.
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