The Path of the Dead (3) – Final
Placing both her hands on the wall, she rested her ear against it and closed her eyes.
The voice was calm and subdued. People often called that voice of his ‘cold’, but Liselotte had always liked the sound of it.
– Lord Alois…
Liselotte imagined just what he was doing on the other side of this wall. Surely, he had his back turned to her. He’d be folding his arms, leaning back up against the wall and listening to the sound of his own voice with a serious face.
Without the magic to disguise it as silver, his hair must have reverted to that pale white colour that was his own. His eyes must be a murky and brownish sort of red, to distinguish his family’s centuries of separation from the royal house. His skin would be pale, his body much too lean. He could never have known just how much she envied him, when he said that he never gained weight no matter how much he ate.
Just when was it? One day when she called him a white flower, he got so upset. Really, just when was that? Perhaps it was when they were back in Mohnton. Since then, there was a hard ban on ever comparing him to a flower again.
But, to Liselotte, he would always be a flower. Without being able to choose where it sprouted or move to another pasture, an unfortunate and fleeting flower. She only wanted to protect it from the lashing rain and swirling winds, but in the end there was nothing Liselotte could do.
There wouldn’t be a next time.
She knew that, but that cheery voice still came from her mouth. Liselotte was his shadow. So, until the very end, she had to do what she could to support him.
– What’s more…
“…If we can meet again in another life…”
She wasn’t lying. It wasn’t some sort of trick. In her heart, Liselotte’s words were true.
“We’ll definitely go through with the wedding properly! You better not forget, okay!?”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s fine, we’ll do it.”
“It’s a promise, alright!”
As she pressed her ear against the wall even more, Liselotte poured her heart into her voice. She felt like she could hear a soft sigh on the other side of the wall.
“You absolutely have to-!”
Liselotte swallowed the words that were on the tip of her tongue.
She turned away from the wall, looking at the closed door to her cell… Someone was there.
“…Who is there?”
Silence. Instead, the door opened without a sound.
Liselotte’s eyes widened in shock when she saw who walked into the cell. She almost shouted in surprise but covered her hand with her mouth quickly.
Standing right in front of her was someone she knew well.
A lean woman who was getting on in age. That slender build of hers was like a withered branch, but paradoxically there wasn’t a single sign of weakness anywhere on her. She stood straight, her eyebrows pulled taught, as she looked Liselotte over rigorously.
She was a vassal of the Montchat family, as well as Liselotte and Julian’s childhood teacher…
Liselotte spoke out to her, a note of fear in her voice. Gerda didn’t answer her even with a nod, her expression not changing even a whit. She merely stood silently on the opposite side of the cell, staring at Liselotte.
“W-what happened? How did you unlock the… what about the guard…?”
In Gerda’s right hand, there was a knife. She couldn’t see clearly, but she was dragging something behind her with her left.
“I need your assistance, Liselotte.”
“I’ll give you the keys. This is the one for Lord Alois’ cell.”
She held them out to her. When she did, Liselotte finally saw what was behind Gerda.
The heavy thing that she dragged behind her with her left hand was a person. A thin-looking man, who must have been even older than Gerda. Was he asleep? He didn’t seem like he was moving at all.
Liselotte held her breath. She couldn’t raise her voice carelessly now. She didn’t completely understand what was happening, but she knew it was something that had to be kept quiet.
Dropping the man to the floor, Gerda strode towards Liselotte and handed her the keys that she had hooked on the end of her finger. Each key on the loop was numbered. It was easy to imagine that they corresponded to the cells.
“There’s still some time before the lookouts are meant to swap shifts. If you escape out the back entrance, no one will be there to stop you. Once you’re out, go to the left. Once you reach the road, you should know where to go from there. The cell doors are numbered based on the keys.”
“The keys… L-Lady Gerda, just how did you…”
“And lastly, here.”
Instead of answering Liselotte’s bewildered question, Gerda offered her the handle of the knife in her hand.
This knife, just where did she get it from? As a criminal, Liselotte wasn’t allowed a knife to cut her food, in fact she wasn’t even afforded the luxury of a fork.
But all the same, Liselotte took the knife that was held out to her. The blade looked sharp and it felt heavy in her hand. This wasn’t a cutlery knife, it was something closer to a dagger a soldier would wear on his waist.
“Once you use it, make sure to take it with you. It may end up being of further use. Make sure to have Lord Alois change clothes with him before you do it. I’ll stay clothed as I am. Our clothes match as prison uniforms, after all.”
“Once you’re outside of the cell, there’s no magic sealing curse. So long as you aim inside the cell from outside, you can use magic. With that, I think you know what you have to do, but…”
Gerda’s eyebrows didn’t flinch.
“Make sure to leave the body in the room once you make the stab. Keep in mind that there’s an obvious difference in severity between self-inflicted wounds and a wound inflicted in anger. Steel your heart and don’t shy away from what you have to do. Also, make a mess of the room so that it seems like there was a struggle. Always keep in mind just how the scene will be perceived by others.”
“…You mean to swap them? That man and… Lord Alois…?”
“If they think that he’s died in prison, then there won’t be any pursuit. So, disguise the corpse with your magic. It was all I could do to match genders, so make sure that the magic is intricately cast.”
Liselotte’s breath ran shallow.
Disguising a corpse as Alois with the intention of fooling people into thinking he had died in prison, and then helping him escape. With the corpse being a doppelganger for a time, he’d have a lengthy head start on any pursuers. The better the disguise, the more time Alois would have to put distance between himself and the capital.
With Liselotte’s ability, even other mages should be fooled by the deception. If the ‘real article’ hadn’t appeared at the trial, they would have all been fooled to the end, after all.
That said, a guard would still have gone missing. For whatever reason, a criminal was murdered in jail, and on the same night, an unrelated guard disappears from his post. Even if they don’t notice the disguise straight away, this would raise people’s suspicions. In effect, he could potentially only have until they realize a guard is missing before the pursuers would be hot on his tail. He wouldn’t have enough time.
But, if he didn’t run, the only thing that awaited him was death. Liselotte had no choice
“…I understand. Then, let’s go to Lord Alois’ cell. At the very least, we have to make sure that Lord Alois survives, even if he’s alone.”
As Liselotte plucked up her determination, Gerda cut her short.
“The people who will have ‘escaped’ are the traitorous servant who bore a grudge against her master as well as the guard who conspired to help her. Two people.”
“The woman seduced the guard over to her side and then killed both the master she resented and his lover before escaping. If that is the motive, then it won’t appear so unnatural. There will be two dead bodies. Likewise, two people will escape.”
Liselotte couldn’t comprehend just what she had said straight away. As Liselotte looked at her with confusion, Gerda let out a faint sigh.
“We can’t leave Lord Alois to wander the world alone. In order to escape, he needs your help. Using your magic, you can deceive the eyes of any pursuers.”
“B-But, Lady Gerda… there’s only one body to substitute…?”
“There will be a second.”
Gerda’s words were just as impassive as ever. As if she were just speaking as she usually did. In the same tone that she’d tell a maid her cleaning schedule for the day, she continued to speak to Liselotte.
“Did I not say it earlier? Only the gender matches. So, you’ll have to be very careful with how you cast the magic.”
Just as that thin and frail body paradoxically stood strong, so too did her eyes remain unwavering. The knife in Liselotte’s hand felt all the more heavy.
Gerda alone was the only person in the room who matched that description. After she had handed Liselotte the knife, she had looked her up and down, making sure that their clothes matched.
Simply put, that’s how it was.
“…Are you serious, Lady Gerda?”
Liselotte looked up at Gerda. Even in a situation like this, she stood tall, not a single crack appearing in her expression.
“This is hardly the time for me to make jokes. If you understand what I’m telling you, then please do it quickly.”
But, there really wasn’t time to argue. Liselotte herself knew that all too well.
Gerda’s plan made sense. It would be better for Alois to have the magically gifted Liselotte by his side than to try and escape alone. There were only prisoners and guards in this jail. It would be difficult to prepare a woman’s corpse. Therefore, they had no choice but to use the only one that was the most readily available.
She understood. Using other people like this, they had been doing it for a long time. Just how many sacrifices had they stood on in order to reach the royal family like they had?
“Lady Gerda, are you truly fine with this…?”
Gerda blinked silently in Liselotte’s direction for a moment. Then, she nodded.
“The only reason my body exists is to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the Montchat family. Whether in revenge or in sin. No matter how many people were betrayed or sacrificed over the years, the fact that the four houses of Mohnton have pledged eternal allegiance to the Montchat family is an immutable fact.”
To that end, she was even willing to lose her life. Willing to be stabbed and disguised in order to conceal the true nature of the murder.
“The only thing that is important to me is the Montchat family. For the sake of the Master of the house, as well as his family. For that reason, I never had a family, never had chil… No, we don’t have time to talk freely like this.”
Closing her mouth, Gerda shook her head softly, not changing her expression. When she looked back again at Liselotte, her face was as stern as ever.
“Lord Alois is the last remaining member of the Montchat family. From now on, you must protect him. Make sure to fulfill his wish… Even if that may not be revenge anymore.”
Liselotte looked at the ground.
She could only breathe.
– Protect Lord Alois…
She was the one who had always wanted to stay by his side, more than anything she had wanted to be the one who supported him the most. If this was the only way she could continue doing that, then Liselotte had no choice other than accepting this.
Liselotte was a shadow and a fake. She had deceived others, lied to their faces and even betrayed them. Just like the original nature of the Montchat family, a shadow in the dark.
“…Lady Gerda, thank you for everything you’ve done.”
As she said that, Liselotte readied the knife. Gerda didn’t move a muscle, waiting silently.
“Both myself, and Lord Alois as well, you taught us so many things. From morning to night, every single day… Lady Gerda, you were always so strict, I was a little scared of you.”
How to win a person’s trust, how to deceive others, how to act in public. As a teacher, Gerda had taught Liselotte everything she knew. When Liselotte’s talents became obvious, she left her parents and studied under Gerda for many years.
Gerda was scary. She never showed kindness, she never let her run away until she had completed her work, and she couldn’t remember just how many times she ended up crying.
She knew both of them better than anyone. She was patient, and never gave up on trying to teach them. Even though she often scolded them, she also praised them for their hard work.
“I think I have more memories of being with you than my own parents, Lady Gerda.”
Gerda looked at Liselotte.
Thinking back, Gerda had never averted her eyes from Liselotte at all.
As Liselotte trembled with the knife in her hand, Gerda called out to her. Even in a situation like this, emotion didn’t sway her voice.
“Make sure to do the magic right. Use up all of your power if need be. You’ll deceive them. This time, surely, you’ll defeat that man.”
Just as always, that voice of hers was unemotional and unfeeling. Those taught eyebrows and straight back never changed until the very end, like they were inherent parts of herself.
The very edges of her mouth raised ever so slightly. It was too subtle to call it a proper smile.
“There’s no way you won’t win. Because you’re my student, after all.”
But… it was definitely a smile, of sorts.
Dusk was beginning to settle outside of the prison.
At the edge of the western sky, the red sun was just barely visible above the horizon. In the east, a half-moon had begun to rise with a dark blue sky.
The wind felt warm on their faces. Summer in the capital was warmer than in Mohnton. As the wind blew, the clouds swirled, covering up both the falling sun and the rising moon. It soon grew darker.
“…Are you alright, Liselotte?”
Julian, dressed in the uniform of a guard, looked back at Liselotte. Quickly wiping something away from her eyes, she forced a smile for his sake.
“There’s no problems, Lord Alois. I’m just a little tired because I used up too much of my magic, that’s all.”
With that answer, the conversation died away.
Julian walked silently. It had been a while since they’d escaped the prison. After getting off the road and fleeing into the woods, they hadn’t encountered any signs of pursuit yet.
They may really be able to escape. Once they got rid of their bloodied clothes, they should be difficult to track.
“After all, no matter what path we take, there are always dead bodies along the way, isn’t there?”
Looking at his hands, Julian sighed. He’d always been stepping upon the corpses of others to move forward, and now he’d done the same to escape.
After stepping on so many corpses, walking on and on, this is the place he found himself.
Julian found himself with nothing. He couldn’t complete his family’s revenge, nor could he ever return to Mohnton. He had no idea just where those bloodied feet of his could step next. He was like a bird who had left the nest for the first time.
“…Just what am I supposed to do now?”
He was at a loss as those words fell from his mouth. As he sighed, he looked up at the sky, but he hardly saw it.
Darkness had truly spread across the nightscape now. The moon had been obscured behind the rolling clouds and not a single star could be seen twinkling anywhere.
– Surely, I have to continue our revenge…?
If he didn’t… then wouldn’t his entire life up until this point be a total waste?
The Montchat family had long since done the dirty work of the royal family in the shadows. Whenever one head of the house died, he passed on his anger and grudge to the next generation, entrusting them with their shared debt.
He couldn’t afford to run from it now. It was tantamount to a betrayal of his family’s history.
Walking up beside him, Liselotte quietly took Julian’s hand in hers. As she looked into Julian’s eyes, her smile seemed pained.
“Are you worried?”
Julian didn’t answer her. But, Liselotte took that as affirmation.
“Then, shall we… do something terrible?”
“What now? I’ve already committed so many crimes.”
“That’s right, but there’s still one more. Why don’t we commit the worst crime of all?”
“Worse than treason?”
Liselotte nodded. Even through the darkness, he could tell that her smile was genuine.
“Why don’t we run away together?”
“Why don’t we leave this country behind and go somewhere far, far away? If we had to go somewhere, I’ve heard that the weather in the south is lovely. As far away as we can get from Mohnton in the north, as well.”
Julian blinked, stunned. He never expected to hear words like that from Liselotte.
– Run away…?
All the sacrifices that had gotten them to this point, could he just throw them all away like that?
“Don’t be ridiculous, Liese. If we do something like that, just how could we face everyone who died so far? Just what would they have died for?”
Both his father and mother had died for the sake of their revenge. Gerda had also sacrificed her life for Julian. A slew of people whose names he never even knew. The Montchat family stood upon a mountain of corpses that stretched through history. All for the sake of revenge on the royal family.
Julian now stood alone atop that mountain. Even thinking about running away would be a betrayal of what he stood at the summit of.
“There’s no way I could ever be forgiven. Not if I betray all the expectations that had been entrusted in me.”
“Isn’t it fine, even if you’re not forgiven?”
Liselotte laughed. With her hands behind her back and her golden hair flowing down her front, she took a deep breath.
“We’ve always been doing things that could never be forgiven. It’s not as if we’re some kind of saints. Both the path behind us, as well as the path ahead of us, are paved with the blood of the dead.”
No matter which path the Montchat family travels down, it will always be covered in darkness and shadow. They will always walk upon the path of the dead. Even if their revenge succeeded, that wouldn’t wipe their sins clean.
Liselotte gave his hand a light squeeze as she tilted her head.
“We’ve always lived a life where we lied and betrayed everyone we met. Then, just one more betrayal won’t really change anything, will it? So, in the end, can’t we just commit the worst crime of all?”
Julian still couldn’t answer her.
This revenge was something that had been decided before he was even born. His entire life had been dedicated to it. If it was impossible to complete in his generation, it was his duty to entrust it to those that came after him.
“Even if you have to bear their grudges, their disappointment and their hatred, let’s turn our backs on all this, Lord Alois. There was no way we were ever going to be forgiven, after all.”
Escape, go into hiding, and throw it all away. Live on, whilst carrying the burden of their sins in their hearts.
He’d never thought about doing that.
“So, let’s just do whatever we like. Whatever wishes you have, Lord Alois, I’ll make them come true. Of course, if you decide to keep pursuing revenge on the royal family, I’ll follow you until the end.”
The night breeze ruffled through Liselotte’s hair. He looked down at his hands through the darkness.
They were still stained with blood. But, they had always been, and he’d never regretted it.
Following the wishes of other people, Julian had walked that path. But now, Liselotte was the only one who stood by his side.
Nobody pulled Julian down the path anymore. The path to that revenge was gone, he’d lost the means to fulfill that long-held goal of his family.
– What do I want…?
Julian closed his eyes. He knew that the days ahead would be hard. Whether he decided to continue with his revenge or give it up entirely, he would always be living in the shadows.
It might be a kinder fate to recklessly charge into the royal palace and be put down by the sword. In fact, facing the executioner’s axe would have been easier than what lay ahead. If he had lived and died still following the path, then he would never have to consider something as terrible as this.
– What do I wish for…?
Just what did he want do? He couldn’t think of anything.
But, he remembered a promise he made.
White flowers and a white dress. Spring really was a good time for a wedding.
But, spring had passed now, of course.
So, he had to keep on living… for a least one more year.