Master Vex laid yet another card down in his hopeless quest to win a game of solitaire. Cellblock was all well and good, but playing it required a preparedness to play it with the same batch of Neopians. Today, it had struck the Darigan Mynci dungeon-keeper that he did not have the presence of mind to play a game called "cellblock" with prisoners.
His ill-humor would surely return eventually. Solitaire would help speed that process along, he was sure. He drew another card from the face-down deck, which revealed the fourth king in a row.
"Figures," he muttered.
Besides, even if he weren't bored with cellblock, Master Vex was expecting a visitor today—one who, apparently, couldn't have been escorted by the regular dungeon guards. She was a state secret, Galgarroth told him, and slightly unreliable, but that went without saying. Most Darigan state secrets were secrets because of their volatility.
A knock on the door interrupted his solitaire game and, more importantly, his train of thought. Sighing, he grumbled, "come on in," without much of a thought. An Eyrie guard clad in plate armor walked in and shut the door gently behind her. She was unremarkable in almost every way, except that she vaguely resembled Kass.
How, he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Why do you come here?" asked Vex.
"Sir, I'm sorry if I intruded upon anything," she began.
Vex spread a hand over his solitaire game to answer her question.
"Right." The Eyrie Guard cleared her throat. "I am here to discuss with you your expected visitor, sir."
That got his attention. Vex leaned back in his chair and squinted, locking his fingers together, and then realized why exactly the guard looked the way she did.
Closing her eyes, the guard curtseyed. An almost-imperceptible sliver of light shined around her as a bright orange flushed across her hair, which itself quickly expanded into long, lush curls that extended to her waist. Her beak vanished to give way to the soft facial features of an Aisha. Her armor seemed to melt and reform in the general shape of a robe before folding and thinning out into fabric.
Then, floral designs etched themselves onto the former-guard's robes as if drawn in by a calligrapher. She reopened her eyes to reveal a pair of emerald irises against blood-red sclera.
"Chantelle," said Master Vex, almost spitting the alveolar t. "I'd point out that you're slightly late, but frankly, I couldn't care less."
"I'm sorry, sir," replied the Darigan Aisha. "I hate to waste your time."
"Indeed, and for such a frivolous purpose, too." Chantelle frowned at these words. Vex recollected his cards and shuffled them back into a single neat deck. "All in all, it's a better waste of time then this ridiculous game. Now, not that I particularly care, but are you sure you wish to go through with this?"
Master Vex pulled out a file from the many that resided behind him. He didn't need to look at where his hands were going, he knew it by memory. The "file" was the size of an epic novel, filled mainly with pages that were haphazardly added in and even more that he'd refused to take out. He opened it and quickly located the name he was searching for: Morguss.
"Well… we'll want to head to cell 4-G," he said while standing up. "It takes a bit of walking to get there, but I promise it won't be too boring."
Chantelle exited the office first, her illusory spell taking hold as soon as the door opened. In mere seconds she morphed back into a generic Eyrie guard. Vex led her through the byzantine hallways past murmuring prisoners who were only known by their numbers.
"Jelly World! It's a world full of jelly! I have seen it—they will destroy us all!" yelled an old Lupe as they passed by. Chantelle regarded him with a mixture of amusement and pity.
Other prisoners included number eleven in cell 22-B, a Kau who had surrounded himself with a variety of cheese, and number seventeen, a Meerca who found it fit to draw neggs all over the walls of her cell. Other sections contained those who were deemed more of a danger, and still others dropped the conceit of numbers completely.
By the time they had arrived at cell 4-G, Chantelle counted twenty-seven left turns, thirty-nine right turns, and six secret torch switches. Inside the cell sat an old Moehog hag in the typical red uniform all prisoners wore. Beside her were a few books and a ball of yarn.
"I believe someone gave her a knitting set," informed Vex, "or something like that."
Chantelle spread her fingers in front of her as though she were preparing to play a harp. Master Vex could not see that she was fiddling with the fabric of time, infusing her magic into its threads to make their surroundings come to a halt.
The distant footfalls of guards slowed until they became a cacophony, the sounds of steps infinitely stretched out to constancy. The dirty snowflakes on the outside of the dungeon windows stopped sliding downwards. The fire on the torch scones froze in place.
Only Master Vex, Chantelle, and the old Moehog hag were animate.
Slowly, Chantelle dispelled her illusion, becoming once more her true form. She took a few steps toward the cell bars and grasped at them, glancing down at the hag who stared back with the blankest look she'd ever seen.
Her arms were shaking.
"… Why, hello there," said the Moehog. "I apologize: I don't get many visitors here… or else I would have tried to clean this place." She swept the stray pieces of yarn and dust around the cell with cupped hands.
"It's… quite fine," replied Chantelle, "nothing here strikes me as exceptionally untidy."
Silence buffered the air between them. Master Vex rested on the wall opposite the conservation, focused more on Chantelle than on the hag.
"It's absolutely not good enough," said Morguss, "this… this is no place to be for a beautiful young lady such as yourself—none at all."
At the word "beautiful," Chantelle's lips twitched slightly. She put just a tiny bit of distance between herself and the cell.
"It's no place for nobody to be, really," continued Morguss, "it's always very dark. But the people here are nice, and I can't complain. You know, he's really quiet now for some reason, but the guy in the room to my right—he is a great poet, and he was muttering something now, I think, something about palaces in the snow. Very fitting, for winter."
The prisoner to her left was a Pteri frozen mid-flight. Vex did not remember him being any sort of poet.
"I think he gets visitors, sometimes. His mother, I think. She looks like such a nice lady, she always brings him blankets because he tears through those, poor sap. I don't know what's got him so restless all the time, all the time. But it's good that he has someone for him. I don't get any visitors, except you…
"But wait," Morguss said, "who are you?"
"I'm Chantelle, your daughter."
"You? My daughter?" said Morguss with a hint of wonder. Her crooked figure rose slowly from the ground. A lazy eye bulged from the darkness. "You?"
The old hag inched closer the bars of her cell. She raised her arms slowly to the contours of her daughter's jaw, and Chantelle flinched slightly. "No, please, don't flinch," said Morguss, "I know how I look, but please, don't be afraid…"
Chantelle smiled, but it was not a smile that seemed to serve the function of a smile. In it sulked traces of anger, regret, malice, but Morguss did not seem to notice any of it. Instead, she brought her thumbs to her daughter's cheeks.
She squinted into her eyes for a good minute, searching. Slowly, tears began to stream down Chantelle's expectant face. She must remember any moment now… she must remember!
But Morguss's eyes did not widen with recognition, she did not retreat with shame, she did not even react with the disgust she had always shown her daughter. Instead, she smiled vacuously again, like a confused child.
"I don't understand… how can you be my daughter?" She withdrew her hands from Chantelle's face and turned to the dungeon-keeper. "You, I know you," she said. "You are Mister Vex. Sir, please tell me, I do not think this lady looks like me. Is it true? Is she my daughter?"
Chantelle was still clutching the cell bars, staring past Morguss out the latticed window. Master Vex inclined his head toward the Moehog prisoner. "Yes, she is indeed your daughter."
"That is very strange…" she trailed off. "I swear to Fyora… forgive me, Mister Vex, for asking, but … was she separated from me when she was little, or did she grow up under my care?"
"She grew up under your care," replied Vex when it became clear that Chantelle would not.
"Oh dear, oh dear." Morguss turned back to her daughter and frowned. "I'm truly sorry, I don't remember you. I know that it must be distressing for me not to remember you… I just have an awfully bad memory, Miss… Miss… Chanting?"
"Chantelle," she corrected with a quivering whisper.
"Chantelle," Morguss repeated. "Chantelle, my … daughter, please do not be upset, there's nothing to be sad about."
Morguss couldn't have possibly known if there was anything to be upset about in general. She did not feel it anymore, and she did not know that she once felt it. She stared patiently at the Darigan Aisha before her.
She really did not remember, thought Chantelle. She really didn't remember anything. She was a complete amnesiac. She did not remember anything about Chantelle's personality or her first words. She did not remember teaching her anything about the wondrous world of the arcane. She did not remember her coruscating eyes when she had first seen a brilliant flash of magic.
She did not remember countless hours she'd spent grilling Chantelle under dim moonlight. She really did not remember how she'd scoff at her ugly pair of eyes that, apparently, not even a mother could love. She did not remember the thundering, deafening screams that met every one of Chantelle's mistakes.
She did not remember putting a circlet on her daughter's head and sending her to Meridell. She did not even remember for whom she nominally did it: the usurper Kass, nor did she remember why she had truly done it.
"How would you know?" spat Chantelle with an outright grimace, her voice seeping back into her words. "How in Fyora's world would you know?"
A chill rattled Master Vex's spine.
"You are always there. I still remember you." Chantelle laughed. "You are almost everything, you are significant, and I am nothing to you, no more important than a trail of discarded yarn, as far as you're concerned."
Morguss opened her mouth to say something, but Chantelle spoke over her, mocking her diminutive ton: "'Nothing to be sad about?' You know nothing, nothing, nothing. I am not upset; I am angry. You sit here in bliss, remembering nothing—oh, how I wish I could forget you so easily! To cast every single memory of you aside like the rubbish it is; then it would be fair."
"I—I—please, I don't understand…"
Frost formed beneath Chantelle's feet. It was then that Master Vex realized he was feeling real cold. Morguss widened her eyes as ice traveled up the bars of her cell.
"Remember me! After your lies, your manipulation, your odiousness, it is the least you could do! Or have you grown so pathetic as to be unable to accomplish even—"
"Chantelle," started Master Vex. "watch yourself."
After a few moments, the Darigan Aisha let out a sigh. Her grip on the bars weakened slowly until she let go of them. The frost begun to melt alongside some of her anger, leaving growing dark splotches on the stone floor.
Morguss was old, now. No, that wasn't it; she was always old; she had looked the exact same when Chantelle was a child. Frail, perhaps. She was frail now.
"It's useless," she said, head hanging. "You don't remember."
It didn't feel useless, of course. Chantelle wanted to continue—she wanted to tell her about all the injustice and cruelty she'd wreaked. Morguss, of all people, deserved to be pulled out of her ignorance; it was the only justice she was ever going to get.
But it was too late now.
"I don't," replied Morguss, gently reaching through the bars to tilt Chantelle's head up towards her. "I… can't speak for any pain I might have caused to you, but you seem to be a good young lady. I am happy that you are my daughter."
Chantelle pulled her head away. She gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, and stifled another laugh.
Slowly, the world began to move again. The persistent sound of a distant clang revealed itself to be part of a guard's footsteps; the frozen torch started to crack; the snowflakes on the latticed window behind Morguss inched downwards.
Chantelle pulled her hair up into a short azure ponytail. Her robes transformed handily into plate armor and her face was replaced with that of an Eyrie guard.
After nodding at Master Vex, she walked away.
"Mister Vex," said Morguss, who had apparently not found Chantelle's illusory spell strange at all, "do you think she'll come back?" She was staring at him expectantly.
"What do you think?" asked Vex.
The Moehog shrunk away with shame at having asked a question with such an obvious answer. Then she reckoned she should have felt more ashamed at Chantelle's words.
"But I've seen people do strange things," said Vex. He shrugged disinterestedly. "And Fyora knows this accursed place is strange."
Morguss did not respond.
As he pushed himself away from the wall, Vex found his mind wandering to the topic of cellblock maneuvers. He had finally found his motivation to play. Or, at the very least, he'd decided it was decidedly a happier waste of time, less ill-humored than this.
At the end of the hall, Chantelle stood waiting in her disguise. The warm light of the torches gleamed off her wet eyes, and when Vex came, she followed him through the byzantine dungeons without a word.