They buried my mother’s empty coffin in a soldier’s grave east of Lyre, near the ocean’s edge. The service had been graced with roses and tiger lilies, provided eagerly by the townsfolk who came to pay their respects. Uncle Catio found himself leading a pack of the Lyrian Guard to their places besides the grave, stiffly arranged along the outskirts. The service itself, while overplayed and cliche, was beautiful. I felt lost, in a ways — my mother had been gone many years at this point, and the weight of what she’d sacrificed in the name of creating a healthy nation had long since stopped being too heavy for me to carry. Though I missed her, my shoulders no longer felt like they were weighed down by anvils, and I had cried all the tears that I could manage. However, it seemed like the townsfolk did not share in my strength. My father cinematically dabbed my grandmother’s tears whilst fighting his own and Caito had his head hung as he took his place at the pedestal that stood tall at the front of the soldiers. Both of the men in my life, who have exhibited nothing but incredible fortitude throughout my entire existence, were then reduced to husks of who they used to be, devoured by their love for my mother.
In the months following her disappearance, I resented Katherine. That resentment had faded some by the time the funeral rolled around, but the impact that it had on the way I viewed her never went away. I resented her for causing so much pain to the people that I loved — especially my father. I looked at Catio differently those days, too. Though he was around my whole life, and was practically like a second father to me, there had always been a disconnect in my relationship with him. I cared about him, but not as deeply as I would a family member, and I always enjoyed when he’d grace us with his presence, but I never longed to see him. However, after my mother’s disappearance, it was like Catio had disappeared, too. He never came around anymore, and when he looked at me, I felt his pain radiating off of his gaze.
During the service, all I did was sit, listening intently to the words of my peers. They thought I couldn’t hear them whisper, but I spent the first few years of my speaking life decoding the hushed tones of my parents through the thinned walls of our home. I was skilled in the art of making myself unknown, cruising through the crowd with no particular intention. Though I was a direct descendant of who they had all come to mourn, I was inconsequential. To the few whose eye I did catch, I’d see them lean in close to one another, whispering harsly under their breaths, “That poor girl, only nine years old. I heard she waited by the fountain every day for her mother to return.”
Though their tones were unforgiving, I couldn’t fault them. They weren’t wrong. At the time of my mother’s disappearance, I happened to be a mature nine years old, and I did wait by the fountain each day well into the evening for her seemingly inevitable homecoming. I trotted out in my best white dress, her favorite from my arsenal, with a bouquet of fresh flowers lounging haphazardly in the crook of my arm. Though their soft petals grazed my skin gently, the weight and sharpness of what they began to represent over time felt like a million tiny needles on my skin. I felt it a small price to pay for my mother’s happiness upon seeing how much her daughter loved her after two years of prayers, hope, and wishful thinking. Despite my enthusiasm in the beginning, however, the fantasy that Katherine would one day return home ended the same way it began: slowly. Agonizingly. Certitude faded into hope, and hope faded into fear, until the fear faded into acceptance. At some point, going out to the fountain became more ritual than belief — a quiet routine to fill my days for no purpose other than the fact that I had nothing better to do with my hands than grip those flowers so hard the stems snapped in half. Eventually my father stopped funding this ridiculous ideal, and the owner of the flower stand stopped handing out the bouquets out for free. I suppose pity only went so far when you had a real family at home. It wasn’t until my dress got caught on a bush and tore from the bottom to my waist almost a year post-mental breakdown that I realized how foolish I was.
I couldn’t find comfort anywhere other than the presence of my sister, Vinnea, who stood solemnly and silently to the side. The cadence of her actions — or lack thereof — was genuinely unusual for her. Vinnea was boastful, egotistical, and not at all the type to hold her tongue. I took it as her way of being respectful. Out of all the people in the village who graced us with their presence on that day, she was the only one who didn’t know or care about my mother. The indifference towards my past before her existence in my life was something she had often voiced before, but was nowhere to be found as her eyes fixated on the coffin that rested dead center in the crowd. I wouldn’t notice until many years later that the mentions of her indifference ceased after that night. I wanted to assume it was purely for my sake, but I knew better.
To be completely and utterly honest, I respected her nonchalance more than I respected the tears that all of the strangers managed to shed for my mother. I was disappointed in my father for participating in the service, but I bit down on my disapproval. The sentimental act of lowering the idea of Katherine Ardontis into the ground so she may rest forever in peace meant the world to him, for reasons I could neither understand nor explain.
When the time came, Caito stepped up onto the pedestal in front of everybody, his posture weirdly straight and his eyes fixated towards the crowd that gathered to pay their respects. The spiel that followed was routine, not devoid of emotion, but robotic all the same.
“I knew Katherine for many years,” he began. There was an urge to roll my eyes that welled inside of me, but I resisted. Not because I was attempting to hide my distaste for the situation, but because I felt Caito’s eyes boring into me. He was looking at everyone, — or appeared to be — but his gaze would sometimes meet mine and linger there just a moment too long. “She was beautiful. Strong. Sweet. Kind. I’ve never met anyone like her. She was willing to give her life for her kingdom, and there is no death more noble than that.”
The service ended shortly thereafter, a team of my mother’s closest friends and relatives lowering the coffin into the pre-dug grave, everyone directing their condolences, tears, and words of wisdom towards my father and I. Vinnea had wandered off somewhere, probably to get some space from all the crying, and a small part of me longed to follow. I scanned the surrounding area, but she was nowhere in sight. I was about to give up and go stand somewhere off to the side, but I heard an overdramatic wail in the direction of my mother’s faux grave and immediately turned on my heel, marching back into the woods from which I originally came, desperate to get away. I spent the next few minutes quietly calling Vinnea’s name loud enough for her to hear if she was nearby, but not loud enough to disturb the mourning party happening behind me, though the sounds from it began to fade with every passing second.
“Hey, I’m over here,” I heard a voice say. I swiveled towards the direction of my sister’s words. “Get back to the service. Go mourn your mom.”
“Our mom,” I corrected her. I’d been attempting to drill the fact that we were now a family into her head, but Vinnea was stubborn and bullheaded. The concept of “family” was lost on her. Though I knew the times she’d refer to our family as mine were just slips of the tongue, something that wasn’t intentional, rather just reflected the way she felt on the inside of that thick skull of hers, but I still squinted my eyes in subtle annoyance. “She was our mom, just like my dad is our dad, and my grammy is our grammy.”
“And what’s yours is mine and mine is yours and we’re one big happy ******* family,” she replied in a mocking tone. I took no offense — that was just the way that she spoke. The harsh bitterness had a soft undertone if you listened close enough.
“Watch your language,” I replied. “Dad gets mad when we talk like that.”
“Dad is a tool.”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “Stop talking like that. Cut him some slack, you know what today is.”
“Yeah, just like any other day. Your mom’s been dead for years. This is nothing different. Everyone’s just making a big fuss and kissing your ass because they want to be close to you and your dad. It’s stupid.”
“Our mom, and our dad.”
“I don’t get to call her my mom, I never met her. She probably bit it before you guys took me in, anyways.” Vinnea turned so that I could no longer see her face. The brutal honesty from her was refreshing amongst the strange politeness of everyone who hung back at the service. I hung my head slightly, choosing to stare at the ground rather than the back of my sister’s head. “We should head back. I think it’s almost time to go home.”
She grabbed my hand, and that was the last memory I have before my mind snaps to us arriving back home. I’d been in so much of a haze, the long carriage ride from the grave to town passed by in a blur. I vaguely remember collapsing on my bed, my eyes burning.
That night, I felt as if I dreamed a dream I was not meant to remember. However, when I woke up, a feeling of overwhelming calm had taken me, one terrifyingly unlike the apathetic thrum of my disassociated grief. It was as if all was as it was supposed to be, and though my eyes still felt hot from the exhaustion that plagued my body the day before, I found myself embracing the tears that fell as a result.
My grandmother died shortly after. It was that year that I learned you really could die from a broken heart. She was sickly beforehand, her skin clinging tightly to her bones. For months I watched the color drain from her face and the life from her smile. I think, towards the end, she caught on that I was watching, because she stopped smiling. Hours before her death, I sat by her bedside alone, the pale light from the fire radiating gently against her ivory skin and bones. She leaned her head towards me, a gentle expression on her face. I watched her open her mouth to speak, then close it again, as if she realized that her throat was too hoarse to create anything coherent. When she finally did speak, her voice was discordant, almost as if her soul had already half-left her body and was speaking for her. “I’m glad I could look into her eyes one last time.”
After that, I always believed that I, too, would die from a broken heart. It seemed fitting, and for a while I resigned myself to that fate, but I realized with time that I was still too full of love for my skin to stretch over my body the way my grandmother’s did. After a while, I decided that the only way to avoid dying like that was to love everyone so totally and overwhelmingly that the life wouldn’t drain from my body.
I explained all this to my father and Vinnea one night over dinner. My father looked amused, but deep in thought, as if he were trying to figure out what to say. As per usual, my sister had no such problem. Her tone was exasperated, as if she was talking to a small child. “Love isn’t a physical thing, you moron.”
I huffed quietly at her, shoving a spoonful of broth into my mouth, irritated that she had shut me down so quickly. “I’m not a moron,” I replied, my face contorting against my will to match my tone. “Why do you always have to **** on everything I say?”
“Language,” objected Orion without looking up from his food. He’d mastered the art of playfully ignoring his children, somehow managing to pull all of his focus into the little mountain of broth that he’d accumulated onto his spoon.
“Because you’re using moron logic, moron.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“Or what? You gonna hit me?”
I remained silent, not only because I saw my father peek up from his bowl, meaning that he no longer felt it appropriate to feign disinterest, but because I knew that there was no ‘or else’ looming in the shadows. At least, not from where I was standing. I was not a fighter, and conflict was not my cup of tea.
“I’m not a moron,” I huffed in a defeated tone, hurriedly shoving some of my dinner into my mouth. I took my time chewing the chunks of meat that I’d freed from my bowl, making it clear that, as far as I was concerned, the conversation was over. Vinnea wasn’t good at taking subtle cues, though, and continued to press me.
“Only morons think you can avoid dying by loving someone,” she muttered quietly under her breath, stabbing the soupy mixture in front of her with her wooden spoon aggressively.
“I don’t think I can avoid dying, I just don’t wanna die of a broken heart.”
“If you don’t love someone, how can they break your heart? If you were using your brain, you’d know that the only way to avoid dying of a broken heart is to never love anyone, ever.”
Vinnea had three years on me. I was only ten, Vinnea thirteen, but she was way beyond her time on this nexus. At times, I’d catch her staring solemnly out our bedroom window, or looking longingly out to sea at the village’s edge. I would never truly learn the full extent of her history, but the ambiguity of it all would always resonate with me. Who she was before the Cleansing, what her life was like, it all blurred together in an amalgamation of mashed emotions. The way she looked at the sea was the way that I looked at her, haunted by the things I did not know.
I spent the next couple of years looking out at the horizon as she did, staring curiously at the ocean mist that sprayed with reckless abandon in time to the crashing of the waves in the distance. There were many kids from Lyre that had the blood of adventurers inside them. They wanted to go out and explore, to find what lay beyond the line where the sky and the sea met. I never held the desire to be part of that rendezvous, instead I found comfort in the familiarity of the worn dirt paths that wove through the town. What I did not know, what haunted me like the ghost of a love I’d never gotten to experience, left me shaken and afraid. I would never admit this, even when asked directly by my father, who grew more worried about my distant behavior with each passing day. The reluctance to voice our fears must’ve ran in the family, because Orion spent his days watching me from the corner of his eye.
He loved me, then. I can say that with confidence. But loss is a powerful tool, and his anxieties about the future used that tool to distance him from me. In the months, even years, following my mother’s death, there were times where he wouldn’t even be able to look at me. I knew that, on those days, he missed her more than anybody else in the world. I wondered idly if his dissonance from the universe that followed Katherine’s untimely demise was what it looked like when your body had the will to go on but you did not. For a while, I explored the idea that the death by a broken heart could take on many different forms. My grandmother’s death was tragic yet quick, and was always regarded by me as the most painful. My views only changed when I realized that my father had the same faraway look in his eye that I carried the first few years after my mother’s death, except his never fully went away. Until the moment I looked into his eyes for the very last time, he wore that empty stare that was somehow desolate yet filled with a love and purity so absolute it made it difficult to match for very long. His death was noble, slow, and effortless. I’ll never forget how I felt when I realized that noble, slow, and effortless was way more painful than tragic and quick.
I loved my father, too. Even on the days where he couldn’t stand to meet my gaze. The worries of what was to become of our broken family after my mother’s death, which crushed me under its weight most days, felt like feathers resting on my shoulders when he held me. Though I hated to admit it, Vinnea was simply a band-aid at first, a brief moment of respite from what I’d lost, but she came to mean so much more than that, to both Orion and myself. The two of them stole my heart before any man could ever dream of it, and held the pieces of me that they took long after I was gone, and, to this day, grasp them in their palms and pull my strings from their graves. I followed in their footsteps like I was soulbound to their shadows, determined to form myself into a person that they would be proud of. When there was nothing left, when the snow I played in as a child had long since melted and the memories of the lakes I’d splash in during the Fourth Quarter’s heat had faded, they were all I had left. Even the love I held for my mother was no match for what I felt for them.
My name is not that important. Not as important as my story. It’s funny how my name is what people remember, but not the names of the men I killed, or the men who ruined me, or the women who left me. They don’t remember the names of those that I had to conquer to save them. Instead, they tell the story of Koevia Kaelie Ardontis, the vigilante raised a warrior. They tell the story of a humble, kind, and deserving little girl who got dealt a raw deal but persevered through the pain.
When I tell the story, it’s a cautionary tale. Be honorable. Have respect. Don’t lose yourself in the pursuit of revenge, because that’s truly what it was. I did not save the world because I wanted there to be purity left in the atmosphere for my children, or because I cared about the people who lived on this nexus with me. Don’t be fooled, I did care, but I wrote my story the way I did because of anger. I had been angry since the moment my mother waved goodbye to me for the last time.
This universe did not change in an instant. We did not have one, singular, moment of overwhelming clarity that took us from our childhoods and forced us into the real world. Our stories are built on the foundations of humanity and everything that comes with it — the love, the betrayal, the acceptance, and the loss. We are born gods in a ways, but we die overwhelmingly human.
My name is Koevia Kaelie Ardontis, and this is not the story of a woman scorned. It is not the story of the unholy made holy. It is not the story of how I died, it’s the story of how our world as we know it lived.