Season One, Episode Seven
He’d noticed. Everything.
Abelard may be able to pretend ignorance with the rest of the world, but the damnation of being a man prone to thinking, prone to long hours in candlelight with straining eyes and dusty silence, is that he knows himself too well. He hears his thoughts as clearly as other men hear the church bells ringing on clear winter morns. Where other men might be shifting now through their fear, their anger, their impotence and anger more at that… Abelard can hear beneath the din of all of that…
He’d noticed. Everything.
As the fall has grown richer in hues of red and orange, as the days have grown shorter, and darker, and colder, Kaia has been wasting away, like the sun’s shorter run across their skies reflects Kaia’s shorter breaths, wavering steps, pale visage that seems to match all too well with the world of snow and skeletons of trees standing silent sentry over fallow fields.
For all she has been nearer to him than ever, she has been drifting, every day, just a little further away.
She’s been spending hours in his library. Pulling his weightiest, dustiest, oldest tomes from his shelves and curling herself into the smallest ball in one of his largest chairs - the one in the corner, by the window, by the cliff overlooking the lee side of the shore, with the waves crashing angry below - and she stays perfectly still, and perfectly silent, and perfectly staring at pages that must, they must, begin to blur together. Abelard himself has never made it through the tomes Kaia has been so intently studying. They are ancient Waterwei texts and dense with theoretical treatises on the nature of Waterwei magic, possible evolutions from known words and known uses for those words, intricate debates on the origins of the magic, how it is passed through birth, how it is best nurtured, and grown, and directed to its most potent use. Everyone who speaks in passing reference to the water trade, or the lineages of the greatest Waterwei practitioners in history, names they all know, names in which they all stand in awe… All of these men are making passing reference to kernels of profound truth buried deep, deep in these treatises. But no one has actually read them. No one understands the truth beneath the casual statements so many take for truth. No one understands that the words they say are only the palest reflection of a truth that was once pondered until a man went mad, until his fingers bled for the clutching of a quill, until his eyes were blinded by the murky light of candles and the eternal dark of too much ink and too much parchment.
Perhaps Kaia knows those secrets now. Perhaps they have driven her mad as well, bled her to nothing as a quill that has written out its last word fading away to only scratches on the page…
For all she has been spending all of her waking hours, and many of her sleeping ones, curled in his chair in his library, Abelard has felt his wife drifting further from his side each day until there is only… this.
A body on a carpeted floor.
Not a corpse.
It does not, he believes, make him less of a man that he cries out a breath of relief to feel her pulse, still pounding, beneath the bone-white skin of her delicate neck. Her chest is still rising, though the breaths are short and staccato. Her heart still pounds, pounds, pounds beneath the breastbone that is…
Far too prevalent.
Even in the richest hues of his own lusts, Abelard had noticed that too. How his hands curled around bones and edges where they used to curl around curves, and soft, sweet flesh. The way his fingers had spanned the entire width of her hips -
He can see now that his fingers left their marks there. Purple fingers now, curved around her hipbones, speaking of passion, maybe, but perhaps speaking of darker things too.
Dried tears on Kaia’s cheeks.
The purple under her eyes matching the purple at her hips where he held her, where he… held her down.
She didn’t say anything. Her cries were -
Alas. He is a man damned by an inability to lie to himself.
Himself does not believe himself.
Her cries were not passion.
They have never been passion.
She has never refused him. She has never said the word ‘no’. But what woman could refuse a King? What woman would even try for the futility? When Kaia says nothing, when her cheeks are crusted with the salt of her many tears, is she not saying her refusal more clearly than any words?
And yet, and yet -
She is his wife, and his jewel, and his Queen.
He has earned her hand, her entire body, through his wealth and his strength of arms and his far-reaching borders. He bargained for this jewel fairly. He paid the price of ten thousand men, stationed at various outposts newly-built along the northern isles. There is no man in the world who would fault him for accepting her silence as assent. There is no man in the world who would fault him for accepting the ring he placed on her long and delicate finger as a proclamation that he may call her to his side at any time. And she will come. And she will lie prostrate before him. And he may take his fill of this most precious beauty he has paid so dearly for, and loved yet more dearly still.
He finds fault.
As he lifts her prostrate form from the floor and cries, if only in his heart with no salt on his own cheeks to show for it, cries to himself that a man who lifts nothing heavier than books, an old man, a tired man, a scholar-King, should no so easily be able to lift a grown woman’s body. She should weigh more than his books. She should not seem to him, in this moment, as insubstantial as the white foam of her so-beloved waves.
He knows her cries are not passion, and yet he lets her cry out beneath him.
They have begotten a son. There is no need for them to share a bed. Many are the women that will warm Abelard on cold nights, that will speak to him soothingly and stroke his ego, that will gasp in genuine passion, for his money, or his power, if not for his manhood. And yet, for all he partakes of these women, and he does, as frequently as he can tear himself from his books, his other passions are as virile as his lust for knowledge…
They do not satisfy that something… other… in him. Kaia says when she listens to his soul it is a profound silence, like a deep, still pool of water, like a well within him, like a blue hole, only feet off shore but all of a sudden the water is thousands of feet deep, when you were walking with waves lapping at your waist only a moment past.
That something within him that is a deep pool of cool water…
That something is not satisfied when those other women tell him he is strong, or handsome, or virile.
That something, deep down, sneers at those women. And their lies. And their lust for a man that does not exist.
For Abelard, if he is to use that word to mean that man, that pool of water deep within the fleshy shell they adorn with furs and crowns and scepters… Abelard is essentially a lost creature, a frozen by fear creature, a peering off at the horizon and can’t see beyond it creature…
For all Kaia drives him to distraction with her inane stubbornness, her dangerous independence, her sharp wit and sharper tongue… The lost, frozen, peering creature longs for all the chaos Kaia creates, Kaia is. She drives him from his own thoughts, his own person, his own fears… She makes him react. She makes him live. A Queen like Kaia requires a King that occasionally emerges from his library, and from his own deep thoughts.
She is his freedom from himself.
And so he indulges his desires, when he can hold them back no longer, when the deepest dark of that deep pool within him resounds with her name…
But she still doesn’t awake.
He’s managed to get her under the sheets, and her modesty is preserved.
He turns to the door to call for the guards, to call for Keagan, to call for the healer, but -
The ferawicce bursts through the door.
Disheveled. Wearing only a shirt half-buttoned, long, tan legs bare to threads brushing at the bottom of generous hips the guards are trying their damnest not to stare at… Her hair is pillow-mussed. The equally generous glimpse of bare chest is heaving as she stumbles across the carpet, as she turns viciously when Keagan tries to catch her arm, pull her around, stop her from her mad dash into the King’s own private rooms -
A cry fully as anguished as Abelard’s own.
He is confused enough, shocked enough, that the truth filters through everything.
The ferawicce cries his wife’s name the way Abelard imagines he might cry it if he loved her for more than the way she shocks him to living, if he loved her for herself alone, apart from any good she does him, or any way she makes him feel. If he loved her beyond reason and benefit. If he loved her more like a madness, more like a clawing insanity, more like a thing to run from than a shelter to run towards when he’s feeling his most vulnerable, his most lost.
No one should speak that name save Abelard. It is, amongst all the many other things of this woman that he owns, another thing that belongs to him alone. No one should touch those syllables, save him. Just as no one should -
The ferawicce reaches out and touches flesh that is Abelard’s flesh.
Tan fingers twine with bone white sisters.
And that’s when the golden gaze rolls up behind her eyelids.
And the ferawicce faints as Kaia did.
And there is a sudden screaming from the ocean like a storm surge fit to sweep them all from the face of this earth, a roaring of waves that will deafen every last man in Pöeddae, a crashing -
Kaia is cold and wet and frightened and… elated.
She knows the voice that called out her name. Though it is frightened, though she longs to sooth that fright, though it pains her to be the cause of any distress echoing deep in that beloved alto…
She is thrilled.
She is ready for the life beyond this life, if Elois is there to live it with her.
The voice is coming closer, calling to her again and again, and Kaia answers, huddled cold and wet on her little sandbar and she is sure the swelling waves will sweep her away at any moment, but as long as Elois is there to be swept away with her…
Out to the ocean.
Out to the dark and the depths.
It’s selfish. It’s weak. There are so many things so many people might say if they knew these, her most despairing, most rejoicing thoughts…
But it’s the truth.
She would leave behind two parents who still love her, her people on Talvin and the northern isles, relying on their treaty with Abelard for their protection and their livelihood… even Boone. Everything she should surely care about more than a girl she loved when she was only a girl herself. But she doesn’t. She can’t. How she loved Elois, how she betrayed Elois, how she has longed for Elois so desperately since her death… None of that was about reason, or what’s right or wrong, or bravery, or morality, or strength.
Love made her a fearsome thing. A beast that would rend the world for longing. A creature driven by equal parts terror and tenderness. To fall so deep, to drown, to die. The instinctive fear any beast would feel at the death of self and selfishness looming. But, oh, the freedom once you’ve fallen, once you’ve drowned, once you have lost yourself in another self. To love them more than you love yourself. To exist, to breathe, as though you are dwelling in that other shell. Their smile is a reflection of your own soul’s joy. Their tears your sorrow. Their hunger is pangs in your belly and you would set your very flesh alight to keep them warm in winter.
“Elois!” she answers back, as the voice calls once more from the ocean.
“Kaia!” the waves respond.
And then she sees it. A form, a dark shape cutting through the waves, bobbing atop them, working slowly, so slowly, towards Kaia on the sloshing sands.
It’s too dark to make out more than a head, arms pinwheeling through the water, a body black beneath the shadows of the water…
But then the moon alights on her as she draws closer.
Older features, Kaia notes. And perhaps she is surprised that a soul would age as a body might. But… the same high arch to her eyebrows, same sharp cheekbones, same bow lips… So many features Kaia saw glimpses of in a child’s face…
As she gets close enough to the sandbar to stand…
The ferawicce rises from the water.
The woman who made Kaia shiver for wanting the way she had hardly been old enough to want Elois. But she was far old enough that day in the training yards, trying her token around the ferawicce’s waist and longing for an excuse to linger near, wondering idly if she could get away with ‘accidentally’ brushing her lips against the other woman’s jaw as she pulled away… She’s old enough now to note, even through her shock, all the lean curves, all the pleasing muscles and the graceful way the ferawicce moves, even when she’s fighting against the current and splashing out of hip-deep waves to water that nips petulantly at her ankles…
Though Kaia called for Elois, though she heard Elois answer, though she felt Elois deep in her soul like sound and echo were reunited once more…
It is the ferawicce who emerges from the dark and the depths.
It is the ferawicce who captures Kaia’s shaking hands, and pulls her to standing, and pulls Kaia into her arms, and holds her so tightly it hurts, so tightly Kaia knows no wave in all the ocean could knock them from this sandbar now. There is no current in the world strong enough to sweep Kaia away from these arms.
But just as suddenly as she grabbed Kaia, the ferawicce shoves her away. Hands become claws, grasping, biting into her biceps as the ferawicce narrows that brilliant golden gaze, and purses her lips, and shakes Kaia roughly, and shouts.
“What are you doing?”
Heartbreak. Elation. Kaia is dizzy from the tide of emotions that cycles from its highest to its lowest points in an instant.
This is not the fabled paradise of death.
Elois has not forgiven her for her unforgivable betrayal.
This is real.
Elois is furious.
Elois is -
Elois is standing right in front of her, glaring at her with a golden gaze Kaia has longed to capture, shivering in soaked clothing that reveals every line and divot of the body Kaia has been lusting after for a season…
The ferawicce - Elois - still looks furious. She opens her mouth to sputter -
“But you’re dead!” Kaia contradicts her own words, her proclamation, her dearest, desperate, mad hope. It can’t be Elois. “I saw your body! They took you away! They threw you into the ocean!”
Little bundle wrapped in muslin because it was too late to shove her back into the womb from whence she came, but they weighed her down just the same with millithii chains and threw her off the cliffs to the rocks and the raging waters beneath. Kaia saw herself the pale little hand jostled loose as the men hurried her to the edge. The golden bracelet Kaia had given Elois for her birthday only a few weeks before. There was no mistaking it. The amber stones Kaia had whispered to her beloved that they reminded her of the other girl’s eyes. A moment Kaia has never forgotten, can never forget for as long as she lives, because it was in that moment that she had her first brush of understanding, her first little epiphany of love: that this was not how one felt for ‘friend’ or ‘family’, that this was what grown-ups meant when they spoke of ‘lover’ or ‘paramour’ or ‘wife’.
It was not until years later that Kaia learned that when she and Elois exchanged tokres, they enacted a ritual many took as a sign of an engagement to be wed. But that day, on Elois' tenth birthday, when Kaia had clasped her present around her friend’s wrist, some part of Kaia had whispered in a prescient voice deep inside: One day I’m going to marry this girl. It was a thought Kaia had about her friend often, and the idea didn’t really have any significance yet, what it mean to ‘marry’ someone was still a mystery beyond the fact that you got to live with them and hold their hand and smile when you greeted them. But that day was the first time Kaia thought those words and realized that married people kiss on the lips… and Kaia wanted to kiss her friend on the lips.
And then she did, only a few weeks later.
Right before she betrayed her friend to die a horrible, screaming death, and have her body fed to the creatures of the deep.
Elois stares at her, hard, before she drops her bruising hands and steps back.
Kaia is devastated. She would rather have those hands bruising her, than resting at the other woman’s sides.
“They did their damnest to kill me,” Elois finally husks into the dark between them. “But it must have been someone else’s body they threw over the cliffs.”
“Elois - ”
But, “I don’t want to talk about it!” Elois interrupts. “I don’t want to talk to you,” she growls, “except to ask you what you think you’re doing? What is going on?”
“I don’t know.”
She doesn’t. Kaia has no idea what’s going on. She hasn’t had any idea since the day the city shook and she rode out on her horse into the forest and she met -
“You’ve been here this whole time.”
All summer into fall and Kaia didn’t recognize her. All the echoes of those so-beloved features she has so cherished from her childhood that she can see now, so clearly… But she’d been so certain Elois was dead. And the voice she recognizes now, the tone, the timbre, even though she’s angry and scared and growling as much as speaking the words… That is not the voice of the ferawicce. That’s Elois’ voice. That’s not the voice she’s been speaking with these past months. The ferawicce’s voice was cold, harsh, there was no recognition it, no tender timbre shaking in the lowest notes… Kaia never heard Elois speak, not even the very last word she ever cried after her, begging Kaia with her name to stay, to spare her, to love her… Elois’ voice always had a hint of love in it. Always. No matter what.
Kaia had never heard what Elois’ voice sounded like with no love in it.
Not until the ferawicce in the forest. The ferawicce in her cell telling Kaia she’d rather die than escape with Kaia’s help…
“What were you doing?” Kaia manages her own fair approximation of a growl as she remembers, as she fights back her tears at the memory of the guards dragging Elois from her cell, dragging her to the gallows, tying the noose around her neck… “You could have died.”
“What difference would it make?” Elois roars. “I was supposed to be dead a decade ago! You tried to kill me a decade ago!”
“I made a mistake!” She knows it’s not enough. She knows it’s not an excuse. But still Kaia cries, “I was twelve years old! I was a child! I was scared!”
“I was a child!” Elois screams the words so loud she’s hoarse. “You were scared?” she laughs. “The Waight brothers came at me with fists and knives and hundreds of years of hate. And you left me there to die! So what difference does it make? Why would you care now?”
“I - ”
But Elois interrupts again. “I doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.”
She paces away down the sandbar.
“I died that day,” Kaia tells her the truth.
Elois stops. She turns.
“Kaia - ”
“It was a knee-jerk reaction. Trained to instinct. I didn’t think. I didn’t have any intent. I was just a stupid child, doing what I was told. And I realized as soon as I did it - ” She can hardly breathe through the memory, wheeze the words. “I realized when I heard you screaming. I realized what I’d done. And when you stopped screaming - ”
Kaia has sloshed back to sitting in the ankle-deep waters. She looks up at Elois standing straight, perfectly still, like she has to hold herself back from reaching down to help Kaia even now. Because…
It’s Elois’ voice again, when she speaks to Kaia now. Beneath all the anger. It still has the right timbre. Kaia knows that voice. She knows there’s still love hiding deep, deep, deep down in those notes. In that golden gaze.
“When you stopped screaming, my heart stopped beating. I felt my soul rush out of me like a wave back to sea… I’ve been only an echo of the ocean ever since. A space where a soul should be. The silence in the wake of screaming. The slightest impression on the sand where the wave was once… I’ve been only an echo of you, ever since you left.”
“I didn’t leave,” Elois spits. But even now, it’s a faded hate. There has always been so much love in her, and so much goodness, that she always struggled to hold onto any bad. Kaia can see that the decade between them has left Elois with scars and anger and she has killed men since Kaia saw her last… But there is still a soul as deep and beautiful as the ocean, buried beneath that breast.
“You were chased away,” Kaia agrees.
“By men on horseback. With knives. Thanks to you.”
“The Waight brothers killed my father when he tried to save me.”
“I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that, Kaia. For what happened to me? Maybe. Someday. But for killing my father? No matter how much I… cared… for you… I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that.”
Maybe. And God knows Kaia doesn’t deserve Elois’ forgiveness. But she’s here. Here, physically, in Pöeddae, in Kaia’s castle and court. Here, her soul, trying to save Kaia from herself.
It’s enough to give Kaia the faintest hope that someday, somehow, she will earn back this woman’s trust, perhaps her regard, even the love still lingering in her voice.
Kaia refuses to lose her soul, her love, her only reason life is worth living, twice in one lifetime.
But for now she only nods. She accepts that there is as much hate between them now, at this moment, as there is love. Now is not the time to push them off the razor’s edge, when either side might be an equally likely place to land.
“Do you know where we are?” Elois finally asks.
“So no idea how we get back?”
“Well it was never boring, being your friend,” Elois finally grouses as another silence settles, as the cold waves keep leeching their warmth and tugging on them to leave the sandbar, to be lost to the dark sea beyond. “This is whatever you did to the other squires,” Elois posits abruptly. “Right? You pulled their souls out to sea, at least a little, and now you’ve gotten yourself swept adrift too. Is that at least an approximate understanding of the situation?”
“I think so. I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Kaia finally answers the first question Elois asked, when she first splashed angrily onto the sandbar. “I’ve been trying to read all of the Waterwei texts in Abelard’s library, but I still haven’t found anything that describes what I did to the squires, or how I was able to do it, or what’s happening to me because of it.”
“Let them go, Kaia. If it’s dragging you out to sea to keep them docile, it’s not worth it. Let them go. I can handle myself.”
“I can’t, Elois.” Kaia is willing to beg for this, if she has to. Elois can’t ask her to do this. She can’t. “I can’t ever listen to the sound of you screaming ever again, Elois. I won’t live through it twice.”
Elois sighs. It’s strange to see so clearly on her face that she is equal parts frustrated and touched by Kaia’s declaration. Kaia didn’t mean to elicit either emotion. It is only the truth. She is a barely-there person. She is clinging to self and sanity by only her fingers in the shifting sand. There are some things she simply cannot do. Not if she ever wants to see the shores again.
It’s heartbreaking, the way Elois looks at her. Like she hates that she loves her, but it’s still there, even all this time and all this hate later.
“Well, whichever way the current is pulling us, I imagine we want to go the other way, right? Have you tried to see how far the sandbar extends?”
“No. I was just sitting here.”
She was too tired to keep going. It’s a miracle she found the sandbar at all.
Elois reaches her hand out. It’s impossible, it’s beautiful, that she can still make this gesture, that she can still clasp Kaia’s hand gently and pull her to her feet, steady her when she sways and wrap an arm around her to share whatever body heat she has when Kaia shivers. They take their first step down the sandbar together. No doubt Elois is hoping it will lead them back to the shore.
Kaia finds she doesn’t care, not really.
She would gladly walk, shivering in Elois’ arms, for the rest of time.
The water is as cold as it would be.
If this were real.
Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, if this were… physical.
Elois knows this isn’t the physical world. She woke when she heard a great wave rushing out to sea. She… knew somehow. Knew that it was something precious being washed away. Felt Kaia’s… soul… reaching out to her. Desperate. That sick drop in her stomach like the time Kaia slipped on the edge of the cliffs on Talvin Island and the only thing holding her from the plummet was Elois’ hand, and their grip was slipping, and Kaia called out then, with her voice, yes, but something else too, something that gave Elois a sudden rush of strength and somehow she pulled the older girl back over the ledge and onto the safety of the scrub and stone. Elois felt that same something tonight, pushing her to run faster, push harder past the guards at the door, stumble half-naked into King Abelard’s room, to fall at his bedside, to grasp Kaia’s hand just as tightly as she did that day at the cliffs and -
Suddenly she was in stinging-cold water, gasping her way to the surface and swimming towards where the moon glared against the water. She… knew somehow. That Kaia was there. In the moonlight. In the water. Shivering, and small, and waiting for her.
She’s not sure she’ll ever be able to forgive Kaia, but she’d realized in her mad dash through the castle, in her struggles in the sea…
She wants the chance to try.
For all she has been avoiding Kaia all summer, Elois is comforted by the woman’s presence in the castle; she wants there to be someone to be avoiding. She’s not ready to let go. Not of that final piece, that awareness that even if they’re never together again, that Kaia exists, somewhere in the world, that her beauty, and her strength, and her Waterwei whispers are out there, somewhere, if Elois can ever fix her heart enough to go looking once more.
Not now though. Now it’s still too broken.
Now she’s shivering and lost and terrified that she can’t save Kaia any more than she can save herself.
The water hasn’t gotten any shallower as she and Kaia have lurched along. But it’s not getting any deeper either. Each step Elois is half-certain they’re going to reach the drop off, and fall back into the sea, and be swept asunder.
Each step, they step on sand once more.
It’s by no means solid ground, but it’s enough, if they hold onto one another, if they each steady the other, if they can just find the strength to take one more shivering step, and one more shivering step, and one more shivering step…
“There!” Kaia gasps.
Elois has been too busy watching the moonlight on the water, exhausted, stupidly entranced by the thousands of shimmering lights like starlight…
She blinks past the haze of sleep, and shivering, to follow Kaia’s wavering finger, pointing towards…
They’re only a quarter of a mile from the first rock outcropping and Elois is certain they can make it that far, no matter how they stumble and shake along.
It looks like…
It’s Pöeddae. The island rising from the bay. The castle perched atop.
There are no lights. No movement. No life.
But Kaia falters to her knees again, and so Elois has no time to ponder it.
Only the fact that the sand is slowly turning to rock beneath their feet.
The treacherous shallows of Pöeddae. Where many a boat has sunk. But it might just be those same treacherous rocks that save their lives. Shallows may doom a boat. But shallows may save a swimmer.
She pulls Kaia back to standing, sputtering.
“Is there any path from the shores up to the plateau?”
Certainly getting to the shores is better than spending their night on the sandbar. But they’ll freeze to death just as certainly there. Just might take a little longer.
What they need is to reach the village, the castle, the rooms where…
Elois is certain their bodies are where they left them.
She’s not sure how she knows that, she just does.
She can’t feel the threads of golden life here like she does in the waking world, or the physical world, or however they’re going to try to conceptualize this out-of-body night if they live through this out-of-body night, but she can still sense vague… connections. The ocean screams of hundreds of thousands of lives, washing away, wailing away, sinking down and deep and dark to nothing. The village feels like… more pulsing life. More immediate. A stronger pull. Like an animal catching a scent; the ocean is only a vague trail left many days ago, while the town is a fresh trail leading her… To the castle. The pulse of life is the strongest there, almost as strong as the golden stream she can feel in the physical world.
So they should head there. If they can.
It’s not a good sign that the other woman didn’t hear the question, or can’t think clearly enough to answer it, if she did.
“Is there a path up to the village?”
The rocks are steep here. Treacherous at night, even if there is a path.
But when they finally stumble onto dry stone, Kaia seems content to lie there and gasp like a fish. She curls around the stone where she’s landed, looking for all the world like a girl hugging her pillow close, closing her eyes…
Elois can’t let her sleep.
Has to growl against her own lethargy to pull Kaia back into her arms, shake her again, make her focus.
“Where is the path?”
Kaia stares at her for a long moment, blinks sleepily…
But then they lurch forward once more, teeth chattering like strange music to their strange steps.
Elois doesn’t realize they’re on the path until they stumble again, but this time Elois’ leg doesn’t slip into sand, but off the edge of jagged rock.
She nearly pulls them both down to their deaths.
It wakes her up at least.
The shock of terror.
The wild beating of her heart.
The anger that surges through her when she realizes she’s more worried about Kaia than she is about herself, whimpering more at the thought that she could have killed the beloved, hated, beloved blonde than the fact that she could have killed herself.
It’s pure rage that pulls them to the top, though Elois can’t tell for the life of her if she’s angrier at Kaia, or herself.
“We made it?” Kaia whispers. Sleep-heavy tone. Tone that makes Elois shiver from more than cold.
“We - ”
Well, they did make it. To the outer wall of the city. Stumbling past the guard house now and -
Into a crowd of angry men.
Frozen shadow-statues of men.
It’s eerie. The statues. The still. But more than anything all the visual cues that tell you there should be sound in this moment, there should be movement, there should be life. Not… this. Faces twisted in expressions of rage and bellowing that rage. Hands raised, fists clenched, legs in wide stances as though prepared to take a hit, or give one, at any moment.
There must be a hundred men here. More, maybe.
Kaia’s voice should not be a whisper to break the still of this scene. It should be lost beneath a hundred men yelling a hundred things all at once.
Dawn is breaking, but they’re still in shadow, here beneath the outer wall of Pöeddae. And these men seem made of shadows. Or -
Not shadows at all.
Statues of water.
Statues of water dark as though it reaches leagues in depth, though Elois can stand right here, and see that it is only as wide, as deep, as tall as this shape of the man it stands in.
“What is this?” Kaia wails.
But the answer is, “You.”
“Something you did. Something you are. I don’t know what this is.”
It was Kaia that brought them to this place that isn’t a place, or is some distorted reflection of a place… with men made of water… perhaps as there are men in the real, physical world right here, just as there is truly a wall in the real, physical world right here…
“Kaia!” She’s exhausted. She’s exasperated. She’s scared. “You brought us here. And I would think men made of water are more your area of expertise than mine!”
“I don’t know what I’ve done. I don’t know what I am!” she wails. And that, finally, cuts through all the haze of all of the emotions Elois is trying so damn hard not to feel right now. And her exhaustion. And her hate full the equal to the love she had for this woman. Once, she reminds herself. Once. Not now.
She understands not knowing what you are. She understands being afraid of yourself. She understands being in terrified awe of your own power.
“There’s nothing in any of Abelard’s books! Nothing like me!”
“Maybe there never has been a you before,” Elois reasons. “Maybe you are the first and only one of you there has ever been.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. It means you get to decide what you are. It means you get to decide if you want to sweep men to sea, or hold them in statues made of dark waters, or… do something else entirely.”
“I don’t know how any of this is happening,” Kaia mutters.
Elois also understands feeling powerless in the face of your own power. That sometimes you feel as much the passenger as the driver. That great power sometimes seems too great to keep saddled.
“I know,” she can whisper back, honestly. “I know.”
There’s nothing to do but wind their way through the crowd, careful not to touch any of the water-statues of men, though there’s no reason to think anything will happen if they do… It just feels wrong somehow. Like they might reanimate at any moment. Or maybe like if they touch one of them whatever is holding the water to its shape will shatter and there will only be a puddle left where a man was standing.
They wind their way through… the whole city…
The whole city of dark water statues.
It is profoundly quiet, but for the far off calling of the ocean. They pass water standing in the shapes of men, of women, even an odd child. But none of them move, none of them speak, none of them ripple. The waters all hold perfectly, impossibly still.
As the sun rises, and thaws them, Elois admits, “I think they’re souls.”
This time it’s Kaia who whispers, “I know.”
“I always hear water in people. Their souls. I hear them, as water sounds.” Kaia laughs, but it’s mocking, herself, it seems like. “I used to entertain dignitaries with it. Like a parlor trick.”
When it is, apparently, so much more than a parlor trick.
It is impossible, and powerful, and frightening in its implications.
It’s also, possibly, what’s going to save their lives.
“The men at the outer wall,” Elois muses, as they reach the castle gates, and though there are guards atop the wall, and guards standing at the ends of the bridge, they are only still and dark waters, only more still and dark waters… “The men at the outer wall looked riled.”
“There has been talk of an uprising?”
“Because of me?”
They’ve made it to Abelard’s chambers once more. Past a hundred more dark waters where men should be. Looking down at their own bodies, the only bodies they’ve seen all night, all morning, that look like actual flesh and blood bodies, look almost out of place after all the dark water bodies they’ve seen… Elois could almost convince herself this was just a dream. She’s exhausted. She’s certain no matter how much she loved Kaia, she’ll never be able to stop hating her enough to ever love her again…
For these selfish reasons, more than anything else, and because she’s half-convinced she’s speaking these words in a dream, Elois offers, “I could go.”
Give up training to be a knight. She’s making slow progress at it anyway. She’s learned a dozen handy tricks with a knife that she never knew before, and she’s a half-decent brawler. But she’ll never master the broadsword, she doesn’t think. And getting beaten black and blue every day just to give herself some steel defenses against men, when she already has her golden gifts, and she can just hide in the Red Woods like she did before and it might be ten years again before she needs to defend herself against another man…
Maybe it’s just not worth it.
Elois aches every waking moment.
Pöeddae is ready to burn itself to the ground.
Kaia, and the King, and the Prince who will make himself twice the King his father was…
She’s putting them in danger.
“I could go,” she repeats.
No explanation. No argument. Just Kaia, stubborn and immutable as the ocean. As irresistible as the tides.
She’s too tired to make any of her own arguments either.
This night, this morning…
Sometimes she thinks everything that’s happened since she started hiking south is just a really long rendition of the same nightmare she had so many, many times…
Only this one didn’t end when the sword fell.
And she’s been dreaming ever since.
“We should probably tell someone then, about the men gathered at the outer wall.”
When she takes Kaia’s hand to lead her to the bed where their bodies are resting, she realizes the blonde is shaking. Considering they’re dry and the sun has warmed the walk back to the castle, Elois doesn’t think it’s because she’s cold.
“When we wake up,” she prompts Kaia, nudges her towards her body, and takes a step towards her own, “we should tell someone about the men at the outer wall. Perhaps we can get ahead of the uprising. Perhaps this evening can actually do us some good.”
“When we wake up?” Kaia echoes.
“How do we do that?”
She doesn’t know, of course. She’s going off instinct and gut and why the hell not, nothing else in this crazy night has made any sense, so why should this? So Elois posits they just need to put their souls back into their physical bodies. She doesn’t really understand how they got separated in the first place. Before tonight she wasn’t even certain there was a thing called a soul. But it appears there is. And it appears that their souls have been splashing around in the frigid ocean all night, and stumbling about town all morning. So this makes about as much sense as the rest of it.
“Lie down, close your eyes, and wake up,” Elois guesses.
“That easy?” Kaia asks.
Enough. Truth. Tired.
“How should I know?”
One moment the room is dark and chilled with night. Then there is the roar of the ocean, and a single blink, a single instant, a single step and -
The room is filled with light and warmth.
Keagan’s momentum pulls him a few more stumbling steps into the room, and he manages to put his body between Abelard and his bed, between Abelard and his wife and the ferawicce on his bed…
He pulls the ferawicce from where she was grasping Kaia’s hand, blinking her golden gaze to waking and staring at Queen Kaia the way no man but the King should stare at his Queen.
Keagan was tasked with the duty of keeping the ferawicce alive long enough that she might train with them, and be made into a warrior and a weapon like the world has not known for generations of men…
He’s afraid the King might kill the ferawicce himself, if Keagan doesn’t pull her back, push her behind him, meet Abelard’s incredulous, angry, reddening face himself.
Abelard has always been possessive of his treasures. Not greedy, the way a foolish man lusts after more things than he could ever love, or use, or even account for. No. But possessive of the things he cherishes. His wife, and his son, and his books.
Should the wrong hands touch any one of those things, the world is reminded that Abelard is not only a scholar, not only a King, but also a man. A roaring man. A man who knows how to wield a sword perhaps not as well as a pen, but well enough.
He has pulled from its scabbard the sword of one of the other guards. He is pointing it at Keagan, or more accurately at the ferawicce Keagan is holding firmly at his back.
“What are you doing?” the King asks.
But it’s impossible to tell if he’s asking Keagan, or the ferawicce.
And Queen Kaia answers before Keagan has a chance anyway.
“What are you doing?” she husks at her husband from the bed.
“The beast broke into my bedroom and accosted you on my bed!” Abelard shouts. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“The beast,” the Queen growls, a tone Keagan has never heard from the blond monarch, and would not have imagined she was capable of, “has probably saved my life, and the lives of everyone in this room, and possibly everyone in this castle.”
The Queen pushes herself with a grimace to her elbows, to sit so slowly, so straining, upright. Keagan has to tighten his hold on the ferawicce’s forearm to keep her in the safe space at his back. She lurches forward, perhaps at an impulse to help. But Keagan can’t see her face. And wouldn’t know how to read it, not the truth that might be hiding in it, even if he could.
“And she has a name,” the Queen finishes in the shocked silence when she finally manages to place her feet on the carpet, white sheets wrapped carefully around her to shield her, but the moment, in its entirety, is still strange, and shocking, and profound. “It’s Elois.”
“I’m not entirely sure I wanted that widely shared,” the ferawicce mutters.
“Well I’m not going to let them hurt you anymore!” Queen Kaia cries. “I’m not going to let you let them hurt you anymore! And everybody is going to keep wondering why! And the reasons they imagine are depraved! I won’t have it!”
“Kaia…” The way Abelard says her name, Keagan is sure, is supposed to be soothing. He’s worried she’s going mad. But, in fact, his tone only seems to enrage her further.
“Elois grew up with me on Talvin Island.”
Surely King Abelard’s baffled expression expresses the bafflement of the entire room.
“I thought she was dead. I didn’t recognize her because I was certain I had seen them… bury her.”
“Throw me off of a cliff,” the ferawicce corrects.
“Yes.” The Queen’s face twists in confusion. “Which makes me wonder whose body it was they threw off the cliffs.”
“A mystery for another day,” the ferawicce muses.
“I’m still working on this mystery,” King Abelard grouches. “Kaia. How could you have been friends with a ferawicce?” The horror as the possibility strikes is striking on his face. “Do they let them live in the northern isles? Do they ignore our laws?”
“I did not have these eyes until my tenth year,” the ferawicce answers in the Queen’s stead. “Queen Kaia grew up with a girl whose eyes were stained a dark brown with a stinging solution every day of her life until the day she forgot the drops, and the truth was out. Neither Kaia, nor the people of the isles, are to blame.”
Abelard, finally, sits on his bed. Seems to have lost his fire, and the sound of the sword tip on the stone floor is his sigh, his age creeping back into his posture.
“What stinging solution? If there is a way for ferawiccen to hide their golden eyes, we must know of it.”
A hard tone by the end, a clearly warning tone. That the King has commanded this knowledge, and so the ferawicce will provide it willingly… or, not so willingly. Regardless the answer will be had.
“I don’t know what was in the solution. It was my father’s brew. I only did as instructed. I was a child.”
A pointed reminder. And the slight tightening around his lips, around his eyes, suggest the point made a solid hit against the King’s heart.
He does not like being a killer of babes. It is only that he loves his kingdom more than he loathes the actions he must take to protect it. He love his kingdom enough, even, to loath himself, just a little.
“Abelard,” the Queen ventures, “she was only ten when - ”
She flinches now. At what?
“When Queen Kaia saw my untinted gaze. And reported me.”
At memory. At guilt. At… loss.
She looks at the ferawicce, standing across the room, as though the other woman is standing much further away.
“Perhaps this explains your reaction to her then,” Abelard ventures after a long pause, and the deliberate choice not to look too closely at how these women are looking at each other. “Some part of you recognized her, remembered her. You were close?”
The ferawicce’s silence seems stubborn. Queen Kaia’s affirmation is bitten, angry, hurt.
Finally, Keagan ventures his own question.
“Does this change anything?”
Because, truly, can a childhood friendship make any difference in the lives of adults responsible for kingdoms and wars and whole nations of farmers and blacksmiths and weavers, trying to live their lives in peace? No matter how close Keagan and Abelard were as children, Abelard is Keagan’s King now, before he is Keagan’s friend. He must love the man as his monarch, more than the boy who ran with him through the castle gardens, and played imaginary quests through the forests, and helped him sharpen his skills with his blade, and his swagger for the village girls in the village pubs.
Abelard’s anger has faded and he is once again a scholar, and a King, more than a man. He considers his words. And he speaks his considering aloud.
“I don’t know if this makes me trust you more, or less,” he tells the ferawicce.
When Keagan drops his grip, the ferawicce steps from behind him. But she makes no rejoinder.
“It does appear you have brought Kaia back to me,” the King finally sighs.
Abelard turns to his wife.
“And why did your life need saving?” he refers to her earlier assertion, her defense of the ferawicce as practically her first words upon waking.
The Queen flushes, and then pales.
“I don’t know. Apparently your library does not have an answer to every question.”
“You’ve been searching for one,” Abelard realizes.
“I can do more than hear men’s souls now,” the Queen whispers. “I can - I don’t know - persuade them to sea. Or back to the shore. Elois and I, we saw…”
The ferawicce… Elois… has to take over where the Queen trails off.
“We were, I think, in the place where souls dwell. An exact reflection of the physical world, but a water world, a soul world…” Even she seems to be having trouble articulating whatever has happened in this strange instant that was somehow the passing of an entire night. From the wee hours to the long shadows of afternoon in only a blink, but somehow the Queen and the ferawicce passed the entire night as hours by hours. “We saw the souls of the men in the city, I imagine exactly where and how their physical bodies were standing, just as we saw your souls in this room exactly where your physical bodies were.” She pauses. “There were at least a hundred men, gathered and angry, at the outer wall,” she adds.
“Gathered how?” Abelard asks.
“I think they’re going to make a move on the castle. You don’t gather that many men together, that angry, for anything less than an uprising. The time between shouting and swords is short.”
“They’ve no doubt been thrown off by night turned to day in an instant. Normally I’d say they’d wait for night before they made a march on the keep. But their terror might be so great at this latest magic… They might be driven beyond all reason.”
“A cornered beast may as easily attack as cower,” Abelard agrees.
Queen Kaia stands, sways in her sheets like a ghost.
“I might be able to - ”
“No.” The ferawicce named Elois, a creature that looks very much like a worried woman named Elois right now, her tone brooks no argument. “You will do nothing.”
At King Abelard’s questioning look, she turns to him.
“Kaia has been swaying the souls of the squires, just enough so they won’t kill me in training. That’s why her life needed saving last night. I don’t understand exactly what she’s doing, or how she’s doing it, but I know it’s the reason we nearly drowned in the ocean of souls last night. I, for one, am too exhausted to try it again tonight. And Kaia can barely stand,” she gestures to the Queen, still swaying in her sheets. “Tell her we can handle it. We don’t need her help.”
It sounds perilously close to a command, a command spoken to a King. But Abelard bites back whatever he might say, a wise King. A King who listens to counsel, even when it is poorly phrased and insultingly given. “Keagan?” he asks for more input instead.
“A hundred men?” Keagan asks Elois.
Keagan is as sure as a man can ever be, going into the unknowns of battle.
“We can handle it.”
“The Queen?” the Shadows rage. “How can that be?”
Réavos is trembling at her rage, standing by his bed in his underwear trying to comfort himself with the presence of his own form, his impressive physique displayed to full effect in the afternoon light…
When it should still be dark, night, cold, the two of them pressing close together, planning to warm one another in a tangle of limbs and bedding.
There is no mistaking it now.
Even as she has been searching for her sister these long summer months, she has been holding to the faintest hope that she was mistaken. That somehow it was an echo of power. A power like her sister’s, like her own, perhaps so impacting there would be a crater left within magic itself, little hiccups of remembrance from time to time as the magic shivered in memory of its former mistress.
There can be no more denial.
One moment they were standing in the dark before dawn.
The next instant the shadows have grown long, and the stones warmed by a full day’s sun.
The Shadows’ sister has been traveling amongst the spirits.
Time stops, bodies stop, the world stops, when there are no souls to move limbs and mouths and minds.
It is tell-tale proof of her sister’s meddling.
And there is only one it could be.
Only one who sat up woozy in her bed when the Shadows realized what had happened, when the Shadows rushed to the window and peered past the horizon, and peeked into the windows of King Abelard’s rooms to see -
She just can’t believe it. Queen Kaia has been in Abelard’s castle for seven years.
The Shadows should have known. She should have felt it.
“It can’t be the Queen.”
It literally can’t be the Queen.
“What is the Queen?” Réavos finally finds his squeaking boy’s voice to ask.
“The power I’ve felt stirring in the north,” the Shadows bite back. “But it can’t be the Queen.”
The Queen has physical form. She bore a child. She has grown and aged in even just the time the Shadows have been keeping her vigil on the northern kingdom.
And so she cannot be the power the Shadows have felt stirring.
For the Shadows are not human.
Her sister was no more human than she.
“A new power in the north?” Réavos’ angry boy’s voice now. That she did not confide in him this pertinent detail. As though he is truly the one with any of the ideas, with any of the plans, with any of the real power to implement any of their ventures.
The Shadows fill the whole of this room with full as much darkness as night. She feels for the thread of golden life stemming from her, from her to every other living being on this planet, and she plucks on Réavos’ golden string like strumming on a guitar. She watches the golden string stretched taut, vibrating, Réavos gasping and falling to his knees and shaking in the same violent contractions as his string of golden life force, power, breath, beating…
She has to draw herself up short.
She is not victim to the madness that crawls like ants in the golden stream, that is such a part of the golden web of life now that the stream might as well be composed of millions upon millions of those little ants of madness and lusts and power, all crawling and skittering in the shape and strings of the streams of gold.
It is her madness and lusts and power.
But it is not a madness that will master her.
She cannot kill Réavos for the fact that he questioned her.
Nor the fact that he bores her in bed.
Nor the fact that she is frightened, and does not want to admit it, and wants to rage instead.
So she takes a deep breath.
And masters herself.
And masters her madness.
She answers Réavos’ impertinent question, lets the dark dispense, lets his golden string still.
“The power that I’ve felt is… my sister,” the Shadows confess.
Still, shock, wide golden eyes and hands frozen where they were rising…
She looks at him. Closer. Wonders if he’ll survive the shock, because… More significantly, “She is my equal.”
He quakes. He quails. Even as he stands straight and tall and silent.
Still, she can see it in his eyes.
They have never faced an equal before. Réavos has known no power that can match her powers and he has lived his entire life in the shelter of that knowledge, lover to Shadows that may destroy anything that may destroy him. For all his strengths, this knowledge, this safety, it has made him weak at the core. Brittle to fear.
She should have seen that sooner.
She should not have been so reassuring.
But now, it is too late. So she must reassure him again. Though she is not sure.
Though she does not feel safe.
“I bested her in battle once before,” she reassure the man, the boy, the King, the coward… herself. “But, I hate a fair fight.”
For there is, then, no way to be sure.
No reassurance to be found in the knowledge that your opponent is your equal, that the outcome of this battle is not foregone, that you might… lose.
That you might… die.
What was it like for her sister, all those years?
What does it mean, for one such as them, to… die?
The Shadows does not intend to find out.
But there is still so much unknown.
Is it truly the Queen?
Finite flesh wrapped somehow around infinite power?
And if it is, what then?
In their last battle it was stealth on the Shadows’ side.
She bested her sister in battle because her sister, fool that she was, did not realize there was a battle.
Why has she been hiding all this time?
Why has she revealed herself at last?
When she sits up in that bed, looking woozy and weak, is she only playacting, revealing an opening in her armor, only the slip her knife in your own opening when you make your move? Or is she really as pathetic as the fleshy form she has chosen?
The Shadows reach out now, reach down that vast network of golden streams that pour forth from her own breast as the source of all life, all power, all beating and breathing…
And she finds…
There is a thread.
There is a fragile, golden life.
The Shadows plucks on that life pulled taut.
She plucks harder.
The string vibrates and with a gaze beyond the horizon the Shadows can see the Queen shaking, and swaying where she stands, and stumbling in her ridiculous sheets…
But she does not fall.
The Shadows pluck harder.
But the Queen does not fall.
Stumbles a step.
Into the arms of…
The damn ferawicce who catches the Queen, and holds her close, and steadies her steps back to the bed, and stands when the King glares at her, but keeps her fingers just barely touching the back of Kaia’s hand, reassuring the Queen, or reassuring herself, is anyone’s guess.
When she finally does step back, the Shadows gasp, and sway, and nearly stumble herself.
There is a golden stream, a golden string, flowing, tied, between the two of them.
Between the Queen and the ferawicce.
What does this mean?
What does any of this mean?
The Shadows are the source from which all golden life flows.
As her sister controls the ocean of souls, the Shadows control the intricate streams of life.
Every golden stream, every golden string…
They flow from her.
They are tied back to her.
She has never seen a golden stream stretched between two others.
If she cuts the strings between herself and the both of them at once…
Will they both die?
Or will they be a separate web of life from her entirely?
And then what will she do?
Staring past the horizon at two lives she is powerless to end…
This is what it is to feel powerless, the Shadows realize, like all the pathetic little flesh-creatures that crawl all over her earth must feel all the time.
She cuts a hundred other golden threads, because she is too frightened to cut the two.
Too scared to see if she is indeed…