by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)
Esmah tripped, her foot catching on something hidden in the tall grasses.
Rill stopped running as soon as he realised she was no longer by his side.
She looked up from where she’d fallen and watched as he trotted back. He was breathless and redfaced when he reached her, and whooped down a few mouthfuls of air after he sat down. Esmah studied him sharply. They’d been running for nearly a quarter-turn, and he’d not once shown any signs of exhaustion. Nerves, she suspected, and dipped her head down to hide her smile.
Rill brushed the detritus of dirt and dead grass from her shirt-front. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice low, as she smoothed out her kilt. There was a sizeable grass stain on it that matched the ones on her knees. Thankfully she hadn’t scraped herself anywhere.
“What made you fall?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t see it.” She gestured vaguely at her feet. “It was something hard, though.”
Rill nodded and began to feel around for what had tripped her. Esmah craned her neck; she could barely see him through the grass.
“‘Ha’?” She inched her way forward.
Rill flattened the grass around them, the better to see it.
“It’s a brick,” she said with some surprise. It was about the size of one of Rill’s feet, and an earthy colour a few shades lighter than the dirt.
“A cobblestone,” he corrected. He circled it with his finger. “Can you see? It’s been mortared into place. And bricks aren’t usually this round.” He ran a hand over it. “Like on the streets near where Father worked. I wonder why it’s here?”
Esmah moved closer to Rill, and grunted. “Because I think there was once a street here, too.”
He looked at her, frowning. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I just sat on another stone,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder with a wry look.
“Shift over and let me see.”
She obliged, and watched him scowl at the new brick. It wasn’t identical to the first one, but they were similar: same shape, same colour.
“I wonder how they got here,” he muttered.
“Same way we did,” Esmah replied, a bit more tartly than she’d intended.
Rill stood up.
“What?” Esmah asked.
He looked away from her. “Come on. There’s got to be more here. I want to look for them.”
Esmah rolled her eyes, and rose to join him. “We’re wasting time.”
“Rill, it’s only a few stones in the grass.”
“I don’t want to stop. I want to keep going–”
“We stopped at that high-rise because you wanted to, didn’t we? Can’t this be my stop?”
Esmah glared at him for a moment before she acquiesced. “Oh, all right.”
He took her hand in his, and pointed northwards. “I think there’s another over there. See the depression in the grass?”
Without waiting for her reply, he led her towards it.
She tightened her grip on his hand before he knelt down. “What?” he asked.
“I think you’re going the wrong way.”
“The two we found were closer to each other than this one is to them — and I can’t see any other depressions in the grass.”
He smiled at her and made a sudden about-face, walking back in the direction they’d came.
Esmah pointed at the grass ahead of them. There were a few spots where it wasn’t as perfectly even as it was everywhere else, and they all seemed to be limited by two invisible lines that disappeared off into the horizon.
“I do believe we were both wrong,” Rill said, a note of amazement in his voice.
“There’s a road up ahead, and this is where it merges with the grass. I don’t think it was here, you know, *before*.” He laughed. “Follow me. Try not to trip!”
“Bastard!” Esmah would have punched him, but she was too busy keeping an eye on her footing.
At their feet, the number of bricks was multiplying with every step. It wasn’t long before Esmah could run along the patchwork path without stepping on grass at all.
Rill stopped suddenly, jerking her to a halt. “Look.”
“I can see,” she replied, “it’s whole.”
Rill shot her a startled look. “No, that’s not what I meant.” He raised his arm and pointed at the horizon.
At the far end of the path was a house.
“Do you think someone is living there?” she asked, voice small, pulse beating double time.
Rill shook his head. “I don’t know. But this is what we were sent to look for, isn’t it?”
People. Survivors. It had been months since they’d woken here, on this strange world so like home and yet not. They’d rallied together with the few others they’d met and tried to rebuild, looking for other survivors, trying to figure out what had happened.
Esmah let go of his hand and strode towards the house. “Come on!” she shouted over her shoulder.
She heard his footfalls on the path behind her.
As they drew closer, she could see the house in greater detail. It was old, and foreign-looking, more than a couple stories tall and with a shingled roof. It had been painted a dark colour that looked almost grey next to the blue of the sky, the green of the grass.
Esmah jogged up the steps to the front porch and waited for Rill to reach her side before she banged the heavy brass knocker against the door.
They waited in silence for half a breath, but no reply came. A sharp breeze whistled by them. Rill reached around her and gave the doorknob a turn. The door swung open.
Esmah stepped inside. “Hello?” she called out.
Rill followed her into the entrance hall
“I think this place is empty,” Esmah said.
“No,” Rill replied, with a shake of his head. “It’s a big house. If there is someone here, it’s likely they didn’t hear us.”
Esmah raised the back of her hand to her face and pressed her nose to her sleeve. The house smelt– old. Not so much empty than as if it had belonged to someone who wasn’t long for this world. She and Rill crept into the entrance hall. She felt like a thief trying to rob a nunnery.
Rill stopped at the foot of the massive double staircase that loomed over the hall. Dusty sunlight spilt out of the large quatrefoil window at the top of the staircase. The stairs creaked when Rill stepped up onto the first step. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, his voice ringing in the vaulted hall, “HELLO?”
Footfalls echoed on the spiralling staircase above their heads. A woman stepped into view. Her smile was uncertain as she looked down at Rill and Esmah. “Hello,” she replied, in a small voice.
Esmah took a step back to get a better look. The curtsy came automatically. The etiquette that her mother had instilled in her was like muscle memory. She was glad to have something to fall back on or she’d have ended up staring at the strange woman like a mannikin. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rill bow stiffly and far too low. As she dipped downwards, Esmah let the fall of her hair hide her smile.
The stranger was one of the most beautiful women that Esmah had ever seen. And one of the oddest. She was tall and slender, and had strong, aristocratic features. She carried herself with the grace of a dancer — or a warrior — and wore silk robes printed with striking patterns. The material shone faintly in the sunlight. Esmah’s gaze slid down the curves of the woman’s body like water. Heavy rings adorned her fingers, clacking against the wooden handrail as the woman walked slowly down the stairs.
The woman’s skin was the dark blue of the sky at dusk. Her yellow eyes shone like lamps in the dim hall. Her long hair swung behind her like a dark cloak.
Esmah had never seen a blue woman before.
When the woman reached the bottom of the stairs, a faint, tantalising smell overtook Esmah. An apothecary’s daughter to the end, she recognised in it one note in particular, that of a nameless, night-blooming desert flower. Her father had brought it back from a trip to a far-away, foreign land. It was a startling and surprising reminder of home, and Esmah smiled when she took the hand the woman offered her.
Esmah curtsied again as she held the woman’s hand. “Madam,” she murmured, and the woman’s cheeks flushed a rich purple.
The woman raised a hand to her mouth to hide the curve of her smile. “Oh my,” she replied, her voice as soft as Esmah’s. “There is- Please, there is no need for such ceremony. I am… I was nothing more than a simple student of the Arts. Before.”
Esmah rose to meet her eyes. Rill shuffled up beside Esmah and set a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We are- All of us who survived this, we are all precious. And deserve to be treated as such.”
The woman looked down at their clasped hands and then from Esmah to Rill and back again. There was something of a cornered animal in her expression, just for an instant, before she spoke. “It has been so long since I’ve seen other people that I’ve forgotten my manners. I am Anunat. I was… I am a witch.”
They sat together in the house’s smaller sitting room, a pot of cooling tea between them. Anunat had made it for them, telling them of the house’s supplies of food. “Enough to keep a family fed for a half a year,” she had said, “and much longer for me by my lonesome.”
They told her of the settlement where they lived with other survivors of the catastrophe. They told her of what their world had been like before the shattering, of the strange, fragmentary places — shards of over a dozen different worlds — that now made up the single world that remained.
Anunat spoke of her world, her country. “I cherish what is left, what survived with me. They are but fragments of the glory of the Ninth Crystalline Kingdom, but I think they might be enough for me to start to rebuild what I had, as you are.”
Esmah felt Rill go still beside her. “But we aren’t,” he said gently. “You can’t rebuild something out of– out of fragments. You can only–”
“Rill!” Esmah hissed out of the corner of her mouth.
Anunat pretended not to have heard him. She stood up and adjusted her robes. “Now would you like a brief tour? I can show you what I’ve done.”
“Of course,” Esmah replied gratefully.
Anunat had taken Esmah’s hand in hers once Rill had rounded the corner and was out of sight. “Would you like to come with me?” she murmured.
Her voice had been so low that Esmah had to step terribly close to Anunat to hear her. “Where?” Esmah asked, breathing in the scent of Anunat’s perfume. It set off a lovely tingling sensation that bounced through her limbs like a rubber ball.
Anunat blinked and her eyes narrowed slyly, their luminous light spilling onto their joined hands. “Downstairs. In my study. Where I practice my Arts.”
“Where you do magic,” Esmah breathed in wonderment.
“Yes.” Anunat’s sly look had become one of delight. “When you told me that no one in your land practiced magic, I thought that you might be curious to see how it was done. I would have asked your cousin, but he did not seem as interested in it as you were.”
Esmah shook her head. “No, he’s very… practical. He believes in the here and now.”
“Well, we shall leave him to his practicality.”
“That’s an excellent idea.” Anunat had lifted her free hand to Esmah’s face, and traced the shape of Esmah’s small mouth as she spoke, her touch feather-light.
Esmah parted her lips slightly, and took Anunat’s fingertip between them. She sucked at it gently and closed her eyes as she swirled her tongue around the finger and nipped at it gently. She smiled at Anunat’s quiet gasp and let the finger slide out. When she opened her eyes, Anunat raised their clasped hands to her mouth and placed a warm kiss on the back of Esmah’s hand.
Anunat flicked her gaze to Esmah’s hand, her gaze suddenly serious.
“What is it?” Esmah asked. She felt a heightened awareness of her hand from Anunat’s kiss, her skin soft and malleable where Anunat’s lips had touched her. She wanted to kiss herself there, to draw Anunat’s kiss onto her own mouth.
“You’re so very pale.” She traced one of the blue veins on Esmah’s hand. “I can see the blood thumping under your skin.” Anunat looked up at Esmah’s face, and touched the blush that had bloomed on Esmah’s cheeks.
Esmah drew in a sharp breath at the touch of cool fingers on her warm skin. The tingling sensation had retuned, stronger. She felt light-headed. And Anunat was watching her.
She moved their clasped hands out of the way and leaned up to kiss Anunat. Esmah sucked at Anunat’s lower lip as she had earlier her finger. There was a taste of cloves on her breath.
After only a few more moments of careful exploration, Anunat broke the kiss and slid her hand from Esmah’s. Esmah felt a brief shock of regret and embarrassment — had Anunat not wanted this? — but it vanished as soon as she saw Anunat’s smile.
Anunat lifted a finger to her mouth and touched the corner of her mischievous smile. When she dropped her hand to her side, her tongue briefly darted out to brush her top lip. “Well. As much as I would like to continue, if we get distracted, you’ll never get to see any magic.” She took a step back, almost drunkenly, and turned, gesturing over her shoulder for Esmah to follow her.
Esmah darted after her and they strode, hand in hand, through the vast, empty house until they reached the small basement room that Anunat used for her magic.
Anunat latched the door shut behind them. “It used to be one of the pantries,” she said. “It was barely used, so I didn’t have to move too much to commandeer it for my purposes.” She gestured at an incongruously colourful rug in the centre of the room. “Sit, sit.”
The rug was threadbare, and Esmah could feel the smooth shapes of the flagstones when she sat. “But why down here? From what you showed us of the house, it’s full of empty rooms–”
Anunat moved about the room. It was such a bare place, Esmah had no idea what Anunat could use to do magic. On each of the walls were painted great concentric circles, filled with strange shapes and pictograms. Against the wall furthest from the door was a low bookcase that only had a few books on it — the ones that must have survived with Anunat after the catastrophe. To Esmah they looked too new to be magical tomes, their leather covers still shiny and uncracked. On the other shelves were plates, candles, several stoppered little jars and a few other curios.
Anunat took two jars, a plate, and one of the candles. She set them between them before she sat down. “I chose here,” she finally replied, ” because it’s safest.” She gestured around her, at the stone walls, ceiling, floor. “Brick burns far less easily than wood. Nor do I have to worry about the floor collapsing under me.”
Esmah felt her lips tug up into a nervous smile. “… Burns?” she asked.
“Some of my experiments have an… element of danger.” She waved a hand airily. “But don’t worry. What I’m going to show you is completely safe. It’s one of the first things we teach to children — very simple, very pretty, but completely harmless.”
“Let me see,” Esmah said, leaning forward eagerly.
Anunat smiled as she opened the little jars. Taking a deep breath, she began to draw an intricate, abstract picture on the plate with the coloured powders in the jars. She held one in each hand, both moving independently.
When she was done, she set the jars beside her, and bent over the plate, gesturing for Esmah to do the same. Esmah looked closer; the centre of the plate was covered by the two powders, which on closer inspection looked to be bits of crushed seed and grain. The picture Anunat had made looked like nothing Esmah had ever seen before, swirling shapes and colours, like a moving — thing trapped in an image. “What is it?” she asked.
“Potential,” Anunat said, and held up the plate between them with one hand. With her other hand, she roughly brushed at the surface of the plate, smearing the picture and scattering the powders in the air where they–
Where they hung together between the two girls like a cloud of stars, still and shining.
Esmah held her breath and darted a quick look at Anunat. Anunat lifted a corner of her mouth. “Oh, it’s not quite done,” she said, and set down the plate. She pt the candle on it and lit the wick with a quick snap of her fingers.
The hanging particles glowed brighter and began to move, circling slowly above them like a flock of birds. Esmah watched in delight as their two-colour light lit up the high vaults of the ceiling.
“Oh, thank you,” she said to Anunat. “It’s so beautiful.” She reached up and plucked one of the flecks from the air, and held it between her thumb and forefinger. It flickered like a firefly and quivered between her fingers. When she released it, it soared quickly back up to join the rest.
Esmah continued to watch them, and the room grew warmer. She unfastened the first few buttons of her blouse. She felt rather than heard Anunat shift over beside her.
Anunat’s hand was on her thigh, sliding up under her skirt.
“Tell me about magic,” Esmah muttered as she shifted her legs apart. She carefully slid off her panties and balled them under her kilt.
Anunat’s hand slid up higher and brushed against the engorged lips of Esmah’s sex.
“Ah, magic,” Anunat began, her voice dry and distant, like a professor lecturing about a particular math theorem. “Magic is the sharp edge where reality and your will collide.”
Anunat’s fingers teased at Esmah’s sex, stroking her slowly in time with her own words, drawing pleasure through Esmah’s body like the rising tide. “There are three components one uses to make up a spell: objects, actions, and words of power…”
Esmah blossomed under Anunat’s touch, her vulva parting to welcome Anunat’s fingers.
Anunat slid her fingers in and out, her voice a low, comforting drone that Esmah was no longer listening to. They pressed against the mound of her clitoris, and then slid back into her honeyed depths.
Esmah shivered at the touch, her sex tightening to draw Anunat’s fingers further in. Her body felt as taut as the strings of a cello, and Anunat the only virtuoso who knew where to strum her to make her whole self vibrate.
She luxuriated as Anunat’s fingers slid in and out, going deeper with every stroke. It felt as though they had passed beyond time, become eternal.
Esmah’s pleasure was like a light far brighter than those that circled above them.
She sunk down to lay on the rug, pulling Anunat to her side, as the coloured lights descended around them like an aurora.
Esmah sat out on the house’s front porch, watching as a cool breeze swept the long grasses. They undulated like the patterns on Anunat’s robes. At the thought of the blue witch, Esmah slid her hand between her legs and pressed the heel of her palm against her still-tender sex. She recalled Anunat’s touch, and just the memory of it was enough to make her light-headed.
The door creaked open behind her, and she recognised Rill’s heavy tread. She hastily adjusted her kilt, and held her hands together primly in her lap.
“I thought I’d find you out here.”
“It’s hard to breathe inside,” she replied. “I needed to get some air.”
“Mmm.” He sat down on the stairs beside her. “So I take it you and Anunat had an… enlightening conversation?”
Esmah felt a fiery blush rise to her cheeks. Damned Rill. He always knew, every time. “Erm.”
He smiled crookedly. “I knew you liked her. Why do you think I left you two alone?”
She slapped his shoulder, but not too hard. “You!”
Rill laughed softly. “So is she really a witch?”
“Oh, yes. She showed me a lovely bit of magic. You really should have stayed.”
“Really? Because the last time I asked to be able to watch, you hit me with a vase.”
“Rill!” She gaped at him, laughing. “That’s not what I meant! Honestly. No, she showed me a spell — a real spell, not– not what you’re thinking. She made these enchanted powders glow and dance around us. It was like we were in a cloud of rainbows.” Esmah flopped down onto her back and stared up at the alien constellations above her.
She wondered what the world this fragment had belonged to had been called, whether its people had looked up at the stars and given them names. She held up her arm and traced out shapes in the stars. She named them — the mortar and pestle, the mermaid, the creeping vines, the sleeping cat…
“Did you ask her?” Rill asked, interrupting her thoughts.
Esmah dropped her arm to her side. “What?” Her mind was still among the stars.
“Is she going to come back with us to the settlement?”
“No.” Anunat’s voice sounded louder in the darkness.
Esmah sat up. She and Rill spun around to look up at her. Esmah could not keep her pain at Anunat’s refusal off her face. When she found her voice, she asked, “why not?”
Anunat did not move from her place just inside the door. “I have my reasons,” she said bluntly. She took a step back, and the door slammed shut.
Esmah got to her feet. When she got the door opened, Anunat was nowhere to be seen. Esmah called out Anunat’s name, and an echo whispered back at her a moment later. There was no reply.
Rill’s hand was at her shoulder. “Es–”
She swore loudly and filthily. She slammed the door shut in turn, and stalked down the steps to the cobblestone path that had first led them to this place. “Damn it.” She raked her fingers through her hair, exhaling sharply. “If she… if she won’t come, then I’ll stay–”
“Esmah, you’ve just met her! You haven’t known her for more than a few hours. You can’t throw away your life for one strange woman, no matter how much you want to–”
“What life?” she shouted. “What life? We live like refugees on this fragmentary world, made up of bits and pieces of places that we’ll never recognise, with people we don’t know, we don’t even know what happened to our family–”
“I know,” Rill said softly. “Don’t you think I don’t know? it might not be much of a life, but it’s what you have. It’s yours. You should strive to make it better, not throw it away for some blue bitch who can’t let go of what she lost either.”
She grit her teeth together. “Shut up.”
“I will. But you know I’m right.”
“Leave me alone!” she screamed.
He shrugged. “Fine. I’ll be just inside, if you want to talk.”
She waited until he had shut the door behind himself before she started to cry.
Esmah came back into the house at dawn. She found Rill waiting for her as he had promised. “You’re awake,” she said.
“I didn’t want to miss you,” he replied.
“I didn’t want to miss you either. I’m ready.”
“So you’re not staying?”
She looked away. Something harsh tugged at her heart. When she could bring herself to meet his eyes, she turned back. “I thought about what you said. You were right. About me.”
His smile was kind and his tone light. “Aren’t I always?”
If she’d been any closer to him, she would have hit him. She settled for a weak laugh instead. “Don’t push it.”
“We set off now? Back to the settlement?”
She shook her head. “No, not quite yet. You were right about me, but you were wrong about Anunat. She’s coming with us. She just doesn’t know it yet.”
“And when do you think she’s going to find out?”
Esmah smirked. “I have a plan.”
The door to Anunat’s basement study was unlocked. Esmah stepped inside. Anunat did not even look up from her meditations. Esmah didn’t try to hide her presence; she wanted Anunat to know she was there.
“You haven’t left yet,” Anunat said. Her eyes were still closed and her head was still bent.
“No,” Esmah replied, her voice high and cheerful.
“I expect the two of you to be gone soon.”
“Oh, don’t worry. We will be.”
Esmah circled Anunat slowly a few times, and finally stopped in front of Anunat’s little bookshelf. She bent to examine its contents more closely, touching a few things here and there. When she felt Anunat’s attention wavering from her, she counted slowly to twenty-five in her head.
And then she scooped Anunat’s books from the shelf and ran from the room.
It didn’t take Anunat very long to figure what she had done, and Esmah soon heard Anunat running after her, screaming, her voice half-breathless. Esmah hoped that Rill had heard his cue.
She soon cleared the house’s front door, and was running down the cobblestone path, Anunat hot on her heels. Esmah laughed. No matter how fast Anunat ran, she would never be able to catch Esmah. Esmah had spent the months since the catastrophe as a scout, days spent running as she looked for survivors with Rill. She could run for hours without growing tired.
Esmah ran until she reached the end of the path before she stopped. She’d given Rill plenty of time. She glanced over her shoulder and saw him running away from the house, towards her–
Before Anunat tackled her to the grass.
The books scattered between them on the cobblestones, and this time Esmah did skin her knee.
“What are you playing at?” Anunat shrieked at her.
“You said you wanted us out of the house, didn’t you?”
Anunat quickly gathered her books in her arms and spat. Her features were twisted to ugliness by her anger. “I just wanted you gone, I didn’t want you to try to steal my books as well!”
Esmah shook her head. She pointed back at the house. A thick, black cloud was rising from it. “I didn’t steal them. I saved them.”
The books tumbled from Anunat’s arms and she took a hesitant step toward the house. The fire that Rill had started was already visible through the front door. “What?” She spun around to face them. “What’s going on?”
“You’re coming with us, Anunat,” Esmah said as Rill helped her to her feet.
“No! You’ve destroyed months of work. I can’t–” she wavered, stumbling away from them “– I can’t lose it all, not again.” She fell to her knees. Her voice was a keen. “Not again.”
Esmah limped over to her. She knelt beside Anunat and put her arms around her. Anunat didn’t even try to fight her off.
“No,” Anunat moaned. Esmah stroked at her hair.
“It’s gone,” Esmah said softly. “Your kingdom is gone. It’s been gone since the catastrophe. What you had there were just shadows–”
“You don’t understand.” Anunat tried to shove her away.
Esmah reared up. “Oh, don’t I? You don’t think Rill and I didn’t lose our families, our homes. You at least have your books to remind you of your home. We have nothing but our memories and the clothes on our backs. You think we don’t mourn? Every night I cry for what I lost, and it’s been months.”
Anunat looked chastened. “I–”
“We only have shadows left, like you. But you can’t rebuild on shadows, Anunat. If you cling too hard to what you lost, you’re going to end up like the house–” and Esmah gestured at what was left of it, still being consumed by fire “– dry and empty and fragile enough that a single spark can destroy it.”
“It’s hard,” Anunat sobbed. “It’s so hard. Part of me wants to stay so badly.”
Esmah stroked at her hair. “I know. I know. But you go one day at a time, one step in front of the other. I can’t promise you that you’ll never feel that pull, but if you take it one moment at a time, you can fight it.”
“For every moment of every day.”
“Yes. But it’s easier to deal with if you just concentrate on the here and now.” Esmah smoothed out her skirt and her hair and stood. She held out a hand to Anunat, who stared at her, eyes dim and tears streaming down her face. “Do please reconsider our offer to come join our settlement. We could use your magics.”
Anunat smiled. “Just my magics.”
Esmah returned her expression. “Well. I have personal reasons I’d like you to come, but I don’t want to be crass.”
Rill cleared his throat loudly.
Anunat took her hand and Esmah helped her to her feet. “Yes,” she said finally, as she and Rill bent to pick up her books. She brushed some dirt from one of the covers. “I’ll come with you.”
Esmah didn’t let go of her hand.
They waited before they set off, until the house had completely burnt down, until there was nothing left of it but stones in the grass.