by Amanda M. Hayes
Dozens of stalks of stonespear thrust up through the swamp waters, some of them as big around as Eisle’s fist; she hadn’t seen such a patch in years. She had a hatchet. She had a water-bag to keep the pith moist. She loved the harvest of a rare component as much as its discovery, and the money as much as either.
The curiosity that chewed on her, though, didn’t give a damn about turning the patch into gold. The plants could rot, it whined. She’d find more of them but she’d never forgive herself if she passed up a mystery.
Eisle gripped a stalk and chopped at its base, knowing she’d lose the fight but resisting regardless.
The strangers had straggled through the swamp in ones and twos over the past week. Dressed all wrong for the terrain, they’d schlupped toward the sounds of her daily forage and asked the same questions, all: had she heard of silvergrass? Did she know where to find it?
Plants she didn’t know were bad enough, but add so many people playing at her work and Eisle couldn’t focus. She had to stare at her fingers to be sure they’d strip out the stonespear marrow without wasting any, when ordinarily they acted by rote. There. All safe in her bag. She reached for the next stalk… but what was the point? Eisle cursed under her breath and let it go.
One of her houses crouched between trees about seven miles off, past the point where swamp proper turned to over-moist forest. A one-room stone hut far simpler than she could afford, but she did have three of them–Eisle preferred to winter here but she’d been lured from routine twice by restlessness. Bundles of herbs hung from every surface. Their mingled scents struggled with the musk given off by tags of fur, the sweet almost-reek of the tanned hides, salt from her meat, and a mellow note beneath from the wax she rubbed into bits of bone.
She didn’t worry about visitors; for herself, she liked the smells. But it was slightly inconvenient the way they clung to the red blouse and breeches she saved for trips into town.
Of course, in the outskirts such things could go unnoticed.
“Fish!” a man bellowed right in her ear. “Fresh fish!” He scooped a thrashing sample from a bucket and brandished it at her.
“Spices, darlings, my spices come all the way from Kystan, where strong, gleaming men harvest them under the sun….”
“My lords, my ladies, you’ve never seen pearls so beautiful. I know you can’t afford the pinks. I’m saving them for the Tower. But look–isn’t this strand magnificent–and you’ll know you’re in style, you’ll set the style followed by some of the magi!”
The real town lived inside the enormous silver-grey spear of Vo-Aril Tower, but every Lord’s seat Eisle had seen had a skirt around it like this: merchant stalls, a few actual shops, cobbled-together houses full of people sure they’d be better off living near their great wizard and his lesser magi. Eisle’s buyers weren’t out here; her gleanings were meant for magic. And it was no use trying to get anyone but a magus to pay top price for the squeezings from a sea sponge. She threaded expertly through the melee, into the tower and up the vast, curving stairs, but she didn’t stop at the third floor where the alchemists and apothecaries did business. She went on to the seventh floor’s great library, where she’d never been.
Oh, yes, the librarian assured her when she asked–he stood even taller than she, but twice as wide, and certainly had the muscles for hauling book stacks–there were plenty of studies of plants. He shepherded her to a particular section. The ceilings of every storey in Vo-Aril soared high, but all the dark walnut shelves stretched up to meet this one, an odd thing when the upper two-thirds were empty. “The Lord is a young man,” the librarian told her as he passed down slim volumes. “And he was very young for it when Vo-Aril was designed. I believe he intends to fill the shelves eventually.”
“Thank you,” Eisle said.
“Mind you wear those gloves, now.”
Eisle flexed her leather-clad fingers around the edges of her stack. Most of the echoing chamber stood empty of life. The only other reader sat at a table better-lit than most. He didn’t seem to notice her, so Eisle dismissed him from thought after wondering, briefly, whether the water in the Tower made men grow to such heights–unless his legs were all out of proportion he’d top her by a head or more. She lost herself in one of the chairs and books such as she hadn’t studied in years.
By now she knew her work. Odd the other hunters weren’t here doing research… but perhaps she was just late on the trail, it would explain why every book she opened held at least a tantalizing scrap. Eisle glanced towards the librarian. He met her eye and raised one eyebrow; she inclined her head very slightly.
Silvergrass… the alchemical index referred to it without hinting at its purpose. Unconfirmed, it said. Old papers speak of this, but we have never seen a sample. And, A pretty story of dubious provenance, the Judeny study scoffed, but Eisle knew the Judeny and had seen for herself plenty of things it denied.
Only a finger-thin pamphlet had anything of use. Supposedly where two Outworld creatures have lain in mating, the grass beneath them turns silver, and can be used in all manner of magic concerning the heart; it could be dismissed as folklore everywhere if old texts didn’t refer to it so persistently.
Eisle sat back in her chair, frowning at the difficult handwriting. She caught the other reader looking at her. He didn’t glance away when she noticed him, but kept up his study.
After a moment he asked her, “You’re thinking to look for silvergrass?”
Eisle’s turn to lift her brows and take him in. Everything about the quality if not the cut of his clothes said wizard, or possibly merchant, or given his youth, merchant’s son. In the library she was betting on wizard, but she left her chair and drifted to his table in order to be sure. Up close the faint smell of ozone was unmistakable. Otherwise he smelled of laundry soap and herbs, nothing pretentious, though clean.
She looked down at what he’d been reading: a map of a region she thought she recognized, a crooked thumb of forest quite a few miles north of Vo-Aril Tower. “Maybe,” she finally said. “It depends whether curiosity or sense wins out.”
A side of his mouth turned up a little. “Where would you look, if curiosity won?”
He pulled out the chair beside him. She hesitated only a second before sliding into it. “Around where you would,” she said, tapping the edge of his map with a gloved finger. “The swamp won’t have silvergrass. No Outworlders there mate on the ground. South forests? They’re crawling with people, thanks to this hunt.”
“I ruled them out for being too warm for skylars,” the young man told her.
“Suncattle don’t breed in autumn. They’re grazers; anyway, they probably eat it as fast as they produce it. Plenty of small creatures live in the woods, but since I want it in quantity–”
He placed his hand over the trees on his map. He had long, narrow fingers to go with his long, narrow frame, and a bony wrist peeping past his sleeve. The dark, dark hair with surprisingly red highlights, the ink-black eyes and high cheekbones made him striking, but even though he had less of a beak than she did, in build he’d be best compared to some sort of water bird. She’d been called a stork herself. He’d at least be a heron. “I want a skylar or a dragon for that,” he said. “Going up in the mountains for a dragon is a last resort.”
It was, Eisle thought, a very good map, and he wore no gloves. “I wouldn’t think,” she said slowly, watching his face sidelong, “you’d be free to go at all, my Lord.”
Lord Aril stared at her until she had to turn her head towards him. She found him smiling a rueful smile. Young, sure. He couldn’t be older than she was, and the entire Tower–all the farms around it for miles, their villages and people–he protected it all.
“There are ways to hurry back if I’m needed that badly.”
“Why not send one of your magi?”
“They’re harder to spare than I am.” The Lord grinned at her expression. “I’m like the mountains, also a last resort. And strictly speaking I can do my work anywhere.”
He traced with his finger the stagger of a river through his forests. “I’ve been here since I was nineteen; ten years before that training in other Towers. Some of my colleagues, do you know, spend whole summers on the shore. I think I should get a few weeks after all that time.”
Eisle knew those little hesitations in his voice, from apothecaries who needed convincing they weren’t paying her too much. She said, “You’re an intelligent man, my Lord, from what I’ve heard. I figure you’re right.”
“It would be helpful to have someone with me who actually knows what she’s doing. You’re Eisle–I’ve heard of you. Always in red when you’ve got something to sell. Will you sell me your time and assistance?”
She’d never worked with anyone. She calculated furiously, weighed advantages and disadvantages in her head as fast as she could. “What do you want this stuff for?”
“Ah. It’s a personal use.” Eisle stared in wonder; was a wizard blushing? “I’ve found instructions, rather old instructions for a scrying mirror calling for silvergrass. It shows you the face of your beloved and lets you speak with them. Osonea is finishing her studies in Vo-Dechiri. She won’t be back for at least two years….”
Eisle hid a smile. “I understand.”
“I promised I’d find a way to keep in touch, but letters aren’t enough. Dechiri intercepts them anyway.” Lord Aril glanced at her sidelong. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell people. The Tower would rather think of me as a weapon than a man.”
It sounded so lonely. She had the sense to catch herself before saying so. Anyway it might be a bit hypocritical of her, considering her little huts out in the woods and the trips to town so few and far between she was known for always wearing the same thing. But that was solitude: she had a choice about being alone.
Eisle propped her elbows on the table and folded her arms in front of her in her classic bargaining pose. “I want five hundred gold for six months of my time, another hundred for every month after. Half whatever else we glean along the way.”
The Lord’s eyebrows lost themselves under his hair. “Two hundred for the six months. Two hundred more for a second six. I release you after a year, silvergrass or not, but you can have three quarters of the gleanings.”
“Hah. We won’t have time to get much!”
“Won’t we? I wouldn’t know.” He’d be good at cards with a face like that.
“Three hundred for each half year, and everything but silvergrass we gather.”
“All right.” Damn; she could’ve gotten more. “Thank you, Eisle. I’ll be at your home in the morning.”
Well, there’d be a record somewhere of her purchasing the place. Eisle stood up to cover her unease at a wizard-lord caring where she lived. “Bring the maps too, my Lord, if you would. They could be useful.”
She wouldn’t have had to tell him. She found out very quickly that His Lordship had a pragmatic streak. He turned up at her door just past dawn when the day was still cool, in trousers and a shirt only a step or two up the scale from her own half-ruined things–assuming one counted stains and patches as ruin. She’d been perversely determined not to put polish on for the wizard. He didn’t notice.
He’d brought them two leggy horses with coats like mud, but strides that ate the ground, and plenty of balm for his muscles; after all, he couldn’t ride. The third animal had enough bulk to haul five people around on her broad back, so their tents and His Lordship’s ungainly mirror must’ve felt like a vacation.
Eisle took to watching over his shoulder every morning when he unwrapped the mirror from its makeshift bag of linen and scried out his desk, watching for messages, then the edges of his lands where trouble would most likely begin.
For his part Aril watched her shuffle on her knees through the grasses once they’d settled in camp. He knew all the beneficial weeds by name. Sometimes he crouched at her side and ran his fingers over stalks and stems, mauling half what he wanted to take at first, smelling of horse and sun and green things now, as she did, but always ozone; magic never left him.
“Aril,” Eisle said as she cleaned their dinner rabbit, “if you ever want a job outside the Tower, I’d take you on.”
Somewhere along the line she’d dropped the ‘Lord,’ even in her thoughts.
Unsurprisingly given the givens–he knew his way around alchemy, and what was that but recipes?–Aril cooked better than she did. He stilled his chopping of wild mushrooms while he grinned over at her. “Oh, thanks. How long is the apprenticeship?”
“Four years in the wild and you’ll know what you’re doing. Promise.”
“It’ll never do, I’m afraid. Maybe if we found some shortcuts. Or if I learned just enough to sound convincing… were you an expert when you started selling to Vo-Aril?”
Eisle pointed her knife at him. “If your stewards and apothecaries didn’t ask questions, neither should you.” Aril’s laugh conceded the point.
They ate in their usual comfortable, companionable silence.
If it had just been a gathering foray it would’ve been pleasant. Not profitable. Just pleasant. But they’d seen no silvergrass anywhere on the swamp’s edge, in the lowlands, up the scrubby hills, or now under the broad-boughed trees of the north. True, they hadn’t left the outer boundaries and skylars, according to Aril, preferred shadow and cool to light shining strong through the green. Skylars were what your mother warned you about if you went too deep in the woods. No reason to worry, not yet.
Eisle kept thinking of a Tower without its Lord. Aril went along with their horses and their increasingly weatherworn clothes as if he never thought of home, to him the adventure seemed paramount, and she wondered as she hadn’t since first recognizing him for what he was whether Aril was in fact a little young for his responsibility.
At least the gathering forest distracted her, if she wanted distracting. Within two days more the trees crowded around them like buyers in the marketplace. Or sellers: they dropped leaves, twigs, and bird waste as eagerly as a seller would honeyed words. Eisle rather liked her analogy and turned in the saddle to tell Aril, “If there were just strings of pearls in the branches–”
But he was board-stiff on his horse. The black eyes didn’t see her. She’d be willing to wager they didn’t see the trees. He moved suddenly, rolled off and hit the ground hard and his startled animal nearly stepped on him.
Eisle flung the reins over her gelding’s neck and slid down; Aril crouched in the dead leaves and soft ground, and he splayed his fingers wide against the dirt. She called his name again but he didn’t seem to hear her. She lunged to touch him–and wham! Something invisible knocked her backwards. She impacted with the gelding’s warm flank with enough force he squealed and sidled, and slumped to an unwilling crouch of her own.
For all the scent of ozone they could’ve been in the middle of a lightning storm. Threads of red light sank into the earth as he mumbled words under his breath Eisle couldn’t make out. All the birds were silent, the forest was waiting….
The ground shivered beneath her.
Aril’s horse, untethered, couldn’t decide whether to bolt or not and sort of wandered into the trees, another thing Aril failed to notice while the trembling went on–it lasted, what, seconds? Eisle hugged the dirt a few beats longer, just to be sure it would stay still.
“It’s all right,” she finally heard said in a weary, but unreasonably calm voice.
Aril was sitting up and dusting the leaf matter from his hands.
“There’s a ground-crack in the west. Treboniva’s territory, actually, not mine. Close enough. I drained off some force from the quake and protected my nearer settlements with it. I think they’ll have some broken crockery, but no real harm done.”
Eisle stared at him.
“There are wards set to warn me about these things, you know. Wouldn’t there have to be?”
“You’re taking it casually.”
Aril said, “It wasn’t much of a quake. Well, it’s not much of a crack, so no wonder.”
He looked satisfied and exhausted, as she might after a day of scrambling through brush. It was his job, wasn’t it? Wizard-lords were wizard-lords because they could hold so much power, and act at once with efficiency no group could match. Apparently he’d never been careless.
Now he stood, and his expression had changed. He watched her for her reaction and Eisle thought she knew what did worry him. “Fair enough,” she said. “You want to scrape all that mud off while I fetch your horse?”
“Ah. Yes. I believe–I think I fell on something dead, actually.”
“Maybe you should change.”
“It’s a thought,” he muttered, pinching his trousers away from his leg. He threw her a glance in which she read relief that had nothing to do with ruined pants or dead things. He swayed on his feet; he hadn’t even had time to grab for his tools and powders on their pack beast, Eisle realized, he’d done major magic with raw power alone.
She said, “And get a bath, if we can find a stream,” and went to lure his bay out of the woods.
Eisle decided as she played tag with his unusually flighty horse that Aril was Aril, and seeing for herself what she’d already known in her mind didn’t change that, and at least now she could stop worrying about their ongoing failure.
Now when Aril scried his borders in the mornings it didn’t seem like the bare minimum he should do, but caution beyond the necessary. She dug in the loamy mud while he did his look-and-see to find bones, not bothering to watch anymore; somehow still aware of Aril himself because when he twisted towards her one grey dawn she was up before he spoke her name.
“Get me the stonespear and lightning wood.”
He had two dozen little bottles with powdered herbs inside. Only one had the specks floating around in water. The lightning wood was a finger-sized sliver wrapped in silk, staining the material with its charry dust.
In the seconds it took Eisle to find them Aril had begun a drawing in the mud–lines intersecting at seeming random pointing out in all directions. The mirror lay in front of him. It showed her a whole lot of not much. The square structures barely visible through thick morning murk would be one of his settlements, probably living off fish so deep in the swamplands. Eisle might have been there before; in so much mist she couldn’t really tell. Faint glows here and there marked ghostlights out hunting.
There were an unusual number of them. And while she looked on they drifted closer to one another, and more came into view through the fog, just the sort of cover they loved.
The first person appeared in the gloom: a young boy stumbling across the ground for other reasons than the swirl of grey around him. A swamp child had to know what ghostlights could do to him, and never listen to their singing, never look directly at the pulsing glow, but all that advice was proof against one. Such a cloud of them as this?
Aril broke her fascination with a snarled, “Don’t look at the damned things!”
Eisle almost tripped in her haste to back away from the mirror.
Other mindless figures followed the boy’s path to the lights, seen now in wary peripheral glimpses. She dared focus on one long enough to study his face. Slack, blank, but he kept leaning back as though trying to get away from his own legs, as they kept moving towards death.
Aril poured the vial of stonespear into his right hand and made a fist around it, muttering words, and the leading boy hit–something, a wall that didn’t exist; a place where the air was rock.
With his left Aril grabbed for the lightning wood. The distant sky flickered with cloud-to-cloud bolts, heating the air and shredding the fog and leaving the ghostlights dimmed and exposed as the growling thunder Eisle couldn’t hear broke their subtle song. A woman on the far edge of the pack cut free of her compulsion and ran.
While Eisle watched the mirror with such fascination she forgot to watch anything else, which wasn’t the best idea, really, in a clear space in the heart of a forest, just the sort of spot they’d hoped skylars loved.
She heard the first hiss and swung towards it, and saw a blur of brilliant green, just before the creature’s full body slammed into her and knocked them both to the dirt. It weighed as much as another woman, but a woman would’ve screamed when she stabbed at it frantically with her knife.
The skylar only hissed louder and scrabbled at her leather jacket with its claws. Eisle stabbed up again and felt a splash of something, then the hard wiry feet sinking into her middle as the skylar somehow pushed up and launched up from her.
Who could tell where it had gone when everything around was green, but a second smaller creature swooped over Aril’s bent back, feinting. It hadn’t made its mind up to attack. Eisle decided for it, grabbing a decaying branch from the ground and swinging it into the snaky body, knocking it away and breaking the rotten wood in one hit.
It didn’t like that, she thought. The bared fangs were a bit of a giveaway. Birdlike heads shouldn’t have fangs, but no one had told skylars. There, there was the second one, the bigger one, visible now just behind the first as if out of nowhere, and Eisle didn’t quite throw herself to the ground in time: claws raked just across the back of her scalp.
She’d drawn a little blood, but nothing to this hot spill… head wounds bled, she knew that, she was all right. She had to get up.
“Aril!” For all Eisle could tell he hadn’t noticed any of it. “Aril!” she yelled again. “Wake up! Aril!”
It was as though calling his name turned the skylars’ attention to him. The little one, the weaker one dove, and Eisle lunged to intercept the hit.
This time one set of claws tore through her leather sleeve, without reaching skin, but the other opened skin and muscle where Aril’s neck met his shoulder.
“You damned–no!” She slashed at the skylar too late. It was gone, preparing for its next dive probably. And she couldn’t see the big one; she couldn’t see anything but the gore.
Then she couldn’t see anything, because the bolt of lightning out of the clear blue turned her sight to black dazzle.
Aril clutched fitfully at her wrist. Somehow, blind, Eisle hauled them both up and stumbled somewhere, presumably out of the clearing and back into thick trees since she ran into trunks again and again and the branches tore further at her hair. Warmth kept flowing down the back of her neck. She grabbed for Aril’s waist, picking him up as much as she could.
Eisle never remembered later how long they ran like that or just when they stopped. Or what happened between then and when the spots cleared from her sight, not entirely, but enough to make out the shapes of trees and Aril slumped beside her against the enormously wide base of a grandfather oak. Incredibly, when something moved in a very untreelike way she discovered with some squinting it was their packhorse, and both their mounts fidgeted uneasily nearby.
“Idiot,” she whispered. “How much energy did you use up calling them?”
“You want to do without our medicines,” Aril whispered back, his voice a bare thread, “be my guest.”
Well. He had a point.
Salves and bandages couldn’t do that much for his gash, though. It had a ghastly pale look to it. Too much blood gone, Eisle thought. She didn’t like his breathing. She didn’t like having only wine to pour over the wound to clean it, and most especially she did not like how quiet and still he was.
She could stitch him up and that might help, but… there was another option.
Eisle lay her hand over the bulky bandage. She whispered words. They weren’t the words he’d spoken over the mirror, but there was something similar in their cadence and the way they slithered away from the ear. Beneath the cloth the salve warmed, and her hand tingled.
Eisle glanced at Aril’s face and met his black eyes, watching her. She’d counted on his being asleep. “Interesting,” he whispered.
Unease tried to twist her guts up in a bow, but they had dealt with worse too recently. They just gave one tired twist. “It’s a common poultice.”
“Certainly no more than that. My Lord.”
“Of course not.” Aril’s eyes slipped closed. “If you had any talent for magic, you’d be in a Tower. No wandering. No gathering. Terrible waste….”
Eisle’s bones turned watery with her relief. She sank down to the ground at his side and the world faded to black again for awhile.
She didn’t wake abruptly so much as drift. So little she’d done, in comparison to him, but she wasn’t and never wanted to be a wizard lord. Her head felt very odd. Eisle thought about her hand, eventually remembered where it was and came up to pat vaguely: ah, a bandage. That explained it. Aril shaking her shoulder explained what she was doing conscious, though he had no business being so alert. His eyes were far too bright for a man still pale from blood loss. “Quick, Eisle. Those skylars. Were they bright green?”
“What? I guess they were, what does it matter?”
“Come on! We should hurry.”
What could be seen of the sun shone bright and high, and when they were in sight of their camp clearing–Aril caught her arm to keep her from going further–its light caressed the two forms sleeping there, entwined.
Bird heads. Closed eyes. Serpent bodies, feathered. Their claws must be tucked under them somewhere, still brown with human blood… the skylars were beautiful in peace. They lay wrapped around each other on the ground as though they had no wish to part.
Aril whispered in her ear, “We were in their territory at a very bad time, that’s all.”
Eisle murmured, “I see why they didn’t chase us now.”
“We’ll wait for them to leave. I’m betting they’ll wake up hungry.”
They both hunched down lower when the first skylar finally stirred, slowly unwinding itself–it was the small one–from its mate, and the second woke shortly after. Eisle didn’t care whether it was hunger that stretched out their wings and sent them flying off together or some motive she couldn’t guess. So long as they were gone–and the grass where they’d lain glittered under the sun.
Aril said, soft and reverent, “You’d better… I might ruin it.”
Every single blade reflected light back to heaven. They were still soft to Eisle’s touch, curling around her fingers as grass always did. She left one sprig and with a glance defied Aril to complain. What she’d taken filled one of their larger pouches.
Aril said nothing about it, but with the hand not wrapped around his scrying mirror he picked a brilliant feather out of the unchanged grass and gave it to her.
Back to the Tower then. The ride took many days, but still was faster than their trip out with nothing left to seek. He left her at her house with all their take hers to sort through–not just two thirds–except for the shining grass; that went with him to the top of Vo-Aril where delayed decisions waited for the Lord.
Eisle saw his chambers for the first time at his invitation. In defiance of her tradition, she wore brand new trousers and tunic dyed cobalt blue, bought out of his purse of gold. She didn’t shame Aril’s workroom too badly, although most of its color was deep burgundy. The rooms she’d crossed to get here were another matter. She wondered all over again about the man who’d leave them behind, but there he was, smiling a welcome as he rose to greet her and she remembered he was foremost Aril.
He said, “After everything I thought you might want to see the mirror made.”
He put the silvergrass in a retort, over flame, and it melted into liquid rather than burning. He washed a glass oval the size of his hand in a clear solution: spring water, thyme, and tears, he listed for her, and Eisle tucked the scraps of knowledge away. Some professional habits she couldn’t see a point in breaking.
He poured the silvergrass over its surface and bound them with threads of light born of words, which technically Eisle should never know.
When it cooled, Aril cupped it in his hands and spoke one word more.
“There,” he breathed, and she heard his smile in the sound. “There she is!”
Eisle edged behind him to satisfy a bet she had on with herself about Osonea’s looks. But she didn’t see any woman, only Aril, reflected in the mirror. “I don’t see her. Just–”
Eisle bit off the word in time.
“Nothing,” she lied. “A blank.” Certainly not his face, so alive, warm and lit with joy to see someone else’s.
“Oh, of course. I should’ve thought. I can’t prove to you it works unless you… you’ll have to take my word for it. It does exactly as the book said.”
Eisle forced her eyes to the edge of his sleeve. “I believe you.”
Aril stroked the edge of the mirror. A man would stroke his love’s hair in the same way. “She’s talking with other students,” he murmured. He wasn’t speaking to her, really. “It must be something funny, she’s laughing. She has the most beautiful laugh. It’s strange. She can’t sing to save her life, but her laugh is music.”
Eisle took a careful step back. She could leave and tell him later she’d wanted to give him privacy.
But he was still talking. “Another word to activate it and she’ll hear me. I hate to interrupt her… well, but she’ll be glad to know I’ve done it finally,” and Aril said a word Eisle did not try to catch, and the surface flashed briefly green. “Osonea!”
Just a few more steps….
She almost had the door. There, the knob as cold as her fingers.
Aril bent closer to the mirror. The joy in his face had gone. At first, puzzlement. Then he said softly, “She doesn’t hear me.”
Eisle swallowed a couple of times to wet her throat enough to talk. “That part could have gone wrong.”
“No… the enchantment is all of a piece. If she doesn’t hear me–she doesn’t….”
Aril set the mirror down terribly gently, but he couldn’t seem to look away from it or stop touching it with fingertips that made contact and as quickly flinched away. Over and over. Eisle was grateful the angle was wrong for her to see his reflection now.
She couldn’t imagine wanting an audience for such pain, and she had the door halfway open when voice stopped her. “Eisle.”
“I’m very sorry, my Lord.”
“Two years before she’s home.” He drew in a breath. “I can write her more letters. I’ll win her from here, somehow. Don’t you think hearts can change?”
She looked back despite herself and so saw the wrenching determination in his profile, still fixed on the mirror. “I hope they can, Aril, or it’s going to hurt too damn much.”
He reached out slowly and turned the mirror face-down. “I need some time to think.” He looked at her over his shoulder, and his eyes were… blank, in a way she’d never seen. “You’ll be in the district for awhile?”
Eisle said, “I thought I might move on.”
Aril’s expression showed pain for a bare second. “If you’d be willing to stay–you’re as close as I have to a friend.”
She wanted to laugh and scream and run, she wanted to empty a keg of beer by herself and wake up a thousand miles from Vo-Aril, and bury alive the little voice inside that said, Two years. She won’t be here, and I will. She would’ve liked to throw up. Her voice was steady. “Of course, Aril, in that case.”
Aril murmured, “Thank you.”
Two years, Eisle thought as his doors closed behind her, perhaps to be the friend he needed, but expect nothing.
Still… hadn’t hearts been changed by less?
Amanda M. Hayes grew up in Indiana, but has bounced from state to state in recent years, finally settling for awhile in Oklahoma–or so she devoutly hopes. Her work has appeared in Farthing, Raven Electrick, and Daily Science Fiction.