Summer thunderstorms swept over the bay like a veil. The rain came first in waves and then in whole force down on the blackened tenements. It washed the accumulated soot and waste from the stones, or at least that which wasn’t thoroughly emplaced into the street as the mortar. The cloth tarps that once sheltered from the sun were so buffeted by wind and rain that almost everyone had retreated inside. The lightning was so bright that it seemed to contain more colors than any earthly substance. It made Ana wince and when her eyes were shut the lightning bloomed, glowing flowers of white, purple, gold, and red underneath her eyelids.
The wind cut so far through her coat that it might as well have not been there in the first place. High tide threatened to nearly overflow the docks with the choppy waves and dark rain. Satisfied that it wouldn’t haunt her any longer, she went to the next part of her errand, carefully cradling the package beneath the new coat.
It couldn’t get wet. That would defeat the point.
She found her bearings in the thick mist that the rain made she found herself at the door of the stony tenement, and let herself in. Again, she found herself surrounded by perfume and the scent of fire burning away. At once she felt like her entire body was suddenly warmed. She set her soaked coat up on one of the hangers, and there was the tobacco-smoking girl once again at the front desk. Ana walked up.
“I’m here to see someone,” said Ana.
“Someone in particular?” Asked the girl, “Or are you looking for just anyone? A man or a woman?”
“Uh, she goes by Seonya.”
“It’s her day off,” said the woman, “And she said that she didn’t want visitors.”
“I- well, I understand that. I’m not here for a formal visit. Just wanted to speak with her as a friend. I’ll still pay her if I need to. We met a week back, remember.”
The woman squinted and puffed on her pipe again.
“Oh,” she said, “It’s you. I’ll let you up this time, but if I hear any complaints from her again, you’re not coming in here again, understand?”
“Understood,” said Ana, “I don’t intend on staying too long if she doesn’t want me around.”
And up she went, all the way back to Seonya’s room. She knocked, once, twice, and the door opened to the frowning girl. Behind her, the room had been tidied, made neat, and a leather traveling bag was laid out with folded clothes beside it. Rain pattered against the closed way to the balcony, and outside the wind howled.
“Merya,” she said quietly, “Don’t suppose you’ve got more bad news?”
“No, no. But-”
She carefully offered out the package.
“I brought food. I figured you might appreciate some for yourself, and maybe we could talk together? Nothing bad, I promise.”
Seonya seemed to think on it for a good while, and then invited her in. Ana rubbed her hands together to warm herself before taking a seat on the bed. Seonya carefully opened the cloth bag to reveal a small loaf of bread and a flask of wine. Both were cheap, but Ana didn’t want to spend too much on a gift. She sat at Ana’s side, handed her the flask and broke the bread in two for them to eat.
“So,” she said, “What would you like to talk about?”
“I wanted to apologize again for my poor manners when we last met. It was – it was a lot to see you again. I didn’t expect it, but it was wrong of me to take that out on you.”
She sighed. She tried her best not to keep too many regrets in her heart, but it weighed on her. Breaking the news like that was a foolish, foolish thing.
“I’m not certain if I can forgive you,” said Seonya, “I just – I thought you were different. What happened to you?”
The rain kept coming down in sheets on the rooftops, and fulger lit up the windows for a moment before the thunderclap. Ana unstopped the flask, drank some of the wine, and handed it to Seonya for her use.
“I don’t know. What happened to you, since, what, you were sixteen? Seventeen?”
“I think it was sixteen when I last saw you.”
“Mm,” said Ana, “Nearly seven years now.”
“Where should I start?”
“Wherever you want.”
“Downriver, then,” she said quietly, “I couldn’t stay in Tyeka forever. What an intolerable, wretched city.”
“Mm,” said Ana, “I couldn’t wait either.”
“I took a job as a boatman, then a porter here. Of course, I couldn’t make all the ends meet, so I started turning tricks. It wasn’t a particularly long leap. You work as a porter for so long it wears on your back no matter what good form you have with carrying things. It was trading one kind of sale of my body for another. ”
“And when did you… when did you stop?”
Seonya swallowed, and gave a quizzical look.
“Stopped cross-dressing, I mean.”
“I didn’t. I mean, after I was found out at the orphanage, I stopped there but as soon as I could I shaved my face and in private, I wore dresses, I bought makeup when I could afford it on a meager salary, and…”
Ana waited as she took a sip.
“It was intolerable. It still wasn’t enough for me, you know?”
“And that’s when you headed to Sondi, then.”
“Yes, oh, that was three or so years back.”
“What was it like?”
“Hot,” she said, “I got so seasick on the way there, you wouldn’t believe it. Vomited my guts half out. Oh, and the people – so many in the port. Nearly as many here, and food and it was just a delight, to be on dry land and see other human beings besides a crew of sailors walking around and living on things that weren’t hard tack.”
Ana, for a moment, imagined it with Seonya’s excited words – the pagan land, cobbled together in her mind from threads of history books and Church dialogues and histories of the heresies. She knew they looked much like the Gveert folk, that they wore masks when they went to war, that they took up both pagan gods and hatred of the divine. The architecture sprawled out in front of her like a wave emerging from the land and suddenly the wave shifted. She could not imagine that they had churches like they had in Koletya, or the same kinds of government buildings, or even the same kinds of edifices in their architecture. Alien shapes floated in her mind that outlined the strange and insensible streets that Seonya walked down.
“Where did you hear that they could… what did they do to you, exactly?”
Seonya smiled very gently, snapping Ana back to reality, the bed, the brothel.
“Most people pay to find out.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean-”
“Oh, are you not so affectionate anymore? You were very eager when you were younger.”
Ana looked away.
“We only kissed.”
“Mm-hm,” intoned Seonya, “At any rate, I heard it first as a rumor and then as a quite reliable thing from a client who had traveled there.”
“How did you know it was reliable?”
“Hm, well, he paid me a good sum, and told me not to panic, and then he took off his belt-”
“Alright,” said Ana, “I get the idea. But- who are they? How did they do it?”
“Oh, I had more traveling to do before that. I had to head out to a sort of – well, it was somewhere between a lake and a cave. As if a lake had made a vast, circular burrow where it sat. And there was a priestess there. Oh, you’d have to have seen her, but she was so beautiful and kind. I had picked up enough Sondi to passably speak but when I came to her she was accommodating and spoke to me in Kolet. I tried to insist that I was coming to her as a guest, but she said that her hospitality and mine were not the same; that speaking Kolet would do for her because I was more comfortable with it.”
“I see,” said Ana.
She did see it. The lake was clear in her mind as well, the darkened pit. Some snaking and strange part of her recalled what she had seen in the dream when she met Tros. The ruined church in an alien landscape, flooded in the depths of an abyssal plain. There she saw the masked guards, the burnt sacrifices, the strange scents and sounds of a place half a world away.
“I told her what I had heard – that they could make men like women and women like men, and that for a fee they could make me as I wished, even if it was a sin of sorts. And she said it was not a sin.”
“She said that it was a good thing, to subvert the order of the divine, to shape the world as men wish. I disagreed. I still disagree. I think that if there is a truth in providence, that this is what the Godhead wants for me. All the same, she took me in, and told me that she was akin to a witch as I would call it, and she gave me a strange drink that smelled foul. And over the next six months…”
She gestured to herself.
“This happened. It simply did.”
Ana took it in for a moment. It sounded too simple, too good to be true. There was always a catch with witches, and she knew it all too well. Was the witch herself bearing the brunt of some kind of terrible burden? Was there some great cost elsewhere?
And at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel a strange joy for Seonya. When she was a boy, she seemed miserable more often than not. The only times she had seemed happy was when she had a chance not to be, and even in this melancholy state she seemed wholly different to the boy Ana knew. There was not that same sadness as she had seen before. She’d be an awful hypocrite to criticize her for such a sin when she herself had consorted with devils and defied the Church in such a large way.
“And you’re happy like this? She really didn’t ask for a fee?”
“Well, I was a bit afraid at first. But then I felt more and more at home in it as time went by, and now, now I’m as happy as I can be in that respect.”
She looked over the things again as Seonya quietly ate her bread. She looked around the room again. As sparse as things were in the first place this was far more
“You’re moving, aren’t you?”
She nodded sadly. The joy in describing her journey was all gone.
“Don’t remind me.”
“I mean, do you need any help? I could lend a hand. It’s the least I could do,” said Ana, cursing her poor choice of words.
“Thank you,” she said, “Honestly, it’d be nice to get some help being settled there in- in-”
Seonya cut herself off and wiped tears from her eyes. Ana reached out her hand, and cupped Seonya’s gently.
“You know, it’s what he would’ve wanted for me. It’s just that it was supposed to be for both of us. I haven’t lost anyone like this since-”
And then there were no words left, but Ana knew. Her parents hadn’t abandoned her or any such thing. They had died. With no close relatives to take her in, she ended up in an orphanage. Ana knew that her parents hadn’t wanted her, and as hard as that was to understand it was still comprehensible and there was a begrudging honesty to it. To lose both of the ones that actually wanted you, that seemed almost incomprehensible to her.
“Seonya,” she said quietly, “It might be better to sell it off, use the money for yourself.”
“He gave it to me. And I turned him down on his last request. I can’t just leave it.”
An apartment for two, thought Ana, She’ll be lonely. She is lonely.
She was very quiet.
“This is one of the days when he’d usually visit. I just – when you knocked, for a moment I wanted to believe it was him.”
Ana thought quietly with her for a moment. She tried to reach out, to empathize.
“I’ve lost someone like that. I mean, she’s not dead, but I doubt I’m getting her back. And it hurts.”
“What, she left you?”
“Something like that,” said Ana, “Though it was mostly my fault. I made some idiotic choices. Cowardly choices. But it still hurts, and I know you’re hurting too.”
Seonya leaned back and fell onto her pillow, looking up at the key again.
“Tell me about her.”
“What about her? How I met her? What happened?” Asked Ana, not sure how to proceed.
“Whatever strikes you,” said Seonya, “You’re a new person, I can tell, just from the way that you hold yourself. You’ve changed as much as I have. The least you can do is tell me who you’ve been making friends with, flirting with. Consider that a repayment for being so cruel with me.”
Quietly, Ana ate her half of the bread, and rolled down to rest at Seonya’s side. How could she describe Edam in words? The first that came to mind was sublime – not in the sense of those later writers trying to put into a single word what was an earthly beauty. Edam, it struck her, was sublime in the old way.
“Her name was Edamosfa, but she told me to call her Edam when I met her,” said Ana, “And she was maddening. We drove each other mad, you know? There was nothing sensible in it. It was horrible for both of us to fall in love and it was horrible every step of the way, and I cannot help but admit that as horrible as it was, it was wonderful, because it was her.”
“It’s a pretty name, Edamosfa,” said Seonya quietly, “I can tell she really charmed you.”
“She did,” admitted Ana, “And it is a pretty name.”
“And when did you know?”
“Know that you loved her,” she said, “I knew I loved Shosef when he started kissing me, really kissing me. Before it had just been a business matter, a regular who happened to like me. But he never kissed me. And then one night he did, and after he didn’t have sex with me, we just talked. And I felt it – the real affection. And I wanted it. Did something like that happen to you?”
Ana shook her head.
“Oh, no,” said Ana, “No, I was a bit of a fool. I mean, I knew, I didn’t know. She just couldn’t tell me, I couldn’t tell her, and then there was a moment where we couldn’t avoid it any longer and she just kissed me. And it was sublime.”
Ana sighed. Light flashed through the window and thunder clapped again. The loud waves of rain seemed only to intensify, and she could almost hear the creaking of the wooden buildings around them.
“It’s an old word. It means something beyond the norm, beyond the natural, so complete and separate.”
She thought of Edam; her curls, her soft skin, her pleasant and ever-rare smiles and her thoughtful looks. She thought of her quieter kindnesses, her chidings, her soft reminders and her clever answers when they were on a case. Even what could be considered flaws – her quietness, her strange fits in her sleep, her intensity in her pursuit of theology, that only added to her, made her more beautiful, only entranced Ana further in the remembrance.
When she saw her at the party, dressed to the nines, strange as it was, it felt almost foreign. She was still beautiful, of course, but the flaws were hidden up and guarded. She seemed as off as she had when she had seen her cousin during the investigation.
And still, she was sublime. It was because of all these things that she was sublime.
“She was more than I can tell you,” said Ana simply, “I lived for her, for a while. I loved her more than I loved my job, more than I loved my life, more than I loved my immortal soul.”
Seonya scoffed. It sounded absurd, saying it out loud.
“It was that bad?”
“It was that, and more.”
“I think Shosef was different for me. He was… simple. A man of principle. He’d pay me even when I said not to, on principle, because he thought I deserved it. But you still haven’t answered the question.”
Ana’s heart sunk.
Please don’t ask me again, she thought. Seonya took the chance to embrace her, to bring her closer.
“Why don’t you think you’re a transvestite anymore? I know you were treated poorly, I know that you took the fall, but…”
“I don’t want to recall that,” said Ana quietly, “It was simple. I broke the rules, I deserved to get punished for it. You didn’t. That’s why I said it was my idea. You were just innocent of it, it was such a small sin, and you didn’t deserve to be castigated for wearing a dress.”
Seonya’s face was very close to hers now. This was familiar – they had been like this before, close enough to feel each other’s breath on their lips. Ana could remember them like yesterday, as much as yesterday made her shudder and turn her face towards tomorrow. They were faintly salty in their taste, sweet, gentle. She couldn’t bring herself to do it again, to kiss her in the same way she had all those years ago. Some part of her felt too faithful to Edam, as far away as she was now.
But she could comfort her.
“It’s best not to think of these things,” said Ana.
“It happened,” said Seonya, “They beat me too, you know. I know we didn’t speak much after what happened. I know you turned to the Godhead for answers, and left without much warning.”
Ana was quiet.
“And I heard the rumors too. That Matyel had a hand in it, that snitch.”
Her gut dropped at the mention of Matyel. She had done her best to forget the name.
“I really can’t be speaking about this,” she said as she pulled away from Seonya. Seonya responded with a look of disdain.
“You’re not better than me, you know.”
“Ana, what are you pushing away? What I did by touching you, or who you are?”
Seonya rolled her hand over Ana’s with a care that could only come from experience. She pressed herself closer to Ana until their bodies touched, and their lips were so close that Seonya’s face blurred and amalgamated into a pinkish, whispering mass. Ana pulled away and backed herself into the corner of the bed, pulling away from Seonya completely as she did except for a single hand held in a single hand.
“I’m not your man, Seonya.”
Seonya looked down at herself.
“I know you aren’t. I’m sorry. I got too close. I’m just-”
She breathed in and composed herself before she spoke again.
“You’re afraid of this. What I’m asking you is whether you’re afraid of it because you’d be punished or because you think it truly isn’t in your heart. For the sake of the Saints, Ana, you’re wearing men’s clothes. I know you said they’re just for work, but what work are you doing again? Running-girl for Sol? Why do you need to be dressed up like a man for that? Really?”
Ana resisted the question at first. It was wholly for practical reasons that she had adopted her manner of dress. Pants, a coat, and shirts were standard for the Inquisition because it was well-suited to movement regardless of sex. Where the Godhead had in their infinite wisdom created the division of the sexes, there was no prescription as to what the sexes must wear, particularly in the matter of what was practical to wear to work. That had simply carried over here. She did not like to wear dresses because they felt unsafe and made her uneasy, because she lived in a dangerous part of the city and it seemed best to keep herself at the ready.
And then, slowly, the argument creeped through the back of her mind, through the wall she had built up. Thunder pealed in time with the church bells striking out at noon. Sonorous echoes drifted through the streets and into the room.
She liked the way she dressed.
“I’m not a man,” she said defensively, “I just – I just prefer it this way.”
“It’s okay,” said Seonya, rubbing Ana’s hand, “I’m very lonely. And I think in some ways, you’re very lonely too. And I’m not suggesting that we start anything together as lovers or even something so simple as paramours. I’m asking you to be a friend. And if I were to be your friend, I would say that I think you’re hurting just as much as me, but you’re not willing to say it.”
Ana shifted uncomfortably.
“Perhaps,” she said, “I can’t say. I do appreciate what you’ve said though.”
“And – and you didn’t deserve what happened to you. I only got the gossiped version of it. Second hand. But whatever happened, you didn’t deserve it.”
She shuddered again. Seonya didn’t stop holding her hand even though she could not meet her eyes.
“You didn’t. You were fourteen and scared and confused. And noble, too.”
“How could I have been noble? I committed a sin willingly, I-”
Seonya sidled closer to her.
“And when you took the fall for me, said it was all your idea, that wasn’t really true was it? But you decided I was important enough to take the fall for. I haven’t forgotten that.”
Another brief flash illuminated her face in the darkened room, and they Ana looked out to the window.
“I hate that you’re making me comfortable with this.”
“It’s my job to make people comfortable. Though, there was this one fellow who paid for me – young man, you know, thinking he’d spend his pay on some real fun, and he took one look at me, and ran out of the room. I think he thought about jumping out of the window for a moment.”
The joke took her off guard. Suddenly, Ana laughed, and found herself smiling again.
“Oh,” she said, “Did he not think that you were a transvestite?”
“I didn’t take my clothes off. I said good evening to him, and he turned green and ran. I think he would’ve done the same with just about anyone. Poor constitution for it, that sort of thing. Tried to tell him, ‘It’s okay to be nervous,’ but he was already out of the door.”
Ana chuckled more, and watched as Seonya curled herself into her lap, and eventually their hands met. It was clearer now – not anything sexual, not even a replacement for what Shosef had done for her. It was a slow and careful repetition of the familiar dance, what they had been before. Lovers in the pure sense that they had kissed once or twice, but that lonely teenaged love; that ferocious animal love that emerged raw out of them when they were alone without much thought of personality or physicality. It was three-quarters friendship at any rate, and Ana accepted it like that, and let the memory come back.
It had been Seonya’s secret, that she in the scant private moments they had in the orphanage she would wear women’s clothes and hold herself tightly there, as a way of soothing herself. Ana had come close to her after she’d been bullied for being meeker than the other boys, and well, it wasn’t a surprise to learn that she was a transvestite. And eventually, they started trading clothes. She couldn’t remember how it started, and it made her happy. She knew intemperance made her happy too.
And then they were caught, and she could not make heads or tails of the memory when they were pulled off each other. It all seemed so fast, even if it really took an hour or so by her reckoning, and by that time Ana had forced herself to the present where she was sobbing, clutching at herself, at Seonya. Hot tears ran down her face, and she collapsed onto the bed, and Seonya crawled near to her to hold her tightly.
“I can’t,” she said, over and over again, “I can’t go there again. I can’t go back. I’m already down here. Please, Godhead-”
And her breath was stolen from her as Seonya hushed her and held her through the storm. And her tears calmed, and for a moment, things were fine.