The bodies around her were writhing, hot as burning coals, then cold again. The limbs dragged her like a riptide out through the sea of bodies. She saw flashes of faces, distorted by the heat, and a strong hand bore her away from the rest. She was cold now, shivering under the heavy hands. She felt as if she was returning to the stony halls of the court.
“What a strange execution,” she yelled, “What are you bastards waiting for? Did you change your mind about having it in public?”
The crowd did not respond. They were silent in their hazy writhing. She coughed, pulling away from the executioner slightly. She swore, somewhere in the crowd that she could see Imera, staring at her, driving through the ever-shifting mass of bodies.
“Bastards, all of us,” she said to him.
He reached out and seemed to split, to move without movement between the angles of the darkened corridor. He grabbed her hand roughly, and she could not look at him.
The touch burned. She was certain then that she was dying, or already gone. She had known that it was coming. She was almost surprised at how easy it was. She felt as if she was floating, a strange and eerie presence about her face, blindering her to the world, her eyes shut forevermore. She stumbled through the blank nothingness for what felt like an aeon. Her limbs felt like they were encased in thick clay, a hardened burning layer around her that only solidified as the centuries went on. A strong arm lifted her up and dragged her forward. Her limbs felt as if they were being stuck with pins at each joint.
The air grew thinner, saltier, as if she was approaching an ocean, and when she opened her eyes next she was laying down on something soft. Her mouth tried to form words, but they didn’t obey properly. Her jaw ached with the effort. She was vaguely aware of the rhythm of oars, and the rocking of a boat. She was too exhausted to do anything but let the boat rock her along.
“No coins, no coins,” a voice cried, “No coins for the ferryman, no coins for the ferryman!”
Her face twitched as she rose to see a man in a white robe. He was wizened, ancient and sad-looking. He wore a crude wooden mask that resembled the face of an owl. The ferryman held out a chain with many little coins strung through it.
“No coins, no coins, in so long. They no longer pay me any tribute.”
“Where- where am I? Am I going home?”
“Home? You are dead, child, dead and going to the next life.”
“Oh,” said Edam softly. She felt as if she recognized him now, from the old books of history and religion.
“Erdanir?” She said softly. Before the rite and religion of the Sepulcher had been brought to most of Agora, there were the old pagan ways that they held. They said that the way to the afterlife was held by Ferryman Erdanir, who rode the River Teniś unto the Deep Channel, a dark mirror of the Great Channel above. She looked over the edge of the boat, watching the dark water. It was filled with reeds and strange luminescent seaweed which glowed and lit their path. Then looked out towards the sky.
It was all dark, a great cavern without stars or moon. The rims were lit by terrible, shifting shadows and the tiny figures of devils who flew and cavorted through the air, carrying torches and the dead to their Torment. The autochthonous beings flitted from place to place and gave the sky a terrible cloudy vortex of human pain and death. It felt as if she was staring into the whole entirety of human sin and suffering made plain. It was too terrible to look at and so she turned her gaze instead towards the horizon.
There, there was a glowing mountain of stone and flame and blood. The devils beat on drums and piped on flutes to herald the approach of the many vast barges – yes, barges of the dead, each with their own ferryman. They seemed so large that they could dwarf the greatest of buildings, caged flesh bulging and arms of rotting flesh stretching out to grasp at the empty air. She turned away to see a woman in front of her, shrouded in a light green cloak. Her dark hair fell down in front of her in thick tresses and curls, her mouth hidden by the edge of the cloak.
“Aye,” he said, “You know the old names. You go the way of Torment, away from the Godhead, with all the pagan gods and devils.”
Her sole companion on the ferry raised her hand and produced a chain with two silver coins – enough for both of them. Edam felt as if she recognized her too. Edam gingerly touched her neck, and felt the open hole where she had been decapitated, fully confirming the suspicion that she had already been killed. She looked to the woman in green again.
“You’re a saint, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps,” said the woman.
“Why are you here, in Torment?”
“It is the nature of patience that in time, even in eons, a sinner must be raised from the Torment to Paradise and forgiven of their eternal sins, even after their death.”
“I’m really dead, aren’t I?”
“No,” said the saint, “You are not. You’re in a fever, and I think we both no that.”
“So none of this is real?”
“It is as real as it ought to be.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s like I said. You’re in a fever. It doesn’t have to make sense – nothing seen in a fever does. Besides, it’s best not to question these things – we’re coming into port.”
A fever, she thought, I suppose from the cut. Thank you, cousin, for your parting gift. Now I won’t even see the blade of the executioner coming. It’ll be soft and gentle as any love I received from you.
The sea of the Deep Channel flared with foam and choppy waters as they came into port. A phantasmagoric host of devils and spirits seemed to surround her, bearing her along with their hands. They whispered and chuckled to themselves as she passed nude men with the heads of animals and startling masses of rotten food set on tables in the street. She recognized it vaguely, the torment of the intemperate, who ate of the rotten stuff with a wild abandon. Some forced the food down others throats, and all manner of drugs and alcohol flowed freely. None seemed to enjoy it.
One startling one emerged from the crowd, and approached Edam and the Green Saint. She was shaggy, bestial in nature, thick swathes of animalistic hair covering a vaguely feminine body – though she looked more animal than anything. In place of a human face was the long snout of a jackal or dog, and in one hand she bore a golden, shining cup. Before she could react, she put it to Edam’s lips, and she sipped from it without even thinking. She suddenly felt very drunken, staggering through the thronging crowd of devils towards what looked like a courthouse. They parted from her more and more as she drifted, until the streets were open and she saw another display.
It was a child. She couldn’t have been older than six. Edam recognized her as well – it was her. She had the same little hairpiece made from a seashell bound up in her hair that she had lost track of when she was eight. She walked up to them, crying loudly, and Edam remembered this scene, though now she was watching it as a play. Her knee was scraped up. The Green Saint knelt down and touched the girl’s head.
“Edach itran,” said the Green Saint softly, “You hurt yourself? Come here. Let me fix it.”
Her cloak fell from about her mouth, and Edam recognized her.
“Mother? I thought you were-”
“A saint? I am.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s because you’re having a seizure right now. The laudanum is dulling you,” she said, but parts of it felt as if it were coming from an entirely different place. Shocks of strange black-green color shot through her eyes in some distant, suborned place to what was right in front of her. She felt the heat on her face, and the scene shifted towards the courthouse once more. The girl was gone, but her mother remained as they strode forward, now walking at strange and impossible angles up the hill.
“Where are we going?”
“You have to be judged.”
“By the Godhead?”
“Aye, and the separated brethren too,” said her mother, “I’m sorry. Look down upon them.”
She looked to the far side of the road, and say a calamitous pit of dirt and ash. The bodies there were all alive with sin, hideous dancing about a vast bonfire. Some emerged from it, covered in ash and soot and embers. Others pushed their fellow sinners in trying to climb the breach, to reach up from the cliff. She knew them – heretics and unpious sinners all, whose sin weighed them down and dragged them back towards the bonfire. They would not die. They were already dead, their souls condemned here for the weight and depth of their sin. Among them, she saw the mass she had seen not so long ago, a sooty morass of limbs and annulled images. And from it, near to the top of the heap, was Ana. She was very nearly nude, covered with sores and ash and burns, her eyes wild in panic and the pelt of a dog wrapped around her waist. She scrabbled against the harsh basalt cliff, dragging the sinners above her down, forcing the sinners below her into the dirt and stone. She looked up at Edam in pure desperation, and Edam turned her eyes away, afraid.
“Why – is she dead?”
“Maybe,” said her mother, “I’m sorry, edach itran. She knew what she was doing.”
“If she wasnt an Inquisitor,” said Edam quietly, “She wouldn’t even have been punished so harshly for witchcraft. As far as I know, that’s her only sin. That, and disobeying the Church by loving me.”
“Do you really think that?”
She wanted to believe it now, more than she wanted to believe in the Church or the idea that she had simply betrayed her with full intent and malice. Before, it had been easier, less painful almost to believe that Ana had a heart full of malice and rage for her, that she had done things to seduce her but now it was nothing it felt far more clear that it was untrue She wanted to believe that everything Ana had said, that it was only for survival and for her sake. And still, a nagging part at the back of her head said that she needed to be careful. Just because she had some misgivings about what the Church had done to her didn’t mean that they were wrong about Ana or her intentions. She looked back down at Ana, struggling again and again.
“I don’t know,” said Edam, “I just- I want her, and I know I cannot have her still. What’s the point? I’m either dying or dead. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
Her mother nodded.
“I’m sorry. I know I should have been there to talk you through this sort of thing.”
“Are you dead too?”
“Am I, Saint Paiman the Patient, dead? Yes. Am I, your mother, dead? I don’t know,” said the saint, shrugging over the shrieks of the damned and the dead, “It is not for me to tell you, anyways. But you are my daughter either way, and it falls to me to be patient with you as you find your way through this world of sin and destruction. I trust you to make the right choices, you know?”
Eda looked out to the sky again, where the distant devils cavorted. Her feet felt like lead.
“It’s just so hard. I don’t want to go on anymore. I don’t want to go to judgment. It’s always – always rigged. The die is set. The cards have been marked by some divine director and my life is simply pulled along it like a rabbit in a snare, like a bird in a cage. I made every right choice I could afford myself and it ended with my execution, and now I’m dead and in the Torment. What was the point?”
“Are you so certain you cannot flee from it? That you cannot peck your way out?”
“I guess not.”
“Really? There’s nothing you can do?”
“Why fight it?”
Her face shifted, and she sat on a stone bench, gesturing for Edam to sit beside her. She firmly grasped Edam’s hand.
“You’ve worked yourself to the bone, my dear. You did everything you could. And I know you resent me.”
Edam’s heart twinged. It was a tiny part of her, but a real one, that resented the fact that her mother brought her into the world as a bastardess.
“I want you to know that your mother loves you very much, even if you are in the Torment. She would be proud of you. She is proud of you.”
Very suddenly, the saint embraced her, wholly and entirely. Edam was shocked for a second, before she leaned into her shoulder and sobbed.
“You have a long way to go,” said her mother, echoing what she had said years ago, “A long, long way. And I cannot help you. I cannot follow you. But I love you. I love you so much, Edamosfa, you are worth more to me than you could ever know.”
She opened her eyes blearily, sobbing and choking from the soot, and saw a familiar face. She couldn’t place it, though.
“Oh, she really is out of it. Do you think you could taper her off?”
Her eyes closed, and she was back where she was, but her mother was gone. Edam stood suddenly, looking for her, and she was nowhere to be seen. Edam sat on the stone beneath her feet, curled into the fetal position, and cried, remembering her other dream.
“Not again,” she whispered softly, “Not again, Mom. Please come back. Please.”
She cried for a little while longer before she came to her senses. Or, at least as much sense as she could make of the twisting and bleak vision that surrounded her. She looked down and saw the cloak upon the ground. It had changed from green to a pure white. Slowly, she donned it, feeling more protected by its presence. She wandered further towards the place of her judgment. Again, the thronging devils seemed to surround her, this time with even more ferocity and strange, diverse forms. Some were beings of pure, scintillating light and colour. Others were like vast insects with spindly limbs and bizarre, spiky shells, unspeakable lobster-things with crustacean mouths and snapping claws. The worst of them looked like walking corpses with all manner of mutilation, stapled together with odds and ends, with weapons and arrows, with candle-wax and even stranger things. One stared at her with what looked like a dozen eyes that sat in open wounds on a corpulent, squat body, a shining word of light bestowed on its brow.
She climbed higher still over the black stones, over the bodies and the sinners and the basalt until she reached the court again. It was a low dais, like a theater, which she stepped up. On it were four figures. The first, the smallest, she recognized as herself. Older, this time, but still younger than the present. She was dressed in the same plain white that the present was, but the scars that covered her were somehow thicker, keloid, presenting with all the menace of a bristling cat. She shivered. Another remnant from another dream. The child biting her own arm.
Besides her, there were three thrones, and three men on them. The first was impetuous, heavyset, with discerningly beady eyes and a robe adorned with heavy riches. Gold, silver, jewels and more covered his fatty body and his thinning hair was only partially hidden by a coronet of immortality, a little crown of starlight that bounded his head. To the far right was another, thinner, as severe in his features as death himself and bearing a shepherds crook. And there, at the center, was a man caught between the two, younger and softer than either, with thick scars and marks covering his half-nude body. One stood distinctive on his cheek.
“Cousin,” she said, “Or are you… what was his name again – Imraidh, wasn’t it?”
She pointed at the figure to the left, the one that most closely resembled her uncle in his broad frame and demeanor.
“And you’re the lord of riches, Itran-Betor, and you’re the eater of the dead, Chitern. One lord for the riches of the earth, one for the dead, and one for the useless things of the earth. I suppose it’s fitting. You did kill me, after all, cousin. Is this what you wanted? I think it is. I hope you’re happy with what you’ve seen of me, what you’ve done to me.”
She gestured to the hole in her throat, pointing at it repeatedly.
“Look! You’ve taken my voice once and for all, cousin. You’ve done it. You’ve shut me up and now you’ll punish me forever. So, what are you waiting for? You’ve seen the rest. Condemn me now to the Torment. I don’t deserve better, I’ll admit.”
She looked down, and at once found herself nude on the dais. She didn’t cover herself for modesty.
“Go on. Kill me. Or condemn me. Do it. Do it, now. You’ve taken my love from me – I saw her there down in the pit. Send me with her. Send me to the impious like I deserve. Let your ardour overflow, you separated brethren, you lords of the dead, pagan gods, Godhead, saints all, let it come to me!”
She walked forward. Each step felt even more leaden. Rage held her aloft.
“Go on! Strike me! Beat me! Smite me, torturers of men, smite me! See me dead upon the ground with all your golden arrows, all your mighty weaponry to take me out of this world and imprison me in Torment. Strike me down now before I strangle it out of you!”
She put her fingers around the neck of the center figure, looking up to the sky once more. There, on the horizon, was a pale fire – another city for the blessed, far from the damned. Far from her. She clenched her fingers onto the figure’s throat.
“I will break you! I will break you before you break me! I will storm the gates of Paradise before you break me. I will.”
She swang her fist at him, and her body went with it upwards, and she opened her eyes. She was on a couch, with soft cushions.
Another trick, another layer to the Torment, she thought. She searched around for the demons, for the instruments of torture, for the wine-dark Channel. Instead, she saw an unfamiliar face, a Gveert man with long hair and wise eyes. The next person she saw was Varna in a white linen dress, smiling.
“You’re finally awake,” she said, smiling, “For a moment there, we didn’t think you’d make it.”
The Gveert man whistled in surprise.
“Can you speak?”
Edam was fairly certain that she could speak, but she was distracted by the third person she saw. It was Ana, sitting there in an outfit frankly not dissimilar to what she wore as an inquisitor. Practical, long pants, a white linen shirt, and a broad smirk curving up, slightly to the left.
“I- I- I’m in the Torment. This isn’t real. I’m dead. And you’re dead too, and you’re here to torture me,” said Edam.
“You got her permission to do this, right?”
“She was going to die,” said Ana, “I think she’s still out of it, between the seizure, the infection, the opium…”
“That’s dodging the question.”
The Gveert man approached her.
“Staying on topic,” he said, “It’s my professional medical opinion that you’re probably still alive.”
Edam looked around again in disbelief, looking for the trick, for the trap. It was a small tenement; a well-kept kitchen, tidy except for the area around her and the couch which seemed to have fallen into a disarray of blankets, pots, pans and a book. A copy of Tetsa’s Commentaries. The same book that Ana had been perusing before she left the Inquisition. She looked at Ana again, and grabbed her hand.
It was real. It was flesh and blood, though fuzzy through the feeling of the drugs in her system.
She looked down, grasping at herself, at the soft blankets that had soaked slightly with her sweat, at the towel on her head to wick away the heat. They were real too. She looked at Ana again. Her heart leapt with joy, with confusion, with shock. She wasn’t even certain if it was beating anymore.
“You- you saved me?”
Ana nodded sheepishly.
“Not alone. But I helped save you, yes. I thought it was unfair that you would die because of something half my fault. I just wanted to give you a second chance.”
Edam tried to get up more, and every joint in her body seemed to creak and moan at her with pain. She struggled towards Ana, using one hand to support herself and keep herself up. Ana rose and intervened almost immediately, pulling her up a little so that she was in a sitting position and getting alongside her.
“Don’t strain yourself so much,” said the Gveert man, “You’re still on the mend.”
Edam ignored him as she leaned into Ana, into the softness of her shoulder, and began to cry, half from the pain and half from the emotion.
“I thought you were dead,” she said quietly, “I thought you were dead, Ana, I thought-”
She coughed, her ribs crying out in agony.
“I thought you were gone. I thought I was never going to see you again.”
Ana grasped her head, seeming almost hesitant. Her touch was so tender that it made Edam sob.
“Hey, easy there, dear,” she said, “I know. I know. I didn’t think I was going to see you again either. And I was so afraid, you know? You were out for a whole day and a half.”
“I was actually a little skeptical that you would make it after the seizure,” said the Gveert man, “I’m Sol, by the way. I’m the person who’s been helping tend to you alongside Ana.”
Ana nodded, stroking Edam’s hair as she continued to cry.
“It’s okay. I’m okay, Edam,” she said very sweetly, “I’m fine. I’m alive.”
Eventually, after what felt like another eon of sobbing, she came to her senses and managed to clear the tears from her eyes with an aching hand. She looked around again.
“Wait,” she said, still a little hazy, “Did you help break me out, Varna?”
She shook her head.
“No. It was all Ana’s idea, apparently,” said Varna, “I just managed to find her after the prison break. It was pretty easy in the end. I knew Sol was involved somehow, so I sniffed him out and insisted on a house visit.”
“It wasn’t all me. I had a few friends and contacts help me along the way,” said Ana humbly, “I wouldn’t leave them out of the credit.”
Varna nodded in agreement. Edam felt a growing disquiet in her stomach.
“I- I need a moment. I need- could- could everyone but Ana leave, please?”
Sol and Varna shrugged, and walked to a stairwell, where they ascended up. Edam tried to catch her breath several times as she composed herself, glancing over to Ana occasionally.
“Ana,” she asked quietly, “What are your intentions with me?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I- I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why I’m worth so much to you as to do this.”
She really didn’t. The possibility of Ana loving her – genuinely, honestly loving her – still felt foreign and bizarre. She looked down at the scars on her arms, again and again, tracing them with her eyes. Ana seemed to contemplate this for a moment.
“I knew this could have happened,” said Ana, “And I want to give you a good freedom of choice here. I know that even though I saved you, you might not want to be with me. I would understand that.”
The prospect was daunting. Being with her. It meant too many things.
“It just – it feels wrong for me to ask you to risk your life for me.”
“Well, we’re a bit past that,” said Ana wryly.
Edam chuckled a little, then coughed from the pain. Ana grasped her hand.
“But more seriously,” said Ana, “I know that before we were just… we weren’t as involved. We couldn’t have been. And I want to respect that. I wanted to give you a second chance at life, not just with me. If you want nothing to do with me after you recover, I would gladly take that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it might be best if Varna took care of you until you’re well enough to handle things on her own, as opposed to me.”
Both options felt tempting in equal measure. She looked at Ana again. Her short hair, her smile, even the way she laid on the couch seemed to have almost totally transformed from her time in the Inquisition. There was still that hint of formality, but much of it had been replaced with a natural sort of confidence, instead of the trained kind that they were taught. It felt almost as dangerous as the witchcraft she had committed to start her exile.
It felt, in an equal measure, intoxicating. It was a part of Ana she had scarcely seen during her time with the Inquisition.
Their time with the Inquisition. Edam had to remind herself. She was out of it now too. It felt strange and sad to even think about. She was too tired to consider it at any length.
“No,” said Edam, “You can- you can take care of me. But I’m still not sure if I’ll want to- if-”
“I understand. A confession of love in court isn’t everything. I’m certain you have your reasons, and I’ll back off on any of the more romantic things.”
She retreated her hand from Edam’s head, and almost immediately she felt its absence as keenly as its presence. It was as if she had suddenly been stripped of some vital organ that she was formerly unaware of, present just on her left shoulder for that short while. She persevered, though. She needed to demonstrate what was going on here. She couldn’t explain – not in words – the ways in which she was broken. The ways in which Ana didn’t deserve a woman like her.
There were other ways, though. An inkling of a plan started to form in her mind. It was not much of a plan at all – in fact, it was contemptibly stupid, and she knew it was a bad idea. It was, however, the only thing she could come up with in the haze of opium and pain. It could come later, when the time was right. She just needed a bath.
“It’s not you,” added Edam, “What you’ve done, you saving me, it’s- it’s indescribable. I have no clue how you even managed it. I’d like to hear it in detail sometime.”
Ana scratched her head.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes,” said Edam blearily, “Don’t hide from me. You’ve lied to me already once with this witchcraft business. I want- I don’t know if I want to be with you, but I want to be friends with you at the very least, if only for a little while longer. I want to know you and I want to explain to you all the things- why- why I couldn’t come with you at first and why I wasn’t loyal to you.”
“I don’t blame you for not coming with me,” said Ana quietly, “Really. It made the most sense for you to act like that. It was foolish of me to expect otherwise.”
“Not foolish. Hopeful, I think.”
“Very fine hair you’re splitting there-”
Ana cut herself off before saying dear. At the very least, Edam appreciated the commitment to not imposing anything on her. It was very noble of her.
“It’s an important one to split,” said Edam, suddenly feeling very exhausted.
“Well, thank you for making the distinction,” said Ana, “But you should really keep on resting.”
Ana reached up and gently touched Edam’s forehead.
“Still have a fever. Get your rest until dinnertime, alright? You don’t have to sleep, but at least lay your head down. I’ll fix your next batch of medicine.”
Quietly, Edam laid back again, too exhausted to do anything but obey Ana’s command. She quietly went over the plan in her mind. It was simple. Foolproof. It was a necessary disclosure. Even if it meant that Ana would reject her, she had to do it. She watched Ana through half-lidded eyes as she carefully made the next dose.
She didn’t deserve her. Not by half.