It was two days after Edam woke up that she fell apart again. Ana had done her best to take care of Edam throughout her sickness, and day by day she seemed to grow in strength. Soon, she could walk a short while without Ana’s help anymore, which was something of a relief for both of them. Ana had been a bit crestfallen at her request for more time, but she had seen it coming. It was very much like Tros to provide such a convenient answer and such a troublesome dilemma. Even touching her felt quite sensitive to Ana. She didn’t want to take advantage of Edam’s infirmity, and so only carrying her when she asked was the policy. Still, it pained Edam; her joints were still stiff, and she’d sigh heavily whenever she reached her destination before slouching into a chair and sighing. When it got late in the day, she’d need help, and Ana would oblige, and try not to relish the touch.
It was hard not to relish it, though. Ana couldn’t tell if it was just left-over remnants of fever, but her skin was very warm.
The second day was very normal until noon. Ana had made a quick lunch of bread and sausage for both of them. Edam picked at her food as she sheepishly ate it. Mealtimes were the most awkward part. Before, they usually talked about local occurrences, or their studies, or theology. Now neither of them were truly studying the Scriptures, theology was a sensitive subject, and neither of them had truly gone out in quite a few days. Ana wanted to relate to her everything she had been doing, but it was hard to broach that subject. She hardly knew where to start. With the illegal fighting ring? Surely that would scare her off even more. With her equally-illegal relationship to an eccentric, teenaged crime lord? Ana doubted Edam would even believe her on that count without evidence.
Luckily for her, Edam broke the silence.
“I need a proper bath.”
“A bath,” said Edam, “I smell like prison.”
“You smell fine to me,” said Ana.
“Of course I do to you. Whether either of us wants it or not, you’re still at least a little smitten with me. I, on the other hand, smell like tuberculosis.”
“You do not smell that bad,” insisted Ana, “And tuberculosis doesn’t smell like much of anything. Except blood, maybe, but it’s hard to smell that unless you’re a dog or if there’s an awful lot of it.”
“My point stands.”
“As does mine, by that logic. You don’t smell like anything, so you smell like tuberculosis,” said Ana wryly.
Edam sighed and smiled.
“I just want a bath.”
“Alright, fine. I’ll draw up the water for it later. Though…”
Ana shifted uncomfortably.
“But the seizure…”
“I’m just worried, you’re still getting out of that fever. I mean, you’re almost out of it, you’ve gotten a lot better, but what if you have another seizure while you’re in the bath.”
Edam finished her food and pressed into her brow in consternation.
“Did I cry out during it?”
“Not really. You did vomit a little, but frankly that only makes me more worried.”
Worried didn’t cover half of how Ana felt about it. It terrified her. She felt lucky Sol had been nearby to set a pillow beneath her head and make sure she wouldn’t hurt herself. She knew what to do now, but then it had been a blur of motion and fear.
Edam looked up at her.
“Alright then. Stay in the washroom while I bathe. If something happens, you’ll be there.”
Ana looked at Edam seriously.
“I thought you wanted more time to figure things out. You being nude around me, that doesn’t sound like a de-escalation. Are you sure you want that?”
Edam sighed and leaned back, looking out to the well.
“If I wasn’t comfortable with it, I wouldn’t have asked. But after some thought, I might ask you to close your eyes for it. I don’t exactly want you to see me naked.”
Ana nodded. That seemed more agreeable, more well-paced for both of them.
“Alright. It’s not that I think you’re going to have a seizure or anything, it’s just-”
“You’re worried. I know. That’s why I’m letting you in. I… I guess I trust you enough to keep your eyes closed, and open them when I tell you to. You saved my life without me even asking.”
“Well, you did confess your love to me under oath.”
“It is sort of an ask, even if you didn’t mean it to be. At least for me it is.”
Edam chuckled a little.
“Yeah, maybe it is. Alright, maybe draw up that bath an hour before dinner?”
Ana nodded, and the two started to pass the time after lunch. Edam spent much of the day off her feet, reading quietly. It was nice to see her with her nose in a book again, and Sol was happy to lend a few of his more interesting texts. Ana, meanwhile, took care of chores. She went out briefly to get ingredients for the night’s soup – a smaller portion, since Sol said he was going out on the town and wouldn’t be back until midnight. She tidied the temporary quarters where Edam and her had been staying; Edam on the more secure and comfortable couch and Ana on a makeshift bed of blankets and small cushions. Edam had been swiftly weaned from the regimen of opium, at her own insistence, but she still took regular doses of the lotus tree. That would also need to be tapered eventually, but only once they were absolutely certain that the fever was gone. The withdrawal for that was far easier than long-term opium use, though, more akin to a bad hangover than anything else.
Eventually, she heard the bells tolling somewhere in the city, and she went about putting the bath in order. She rolled up her sleeves for the work, and drew up the clean water from the well in a bucket. The wooden bathtub filled bucket by bucket, the dark wood giving the impression that the water itself was a near-black shade that shimmered with the light through the shades. When it was about three-quarters to the brim, Ana called for Edam and guided her to the bathroom. She stayed as steady as she could in her state as she walked to the bathroom, and Ana sat on the bench next to the basin.
Edam walked over to the basin, and then looked back.
“Ana,” she chided softly, “Close your eyes, remember?”
“Oh,” said Ana, “Apologies.”
She shut her eyes tightly, and tried to focus on the sounds of the city. Outside, the people of Kallin were talking, drinking, yelling, and living. A donkey brayed; another bell, the one that was always late for some reason, played out again. That, though, felt tiny compared to the immense sound of Edam. Ana could hear here unclasp her dress. She heard her breath in heavily. She swore she even heard the sound of Edam’s foot just touching the cool water on the hot, humid day before she submerged the rest of her leg, and then her whole body. Ana exhaled, and kept herself calm.
And then, Ana heard it even more clearly.
Edam began to scrub her body with the sponge, and she heard her singing, without muffling walls or distractions.
Amurd edas, atiar edas,
Edach feron, peron, peron,
I vonach śim, tiar bellas
Śecidh, edach feron, peron.
She continued, a blur of Agoran singing and soft sounds of scrubbing. The words peron and feron, the same ones Edam had called her so often kept coming up. Ana felt like it was such a pleasant, calming word; a perfect two syllables that seemed to lull her towards sleep. With her eyes closed, and the day so humid and threatening a thunderstorm, the idea seemed very pleasant. But she had promised to be a watchdog, and so she paid very close attention to Edam with her ears. Luckily, there was no sign of that happening. Even after she stopped with that song, she kept humming softly, a steady signal that she was still there and fully conscious. Ana knew she wasn’t the best singer by most standards; her voice nearly broke a few times, and she faltered on a word occasionally, but nonetheless it was very beautiful.
After a good bit of washing, Ana heard her get out of the bath. She heard water roll off of Edam’s skin and back into the bathtub, and then some more dripping onto the ground before she grabbed the towel and began to dry herself off. She walked over to the bench, and there was a rustling of cloth as she sat down.
“Ana,” she said, “You can open your eyes now.”
Then, Ana saw her. She was half-nude; one arm wrapped tightly around her breasts, the other limp at her side. The dark, wet hair clung to her neck and the center of her back as she leaned forward, pulled out of its curliness by the gravity of the water. Ana couldn’t help but appreciate the subtle curve of her hips; the softness of her belly and the ways her neck and chest and muscles all weaved together. That, though, paled to the scars. Most were placed with a sort of grid-like logic, marking down the area around her belly. A set of pinprick-mark scars sat on her sternum, right above where her heart was.
At first she tried to count them, and then she realized that might have been the point. They were not the rough, complex scars of a fight or a struggle, but ordered like tally marks up to her ribs, to two thick, curved scars beneath her breasts. More tallies marked her arms, the ones she had seen before when Edam’s sleeves had been rolled up. They were sparse enough there that Ana had assumed them to be the result of some kind of nasty fight or accident. Now, with the whole picture, it felt clarified; there was a system to them. A number to each. Furthermore, some were certainly older than others. The oldest were deeply faded, far from the darker grey-brown of the fresher scar tissue. She had been treated like this for a long time. As she twisted ever so slightly, Ana saw her back, her muscles strained from the stress of merely showing herself like this. Woven with them were long, jagged scars. They were unmistakably the result of a whipping. Maybe many whippings.
Edam glanced away in shame.
“I don’t know how else to tell you,” she said, “A woman like me doesn’t deserve you. That’s why I’m reticent. You don’t deserve someone this- this-”
She choked, and Ana’s heart nearly broke in two. She sat in silence, watching as Edam began to cry. Part of her reflexively started reaching for what she had been taught about this sort of thing. She dismissed the reflex just as quickly. Edam clearly didn’t want or need an interrogation. Ana reached out a hand to Edam’s open one.
Edam pulled away.
“What are you-”
“I just want to hold your hand while we talk. Nothing else,” said Ana honestly, “If you don’t want that, it’s fine.”
Edam looked at her with understandable suspicion before letting her hold her hand again. Ana rubbed her thumb into Edam’s palm, hoping that it would soothe her a little as she silently cried. She didn’t sob. She seemed far too exhausted to sob. Instead, she suffered in silence. Ana looked away from her body, hoping to keep her at ease.
“I think I understand what you mean now. I’m not dissuaded, though. You say that you don’t deserve me. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I want you, whether you deserve me or not. And-”
She turned her head, and looked into Edam’s eyes. The reflex returned, and this time she honed it to a fine point. Not to interrogate; to reassure.
“I think both you and I know that you’ve been treated poorly for a long time. And I think both you and I know that you can get accustomed to being treated poorly. It can become normal. And I think, even though you said that you don’t deserve me, I think you know you deserve better. I think you do, whether that’s me or someone else. You do.
Edam looked at her for what felt like an eon. She reached up Ana’s hand to her forearm.
“Hold me,” she said shakily, “Hold me, Ana. Please.”
Ana obliged her at once, gingerly embracing her. She felt Edam shudder at the sensation of fingertips on the damp, cool skin of her back, and Ana adjusted herself so that she wouldn’t have her hands directly on Edam. She then pulled herself tightly to Edam, letting Edam’s head fall into the crook of her shoulder. The tears were well and truly flowing now, hot enough that Ana could feel them pierce through the fabric of her shirt and onto the skin beneath.
“I was so alone,” she cried, “I missed you. I missed you so badly that I can hardly even explain it. I missed you-”
The rest was too muffled for Ana to make out, but she understood.
“I missed you too.”
They held each other for a long while before eventually Edam pulled away, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes. Ana quickly turned away as she put her dress the rest of the way on.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t have-”
“It’s fine,” said Ana, “You don’t have anything to apologize for. Do you think you can walk back to the couch, or do you want me to help you?”
“Helping would be good. I feel unsteady.”
Ana was careful as she supported Edam all the way back to the couch, where she sat and sighed. Ana quickly tamped down the fire a little to stop the pot of soup from boiling over, and then looked at Edam again. She cocked her head.
“Your hair has a knot in it,” noted Ana, “Want me to comb it out?”
Edam nodded, and handed a comb over to her. Ana sat beside her so that she could touch her hair, gently rolling the wet strands over her hand until she found the matted knot that Edam had acquired in prison. To her surprise, Edam slowly leaned into Ana, pressing back against her with a gentle insistence. She started to comb through, feeling her flinch as she had to pull a little harder to get through the knot.
“Sorry, comrade,” said Ana reflexively, “I guess we aren’t comrades anymore. I guess it’s time we talked about that.”
“Yes,” said Edam, “It’s hard not to think about. I just keep thinking about how… how condemned I am to the Torment.”
“Mmhm?” Intoned Ana as she continued to comb Edam’s hair.
“I have awful nightmares. I’ve been having them since my cousin came around. And I just keep thinking, I’m going to the Torment, I am, I am, I am. I took part in the Machevin Rite for nearly a decade now.”
Ana shuddered. She could connect the dots well-enough now. That meant she had been doing it since she was twelve, give or take. The idea of subjecting a child to that sort of treatment made her stomach churn. She wanted to ask for more, but she knew she had to be careful.
“And I take it your cousin did most of the punishment.”
Edam shifted. Ana waited in anticipation, worried that she had said the wrong thing.
“Most of it. Some… I did to myself. And he watched, to make sure I did it properly. And he humiliated me. Made me humble again. It-”
“I know what he did to me, what he did to that thaumaturge, it was wrong. I know it. And I still keep thinking that I’m sinful, that I deserved it, and I need to hurt myself again. I just keep thinking that.”
Ana nodded softly, combing deeper until she was satisfied that all the tangles of hair were out.
“I’m not judging you,” she said, “I understand wanting to hurt yourself. The morning after I left the Church, I thought about suicide. Maybe it wasn’t the same kind of false guilt, not the same sin, but I felt it. And as far as I’m concerned, you’re very virtuous, you know that?”
“I know,” said Edam, “I know. You’re a little biased, but it does feel good to hear you say it. I’m not planning on hurting myself anytime soon. But the thought keeps coming up.”
“Normally, when I get thoughts like that, I pray. But I understand why you wouldn’t want to do that right now. Biased? I’m just as versed in the Scripture as you are. The worst thing you’ve done recently was impiety by disobeying the Church, and that can be repented for bloodlessly.”
“Mm,” said Edam, “It’s kind of you to say that.”
“Really,” said Ana, “Once we get you a proper disguise, I’ll take you to church, if that’s what you want.”
Edam nodded, and pulled away until she was sitting opposite to Ana on the couch.
“I just… I feel empty. I was so ready to die, so ready that I thought I was dead while I was in the fit of the fever, and now I’m back in the world of the living, peron.”
Edam looked strained, stressed. It wasn’t the look of her in combat, but it was close; the her that Ana had seen most commonly on stake-outs, and the night her cousin came knocking. It was a constant sort of vigilance, her eyes shifting from place to place and avoiding Ana’s gaze. It was an oddity, but Ana was understanding of her tendency to look away from people while speaking. It was just her way. This, though, the pain it was putting her through to be this stressed, felt awful to Ana. Her heart keened in her chest in sympathy.
“I want you,” said Edam, “I’m afraid. I want you, and that still scares me even when there’s no consequence for it. You’re taken by me, and that scares me even though there’s nothing to make me afraid.”
Ana nodded solemnly. She felt as if Edam was holding something back, though. She took another chance.
“It’s okay if you have something more to say. I mean, I know you’ve been holding this back for a while. I thought that it was just on account of you being born out of wedlock that you didn’t like talking about family, but this…”
Ana shook her head.
“It’s a lot. I don’t know how to describe how I feel about it either. Angry? Sad? I’m not sure which.”
“I’m sorry,” said Edam.
She thinks she’s at fault, thought Ana, immediately parsing the sentiment behind the words, She really does feel so guilty about it that she’s taking the blame by default.
“I mean – not at you, Edam, you didn’t make me angry. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that I was around you for so long, and you didn’t tell me, and it makes me sad to know that you were suffering this burden alone.”
Anger formed a greater portion of the emotion, a righteous, burning anger. She could imagine Imera now; his face when he put a hot poker to that poor thaumaturge. It made her want to smash him upside the head, knowing that he hadn’t just done it to her but to Edam too. Ana never had a family, not a real one; the crude alliances and dalliances of an orphanage were a harsh and unkind replacement. To corrupt the very idea of discipline, of proper punishment like that made her feel sick. But she knew also that she couldn’t show it to Edam. Raving about her cousin would probably only make her upset even if she agreed. It would be better to focus on how Edam felt for now.
“I mean, I wasn’t always alone,” mumbled Edam, “You were there for a few months. And then-”
“Yes,” said Ana, striking at the core of it, “I did betray your trust. Even if I had the best of intentions, I hurt you. And I’m sorry for that. If I can make one promise to you, it’s that I won’t lie to you like that again, betray your trust like that again. Whether I’m your friend or your lover. And again, I’d be happy to be your friend if you don’t want me to be your lover.”
“You’re very kind,” said Edam, “You keep… keep giving me that way out. I’m not sure if I can bring myself to take it. I want to be your lover. It feels like you’re the only person in the world who would treat me with this much kindness.”
She looked away, and Ana reached for her, sidling up until she could touch her cheek.
“Edam, you’re a beautiful woman.”
“I’m not,” said Edam, “Didn’t you see me back there? I have so many scars. My body- there’s just not much to love.”
Ana thought about what she was going to say next carefully, letting the silence hang in place until she had thought of a good angle of approach.
“I understand that you feel ugly because of the scars. I don’t want to forget how you feel about this sort of thing. But they don’t make you worth any less in my eyes. What your cousin did to you doesn’t make you any less beautiful. But besides that, you’re kinder than you know. You’re intelligent. And just seeing you again makes me happier than you can know. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not unique, I guess.”
Ana shrugged. It was true.
“There are plenty of other people like me who would love you. I’m a dangerous woman, I am a fugitive and a criminal and apostate and heretic to the Church, and if you want to leave, if you think that someone else would be better fit to be your lover, I would let you go. It would not be right for me to cage you or chain you to my love and my love alone. You deserve better than that.”
Edam nodded, rolling her face against Edam’s hand. It began to rain outside; first a gentle patter of water, and then quickly a torrent. The storm that had been threatening was finally here. Edam, though, was calmer. She seemed placid, soothed by the touch.
“I suppose. I understand what you’re saying. But I want you. And what you’ve said, I suppose, makes me want you more. It makes me less afraid. And it’s- it’s sort of like-”
She sighed. Somewhere in the distance, there was a flash of light and a peal of thunder.
“I slept with a man once, you know.”
“It came up in court as evidence against me. I slept with an acolyte, he’s a priest now, but then he was an acolyte, because I was lonely and I needed companionship. This was before I took the oath. And I liked him, of course, I was affectionate but…”
She trailed off before catching her line of thought.
“He didn’t make me feel safe like you do. Just you holding me makes me feel safe. I know you can fight. I know you care about me like so few would, and you say you’re not unique in that respect, but I think you are Ana. Most people wouldn’t do what you do, even if you wholly realize it. Not to mention that most people couldn’t.”
“I suppose I’m a little unusual.”
Edam rolled her eyes in exasperation, but gave up the argument. She waited for a moment before speaking again.
“Could you hold me again? I want to… I want to see if it still feels right.”
Ana did as she was told, gently putting her arms around Edam and letting her head on her chest. She took Ana’s hand and rubbed it in a little triangular pattern before speaking again.
“It still feels safe. I want this. I want this,” she said again and again, each time a little more confident. Ana stroked her hair as it dried out. She invited Edam down and the two half-fell, half-shifted to the makeshift bed on the floor of the tenement. From there, Ana could put the soup in their bowls, two good portions for each of them. Edam wormed her way into Ana’s lap under the blankets, firmly planting herself in place. Ana felt privileged that she trusted her that much. Slowly, they drank the soup, and continued their talk.
“You saying that I’m beautiful means a lot to me, you know.”
“I know,” said Ana, “And I’m not just saying it. It’s an accepted truth.”
“Accepted truth? What are you, setting up a proof for my beauty?”
“Don’t need it. It’s already accepted, so the rest of the argument logically follows.”
Edam pursed her lips in thought for a moment.
Ana scratched her head for a moment.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really think that far into the metaphor. But it’s important that you know that you’re very pretty, and I like you. And for what it’s worth, I think it means a lot to me that you feel safe around me, even with what I did to you. I know it’s not… easy to come to that conclusion.”
“I’m still a little uncertain, if I’m being frank. Weighing the pros and cons,” said Edam, “So I guess I have to ask what our relationship would look like, if we went through with this.”
“Well, I’m making money,” said Ana, “Not much, but I’m saving up, bit by bit. I pulled a lot of favors to get you out of jail, which I might eventually have to pay for in one way or another.”
“What’s the plan for the money, then?”
“Like I said the first time. We get out of the city and out of the sight of the Church. We get onboard a ship under assumed names and identities, and flee. Where to, I’m not sure. It could actually be best for us to stay in the country, just head upriver and far from any investigation. It might attract less attention than going out of the country. Then again, once we’re out of the country we’re probably in the clear, at least if we’re careful about where we’re heading.”
“I do want to see Agora again, some day. So you’ll make money. I could pitch in on that. I certainly hope you don’t intend for me to be cooped up for a few months. I’ll go mad.”
Ana shook her head.
“As long as we keep our heads down and try to be relatively unsuspicious from here on out, I don’t see any reason you couldn’t try working.”
An idea swiftly dawned on her.
“In fact, I have a friend who might want to employ your skill with foci. Her name is Dzhate, she’s one of the people who gave me the supplies I needed to get out of prison.”
Edam quirked an eyebrow before nodding.
“That sounds good,” she said.
“And there’s spare room with another friend of mine where we could live together, if you want. And we could get back into a routine of chores.”
“Just like we used to,” said Edam wistfully. She played with a strand of her hair and finished her soup, and her medicine alongside it. “It sounds nice. Um, and another thing.”
She gently touched Ana’s hand, and looked at her seriously.
“Do you want to have sex with me?”
Immediately, Ana began to panic. She was not ready for this.
“I mean- you’re still ill, aren’t you? Right now?”
Edam flicked her lightly with a single finger, and smiled.
“Not right now, you big dolt. Do you want to have sex with me in general.”
“I thought that was implied.”
“I mean, it was implied but implication can deceive you. I want to know. And I wanted to say that I’m not sure if I’m ready for that yet. It… you make me feel safe, but when I’m nude I still feel on edge. That’s why I asked you to keep your eyes closed for so long, to build up the courage for it.”
“Of course,” said Ana, “I wouldn’t want to sleep with you unless you were totally ready for it. I mean, I do want to, but you understand my meaning. And frankly I’m a little nervous about it myself, so preparation seems fine by me. We can both ease into it.”
Edam nodded. Ana leaned back and relaxed her eyes, enjoying the heat of the dying fire and the sound of the rain on the rooftops. Edam followed her and put mouth to the place where her neck and chest met, the soft warmth of her breath putting her at ease. It was an accidental, near-kiss. Ana stroked her hair gently.
“I’d… I’d like you to see me naked again,” said Edam, “I want to be more comfortable with you. With you seeing me like that, even if it puts me on edge a little, even if it makes me cry a bit. Because I feel like the next time will be a little easier, and the time after that, and the time after that.”
“Like a long journey, one step at a time,” said Ana, “And only if you’re really comfortable with it. I don’t want to pressure you at all.”
Edam nodded softly.
“Ugh, I’m exhausted. Crying always makes me so tired. You wouldn’t mind if I fell asleep like this, right?”
“Not at all, hummingbird.”
Immediately Edam shifted and shook. Ana moved in concern.
“Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
The shaking burst into a soft, tittering giggle, then a full belly laugh, and then a long groan of pain.
“Ow, ow-ow-ow,” Edam said, “You- you-”
She said something incomprehensible and probably rude in Agoran.
“You’re awful, making a sick girl with bad joints laugh at a joke like that. Now all my ribs hurt.”
Ana gently reached to the base of her ribs and massaged her there as Edam retook her original position. Ana, now confident that using a pet name hadn’t sent her into another seizure, smiled back with confusion.
“I don’t get what’s so funny about me calling you hummingbird.”
“Oh,” said Edam, “It’s not even really a joke, peron. It’s, well, in prison I was very lonely and just wanting to get out. And I imagined that if I could, I would transform into a bird, and fly away. It’s just a funny coincidence.”
“Is it a bad reminder?”
“No, no,” said Edam, “I like how it sounds. Call me hummingbird all you want. I like it. Thank you.”
Ana cradled Edam in preparation for her sleep, and she felt Edam gently kiss her on the neck. In kind, Ana kissed her on the top of her head.
“I missed hearing you laugh,” whispered Ana, “I feel like I almost forgot how pleasant it was.”
“I missed you making me laugh,” whispered Edam back.
Ana held her a little while longer until it was clear that she had drifted off into sleep, and then in turn she fell asleep herself. She was careful to keep her arms well around Edam. Ana didn’t want her to feel unsafe in the night.