Edam jolted up, looking for her attacker, and found herself blind. She grasped hard at the floor beneath her, and yelped as she lost her balance, falling in the dark. For a moment, black-green afterimages of her enemies flared behind her eyes; sickening demon-figments that blistered through the back of her skull and onto her eyelids. She was blind, tumbling, and then-
A strong hand grabbed her, lifted her back up, and placed her onto the bed.
“Woah, there. Almost fell off the bed.”
She looked around, still too stunned to get her bearings, choking on her own breath. She coughed and felt Ana reach out and touch her hand. She reflexively recoiled and curled into a fetal position at the edge of the bed. Her body shuddered and remembered that she was in the new bedroom. It was late at night; almost no light at all came through the shuttered window.
“Sorry,” Ana whispered, somewhere beside her, “I heard you having a nightmare and tried to wake you. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
She coughed again.
“Did I – did I accidentally hit you?”
“You batted my hand away. Not even a scratch on me. You didn’t know what was going on.”
Edam held herself tighter. She felt very foolish.
“Oh, Saints. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t know what was going on. You sound very frightened. How about you take a breath, dear?”
She tried, and choked again.
“Can I hold you?”
Edam tried to breath in again to calm herself. Her lungs didn’t obey, only inhaling sharply, harshly.
“Yes,” she stuttered, “Please.”
She collapsed backwards onto the bed, and Ana curled around her. She stroked her face with one hand, the other loosely held at her midriff. It was soothing, soft, gentle as silk. Ana whispered to her again.
“You didn’t hurt me. You were just scared, and you were coming out of a nightmare. I noticed you had one last night too, and I figured that if I could get you out of it it’d help. But-”
“Mm-hm,” said Ana, “You didn’t do anything wrong, hummingbird. Nothing at all. I was just so worried, you know? I heard you murmuring in your sleep. You’ve always been a restless sleeper, but never quite like this.”
“It’s been hard.”
“I know,” said Ana, and Edam knew that she knew. She squeezed Edam’s midriff a little as she drew her in closer.
“I don’t know how to help you,” she said, her voice a little strained, “But I want to make you happy. I really do hate seeing you so torn up inside. I hate knowing that you’re hurt and there’s no way to soothe you and ease you besides just… holding and talking to you.”
Edam nodded, taking care not to bump Ana’s head.
“It’s okay. This is helping. It is. I just- I feel so bad for hitting you like that.”
The guilt was already weighing heavy on her chest, on her scars.
“There’s no need, Edam. Seriously. Don’t fret over batting my hand in a nightmare.”
Edam rolled over until she was facing Ana. She felt the warmth of her breath so close to her chin. She put her nose to Ana’s, her forehead to Ana’s.
“I know. It’s not fair to you to put that guilt out there like that. It’s not even rational. It’s not- I wish I just could put these scars away so that guilt wouldn’t weigh on them, so I wouldn’t feel it.”
“Of course, dear,” said Ana, “If talking helps, I’ll listen to you all year. I love hearing your voice.”
Edam smiled a little.
“Talking about the nightmares does help. I only really told another person once about them. Most of them don’t make much sense – not really.”
“Tell me anyway.”
Edam rolled a finger through her hair, concentrating and trying to remember what she had seen.
“I don’t remember anything from this night. I think you waking me up distracted me from it. I was – I think I was running? Something was after me, that was for sure. And you weren’t there with me. I remember devils somehow being involved. And it was far too hot. And then something – you grabbed me. And I batted it away and nearly fell off the bed.”
“And my cousin was there.”
She saw him again, beastly and vain and pious all at once. He was probably in a pile of paperwork right now, or else stalking some anonymous street looking for her. If he wasn’t a member of the Order of Tattered Skin, he might have sent himself away, recused himself from the case for his conflict of interest. The bluecoats had their ways, though; they had more power than the rest, and fewer numbers, and so she bet that he’d simply keep following her. That much she had certain in her head. She shuddered.
“You’re safe here in my arms,” said Ana.
“I know,” said Edam listlessly.
Ana squeezed her a little tighter, and sure enough she felt a little safer. Edam knelt her head a little further forward, and let her lips meet Ana’s. Ana kissed her with the sort of softness that felt rare, ephemeral; a restrained touch of the lips, and little else. Edam took the opportunity to grasp the back of Ana’s head and kiss her back as hard as she could, until her lungs felt like they might give out and she was breathing heavily again. It was hard to tell in the dark, but Ana sounded just as satisfied with it. She rolled away a little.
“Saints, it’s early, isn’t it? Or late?”
“I think it’s early,” said Ana.
“It’s just – I know you make me feel safe, but you’re not going to be around all the time.”
The thought had been bothering her for a little while now. Ana had been her constant companion since she had recovered, but she knew it couldn’t be a permanent state of affairs.
“I’ll be around as much as possible,” said Ana adamantly.
“Ana,” said Edam, “You and I both know that even if you were joined to me at the hip someone or some circumstance would split us apart eventually. I don’t think it’s realistic.”
“I know,” said Ana, “I’ll stille try.”
“And even then, I’m going to want my loneliness every once and a while.”
“You want loneliness?”
“I think everyone does want loneliness, sometimes. Or at the very least, they want to be alone and undisturbed. Not that I’m ungrateful to come back to bed every night and sleep by your side and all of that, peron, but I need some time alone.”
“I understand that.”
“And I want to feel safe then too, and you won’t be there, and…”
Ana nodded, rubbing a thumb into the muscles of her midriff. They laid there in silence for a while, and Ana hugged her again. Somewhere in the distance, the pigeons and other little birds of the city began to chirp and whistle. The sun wasn’t up yet, but they were.
“Early it is,” said Edam, “I’m sorry for waking you.”
“I needed to run an errand today anyways,” said Ana.
She very carefully extricated from Ana, and when she looked over to the window, light was just beginning to filter in through the slats of the blind. Ana was caught in it and she was gorgeous. The chiaroscuro made her look like she was wearing a mask in profile, soft beams of light showing only her sleep-weary eyes through the mask. Edam sat up in bed and paid attention.
“Actually, why don’t you run along?” Asked Ana.
“Hm? Do you need me for it?”
“Edam, you’ve been cooped up inside for so long that I think you’re starting to get cabin fever. You’re having nightmares. Come with me. Get some sun while you can. It seems like whatever attention we caught with the break is dead for now.”
Edam nodded, then remembered that Ana probably couldn’t see her in the dark.
“No maybes,” said Ana, “I’m dragging you along to see one of my friends, you’re going to enjoy it.”
Edam pursed her lips with skepticism.
“I’m going to enjoy Blackwood?”
“It has its charms,” said Ana, “And besides, we’ll be headed a little out of it to see my friend.”
Edam was frankly unimpressed, but the sun did sound nice. More and more of it was pouring into the room, filling it up. Inch by inch it seemed like a much better prospect.
“Alright, I’ll admit, I’ve been too insular. Too cooped up. But I won’t make a decision before breakfast..”
“That’s the spirit.”
Ana went over to the other side of the dim room, and grabbed clothes from the dresser, producing one of Edam’s dresses and some of her own clothes. She threw Edam the dress, and slowly got out of her old shirt from the previous night. Bit by bit, she unbuttoned her shirt. When they were both under chastity, Edam would go to the other room or find some excuse to be elsewhere whenever Ana was changing, and vice-versa. Now, though, she simply turned her back and swiftly changed out of her night-gown and into her dress. It took the last bits of sleep out of her. She struggled with the strings on the back before finally cocking her head back and looking to Ana again.
“Could you help me with this, Ana?”
Ana leaned over, shifting her weight on the thin mattress as she did. She tied the last two awkward strings with a quiet surety.
“You’re the best. Thank you.”
Edam turned around to see Ana, mostly dressed in a rather masculine outfit, her shirt still half-buttoned around the slight curve of her breasts. She reached out and caressed Ana’s face, before leaning into her and kissing her right where her neck met her chest; then another, on her throat, long enough to taste her; then again on her lips. Ana leaned back and Edam could make out just the outline of a heady, drunken grin.
“I forgot to thank you for being so comforting to me,” said Edam, “And for inviting me along.”
“That’s how you say thank you? You might as well torture me.”
“What? Falling back on protocol to save yourself from the onerous and cruel way I kiss you?”
She rolled her head back, and chuckled.
“That’s straight from the book of ecclesiastic law isn’t it? Onerous and cruel? You’re a funny little bird, you know that?”
Edam rose, and walked to the kitchen. The apartment was quite cramped on the whole; two bedrooms and one bathroom didn’t make much difference if the living room, dining room and kitchen were essentially all the same room. Ana walked up close behind her as she took eggs, butter and bread and firewood to the stove. She slowly opened the door of the thing, lit it with a long match, and set it ablaze. Before long, she was frying two eggs, toasting the bread and sharing it with Ana over breakfast. She savored the short moment in the early morning, with the birds making a ruckus outside and the city slowly waking from its nightly reverie. She focused on Ana; how she would ever-so-carefully split open the egg on her plate, and how she would cut it with her knife; how she would sop up the yolk with a piece of toasted bread; how it met her inviting lips. She cleaned her mouth with a handkerchief, rose, and went and grabbed a small messenger bag that had sat derelict on the floor of the room for several days. Edam grabbed her own bag; a smaller one, with what foci Ana could salvage in it. It was such a small gesture at such considerable risk that Edam couldn’t help but admire it. She thought it was prudent to bring them along, just in case something went so sideways that they were required. Besides, it’d be nice to bring an example of her work when speaking to another sorcerer. They put on their shoes, and headed out into the fresh day.
At once, it was brighter and less bright than she should have expected. The streets of Blackwood had a tendency to grow thin and sharp in their shape. At this time of day it meant that the rising sun would cast vast shadows over the streets, obscured and broken up by the innumerable buildings. The sky was covered with grey-purple bruising clouds, and the first workers of the day had started to come out of their tenements. Most were dark-eyed sailors, porters, tradesmen and conmen alike, burdened with their labors and burdened with the previous night’s liquor and burdened with regrets. A lucky few bore it with a sort of unnatural vigor and gladness. Edam wasn’t certain if it was a facade or a genuine love for their labors, or if they were just putting on a mask. Perhaps it was both. There were days with her cousin back in Agora where she simply pretended to be happy, and days where that mask simply became her and they had a pleasant day together. It still felt incongruous, those unpleasant days in the Agoran hills. The honeysuckle would grow thick their this time of year, and they’d go out to pick flowers together, or else they’d study together. For a while, Imera could seem sensible. He could even seem sweet.
Ana seemed to notice her rumination, and put an arm around her as they walked.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Everything and nothing, dear. Don’t worry about it.”
She looked at Ana again.
“Ana, can I ask something?”
“Why do you dress like that?”
“Don’t play dumb,” said Edam, now whispering a little in her ear, “You look like a workman.”
“I- well, yes. It’s to blend in better. Look at the other working women out here. They wear clothes like this: pants, white shirts, heavy boots. It’s honestly not that far from the way that I was dressing back with our former employers. Plus, it’s practical.”
“You always say that whenever you have an excuse to wear pants,” said Edam.
“I always say it because it’s always true.”
“It makes you look mannish. I mean…”
She frankly looked like a transvestite, but Edam didn’t want to be that rude.
“And they’re looking for a woman,” said Ana, “Two women, now. But from a distance…”
“We look like a man and a woman walking together,” said Edam, understanding a little better.
“Exactly. We’re far from what they’re looking for.”
“Clever,” admitted Edam.
“Thank you, dear.”
“So, who are we going to see?”
“Her name is Dzhate,” said Ana, “She was the one who saw you out of that jam. Well, one of the ones. I’m sure she’d love to meet you. She’s very much a fan of meeting new kinds of people, and she’s fascinated with sorcery. She’d love to pick your brain on it.”
“Sounds fun,” said Edam, thinking of what she might say already. It had been a while since she had a chance to talk shop with someone. Ana could keep up with her for a while, but she was more interested in the practical applications of foci than any of the fineries of theory.
“Edam, you are one of the few people I know that would find that sort of academic work fun.”
“Who else do you know?”
“Dzhate, for one,” said Ana, “I like listening to you about that, but I could talk with you about anything and be amused. You’ve got a good passion for things.”
“Just in general, Edam, you’ve got a nice way of speaking. Maybe I just like the sound of your voice, but besides that you’re a good speaker on your own. And that makes you very pleasant to talk to about things I might normally find uninteresting. You make them interesting.”
Edam smiled and felt herself blush a little.
They walked towards the outskirts as an odd couple. The tenements and shops became less tightly packed and better-built as they exited Blackwood, losing their distinctive hue of cheap brown-black wood. She wondered a little if the color came in part from the sheer amount of soot in the air. The district seemed to spew it up in such quantities that it did almost seem plausible that it could have settled that deep into the wood. If she didn’t know its history – that it was named so just after it built, long before any such staining could have occurred – she would have believed her own supposition. Out here, though, the houses were built much sturdier, with the thin, tightly stacked tenements and townhouses giving way to far more sensible, upright, unstained buildings.
Eventually, they came to a darkened, overgrown home on the outskirts where the streets had grown long and thick. People streamed around to their daily task. Ana walked up first, with Edam peering around her curiously. She knocked on the door three times before a young girl opened it. She was a curious little thing, with one eye blue and the other brown. She discerned both of them with weary eyes.
“Early, isn’t it Merya? And who’s your friend back there?”
“Safra,” said Edam, “You must be Dzhate’s daughter.”
She looked at Edam, then at Ana with a sort of plaintive disgust.
“I am Dzhate. Do not mistake it.”
“Apologies,” said Edam hastily, “I’ve just wanted to meet you. I’ve heard about you, you know.”
“Mm,” said Dzhate, “Please. Come in.”
She entered the darkened home, and was immediately awed. The house was utterly covered with runework, subtle and gross. It came in oil paint; in thick whorls that shifted across the walls somewhere between graffiti and sorcery, and there was a distinct artistry to them that Edam could appreciate. It was one thing to make a utilitarian foci. It was another to make them look beautiful. It was a whole other skill to do that on this scale. Deeper than that, there were also carvings and engravings to match the patterns of paint. It was very fine work indeed.
“Fascinating,” said Edam.
“Hm?” Intoned Dzhate.
“This hallway,” said Edam, tracing the wall, “It’s the first place people would walk into and it’s… a trap? Azure mana, I’m guessing.”
She looked up at Dzhate.
“Not to imply that you’d be inhospitable.”
“Not at all,” said Dzhate, “What’s fascinating about it?”
“The runes, the refinement, it’s very flowing. So flowing that I find it hard to believe there’s a direct hostile intent here. No, there’s a different thing at play. This rune here – Veleda, I think it’s for water. You’re making something that draws out water, maybe? No, that doesn’t quite work with azure.”
“Getting warmer,” said Dzhate.
Ana watched on, bemused.
“I have a package to deliver.”
“Shush,” said Dzhate.
“Don’t shush her,” said Edam, “If she mouths off, I’ll shush her.”
“Thank you,” said Ana.
“Shush, peron, I’m trying to concentrate.”
Ana chuckled. Dzhate smirked.
“Agoran accent, Agoran look, Agoran name. I think I’m getting who you are now.”
“And I’m getting a bit of you. You’re very interesting, Dzhate. You’ve got an eye for art and for refinement. You make traps, but you aren’t violent. Water, water, water.”
She whistled, observing how the whorls met the floor.
“Does the floor… partially liquify?”
Dzhate looked at the still-silent Ana with a gentle grin.
“Edamosfa, isn’t it? So you’re the one who I let out of prison.”
Edam looked over to her.
“You guessed it. How close am I?”
“On the money,” said Dzhate, shrugging in defeat, “You’re very clever with sorcery. I have never met – while, I suppose to be accurate, you are a former inquisitor, but I have never met such a person or had a chance to plumb their minds.”
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance as well,” extending a hand, which Dzhate took, “I could show you some of my work, if you want.”
She shook her bag.
“I’m not a dog,” said Dzhate, “Ana, you said you had my package.”
Ana reached into her pack, and produced a heavy, leather-bound book.
“The Grimoire of Lenan. As requested.”
Dzhate took the book in her hand, and beckoned them down to the kitchen. They all sat.
“The Grimoire of Lenan,” thought Edam aloud, “Isn’t that mostly-”
“Pornography?” Asked Dzhate rhetorically, “That’s the Grimoire of Benan.”
“I was going to say, ‘heretical sorcery and banned techniques.’”
“Yes, well,” Dzhate stopped as she thumbed through the book heavily, “Hm. This is also pornography. Er. Well. Hm.”
“Very odd. Moving on, yes, I am primarily interested in the occult. Do you know where the word occult comes from in the Kolet language, Ms. Edam?”
Edam shrugged. Linguistics was never her best subject. Learning Kolet was easy because she was on the border, and Veleda similarly simple by virtue of its relation to Agoran.
“Can’t say I do.”
“It comes from the old days of the nobility. The nobility loved their secrets, their methods and their spiritual superiority to the common man. Thus they hid the secrets of spiritual and vital enlightenment and forbidden and powerful sorcery from the masses by occlusion of the eye. And from occlusion came the occult. It is forbidden knowledge. It was not for the common man to see. Now, these aged and wise priests of the Sepulcher have come along – and they are more egalitarian, but they are not of the mind to give out all knowledge freely.”
“Some such things are dangerous for the public,” said Edam, “You wouldn’t give a child a knife or a gun, after all.”
She looked up from the book, her mismatched eyes glaring at her intensely.
“I am no child.”
“I didn’t mean to say so.”
“You implied it,” said Dzhate, “And that is the key there. It is a parochial sense of authority – a paternal one – that hides the publics eyes so. I wish to see behind the veil.”
She flipped another page.
“A-ha. Here it is.”
She dog-earred the book, and shut it weightily.
“Now, Edam,” she said, “You shook your bag earlier. You want to show me something as well.”
Edam produced her mask first – her pride and joy – and Dzhate took it gingerly. Ana continued to observe in a bemused silence, seeming happy that they were getting along relatively well. She looked at it, cocked her head, and smiled as she nodded.
“For perfect balance, or something like that?”
“You’re pretty good at this too.”
Edam thought for a moment.
“I was clumsy as a child,” she said, “Even if I’ve lost that, I haven’t lost the fear of that. Would rather not have to focus on my balance in a fight. Plus, it’s an advantage most opponents don’t expect.”
“Very well done,” said Dzhate, smiling for a moment. She cocked her head again.
“Edam, I work mostly alone. However, have you ever considered commissions?”