Talia watches the sun set over a field of corpses.
It’s a red sunset, rich and shimmering like the blood forming rivulets between the soot-stained uniforms at her feet. A bleeding sun casting its forlorn gaze over bleeding bodies.
Bodies that Talia had danced with to the tune of swordplay not an hour ago, steel kissing steel, until hers had tasted flesh and relished it. She searches for any semblance of triumph in the colorless eyes staring back from her blade, only to find a crimson tear scurrying down its length to stain her fingers. As if her sword is weeping for her. Bleeding for her.
That’s how Talia had found Miriam, a decade and a lifetime ago. Is that how she’ll find her here too?
Because there had been hundreds of sunsets back then as well, except they'd been serene like the hilltop air they’d filled with laughter and gorgeous like the dress of caddisfly silk Talia had gifted her. And Talia has been told countless times that things have a habit of ending in the same place they begin. A sapling sprouting triumphantly out of the dirt, only to be transformed into a siege weapon for the enemy to burn back to the ground. A salmon dodging hungry talons on her way upstream, only to die on the very riverbed she’d hatched on.
A girl called Miriam, wounds sewn shut, answering her nation’s cries of distress.
Only to bleed all over again.
It’s a cruel and vicious circle, and Talia wants to break it. Grab the loose ends and string it into a kinder shape; a heart, maybe, or a star. She wants to take the circle in the sky, the one halfway down the horizon’s throat, and freeze it in place. An eternal sunset, where she and Miriam can just… be.
Where Miriam doesn’t have to wait for Talia to find her in this godforsaken place, while they both watch the world end around them.
(“I hate the sun,” Talia had muttered sleepily an eternity ago, before her realm declared war on Miriam's.
They’d both been lying on their backs in dew-kissed grass, and Miriam’s dark ringlets had spread across the ground like a pool of molasses, filling the air with the scent of marjoram.
“Because when the sun is gone, so are you.” And of course Talia had been talking about the curfew imposed by Mother, the one that would cut their quiet hilltop sessions short.
“I don’t hate it,” Miriam had said.
Talia had given her an incredulous look.
“Because,” Miriam had said in response to the question written on her face, “I only get to see you when the sun’s out.”
She’d then closed her eyes and let the breeze wash over her, and she had never looked more content.
Talia had reached up and tried to clap the sun between her palms.)
Talia takes one step, making sure not to slip in bodily fluids, and finds a gauntlet-clad hand on her shoulder. Gentle, but insistent.
“The day is won, Your Royal Highness,” reminds General Noel. “Sheathe your sword. Stay. Celebrate.”
“I can’t,” says Talia.
I have to find her, she doesn’t say, because she doesn’t have to.
The elderly soldier lets out a sigh, and it’s a wistful little thing. “Please. There is nothing left for you here, Princess. Nothing.”
Talia leaves the man to dwell on her words, and begins searching a sea of faces for the only one that has ever mattered.
“Duty before love.”
—Motto of the Warrin dynasty, allegedly coined by King Callagun IV, Year 1254
Talia Warrin is eleven years old when her mother, the Queen of Gregale and more of a walking thundercloud than a functioning parent, takes her on a voyage across the sea to settle a dispute in a neighboring realm.
“You are not to speak to the locals without my permission,” she instructs Talia in their lavishly furnished cabin. “Understood?”
Talia nods because to disobey her mother is to disobey Kemarre XIII, known throughout the realms for sanctioning public castrations of court rivals. And that’s when she’s in a good mood.
“A Warrin obeys until they know how to command,” recites Captain Noel, a few years away from a promotion and a full beard.
Talia has a soft spot for the battle-hardened commander because he is warm where Mother is cold, and because she can rely on him to entertain her whenever Mother and her bodyguards do a piss-poor job of it. Like now, when Talia has been left to her own devices and so goes above deck to drink in the tang of the sea breeze, and perhaps catch a glimpse of this faraway land.
“What if I don’t want to do either of those things?” she asks as Captain Noel sits her on the flat side of a rum cask so she can peer over the gunwale.
“Oh? What do you want to do, then, Your Royal Highness, if it’s not to listen or lead?”
That’s when the ocean erupts in a flurry of flying fish, their silver-scaled bodies glistening like slivers of the moon. Talia giggles when Captain Noel has to block one with his vambrace before it collides with her face.
“That,” she answers as she points at a fish gliding overhead, fins splayed out gracefully like a pair of translucent wings.
I want to fly, she doesn’t say. Not when Mother will clip her wings. I want to soar over everyone’s heads, and leave this place behind.
Perhaps, if she could know the cleansing fire to come in the next few years, she would pay heed to the way Captain Noel’s brow furrows at her answer. And perhaps she would also stop listening to her heart, the one that beats off key to the rest of her dynasty’s, before it’s too late.
(It’s already too late.)
Talia is eleven years old when she sets foot on foreign sand and savors the scent of marjoram on the breeze.
“The Warrin dynasty are as cold and harsh as the storms that ravage their realm. Show them no mercy, for you will receive none.”
—Pre-battle speech by Zara, Admiral of the Red Navy, Year 1431
It’s the first thing Miriam ever says to her. Talia had left the villa for an afternoon stroll, a retinue of guards attached to her like a suckerfish because she’s the heiress to the Amber Throne and might shatter at the faintest gust of wind, when she’d come upon a skinny girl clutching a blood-streaked foot on top of a hill.
It will be some time before Miriam divulges the three melodious syllables of her name, but it doesn’t stop Talia from ordering the guards to get her treated despite Mother’s warning, because of course the physicians they’ve brought along are skilled enough to dispel scorpionfish venom.
Miriam thinks Talia should mind her own business.
Talia thinks Miriam is also eleven years old, and would look cute in a dress.
Perhaps she’s lonely because all her friends are in a different realm, or perhaps there’s something about the way Miriam’s ink-black eyes well with tears when the physicians wind a honey-drenched bandage around her foot, because Talia is drawn to her.
(Like a moth to a flame, except they’re both moths, and both flames.)
While Mother grows grey hairs over a quarrel with the realm’s ruler that Talia is too young to understand, she finds excuses to ditch her tutors and sparring sessions for more afternoon strolls. Not before she bribes her bodyguards into silence, of course, because the last thing Talia wants is for Mother to discover that a certain fisherman’s daughter has caught her attention.
At first, Miriam’s eyes are wide with fear to learn that Talia is not only a foreigner, but royalty, and her parents react similarly, huddling into one another in their little seaside hut.
So Talia tells her guards to keep their distance, and starts bringing the family gifts: a lamp powered by luminous plankton, a dagger with a gigantic ruby pommel, a frilly pink dress that looks about Miriam’s size.
And soon they see Talia for what she really is. Bored. Lonely.
It’s Miriam that twines her fingers around Talia’s one day and takes her up a hill, the very one they'd first locked eyes on, and will be their haven in the years to come. They spar with sticks until sundown, Talia’s training rubbing off on Miriam, then collapse together in fits of sweat-drenched laughter. And it’s together that they watch the sun go down, just to make sure their time is up.
They’re both eleven years old when they build a world of their own atop a hill, and it’s beautiful.
It will be some time before they learn beauty and cruelty often tread the same thin line.
“The mind of a child is a blade being forged: it will adopt several imperfect forms before it cools and sets, never to change again. Unless it were to snap.”
—Chinara the Cognizant, Madreza scholar, Year 1399
The sun is an angry ruby shard on the horizon when someone calls out to Talia on the battlefield.
She picks through corpses and clumps of dislodged viscera on her way to a man with most of his limbs left and not much time.
“Do it.” The phlegm he coughs up is as red as the sky. “Finish what you started.”
Talia crouches. She only wants one thing in return.
Skin like sweet caramel.
Hair like a treacle waterfall.
Laughter like a wind chime by the sea.
Eyes that had once looked to the horizon with hope.
But Talia knows when words will fall on deaf ears, so she plunges her sword between the man’s eyes. She listens to the song of a splitting skull, the deafening silence that comes afterwards. She takes in the stench of death wafting out of his brain, thick and syrupy. She tries not to imagine Miriam’s tender face under the red ruin before her, and fails.
Talia weeps for the remainder of her search.
“A peasant will gaze upon the walls of the Amber Keep and pine for its warmth. The Royal children already there will gaze out of their tower bedrooms and pine for freedom.”
—Jarrah, Royal Advisor, Year 1329
Talia is twelve years old when her mother takes her back across the sea. Her heart shudders and bleeds, so much that even Captain Noel is powerless to console her. It’s not until she turns sixteen and is old enough to settle her realm’s political matters on her own that the world starts to turn once more.
She goes back to Miriam taller and wiser, with a fearsome swordhand and a glint in her eye. Miriam, who has become breathtaking from head to toe, and has held every precious memory close to her soul. They relish Talia’s newfound freedom together, up on the hill where they can watch everything else shrink below them, even though they both know it’s a lie.
(“When I grow up,” Talia had told her once, “I’ll be able to spread my wings and see you whenever I want.”
“I’m not sure about that, Lia. When you grow up, I think you’ll be busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“I don’t know. Princess things.”
Talia had been silent for a few heartbeats too long after that.)
She can’t get enough of it. Miriam is the sea breeze and warm sunbeams and the sky stretching out into blissful, ignorant forever, and Talia can’t get enough of it.
She’s eighteen years old when General Noel, fresh off a promotion, reminds her that the world is cruel. “War is coming, Your Royal Highness. With all due respect, you cannot continue down this path.”
Because of course he knows about the two of them, even when Mother doesn’t. It hurts to hear it, but it’s not until reality wraps its grimy tendrils around Miriam that the world they’ve built shatters like glass. Like the fragile thing it’s always been.
“I’ve been enlisted.”
Three words to gouge a deep, dark valley in Talia’s beating heart.
“I’m sorry, Lia.”
Three more to fill it with tears.
Because of course Miriam was never free to begin with. Not when she’s just another minnow, swimming into whatever corner the bigger fish chase her into.
Unlike Talia, who has always had a choice. And yet, it’s only when she pretends she isn’t a Warrin, and doesn’t have preheated baths and scores of servants at her disposal, that she feels like she can fly.
If only the two realms could just… get along. But how could Talia have hoped to resolve something that even Mother couldn’t?
“Remember the family words,” Mother tells Talia when she retreats behind the cold walls of the Amber Keep as a husk of her former self. “Duty before love.”
And right there and then, it’s just—
It’s just too much.
Talia flees to her chambers and sobs into the night, back arched under the weight of an invisible crown. The aroma of peppermint and spiced honey on her pillows had comforted her, once.
By the time her throat is raw and her sheets are drenched in melancholy, she finds General Noel sitting on her bedside. She hadn’t allowed him in, but he’d entered anyway because he is devoted to her and won’t hesitate to disobey direct orders if it means saving Talia from herself.
“Remember the flying fish?” he asks as she curls into his warmth.
Talia nods numbly.
“A fish might soar through the sky for as long as its tiny piscine heart desires, but it must return to the water. Where it belongs.”
“What if it doesn’t want to return to the water?”
The aging man brushes Talia’s hair out of her eyes. “That same fish can pine for wings all it wants, but it will never be a bird. And it will never be happy until it accepts that.”
She doesn’t get angry at him for not calling her “Your Royal Highness.”
On the day she begrudgingly allows an army to kneel before her, Talia’s heart scabs over and her tears crystallize into bladed edges. She tells herself that she and Miriam are only meat caught between the jaws of this cruel world, that they are lucky to have even made it this far together before being chewed to a pulp and spat back out.
(It’s not fair.)
But as she stands at the prow of a warship, she can’t help watching Miriam’s homeland crest the horizon with eyes of childlike wonder.
(It’s not. Fucking. Fair.)
And as she charges into battle with a sword held to the sun and a battlecry bursting from her lips, she can’t seem to tell the scent of marjoram apart from that of blood.
“I am not a blade, Father. When you polish my face and hone my edges to sharpness, know that there is a heart beating underneath.”
—Burnum Warrin, heir to the Amber Throne, moments before being exiled, Year 1288
The day is almost over when she finds Miriam nestled between a man and a woman that have had their abdomens ripped open to unmask a nest of pink intestines. Talia doesn’t have to look at the crimson flower blooming across Miriam’s left breast to know her fate is sealed.
(Because it was sealed long ago.)
She crouches and cups a hand over Miriam’s cheek as they find each other’s smiles through their tears. Miriam’s request is a wordless one, but it’s okay because Talia knows what she wants.
(What they both want.)
Talia carries her gingerly, lovingly, twining her fingers around Miriam’s the same way Miriam had done the first time she’d taken her up a hillside. The same hillside that is now littered with bodies and bloodstained banners and memories left in tatters.
But everything is untouched up here on the hilltop, as if fate has left a spot for the two of them, because things have a habit of ending where they begin. Talia rests Miriam in the grass before lying down beside her, where they both belong, and always will.
(Talia had asked Miriam a question here, two eternities ago.
Miriam had shrugged. “Because you’re here. And because I can.”
Talia had cherished those words, and still does, because they’re as simple and carefree as the person Miriam is. Because simple and carefree are things Talia can’t have, the same way she can't have Miriam.
“Your turn, Lia. Why do you love me?”
“Because you’re so warm.”
Miriam had responded with a kiss, as if to prove Talia right. And she’d loved the taste even if it'd been fleeting, just like the air that had once been thick with laughter and the scent of marjoram and Talia and Miriam.)
As the day fades, Talia wonders, not for the first time, whether it had been foolish to try to carve out a small place of their own in this world that hates them so much. She only has to read the contented look on Miriam's face as she, too, fades to know the answer.
For the last time, they watch the sun disappear over the horizon.
And for the last time, they are free.
“In the waters around Gregale are curious fish that have learnt to spread their fins and glide short distances over the ocean’s surface. My colleagues and I are in agreement that this is a strategy for escaping marlins and other aquatic predators. Unfortunately, flying fish are easily picked off by birds once they take to the skies. It is almost as if the universe is punishing them for existing.”
—Aaban, Madreza scholar, Year 1366