That day had started off with the kind of natural beauty that had always put a smile on her face. The sky had been alight with the kind of colors that fire holds. Flaming shades of red and yellow and pink. It had been so beautiful. The truth was however, it would have been beautiful no matter what. The sky could have been pouring down rain, snow, or hail and it would still have held a special place in her heart. She had been with Luna.
The other woman’s features were still clear in her mind. Ever since what had happened, she had feared the image would fade, that she would only be able to remember a hazy image. She wondered if perhaps that would have been easier. Instead, she remembered everything. Every smile, the dimples on her cheeks, the way the sunlight had made her eyes sparkle. Having a memory like this, it was a blessing, and a curse. She wanted to think of it as a blessing. Luna would have wanted her to stay happy. To at least try. She had always made her promise before they parted ways that if something was to happen, if the empire was to find out that they had been together, about the food that they kept stealing, about who Ayla's parents were, that she would stay happy. She owed Luna that much, didn’t she?
Of course, she did. She had promised to protect her, and she hadn’t been able to. Luna had been the optimistic one, the one that was always happy, the one that had kept Ayla from slipping back into line. She had wanted to, she had tried. She had been so scared that something like this would happen and once she realized just how much she cared about Luna, she hadn’t worried for herself anymore, she had only worried for her.
As she thought back to that morning she was thrown into the memory. She could practically feel the warm morning sunlight on her skin, feel the gentle brush of Luna’s lips against her own. They had only ever been able to be together in the mornings. Early, before the city was awake. They would make their way down to the lakeshore and watch the sunrise together, anytime they could. Neither had cared how tired they were, how, by the time the day had ended they were far more exhausted than they should be because of it. They would have never slept if it had meant they got a chance to see each other. Perhaps that had been their mistake. Maybe, if they hadn’t been so happy, so excited to see each other they would have been more careful. Just maybe, no one would have suspected a thing.
That morning Luna had been even more enthusiastic than normal. She had been called to a job within the capital, one where the money would be better. Her days of barely getting by were over. All her hard work was finally paying off for her. Perhaps even that should have given Ayla warning bells. Nothing ever went well for their kind. No new jobs were ever offered. The idea that it was possible to be well off was simply a distant idea. They were the lowest class, it was only normal. They were treated like garbage and they simply had to deal with it.
Luna had proposed the idea of running away together. “Once I’ve worked in the capital for a few months I can come back. I’ll have enough money to get us out of here. This city, this kingdom. We could be free Ayla. Just a few more months.” She had said, as she brought a hand up to Ayla’s cheek, the rising sun making her eyes golden brown eyes sparkle, just as they always did.
Ayla had swallowed all her sadness, all her fears, all her doubts, not wanting to ruin Luna’s mood. Instead, she had nodded. “Free.” She had repeated, marveling at the idea as she turned it over in her mind. Perhaps they could be. They had always been told of the lands outside this kingdom. Ayla had even glimpsed the border where the land changed from being carefully controlled to being wild. They could form a life there; she knew they could. Anything would be better than staying here. The dark cobblestoned streets, the homes that were devoid of anything that would have truly made them feel like one. Getting out of here was the dream. If they got out of here, they wouldn’t have to hide their love anymore. They could be together without question. She wanted that reality so bad that it hurt. The reality that she had gotten simply wasn’t fair. It sounded selfish but after everything she had been through. How hard they were both trying. How Ayla was struggling to make enough money to keep herself from starving. How she had watched the people that she loved get picked off by the empire for only trying to get by. Did she not deserve a kinder reality than what she had? She knew the answer. She didn’t care what anyone else thought, she did. And so had Luna.
They had bid their goodbyes in the morning, intending to meet up once more late that night to say their final goodbyes. The capital was far from the city they were currently in and Ayla would have no time to make the journey to visit, and nor would Luna. They would be apart until Luna had enough money for them to get by. They hadn’t even known how long that would take. Throughout that day as she tried to sell her wares at the market she had felt as though something was off. A nagging voice in the back of her mind that promised that something was wrong. She should have listened to that voice but her own anger at her anxious mind had caused her to dismiss the thoughts. That day was supposed to be happy. It was happy, until the very end of it.
The end, when she had finally finished her work at the market, only making enough coins to buy herself dinner that evening. Instead of that however, she had gone to one of the little bakeshops just before it closed and spent all her money on a tiny little honey cake. They were Luna’s favorite and Ayla could withhold her appetite for one night if it meant she could make Luna happy. It had been a goodbye present.
That night she had made her way to the lake, the moonlight glinting across the still water. Luna had always preferred the nighttime to the day. She had always told Ayla the moonlight made her eyes look just like the shimmering blue waters of the very lake they met by. When Luna hadn’t shown that evening, Ayla had known. She hadn’t questioned it; she hadn’t tried to reason with herself. She knew. Luna was never late. Even with the deadly knowing that had settled within the pit of her stomach she had waited. She had stared out over the lake, watching the moon until it had begun to sink in the sky. She had looked down at the silvery bag that held the honey cake and she had almost wretched. She had picked up that cake and thrown it as hard as she could into the river, a single tear falling down her cheek before she had begun her walk back to the small upstairs home that she shared with the woman who ran the shop below.
She had been silent as she opened the door but Elenor had been awake anyway. The older woman had looked at Ayla with pity, asking her to sit down. Ayla hadn’t wanted to, but she had, knowing what was coming.
“I’m sorry.” Elenor had finished after telling Ayla of the horrors she had witnessed that day. “I’m so sorry my dear.”
Ayla had said nothing. She should have known. The empire liked to take away those that she cared for. She hadn’t cried. She had done nothing. It was as though she had gone numb.
Now, months later, she stood on that very same lakeshore, looking out upon that very same moon. The empire had offered her Luna’s job. They had warned her that if she refused, she would suffer Luna’s very same fate, so she had taken it. She had known that’s what Luna would have wanted her to do. Now, she had enough. She had the money she needed to leave; she simply had nobody to leave with. She had achieved what Luna had been so excited to. She was alive, and she was ready, and she didn’t know if she could do it. She quietly shook her head, her eyes focused on the full moon in the sky. She had to do it. Too many people had died only for her to survive for her to allow herself to give up on their dreams. It would be a long, hard journey but with the pouch of coins on her belt and her determination to survive she would make it. She knew she couldn’t be the only person who had decided to make this journey. Who knew? Maybe she would get there and see that there was a city already built beyond the border where the Empire’s jaws would never reach. Where she could look up into the sky, at the stars and the moon, and see the beautiful image of Luna’s face there instead of the pain that she saw here. She didn’t know, but as they had always said. “Anywhere is better than here.” Besides, she had nothing left to lose. And, for the first time since that night, she smiled.