"This woman, have you seen her?" I asked the shopkeeper, not able to keep the desperation from my voice after two months of searching.
The shopkeeper tiredly leaned towards the portrait, frowning, and the girl hovering near my shoulder giggled.
I ignored her, staring into the shopkeeper's sun-lined eyes. The man coughed once, and replied. "I don't remember, but there's a lot of people that come through here. With the Red Deserts behind us, this is the last place to get food and water for a long time."
The man's gruff accent and slippery command of my language made every word a struggle to decipher, but I focused hard, analyzing every word.
The silvery girl pulled herself onto the shopkeeper's countertop. Giggling again.
I resisted the urge to glare at her, knowing that would only encourage her. "Thank you," I replied curtly, politeness burned out of me by this godforsaken sun. Then I turned on my heel and left, not sure if I could continue to control myself.
The girl followed a moment later, chewing on some sweets.
"That's theft, go put that back." I snapped at her, letting my fingers wander to their new haunt: the bridge of my nose.
She bit into it, grinning mischievously. She didn't even have to eat, and I glared at her. "Esta, go put-"
"It's a gift for me. Anyways, what happens if she gets caught before you find her?" Esta asked, taking another bite of the candy.
She gets killed, or she manages to kill the Emperor, and then she gets killed.
The taste in my mouth turned metallic, and I removed my teeth from my lip, frowning. I had subconsciously picked up Brianne's habit, while I scoured the country looking for any sign of her.
My frustration boiled over. "You know what happens!" I lowered my eyes just then, realizing some hooded women were watching me, murmuring.
By the seven gates of hell! I looked around, locating a nearby alley and ducked into it. After that it was easy to vault over the wall onto someone's flat roof.
Glancing down carefully, behind a clothesline of flapping clothes, I watched as the hooded, female soldiers entered the alleyway, searching.
One of them barked an order to another, and I got down low to avoid being seen.
"Aw, look what you've done now!" Esta cackled. "My, my, they think you're mad!"
I growled, realizing I had been too careless here. The guards were always on the lookout for anyone showing signs of Sunsear Madness. A strange foreigner muttering to a girl nobody could see, while he searched in the heat for a woman no one had seen was bound to draw attention.
"I may as well be. Where is Brianne?" I asked aloud, my tone angry. In the beginning, while I had looked at every clue, strained my eyes at all hours of the night to hunt for signs of where she was, I used to be sad, worried.
Now only the anger and shame remained. Shame was easy to understand, this whole mess was my fault. Anger was not something I was entitled to anymore.
I watched as Esta sat down at the edge of the wall I had climbed. My heart still leapt at the sight, even though I knew she had nothing to fear from falling and death.
I looked away, pushing down the sickness I felt when I looked at her. Her long dark hair, much like Brianne's, had turned a stomach-turning silver. Her skin, once a near perfect mix of Brianne's and mine, had bleached too.
All she was now, was a fragment. A giggling child in a teenager's body.
Esta thoughtfully took another bite of her candy. "Would her death be so bad? You still see me, don't you?"
I fought the urge to scream at her. This was a disgusting imitation of what Esta had been. "You don't care if your mother dies?"
I wanted to see something in Esta's still-brown eyes. Some kind of sadness, something. The thought of Brianne being so ridiculously out of reach, like her, was terrible.
Esta shrieked with laughter, turning to sneer at me. "My mother? You're so funny. Brianne didn't know I was her long-abandoned daughter until after I had died, moron."
"She didn't abandon you." I scowled, unable to concede that insult, even now.
"Oh right, that was you." Esta's normally hazy eyes focused on me, and she wiped candy crumbs off her mouth in a disturbing parody of that night.
When she'd still been colourful, olive skin and dark brown hair. And she'd wiped blood off her mouth, and looked at me with muted horror, collapsing.
Right after I told Brianne... I wiped my forehead. Shit, maybe I did have Sun madness.
Was I even sure Brianne was here? Had everything I had seen thus far been nonsense conjured by my own brain?
I removed the note I carried in my pocket at all times. It was missing corners from being opened, closed, folded, unfolded. Brianne's normally curled letters were jagged with anger, and I despairingly ran my eyes over smudged ink again.
I'm going to kill the Emperor. I'm going to avenge her. Goodbye. Do not look for me.
Esta had leaned over my shoulder, and the chill that leached out of her bones, fell over my throat. "You still think it's the Emperor of the Red Deserts?"
"That's the only Emperor in these lands." I answered, gently running a finger over the smoothened paper. "Aside from here, there are Kings, Monarchs, Republics, but no other Emperors. Or Emperesses." There was a time I used to imagine everything I would teach Esta. Cities, languages. treat her to different kinds of food, teach her to hold a weapon.
"Did he kill me?" Esta asked, a bored drawl in her voice.
I looked at her for a moment before looking away in shame. "No, in the end, it was my fault. If I hadn't gotten rid of you, then we could have kept you safe. He-"
"Liar, liar. If you thought you could keep me safe, you would've never sent me away." Brianne-I mean, Esta, mocked.
Esta laughed again, giggling and giggling. She had no breath to run out of, no pulse that reddened her face.
She stopped suddenly, and her voice took on a dreamy tone. "You've searched so much, and you still haven't found my mother. You've investigated every lead, asked so many people, I'm sure the fairies living in the stars know about my mother by now."
"There is no such thing, as fairies living on stars." I corrected, knowing that Brianne would laugh hearing this. She would teasingly play along, gently mocking Esta for believing in such ridiculous things.
"Didn't someone once say, there's no such things as ghosts?" Esta balanced herself perfectly on the edge of the building. "What would you say about that, father?"
"Don't call me that." My blood ran cold hearing that word. Esta had never once in life referred to me like that.
"Shut up, you madman. You haven't found my mother yet, and here you are, chatting with the ghost of your dead daughter. Whose much happier in death than she spent a moment in life!" Esta growled, her voice deepening with something dark.
I closed my eyes. Give me a sign, Bri, I prayed silently. There used to be a time the two of us talked without words. When Brianne used to widen her eyes at me, and I knew it was time to scare away the guests.
"I just need a sign that I'm in the right place." I implored to no one. Least of all this freakish shade of a daughter.
Esta hummed jovially, and I recognized the lullaby with a wince.
By accident, I had sung it for her once, one drunk night when I poured my heart out about Brianne. Now this monster hummed it, only to make my heart pound.
Esta flung the emptied candy box at me. "A gift for me, now a gift for you." She threw herself onto the roof with me, stretching her arms. "Oh, it's fun to be dead. I see why mama is trying to kill herself avenging me now." She giggled, stretching.
I picked up the box, knowing I'd have to return and pay for it. Nobody in the Deserts had any money, and I wasn't going to be the one to rob a shopkeeper of some wages.
I smiled at the box. It used to be Brianne's favourite candy. Painfully rare in the mountains where we lived, and so common here, that even the peasant children knew of it.
During her pregnancy, all Brianne had ever wanted was this icky, sweet-
"Esta, what did you say?" I asked suddenly, feeling dizzy with a thought.
"Oh," The little ghost frowned. "Oh, I said it's fun to be dead-"
"No, no, before that. Where did you get this?" I held up the box.
Esta hummed the lullaby a little, and my heart tightened.
The only two people in the world who could see this ghost-
"It was a gift," Esta muttered, running her hands through pale strands. "Gift, gift, gift, gift, gift, gift-"
With shaking hands I opened the box, and sure enough, scrawled inside the lid, in Brianne's curly letters:
I told you not to look for me.
I almost cried then. It was a sign. She was here. Breathing out a relieved sigh, I looked over the city, my face hot and red from the sun, knowing that somewhere in these wicked wastes was my wife.