Kalana lifted her undershirt over her head, then tossed it into the grass where her other garments lay. She told Kyo-mei she was a hunter, which explained the thick leather armour and worn down boots whose laces appeared to be endless.
It was an odd affair how the two of them ended up travelling together in the first place. They were both going to the emperor’s palace for the royal wedding.
To be perfectly honest, Kyo-mei didn’t know exactly which child of the emperor was getting married – he had a good fifty children between his twenty concubines. She heard they were getting married to Eldaan, Prince of Lasla, so they definitely had to be of some status – a child of the emperor’s wife perhaps.
Of course, Kyo-mei hadn’t received a direct invitation, but it was all over the country that the royal court painter had sadly passed away at the ripe age of eighty seven, leaving them absent of an artist for the wedding portrait, so they were commissioning for a new one – anyone could become it, so long as they were accompanied by someone with an invitation.
And it just so happened that a tall, well-built girl wearing armour walked into her father’s inn, demanding two shots of fire whiskey and a room to polish the two gleaming swords on her back wrapped sturdily in hard leather.
Kyo-mei wasn’t going to deny that Kalana was possibly the scariest person she had ever seen, however she also couldn’t help noticing that her mouth – coloured in a dark purple lip rouge – appeared softer than they should, what with the way she was always scowling.
If Kyo-mei were to sketch her, those frown lines would be the true character-defining trait; they stood out, easy to capture, the highlights the musty light made on her lips however…
Kalana had downed the two shots of fire whiskey and demanded two more.
“In just a moment,” Kyo-mei replied. She had been wiping down the table.
“Come on, pigtails, I don’t have all day,” Kalana said. Kyo-mei wasn’t sure whether ‘pigtails’ was referring ironically to her close-cropped hair, or her inability to appear her actual age. “Got a royal wedding to catch.”
Kyo-mei set down the rag. “You’re invited to the wedding?” she said. “But… you’re so far away from the palace.”
“I know,” Kalana replied. “That’s why I am in a bit of a hurry.” Her accent was rugged, definitely wasn’t from around here; she bit down on her consonants and didn’t go easier on the vowels.
Kyo-mei scampered behind the counter and filled up her two shot glasses of fire whiskey. Kalana downed one glass, barely cringing as though her taste buds and any sensory feeling she had in her mouth were diminished.
Kyo-mei had only tried fire whiskey once in her life and it was an experience she didn’t wish to repeat. The burning in her mouth had lasted for hours – in fact, she was convinced she would never be able to taste anything again.
However, Kalana didn’t drink the second one; instead, she pushed it to Kyo-mei. “You look like you need to loosen up a little, pigtails.”
It wasn’t until then that Kyo-mei realised she had been holding her breath. She exhaled, pushing the glass back. “I’m good,” she said.
Kalana wasn’t even looking at her anymore, her eyes were drifting over the wall behind Kyo-mei. “You paint those?” she asked.
Kyo-mei’s mind blanked. “Paint what?”
“Those portraits,” Kalana said, pointing with her dagger – which certainly wasn’t intimidating at all.
Kyo-mei turned, and felt her cheeks go red. “Umm… yes.” Those were her portraits, but they were painted a while ago and had been up on the wall for an embarrassingly long time.
She could definitely do better now.
“Who are they?” Kalana asked.
Kyo-mei supressed a sigh. That question again. “No one,” she replied. “They’re not real people… I made them up.”
Kalana nodded, almost looking impressed for a moment. “They’re pretty.” She ran her finger along the grooves in her dagger handle, eyes down in contemplation. “You ever think about being the royal painter?”
Kyo-mei twisted the edge of her stained, flowery apron. “Sometimes,” she said. All the time. Every waking moment.
Every brush stroke she made, she dreamt of bringing her easel onto the palace balcony – paint the changing scenery of the seasons, but the ever constant view of the night market, dot every individual detail of the emperor’s crown, attend balls to make the people dancing appear on her canvas; every single one of them in their splendid clothing.
However, she knew it was just a dream. Ever since her father had died, the minding of the inn had become her responsibility. Her father would have encouraged her dreams, but without him or Kyo-mei, the inn would fall apart – it wasn’t as if her stepmother and her three sons did anything.
“You can come with me,” Kalana said. “I prefer travelling alone, but I like you, would be happy to lend you a hand.”
Kyo-mei shook her head despite her heart fighting for her to say yes. “No, I can’t,” she replied. “I have to mind the inn.”
“So, what?” Kalana said, leading back in her chair. “You’re just going to hide yourself away in this little inn for the rest of your life?”
“My father fought to build up this inn,” Kyo-mei said. “He put his heart and his soul into it, I’m not going to give it up.” She didn’t know why she was getting hot and bothered about it – Kalana was offering her a pathway to her dream, and she was turning it down.
“You’re not him,” Kalana said, voice strangely quiet. “It’s your choice. I will not offer again.” She picked up her swords, slinging them across her back once more. Leaving three diamond pieces on the counter, she walked to the door, boots clicking on the floorboard.
Kyo-mei picked up the diamond pieces – clear, edges clean-cut. It was one diamond for one glass; Kalana didn’t pay for the last one. Then, Kyo-mei realised the fourth glass was still full. Looking at the portraits on the wall and thinking about what she had just given up, her heart finally won.
She ran about the inn, stuffing her belongings – but mostly her drawing supplies – into a small bag. There were hundreds trying to get the job, she would probably return in a few weeks or so anyway.
Kyo-mei downed the fire whiskey before she left and immediately regretted it, but she hadn’t had time to dwell on it too hard.
Kalana’s steed was blacker than pure, unadulterated night – mane whipping in the wind, the curl of its muscles profound. Kalana told her the horse’s name was Malaia; it meant guardian – the same name Hestina, guardian of the crescent moon, had named her mighty sword.
Kyo-mei had drawn Malaia on an idle night in a grassy field. The fire had cast its red glow onto her gleaming fur, giving the shadows a life of its own.
Yet, across that single drawing of a horse, Kyo-mei’s sketchbook was littered with sketches of Kalana.
She could never quite get her lips right; she had captured the hardness in her eyes, the severity of her cheekbones, the fine line of her jaw and the arch of her dark brows; every fine detail of her armour and her swords – clad and protected and undeniably intimidating.
Kalana kept the armour on when she slept, not even daring to take off her swords. “Hunter life,” she explained. “You have always got to be ready, whether it’s to run away or to fight.”
They had stopped by a stream for the night that trickled under a tiny, rickety bridge. Around them was shrubbery and the odd lizard that Kalana had stabbed and roasted for dinner – Kyo-mei just stuck with the mushrooms they had procured earlier in the day which Kalana confirmed a good five times were not poisonous.
“I’m going to wash up in the stream,” Kalana said, finally setting down her swords, although she did drag one all the way to the stream bank and left the other with Kyo-mei.
“You left one,” Kyo-mei said as Kalana was unstrapping her armour.
“You can use it to protect yourself if you get attacked when I’m bathing,” Kalana said matter-of-factly. “Under the pretence that I cannot hear you getting attacked, or you know, get my clothes on in time.”
“So you wouldn’t come charging to protect me naked?” Kyo-mei said, immediately hating herself for saying that because why in Rakatraah was that something she thought to say?
“Sure I would,” Kalana replied, no change in her tone. “But it’s a bit risky to fight someone without any protection whatsoever.”
Kyo-mei laughed awkwardly to try and ease the tension – it was what she was best at. The laughing awkwardly, not easing tension; she hadn’t mastered that as of yet.
Kalana’s hair reached her waist when it was out; it spilled down her back in rich, dark curls tangling off one another to form a thick mane of luscious nature. Her bottom half was submerged in the water, broken at her hips, which were sturdy and curved out – sharp with muscle, but soft at the same time.
Moonbeams dappled the surface of the stream, caressing Kalana’s shoulders and spiralling down her toned arms. Her back muscles rippled as she bent down to wet her hair. She turned, a curl breaking the profile of her face. “Want to join me?” she said.
Kyo-mei’s heart gave a start then a lurch. She covered her face with her sketchbook, that she had been using to draw a certain someone, no… the moon, she was a drawing the moon – a perfectly normal thing to draw on such a beautiful night.
She had nothing against drawing from life – it was what her father always told her to do. However, Kyo-mei always found herself straying towards the people in her mind, the ones teetering at the edges of her imagination.
Kalana wasn’t her imagination.
She was a real person right before Kyo-mei.
She was unlike anyone that Kyo-mei had ever met.
The future that had been told to her was that she would marry a man someday and have five children with him. She would live in the inn, ushering around drunk people all night and dealing with her kids when the sun was up.
But these few days she had spent with Kalana – most of which were in total silence because Kalana hated chatting – but it had still been the most alive Kyo-mei had ever felt. So what if they slept on the ground and had to piss in a bush. It was just… comforting to have Kalana by her side.
“You coming or not?” Kalana said, tearing through Kyo-mei’s thought spiral.
“Uh, no,” she replied. “I’m fine where I am.”
“Come on,” Kalana said. “There’s no need to be embarrassed. I don’t care how weird your body is.”
“My body is perfectly normal,” Kyo-mei replied, once again wishing she hadn’t said anything at all.
“Then you have even less cause to worry,” Kalana said.
The smile that melted across her face shone so bright – not bright like the blade of her dagger against the fire; Kyo-mei supposed that was her first instinct to describe her as, but it wasn’t like that – it was bright like a solitary star in the night sky; she knew it was an overused expression, but that was exactly what Kalana’s smile was.
A beacon in the darkness.
And dear Looma, she was… beautiful. The water materialised on her skin, and her hair in clear crystals – those were always hard to draw, they had the faintest shadow with a non-existent outline.
Kyo-mei was definitely going to regret it, but she most certainly didn’t care in the moment. She stood, sketchbook falling off her lap; dust leapt onto the white page, dirtying the pencil lines outlining Kalana’s torso, as though it were something unsavoury.
She didn’t hold too much of a liking for the sketch anyway – no amount of shading and rendering could capture the bending of the moonlight on Kalana’s skin and that joyful glee in her eyes. The moment where the mask she held constantly over her face – making it leather-hard – was thrown aside.
Kyo-mei undid the string around her waist – it was gold with tiny flecks of silver. She wore the typical get-up of a Jaharan village girl. The top was a simple expanse of fabric that folded at the chest like a robe. The sleeves were loose but not as long and billowy as the wealthy – they still needed it to be practical. Her legs were also covered in a long red dress; the two pieces were tied together with a pink sash that had flowers on it.
The night wind blew up into the fabric as Kyo-mei shed it aside. She tip-toed into the water like a robber with her heart beating too fast and her breathing too loud.
The water was pleasantly cool as it rode up her bare legs. She had dragged Kalana’s other sword over.
And the moon shone down on them with its knowing gleam.
They didn’t speak of it the next morning, only having been in the stream for a short while anyway. Kalana splashed water onto Kyo-mei when she leapt out – in one swift motion, just like how her sword cut through air.
No one had seen much of the other either. They had washed with their backs to each other.
Now, they were in the glittering city of Alheria. How Kyo-mei had dreamed of this moment. Arriving here with her bag-full of paints. They rode through the market with its numerous stands, selling all sorts of oddities, accompanied owners sitting on stools, either yelling that it was half-price today or sitting with their face in their hands.
But finally, they arrived at the palace. Kyo-mei wanted to take out her paints now and draw the gorgeous, golden rooves with its curves and the walls that stood with the delicacy of marble; making the swirling pattern would best be done with watercolour and a brush made from horse’s hair – Malaia would grumble at that.
They had made a stop at the clothing stall first because none of them were exactly in wedding attire. Most of the wealthy had their clothing custom-made; it cost a fortune, but they paraded it around like nobody’s business.
Kalana had already surprised Kyo-mei a few nights before with her tiny sack bulging with jewels – she didn’t think she had seen so many emerald pieces in her life; no one paid with emerald at the inn.
They picked out glittering robes worthy of nobility. It took a good long while to get on all the layers, and weave their hair into the silver headpieces that flashed with gems. Kalana was wearing a violet robe, peonies stitched across her chest – Jaharans called it the flower of wealth, the queen among flowers, the most beautiful…
Kyo-mei always had trouble drawing them – there were too many petals blooming from each other, perhaps she just couldn’t handle the greatness of it, felt she was unfitting to paint what those called queen.
Her hand gripped tight, standing in front of the palace, faced with the greatness and monstrosity of her dream. If she finally reached it, she would be able to enjoy whatever riches she desired and sit upon the same table as royals – painting them, capturing how their features appeared in the warm glow of spring evenings, the cold frost of winter mornings when their breath fogged across the air; when they gathered the snow off a single plum blossom to melt into the purest tea.
Kyo-mei had her dreams of that life filled with everything she had wished for. But suddenly, looking at Kalana standing before her in that stunning dress, all she wanted was to draw her, and her only.
“Why are you still standing there?” Kalana said, already ten steps ahead of her. “The wedding begins soon.” She measured when the sun was going to set with her hand held out.
“I’m… I’m scared,” Kyo-mei said.
Kalana crossed her arms. “Of what? Drawing horrendously. I’ve seen your sketchbook, I do not think that is possible.”
Kyo-mei face instantly reddened. “You’ve seen my sketchbook?”
Kalana shrugged. “Looked at it when you were sleeping,” she said. “You make me look quite flattering. So relax, I’m sure the royals will love what you paint of them.”
“I don’t know,” Kyo-mei said, walking towards Kalana. “I don’t know if this is what I want.”
Kalana brought her hands to Kyo-mei’s face, calluses scraping her cheeks. Looking up, Kalana’s eyes were so close – they were as dark as coal.
Their mouths met like the hush of breath in icy air, melted by a warm breeze sweeping across the dusky sky. Kyo-mei felt like the ice, melting and melting under the warmth of Kalana’s lips, so very sweet with her lip rouge that tasted of plum-berries.
Kalana pulled away even though all Kyo-mei wanted was to keep melting. She was surprised to see the tears trickling down Kalana’s cheeks.
“I am not the one you want to love,” she whispered. “It is not what I am fit for.”
Kyo-mei swallowed. “Then, what are you fit for?” she asked, holding back her own tears.
“That is not something you want to know,” Kalana said, but Kyo-mei knew she was speaking of the swords strapped on either hip, hidden beneath her dress. “But I have no doubt the life before you is what you are fit for, Kyo-mei.” She backed away. “Do not throw it away for foolish love you do not understand.”
So, Kalana turned, and walked away, kicking up the dust. The peonies on her hem seemed to ruffle with the wind.