Some recruits showed up for the draft dressed in their guilds’ insignias: patches, jewelry, and pins given to them by family, friends, and sponsors. Their partisanship glinted in the floodlights that brightened the night and the parade ground like high noon.
Aysu, dressed in an oversized black hoodie and black pants, her black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, blended into the shadows. She wandered off from the crowds, soaking up the solitude of the dark in the forest. She brushed her fingers on leaves as she passed blackberry bushes and Orange Hibiscus shrubs, the tips of her being contacting the tips of theirs. The water in them spoke to her. It wouldn’t be long now before she’d be able to respond and communicate in return.
The toes of her black boots touched the water of the lake. She faced east and the opaque horizon. The moon had already set. It was that brief time between the two heavenly bodies, that gaping divide, the no man’s land where the moon and the sun never met.
Gravel crunched behind her.
A young man, dressed in iridescent blue slacks and a long-sleeved shirt joined her. He smiled.
She knew him from his images splashed across the internet as he grew up. He was even more radiant in person. His white hair glowed like a halo. She remembered watching his twenty-first birthday celebration live-streamed a week ago. His amethyst eyes haunted her dreams.
“You’re the King’s firstborn son,” she said. “The Crown Prince, Günay.” Her blurted comments sounded loud in the stillness of the morning. They echoed back to them across the lake.
“Yes,” he said. He picked up a stone, tested it between his fingers. He tilted it flat and threw it across the surface of the water. It skipped five times before sinking. He laughed, low and quiet.
“What are you doing here?” She leaned towards him a fraction of an inch, his warmth drawing her like a magnet.
“You’re a bold one,” he said.
Günay looked around. He squinted into the distance.
“You’re here alone.”
It wasn’t a question, but she nodded.
“The Oracle prophesied that to win this war and stop all of the bloodshed, the King must sacrifice the thing most dear to him. The wizards and witches all concurred.”
The water in his blood called out to her, and she knew he was afraid.
“You’re the sacrifice?” Her voice squeaked into silence.
“Yes,” he said. “I came here to watch my last sunrise.” He fisted his hands together in front of him as if he were holding himself together.
“I’ll leave you alone,” she said. “I should be getting back anyway.”
“Wait.” He ducked his head and looked into her eyes. “Green. Beautiful.”
“What’s your name?”
“Stay with me, Moon-Water,” he said. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“I’ve never seen a sunrise,” Aysu said. She glanced out at the horizon and shivered.
“Your first sunrise, my last,” said Günay. “An omen?”
It wasn’t lost on Aysu that the Crown Prince’s name meant Sun-Moon in the old language. Maybe their meeting was fated, a portent, but of what, she couldn’t begin to know.
She couldn’t leave him. She would die fighting in the war anyway. If he could go willingly to his death for all of his people, she could sacrifice herself for him.
The water gurgled. Aysu knelt and trailed her fingers in the liquid. She closed her eyes and felt the Lake speak to her. She brushed her wet fingers against her lips.
She stood and clasped her hands behind her back, raised her chin, and faced the horizon. She took a deep breath and let it out to the count of ten. Her heart rate slowed.
“May I hold your hand?”
Aysu gasped and stepped away from him, shaking her head.
“Shocking, I know,” said the Crown Prince. “I’ve never touched or been touched by anyone’s bare skin. I promise not to tell,” he said. “Our secret.”
He held out his hand to her.
“Please? I’m...” He shook. His face lost its composure.
Aysu grabbed his hand and squeezed.
Günay sucked in a breath. Their feelings undulated between them like waves on a beach, currents of emotions swirling and tossing, calming deep down.
They stared at one another, nodded in unison, and faced the sunrise.
Aysu didn’t burst into flames or extinguish like water boiling away into steam. The sun’s rays did not kill her. Her whole life, they told her she would die if sunlight touched her skin. It was a lie. Or they had made a mistake when they slated her for the Water Mages Guild. Something wasn’t right.
“Your Highness?” A voice called from deep in the woods behind them.
“Thank you,” said Günay. He took his hand from Aysu’s. His fingers lingered on hers as if he were reluctant to break the bond of physical contact. She didn’t want the connection to end, but touching a member of the nobility meant death for a commoner, especially a castaway.
“Come back here when the moon is full tonight,” said Aysu. “The Lake has a gift for you.”
She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and face and pulled the sleeves down over her hands to cover her fingers even though it didn’t matter if sunlight touched her skin. She would keep this a secret, too. She ran off into the woods, away from the calling searchers.
Günay followed the sound of the men looking for him. He joined them and went back to view the induction ceremony. He stood on the dais, looking out at the lines of soldiers. No one knew why he was there, save one, and he searched the crowd for her.
“We’ll have parades like this before our wedding,” said Ugné, his betrothed. She smoothed the bright yellow satin of her gown, chasing away imaginary wrinkles.
“All of these people are going to their deaths,” said Günay.
“Is that not their purpose in life? What does that have to do with our wedding?” She glanced at him. “You’re behaving oddly today.”
He must remember that Ugné didn’t know, either. Would she be sad at his death? Would she miss him or just miss not being a Princess? He didn’t know.
A line of draftees dressed in black lined up in front of the stage. The priest said his incantation. He marked them as adults, their induction into the Water Mage Guild official.
While the priest intoned his long, monotonous speech, Günay searched the faces for Aysu. The recruits were covered by clothing, and most had their faces lowered. Only one looked up at him. Sunlight glinted in her eyes: a vibrant green, like the depths of the ocean. He got lost in those deep pools.
The priest cleared his throat. “Sire?”
“Pardon,” said Günay. He glanced back at Aysu. She had lowered her head, but she still did not blend in with the others. A pale shimmer of silver outlined her body as if her soul could not be contained in her flesh.
“Your country appreciates your call to duty,” said Günay. “May you be a credit to your Guild and your Country. Go and be victorious.”
Ugné chatted beside him as the line of new Water Mages left and the line of Earth Mages-to-be snaked in front of them. He didn’t hear any of her words. He felt an emptiness in the pit of his stomach, even as he remembered the impression of Aysu’s hand on his. Her absence caused him physical pain. He knew nothing about her, but she felt like his secret self.
How odd to get a glimpse of completeness now, just before his death. Perhaps it fit, though, since if they weren’t both being sent to die, they would never have met. And even if they had met, nothing could come of it. A serf and a member of the Royal family could never interact in any meaningful way.
Once he completed all of his official duties and night fell, Günay disentangled himself from Ugné’s company and snuck off to the lake.
He hoped to see Aysu again, but she would be locked in her barracks, he reminded himself.
Their footprints where they stood this morning showed in reflected moonlight and shadows. He stepped into his impressions. He looked at the imprints of Aysu’s boots and envisioned her beside him. He felt her warmth and the feel of her hand in his.
He turned to face the full moon. It’s reflection danced on the surface of the lake. He waited. Nothing happened. He sighed and turned to leave.
The surface of the lake gurgled at his feet. He knelt and trailed his fingers in the water. He closed his eyes in imitation of Aysu. The water climbed his body. It covered him like a coat of armor under his clothing. It washed away his fears, and he felt invincible.
He went to meet his fate.