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Sunshine filtered through the gauzy curtains, as soft and warm as melted butter, its glow smoothing over the tattered edges of the well-worn but carefully tended furniture that my mother and I were perched on. The “morning room” was one of the few in the enormous deserted citadel that was free of dust—that looked how I’d always imagined a normal home might look. A bit shabby, perhaps, but at least it was clean and bright, unlike so many of the other rooms I’d managed to sneak into. Those were dark and shadowed and cold, the hidden past of this place buried under a thick coating of grime and disuse. But here, where Mother insisted we spend the majority of our lives, muted daylight reflected back at me from the gleaming wooden surface of the table next to our chairs.
I dutifully plunged my needle through the dingy-white fabric—push, pull, tighten, repeat; a garden of flowers blooming across my lap, coaxed into existence by my fingers and the thread—but my mind was outside. My heart fluttered beneath the trappings of propriety my mother insisted upon—the fitted dress, the demurely coifed hair, all of it—as the wings of the birds I could hear trilling in the real gardens below fluttered, carrying them upon the eddies and whirls of wind. They caught that wind and rode it into the clouds. The birds could escape this place, but not so for the rest of us.
“Focus, Zuhra,” Mother murmured, catching the direction of my gaze and the stillness of my hands.
With a suppressed sigh, I turned back to my needlepoint. Though I believed myself fairly skilled at the task, the results of my efforts were still lacking, since we had only whatever cloth and thread Mother and Sami had hoarded throughout the years for my “work” that wasn’t needed for other more pressing uses. The Paladin who had once lived there must have left in a hurry, since so many of their belongings remained. But that was long ago … and not even their superior (according to Sami) fabrics could withstand time forever. So many wasted hours spent trapped in that one small room, bent over useless decorative pieces, already yellowed and aged before I ever began creating them, for a dowry that would never be needed, for a wedding that would certainly never transpire. I wasn’t certain I ever wished to marry, but even if I did, how Mother figured that would be possible so long as we were trapped in the citadel was beyond me.
“May I please go outside? Just for a bit. With Inara.” I didn’t raise my eyes to hers, too afraid she’d see how desperately I wished to be gone from this room and her piercing gaze. Her eyes scorched me far more deeply than Inara’s ever did.
“Finish that piece and then you may.”
My frustration was hot in my throat, strangling me as surely as this meaningless existence steadily choked the life out of us all. “Why? Why must I finish first? What is the point of any of this?”
Mother stiffened; I saw her spine straighten in my peripheral vision. She was a small woman, shorter than both me and Inara, but her tiny frame housed a fiery spirit I knew better than to provoke. She reminded me of an Ixtacl, the little rakasa—the Paladin name for “monster”—that lured prey in with its large brown eyes and whiskered face, and then ripped them into shreds with the bone-cuttingly-sharp claws hidden beneath the soft fur of its paws. I knew better than to mention the comparison to Mother, or even Sami. She would have been furious at me for reading about the monsters that had once plagued our land but had now fallen into legend and myth. I did mention it to Inara once. She’d paled and begun muttering in the way she did when she was agitated, making me immediately regret it. I kept my observations to myself after that.
But I couldn’t help but think of the Ixtacl again as Mother’s own hands grew still, waiting for me to acknowledge her waiting glare.
Here come the claws …
I finally looked up, our identical hazel eyes meeting and holding. I was practically her spitting image, save for the gray streaks in her hair, and my olive skin that must have been gifted by my father. Mother was moon-pale, a stark contrast to her inky eyelashes and star-streaked night-sky hair, whereas I merely had to spend an hour or two outside before my skin began to brown. Like a chicken being roasted by the fire, she’d scolded me as a child, scrubbing my skin with valuable lemons to try and bleach the sun from it. She never bothered with Inara’s skin, perhaps because she knew my sister would merely brown right up again from all the time she spent in her gardens. Or more likely, because she preferred to spend as little time with her younger daughter as possible.
If Inara noticed or minded, she was unable to tell us. But I did.
“She is alone out there all the time. I only want to be with her, help her,” I began before Mother could, “just while the sun is up. I can work on this tonight, after supper.” I held up the needlepoint, nearly two-thirds finished, as evidence—as a promise. “Maybe she could even join us.”
“You know better than to suggest such a thing. We can’t afford another accident like the last time,” Mother snapped. Despite myself, my gaze flicked to the singed edges of our curtains.
“She didn’t mean to—”
“She never does,” Mother returned. A hint of garnet flushed her cheeks. “You are the only one that has any hope of leaving this place. You must be prepared for that opportunity when it comes.”
“By sewing decorations for a home I will never be mistress of—because it doesn’t exist?” I barely kept my voice from rising, but had no such luck with the boiling unrest within me. It surged through my veins, infiltrating my muscles like Netvor venom—another type of rakasa I’d read about in that same forbidden book. Supposedly the strongest Paladin had pierced themselves with it in very small doses for a burst of speed and strength in battle. “No man is ever going to come waltzing through the hedge, seeking my hand in marriage, Mother. The hedge won’t allow it, first of all. And second, you know as well as I do that no man would ever wish to try!”
“You don’t know that. Perhaps a young man from the village—”
“The villagers either hate us or are terrified of us.”
“Not of you. They’re scared of her!”
“Why don’t you say her name? Why don’t you ever say any of their names?”
Mother deliberately lowered her darning, her already stiff spine lengthening until she sat arrow-straight, poised to strike. Normally I would have backed off immediately, afraid of incurring her wrath. But something had been building inside me all week alongside the heat wave that transformed the citadel from an abandoned fortress to an oven that baked unrest instead of bread.
I pressed, “They’re scared of Inara, who wouldn’t hurt a spider. You’re even scared of her. Her own mother.”
“That is enough.” Mother’s voice was sharp enough to cleave stone, perhaps even the immovable hedge, but I barreled on, words and grievances I’d swallowed and buried for months, years, rising up and tumbling out, lifted on the surge of my discontent the way the birds had been lifted by the updrafts of wind in the courtyard.
“You treat her as if it’s her fault that her father is a Paladin—that she reminds you of him!”
Mother lips whitened. “What did you say?”
Now that the words were spoken, the careful dam I’d built within cracked, spilling all my harbored thoughts out. “You act like it’s a huge secret, but we live in their citadel. I’ve walked these empty halls with their statues and their tapestries watching me, mocking me and my ignorance, every day of my life. Inara is more Paladin than she is human and we all know it!”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Did his eyes glow the way hers do?” I continued right on over her, despite the warning bells clanging dimly beneath the crash of blood tumbling through my body. “Did she inherit that from Adelric?”
The name reverberated as though I’d punched the air out of the room. My mother’s mouth opened then shut again, shocked beyond words and sounds. But rather than the explosion I expected, that I had grown accustomed to from her, the flash of rage dissolved into something worse, something darker. In the space of one blink to the next her fury shattered and she crumpled in on herself, her fingers clenching her own needlepoint into a mangled mess. The exhilaration of my own daring ebbed out of me, leaving me shaken and empty.
“Go,” she said at last, stony and quiet, to her lap.
“Mother,” I tried haltingly, already sickened at what I’d done. She was implacable and distant and exacting, but she was still my mother. I stood and reached toward her, but she flinched away.
“You wanted to go to Inara, so go.” It was a half-whispered hiss of a command.
The door opened and I glanced over to see Mahsami walking in with a tray of sliced vegetables and some sort of broth steaming in a pot. Other than a random goat or chicken, she was the only living being that the hedge had allowed to pass through its dangerous grasp—and only on occasion, when things were dire. She could have escaped. But shortly after Inara’s birth, she’d chosen to move into the citadel—temporarily, she’d claimed, to help care for the baby.
She hadn’t left us yet.
Her shoulders were now sloped with age and her fawn hair had lightened to white in recent years, but her gaze was sharp as ever when she glanced back and forth between the two of us.
“I brought some refreshments,” she offered, hefting the tray as evidence.
“Zuhra was just leaving.”
Sami’s eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t comment as I stared at my mother, willing her to look up to see the apology on my face. Instead, she punctiliously unclenched her fingers and smoothed out the fabric of the stockings she’d been darning, acting as though nothing had happened. But I didn’t miss the crimson stain on the gray material she quickly tried to cover up, from where she’d punctured herself with the needle.
“Yes, I was,” I finally agreed, turning away, my blood like sludge in my veins. “I’ll be in the garden with Inara.”
I’d gotten what I’d wanted, but my victory somehow felt like a defeat.
Copyright © 2019 by Sara B. Larson