Sky and Dew

Featured in Lambda Award Winning anthology Transcendent 2: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, edited by Bogi Takács

 

I brushed my fingertips over my lover’s cheek, their skin growing cold and damp as the stone beneath me. Above us, swirls of color--dancing reds and shades of blue--ebbed back into the world from which they’d come. The incursion of voices in the corridor faded to whispered snatches of conversations, never fully heard. From stories below, the deep murmurs thrummed. The Hallows was safe again.

My lover’s eyes were open and unseeing. To save us, to save the magic that fed the city above, they had broken their vow of silence and spoken one word with their lips and voice. Now those lips were still.

* * *

I carried my lover to the Chamber of Broken Vows. Blue cold-lights shone in sconces along the polished stone walls, and shadows sat heavy on the rows of still forms laid on slabs. These were all who had broken their vows of silence.

I hesitated on the threshold. I could already feel the deep chill of the stasis reaction in my lover’s body, aching the bones of my arms and cramping my muscles. I had to lay them on an empty slab soon or frost would overtake them, and they would be truly lost.

Another acolyte came in, white cold-lantern humming in her hand. She brushed pale hair back from her face under her light blue hood. I did not know her name before she had come to the Hallows, but I called her Daisy in my mind. She reminded me of sunshine, and brighter times.

She reached a trembling hand to touch my lover’s lips. She looked around us at the other vow-breakers, lying in stasis. Her eyes were wide and glassed with unshed tears.

Daisy gestured toward my lover, in the simple hand-talk we used. Did they save the city?

I closed my eyes. It was the question always asked. Did the acolyte break their vow of silence out of carelessness, or to protect the Hallows and the city above?

* * *

I called my lover Dew, because they smelled like morning dew on the grass after sunrise.

Dew and I had been deep in the Hallows, deep enough to feel in our bones the bass murmurs from the Lost Emperor’s own chambers below. We passed a corridor mouth and heard an incursion of whispers from another world. The whispers were common enough, but when we entered the corridor, we saw the colors had come as well.

We must protect the Emperor, and the city above, Dew gestured to me. Their face was set and solemn. This would not be an easy cancelling.

We listened to the intruding sounds, and began to hum a frequency to cancel them out. But the colors spilled into our world too quickly. I could not find the right frequency, and Dew’s voice alone was not enough to send the colors back. Reds and blues swirled and tried to close in on us, forming into shapes like men.

I tried to hold my fear in check. We could not let them through. The Emperor’s murmurs would be disrupted and stop the flow of magic to the city above. The crops would stop growing, the city would lose power, the river would dry up. Maybe not right away, but if we did not stop the incursion now it would spread. It might be days before we could control it, days edging toward blight and desolation above.

Dew opened their mouth. I knew what they were about to do, and our eyes met.

I shook my head, no. My breath caught, and my focus threatened to tatter, but I brought all my concentration to bear on finding the right frequency.

Dew turned to the colors and spoke, “Dissipate.”

It was not the word itself that held power, but the cadence and frequency of syllables that could not be expressed in a hum. The colors began to fade. The intruding voices calmed.

Dew collapsed.

* * *

In the Chamber of Broken Vows, Daisy caught my attention with a flick of her hand, and then asked a second question.

Do we leave them here, or do we take them below?

I had been dreading this. Other acolytes had gone below when friends and lovers broke their vows, but no one returned from a visit to the Lost Emperor. The priests told us they were affected by the murmurs, and now served the Lost Emperor in his own chambers. It would be a trip with no chance of return.

I could lay Dew on a slab in the Chamber of Broken Vows. I could visit them, and touch their hands, but never be touched back. I could always look into their vacant eyes, and wonder if they saw me but could not move enough to say.

Or I could go below and see if the Lost Emperor could save them.

Daisy saw my resolve. I will go with you, she signed.

No, I said, a sharp gesture. She and Dew had never been lovers, but she had been Dew’s friend before I came to the Hallows. She among us had known them the longest. But we didn’t both have to stay trapped down there.

Daisy caught my arm. I want to go. Do not deny me this.

If I was being honest, I did not want to make the trek down to the Emperor’s chambers alone.

And so we took turns carrying Dew down the circular stairs, around and around the open center of the Hallows. The deep murmurs were quiet for now, as they often were at this time of day, leaving only an echo behind them to fill the space with charged air. As we passed corridor mouths, drafts cut the cold of Dew’s body deeper into mine. Sometimes, there was the ghost of whispers from other worlds, but never enough for us to stop and cancel them out. The voices always came, and often faded on their own.

On the eleventh story down, the deep murmurs started again. They came like a sigh at first, then a gust, then an almost-formed word. On the nineteenth story down, my body began to shudder with the murmurs. Dew had made their sacrifice on the twenty-first story.

On the thirtieth, I set my teeth against the buzz of sound in my skull. I had never been this deep before. Only the most experienced acolytes and priests had come this far, and if I went much farther, only the priests.

We passed two brown-robed priests on our way down. One glared at us. The other flashed a look of pity. They knew they would not see us again. Not in the upper regions of the Hallows, at least.

I pulled Dew tighter to me.

* * *

We reached the last of the stairs and stepped onto flat, rough stone. My heart thrummed a counter beat to the droning that filled my ears and my mind and my soul.

Daisy had Dew now and was puffing under their weight, so I raised her lantern and we stared at the double doors ahead. Cold-light sconces on either side of the doors traced out elaborate carvings on the pale wood; shells and waves and plants of the sea.

Our hair floated then fell, floated then fell in the wind of the murmurs coming from the other side of those doors. My teeth chattered with the vibration. The cells in my body began to feel less solid.

Daisy and I shared a look. We had come this far. If we stood here much longer, we would be dispersed by the vibration of the murmurs.

I took a chattering step forward, touched the door handle, and pushed inward. The murmurs broadened into a great crescendo. Then, mid-word, they whispered into a sigh and there was silence.

* * *

My skin pricked as we entered the chamber. The air felt different inside, not damp like the rest of the Hallows, but warm and stale. Had we passed through a stasis field?

Daisy still held Dew, but I reached for them now. I needed to be their shield against whatever was inside.

Cold-lights lined the walls, the most light I had seen in one place in five years. Red and purple curtains hung in a wall across the room, swaying in an unknown breeze. A shadow moved behind the curtains. I pulled Dew closer to me.

I had never seen the Lost Emperor. I had heard his story, of course. He had come to our world many years ago, bringing with him the power of his words. None could listen to his speech without it first being funneled through the Hallows corridors, or their ears and souls would burn. I believed that now, having felt the raw power of the murmurs just outside his doors. As the story went, when first he came, he’d been dressed richer than the king, and his tanned face carried the visage of a god. He’d made the crops grow again, when they had been withering with blight. He’d made the river flow, when it had been dwindling to a stream. He flared the city’s magics to life, fueling lights and machines and industry, when the magics had been dying.

I stepped forward and Daisy made a whimpering noise, quickly staunched. I ignored her and passed with Dew through the curtain wall.

A man sat on cushions on the floor, a checkered board of polished wood on a table in front of him. He was moving stones around it, but looked up when I entered. His black hair was grayed at the edges, and small creases enhanced his handsome, tanned face. He couldn’t be the centuries-old Lost Emperor.

He flowed to his feet, and he spoke.

I flinched and drew back, my stomach knotting. No one could speak anywhere in the Hallows but in the initiation chamber, and then only a few words could be risked at a time, and only by the priests who gave the acolytes their vows.

The man looked at me expectantly, and then sighed. He set the checkered board down on the floor and motioned for me to lay Dew on the table.

Dew’s body was hard enough now that I could not make them lay flat.

The man spoke again, and this time I registered that I did not understand the language. But it was an itch to my ears, something that might have made sense if I tried to puzzle it out, like conversations from childhood memories.

Then he was the Lost Emperor. How was I even still alive? Did the stasis field of these chambers protect me from his words?

I met his dark eyes. I motioned to him, and then to Dew, and to Dew’s mouth. I indicated that Dew had spoken.

The Lost Emperor nodded impatiently, and said more words. They grated up my arms and down my spine, causing disharmony. But they did not harm me more than that.

I heard a sound behind me. Daisy had come through the curtains and now watched with wide eyes, though her mouth was set in a line of courage. She held her lantern as if it would ward off some darkness, though it was not needed in the near daylight of the room.

I looked around. Plates with half-eaten food were strewn on gold-leafed tables; cushions in velvet reds and purples were spread across the floor; a pile of richly engraved books sat on a table, dusty and unused.

The Lost Emperor leaned over Dew and I snapped my attention back to them. My body hummed with danger and I stood ready, though what I could do here, or what I would guard against, I did not know.

The Emperor tilted his head as if to listen for Dew’s breath. I tried to motion that Dew was in a stasis field of their own, but the Emperor waved me away. He spoke words into Dew’s mouth.

I waited. I watched Dew’s graying lips for any sign they would come back together, that their dark eyelashes would flutter.

The Emperor rocked back and growled an oath that didn’t need translation.

He stood and began to pace about the room, now and then kicking at the cushions. He stopped once, and looked past the curtains to the open door beyond them. There was a sadness in his face, and a hunger. A madness.

I stood where I was, unsure of what to do. The Emperor could bring magic to the world above, but he could not help one who had pledged their life to his service. Who protected the Hallows from the incursions of other worlds and the breaking of the Emperor’s magics.

He was not a god. He was not all-capable or all-knowing. He looked then like a beggar addled by the sun, only dressed in finer clothes.

I swallowed.

The curtains rustled. Daisy was gone.

I shifted toward Dew until I touched the coldness of their body. I had known I would not be leaving here. I did not see any other acolytes around, those who had come before. I did not know what had happened to them. But I could not leave Dew.

I waved to the Emperor to catch his attention.

He shot me an annoyed look. “San sa-henne ha?”

He’d spoken here, and his words had not caused him to go into stasis, or caused me more than minor discomfort. Would my words work the same? What choice did I have left but to try?

I cleared my throat. “Do…you…understand me?” The words came out soft and thready, and my throat constricted with the speaking of them. But nothing more happened.

“Shen shani henne at?” he asked. No, he did not know our language. How could he, if no one ever spoke it to him?

I listened to the sounds of his words, felt their slight warping of the air. I let them permeate who I was.

And then I spoke them.

* * *

Days passed, or maybe weeks. When the priests opened and closed the outer doors, the Emperor passed through the curtains and came back with a plate of food. He always shared it with me. He smiled, an expression that smoothed his lined face.

Dew lay on the table between us, an eternal statue, as the Emperor taught me his language. I taught him mine, until the priests who brought the food left a note: Do not speak the language of the city in this sacred chamber.

When I read it to him, the Emperor snorted and made a rude gesture toward the doors. But then he smiled. “It is good to speak, even if in only my language. Good to speak not just to make the magic work, but to talk with another.”

And it was. I had not realized how much I’d yearned in the Hallows not to be silent. I only wished Dew could share my relief.

For every span of time we spent learning, the Emperor spent twice as long speaking solemnly to the wall in his own language, to feed the murmurs to the city above. His voice was rich and rough, and as the time passed, the effect of his words on me became less of pain and more of music.

“How long have you been here?” I asked him.

He ran hands through his long hair. “Too long. Years, surely. They gren-tanakan me.” I didn’t understand the word. We gestured for a short while, then I nodded. They had captured him.

I was beginning to suspect that the story the priests had told us was not the truth.

“I came through into here,” he said, and motioned around him. “Not this room--a large cave. There were men dressed like you, blue robes. I asked where I was, and they went stiff and collapsed, and the lights that they held flared bright. One who was still far off witnessed this and ran away, and so I also ran. Of course I ran.” He passed a shaking hand over his eyes. “I got lost in the caves. When they found me, and brought me here, and poked at me until I spoke again. This time, they did not collapse.” He paused. “I have seen some of the priests age--go from young-faced men and women like you to old and worn and gray. Is it true? Are they grow old while I do not?”

I nodded. It must be the stasis field. The Emperor spoke the murmurs clearly in here, but out in the corridors of the Hallows, they were long and bone-rattling deep. The stasis field kept the Emperor from aging more than a few years in a few centuries. He would supply the city’s magic for centuries to come.

“They think I’m a god,” he said. He eyed me in my blue robes. “Do you?”

“No,” I said. “No, I know you’re not a god.” I looked down at Dew on the table. Frost had formed on their lips and open eyes. Maybe, when I’d first decided to stay here, I had thought I might learn something to save them. But I did not fool myself now that they would come out of a stasis that deep. I did not fool myself that there had ever been a chance.

“The others like you,” the Emperor said, “the ones who brought me people to heal, did they return to you?”

“No,” I whispered. Fear raised the hair on my arms. What was this place? This Emperor was not a god, and the priests whom I’d trusted--who we’d all trusted as faithful servants of the Emperor--were lying to us.

“Did I do this?” he asked, waving at Dew. “I try, I always try to bring them back. I think maybe I will find the right words one day. Or maybe I only make it worse.”

I shook my head and stood. I didn’t know.

The Emperor looked from me to the doors and back to me. Panic flashed across his handsome face, glinting the madness in his eyes. Maybe I should have been afraid of him, but I was more inclined to pity. More inclined to anger. No, the Emperor had not been able to cure Dew. But the priests kept him here a prisoner, to speak their murmurs. Whatever harm the Emperor’s words had caused Dew was at their hands.

“Thank you for staying,” the Emperor said. And I knew then that even if the priests let me leave, I couldn’t leave him alone again.

* * *

The Emperor helped me carry Dew through the curtains into the outer part of the chamber. As much as I did not want to relinquish Dew to the priests, having them still and unmoving in the chamber had begun to fray my edges. And so I said my goodbyes. I spoke them aloud, in the Emperor’s language. And then I spoke them, more quietly, in mine, and damn the priests who would forbid me that right.

“I have two children,” the Emperor told me the next day. “They are likely grown by now. Or maybe, if you say time moves more slowly in here, they are already dead. Perhaps I can see their children, if I return.”

I moved another stone across his checkered board, and captured two of his pieces. I suspected he let me. Or maybe he just did not care. Time moved differently in this room, but he was no less old because of it. Years weren’t always measured in time.

“Why do you stay?” I asked. “If you can put anyone outside this chamber into stasis with your words, why don’t you just put them all into stasis and leave?”

He looked up at me with steady eyes. “I have tried. More times than I wish to count, I escaped into the tunnels, but the priests know when I leave. They know when anyone leaves. They know the tunnels better than I do, and they catch me quickly. When I speak to defend myself, they hum and aren’t affected by it. Their humming addled my brains for days after, though they made sure I did my duty to speak.”

The priests could hum to counteract the Emperor’s words? Could I hum to counteract their humming?

I didn’t know the tunnels this deep in the Hallows. But if there were two of us, and one of us a trained acolyte with a sense for the sounds and winds of cross-corridors, maybe we would have a chance.

If I could hum to stop an incursion from another world, maybe I could hum to make an incursion of my own.

“What if I could get you home?” I asked.

For a moment his face shone with naked hope. But he shook his head.

“I know my speaking keeps others alive. I have resigned myself to that task.”

“But what if the priests have only taken the easiest way to fuel the magic of the city above, because they could?”

He glared at me. Then he rose and retreated to a cushion in the corner, picking up a book he couldn’t read.

* * *

We spent the next days as we had before, with one alteration. When it was nearing time for one of his speaking cycles, I sat and faced the wall and started speaking instead. I spoke a story-rhyme I had learned as a child, about the wisp-men who came out of the sea. The rhythm wasn’t quite right in his language, but it worked well enough. He sat and watched me the whole hour, his mouth a straight line.

When the priests came that night, they said nothing. And so we began to alternate the duty.

“I can teach others your language,” I said. “If I do that, you won’t have to stay.”

“What others?” he asked bitterly. “The only ones who come here are the priests, and those who want me to fix the ones I put into stasis.”

“We’ll ask the priests--”

“No,” he said. “They are not on our side.”

“If we leave, they will have to learn.” They could not have kept watch over the Lost Emperor for so many years and not have learned something of his language. They had to have a plan for if he finally escaped, or if he died. “They’ll take over the murmurs.”

Hope flickered in his eyes and did not burn out so quickly.

In the times between speaking the murmurs, we began to talk through his memories of when he’d first arrived. We reconstructed the route the priests had used to bring him here from the caves. It was all hypothetical, we told ourselves.

Then, without any spoken agreement, we began to eat less as we stored up food. The priests brought two plates now, one for the Emperor and one for me.

One day, just before our sleep cycle, we left.

We carried cold-lights plundered from the chamber, bobbing blue-white ellipses on the walls of the deep tunnels. We did not speak. Though I had grown acclimated to his language, I didn’t know what our words would do to each other outside the stasis chamber, or even if I could hum them away.

We moved quickly and did not sleep, and when we paused to rest or eat, it was with quick efficiency. My sense of direction was honed from years of silence in this living tomb. I followed it with reference to the Emperor’s memories, and we only once heard the rustle of the priests’ footsteps from a cross-corridor. We slipped into a crevice and covered our cold-lights until they passed.

After hours or maybe a day, our cold-lights began to dim. I had never seen a cold-light dim before. Was it because we had stopped the murmurs? We hadn’t been away that long. Was even the Emperor’s absence from his chamber enough to dim the lights in the city above? How long until the rot seeped into the crops again, and the river ran low? How long until the seas became thick with the algae that made the fish too poisonous to eat? I tried not to think about it. I wouldn’t be away that long, I hoped.

But once the tunnels had turned from cool cut stone to damp natural cave walls, the Emperor touched my arm. Yes, that formation was as he had described it. We picked up our paces.

And then, finally, the Emperor made a wordless exclamation and rushed us through a narrow passage. We broke out into a cavernous space, lit with streaks of light from above. Sunlight. The cavern was dank, but with a promise of sea air.

The Emperor shouted, “Here!” and it echoed around us.

I tensed, waiting for his word to fell him, or me, but he flashed a grin so wide he hardly looked like the same man.

“Yes,” I said, in his language. Again, nothing happened. Maybe a month ago I would have fallen stiff at the sound of my own words, but the Emperor’s language was starting to feel more natural to me than my own.

The Emperor dashed to one side of the cave, skidding to a stop near a stone slab. “It was here.” He turned to me, then looked past me and stiffened.

A group of priests stepped out from behind a large rock formation. They had wraps over their ears, and carried spears and knives and rope.

They’d known we’d come. Of course they’d known we’d come here. How could we not have considered that, or that there was another way into the cave than the way we’d come? We’d been too eager, too willing to try, and the trip through the tunnels had been too easy.

I darted to the Emperor, and he gripped my arm as if to steady himself. He was too pale in the raw rays of sunlight.

“Whatever you’re going to do,” he said in a low pant, “do it now.”

I clasped my hands together, and shut out what might happen if this did not work. I let go of my focus on the cavern around me, and the priests, and the Emperor. I formed the scene he’d described to me in my mind: a man in a carriage, dressed in fine but ordinary business wear, travelling a stretch of road that held nothing in particular. The horses’ hooves struck packed dirt, the carriage springs creaked. Outside, grass continued for a ways until it stopped, and the cliff dropped down to the sea. The driver clicked his tongue at the horses, and began an off-tune whistle.

I listened to the whistle, and began to hum along.

Outside of myself, I watched a different scene entirely. The priests advanced on where I stood with the Emperor, spears outstretched.

“Stop!” the Emperor shouted to the priests. Some of them cringed, the word affecting them even through the wraps on their ears. But it only slowed them down.

Still, the Emperor saw his power over them and pressed his advantage. He poured out a torrent of words. He was good at this. Nonsense words mostly, or sentences strung together in a loose, manic storyline. Something about a hunt chased to the sea, and the whitecaps rolling in to steal the catch, and a fishmonger’s wife…

The priests braced themselves as if against a crippling gale and continued to advance.

My hum gained rhythm. I found harmony to the music of the Emperor’s words, and spoke words of my own. I wove in the poems and rhymes that I had learned as a child. The second rhythm shuddered the priests. Our words together quivered the air, and the air between the Emperor and myself began to ripple. The Emperor saw it and stopped speaking to stare.

“No, keep going, keep going,” I said, not breaking the rhythm of my sing-song hum. And then, “Can you repeat the rhymes with me?” I said one quickly, then again, and he nodded and said it with me. We chanted, the words falling into a strange and echoing dance. The air between us formed rings like a stone dropped into a pond, rolling outward until we could hardly see one another.

Colors began to bleed through, and my muscles clenched in the long-learned reflex. I wanted to hum them away, to protect against them. Instead, I tuned to them. The sound of these colors was not so different from the rhythm of the words I was speaking, and I adjusted my pitch and rhythm to match.

The Emperor stopped speaking. He was only a blur of a shape through the translucent ripples, but I knew he was looking within them.

I raised my hands and spoke to push the sounds toward the Emperor. My breath almost caught as I realized in that one moment what I was doing, letting go of my only ally, someone I would call a friend.

“Oh…” I heard him gasp. It was a word of wonder. I had found the right frequencies. I pushed them over him until the ripples enfolded him. And then I slowed my rhythm, pausing between words, and gradually letting them fade away.

The colors ebbed, the ripples grew more shallow, and then dissipated. The Emperor was gone.

Tears stung my eyes, and I stared at the place where he’d just been, the sounds of my sing-song still echoing in my heart.

Rough hands seized me. Fire exploded in my head, and then there was nothing.

* * *

It was long days in the Emperor’s chamber, despite the priests’ frantic gestures and threats, despite the danger to the city above, before I could bring myself to speak the Emperor’s words again. Before I could not hurt as much at the lack of his presence here. Before I could remember that my duty was to the city, and not to the priests.

Then I sat in the Emperor’s chamber and spoke. I read aloud from the books on the table, translating as I wove the words. This had been my plan since I’d first pressed the Emperor to leave. He had a family to go back to, even if generations late. I had no one, so I would protect the city above. But I hadn’t understood how hard it would be. I was alone, where once I had not been alone.

After a time, it was no longer the Emperor’s chamber. It was my own.

* * *

One day, days or weeks later, the curtains rustled and a figure stepped through. I stopped speaking and stared. Dew.

Their black hair was tied up in a knot, green eyes sparking with life.

My face crumpled as I tried to understand this.

Dew looked around them, their eyes widening at the opulence of the chamber. I had grown used to it, and only now noticed it again.

Dew gestured. You are…the Lost Emperor?

I gave a startled laugh. “You can speak here, Dew. It is safe.”

Dew’s brows knit, and they picked their way across the strewn cushions to sit across the table from me. The checkered board and stones were arrayed on the surface, and Dew inspected them, briefly touching one stone before pulling their hand away.

They looked up at me. Swallowed. And I saw the courage it took for them to say, “Safe?”

Dew flinched, but when nothing happened, they sank back, putting their face in their hands.

I dropped the book I’d been reading from and scrambled around the table to sit beside them.

“What happened?” I asked. “How are you awake--” How were they alive?

They swiped at tears. Their voice came thin and hesitant, because it had not been used in years. “When the murmurs stopped, the magic faded. I…thawed.” They shuddered, and I wrapped my arm around them. Dew was warm, and smelled like the dew of morning grass.

“A few others thawed, too,” they went on. “But not the ones who’ve been in the Chamber of Broken Vows for years.”

I pulled back. “But it’s been weeks.” Weeks in my time--months outside this chamber?

“I had to recover,” Dew said. “The priests only now told me that you were here.” They looked around again, frowning at the chamber. “That is you, making the murmurs?”

I nodded.

“And…where is the Lost Emperor?”

I looked down. I didn’t want to think about him. I had been successfully not thinking about him while I spoke the murmurs. But the checkered board sat on the table in front of me, the stones arrayed across it, waiting. “He went home.”

Dew nodded, accepting this. Trusting me. “That was when the murmurs stopped. Thank you.”

That was when I’d stopped the murmurs. No one had told me what damage I’d caused in the city above with my days of silence, though I knew from the priests’ desperation there had been damage.

I closed my eyes. But I hadn’t known this would happen. If Dew had somehow come back to me, maybe my choices had not been a mistake. Not as big of a mistake, at least.

I curled my hand around theirs.

“But you can’t go back,” I said. “The priests won’t let you leave now. And I can’t leave.”

Dew closed their hand around mine. “I know.” They looked into my eyes. “I know, Sky. Teach me these words, as the Lost Emperor taught you. I will stay with you. We will keep the murmurs and the city alive together.”

My breath caught. The Emperor hadn’t had a choice in staying here, but this was the path I had chosen. I had given up any thought of a life above first to save Dew, and then to keep the city thriving. Then, I’d thought I’d always be alone.

But I did not want Dew to be trapped here, too.

Dew kissed me, a sweetness I’d never thought I’d feel again. “My choice, Sky,” they said. “This is my choice to stay.”

They pulled back, a wry smile tugging at their lips. “You scared the priests. They don’t want the murmurs to stop again. They will send down more to learn; I’m a new sort of acolyte. We will be the ones who keep the murmurs alive.”

My throat was tight but I nodded. I had lost the Lost Emperor, but here was Dew, returned to me again. I traced my fingers over their face in growing wonder at this miracle.

I was still confined here, but the air was different in a place where you were not alone. Where you were with someone you loved.

I kissed Dew back, murmuring the word for love into their mouth. Dew shuddered at the sound of my new language, as I once had, and then kissed it back to me.



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