People cultivate white strawberries in the White Strawberry area. Fields and fields.
They sell apple cider at the Apple Cider village. Must be hundreds of thousands of jars every year, just from that tiny village.
There is no golden lion at the Golden Lion. It’s just what the king named his throne.
“There’s a region called the Red Hay, but there’s no red hay there either. People say it’s because the girls there have hair the color of flames. Beautiful, like creatures from a mystical forest.”
“Your hair is nice, too.”
“My hair is dry like hay.”
Claudine blinks slowly. “I like your hair.”
It’s the first compliment Maya’s ever gotten.
Well, the first compliment she’s ever gotten for her hair. It’s all shaggy. Frizzy and dull. The attending lady tells her that it’s only because all the beautiful things in the world are already in her eyes.
She likes to stare into her reflection.
“Does that mean one day my eyes would turn hideous? Would they become foggy, all the colors drained, as if cloaked with a veil? Would the curse have blood-red veins clawing into the whites and suck away at what little purity is left in me?”
Claudine shakes her head. No.
Long, luscious eyelashes flutter on her cheeks. Her chin is raised high, prideful, but her eyes are fixed downwards. No.
“What do you want to be?”
“If a bird can’t fly, would you still chase after it? Would you still lock it in a cage?”
“If birds can’t fly, no one would bother to make cages.”
Next to the Herring River, there are three little hills, pushed up against each other, green the color of leaves. But they’re always covered in mist, in smoke, and so every time the princess leans on a pillow to look outside towards them, it’s a different shade of green. Her eyes won’t stop drilling into the open air, and she longs to be there again, to ride on a horse, to chase after a strange bird, going nowhere. The uncertainty makes her heart jump, erratic, like when her sister received a proposal from the Prince of the Silver Sword’s land.
What more could she be waiting for? She longs to be like birds, with wings that would spread out at their own will, broad and simple - showing their feathers as if nothing could stop the painful freedom coursing through them. She wishes to be a bird. She wishes to be a bird!
“My dad caught a small deer that day - its leg was bleeding so terribly. And then I never went hunting again.”
Claudine waits, waits for the dreamy words to fall out of Maya’s lips, waits for the faint but clear scent of a strange flower that people of this land never knew the name to. But she knows. Of course she knows.
“I want to be a swan.”
She says no.
Her eyes, a shade of fuchsia turned so deep they could well be red, say no.
“What do you want to be?”
“Do you love me?”
“I don’t know.”
The princess doesn’t look her in the eyes. She only ever looks at the eyes of the houses down there in the valley, with smoke practically overflowing; and her hands only ever fumble with themselves, with the pieces of doubt in her mind. Like that game with the little sticks of wood she remembered, one she really liked.
Claudine is the exact opposite. She looks straight at Maya, focused, eyebrows furrowed.
“You’ve only known me for three days, right?”
The brunette doesn’t answer.
She looks on, down at the houses.
She looks down, like a goddess watching over her people through the clouds. She looks down.
She wonders why people fall in love. It’s such a beautiful thing. Why do people fall in love?
Why people lay next to each other on cold nights, in a house that only ever smells of earth and of burning hay.
Why they look into each other’s eyes and wish they could forever stay by each other’s side, intertwined, like the Herring River pouring out to the sea.
Why they kiss - fingers grasping at each other desperately, hurried and crazy, as though that very second is their last, before they fade away. Fade away, fade away. Like a cloud.
Why they love. How they love.
How they can get used to a certain pair of eyes, of hands, a certain heartbeat, another person’s body, so much that when one leaves, the other would wallow in despair to death. They gnaw at each other’s minds. They sit in the dark, on old, worn out chairs, clinging onto the other person, trying to search for the final lingering fragments of warmth, and it just goes on like that, on and on and on.
They’re just strangers, like that lumberjack she encountered in the woods.
They’ve only just met, they’ve only touched by chance.
Why would the Prince of the Silver Sword’s land propose to her sister only two days into his trip exploring their kingdom?
Is he in love? Would he die for her? Would her name be what he utters with his last breath, when a blade carves its way into his chest in battle?
Does she love that woman, then?
Maya doesn’t know Claudine. Claudine doesn’t know Maya.
“I want to be a cloud.”
She wants to be able to fade away, when the time finally comes.
This time, the blonde answers no with a frown woven into her face.
“What do you want to be?"
Tomorrow is the wedding day. Her sister was to be united with the Prince of the Silver Sword’s land.
Maya sits by the windowsill, atop a fort made out of pillows with a dress - she holds it the way one would hug a bouquet of flowers to their chest, fingertips carefully gliding over silk. She doesn’t want to look outside.
“Have you ever had bread from the Golden Wheat region?”
She shakes her head.
Claudine and her questions can’t take lilac eyes off of that dress. The princess sits in silence. A gloomy light tells her that she’s crying.
“My nursemaid said that when I cry, I’m giving stars to the sky. When the tears dry, they’ll fly away and shine, for everyone to see. Twinkle, twinkle.”
“I suppose if tears fall in the light of day, then they’ll never be seen. Never.”
The music bouncing off of castle walls and echoing up the valley only made this silence more agonizing. She cries, torn between strips of broken sound. She cries alone. She doesn’t want to become a swan, or a cloud, or anything. She wants to be down there, dancing to her heart’s full desire, even if she hadn’t danced in years. She wants to laugh so hard that her chest hurts, she wants to stand next to her sister in this dress tomorrow.
She will cry as she bid them farewell at the pier. She will send her sister books, so many books. She will wave her arms in the air until their ship disappears behind the skyline, to a land she will never step a foot on. And then she will dance, laugh and live until she becomes a happy old lady.
“I want to be a star.”
And she knows Claudine would tell her no again, but it’s going to have to fall to deaf ears. Maya closes her eyes and urges herself to sleep.
“What do you want to be, princess?”
“Are there a lot of flowers there?”
“There is plenty of lavender in the Red Hay region. They sell lavender perfume.”
“I don’t like that. It makes me think of them as beautiful and evil.”
“Don’t you wear perfume, too?”
It’s the most embarrassed she’s ever been in her entire life.
She looks down again. It’s always like that. When she doesn’t have enough courage to face someone, the princess finds herself something else to rely on, to lean on.
Like sitting on a swing. When people stare, it’s the same as when someone shoves her into the seat and pulls it up high, so high in the air.
All she could do is clutch on the ropes on her sides, trying to overlook that feeling of herself falling, rising, falling again. She’s always felt that way. She’s always looking for something to hold.
Maya holds onto herself, careful and timid. She builds walls surrounding herself, to cover her own heart in layers of judgement and caution. But it’s poorly done, the jobs rushed, the same way she rushes mindlessly to become someone else, to become something else.
She’s jealous of the girls with hair like flames.
They’re beautiful, their freckles like a small galaxy across soft, tanned skin. Their hands are gentle, caressing flowers like fairies giving the world a touch of spring. Only the most beautiful shades, the most beautiful things. And their eyes, amber, glowing with confidence, but still so elegant, so modest.
It wouldn’t be a lie if someone were to call them nymphs. Maidens, devout to a goddess.
Maya’s jealous of them.
She wonders where the colors and the scent go after a flower wilts and dies.
“Do you wear perfume? The ones they make out of flowers?”
“If I could, I wouldn’t. I’d admire them. I’d love them.”
“I want to be a flower, one of those flowers. And you will tell me no.”
Claudine watches her cry, like watching a wild flower in the morning, one of those things that she passes by without a thought, without any admiration, without any love.
“What do you want to be?”
The princess wakes up, sudden and abrupt.
There’s cold sweat on her forehead, but she doesn’t reach for her handkerchief, and she doesn’t bother to wipe them away with the back of her hand either. Instead, she just lets them roll down, down her face and to the sides of her neck. She can feel it. She can feel the peaceful air that follows her even when sleep is gone.
The houses still stand, down there, quiet but packed with who knows how much energy. She sees the vendors prepping on the streets. She sees colorful dresses, head coverings, belts, horses, boxes and boxes of things sealed away.
“What were you dreaming about?”
Maya doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what to answer with. She’s just silent.
Where are all these tears coming from?
“I’ve seen the Red Hay girls cry before.”
Of course you have.
“They cry. And I swear, that anyone, even the most wicked, most rotten soul on this Earth, would have given anything so that they’d stop. But they keep crying. They keep begging.”
Today Maya doesn’t know what she wants to become. Maybe a fish with boringly colored scales, or a dull gray moth. She just wants to be free.
Or maybe she wants to run, like in the days that are so far away they barely remain in her memories, when she’d run through the royal garden on her bare feet and then fall down and bask under the water fountain.
Or maybe nothing.
“I like your silence.” Claudine says.
It’s the first time that Maya doesn’t hear her ask that question.
Today the people pile firewood up to make a pyre.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Why won’t they burn me?”
“You’re their princess.”
“A cursed princess.”
She turns to look at Claudine, but the other woman is just sitting there.
Sometimes Maya hopes that she would hug her. She thinks she’s in love. It’s a feeling she can’t explain, so she supposes it’s love. Love that slowly spreads through her entire being, from the tiny spark where it started.
It makes her look down at her own hands and asks whether they were beautiful enough. It makes her hesitate, makes words fall out of her mouth in a shy melody, wondering if they were smart enough or elegant enough. It makes her blush. It makes her heart race. It makes her want to cry. It makes her do things that people in love do.
She feels so shallow and childish. Claudine is probably thinking that, too. She must be. She knows so much, she's been through so much, and facing her, in this stupid room, is a princess, seventeen, entirely clueless about this world.
It’s a long, arduous silence.
Maya stares down at her hands. The deep purple marks have stretched even further, all the way down to the base of her fingers. She fumbles with them. She opens and closes her hands. She uses them to cup her own cheeks and rub on weary eyes. She looks tired, but perfect, at the same time. Like one of the characters in those books, the ones she’s read so many times the spines are falling apart.
She wants to get lost in a book.
These words, she'd keep to herself.
“Come on,” Claudine says encouragingly. “Let me see them.”
She glues her eyes to the pages. She’s terrified of Claudine’s own. Those eyes would pierce through her like a knight with his spear jammed right into the world of carefully hidden thoughts in her mind.
Claudine would find out about all the noise inside. Maybe Claudine already knows, she’s always known, ever since that first day when she showed up by the stone door. There’s a chill air surrounding her. And she sees through Maya the way Maya can see through the translucent water of the Herring River, to see the fishes rushing downstream.
“Your eyes. You don’t let me see them anymore. And where’s your voice? Where’s your smile?”
But things don’t go the way Claudine expects. Maybe this was never in that book about human behavior that she’s written for herself. She didn’t expect that the princess would cry again.
The brunette looks out the window. She almost always does. Through the window and through the water, the waterworks that rise in her eyes and shines, like something the other woman has never seen before - not like diamonds, a diamond is but a rough, lousy thing, and not like the stream of water when autumn comes around, either - no - this is something so much more pure, so much more beautiful.
This is the most beautiful pair of eyes in the world, crying. This is trembling shoulders and a puffy nose. This is lips pursed together, refusing to make even the smallest noise. This is Maya.
Claudine has never been so stunned by something so imperfect like that.
She doesn’t ask the question anymore.
A while later, when the tears dry and she’s sitting on the edge of the bed, with Maya laying down neatly at her side, the brunette tells her, voice hoarse, “I want to become a part of the ocean.”
There is no answer.
It happened when she was twelve, during a season when there wasn’t a single living thing remaining in the Herring River, when flowers wilt and dry petals are left all over the ground, crumbling under the stained heels of panicked townspeople, when no crops could grow, like someone, or some atrocity had came crashing by, taken away everything, all of the life, and then just left.
No one told the princess what it was. She didn’t ask.
She doesn’t ask, even when she has to lay down at the same place, day after day after day.
“It’s raining, right?”
“It’s raining. And the people down there are preparing for a tragedy.”
“Can I ask what that’s about?”
“If you asked me that during the first few times we talked, then I would have answered. But not now. We’re running out of time, and you can’t know all about the tragedies. Tell me, what do you want to be today?”
Claudine feels like she can never be smart enough when Maya turns to her with a smile.
It’s a smile that surprises her. Extremely so. She moves closer to the princess, to better hear the words that are still trapped behind her lips, to feel the softness that the brunette thinks she’s lost, and Claudine realizes she’s closer than she thought, than she expected to be.
“Yesterday I had a good dream. I’m happy there. I’m really happy. I ran a long run in the woods, I went all the way to the Herring River to catch some fish. I rode a horse. I was really happy.” She pauses for a moment. “It’s so different from all my other dreams.”
Claudine smiles, but she feels something she’s never felt before, something that makes her smile - in the perceptive person’s eyes - look like a sad one. Forced.
She’s filled with regret.
And somewhere deep inside her, there’s something else akin to frustration.
“Where did all the time go?”
Yesterday, she let Claudine see her cough, in the middle of the night, when the vultures flew across the river to approach where the people were dumping masses of bodies. The blonde had taken down those curtains by the window and sat down next to her - right next to her, next to the hand that could no longer write, next to the marks rooting down into her skin. Right next to her singing heart. Right next to all of that.
Maya caught her eyes, and like every day ever since Claudine first showed up, she slept soundly with a small bud of happiness in her chest. She knew she was being watched, all night, even when she slept. No one’s done that in a long time.
There is no “in a long time”.
No one’s ever done that. No one does that. Not even her old nursemaid. No one’s stayed awake to watch her sleep. So she sleeps, quiet and content; and sleep comes to her, naturally, predictably, the same way Claudine did.
“Time doesn’t go anywhere. Time is always here. You just don’t need it anymore.” The blonde answers, hurried, and then rushes to move on. “I know you’re still counting, but hey, I’ll tell you about the Red Hay girls again.”
And Claudine knows, she’s so bad at cheering someone else up. Has she ever done that? No. She only ever talks to make herself happy. That’s how she made it through all these years. That’s how she comes and goes, from one person to another. That’s just how she is.
What makes her want to be something else, something other than herself, just for a split moment, for a day, for some time, some time with this princess?
“I want to see my sister. I want to see my father. I want to see the people. Those people, walking around and living down there. I want to be a child of a fisherman. I won’t even get chased off with the smell, I like fishing and I like the ocean. I’d belong somewhere. I’d belong somewhere!”
Claudine hesitates, and for the first time, she avoids Maya’s gaze. Looks away, steers clear of those lilac eyes.
She looks outside. Out the window, at the sea.
The princess can’t sit on her fort of pillows to see the people down there anymore. She can’t see the objects at the other end of the room that clearly, either. The only thing she can see with clarity that isn't her own limbs, is Claudine.
But she doesn’t look that way a lot. Sometimes she watches the other woman as she sits by the window, still and dark like a shadow. Most of the time, she watches her eyes. They’re beautiful eyes, but they’re empty.
Does Maya know the emptiness has started to fade away?
Does she know something that goes against all the rules, something that should have never been let happen, has happened anyways?
Does she know about her frustration?
Claudine sure hopes she doesn’t. God, with all the time she’s gathered, all the time she has, she sure hopes not. She’d trade everything and anything to hide that. She’s wondering. For the first time. She thought she’d never have to wonder about anything. Why? She thought she’d never turn out this way. Why?
For the first time, she looked at the princess, really looked at her. She watches her through her eyes.
Through her messy hair. Through her broad shoulders. Through her hands. Through her heart. Through her soul. Through her everything. Through the words she said. Through her wishes. Through her good dreams and the nightmares. Through tense nights. Through fear and anxiety. Through the bruises, the markings. Through sadness. Through pain.
Through the times that she would repeat, again and again, insisting that she’s in love.
More than anything, through her wish to become something beautiful.
“What do you want to be, Maya?”
“What do you want to be, Claudine?”
For the first time, they smile together.
“Hey, do you think that the seasons would really come back, glorious and majestic and all that? I need to be sure. And I want it to be even better than before. When I become a swan, or a cloud, or a flower, or a fish, or a drop of water. I want to be able to see all the beautiful things, and I want to be able to see the people, laughing, dancing, and living.”
Claudine thinks that if it weren’t for the mask of neutrality that she’s wearing like a cloak - no, like a cage - then she would have gone rogue. She can’t let loose that brutal nature inside her. She can’t just succumb to her desires.
She can’t just come and take Maya away. She wants to take Maya away, she really does. She wants to kiss her on her eyelids, she wants to touch her, hug her and take her into the darkness. She wants her to know. But she can’t, she couldn’t, and she wouldn’t be able to anyways.
So she maintains the cool and collected manner in her tone, speaking calmly, voice ringing and echoing like a song. No hesitation, no splash of bursting emotions, no rush.
She doesn’t tell the princess that the Prince of the Silver Sword’s land only married her sister in search of some financial prosperity that could save his dying kingdom.
She doesn’t tell her that she’s fallen in love and that it’s the stupidest thing she’s ever done. That it’s the most painful thing she’s ever been through.
Out there, the people are throwing a feast.
Out there, the people are having fun.
Out there, they’re celebrating a booming harvest.
And here, in the highest room of the tallest tower, her princess is drowning in a joy that she can’t quite separate from a resigned sadness. Claudine realizes that she doesn’t know either, whether she’s in love or if she’s just blinded by the beauty - something she’s never, ever had. Passion is a fanciful thing.
And yet she’s loving with such passion, so slow, so unbearably slow, but it’s burning, and she can barely contain it within herself.
No. She’s already failed.
“Would you want to become mine, dearest Reaper?”
I love you. I love you so much. I love you. I want to hold you. I want to kiss you on your forehead. I want to know the sweet taste of a kiss, even if it’s just once for the rest of my life, if it’s with you. I want to melt into you. I want you to be mine. I want to ignore all the rules of the Gods and I want to ignore your people, even if they’re going to suffer. I want to wipe away your tears.
You’ve gone through so much. You’re cursed. You knew it and you were ready, ready for Death, ever since the very beginning. But you didn’t beg me for your life, didn’t hate me, didn’t pity yourself. No. No one came for you for five years. Maybe that’s why you love me, princess. But I love you. I love your soul. It’s the most beautiful thing, and nothing will ever dazzle me the way you do. I’ve seen the Red Hay girls. I’ve seen the most glorious things in the world. I thought I’d never have to think back again.
I’m Death. I walk and walk through time like a lost man walking the same road he’s been on for thousands of years. Time doesn’t mean a thing to me. Until I met you. Until I have to admit the weakness of the heart, I have to admit the sheer idiocy and the frustration of falling in love. Until I have to regret that I have never, ever, ever said these words.
But you could never have been my something. Love is too foreign and too good for me, when I'm the one that takes life away from everything else, when all the beautiful things I touch wilt and die. So, farewell. Farewell to you. Farewell to the most beautiful thing that has ever graced this world. Farewell, my love. Farewell. Farewell.
I love you.
And if I had a choice, of course I would choose to be yours.
That night, there were more stars decorating the night sky than there ever have been.
The people would only gush and thank their gods for chasing those terrible disasters away from their kingdom. No one would know about the princess. No one would know about the king who locked his youngest daughter away on the tower; and no one would know about the Reaper who brought life to them, if only by killing herself.
That’s just the way things are. People never knew and they would never know.
Some years later, there’d be a swan for the children to gawk at by a lake.
Some years later, a beautiful cloud would bring rain after a long dry spell.
Some years later, a brilliant flower will bloom. A star will shine, the brightest star on any night sky. The ocean will sing, a song of the waves.
And many, many years later, there will be a girl. Not a Red Hay girl, not a princess, not the daughter of a fisherman. Just a girl.