The First Promise We Break27 min read
Whenever my story is told, I cringe. Some versions cast me as rude and weak; some versions cast him as violent and cruel. Sometimes I wed him. Sometimes I kill him. But in all versions, promises are broken.
If any version of the story revealed the truth of the thing, I wouldn’t mind so much. But in the distilling, so much is lost.
My story has been told through the ages as a warning against feminine curiosity. To say that is sorely missing the point is an understatement at which all the gods laugh.
I was eight years old when I discovered I was different. My parents visited the market with my sisters every month, and I was finally old enough to attend. I remember the glee with which I chose my cerulean velvet dress and the way my mother styled my bronze hair in loose cascading ringlets like her own rich black tresses.
Then we stepped outside the palace gates, and murmurs turned into chatter, which then turned into shouts and screams.
“Look at her!”
“Smile for me, Princess Seula!”
The crowd pressed against our entourage. People in the front of the line fainted, only to be stepped on by those behind them to get a better look at me. I was following Giesta and Herza, by tradition, and behind me the people reached out their hands. A sharp, stinging pain in my scalp startled me. Then another tug and sting. Tears sprung to my eyes as another, and another, seared my scalp. I clapped my hands to my head and cowered away from the reaching hands, running for my mother and sisters. “Mother! Giesta! Herza! Make them stop!”
I remember little after that, but from then until I was brought to my beloved, the road from the palace to market was lined with bright red ropes, behind which people would line up every time I left the palace. The courtiers who accompanied me would still pull strands of my hair for the populace if I did not bind my locks up tight.
The day I turned thirteen, my birthday declaration was clear: No one touches my hair.
I was nineteen years old when my parents inadvertently showed their hand.
“She should have had suitors by now,” Father muttered over his nighttime reading. “Giesta is married, Herza has been engaged for months, but no one has asked our permission to court Seula.”
All I wanted was a pitcher of water. Years ago, unbeknownst to my parents, I forbade the servants to enter my room after dark. Therefore I’d lit my own lamps, turned down my bed, fetched my water at night. Now I was petrified, unseen in the shadows outside their bedroom door, bare feet freezing while I watched Mother braiding her hair.
“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world, Machtus,” she said. “It’s intimidating.”
“Some princes should be arrogant enough to ask, Wella.” He folded his gnarled hands. “I’m going to the sibyl tomorrow.”
“A sibyl? That’s what we’re reduced to?”
“Something is amiss,” Father replied. “In all my family’s history, no princess has had an absence of suitors for this long.”
Mother shrugged. “Couldn’t we wait another year? It’s good for our coffers.”
“It’s not like she’d never visit, Wella. Certainly, our citizens pay good coin for a place along her walks, or her hair bound in a locket. But scarcity means we could raise the prices.”
I pressed a fist to my mouth so I wouldn’t squeak. The market’s red ropes. The courtiers tugging my hair. How had I not seen it until now?
Father slid under the duvet. “You will come with me. Let Herza be chatelaine tomorrow.”
“What of Seula?”
“Send her to a special dance class. Let the courtiers sell secret viewings.” He grinned. “We could even auction them.”
Mother rolled her eyes, then twisted her hair under a bonnet and lay down as well. I tiptoed past their door as carefully as I could, then hastened to my own bedroom.
A nightmare. It was a nightmare. It had to be.
Maybe you know this part, reader? Some say it was the beast himself that made the grim pronouncement of my fate. Others say it was a godly oracle that declared my punishment. They all mention the sorrow of the family seeing their daughter led to doom, the meek acceptance on my part.
Truthfully, it wasn’t meekness. I wanted—no, needed—to escape.
I may have looked meek, but the cliff they left me on was intimidating, and being pushed off a ledge by invisible hands is not an experience I could recommend. I lost consciousness as I fell, but woke in a grove of stately elms, entirely alone. If it wasn’t for the tinkling chimes that floated through the grove, I might have cried myself to death there. However, I’d never heard water chimes before, so I roused myself to find the source of the beautiful bell-like tones. At the foot of the green-veined marble fountain with its brass metal cascades, I first met Zev.
“Welcome, Lady Seula.” He unfolded all seven feet of himself as he spoke, his lean frame enhanced by the grace with which he extended his hand. His flowing hair was silver-gray, but his amber-brown skin was unlined, and the smile on his face was infectious. I found myself smiling back as he took my fingers and pressed them to his forehead rather than his lips. “You may call me Zev.”
“Thank you, Zev. And just Seula, please. I am no longer a Lady.”
“Oh, I disagree. I will call you Seula if you wish, but you are very much royalty here.”
He led me around the fountain and threw his arm out, encompassing the glory of my new companion’s estate. I beheld the jewel-like gardens, bursting with lilacs, linden, and blooming myrtle. At the far end of the many gardens, the sparkling mansion rose graciously into the sky, its walls of glass and crystal iridescent in the sun.
“Welcome to your new home. If you wish for anything, just ask me. You may indulge most any whim, except for one: you may not go into the armor room. That is your companion’s retreat, and he worries it will be overly dangerous for you.”
I was barely listening, entranced at the dance of bees over lilacs and the glittering hematite-paved walkways that led around the trees and through the clusters of blossoms. “This is mine?” I blurted. “That can’t be!”
A small smile played on Zev’s face. “Of course you share it with your companion, but certainly, you are now the sovereign of this place. Would you like a tour?”
Zev escorted me around the bottom floor, introducing me to the invisible assistants who dusted and polished and cared for the gardens. He cautioned me over lintels and down ramps, showed me the library, demonstrated the lifts that would take me to the dove-cotes and the roof. He brought me back to the main foyer, where the dual curving staircases with their partner ramps gleamed under the afternoon light, and then pointed at a door, carved with a winged shield, two arrows crossed below.
“That is the armor room. There is no key; it opens only for your companion.” He shook his head. “It does not even open for me, so I cannot begin to describe what is within.”
I clutched his hand. “Then you and I shall brave this deprivation together,” I declared. At his impish grin, I tugged him forward. “Shall we tour the upstairs now?”
My chambers. How can I describe my chambers? The view of the lake, the cushions, the bed which felt like rocking water and warm down at the same time. The deep marble bath that was the perfect length for me. The armoire, full of lusciously soft clothes with nary whalebone nor binder in sight. I even had a faucet that ran fresh clear water into a porcelain basin—no pitchers needed.
“Will you want to refresh yourself before dinner, Seula?”
“Oh, yes, Zev, thank you.” I made the gesture of honor from my country, upraised palms with interlocked fingers, and was rewarded with a luminous blush on Zev’s dark cheeks. He withdrew from my room, closing the double doors behind him, and I caressed the grain of the bird’s eye maple on those doors before turning to the bath.
“May I introduce myself?”
I whirled at the masculine voice. No one in sight. “Hello? Are you one of the assistants?”
A gentle laugh. “No, I will be your partner for dinner tonight. And for the foreseeable future, if we prove compatible.”
I blinked. “You are the one the sibyl spoke of.”
“Indeed.” A shuffle. Was he shy? “May I take your hand?”
Requesting permission? That was interesting. I held out my right hand. “Yes, you may.”
The pressure on my skin was gentle, but a flicker of energy from that touch seeped into my blood. “I have many names across many cultures, but you may call me Erao. I am thrilled to make your acquaintance.” Was that a sparkle in the air, where he must be? “I will never enter your chambers without your express invitation again, and I apologize for doing so today. I wished to speak with you alone.”
I inclined my head. “Thank you for your generosity.”
“I should thank you for yours. You do not seem discomfited by my lack of visible presence.”
My lips quirked. “How could I begrudge you, with all this? Thank you for the bath and the faucet. They are the best gift I have ever received.”
“You are most welcome. Speaking of bath …” He cleared his throat. “You still have leaves in your hair.” My hands flew to my nape, embarrassed, as he continued. “Would you like me to wash your hair? You’d be fully clothed, of course.”
No one touches my hair.
Before I let the words tumble from my mouth, I paused. Yes, I hated people touching my hair, but now I knew why. This could be different. After all, I was his companion now—why would he want to pluck my hair? If it was unpleasant, I could refuse to invite him in again. I forced my shoulders to relax. “I would be grateful.”
A low burgundy chaise appeared in front of the bath. I reclined, then pulled the hairpins from my coils and let the length of my locks fall free. His long fingers swept through my hair, leaving a pleasurable trill in their wake. Not even the slightest twinge.
“I’m turning on the water,” he murmured. “Where shall I test the temperature?”
“Test the temperature?”
“Some people prefer their bathwater warmer; some prefer it colder. You’ve never had this done for you?”
“No,” I replied. “Everything was either cold or hot.”
“Ah, a new experience, then.” The cascade of water started. “May I try your forehead? Or maybe the side of your neck?”
“My forehead, please.”
How to describe the pleasure of the warmth, the sensation of ointment massaged into my scalp, and at every step, my preference requested and honored by him in that low, gentle voice? Not a single strand pulled, not a moment of pain. Any words I can summon are crude in comparison. He wound my hair up in a cloth when he was done, and withdrew from my chambers with yet another gift:
“The bath will remember your preference. Simply say ‘Draw Seula’s bath’ and the basin will fill with water of the same temperature. Now I will let you prepare.” The door swung open. “If you wish to be solitary tonight or any other night, or prefer to take your meals here, I will not be offended. Zev will bring a plate for you. My only wish is that you be comfortable.” The door closed, and I could sense his absence, like a playful bird had left to dance over other delights.
It was a curious feeling, knowing my wants were important to him. I don’t know how long I stood, hands over my midsection, trying to understand the sweet shimmer in my stomach.
At dinner, he asked what music I enjoyed, then had the invisible assistants play it. He asked whether I preferred extravagance or simplicity, and had the table set accordingly. He asked what I liked to eat, and then brought it.
“What about you?” I asked. “What music do you like?”
“Joyful voices lifted together in a shared song,” he replied. “Or the laughter of lovers.”
“That’s very poetic.” I pulled a strawberry from my bowl. “How would your assistants play something like that?”
“I have never asked. I hear it on my travels, and have a very good memory.” His empty chair shifted. “That’s something you should know. Occasionally I will be away for several days at a time, or locked in my retreat. Please do not take it amiss.”
“And if I need your assistance?”
“Zev knows how to call me.” A pause. “Do please promise me you will not try to enter the armor room? There are some dangerous machines kept there.”
“I promise. I do not foresee a need.”
I mock myself, sometimes, at how easily those words left my lips.
I had never laughed so much as I did at those meals with Erao. Nor was I ever so enthralled with stories of war and yarns from his travels. He asked me for tales of my childhood, mourning with me when I spoke of the screaming crowds and the lost hair and clothes.
It did not take long for me to invite him into my room, reader, though I had never seen his face. I never regretted that decision, even when I doubted many other things.
But I grew lonely while Erao was on his travels. He left me with many entertainments, and Zev was a wonderful friend. But all of the assistants, as far as I could tell from my questions, were men.
When my body started to change, that became vastly more important.
“I would like to visit my family. Is that possible?”
The sparkle in the air dimmed. “Are you not satisfied, here?”
“Oh love, you are wonderful. You have offered me everything, delights beyond my dreams.” I grasped where I knew his hand was, our time together having sharpened my awareness of him. “But I miss my sisters. Do you not have family of your own that you would regret losing?”
His fingers tightened on mine. “Yes, I would regret never seeing my family. Zev?”
Zev appeared at the head of the table. “How may I help?”
“I will arrange for Seula to return to her family’s kingdom for a fortnight. Will you assist me and accompany her?”
As Zev departed, Erao kissed my palm. “I wish one indulgence from you. Do not share that you cannot see me. Tell them I’m a monster if you must, make up whatever you wish. Revealing more would scare your family, who might scare you.”
This one, I did not promise. I laughed, instead. “Scare me? I hardly believe that could happen. You have been so kind to me.”
He was generous enough to let that go.
Again I was rendered unconscious for the trip, but I was able to gather myself quickly this time. That was a blessing, given the sudden press of the courtyard staff, and the screaming.
I had already forgotten the screaming.
“Princess Seula! You’re back!”
“How is she more beautiful than before?”
I felt a tug at my scalp. Blast it, I had left my hair down. I grasped my locks in my hands and sped towards the palace. Zev did his best to repel the groping hands until I could stumble into my parents’ private chambers.
Father was glaring at Zev, hand to the dirk at his waist.
“Father! This is Zev. He is my head of house.”
He blinked, then refocused. “Seula? Is that truly you?”
“Yes, Father, it’s me. Where are Mother and Herza?”
“Seula! You’ve returned!” Mother rushed in from her small parlor and embraced me tightly, then released me with a peculiar expression I could not read. She kissed me on my forehead. “Oh, dear girl, we’ve missed you.”
She waved and the evening courtier bowed deeply, his bald pate reflecting the firelight.
“We shall ready the grand suite for you, Lady Seula.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind. Please excuse us, Father, Mother.” I turned to go when Mother grasped the edge of my cloak.
“Stay for a moment, Seula. Let us discuss Herza’s upcoming celebration.”
Zev followed the courtier out as I sat. Mother then gestured at Father, who raised his eyebrows and excused himself to his own parlor.
“Do share, Mother. What are Herza’s wedding plans?”
“Wedding? Oh, no, Seula. This was a ruse. Herza is already married.”
“Several months ago.”
Several months? “How long have I been gone?”
“A year and a half, dear.”
Oh no. My suspicion had to be right.
She shifted closer, then pressed her hand to my cheek. “Seula, are you pregnant?”
“… Yes, I believe so.”
“Is that why you came?”
I nodded. Mother took a deep breath. “How long?”
“I can’t remember. Time … isn’t the same, there. Everything was so magnificent, but then I started feeling sore, and then I needed a new dress, and …” I plucked at my fingers, staring into my lap. “There was no one there to ask.”
“No midwives where you are?”
I shook my head numbly.
Mother grimaced. “What is your companion like, Seula?”
I smiled, my face softening. “Oh, he is wonderful. So kind, so gentle. So funny! I love spending time with him.”
“We were told he was a monster.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Monster is as monster does, Mother.”
“Seula, you are about to bring forth a child.” She grasped my shoulders. “Do you not know what kind of man your companion is?”
“Better than any man I have known, Mother.”
“You know that’s not what I mean!” She stood, whirled away, her gold eyes reflecting dark fire. “Are you bearing a monster or not?”
I stared at her. What did I want my mother to feel about her grandchild?
“I don’t know,” I whispered.
She reached out a hand. “Then we will devise a method to find out.”
The fortnight flew by, and soon I was back home. Erao had left extravagant flowering plants by my bedside with a card written in a flowing calligraphic hand.
Dearest Seula—I will return briefly to welcome you home but will need to depart early in the morning. I wish I could stay tomorrow, hold you, dance with you in the gardens like we have so often, but that must wait. I should be no longer than four days. Your Erao
It would be easier than I had feared. I retrieved the oil lamp and knife from the hidden pocket in my skirts. I would see him, however I could, and see what was growing inside me.
I would learn what I could, so I could protect my child from my family.
It was terribly hard to keep my counsel and not tell Erao everything. He was so delighted to see me, spinning me around like a schoolboy.
“I missed you greatly, my love,” he breathed.
“And I you.”
“You seem sad. Was it not what you’d hoped?”
I took a deep breath. “I had forgotten what it was, to live there.” I fingered my hair, back in its tight coil. “I forgot how invasive they were.”
“Oh, love.” Invisible lips pressed on my forehead. “It can be terrible, how people convey their feelings of love. Do you still want to dine together, or would you prefer to be alone?”
I clutched his shoulders. “No, please. Only … distract me. Tell me tales of your travels.”
“Of course. Would you like to hear of the ice worlds, far to the north?”
I nodded. I kept my peace as he led me to dinner, listened to tales of walls of ice and roads of frigid water, and tried not to think of the blade beneath my bed.
That night I kept pinching myself to keep awake. Once I heard the soft breathing of sleep, I lit the oil lamp, intending to reach for the knife, then froze.
I wasn’t expecting to be startled into immobility by the sight of him. Maybe I assumed he would still be invisible, despite what my mother said. But she was correct; he did have a form one could see.
And oh, what a form it was.
I could not have dreamt a more beautiful face. Angular cheeks and jawline with dark brown skin, complemented by tight raven curls braided against his head. His long lashes shone like black tourmaline, his straight nose accenting his full lips with their perfect cupid’s bow. Lips I felt compelled to kiss.
I leaned over him, forgetting about the lamp in my hand.
I will never forget his scream of pain as the oil spilled across his shoulder.
Erao jolted from the bed, clawing at the burn as I leapt to the faucet. “Ice cold! Ice cold!” I yelled at the basin, then doused a towel and laid it on Erao’s wound, sobbing all the while. “I’m sorry I’m so sorry my love I am sorry— “
He glared at me. “What did you do?!?”
“It was oil, from a lamp, I didn’t think, I only wanted…” I trailed off at the look in his eyes, those soft jade eyes.
“… You can see me.”
“How can you see me, Seula?”
I opened my mouth but couldn’t find words.
“I have to speak to my family.” He winced as he pulled on a loincloth, covering his nakedness. “I must find out what went wrong.”
“How could anything be wrong, my love? Isn’t it good that I can see your beauty?”
He stilled, then shook his head. “Beauty changes things. You know that better than any human. Please stay here. I have to get this—” he gestured at his suppurating shoulder with disgust, “—appropriately cared for.”
I followed him as he stalked out and down the dark hallway. “I can care for you! Tell me what ointments will work!”
“Go back to your room, Seula.”
I clattered down the stairs to follow him as he glided down the ramps, effortless even in his pain. “Please, Erao! I am so sorry I hurt you!”
“I know you are sorry, I understand, but this is beyond you.”
“Please! Let me learn!”
At the foot of the stairs he fixed me with a fierce scowl. “Seula. Please accept my preferences and stop following me.” He strode to the door of the armor room and waved a hand, then turned back to me. “Only my blood family can help me now.”
I paced the floor. Returning to the room where I’d hurt him so horribly seemed impossible, and my stomach twisted with a foreboding that he would leave me forever.
Something twitched low in my belly.
How can you see me, Seula
I couldn’t see him before, but I’d never felt my child before, either.
I turned towards the armor room and—
There was a line of intense light.
I could see the opening of the door.
I had to tell him now. I had to tell him now.
I ran to the door and pushed into that bright light.
When you see things that your mind can’t quite interpret, you are likely to envisage them as either ecstatic or horrific.
I was subjected to both.
I stumbled into the room, exclaiming “I can see you because I’m …”
I trailed off, holding my gorge down, as the horrors turned their faces to me. A skeleton with a rabid black dog. A stately woman, half rotted, maggots writhing in her cheek. A man struck through with arrows and spears, dripping with blood yet grimacing with obscene glee. A desiccated woman hanging on a hook. Standing among them, Erao glistened grotesquely, as though covered in snail slime. Next to him stood a marble statue whose symmetry was so perfect it was nauseating. Behind them all, a twisting roil of dirty clouds commanded a bright throne, a cascade of lumpy blue mold running down his chin and chest.
“What is she doing here?” the roil roared.
I squeezed my eyes shut as they continued.
“How did she get through the door?”
“What did you do, Erothe? How is your plaything in here”
“She’s not a plaything, she is my beloved”
“Get the dirt-thing OUT of here, Erothe, before she ruins everything!”
“I’m pregnant!” I choked out. “I can see you because I’m carrying your child!”
Silence in the room. I cracked open an eye.
The horrors I thought I saw were gone. The moldy roil was a face of thunder, a smile of crystal snow, hair of bluest sky. The skeleton was a face of loss, a sigh of grief, hair glittering with tears as he pet the dog next to him. The half-rotted woman was a woman half sun-browned and gleaming, half pale as chalk and black-clad. The speared man was an immense warrior, well-worn sword at his shoulder. The woman on the hook was now a full-fleshed woman wearing a tiara of barley-flowers and a dress made of silvery corn-silk. The marble statue was a beautiful older woman who I could never have described, for her face and skin shifted from beauty to beauty as I watched. Erao was as I had seen him in my chambers, elegant and lovely.
“You broke your promise to tell me you’re pregnant? Why could you not have told me this news before?”
“I thought you could have been a monster! How could I carry this child, not knowing?”
Erao stepped towards me. “You broke your promise.”
“Would you have come back?”
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Would you have come back to me, if you hadn’t figured out why I could see you?”
I knew it.
I was about to press my case when the beautiful shifting woman grabbed me.
“You’re not even supposed to be here,” she hissed in my ear, then threw me out the door.
I woke in the elm grove. I could not hear the fountain, but I could hear my own blood rushing in my ears. I stood up gingerly.
The trees were silent, the birds sleepy in the midday warmth.
I held my breath, hoping. Quiet surrounded me.
“My dear Zev? Are you there?”
“Seula.” He was leaning against the trunk of a tree just outside of the grove. “I was told to leave you, but I do not think you can make your way home from here.”
As he came into the dappled light, I was awestruck. His hair wasn’t hair, but a beautiful iridescent flowing mass that twined up into the air. His face was a billow of sails and sheets and kites, and his arms held a flurry of insect and bird wings, as though hundreds of flying beasts nestled in his breast.
“Zev,” I breathed. “You are also a god?”
“No, I am but a wind, happy to help or hinder, as needed. I brought you here, and I am here to take you home.”
“I …” I paused, interrupted by knocking in my belly. I pressed a hand over the active little thing. Whoever this would be, I would not subject them to my parents’ mercenary whims. You are a god, I thought to the little nestling. You deserve your place alongside them, even if I cannot stay with you. I promise I’ll get you there.
“The place where I was raised is no longer home, Zev. Do you know of a shrine where a woman alone may worship in safety?”
It took three months of going to her altars, anointing them, offering whatever I could beg. Three months for her to respond to me.
“What do you want, girl?” The statue on the altar cracked and shifted with her voice.
“I want to care for Erao’s wound and I want him to attend his child’s birth.”
She laughed. “After you broke the only promise you made to him? I think not.”
Another month of wandering, anointing, offering, and she came during a midnight prayer. “You should give up and go home, girl.”
“Erao’s home is my home. Call Zev to bring me there and I will gladly return.”
She scoffed. “Never. You are dirt and filth and death. You don’t belong with him. His love for you is a mistake.”
“A mistake? How so?”
“He nicked himself with his own arrow while he was working on you. You were supposed to fall in love with a market-squatter. Someone you could never marry, princess,” she sneered. “Would have served you right to love someone you couldn’t have.”
“Why would he do that to me?”
“Because I asked him to. Because in your kingdom, no gold or flowers or offerings came to me because everyone was throwing them at you.”
My parents. Always back to my parents. “I didn’t ask for that. You know I didn’t.” I pressed my forehead to the feet of the statue. “Please. I never meant to take anything that was yours. Not your worship, and not …” I swallowed. “Not your son.”
The statue was quiet for a few moments. “You wish to earn my regard? Very well. Walk east until the sun sets, and you will find your first trial there.”
I nodded, made the gesture of respect, then turned to the east. As I walked, one sentence of hers echoed in my head.
His love for you is a mistake.
I kept that ‘is’ close to my heart.
As the sun set, I came to an abandoned house with an overgrown garden. In the twilight I could see a statue crusted with lichen. As I peered through the thickets that bounded the garden’s edges, the statue spoke.
“This garden must have its walkways cleared by the time the sun rises tomorrow. See that it is completely done with your own hands before the sun is on its way tomorrow morning.”
The statue fell silent. The moon was the thinnest crescent, low in the sky, and I could barely see. I pressed on the thicket and was rewarded with several pricks on my fingers and palms. I hesitated but didn’t see a way to get through without help. “Zev?”
“My dear Seula,” the wind whispered in my ear.
“Would you be able to bring me some tools to break through these brambles?”
“No, the task is clear. It must be your own hands.”
“Blast.” I nursed the ball of my thumb. “Then what about … a pair of gloves? Something that can resist the thorns?”
Zev hummed. “Yes, I believe that still counts as your own hands.” At my feet dropped a pair of black gloves that would extend to my elbows, heavy with the smell of tar and turpentine. “They’re … slightly used.” I could hear the grin in his voice. “Goodnight, Seula, and best of luck.”
I pulled on the gloves and set to pulling the brambles apart. I was soaked with sweat within an hour and hadn’t uncovered any walkways.
“I must not be looking in the right spot, little nestling,” I murmured. I walked around the edge of the garden, seeking some clue, but saw nothing in the dimness. I took a slow breath to calm myself, then knelt on the grass, removed one of the gloves, and reached through the brambles. I should be able to feel any bounding stones or garden walks, surely?
Only soil. I shuffled right a meter, reached in. Soil. Shuffle, reach—
My questing fingers brushed over several smooth, cool surfaces, not the gravel or bark I was expecting. I dug my nails under the edge of one, pulled it out. It was a gray-black cone, but as I turned it, I could see the tiniest dark-gray glint, as though it reflected a distant star.
I stood up with a start. The jewel-like gardens. The lilacs and blooming myrtle. I sniffed—yes, that was the sweetness of myrtle. From where I stood, I could see the black frame of the house. No iridescence. But for so long I could not recognize my own spouse or my own child by sight, only by feel. Maybe that was true of the house as well?
I wish I could dance with you in the gardens.
I laughed wildly. I forced my way through the brambles in front of the walkway, then cast off my slippers and stepped onto the cool hematite, lifting my arms.
“My love,” I whispered. “Shall we dance?”
From where the fountain would be, a tinkle of chimes floated over the hedges. I closed my eyes, remembered each step, each swirl, each swing. I danced with my memory of Erao, with my memory of the sweet gardens, a joyful tap on the lilacs here, a bow to the coneflowers there, a swing around each myrtle tree as the tinkling music went on and on.
By the time I had collapsed in giggles on the manor’s steps, the walkways were danced clear, the brambles had collected themselves to the corners, and the garden beds were waving gently in the pre-dawn gleam. I let myself sleep on the grass until the sun rose and the gargoyle statue closest to me shrieked.
“Who did this work for you!? You could not have done this.”
I trembled but managed to stand and face the gargoyle statue. “My love for Erao did this work for me. No one else cleared the walkways but my own hands and feet.”
The gargoyle sniffed the air, then glared at the gloves at the end of the walkway.
“Very well. Gloves were not expressly forbidden. I accept your success. Walk west until the moon sets, and you will find your second trial there.”
As the crescent moon set, I came to a bubbling lake, whose waters were so intensely hot I could not stand near the shore. Two stone pillars stood at either side of a causeway that was eaten away at the middle, allowing the boiling waters to cover the path. As I approached the causeway, one of the pillars spoke.
“This lake must have its causeway rebuilt by the time the sun rises tomorrow. See that it is completely done with your own hands, without any protective clothing, before the sun is on its way tomorrow morning.”
The pillar quieted. Steam wreathed my legs and I stepped back for fear of being scalded.
“Sweet Seula,” the wind sang in my ear.
“Would you be able to cool me as I did this task?”
Zev sighed. “A clever idea, but no. Even a wind does not have the power to save your skin. It takes the timing of a god to succeed. However, I know you will be able to build the causeway to your preference. Goodnight, Seula, and best of luck.”
I braced myself and stepped out onto the causeway. It was built of earth, so the heat seeped slowly into my feet rather than burning them. But the steam was hot, and the bubbles popped and spit, and I could not get close enough to the broken middle of the causeway to even understand how to correct it.
A bubble popped, and the scalding water landed on my forehead.
As though testing the temperature. Testing my preference.
I approached the left edge of the causeway and knelt on the heated earth. I looked at the swirling water.
“Draw Seula’s bath,” I whispered.
The water hesitated, shifted in its currents as though confused.
“Draw Seula’s bath,” I said, louder.
The bubbles died down and the steam faded. I tentatively touched the surface of the water with a finger, expecting it to burn.
But no. Pleasure. Same as when Erao poured water over my hair.
I whooped and dashed across the causeway. Made of dirt and filth indeed! I delighted in stamping clods of earth into each other to complete the path over the lake. I then washed off the crusted mud and collapsed, exhausted, in front of the stone pillars, sleeping until one screeched me awake.
“What deceit is this, you terrible girl!? Who did this for you?”
I forced a calm face. “My love for Erao did this work for me. No one else built the causeway but my own hands and feet.”
The pillar grumbled. “Very well. I accept your success. Walk south until the sun and the moon cross paths, and you will find your third trial there.”
When the moon and the sun crossed paths, I was in the middle of a dusty market in a barren land. The stones on the ground spoke to me.
“These people must have their faith restored in me by the time the sun rises tomorrow. See that everyone here has one strand of your hair, gathered without blades or tools, so that they may bring it to my shrines by the time the sun is on its way tomorrow morning.”
The crowd turned towards me as the hood of my cloak fell away.
No one touches my hair.
“No,” I said.
“You cannot refuse, girl. This is your third trial. Do you value your hair over your husband and child?”
I felt the first tug on my scalp. I grabbed my locks with both hands. “I said NO.”
The stones sniggered. “You would choose your vanity. I accept your failure and pro—”
“NO. This is your failure, not mine.” My voice echoed over the market booths. “If you wished me to shave my head, I would. If you wished me to cut each strand with a scissor, I would do so gladly. But no. You wish me to experience pain, over and over again, and I have suffered the plucks and pulls of selfish people long enough. I will not suffer it from them, and I will certainly not suffer it from you, so spoiled that you cannot bear to lose attention from the ficklest of dirt-things.”
The shock of those words reverberated through the crowd. I could feel the rage boiling under the market stones. The quiet was oppressive, building like a thundercloud over the scene.
The clap of laughter overhead was so loud I clutched my ears. The sky-god’s voice overwhelmed us all. “Kallaphria, she is correct. If these folk will not worship you as they should, then you can make them, yes? You can beat this girl at beauty. You simply don’t want to try.” The smile of crystal snow, with its blue whiskers, shone on me, and a hand of lightning reached down to me. “Welcome, Seula. You’ve proven your mettle. Your spouse is waiting, and your child comes soon.”
They say Love is blind, but he was the only one who saw me. Not my parents, not my sisters, not even one of the many people who called my name.
They say Love is cruel, but he wasn’t. He was always sweet and gentle and attentive. Kinder than any human I’d ever known.
I’m grateful that he has forgiven me. Humans and gods understand promises differently. They don’t know that the first promise we humans break is the one that forces us to go against our intuition. Especially if it means letting go of something we love.
I know he never meant to hide. He knows I never meant to break his trust.
What he doesn’t know is that I would enter that room again and endure the trials forever to be sure my beautiful girl got her rightful place among the gods.
Some promises we never break.