Chapter 38


source. date.

Their confrontation seemed to both relax things between Celeste and Melanie, and make them more awkward. Neither of them brought it up again. They continued onwards at their comfortable pace. The valleys slowly opened ahead of them while the snows slowly began to melt. Even once the plateaus were fully clear, some valleys retained a foot of snow for a week or more, when the sun struggled to reach them.

Though she had spent a few weeks travelling through the valleys before, her mind would always imagine the view from the plateaus. She was a woman of the highlands and always would be. As such, it took far too long for her to recognise the valley they were travelling through. Her mind refused to recall it from this angle, despite this being how she had seen it the first time. She wanted to punch herself when she recognised it.

Without saying a word to Melanie, she shot off up to the top of the plateau beside them, sprinting up the side with a blatant disregard for the laws of physics. From atop the plateau, she could see it. The curve of the river. The waterfall and the lift. And her village. It didn't look identical from there, but she could see the old gate where a solemn bell hung.

She crashed back into the ground beside Melanie, who had been waiting patiently where she had been left. She raised an eyebrow at Celeste who grinned uncontrollably.

“We've...we've accidentally...” She was breathing heavily and quickly broke into a coughing fit. Melanie waited for this to pass as well. “We're at my home. My village.”

“Why didn't you think to mention this earlier?” Melanie asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I didn't realise we would go past it. I wouldn't know where to mark it on a map after all.”

Melanie hummed, slightly disbelievingly. “You want to visit then?”

“Yes of course. Why wouldn't I?” Celeste asked slowly.

“I don't know. I always imagine coming home would be difficult. I guess I haven't had the chance to return yet.” She reached out a hand to gently take Celeste's. “But I am with you.”

Celeste smiled brightly at that and, hand in hand with Melanie, led her the remainder of the way back home. They stopped at the lift, looking up at the precarious metal contraption dangling on the side of the cliff.

“What exactly is this?” Melanie asked.

Celeste stopped wrenching open the door to look at her with confusion. “It's a lift, you know? They're all over the place.”

“I've never seen one before.”

Celeste thought for a moment before shrugging. “Well, all over Laociena I guess. Come on, get in.”

Melanie stepped in cautiously. “Why are we not just...jumping up the side? This seems needless.”

“Of course we could do that. But this is how I left,” Celeste spoke wistfully, running a finger along the weary metal of the lift. “I didn't know I could do any of the things I can do, not back then. So, this was the way that Tesni brought me.”

“Why is it called a lift?” Melanie asked.

“Because...” Celeste hummed in thought as she pulled the lever and they started to move. “Well because it lifts you up.”

“You said you went down in it?”

The lift shook slightly as they ascended.

“It can go both ways.”

“You don't lift things down though?”

“I think you're being a bit overly pedantic.”

“And these things” Melanie asked, examining the worn metal.

“No. Been around as long as anyone can remember.”

“So, they were built by the Taoanids?”

“I spoke to Tesni about the Taoanids when I took this lift last time,” Celeste said quietly, thinking back. All that time ago. Years and years had passed. She wasn't the same nervous girl who'd stepped in that day. “I didn't know it was the name of the language and the empire at that time. The concept of...different languages was a bit alien to me still, I think.”

The lift ground to a halt and they stepped out, onto the solid ground of the plateau. Celeste breathed deeply. It smelt much the same as it had done. Fresh and clean, the smell of sheep so earthy and reassuring. Melanie was distracted looking at the mechanism that operated the lift, so Celeste had to pull her away.

They strode up the track, watching the village slowly bloom into view over the crest of the hill. The bells of the village rang gently as if announcing their arrival. Before they reached the actual buildings, Celeste pulled off to the left. Melanie took a moment to catch up to her.

“Where are we headed?” Melanie asked, slightly confused why they weren't going into the village itself.

“To my house. My parent's house, I guess. It's not like I've lived in it for years.”

“If it is the family house then it remains yours forever, in part.”

Celeste couldn't pick her house out as they were walking, a fact that concerned her more and more as they went. No outline looked like hers. Fear rose in her, her heartbeat accelerating. Was this the wrong village? Had her parents died, their house torn down to make way for a new one?

Calm yourself. This is your village. I will forever recognise the place where we met.

She was considering something she could shoot back at the spirit when she glanced over to a house and saw a man crouched within a fence, admiring a small bush. He stood, glancing around for a moment before his eyes locked on Celeste. His beard had started to catch whisps of grey and was longer than he used to wear it, but the warm eyes were still those of her father.

Celeste was moving before she had registered all of this. She sprinted up the short hill and leapt up onto the fence in a single bound. Weightless, she put no pressure on the frail wood for the moment before she landed in front of her dad. She wrapped her arms around him, her face pressing into the wiry hair of his beard while his arms held her firmly. There was a gentle squeeze from each of them, pulling the other just that bit closer. The reflex of a longing long unfulfilled.

“My dear,” He said gently as they pulled back, his hands resting on her shoulders. “I didn't know you were going to be returning. You should have sent us some warning, your mother will be thrilled.”

Celeste grinned. “I didn't know I would be back.” She caught a look of disappointment on her father's face. “But I am so glad to be back. I should have come back a long time ago,” She said, guilt tugging at her heart. She glanced past her father to examine the house behind him. “Ummm, where is my room?”

“You really don't mind, do you?” Celeste asked Melanie as the two hovered outside the house. Celeste's father had gone to find her mother. “I mean, you can come in if you want I just think I want to talk to them alone first.”

“It is fine, truly,” Melanie said with a smile. “It isn't my place to push in. It's not like it's snowing anymore.”

“You say that as though you're trying to make me feel guilty.”

“No no, it really is fine, I won't freeze.” As she spoke, Melanie dramatically wrapped her arms around herself and pretended to shiver.

“I thought you enjoyed the cold anyway, it's what you're all about.”

“It is the warmth that comforts me,” She said, reaching out to hold Celeste's hand gently.

Celeste looked down at their interlocking hands and gently squeezed the other woman's. She shot her one last smile before heading inside.

The house looked much the same inside. The worn table that had belonged to her great-grandfather. The stove covered with pans below an assortment of drying herbs. There was a new woven rug on one wall. She stepped closer, examining it and running her fingers along the coarse fabric. The colours were so beautifully vibrant. She wondered, then, if it had been dyed by Alfonso's father.

She hadn't gotten any taller since she had left, she was fairly certain, yet the space seemed smaller. Physically unchanged. And yet there was so much more of her to contain within the same space. She had become so much more in the time she had been gone. And the village had remained the same.

Within a few minutes, her father returned with her mother, holding a basket of semi-dried clothes. She dropped the basket and rushed over to Celeste, hugging her just as tight as her father had. It was a strange feeling, one she had missed without knowing she had.

Finally, she stood back, looking over Celeste with those kind eyes. Could she see the emaciation, the exhaustion in Celest’s body that she couldn't imagine ever recovering from. No one said anything for a few moments, so Celeste had to make the first move.

“So, you got rid of my room?”

“We turned it into a lambing shed. It's more convenient,” Her mother said quickly, apologetically.

“No, it's alright. I shouldn't have expected things to remain the same. It has been...four years?” She spoke with uncertainty. Time had become more difficult for her to keep a grip on.

“And we didn't know if you would be returning,” Her father added. “Your friend Tesni came to tell us you had joined the war.”

She nodded, solemnly. She expected some anger at them for that. But then, they had no experience of war like she had. Tesni hadn't thought to mention her parents when she had last seen him though.

“A few lads from the village also went out to fight,” He continued. “I wondered if they might bump into you out there. From what we'd heard, it sounds like you're quite capable. I hoped you might keep them safe out there.”

Celeste shrugged at him. “There's a lot of men out on the front. If I crossed paths with them, none of them recognised me and I didn't recognise them in return.”

“Were you alright, out there?” Her mother asked, stepping close to rest a hand on her arm. “We only get a paper up here once in a while, but they never made the front sound like much fun.”

Celeste took a moment to consider how to answer that one. “I'm here, aren't I?”

“Have you, ummm...” Her mother searched for how to phrase it. “Resigned then? Are you back for good?”

Back for good? How could she be? In that moment, looking into her mother's eyes, Celeste had a sickening realisation. If she survived what she was planning, if she got away from the body of the murdered king alive, she would never be safe in her own country. There would always be a risk. The death of a King wasn't something any nation had ever taken lightly. So, she picked a lie and stuck with it.

“No, just on leave. Me and Melanie my...Friend, we're just taking some leave here. We'll have to go back again soon.” She remained non-committal. She wanted to stay here. She longed to just rest here, at home, in the comfort of a life she hadn't known for too long. But that wasn't something she would be allowed.

“Well, you are free to stay as long as you would like to. There's a hayloft in the lambing shed you can sleep in, if you would like to. I know it's not much-”

“My room before was hardly that much,” Celeste said with a smile. “And besides, it sounds an awful lot more comfortable than some of the places I've slept in the last couple of years.”

Celeste and her mother left the house to bring in the sheep, while her father was left behind with Melanie to start preparing dinner. They walked together at an even pace, in silence for a while. It was hard to know what to say when you hadn't spoken in so long. What did they still share that they could say to one another?

“I'm sorry I didn't write more,” Celeste began. “I meant to send more letters after the first one, I really did. But there was always something happening at school. And up there, it felt so far away from here. At first, there, I felt like an outsider. Just a highlands girl in a world of worldly people. But then I found where I fit, and I didn't feel like a highland girl anymore.”

“You don't quite look like one either,” Her mother said, brushing her palm along the side of Celeste's head. She hadn't shaved in a few months now and it was growing out more than she'd let it since she'd been bound, but it was still shockingly short.

“I know, I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. I think it suits you. I don't know that you ever...well, fit in, really.”

“I didn't?” Celeste looked to her mother in confusion now.

“You never seemed quite happy here. I felt terrible, like I was never doing enough for you. You had Alfonso for a while, but you always seemed too uncertain. I felt like we pushed you-”

“No,” Celeste whispered, turning to face her mother and take her face in her hand. She wiped away her mother's tears. They stood eye to eye. Had they always been the same height? “You didn't push me to do anything. I...I didn't know what I wanted. There was no way you could have. And yes, I am so glad I have got to see the world beyond this little lump of rock and the fields and the sheep but...I was fortunate I grew up with parents who loved me.” She smiled, choking back the lump in her own throat.

Her mother nodded, smiling back at her through the tears. “That is so kind of you. I don't know that I could take it if I'd hurt you.”

“You never did,” Celeste reassured her. “Now, come on. We should get those sheep and get back before dad manages to mess up dinner. He always puts the herbs in too late.”

Her mother laughed at that and they continued on their way.

“It was difficult to find the time to write in the war,” She continued quietly. “I didn't have Tesni to deliver the letters. I don't even know how I would get them to you. Or if you could read them so well.”

“They'd probably come through the government office,” Her mother said, nonchalantly.

“The what?”

“In the old mission building. Do they not have them at the school? I assumed they were everywhere by now if there's one here.”

“They don't have them at the front,” Celeste said, shaking her head.

“Oh. Well, it's just where they collect taxes from, and deliver mail. They can't get us much news up here, no matter how much we've asked. They've even offered to help teach some of the children letters and numbers.”

Celeste's mind was a flurry of panic. If there was some government official up here, there was a chance they would have some list of wanted. She didn't know if they kept lists like that. Or if they had put her onto one yet. And what was more, why were they offering to teach the children? That was what the missionaries had done, in her own youth.

“That's very out of character for the Laocienan state,” She blurted out, the only thing she could think to say that wouldn't incriminate her.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Her mother asked.

“Nothing,” She added. She hoped she hadn't sounded too hurried. “Just, regressing to my school days, I think. Come on, let's get the flock in.” Thinking about evading any possible government official would have to wait, she decided.

They returned home in time to make sure there was flavour in their dinner. Melanie and her father had been left to talk, despite having nothing much in common. She had been intensely curious about the cooking and so Celeste's father had explained to her how cooking worked. And he had also enlisted her help to stir the pot since she found sitting there being unhelpful painfully guilt-inducing.

They ate dinner, a simple stew mostly of winter roots, and chatted amicably. Melanie took some time to get used to the casual, highlander dialect which Celeste had unconsciously slipped back into. Celeste’s parents regaled them with rather embarrassing tales of her childhood which she would rather have forgotten. Celeste returned the favour with stories from their school days. They skirted around the war carefully and Melanie was quick enough to catch on to understand Celeste was lying about their official position as soldiers.

After dinner, Celeste went to the well to retrieve water for washing. She was very confused to find not a well anymore, but a water pump. One powered by a small engine, much like the one she had used back in Commodal. It was loud and released an odious smell and didn't seem any faster than winching up a bucket, to her.

As she waited for the water to fill up, she glanced around the central square of the village. It was late evening, the sunlight nearly gone, so she wasn't worried about being recognised. How many people had seen her after she'd been bound anyway? She looked to the old mission building. It hadn't been changed much, mainly repairs to the delipidating structure. But national flags, green and gold, hung from the oversized windows, giving it an ominous look. Maybe that was just because of what she associated that green with though.

There was no light coming from the windows, so she assumed whoever was the government official up here wasn't around. She hoped not. She approached the building and examined the board out front, where several sheets of information had been nailed in.

ENLIST TODAY! FIGHT FOR YOUR NATION! Yelled one and Celeste resisted the urge to tear it down. Another advertised the lessons the official was offering, though a written advertisement for reading lessons seemed a little pointless. Celeste began to wonder if he had a way to print things up here or if this was all standard pieces of propaganda from Teldomia, or at least the nearest city.

There were also some job listings. Factory workers needed, and miners. Competitive salaries, they offered, and quality lodgings in whatever city you chose to live in. If wherever you ended up was much like Commodal, Celeste seriously doubted that second claim. The mining concerned her more. They claimed to need men for new experimental mines in the highlands. Mining in the highlands was extremely dangerous, many mines collapsed randomly and striking the wrong area could just flood the whole thing. Plus, the land was nowhere near as mineral-rich as the advert claimed.

She left the papers all in place. It wouldn't do good to cause trouble, she understood that much, even if her spirit was muttering in the back of her mind the burn the whole building down.

Instead, she returned to the house and gave the water to Melanie then left her in the lambing shed to wash. It was connected to the rest of the house by an actual door, where Celeste had once been forced to make do with little more than a curtain. She waited a while. What had felt like a reasonable amount of time to wash. She knocked on the door.

“Is it okay if I come in now?”

“Of course,” Melanie called back.

Celeste opened the door and stepped in. The shed was oblong, nearly the length of the rest of the house with small areas walled off for the pregnant ewes to sleep and give birth. Above the door was the hayloft and off to one side, Melanie sat on a stall. Her sleeves were pulled up to her elbows and her trousers up to her knees. Celeste had never seen that much of her skin before, but she didn't linger on it. Her eyes were drawn to Melanie's hair.

It was a deep brown or black, Celeste couldn't tell in the candlelight, and hung in tight curls. Melanie ran a wet cloth over it. As it moved, it seemed to ripple like a pool of water. Another effect of being a wizard, Celeste supposed.

She looked in shock for a few moments before turning her head away. “Sorry, I misheard you.” She took a step back towards the door.

“You didn't, I said you could come in,” Melanie said gently.

“But you're not wearing-”

“I know.”

“I thought you weren't supposed to take it off around me?”

“I choose who I trust to see me without it.”

Celeste didn't feel she could argue that. She looked back at Melanie, but felt awful about it. She didn't know what she had actually done to earn such trust. So, she pulled out another stool and sat with her back to Melanie. The shed stretched ahead of her, the sounds of ewes trying to sleep as their lambs bleated quietly beside them. Still so new to the world.

“The government has set up some kind of office in town,” She said quietly. It hadn't been something to bring up over dinner.

“An office doing what?”

“Post, apparently. And trying to recruit for the war, and educating the villagers.”

“That's very out of character for the Laocienan state.”

“That's what I said!” Celeste exclaimed. “They've set up in the old mission building.”

“Ah, well there they're just being unsubtle,” Melanie said, laughing slightly. “Turns out your people aren't so easily swayed by the state religion so instead they just say what they want.”

“What if they have some kind of wanted list with my name on it?” She couldn't hide the panic rising in her voice.

“I doubt it. They probably assume you're dead, that I killed you.”

“But you also went missing.”

“But it's not like the two armies were ever good at communicating about important things like where and when they were going to fire experimental gases. I doubt either is sure where either of us has gone but then, they've got bigger issues to deal with.”

“I suppose you're right,” Celeste said quietly. Melanie's clear logic was comforting, but not entirely.

“Your parents are nice,” Melanie said after a pause. “Talking to them felt like talking to friends.”

“Did you never talk to your parents like that?” Celeste turned her head slightly so that Melanie was in the corner of her vision.

“I spoke to them at meals. The main time I did. They would ask how my studies were going. I would tell them.”

“That was it?”

“They were my parents.” Melanie sighed. “And I suppose they always knew I was going to be a weapon. They were far more interested in my magical studies than anything else. They knew I wasn't going to be an officer.”

“Is that why they watched you sparring then?”

Melanie nodded. “Remember how angry I was with you?” She laughed, a pained sound. “I thought it mattered back then. I thought proving I could fight would impress them, or that they might praise me. And I thought it might make me actually respected when I was called up to serve Ofprovo.”

Celeste turned around further now, resting a hand on Melanie's arm. It felt wrong to be touching so much of the other woman's skin. But she was allowed to. “You didn't know. I thought being as good a fighter as you mattered too, back then. It was all just games to me. I didn't think I would ever need those skills for real.”

“You were naive.”

“And you were too harsh on everyone. And yourself,” Celeste burst out. “We did reach out, bring you into the group but you were always so reluctant.”

“You know why that was,” Melanie said, looking down to avoid meeting Celeste's eyes.

“Surely even then you couldn't have thought you were better off cutting yourself off from the rest of us?”

“I did. I have done plenty of things I regret, you know that.”

Celeste sighed and nodded. “Haven't we both.”

Melanie took a deep breath before continuing, her tone softening up. “Do you know something I don't regret though?” She waited for a nod from Celeste. “I might have lied to you about why I wear my headscarf. Not entirely! But, well, most scholars agree you don't need to wear it around women even if they are of a different faith. But veiling is still a personal choice, about controlling who can see me. When I was a girl, when I was allowed to spend time with other girls my age, they used to talk about how special it would feel unveiling for some boy you liked. I didn't really get that, for several reasons, but I think I get that now.”

Celeste stared blankly at Melanie for a few seconds before seeming to snap back to reality. “Wait, are you saying you're attracted to women?”

Melanie blinked back and had to pause as well. “That was your takeaway from that?”

“Well, I mean, it's just that that's news to me.”

“I know I was closed off but was it really that subtle? I thought you of all people might have noticed.”

“What was there to notice?” Celeste asked, sounding more exasperated.

“Were there not looks to notice, subtle glances? My disinterest in men?”

“You seemed disinterested in everyone except...Teo, and me. Wait, so did you also want to-” Celeste cut herself off as she processed everything, finally catching up to Melanie. “Wait, are you saying you...Have feelings for me?”

Melanie let out a long sigh. “Celeste, you are a very bright person most of the time. But, and I mean this in the kindest possible way, you can be incredibly slow.”


“My feelings for you are...Complex. How could they not be, after everything we've been through. But yes. I care deeply for you. I have for years. I've longed for you.”

Celeste's head was spinning with this revelation. At school, she thought Melanie saw her as nothing more than a friend if even that. Actually, that made more sense. Pushing away possible friends was one thing, for fear you would have to fight them, but pushing away a possible lover was even more important.

She couldn't completely shake off her own feelings about Melanie. She knew the other woman had done terrible things. But the blood ran both ways, and Celeste was possibly even more stained with it, her innocence was unsalvageable. The hatred, the disgust, was all still lingering. But looking at Melanie now she felt the wave of desire she had felt outside the inn. She felt the love for a woman she'd know for so long and so well. She knew the worst of her. It felt wrong to desire someone whose worst deeds you knew. But desire wasn't something Celeste could control, she knew.

“Melanie,” She said the name softly, sounding the syllables out with great care. “I love you, I do believe that.” She reached out to take the other woman's hands in hers. Melanie looked down at them for a moment before meeting her eyes once more. “And I want you. I want to hold you and feel every inch of you and I...” Her words hung in the air for a moment before she made a terrible decision.

She leant forwards, cupping Melanie's cheek in her hand, and kissed her. She was kissed back, and it felt better than anything she'd known. The warmth and passion and desire all pressed between their lips. Melanie's hands rested on her hips, pulling them both closer together as they made out more intensely.

Celeste made the first move and was the first to pull away. The lack of proper breathing had flared up in her lungs and left her coughing painfully again.

“I'm sorry,” Melanie said quickly. “Did I do-”

“You didn't do anything wrong. If anything, it is your fault but for being too good,” She said with a coy smile on her face.

Melanie returned the look, placing her hand on the back of Celeste's neck, bringing their faces close together. “Well, maybe I can ease that pain for you.” With that she placed her other hand on Celeste's waist, slowly moving up.

“I think you just might,” Celeste muttered back, her eyes already focusing on Melanie's lips again. She was already moving her head when she heard a bleating behind her. She smiled and stood up. “I should probably go check on that.”

Reluctantly, she stepped away to investigate. She quickly found the source of the sound. One of the ewes was in the midst of giving birth. Celeste had promised her parents she would keep an eye on the sheep for the night and help any that might happen to give birth. It had been years, but somethings didn't leave you. The smell and feel of sheep for one thing.

“What is it?” Melanie asked, walking over to see a slimy lamb sliding out of its mother.

“The miracle of life, I guess.” She looked back at Melanie with a small smile. “You ever seen a birth before?”

“Never witnessed any in person, no, but I read a few medical books about it. I kept having this horrifying thought that I might have to help out a birth while on campaign.”

“You weren't aware that they don't allow female soldiers in the Ofprovian army, right?” Celeste asked as she gently stroked the sheep's head to keep it calm.

“I was aware at that point.”

“I spent a while looking in the library for books on animal care. Or anything about farming, really. It was very light on the ground.”

“Naturally,” Melanie said, leaning on the partition between sheep. “It was the library for a military academy. Hence the lack of poetry books as well.”

“I remember reading that way back, war was far more seasonal. Soldiers had to return to their homes to plant crops or harvest them. It's strange to think how much it has all changed.”

“And how much it will change,” Melanie added. “By the time we're old and grey, who knows what weapons of war they will have invented. You were right that wizards are starting to seem like a nicer option.”

“Yeah,” Celeste muttered. She couldn't imagine being old like that. She didn't know what would happen to her, if her hair would go grey. It was already mostly white. Maybe she would be happier without the red streaks, the glimpses of fury and rage in the mirror, erased as well. She didn't expect to live to find out what would happen. But she couldn't admit that to a woman she'd just kissed. “This might be a while longer. You can go get settled down for bed if you'd like.”

Melanie took another glance down at the bloody little lamb and nodded. “Take the time you need. I'll be waiting.” She rested her hand on Celeste's shoulder for a moment, just a moment longer than she would have a day ago.

Celeste looked back over her shoulder to watch the other woman walk away. A bleat from the ewe pulled her attention back to the task at hand. Making sure a little lamb made it into the world was no small task, after. The most important one she'd had in a long time.

Maybe half an hour later, the lamb now taking its first shaky steps in the world, Celeste stepped away to get cleaned up. Her hands and forearms were slicked with blood and other sheep bodily fluids. It was unpleasant, but she had grown used to blood in the war. Blood from birth didn't stain like the blood of the dead.

“You finished with the sheep then?” Melanie asked, peeking her head over the edge of the hayloft.

“Provided none of the others decide tonight is the night to give birth, yes. I just need to clean up.” She said, rubbing her hands in the spare water.

“Let me help with that.”

“Help ho-” Celeste was cut off as a torrent of water crashed down on her. The water soaked into her and in a moment, it was gone. It was a very unique experience. Not one that Celeste would have chosen, but at least she didn't need to dry off. “Why would you-”

Above her, Melanie broke into joyous giggles. Celeste couldn't maintain even pretend annoyance as she heard that raucous, messy, beautiful sound. Had she heard Melanie laugh like that before? She would have notice then, just how incredible she was, surely, which meant it was impossible. This couldn't be the first time she noticed how amazing the other woman was. She smiled, thinking about her school days. No, it wasn't. She had always known just how incredible Melanie was.

“You water wizards, always the most annoying,” She said teasingly, unable to wipe the smile from her face. She finished washing her arms and shook the excess water off. In a deft bound she jumped up into the hayloft, having to squat in the low space. “You could at least do something useful with that power.”

Melanie was reclined in a large stack of hay already. Sighing, she sat up and threw her hands forward. Celeste was shunted backwards, almost falling to the ground, as the water on her arms was ripped off with supernatural force. She was unbalanced for a moment before gripping onto the wood below her.

“Sorry, I might have taken some of your sweat off as well.”

“You can do that?” Celeste asked.

“I can manipulate any water, though things mixed in with it get left behind most of the time. So, you might feel salty.”

“Can you manipulate blood then? That's mostly water. Humans are mostly water, right?”

Melanie shook her head. “Only outside of the body. I can't manipulate anything within a living body. Don't know why, but I wouldn't want to anyway.”

Celeste hummed gently as she watched Melanie sink back into the hay. The limitations of magic were always so arbitrary. There was no reason she could only make vacuums so small, or that her fire should exactly mimic her. Despite a library packed with tomes on the subject, she'd never found any adequate explanation of what limited magic, or how binding really worked. Instead, she was pulled by the forces she couldn't control.

“You know,” Said Melanie, closing her eyes as she relaxed. “Hay is far more comfortable than I was expecting.”

“Don't let that trick you. It's people who don't expect it that usually die to it.” Celeste shook her head soberly.

Melanie's eye snapped open. “Die?”

“Yeah. There's no structural integrity to it so people just sink in. The only thing left is the bones that come out when you feed it to the sheep.”

Melanie stared at Celeste in shock for a few moments before Celeste broke into laughter.

“You are terrible,” Melanie said, sharing in the laugh and grabbing a handful of hay to throw at Celeste. It didn't fly far, stopped by its own lack of momentum, and fell back into the stack.

“I can't help that you know nothing about hay,” Celeste said, falling onto her side, into the hay, to lie facing Melanie.

Melanie rolled over, so they were face to face, their laughter subsiding. Celeste couldn't wipe the smile from her face still as she examined the other woman's face in the dim candlelight of the shed. She reached out and rested her hand on Melanie's cheek.

“Has something changed?” She asked, a hint of melancholy seeping into her voice. “You seem, I don't know, freer than before.”

Melanie shrugged, looking thoughtful for a moment before responding. “I think I've finally accepted that it isn't my responsibility to save the world anymore. Someday, I would like to return home, help overthrow the Ofprovians. But I can't do that alone. And I can't do it now.” She reached out now, stroking Celeste's cheek with the back of her hand before running it down along her neck. She let out a soft breath at the touch. “And, as I'm sure you have figured out, if we continue down this road, if we commit regicide, that will be the end for life as we know it.”

Celeste nodded. “I understand that.”

“This place, your home, will be gone for you? Even if we live after it, even if we live to our oldest age, there will never be a time when the state will let you live. They've got offices up here now. Nowhere will be safe within Laociena.”

“I understand all that.”

“And you still want to take this path?”

Celeste couldn't bear to meet eyes with Melanie. She moved her hand up to run a finger through Melanie’s hair, feeling one of the curls move around her finger. “I'm doing this for my home. No one here will ever fully understand. But I'm doing what I have to.” She paused, finally meeting Melanie's eyes. “You don't have to come with me. This is my task, not yours.”

“I have made myself clear. I do believe in you. And I love you. I'm not going to let you do this without providing you all the help I can.”

“You are an idiot,” Celeste said, but she couldn't help smiling. Hearing those words gave her some extra strength. “But I love you too. Maybe I always did.” She shuffled a little closer to Melanie, the hay rustling as their bodies connected, clouds of hot breath brushing against each other. “And I think I want to spend the last of my time with you.”

And so, they embraced again, their bodies pressing into one another [they have sex idk write something later]

Celeste woke first, blinking as the early morning sun shone through the high windows of the shed and through the thatch of the roof. She rolled from her back to her side, Melanie's naked body swimming into view. Celeste was taken aback for a moment. Half of her thought it might have simply been a dream. Yet the evidence lay before her, concrete and indisputable, that she and Melanie had kissed and had sex and lay together in the dark.

The other woman's muscular frame had the same signs of emaciation as her own. She was largely unscarred by the war, but she could see the harm of it just as she could see it in her own body. Resting her hand on Melanie's stomach, she hummed softly.

In a few minutes, Melanie stirred as well. She looked down cautiously. Then her hand moved slowly up to rest on top of Celeste's.

“It's so loud. I don't know how I slept,” She said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Celeste asked, raising an eyebrow in confusion.

“You know, all those bells ringing all the time.”

Celeste focused her hearing and realised the bells were ringing. They always were, after all. They had all through her childhood. “I forget about them. They just sound...Normal.”

“Tell me, did you notice the sound of the pipes at Tricapon?”

“I don't know, did they make much noise?”

“Yes!” Melanie exclaimed. “This explains so much. You must just have got good at blocking out background noise years ago. It took months before I got used to those pipes rattling.”

Celeste laughed and rolled onto her back again. “I can't imagine a life without sound. But I don't want to hear those great guns again. These bells though, they're comforting.” She looked over to Melanie with a struggle of a smile. “I'm going to get some air. I'll see you in a bit.” She leant over and pecked Melanie's lips lightly before grabbing her clothes and leaping down from the loft.

Outside, she sat on the edge of the roof of the house. She recalled being told off as a child for sitting like this. The roof wouldn't take her weight, her parents warned. And they were scared she would fall. She had no such fears now, yet she still felt as if she were doing something wrong.

She sat thinking for a while, minutes ticking by with the clicks of her watch. She was examining the gold case when the door below her opened. Her father strolled out and looked around for a moment before calling her name. With a thud, she landed on the ground beside him.

“What do you need?” She asked.

“What's this?” He asked, reaching out to run a finger along the watch.

“Oh, a gift from...A friend. It's a watch, for telling the time,” She explained, flipping it open to show him the face.

“Oh. I heard the Official was talking about having a watch installed in the front of the old mission building. I don't get it. Is the time not self-evident?” He said, gesturing to the sky.

Celeste was puzzled by that for a moment before remembering she'd never grown up with a concrete sense of time. It was only once she got to Tricapon that the ringing of its bell told her when she needed to be at her lessons. And in war, there were reasons for you to need precision of time. But back out here it was unnecessary. She missed that feeling.

“It's more a memento than anything,” She said, brushing it aside. “What did you want from me?”

“Right, yes. Some of the walls to the meadows need repairing. Since wizards are so strong, I thought you could help.”

She considered for a moment before deciding Melanie could handle herself for a while. “Of course. Lead the way.” As they got walking, she became curious. “Wizards are so strong, where did you learn anything about wizards?”

“From the wizard who used to live in the village,” He said casually.

“When was this?”

“Oh, when me and your mother were children. He must have died when I was...Ten, maybe. Can't have been much older.”

“You never thought to bring this up?” Celeste asked with confusion.

“It's never been relevant. I barely remember him, just that he was who people called when you needed something moving. Taught us kids some basic letters, but I think he was too ailing to do much at that point.” He looked at her with a smile, seeing the shock on her face. “Well, we didn't exactly speak to you much once you...Became a wizard. Would it have helped?”

She shrugged. “Maybe not. I didn't know what I was either so I don't know that you could have done anything.”

“Do you think you could do that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Be a wizard like he was, just helping around the village? I mean, once the war is passed. I know that requires all your attention. But I know I would love to have you back here.”

Celeste took a moment to consider. She wasn't sure if she could take a quiet, rural life anymore anyway. But Melanie had been right. Neither of them would ever be able to return. “Maybe. I know a lot of wizards do settle down like that. It's a good way to deal with our lives. Being attached to a village rather than individual people.”

“Why would you want that?” He asked.

She glanced up at her father's face. The slight concern in it. The greying hairs. “Wizards live much longer lives. Based on when I was bound, I could live up to three hundred.”

Her father blew his cheeks out. “That is a long time. But you've got wizard friends, at least, right? That's someone to keep with you through all that.”

Celeste shrugged at that. She had Melanie. The rest of them, though, she felt that she had let them down. Even Melanie's belief in her felt too kind to be true. She wasn't sure she wanted people to stand with her after everything she had done.

They worked together quietly. It had been years, of course, but Celeste hadn't forgotten the skills. She had helped to repair walls with her father before, but he had been in charge of the heavy lifting when she had been a girl. It was more than just being a wizard. Her father was older now. His body didn't obey him like it had, he complained about his back and his hands.

She wondered if that would be her as well, in two hundred years, or would being a wizard protect her from even the ravages of age? It hadn't protected her lungs, she realised. Occasionally, as she tried to suck in too much air at once, she broke into another fit of coughs. Her father seemed concerned, but she brushed his concern away. And felt terrible for doing so.

Eventually, with most of the walls looking in perfect condition again, they sat upon one to eat some bread and sheep's cheese her father had packed. The cool spring wind swept over them. It had been too long since Celeste had felt winds like these. It pulled at the cloak she wore but barely affected her. The clothes they had...acquired when they had left the front had been Itsopasarian clothes after all.

“So,” her father began after they had sat in silence for a while. “Melanie seems nice. She doesn't seem to...get us. But she does seem very pleasant.”

“Get us how?” Celeste probed.

“She didn't seem to understand cooking. I don't know what sort of person doesn't understand that.”

Celeste burst into a laugh. She had been fearing some far worse problem. “She's noble, that's all. Her family is very ancient and very powerful back where she comes from. Even on the road here, we didn't cook much.”

“And she's your...” He hummed for a moment, struggling for the words he wanted. “Friend, is all?”

Celeste smiled awkwardly at the question. It was such an uncomfortable way of asking, but she didn't want to rebuff him for it with dishonesty. “I'm not certain what we are, but...” How did you say to your father you love women? Your parents always have their ready-built idea of who you are, how do you break that? “We are together, in a sense. I know that's weird to say but-” She tried to bluster on quickly to explain herself, but he raised his hand to stop her.

“I understand. You know, back before I was with your mother, I had a boyfriend.”

Celeste widened her eyes at him. “This is something else you never thought to mention.”

He laughed heartily. “Well, it wasn't important. I am with your mother now, that's all that seemed to matter. Not that I don't still care about him. He lived a village over, but we used to walk out to the meadows together.” There was a gentle smile of nostalgic longing on his lips as he gazed up to the clouds. “But the Winds brought me to your mother. And I love her so deeply. So, you don't need to hide yourself from us.”

“I don't know how I was supposed to know that.”

“What was Alfonso to you?” He asked, almost absent-mindedly. “Sorry, that was rude, I know it might-”

“It's fine. I cared for him, truly, just...Not in that way. I don't care for men in that way. I wish I could have realised it all the way back then.” It would have saved his life, was the part she didn't say. Her father didn't need to know.

You care about him enough to fight a war though. To kill so many, to risk your life.

That wasn't the same, she thought to herself. She couldn't argue with her spirit here.

“Well,” Her father said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “I am glad you could tell me. I do love you, my dear, I don't want you to suffer ever.”

It was a bit late for him to do anything to ease her suffering. He would never understand the extent of what she had done, or what she was going to do. “How am I finding so much about you and the village out now? Was sixteen years not enough?”

“Sixteen years a child,” Her father said with a laugh. “You're an adult now. You're different. I'll see if I can remember anything else you are able to learn now.”

When they got back to the house, Celeste found Melanie laid outside on the slight hill up to the garden. Her eyes were closed, and she didn't open them as Celeste drew close. For a moment she had the stabbing fear that Melanie was dead. She'd never seen the other woman look so at peace. But she couldn't miss the gentle rise and fall of her chest.

She had been stood there a while, watching Melanie, when the other woman opened one eye to look at her.

“Were you going to say anything or just stand there?”

“I was just...admiring you,” Celeste said with a warm smile. “Come on, get up, I need...I need to go visit a few places. I would appreciate if you would come with me.”

“Of course. Anything for you,” Melanie promised, reaching out her hand. Celeste pulled her up and they headed off for the other side of the village.

They stuck to the outskirts of the village. She didn't say it, but Celeste wanted to avoid seeing people she had once known. Maybe Melanie knew that. She didn't say it if she did, they didn't say anything much as they walked. Celeste's plan, however, failed miserably.

At a distance, she didn't recognise Irene. Or she hadn't wanted to. But the other woman recognised her from shockingly far away. Tentatively, she waved at Celeste who returned the gesture.

“Who is it?” Melanie asked quietly before they got too close.

“Just an old friend,” Celeste said, truthfully.

“Cel!” Irene said with a beautiful smile, just as she always had. “Is that really you?” She stepped up, so they were just a footstep away.

Celeste smiled awkwardly back. “Yeah, it's been a long time hasn't it, Irene.”

“I'll say. I mean I heard about...Well, everything, obviously. I'm so sorry.” She reached out a hand to rest on Celeste's arm.

“It's okay. I've...Well, we all learn to cope, don't we?” Celeste tried for a casual laugh, brushing it off but failed to even convince herself. “How have you been? How are things here?”

“Same as always I suppose. That new pump getting put in was honestly talk of the village.” It struck Celeste as strange the war for their faith wasn't talk of the village. “Oh, and of course,” Irene said, jumping at the realisation she hadn't shown Celeste something. She presented a metal band on the end of a long, braided neckless for her inspection. “I got married.”

“I'm so happy for you!” Celeste said, holding the metal between her fingers for a few moments. “Who to?”

“You remember Gennaro?”

“Of course. He was nice,” She lied. Maybe he was nice, a lot of girls in the village had seemed to think so. She never understood it. That wasn't so unusual though.

“What are you doing back here anyway? I thought you'd gone off to become a wizard then,” Irene said, inspecting Celeste's hair.

“It's a little more complicated. But yes. And now I'm back. Just passing through, on wizardly business.”

“Not staying long then?”

“Not too long.”

Irene's smile looked melancholic for a moment. “Well, you had better come back for longer soon. So, we can catch up, like old times.”

Celeste felt her cheeks burn a little but smiled and nodded. “Yeah, of course, I will. It was...Really nice to see you again.”

“Same to you.”

The women embraced in a short hug before continuing on their separate ways.

“'Cel'?” Melanie said, once they were far enough away to not be heard.


“No one ever calls you that. I never heard Sabina use that.” She narrowed her eyes.

“I only ever felt comfortable with her using it. I don't know. It was just like, our thing.” Celeste tried to avoid Melanie's probing eyes.

“You had a crush on her, didn't you?”

“What? No, of course I didn't, we were just...” Celeste stopped herself as she played back her childhood memories. Seeing her childhood home, knowing the things about herself she knew now, just helped it all to slip into place. “Oh Gales, how did I not see that?”

Melanie laughed as Celeste buried her face in her hands. “It's okay. Sometimes it just takes a while to work this out.” She placed an arm around Celeste and pulled her close for a moment, planting a kiss on her cheek. “Now, what did you want me to see?”

They finally rounded the village and reached Celeste's destination.

“The high hill,” She said, spreading her arms out as they began to climb. Not that climbing it was a long process.

“High Hill,” Melanie said slowly. She repeated the words again in her own language. “No, still sounds like a stupid name.”

“Shut up. What else would we call it? It's the highest hill around.”

“You're already on top of a plateau. This is a bump compared to that.”

“Well, it looks like a mountain to me,” Celeste said quietly as they reached the top. She looked around, trying to figure out exactly where it happened. She'd expected there to be a mark remaining, or a sense within her. The grass had healed, of course, if it had ever been damaged. She hadn't. She clutched her face, feeling the burnt skin and recalling the feeling, the heat and the explosion. Or was she thinking of the war?

“Surely now you're an adult it looks smaller?” Melanie was saying. “Celeste? Are you okay?” She came over and held Celeste's arm.

“It looks bigger than it ever did,” She muttered.

“Why...Ah.” Melanie's mind seemed to work faster than she could talk. “This was where you were bound.”

“And where he died. Where I killed him?”

“Who?” Melanie asked.

Celeste was only then reminded that she'd never told Melanie of her own binding. She'd told Sabina, personal stories had come up all the time between them. The adventures and perils of Sabina's youth, the nothings of her own. But Melanie, the two had always kept some distance back when the pain of it still weighed on Celeste all the time.

She pulled herself up straight and looked around. A short walk to the north she could see the stone structure of the funeral grounds. It was too late now. His ashes would be part of the Wind, the one that had guided her here perhaps. She had to go see it, even if it wouldn't give her anything.

As they walked, Celeste explained who Alfonso had been. She felt slightly stupid, admitting again that even then she hadn't figured out that she wasn't attracted to men. Melanie only seemed to find that fact endearing. Celeste didn't say everything. She didn't say that she still saw the young man's face in her dreams, that it was him she saw in every dead Laocienan soldier. Maybe she would work that out herself, maybe it would be better unsaid.

The funeral grounds were a stone amphitheatre at the edge of the plateau. The seating faced inwards at a stone coffin. The body of the deceased would be placed in it along with fuel and then ignited. Keeping it contained helped to ensure the body burned hot enough. Small airways were hidden under the floor that allowed more wind to blow into the coffin, burning it hotter and, more importantly, allowing the ancestors in the wind to claim their own.

Normally it would be the parents that claimed their children. But Alfonso would one day claim his own.

Bells hung above the entrance, chiming softly as the two women stepped into the space. It needed to be cleared out. Dead leaves from the last autumn were still scattered about, and plenty of the strings that once held bells were looking bare. Celeste supposed there hadn't been many funerals for a while. But when the young men of the village returned from war, when not all of them returned from war, it would be needed again.

“This is a beautiful space,” Melanie said quietly.

She was respectfully quiet, Celeste supposed, though it did mean she could barely hear her over all the bells. Celeste had gone to the centre, running her fingers along the stone of the coffin. She traced the depictions of the Winds etched on the side, and re-etched again over the centuries.

“I only came here a few times, as a child. I don't think I really figured out what death was. I knew the people were going to join the Winds. But I was too busy enjoying the sound and the music and wearing a nice dress and having good food with the whole village.”

Melanie rested a hand on her shoulder. “What's been happening to the highland soldiers killed in the war?”

Celeste considered for a moment and felt despair deepen in her. “I don't know. I didn't make sure any of my men were burned, they won't be in the Winds yet. I wasn't here for Alfonso, I wasn't there for any of them. I just-” Celeste felt her throat closing up.

She couldn't take it anymore. She had made a mistake coming here, of course she had. Years had passed but she was the same uncertain little girl who had got a boy killed and she didn't have a clue what she was doing.

Before Melanie could say anything in return, Celeste had run off. She ran for a moment then took off, leaping into the air on instinct. She was in a haze and didn't really know where she was going. Still, she went, she needed to just be away. From the place where it had all gone wrong, from Melanie and her judgement, from everyone in the world.

In the end, she found herself back where she'd always found herself. As a child, she would go to hide in the woods near the village. Under a large fallen log that died long before she was born, hidden by the overgrowing roots and vines, tucked into the earth. She was huddled into a small ball. Tears streaked down her face. It was all for nothing. The education, the magic, the fighting. Tensi said he hoped she would be the same after the war as when he met her. He got his wish, though he didn't know what he wished for.

She didn't register the presence of another person until Melanie coughed.

“How...” She stopped to swallow. Her throat had dried up a while ago.

“I'm a good tracker,” Melanie said softly, crouching in front of Celeste. “You really are tucked away, but I can sense nearby water. Part of my powers.” As she spoke, she placed a hand on Celeste's cheek to wipe a tear away with her thumb.

“I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I thought I was stronger now. But I am so weak. I ran away back then, I didn't want to face the guilt, and I'm running away now. From the front, from the burial.”

“You aren't weak.” Melanie's tone was quiet, but with a sternness that was in its way comforting. It grounded Celeste more in the moment.

“I don't know what I'm doing.” Now she had started speaking, she felt everything coming loose. “I shouldn't have brought you here. I shouldn't have come here. I should just stay here in this hole forever, that would be better for everyone.”

Melanie's hand tilted her head upwards, so their eyes were forced to meet. “To err is natural, to question what you're doing is sensible. But you are my guide in this. Tell me what you want, and I will be with you in this.”

Celeste sniffled, quite pathetically she felt, and tried to clear her head enough to answer those questions. “I want you,” She finally answered as she stared into those unnaturally blue eyes. “And I want to kill that bastard of a king. I want to know that I've done right by all the men I've failed so far and all those who've suffered in this stupid war, the soldiers and the civilians. The innocent and the guilty.”

“Well, it is going to be a bit of a walk still to do the second. But I can easily help with the first.” She broke into a dazzling smile that forced Celeste to blink back some of the tears.

They sat together on the earth for a while more until Celeste had calmed down. When she felt stable enough, they ventured back out into the world, hand in hand.

The day slowly drifted by. They walked along the edges of the plateaus, and just talked mindlessly once again. Celeste felt her brain was too frazzled by the day to think of anything more than that. They ate dinner with her parents again and then retired to the lambing shed, to their makeshift bed.

No lambs called for their attention this night, and so they spent much of it in passion. The shed was dark and the night air cool, but Melanie's body was so warm. The puff of her breath against Celeste's skin was enough to drive her wild. The only light were the slight streaks of cool moonlight over their sweating bodies.

As they panted from exertion, their bodies still on one another, Melanie let out a gentle laugh. “Do you mind returning gravity?”

Celeste let out a long breath before opening her eyes and focusing. They were indeed floating. “Sorry,” She muttered as they landed in the soft hay.

“You don't need to be sorry. Does that happen often, unconscious magic?” Melanie rolled onto her side, her hand resting on Celeste's breast, rubbing her skin softly with her thumb, before drifting down to her stomach.

“Twice before,” Celeste admitted. “Once when I was...So angry.” She pushed the memory away quickly, not wanting to spoil the current moment. “But the other time when I was kissing a very beautiful girl.”

“Sabina?” Melanie asked quietly.

Celeste turned her head to the side, seeing Melanie looking down to where her own hand still gently touched Celeste. “Yes.” She smiled at that memory. “The first time. How did you know? That you love women, I mean?”

“Oh. Well, I mean I always felt I was different. I didn't get the way adults talked about marriage. I saw plenty of unhappy women in political marriages growing up, so I suppose I assumed that was natural. But then when I was, thirteen I suppose, maybe a bit older, it was other girls talking about boys that confused me. So, I did what I did whenever I didn't understand a thing.”

“You read about it?” Celeste asked, reaching up and fiddling with Melanie's hair with two fingers.

“Of course. I read poetry by al-Rahim. It's kind of why I look at his work so fondly. First, I read him talking about women and oh, I just understood that. Then I read his poetry about loving men and that fitted everything into place. If he could love men as he loved women, then I could love women as I do.”

“I do feel very loved when I see you naked,” She said playfully, her eyes scanning over what little of the other woman's sweaty form was illuminated.

“Oh, shut up,” Melanie said quietly, though she didn't seem to be complaining really.

“My dad said something like that this morning. I mean, he said he'd had a boyfriend when he was younger, before he got together with my mother. It is weird people don't talk to you about this stuff as a child.”

Melanie hummed quietly in response. For a moment Celeste assumed she had drifted off to sleep, it was hard to be sure if her eyes were open in this light. “It is nice here,” She said at last. “I didn't get your life for a long time. I heard the common soldiers talking about their homes, how they wanted to return. I think I get it now.”

“You think you could settle down like this one day?”

“I think it would be good for me. When we're done with all...this, maybe we could settle down together.”

Celeste sighed. She felt the hesitation in the other woman's voice. She shared it. “Yeah. Go somewhere quiet. Near a little village maybe.”

“With a lake nearby.”

“In the valleys, between mountains.”

“Not too long a walk from a library.”

“Or we just build our own one.”

“Or that. And we can sleep still midday.”

“And keep each other awake until the sun comes up.” Celeste said with a smirk. She rolled onto her side and rested her forehead against Melanie's.

“So that's a promise then, Celeste?”

“Yes. We will see each other there, on the other side.”

Normally it is a terrible sin to lie to your lover. But they were not telling a lie to one another, they were sharing a lie. That is what love is about. Sharing. Be it your life, your body, a laugh, a smile, a kiss. For the two of them in that moment, it was a lie that they shared. For they could not lie to themselves, the truth was too self-evident, so they lied to their lover. They hid from the truth in each other's lips, their smiles and kisses and words. For that is what love is.

And so, they lay there, comforted by the presence of the other's body. Breathing, surging with life. The last moment of rest they would ever get. In the morning they would have to leave, and they would have their final task to do.