Strong, simple convictions.
The woods were alive with whispers, or so it seemed to me, caught in that little circle of light. Our makeshift sun was slowly but surely fading away. I had not made clear to Kezia how much it had withered away already, like a shrinking, rotting fruit; when the horsemen had first formed it, I had thought it was large enough to rival the real sun, high in the sky above. Now it had sunk low, hovering above our heads, a pitiful thing the size of a dog.
The enigmatic Adamina had made her way off, after some vague reassurances that all would be well with Kezia soon. I found that for my part, I was feeling more uneasy than before she had arrived. Ask her mistress to move the forest so that she could search for the needle? It seemed a bit much for a casual favor. Then again, if she truly did think of herself as Kezia’s mother, perhaps no effort was too much. Then again, I had yet to see any truly motherly behavior from her. She was a golem, like Kezia had been; but even Kezia’s lifeless clay self had never seemed so chilled and calculating.
I shivered, skin bare against the night. I had seen her first, while Kezia and the horsemen gabbed on; in those few moments she had held my gaze, her face devoid of expression. It had left me feeling queasy and anxious, as though I were being pulled into the hollow void I knew lay within her. There was intention behind that look, and I felt as though she were sending some message to me, if I only knew what it was. I suspected it wasn’t a positive one.
Kezia leaned closer to me, shoulder to bare shoulder, and I felt both the urge to squirm away and the desire to press even closer. I did neither, and was in fact somewhat rigid.
“Gabi,” she said, in a drowsy way. I looked over and saw that her eyelids were sinking lower, her head slumped forward. Already tired, and she’d just woken up. Some tight part of my chest uncoiled a little, and I smoothed a bit of her fine hair behind her ear. She leaned into my touch without inhibition.
I could not help but glance up at our shrinking sun with my old habit of paranoia, but it was merely a pale gold ball of light that showed no sign of wanting to speak up.
“Did you want something?” I murmured in Kezia’s ear. “Or were you just practicing my name?”
Kezia’s eyelids fluttered back open, and she said, with typical straightforwardness, “I do not need to practice anymore.”
She was threatening to make me smile. “Go to sleep if you must,” I told her. “I’m sure that whatever the Treewitch and the golem decide to do, we’ll know about it fast.”
“Mmmno,” said Kezia, raising her head from my shoulder to shake away her tiredness. “I do not want to wait. I do not trust Adamina.”
“Well, it’s not as though I think of her as a bosom friend, but-”
“I think we should go and search on our own,” said Kezia. “If we could leave the Starving Forest, that would be good. I think that she wants to keep us here for some reason.”
I looked around at the trees surrounding us, at the deep shadows between the trunks that kept reaching closer as the light faded. This forest had always seemed a lively place at night, full of insect noise and bat chirrups, but now it was nearly silent. Perhaps it was because the season was turning. Perhaps it was just my own jittery nerves that kept making me think I could hear whispers.
“You know her mind better than I do,” I said, and for an uncomfortable moment I recalled how Adamina had bound me and forced the seed of the white tree down my throat. “Why would she hold us here? Simply to keep an eye on you?”
“That can not be all of it,” said Kezia, frowning, but I suspected it very much was. Yes, if nothing else, Adamina seemed to have a fixation on Kezia, her so-called daughter. That sort of possessiveness- swinging between the violent and the tender- I had seen it before. That look she had given me had been that of a guardian towards an interloper.
It made me wonder, though.
“Kezia, have you ever seen Adamina speak with the Treewitch?”
Kezia drew her brows together. “I have not seen them speak, no. I have not even seen them both in the same place at once.”
“Really…” I mulled this over for a moment, and she looked at me strangely.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Mm,” I said, finding it hard to settle my thoughts into something coherent. Those two together… I wanted badly to see them interact. The master and the servant. It was a relationship one could say I was intimately familiar with.
“But Gabi,” said Kezia, “just because we have not seen them together does not mean they were not communicating. Adamina can feel through the earth and Mother Forest seems to be able to move through the trees. I think that means they are tangled up together in the Starving Forest. They are never separate.”
I shivered. “How… disturbing.”
“I suppose,” said Kezia, though I could see she had no sense of how appalling it really was. She rubbed her forearms with a little shiver.
“Are you cold?” I asked, suddenly alert to the fact that we were both sitting naked together. Well, the magic clothes had needed to come off for the sake of the impromptu surgery, but now it was a bit…
“Only a little,” said Kezia, blinking at me as obliviously as ever. One couldn’t count on her sense of modesty kicking in. I couldn’t stop myself from eyeing the little sun again, to check for any sign of impure interest, but of course it was just a ball of light. In any case, I supposed the three horsemen had seen parts of us much more intimate than bare skin by now.
Kezia had followed my gaze, and asked, “When they are like that, can they move?”
“Don’t ask me,” I said, wondering why she spoke as though the horsemen couldn’t hear. “I shouldn’t think they want to try experimenting with it at the moment.”
I answered a touch absently, as most of my mind was still on figuring out how I could get the two of us to stop being naked. The magic clothing was lying around somewhere under all the old moss and ferns Adamina had provided us with, but to get up and bend and squat to search for it would not be… easy. Drat. If only Kezia was still asleep, I wouldn’t have cared at all. Why hadn’t I picked up our clothes when I had the chance?!
“Gabi,” said Kezia insistently, as I continued to scan the ground in the hopes that something might be within arms’ reach. “I really do think that we should move before Adamina comes back.”
“And I really do not think we can,” I replied. “Besides, between Adamina and the Baba, I would rather go with one of your kind…”
Kezia gripped my arm so tightly it hurt, so tightly I tried to pull away in surprise. She did not let go.
“Adamina is not my kind,” she said, her eyes daggers. “We are not mother and daughter. We are not connected.”
My heart had quickened- I saw in her the golem in the cave, squeezing me tight with rage. Yet this time I was not frightened, I was fascinated. How rare to see Kezia lose her temper! And now it was not the cold, quiet, mechanical rage of the clay golem. Now she had a face that could make such a fearsome expression, a hot, lively expression.
“You truly hate her, don’t you,” I observed. Her grip slackened on my arm.
“I am sorry,” she said. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I lied. It felt like I might get a bruise; she was certainly growing stronger. And darker. Her short hair had gone from near-white blonde to something approaching brown after taking on my second heart. Her eyes, too, had darkened from blue to a light clear hazel color. Her skin- well, it wasn’t very dark, but it didn’t look like it belonged to a corpse, either.
“I think I do hate her,” she said, and I pulled my eyes back up to her face. “Adamina. She made it so I had to love her, at first. I did not realize I had no choice. I did not realize how wicked she was to Noroc, either. And she even tried to use me to-” Her face crumpled a moment. “To kill you! Oh, I have never felt it before, but I do hate her, I do!”
She was trembling now, from the force of her own emotion. I took her hands in mine.
“You ought to hate her, my dear. I’m glad you do.”
She gripped me back, though I saw confusion in her eyes.
“You are glad? Why? I do not think that feeling hate is supposed to be a good thing!”
I had to smile, just a little, at this statement. But I was glad, nearly relieved, to see her vehemence, though I would be hard-pressed to explain just why.
I settled with saying, “It is a terrible shame when someone still loves a person who has done wicked things to them.”
“I could not love her anymore even if I tried,” Kezia declared, squeezing my hands. “Not after what she has done.”
I must admit that I felt a pang of jealousy; what must it be like to have such strong, simple convictions?
“Gabi,” said Kezia, and she let go of my hand to reach out and touch the scar between my breasts. I jolted with surprise.
“This does not hurt, does it?” she asked, running her finger down the line, oblivious as ever. “You are really all right for not having your heart?”
“I had a spare,” I said, pushing her hand away as my wits returned. “You mustn’t run up and touch people like that.”
“I would not touch people like that,” Kezia said agreeably. “Only you.”
Again she caught me by surprise, and I narrowed my eyes at her- how innocent and oblivious was she, really?
“You did not say whether or not it hurt,” she pointed out, and grudgingly I decided to let the matter slide.
“It doesn’t hurt. Only feels a bit…” I hesitated, wanting to say tender, but couldn’t bring myself to with the way Kezia was looking at me.
“You said that it made you different, not having a second heart.”
“I never said that!” I exclaimed, crossing my arms to cover my breasts.
“Yes, you did, just earlier when I was waking up.”
Drat. I had forgotten about that; at least she had no idea the things I’d said to her while she was really sleeping.
“Well, I have one less heartbeat, that’s all.”
“I do not think that is all,” said Kezia, leaning closer with a threateningly concerned look on her face. “You said-”
“Well, never mind what I said then! I’m perfectly fine now. Yes, there is a sore spot or two, but-”
“Are you still a strigoi?”
“Of course I- Well- I mean-”
“And if you are not a strigoi, does that mean you still must drink blood? Can you still change your shape?”
I felt my face growing hot. “I haven’t tried it recently,” I lied. “Why this sudden interrogation? Haven’t we got more pressing matters- such as, say, a witch coming to collect both our lives- to attend to?”
“You said that we have no choice but to wait for Adamina,” said Kezia. “If we are waiting to see if we will die or not when the sun sets, I want to at least know if you are feeling all right now.”
“A perspective I wish you hadn’t brought up,” I muttered, squeezing my forearms. “And I already told you that I’m perfectly fine.”
“But how can you be perfectly fine when you have given me your entire heart?” Kezia insisted, to my chagrin, and reached out as though she were going to try to touch the top of my scar. I caught her hand in mine before it reached me.
“I still have a heart,” I said, quite firmly. “One that is working just fine on its own.”
“Gabi,” said Kezia, “you gave me your heart.”
“Haven’t we established that-”
“Gabi,” repeated Kezia, slower and louder, “you gave me your heart.”
I paused, swallowed.
“So? I don’t understand what you’re working towards.”
“I do not understand either,” she said. “You did not have to do that for me. You did not know if everything would be all right afterwards. In fact, I still do not believe that everything is all right now.”
“Well,” I muttered, single heart thump-thumping away on its lonesome, “I must admit that it would have been nice to know about the whole death-by-sundown business before I made the transaction. I might have kept the heart.”
“Hush! Fine! It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, I’d still have done it! Maybe I’m a fool.”
“A fool who saved my life, Gabi.”
“I’ve saved it before! When you were still growing in the flower, Pascha-”
“Not like this,” Kezia said, cutting me off. “Not by giving me something so precious.”
I hesitated a moment, thoroughly flustered.
“Well- I don’t know what you want me to say!”
Kezia’s brow furrowed, as though she had not thought this far either, and then, for some reason, her cheeks went rosy with a blush.
“I want to know,” she said. “Since we may not have very much time left.”
I may have edged away from her a bit then, my throat going desert-dry. I said, carefully, “You want to know what?”
Kezia’s lips twisted, and now she was flushed so red it was making me want to blush, even though I’d no earthly idea what she was so embarrassed by yet.
Then she said, “Do you love me?”
A moment of silence, and then I said, “Oh,” and I laughed.
It was not the laugh of somebody who has all their wits at the moment; rather, it was a shaky, wild laugh, nervous and worried and eager all bound together. I put my hand on my forehead and felt the sweat there, on my bare skin- it was all bare, her and I in our nakedness, in the light of the fading sun, with the shadows creeping closer. We were so vulnerable.
I was so vulnerable. I had never felt so raw and exposed. Or- not in a very long time.
Belatedly I realized that Kezia was frowning, something like hurt in her eyes. It must have sounded like I was laughing at her for the question. I ought to have told her that yes, I did love her, right then. But my tongue grew fat and clumsy in my mouth, and all I managed was, “I don’t dislike you.”
This response did not seem to please her, for she drew herself up, a bit of anger in the way her forehead furrowed down.
“Maybe you do not love me, then. Maybe I was wrong to think so.”
Each word was a little stab, and I flinched, tried to open my mouth and protest, tried, but Kezia was not to be interrupted. She continued, inexorable as a boulder rolling down a slope.
“But since we do not have very much time, I must tell you that I love you. Even if you do not love me. And you have given me a very great gift that is almost too much for me to understand. How can I pay you back?”
It took me a moment to realize that last question was not, in fact, rhetorical. I had been stuck on the other part of the declaration.
“You don’t owe me anything,” I managed to stammer. Loved me? Kezia did? I supposed- in some way I ought to have known that- in her earliest moments she had seemed to adore me. But that had been the love of an innocent child. Since then she had matured a great deal. I thought she would have known better by now, and grown out of it.
“I owe you very much,” she said, tone strict. “You gave me free will. And then you let me see parts of the world I never would have seen. And then you helped me get a real body, a body that could feel things. And then you saved my life and gave me part of your own self to do it. I know that you think you are a very wicked person, Gabi, but none of those things were wicked at all. There is so much in you that is worth being loved.”
It was like she had read my thoughts. I felt weak, penetrated by her brown eyes, and looked down at the ground. My throat was closing up, my eyes pricking- damn her!
“Damn you!” I said aloud. “Damn you- I didn’t do a single one of those things out of kindness! I did it for myself- because- it was your fault! I was safe and warm, and you took me back out into the cold and picked and picked at me until out came my heart! And now- all of a sudden- this is difficult for me! You do it so well- saying things- things you mean- I don’t know how to do it, Kezia! I’m not- I can’t-”
I was crying now, crying again, over stupid Kezia, and she was sitting there looking stricken because I’d made a mess of things, as per usual. Selfish! Why couldn’t I just say what she needed to hear? Why couldn’t I tell her I loved her? Why couldn’t- why couldn’t I-
“I’m afraid!” I burst out. “I- I- You’re terribly important to me, and it’s frightening!”
Kezia reached for me, and I squirmed and struggled for a moment, but her touch was gentle, not insistent, and with a force of will I made myself hold still. She put her arms around me.
“I am sorry,” she said, and I felt something warm on my shoulder- she was crying, as well. “I am frightened, too. I wish- I wish we had more time.”
She held me, close and warm, skin on skin- her pale arms over mine, her breath against my shoulder, her heart- my heart- beating against my breast. At first I was limp in her grasp, but then I slowly raised my arms back to her waist, and put my hands over her skin.
The shadows lengthened. Kezia stayed warm, solid, rooted to the ground. She held still, while I trembled and shook out my sobs, her own tears nearly silent. What fools we were, weeping together naked in the Starving Forest! I thought, but did not say it aloud; I knew that the first thing I said after all this to break the quiet would have to be something… better.
I pushed my head into the curve of Kezia’s neck, my nose on her collarbone, and mumbled, “I do love you, then.”
“I know,” said Kezia.
Her calm tone, even in spite of her tears, was the slightest bit infuriating. I drew back just enough to give her a soggy glare.
“Then why make such a fuss over having me say it?”
Kezia took my chin in her hand and kissed me on each cheek, and then, after a moment, once on the mouth.
For a moment, I was absolutely still. Then I said, “This does not answer my question.”
“I am sorry,” said Kezia, though she didn’t look it. “I did not know how to answer your question.”
“Obviously,” I said, trying desperately hard not to reach up and touch my own lips, or or to look directly into Kezia’s eyes. Who had taught her about kissing?! When had she had the opportunity to even- Had Pascha been involved in this? I would kill him if I found out he had! I shot a vicious look towards the orb of light.
“I am sorry,” Kezia repeated, though this time the apology seemed more genuine. “I think that I should have asked before doing that. I do love you, but it does not have to be a- a- kissing kind of love, if that is not what you want.”
Again: where had she learned this? I put both my hands over my face, too thoroughly exhausted to even be embarrassed anymore.
“Let’s discuss that if we happen to survive the night,” I said, through my hands. “For now, don’t worry about it.”
She was going to, I could tell already, but I had not the fortitude to address it just then. A kissing sort of love. Dear God, what else did she know about besides kissing? Here I’d been thinking she was innocent as a babe- and if she wasn’t, she ought to have known about wearing clothes, the weasel!
At least it didn’t seem like anybody had taught her just how to kiss- that had been the driest little peck I’d ever got- so there was something left for me to work on-
Hastily I scrubbed that thought from my mind, before it worked a corrupting influence and led to even worse ideas. Goodness’ sake, Kezia might know about kissing but she had no inkling of how dangerous things could really get if we kept on that track.
My hands still on my face, I said, “My dear, if you would be so kind, please locate our clothes. They should be lying around somewhere underneath this mess.”
“Yes, Gabi,” said Kezia, very meekly, and I heard her begin to rustle about. I did my best to settle my poor remaining heart in the meantime. I could have died just then, considering everything, but I also didn’t want to die at all, considering everything. How peculiar was that!
“Oh!” said Kezia, and there was a rather alarmed rustle. I pulled my hands away from my eyes to see her squatting down, a skirt draped over her shoulder, examining something small and white.
“What? What have you got there?” I asked, slightly more interested in the fact that she’d found the skirt but hadn’t put it on.
“Look,” she said, turning to show me the object. I recoiled. It was a human skull.
“What’s that doing here?”
“You know it?” she asked, turning the skull to look into the eye sockets with some interest.
“No, I don’t know it! I don’t want to know it- put it back!”
“We are near the fadua grove,” came the sonorous voice of Zakhar, as the orb flashed slightly paler. “It must belong to one of their victims.”
“There are more bones here,” said Kezia, who was now engrossed in digging around in the dirt. “I have found a rib.”
“I would imagine there’d be bones everywhere in this damnable place,” said Pascha’s voice, in little flickers of red. “How many villages has the forest consumed, I wonder, to keep growing like this? You surely didn’t miss that glowing parade of lost souls going in.”
“Do the trees eat the souls?” asked Kazimir. “That’s the part I don’t understand. Why were they drawn in here- for what purpose?”
I had put my hands over my face again, paying little attention to any of what they were discussing. It had occurred to me that I did, in fact, have some embarrassment left in me to feel, if I considered how the three horsemen had most certainly been paying close attention to the little show that Kezia and I had put on.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, and she rustled back over to me to shake my shoulder. “Look, I found the shirt, and some underthings. There were some centipedes in the bloomers, but I shook them out, see?”
“Very good,” I managed to mumble, and took the items in question and put them on rather numbly. Kezia pulled on the skirt and managed to button the vest over her small breasts, looking at me in a very concerned way as she did so.
“Ah, alas,” came Zakhar’s glum voice, and I jumped as a line of darkness crept up to touch the edge of my elbow. The orb had shrunk another few inches. Now it was merely cat-sized.
“Are the three of you all right?” asked Kezia. She went over to the tiny floating sun, squinting, and put her hands underneath it, as though feeling the warmth of a fire.
“Not hardly,” said Pascha, making terse violet ripples. “Something’s wrong, I fear. We’re losing strength too quickly.”
“Perhaps our mistress is trying to draw us back,” said Zakhar. “I can feel her impatience. She is hungry.”
“May she yet starve,” I muttered, and then said more loudly, “Drat it, where is that golem? She said she’d move the forest to find that needle! Have you felt anything moving?”
Kezia looked around, shook her head. “It is strange. I did not think that it would take so long for her to speak to Mother Forest. Maybe something has happened to her.”
She sounded rather hopeful at that. I chewed my lower lip, more concerned about the still receding light.
“You must have heard Kezia’s question earlier,” I said to the orb, squinting irritably at it. “If we start walking around, can you move to follow us?”
“We heard,” said Pascha, in a tone rich with meaning, and then Kazimir cut over him before I could decide to leap off a cliff.
“We cannot move ourselves, Gabi. But we can be moved.”
I shut my eyes a moment, breathed through my nose, then opened them. “I don’t quite understand.”
“What I mean is, you might be able to carry us,” said Kazimir. I realized that his tone was quite a bit lighter and gentler than I was accustomed to, more the way he spoke to Kezia than the way he normally spoke to me. Had I managed to endear myself to him?
“Oh!” said Kezia, and reached up to close her hands around the sun before I could stop her. She fell down with a cry of pain, and I went to her side with a curse.
“You idiot! Let me see your hands!”
She showed me her palms, tears of pain welling at the corners of her eyes. Her skin was red, but otherwise looked as though it had suffered no permanent damage.
“You might have mentioned that they ought to find something to carry us in,” said Pascha.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t think of it in time!” came Kazimir’s voice, sounding truly miserable. “How badly is Kezia hurt?”
“I should hope just badly enough to know not to touch hot things anymore,” I said sternly.
“I am all right,” said Kezia, blowing on her shaking hands. “I did stop before I really touched it.”
“We ought to find you a cold stream to put those in, now that we know we can move,” I said, squeezing her shoulder.
“But what will we carry them in?” asked Kezia, eyeing the orb with a sort of newfound respect. “We do not have any sort of container here, do we? Anything made of wood would burn… Could we try some of Sorina’s magic clothes?”
“You keep that skirt on,” I warned her, smacking the back of her hand as it drifted downwards and making her wince. “There’s got to be something lying around this blasted place that won’t impugn our modesty… something…”
I cast around the little clearing, with its now pitiful circle of light, and my gaze landed on the pile of bones Kezia had pulled up.
“Kazimir,” I said, “how small of an opening do you think the three of you could fit through?”