It’s Surreal who finds her, naturally; this lonely lost shivering waif, caught out in the cold down a side alley, caught between adolescence and adulthood, caught between the big hulking man and the grey stone wall. Surreal acts without thinking, knife called in and plunged into the man’s throat with scarcely a pause between one action and the next. He gags a little and glares at her accusingly, but then his eyes roll back in his head and he collapses back into the dirty drift of snow. Surreal bends automatically to check that he’s dead (although a gout of blood like that means nothing else), and then turns to the girl.
She’s a wispy little bit of a woman, all flyaway blonde hair and wide grey eyes and the tattered remains of a blue dress barely clinging to her. Surreal takes her hand, tows her out of the alley, and it’s only as they’re about to travel that she realises that this girl-woman isn’t Blood.
Hell’s fire, Mot--, she has time to think before it’s too late to take it back and take the girl home.
So she takes her ‘home’ instead.
‘She’s landen,’ Saetan says a little too flatly. ‘Surreal, you can’t just bring home every injured woman you find like a lost puppy.’
‘Why not? The Keep’s full of puppies as it is,’ Surreal points out. ‘Another puppy, human or otherwise, won’t make a difference.’ She reins in the desire to snap at him that she’s never done this before; it’s hardly as though this young woman is the latest in a long line of rescues.
‘The difference is that the rest of the puppies happen to be kindred and Blood.’
‘You’re going to make this a class issue?’ Surreal’s fired up enough to half-forget who she’s snapping at. ‘The point is, she’s hurt and in need of help and we can give it to her.’
‘I’m more concerned about the effect that... meeting the residents of the Keep will have on her, actually. Not to mention just being here in the first place. It may not be safe.’
Surreal deflates. ‘Oh.’
Saetan gets up from behind his desk and moves to sit down beside Surreal’s rescuee on one of the low couches. ‘What’s your name?’ he asks as gently as possible, considering he’s clearly itching to shoo her out so he can yell at Surreal properly.
The girl doesn’t lift her head. She’s been staring down at her fingers, interlaced in her lap, the whole time. ‘Bitch,’ she says in a low voice.
Surreal has to give Saetan credit; he barely blinks. ‘Well, we can hardly call you that here. Don’t you have another name?’
Saetan rakes his fingers through his hair, and Surreal could swear he mutters something about how talkative females usually are. ‘Is there something else you’d like to be called?’
‘No.’ The young woman raises her head at last, but when her gaze fixes on Saetan’s it’s without a trace of fear or defiance, just an awful blank resignation. ‘Bitch needs to go back to her kennel now.’
Saetan does blink at that. ‘Her... kennel?’
‘We didn’t actually mean the puppy thing literally, honey,’ Surreal puts in, sitting down on the other side of the girl and putting an arm around her that the girl tries to flinch away from. ‘It’s just a metaphor.’
‘But... Bitch belongs in her kennel.’ There’s still no expression on her face except for that look of defeat in her eyes. ‘Bitch will be whipped if she’s away too long.’
Just before the conversation can get any more awkward (although Surreal has no doubt that there will still be ample opportunities for it to do so), Beale enters with a covered tray that smells of chicken soup and fresh warm rolls and other nourishing smells. Mrs Beale’s cooking is so good that the scent alone brings colour to the girl’s cheeks, although perhaps that’s just the unexpected addition of another person to this little gathering making her fretful.
Saetan and Beale exchange a long silent look and Surreal just knows they’re talking psychic boy talk, so she turns to the business of setting out the food on a low table, and is gratified when the girl’s eyes flicker with interest.
‘Do you want me to butter a roll for you?’ she asks, breaking open one of the warm, fluffy bread rolls, sniffing appreciatively at the steam that rises from it.
‘For me?’ The girl sounds as though Surreal’s just offered her an estate in the country with room for a pony. ‘But... Bitch serves, she isn’t served.’
‘Listen, honey, you don’t have to use that name any more.’ Surreal busies herself with the knife and the butter and then stirs the soup to release another wave of delicious-smelling steam into the air. ‘You can choose any name you want. You’re safe here.’
Anyone who knew where they’d been brought would have been seriously questioning that last statement, but the girl clearly doesn’t know that she’s in the study of the High Lord of Hell. She doesn’t look as though she knows where she is at all, beyond the fact that she’s not in her ‘kennel’. Surreal privately resolves to go back and find out just where this place is and what they do that leaves women so broken, and make her own arrangements as to the future of their business enterprise.
‘Kennel’s the only safe place.’
‘Not anymore.’ Surreal lifts the girl’s hand and pushes the spoon into it. ‘Go on and eat up.’ She sneaks a roll for herself as the girl hesitantly lowers the spoon into the bowl of soup.
Beale and Saetan have apparently finished their little chat, because the Warlord butler turns to exit the room. Karla almost barrels into him on her way in. Well, as much as she can barrel anywhere, given that her legs are still not what they once were.
‘Kiss ki—Mother Night.’ She’s beside Surreal and the girl on the couch in about half a second, damaged legs or no damaged legs. ‘What happened here?’
‘Surreal brought home a lost puppy,’ Saetan says drily.
‘I can see that.’ Karla’s expert Healer hands are running along the girl’s free arm, checking for injuries, finding bruises but not much more. Surreal isn’t surprised; it’s elsewhere that the damage has been done. ‘Where was she?’
‘Terrielle.’ Surreal doesn’t bother going into specifics. They’ll figure it out when she finds the kennel, anyway.
‘What were you doing in Terrielle anyway?’ Saetan asks.
‘Winsol shopping.’ She wasn't, but like that's the point.
‘Only if someone wants an ear off the man that was trying to rape her,’ Surreal snaps. ‘Or any other body part, really. I’m too angry to be fussy about what I cut off.’ Saetan and Beale flinch in unison. ‘I’m going back there. I don’t care if it’s just a landen whorehouse; no woman deserves this kind of treatment.’
‘Landen?’ Karla, still examining the young woman as she eats, pauses for a moment to look at Surreal, apparently baffled. ‘What do you mean, landen?’
‘Well, she’s landen…’
Karla shakes her head slowly, unbelievingly, staring around at them all. ‘No, she isn’t. She’s Blood, and she’s broken. Very, very broken.’
Karla’s never seen anything this bad before. She’s seen physical injuries so bad that she’d thought the sufferer could never recover (hell, she’s had them), and she’s seen people with their minds so far into the Twisted Kingdom there was little hope they’d ever find the way back out, but this is worse because this is simply nothingness, a woman-shell around an empty broken soul.
The girl didn’t object to Karla whisking her away to her own suite, with her medications and tinctures and so forth although, after recovering from the initial shock of discovering that she was Blood and not landen, Surreal had insisted that the girl finish eating before being taken anywhere.
So now they are sitting in one of Karla’s rooms, which is mostly neat and spare save for the sprawling, somewhat clumsy drawings that paper one wall. She isn’t all that proud of them for their quality, but they’re a reminder of growing up and learning and Dujae, and she can map out her progress by them, and so they stay. Her Healer’s workroom is considerably more cluttered, but for the moment she’s just sitting with the girl and pondering this strange situation.
The girl appears to be about seventeen, although when asked her age she just shrugs. She also shrugs when Karla asks her where the kennel is, although judging from the way that Surreal stormed out of the Keep Karla’s pretty sure that Surreal’s got that part of things under control. So it falls to Karla to do the Healing part of things, and really, that’s going to be the trickiest part. The bruises dotted over the girl’s arms and legs, the whip marks on her back, and the more intimate and also more deliberate damage between her legs; all of this is healable, although it will take time and patience.
No, the hard part here is going to be finding the soul within the shell and bringing it home. If it can be done.
Karla begins moving around her workroom, mixing up bruise balm and a sleeping draught and a stronger salve for the whip marks and the… other marks. The strangest marks of all aren’t the ones that have been inflicted on her by hand or crop or blade, but rather the delicate twisting pattern of leaves and stems that rises black from the base of her spine, stretching upwards towards the nape of her neck. They’re mostly strange because there is an unfinished quality to them, and because the lines at the top appear fresher than the lines further down, as though the tangled plant, whatever it’s meant to be, has grown in ink from just above the cleft of her buttocks.
‘What’s this on your back?’ she asks, encouraging the girl to lie face down on the couch so she can begin salving the whip weals.
‘They like to leave their marks on us.’ The girl’s voice is sleepy.
‘I can see that, honey, but why the tattoo?’
‘They like to leave their marks on us.’
Karla is puzzled, keeps smoothing salve over the girl’s back while she thinks it through, and then suddenly understands. A tattoo built bit by bit, growing taller, fertilised by money from the clients of the kennel.
What, she wonders, happens when the tattoo is completed?
Tersa doesn’t wander as much as she used to. One idea that has fixed itself in her head through her madness is the notion that other people like to know where she is, to be certain that she is safe, and she tries to abide by that as much as possible. But sometimes the urge comes over her to roam, and it’s too strong to ignore, and so she’s wandering around a park in Draega and thinking to herself how much nicer it is without the muddied members of the Blood around when she senses an grey presence nearby.
The Queen’s name eludes her for the moment, but Tersa is more interested in the girl beside her. She sees something of herself in the girl and, instead of greeting the Queen, asks the girl her name.
‘Bitch,’ says the girl.
‘No, no,’ Tersa says. ‘That can’t be your name.’ She looks at the Queen, meets her eyes, and in the ice-blue sees the Queen’s Territory, recalls her name. ‘Karla is a name. Tersa is a name. Bitch is not a name.’
Karla sighs and rakes her fingers through her hair. ‘She won’t answer to anything else. I’ve told her she must have had a name once that wasn’t Bitch, but she just shakes her head.’ And indeed the girl is shaking her head even as they speak.
‘Just Bit, then,’ Tersa suggests. ‘A piece, a fragment, a bit.’ Her fingers reach out to lightly touch the girl’s tangled blonde hair. ‘Not a bitch. A broken witch.’
Karla’s smile looks simultaneously triumphant and troubled. Tersa can tell that she is pleased about one thing only: her correct diagnosis of Bit’s condition. And Tersa understands why there is little else to be pleased about, because it’s not one that is readily fixed. If it can be fixed at all.
‘Bit,’ the girl says uncertainly, and Tersa senses her mentally adding the -ch to the end of the word. Well. If that’s what she has to do to accept the name, then so be it.
‘Would you Heal her if you could?’ Tersa asks Karla, shattered-soul eyes still locked on troubled-soul eyes.
‘I thought that if anyone knew if it would be possible, it would be you,’ Karla says. ‘Is it... can you tell me?’
Tersa’s fingers stroke through Bit’s hair, and she looks deep into Bit’s blank eyes. She feels as though Bit is more than a shattered chalice, that even the webs have come apart and gone drifting away on the winds.
‘The only way to find out,’ she says, ‘is to try.’
Karla takes Bit home to Glacia. She can’t put her finger on why, but she doesn’t want Jaenelle finding out about this and trying to help. Mostly it’s because they’re still all recovering in their own ways and, while Karla doesn’t particularly need her physical legs to go wandering the trackless paths in the Twisted Kingdom, she doesn't want Jaenelle walking in there and getting lost in whatever's left within Bit's mind.
If there's anything left there to get lost in.
Tersa comes with her, although she seems more interested in just sitting in the living room and waiting to see what will happen than in actually trying to help; Karla supposes this is because she walks her own pathways and those pathways are not Bit’s. For that matter, if Tersa tried to find Bit in the Twisted Kingdom, maybe they’d both become even more lost, their individual paths criss-crossing to become a deeper maze.
She offers to help bathe Bit, who declines and goes to wash herself. When she comes out, damp hair clinging to her cheeks, the light blonde gone golden with the water, wrapped up in the robe Karla has found for her, it makes Karla want to hold her close forever and just keep her warm and safe. Bit looks lost and uncertain and, worst of all, like she’s expecting Karla to pull the robe off her and violate her some more, as though this is all just some kind of setup for a horrible punchline of pain.
Tersa settles down on the couch with a book and some biscuits and wine that Karla presses on her, although whether she’ll stay there or not, Karla’s not sure.
Karla and Bit go into the bedroom.
They should be sleeping, or at least resting, Tersa has explained, and the potion that Karla has brewed should help with that. They should be making physical contact, to make it easier to find each other mentally. And they might as well be comfortable.
Karla deliberately keeps all her clothes on save for her shoes, hoping to reassure Bit that she’s not looking for sex. Bit’s still cautious, but lies down on the bed when Karla asks her to, because she is still well-trained and obedient and Hell, Karla can’t stand the sight of a witch so broken.
She stills her thoughts, drinks the draught, gives Bit her cup. Bit sniffs the liquid and then gulps it down like a thirsty child on a hot day.
‘It tastes good,’ she says.
Karla can’t hold back a smile. That’s a definite improvement over talk of the kennel and such. ‘That’s good.’
Bit stiffens again when Karla climbs onto the bed beside her and stretches out, but Karla just puts out her hand, palm-up, and after a moment Bit settles her own hand atop it. Karla can feel her fingers shivering, but not from cold. Glacia might be an icy Territory, but Karla’s home is warm, and the bedroom in particular, with the fire flickering orange in one corner.
This room, too, holds some of the art that she created under Dujae’s tutelage. Looking at the bold sweeping lines of colour, the impatient short strokes of cross-hatching to make shadows and texture, she remembers how he taught her to show her inner self through art; she only hopes that she can find Bit’s inner self and bring it to the surface somehow as well.
She’s still looking at the criss-crossed lines when her eyes drift closed, but she’s not so focused on them that she can’t feel the tentative way that Bit’s fingers finally tighten around her hand, instead of merely resting atop it.
Bit is gone and Karla is alone in an endless maze, dead or dying black hedges towering six feet high, the paths narrow, the untrimmed branches reaching out to snag her sleeves, her hair, her trousers. Here, her legs are whole and healthy and she can walk, even run without fear of falling. Well, except for when a root snakes across the path and she has to catch herself, grasping a branch for support.
It stings her palm with a dozen tiny thorns that she didn’t even see until now, and she lets go hastily, blotting the little dots of blood against her thigh.
Briarwood is the pretty poison, she thinks randomly, and shivers.
She can hear voices calling on the wind that rustles nigh-constantly through the hedges. Mostly they’re male voices; unsurprisingly, the words are all variations on the theme of bitch. Small wonder that Bit can’t accept any other name. Sickeningly, some of the voices are female as well, using the same horrid terminology. Karla wonders just what Surreal is going to find when she locates that kennel, and pushes the thought aside. Right now what she has to worry about is finding Bit and then finding a way out of here.
If there is a way out of here.
She walks determinedly through the maze, turning left at every crossroads, although she’s loath to keep her hand against the hedge-wall after that first bite from the thorns. She can’t shake the feeling that they keep reaching for her, wanting to drink more of her blood now that they’ve had a taste. Only the knowledge that this is effectively Bit’s mind she is walking through keeps her from trying to destroy the hedges with a blast of Grey power. They’re really irritating her.
Then she thinks about how life must be for Bit if this is how her mind works: wandering around in circles with the same endless scenery going by and no clues as to where she’s been, where she’s going, and feels guilty. Who is she to complain? She’s only a visitor here after all, not the owner of the mind, not the ruler of this particular Territory of the Twisted Kingdom, as it were.
‘Bit!’ she calls, trying to project her voice above the constant susurrus of whispers coming from the trees.
There is no answer. Her voice is swallowed by the greenery, eaten by it.
‘Bit!’ Louder this time.
This time she thinks she gets a response, but not a vocal one. Instead, it’s like she can sense just the barest wisp of Purple Dusk power, somewhere deep within the heart of the maze.
Karla attunes herself to the power, begins walking towards it, no longer turning left-left-left, but instead trying to keep facing towards that whisper of power, a single quiet murmur under the cacophony of voices the wind carries. Sometimes she has to backtrack, but now that she’s located her goal she can keep moving towards it. She doesn’t know how long it will take, but she keeps going, letting her good, strong legs carry her between the hedges, along the paths, little puffs of dust rising wherever she walks.
She can tell she’s getting closer. Not just because that sense of Bit’s power is growing, but because slowly, slowly, the hedges are turning green, the path going from grey dust and pebbles to a rich-smelling, browner earth.
And then she sees it. A purple shimmer in the air. Faint and tenuous and barely there, but a string to guide her through the maze, through the last twists and turns of Bit’s mind and into the centre.
Bit sits quietly at the single safe spot deep inside the centre of her mind. Everything else is broken or dead or dying, but this one spot, she’s managed to keep this one spot alive somehow. Even she doesn’t know how. When a witch is broken, her Jewel shattered, she’s meant to only be able to do basic Craft, if that. With all her years in the kennel, Bit’s never even relearned that much.
A Virgin Night gone wrong is a tragic occurrence. When it’s not even a proper Virgin Night but just a back-alley rape of a young girl who was walking alone at the wrong time of night and thinking of nothing other than getting home before the air got too cold for the light dress she was wearing, it’s more than a tragedy; it’s a downright insult to tradition and to love and care and all the other things that are supposed to be the foundation of a Virgin Night.
She fought as much as she could, but the kennel owners, they weren’t going to let a little bit of a girl overwhelm them. One of them, she never worked out which one, wore a Green Jewel, and threw a shield around her, and then it was all over bar the shouting. Or, in her case, crying.
Bit thinks she must have just plain run out of tears sometime over the years, because she never cries any more. She walks and talks (if she’s permitted), sucks and is fucked, her body used by the clients of the kennel, mostly male, some female. She doesn’t really feel like it’s her body any more anyway; what there is left of her is here in the Twisted Kingdom, deep inside the maze, a maze that’s made of black hedges to match the black tattoo creeping upwards from the base of her spine. The only pain she ever feels any more is the application of that tattoo, and it’s not a physical pain: it’s pain at the part where she looks out of her tiny safe grove at the centre of all this deadness and watches the black hedges creeping closer and closer to this last little kernel of her.
She looks up at the sky, which has been a constant grey for six years now, and imagines that she can see the clouds moving. Sluggishly, reluctantly, but still moving. She wonders what colour the sky is beyond the clouds.
Bit can hear the truncated form of her name being called from beyond the hedges. She can hear it, and although she fears letting anything of herself outside of this little safe grove, she does so anyway, sending out a thin tendril of purple. It can’t rightly be called Purple Dusk power, not really, but it’s a guiding thread, and she can send it out to Karla because although Karla’s Grey power should really blend in with all the blacks and greys of the dead world beyond the grove, it actually shines out like a silver star in a dark dark night.
Bit sends out the purple, finds the way through the maze to Karla, and hopes that Karla can see or feel the purple.
It’s the first time she’s had real hope for herself since she first got dragged, bleeding and weeping, into the kennel, and shut into the room that would be hers for the next six years. She’s scared of it, exhilarated by it, and as she sits in the green grove, she wraps her arms tight around herself and waits for Karla to come to her.
Surreal doesn’t take long to find the kennel. She doesn’t know how or why the girl got out; the building’s pretty secure. Not secure enough for a Grey-Jewelled assassin with a personal dislike for arseholes who mistreat women, of course.
Things become a little clearer when she strolls in through the front door past the guard and sees the man standing at the front desk signing some kind of paper, another young woman beside him, her head down, brunette curls hiding her face. Oh, right; they’re not just kennel bitches, they’re conveniently available to take home as well. How marvellous.
Anger tenses her fists; one of them is around the hilt of her favourite knife. Anger drives it deeply home when she steps up beside the man and drives it into his kidney. He yelps and then falls backwards when she gives him a casual shove, right before leaning over the desk to grab the man who’s signing the girl over and tug him close enough to speak to.
‘You’re closing up shop, sugar.’
‘Who the Hell...’
Surreal doesn’t bother to let him finish, instead shoving the stiletto up through his chin into whatever passes for his brain, then tossing him against the wall. The guard tries to grab her from behind and Surreal whirls to kick him in the groin (how appropriate) and then yanks his head back by the hair and neatly slits his throat while he’s doubled over and groaning.
The girl isn’t just standing there mutely any more. She’s staring at Surreal with wide-eyed shock.
‘What’s your name, honey?’ Surreal asks.
‘Ah – Aria.’
Merciful Darkness. They’re not all as broken as the other girl. ‘And how many of you girls are here, Aria?’
Aria is silent for a moment, mentally counting. ‘Eight. Except... Bitch never came home from her last walkies.’
Walkies. Surreal doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so what she does instead is give Aria a spare knife after confirming that she knows how to use it, and the two of them go upstairs to go hunting.
Karla steps out of the maze of black trees and into the one clear spot at the very centre of the labyrinth, and her breath catches in her throat at the sight of what’s there.
The few trees that are still green are clumped together in the centre of the clearing. Grey roots snake across the ground towards them, but there’s a purple mist around the trees that repels them. It’s faint, though. She follows the purple thread right up to the little grove and then stops, unsure how to ask for permission to enter; is she meant to knock on one of the trees or what?
The question is answered for her when Bit peeks out from between two of the spindly yet determined little trees and offers her a shy but real smile. ‘Karla. Come in.’
Karla hesitates anyway. ‘Are you sure it’s safe?’
Bit shrugs. ‘No. But it couldn’t make things any worse, could it?’
Karla has to admit that this sounds reasonable. She feels a little shiver run down her spine as she steps through the purple mist into the grove; stepping into the very core of someone’s soul has to have some sort of effect, after all.
Once they’re both inside the grove they sit down on the small circle of grass within it. It’s lushly green, perhaps the most living part of the whole mindscape that Bit has created for herself and had destroyed for her. Karla offers her hand, palm up, and Bit reaches out, but then stops. Karla can see her concentrating, and the purple mist draws back from the edges of the grove, becomes stronger, denser, until it’s a solid little ball in the centre of Bit’s palm. Only then does Bit put her hand, palm down, over Karla’s, and close her fingers around the other woman’s.
‘Is that safe?’ Karla asks, thinking of the encroaching grey roots, the black hedges. What will hold them back now?
‘It couldn’t make things any worse,’ Bit repeats. ‘Considering I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing here, or how we’re supposed to be doing it.’
‘Turning the dead plants alive again, I suppose.’ It’s the kind of magic a hearth witch might be able to do, if it were an ordinary plant and not someone’s mind.
Bit nods. ‘Should we try that, then?’
Karla is about to ask how?, but then just returns the squeeze of fingers and closes her eyes again. She’s focused on the little ball of purple power between their joined hands. Slowly, gently, carefully, she feeds a little of her own power into it. Not Grey, she’s afraid of pushing too hard with the Grey, but Sapphire.
The little ball of power grows warm between their hands, and both of them open their eyes. It’s glowing brighter, with an aura of blue around it that is gradually drawn in and overwhelmed by the purple. Bit makes a sound that’s remarkably close to a climax-sound, and Karla feels her cheeks turn pink.
Outside, the wind howls a little louder.
‘Ignore that,’ Karla tells Bit when Bit turns to glance fearfully between the interlaced branches, and just to reinforce the order she feeds a bit more Sapphire power into Bit, or Bit’s power, or whatever the hell it is they’re holding in their hands. ‘Ignore it, Bit, it’s the past, we’re building the future here. Ignore it, they can’t hurt you any more. We’re going to make you all right, Bit, we’re going to bring you out of this maze safely...’ She keeps talking, keeps feeding her power into the space between their hands, and it makes no sense but this is the Twisted Kingdom and so whatever she wants to make sense can make sense, and it’s clear that Bit wants it to work as well.
The first sign that it is working is not anything to do with the trees, but rather a brightening of the light around them. Bit and Karla both look up and see that, at long last, the clouds have parted. The sky beyond them is sapphire-blue, and the sun is fighting through the clouds, which grow wispier and thinner even as they watch.
Their eyes meet. Bit lets out a little surprised laugh. Karla smiles in return and just keeps working away with Bit’s power. If this works... if this works, if they can use this idea to help other broken witches...
The ball is growing bigger; before long they have to cup both hands together to hold it. At last it’s big enough, Sapphire swirling over the surface of the Purple Dusk, that it won’t fit in their hands any more and they have to let it go. The ball of power hovers above their hands (which are still joined; Karla doesn’t know if they have to still physically touch now they’re already in the Twisted Kingdom, but figures it couldn’t hurt), and the purple mist slowly spreads outwards from it, out of the grove, out into the black maze.
The black trees don’t turn green. They simply melt away when touched by the mist, like snow melting in the sunlight.
Karla looks at Bit again, afraid that they have failed, but Bit’s eyes are closed and she is concentrating and she doesn’t see the worried look on Karla’s face.
Nobody ever hushes Karla and gets away with it, but this time she keeps her mouth shut and just lets Bit focus, feeding her more power when she seems to need it, when the ball doesn’t glow so brightly, and watches the progress of the purple mist between the gnarled green branches of their bower.
At long last the sky is a clear blue and the black hedges are gone as far as the eye can see. Bit opens her eyes and gets to her feet, staggering with exhaustion. Karla hastens to rise as well and offer an arm for Bit to lean on.
They step out of the grove. Bit is smiling. Karla is scanning the mindscape with a wary eye.
‘It’s all gone,’ she whispers. ‘It’s all gone, Bit, everything.’
But Bit shakes her head and points to the ground. ‘No. Look.’
Instead of the random, chaotic grey-dust paths amongst dead black hedges, clear tracks of good brown earth are being outlined by tiny green shoots that grow even as the pair of them watch. Soon they’re a foot high, and still growing.
‘No mind is straightforward,’ Bit says. ‘This will still be a maze. But it won’t be their maze.’
‘So how do we get you out of it and back to reality?’ Karla asks. ‘I mean, you’re the one who’s building this. You must know how to get out.’
Bit simply points again. Karla looks where she’s pointing and sees a delicate line of shoots, spaced several feet apart, leading off down one of the tracks. She vaguely recognises them, and then a flower blossoms on one of them and she really recognises them. There’s a certain kind of lily that grows along the snowline in Glacia’s mountains. It gets called a snow-lily or a blue lily or, by the more morbid, a frostbite flower, but Karla always knew it as an ice-lily; pure white save for a faint blue edging.
‘Why ice-lilies? Were you from Glacia originally?’ she asks as they begin following the flower-trail, Bit leaning on her still.
‘No. But you are.’
‘You found the kennel.’
‘And you killed the owners.’
‘And you rescued the girls.’
‘You’re three for three so far,’ says Surreal.
‘And then, for some reason known only to yourself, you decided to bring them here, despite the fact that none of them are broken the way that the other girl was.’ Saetan buries his face in his hands. ‘Would you care to explain why?’
‘Because I don’t know anyone who cooks better than Mrs Beale,’ says Surreal. ‘And besides, she’s used to feeding hungry puppies.’
He manages to last almost a whole second after throwing her out of his study before the shield slams into place and she just knows he’s cackling away madly behind it.
Bit’s physical injuries have all healed; Karla wishes she could say the same for herself, but at least her legs are holding up better than they once did. They’re walking through one of Glacia’s villages, hand in hand. Bit still gets nervous around strangers, especially strange men, and holding hands seems to help. Both of them have stalwartly ignored the requisite giggling from certain friends of Karla’s, and one gold-haired sapphire-eyed friend in particular who will not stop pestering Karla about what happened, and not just because she wants to know how it was all done from a Healer’s point of view.
Bit’s mind is still fragile; fragile, but whole. Now that they know it can be done they have offered the healing to Tersa, but Tersa is oddly content living as she does, drifting between reality and madness, and to be perfectly honest Karla is a little afraid of going into a mind that has spent so very long in the Twisted Kingdom.
They’re not looking for anything in particular in the village, or so Karla thinks. They’re just enjoying the summer sun that takes the bite out of the cool air, just strolling along, two friends, hands clasped the same way they were when they woke up again months ago after Bit’s healing.
Perhaps not quite the same way. When they woke up after Bit’s healing, there was a hard little lump between their hands: a Purple Dusk Jewel. It hangs now, polished and set in silver, around Bit’s neck, tucked away under the crisp clean white shirt that Bit wears. There’s another chip of the Jewel set into a silver ring that Bit wears, and if she tilts her hand just-so, it’s possible to see (or maybe imagine) the faintest glimmer of Sapphire across the surface. Karla wears a matching ring, which only serves to make Jaenelle poke her even hard about it whenever they see each other. Karla maintains that it’s solely because she performed the Healing, because it’s her Sapphire power that makes the gem glitter so, but neither Jaenelle nor anyone else will believe this explanation for a second.
To be honest, half the time Karla doesn’t even believe it herself.
Bit’s memories are knitting themselves back together little by little. She still can’t remember her birth name, but she does remember that she was ten when she was taken by the kennel owners, and that six years passed in that terrible place, the blackness closing in on her, and so the day will come soon when she can make the Offering to the Darkness. Nobody can know what Jewel she’ll come away with before time, but Karla’s willing to bet that it will be Green.
Suddenly Bit’s hand tightens on hers and she’s pulling Karla off the main street, over to a little shop, a single room with pictures in the windows and a curtain partitioning the back part of the room from the front. Karla doesn’t understand for a moment, but then when Bit starts talking to the shop owner, hands gesturing, sketching out petals in the air, she does.
‘You never did tell me what happens when the tattoo is completed,’ Karla says when they’re back home again. They’re in her bedroom rather than the room where Bit sleeps, because she doesn’t mind if her room smells of the more pungent herbs that she uses for this particular salve. Bit has explained to her that the tattoo is meant to look puffy and sore for a while; it is, after all, made by many, many needle punctures, but Karla doesn’t want Bit to suffer any more unnecessary pain.
Bit is stretched out on her front, shirt off so that Karla can smooth the salve over her reddened skin. The tattoo, complete, has many touches of green to brighten up the stark black lines of the stems; the blue-edged white lily at the top may fade with time, the tattooist has warned them, but Karla’s got a few ideas about what magic might work to fix the colour there, keep it fresh and new.
‘Whoever the client is who pays for the finial becomes the girl’s owner,’ she says in a low, murmuring, pleased voice.
Karla’s hands stop, cupping the lily. ‘You mean I’m your owner now?’
‘Technically, yes. None of the other girls ever had their tattoos completed, though, so I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work.’ Karla can hear the teasing smile in Bit’s voice now.
‘Bit, don’t be silly. I’m not your owner.’
Bit sits up and twists around to face Karla; Karla tries not to look down at Bit’s bare upper body and fails. ‘And I’m not Bit any more. I don’t want to be Bit any more, no matter what it’s short for.’
‘What name do you want, then?’ Karla asks, half impatient, half thoroughly distracted by the curves of Bit’s body.
Bit reaches out to put one hand over Karla’s, salve squishing between their fingers. ‘Lily, of course.’
‘Lily.’ Karla tries it out. It seems to fit, rolling nicely off her tongue. ‘That’s pretty.’
‘That’s not all I want,’ Bit – Lily – says. This new demanding side of her, this side of her that speaks up for herself, makes Karla smile. ‘I also want to make the Offering to the Darkness.’
They have discussed this before, reasoning out whether or not it is the best idea for Lily in her vulnerable mental state. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’ Lily squeezes Karla’s hand. ‘Completely sure.’
Karla looks at the Purple Dusk Jewel still hanging around Lily’s neck, imagines it Green. ‘Is there anything else you want, Lily?’
‘One other thing,’ Lily says.
When they had been walking out of the maze, the ice-lilies had blossomed before them, leading the way. When they had been to the tattoo artist, Karla had watched the lily bloom on Lily’s upper back, peaking just below the nape of her neck. Watching the blush grow on Lily’s cheeks now is like watching those other lilies blossom.
‘What other thing?’ she asks, striving for a balance between serious and teasing in her tone. ‘The moon on a plate? A garden full of snow so you can grow ice-lilies in it? Another tattoo?’
Lily shakes her head at every suggestion, smile widening. ‘No.’
And then she’s leaning in, and Karla understands at last, just as Lily’s soft lips find hers. The kiss is barely there to begin with, but like everything else it blossoms, blooms into something deeper, strongly rooted, the flower of their mutual desire growing from one simple kiss.
Bit has become Lily, and she will make the Offering to the Darkness, and she will, when she is ready, be publicly declared as Karla’s Consort. And, Karla thinks, as the shared kiss finally ends and her eyes open and the first thing she sees is the glitter of the rings on their entwined hands, nobody will be terribly surprised.