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And the Fire Burns Hot

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Sychaeus dies, and her heart breaks.

She thought that they would have forever together, an eternity of fond looks and warm arms and the pleasures of love in the warm night. She thought that eternity would beckon them onwards, that they would become one of the great love stories before they had even died. She thought that he would be a great king and that she would be a great queen, that they would rule for decades in each other’s company. She thought that they would have children together. She thought. She thought-

…But no.

They had barely any time together, and now he is a cold corpse upon a colder table. They loved each other, yes, but apparently not long or deeply enough to become anything lasting. They were meant to rule together, but now she is left all alone. They were meant to have children together, but her womb is as empty as it was on the day they wed. They were meant… To do a thousand things and see a thousand things and spend a thousand years joined together.

But apparently that’s not allowed.

The attendants leave her with sympathetic murmurs and worried eyes, and all she can do is sink down by her Sychaeus’ cold body and take his lifeless hand in hers. She wants to cry, but the tears won’t come. She’s always been too rational for such things, after all, apparently even in the face of unfair death.

Later she’ll berate herself for not noticing the bruises around his pale throat, the odd splotches of rusty red on his tunic, the way his face flinches back in a pained rictus. For now she just sits on the floor, and holds his hand, and patiently hopes for tears.

It’s about the only thing she can do, really.

 

--

 

The funeral comes quickly, and yet in no time at all. She’s still in a daze, oddly sharp and yet strangely fuzzy. She’s sure that the world seemed bright before, but now it’s only grey. She watches the gathered mourners with something like apathy, the tears still quite stubbornly failing to fall.

She flinches a little when they light the pyre, but that’s about it. Her husband, the one that she was supposed to spend eternity with, turning to ash in front of her eyes and all she can muster is the slightest waver. She should feel guilt for it, but she can only muster the slightest waver there too. She’s aware of all the mourners, the people and the counsellors and her sister and her brother and everybody, watching her but yet she still. Can’t. Muster.

…She may be a terrible person.

It’s good, not being able to muster anything when she thinks that.

Her brother watches her throughout the burning, and is one of the few to remain watching her afterwards. He seems to expect some kind of show, some kind of dramatic rending of hair and raking of nails. He always was melodramatic, she remembers it from their childhood. Anna would always be largely gentle, she would always be largely practical and Pygmalion… Well, he would always burn with a fire that lacked any flash of sense.

He takes her upper arm after the burning and guides her away from the mass. She barely feels it, stares at him with disinterest as he regards her with something like sympathy. Even the slightest waver is gone, she feels entirely hollow inside, “it’s alright, you know.”

There’s only dust left, or air, or the ash that is now her only remembrance of her husband. She continues to stare at him with disinterest, refuses to even raise her eyebrow.

“You can mourn him, you can sob, you can be as devastated as you wish. Nobody is going to judge you, nobody in the whole wide world,” it doesn’t stop him. But, then, very little has ever stopped Pygmalion. He just charges on, that certain simmering determination in his eyes that has always struck her as just a touch unwise “…As long as you move on, become your old self once again and continue with your life.”

She’s never really been able to understand him.

“Who knows, maybe one day you’ll even feel ready to take a new husband…”

Just as he’s never really been able to understand her.

“A richer one, perhaps…”

She can stare at him for only a second more, and then she just has to turn away. She walks back to the crowds of mourners, and the slightly worried expression of Anna, with her back straight and her eyes distant. She remains hollow inside, the ash not twitching the slightest bit.

 

--

 

A day after the funeral she moves.

She’s always been practical with her emotions, as sharp as a knife as Sychaeus had once laughingly commented in happier times, and so she finally picks herself up from their marriage bed and moves. Jogging to her feet, vibrating forwards, practically hovering around the room as her frenzied eyes trace the walls.

She kept their marriage chamber, even after his death. It seemed foolish to move, an act of weakness that she could ill-afford. Not that she has many enemies, at least not to her knowledge, but she can’t afford it for herself. If she showed the slightest weakness she would crumble apart, become actual ash upon the ceaseless winds around Tyre. She would break, and then there would be nothing. There would be nothing.

She starts by stripping their marriage bed, with a brisk efficiency that’d probably shock anybody outside of her little world. Usually, in the old days when the sun still shone, it took about three women to flip the mattress and unspool all the sheets. Oddly, in the new days where the sun seems oddly obscured behind the clouds, she manages it herself this time – flips the mattress and replaces the sheets with a smooth lack of thought that leaves her feeling clean inside.

…Or cleaned out, she should say. Clean implies a sort of lightness. She feels a little like the sharks in the sea a few streets away from the palace, if she stops moving she’ll simply drop.

She cleans the walls next, polishes the old marble until it shines. It used to take hours to do such a thing, hours if not days and eventually weeks. She manages it in about an hour by her reckoning, a stuttered flash of time that she barely pays any attention to. She swears that she can see her face in it by the end, a warped reflection that shows a twisted shadow of a woman all flickering and pale. It’s probably a trick of the light, it’s probably a trick of her brain if she’s continuing the theme of cleanliness.

…Cleaned out-ness. The world has taken on a new sort of focus around her, the relentless focus of a serrated blade. She has never warred herself, but she has heard stories of wars. She wonders if this is how the warriors feel when they come to the end of the day and have nothing left to kill.

She moves on to the floors, dropping swiftly down to her knees with little regard for the bruises that she might incur - she has to move all the rugs, and then get at the marble underneath, and then drive her hands down into it again and again until it is fully purified. Such a thing probably used to take incantations to the gods, wild prayers and ceaseless begging and loud sacrifices… She has already given her sacrifice, her husband and a vital little part of her that she never even noticed before. Ceaseless begging does no good. Maybe it did before, but her universe has entirely flipped on its head now in this gleamingly cleaned world.

This brutally cleaned out world. Everything shines, everything advances, everything hurts like a knife in the chest. She is a warrior, she is a shark, she is Dido. She is Dido and she aches so fiercely that she wishes she could take a knife and cut down the heavens to stop it all.

…To stop it all.

Perhaps this is what irrationality feels like, a cleaned room and so many things waiting to be done outside.

By the end of the day (or night, she isn’t quite sure what the shadows foretell) her entire room is clean and her hands are bloody. She doesn’t know when she cut them, but the blood is red on her and it feels like the most life that she’s seen for days. She sits on her newly clean bed and stares between her hands and the still raised sky. She remains hollow, cleaned out. Something tries to stir within her as she stares at the blood, but she’s not quite sure what it is.

 

--

 

The next day Anna drags her to dinner with her brother.

Time continues to progress, on and on. The stirring is still within her, and she feels a detached few steps from figuring it out. She sits at the high table, next to Anna and across from Pygmalion, and regards her food as it hits her plate. It all tastes like ash, but there might be a hint of something else to the edges.

Might be.

“Do you know Acerbus?” Pygmalion says, pouring her another glass of wine and settling back in his chair. He seems oddly animated tonight, for some reason – he always gets like this when a plan is close to coming to fruition, but she’s not quite sure what plan he’s thinking of, “you must do, he worked with your poor former husband an awful lot. He’s very nice, and very rich, and has large tracts of land…”

“No,” she interrupts, still vaguely puzzled. She’s largely uninterested, to be honest, but something to the corner of her mind holds her and refuses to allow her to turn away. She has the feeling that this is important, for some reason.

“Oh,” maybe it’ll become clear to her soon. Pygmalion falls silent for a long few moments, and then smiles again. He’s been unsettled, though, he’s never been able to hide the emotions in his eyes, “what about Servius? He’s a bit mouthy, yes, but he truly is wonderful when you get to know him. And his jewels…”

“No,” it’s certainly starting to become clearer, at any rate. She raises her head from her hollow contemplation of the plate, looks across at her brother with some curiosity. He seems to be focusing on something – jewels, material wealth, wealth

“Ah, okay then. Maybe Virgilus-?”

“For the sake of the gods, Pygmalion!” Anna snaps from besides her, before she can fully grasp the shape of her vague musings. She doesn’t mind too much, to be honest. Anna only wishes to look after her, and it would be simply churlish to resist such obvious concern, “her husband has been dead for just over a week and you’re already trying to urge her towards a new one? I knew you were insensitive, but-!”

And it doesn’t hinder all that much anyway.

“Peace, Anna,” Pygmalion offers mildly, and takes a sip of his own wine. He seems oddly excited, but oddly calm. There’s a sense of expectation in his eyes, but that’s about the only thing that shows – there’s no genuine emotion there, no sense of mourning even though he always seemed to get along well with her husband, “I just want my darling sisters to be looked after, in a wealthy house where they’ll be able to receive all that they could ever want.”

…No.

“That doesn’t stop it from being blatantly insensitive-“

It doesn’t hinder anything at all, as she picks slowly at her tasteless food and watches her ‘darling’ brother through suddenly curious eyes.

 

--

 

There is fire. Fire everywhere. And she can’t move, she can’t see, she can’t breathe. There’s only a horrible kind of creeping paralysis, a smog of darkness, a weight pressing down and down and down upon her chest. She can’t breathe, she can’t breathe.

She tries to yell, before she remembers herself, but nothing comes out. Only a choking sound, a terrible rasp that she can barely hear.

…Since she can only hear the crackle of flames, burning hot and ready to melt the skin off her bones.

And she can only smell ash in her nose, the simmering sizzle of something like death in the air.

And she can only feel-

“Dido!” A voice is hissing in her ear, so low that she almost mistook it for the flames at first. There is something familiar about it, but something different. It spins her, turns her upside down and inside out and leaves her in a world completely different from her own, “Dido… Elissa.”

She tries to yell again, gets a little further this time but still ends up rasping. She’d wish, if she was a little less sensible, that her spit had some chance of putting out the fire – even if she had wished it, her mouth is as dry as the bone her body will soon become.

She can feel the skin on her body lifting, bubbling, starting to part from her as surely as fate.

She can smell her own doom in the air. The thing steadily pulling her on, leading her into deeper and deeper pits from the day she was born.

She can only hear-

“Elissa, you must listen to me!”

She sobs, she chokes, she tries to turn towards it. There are no tears, no throat, no turning in this world of ash. She is somehow held, pinned there as surely as the bugs Pygmalion used to catch to try and impress her. It hurts, more than anything ever has in the whole wide world. She tries to focus-

But she can barely hear the screech of that oh so familiar voice, dragging her on.

But she can barely smell the inevitably of her own death, creeping ever closer.

But she can barely feel-

A hand on her shoulder, a presence she thought long since lost to her. She remembers now, quite suddenly. She’s not quite sure what she remembers, but it is something so deep that it brings tears to her eyes, “remember your secret name, remember your marriage bed. Don’t trust your brother, there is flesh on his hands.”

She takes in a deep breath, and then another. It doesn’t help, but then nothing does. She resigns herself to staying in place, blinks a few times to try and clear the sweat from her eyes. She can almost see a figure now, peering through the shadows and watching her face with an intensity that burns almost as hot as the flames. Almost as hot as her unvoiced grief. Almost as hot as the truth.

She can feel.

She can smell.

She can hear-

The flash of the blade, as it aims straight for her heart. She has just time to mouth Sychaeus into the end of the world, and then the pain takes her whole.

 

--

 

Pygmalion.

She walks through the gardens, mindless of what any observers may think. Her nightclothes flow around her, animated by the faintest breeze. Her hair whispers softly, fluffing around her face of its own accord. The ground is cold under her bare feet, but she barely has it in her to notice.

Pygmalion.

She walks until she comes to an old tree, right in the middle of the grounds. They used to play around this tree as children, long summer days with nothing better to do. Later, a little later, she used to sit and giggle secretly with Anna in the dirt at the bottom. Later still, so much later, she shared her first kiss with her future husband under the leafy branches.

Pygmalion.

She stares for a second, and then lowers herself to the ground where she used to sit just before the pain of maturity came upon her. It’s dirty, mucky and muddy and not at all fit for somebody of her apparent rank, but she doesn’t care. Takes a fistful of her homeland carefully in her grasp and thoughtfully watches it trickle through her fingers.

Pygmalion.

Something stirs within her. Sychaeus is still dead, but the cracks in her dusty heart slowly start to knit back together.

 

--

 

She accepts Pygmalion’s invitation to dinner that night with a strange sort of purpose. Puts on her most ostentatious mourning garb and arrives early. Just to see the look on her brother’s face as she sweeps through the doors to stand regally in his presence.

“…Sister.”

“Pygmalion,” she greets, and smiles just a little.

The first few dishes pass by in what can only be called a blur. No longer tasting of ash, but no longer really relevant. She watches Pygmalion all the while, with every bite of her food and every sip of her drink. He seems normal, animated, excited and bouncing about every subject that trips from his tongue. It’s like a perfectly normal night, dining together with laughter and soft music filling the air around them.

…But.

That’s an indication in itself, she’s starting to realize with the pain of the knife still between her breasts. She may be royal, but she’s not entirely witless. She’s seen people die before, has seen the unyielding grief left after them. The world seems torn apart around the shape of their presence. Wives sob, children howl, siblings shudder, parents collapse… And brothers by marriage react. Just a little, just a tiny bit, even when there’s absolutely no love lost.

It stuns her that she didn’t spot it sooner. She’d be ashamed, but her mind is far too fixed for such casual silliness.

“And so Timaeus said-!”

“I’m thinking of taking another husband,” and her fixed mind leads her quickly onwards, with the unyielding determination of a fox sprinting from the hounds. She takes some pleasure in how Pygmalion freezes in front of her, eyes wide and bulging as if he’s the same as the frogs he used to catch and torture in the palace ponds, but not much. The fox cannot cackle at the trip of the hound, after all, there is no time for something such as that, “possibly soon. Who would you recommend?”

And Pygmalion blinks at her.

And Pygmalion slowly closes his gaped open mouth.

And Pygmalion tilts his head just the slightest bit…

And Pygmalion doesn’t protest, or poke at the offensively sudden change in opinion, or even gently ask if she’s well. He just smiles, and shoots on into the new topic with something golden and painful glinting in his eyes, “Well. The wealthiest men in the city are-“

“The wealthiest?” something greedy glinting in his eyes. Pygmalion has always liked his baubles, but it’s only now that she’s beginning to glimpse the true shape of his desire. It is not something innocent, but something dark. Her former brother is suddenly a shape entirely different to her, something at the bottom of the fire pit fetid and vile, “I do not care much for wealth, brother. Who are the best?”

“The best are the wealthiest, dear sister,” He rots. And his smile is ugly, now that she looks. And his eyes are hideous. And the way he reaches caringly for her hand is as appealing as the twitch of a corpse, “how do you think they got all their wealth? All their carefully shored up gold, shining brighter than the heavens above.”

“Through greed and ruthless manipulation of the economy?”

“Through good deeds,” and he sighs, and he rolls his eyes, and he sits back in his chair. She’s finding his continued existence hard to believe, can somebody so eaten by the worms really still talk and move and act like a demi-god with the bloody dagger still clutched in his hands? “trust me, sister. Wealth is a sign of sense and good breeding and a focus on the important things in life. A wealthy husband would be best for you…”

Of course he can.

“…And me.”

Of course he can. For bad deeds are never punished in this world, and an aching heart can always welcome another wound. Nobody ever gets struck down by the gods, unless they are innocent of all fault, “and you?”

“Of course,” and her ex-brother most certainly isn’t innocent, as he smiles with gums half eaten away by sin and takes another bite of his burnt-up food, “I will always need more gold, after all.”

 

--

“What do I do?” she asks the stars.

Cold and merciless. She’s always believed in the gods, but the concept of always still hasn’t returned after Sychaeus’ death. She still feels lost, alone, spinning in a universe with nothing but man and woman and the cruelty in between.

“What do I do?” She still asks the stars, clutching at the cold of the balcony until she feels her fingers chill and start to steadily numb, “my husband is dead, my brother is dead to me, I have nobody left.I’m all alone and I’m scared and I’m frightened and I’m all alone. Please. Please. What do I do?”

Colder and colder, more and more merciless. Perhaps there are gods, and they’re judging her. Perhaps there are no gods, and the blank space is judging her instead. Perhaps there is something, but it is simply indifferent to her plight. She is but human, after all, and they are but gods. She supposes that it would be like her attempting to understand the minute details of the life of an ant on the ground, not just difficult but starkly impossible.

Perhaps she’s alone.

Alone.

Alone.

She closes her eyes, tight against the world. Leans into the faint breeze, breathes deeply. Allows her clothes to flutter around her and her hair to blow and the whole world to be silent. Just for once. Just for now.

…And she must carry on.

A bird starts to chirp in the distance, her hair drops back to her shoulders, her clothes settle. The breeze stops, replaced by an odd warmth like the heat of a mother’s embrace after a skinned knee. She eases the clench of her eyes, then opens them fully and stares out at the world with fresh eyes.

All alone and with nothing left.

She must carry on.

 

--

“That bastard,” Anna hisses, her eyes glinting and her hands curved into hard fists.

“He’s our brother, Anna,” She says, with some little amusement. Crosses her hands neatly before her skirts and watches her sister practically vibrate in the luxury of her chair, “our younger brother, if I haven’t completely lost my mind. I even remember the day that he was born.”

“And an accused day it was too,” Anna simply spits, and vibrates right up to her feet. She stays there for a moment, stiff, before shooting forwards – marching to the window, and then back to the chair, and then back to the window again like her brain is too chaotic to allow more than the simplest line, “you know what I mean, Dido.”

“About the accursed, or the-?”

“You know.”

“How could he do something like this?” One of the other people in the room whispers, in a horrified tone to contrast with Anna’s burning rage. There are quite a few other people in the room, actually, all invited by her. Advisors and friends and even the odd servant, used to the apparent curses of her family. Most are silent, watching their inevitable decay with worried eyes, “I always knew that he had a temper, much like your lady mother at times, but this…”

“Is an act of monstrosity!” Anna interrupts again, bursting out with tightly bared teeth that hide absolutely nothing. But, then, Anna never has been able to hide. She was apparently the sibling that got the most depth, and she’s starting to wonder if that was ever a good thing, “Sychaeus did nothing to him, nothing. He was innocent in every regard and yet that monster that we call brother-“

“Called brother,” she interjects quietly, calm despite the revelation and the decision. She is awake, but the stillness has remained. So she is cursed, so what? She has made an oath, and she will follow it until the gods shatter it over her head, “I can no longer claim honest relation to him.”

“-Murdered him,” Anna doesn’t allow that to stop her, just accepts her decision with a fierce nod. Perhaps she has made a similar oath, at some point in the past few years. Perhaps they shall all remain, refusing to break even as the storm bears down, “bled him dry, that man that he called friend and brother. How much further will he go? What more will he do?”

There is a long silence, she takes it with the certain serenity that is starting to become her standard.

Anything.”

“What can we do?” Another advisor asks, pale in the light as he stares between the two of them. He is afraid, and she half remembers what that tastes like. Or what she thought it tasted like, she might have been too determined for fear from the moment her mother gave screaming birth to her, “we have to do something, but what? Your brother is powerful, my ladies, and ruthless beyond that. He would crush us all, and take you as his prisoners.”

“We are already prisoners!” Anna yells, spinning from the window and coming forward like a lioness. Or… Like a goddess. Like Juno herself, come down from the heavens with her lungs screaming warfare. It occurs to her for a second to treat her sister as a divinity, but then it is gone. She is alone, she must carry on, “polite prisoners, in gilded cages. What does it matter if he puts us in irons-?”

Carry on, “Anna-“

“Ties us as tight as rats and throws us in the dark-“

Carry on, “Anna!”

…On.

And the whole wide room falls silent, all of them staring at her as she rises to her feet and gently smoothes her skirts down over her legs “…And my lords and ladies. I agree with your every point, and welcome them fully. We are already prisoners, and that is why we must do something. My brother is powerful, but-“

The entire room leans forward, a hush falling over the mass. She stares out at them – thinks of Sychaeus, thinks of Pygmalion, thinks of herself all alone and rushing ever onwards…

And smiles, moves forward a step, “I have a plan.”

 

--

 

The plan is simple, at its heart. So simple that, she hopes with a passion practically a fire in her chest, it has little chance of failure due to lack of variables. The only aim is to escape, to be free, to survive. Anything beyond that is a mere extra.

The advisors follow her orders, like she always knew they would. She is of royal blood, and a steadily more royal mind than Pygmalion could ever hope to grasp. She tells them to do things and, to her joy, they obey her with only nods and smiles. They start to present Pygmalion with more baubles, more and more wealth so shining and bright. The glare is such in his eyes that she hopes he’ll never care to look beyond it.

Her friends, also, follow her orders presented like requests. She persuades them, and they only grin in response and do whatever she asks. She’s pretty sure that she could order them, but she refuses out of a certain sense of decency that it’s important to preserve in such a climate. The female friends parade the court in their finest jewels, transforming themselves into gleaming peacocks to aid her. The male friends either mimic such behaviour, or pretend interest in her flirted marriage intentions. The glare grows, to the point where she’s almost sure he’ll never look beyond it.

Her servants follow the general trend, completing her orders before she even thinks to give them. They are good people, and so very worth paying attention to as they spin the road leading to her future. They do the grunt work, arranging the ships and bribing the guards and recruiting more and more to her desperate cause. They are still tiny, but they are growing. The glare remains, and holds, and she grows surer by the day that she’ll never ever be seen.

Her sister, dear Anna, shares this view – she doesn’t have to be ordered, but acts like she has been anyway. She coordinates much of the work, makes sure that everything runs so very smoothly. One day she’ll be at court, flirting her own marriage plans in front of Pygmalion. The next day she’ll be donning a cloak, slipping down into the lower levels and liaising with the servants to make sure that everything goes perfectly. There is a hopeful sharpness in her eyes and around her mouth when she comes to dine. She believes in the glare just as fully, and her certainty breeds further certainty still.

…And as for her.

When the belief grows strong in her, as strong as the forest fire burning in her breast ever since she dreamed, she rises up from her bed in the middle of the night and goes to the gardens. The ground is muddy under her feet, but mud can be washed off and she is far too purposeful to care about such a thing. She walks and walks, oddly fearless of being seen, until she comes to the tree – the old tree, the central tree, the root of all her dreams and fears and mishaps and triumphs.

She takes some earth from underneath it, just a little, and hides it in a box that she brought under her nightgown. It is warm against her, as she carries it swiftly back to her chambers. The next day Pygmalion doesn’t even say a word.

Freedom, it grows ever closer like a sweet on her tongue.

 

--

 

The final night comes quicker than she ever imagined it would. A few weeks, a few more plans and then… The final step, coming so fast that she feels breathless before it.

Pygmalion invites her to dinner, as has become his custom, and she accepts. Chooses her very prettiest gown, orders her most skilful servants to do her make-up and arrives looking like a dream. She does not want to give him any clues, after all. If all she can do is provide a distraction then she is going to manage it to the best of her abilities, even with the ship bobbing secretively on the sea outside.

“Sister,” Pygmalion greets her when she arrives, a pleased smile stretching his face into something ugly as he takes her entrance in.

“Brother,” she greets him in return,” and barely contains the traditional wince of bitterness that now accompanies her words.

Pygmalion has invited Timotheus to sit worshipfully at her side, one of her suitors who is fully sincere and not in on the plan at all. She feels sorry for him, in a way. He’s sweet enough, with sandy hair and a permanently gormless expression. He just has bad judgement, that’s all. She used to have it once, she stares at him and she sees a mirror of how they all used to be.

…But no more.

“You look radiant,” the poor dear whispers to her as she seats herself, eyes wide and worshipful as he takes in the graceful movements of her wrist and neck.

“Thank you,” she spares him only the briefest glance, settles down to wait for her food with a lack of interest that would worry her on any other day.

The starter arrives soon enough, something to do with the sea since they are so very fond of their sailing ships in this land. Her taste has returned to her, the anger of her planning has given her that much, but she still barely pays any attention to it. Pushes it down and down as she stares at Pygmalion, feasting at the head of the table. He’s so assured, so confident. She doesn’t quite hate him, but it’s very close.

…It takes him until the end of the main course to start looking worried, fancy that.

“Sister,” he asks her, as his doubtlessly loyal servants remove the boar that she only picked at under Timotheus’ increasingly hopeless attempts to woo, “are you sure that you’re quite alright? You seem somewhat… Quiet.”

“Brother,” the bitter taste in her mouth is back, but she forces a smile nonetheless – it would do no good to give herself away at this vital point, after all. No good to alert Pygmalion to her fleeing, to have him drag her back in chains and steal her everything openly instead of through the shadowed avenues of dynasty, “I was only thinking.”

His face does, at least, ease a little at that. She knows her ex-brother, knows how to manipulate him as surely as her own hand.

The distraction of the dessert helps too, arriving halfway through their impromptu stare-off and briefly blocking his view of her. It is something of sugar and air, a castle of dreams that she can no longer believe in. She looks upon it, briefly, as a symbol and a sign. She will survive, she will live on. She has to believe that, with all her heart, as the construction is set down and Pygmalion comes into her view again.

“…Thinking, dear sister?”

And she meets his eyes.

And she breathes in deeply.

And she raises her chin…

“On how sensible you are,” she smiles prettily, and reaches out to grab poor Timotheus’ hand before he can jerk away – he is one of the younger of her suitors, he has ancestral wealth. He’ll be healthier without her, all things considered, “your latest choice is so rich, after all, and yet such a good man. I’ll never doubt you again, dear brother. I almost feel like you should have a prize!”

“…Well!” And Pygmalion laughs, and she can half see the maggots crawling in his throat as she briefly grips Timotheus’ hand tighter, “I’m sure that I’ll be gaining one in such an excellent brother-in-law!”

She bets.

The rest of the meal passes happily, with her eyes largely on the food and her mouth largely singing lies like the tunes the crones hum in the market place. She has to survive, after all. She has to carry on.

 

--

 

She permits Timotheus to walk her back to her rooms after the meal. It’s more for safety, than anything else. Pygmalion looks them over with a kindly eye as they depart and she barely holds back a sigh of relief – if he believes that she’s heading to her second marriage bed then she and all those who have placed their fates in her are safe. Deception is key, she will not be imprisoned again.

“This has been a lovely night,” Timotheus ventures when they finally approach her door, sweating with nerves – his arm is shaky in hers, his eyes dart everywhere and his voice is far too high for a man of his age, “I… I hope you enjoyed it too?”

Perhaps in another world, where she’d never met Sychaeus or Pygmalion had never exposed the rot inside or a thousand other possibilities that seem of little consequence now, she would’ve entertained Timotheus as more than a mean to an end, would’ve actually allowed herself to grow to accept him and then like him and then love him… But this is not another world, and she cannot allow possibilities when standing this close to the sun. She smiles at him politely, keeps close with a certain calculation, “yes.”

“And… And maybe we can do it again?”

“Perhaps.”

As it is, she can only feel faintly sorry for him as she waves him off at her door. Only the reminder that his life will be safer without her, that all her suitors lives will be safer without her, keeps her the firmest that she’s ever been as he rounds the corner and walks happily away.

…Anna arrives five minutes later, a dark scarf thrown over her hair, “are you ready?”

She prepared her own clothes this morning, with intermittent help from her scurrying maids. She dresses in loose trousers, a dark top, a cloak that covers her from head to toe. She draws the cowl over her head, as Anna watches on approvingly, and hides her face completely. She can still see, but she wonders if anybody will be interested enough to glance beyond the shadows.

Both her and Anna grew up in this palace, they are still well aware of all the hidden passages squirreled out when they were innocent children with no understanding of the evil of the world. When she is done, she leads Anna to a tiny alcove tucked into a corner – one stone is wobbly, and when she taps on it the wall slides aside and reveals a dark passage, calling them ever so darkly on.

She hesitates for a moment at that, as Anna draws out a torch and carefully lights it, glances back at her old life and her marriage room with a brief burst of regret…

But her marriage bed has already been swapped out, is waiting on the ship with all of her other possessions and all that she now cares about. Her past life is dying, yes, but her future life is taking a shaking, heaving first breath ahead. She smiles a little, says a careless goodbye inside her head. Steps after Anna and allows the wall to slide shut behind her.

The passage is long, but they both know it well and so traverse it without panic. The walls grow colder and slimier as they make their way down, but neither of them flinch. This passage leads down to the city near the docks, after all, and so is bound to have some unpleasantness involved. She’d suffer far greater, for a far longer period of time, to escape the fate that Pygmalion intends for her.

…They emerge in a side alley, both slightly caked with green. They glance at each other briefly, and then quietly laugh and carry on. The night is silent around them, cold. A low excitement, only slightly mixed in with fear, is starting in her gut.

The docks are about five minutes walk, they measured it carefully in the month before this. The streets are largely empty at this time, nobody willing to face the cold silence, but that works in their favour. There’s nobody to see them, nobody to comment. They walk one minute towards the docks, two minutes, three minutes, four-

And at the last moment Anna grabs her arm, drags her into an alley and flattens them both against the dark and slimy wall. Eyes terrified, teeth clenched hard behind her lips.

And her heart starts pounding.

And her eyes start widening.

And-

A motley patrol of guards pass by, all obviously tired and with their minds focused on other things. They don’t even glance into the alley, or anywhere else really. They just advance onwards, frozen limbs stuffed under bulky armour and heavy looking cloaks.

“That was lucky,” Anna murmurs – panting slightly, as if she’s just sprinted from the highest tower of the palace to the lowest point of the sea.

“We planned this,” she reminds her sister, smiling, and moves swiftly on towards the bobbing ships and the bobbing future as sweet as sugar upon her tongue, “come on, do you want to be late for our escape?”

 

--

 

She stands on the deck of the boat, and stares out to sea. The faint taste of salt lingers in the air, the wind grips her hair and tosses it lightly. She looks out and all she can see is blue – blue, and white, and the horizon stretching out in shades of both in such a tempting way.

She is free.

Free from her brother, free from the ghost of her husband, free from the neverending pain worming deep into her chest and hatching maggots there. Free free free. The freest she’s ever been, and the freest she ever will be. A miraculous boon that she can’t stop marvelling endlessly over.

Free.

The ship creaks underneath her, the wood old and slightly damp underneath her feet. The deck is full of sailors, bustling to and fro with busy hands and their eyes on the future. The sea is a temperamental blue underneath them all, and glints dangerously in the corners of her sight as if to ask her if she really, truly desperately wants to go on.

Free.

And she has gone on.

And she will go on.

And she is going on, forever and for always.

…And, with her handful of earth in the jar below and the whole wide world stretching out ahead of her, she will never ever be chained ever again. Not in her lifetime, not in Anna’s lifetime, not in the lifetimes of the gods above who watch on with such merciful eyes, glinting with cruelty only when humans can’t see.

…Free.

Sychaeus is dead, and she is alive. She closes her eyes, smiles and carries on.