At first she was cold and empty, her hands constantly aching for something to hold. Her stomach wore her down on the streets, a fire burning within as acid ate against muscle as she walked, taking care to keep her eyes averted from the sun. She tried to find rest in the shadows as night fell over them all, sleeping side by side with the other unhappy faces that grunted, same as she, when their backs pressed too soundly against the cobbles.
‘You’re in my way!
‘Move your foot!’
‘I’d kill for some bread...’
She whimpered. Her hair was long, but not long enough to act as a cushion against the stones that jutted along her spine. And she was too scared to let it sweep over her face, worried that she might start chewing upon it during the night. It was fruitless, a waste of salvia. No one wanted to wake up with both an empty stomach and a dry mouth.
But soon, soon she and others, others who had the same gall as her to be born as girls were saved. She didn’t scream, even after they had snatched away their gifts of bread and strapped them all down to something that was not quite a table, but resembled the menacing gleam of a doctor’s chair all the same.
And then she was full, full on memories of white walls and glinting marble, walls that surrounded a garden that her father never used, one that boxed in the magic that swelled amongst the flowers like a trap. She could remember the sensation of wood and leather against her hands as her fingers tugged books out of his workshops, ones that she would never catch sight of him within, no matter how avidly she searched. She would give up, chastened, but not defeated, returning to the warm gardens in order to stumble over the heavy words the books nursed within their pages. She tried hard to pry their secrets loose, to feed memories and words down the tube of the gundo she couldn’t remember receiving (perhaps father had brought it for her birthday?)and looked on in awe, as small explosions rocked the grass.
She didn’t remember what she was doing the day her father lost his head. She just remembered being loose in a country where she found the language hard to form on her tongue, a coffin forcing her to stumble into the dirt at every turn. And even with the onset of a muttered spell from her lips, she could not shake the overwhelming urge she now possessed, to find and collect, things that throbbed with the blinding need to make father whole.
She didn’t own the face of a ghost, she later learnt. Neither she, or the others, the ones no more ‘fake’ than her, wear a title that shackled them down from birth. No, the shackles came later, after Arthur Gaz made a plan to die by his own terms.
The island was dark when they left, unfettered shadows stealing across the landscape and diving down amongst the trees. She tried hard not to look at the downtrodden forms of the fayla gathered in their depths, their lanky coats already looking malnourished within the waning light. Perhaps it was just an illusion; but either way she thought it was a sad fate; waiting to die without ever understanding how the choice to live had been taken away from you.
She kept her gaze averted from the other girl like her, the Chaika in red. Illusion or not, she didn’t want to see the shadows lurking in the crisp lines of that face, identical to her own.
And so, instead, she clambered onto the boat, her legs unsteady, despite the adrenalin that had caused them to move so fast and determined barely minutes before. She felt Akari and Toru’s eyes hooked onto the line of her back as her spine flared out into a curve, her feet desperately trying to keep time with the swell of water as it broke beneath the hull. She could hear the sea lapping against the wood as though it were biting, trying to gnaw its way through so that it could devour them all. She took a breath. And reminded herself to be brave, brave like the red Chaika. So when she next breathed, she felt her hands clutching the edge of the boat, and the salt whip up through her nose as though to buoy up her lungs. She stared down into the water, in place of the mirror that would wait for her in the next town they stayed at and felt sick. Because now she was wondering if her eyes had always been purple.
What sort of magic had they been injected with? Had they chased away the dusty brown of peasant genetics from her iris? Or perhaps they had once been green, green like Toru’s?
And her hair...had Arthur Gaz once chuckled at the thought of changing so many young girls’ hair into the same shade of silver that lay within his own strands?
Her breath rattled out and then Toru was there, like a shadow, his fingers tentatively reaching into the silver that now plagued her so, stirring within her questions she had never wanted to ask.
‘Are you sure you’re alright?’
‘Not weak, not strong,’ she replied. ‘Maybe... wish, my face, different. Not like others. Before experiment. Want knowledge, image.’
‘Well,’ he said, after a carefully considered moment. ‘I like your face as it is. And perhaps that opinion won’t mean much, given everything. But you liked it enough to decorate it with those butterfly clips of yours. So obviously a part of you found it pretty enough to admire.’
She flushed, strangely both wishing his hand to be far away and yet still curling through her borrowed hair at the same time. ‘Accessory,’ she muttered sullenly. ‘Not mean much. Not like words. Or magic.’
‘Not even if they come from me?’ he asked quietly as his fingers became even more hesitant, scratching lightly at her scalp.
There was not a spell in the land she could think of to make this right. She felt empty again, in a way she could not quite remember being before. But Toru did not stop stroking her hair, not until his sister appeared, brandishing her knife in the dark.
Later a stranger stroked her hair, his hands strong and firm as the light started to dance its way across the sky. She watched it from the bed and saw the way his skin blazed into an orange-amber against the covers wrapped around her legs. She had no concept of butterflies, of insects and the way they cocooned themselves into adulthood. But still, something within her whispered that she was hiding. Waiting.
She pointed to the blazing disc outside.
‘Sun,’ he told her, before waving his hand across the part of the landscape that stretched away into an endless blue. ‘Sky. All that, is the sky. And the rest, below? That’s what we call land. Or earth.’
She stared at him, at his eyes and the way they sparkled, the same pretty shade as some of the vegetation outside. She knew details, if she thought about it. Like how water could sprinkle on plants and help them grow. Or the way leaves folded when tugged by fingers; she had watched them bend as they were plucked from the earth and pressed down on plate for her to eat. But she still lacked the words to verbalise all this.
She found herself staring at his mouth, waiting determinedly for more sounds to fall out, to patter down in the shape and form of words she now coveted like jewels. Most she could not match to the things that circled through her head. But she was learning.
‘Your name?’ he asked, the question voiced as a probing tease.
‘Chaika,’ she said bluntly, allowing no hesitation to drift through her mind. She could remember the way he had pressed his hand on her head when they first met, insistently voicing the word, her name, until she got the message.
Carefully, she pushed her hand against his chest, feeling the loud thump of his heart in response. It felt important somehow. ‘Toru,’ she enounced with care. Everything felt warm as she did so. ‘I won’t forget.’
His answering smile in response only seemed a little sadder than before.
She spent her days, her first few, weak, trembling days, patting through the objects Toru left her. Her fingers smoothed over fabric that smelt of her, white frills and diamonds boldly planted against the black. She made a face over the mesh that hung over the bodice like a cage, running her fingers through the sliding dips in its design that put her in mind of the fanciful script she had seen in the notebook Akari had left for her. In here, in this room held together by the dull darkness of wood, there were no fanciful things to be admired. All that was gaudy was outside, within the sunlight.
She put the clothes to one side and leafed her way through the pages that were slowly becoming familiar. The script was methodical, despite the curl of the handwriting, lists and spells arranged like something out of the cookery book Akari sometimes read to her. But within the margins, scribbled roughly between the thin spaces available were stuttered thoughts, like diary entries for someone struggling not to seem slow and stupid. As time went on, she learnt to match the letters to sounds, to rearrange them into different words, like ‘Claudia’ and ‘useful’ and ‘REMEMBER’ underlined several times with exclamation marks. They were accented with thin, whippish lines that resembled the streak of a wild animal racing across a bland field.
Chaika sometimes wondered what the writer had been trying to escape.
‘This, my handwriting?’ she asked and then flushed, realising that she had forgotten a vital word once again.
Toru stifled a smile. ‘Sure,’ he said, his hand smoothing over the erratic handwriting. ‘I told you before, remember? You were a wizard. Some of this stuff may seem boring or mechanical, but it made sense to you at the time. It was important.’
‘I must have been clever.’
Toru’s smile vanished, like it had never been. ‘Sure. Clever enough to ignore me, sometimes. You had a bad habit of not listening closely enough.’
‘I’ll listen closely enough this time. A promise, I won’t break. Never.’
But his smile didn’t return for the rest of the day.
Some things, perhaps, Chaika believed were the same. Toru and Akari are precious, she knew that from the start. Their smiles, in the rare moments when they appeared, helped to tug on something inside, warming her in a way she lacked words for. She was not sure how magic ate memories or whether it left anything behind, but she would have to learn quickly, by retracing her old notes and trying very hard not to believe that they were originally penned by someone radically different from herself. She wanted to belong to these people who had loved someone they now thought might be a ghost.
She watched the white petals dazzle by, in a perfect vision across the field, then turned to Toru.
‘Grateful.’ It slipped out of her like a secret, like it had been lurking within her tricky tongue all along. She paused, annoyed at herself for getting it wrong. But then stopped, amazed at the slightly wondering look in Toru’s eyes. One that heated her to the core.
‘No,’ he told her, ‘I’m the one who’s grateful. And trust this: I always will be.’