After leaving Irene's cabin behind, Clare wanders, Raki at her side and nothing at all that she needs to be doing next. They travel the mountains and valleys of Lautrec, slaying yoma as they go and carrying goods and messages from town to town for coin and barter. She wears human clothing – a light cloak and tunic, a patterned scarf to cover her throat – and keeps a box of yoki suppressants in one of her belt pouches, but though she remembers the almost dizzying freedom of traveling among people who don't fear her, she doesn't use them. After seven years, she's through with hiding.
As summer starts to fade into autumn, they make their way down to a southern city named Adra, built on the banks of a wide river and sitting just at the edge of desert. The place is a center of trade, prosperous and – until recently, the folk here claim – very little troubled by yoma, but Clare has no business here. It's simply someplace she's never been before in a world full of places she's never been, and she's found that with no vengeance to drive her and no death hanging over her, she wants to see them all.
She's strolling through the marketplace on the morning after her arrival, taking in the sights and listening with half a mind to Raki's easy chatter, when they pass a stall selling sheets of pastry baked with honey and walnuts. She pauses as the word baklava comes to mind, and with it the stray recollection that once, a very long time ago, it had been her favorite.
“You should try those,” she says to Raki. “They're good.”
“If you're buying, I won't argue,” he says. “I'll find us somewhere in the shade.”
Clare gives him a playful shove, just hard enough to say that she knows what he's doing and she's willing to let him, though in truth she doesn't need anyone to nudge her back out into the world. It's still a novelty to simply talk to people, without any disguise or Organization business, but more and more often, she's finding that it's a novelty she doesn't mind at all.
The vendor is a bald old man with more white in his beard than grey, puffing contentedly on a long, carved pipe as he scans the market for customers. He nearly drops it when he sees her approaching, but despite the fear-scent cutting through the cooking oil and fragrant tobacco, the smile he offers her doesn't seem false.
“Fine morning, miss,” he says, like she imagines he might to anyone else, and all of a sudden, she can't help smiling back. She listens as he talks up his wares and his deals, offers her a sample of some sweet almond cake in hopes of convincing her to buy more, and it seems to her that perhaps the balance of fear and curiosity she usually sees from shopkeepers has perhaps shifted a little away from the former. Perhaps. Or maybe it's just that this man knows the value of coin no matter who it comes from, and the equally great value of being polite.
It's pleasant, all the same, to be treated like someone with money to spend, and not a beast to be wary of. She hands over a few bera more than she had planned on spending, and retires to a bench in the shade of an orange tree, holding a wooden plate piled high with baklava and almond cakes and sugared fruit to share. The smells of city life and river silt aren't so powerful here, masked by leaves and bark and the almost-cloying sweetness of fallen fruit, and the sounds too seem almost muted, though she might hear any conversation clearly if she chose to pick out the thread of it amidst the din. She could be happy in this place, she thinks – no stranger, no warrior, just one person caught up in the teeming flow of human life.
The pastries are good, as rich and flaky as she remembers from childhood and carrying a hint of flavors she can't quite place, beyond the sudden intense impression that they taste like home. She's done with her first and reaching for her second when she realizes – she's never tasted baklava before in her life.
Alongside that thought, a flood of memory cascades over her – the same market square seen from a child's height, the taste of honey and the scent of dust and orange blossoms, another girl with her own dark eyes and dark red hair tied up in ribbons – and she realizes as it recedes that there was a reason Luciela claimed the South.
“Clare? Are you alright?” Raki asks, and she realizes that she's paused with her hand halfway to the plate, staring at nothing that exists in the present.
“I just remembered something,” she says. “It isn't important.”
She lets her hand fall back to her side, and pushes the rest of the pastries over to Raki. He's used to finishing her meals by now. She's sure he doesn't think anything of it.
You're still here, she says inside her head. Nothing answers. But she can feel other memories sitting close to the surface, thrumming like yoki just beneath her skin. Her eyes dart around the marketplace, taking in a blur of bright colors set agains dusty stone and brick, and in that moment she isn't convinced that she's the only one looking out of them. The feeling fades quickly, leaving only her and Raki and a city to explore, but she knows she didn't imagine it.
“Rafaela,” she murmurs, too quiet for Raki to hear. “What is it you want from me?”
Silence. Silence only, and Raki's hand settling on her arm, pulling her out of her own thoughts with a jolt.
“Hey,” he says. “Let's get out of this crowd.”
She isn't sure what he's thinking, or what he imagines she's thinking, but he holds her wrist lightly, as a brother might, and she sees nothing in his eyes but kindness. He's more perceptive than is comfortable, though this time she doubts he's stumbled on anything like the truth. Still, she's grateful that he doesn't seem inclined to draw away, and she's glad when they wander onto quieter and less familiar streets, where the wealthy keep their gardens and Luciela and Rafaela had never chanced to play.
That night she dreams she's standing in a field of flowers, small wild blossoms in a myriad of colors that bend and wave with the breeze. She knows the place well enough, this gentle rolling ground and the air now redolent with pollen. It feels emptier than it had been the last time she was here, but she isn't alone. A presence lingers somewhere, skirting around the edges of her thoughts, and when she turns to look back over her shoulder, the place in her mind that mirrors the hills outside Rabona is bordered by a forest with no reflection in waking life.
The landscape doesn't shift around her when she steps beneath those trees. There's no sense of time or distance passing. It's simply that one moment there's light streaming from behind her and long grass brushing her legs, and in the next, there is no wind and the branches overhead are thick enough to block the sun. The forest here looks a lot like the woods in which she first encountered Rafaela, but older and darker, more tangled.
“Show me your face,” she says. For a moment there's nothing but silence in answer, and then the rustle of leaves underfoot, drawing closer.
It isn't Rafaela who walks out of the trees.
Clare has never seen the Abyssal of the South, and knows her only through rumor and someone else's memory. But when she sees the woman in the ruffled dress – deep red, blood red, a color so vivid she can hardly tear her eyes away – it's impossible not to know who she's looking at now.
“You found my city,” Luciela says. Her voice is light, but Clare can feel the chill, dark, unfathomable pressure of her yoki even in the dream, and though Priscilla was magnitudes more terrible, it's an effort to stand in the radius of that power and hold her ground without faltering.
This is my mind, she reminds herself, and stands a little straighter. Luciela looks nothing so much as amused.
“Are you still – ” Clare starts, but that's a pointless question. She looks human, mostly, and that means she isn't.
“I am everything I've been in life,” Luciela says. “So are you.” The shadows along the forest floor seem to catch her eye, and she bends gracefully to brush the dirt off of something half-buried there, hidden among the thickets – a jawbone, Clare sees when she lifts it, old and picked clean of flesh, missing a few teeth. It looks human. Clare wonders if it used to belong to anybody she once knew.
Luciela considers her trophy with what looks like satisfaction, turning it over in her hands and running her thumb along the arc of it, then looks up at Clare and smiles.
“You've got a monster's soul inside you, as well as a monster's body. Use it well.”
Clare doesn't shudder, and doesn't look to see what else has been discarded in the underbrush of her mind. She's not fool enough to show weakness now. She stares the dead Abyssal straight in her almost-human eyes, and says, “What would I do with a monster's soul?”
“If you wanted these lands, I could help you claim them.”
“Is that what you want?”
Luciela's face goes blank for a moment, eyes far away as the jawbone slips from her hand. She doesn't bend to retrieve it, or look where it had fallen. After a time, she breathes out, lips forming words almost too quiet for even Clare to hear.
Luciela doesn't say what she wants, but she doesn't have to. Her desires are Clare's desires, a seamless part of the whole, and all she wants in that moment is to run barefoot across plazas lined with citrus trees and date palms, and to sit beside the fountain in the midday heat, running her fingers through cool water. She wants to roll up her sleeves and grab for the coins thrown in by passersby in trade for a little luck, and to use those coins to buy food that tastes like mint and basil, and not at all like copper. She wants to live, but not as she was.
Clare can't give her that. Maybe if she could, she would, but Luciela is only a ghost of herself, or a stray piece of memory, and Clare is only a guest in her city, not the lost child returning home.
Then Luciela seems to shake herself from a dream, and to draw herself up again, back into sleek, indolent power. A monster, Clare recalls. She never stopped being a monster, but of course, that's true of more than Abyssals. A cloak and a scarf and a job as a courier can't change that.
“I'll be here if you need me,” Luciela says.
“If I don't need you?”
“I'll be here anyway,” she says. It's a promise, Clare thinks, more than a threat. That doesn't mean it doesn't frighten her.
Luciela bows her head once, though there's nothing of obeisance about the gesture, and retreats back into the forest. Before the shadows close over her entirely, she turns back to Clare, her eyes burning golden in the gloom.
“That boy of yours,” she says, and Clare can recognize something vulpine in those eyes and that smile, old and hungry and not entirely alien. “He would do a lot for you. You should let him.”
“Is that all you have to say?” Clare asks. For a moment she thinks it might be. Then Luciela's expression shifts again to something pensive, almost melancholy.
“Keep an eye on my city for me,” she says. And then she turns, skirts swirling about her legs. Clare catches the outline of what looks like a tail moving beneath the concealing cloth, or more than one, before she vanishes into the trees and is gone.
Clare wakes unsettled. Early morning sun streams through thin lace curtains, filling the room with light, and the air is sweet with the perfume of flowers that she doesn't know but remembers well. Raki is there, sprawled across the small room's other bed, vulnerable in sleep. She wonders what his dreams are, and whether he ever suspects how many other creatures she carries with her. She knows him too well to wonder whether he'd be frightened if he did. Then she pulls the covers up around his shoulders – the morning is cool yet – and steps to the window to look out on patterned tents and pedestrians, ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. A town untroubled by yoma. It occurs to her, with the Abyssal's last request still clear in her mind, to wonder about that.
I promised you nothing, she tells the ghost in her head. Anything I choose to give you is more than you are owed. And it's true, and not even the only truth; with no yoma remaining, no war on the borders, Luciela's city belongs to no one, and needs no monsters to guard it. Clare can't claim she won't return one day – to keep someone else's promise, or perhaps only to find a home of her own. But for now the walls are too close around her, the sun too bright and the shadows too familiar, and she wants to be moving on.
She says it again when she leaves, making her way through half-familiar streets as the day's heat rises. No debts. No promises. Raki walks close beside her, as careless in her presence as he ever has been, and she will give him no reason to be anything else – no matter whether Luciela's smile ever lingers behind her own. She won't be ruled by the dead. But she says her goodbyes to the old man in the market, talks for a while about the weather and buys a few pastries for the road, and she tosses a coin into the fountain on the way out of town. Why that seems to matter, she can't quite say, only that she knows it does.
For luck, maybe. For respect.