Chapter 1: Child of Waves and Ether
I was once a mermaid who loved the sun
I wasn't a very clever mermaid.
They say I should have known better
I think it's better to have never known
I met you
That's what happened
They say my mother was the night-
Coming, going, leaving
Yes, I am midnight's daughter
I am shadow
I was a mermaid
I was a little girl
And then there was you
Child of the whirlwind
With your termite eyes
With your diced-star teeth
Hauling the universe in with a braid
Of thickest darkness
You whose antics could never leave a sea fan
For you bent them with the weight of the world
That hovers around you
In chirping noises
If I used your hair, I asked
Could I catch Mother's face
Or Father's or Brothers' or Friends' faces?
You told me your heart had crawled away
You promised the corals would dance
If I would sing
So I did
I sang the oysters and the crabs
I sang the sharks
I sang jellyfish
And the tiniest gobies
One day, I sang the sun
You hated that
The moon, you screamed, the moon!
So I sang the moon
And someone heard me
Tell you a secret
I didn't want the corals or the sun or the moon
I didn't want pearls or sea flowers or starfish
A song is a heart seeking...
Did you know that?
All I wanted was to hear you
Say it again, please?
Just one more time?
I was a mermaid
I was a little girl
And then I saw you
With your elephant's tusk palace
With your floating island shaped like a whale's belly
With eight warriors in the vanguard
You with hair that drips of plums
Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere
Did you ever know
I was once a little girl
Cradled by her mother-
Her crushed-eggshells-and-cochineal-faced mother?
Maybe that's it
You knew, didn't you?
The night you fell overboard
I was fighting
The greedy waves sought chunks of my tail
Digging, gouging, one scale each
I growled back
I battled the sea
To save you
I would drink it up
I would eat it
And you saw that
And you smiled-
As the foam-dashed cliffs
Where pebbled rocks beat into barebones shore
Taking, taking, more and-
You ripped off my scales one by one by one
Calling it a gift
You claimed it was to save me
From the sea
From the sea?
Now I know legs
I also know lost
It's with bile I remember the way
You called me
I am not a mermaid
I am not a little girl
You saw me
Mirror of sunshine
You with a smile blessed by fireflies
With a flock of lemon-cheese swans on your head
And candle eyes
You saw me
With jelly legs
With pincushion feet
With tearless eyelids
(Because crying would have been easier)
Wafting through the ether
Dead and undead
This air sprite born of sea foam
And wrong choices
You reached for beams of light
And sculpted them into flowers
And gave them to me
My translucent soul flickered stronger
Until I saw myself
I told you the sun bleeds
You reminded me dawn had not yet been ripped apart
You called me
No longer the mermaid
No trace of the little girl
I am Kougyoku.
Chapter 2: Solitude, Shadows, Somewhere
The Ugly Duckling & Rapunzel & Atalanta
She was the ugly duckling, least and weakest of seven sisters. The last to wobble forward every royal roll call. Last to pin up her hair in elaborate braids befitting a lady of her stature. Last to realize that princess meant more than tracing craters in deserts of matted dust under the bed.
"Hey runt!" someone yells, and throws a peach her way. "Or does 'Hag' suit you better?"
She wishes he'd grant her another option. But then, she supposes, a nickname in jest is far more preferable to snubs and cold shoulders.
She owns three things: unkempt hair, dolls with cracked faces, and a little hiding place with one window.
She is sick. (She thinks so.)
It's that hollow-boned, chest-shrinking feeling others would probably refer to as loneliness.
Maybe. (Her dolls never confirmed this, so it may or may not be true.)
She's not alone, though. She has lots of companions. Sometimes, when the sun is out and she raises the oiled-paper frame, a stray butterfly finds its way in. They don't stay long, sadly, opting to grace her with a dozen flutters and escape, as if instinct has taught them that such a dark and cramped space is not where they belong. It's the spider monsters that stay – those potbellied jumping things that keep her awake and suffocating under the covers at night.
No, she doesn't like spiders. She likes dolls better. Dolls are nice, and they don't walk away, and they don't leave you alone.
They don't talk, either.
Her secret fear is that they don't really like her.
She hums in the dark. They smile.
She cries. They still smile.
Wanna play? Mute smiles mean yes.
Let's have a party? Mute smiles don't say no.
Wanna be my friend? The dolls keep smiling.
She wants them to talk.
She wants them to hug her.
She wants to hurt them.
She just wants.
Soon the girl grows up and the dolls grow more broken and even the occasional spider is not unwelcome anymore.
Years later, she becomes Rapunzel. She has beautiful hair. She also has beautiful clothes.
(And yet, no one ever calls her pretty.)
One day she meets a handsome king and imagines he'll be the one to free her from isolation and take her to see the world.
She gets her wish. She does see the world.
The world, she thinks to herself, must be a glass of liquid paint – at least, that's what it seems like through the blur of bitter tears cascading down, down, down her cheeks.
She's Atalanta now. And she's running and she's fighting, and she's moving forward so fast that no one will ever be able to catch her. No one, never, not a single…
(That flower crown is beautiful.)
One, two, three stems woven together; add a few more, keep chaining, before long she's perfected the art.
She practices all day.
(Not fighting. Flowers. Fighting comes later.)
Why did no one ever give her flowers before?
Maybe this person is special. He's a prince…but he's not a prince. He knows about dolls because he'd sometimes make some for his sister. He can catch spiders and return them to the garden, where they won't scare anyone. He talks. A lot. He tells her about all kinds of places she's never even heard of. He doesn't always smile, yet when he does, it's contagious. He doesn't call her beautiful, but everyday he reminds her that she's strong.
He's her first friend. Her best friend. And, true as the blooms that come back every summer, he remains.
Chapter 3: Crystal Wasteland
Jack Frost (Rise of the Guardians) & The Little Match Girl
In the calm before the crack of dawn, a rabbit pricks its long ears, sensing danger. One, two seconds elapse, hauntingly noiseless.
From behind comes the distinct splintering of twigs underfoot. Away the creature leaps to trail marks of its existence upon a newborn blanket of snow.
As if on cue, a golden-haired lad emerges from behind a stack of crates, berating himself for losing his quarry. He was so close, so terribly close, if only…
He tears down the path. Stiff muscles fight to pump him onward; enraged pulse claws through his veins as the crunch of fresh crystals under his shoes pipes dregs of numbness up his spine. Fists clenched in pale-knuckled frustration, he wraps his mostly threadbare cloak tighter around his body to protect himself from the murderous cold.
Minutes later, his fleet-footed prey comes to a halt before a dilapidated brick wall - one of the few that remain intact among the shanties. He makes a grab for it, but the white hare squeezes itself through a gap and is gone.
There goes dinner. Which means that he and his siblings will go hungry for the second night in a row.
A fist pounds into adobe – another futile protest against the vicious status quo of the slums. He thinks of his sister waiting at home – his sister of five summers chewing a blanket to ease the grating of millstones in her belly. He remembers his brother's increasingly frequent acts of thievery for a forkful of rotting meat.
"So what if I get beaten up? That ain't gonna faze me," the older boy had said after coming home in bruises. He never wants to hear that again.
"Uuugh!" He throws another punch, shaking loose dust and wet soot.
He scales the wall, finding footholds here and there in the soon-to-crumble sections, raking gray and red scratches on his arms and legs for this trespass. The threat of frostbite is cruel, but better that than three empty stomachs. He can't let his family down this time.
He makes it to the top. Exhaustion catches up on him, devouring thoughts of all else. He knows he won't last much longer.
Need to…hang on…just a bit…more…
He lands on wobbly feet and clutches his knees to steady himself, one gasp too many. He darts forward with all his remaining strength to swoop in for the kill, but the rabbit is nowhere in sight. Must have squeezed itself into a dozen holes he couldn't possibly have noticed because he was too tired, and weak, and careless…
Why? Why? Why? Wh-
A faint wheeze shreds through his thoughts, followed by a sniffle. For a moment, he mistakes it for his own. But he's been sick far too often, and he's wept enough for a lifetime not to know. Someone's crying. Likely some other wretched soul shivering in the apathy of the gutters, orphaned, abandoned, dying of an affliction more deadly than a frigid night.
Forgetting his lost meal, he goes to investigate.
She's the princess of rags and matches, freezing on her icy throne. With every labored breath, tendrils of fog spiral before her dull eyes, reaching out, upward, fading away, too weak to go on.
She might have been beautiful, once. Now the only pretty thing about her is a corroded hairpin she found scavenging in the garbage one day. The sheen of fake gold and jewel centerpiece are missing - probably smashed by the previous owner with a dozen others to spare. Maybe a merchant's daughter. Or a noble. Someone who never had to rummage through market leftovers for breakfast.
She'd gladly trade that rust-mottled scrap of metal for a decent meal, if anyone would buy it, but who would?
In life, there are three constants: hunger, loneliness, and the chance that this very hour could be her last.
Dusk sets in, erasing everything, leaving naught but the distilled grief of wandering purses, scabs, creased tinfoil plates, and the ever-present sword in her stomach. Chilled smoke digs into her face. Frost chaffs at her knuckles. The bleached wasps start falling again; she imagines a little soul in every flake tripping down invisible staircases on little cotton feet until they reach the last step and melt into this grotesque white fungus plotting to steal her toes.
Snow is always hungry. She's fed it her last meal, and the one before that. It wants more and more, and there is very little of her left.
Curling into herself, she tries to hum. The tune comes out in knots, not quite loud enough to drown out ominous whispers of glass shards alighting on her bare knees. She can't understand how other children enjoy this stuff. Glass is only pretty before it shatters.
The cold sounds angry. Trembling fingers reach into a hollow in her clothes and harvest a stash of crippled matches. She has seven. Seven twins for seven wishes, seven hours to live. No, she amends, not hours. A match wouldn't last a full minute.
She sets them down on her lap in the form of a seven-point star. Like miniature jewels on sticks. Like wands. Other kids call them wish granters that Special Ones can use to make wishes come true. She doesn't have one and she isn't special, but she has wishes, many wishes.
She lights the first. It vaporizes instantly, leaving dark speckles on her ugly fingers. Her nails are bitten and cracked and torn off and barely peeking out from a ripped tatter of a scarf that has long since forgotten the notion of warmth.
She strikes the second match, and the tiny flame brings back recollections of pretty clothes and warm cushions in the geisha house. Little pots of face paint, perfumes here and there, piles of hair ornaments, little bits of lace from foreign shores, and best of all, clean, well-pressed kimonos with more designs than the holes in her skirt. The light fades, all too soon, before she gets the chance to feel it.
The chill is getting worse. She quickly grabs the third.
Now she sees her mother, alive and healthy and picking flowers like three weeks ago. They're strolling hand in hand among the wildflowers with the father she's never met. Her mother leans over to say something, but the fire sputters out and the flowers are beheaded by the gusts and her mother is nothing but vacant space.
A salty tear slips down for all she's lost. She remembers her mother's words. Look for the one with a child's heart, fire in his eyes, a laugh like the wind. Ask him to sing, and if you know the melody, play along.
Impossible. Does such a person exist? Even if he did, she's already stopped looking. The only silver linings she seeks are broken pins to hold together fragments of clothing.
Winter is my only friend, she wants to tell her mother now, but I'm afraid he doesn't like me.
The mat of death creeps steadily, waiting to deal the final blow. She feels it now, weakness surfing down her bones, weariness seeping through her skin. It's useless to defend a pile of rags and bones. All that's left is to dream.
A passerby would have branded her a fool. Dreams don't become orphans; it's madness to believe in what can never be. But they're all she has left. The day you stop dreaming is the day you stop living. So she summons them all – every wish and every want. Mother. A father's face. Home a little less lonely. Flowers. Warmth in her throat. Someone who doesn't just throw her a pitying glance only to pass by, saying nothing, doing nothing, as if she were a mere unsightly smudge on cobblestone. If only she could hear Mother's voice again…
She lights match after match after match. One by one the flames flare up and escape to the sky. A fleeting thought, a surreptitious hope, she wishes the fire would take her fingers, too. Take them to that place where little girls don't search the streets for merciful faces, bewailing the dearth of love at every doorstep.
The sand in the hourglass trickles away and no power can reverse it. With each broken suck of breath, the end draws nearer – that final fade into oblivion when she sinks into the ground and winter claims her as its own.
Grime-caked nails clutch at her tarnished ornament, her sole treasure. It will be gone when she goes, and she can't help but worry. I hope someone takes care of this…if I don't wake up…tomorrow…
And that is it. A forlorn sigh, a resigned heartbeat, eyelids flutter shut, a little hand lets go at last.
Someone's calling...and yet…
Please, leave me alone…just let me…sleep…
"Hey!" the newcomer yells again. "Are you alright? If you stay there any longer, you'll get sick!"
The promise of blissful rest falls apart at his urging. Get up, it's time to go, time to live. Her eyes break open, and behold, there's this boy around her age, pale and gaunt and wasting away like she is, and she wonders how this person could be her savior.
"Is this yours?" he asks, scooping up her hairpin from where it lies on the ground.
She stares at it. She never even noticed it drop. Then again, she never knew how bright one person's eyes could be, either.
"Th-thanks," she mumbles, hoarse and cracked.
He lays the defaced item on her open palm. His hands feel cold and rough. But hers are almost numb anyway.
"It's beautiful," he tells her, and her mind conjures the scent of sweet oranges and magnolia buds and feathery cloud patterns up high.
"You think so?"
She can scarcely believe this, but if he appreciates that little piece of junk, then he might not abandon her like everyone else.
Look for the one with a child's heart, fire in his eyes, a laugh like the wind…
Mother knows best. Mother is no longer around, and she can go, or she can hold on.
She chooses to fight.
"I hate the cold," she admits, struggling to rise, failing, and plopping down. "It wants to kill me."
"You're right. Let's go." He helps her to her feet. She fears she'll collapse again but he's here and it's okay.
Snow is hungry, they've both learned, yet it won't be feasting on them tonight.
He turns to face her. She smiles, and suddenly winter is no longer an empty wasteland.
Chapter 4: Windsong
The wind is whistling today. Half-lidded eyes flicker back and forth, tracing the slithers of dust in its path. Straw hat in hand, legs folded in a meditative pose, a young man begins to hum.
Golden field, little sun
The sound is broken and ancient on his tongue, as familiar as the white-capped mountain peaks she scratches out in the sand outside their tent.
Alibaba flicks off an approaching millipede, aiming straight for the mound of sulfurous ants in the corner. He misses, and the bothersome insects are deprived of a midday feast. The creature lands on its too many feet, uncurls itself, and patters away like the stubborn little thing it is.
His stomach growls. Serves him right for skipping lunch. Again.
Time to head inside and make tea. For his wife.
She’s the only girl within a hundred miles of desert who owns a hanfu. Twelve of them, to be exact.
She used to have more. Many, many more.
Kougyoku stands before a sun-bleached hut, slanted almond eyes expressing less disdain than she should have felt. This is home now. Their home.
It’s not a palace.
A kettle whistles, stuffing the air with memories of bronze autumns and dragons and swordplay and vermillion orbs and crimson hair. It’s time for tea with her – she swallows thickly – husband.
What a sweltering afternoon.
“Someone called me that when I was younger.”
Way to go, Alibaba. You just had to degrade yourself even more in her eyes. As if you even had any reputation to begin with.
Hot-cheeked (whether from embarrassment or because he’s not accustomed to the outrageous temperature of the cup in his hands – in his opinion, food should be steaming; leaf juice should not) and desperate to save face, he clams his mouth shut, only opening it to sip down what’s left of his drink. It burns his tongue with every gulp, but Kougyoku wants a tea session, and after all he’s put her through by this horrible arranged marriage deal, he can’t find it in himself to deny her that simple request.
“Baba, eh.” His companion – his bride of two weeks – the youngest Kou princess – Kougyoku absently clasps her hands together over her chest. It’s one of those curious little habits he’s begun to notice, and hopes to understand one day.
“Yeah. Silly nickname, isn’t it?” He laughs, awkward and more than a bit self-conscious (he supposes it’s natural, since the person before him is a stranger, but a nagging voice reminds him that he’s rarely ever this nervous around strangers and he hasn’t a clue what’s different this time) because the tension in the air stifles him when it should not.
“It is,” she says, surprising him with a warm, warm smile. “It certainly is.”
He takes another gulp. By now the heat has cooled enough for Alibaba's poor, suffering tongue. His normally active mouth has nothing more to say at this point, and Kougyoku seems content with the silence. He watches his fingers curled around his cup. They’re dirty. Unlike hers.
“Do you miss him?” It takes a while to realize she’s actually asking him a question this time. More often than not, it's up to him to initiate conversation, and all he ever gets for his efforts are several clipped replies and one never-ending glare. But her eyes are kind now, and somewhat…nostalgic?
“That person who called you ‘Baba’ – do you miss him?” she repeats, and he notes the continued absence of that hard edge to her tone.
He thinks of knotted locks and burning cities and that voice he desperately longs to forget.
“Yes,” he concedes, and it feels strange to say that aloud, and stranger still, the hurt fades out almost as soon as it pricks, replaced by some odd sense of relief. Maybe it’s the tea.
“Me too,” she says, setting down her porcelain mug with all the grace of a princess, if not for the muffled 'stupid, crazy magi' in a voice too feminine to be his own.
The image of a boy in a thunderstorm flashes in his mind and he shivers. She misses that guy? That maniac? That puppet of Al-Thamen? That--
It all comes rushing in, all those questions he wants to ask, all those pieces of information that may prove useful in the future. Her connection to that shady organization, her place in Kou's grand scheme of world conquest, the powers of her metal vessel -- who she even is, for aside from a few diplomatic facts, the person before him is a stranger.
But that can wait for later.
"The tea is good," she tells him. He nods, finishes his last drop and places his cup next to hers.
They’re both empty.
Chapter 5: Sol, Luna
Based on the Asian myth Why the Moon Shines at Night and inspired by this fanart by artsy_alice:
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Daddy, Daddy, tell me a story!”
“Yeah, just like the ones in your books.”
“Hmm...what if I don’t have any more stories to tell?”
“Daddy, everyone calls you Alibaba the Great Storyteller. I’m sure you have lots of stories you haven’t told me yet!”
“Very well, listen carefully. Noong unang panahon…”
“Daddy, what are you saying? I don’t understand a thing!”
“Ah, well you see, in ancient times, there existed many languages, for every race had a language of its own. Alma Torran is the only one that survives until today, but there were many, many more."
"Really, Daddy? But, how'd you find out if you weren't alive back then? Oh, did Uncle Aladdin tell you?"
"Yes he did! Okay, back to our tale. Long ago..."
Long ago, the moon was very sad and lonely. She was no less beautiful than her sisters, the stars, but unlike them, she had not been blessed with even the faintest glow to call her own. She would gaze at the earth, cold and silent, for no one could tell her apart from the vast darkness of space. No one saw. No one knew. She longed for a piece, just a tiny bit, of the sun’s light and warmth, so the world could see her smiling down on them.
Ages passed, and with every year she attempted new and different ways to produce light of her own. At first she asked her sisters if she could borrow some of their radiance. When that failed, she tried to let the glimmer of starglow bounce on her skin, so some of it could be reflected back to earth. It did not work. Nothing worked. It seemed the moon was condemned to an eternity of this fate. Unknown, unseen, unfelt. She was invisible and useless and it broke her heart for all she ever wanted was to be of help to the humans she had learned to love.
One day, after an unusually long heat wave, she found the sun resting at the cave of four winds, looking greatly distressed as if the burden of all the mountains had been placed on his shoulders. Moved by compassion, she went to offer her help.
The sun was facing a dilemma. “I truly want to help the inhabitants of the earth," he confided to her. "But I can only shine one side of the world at a time. If only I could light both sides at once, people would not have to stumble around in the dark of night.”
The sun was generous enough to share his light with the world every day without fail. To think he actually planned to do more! But even someone as strong and dedicated as he was couldn’t possibly handle such a big task on his own.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked him. “Anything at all?”
The sun regarded her carefully. She was beautiful, yet she was not bright. But she had the kindest heart he had ever known. So he shared a piece of his light with her.
The moon accepted this gladly, and everyday they took turns illuminating the planet. For the first time, the moon was very happy. She could not enfold the earth with the warmth the people craved for at daytime, but she was a shelter a night for those who needed the cool to rest.
She and the sun became close friends afterwards. They would meet and talk for a few minutes every day, at sunrise and sunset, when the tips of their sweeping light-holders would touch and spark little rainbow clouds. There were times when the moon would take a break to rest and the sun would visit her. Those were the nights of when the moon became invisible, and they happened once every month. Sometimes they sang; sometimes they danced. Often they would tell stories.
“There was this very beautiful cactus blooming by the oasis.”
“A rebellion broke out again.”
“I saw a boy crying for his sick mother.”
“The farmers gathered a bountiful harvest this year.”
There were sad stories, painful stories, and happy stories. Sometimes the sun’s sweat from working so hard would fall down in the form of afternoon showers. Sometimes the moon’s tears were the evening rain. Sometimes she’d show up before dusk to watch the sun. And sometimes she would linger after dawn. There were times she’d be so excited and drop by to chat with the sun at midday. The people called this an eclipse.
Soon the moon found other ways to help out. When the fishermen complained of a poor catch, she offered to help pull the tides for them. When the farmers needed to keep track of the seasons, she became a calendar so they could number the passing months by the amount of illumination she would give.
The sun was generous and the moon was kind. Together they labored to make the earth a happy place to live in. Day in and day out. In season and out of season. They never tired and they never got bored, for every day was a new story to tell. And the moon grew more and more beautiful with each passing year.
One afternoon, at their daily meeting place, the sun asked her a question.
“Across the galaxy, I can find no better partner than you. Would you mind staying by my side forever?”
“Forever?” she echoed, nearly going blank with shock.
“Yes,” he said without a trace of hesitation. “Forever.”
“Would you tell me stories forever?”
“Yes. I would.”
“Okay. I’ll stay.”
And the moon was never lonely again.
“Grampa Alibabie! Tell me a story! Pleassseee?”
"Alright, listen up! Long ago..."
The actual myth can be found here: