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between the shadow and the soul

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I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII

 

She thinks perhaps she’s never really known one person in this way, stripped right down past the fat and muscle to the white bone beneath.

There was a time when she was fifteen, or fourteen –Breanna can’t remember much more than that, only that there had been a maid with fine bird-bone features that she had thought herself smitten with. Breanna had kissed her worn fingers one evening, and then her lips the next. A secret of oily evening shadows. One day she’d come downstairs and there was a different maid waiting for her, because Breanna’s had gotten all bloated with bloodfly eggs and swallowed a pistol bullet the night before.

 That’s not the point.

 The point is: Breanna knows every inch of Delilah’s body, now, or so she fancies: the tiniest knife-cut of her smile, the flick of her clever fingers on canvas and the divot between her brows when she frowns. Delilah frowns often. A mark of concentration, she says, and laughs, her mouth a gaping black maw. It is only fitting, Breanna thinks. She knows what Delilah is capable of. Even now, in sleep; there are places i go to in my dreams, she imagines Delilah saying. Perhaps it is a memory. Breanna is no longer sure.

There is no awful blue-black oilspill across the bed tonight to ruin the bedsheets. A week ago she’d put her hand to it and it had stunk, awful like burned sea salt, and stained her hand for days. There is still some discoloration around her fingernails. The men of the boat know better than to ask any questions but she saw the way they cut their eyes at her, at her and Delilah both.

Somewhere near here there is a house, and Delilah had taken her there in the pink glow of morning before there had been anyone else awake. The man of the house had kept a whalebone charm beneath his pillow, crusted with old blood, and Delilah had smeared it with fresh sticky crimson when Breanna split the man’s throat with thorns. A gift for him – he will be pleased with me –

A week ago, or two, or more. The light from the rounded window is still young. She goes back to bed.

--

The roads here are thin, carved from milky quartz and well-worn to a gloss by whatever people once lived in this particular corner of Pandyssia. Breanna stifles any complaint she might make and hopes there isn’t much further to go. She has a hat of thick woven grass, filched from a village some weeks ago on a whim, but even this is not enough to protect her mother’s cursed Tyvian skin. Delilah does not appear to be similarly affected. Another of her cold God’s favours, perhaps.

Delilah doesn’t answer when Breanna asks what it is she’s looking for. There is a purpling mark beneath her jaw. The sight of it brings a smile to Breanna’s face.

The ground beneath her feet glistens.

Delilah comes to a stop. “We’re almost here,” she says, her hand heavy across the small of Breanna’s back. There are bruises blackening on her hip from Delilah’s wicked fingers, her sharp teeth, and not ten minutes later Breanna is relishing the feel of sand between her toes and the sea-smell in the air.

In one moment, Delilah is next to her, with the grin of a wild nameless thing let loose, and then she’s knee-deep in the sea, her trousers wet, and then she is in the trees. There are bones here, wrapped in leaves and skin (a gift for him he will be pleased i’ll give him this gift). Even Breanna can feel the magic, a loop catching on the end of her finger. If she just – tugs – it will unspool in her hands.

“I feel closer to him, here,” Delilah says, her mouth warm on the shell of Breanna’s ear. “Don’t you?”

Breanna has never felt close to him, Delilah’s black-eyed God, at all.

“Yes,” she lies.

The sea here is a richer blue than she has ever seen. The dyes of all the ladies at the extravagant parties her mother had thrown

( still throws – you are gone and she will not notice )

had paled in memory and they pale again now in comparison. Breanna cuts down huge fat leaves for them to sleep on that night, and they feast on strange dimpled berries and raw fish. Delilah adds two more to her collection of bloodslick bones that keep keeps in a fraying satchel, close to her at all times.

The taste of the berries burst on her tongue, disgusting in their sweetness. There is poison here, and it is foolish to put her trust in this woman, and still she puts another berry in her mouth.

“East, tomorrow,” Delilah says thoughtfully.

“Can you feel someone?” Breanna asks; draws her finger through the sand. “You’ve been saying– ”

Delilah lies back: the heretic in repose. “Not here. I can only feel you.”

Breanna’s traitorous Tyvian skin flushes hot. She meets Delilah’s gaze and abruptly wishes she hadn’t. There is a certain quality to Delilah’s gaze that is wholly unlike anything Breanna has ever known: as if she is alone in a violent storm, as if she is having her skin peeled off and sewn back together, made and unmade.

She wants to say – why – but never does. “How fortunate for you,” she says instead. Tosses her knotted hair over her shoulder.

Delilah smiles, effusive and with too many teeth. Breanna’s governess would have never allowed such a thing. A smile can be for lust or love or sadness but it must always, always be charming. Breanna learned this when she was a child. She knows Delilah had no tutor for such things.

Later, Delilah pushes one of the strange black blooms behind Breanna’s ear. “A flower for the lady,” she says, and Breanna shivers at the look in her dark eyes.

That night, the Pandyssian sky cracks open like an egg and the rain that pours out is pounding, spitting with small stones, and sends her and Delilah fleeing to the trees and the trembling safety of those flat leaves. Breanna slumps down against the smooth trunk, panting, and she firmly does not twitch at the cold touch of Delilah’s fingers on her hand, her hair. Delilah’s mouth, when it finds hers, is slippery from rain.

--

She is not yet twenty-five the first time she kills someone.

She has known Delilah for less than a month.

The man had walked in without knocking. He’d spluttered out, “witch!” even as Breanna sucked herself into the air behind him, even as her blade buried itself in the hollow space under his jaw. Her mistake. It doesn’t matter. The scent of blood in the air stays long after they throw him overboard, because it is buried in the lines of her skin, a wet gunmetal smell.

More than anything, it is a pity. She had idly assumed that her first kill would be the man her parents had so carelessly promised her to. She would constellate a map of slashwork over his body; perhaps cut a finger or two, until he gurgled, blood thick in his gullet, and then, only then, she’d slit his throat.

There was something symbolic in it, she’d felt, but it doesn’t matter now.

--

Delilah is teaching her to fight. It is harder than expected: Delilah is impatient and foul-tempered at having to wait for someone to catch up to her. A strange thought, since everyone is always catching up to Delilah.

The sand dunes of Eastern Pandyssia (or perhaps it is central, and they will be sentenced to roaming across this land until their flesh rots) slip underneath her feet. This, too, is a hindrance. She has mislaid her hat and the thick heat will surely split her skin like old fruit.

“Again,” Delilah says. They circle each other warily, Breanna’s balance ever-shifting, the tangled silence between them interspersed with the quiet growls of the short-snouted creatures that nest around here. Breanna sinks down into her opening stance, right leg braced forward, the wooden cane that Delilah has procured gripped firmly in her hands.

She blocks the first of Delilah’s attacks, and the second. Delilah fights as though she is still on the grimy streets of Dunwall, cruel and fast.

“I bit a man’s throat out, once,” Delilah says, which might be her idea of small-talk.

Breanna catches Delilah’s whirling attack with a wince. “How unsanitary. I hope he didn’t have the plague.”

“Why?” Delilah asks. Her mouth is wicked-sharp. “Are you wondering where my mouth has been?”

“It’s far too late for that kind of talk.” The sand trickles between Breanna’s toes. Her skin is shining with sweat.

Delilah shrugs off the comment. “Your form is off, beloved,” she says, and a too-quick hit sends Breanna sprawling into the sand. Delilah towers over her, but before she can say again Breanna has blocked her next strike, and whipped her legs out to kick Delilah to the ground, pinning her beneath Breanna’s weight, both of them hissing in breath.

“Did you,” Breanna asks, “really bite out his throat?”

A pause. “What answer do you want me to give?”

For once, Breanna doesn’t know. She can’t tell what Delilah is thinking. She cannot even tell what she is thinking, her entire being narrowed down to the jut of Delilah’s hipbone against hers. The sparring has brought the prettiest flush to Delilah’s cheeks. Knowing she can think this way without the Abbey’s bullet in the back of her skull has turned her wild.

“I want you to tell me the truth, if you can,” she says at last. It’s not precisely a lie.

Delilah laughs. “I bit out his throat,” she repeats, her eyes darting across Breanna’s face, “and I ate his tongue before I fed his body to the rats.”

To her horror, the revelation doesn’t surprise Breanna at all. It is so like Delilah. A starving dog in the desert, wild and mangy. What would her parents would think of her now, she wonders recklessly, sharing her bed with a feral woman who tears out throats with her mouth?

The mark on Delilah’s hand flares golden under Breanna’s fingers (there will be white blisters there, later, that Delilah will kiss and Breanna will remember, breath hitching, beloved) and Delilah is behind her, an arm closed tight around Breanna’s throat.

“Good,” Delilah says; “again.”

--

There is a village made of glass that is slowly sinking into the mud. The dirt here is bloodied, and squelches unpleasantly underfoot: Breanna’s feet are bare, now, and greased red. The rainfall is a soft drizzle that matts her hair. Delilah, as always, is half a step ahead, and, through the almost-rain, it’s almost as if her figure is a fever-dream, a gift from the void.

Delilah stops. Allows Breanna to take her arm. Breanna doesn’t think about what this might mean.

She can feel the magic in this place. It snags at her like a thread on a nail.

There are raindrops caught on the ends of Delilah’s black lashes. Delilah looks at her, purple smudges under her bedroom eyes, and grins at her. “A walk, my lady?” she drawls, stroking her fingertips across the jut of Breanna’s thin wristbone.

She cannot feel anyone else nearby. They could be the only two alive in the entire world.

--

She kisses Delilah against the wall of the inn where they are staying. Morley, now, Alba in the South and yet it is still cold outside, the windowpanes frosted over whilst the fire licks in ribbons inside their room. She arches at the span of Delilah’s hand across her back as the other one presses like bullets into Breanna’s scalp. She bites at Delilah’s lip, hard, and licks away the smear of blood. She wants to say something but she is sure she will embarrass herself.

“My darling,” Delilah says, so unlike all the philandering, stupid husbands Breanna remembers from her childhood. Delilah’s fingertips are firm on the slope of Breanna’s shoulder. Breanna doesn’t remember coming to Morley, but here they are.

Delilah’s clever fingers, oh so clever, slide down Breanna’s body in a whisper. Breanna kisses at Delilah’s neck and she’s thankful that Delilah’s eyes are closed. If she looks her in the eye now she will do something foolish; say, i love you so much i could die

It isn’t the first time she’s thought it, a grimy secret. Delilah presses open-mouthed kisses to the curve of Breanna’s stomach, the strip of scarring where a lucky knife found a bed. She can feel the line of Delilah’s smile on the place where Breanna’s lifeblood clotted, and the drag of her mouth further down her body.

Her life wasn’t supposed to be like this. Delilah’s boy-short hair between her thighs, the quick crook of her fingers, sloppy-fast.

Delilah opens her eyes and pins Breanna there as surely as if she’d skewered metal through her shoulders. Breanna curls into her touch, unsettles herself with her body’s easy trust and the softness of Delilah’s hair under her fingers–

– and it was this way in the rich mossy earth of Northern Pandyssia, the air still smelling faintly of petrichor and smoke where they’d burned a years-old camp to bitter dust –

– Delilah’s body, pressing her down into the strangely-coloured wildflowers of the West, golden and pink-hued, cutting a profile against the white glare of the mid-morning sun and the bluest sky –

– on the ship taking them back towards the Isles, the inevitable pull of the throne that Delilah cannot escape any more than Breanna can escape Delilah, the salt-taste of her heavy on Breanna’s tongue –

Later, she says, “What are you going to do, after all this?” She’s still half-breathless, pulse jumping in her wrists.

Delilah’s tricky artist’s fingers dance on the hollow of Breanna’s neck. “Rule,” she says idly.

Breanna does not tell her that she doesn’t believe Delilah’s heart is really in the ruling; it’s all in the taking. There is no excitement in something that is still and does not change.

“I would keep you with me, if you’d like,” Delilah says. She stares with furious intent. It burns her to the core, this electricity, engulfs her completely.

She presses a kiss to Delilah’s hair. Revels that she can. “Of course,” she murmurs; thinks i would die for you and does not find it strange.

--

Months pass. She is on a boat, cutting through the stormy waters of northernmost Tyvia. Blinks–

–and she is in a Morley market perusing the well-shined skin of apples, Delilah at her side and almost painfully out of place, pulling the shadows tightly around her like a fine cape. And–

 Delilah isn’t here, and Breanna is standing in the sunlight of Serkonos, Saggunto’s sun-soaked shores at her back, skin prickling. It’s cold, even with the sun staining her skin. Perhaps it is as everyone warned her, and Pandyssia took her mind after all. If so; well, it's not so awful.

When she returns to the rooms they have commandeered, Delilah is sprawled on the bed in an over-large man’s shirt. There’s one of his runes above the bed, singing. A voice of tearing metal. “I think I like it here. We should stay.”

“Then we’ll stay,” Delilah returns, “for a while.”

The ceiling fan clicks like cicadas. She hasn’t been so close to her old family in- years, she thinks. She isn’t sure. She tells this to Delilah, who arches a brow.

“We could pay them a visit, if you want.”

The idea is almost tempting. The thought of it sends a hollow pang to her gut. “No,” she decides. Sits close to Delilah on the bed and rests her chin on the naked slope where neck meets shoulder, says, “they mean nothing to me.” In fact, Breanna struggles to remember their faces, as if every person she met before Delilah was simply a shop-mannequin and her mind filled in the blood and bones and skin – as if she never existed before Delilah, before this very moment –

Delilah smiles secretively, the way she always smiles in Breanna’s dreams. Breanna has never been able to tell whether she has given the right answer.

It has been a while since she recognised the face that she sees now in the mirror, but the one In Delilah’s small bound-paper book is undeniably the same.

“You’re far too kind to me,” she tells her. Delilah has blurred the sharp uptilt of her nose, her long forehead, into something near beautiful.

Delilah doesn’t glance up from her sketching paper. If Delilah is to start painting, they will have to leave. A sailor’s bones are best for pigment, imbued with void-touch from the seas. If Delilah flinches at the ghost-touch of Breanna’s fingers on her ribs, Breanna can’t feel it.

“You are the most beautiful thing,” Delilah says, suddenly, as if she doesn’t care who there is to hear: pauses, and says, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” The thrum of pulse beneath Breanna’s fingers is as swift as bird flight.

Breanna kisses the hollow of Delilah’s throat. She has no such quick turns of phrase, for all her endless lessons. It may even be the lessons at fault, tying her tongue to knots.

(She does not remember the name of her governess now, only the memory of the two of them slipping to the kitchen for blue-berried tartlets before dinner.

It is not even a memory, per se – the woman she pictures is featureless, two yawning sockets where eyes should be, skin drawn tight over the mouth. The berries are tart, or they are sweet, and stain their hands.

Breanna’s father will notice at dinner that night, and the governess will be whipped to bleeding. She sees her again the next morning, or perhaps she doesn’t. It is nearly fifteen years ago.)

She brushes the edge of Delilah’s shirt from her shoulder. The skin there is as smooth as new cream.

--

 

She was on the roof when Delilah found her for the first time. Legs swung over the edge: the pull of gravity had already claimed one of her buckled shoes. Tomorrow she will be anywhere but this city of reeking cooked blood. Maybe she would never wear shoes again.

“A dress,” observed a voice.

Breanna forces herself to remain still or risk plunging to the cobblestones below. It is a voice she has heard before, Breanna was reasonably sure. No wealthy lady from her family’s socials. There was no mellow cadence to the accent.

(come to me come with me witch-child)

She cleared her throat, said, “My parents are traditionalists.” The dress itself was an ugly vestige of her mother’s lineage, an organza monstrosity that reached her knees. It had passed down from her mother’s mother, and then to her, heavy with lost maidenhead. Her mother had been so infuriatingly proud.

“Hardly the place for a wedding.”

Breanna looked around the rooftop. “Unfortunately I was unable to attend,” she said, as blithely as she could manage. She hoped the strain didn’t show in her voice. A foolish hope. Her governess should have trained such a thing out of her, this meeting with strangers on rooftops. Breanna blinked, and the stranger was sitting next to her, leather boots creaking. Her skin was bone-white.

“I’m sailing to the Pandyssian continent tomorrow.” The woman –for it was a woman, Breanna was reasonably sure, and not some half-dreamed fantasy– was looking out across the docks, away from Breanna’s curious eye.

Was she imagining it, the lilt of a question?

Breanna turned away. “Everyone who goes to Pandyssia goes mad,” she warned. Her pulse jackrabbited. She had had this conversation before, she was sure, walking across a field of glittering snow that crunched beneath her foot.

One of her nursemaids had kept a talisman around her neck, whalebone and stale pig’s blood, for good luck child always keep one of these close she’d told Breanna sagely, a prayer in the dark that her parents would have her whipped for even knowing. It hadn’t been lucky enough, because the man she was fucking made her his wife and he took her away from Breanna’s house and off to Dunwall city to get blood in her eyes. There was a charm just like that one in the stranger’s hand.

The woman had smiled, furtively. “Delilah,” she said, the night sky rippling around her, and she had stared Breanna in the eye when she pressed her lips to Breanna’s hand.

--

She wakes slowly, and knows the shape of Delilah’s body next to hers. She has never known another person in this way.

Here’s the bed. On the table next to it is a vase of wild Pandyssian flowers, hissing, that will snap off curious fingers. Outside the window, the dawn has just begun to break, flooding pink-red across the sky. Downstairs, the innkeeper has begun to bake the morning’s bread.

Breanna’s body is folded across from the sharp-warm angles of Delilah’s, her fingertips pressed against Delilah’s chest, feeling whispers of a steady staccato thrumbeat. Yes – she knows these bones, and these sinews. She knows them as she knows the back of her hand. Better, perhaps, than she knows her own face. They lie across from each other in a parenthesis, touching in all the places except for where they don’t. Outside, the sky is crimson red and there are no stars.

Delilah’s hair has at last begun to grow out, curling around her jaw in a way that softens the steel ridges of her face. Breanna’s fingers trace the paper-skin of Delilah’s temple in a touch that is almost not. If she wished, she could burst spines of flowers from her fingers and smash Delilah’s skull like a soft melon. The power of it has her drunk.

She will follow for as long as Delilah will let her. She will never leave, she thinks wildly, she will die if she has to leave –

Breanna rests her fingers across Delilah’s chest; for now, they have this- there are girls like the girl that Breanna is no longer, their souls calling out to Delilah, and in the morning they have a boat to catch.