now playing on my laptop: No Light, No Light by Florence and the Machine
The black earth heaped over my shovel’s blade and I paused to wipe my forehead. I was only digging a spot for a new lilac tree, but my heart, it knew better, and it pushed my blood too quickly through my veins, raising a fever. The gold sun fell too slowly for me to judge the moments, but soon. Soon, she would step out of the light reflected from the water.
Sweet-sour lilac and the ground’s wet scent twisted in the air. Would the world’s perfume change with her? Had it yesterday?
Ro’s cough punched at my heart’s new frenzied rhythm. “Where are your beads?” His gray eyebrows bunched as he scowled at my scar.
I touched my chest, my throat, dirt gritty on my skin as I searched for the length of wooden spheres. “I forgot them.”
His face flushed, a ruddy strip of leather, and he raged toward the Gilded’s house on the hill.
My heart kept beating for the stranger.
I pressed a palm against my chest, willing my body to realize there would be no more afternoons in the garden with a chance to see her if Ro returned with the guard. There would only be death, short and ugly, by way of the Rope and the Knife. I’d met the Knife before. My fingers drifted over my scar. The Knife could kill, but also warn. The Rope had only one purpose.
If I went back for my prayer beads, it might keep me alive. Might. If I left now, I might never see her again. Might.
Just one more moment. Just one.
Two guards and Ro spilled from the Gilded’s house. My scar twinged, but my heart refused to change its rhythm.
And then, the stranger stepped out of the discordant light.
My breath left in a rush, my pulse thickening and loud, louder, loudest.
Her kaftan rose and fell like waves around her long limbs and bare feet. She reached a hand toward me, her red mouth a line. The air’s taste did change. The breeze was sharper, clean, an herb from a childhood in another life.
I removed my boots. I tied my robes and pushed up my muddied sleeves. But I didn’t clean the dirt from my hands.
The moss cooled my toes, and her face—open eyes, peach cheeks, her skin one thousand shades of stone and sand, flickering—pulled me close.
“Are you wild enough?” Her words dropped over me like the first rain after five lifetimes in a midnight cell.
Words, phrases, sounds fought to pour from my mouth. None of them right. The lilac trees shading us, I bent and raked a handful of moss and earth, the pale glow of her feet lighting my fingertips. Standing, I lifted the sad sacrifice.
“I am as close to wild as the ground you choose to walk on.” It must be enough.
Her red, red lips parted.
“Turn away, slave!” Ro shouted. The Rope and the Knife marched beside him, faces blank or too far to see clearly.
The stranger’s gaze flicked Ro’s way. The indigo mist rose from the grasses.
My knees hit the earth. Her kaftan brushed through my arm, insubstantial. Soft light bloomed under my exposed skin, then faded.
“I don’t belong here,” I whispered, my heart pushing and straining and rearing.
I blinked, and the mist had welcomed the stranger. “No.” Only a footprint to see, then her black hem disappearing.
Rough hands grabbed me. Heat roared from my scalp as they gripped my hair. Sweat, lilac, and the Gilded’s tainted incense—eking from the men’s skin—choked the air, ruined the garden.
A hand moved inside the indigo mist as Ro worked the rope over my head and steel shivered against my scar.
The Rope tightened his hold and the world blurred. “You should’ve kept to your prayers, slave.”