Lucy Featherfeet loves lemons: she always has, and she always will. We could have stayed in our sleepy town beneath the rolling clouds, picked wild berries and forget-me-nots in the deep wood beside Nana’s lemon grove, and held each other for a lifetime.
When the prophecy came for her, dressed as silver knights from the royal court, I held onto my vision, held onto her. So we went with the warriors together, two orphans into the high mountains, where we would trade our blood, sweat, and tears for a shred of power, just enough to defeat the dark spirits — if we were lucky.
I stand here beside her, near the hastily-constructed, glowing forge inside our makeshift tent. A storm rumbles outside — I can hear the whining wind, smell the earth, see the lantern cast long shadows over our heavily-marked maps. Lucy challenges the white flames with her Oribe green eyes, and the wisps of golden hair that escaped her braids glow like starlight. She has a single ceramic red paper crane earring, one I made for her when we were children. But now, there is a shadow beneath her eyes, a sadness to her shoulders, which regret leading thousands of soldiers across the arid plains.I feel my warm, beating heart flutter in her presence before a wave of fear rolls over everything. Back and forth, back and forth — it’s sickening, like being on a ship that the stormy sea tosses around mercilessly.
I care for you so much it hurts, Lucy. Tell me how to make it stop.
“You said you wanted to be a baker once,” I say, carefully holding my expression neutral. She’s listening, I can tell by the way her body turns toward me, but not her face. You’re a keen one, will you catch on to what I am feeling now? “That you wanted to make the best lemon tarts in the world.” I see my reflection in the goblet—sleek black hair with a widow’s peak, indigo eyes, almost handsome.
“Oh, did I?” She glances at me, her laugh soft and smooth and sad. “Maybe we can bake together again, once this war is over. Turn that old schoolhouse—the one with the snow stone columns, ivy vines, and mosaics of the four great alchemists inside—into our little shop.”
“Lucy and Kye’s bakery?” I venture to ask.
“Yes! We’ll make golden bread rolls, apple cider, and the most decadent lemon poppyseed pound cake for the rich and poor alike. No one near us will ever go hungry. You, me, May, Rion, and everyone else will be together until we grow very old and wrinkly.”
Lucy lies, chokes on her words, and averts her eyes. She thrusts her sword, Flâner, into the Dragonfire, infusing her weapon with the spirit stone, for which we had exchanged for half our troops — as the prophecy said. Once Lucy transforms for our final battle with The Absence, the lord of the malicious, she’ll fly into the night, and when I open my eyes again, she will be gone. When she awakes, she’ll don an olive wreath and silks made of sunlight, and she’ll sit at the head of the long marble table. Dining on dew for deities, she’ll forget about me. What use are mortal memories to an all-powerful being? She’ll discard them, discard me. I’ll wander the world, I’ll wander it alone until I fade to dust, unwept.
In another life, could you have loved me too?
A tear glides down Lucy’s cheek, and before I can think, I take her lithe hand in mine, bow down before her on one knee, and press the lightest kiss on her knuckles. It is an automatic response, a motion ingrained in knights — it is customary, natural, but she still takes in a breath. Something feels different between us. I am closing the infinitesimal gap between us, and there is not a single thought in my head. Neither of us moves, and I can no longer hear the pelting rain. Just a ringing in my ears as I speak on impulse.
“I will never give up on you, Lucy,” I say, not daring to look at her face. I gaze at her knuckles, my long hair falling to cover either sides of my vision. With a ragged breath, I say, “I am and always will be your knight.”
What do you think of me? I sincerely hope I am not just another knight to you. That would break my heart. I wish you didn’t treat me just well enough for me to have hope.
When Lucy doesn’t say anything, blood slowly creeps up my neck and suddenly to my face. My ears and cheeks burn. I stand up so quickly I startle her, mutter a “goodnight” or something else, and dash out of the tent into the pouring rain. If she calls for me, I do not hear her.
I do not sleep much in the following days. Each night, a variation of the same dream haunts me. As I walk through a forest of willow trees with white leaves, celestial spirits chant the prophecy from beyond my sight:
Golden One, born from the flora and dust
Harness the sun, and in your sword, you trust
Carve away the glittering dark to open unseeing eyes
And toward the east, you embark, til you take to the skies
Child of Light, reap from the earth
All your might and love accrued since birth,
Exchange all you cherish for another chance
Lest the dreamers perish before their second dance
I see Lucy in the mist, and she smiles at me. But somehow, I feel her eyes are not seeing me. She is not Lucy anymore, just a vessel of power to drive back the darkness. She loves all, she is love, but she is no longer Lucy. No longer Lucy, the girl who gives me wildflower crowns and lingering gazes and smiling whispers. Each night, I get a bit closer to touching the scales on her neck, to reaching her — but she always looks at me with kind indifference and turns to the skies. Still, I keep trying.
When we awake, we trudge through the muddy marshland toward to the ancient altar. We fight and purify the corrupted spirits. Lucy ignores me, and her face turns a bit red in my presence. Could it be that she likes me, even just a little bit, too? But she is always kind to everyone else as well, as kind as she can be. “Let us keep going, my dear people,” she always says as she holds the hands of the sullen, as she embraces us with her words. “Together, there is not a thing that will tear us down. Even if we fall, our spirits will live on. I will guide you here, and in my life after, I will protect you still.” Her soft voice grows strong like silk and picks up our tired feet. It must be the heat, then. Or, she must feel ashamed for having a knight who spouts big words but lacks the concrete plan to take action. Lucy is the sun, and I am the moon reflecting her lovely light.
Who am I to you? Do I dwell in your thoughts as you do in mine?
I am not strong enough yet, so when the others sleep, I awake to train. I wield my swords as an extension of me, and I cut down everything that dares come forth.
It is the night before we descend into the valley of The Absence. It is perhaps our last banquet, so we feast on sour berries, dry bread, and fresh game. We have as many wishes and songs to sing as we have wounds. The bandages on my forearms and legs stretch as I walk slowly, feel the coolness of night on my skin, the way the laughter of others travels through my body. Perhaps the time we spent together is really not so much, not long enough. I leave the bloom of a lemon tree by her tent—we passed some wild lemon trees not long ago. They are a possibility. I do not expect her to think much of them, but I can hope.
Lucy finds me by the bonfire. She wears the bloom behind her ear and glows like flower petals do at sunrise, and in her excitement of finding me (I had trekked along the outskirts of the gathering), she latches onto my hands with her bandaged arms and pulls me into the circle. Lucy may be skilled in many things — archery, planning, commanding, baking, soothing others — but she cannot dance. I have given many lessons, but she never listens to me, always invents her own rhythm and trips over me.
“What are you doing, Lucy?” I sputter as she spins us around. A laugh bubbles out of her as we spin faster and faster, and I find a chuckle rise up from within me as well. The lights blur into ribbons, and it happens naturally — I interlace her fingers with mine, pull her close by the waist, and lift her into the air before she flattens my toes with her bare feet. There is no paint anymore, just the whistling of the wind through tall grass, tambourines and flutes beneath the moon, and chatterings of excited people.
Lucy shouts something, but I can’t hear her.
“What was that?” I bring her down to the Earth.
“Maybe I don’t care about the prophecy,” she cups my face. “Maybe I never did. Maybe all I care about is you.”
I stiffen, and it all stops making sense. My hand grabs Lucy by the wrist and pulls her away from the crowd. The cheers around us morph into melodies of confusion, and we weave through the bodies as if they were wheat glimmering gold under the starlight. Once we reach Lucy’s tent, I let go of her, bow, and sprint. Why am I running again?
“Oh no you don’t!” Something slams into me—it’s Lucy. “Stop. Running. Away!”
“You have to save your energy for tomorrow, Lucy! You stop it—I can’t think or breathe right now. You’re crushing me, I can’t breathe!” We scuffle but Lucy doesn’t let go of my waist.
“No, you listen to me, you big oaf! I’m never letting go of you. Never, you hear?”
“You should! I can’t believe this is happening, great lords above, great lords,” I latch onto the tenth pole to pull myself up, but Lucy pulls me back.
“Our bakery, you said we’d have that together! You said that you’d never give up on me—you liar, don’t lie to me! I can’t bear it if you lie to me.”
“Of course I believe in you, Lucy! How could I not—why do you think I’m lying? I feel the same way as I’ve ever felt about you. Nothing, not time, not fate, could ever stop me from believing in you.”
“Well it doesn’t feel like you do! Do you despise my feelings that much? Okay, I get it, forget what I said, but don’t look at me with those sad eyes, I can’t stand it!”
“What, no? You mean it’s true, what you said? Then would it shock you if I said I felt the same way about you?”
“Huh? Why are you making this so difficult? Why are you still trying to get away from me?”
“I don’t deserve to stand by your side,” I murmur. Lucy’s arms slacken from surprise, and I take it as my chance to wriggle free from her grasp. “And you’ll forget about me in any case.”
“How could you say that? It can’t be… did I make you feel that way?”
“No, I just don’t know what you would see in someone as unremarkable as me. And I’m not strong enough to protect you fully.” I glance at her bandaged limbs. “But that does not mean I’ve stopped trying. I am fully prepared to give my all for you.”
“But you’ve always been giving it your all, haven’t you?” Lucy suddenly looks much smaller as she stands there, hands limp at her sides, eyes wide with awe and alarm.
“I mean it, Lucy. Please go to sleep. If anyone will make it out alive tomorrow, it has to be you. The Absence obliterates all.”
“What if we run away, Kye? What if we leave this all behind? Just you and me against the world?”
“The threads of Fate will pull you back, you know this. Remember how we tried to escape the palace when we were kids? The golden threads forced us back into the halls. We are bound to this fate. I am going to perish—sooner or later—and you are going to ascend.”
“Don’t sound so sure. Don’t be like that. Kye, you’re breaking my heart.”
“There is nothing to worry about, Lucy. You’re going to make it.” I say this, and even though the prophecy guarantees nothing of this sort, I believe it with my everything.
“It’s meaningless without you.”
“I’m just a blink in the long life that awaits you ahead. But if you can swear to me that you will at least try to think of me, I will be content.”
“I’m going to save you, Kye, you poor, foolish mortal,” Lucy faces me, feet set squarely apart, golden hair a halo of energy around her tear-streaked face. “I will. I swear it.”
Lucy rips open her tent flap and storms inside.
I close my eyes and touch the tender part of my abdomen, the part where she held me so tightly my atoms will never forget her embrace.
We reach the altar just in time, but sooner than I would ever have wanted. Lucy, our dwindling party, and I stand on the large, circular disc overgrown with moss. The air is damp, and the world smells of decaying vegetation.
Lucy looks at me for an infinite amount of time and no time at all. Watch me save you, she means. Just watch me. Then, she initiates the transformation, singing in an ancient tongue and creating a beam of white light into the sky, but she attracts all the darkness around us. Hoards of corrupted spirits — masses of smoke, brimstone, and loss that sicken me so much my vision flickers — emerge from the weathered trees, cover the burgundy sky, and pelt us like arrows. Shards tear through my skin, and I mistake the screams of my brethren for those of wild beasts. I slash with my sword, feel every muscle in my body ache as I tear through the ghouls. I glimpse The Absence in the distance, an almost majestic mass of darkness that swallows all light. Its two yellow eyes beam down on us from above its long neck and horned head. It is watching us.
Lucy keeps singing, too far gone to realize what is happening. The last step is for Lucy to offer her blood to the altar. Time slows as I watch Lucy press Flâner to her hand, lower her protecting shield to let the blood drop — and out of the corner of my eye, I see something — a corrupted spirit — hurl a projectile at her.
That something tears through my abdomen — a smoking spear — and rips the fibers of my being. My body hits the ground hard; there’s a deafening shriek, and I feel arms circle around me, hold me tightly. At first it’s all too much to understand, but at her touch, I’m suddenly hyper-aware: the warmth and wetness on my hands is blood — mine; but the tears falling on my face are hers; and slowly I realize that the rattling in my chest isn’t just my heart, or my blood-filled lungs — it’s the ground itself, shaking. I must say my words, say it now, but my voice has already left me.
My dear, I will love you until the stars fade to dust and even after that.
A moment later, the circular disc below me opens up and swallows me in blinding light.
I fall. When I hit the soft clouds, I roll into a field of forget-me-nots. I am a boy again, and I see my black trousers, my white shirt with the top button undone. I notice half a giant human stone head among the flowers. Half an eye, nose, and mouth gaze at the gray mountains beyond the deep wood.
That wasn’t there before. He’s familiar, where have I seen him before? Oh … it’s me.
Now, there is a lemon tree a bit away. A girl with braided golden hair and a single red earring tries to pick the lemons, but the wind playfully tugs them out of her reach. Her dress ripples, like ocean waves, like sunshine on young leaves.
I walk up to her. When I reach up to pick the lemon, the branch bends down to meet me. I offer her the fruit, and she smiles at me. Her eyes are a rich Oribe green, over which her long lashes cast shadows.
“Kye,” she says, her soft smile turning my innards into fluttering birds. She looks away quickly, puts her arms behind her back, and shifts her weight.
“Is that my name?” My hands feel a bit cold.
Her head snaps back to me, and she wavers. Her eyebrows knit together, as they always do, and her faint smile is a thin veneer over her grief. “Yes? Kye, you saved us! The prophecy— we split it. I turned into the dragon who defeated The Absence, and you purified all the spirits. Is it true that you don’t remember?”
“This feels familiar.” The soft wind cools my skin, and brings over the sweet scent of flowers. Do I mean my words though, I wonder? Do I truly know who she is, understand what this all means? She is leaning toward me, her hand reaches forward, as if to hold mine.
“I’m glad to hear that, Kye… do you remember me?”
“I used to love you,” My heart is heavy and speaks for me. “Did you love me too?”
The girl smiles softly. “I did, and I still do.”