Issue VIII: "Swimming in the Swamps of Love"
In which a desperate sister clings to her sibling in the face of love and magic…
The Fifty-Seventh Conclave of Bards continues! (New to the Distant Reaches? Click here!) The next Bard in the contest for the Emperor’s boon steps upon the rostrum.
The crowd applauds as the child, short and slight with yellow-green leaves entwined in earth-brown hair, turns her smiling face upon them. “My name is Ida,” she says. “I’m from a farm in the Far Eastlands, and I have a sister. Who here has a sister that they love? A sister they would kill for? Or whom they want to kill?! Well, let me tell you about two sisters who shared just that kind of love….”
Once upon a time, there were two sisters who made a promise to never leave each other for anyone, ever.
Ayse, the younger one, liked to go on adventures. She swam around her mother’s kidneys, did giant backflips in the murky water, and tight-roped across her sister’s umbilical cord. She wasn’t afraid of anything!
Esme, the older one, was afraid of everything. She was afraid of her mother’s stomach growls, afraid of her sister or mother getting hurt, afraid of being born!
The thing the sisters loved to do most was to cuddle with each other and tease each other. Esme liked to wake Ayse up early by farting on her face, and Ayse liked to keep Esme from going to bed early by threatening to cut her hair in her sleep. Each time, they’d break out into uproarious laughter, shaking their mother’s whole body.
Ayse loved to dream about what the world outside their mother would be like. She couldn’t wait to be born into the magnificent world. They could hear the sounds of some great city through their mother’s belly. Ayse imagined sparkling lizards that would live for a hundred years. Esme imagined giant hairy beasts that wanted to eat people.
“Do you think we’re princesses?!” Ayse would exclaim.
“Ew, no,” Esme said while doing her daily laps in the slushy waters.
“If we’re princesses we can each have a prince!” Ayse leapt from kidney to liver in a total daydream.
“We don’t need anyone else. Life is good together. Together, right here. Stop jumping around, you’re going to hurt her,” Esme growled.
Ayse nodded herself into stillness, suddenly deflated and embarrassed. The two kissed and went about their daily laps together, as always.
When their mother was ready to birth them, Ayse held out her hand to a trembling Esme. But Esme clawed onto the sides of their mother’s birthing canal, their mother’s screams echoing up.
“Come on!” Ayse said, splashing water on Esme.
“You promise not to leave me?” Esme cried out over their mother’s shrieks of pain.
Ayse wrapped her arms around Esme and whispered boldly in her ear, “I promise.”
They jumped down the chute towards the white light, out of their mother and into the great big world of the Amal!
But Esme had held on for too long, and their mother’s body was limp and cold when they finally met her.
“Now we really have to stay together,” Esme said, clutching Ayse’s soft hand.
Ayse nodded, certain.
In each of their heads, the sisters knew it was their own fault their mother had died. But when they were really angry at each other, they’d silently blame their mother’s death on one another.
The world was not as magical and great as Ayse had dreamed, but it was just as terrifying and disgusting as Esme had suspected.
They were born on the banks of the Boern River, a day’s skip west of the shimmering city of Amalcross and an hour’s trudge east of the Booley Swamps.
They inherited a small shack that dared to proclaim itself a pub. The pub sat precariously atop a tear in the earth formed during the last great quake, and was therefore named The Crack. Should the big one come again, The Crack would be swallowed whole, and Esme would finally be able to tell her sister, “I told you so.”
The Crack was the last stop for drunks and bridge-builders at the end of their shift who dreaded going home. The floors always reeked of sick and piss no matter how many times Esme ran a steaming mop over them. A tiny, ugly mutt ran around the premises, yipping, lapping up spilt beer, and begging for food.
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“Welcome to The Crack!” boomed Ayse each time the door slammed open. She didn’t mean it, but she’d gotten good at putting on a facade.
The sisters were the perfect pairing at the pub. Ayse poured the beers, gathered the money, and apologized with a smile when Esme ran the mop over mens’ feet. And Esme did the rest: cleaning, accounting, stocking, and knocking men out who grabbed Ayse’s ass. Ayse would then usually apologize and offer the offending man a free beer, and Esme would knock the beer over and say, “NO FREE BEER. EVER!”
As much as the other hated what they did, they loved that they didn’t have to do the other’s jobs.
The only happiness the sisters had was the early morning, when the bar was closed, when darkness gave way to the wan rays of the sun and they swam in the Booley Swamps. No one bothered them there. Occasionally, they’d see some oddity, like a small mouse turning into a bunny, and know that Swamp Girl — that elusive woman rumored to be the greatest master of magic and Binding in the land — was near. Rumor had it she had once murdered her professor at the Imperial Magist University and had been in hiding ever since.
Regardless, the sisters didn’t bug Swamp Girl, and she didn’t bug them. Esme, not one to like anyone, liked Swamp Girl and felt a strange connection to her. Ayse never thought much about Swamp Girl, but delighted in seeing her magic at work.
One dreary day at the swamp, Ayse stared into the distance as the first rays of sunlight splashed onto the distant spires of Amalcross and reflected off the golden buildings and bridges in the distance. She slowly dropped her muddy robe to the ground, while Esme basked in the warmth of the swamp waters.
“I was thinking,” Ayse said, toeing the moss, “what if we went to the Mede Sea to swim? Or—”
Esme’s thick brows scrunched into one.
“Ayse, I’ve told you, it’s dangerous there! There’s too many boats and the underwater volcanoes could erupt at any minute. And what about the sea monsters!? They could bite off your legs. I love you, but I don’t know if I could take care of you if you didn’t have legs.”
“Sea monsters don’t eat humans,” Ayse said. “And what about here in the Swamp? It’s dangerous. There’s a murderer lurking around.”
“Supposed murderer,” Esme said. “And the professor probably did something to deserve it.”
Just then, a tree magically shrank into a bush to reveal Swamp Girl’s head sticking out above it. She had only a few strands of hair left on her head, and her skin was eternally pruny. The sisters screamed and grabbed onto each other!
Swamp Girl half-smiled and gave a friendly wink. Then she disappeared in a poof.
The sisters looked at each other in shock and then burst out laughing.
“She’s so creepy,” Ayse whispered in Esme’s ear.
“She’s harmless,” Esme scoffed.
“Come on, Esme. Let’s explore. I don’t want to be here my whole life. I want to leave! I want to live!” Ayse saw the worry in Esme’s face and continued. “With you, of course. I won’t leave you. But why do you always get to make the choices? Why can’t we do what I want? I want to go to the Sindar mountains. I want to dance at the clubs in Amalcross, to fall in love, to see giant Rilk'gar — from a distance of course. And with you—”
“I’m not seeing any Rilk’gar. Who needs Rilk’gar when we have this spooky ugly dog?”
Esme picked up the ugly dog from the bar, which was now yipping at them from the shore, and held it at an arms’ length in front of Ayse.
Ayse squirmed away from it. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. You bring it up every week.”
Esme plopped the dog back on shore and it whimpered away. Esme splashed water into Ayse’s mouth, causing her to cough, and giving Esme the chance to rant.
“We do what you want all the time. I let you pick the beer for the bar. Let you buy that steam-powered horse so we could get here faster even though I’m terrified every time we’re on it—”
Ayse finally caught her breath and splashed Esme back.
“Let me? Thank you, oh great master,” Ayse quipped.
“Not, let you. I just mean, I make space for you. I do.”
Esme stopped swimming to stare Ayse down.
“You always do this.” Esme said.
“Try to change a good thing.”
Ayse dunked herself underwater as she felt the heat of anger and sadness rise in her. She didn’t want to cry and seem weak, so she chose anger, and sprang to the surface.
“You think I killed mom because I wanted to be born. But you were the one who killed her. If you had just not been so afraid of change, she’d still be here!”
Her words appeared like an anchor at their feet, threatening to drown them both. Esme swam down to untie it for them, and then stayed under until she could find love for her sister again. Ayse waited on the shore, shivering, oscillating between apologizing and holding her ground. When Esme resurfaced, Ayse apologized, like always. They kissed and then held each other for a long time. On the ride home, Esme loosened her grip on Ayse’s waist slightly.
The next day, a man came into The Crack dressed in clean blue linen and sandals.
“Welcome to The — are you lost?” Ayse asked the man, her smile dropping upon seeing his dress.
“I thought I was,” he said, “but now that I’m looking at you, I believe I’m in the exact right place, baby.”
Esme curled her hand into a fist. But before she could knock him out, Ayse stopped her.
Ayse gave Esme a look: I can stand up for myself. Loosen your grip.
Esme rolled her eyes and slapped the mop against the bar. In unison, the regulars all lifted their drinks as she slid it down the sticky counter top.
Ayse stepped towards the lost man, about to tell him off, when — wow, his eyes…
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Prince Liam,” he said. “I am on my travels for the summer, before I graduate from Magist Imperial. I want to see our great world before I must become a responsible and noble prince like my father wants.”
“Piss off!” Esme snapped. “You think that kind of line will work on my sister?”
“Esme!” Ayse snapped back.
“OOOO.” The men at the bar teetered on the edge of their stools.
Ayse turned back toward Liam in a daze.
“Where have you been? What have you seen?”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” His laughter boomed through the room.
“I don’t mind,” Ayse said, deadly serious. “You can kill me.”
Her honesty surprised her. She’d recently been thinking she’d rather live a short and bold life than a long and dull one.
Esme pulled her away into the back closet, and burrowed her eyes into Ayse’s soul. Ayse felt so exposed, so suffocated and without her privacy, just as she had in the womb.
“I’m not going to leave you, Esme. Trust me, please. I’m going to go on a date with him. That’s all.”
The next word clawed its way out of Esme’s trembling mouth.
Esme went to the swamp alone for the next few weeks as Ayse went exploring with Liam. As the days passed, Esme began to have terrible thoughts like the ones she had in the womb in the moments when she would be awake and Ayse would still be asleep.
She thought about her mom dying, her sister dying, herself dying; about wanting to die, about being too boring and lazy and complacent to kill herself, about having nowhere to put her love, about being pathetic, about being worthless, about being —
She sank to the bottom of the swamp and tried to stay there long enough to punish herself. But she was too good at holding her breath and eventually her thoughts circled back around. Just when she was about to lose consciousness — or perhaps because she was about to lose consciousness — a brilliant idea popped into her head.
She emerged naked from the warm waters, snaking her feet along the mud and moss as the pink sun grew over the horizon. Softened seaweed draped down her shoulders, breasts, and belly.
I’ll ruin their relationship, Esme thought.
Filled with an energy she’d never before felt, Esme sprinted back to the bar and hastily tacked up the “closed” sign. The men already lined up outside kicked the dirt.
Esme mounted Ayse’s steam horse, which had been slowly collecting moss and rainwater near the hitching posts. Esme wiped off the droplets of water and straddled the seat. She looked down at the controls in panic. The water inside its tank may have been heated by magic, but actually driving the steel beast was a mechanical process — and one she’d never bothered to learn from her sister.
“Who here knows how to work one of these?” Esme shouted at the dispersing line of drunk men. They were all too busy mumbling about what they were going to do now that The Crack was closed.
“Free beer for the week if you drive me somewhere!”
The men jumped and waved their hands as they pushed each other out of the way towards the bike. The ugly dog yipped at the excitement.
“You!” Esme said, pointing at a barfly who never paid his tab anyway.
The man sloppily drove Esme west to Liam’s luxurious camp on the inner banks of the Boern river.
Liam’s silk tent looked like a museum of the rich wanderer. It was filled with art, feathers, pillows, tapestries, jewels, rocks, and forbidden magic books that only the son of a rich father could have. It was all so pathetic, Esme thought as she snooped around.
Esme started small and obvious: She planted women’s underwear at the foot of his bed.
But when Liam explained to Ayse that he had no idea whose it was, Ayse believed him.
“You believe him!?” Esme said to Ayse in the bar later that day.
The man who drove Esme was passed out on the floor, overwhelmed by his free beers. Ayse hopped over him.
“We went on the most amazing trip to the Sindar Mountains. I saw Rilk’gar from ten feet away; Liam knows a guy. My heart was pounding out of my chest. One came this close to us, I could feel its breath on my neck — it smelled like sour blood. And then we had tea in this little place on the Islands—”
“Ayse!” Esme said, kicking the man on the floor. “Women’s underwear! In his bed! Not yours!”
Ayse skipped ignorantly away to help the next customer.
If Ayse was too distracted by the gifts and places Liam was wooing her with, Esme would have to find ways to ruin their dates.
Unfortunately, they thought wineskins leaking and ruining their meal was hilarious, and that their tent fire was beautiful.
Esme closed the bar again and used the man once more to drive her to Liam’s camp. She eye’d the place, looking for an idea, and landed on a small jewelry box. She opened it and was blinded by an enormous engagement ring. Her face filled with heat, the burble of the river and the sounds of carts on the nearby road went silent, and only the ringing of rage filled her ears. He’s going to propose to her?
Esme knew she’d need something stronger to ruin their relationship before Ayse was lost to her forever. Esme needed to turn Liam into something so unlovable… into —
The ugly dog yipped at Esme’s feet. That’s it, she thought, I’ll turn him into this little mutt.
She needed magic. She grabbed Liam’s magic books that he so lazily left unlocked and took off to the swamps to study.
Luckily for Esme, Liam took months to work up the courage to propose to Ayse. She floated on her back in the swamp and opened the book.
Esme’s first task would be to get a Binder’s tattoo to channel the forces of chaos from beyond the Meridian. Esme of course hated tattoos, but no magic could be completed without one, so she told the man to wake up and drive her into the city.
The tattooist carved her gun into Esme’s forearm, letting the magic shape itself. When it was done, Esme looked down and saw what she had hoped for, what was her heart’s deepest desire — two hearts beating as one. She smiled.
“Thank you,” Esme said and searched in her pockets for money she didn’t have. “I don’t have much, but I can offer you free beer for a month at The Crack.”
“The what?” The tattooist said, turning her nose up.
“The Crack!” Esme said again with a wide smile. Then she went serious, inward. “It’s just a bar. That I run. It’s… all right.”
The tattooist let her leave without paying… there was something about this woman’s boldness that delighted her, inspired her. Maybe she would go to The Crack to enjoy some free beer one day.
In the back of the bar, Esme filled a pot with water and let it sit on the countertop. Her first magic task, as was everyone’s who studies magic, was to boil water. She dipped her finger in and scratched into the bottom of the pot two hearts beating as one, with an extra flourish from the book. Her tattoo and the pot pulsed, sending small bubbles through the water. Her own heartbeat rose, her breath grew shallow, and a bead of sweat ran down her brow. After a moment, the water boiled up and over the pot! Soon it was spitting everywhere.
Esme’s eyes went wide… now how could she stop it?
“Stop. Stop!” she told it, realizing suddenly she had no control. She had only traced the first part of the spell, the part that started the water heating. The water kept boiling, splashing on her arms and scalding her. She took cover just before the pot rocketed up and slammed back down, cracking in half next to her ankles. It was over. Esme caught her breath, and began to laugh at the power she felt.
To practice transmutations, Esme started off small and inscribed her two hearts into a red leaf and watched it turn green. But this magic act made her so tired she needed to nap afterward. She dreamed of when she and Ayse made pillows out of leaves when they had to sleep outside as kids, of how they held each other and created enough warmth to do without a blanket.
When Esme awoke, it was dark out and she was alone. She’d slept for two days, and now Liam was two days closer to whisking Ayse off forever. If she was going to do transmutations, she couldn’t use her body’s own energy to power the Binds of the spells anymore.
Esme went to look for the man who drove the steam horse, but found him passed out yet again. She turned reluctantly to the tattooist who had decided to stop by, just to check the place out, and was still on her first beer. Esme asked if the tattooist could take her to the Mede Sea where the underwater volcanos flowed with the energy she needed. The tattooist smiled and agreed.
At the vast sea, Esme watched as boats tacked past her and didn’t feel the fear she thought she would.
“So… how do you plan on going to the bottom? I’ve only heard of one man doing it and he had a submersible,” the tattooist wondered while sitting on the rocky shore.
Esme didn’t have time for such stupid questions. She dove in and swam to the bottom and inscribed her two hearts at the base of a volcano. Then she saw a sea lizard. She chased it down and tried to inscribe her hearts on it, but it squirmed too much, and the lizard ended up with only a fish’s head. She looked at the hideous thing and thought, That will do.
As she surfaced, the tattooist looked at her in awe. What a strange and beautiful woman, the tattooist thought.
Esme tilted her head in confusion. The look the tattooist woman was giving her scared her.
The tattooist asked if she could take Esme back to the pub. Esme told her no. She hopped on the steam horse herself and galloped east.
The morning of Ayse’s proposal, Esme was giddy.
Liam arrived on his horse to pick Ayse up, and Esme opened her arms to him for a hug.
“Liam. My soon-to-be-brother!”
“Esme! A hug? To what do I owe this kindness? I see you’ve finally come around to my charm.”
Esme could have puked as she wrapped her arms around him. But it was the only way; on his back she traced the two hearts and a special flourish she had devised herself.
Then, to Esme’s surprise, Ayse hugged her too. Esme sunk her fingers into the skin of Ayse’s back. She wanted nothing more than to stay like that for the rest of her life, with their hearts pounding together.
Ayse and Liam took off toward the Sindar Mountains. Esme waited a few minutes, grabbed the ugly dog, kicked the steam horse into motion, and followed them.
As she rode, she stopped from time to time and carved her Bind onto the godly trees sprouting from the base of the Sindar Mountains — her towering sources of energy. She bound them to the volcanos beneath the sea, to the tattoo upon her arm, to the two hearts. Then, Esme watched the scene of the proposal from behind the bushes. Just as Liam dropped down to one knee, she dabbed the shape of the two hearts into the mutt’s back with indelible ink, and —
“AHHH!” Liam wailed. Esme popped up to see her work. To her shock, Liam was still a human, but he was turning in circles, confused, searching.
Esme’s stomach dropped when she spotted the small mutt where Ayse once was. Esme turned white and retreated into the bushes. She felt the heat and shame she’d felt upon her birth, as if everything she did was wrong.
“My fiancé! My fiancé is a dog!” Liam ran screaming past Esme down the hill back to his luxurious silk tent.
“Woof, woof!” Ayse barked, spinning in circles, wondering where everyone had gone.
Back at The Crack, Esme flipped through the books wondering what she’d done so wrong. And then she remembered the hug. Her tattoo must have imprinted on Ayse’s back. She’d hugged her too tightly for too long.
Liam tried to love Ayse, but he couldn’t marry her if she was a dog. He tried to turn her back into a human, but he was terrible at magic and Binding. His focus wandered like a fly’s. He’d spent his time at Magist Imperial traveling too much and studying too little. And, after all, he didn’t need magic in the royal house, where everyone did the magic for him.
Ayse hung out at the bar now, just as she used to everyday. One day, Liam watched her licking up the vomit on the floor and couldn’t take it anymore. She was too disgusting; she was a dog. So he left, back to his palace where he’d eventually marry his second cousin.
Esme scooped Ayse off the floor and held her in her arms. Once again, she felt her sister’s heart beat against hers and all felt right for a second. But then, Ayse looked at her with puppy dog eyes and the guilt consumed Esme.
“Fine,” Esme said, “when we go to the swamp tomorrow, I’ll ask Swamp Girl to turn you back. It’s far beyond my knowledge to turn someone back into human form.”
At the swamp, they swam together, waiting for Swamp Girl to come around.
Esme felt safer than she ever had, her sister’s paws on her back, and her tongue licking her ear in the warm waters, together again. Ayse’s tongue lolled from her toothy mouth, and her snaggletooth caught on her doggy lip. It delighted Esme to know that no one could love that ugly little dog except for her. Ayse had never been more by her side than she had as a dog, apart from when they were in the womb. There was nowhere for Ayse to go — no one else for her to love — besides Esme.
When Swamp Girl finally appeared, Ayse had her furry little back turned to her.
Esme, panicking at the sight of the enchantress rising from the bog, plucked a cattail, balled it up, and threw it in the other direction. “Go get it, girl!” Esme sang, and Ayse took off into the weeds, leaping and bounding away from Swamp Girl.
Esme later lied to her sister, saying Swamp Girl had moved away. After that, Esme decided that it was too dangerous to go back to the swamps.
Time passed like it always had for Esme: predictably.
She had her routine back. Ayse followed her wherever she went, which was mostly just up and down The Crack, and occasionally into the bathtub she had installed in the back. The bar suffered slightly without another helping hand, but none of the barflies cared as long as the beer flowed. And Esme occasionally used her magic to clean the place and stack the barrels of beer. None of the extra work bothered her. Life was good knowing she’d never be left by her sister again.
Thirty years passed like this, without any of the men asking any questions for fear of getting kicked out by Esme. All was utterly uneventfully until, one day, the door of The Crack opened to reveal Swamp Girl standing, hands on hips.
Everyone fell silent as the preternaturally youthful, yet somehow still pruny and wizened, woman scurried in.
“A beer, please,” Swamp Girl said, looking straight at Esme.
“What are you doing out of the swamp?” Esme asked.
“You inspired me,” Swamp Girl said.
“I remembered when you left the swamp for a month,” Swamp Girl replied. “I watched you as you rode the steam horse and dove to the bottom of the sea and climbed the Sindar Mountains and almost let someone fall in love with you. You looked so happy. I’ve told myself since seeing you out there in the world that I’d try to do the same. I’d try something new. Today, I worked up the courage to come out here and try some of your beer. I haven’t left the swamp in… well, a very long time, you see.”
Swamp Girl took a sip of her beer —
— and immediately spat the beer out, spraying it over the bar and floor.
“Well, don’t waste it,” The man next to her said, grabbing Swamp Girl’s now half-empty mug.
From the floor, there was a wet sound, and Swamp Girl glanced down at the dog, who was lapping up some of the spilled beer.
“Hmmmm…” Swamp Girl pondered, tapping her chin with a slight finger. She scrutinized the dog for a moment. Something about it clearly unsettled her.
“I know, what an ugly dog,” Esme said, starting to sweat.
Swamp Girl leaned closer to the dog. “Bit old for a dog,” she said.
“Well, if you don’t like the beer, then I suppose it’s time for you to leave,” Esme said quickly.
Swamp Girl’s eyes widened with realization.
“This dog is a human.”
The air stiffened. The men turned their backs to mind their own business, pointedly ignoring Esme, Swamp Girl, and the dog.
“No, she’s not. I mean, it. No, it’s not!” Esme grabbed Ayse, holding her tightly in her arms like a babe.
Without any effort, Swamp Girl waved her hand over Ayse’s belly and her own Bind appeared: A snake strangling a lion. With a squelch, Ayse popped back into her human form. Her hair was long and gray and thick, and she was even more beautiful than before.
Ayse burst into tears immediately upon seeing Esme. Esme reached out to touch her, but Ayse shook her off and ran out the door. Esme knew better than to run after her.
As she watched Ayse go, Esme saw, for the first time, her sister as totally separate from her. She understood she would never see her sister again.
Esme heaved a deep sigh. She was surprised to realize in that moment — as she watched her sister flee, as Swamp Girl glared, as the sun set over the swamp, as the barflies swilled down their beer — that as bad as she felt, she also felt free.