by Serena W. Sorrell

Once three students together attended a prestigious academy in  a faraway place. There was Sepia, with skin of light brown and long brown hair and dark brown eyes. She was between the other two in age. The elder was Vanta, with hard skin and a rough smile; the younger was Cobalt, who was reserved even when asked for his thoughts, he said little at all beneath his hair of dark blue. The trio came from different countries, and though they were foreigners to one another, for a time they were friends. From school’s start to its end, they studied and labored, they fretted and played, they were comrades of study.

Oh, the things they learned in that school made of stones, five stories high. It was more like a castle, or a gaol, they joked. Yet, however they joked it could not be denied the scholars, their professors, were sagacious beyond compare. They learned cartwrighting, astronomy, astrology, and law. They studied languages, anatomy, strategy, history, and thought. They even dabbled, although only just, in magic a bit.

And of the three friends each held a secret they hid from each other. Wondering, waiting, fearing, when it might be told or discovered.

Sepia’s secret was the first to be spilled, for on their last day, just finishing class she told the two she would go abroad after the ceremony. Her parents wished her to study more, learn all that she could, for seven long years she’d travel the world. The idea excited her, but scared her as well, for how she go anywhere without Cobalt, without Vanta. The two boys lamented her plight and promised sincerely they’d often write, no matter where she moved around the wide globe, their letters would follow and keep her company in their stead. But, that had not been her secret, no, not at all. Oh, if it only had.

Her secret that night she revealed at the ceremony, their farewell ball. Her last night at the academy, her last night in the country, her final chance for a confession. When the music was loud and the shadows were thick Sepia snuck through the crowd watched by only two eyes. She took Vanta’s strong arm and pulled him outside beneath the sky black as ink, dotted with stars.

“I am leaving tomorrow,” she trembled to find her small voice, “and, and I need to tell you, Vanta, of the feelings in my heart. That is, I mean to say, I love you, and have a long time. And, although seven years seems a long time I would that you’d tell me you feel the same, so when I return I can go to your side.”

Instead of words of adoration Sepia heard a long sigh. Vanta sat on the ledge of the balcony and stared back at Sepia as he shared his own secret.

“I have no time for love or feelings of those kind. I return home to my country where I’ll become a knight instead. The training is rough, through rain or shine, and though I never told either of you I am second in line for my country’s crown. What time do I have for some scholarly waif? I must learn to defend my country and crown with my life.”

His piece cruelly said, the damage now done, Vanta rose and strolled back with a wide smile. The second prince to the crown does not dally with foreigners. Tonight ended their friendship and all that came with it. Sepia stood in the cold, night air tears dripped from her eyes and disappeared as they fell. She wiped the tears from her eyes and straightened her shoulders and turned just in time to run into Cobalt. They tripped in a mess, all tangled, and his collar lopsided. Cobalt helped Sepia to her feet and she straightened his collar. She laughed and told him she hoped he would write.

“Every day,” he said.

And Sepia smiled at Cobalt’s rare voice, though her smile died before it reached her brown eyes. She walked back inside and danced through her sorrows. She bid adieu to professors and classmates alike. Outside, Cobalt watched Sepia do her best to keep smiling. He took a letter from his jacket and ripped it in two. Over the side of the balcony each jagged half disappeared below. And with the paper and ink Cobalt’s secret was killed.

The first country on her parents’ agenda flung Sepia to a faraway corner in a faraway desert. Every day of their fifteen day journey felt like being in an oven until cooked black beyond crisp. But at last she arrived, a new teacher waiting in an academy made of low rooms made of sand. The language here foreign, but she’d studied some in that faraway academy with people she’d never hear from again, of this she was certain. Her tall, thin escort led her to her dorm and carted in her supplies, her clothes, and a globe her parents had sent along for her journeys.

But already, there on her desk, neatly tied up with string was a stack of thick letters, each one to Sepia addressed. She bid her escort adieu, and double-checked the morrow’s schedule of classes to be learned. She prepared all her books, her pens, and her inks. Then she looked back to the letters that stayed in her mind. She cut the twine with a knife and the envelopes scattered. Her name and new distant address scrawled neatly on each in the same hand, but with no return address. Where had they come from there was only one way to know. Each one had been stamped with the day it arrived, and so Sepia sat and opened the earliest.

It read first a great scribble of dark, black ink and Sepia, and then the rest followed:

I hope your journey was not too terrible, though I admit it most likely was. The country is known for their unbearable heat and very dry wit. Although, I’m sure you’ll do swell. I wasn’t certain how long my letter would take to reach you so far, so after calculating, I thought it best to be safe and send it away right at once so you’d not be alone. Write to me if it please you.
Your friend,
Cobalt
P.S. My address is somewhere in and on the envelope. Good luck in your search.

Oh, Cobalt remembered how she dearly loved puzzles. Well, if his address was hidden she’d find it for certain. It took her only eight minute to find all the pieces. It’d be very clever. One line he’d written in reverse beneath the stamp. Another was hidden in the envelope’s lining. The third she found hiding in a bulge of the pulp. And the last was written incredibly small.

Why she’d write back at once! But should she read every letter, and reply to each one, or reply only once. When Cobalt had said he would write every day had he truly meant every day. She hoped that he did. For his writing made her laugh and smile as his silence never had. She would risk it. She’d wish for a letter to arrive by tomorrow. So, she had to catch up and write fifteen replies. She only hoped she was right. That another would come. Seven long years reading the same fifteen letters was a thought that depressed her and one she abhorred. She believed in Cobalt’s ‘every day’, for though it was true he was reticent, he never did lie, and kept every promise.

Sepia began her prose at once. She inquired after his return home and asked if it’d been pleasant. She asked him what his plans were from here on. She told him all about her journey to this dusty, faraway place. She wrote about the frightening storm they’d encountered at sea. In one letter, and only one, she asked if Cobalt had heard anything from Vanta, for she’d received no letter from his hand as of yet. So many things she asked and told she was quite concerned she was rambling, until in her last letter she spoke from the heart and told Cobalt how happy seeing his letters waiting there for her had made the place feel as home.

Although, she greatly lamented the lack of a proper letter opener, for Cobalt’s envelopes were all so intricately decorated and patterned she wished to keep each one. Although, this too presented her a problem for she’d need boxes for filing them away, neat and protected. This she only mentioned in a quick scribble to praise her dear friend’s honest heart and hand.

And true to his word a letter waited the next noon. There on her desk, after a particularly hard day of studies in a tongue she half grasped. Cobalt’s flourished letters were a comfortable friend she wrote to each day. She told him of the classes, the teachers, the rooms, and the chairs. Why everything was so different to her and she hoped it’d be something new for him too. Here in the desert lands her particular study was the movement of stars. What each star meant, where it came from and traveled, what each star could teach her and she learned it in all in that foreign desert tongue.

Four weeks passed by each day brought letter after letter, until a parcel arrived. A letter sat on top in that oh so familiar script. Sepia promised herself when she’d finished her assignment for the day whatever waited in the envelope and the tied package beneath would become her reward. It took nearly four hours, but at last she had drawn the astronomical map Professor Lami assigned, and then another two to perfect the pronunciation of the incantations Scholar Pani had written. At last, now she was free. Her reward waited like a treasure mound. She reached for the envelope first, after all one should always read the message before opening a gift, but found a row of flowers, carefully drawn, which spelled: open the packages first.

This Sepia did, for it was clear Cobalt had sent the lot. She tried to push the subject of Vanta’s missing letters far from her mind as she peeled away paper, tissue, and even more wrapping. Under the layers she found the two items he’d sent: a silver letter opener with a carved ocean wave grip and a stand with nine little handles. The wood gleamed with polish the likes of which she’d never seen, and here too were small carvings, of fawns and fishes and trees, of rivers and meadows and birds high above. She opened each drawer, but each of them empty, so at last she turned to the letter for some explanation.

Oh, how the silver blade of the letter opener glided with ease and tore none of the beautiful patterns Cobalt had printed. She opened the three-folded single paged letter, and read:

Sepia,
I imagine by the time these reach you it might be your birthday, if not then apologies for being too late or too early. You mentioned before, though two weeks past, I’m sure, you’re longing for a letter opener and a container for letters. I hope it’s alright I took the note quite literally. These are some gifts and I hope you can use them. If they clutter your room too much discard them, but just in case you wanted them I wished to give them.
Ever your friend,
Cobalt

A tear plopped on the words written in ink, which Sepia quickly strove to dab off with some tissue lest the writing become ruined. Cobalt was a true friend indeed. The letter opener was lovely and must have been an expensive gift, but even lovelier by far was the letter box. She examined its corners and the designs carved by hand into the wood. Then she saw it, quite small, but carved into the bark of a tree was Cobalt’s insignia. Had he made such a wonderous thing? The craftsmanship would lend anyone to believe it professionally made. It was sturdy and gorgeous, polished and waxed. Each drawer opened with ease and was lined with lush blue fabric. Sepia immediately gathered the letters she had and fitted them into the most top left corner drawer. They slid in so easy and the plush lining kept them from sliding. Oh, Cobalt had indeed given her a treasure. How could she thank such kindness?

She sat down at her desk, admiring the chest and silver opener. Something to show Cobalt her gratitude, but what could she make? She leaned back on her chair and balanced on only two of its legs, though she knew the masters would scold her if she got caught. Outside the open window it was already dark and the stars twinkled and winked. That’s it! She would thank Cobalt by giving him stars. It could show him the fruit of her labors, all that she’d learned in only six weeks. Although, she feared, it would take much longer to craft if she wanted it to last the voyage across the desert and sea, and to Cobalt’s distant land. Still, try she decided she must, for dear Cobalt’s sake. The only person to remember her and write without fail, every day. She too, would not falter in her daily replies. They had become such a joy to her daily routine, though she worried whether it was a terrible bother for Cobalt to pen a memo each day. Ought she to ask him?

For that day’s letter she settled on the sincerest of thanks. Though her simple words couldn’t express the joy she felt at receiving such extravagant gifts, and she wrote as much. Here she wondered again if she ought to praise his wonderful woodwork, for the chest had been crafted by his hand, of this she had no doubt. However, he had said no word of this in his letter to her, perhaps it was a skill he wished to stay secret, which was why he had marked it so small. So, she only wrote that whoever had crafted the chest must be a master of his work and must have love for the art. This she decided was enough, if he had wanted outright praise Cobalt would have told her it was made by his hand, but something inside told her he was shy of such things. Although they’d been schoolmates for so many years Cobalt had always been quiet and she was, quite ashamed to admit, she knew little of the young man whose letters she read each day.

In the following weeks she found herself asking more and telling less. She wanted to know of his interests. What sort of land did he live in? How did Cobalt spend all his days? He answered each question: he liked a variety of studies but found agriculture most interesting, his land was by the sea and the cliffsides there were the lovely color of Sepia’s hair, and every day he spent wondering what sort of letter she’d like best while he toiled at the duties his parents presented. His answers were followed by questions of his own. He wanted to know more of her studies, and why she’d been sent away so far, for so long after they’d only just finished their prestigious education?

How was to she to answer such questions? Well, first she explained she was learning of stars, not only their positions, but their meanings and how they communicated to the people below. Why if one was skilled enough the stars could tell their whole life, unfortunately she was not. Her teachers said she was about average in the arts of astrology, though her astronomy was good. Here also she studied long forgotten languages, the better to assist her on her next journey and the next. As to why she’d been sent so very far from home she couldn’t say, only that her parents had made the plan. She was a dutiful girl and wanted to serve them and others the best she could. So, although it was lonely and frightening at times she’d do her best in every way.

Their daily letters continued every week, every month. And the fortnight before she was to move on to her second country of study she at last finished the gift she’d been so long. It was a star globe, but not just the speckled night sky. It moved with the time, rotating slowly as the sky would above. And beneath a group of the stars was a disc of umber in the sky, that was her magic, she’d spent months learning it hard. The disc would track her across the world no matter where she went. This way, she wrote, no matter how far she was, wherever in the world, Cobalt could know what stars she saw each night. And wouldn’t it be lovely if he saw them too, but this last thought she left out of her note.

He’d not receive the globe for another two weeks, by that time she’d be just reaching her new home. She was told she’d be studying plants, which after a year in the desert seemed quite a boon. So, Sepia left behind the golden deserts and dark night skies, littered with stars. She carried all she had learned inside of her head, a trunk of her things, a textbook of notes and her chest of three hundred some letters. The things she had learned she knew would serve her well in the future, so long as she had stars to guide her along the right path. Her luggage was filled with the light desert clothing which she’d trade anew for the next country’s style. The textbook contained all of her notes on astronomy and astrology, the right words and places to look, just in case her memory grew foggy. And the chest, of course, held every letter Cobalt had sent, she’d even managed to tuck the letter opener into a drawer. Although, she was worried, for the chest was half full. Over the year he really had written each day. It turned out when one listened, or read, Cobalt had quite a lot to say.

Especially when she wrote to him of the second country she’d be schooled in. Oh, how green and how lush! The hills were rolling and the fields blooming with grain and vegetables, and the orchards, how sweet they smelled when they wind blew toward her window. Cobalt wrote too, how much he adored the star globe for he could follow her journey, even if not by her side, her heart skipped a beat. And, it comforted him still to know what stars watched down on her, so he too could look up and find them above, her heart skipped again.

They shared a love of all things growing in their letters brought daily. Sepia said her home was somewhat similar to this country, and it made her a little homesick for the flowers she grew. Cobalt confessed his own home stood very near the sea, but he hoped one day the land there’d be green instead of a darkish yellow, although the flowers that grew on the steep cliffsides there were beautiful. When she wrote back she’d like to see such lovely flowers, he corrected her in his next by saying he meant the cliffsides, for they were the color of her hair. It seemed now every letter made her pesky heart beat faster.

In a letter she received half a year later was a necklace of crystal, and inside the center a inky blue flower. Cobalt said he’d spent almost a day trying to scale down the side, and he was sorry for the diminutive size, but this was the best bloom he could find. Sepia’s heart pittered and pattered with each word she read. He’d gone through so much trouble all for a flower to make her smile. She wrote back at once and told of how even in the royal gardens at home there wasn’t such an elegant flower. It wasn’t until the letter had sent Sepia realized her error. Had she written too much and been too obtuse to stop her own hand?

In her final letter to Cobalt from this verdant land she sent him a great many seeds, with careful instructions on how to care best for each bloom or vegetable or tree that they sprouted. And, then once again she packed up her things, her head full of knowledge of growing and pruning, her trunk filled with clothes meant for gardening, her tome of plants beside her first book of stars, her chest of letters which was very much full, her letter opener, and her blue flower necklace. Then, Sepia went off to the third country’s school.

(part one) (part two) (part three) (the end)

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