by Serena W. Sorrell
Although she spent the trip in a series of blindfolds. Only for the reason for the return of her vision after living underground. Why if she just walked out she’d really go blind from the sudden light. So though she saw nothing she used her senses to write letters of the journey. It was bumpy, that made writing a chore, but the air was crisp and cool, and they were definitely ascending. At night she went unblinkered and was able to at last see blinding white stars. Oh, how she’d missed the sky, wide open and awesome. Before dawn came she was given a new blinder as the trip continued. She wrote to Cobalt of seeing the stars, brighter than she’d ever seen them before. She knew from her breathing the air was thinning, but her guides took the slope in long zig and zags for her to adjust. Which was all well and kind, but she knew at whatever her destination there’d be letter waiting and she longed to see Cobalt’s own hand, though she still loved to touch his writing.
At last they arrived. Sepia departed the palanquin and was blinded by a sea of white clouds below her. It dizzied her as much as it blinded, so high was she now. Her master came forward and explained here she’d learn all matters of the mind and the heart. The word ‘heart’ made hers speed, but with extended explanation she understood the master meant compassion and philosophy, too. She was greatly excited, for she loved to think on such problems, and knew Cobalt would, too. Her room was austere. The few things she carried seemed a luxury in fact. Yet, there on the low desk waited her treasure. A handful of letters.
Every day she spent meditating on the meanings of life, love, hate, and art. Sepia was taught the ponder the sources of suffering and happiness. She learned that all people, no matter how cruel or how kind, had lives of their own which controlled every action, at any time. Above all, she was told to always try to think of others with compassion when they did her a wrong, though it was difficult to imagine she did her best to understand the lessons her master imparted of her. Then came the day when he asked if she had in her life encountered romantic love, and Sepia stopped, and she thought a very, long time. Half the day passed before she moved to reply, and this was the way of the school in the clouds, so it suited her teacher fine to sit and wait, pondering things in her own mind.
Sepia answered that she had once thought herself in love five years prior, but sees now it was superficial and fleeting. However, she wondered about her heart’s current situation, for when her teacher spoke of love she saw Cobalt’s young face and imagined his letters. Sepia knew he was older now but had no frame of reference and didn’t care to imagine how time had changed him, only that he was. She told her master after half a day more, that yes, she was certain, she was in love. The master then asked if she was loved in return? Sepia thought and thought, and she thought more still, there was no doubt Cobalt was fond of her, but love? She could not say his words for him or answer with certainty. With a hint of smile on her wrinkled, wizened face her master inquired what did one do when one did not know some answer. Sepia mumbled quietly, for she didn’t want to, they asked.
In Sepia’s case, she wrote, with a sure heart and hand:
I am learning and thinking of much in this school above the clouds, perhaps you can see where I am beneath the stars. My schooling more than half finished and I find myself wondering if I might visit you in your country when it’s complete for I have much more to tell you and ask you. Your letters bring me more joy than I ever knew until I came here and really thought it all through. I hope you’ll keep writing, and I’ll continue each day. Until we meet, then.
Just a year prior Sepia would have thought this letter too bold, but given perspective and inquisitiveness from her master made her keen to pen every word. It was still rather open-ended she decided, if Cobalt had no feelings on his side he could write of another subject, but if he did share in her heart she would know by the ink he sent.
It came some weeks later, the trek to the school above the clouds distant and difficult to travel. With it a new chest, still more lovely than the last. Yet, all of Sepia’s senses were on the letter, for she felt it with every fiber of her soul, this was the letter that was the reply to hers for she had waited.
My dearest Sepia,
If you’ll forgive my assumptions. I look at the stars that dress your head every night before I sleep in hopes they may help me dream of you while they watch over you where I cannot see. I have as much to tell and ask as you have for me to hear and answer, I would be beyond joyed to have you in my presence. I wait to welcome you. There is much I want to write, but these words are for saying, not writing when I can neither see nor hear your reaction. Suffice to say, your letters are my greatest happiness every day and I too, have saved every note. Have I told you that yet? They are my most precious treasures, second only to one.
Always yours, and filled with happiness and hope,
And his reply was enough to know Cobalt’s heart. If Sepia considered as she had been taught she had known much longer, and loved him much longer than she had known herself. From then, each letter seemed to carry soft caresses and sweet whispers thought the contents remained the same. There were only three years until she could see Cobalt in person, his country by the sea, the cliffsides the color of her hair all dotted with blue flowers the color of his ink. What was three years when nearly five had already passed. Her learning had taught her obsession led to greed and covetousness, so she enjoyed Cobalt’s letters as she had before, and even if he should find a love before she could confess she would be truly happy for his joy.
With these thoughts and a thousand other ponderings on the human psyche and world Sepia moved onto to the fifth place she would study. This was no kingdom in clouds, or a cavern of darkness. This place was foul as the others had been pure. Even the city of machines had held beauty and creation, this school held only death, and that was to be her subject of study. The bog, sticky with black tar-like waters where things swam or sunk, which she couldn’t discern. The trees grew like bleached twigs and hung with black mosses like a drowned woman’s hair. And the air choked with every breath that she took, practically acid and bitter aftertaste on her tongue. Her mistress taught poisons and curses and hexes and all the black arts.
And at each one Sepia failed. Here there were no words of encouragement, but punishments for lack of hard-working. So Sepia spent almost every day without dinner and with spikes in her slippers. Yet, Sepia would not break as they expected her too. Her schooling of the past five years had taught her resilience. She would learn the theory of all these dreadful things, and never put them into practice. This was at least considered to be a compromise from her mistress, though not from her single classmate who excelled in every manner of wickedness. When the boy threatened to burn one of Sepia’s chest of letter Sepia hexed him, a terrible spell. His eyes turned backwards and his fingers each broke, her chest fell safely to the sticky floor.
Sepia undid her hex with ease and apology. The boy said it would have been a perfect example, had she not ruined it by weeping and apologizing over and over. Yet, it was enough to prove her strength and seriousness, and he would not bother her further. In her letter that eve she poured out her sin to Cobalt. How furious and fearful she had been and had hurt the poor boy without even thinking. She expected Cobalt to be quite disgusted with her, perhaps his letters would stop completely if he thought this her true face. It’d be too cruel. Imperfect marks she could survive, but life with Cobalt’s letters, she wasn’t certain she’d be able to bear it.
Dearest and kindest Sepia,
I know you feel guilt and remorse for what you did to your fellow. Doubtless, these lessons weigh heavy on you. Your heart is too beautiful to hate without cause, although soon the case may be changed. I’ve enclosed oils and dried flowers in a basket. I hope these will ease your breathing and calm you before you move on to the next school.
Forever thinking of you,
Oh, Cobalt was the kind one, much more than she. For him to have such faith in her when she’d been thrown in a fury at a threat to her boxful of letters. She did feel dreadful, that was indeed true, but she knew if anyone harmed her mementos of Cobalt they’d receive a similar due. The very thought frightened her. And what frightened her more was that were people in the world who really meant others harm for no reason at all, save to do the deed. From Cobalt’s own hand, did he fear she’d become someone like that? Did he worry that she would become cruel without cause? The thought disheartened her, though she remained silent on the subject in further letters. The oils and dried herbs she kept in a small pouch which she hid in her pillow, not daring to let the mistress see her flaw. Soon enough the year was ended.
The next country was indeed far from the swamps, a fact for which Sepia was glad. She had no wish to see the place again, or even use the notebook she had full of dark lessons. Her retinue traveled six days and another until the smell of the sea reached her. A seaside country!It would be her first. The thought greatly lifted her spirits as she remembered Cobalt’s own country was one such. She was invited into the castle to be taught by the royal scholars who advised and taught their young king. Apologies were given as he was far too busy with matters of the people to visit the young woman. Sepia hardly minded, for no matter where she had traveled and where she had been, no one had paid her special mind. And that was fine so long as she had Cobalt’s words.
She wondered if this country was at all like his. Later, after her lesson and first letter reply, she’d explore the grounds outside and write to him all she saw of this country and ask him what differed and what was the same. Her first lesson was on the uses of water and saltwater, too. How each was necessary to the world they inhabited, but unfortunately made the soil nearby not entirely suitable for growing crops. She was given some problems to ponder and sent to her chambers. These were quite large and nicer than all the others she’d lived in. A good home it’d make for the year. She found the letters sitting on her desk and replied to each one, asking the questions she had thought out while she’d roamed outside, though the guard bade her to stay away from the dangerous cliffs. She obeyed, sad to see only a sliver of sea. Perhaps in time they’d let her go nearer, but it was best to listen to orders and go do her problems.
After the third day of walking the same way she grew bored of the rocks and patches of soul she saw. She collected some dirt in several glass vials to see if her lessons from six years could be applied to make it hospitable. She returned to the castle and went up to her room, and there, leaning over her desk stood a man with a letter in hand. She dropped all her samples as she addressed the thief he turned and the afternoon light caught his hair of black-blue and his eyes gray as the ocean she had glimpsed. He set the letter on the desk and straightened his crown, then smiling like a secret, he spoke.
“I had rather hoped you wouldn’t catch me just yet.”
The air was pulled from her lungs and Sepia went dizzy. She stumbled a step and he rushed forward to catch her in arms stronger than those which had hugged her five and some years prior. She looked up at him, who’d grown taller than her in the long absence. His jaw was tense and his eyes a bit fearful, but beneath it all she saw the unyielding fondness he’d always had for her.
“Cobalt, you fool. No matter how much I adore reading your letters did you not think I longed to see and hear you in person most of all?”
“Well, I did– that is, I had hoped you’d be glad. I just thought I write another letter to soften the shock. The questions you had all seemed to mean you’d figured me out and I was so nervous you’d see the cliffsides yourself. Oh, Sepia, say you aren’t cross with me, please. I know it was foolish, but I wanted it all to be right, to be perfect.”
“Perfect? Perfect for what,” she dared to run her fingers along his cheek and he stared at her without moving, “my silly Cobalt. Oh, but your crown! You’re the king, and I’m being so rude––”
Sepia dropped into a curtsy, but Cobalt pulled her back before she’d completed the act. He pressed his lips to hers and held her as close as he could, but so, so light, like she was made of glass. She kissed him in return and held him harder yet still. When they finally parted, King Cobalt blushed and gasped.
“Sepia, dearest, most darling Sepia. I have always loved you, your kindness, your mind, your heart, and your ambitions. If these five year my letters have pleased you then that is enough to bring me joy, but I must ask–discovered as I am–if you love me too?”
“With all of my heart, Cobalt.”
For the first time since she had met him some fifteen years prior Cobalt beamed, a smile more radiant she’d never seen. She kissed him again and he held her tight as he could. And for once the letter on her desk went ignored, even with a bouquet of blue flowers beside it.
However, for as overjoyed as she was she made Cobalt leave her studies alone, which he agreed to. Most of the time. Though as kings are able to do he roamed his castle freely and happened once or twice or three times a week to run into the student his royal scholars taught. It didn’t take long for the castle to understand, for never before had their quiet, solemn king so smiled and laughed before. Indeed the court decided there would be a wedding long before it entered Sepia’s mind. She knew who he was, a king, but had he a clue of her lot in life? The voice of her master from above the clouds resounded in her mind: What do we do with questions we don’t know the answers to?
Since that day of discovery Cobalt had still written a letter each day, though he saw her nearly every other. In his letters he confessed it was awful hard not to skip a court meeting just to fly to her side. Indeed, with Sepia so near he found his concentration had reverted to something like the shy schoolboy he’d once been, tongue-tied and unable to think of anything but her. Each letter she received she would reply right away, often admonishing him for not giving all his attention to those whom relied upon him. But always she’d add, at the very last line, how much she longed to see him, too, and sit under the stars or talk of nothing at all, so long as she could hear his voice say her name.
But the letter today, she wrote only one line: Do you know who I am?