by Serena W. Sorrell

The next day the reply waited. With shaking fingers she opened it with the letter knife.

Sepia,
I have known who you were since the day I first met you. You were the first love I had. You were the first person I wrote letters to every day of my life. You are the woman I love now. And, for only a few months, yes, I have known who you are. The daughter of the faery king and queen of the distant green lands. You were born with small skill in magic and that is why they forced on you this seven year voyage to study. If not by magic, then by knowledge you’d rule. I read all this in the official request they sent for their princess, Sepia, to study in my kingdom by the sea. I accepted the request knowing I’d meet you here. Half of my acceptance was my own need to see you again, even though you said you’d visit when your trip was complete. It turns out I am a selfish man when it comes to your heart.
Love, and apologies for not admitting all earlier,
Cobalt

The failed fae princess. He knew who she was, yet mocked her not for it. His esteem for her warmed her and chilled her all at once. Never before had she loved someone so fierce. She wrote a reply in great haste, her handwriting practically scribbles. Then ran down the hall where the king’s chamber was and bade the guards there announce her and forgive her the hour. One guard entered the door, while one watched the woman standing there, half-dressed for bed and hair quite a wild mess, clutching a letter until it wrinkled in her fist. The king appeared, eyes round with surprise. He sent the guards away and Sepia came through the door. For a moment, he seemed to be bracing himself as he faced the door he closed behind them, fearing the worst, that somehow he’d harmed her.

When he at last turned to face her she pressed the letter into his chest, noticed how his heart beated. He opened it and read, a small smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. Without a word he strode to his own desk and sat with quill and ink and wrote only a moment. He didn’t fold it or wait for it to dry, the letters dripped, but he held it up for Sepia to read.

Marry me, please.

“Yes,” she threw herself into his arms, the letter squashed between them and forgotten in their laughter and kisses.

Their engagement was announced the next day, though the king and the fae princess had missed most of their day’s appointments. The kingdom rejoiced. For one week Sepia was not required to attend classes and the king could skip his meetings. For the remainder of the year Sepia absorbed everything the tutors had to teach her, she tested the soil of Cobalt’s kingdom and reported her finds. Within five years they could grow healthy crops if they followed her regimen. King Cobalt, too, worked harder than ever. His council impressed and the court happy their king was at last to wed. And Sepia seldom spent a night in that grand room where all her chests full of letters stood. Although each day she visited and filed a new note. Her nights were all spent beside Cobalt in bliss.

The year passed too fast for the two lovers who had at last confessed all their secrets to one another. King Cobalt was sore to see his bride go, but they took some solace the wait would be just a year more until they were united again. So off Sepia went, the failed fae princess, the to final kingdom of learning. On her way to the wall, for there was no other way to describe it, she stared up at the sky. The kingdom was a fortress, with walls higher than any tower and no windows to let light in, or out. As the heavy stone doors were pulled apart Sepia was carried through dark, dingy streets. The people here were gaunt and hard cut, like pieces of obsidians ready to slice.

She was delivered here to the castle as well. A rare greeting indeed, as only Cobalt had deigned to see her in all of the kingdoms she learned in, a greeting she was glad of indeed. The royal family met her at once, though she still wore the flowing blue gown of the seaside kingdom which was such a stark splash of color against the kingdom of hard grays and dull blacks. The king and queen thanked her kingdom for their crops, which provided most of the food to their kingdom as well, and though Sepia knew it was paid as a bribe to not be attacked she acted with courtesy and she knew her parents would want. The first prince of the country was kinder, clapping a hand on her shoulder and welcoming her to their city and all that they might teach her, for he had heard from his younger brother she was a pupil most keen.

That was when Sepia turned with surprise and met the hard eyes she remembered from long ago. This kingdom was Vanta’s, and he the second prince. Sepia made her curtsies to all and begged leave for her schooling, which much to her shock was to take place in the castle. Sepia had no words to give Vanta, not after six long years. She had learned all she needed about him when last they had spoke. Her friendship meant nothing. Every person simply a tool. She was at least glad he would not inherit the crown. For this kingdom was renowned for its strategy and cunning, they conquered others and made kingdoms paid tithes. Her own country was under such a command, yet with magic inside her parents never had trouble meeting the demand.

“Sepia,” Vanta cornered her on her way to morning lessons, “you’ve been so busy studying we’ve had no time to catch up. I hope you’ll join me for dinner and regale me with tales of all that you’ve learned.”

She stood there, near dumb, and quietly wondered how she’d ever thought it was Vanta she loved. She saw him down to his soul and it was all rot. He’d do quite well at curses, hexes, and poison she thought. She curtsied low and stared at the carpet until he passed by. There was no way out of this invitation. She could make nice for one short evening. They could reminisce about younger days before he’d become a beast in her understanding eyes.

At dinner her was refined and smooth, everything Vanta had been since they’d met. In fact, she found he’d changed not at all. The mask that he wore was just a false face she could at last see through. He asked of her lessons in their powerful kingdom, she was studying war and all of its arts, she learned how to fight and defend, but most of all she was told again and again this kingdom was the strongest, and no other could defeat it. Vanta smiled at this. He asked what’d she’d learned in other, less, countries. She told him of stars, grasses, and caverns, she spoke about rocks above the clouds, and bogs deep and dark. She quickly passed over what she’d learned at the sea, and that brought her to Vanta’s homeland. She repeated for effect, this kingdom was the strongest by far.

After their meal Vanta walked Sepia back to her rooms and stood by her door to bid her good night. He leaned in to kiss her and she ducked out of reach with alarming speed. She curtsied again and thanked him for any interest he thought he owed her, but her heart had moved on and she was engaged. Yet, no matter how many times he asked to whom her tongue would not budge. He accepted this coolly, as she had determined he would to save face and remain with grace. Instead he asked a question, innocuous seeming, yet in his mouth twisted to something quite foul.

“Say, Sepia, dear,” her skin crawled to be called so by him, “if you’d been born second to an older sibling how would you go about becoming the first?”

“Vanta, you mock me, knowing as you do I am my parents’ only child,” she straightened her spine and met his sharp eyes, “but had I been blessed with an elder brother or sister I would live for my country and do all I could to serve them.”

“I expected no other answer from someone’s who’s always been a fool. I have no use for a foolish girls, just as I’ve no use for a foolish heart.”

“A foolish girl I may be, Vanta, but I have a love who cherishes this foolish heart in my chest, and even for you I wish such a gift.”

He scoffed. She went into her room. That night she wrote to Cobalt, and not trusting the guards, she sent it by her weak magic. She asked Cobalt not to write her with his name, for she feared Vanta’s heart and cherished the others. And so it was each day came a letter from a different address, signed by a stranger’s name, but the words clear to her love. As time passed in the war-like kingdom Sepia studied weapons of destruction and torture. She learned strategies for murder and secrecy, and passed time grimly, by learning how generals moved forces.

Four months into her tutelage there her belly had begun to swell. She knew inside was a life she had made from her love with her dearest, so far away. She wrote to him of the good news and some stranger’s letter she received, overjoyed to hear such a wondrous event. Vanta, however, scowled more every day. Though the rest of his family offered congratulations, happy indeed the fae line would continue, no doubt to pay tribute to their owners. Yet, Vanta’s elder brother was kind. He often came to bring soothing teas to Sepia as she grew more and more. And When it became too far for her to walk to the lecturing halls he taught her himself in the library next door. Why if not for Vanta’s looming and lurking it would be a rather good place, and she was determined to make the most of it. One night, after returning to her room, she found Vanta fingering through thousands of letters in three large wooden chests, much to her horror.

“Why I had no idea Cobalt meant to keep that ridiculous promise of writing you letters, and one for every single day? My, how loved you must feel, how cherished. The father of your child is also a silly man, I see. Perhaps his lover will prove wiser.”

Alarmed, horrified, shocked, and quite frightened Sepia stood facing Vanta, but knew he could do her, nor the child, any harm. She raised her up, defiant and strong, but instead of shirking Vanta’s smile only widened.

“My, how courageous you’ve become, my little fae princess. So, let us strike a bargain, one life for another. You see, dear Sepia, I will not stand to be second, and I know through your boring lecture of the past six and half years you’ve learned quite well poison and curses, and though your magic is weak, I imagine you can be creative if Cobalt’s neck lies under my ax.”

She kept still, she stayed calm. Sepia didn’t lunge at Vanta or attack. She knew it was no mere bluff, Vanta wanted power. He wanted everything he thought the world owed to him, and to get it, there was no question in her mind he would murder Cobalt to do it. She went to her notebooks, and pulled out the one she’d kept in the marsh. On a small piece of paper she wrote ingredients there and passed it to Vanta, shuddering when their skin touched.

“Those are the things I’ll need if that’s what you order me to do. I won’t pretend innocence, but I won’t let you take away what I love, so help me Vanta, if you harm him you’re dead.”

Vanta grinned, ear to ear, it seemed to split his face like a knife. He pressed the list to his chest and bowed to the promised murdering princess. In two days he had gathered the terrible ingredients she’d need. Though she wished the first prince no harm, when it came between him or her Cobalt, she knew which death she could weather. The first prince had been kind, almost a brother, and yet she devised and concocted and brewed such a dreadful potion. A poison, the color and taste of his favorite wine, add it to his glass, every last drop, and he die a painless death by sunrise. Vanta gleamed at the vial and admonished her softness for being certain to cause him no pain. That night she claimed sickness and dined in her room. She slept not a wink and when the mourning bells rang she was the first to shed tears. She had murdered a man for Cobalt’s life.

Not so long after Vanta was crowned heir and first prince. While months wandered on he was given more duties, though this seemed to please him. Had she done it then, truly, had Cobalt been spared? Their letters continued and she spoke of nothing but lessons and the state of their child. He wrote to her of how happy he was to be soon reunited. Only three months remained. Would he understand? Could he forgive her? She had to confess her sins to at least him. If for no other reason than to warn him of Vanta, their once jovial classmate who’d been only a villain playing a role. She sent off the letter, her magic weaker for grief, growing babe, and lack of sleep. The child took her energy, but she knew it’d grow healthy for the stars divined so. With that small comfort inside her heart Sepia waited for a letter, but none came to her desk.

A single day, that was all it took for Sepia to feel the world had gone wrong. She stole a horse from the stable and enchanted it as much as her feeble magic could. By dawn the next day she had ridden to the seaside kingdom. The town was in cinders, the earth scorched black. Her heart banged louder and louder every step up to the castle. Inside the halls were smeared red, every guard, maid, groom, court lady, and advisor all dead. Palsied hands turned open Cobalt’s door and she saw him leaned over his desk. In his hand he held a pen and in his back plunged a knife. Sepia cried out and ran to him there, although he was dead he was still warm with life. Every lesson she’d learned she’d been taught life was a gift, and once taken could not be regiven, but oh, how she tried. With tears streaming down her face and her cries nearly howling, she tried, and she tried, and she tried, and she tried.

She pressed kisses to Cobalt’s soft, dark hair. She gripped his hands in hers and kissed every bare knuckle there. She saw his letter, written in full, his last letter to her.

Heart of my world, my dearest Sepia,
I can only imagine the struggle you’ve been through. How this much have tortured you so, every second of every minute of every day. It is no sin you bear alone, my love. You traded one life for mine, and so the fault is halved. I carry as much burden as you, and I carry it proudly. Sepia, believe me, every word, when I write if some fiend threatened you harm I would end thousands of lives to save only yours. I will come at dawn to take you away.
My love for will never stop.
Always yours, as you are ever mine,
Coba—

And there his ‘l’ dragged down the paper. The moment his life had been stolen.

“You know,” a voice interrupted, “for a king, I found him to be woefully under-guarded.” Vanta came from the shadows behind the door she had entered, “Oh, come now, don’t make such a face.”

He had watched her weep, listen to her cry, he had been spying as her heart died. And he smiled to see the pain and life go from her brown eyes.

“You promised. One life for another.”

“I lied.” Vanta shrugged without blinking, “If I were you, a sagacious fae princess, I would do as I was told now. For there’s still one more life I can take if I choose.”

He pulled the knife for Cobalt’s back with a sick sound that her gasp aloud and Vanta’s grin deepened as he pointed the knife’s tip at Sepia’s pregnant belly. She covered her unborn child with both hands where he aimed, as if her flesh and sinew might offer any restraint to a blade. He took a bite of an apple he swiped from Cobalt’s desk and continued his orders.

“So, you’ll keep Cobalt’s child, for I’m a kind man, so my people will think when I wed the princess whose lover was murdered. Then when you bear my heir the bastard will take second place, as I endured for so many years. And if you say no, the brat died in your belly. And if you try to run I will hunt you like prey. And, if ever, you disobey any order, I’ll slit the throat of Cobalt’s only child. Now, I think that sounds rather fair, don’t you,” he picked up the letter, “heart of my world, my dearest Sepia?”

She lunged from the letter and ripped it from him. Not one shred more of Cobalt would he take. She folded up the letter and held it tight to her chest. Then, defeated, Sepia nodded her head to his demands. Vanta shrugged at her display. He let her keep the piece of paper.

They returned to his walled in kingdom of war and death. The first prince announced with great sadness that the princess’ bridegroom’s kingdom had been sacked and all murdered by night raiders along the coast. He spoke to them of courage and how their great King Cobalt had died in a struggle with sword in hand, all in hopes to see his child born and his love wed. Yet, only one month had waited between the king and his dreams, to be robbed so utterly cruelly. Vanta had been a friend to both Cobalt and Sepia in childhood, and he would open his home and his heart to poor Sepia and raise his friend’s child as if it were his own.

The marriage was readied at once, for the child too, expected any day. Sepia let the maids rush about her carrying bolts of fabric and dressing her in the colors Vanta chose. Black for his bride, he’d declared, for though a happy occasion there was still great cause for mourning. His court all agreed and thought him kinder than ever. What a spell he’d woven over these dunces, who if they’d only look they’d see the cracks in his mask. His cruelty and hatred were worn plain for all to see. Surely the king and queen knew, too, it was only a matter of time until they met with tragedy as their first son had, quite unaccidentally. When at last she was left alone, ready and waiting for the ceremony the begin at sunset, Sepia stood, bulging and heavy. She stacked her three chests of letters from Cobalt on a servant’s cart and pushed them through the hallway.

She walked unseen through the streets crowded with celebrators, for living in dark caverns had taught her more than how to not see, in this way she walked through the front gates by the guards stationed there.

She looked at the sun and the clouds, the stars only just twinkling. She asked them now to close the heavy stone doors she’d never budge after a hundred years.

And the gates closed.

She asked the stone walls to seal every crack, every crevice, to close every hole. The earth listened. The walls of the city glistened like a bowl, the entrance was sealed. No way in. No way out.

She heard at last a voice from the other side. Vanta, screaming to his naughty bride. What was she doing? Had she forgotten their deal? Did the life of one child mean so little to her?

She opened Cobalt’s final letter and read aloud to her child the words of their father: if some fiend threatened you harm I would end thousands of lives to save only yours.

Hatred twisted inside her. The lesson she had never mastered. Anguish burned in her heart. Something which no class could teach. Loathing and spite tingled her nerves. Instructions for dark magic only Vanta had taught her.

Clouds formed above Sepia, bulging like her. Those cumulus, heavy with rain, grew larger and large until there was no end in sight. Then the first drop fell, cobalt blue ink, and it rolled down her cheek like a tear. Every other droplet though filled up that city. The rain made of seven years worth of letters. The ink was like ooze as the people tried to run through it. By nightfall, as the rain continued, she heard some of them choking in the thick ink that fell. But there was more, oh, so much more. She had thousands and thousands and thousands of letters.

For seven weeks the rain fell, until it spilled over the sides of that gargantuan cup, but Sepia was satisfied. She had known there was no building higher than the wall, and no way out save the one she had sealed. Satisfied at last, Cobalt’s child was safe and her life her own to live she returned to her home, in the fae land of green. Her parents had known of her engagement and child, but when they saw their daughter, a woman at last. She stood there silent and told them all she had done, and reported she was to give birth that night, the stars read. And so she did. A boy with hair as dark as his father’s, but skin the color of brown cliffsides, and his eyes the color of sapphire flowers, brighter than his father’s dark blue ink.

She named their son Sapphire, and for those first weeks she nursed him and read every letter Cobalt had ever sent. From the first until she reached the last, where his name had fallen with death, she swaddled her babe and at last stepped outside. On every road, on every house’s thatch, in the fields, and the garden patches, grew thousands and thousands of blue, seaside flowers, Cobalt and Sapphire’s flowers. Though the fae farmers moaned at the work to de-spell all these invasive weeds Sepia was sure to keep one in a pot by her windowsill. And after six months, when both bloom and babe were quite large, Sepia left her fae country. She said farewell to her parents who could adopt any magic child in town as their own for they no longer had to pay half of their harvest. Sepia rode away in a cart with Sapphire, three chests of letters, a case of texts, and a potted blue flower.

She rode to Cobalt’s kingdom, where here too the flowers had bloomed. She knew he was welcoming them home. It took many years of hard labor for the earth to bear seeds, yet every day Sepia toiled with Sapphire nearby, tucked in a neat basket. When the boy was about eight the kingdom again flourished. People were living there under kind Queen Sepia’s rule. Every year, one day only she’d wear a dress of dark cobalt blue, dyed nearly black in ink. This was the kingdom’s day of mourning for the king she had taught them about. But Sapphire thought it odd and asked her instead.

“Mother, you wear this dress but once a year, but every day you leave a letter on father’s tomb, and the next day it’s gone. Why write a letter no one will ever read and that the wind steals each day?”

She kissed Sapphire’s dark blue hair and straightened his collar. She smiled with secrecy in her eyes that told him he’d get no answer. Someday though, someday she’d tell him, Cobalt reads every letter she writes, and in her dreams, she hears every reply he whispers.

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

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