I rubbed my eyes, and stretched. The candle was burning on the nightstand but the light from the window drowned its subtle, orange glow. Yawning, I made breakfast – toast and eggs, just what I needed. I washed the dishes, swept the floor, wiped the table, and snuck a bite of pie before noticing the time on the sundial and running out the door.
I cursed. I’d forgotten to put out the candle! It’d die by the time I was back. Ah well, I’d just have to buy a new one on the way back. No time to go back; I was late, had to take drastic measures.
I jumped off the cliff. Wind jostled my hair, made my cheeks flutter and my eyes burn, but I kept my knees bent and my back straight. The ground rumbled as I stuck a perfect landing and resumed running. I slid into the gates, breathing heavily. Patting down my hair and fixing my shirt, I climbed the steps to the crimson tower. I knocked on the door to my room and waited three seconds.
“There you are!” I said, as I entered the room. I hopped onto the stone podium.
“Right, let’s get this started,” I said, arching my back, and closing my eyes.
Purple vapor flooded the back of my eyes. My eyes were shut tight, but I could see the floor, walls, ceiling, curtains, pedestal; all an aggressive shade of red that cut through the purple mists.
The warmth in my chest receded, driven back by an apathetic chill. My senses went behind the veil; I could see, touch, listen, smell, taste, but I couldn’t process any of it.
And finally, I felt nothing. No heat, no cold. No pain, no joy. No sorrow, no happiness.
It took a while for the unease to set in – it always managed to burrow its way through the haze eventually – but when it came, I panicked like always. I was a cog in the machine, an unfeeling gear. I barely existed at all and relished the moment something tinkered with me, with my soul, changing parts of me without any regard for what I wanted.
It was horrifying, but it was necessary. Because without this, I wouldn’t have what came after. The sweet, sweet release.
The purple mist dispersed, my senses returned, and a wave of warmth washed over me. I gasped for air like I was drowning, flailed, and tripped on my own pedestal. When I hit the floor with my head and the pain shot through me, nearly choking me, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because even though it was a painful experience, it was something, and anything was better than the haze.
My breath calmed after an hour or so on the ground. The room was dark, save for the silver glow behind the curtains. As usual, I’d been out all day. I straightened my clothes, took a deep breath, and went down the staircase. The walk home was always more fun; wind on my skin, moonlight on the creeks and streams, and the scent of the forest and the mountains. It was all so clean, so pure, so real; I loved it.
Opening the door, I realized I’d forgotten to pick up another candle. At least the windows were open, letting in all that silvery goodness. Then again, I never opened the windows in my bedroom so it was probably dark in there.
I threw off the coat, slipped out of my shoes, and grabbed something to drink before reading a book by the window facing the moon. It was a good book although I didn’t remember how I’d gotten it. Then again, since when did that matter.
“Pagebreak,” was its name. Silly name for such a serious book but perhaps that was fitting. I closed it before I could start reading, because the clouds had covered the moon and I was drowsy. Time to go to sleep in the dark.
I opened the door to my room – perhaps I could keep the door open to let the moonlight in. Perhaps I could open the curtains like a normal person. Or perhaps I needn’t do any of that because the candle was burning just fine, flickering and dancing, and casting all sorts of shapes on the walls. It hadn’t gotten any shorter either, nor had any wax melted off to make weird bulges and pools on its sides and bottom.
I settled into bed, pulled the covers over myself, and gazed at the candleflame. The shadows on the walls were dancing but I had no idea what they were trying to do. Was that the silhouette of a little girl? Wasn’t me, but then who else could it be?
Who could it be? Who?
Another figure danced around the pronged sun. A little boy, his figure blurred and hazy. He danced around the flames with his sister – why sister – and someone else – a taller figure I didn’t recognize.
The flame flickered to the side, engulfing the taller figure in darkness. The wind blew, driving the flame further away, making it grow tiny, insignificant. The girl lagged behind, she wasn’t going to make it.
The boy came back, pushed the girl away. More wind, and he was gone. The tall figure came back, too late, too little, too insignificant. Even when the wind settled, the girl’s figure began to fade until only the tiny tall one was left.
The wind blew and I fell asleep.
I groaned and turned.
“Come on, don’t be lazy.”
The back of my eyelids lit up. I buried my face in the pillows.
“Want me to bring the bucket?”
“I’m up, I’m up,” I grunted, rubbing my eyes. I stretched and opened my eyes.
“Honestly,” said Yunni. “It’s getting harder to wake you up.”
“No, it’s getting harder to ignore you,” I replied.
“Whatever, breakfast’s ready. Wear something decent before coming down, will you?”
“Whatever,” I said. The door shut and her footsteps faded.
I threw my blanket off and changed into a long, red robe. The curtains had been flung open viciously, flooding the room with sunlight. The poor candle in the corner could barely shine. I fixed my bowtie in the mirror, brushed my hair, washed my face, and went downstairs.
“Took you long enough.”
“Sorry, Jeffy,” I said.
“They’re waiting for you outside,” he said, jabbing his finger at me. “Just get out there already.”
I nodded, tousled the angry little boy’s head, and left the tower.
“… she’ll be here any minute now. She’s – there she is!”
“Sorry for the wait, everyone,” I said, walking on stage.
“I’ve been stalling for fifteen minutes,” hissed Yunni as she stepped down and wiped her brows. I made an apologetic face only she could see.
“Right,” I said aloud, causing the seething mass of people below me to hush immediately. “How can I help you today?”
Only one voice spoke, “I have a headache.”
I snapped my fingers. “Next.”
“My cat’s missing.”
I spent the whole day there, fixing the tiniest of problems the people of the world had brought to me. The crowd thinned out eventually, and by the time the sun set, there were only a few people left.
“Will she love me?”
“Ask her yourself.”
“Should we have the baby?”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
“Should we break up?”
“Still love each other?”
“Got any kids?”
And with that everyone went home. I wiped my forehead and descended from the stage.
“You did great,” said Yunni. I smiled and hugged her.
“Thanks, Yunni, you’re the best.”
“You too, Jeffy.” I hugged him.
Back in my room, I took off the elaborate yet comfy robe and jumped into bed. I snapped my fingers and the curtains closed gently, just waiting to be thrust apart by an annoyed little girl. The only light came from the candle, burning brightly and steadily on the nightstand.
It cast shadows on the walls; a tall figure, all upright and proper, a girl and her brother, dancing in a circle. Had to be a circle, of course.
But there were more this time. Another girl – taller, brighter – danced on the other side of the room. With her was a boy with a gap in his face – a smile, perhaps. Another, much smaller figure with strings, no, chains, flying around her tiny arms.
I went to sleep staring at the last figure, a black blob in the shape of a boy. The darkness of unconsciousness took me but not before I could blur the boy’s figure inside my vision.
I woke with a jolt. “Get off me,” I shouted with the little breath left in my lungs.
Snickering, the little devils ran away.
“Damn it, just you wait,” I said, crawling out of bed, bleary-eyed.
“You weren’t waking up.”
“Doesn’t mean they can jump on me.”
“Of course, it does.”
“Get out of here, Lily.” I threw a pillow at her.
“Fine, fine. Just get down in time, will you? Being late to your own big day would be the worst.” She didn’t shut the door on her way out.
I rubbed my eyes and the room swam into view. Same red curtains, walls, floors, and door. Maybe a change in décor was in order. That candle in the corner was an eyesore too. Then again, I probably wouldn’t be staying here much longer. I stretched and yawned. Nothing beat a good night’s sleep, it was the best feeling in the world. The getting up part I could live without.
After getting ready, I made my way downstairs. Outside the windows on the stairs, the sun had only just risen so it was still dark. Getting up early was always such a pain, but today wasn’t the time to complain. It was a big day after all, the big day.
“There she is,” said Zoe as I reached the ground floor.
“You little rascal,” I said, trying to catch her.
She ran, giggling. “Your fault for sleeping in.”
“I wasn’t sleeping in!” She was too far away to hear.
I sighed. Whatever. Making my way to the kitchen, I ran into Runir.
“Hey, you ready for today?” he asked. “That bed-hair will look great in the photos.”
I glared and tried to mat down my unruly strands. “I’ll take a bath in a bit. Is Lily making breakfast?”
“Goddess help us all.”
“Sure, get on that, will you?”
“Where you headed?”
“Gotta set up the stage.”
In the kitchen, Lily stood over a boiling pot.
“Have some!” she said, trying to pour me a bowl.
“I don’t think I can handle it.”
“Fuck no, can’t go on an empty stomach.”
“It’ll just come back up, anyways.”
“I mean, I’m so nervous I couldn’t keep it down.”
“Damn, makes sense. Must be all jittery and fluttery inside, huh.”
“Yep, you should try it sometime.”
“No way, we’re not there yet.”
“Oh come on, you might as well be.”
“Damn it, fine, go eat an apple or something.”
“Okay.” I ate an apple.
We waited in the kitchen for a while, me munching on an apple and Lily ignoring the sludge in the pot. At least she wasn’t going to try and eat it herself, wouldn’t want her sick today – she had duties to perform.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said, softly.
“Imagine how I feel.”
“Seems like just yesterday we were in the bushes.”
“Yeah, I was such a piece of work back then.”
“Good thing you loosened up, huh.”
“It’s almost over.”
“I dunno, just felt like something’s ending.”
“Well, it’ll be the start of something new, too.” I threw the apple core away. “Right, time to get prettied up.”
“Need any help?”
“Nah, I’ve got this.”
I went into the back room and looked at myself in the mirror.
This was it; the big day. Gotta look pretty, embrace the goddess inside, Aia. Embrace the goddess!
I took a bath, soaking for an hour in the tub full of lukewarm water. I let my hair drift on the surface before diving in and holding my breath. I scrubbed every last corner and took a shower for good measure. Dousing myself in perfume and covering my face in makeup, I looked at myself in the mirror with trepidation. I had to look the part, had to be the Fire Goddess for just one day. Not like it’d impress him, it was just a ceremonial role, after all.
I puckered my lips. Maybe lipstick wasn’t a good idea, just in case I messed up on stage. I wiped it off but then my lips looked weird. Lip balm was a decent compromise.
I blow-dried my hair with a little magic Runir had taught me – the guy was a genius. I brushed it with long and short strokes, as recommended by Lily. Never had to deal with messy hair before, to be honest. No idea why, it was always just perfect. I’d hated it.
I stared at myself in the mirror, slapped my cheeks, and took a deep breath. This was it. I donned a bathrobe and came outside. A few dresses were laid out on the bed, ironed to perfection. The laces were frilly and the frills, lacy. Breathtaking.
I wore it gingerly, afraid I’d bend a string or fold a crease. Probably didn’t have to worry, Adriana said this was the best dress in existence. She wasn’t the kind to lie so it probably was. All the more reason to treat it carefully, then.
I checked myself out in the full body mirror Lily had left by the dresser. I held my breath, it was too surreal. Was that really me? All this white suited Solaron better, I thought. I need a dash of something else, something more me.
I rummaged in my cupboard. Where was it, where was it? Ah, there it was. I pulled it out and tied it in my hair. In front of the mirror once again, I twirled.
“Looking good,” said Yunni.
“Don’t think I’ve forgiven you!” I said, tottering over to her.
She chuckled and stepped out of the way. “Don’t wanna ruin the dress.”
I growled. “Once I’m out of this thing, I’ll –”
“Be too busy to worry about anything else?” she finished. “Don’t worry, I doubt I’ll be waking you up anytime soon.” She giggled. I frowned. “Now come on. Runir’s calling, it’s time to head out.”
I sighed and caught a glance of myself in the mirror one last time. As long as things went as perfectly as I looked, it would be fine. Out in the flying car, Runir, Lily, Zoe, Yunni, and Jeffy were waiting impatiently. I sat shotgun; couldn’t let my dress wrinkle. We left the shrine as the clouds covered the sun.
Huge, and with so many people too! The butterflies in my stomach were throwing a party and I could barely stand. There was that gnome, and the kids from the Academy. The kids from Ashpoole too, boy was that a long time ago. A dragon lay around the marquee; I’d thought he was part of the scenery. Might as well be.
My sisters ushered me into a secret room. Couldn’t let them see me just yet.
“You look gorgeous,” said Adriana.
“Love the hair,” gushed Opal.
“The dress fits you perfectly. Damn, I’m a little jealous,” said Lunaris.
“You’ll have your time,” I said. “Probably,” I added under my breath. She punched me playfully.
“Settle down, don’t want to ruin your perfectness,” said Breize.
“Baby girl’s all grown up,” said Solaron, sniffling. Never pegged her for the sentimental type.
“Hey, we’re the same age.”
I shook my head. We chatted for a little while until they finally left me alone, a few minutes before the ceremony. I sat behind the mirror, marveling at what looked back in me. Not to sound full of myself but I couldn’t find a single flaw. Perfect face, no wrinkles, no bags under my eyes, skin so smooth you could roll a stone over it. Hair sitting just right – no loose ends or knots or whatever. Earrings matched the dress, dress matched the shoes, and everything tied together by the big red ribbon in my hair.
Perfect, it was perfect.
“It’s time,” said Lily from outside.
I took a deep breath and gave myself one last glance. I got up to leave and reached the door but hesitated. I looked at the mirror again. The room had no windows and only one candle burning bright in the corner, so I could barely see myself. But it was enough.
I tousled the front of my hair a little. A few strands came loose, hanging over my forehead. I smiled and left the room.
“Looking great – oh, wanna fix that up?”
“No, I’m good. Let’s go.”
We walked down the red carpet, my long gown trailing behind me. The guests stood up and clapped, even the dragon roared joyfully. Music played, a long, ceremonial song I’d never thought could be so moving, so emotional. I almost teared up on the way, but Lily’s strong arm on mine and the enormity of the occasion held them back.
In the distance, on the other side of the long walk, I saw him. In a tux and tie, no glasses, which made him look odd, but in a good way. He laughed nervously. I wasn’t the only one with butterflies, I reckoned.
It was getting late and the dipping sun was hidden behind the clouds. They lit the candles, hundreds of them all over the place. Breize’s contraptions with a little bit of fire magic, wonderfully convenient. They lined the carpet, hanging over people’s heads. The walk seemed to take forever yet it was over too soon.
He grabbed my hand and we met each other’s eyes.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“You look okay too,” I said, mischievously. His smile broadened.
“Come on, I wanna eat cake,” said Zoe from behind me. I shot her a furious glance.
“Now, now, settle down,” said Solaron from in front. “Time to begin.”
The crowd hushed. Kai squeezed my hand.
“You have known each other for a long time,” said Solaron. “Through thick and through thin, through snow and throw rain, you have supported and loved each other. Do you promise to continue your love for each other, to look beyond your partner’s vices and shortcomings and cherish them for who they are?”
“I do,” we both said, together.
“You are imperfect, we all are, yet do you promise to not ignore each other’s imperfections but to love and acknowledge them. To recognize your own and seek your partner’s help in overcoming or coming to terms with them?”
“And finally, despite what happens; whether the candles burn out, the sun disappears, and the world is wrought with unrest and despair, do you promise to stick by one another, to stand together and face the difficulties of life, whatever they may be.”
“Then by the power arbitrarily invested in me as the Light goddess, I now proclaim you husband and wife. You may now –”
A burst of wind interrupted us. I looked around. The dragon was gone, had it taken flight to arrange some fireworks? Vandrake was a jumpy one.
The candles were out so it was dark. I couldn’t see anyone in the seats below. I turned to Lily, had to tell her to get Breize to light up the place again.
But she wasn’t there. Probably already off to fix it. The moon wasn’t up yet but the sun was down. There was just enough light for me to make out Kai’s outline, a shadowy silhouette looking at me. I couldn’t even see Solaron.
“Solaron, a little light would be appreciated.” Odd, not what I’d wanted to say. My words felt a lot stuffier, all of a sudden.
A single candle came to life, the only candle on stage. It flickered brightly, casting shadows around the marquee. Figures in a forest, one of them sleeping behind a bush. A tornado, then a blanket. A crumbling cliff. A boat. A flying island.
A Ferris wheel, but with only two figures. A little girl in the distance. Another boat now, two figures talking. A tea party, a wall of darkness. Flying off, the two meeting again.
A mountain. Two figures merging. Falling down the mountain. A cave. A bubble. One of them was inside, begging for help. The other reached for the bubble but didn’t pop it. No, she made it go dark, dark and solid.
Then a bridge.
I looked at Kai, eyes heavy. “I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t see his face, even though I wanted to, oh how I wanted to. No matter what he said, I could tell what he really thought if I could just see his face. That’s all I needed, a quick peek, a lightning flash, the candle flickering the right way – something.
“All I want,” I sobbed. “Is you. You and Lily, and Runir, and Zoe, and Jeffy, and Yunni, and my sisters. All I want is a normal life with everyone.”
The moon was rising behind him, making the outline starker but the silhouette darker. The candle burned rapidly, wax dripping like a river. A puddle of hot liquid formed but never cooled. The candle kept burning and burning and burning.
The world kept growing darker and darker and darker.
“That’s all I wanted.”
The candle died.