By Rachel Ciaran
It was the perfect night for cloaking secrets. There were no stars—just the faint nocturnal light from the moon above, pale-faced and mournful, and the lanterns swinging from the doors of taverns, pubs, and apothecaries. Ziva, ever-aware, ever-conscious, saw the poor and the lost crouching outside of crumbling buildings, holding out their empty bowls. Forever seeking alms. But she had nothing to give.
A different sort of person came out at night. The drunks, the ne’er-do-wells, the rogues with blood on the blades of their knives. It was easier to slit a throat, to stab someone unexpectedly. Ziva–tall, strong, dressed as a thief—knew that the impression she gave was one of deadly quiet. People like her moved silently when they needed. Everyone had enemies, but hers were deadlier than most, and though it was exhausting looking over her shoulder constantly, at times she had no choice. She ran her fingertips over the hilt of her sword, feeling its weight, and felt instantly reassured. As her Soul Warden said, it was one of the few things that would never let her down.
As she passed by a dank alleyway, smelling of rotten eggs and the scent of death, Ziva paused. Down the alley there were four men, a cornered woman. For a moment she simply stood in pure disbelief, for it couldn’t possibly be true. She hadn’t seen Crisima Pugnale in two years–the other woman had sunk into the night one evening and simply never returned. Something squeezed in Ziva’s chest, stealing the breath from her body, and without thinking she spoke: “Don’t!”
And that was when Crisima looked towards her, and something changed in her face: Confusion. Then hope. Something so long unfelt that it made Ziva’s heart pound with pity—and old desire. Old love.
The men half-turned to glance at Ziva, cruelty writ into the lines of their sun-darkened faces. The tallest of the four, well-built with eyes like a wolf, said, “This is not your business. Leave the Romi to us.”
“I know she’s a Romi,” said Ziva, trying to keep her voice calm, smooth as a midwinter lake. “But she’s my mark, not yours.”
“What’s your name, girl?” Another man, well-built with shorn pale hair and a constellation of moles on his left cheek, spoke now. Ziva’s fists tightened, the blood blooming between them.
“I’ve never heard of you.”
“Why would you have?” Ziva’s pale eyes darkened, for just a moment. She shifted the cloak to reveal her medallion – the gauntlet fist of Dhom the Judicator. The symbol of the Tapestry of Truth. “Let her go. Her blasphemy is my purview.”
A ripple of unease passed through the men then. Everyone knew what Soul Wardens and their ilk were capable of: their resolute viciousness, their underlying anger. Though at a first glimpse they seemed sedate, patient, the sight of a heresy could drive them into zealous fury. A quiet fury, a contained fury, but a fury nonetheless. And, what greater heresy than those marked by infernal taint. The Romi were not wanted, no matter where they went. In some lands they were butchered like animals; in others, sent to exile.
Ziva drew her blade, silver in a flash of moonlight. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “Leave the girl alone. She’s mine.” She could feel her blood pounding in her ears, dizzy from the sight of seeing Crisima again, and in such a place as this. The men would be easily dispatched. She had faced far worse, but now was not the time to be drawing attention to herself.
The men turned to look at one another, something passing between them without words. One by one they sheathed their swords and daggers and left to walk further down the alley, into the crowded road ahead. And at once Ziva ran to Crisima, a dozen and a half things struggling in her chest, throat closed as if she were about to cry. But Ziva never cried.
Crisima was huddling against the dirty brick, clutching her abdomen, eyes fluttering against her dark cheeks. “Ziva,” she said, caught on the knife’s edge of disbelief. “Ziva. What are you doing here?”
“Saving you, apparently” said Ziva simply. What would her Soul Warden make of this she thought as she crouched next to her old lover and took in the sight of her: so unchanged and yet so unfamiliar. Sun-red skin and black hair, the horns that curved from her scalp. Her eyes, black as onyx, were unblinking. The Romi always dealt with pain well, swallowing down any hysterics, taking her stitches or poultices without complaints. But now she was looking at Ziva with a different look to her face. Fear, yes, and relief, yes, but something else that Ziva could not identify. She reached out to lightly stroke Crisima’s arm, and the Romi did not protest; instead, she dipped her head towards Ziva like a cat in want of adoration. This was something Ziva had always adored about her: the vulnerability Crisima showed to those few people whom she trusted.
Those whom she loved. It was hard to think about now. The Romi were the ones hunted by the Soul Wardens, placing Crisima at the other end of Ziva’s blade. But Ziva could still remember the first day she saw Crisima, an adept smuggler, the horns protruding from her blue-black hair. And something in Ziva had changed, in that moment: something had stayed her hand. Over the days that turned to weeks, she’d never thought herself capable of loving anyone, at least not so deeply. And, then Crisima was gone. Perhaps, she had been the realist. How long before Ziva could no longer stay her sword?
Now Crisima reached out and put her hand on Ziva’s thigh, giving it a squeeze through the pain.
“I have to stitch your abdomen,” said Ziva. “Come with me.”
“To my room. It’s above the Golden Boar.”
For a moment they simply looked at each other, and then Ziva was helping to raise Crisima to her feet unsteadily. The other woman smelled of sweat, of too-sweet flowers lingering beneath it. She put her arm around Ziva’s shoulders and all of the old feelings came rushing back, that sensation of safety, of being home.
The Golden Boar was a rowdy tavern near the northern part of town, packed from dawn to past dusk, and populated by thieves, scoundrels, soldiers. It was dark inside, cloaking the faces of the patrons, the smoke winding dizzily through the air. When they entered, a brief silence fell – the Romi were not accepted even among the ne’er-do-wells. To both of their surprise, Ziva took Crisima’s hand and her grim countenance was shield enough. They wound their way through the press of bodies and made their way up the stairs, walking halfway down a hallway to reach Ziva’s room. It was small, and cramped, with little more than room for a bed and a dresser, a dusty mirror in the very corner. But she also had spent time in far worse. Her days off from training were spent exploring the city, drinking tea and reading old history books with the spines falling apart. And now there was Crisima, the one she’d thought she’d lost forever – here. Ziva kept looking back towards the Romi as they walked, as if to make certain she was truly there and not a figment of her wishful imagination.
Crisima sat on the edge of the bed. Her face, so dark in the light, looked almost pale.
“You’re going to stitch it?” she asked.
“Yes.” Ziva was already looking through the bag she brought with her, and at last drew out the medicine kit, the needles and thread. “Take off your shirt, please.”
Crisima did so, and when the shirt was removed all the breath was taken from Ziva’s body. The cut was not long but it was deep and ragged, the mark of a dull knife. But Crisima looked at her with no fear.
It was a lengthy task, but Crisima did not so much as flinch. The smuggler had been through worse than this: an arrow near her heart, a knife to her throat. This would not kill her, would not maim her past another darkened scar. After Ziva was done stitching the wound, kneeling at Crisima’s feet, she looked up at her old lover and exhaled an indrawn breath. For one wild moment she considered getting to her feet, cradling Crisima’s face in both hands and kissing her deeply, tasting her as she’d done those few years ago.
She blinked, coming out of her reverie. “Would you like a drink, Crisima?”
She hoped so badly that the Romi girl would stay, if just for a little. Even though she knew it was wrong, knew it as strongly as she knew that fire burned and night turned to dawn. Despite the years that had passed, sometimes, in wild moments, Ziva still wondered if Crisima was the one destined to be with her. It was madness, of course, as so many dreams were. Something Crisima understood better than her.
Crisima took her right hand and brushed along the feral lines of Ziva’s cheek. And then she smiled.
“That would be nice.”
And so the witch hunter and the smuggler made their way downstairs into the chaos, heads ducked so as not to attract attention. They settled in a little table in a corner, ordered blood-whiskey and Cavalum ale, something surprising in such an establishment. Crisima seeming almost shy.
“I can’t believe this happened,” Ziva said, frankly.
“They were going to kill me,” said Crisima bluntly. “I don’t know what I would have done if–”
“Don’t think about that now,” Ziva said, a little more sternly than she’d meant to be. “You’re safe. You’re with me.”
“I’m a Romi. I’m safe with no one.” Her expression darkened. “And a witch hunter’s blade?”
Before Ziva could reply, the tavern girl came back with their whiskey and ale, smiling a little at them both, and then twirled away. Ziva wondered what she’d seen of them, what she’d thought.
“I can’t believe it’s been years,” Crisima said quietly, her expression softening. “And you still look just the same.”
“So do you,” said Ziva said truthfully. The reddish-brown arms, muscled and lean, the sea-dark hair and the horns glossed to a shine. Crisima hadn’t changed.
Perhaps they were no longer in love, but they did love one another – Ziva saw it in the softness of Crisima’s eyes, the gentle downturned mouth and anxious hands. Crisima was a strange breed of smuggler, quiet rather than demanding attention, soft-spoken and rarely aggressive. She relied on the shadows, the fall of darkness underneath the fullest moon, alleys with no drunks and canals with no authorities seeking her out. Now she sipped at her ale timidly, tasting the cool sweetness of it, and for a long while she wouldn’t meet Ziva’s eyes. Perhaps it was embarrassment that she’d had to be rescued; perhaps it was something else. Guilt for leaving so long ago. She was a relatively small and quiet thing, not prone to dramatics. Sometimes Ziva thought she must have lived a very lonely life even for a Romi, despite her young years. It made her own heart ache.
“How have the past years been treating you?” she asked, when the silence had grown too heavy to bear.
“Fine,” said Crisima, with a faint smile. “There’s always work for a smuggler and a thief.”
“Just like there’s always work for a witch hunter?” Ziva didn’t know why she said it, other than the fact that Crisima had been the one to leave her and not the other way around. It was unsurprising – Crisima had more to lose – but it still pierced her like a bee sting, a sharpness beneath her rib cage. She’d forgiven her – how could she not? – but it still sometimes rose like a howl in her throat, the knowledge that the only woman she’d ever loved had left her behind.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” said Crisima softly.
“I’m sorry,” said Ziva. “It was a joke in poor taste.”
“Do you ever feel guilty?” Crisima asked suddenly, out of nowhere at all.
Guilt? What was guilt? Guilt was the pain after harming a child, murdering an innocent. But hunting vayasi? Arcanists who meddled in things they should not? Those who would bring forth another apocalypse?
“Sometimes I also can’t do it. Some of them remind me too much of you.”
Crisima looked at her in silence for a moment, something passing over her face like a shadow. It seemed as if she was trying to believe Ziva, trying to reshape their affair into something it hadn’t been. They didn’t belong together, Ziva knew, but that hardly eased the pain.
“They remind you of me?” she asked softly.
“Kind,” said Ziva. “Compassionate for a smuggler; you don’t kill those who get into your way.” She paused. “Beautiful, too.”
A flush stained Crisima’s face. “Do you really think that?”
“I’ve never lied to you,” said Ziva, smiling. It was true.
“I’m a smuggle and a thief,” Crisima said. “A Romi.”
“That never bothered me,” Ziva said softly. “Nothing about you ever did.” Being around Crisima had been effortless, sweet, joyous. It had given Ziva a happiness she had never known before: the friendship similar to what children had, innocent and pure. Of course, killing and smuggling were not the acts of children – but the relationship between the two of them had been as sweet as a new spring. And that had been enough.
The flush on Crisima’s face deepened. “You know we can’t be together. A Tapestry hunter. A Romi. It’s too dangerous. You have your path.”
Ziva found it hard to swallow around the grief in her throat. She knew that Crisima was right. She knew there was nothing else to be done. Their paths had crossed and now they would diverge once more. It was breathtaking, almost cruel, how adoration played tricks on one’s heart.
“Where will you go?” Ziva asked.
“Out of the city,” said Crisima. “Anywhere. Anywhere away from here.”
“So this is where we say goodbye?” It was harder than Ziva had expected, to say that.
“Yes,” said Crisima, and there was a catch in her voice, a spark of hesitation. But Ziva knew her decision had been made well in the past. She reached out her hand, touched Crisima’s briefly, and their gaze met over the small table: dark and intrepid, with the glimmer of tears in Crisima’s great black eyes. For a long time they simply looked at each other, as if imagining themselves in a different world, a different life. Perhaps they could have been together then. But as it was, there was no trick of fate to save them.
Crisima got to her feet, moving slowly due to the bandaged wound, and tilted her head down to kiss Ziva’s cheek chastely. Something was pounding in Ziva’s heart, her head.
“I’m never going to forget you,” said Crisima, with a little smile. Ziva found herself smiling back.
“How do you know?”
“Because you treated me kindly,” said Crisima, “And I loved you.”
“And I you,” said Ziva.
“I know,” the smuggler responded. “Shall I see you in the next life?”
Something warm flushed through Ziva then, and she smiled. “I’ll be waiting.”