Dans la Terre
The tapping is causing Maura to careen towards insanity.
There’s an itch in the back of her head, an irk, that the insistent dripping of the roof hardly aids with. If the gods—a noticeable tremor shakes Maura’s hands—feel the need to get involved, she doubts the patching of a thatch room is their sole complaint. In fact, the only soul who cares is the cause behind the rushing of water beside her and the fact she’s currently homing herself in a bedroom next to her catatonic brother instead of in her bed.
Given, she should have realized what would have happened. How he would have reacted, how childish habits would return. She’s seen it enough times in his child—from the tantrums to the thunderstorms—to know when these fits come about. Disappearing for months after that god-awful day in winter, being buried in the same prison their mother had fled, not being there to wipe his tears, and appearing back before the heat could disappear wasn’t in her itinerary, despite what the silence beside her suggested.
Instead of realizing, of course, she had planted her feet in the dirt on that hillside and stood against that army of vigilantes while her heart beat referendum against her ribs. Instead of consoling, she had endangered not only herself but also her family. Instead of helping, she placed a target on her nearly unrecognizable body. Instead of catching up with her brother, he had retreated into the bedroom.
Which is how she finds herself here, leaning her head against the wall, locking herself in a bathroom with her newly mute brother.
The bedroom hasn’t changed since she last saw it. The window is still sending fragmented prisms of light across the floor; admittedly, that was twenty years ago and her eyes were looking for shadowy marks, witchcraft signals, not splits in windowpanes. The wardrobe is still a relic of when Alani—Pierce's mother and her caretaker—wandered the halls in her insomnia-induced haze, chipped and stained. If the bedroom had been converted to a study, she wouldn’t have been surprised, but Barclay was never too keen on changing much more than the angle Pierce's sparse maps were tilted at, which was why the bedroom had remained simply that. Asher claimed the cabin makes his head spin—too many ghosts, he would mutter, too many memories, and Maura was hard-pressed to deny she didn’t feel the same pressure in her bones—and the children were more tied up with the impending war than the state of fixtures. The boards are still the same worn color of bone, but the dirt has darkened tremendously around the boards since they were first laid. The desk in front of him had been adorned with deep gauges and crooked legs, still are. Although, sometime during her time here, Maura has spent a night unscrewing the legs and later setting them ablaze, confident the house seemed less claustrophobic without them. Of course Pierce has replaced them. Other than that, the room is nearly empty.
The door, in particular, could easily be unlocked, if Pierce had the inclination to test Maura’s feeble attempts at a spell. The rain is dripping from the ceiling, yes, but Pierce is fully clothed in his worn-down uniform with missing buttons on the pockets and dyed cotton. She can’t imagine him with his hair up; he’s already cramped for space in that corner without the discomfort of arching his neck to keep the tie from digging into his skull. She hasn’t had the courage to look at him yet, knowing she’d find dark eyes staring back at her.
The thunder roars. Maura’s head falls against her knees. She covers her ears, sighs. Her cheek twitches; her jaw tightens. She inhales slowly and run the tips of her fingers through her hair. She raises her head, leans it against the hard wood of the wall. Her hands fall from her hair. Her tongue weighs heavy, checks the back of her teeth. Her eyes close.
Then, she speaks.
She talks about the time Pierce chased after her and ended up knee deep in mud. The groundwater was high that year and neither of them knew the patch Pierce had tripped onto was as saturated as it was. His voice was shrill with fear; her name was uttered before he yelled for his mother. When Maura had managed to lever him out of the mud, they had walked back to the cabin, Maura barefoot, as she had given her shoes to Pierce. His mother had found Pierce on the counter by the sink and Maura scrubbing furiously at the muddy footprints on the floorboards. She had ruffled her hair, murmured in her High Kingdom dialect, and bandaged Pierce's skinned knees.
(She omits the fact she heard his mother crying that night, alone in her room, when Pierce was curled up next to her, in her bedroom across the hall.)
She talks about when Pierce became a hobby alchemist, about when he nearly burned the shed down. When, outside Hithral's house—the one he had before Alani decided Death Dust was a better alternative than taking care of her son and the one Maura took refuge in when she could manage to stay away from Bentley—Pierce had thrown the door open with such force the walls rattled and a dark smudge of a fist accompanied the broken wood.
(She doesn’t mention that smudge of soot is probably still on these decaying walls, just covered by a spell of some sort.)
She talks about the weeks they had spent together pouring over research when they could. Pierce hated the language, didn’t understand why the letters looked like others, why the text was so long-winded. She hated the weather, how it rained every single day, poured against the windows as though hammering home the fact they couldn’t escape. Upon finding the answer to their problem, the lack of a viable heir, he had stood so quickly the heavy chair fell, the dust had vibrated, and, before Maura could brace herself, he had his arms around her neck, a kiss on her cheek, a chuckle on his lips.
(She swallows the fact that was the last time besides the inn that he’d been so engrossed in happiness he’d forgotten the boundaries he gave himself.)
She doesn’t talk about when there was a fire in the field not a mile from here. She doesn’t talk about the ash in her mouth or the fact when she blinks she sees flames licking the sky or the idea that every breath she takes causes hysteria to jump in her chest. She doesn’t talk about the clarity, about the darkness, about the tightness in her chest as her lungs gasped for air, as her eyes stung, her mind faltered, and her magic, that weak skill she could never master, failed her.
When the form in the corner doesn’t respond, she changes tactics. Her words run the gauntlet of the classics she knew as a child. The words are familiar, a ghost from when Pierce was still afraid of storms, still innocent enough to come running to her bed in the middle of the night, when he thought closet doors would save him. Syllables her childish palate hadn’t considered tangible, phrases she wouldn’t understand until years later, start clipping off her tongue. She starts with articulating philosophers—“to die is an adventure” runs too close to the vein—then abruptly stops. The silence presses heavily against her ears. The thunder rolls. The rain rushes unbearably close to her.
“What adventures did you find while you were away?”
For a moment, her mouth can’t form words. The thoughts come in rushes, in thinly spread lies. “I found my ghosts,” she manages.
A low hum comes from the tub. “For months?”
“We have a way of collecting them.” She can almost hear him nod. “This proxy war hasn’t helped my standings, of course.” Neither has dying, she hears in the shell of her ear. A lull forms in the conversation.
He doesn’t speak for what feels like an eternity. Maura’s eyelids start to close for longer than a blink; the ache in the back of her head dulls. Before Pierce speaks, he laughs quietly; the sound bounces off the walls pleasantly.
“Maura, you’re dead.”
Her shoulders flinch. Her lips twitch in a jittery smile. “I suppose I am.”
A hollow, rough chuckle escapes the corner and turns into a sob; Maura’s eyes glance to where the muted moonlight touches the chip in the glass. “I saw your ashes, Maura. I stood over your grave.”
The silence descends again like a broken bird. She can’t work passed the cork in her throat, passed the clumsy words she’ll offer, and she doesn’t until he speaks again. “I was prepared for Lancaster to wage war. I was prepared for the decimation of our ranks, of our people. I expected the looks, the guilt.” A muffled curse bubbles. “But the memories, Maura…” he fades off.
“I went to Bentley, again. I chased our ghosts, too, except they won’t come back to haunt us this time.” He takes a breath, sighs brokenly. “Do you remember that inn?”
Her eyelids tighten. “How could I forget, storm braver?” The memories are hazy at best, but Maura remembers oil in her nose, stolen clothes on her body, and a braid that should have been undone.
“I think about it every day.” She manages a small frown. “We’re…there’s no way we’re going to fix this, is there?”
“I’m afraid we’re anchored in.” Her voice is lower. “No amount of miracles could move us now.” She swallows. “Integrity,” she forces, “is understanding everything we have done to ourselves was of our own making.” She pauses, exhales. “These last few months have taught me that much, at least.”
During the night, she decides to join Pierce, after listening to his constant babble of how it’d be like they were children again.
Curling up against him isn’t as cramped as it could be. Her chin rests on his head, his forehead rests against her chest, where her heart beats slowly. The comfort is oddly sentimental. It reminds her of open windows and humming, of hanging moss and jasmine.
“You died,” he repeats, then, as if it makes this situation any more real. “Did you think about Hithral?” Maura hears the implied question. Did you think about me? Did you think about your brother who spent days inside? Who spent nights behind a practiced mask? Who disappeared to Bentley in a repeat performance?
“Every day,” she affirms. Every hour, every minute, carved into my bones. How could I ever forget? How could I forget you, you passionate, fragmentary boy?
He nods once, presses against her chest. She’s wrong about the ponytail after all; the set is lower than what she does, droopier. His shoes lay clumsily against her bare shins. “How long do you think we have, before?”
“Before?” She prompts hesitantly.
“Before,” he offers quietly. It doesn’t take much time, even in Maura’s sleep-addled brain, to connect the dots.
“A few months, at the least.” Her estimate hits her heart heavily, even as she utters it. “Lavinia will be quick as ever, especially with an army on her side.”
He’s mute for a moment, two. “Will Throssia answer the call, when it comes?”
“Undoubtedly, Pierce. This is our war.”
“No, it’s not,” he insists, his voice bouncing off the walls. “It’s a proxy war. Throssia doesn’t need to bury anymore of its kind for the sake of this.”
“And for the sake of the witches?” He stills. “Execution or suicide, Pierce?”
“Suicide,” he answers confidently.
“This is certainly that much.” She closes her eyes. “If we can’t stop them, how can witches, even if it is the majority of them?”
His cheeks twitch. “They’re calling you a prophet.” His voice hits her softly. “When did you run away and become religious, Maura?”
The silence roars like waves. Pierce pushes closer to her. Her consciousness wavers.
Pierce awakes to dim light and Maura's fingers curling into his jacket, against his skin, as if he’ll disappear during the night. He’s positive she hasn’t slept. He’s also sure her legs are going to complain about the prolonged position when she stands, but he can’t find the energy to care.
His fingernails aren't pristine, for once. A small crescent of dirt has formed, in the chill of dawn. His dark crown is bowed beneath hers, still, his breath warm against her. His pocketknife digs into her hip. It doesn’t have finesse. It doesn’t have grace. It is real, though, and Pierce can feel the tenseness in his heart begin to thaw.
“Remember me like this, please,” he murmurs.
“You’ll always be like this to me.”
There’s a faint rustle of fabric. She’ll be gone soon, disappeared to wherever the hell she wants to go, to evergreens and mud, to cramped streets and old books, wherever she feels like the world can’t crush her. He’ll still be here, head against wood, hands on the windowpane, wanting an escape. For a moment, though, for an exhale and a sigh, he believes he won't mind when she leaves.
It hurts worse than dying, in a perverse way.
When he opens his eyes again, the sun is higher. The body next to him has disappeared. The window above him has been opened. For a brief, paralyzing moment, he swears she’s run off again; he sits up quickly enough his back cracks terribly and he bangs his kneecap on the bed frame, which is followed by a rough, loud curse.
Then he sees her sitting on the chair that was left in here whenever the desk had been torn apart. Sometime during the night she’d fixed disguise—a quick glance tells him where the coal had ended up, smudged on his shirt—and had retied her hair into its high regularity, where it swung with each step. Her lips spread in her ever-present light smile, as though a pure-hearted laugh will escape her at any moment.
His hands curl on the wooden edge; the chip digs into his palm. Dim sunlight dances across the back of his hand. “Sleeping in corners, Maura?” Her voice takes on her original drawl: heavy backwater and resounding memories.
Her coat has been readjusted, retied. His glasses, the ones he left on the table when she locked them in here, are perched on her nose, wire frames and wide eyes. She flashes her teeth, covers her mouth. When his brow furrows, she shakes her head. “What would your mother say?”
He can’t find it in himself to answer.
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