The Town of Paper Lanterns
Magic is fickle, and it isn’t. Not everyone can learn to cast magic, but anyone can learn to use magic. This much is true. In much the same way as Dalia’s father had become the town’s most esteemed baker, the man might’ve otherwise used his natural talents and intelligence in pursuit of divergent interests. In his next life, he may yet choose to follow the path of manna manipulation. Dalia had no doubts that her father would make an excellent magician. But then again, she secretly wished he wouldn’t.
Dalia wishes she weren’t magic either. She didn’t choose it, and didn’t want it now.
One day, while helping her papa in the bakery, she slipped and fell. Her arm landed in the oven, and in her surprise, she hadn’t even screamed. It doesn’t hurt, she thought, astonished. Dalia stared dumbly at her arm, watching it mutely while it was licked by the flames of the fire. It feels… soft.
Something awoke within her that day. Something from amidst the recesses of her very being, Dalia’s innermost core, in a place she hadn’t even known existed. In that moment, she felt connected to the fire. It was her, and she was the flames. Perceptions and sensations bled over one another, like water mixing, until Dalia could no longer tell her arm apart from the lashes.
The inferno blazed and spread, creeping up her collar until her vision swam with orange and reddish hues. Dalia was filled with such warmth—such light—and a sense of completeness so whole that it brought her to tears.
Soon enough though, her eyes dried. The droplets were wisped away by the enveloping heat, trailing rivulets of steam in their wake while her cheeks smoldered under the fire’s tender caress. She had never experienced such wholesome acceptance, such happiness. It was intoxicating, and she wanted more. She had at first been worried about being consumed, but Dalia now found that she wanted to be. Pitching forward, she embraced the flames. To her delight, it was even more wonderous. In her euphoria, she giggled.
Dalia gasped, hearing someone’s voice. Snapping out of her daze, she realized how quickly and odd her thoughts had turned. This realization frightened her, because the thoughts she had been entertaining were… worrisome.
There! She heard the voice again. Was it papa?
No. The voice was silky, but commanding, sounding like neither a man nor a woman. Straining to hear, she wondered if the oven was creating an echo, because it sounded like many people were speaking in tandem—in perfect synchronicity.
“Who said that?” she asked timidly. “Who’s there?”
“What? Who are you?” Call it instinct or premonition, intuition perhaps, but Dalia felt as if she already knew the intentions that lay behind the voice’s silk curtain.
The flames within the oven grew hotter, and shined brighter until they completely transformed into a blue toned conflagration. Dalia gasped. “Are you… the fire?”
“You are?” she asked in wonder, having been unaware, before today, that fire could actually be alive. Looking around, the flames lashed to and fro, moving as any creature would. They expanded and contracted, breathing in and out. This much, she had known, as fire is as lively and animated as it is temperamental. But now she found that the flames could talk as well. In retrospect, while she supposed she could be forgiven for her ignorance, she still felt a small bout of silliness for having missed the obvious clues.
Before she could think too hard on whether all flames were living, sentient beings, and what the implications of so many birthday candles being snuffed out were, the voice returned.
And so are you.
Inherently, she knew this, too.
She gazed into the inferno, and it stared back. There were so many things she wanted to say, so many questions unanswered that she wanted to ask. In the end, she said nothing, merely accepted the truth which was being offered.
I am the fire, Dalia thought before she plunged. And if her younger sister hadn’t burst into the room and screamed bloody murder at the sight of her sister crawling into the oven, Dalia thinks that maybe she would’ve crawled all the way, and truly become one with the fire. Forever.
It felt strange, becoming Dalia again, like part of herself was missing. That part that she had been ignorant about before was now an inseparable part of her being. It was as much a part of her than her skin or bones; much more irreplaceable than an arm or leg, which she could live without. Magic, for she knew that’s what the feeling was, was Dalia, and it was intrinsically intertwined with her very being, making the two inseparable. The fire had been right, she came to realize, they were one in the same.
But she told no one, going so far as to lie to her very sister. The poor girl hadn’t believed Dalia at first, trusting her own eyes over Dalia’s fibs, but with enough repetition, any lie can ring true—enough. Eventually, the incident was all but forgotten.
But Dalia never forgot…
… because it hurt. Every day it did.
It hurt so much to suppress such an integral part of her being. To walk around bereft of skin or bone and appear unaffected to the world.
Just keep smiling, she would tell herself, this is normal. But it wasn’t.
Keeping up appearances was an ordeal so taxing that she frequently fantasized about of throwing herself into her papa’s oven all over again, if only so the charade could fall. Not just to bring an end her suffering, but because a part of her yearned to embrace the flames and finally become one with the fire—to lose herself to the madness, only to be set free—she would be liberated from the superficial façade her life had become. The shiny veneer everyone seemed eager to mistake for reality would shatter, and the prison her mind and body had created in spurning so intrinsic a thing as her own magical nature would come crashing down. Ironically, in flames.
In times of pain and suffering, rot and ruin seemed preferable—because at least then it would all be over. But it would never be over, because while Dalia knew she was only compartmentalizing her own nature. As well as she knew that Magic was nature. It existed—in the trees, more than any forest could ever populate; on the breeze, more than any amount of wind which could ever filled; and in the seas, more than any amount of water which could ever be contained.
Magic begat nature; moreso than Dalia felt connected to the world upon which she thrived, magic was there. Her conceptualization of the world had dramatically and radically shifted. Up was down, left was right, and she struggled to decipher which was which.
It was in those trying moments, when Dalia felt despair no child should fathom, that her sister would suffer nightmares of her own. She would leave the warmth of her own bed to crawl into her sister’s waiting arms. Dalia’s heart would fill with love, and the blossoming heat in her bosom would help alleviate some of the turmoil she felt. Though a minor relief, it would help.
Then her papa would smile down at his cherished daughters, eyes shining with pride, because he was able to impart his love of baking, which both girls shared, by teaching them a new recipe. Her mama would hug and kiss them, and spent time with both every day. Dalia didn’t relish learning domestic tasks or social etiquette, which she found rather boring, and which her mother seemed to relish teaching, but she loved her family dearly. Dalia would forsake her own skin and bones if it made them happy, and if they could all be together. Because if anyone found out about her magical affinity towards fire… the family would’ve been ripped apart.
Having magic is considered a blessing from the Gods. Holy royal priests believe there are eleven Supreme Gods, one for each realm, and a number of minor Gods. It’s said that each God imparts their own affinities unto mortals. Hence, Dalia’s gift would be attributed to Hessian, the Sun God, a supreme god. Which isn’t a negative in itself—quite contrarily—but wasting magical potential is considered blasphemous. A person who shuns the Gods might be shunned themselves at best, and excommunicated—banished—at worst. Dalia, being a child, would most certainly be shipped off to mage’s school to learn how to wield her magic properly. Worse, her parents would probably be happy about it. No, no, no!
Dalia never asked the Gods to bless her, but she prayed they would take her blessing away every night. So every morning she held her hand under a match to see if it would burn. To her disappointment, she was always perfectly fine. Fire couldn’t harm her, it seemed. In fact, she once performed the same morning ritual under a small cut she had suffered the day before, and it healed. It bothered her that she seemed to be getting even more special as the days passed, instead of less, like she asked.
Hope fell, disappointment ebbed, and the indignation which was her constant companion eventually yielded to be supplanted by indifference. Eventually Dalia became accustomed to living life as merely half a person, but she was no longer the exuberant child she had once been.
She was twelve by the time she stopped praying to a God who wouldn’t listen. No longer would she wake up hopeful, or go to bed disappointed. It made life simpler, more bearable. But no longer would she smile either, because those were reserved for people, and she was merely a ghoul—a walking remnant of humanity.
Spring had already broken, which meant that Beltane was soon coming around the corner. Oh, how she detested that holiday. It was His day.
Every year, the festival of fire would be held to worship Hessian, the Sun God. All the village girls would wear pretty sundresses and adorn themselves with wreathed headdresses made of sunflowers and daisies, while the boys would wear fine robes and adorn their lapel with a more masculine flower, whatever that meant. The square would be decorated in lots of oranges, yellows, blues and even pinks. Everyone would dance around the maypole while chanting hymns in praise of Lord Hessian.
Inevitably, the adults would drink too much elderflower champagne, cordial, or another fortified drink and end up making fools of themselves somehow. Dalia’s father was not immune, to her mother’s chagrin.
Her mother liked to tell her daughters that they were conceived during Beltane, so it was an extra special day, because it was the day Lord Hessian blessed her with the magic of children.
Dalia wanted to scream. She wanted nothing to do with the holiday, even if it was one of the few days a year when men and women were viewed completely as equals. Not that it did her any good, because children were always looked down upon by adults—boy or girl.
Dalia’s mother, Treena, had insisted on taking them shopping today, citing that they were in need of new dresses for the festival, and took them to the town square. Beltane was fast approaching, and the square was already in the early stages of decoration. Ribbons adorned posts, wreaths and flowers added life to the architecture, and paper lanterns were affixed everywhere and to everything, all the while His symbol reigned rampant to the same degree. Hessian, the Sun God, was depicted by a golden sun with rays shining brilliantly in all directions.
Dalia tried to refuse her mother, politely, like she had every year since her magical awakening, but the woman had been insistent. Eventually, she had wilted, unable to deny her mother whom she loved more than her own bones.
Her sister, whom she loved just as much, was ecstatic. She chittered nonstop, “Do you think they’ll have dresses with frills? With lace? What about a bonnet? I like pink. I’ve never seen you wear pink, so I don’t think you like pink. Do you like pink? Oh, but if you’re getting pink, then I can just get a pale red. Do you think the boys will be wearing a lot of blue this year again? Do you think you’ll kiss a boy? If you kiss a boy, are you taking him into the woods with the other adults to—”
“Minerva, that’s quite enough.” Treena only called her daughter by her full name when she was being serious. Otherwise, everyone knew the girl as Minnie.
Dalia couldn’t help but smile at her younger sister’s antics. The warmth in her heart was all the proof she needed that she had made the right decision all those years ago.
“You’re too young to be thinking about going into the woods with a boy. That goes double for you, Dalia.” She eyed them both.
Dalia nodded. She wasn’t popular with the boys, and hardly knew what to do with one, let alone in the woods without supervision.
Minnie beamed up at her mother, the picture of innocence, before a confused expression settled over her visage. “But mama, Dalia’s older than me. So, how is it double?”
“Because I don’t want her to go—twice as much.”
Dalia knew why. She had heard some of the older girls talking, and learned that if a boy put a spell on you, you’d get pregnant.
“Oh. Okay.” Minnie said. “But why?”
“Because I trust her half as much as I do you.” Treena smiled.
Dalia hid her own.
“Oh. Okay.” Minnie tugged on Treena’s skirt. “But why?”
Treena smiled, an action quickly adopted by both daughters, first Dalia, then Minnie, whose attention span was that of a sparrow’s.
To Dalia’s amusement, her mother could repartee with, and often outlast, Minnie’s back-and-forth monosyllabary. She supposed her sister had to have learned it from somewhere, after all.
After a brief walk up the hill, they entered Soya’s Atelier, where they were welcomed warmly by the woman herself.
Madam Soya was a seamstress and mage, one blessed with a rather benign gift. She had six fingers on each hand, and possessed equal dexterity in each. The woman was renowned for her stitchwork, which was impressively precise and expedient. She was proficient to the point where she was able to sew clothing directly into a person's body, thus effectually capturing they're perfect shape. The woman loved to sew, and did so with passion and zeal; it showed through the clothing she created, which could only be described as the finest works of art.
As a result of her talents, Madam Soya often consulted hand-in-hand with the Royal Tailor. That is, after having retired from the position to run her own boutique a stone’s throw from the capital. Surprisingly, her wares were quite affordable, a symptom of the ease in which she was able to fabricate her vast and luxurious inventory. No other seamstress or tailor could compete; hence, she remained the sole clothing proprietor on the island.
Soya was thought to have been blessed by Rhiannon, the Goddess of Hearth and Loom. A minor Goddess, but one in her own right. Unfortunately, the seamstress had not also inherited Rhiannon’s talent for Hearth, as her husband could attest. Though with the natural longevity that demigods—mages predisposed to a specific magical attribute associated to a singular deity—possessed, Soya managed to retain her youthful appearance despite her advanced age, which likely aided the man in overlooking any faults she may have held.
Demigods, or demis, were even rarer than wizards. Typically, the only magic they could perform was that which was manipulated naturally within their bodies. Soya was an example of this, having never expanded her magical repertoire beyond those talents with which she was born.
Soya hugged Treena, and fussed over the girls. “My, how big you’ve both gotten.” She pinched their cheeks, and stroked their hair. “Treeny, I remember when you were their age; beautiful and bite-sized. Now you’re just beautiful, and they’re bite-sized.” She smiled. “And even more beautiful than your mother was at your age.” She stage whispered.
“I heard that.”
“It’s a compliment dear.”
“For whom?” but Treena was smiling herself.
“For you, of course. You made such beautiful daughters. You should be proud.”
“I am.” She beamed. “Thank you, Soya.”
“Now, now. None of that. You know better.”
Treena adopted a look of confused innocence, one she practiced each time she entered the shop. Soya responded by adopting a look of her own, which said that she wasn’t having it. The girls smiled, having witnessed the charade a few times already. It was routine for the pair, if unintentional.
Eventually, Treena began shifting uncomfortably beneath Soya’s gaze. Toying with the fabric of her skirt, she looked around the room, inspecting various linens and the odd accoutrement. Soya’s motherly smile was waiting for her when she looked back. Treena bit her lip. She looked down at her daughters, then back at Soya. Her eyes were imploring, but the seamstress appeared unfazed.
Treena sighed in resignation.
“S-soy-un.” She said softly.
A large blush had been building on Treena’s face, finally succeeding in dying her cheeks a rich crimson. It had been the moniker little Treena had given the seamstress in her youth. Soya had become quite fond of Treena afterwards, and eventually the girl’s nickname for her became the only name she was willing to accept. Time after time, she would inexorably remind the girl-turned-mother when the opportunity arose. It may have helped explain why Treena always insisted on buying their clothes in bulk, instead of visiting the retailer more frequently.
Dalia didn’t think she would ever get used to the sight of her mother’s embarrassment, as it was usually the woman herself who caused her daughters’ own. But Soya was a fixture in the community, and had seen each of the adults, and even some of the elders, through diapers. It was hard not to feel young again in the woman’s presence. Especially when she looked much the same now as she did back then.
Dalia and Minnie giggled while Soya chuckled.
Opting to pretend that nothing happened, and failing miserably due to the visible discoloration still apparent on her face, Treena merely cleared her throat. When that failed to produce the results she wanted, namely quieting everyone, she cleared it again, louder this time. But Minnie had plans of her own. Gleeful with mirth, she cackled wildly at her mother’s expense. Dalia swore the look on the woman’s face promised revenge.
“That’s quite enough of that.” Soya said, taking pity on her favorite customer. “Now, normally I’d ask what brought you angels in today, but surely with Beltane being around the corner—and yet, someone hasn’t been by my shop for new dresses despite the coming festival.” She eyed Treena intensely, who wisely looked away.
“Oh. Pretty fabric.” Treena commented with a touch of nonchalance, touching some felt.
“But Soy-un, that’s why we came today—‘cause of the festival.” Minnie said excitedly. She had taken to calling the seamstress ‘Soy-un’, like her mother, and the matron wholeheartedly approved.
Dalia wisely, deftly and sometimes not-so-deftly, avoided using the name at all costs, mostly due to observing her mother’s discomfort with the nomenclature. And judging by how youthful Soya still looked in her sixth decade of life, she held no illusions about outliving the woman.
"Oh, did you?” Soya smiled. “Then I supposed you want a pretty dress, then. One to help you catch all the boys’ eyes, eh?” She winked.
Minnie’s face scrunched up. It was unclear if the expression was meant to convey concentration or revulsion. Knowing Minnie, Dalia weighed that it could’ve been either.
Minnie bit her tongue while she thought, which stuck out the side of her mouth. Treena had tried to get her daughter to stop doing that, citing that only dogs made such a ridiculous face. Expectedly, Dalia saw that her mother was none too pleased with her youngest’s mannerisms, but likewise had refrained from commenting on it in public. Though, she was sure that Minnie would hear about it at home.
“Maybe…” Minnie said. “I’m too young to kiss a boy, but maybe I can catch one.” She nodded.
“That’s the spirit.” Soya said. “And what about you dear?” She asked Dalia.
Soya turned those twinkling eyes toward her, and she was instantly uncomfortable. Dalia felt naked in front of Soya, even more than when she actually was naked in front of the woman for a fitting. She fought to remain impassive, showing none of her discomfort.
A part of her wondered if Soya knew. Her eyes suggested she did, but the woman had never spoken a word. Not to Dalia, Treena, or anyone at all; not in all the years since Dalia had first frequented the shop. Hence, the woman remained an enigma. It was a source of frustration for the closeted girl, and she found that she didn’t like it; not one bit.
“Nothing too extravagant this year, Miss Soya.”
“None of that. You say that every year. Well, ever since you learned that word, of course. Before that it was ‘nothing pretty’, which I found quite odd, my dear.” She queried a brow. “A beautiful girl like you should be dressed in a dress just as enchanting. And haven’t I told you to call me Soy-un too?” She smiled.
This is why Dalia struggled with Soya. The woman acted as if nothing were amiss, but she would stare at her with accusing eyes and use suggestive words like ‘enchanting’. It was as if she were teasing the poor girl. Dalia hated it, but without any concrete evidence to back up her suspicions, they were all she had. Otherwise, Soya was truly beyond reproach; the nicest, most motherly matron on the island.
“I just want to fit in Miss Soya.”
Soya’s eyes softened. Unseen, her mother’s did as well.
“Ah-ah. None of that. I thought I told you to call me Soy-un too.”
“And I told you that I’d rather not, Miss Soya.”
Soya sighed. “Treeny, I don’t know what you’ve been doing with this one, but she’s so prim and proper. I think she’d rather fit in at the palace.” she said theatrically.
Dalia tried not to blush, knowing that her mother adored having her daughter’s praised. It wasn’t the first time Madam Soya, or another acquaintance, remarked on Dalia’s reserved demeanor and etiquette, but Soya had a habit of doling it out in spades, as if she knew—and relished—how uncomfortable it made the poor girl.
“Though My Lady knows I never did.” She muttered. Soya, like other demis, had diverted from polytheistic to monotheistic worship of their preferred deity. In this case, the woman exclusively worshipped the goddess Rhiannon, for obvious reasons.
Treena beamed proudly, but there was a tinge of something else hidden in her eyes. Soya was fooled, but anyone who knew Treena would be able to see beneath the woman’s façade.
“I want frills!” Minnie interrupted. “And lace, and—”
Well, anyone that was paying attention. And Dalia was always paying attention. She was always in the moment, because it had become a necessity. After a time, it had become second nature.
Behind Treena’s pride, lay disappointment. It had taken Dalia a while to figure it out, having never seen that expression directed at her before. But in time, she had come to suspect that the disappointment her mother felt was focused more inward, at herself. Dalia couldn’t understand it, but knew she must be the source, because the expression centered around mention of Dalia and no other time. It stung, because she had caused this somehow. Was it because of her curse?
“Actually,” Dalia blurted out. She didn’t know why she had spoken, or what she wanted to say. But now, she held everyone’s attention. “I think frills sound nice.” She said uncertainly. It came out sounding like a question.
Blushing, she cursed her impulsiveness. Dalia had just wanted to assuage her mother’s disappointment. She hadn’t meant to say anything, nor did she even like frills. But the way her mother’s face lit up kept her from taking the words back. Minnie and Soya fussed over her afterwards, comparing colors, length, cuts, patterns, and designs. And through it all, Dalia couldn’t stop smiling.
Maybe frills aren’t so bad, she thought.
Soya was a machine, cutting long furls of fabric off cylindrical bolts, and curtaining each girl in the softest material Dalia had ever felt grace her bare flesh. The woman moved gracefully, as if she were gliding across the shop floor. Idly, Dalia wondered if the seamstress manufactured the fabric herself.
Soya’s hands blurred over strategic areas, pinching, bunching, and curling; and when they moved on, Dalia was stunned to see that the fabric was joined near seamlessly. Madam Soya did this every time they came into the shop, but it was still a marvel to witness. Even Treena, who had frequented the shop since childhood, favored the woman’s ministrations with her unadulterated attention.
The girl’s excitement had barely started to wane by the time it was Treena’s turn to be fitted. Dalia had seen her mother naked before, often dressing and showering in close proximity to one another out of necessity and routine, but she had recently been fighting feelings of inadequacy whenever she spied Treena’s shapely figure. The woman had remained a beauty even in motherhood. Her curves were quickly hidden beneath an orange fabric that was so pale it appeared as soft in palate as cream, and Soya begun weaving her magic all over.
Being akin to Soya herself, and having been in proximity to the woman for so long, Dalia had come to know the woman’s gifts quite well. Observing them firsthand had helped. She had acquired a feel for the woman’s magic, whom she supposed had done the same in order to divine the knowledge she constantly hung over Dalia’s head—presumably. Though to her credit, and Dalia’s knowledge, the woman had yet to speak a word.
Today, Dalia noticed a strange presence about the woman. It was nearly absent, but heightened when Soya was in the midst of sewing. Especially, near her hands. Dalia presumed this was the woman’s magic at work. To her own eyes, it appeared invisible, but she sensed it was there, nonetheless. In a way, she could still see it. Though, not with her eyes, with her mind. Looking at her mother and sister, she saw that neither of them registered the same thing she had, yet remained as spellbound.
As Soya worked, every once in a while she would look over at Dalia and smile. It was unnerving. Dalia would look away each time, as if caught doing something inappropriate. But again, Soya said nothing. So, Dalia observed, curious.
“All done.” Soya announced, and they were on their way. Soya wrapped their new dresses in fabric paper, and practically gave the dresses away for a fraction of their true value. The woman was a godsend, an angel sent by Rhiannon.
Dalia shoved the strange occurrence to the back of her head. She would dissect it later. Currently, she was on the receiving end of one of Soya’s motherly smiles. The expression which told you that she knew something you should already know as well, something that she’s waiting for you to figure out—or admit to yourself. Dalia hated it. But wisely, remained silent.
“Who wants ice cream?” Treena asked.
“I do!” Minnie practically screamed. “And Dalia does too. Oh, and Soy-un, also.”
Soya chuckled. “Unfortunately, I have to keep working dear, but maybe next time.” She winked.
“Minnie, you shouldn’t answer for other people. It’s rude.” Treena admonished.
“But they do want ice cream.” Minnie defended, stating it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“It’s true. I do.” Soya said. “If only I had the time…” she sighed.
“See! Soy-un said so.” She pointed to the matron. “Dalia!” she whirled around to her sister, imploring her with large eyes and clasped hands.
“I also… would like some ice cream.” Dalia said. “Please, mama.”
“Neither of you are helping.” Treena’s tone was flat, well used to dealing with her youngest daughter’s exuberance. It was hard enough without others enabling the rambunctious child.
“I am helping, mama. This way, she quiets down faster.” Dalia gestured towards her sister, who nodded unabashed.
“Dalia…” Her mother warned, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“Fine.” Dalia relented. “She never quiets down. Ever.” She shook her head, sighing grandiosely.
Soya and Treena laughed besides themselves.
“Mama! Soy-un! Not you too.” Minnie said, scandalized.
“Be nice to your sister.” Treena said, though she sounded far too amused to be taken seriously.
Soya’s smile slowly melted, the exuberance in her eyes to be replaced with a frown. A look of uncertainty flitted across her features before her face settled into a curious expression. She looked at Dalia almost expectantly.
Dalia didn’t know what Soya was expected from her, and her confusion only seemed to only perplex the woman more than anything.
“Is something the matter, Miss Soya?” Dalia asked uncertainly, capturing the attention of the mother-daughter pair.
Soya adopted a guileless smile. “Not at all dear. I’m just lamenting that I can’t join you girls after all.”
“Maybe next time, then?”
“Yes. You’re always welcome to join us, Soy-un.” Treena said. Minnie echoed her mother’s sentiments.
“Thanks dear, but you lasses had best be getting a move on before it gets too late.”
“Of course.” Treena said, and they were off.
They left the store, feeling more subdued than before. It was an odd exchange that seemed to sober their mood. As Dalia exited the shop’s threshold, a niggling feeling of uncertainty began to stir in the back of her mind, which she promptly dismissed.
Upon exiting, she noted how bountiful the blue sky was as it stretched across the horizon. She inhaled deeply, the smell of sea salt and marine life. There were even small amounts of dirt strewn in, kicked up by passersby and buggies travelling the road.
They began walking towards Geladier’s, the ice cream maker. It wasn’t a long jaunt from the atelier, but brought with it enough time for Dalia’s uncertainty to resurface. Finally, she gave credence to an observation which she had been trying to dismiss as inconsequential since they departed Madam Soya’s.
It’s the middle of the day.
It was the middle of the day. So why did they need to hurry before it was too late? The odd turn of phrase resonated with Dalia, who had become astute at picking out Soya’s double entendres over the years, if they were such things. She wondered if she were looking too deeply into nothing.
“Mama?” Dalia inquired, cutting into Minnie’s observations about which tomcat in the neighborhood was the likeliest father of Miss Teague’s newest litter of kittens.
“It’s the middle of the day.” She said hesitantly. This earned her a look from both mother and sister. Yet, it wasn’t one she was expecting. Her mother seemed confused, if mildly. While her sister looked back at her apologetically, almost pityingly. The latter was a look that expressed how sorry she felt for a close sibling having been born simpleminded. Dalia bit back a retort. “What I mean is—”
“Ah, you’re right.” Treena said unexpectedly. “I do suppose there’s fewer people out and about today.” They’d had relatively no difficult making their way across the square, which was the most heavily trafficked area in town.
“Huh?” Minnie asked. “Really?”
“But with the festivities ongoing, it’s expected.” Wait. No, that wasn’t right… The festivities drew people in, not away. Treena reconsidered her daughter’s words while surreptitiously casting her gaze about.
Dalia looked around as well, and saw her mother was right. She had been so focused on Soya’s words that she hadn’t seen the mountain for the molehill. The square had been relatively easy to cross.
The square was as lively as ever. Vendors, patrons, and passersby milling about in an odd medley to the din of a thousand conversations occurring simultaneously. Except, every once in a while, a singular individual might stand out, for no other reason than they were a stone in the torrent, impermeable to the flow of the tide—a mother pushing a baby carriage coming to a stop, then looking off in the distance with a strange expression; a haggling vendor practically giving his wares away in a state of distraction, only to continually cast intermittent glances in the same direction; a boy standing in the middle of the road, seemingly mesmerized as his parents tried to persuade him to move on; and the dogs—they were all barking at something. Everyone’s attention seemed fixed to the east.
It was the oddest occurrence which she had ever experienced, and brought with it a sense of surrealism. Dalia wondered if the foot traffic had lightened because people’s attentions were being split and drawn.
The square stood below the hill leading up to the aptly named section of town called Upperton. It was a more residential area where few businesses existed, giving way to homes further inland. Madam Soya’s Atelier, which was built by reclaiming an old estate and converting it for commercial purposes, was an exception to the rule. Not many were made. Below the town square, the area was not referred to as anything in any way, but yielded to more commercial establishments, which ultimately led to the wharf. There, the town opened up to the fishing trade.
Though the elevation was slight, it was enough to see blue fringes peeking out from behind and in-between the staggered buildings lining the road towards the docks. If you were looking, the sea could be glimpsed. And for some inexplicable reason, this locus seemed to be the nexus of today’s peculiarity.
Dalia wondered if Miss Soya had been looking towards the east as well—out to sea. Her niggling feeling only intensified after making this connection, blossoming into a full blown bout of anxiety. As soon as she became aware of the direction, she became unable to look any other way.
Dalia found herself attached to Minnie’s side after several iterations of barely avoided collisions with other pedestrians. Her mother would say that inattentiveness is unbecoming of a young lady, but when she looked up, expecting to be chided, she saw that her mother was distracted as well. Though unlike her, Treena wasn't looking at anyplace specific, but rather at the people who were. She saw her mother’s eyes flicker down to Minnie who was trying to lure a stray dog to come closer, within petting range, and promptly looked forward herself, expecting to be next in line. Feeling, more than seeing, her mother’s eyes on her, Dalia was sure that she had guessed right.
Adding slyness to her gawking, she chose to do her spying surreptitiously. But what was it about the sea that was calling so many?
Then she saw it. Beyond the twin chimney stacks of her father’s bakery and the smithery, which was located a street away and behind from Geladier’s, the sea shimmered and sparkled. It shone unusually brilliant. Dalia stopped in her tracks, and stared. If she had been paying attention to her surroundings, she would’ve seen that she wasn’t the only one else watching the spectacle play out.
“Dalia?” Treena asked, surprised. “Why did you stop?” she tugged on her daughters hand to get her moving, which she still held, but the child hadn’t moved or responded in any way to her mother’s prodding.
“Dalia?” she repeated, her tone now laced with concern. “Sweetheart? What’s the matter?”
Treena wasn’t fooled. She had been paying attention ever since her daughter’s words had peaked her curiosity. She had seen a few people acting strangely, like Dalia was now. And the animals; they were behaving the most bizarrely.
“She’s looking at the weird thing.”
Treena started upon hearing Minnie’s soft-spoken voice. Her daughter was usually boisterous to a fault, and to hear her speak so soberly, so matter-of-fact, was as unerring as her eldest’s own strange behavior.
“What?” she said. It wasn’t the most eloquent response, but she could hardly be faulted at the moment.
“The weird thing.” Minnie said, staring transfixed herself. “I thought Dalia was only pretending not to feel it.”
Treena looked, following her daughters’ gazes and expecting to see something out of the ordinary, only to be disappointed by the lack of an explanation.
“What weird thing?” Treena had learned to trust her maternal instincts, which were now screaming at her that something was wrong. “I don’t see any—”
I don’t see, but that’s not what she said, is it?
“Minnie. What did you mean when you said Dalia was only pretending not to feel it?”
“Oh. I was wrong.” Minnie said. Arm outstretched, she pointed towards the overlapping chimney stacks in the distance. “I can see it now. I think you should be able to, too.”
It was true. At first, Treena couldn’t see anything. Then something on the horizon caught her eye. It was a glimmer, as if the ocean was undulating, then a shimmer, like a mirage, and the sea parted to make way for the many ships which suddenly appeared atop its waters.
A burst of magic signaled an end to whatever trickery had heralded the fleet’s clandestine approach. Mind spinning, Treena could hardly form a coherent thought. Foremost, she clutched her daughter’s hands tightly, unwilling to let go. Next, she was at a loss.
Then the distant cannons flashed an angry white-yellow, dirty smoke plumed forth from their hot barrels, and the screaming began.