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[String of Stardust]

~Hikaru~

༻Chapter 38༺

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

     {Pensively I gaze up at the vast night’s Sky, the New Year’s Moon hanging high and proud overhead. Normally I am overtaken by her beauty, yet tonight it only makes me shudder.

     “Be my beloved, Maia.

     “You, above all others in the world, have bewitched me…I’ve never encountered a woman so fair of face, with such a pure and loving heart as yours. In thousands of years, none have captured my attention as you have—

     “I will give you whatever you desire, all the gold and salt and riches of the world and even eternal life, if you will simply stay with me alone.”

     Thinking of it makes me nauseous—what on Earth is she thinking? I suppose it’s not so unusual, I hear Lady Sun regularly trysts with human lovers…but I cannot imagine such a thing. It sounds completely horrendous. Perhaps temple life has simply spoiled me; the thought of being subservient to a husband sounds sickening now, and every day I sing my prayers of gratitude that I was destined for the life of a priestess and not a mere wife. To be the beloved of Maiden Moon would be little better—no. It would be far, far worse…for a man and a woman, at least we are both human. A human and a goddess, there is no compare.

     “If you refuse, I’ll—”

     Though I may be her servant now, at least I’ve my own will. For as much as I do indeed have fondness for her, I refuse to be a sacrifice at the altar of her ego, to slit the throat of my dignity and grovel at her feet. I know, I must really not be pious at all…

     And besides…it seems she hardly knows me. I don’t care for gold and salt or any riches at all—and eternal life? Has she never heard the poems the bards sing in the streets, the tales of great men and kings forever failing to grasp that forbidden fruit, or regretting it even if they had? Why would she think I’m that kind of person?

     …Does she truly pay any attention?

     I look away from the Sky and into the square ahead. The first ceremonial feast is finished, all the heifers have been eaten—yet somehow the beer still flows freely, and many people continue to loiter about in the dim torchlight. Luckily for myself there aren’t too many, and the sounds of music and revelry have been consumed by the darkness. Hopefully I may return home peacefully—

     “Oh Maia! You’re awake!” a woman exclaims, before suddenly wrapping both her damn arms around me!

     “A-Adea,” I stutter, shriveling like a date at her touch. “You’re…quite lively for so late in the evening.”

     I look over to her, one of my fellow priestesses who’s senior in age, but not in rank. You’d never tell the former with how she dallies about gleefully, though.

     “Amazing!” she laughs, “Never thought I’d see dreary-old Maia partying in the middle of the night!”

     “I’m not,” I grimace. “It’s simply my duty to make sure everything is proceeding well.”

     “Of course,” Adea rolls her eyes, “Guess I shouldn’t expect any fun out of you, huh?” she laughs again.

     “…What is that to mean?”

     “You’re such a bore,” she says with a slight slur. “I bet you’ve been sober this whole time too!”

     Unfortunately.

     “Yes. I’ve not been in the mood today.”

     “On New Year’s?! Of all days?”

     “Yes,” I sigh. “Maybe some other time.”

     “One of these days, we shall lighten you up,” she says with a poke to my side. “Maybe we’ll find some handsome nobleman, get you two an inn—”

     “Adea!” I snap, “We’re not to partake in such things, don’t even joke about that!”

     “Ugh,” she groans, “You must be the most humorless person in all of Shinanna.”

     “I’m sure I am,” I reply flatly, pulling myself away from her. “And with that said…I think I would prefer to go be humorless at home.”

     “My, you already act like an old lady,” Adea says, her voice tinged with a playful tone. For some reason her words irk me, although I can’t place why.

     “Somebody must.”

     “Have a good evening then, I guess,” Adea acquiesces, at last fully releasing me from her grip.

     “I presume you’ll return once the week is over…”

     “Of course!” she clasps her hands together. “I’ll take whatever break I can find!”

     “Then I hope you enjoy yourself,” I smile half-heartedly, my already meager energy now thoroughly depleted.

     Thus the two of us depart; her returning to the square, and myself retreating through the claustrophobic alleyways tying together the mud brick houses. I scarcely pay attention to my surroundings, too lost within dour thoughts. It feels as though few take our duties seriously anymore; I can’t help but wonder what kind of trouble the priestesses may be up to. Yet, then again…I am certain none of them had an argument with Maiden Moon herself. So I have no place to speak.

     As I wind through the paths, making my way back to my hallowed home, suddenly I come upon…a strange sight. Although there were many passed out about the square, beyond there I’ve not encountered a single soul. Except now.

     Across a lone alleyway, there lies a very strange girl…she has deathly pale skin, even more so than that of the traders who descend from the north, and her hair is as white as the limestone lining the temple. Her skin is covered with sand and dirt, and she is clothed in dirty, ill-fitting rags.

     Hesitantly I walk up to her, checking around myself to make sure nothing suspicious is going on. There doesn’t appear to be anything like that. Nothing but an odd girl sleeping in the oddest place.

     I lean on my knees, and gently attempt to shake her awake. As I do so, I begin fearing the worst; she is so thin, seeming to be little more than bone, and she hardly moves at all…but soon enough, her eyes slowly open. I let out a slight gasp as she does so—though it’s hard to tell in the dim moonlight, it seems her eyes are a deep, striking violet.

     “Good morning,” I smile, attempting to be friendly. “An interesting place you’ve decided to sleep.”

     The girl looks up at me, almost seeming as though she is awed for some reason. I wonder if maybe she can’t understand me, but she soon speaks.

     “G-Good morning…” she says softly, her voice as lyrical as a songbird’s.

     “What are you doing here?” I ask, “Need you someone to take you home?”

     She slowly sits herself up, and holds her head.

     “Home…I-I don’t know where my home is.”

     “What is your name? Have you any relatives?”

     She stays silent for a long time.

     “I…I don’t know.”

     Oh no…

     “What do you know? Do you know where we are?”

     She looks around before speaking again. “Is this Shinanna?”

     “Yes,” I reply with a slight sigh of relief. “And can you tell what I am?”

     “…A priestess?”

     “Yes, precisely!” I say softly, sweetly, adorning my “priestess” voice with ease. “Then it would appear you’ve not forgotten everything…”

     The girl looks away from me, her face flushing hard. “I guess not…”

     “Hmm…” I hum to myself, trying to think of what precisely to do with this girl. Although for now, there’s really only one answer.

     I lift myself upwards, and descend my hand towards her.

     “Please come with me to the temple for the evening,” I say, gently smiling. “It is safer than here.”

     The girl gazes upon me, her eyes growing quite wide, grinning excitedly.

     “All right!”}

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     Steadily I awake to the sound of distant bird songs, to crisp autumn air filling my lungs. I sit up, still trying to gather my thoughts, hoping Maiden Moon won’t immediately notice I’ve awoken. My eye remains closed as I focus on the memory, trying to grasp it.

     Another dream of Maia…so it wasn’t a fluke after all. I’m assuming these are to stay, much like Suzette’s dreams of Alex, increasingly long ago…

     Gods, I hope there’s any other explanation for this. Maybe because this was her necklace, and after all this time, I’m simply absorbing her residual memories. Yes, that must be it…

     What the other, more obvious option would mean—no. I’d rather not think about that.

     Finally I open my eye—and completely jump back at the sight before me: a large violet eye staring straight at me, hardly three inches away.

     “What are you doing?” I ask, feeling as though I’m going to vomit up my own heart.

     “Making sure you’re alive!” Maiden Moon laughs loudly. But rather than lift my mood, it only serves to irritate me further.

     “You didn’t have to scare the shit out of me.”

     Maiden Moon leans back on her hands and sighs, her red lips changing from a grin to a large frown. “So today is one of those days…”

     “I’m fine,” I sigh, looking away from her, and down the side of the hill we find ourselves on. All around us are thousands of trees, muted browns interspersed with bright reds and yellows. I should find it beautiful…but I can’t quite bring myself to.

     “It’s that time of year again…” I whisper to myself, a pit forming in my stomach at the thought of it.

     “Yes,” Maiden Moon quietly replies. “I assume you’re going to proceed to sulk as always.”

     I turn back to her, glaring; but to my surprise, she seems to wear a soft, sorrowful expression.

     “It’s better than the alternative.”

     She simply stares at me for a time, her emotions hidden behind a dark glass. After a moment I look away, unable to handle her gaze for too long.

     “What are you thinking?” I ask, “It clearly seems to be something.”

     “I’ve a letter for you today,” she says, her voice oddly tender. “Here.”

     Maiden Moon hands me the small brown envelope, delicately tied with faded pink twine. Though normally I’d be overcome with relief, as I hold the best part of my days, today I can’t help but feel a faint sense of dread. But regardless, I open it.

      Ašon bon, Hikaru; how are you today? Or this evening, whatever time this letter happens to find you…

      Please forgive me for not writing as frequently as of late, I suppose I simply find myself often at a loss for words. Life continues to be much the same as it has for some time, and I have little new to share with you.

      Today has been a tad strange, however…it began this morning, in the bakery; one of my regular customers had arrived, and he told me something quite odd. He asked why I am never about Bydlin, why it seems I am only in my bakery. He then told me I need not isolate myself from others…

      But then, soon afterwards, Oskar arrived in the bakery—and then he expressed a similar sentiment. He suggested I bake for the Harvest Festival, because I am often so private—which I must admit, the festival has always seemed delightful, and yet…ah, I do not know. I find myself hesitant to go, yet it is a tad difficult to parse why.

      I suppose it may be enjoyable to truly explore Bydlin; indeed, I have been here some years, and yet I am only familiar with my small little corner of the village, even if it is fairly modestly sized. Yet, I simply find myself being hesitant. Forgive me for rambling so…

      I spend my days with the bakery or with Alexa…ah, you would not believe how she has grown! She is so energetic now, always running from one place to the next—I do wonder where she has procured all this enthusiasm from. It certainly does not appear to be either of us…

      Ah…please do forgive me for once more descending upon a tangent. This is how my mind always is nowadays…within a vague haze, never lingering upon one topic too long. I have found myself becoming increasingly listless…I am not upset with the bakery, not at all. But anything more than the bakery and Alexa feels unduly taxing.

      It is quite horrendous. I love my friends dearly, and yet I find it distressingly difficult to spend time with them, although it is surprisingly not born merely out of business. I simply…do not have the motivation to socialize with others. It feels as such for many things, as of late.

      And, Hikaru…it has been quite a long time since I have broached this, for I know it shall help nothing at all. I know you have found yourself far away, and yet…please tell me when you plan to return home… I fear that you may not be satisfied with this life, satisfied with myself; and yet..

      More and more every evening, all I can think upon is how much I wish to hold you, wish to lay on your breast and hold your hand within mine, to feel your warmth as though it were my own. To…to truly be your wife. I miss you so terribly, and…I so horribly wish for you to meet Alexa. She is so lovely, lovelier than you can imagine; her hair such a rosy red, her face covered in freckles like stars…it is quite amazing how, though this description fits neither of us, she looks like us both…

      Ah, sâ pšyku, I did not mean to do it again; I simply miss you…I feel like a fool for missing you so terribly, for remaining faithful, for relying upon the word of the Moon to know that you still love me, yet alas—here I am…

      I promise you…we shall be safe, Hikaru. You are so strong, much more so than you imagine—I know that is unpleasant, but I truly have faith that whatever hardships may come our way, whatever troubles, you and I could solve them together…

      Ah, I know this is a sad desperate plea, and it is probably nothing…please forgive me. Lêm sâ tsiâ né, Hikaru.

Your dearest wife,

Suzette.     

     I tenderly fold the letter and put it into my bag, bundling it with all the others. From there, I merely stare off into the distance at the warm hued forest below, digging my nails into my arms…

     “Must be bad,” Maiden Moon sighs.

     “I don’t know what—”

     “You’re quivering like a frightened puppy.”

     “It’s nothing. Really.”

     “You really are a pain in the ass.”

     I close my eye, and heave a heavy breath. “Yeah.”

     “‘Yeah?’ So you admit I’m right?”

     “Of course you are…look at everything,” I whisper while opening my eye again, just barely. “She said she’s doing poorly…”

     “I could’ve told you that.”

     “Then why the fuck didn’t you?” I turn towards her and snap, but she merely stares at me with an entirely blank expression.

     “You’re always in a shitty enough mood as it is. If she wants you to know, clearly she’s more than capable of telling you.”

     “I don’t know what to do,” I sigh, staring out into the distance. “She said she’s begun isolating herself, she feels lonely and listless; and…”

     And Alexa.

     I can’t even bring myself to speak her name aloud—I don’t deserve to have it pass my lips.

     “I wish you were like they say in those stories…” I whisper to Maiden Moon, putting my head into my palms. “If only you could just erase me from existence, then maybe finally—”

     “Shut up,” she says, weariness in her voice. “We do not need this again.”

     “It’s the truth,” I say. “Every mistake I could possibly make, I have…there’s nothing I can do to solve any of it.”

     “You know,” Maiden Moon says gently, “I can’t take you over the ocean…but I am sure I could help you get to a port rather swiftly. If you ever wish.”

     I pause a moment, a pounding headache forming from the flurry of thoughts in my mind. At this point, I wonder if Suzette’s optimism is true—

     But whenever I consider such a thought, all I can think of is that day. The sight of a man over top of her, a dagger up against her throat; the weeks and weeks I spent in that house, on the brink of death…and the realization that could just as easily been her. Even now I still shake thinking of it, and I bite my lip nearly to the point of drawing blood.

     How could you forget that you almost killed her? Or maybe it doesn’t make any difference.

     Look at you, killing her now—shattering her heart, whatever you do slowly breaking her; unable to do anything at all without making it worse—

     This is what you get for believing you could ever be loved, ever deserve love…

     Are you happy now?

     Frantically I begin rummaging through my bag, desperate for a distraction.

     “Writing a letter?”

     “No. Looking for the map.”

     “Please tell me you’re not still intending to go to that town…”

     “I am,” I reply bluntly, taking out the map and folding it out on the ground before me. I can’t help but grimace a little at it—perhaps it’s conceited to say, but it’s hard not to notice how…less meticulous most commercial maps are compared to those I create. But unfortunately, for the time being, my days of map making are over. I’ve not the energy for it anymore.

     “Based on what I’ve heard, if I keep heading east I may come across it…” I mumble to myself. “Maybe there’s still a road that leads to it—”

     “What do you think you’re going to find there?”

     “Probably nothing. But I can’t help but be—”

     “Don’t go,” she pleads, “Please…let’s just avoid it.”

     I stare up to Maiden Moon, her violet eyes overflowing with concern. It’s…unnerving. She’s rarely like this.

     “Have you been there?”

     “No,” she frowns, “I just have a poor feeling about all of this. I don’t understand how you don’t.”

     Without a word, I return my gaze to the empty space upon the map, where a small town forgotten by most lies. Within my mind, it’s almost as though I see its name written just like all the others.

     Yuanlì.

     The truth of the matter is, of course I have a terrible feeling about all of this. From what I’ve been able to gather, Yuanlì was abandoned forty or fifty years ago—which, if it’s the latter, aligns startlingly close to when my mother and I left. When we were forced to leave.

     Nothing about this bodes well. I know full well I’m tempting fate.

     But how could I come to Asàshí, and not at least try to find the town of my birth?

     I can’t explain why, not really; perhaps it’s nothing more than morbid curiosity. To see the graveyard of the life I was meant to live, if only things went slightly different—if only I was born slightly different. Maybe, although I can’t remember it at all, I’m drawn by some sense of familiarity, in a land that’s all but foreign to me now. Or perhaps I almost hope something will go terribly, that I don’t have to face neither the reality of my situation, nor all that I’ve done…

     The exact reason why I’m drawn there, I don’t know, and I don’t especially care either. I’m not sure I understand anything in life anymore, and I’m weary of pretending to try.

     I fold up the map and place it once more in my bag, and get up slowly while stretching my sore limbs.

     “So off we go, I’m assuming…” Maiden Moon says.

     “Indeed,” I answer quietly, and descend into the colorful woods below.

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

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