Liao tastes of blackcurrants and souls, to her. It is a melange of spice and self, so difficult to describe because she is certain that it is one of those things that everyone experiences slightly differently, as complicated as the human souls that can be moulded and shaped by it.
True Liao is different, made more difficult to describe simply due to its rarity in people having tasted it. Its clarity, like the purest coldest water, sparkles, then bites, takes hold and sweeps you to a place beyond comprehension.
When Ysabel comes to her, late in the night, and is welcomed to a bed of cushions and the softest blankets, the first kiss tastes like clarity. A frisson runs down her spine at the memory of when it had passed by her own lips, 9 months previous, when she had been a Guide. The faintest hint of the Gates of the Labyrinth, of the bite of death that Ysabel had so narrowly escaped, for a reason she could not yet understand.
There is no doubt that they enjoy each other more deeply than the night before. No longer is it about playing the game, and escape clauses in a marriage contract; tonight is solely for themselves. In Vitória, there is the need to do, to show, to express love and comfort and be whatever Ysabel needs, because she herself is so confused and shaken it is easier to ensure that her love is taken care of. And in return, Ysabel pulls her closer, clings to her, maps and memorizes every touch and inch of skin and bark; she kisses her as if it was the first time and the last; the visionary had been so convinced that she would die today, that nothing seems amiss to Vitória.
Hours later, the taste of True Liao on the lips seems so at odds with the words that she hadn’t drunk it, not truly. Like the purest coldest water, Vitória feels the truth bite, take hold, and sweep her away to a place beyond comprehension.
The Cost of Reckoning
What does it cost me, to stand here, holding your hand as tightly, as Courageously, and as Loyally as I can?
Vitória’s eyes remain low, only watching the magistrates and Ysabel’s expression, trying to pointedly ignore Ros’ murder glare, and the cold expressions of the chaptermates of Felix’ Watch.
Ros stands glaring at me, at you, at the rest of the accused. She shall never understand, shall never speak to me again. It has cost me a friend.
“Ysabel of the Handful of Dust, you are additionally charged with the manslaughter of…”
Asher set me on the path of Courage, when I was lost. He dedicated me. It has cost me my priest, my Cardinal.
“I plead Guilty of all charges.”
People are looking at me, standing next to you as if co-accused, our hands tightly bound together. Do they wonder at what part I played in this? Am I to plead for clemency on your behalf? It has cost me my innocence.
“Does any priest plead for Clemency on your behalf?”
“No. There are no Virtuous grounds for what I did.”
Your hand tightens through mine. There is no doubt of your Courage, but then, you are a disciple of Asher, too. I wish to run fast, run far, as if I could escape this. Yet I cannot leave your side, even as it costs me…
“You are found guilty. Execution is to take place immediately.”
When you came up to me, said you’d be dead in 10 minutes, you told me truthfully all that time permitted, that before had been contracted to remain silent about. I am angry… Because it has cost me my Reckoning… And instead of righting the wrong…
“I am very proud of you.” Vitória’s cold fingers stroke Ysabel’s cheek, before they part, hands still clasped because Vitória will not let her face this alone. The executioner stands behind her, Vitória could reach out and stop the blade if she chose to do so. There is a last smile, a tilt of the head as Ysabel accepts and welcomes the consequences with such Courage. Asher would be proud. Vitória is, in his stead.
A brief metallic glint at the base of the skull, before it is over, and Vitória catches Ysabel’s body in her arms, lowers it to the floor, and cradles it in her arms, welcomes her to the gates of the Labyrinth with a song and reminder of her penance.
… I am standing at your side… though it costs me everything.