art by Shothot Designs
Essence of Truth
by Erin M. Hartshorn
It was the quality of Reina's silence that first drew Sarna to her as Reina sat in the gardens outside the old palace ruins. Sarna had come to the outskirts to gather the grasses that would be used for the First Meal at the convent after the midsummer fast. Her sickle for harvesting hung at her belt, untouched; the gardens might be on her way to the gathering fields, but she would not remove plants from the palace gardens. Nor would anyone else--too afraid of ghosts or magic or the ire of the current prince of their city-state, even if he would never have the power kings once did. She knew she had nothing to fear from magic, from essence, and ghosts could be banished to drift. Crossing the prince, however, would not be wise.
Thinking how fortunate she was to have the gardens to herself this morning--the city was increasingly crowded as the fast and its ensuing feast days approached--Sarna walked along a path tiled with bricks from one of the broken walls. She rounded a corner to see a girl of perhaps twelve sitting on a fallen pillar, intent on a red lily in the nearby grass. Her black hair was tied on the top of her head in an Estian artist's knot, exposing the flat planes of her face to the summer sun. The one bit of ornamentation she had was her hair clasp, of volcanic glass the same sheen as her hair; otherwise, her attire was as quiet as she herself, an unremarkable dove gray blouse with a charcoal-colored divided skirt. The girl could have been the child of anyone in the city were it not for her complete stillness of body and soul.
Sarna opened her mouth to invite Reina to the convent for tea, but before the older woman could say a word, the girl held one finger up, motioning for her to wait. As Sarna watched, a ruby image of the lily appeared half a foot in front of Reina, a jeweled mirage suspended in the air. It trembled, flared, then disappeared.
The girl turned to face Sarna. "I am sorry for my rudeness. It's just--I was so close." She lowered her gaze. "Not quite there yet."
"Closer than many twice your age," Sarna said, moving next to Reina and seating herself on the pillar. "May I ask who your teacher is?"
The girl shook her head. Tears trembled in her dark brown eyes, and her voice dropped. "I can't... I'm not supposed to... if my brother finds out, I'll be in trouble. You won't tell, will you?"
"I won't tell." That was easy enough to promise; she didn't know who Reina's family was. "Surely you risk him finding out anyway. Somebody must be teaching you," Sarna pressed.
Footsteps sounded from the edge of the garden, and Reina glanced past Sarna in alarm. "I must go. Remember, you promised."
The girl fled past the pampas grass at the end of the pillar, leaving the off-white plumes bobbing in her wake. After a moment, even that stilled, and there was no evidence anyone else had been in the garden.