The first time Iris craved love, she had recently learned to coax the equits and drive her father’s carriage. With the help of her father’s beasts, she drove a newly matched couple from the Matching Festival to the residence at the edge of town they would call their home. As they departed her carriage, Iris’s father retrieved their bags. He trailed them inside. Iris gazed after them and imagined what waited on the other side of their door: a stove that gave off warmth, a bed piled with quilts made by village well-wishers, two heated stones to place upon their hearts in the final ceremony.
Iris shivered in the sunset chill. Her father returned. Back at their family home, Iris’s parents greeted one another with an embrace. Iris retired to her room. She was not hungry for dinner. But around midnight she woke to an empty belly rumbling.
Iris met her first love during the Matching Festival. Her sick father had been tasked by her mother with remaining in his bed. He left Iris with the carriage duties. She had ferried her last passenger to the festivities in the center of town when she passed the svelte tan woman with curly black hair waving her down beside a row of chopped-down trees. She stopped the horses and waited for the woman to catch up. As she approached, Iris felt mesmerized by the unhurried way she moved.
“I have missed my ride,” the woman said. She curled her r, as in the southern tongue, like the queen. Iris’s body warmed at the sound. “May I trouble you for one?”
“The festivities will be done by the time we get there,” Iris said.
“They cannot be,” she said. “I am the one who begins them.”
Iris swallowed her embarrassment. She moved to climb from her box in order to open the carriage door, but the woman shook her head.
“If it is all the same, I’d rather sit next to you. I grow bored watching my drivers’ backs.”
Iris nodded. She could not refuse the newly appointed Master of the Build, the woman responsible for updates to the Palace of the Lady Roa. Iris had heard the woman’s name spoken between passengers, something southern. Lady Roa had chosen her because of her connection to Lady Roa’s lands, her knowledge of Lady Roa’s magics. The woman slid in beside Iris and folded her hands in her lap.
“Onward,” Iris whispered at the wavelength her two equits recognized. The massive creatures, their shadows cast long across Iris and the woman, dragged their inflexible bodies forward, their two front claws catching the dirt with each step.
“Fascinating, how selective they are in what they will or will not listen to.” The woman peered up at their white hide, like velvet. The equits’ heads bobbed as they walked. “Fascinating how they were created for work and how long we have gone, making living beings to do our duties, when surely there are better ways.”
“Are you a progress pusher?” Iris asked. She admired progress. She had discussed progress with her equit partners during their passenger-less hours; they had expressed a willingness to move into other spheres of commerce within the kingdom. Many had branched out on their own as builders, carriers of heavy materials. They performed transportation duties only as a matter of tradition and need; the kingdom had not identified better options, and transportation had been the reason the creatures were created in the first place.
“I am,” the woman said. “It is a sore subject, sometimes, between the Lady Roa and me.”
Iris had heard as much; the two were infamous for their heated arguments within the palace chambers.
“Heat’s necessary for progress,” Iris said. The woman nodded. Iris said nothing more as the equits dragged through the rough roads of clawed-up dirt. When she was a child, she had feared that she would one day fall into one of the holes left by the equits’ claws. Now she knew the holes were only large enough to twist an ankle, if one decided to walk the roads instead of travel by carriage.
“Why are you not at the Matching Festival?” the woman said. “You’re of an age.”
“If I knew Lady Roa, we’d argue about progress too,” Iris said. “Societal, in this case.”
The Lady Roa and the townspeople over which she ruled had merged traditions: hers from the southern realms, the lands beneath the kingdom, theirs from the time when the first townsperson built his home. The women and men who chose their mates at the Matching Festival were the ones with the financial means to pay for the privilege. They chose mates from the pool of potentials who would trade their jobs, their meager salaries, for life as a caregiver of house and heirs.
“It sounds silly,” Iris said. “But I like driving the carriage. I like talking with the equits. I like working in my father’s shadow. I don’t think I’d be happy locked inside all day.”
The woman ran her hand through her hair. “We are not all traditional, you know. In the south. Lady Roa comes from a very old family. Sometimes the oldest families are the most reluctant to change.”
“It’s no excuse,” Iris said before she realized that she should not. “My father rose above tradition. He’s allowed me to work beside him. He’s supported my decision not to take a mate.”
“Your father must be a good man,” the woman said. “I meant no disrespect.”
The sound of stringed instruments and horns throbbed through the trees. They had reached the end of the road. A dirt path led through the thicket to the festival ground, which Iris had not visited since she was a little girl. Back then she had watched the line of men and women step forward and pick their mates and had longed to be one of them. Now she understood that life was about these choices, and she had no regrets about the path she had chosen to ride along.
The woman disembarked from the carriage and thanked the equits in a volume they would not understand. They folded into themselves, resting their bodies. Iris waved goodbye to the woman in their stead.
“You’re not coming along?” the woman said.
“I have work,” Iris said.
“Who else is there to ferry?” The woman gestured at the wooded emptiness. “Everyone is celebrating.”
Not only had Iris not been present at the festival for a long while, she also had not been spontaneous since her twisted adolescence when she used to sneak out of school to run with young women and men through the underriver and watch traders disappear below its surface. She missed the twisting in her stomach at both the touch of a girl’s hand on hers and at the curious sight of people disappearing beneath the surface of a river into another world.
“I think I will go,” she said, then told the equits of her plan.
We will be here, they said, speaking into their folded arms. Where else would we go?
Iris laughed. They liked her laughter; their eyes brightened when they heard it. But sometimes, they seemed wearied by the conversations she had with them. Sometimes she wondered if they liked her after all.
As Iris and the woman walked through the wooded path to the festival, Iris shoved her hands into her coat pockets. She had trained herself to speak or not speak as much as a customer desired.
“Does my presence in your city offend you?” the woman asked.
Iris quickly shook her head. “No. Like I said, it’s possible to transcend the desire for tradition.”
“It’s odd, isn’t it? Lady Roa has brought her own traditions from her world. Some of them are disruptive to your traditions. But in some ways, your people and hers? Mine, I mean. We are the same. They work well together. We work well together.”
“I’m not the same.” Iris felt as though she were repeating herself.
“I’ve gathered that,” the woman said. She stopped in the middle of the path. Iris tripped over her own feet as she halted beside her. “I have a proposition. I am to be the first one to choose a match today. It seems that you and me, we are both at a disadvantage in this town. You, because you cannot have both a home of your own and remain a driver of carriages. Me, because I am hated here, and most matches I might choose will wish they had been chosen by someone else.”
“Surely not,” Iris said. “You’re important.”
“I am not one of you,” she said. “And worse than that, I do not live as your people live, and I do not wish to give in to old ways of doing things.”
“You’re proposing that I be your match?” Iris said. The old dream from her childhood flooded back: to hear her match name her, to shake their hand for the first time, to follow them to the home they built for the two of them, to press the warm stone against her heart and take in the smell of her new partner for the first time—if they were a relative stranger to her—or to feel the swell of nostalgia if they were an old friend. Perhaps they would turn out to be someone she ferried once and of whom she took note, admiring their gait as they walked up a path to a door. Perhaps they would be someone who had lived nearby when she was little who had been blessed with a high appointment.
“That is what I’m proposing,” the woman said. She began her walk again, as though she didn’t care for the answer as long as the proposal had been spoken. Iris was so shocked that she didn’t register their stride or their proximity to the festival until she saw before her the ring of tree stumps that circled the grounds. Bright red tents blocked out the sun. Iris heard, in all directions, the horns playing in their cross-directional harmony. She breathed in the old smell of fresh flowers and cupfuls of sticky grain, the sweet scent of the waterberry sauces the food vendors poured over them. Waterberries were not native to the land, but the queen had brought them, and the people had loved them, and new fields had been made to grow them in plenty.
Upon the stage beside the entrance, a man with a wreath of flowers upon his head spotted Iris’s passenger and descended the stage in one fell swoop. He latched onto the woman’s arm.
“It’s past time,” he said. “Come up here.”
As he pulled her away, she looked over her shoulder at Iris.
Iris stood at the edge of the festival. A trumpet sounded two low moans. Before Iris, a line of people formed, while up on stage the line of choosers, men and women from royal or well-respected appointments, had long stood shoulder to shoulder. The ceremony leader placed the woman immediately behind him as he stood in the amplification circle, a ring of the queen’s blood painted upon the stage. Iris didn’t join the line of people waiting to be chosen. She felt frozen to her place, her face hot, her mind blank in the busiest of ways. She heard a buzz in her ears. The ceremony master said his opening, introducing the festival and the tradition of pairing. He thanked the queen for upholding this tradition.
“Even coming from a culture of arrangement,” the man said. Several of the choosers in line smirked. “The Queen has allowed us to keep this, our most beloved of traditions, and has added to it several of the traditions of the south. Here, at this festival, we blend our ways and hers. We become one people.”
The ceremony master repeated this line at every event. Iris imagined it was Lady Roa’s decree.
Finally, the ceremony master bowed to his left, revealing the woman in her waiting place.
“We all know the great Ximena, the newest member of our community,” the man said. “As the newest, as a woman of means, having paid her tithe to the Lady Roa, Ximena will begin the choosing. Your choice, Master of the Build,” the ceremony master said.
“My choice knows her name.” Ximena stepped into the circle. “I await her answer.”
The ceremony master thrust out his hands. “You must say it.”
“Iris,” Ximena said. “Master of Transportation.”
The ceremony master wrinkled his forehead. “There’s no such role. Transportation fits into your purview.”
“You heard what I said,” Ximena said.
The ceremony master shook his head; he was of Iris’s parents’ generation, and he did not hide his disdain for progress. “Iris, do you denounce your job to take this match?” the ceremony master said. “If so, approach.”
“I have not asked her to leave her duties,” Ximena said. “Would you please rephrase your question? She will never approach, asking her like that.”
“Iris, do you take this match?” the ceremony master said, exhaling then pursing his lips until they went white. “If so, approach.”
Iris would never have another chance at romantic love and her life’s love both. She would never have another offer such as this. She felt her old craving return to her belly. She wanted to kiss the woman who stood upon the stage. She wanted to feel a woman’s hand in hers, her body against her in other places. Iris stepped to the space beneath the stage.
“I accept,” she shouted to the ceremony master.
“Then you are matched,” the ceremony master said. “You may join the festivities as betrothed.”
Ximena joined Iris on the ground. She held out her hand to Iris as the ceremony master continued above, calling forth the next chooser. Iris took Ximena’s hand. Her stomach flipped at the touch of her skin. For so many years, she had pretended that she didn’t need companionship of a deeper kind. For so many years, she had deluded herself; she wanted love, romantic and carnal and so close that she hardly knew the line from her to herself.
“I feel as though I have made the right choice,” Ximena whispered.
“Me too,” Iris said.
“Shall we get something to eat?”
Iris smirked. “I can’t,” she said, navigating through the discarded cups strewn about the ground. “I have to drive the new couples home.”
Ximena frowned then smiled in a single motion. “May I help?”
By the time the two finished their rounds, darkness had taken over the sky. Ximena gave her address to Iris, who relayed the information to the equits. Iris’s mother would have heard the news. The results of the Matching Festival traveled quickly, passed from neighbor to neighbor. Iris drove her match to the location Ximena described; the dwelling was a three-story skeleton, stone walls wrapped around a small section on the ground floor. A simple dirt pathway led to a simple green door.
“Not what you expected?” Ximena said as Iris commanded the equits to slow down.
“An unfinished home from the Master of the Build?” she said. “No, not what I expected.”
Parked outside of Ximena’s home, Iris paid the equits their share of profit, depositing the colored stones into their mouths. They swallowed, shook out from their harnesses, and dragged away into the woods. They would return in the morning to ask if she needed their help.
Iris’s hands were caked with dried sweat from holding the bar of her carriage. Her hair was wind-whipped, a mess of tangles. Ximena squeezed her hand. Iris took the first step up the drive. Ximena followed. They entered the door together.
The finished room was sparse: a bed pushed against a far wall and made up with a thin sheet and a single fire ring in the center,
“Wow,” Iris said. “This is old-fashioned.”
“It produces less waste than the gas stoves,” Ximena said.
Iris smiled. She wanted to hear about it, but not now, not when she had just caught a glimpse of the stones waiting by the unlit warming ring.
“Shall we?” she asked.
Ximena blushed. “Please,” she said.
Iris moved toward the ring. She placed her palm along the black soot that formed it and pulled the warmth from her belly. The ring lit red. As she took her hand away, she felt the ring’s heat rising. She placed her stone along its edge. Ximena did the same.
“I promise to be warm as this stone,” Iris said. She pulled a pair of tongs from the bucket beside the fire and removed the stone, shaped like a heart and red now. Ximena lay on her back beside the fire. Iris placed the stone against Ximena’s chest. “Even when it is cold outside. Even when I feel cold inside. To you, I will never show disdain. To you, I will never cause undue suffering.” Iris held her hand on top of the stone until it cooled, watching Ximena’s face as she looked away then toward Iris, forcing herself to make eye contact with the stranger with whom she would now share her home. When the stone stopped glowing, Iris lay against the ground and crossed her hands on her belly and waited.
“I promise to be warm as this stone,” Ximena said. She placed it against Iris’s chest. It did not burn like Iris thought it might but sent waves of soft heat through her. Her skin felt tender where it touched the ground, even through her clothes. “We will learn one another’s weaknesses, but I promise not to exploit yours. I will help you be your best self, as you will help me be mine. I will reveal myself to you and listen when you do the same. We will know one another like a stone knows the river that helps shape it.”
Iris couldn’t help but see Ximena then, her match, the woman who called her name into a sea of strangers.
“That was beautiful,” Iris said. “That wasn’t the traditional ceremony at all.”
“It’s what I learned, from love,” she said.
“Then you’ve loved before?” Iris ached to know that her match had loved but loved no longer, that love had ended for her once, that she had hurt.
“I did, yes.” Ximena removed the stone from Iris’s chest, and Iris sat up and faced her. “I do. Pieces of her will never leave me.”
“I hope you’ll tell me about it,” Iris said.
“When I’m ready to tell about it.” Ximena stood. She helped Iris stand. “Are you hungry? I’ll make us food. A feast is in order, I understand.”
Iris was happy to discover that Ximena had a skill in cooking to rival her skill in making Iris feel seen for the first time in her life. As Iris sat at a table Ximena built and dined on roast root and rooter, a meal Iris’s mother used to make to celebrate the capture of garden-destroying pests by eating, together, the crop and the creature who threatened it, Iris could not stop smiling. In bed that night, the new lovers moved their well-fed, well-warmed bodies against one another until their muscles ached too much to finish. They held hands as they fell asleep.
Iris’s new life was beautiful. During the daylight, she ferried passengers across town. During the dark hours, she sat and ate and spoke with Ximena. They talked about the customs of the places they came from: the otherworldly magic Ximena cherished, Iris’s reliance on treaties with created creatures. Ximena taught Iris how to build, how to convince stones from the forests to join with other stones. Together they raised the remaining walls to their home. Ximena told Iris stories about her work: her clashes with the queen. It seemed they were always fighting, yet Ximena never worried for the future of her position. Iris told Ximena about the people who scoffed to see her working the carriage even after she’d been matched—but also about the children who asked her countless questions about how she’d managed to do both when their parents told them they must choose.
For a while, Iris was happy. Ximena gave her everything she needed, and when Ximena stopped touching Iris as much, Iris figured she had no right to complain or to ask for more.
The cloud took her lungs first. She awoke one night beside Ximena unable to breathe. She heaved. Ximena breathed into Iris’s mouth until the cloud cleared, then held Iris as she shook until the morning. The coughing fits took her on three more occasions before the cloud moved into her stomach. For two weeks, she hardly ate. Then the cloud moved into her heart. One night Ximena held her hand against Iris’s chest and convinced it to keep beating despite her body’s insistence that it stop. The next morning, Ximena slid a plate of eggs beneath Iris’s nose.
“You’re ill,” she said. “You need help.”
Iris didn’t want to admit it, but she didn’t want to die.
“I can go to my mother, get her herbs. She has a whole collection. She sells them to the neighbors sometimes.”
Ximena pursed her lips. “You need more than herbs,” she said. “The cloud comes from within. I’m familiar with it. Lady Roa suffers from similar afflictions.”
“What does she do for it?”
“There is water in the woods at the border of my world. She disappears for a while. She bathes.”
“No one notices that she’s gone?”
“No one notices. It is easy to fool people. Your people don’t want to be governed. They’re happy enough for the reprieve.” Ximena placed her hand on Iris’s. “You need to go there. You need to bathe in the healing waters.”
“I don’t want to leave my work,” she said. “How long?”
“Two weeks.” Ximena squeezed her fingers. “I’ll be less fulfilled in your absence, but I will rest easy knowing you are healing.”
“I’ll go,” Iris said. She wanted to do whatever she could to be the kind of match who lived up to her end of their love.
“Good,” Ximena said. “Now listen carefully, and I will tell you the way.”
Iris took one of her own carriages to the lake at the crux of the river. There she disembarked and bid her equits farewell. Her father was still too ill to work, but Iris’s childhood friend Kereen had agreed to take care of the work until Iris returned; if it became too much for Kereen, he was supposed to enlist Ximena’s assistance in hiring another temporary driver. Iris had asked Ximena not to see her off. She was unsure if she would ever be well, and saying goodbye felt like bad luck when she intended to return in two weeks’ time.
Dressed in her swimming gown, she swallowed the reed Ximena had given her. It came from the lake on the other side of the water and would allow her to breathe on her journey. The reed was a limited resource; few from her world ever gained the privilege of seeing the other side, the queen’s country, the country in which her match had been born.
The air grew thin. She craved the water. She longed to be surrounded by the murk. She dove in and down, and the water flooded into her clothes and her hair and her lungs. It nourished her. She opened her eyes to a world of swaying greenery. Ahead of her, the outline of a cave unblurred. She swam toward it, each water breath weighing her body down until she walked upon the lake floor.
The cave was dark until it wasn’t; green lights flashed on and off deep inside. She reached out to touch them, and they blinked in her hand. They were alive, Ximena had told her, creatures who lit the way of their own accord, no treaties, no long-standing traditions of so-called mutually beneficial relationships. If the lights left, the people of the other world would let them leave. Sometimes Iris felt attacked by talk like this; other times, she agreed with Ximena. She wished there were other ways, easier ways, to continue in the traditions to which her people had become accustomed.
She followed the lights to the end of the cave, where the ground dropped off into a deep hole. She stepped into it and fell. To fall in water was the strangest sensation she had ever felt, as though the weight that held her both did and did not exist. She moved her arms to her sides to slow herself, then stilled them to speed her fall. When her feet landed, they landed softly against new ground. She swam out, guided by the lights, until she saw a surface gleaming below. She swam up. She broke through.
The sticky air was as heavy as water. She climbed out of the lake and onto a shore of white stretching out into a fog. The sand cut her feet as she walked along it. She winced as one of the pieces dug into her heel. She bent and pulled out a piece that stuck; it was a small skull, cut in half, the jagged edge covered in her blood. She dropped the bone and hurried into the fog. Ximena had told her to move in any direction; what she sought would find her, she said.
No noise followed her. No noise greeted her when she finally found the edge of the bone shore. She parted the fog with her body and stepped into a burst of brown: trees in every direction, with a single dirt path through them, red with fallen leaves.
The noise came at her all at once, a whisper like Ximena’s breath in the night. It calmed her. Creatures fluttered higher up than she could see; she caught only the briefest of their movements. Iris walked for a short time. At the end of the wood, she came upon the spa’s entrance, an arc of vines that slithered like river moss. She passed underneath. On the other side, a man appeared. Or he seemed most like a man with his wrinkled gray skin, though his ears were pointed and double the size of her own. He wore a red cloak laced with leaves.
“Iris, I presume?” he said.
Her heart jumped to hear her name. “Did Ximena tell you I was coming?”
“She did,” the man said. “I know just what to do with you.”
If she hadn’t trusted Ximena, she might have run. She had given Iris no warnings about her world, had assured Iris that she would be safe there.
The man turned and walked deeper into the woods. Iris followed. As they walked, the trees thinned. The sound of running water filled her ears. A mountain unfolded before them. The man stopped at its base. To her left, a pool steamed. She looked below her feet, where she now stood on black stone.
“There are three pools,” the man said, gesturing up the mountain. “You will settle in the bottom one this journey.”
“Where will I sleep?” Iris said.
“You will find tents beside the pools,” the man said. “But stay in the water as long as you can. You want the water to soak into your skin. You want the water to meet you in your bones.”
“And food?” Iris held her hands against her stomach. She wasn’t hungry now, but she likely would be soon.
“Don’t eat here,” the man said, “unless you wish to pay a price when you leave.”
Iris frowned. “For ten days?”
The man shrugged, then turned to go. Iris looked at the surface of the first pool. She shivered in a drifting chill, then undressed and climbed, naked, over the black rock to submerge herself. She would be safe, Ximena had said.
She soaked. The water was warmer than any she had ever bathed in. Sweat beaded on her face. She breathed through the steam. She didn’t become hungry. It was as though the water nourished her, gave her energy. As she soaked, she felt a glow move through her then leave, again and again. It was what she’d always thought magic must feel like, exactly like that. She closed her eyes and slept.
The person slid into the water without her noticing. She woke to see them across the pool from her. They had thick brown bark for skin that smoothed when she squinted at them. Their hair was like moss, and it floated from the water to the shore behind them and into the woods beyond.
“You have the cloud,” they said. Their voice was a low hum in her ears. “I was wondering what was wrong with you. But I see it in your eyes now.”
Iris nodded. “I have the cloud.”
“Are you going to die?” they asked.
She shrugged. “I am unsure.”
“My people do not die from it,” they said. “We adapt.” Black mist passed in front of their eyes. They smiled. Their two front teeth were crooked. “Not always well.”
“Are you here to clear the cloud too?” Iris asked.
“I will never clear the cloud.” They passed their hand through the water then held it above the surface. Instead of dripping, the water soaked into them.
She knew what sort of person they were before they told her; she knew they grew from the ground. She knew she was surrounded by their brethren. She knew that in Ximena’s world, trees walked the earth like people. Ximena had told her these things, even as she failed to expound on the treatment that Iris would undergo; she told Iris that the surprise was part of the healing.
“If you’d like to be alone, I can find another pool,” they said.
She shook her head. “No, please.”
The person nodded. For a time, they sat on opposite sides of the pool in silence. Silence was kind. Ximena talked often, of her work, of Iris’s work, of the city. Before long, the leaves shifted and let down the dark like a shade. Iris glanced at the tent beside the pool, but she did not wish to leave the water.
“You don’t have to use it,” the person said. “They don’t know what to do with your people here. So few of us require sleep the way you do up there. On the other side.”
“You don’t sleep?” Iris said.
“Not lying down.”
“My mate sleeps,” Iris said. “She’s from here.”
“Perhaps she does so as a courtesy to you,” the person said.
The idea of Ximena having not told her as much made her stomach jump.
“My name is Iris,” she said. “It’s a flower, in my world.”
“If pressed to give a name, I call myself Root.” They appeared to harden, then smoothed again. “You understand where my name comes from. What ails you, flower in your world?”
“My life is wonderful. It’s more than I ever could have imagined.” Iris felt compelled to say more. “But I rely on one person. One person to fulfill me completely. That’s the way it is, where I live.”
“No person will ever understand you,” Root said.
“You’re right,” she said. “But she’s the only one who has ever come close.” She began to cry.
At first Root watched her, then they spoke gently. “Would you like me to comfort you?”
She nodded. Root moved to sit beside her. “How do your kind comfort one another?”
“Poorly,” she said, and Root wrapped a long arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to them. They smelled like mud, like wet leaves in the fall layered across the earth. When she stopped crying, they left their arm until she asked them to remove it.
They sat together in the water for three days before Root left. They talked very little, but Root touched her when she asked to be touched, pointing to a part of her shoulder or arm that felt lonely. Root’s touch interested her, rough and soothing, like the placement of soaked bark her mother used to lay across her wounds when she was a child romping across woods she was not supposed to romp across. At the end of the third day, Root climbed out of the water without a word and wandered back into the trees.
Alone in the water, Iris entered a trance. She stared off into the woods, first watching for Root’s return, then waiting for the woods to give her answers to the question of the cloud. She felt it leave her body. In her trance, her vision blurred, and she saw what she suspected was the truth of the woods. They were hungry and hurting. They were lonely, just as she was, with only one person in her world to understand them.
Upon Iris’s return, Ximena met her at their side of the river. Ximena pulled Iris into an embrace. Warmth spread through Iris. She felt a flash of Root’s heat on her skin. She reddened as she nuzzled her head into Ximena’s neck and kissed her until her hairs stood on end.
At home, Iris pushed Ximena into their bed and climbed on top of her. She opened her clothes and pushed her fingers against her every inch. Ximena moved beneath her like a river, movements impalpable in their smoothness. Ximena’s skin was like water rippling with shivers. Having been in her world, Iris understood that Ximena’s blood was infused with the magic she used to speak to her tools. Ximena’s voice asked bricks to be bricks, asked mud to dry between the materials with which she built. The world around them moved to their benefit, but the ways she favored—autonomy, wasn’t it called?—meant that no brick would stay brick if it didn’t want to. No creature would pull a carriage because of old paper signed in the dawn of that creature’s existence. And what of her own autonomy, atop her mate? She had been convinced by Ximena too, by her kind words in the forest. Iris swam against her body. Had the choice truly been her own? Iris fired with the force of Ximena’s fingers, her climax nothing like water.
That night in bed, Iris traced the spots where Root had touched her. “Do you really sleep at night, or do you pretend?” she asked.
Ximena laughed. “You learned about the southern world, I see,” she said. “I do not pretend, Iris. I have made concessions to live in this world of yours. I work magic I would have eschewed in our world.”
“You don’t like the equits, do you?” she asked.
“I like them. I am also aware that, had I been the one to shape the systems here, I would have done it differently. You must let living things choose for themselves their fates, and I mean really choose. To give illusions of choice in the forms of contracts signed when these creatures were too young to know otherwise? To bewitch stones into staying put instead of roaming as they are wont to do?”
“Your trees are alive,” Iris said.
“All trees are alive.”
“Yours walk and talk. Some of them, anyway.”
Ximena yawned. “That is a story for another time.” She ran her hands through her hair. “I am happy you are feeling better.”
Iris wanted to pry, but the journey had stolen her energy, and she had not slept, after all, for ten days or more. That night she dreamt of walking in the woods, of passing stones that hid from her behind chopped-down trunks. She knelt at a stump to try to catch a stone, but the stone rolled away. The tree’s roots reached up and grabbed at her. She thought herself in danger until they ran their pointed ends across her lips. She fell into the earth. The root took her underground.
She woke up gasping for air, Ximena sleeping peacefully beside her.
Once Iris had seen the world beneath the world, once she had glimpsed its secrets, Iris could not concentrate on the taming of stone or the driving of equits. One day, she halted them in the middle of their path.
“Do you wish you were somewhere else?” she asked them.
They did not answer right away. Then one of them spoke: Do you?
“Sometimes,” she said.
Yes, said the one on the left. We do as well.
From that point forward, it wouldn’t leave her. They might smile at her laughter, but she smiled at the customers who paid her even when they made rude comments about her working and mating in the same life. She smiled at Ximena when she cooked even if Iris did not like the strange vegetables Ximena brought from the palace. She smiled at her mother even when she asked Iris about the prospect of children, of giving up her work to raise a family, because that was what a grateful daughter did.
“How would it work? To drive the carriage without the equits?” Iris asked Ximena one night when she was not complaining about her latest argument with the queen.
“Oh,” she said as she served Iris a bowl of cooked red fruit with a green speckled rind coated in sweet brown sauce. “There isn’t much to do, not while the queen insists on maintaining her good grace here.”
“What do you mean by that?” Iris asked.
“We learned some lessons in our world,” Ximena said. “By coming here, we’ve been made to regress. I believe it’s a mistake. She wants to be loved by all. She doesn’t think your people are capable of change.”
“She’s wrong,” Iris said. “My father—”
“I know she’s wrong.”
“But what’s the solution? If she allowed it? We need a creature strong enough to pull the carriages. If the equits won’t do it. I mean, that’s why we created them, back when we had more magic and all. If they don’t pull our carriages, who will? You?”
“I don’t have the easy answers,” she said. “But there are always ways.”
“Are there?” Iris thought of the magic she knew, the magic that Ximena taught her. Her people had no need of more magic than it had taken to build their city from the ground up. Magic that, she had been taught, came from the privileged water that had once drowned the land before receding.
Ximena finished her bowl. She wiped down the kitchen counters of crumb and spill. Iris hadn’t touched her food. She tried it now. She frowned.
“I prefer meat,” she grumbled. “Your root and rooter. Would you make that for me soon?”
Ximena pursed her lips. “I don’t like it,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
“And what are we supposed to do about that?” Iris asked. “Are we supposed to ask creatures to be our food and hope that’s been their life’s ambition?”
“There are kind ways to find sustenance, too,” Ximena said.
“So you don’t have a clue,” Iris said. “You have all these things you disagree with. But no idea how to fix them so they don’t offend you.”
“It’s not my area of expertise.” Ximena stood still at the kitchen counter, not looking at Iris. “And the queen won’t—”
“Then what good are you?” Iris stood from the table and marched to the door. She opened it to the air. She breathed it in. The rage inside her subsided, but as it left, she felt her heart stammering in her chest. She clutched it. Her knees buckled. She fell. The cloud. It had returned.
When Iris woke, she was in an ice-cold pool on the other side of the world. Ximena crouched beside her, ladling water from her hands over the top of Iris’s head.
“Hello, love,” Iris said. Despite the fog that drifted from her mouth, she did not shiver.
“I was afraid for you,” Ximena said. “You must have loved this place so much, you wanted to return to it as soon as possible.”
Iris didn’t laugh; instead, guilt rose in her throat.
“You’re going to be okay,” Ximena said. “I was sick with it once.”
“You were?” Iris felt the water seeping in through her skin. Her bones were heavy with it. She saw, around her, the forest, and beyond that, in her mind’s eye, a strange, inescapable landscape. Gold movement. Something she’d never seen before. Something she’d never wanted to see before.
“The queen and I,” Ximena said. “It was after she brought me to your city.”
“And the water cured you?”
Ximena sighed. She paused in her ladling. She leaned back on her hands. “As best it could.” Iris shook her head—she didn’t understand. “Your friend was here,” Ximena said. Iris’s breath caught. “They seemed fond.”
Iris unslouched and looked about. “Did I worry Root?”
“No,” she said. “You worried me.”
“I wish I’d been able to see them.” Iris’s heart tremored.
“You seem fond, too,” Ximena said and smiled.
“We spoke for a long time,” Iris said. “How long do I need to be here?”
“As long as you please,” Ximena said. “I need to return to the queen. Now that you’re stable.”
“Of course.” Iris wanted Ximena to go. Wanted Root to trade places. She was happy that her mate had cared for her, that Ximena’s had been the face she had seen upon awakening, but she longed for that other comfort, the physical touch of a person more otherworldly than even Ximena.
Root did return. They touched hands as Root climbed into the water. They said little. For a day, they sat touching.
“You went away so quickly,” Iris said. “You didn’t say goodbye.”
“I don’t say goodbye.” Root reached into a space between two folds of bark on the side of their body and pulled out a chunk of wood. They handed it to her; it was a carving in the shape of Root. “I regretted not telling you how much being with you meant to me. This is part of me,” they said. “I too thought I would never see you again.”
Iris held the figure in her hands. She looked Root in their eyes as she touched the figure’s shoulder. Root smiled. She moved her finger to the figure’s chest, and Root’s chest expanded with their deep breath. She touched the figure’s belly, its legs, its feet. She held the figure to her naked chest. Root watched her all the while.
After three days, Root took Iris by the hand and helped her from the water. Over the course of those three days, the two had talked about the southern world, about its once-splendor. Root had spoken of the forests and the marshes as though they were speaking of a lover long-gone.
“It sounds beautiful,” she said.
“It was,” Root said.
“What happened to it?”
“I want to show you something,” Root said. “Something you’ve never seen before.”
“You’ve shown me a lot that I’ve never seen before,” she said.
“Come with me,” they said. “This you may not like to see.”
They walked along the leaf-covered ground through the woods. It smelled like fresh earth, a road freshly upturned by the equit’s hulk or like soil in her mother’s herb garden. They walked for three hours on legs weakened from the water’s relaxing cold, foals born from ice. Finally the trees began to thin and Iris heard a distant roar. Root reached for her hand. The ground turned to sand beneath them, and then there were no more trees ahead, only behind.
“This is what happened?” she said. “How?”
“They abused what was living,” Root said, “until there was nothing left.”
“Are there more like you?” she asked.
“There are, out beyond the sands. Settlements here and there. I cannot take you there.” In the distance, Iris saw the sand shift. The mirage showed the shape of a monstrous tangle of roots groaning through the sand. They stood and watched a while longer the monsters made of death.
“Those aren’t your people, are they?” she said.
“Not my people,” Root said, “but not far from them. Sometimes, the living things have had enough.”
She moved to step into the sand. Root reached a hand across her. “It’s poison to breathe out there.”
“Where are all the people like me?” she asked. “Like Ximena?”
“Those people,” Root said, “are dead.”
Back in the forest, at the edge of the river, Root touched Iris’s cheeks. She kissed their hands as they lowered them. She dove into the water with Root’s totem tucked into her bag.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Iris demanded as she emerged from the water, the memory of that haunted landscape burned into her. Ximena took both her hands and looked into her eyes, and as though she saw what Iris had seen, wept. Iris pulled Ximena in, her stomach sinking at the thought that she had been harsh to speak those as her first words. “I’m sorry for your world.”
“I tried to tell them,” Ximena said into her hair. “But that was later, when it was too late. At first, I didn’t know better. I murdered the forests. I poisoned the soil. I harnessed the creatures of fire and water and air. Even the air rebelled. The only part of my world I will ever see again, is what you ventured into. The river. The springs. The trees. The rest is inhabitable only to those like your friend.” Ximena caught her breath and pulled back from Iris. “Did Root return for you?”
Iris buried her hand in her pocket and fingered the totem. “They did.” She blushed.
“I am glad,” Ximena said.
“But why didn’t you tell me?” Iris said. “We have to tell people. We have to stop it from happening here.”
“I didn’t want you to be unhappy,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose you.”
Iris scowled. “You think I’m fragile. You think any bit of bad news will break me. I’m not made of glass.”
“Your people are more like glass than you know,” she said.
Iris clenched her fist in her pocket. Her breath sped up. She wanted to yell, but yelling was not kind. She was supposed to be kind, as a mate, as a daughter, as a provider of services.
“I’m not. We’re not,” she said. “You make comments about us like we’re beneath you. We’re not. In fact,” she said, motioning to the river, “you’re beneath us. You, who couldn’t even keep your world alive. You, who can’t even stand up to your stupid queen.”
Ximena frowned. “Don’t,” she said. “Don’t lash out at her.”
Iris felt sick to her stomach. She turned to see her carriage, her equits, waiting for her. What did they look like when they felt anger? Sadness? She had never known, but they must have felt their share. She couldn’t bear to climb on. She ran, instead, into the woods.
She ran until she could run no longer, then she walked. She passed her hands along the trees. She whispered as though Root were there, I think about you. All the time. Every day. She ached when she entered patches of stumps as far as the eye could see. She walked until her feet burned. She found her home and her mate tossing in bed inside their walls. She crawled beside Ximena. “Who was she?” she whispered into Ximena’s ear. “The woman you loved before me?”
Ximena moaned in her sleep.
“Was it your queen?” she said. But she didn’t need an answer; she knew. “Why didn’t it work between you?”
With heavy lids, Ximena answered. “She wouldn’t have me. She insisted I find a match of my own.”
“I’ve fallen for someone,” Iris said.
“I know,” she said. “Root seems kind.”
Iris’s body shook. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” Ximena said. “People love. It’s the best thing that people do. In the south, we do not bind ourselves to one another.”
“But—everyone says—you practice arranged marriage, without any choice whatsoever,” she said.
“Yes, we arrange our marriages,” Ximena said. “But marriage is not the only form of love.”
“Then—Lady Roa. Do you and she—”
“No,” she said.
“Oh.” Iris’s heart hurt. She had hoped that Ximena’s transgressions would give her reason to seek Root once more. It was a brief wish, gone as quickly as it came to her.
“It is okay that you made love to them,” Ximena said. “It is good. I haven’t been here as much as I’d like to.”
Iris shook her head. “I didn’t,” she said. “I was faithful.”
Ximena laughed. “Oh,” she said. “Would you like to find them again? Would you like to see if you two could be together? Would that make you happy?”
Iris’s head buzzed at the thought. Her body hummed. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that more than anything.”
And the cloud of her illness twisted in her yet again, as though it longed to break free.
Root was not in any of the spas, not even the third, which glowed blue and red and green and called to Iris. When Iris asked the spa-keeper, he shrugged. Iris waited beside the first pool for three days before she ventured once more to the edge of the forest. She pulled from her pack the apparatus Ximena had helped her construct: a hollow shoot from her mother’s garden attached to a bubble Ximena had made with her magic. She showed Iris how to ask the air for its assistance, how to read its consent, how to store it in glass. Iris wore the bubble as a necklace and stuck the shoot into her mouth and stepped into the sand.
At first, the sand did not fight back. It wasn’t until she was out far enough to see the edge of Root’s dead forest that the sand shifted beneath her feet. She struggled against the movement below her. She tried to run, but the sand slowed her. The air burned her back through her robes. The air smelled like heat. Ximena had warned her that she might have to fight. Ximena gifted her the sword that hung by her side from the queen’s arsenal; she must, Ximena told her, cut her way through the sand to find Root’s home in the deadened wood.
“I want to do it,” she said. “Even if it’s difficult.”
Ximena had kissed her forehead. “I’m a proud mate.”
The sand gathered. Wind whipped it into the shape of a worm. Iris struggled to hold herself upright. The sand dipped beneath her until she stood in a large hole. She glared through the wind and sand at the worm. It moved toward her. She remained upright and facing it. It paused before her. She breathed with her bubble shoot and held the air in her lungs. She reached out and touched the sand.
“I mean no harm,” she said. “I would not hurt you.”
The sand swirled around her. The wind roared.
“I wouldn’t hurt you!” she yelled, then gulped a breath of her world’s air. “Let me by!”
The sand closed in on her. It pushed her down. She lay inside the wind’s portal. She could see nothing but dark. She did not reach for her sword. She curled into a ball in the sand and let the wind harass her, let the wind beat against her skin. She wouldn’t hurt it. She had made such a promise to the wind and sand. Now she made it to herself.
The wind stopped. The sand settled. She opened her eyes. Before her stood a wood-skinned tangle of char and bone. It moved on mangled roots. It beckoned with one sharp limb then crawled away, toward the burned-up woods. Iris followed.
The air smelled of old fire. The ground crunched beneath her feet as the sand transitioned to ash and wood so burnt that all the moisture had gone from it. She followed the wood creature, unsure where in the burnt-out forest life could sustain itself. The sun still insisted against her skin as she walked, the skeleton trees granting her no shade.
Finally they arrived at a low hill and the entrance to a cave. Iris peered inside. The darkness pooled all around. The wood creature scurried off.
“Wait!” she said. “I can’t see!”
A light blinked on in front of her. It flickered. It moved down into the cave. She reached out for the wall and found it moist and beating like a heart. She meant to grab hold of it, but the wall grabbed hold of her hand first. She let out a small scream as the light floated forward. Iris placed her other hand in front of the first. The wall grabbed hold. She followed the light down, crawling as the wall held her. When she reached the end, the light extinguished as her feet touched ground. The wall let go of her hand. Something else grabbed them. Their hand was as rough as she remembered it.
“You came,” Root said.
“I needed to tell you that I cared for you.”
Root laughed. “I knew that,” they said. “But I’m glad you came.”
She kissed them on their rough lips, and they fell, wrapped together, into the dirt beneath.
Root introduced Iris to what remained of their family: five creatures like Root and ten or so like the wood creature who had led her there.
“This is our tomb,” Root said. “We wait here for death to finish us.”
“Why do you go to the spas?” she asked Root, pressed with them against one of the living walls. “Why try to heal, if you intend to die?”
Root shifted their weight, then whispered, “It is difficult to let go of hope.”
Iris perked up. “Why don’t you all come to my world? I could make sure you were safe.”
A light flashed on before Iris’s face. It blinked once, twice, three times.
“I can ask them,” Root said. “They have been afraid for so long. This is our home. They do not want to leave it, not even when it is a shell of its former self.”
Root was able to convince three of their brothers to follow them into the world above. The others refused to leave, desiring to die with the petrifications of their loved ones. The root tangles did not have the energy for such a journey. Thus it was a party of five who ventured shyly through the river to the north. When they emerged, they were met by Ximena, who embraced Iris before introducing herself to Iris’s guests.
“How did you know I would come back this day?” Iris asked.
“I’ve checked every day,” Ximena said.
Iris approached the equits. She placed one hand on each of their sides. “If you would like to go, please go,” she said. “I will find a way to work without you.”
We have a contract, they said. We cannot abandon it.
“We will write you up a new contract,” Iris said. “One that abolishes the old.” She glanced at Ximena, who nodded. “One that ensures you can do whatever you please.”
One of the equits nodded. We will give you one last journey, if you wish.
Iris took Root by one hand and Ximena by the other. “I think we’d like to walk,” she said. “I want to show my new friends their new world.”
The equits let go of the carriage. They dragged themselves into the woods. Iris led her two mates and Root’s family through the living wood. They eyed the trees with interest, and when they all reached the home Ximena and Iris had built, they did not wish to go inside. Instead, they dug their roots into the soil and imitated the life they had once lived. That night, Iris and Root and Ximena fell asleep with two stones across each of their chests to the sounds of the forest laughing.
Iris found her second love at the edge of a world. While her first love had showed her that nothing worth having required a sacrifice of self, her second love showed her that sacrifice could be worth giving. Iris’s cloud lived in her as it lived in Root, but she would not let it blind her to satisfaction.
The next morning, Iris unpacked. She pulled out the bubble that had once held air. She had filled it with water from the spas. Neither Ximena nor Root knew anyone who had drank the water before. She did not mind being the first.
She swallowed the water without taking a breath. It warmed through her. She asked it for what she wanted, what she had always wanted: strength, autonomy, not only for her, but for everyone who was part of her world and the next.
She loaded the carriage onto her back. She was strong enough, with the water’s assistance, to carry it on her own. She waved goodbye to her two loves. She pulled her carriage along the old roads, ferrying travelers where they needed to go, forging new grooves in the paths.
(Editors’ Note: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam