Bloody Valentine’s Day Contest Honorable Mention
The Color of Nothing by Susan Anwin
They met in her father’s house. Alice and Ta’Ziyah, as the ballads mentioned them. She was the daughter of a respectable family, he was one of the vohiek stablehands. Allie saw him first on a Saturday morning when she was about to ride out with her friends. They spilled into the stables, all giggles and excitement on the first real spring day. She caught his double set of eyes, shining dots in his glass-like transparent face, watching her above the back of one of the horses, while he was helping the other stablehands. He darted his eyes away, when he caught her looking. The prattle of her friends faded into the background as she watched him hustling and bustling around the horses.
She ferreted away every tidbit of information she could unearth about him. She was very young, otherwise she’d have known how dangerous it was what she was doing, how impossible. Whoever tried to bridge the gulf between human and vohiek met an untimely demise. Most notable among them were Bessa and Bokte. It never ended well for the vohiek – the punishment for defiling a human maiden, even of the lowest rank, was death.
He couldn’t help running into her, after all she was the Master’s only daughter. She was pretty alright, but beyond that there was something in the way she looked at him, with the ghost of a smile on her lips. He’d never have dared approach her, so it came as a surprise when she did. Of course he had heard the horror stories about human girls befriending his kind only to betray them once they got bored of them – so the elders put it – but Alice was different. He couldn’t see a trace of cruelty in her.
He was done sweeping the stables and was bringing the broom back to the saddle room. Lost in thought he opened the door and there she was.
Ta’Ziyah was speechless for a moment. “Milady? Can I help you?”
“Is it true what they say about the city with no imlan-law?”
Alice was never one to beat around the bush. Ta’Ziyah had heard the rumors about Lonka-Vakajjál, where the gods-ordained law wasn’t upheld and vohiek and human could mingle to their hearts’ desire.
“Milady, no-one I know has seen Lonka-Vakajjál with their own eyes.” Although that wasn’t exactly true. He did know a man who claimed he had been there.
“You never thought to find out?”
They were a most unlikely pair, but despite their differences, despite the rigor of the law and the threat of retribution, in that brief time before it all came crashing down he loved her, and she him. They were discreet, of course; as an unwed maiden, she had her reputation to think of. Her father was on the lookout for a good match.
With flowers braided in her fair hair, clad in blue silk, Allie weathered the attention of prospective suitors her father dragged in front of her, smiling and nodding at the appropriate places all the while being on the lookout for the moment to sneak away.
It came during the lull after dinner, when the gentlemen withdrew into the smoke lounge, the ladies to the music room, and for the moment there was no one in the mirror gallery. She slipped out through one of the floor-length windows and fled into the hedge maze.
Ta’Ziyah was waiting at the bottom of one of the dead-ends, as they agreed. Allie looked around to make sure they were alone, then hurried to him. The myriad lanterns hanging from the bushes and the branches of the trees dusted their faces with a soft glow.
“Allie, blood in my veins, light in my heart, will you come with me to Lonka-Vakajjál?”
“We don’t know if Lonka-Vakajjál exists at all,” she whispered. “And if we get caught– you know what happened to Bessa and Bokte.”
He squeezed her hands, wide and many-fingered in his own. “My friend Ygal, he is a high priest, he can take us there. I can protect you there. No-one will disrespect you and go unpunished. So, will you?”
She didn’t know it back then, but it was one of those pivotal points upon which her life turned. Alice took a deep breath, then blew it out. “All right then. I’ll go with you.”
“Sssh.” Ta’Ziyah was searching the darkness above her shoulder.
Allie cast a glance behind her. “What is it?”
Ta’Ziyah was still staring into the gloom. “I thought I heard something”
This time Allie heard it too; the snap of a twig, then the noise of receding footfalls.
They stood still, with their pulses loud in their ears.
“Do you think they heard us?” Allie breathed, her gray eyes wide with worry.
“I don’t know.”
Her mother stormed into her room. “A vohiek?”
Allie was still groggy from sleep, so at first she just blinked. “What? I don’t –”
“Is this the thanks for feeding, schooling, clothing you? Who will marry you now?” She buried her face in her hands.
In court, Allie was given a choice: join Ta’Ziyah and become a vohiek in the eyes of the law, a pariah, never to see her family or friends again, or return to the fold, the whole incident forgotten and the shame washed off her name with his blood.
Allie begged and pleaded for the two of them. She tried to bargain with the judge, to no avail.
“We’ll go away to the vohiek city, Lonka-Vakajjál, away from all of this –”
The judge wasn’t moved. “There is no vohiek-city.”
Ta’Ziyah couldn’t keep silent any more. “Yes, there is. All the stories mention –”
“Make your choice,” the judge ordered Alice, as if the lad hadn’t spoken. “Your shame, or his life.”
In front of her on the table were two marbles, a white one and a black one. The white meant life in disgrace. The black one meant the death of her love.
The silence was broken only by her shaky breath between sobs.
“Allie,” Ta’Ziyah pleaded. “Blood in my –”
“Silence. Your time is up,” the judge announced. “Live the rest of your life as the lowest of the low, deprived of all the privileges and the respect you now enjoy, or the end of this whole childish affair.”
Through the prism of Allie’s tears, the marbles doubled, then trebled. She felt she had lived her whole life by the time her trembling fingers reached them. She couldn’t look at Ta’Ziyah, but she felt his glare burning a hole on her skin. A sigh washed over the courtroom when they saw her choice. The remaining marble loomed on the tabletop like a small, blurry moon through a veil of clouds. It seemed to be the only light in the room.
Susan’s flash-fiction Talk of Armadale trees was featured in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012. Her name appeared on the cover of Aphelion Webzine in March and July 2017, February and August 2018 and November 2019. Art Here Art Now serialized her stories beginning in the spring of 2019. Selected to appear in Horror Without Borders, an international horror anthology, one of her stories has recently been translated into Russian.