(Wow. I totally failed this month. Sorry, honors is kicking my ass. And my kicking my ass I mean ‘I am enjoying it thoroughly but losing large amounts of free time to research, reading and doing things that allow me to not lose my mind, of which this blog is not one’. So, yeah. Fortunately I have most of today to do crap, so I’m using this morning to do this.
Not-really prequel to The Midnight Thieves and The Burning Lily; this one explicitly introduces four main characters as well as the Orchard of Sorrows.)
There is a place within this city that exists on no map. It is is untouchable, unreachable. Access is something no man should wish for and no woman should ask for. It is the Orchard of Sorrows, and it is kept by the Maiden.
They stand on the roof, and contemplate the long fall to the ground. Will it hurt? Do they care? They have heard that the first thought that goes through a suicide victim’s mind is ‘I didn’t mean to’, but Jo is worn down by an uncaring world; their dark eyes are lined from sleepless nights, and their skin, normally dark, is pasty.
Slowly, unwillingly, Jo decides against it, and instead takes out the knives that belonged to their older brother, a century ago, a lifetime ago, a year ago, before the murder, and the blood, and the eviction, and…all this.
They are dull, uninteresting things, but the blades are still sharp, and Jo wonders if they will cut through their muscle, sinew and vein, let them die here, let them not have to face –
and as Jo stares into their reflection in the knife, the world turns.
Jo is suddenly no longer on a rooftop. They are now in a glorious, beautiful, bright space, filled with huge numbers of trees, each of which is heavy with fruit and flowers. The grass beneath their feet is fragrant with daisies; Jo, having spent all their life in a city, has not seen this much green since they were a small child.
And then the maiden comes and asks a question –
knowledge or love?
– and for Jo, all the love in the world died with their brother, so the answer is easy: knowledge.
And an apple, perfect and round falls into their hand and their are eating it, and then the world is melting away, and they are back on the rooftop, on hands and knees, vomiting up blood that feels like it won’t stop, as a hot, angry spot burns on their chest, over their heart.
The Maiden does not grant wishes, and she does not grant dreams. Not ever. Not ever. Not ever.
She is quiet, and she is terrified, and she wants out.
She is loud, and she is scared, and she can’t leave, but everything in her body tells her she must.
She watches him, as a child watches a tiger that might turn, this man – so unlike the man she fell in love with, years ago – who prowls through her home, who she walks on eggshells around, who she fears and loves and hates and loathes and all she wants is to run.
It is not an option Briony feels she has, for statements this man has made to her. She chokes down bitter tears, as he stalks her space, and does not notice the heavy leaves that start to slowly fall around her, carpeting the floor, the countertop, her lap, until he has left the room, and she is free to let the tears fall and realize that her blue skirt is coated with autumn leaves.
Puzzled, she looks up –
the world melts before Briony, in a whirlwind of color.
She is no longer in her kitchen. She now stands in an orchard, heavy with autumn colors, making each tree a blazing firework. The grass cannot be seen for baskets heavy with fruit and autumn flowers, and there is a smell in the air, a bite, like the promise of winter coming; the roasting of apples and chestnuts, and the fiery ash of bonfires.
The Maiden stands before her and asks –
knowledge or love?
And Briony thinks she is mocking her, this beautiful girl in a long white dress, unmarred by the horrors of the world, and she screams, long and hard, before falling to her knees in choked sobs.
what do you wish? knowledge or love?
And hatred, pure hatred bubbles up inside her, and she spits out that she wishes knowledge, in a sound – or a firework – or a flutter of autumn wind – she is back in her apartment, and her legs feel light as air, and two hot spots burn over her ankles.
There is a puzzle here, a trick. It can be learned; it can be figured out. But it can also go terribly, utterly wrong.
The Orchard comes to Jak while he is dreaming, sweet gentle dreams of beautiful girls with sweet smiles, and one of them wears a long white dress and takes him by the hand and leads him to a beautiful orchard, in spring clothing, with the trees all dressed in pinks and whites, and picnic tables with preserved fruit in jars set up upon them.
The Maiden turns then, suddenly, and her face is at once beautiful and terrible, and she asks Jak:
knowledge or love?
Jak stares at her, puzzled, because he cannot imagine not choosing one; how could knowledge ever be more important than love? There is something in her smile, though, that makes him leery, suspicious, makes him want to take the words back, as she hands him a single rose, red as blood, and as he takes it from her, one of the thorns bites deeply into his flesh.
Jak watches, as if he’s never seen it before, as his blood drips down his finger to his palm, and then suddenly he’s falling to his knees, his arms burning, and blades are emerging from his palms and –
Jak awakes in his bed, and the girl he went to bed with – the girl he had been seeing for over a month – is pinned on the two blades like a butterfly. He freezes. The blood runs down the blades slowly, in a manner reminiscent of how the blood ran down his finger and hand, and he starts shuddering, shaking, wanting to scream; he withdraws the blades, watches them vanish into nothing, and runs.
There is a toll for a wrong answer.
And the Orchard is very specific about making sure that you have a hard time figuring out whether or not your answer was wrong.
He is there when Jo collapses, covered in blood, after murdering the man who killed their brother, sobbing hysterically as if the tears would wipe away the blood that now stained their hands, and he holds out one hand, offering benediction and forgiveness.
He is there when Briony overstretches her new power, not realizing that her body, unused to moving at such speed, will not be able to take such strain, and snaps every muscle in her legs. He is there paying for her hospital bills, signing off on her release, and quietly arranging for the man who tries to visit her – who tries to make her home a prison again – to be murdered in a back alley by a silent Jo.
But before these acts, he hears of the Orchard of Sorrows, and is curious. And there are rumors, occasionally, that curiosity can be enough to drive you to the Orchard’s door, if you look hard enough and long enough. And for Victor, this was the case.
And when the Maiden asked Victor
knowledge or love?
Victor looked at her and slowly said
And the smile on the Maiden’s face was cruel as winter, and an icy chill swept through the Orchard, turning the summer trees bare, sweeping the ground in frost, leaving in an icy, perfect palace of snow.
And she handed him an apple covered with thorns and, puzzled Victor took it.
When Victor awoke, he could not move his legs. His hands burned. It hurt to breathe. He was, later, confined to a wheelchair, with a breathing apparatus attached.
But two tattoos seared themselves into his hands: a pair of Ouroborous.
And Victor swore to discover why.