© 2013 by Tyler F.M. Edwards.
The hot morning sun glinted on her blue-black hair as she moved, languid as a cat and smooth as flowing water. Her feet traced patterns in the dry soil of the villa courtyard as she went through the training postures.
She swung a length of wood shaped to resemble the single-edged blades favored by her people. One moment, it would move slowly, tracing the patterns with the careful precision of a calligrapher. The next, it would blur into savage motion as she displaced a ferocity beyond her thirteen years of age.
In her early years, she had taken dance lessons, and her parents had dreamed of her growing up to join one of the prestigious troupes that traveled Uranna, performing for aristocrats and politicians. But one day, the family had been walking by the parade grounds of the local guard, and she had seen the recruits practicing their postures. She had been entranced by the way they blended power and grace, and since then, she had spent every day training for when she became old enough to join the guard.
She still had her dancer’s grace, though, and she moved with a fluidity that would put most of the trainee soldiers to shame. As she moved, her thin ponytail cutting the air with each twirl, her motions seemed more artistic than aggressive. Only the wailing air parting around her mock blade spoke of the violent side of her work.
Elegant and poised, she was a sight to behold. Though barely on the cusp of womanhood, her beauty was already renowned. Her hair – black with blue highlights – was glossy and smooth, her face a perfect pale oval, and her eyes the comforting brown of warm tea.
Her name was Abiri, and Natoma loved her more than any other person in the world.
For so long as Natoma could remember, this had been the morning ritual in her family’s home. Abiri would stand in this clearing in their family’s garden courtyard, in a spot worn free of grass by her feet, and practice her sword forms. Meanwhile, Natoma would sit in the shade of a nearby tree, munching on whatever sweets her father had given her, and watch her sister.
Natoma was five years younger than Abiri, but they had always been close. Natoma thought her sister was the most graceful, beautiful girl in the world, and she could only aspire to one day equal Abiri’s accomplishments. Abiri returned her admiration by doting on her, playing with her, and defending her from older children, who tended to bully her.
“Abiri! Natoma! School!” their father’s voice echoed from the edge of the courtyard.
In a single smooth motion, Abiri finished her final posture, laid her “sword” against the trunk of a nearby tree, and headed towards their father. Natoma hopped to her feet, brushing dust from her indigo skirt, and followed in her sister’s wake. As she walked, she finished off her latest treat – a bunch of white grapes from the family vineyards. She savored the sweat flavor before tossing the stem into some nearby bushes.
Their father waited for them at the edge of the courtyard, holding two bags with their books. Their father was one of the wealthiest men in Nettoh Province. He was so wealthy, in fact, that he rarely had to actually work anymore, instead preferring to spend time with his wife and daughters.
He was also extremely fat. He had neither chin nor neck, his body simply extending outward in a steady curve from the bottom of his mouth to his expansive waist. But he had a kind heart and a smile almost as big as the rest of him, and Natoma loved him dearly.
He handed them their books, kissing Abiri on the forehead. It took some doing for him to bend his massive body down to Natoma’s level, but he managed to kiss her, as well. Natoma beamed at him.
“Have fun,” he said, waving to them as they headed through the house toward the front door.
Once they were out the door and into the streets of Nettoh City, where the steamy heat of a Urannan summer radiated up from the cobblestones, Abiri turned to her sister. “Race?” she asked, a wry grin on her face.
The sisters often raced each other. Abiri reveled in athletic pursuits of all kinds, and Natoma was happy to spend time with her sister – even if Abiri always won.
She nodded eagerly.
And they were off.
Nettoh City could be a hectic place, but they lived in a wealthy neighborhood with broad and airy streets, so there was plenty of room for them to run without the risk of careening into passersby.
Abiri shot off to an early lead, and it was all Natoma could do to not be left in the dust. She gasped for air, pumping her little legs until they burned as she tried to keep up with her sister’s long-legged stride.
And to her amazement, she began to gain on Abiri. She poured on everything she had, her lungs straining for air as the wind whipped past her ears, and could scarcely believe her senses as she drew even with Abiri.
When they arrived outside their school, Natoma did so a few moments before her sister. She had won the race. She had never outrun Abiri before in her life.
Abiri skidded to a stop beside her, her face red. She leaned forward, hands on her knees, and struggled for breath.
“You’re getting faster, Little Sister,” she finally managed to gasp out.
A proud grin split Natoma’s little face, but she felt a worm of doubt in her mind. She was sure she had not run any faster today than she had during their other races. Abiri was taller and in better shape; there was no reason for Natoma to have beat her, and Abiri was too competitive to let her win out of pity.
But she had a long day of studying ahead, and she soon put such thoughts out of her head.
* * *
Abiri did not suggest a race again over the next few days. Then came the morning when Natoma went to the courtyard and found that her sister was not there. Her practice “sword” leaned against the tree where she’d left it the morning before, untouched.
Natoma blinked in surprise, dumbly sucking on a piece of hard candy her father had given her the night before. If she counted the number of times Abiri had missed her morning practices on one hand, she would have had several fingers to spare.
She headed back into the house, searching for her sister or parents. She found one of the kitchen servants and asked them where the other members of her family were.
“Milady Abiri has taken ill. Your parents are attending to her.”
Natoma frowned and headed to her sister’s room at a brisk walk.
She found Abiri lying in her bed, and she barely recognized her. Her hair was dull and tousled from bed, her skin was pale, and a thin stream of mucous trickled from one of her nostrils.
Their parents hovered over her. Their mother, an aging beauty with graying hair and laugh lines around her eyes, felt her forehead, and her father stood in the background, wringing his flabby hands.
Abiri managed a smile when she saw her sister. “Think you’ll be walking to school alone today,” she said, and coughed weakly.
“What’s the matter?” Natoma asked, her stomach knotting in concern.
“I’m sick,” Abiri said dryly, stating the obvious.
“Looks like a flu,” their mother said, withdrawing her hand.
“I’ll summon the doctor,” their father said.
Abiri summoned enough strength to frown at him. “It’s just a flu. I’ll be better in a few days.”
Her father paused in the doorway and smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure. But you can never be too careful.”
Abiri rolled her eyes but offered no further argument.
Their mother turned her attention to Natoma. “You should get ready for school.”
Natoma’s eyes went from her mother to her sister. “I want to stay with Abiri. Someone needs to keep her company.”
Her mother smiled warmly. “I’ll be here, and your father. You need to go to school.”
Natoma frowned, but she obeyed her mother, going to collect her books.
Concern for her sister sent butterflies fluttering through her stomach. It’s just a flu, she reminded herself. She’ll be okay.
* * *
When Natoma returned from school that day, Abiri was still abed. She learned that the doctor had come and gone, declaring Abiri’s affliction nothing more than an unusually bad flu. He’d left some herbal tinctures for her and prescribed a few days of rest.
Abiri managed to rise long enough to join the family for dinner, sipping some broth. If she was a bit more subdued than normal, that was understandable, and there was a feeling that things were already returning to normal. Natoma told them about her day in school, their father stuffed himself with everything from fruit salad to roast pheasant, and their mother sipped wine from the family vineyards and listened to Natoma’s stories, pausing every so often to fuss over Abiri – to the great displeasure of the elder sister.
By the time she went to bed, Natoma had almost forgotten her sister’s illness. The next few mornings felt a little odd without watching her sister practice, but Abiri would be fine before long, and life would be back to normal, she was sure.
But after a week had gone by, Abiri was still not well. Concern once again creased the brows of their parents. Another week went by, and still Abiri showed no great improvement. The doctor came again, but he gave the same diagnosis.
By the dawn of the third week of her illness, Abiri grew sick of her condition. Natoma rose to the sound of angered voices and went to the courtyard, where her sister and father argued.
Abiri looked to have been halfway through her sword postures, and her mock sword hung limply from one hand. “I can’t stand being cooped like this anymore!” she was saying. “I’m finishing my sword postures, and then I’m going to school with Natoma.”
Their father folded his chubby arms across his chest. “You are not. You’re too ill, and you need your rest. Look at yourself: you’re a wreck.”
As much as Natoma wanted to agree with her sister, she had to acknowledge the truth in her father’s words. Abiri’s skin was pale even by for a Urannan girl, and her face shone with a greasy sweat the summer heat alone could not account for. Natoma also saw that she had lost weight in recent weeks, her normally muscular frame atrophying and leaving her looking frail.
Abiri ground her teeth. “I’ll never get better if all I do is sit around. I need to live. I need fresh air, and I need to feel my heart pumping again.”
Cautiously, Natoma stepped forward. “Father’s right,” she said, though she hated to argue with her sister. “You’re sick. You need to rest if you want to get better.”
Abiri turned to her, her tea-colored eyes flashing with anger. Natoma shrunk from that iron gaze, but she pressed on.
“I just want you to get better. I miss our races.”
Immediately, the anger was gone from Abiri. She slumped a little, suddenly looking very fragile. “You’re right, Little Sister. But come and see me as soon as you’re home from school. If I don’t have some company, I’ll lose my mind.”
Natoma smiled up at her, nodding eagerly. “I will.”
* * *
That was to become their new ritual. Each morning, Natoma would rise and go to see her sister, and every day after school, she would do the same, staying with her until her parents sent her to bed. Some days, they would sit under the trees in the courtyard, but other days, Abiri was not well enough to leave her bed.
As time went on, the latter days became far more common.
A pall of worry settled over the household. It was now clear Abiri’s ailment was no mere flu. And whatever it was, it was only getting worse. Every day, Abiri was thinner and weaker, and the joyous, energetic girl she had once been became but a memory. She became nothing but a pale skeleton swaddled in her sheets, her face pained and her eyes red.
Natoma was with her the whole time. Sometimes, she skipped school just to spend the day keeping her sister company. Her parents looked the other way about her shirking her studies, and judging by the lack of comment from Natoma’s teachers, her father had paid them to ensure they did the same.
A cold hand of dread clutched Natoma’s heart at all hours. She felt her sister’s pain as her own, and she desperately to return to the way things had been. She wanted to watch Abiri dance through her sword patterns again. She wanted the laughing girl she had spent her life looking up to.
She tried to be strong, to not show her worry to Abiri, but one evening, the fear became too much.
“I’m scared, Abiri,” she said. “What if you don’t get better?”
Abiri pulled a skeletal hand out from under her covers and grasped Natoma’s, squeezing reassuringly. “It’s not worth worrying about such things. Today is all that matters.”
“I can’t help it,” Natoma said. “I just want you to be better.”
Abiri lay in silence for a moment. Then, she said, “Do you know why I do my sword postures every day?” Never mind that she hadn’t done any in months.
“Because they’re fun? And they make you look nice?”
A little smile touched Abiri’s colorless lips. “Well, those things are both true. But it’s more than that.” She looked into the distance as if gazing at some far away object. “When you do the postures, if you want to do them right, you can’t think about anything else. You don’t worry about the future. You don’t regret the past. There’s just the moment, the perfect moment where your body flows through the positions.”
Abiri’s eyes focused back on Natoma. “That’s why I’ve kept practicing all these years. It’s taught me how to live in the moment, and it makes me free.”
Natoma struggled to wrap her head around such a weighty concept. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think like that. I’m not as wise as you.”
Abiri squeezed her hand again. “It’s all right, Little Sister. I just don’t want you to worry too much.”
“Okay,” Natoma said. “I’ll try.” She put on what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
* * *
Time dragged on, summer turned to winter, and still Abiri stayed sick. At times, she seemed to improve, but she would always regress again.
The doctor could still provide no answers, and Natoma’s father ultimately fired him, chasing him out of the house and shouting “Quack!” all the while. For such a large man, he could move quickly when he wanted to.
They hired another doctor, but she could provide no answers, either. Ultimately, the family turned to a Healer – a practitioner of the most difficult and revered branch of magic. He used his sorcery to plumb the true nature of Abiri’s illness.
Natoma’s parents forbade the children from being present when the Healer presented his findings, but Natoma snuck close, and straining her ears, she could just make out the Healer’s sympathetic voice.
“She has a wasting sickness, in an advanced stage,” the Healer said. “Her blood has become corrupted, and the illness has taken root in her bones.” The wizard sighed. “I’m sorry, but it’s beyond my ability to treat. If you had contacted me a few months sooner, I might have been able to do something, but the sickness has taken over so much that I can’t burn the disease out of her without killing her.”
Natoma’s blood chilled, and she found she had trouble breathing. Her parents said something to the Healer, but she did not hear them. She could think only of the wizard’s words, and the dull resignation with which he had spoken them.
From then on, it was as if all the joy had been sucked from the household. Natoma’s father no longer ate with such gusto and began to lose weight. Her mother no longer smiled or laughed. Even the servants were subdued and morose – Abiri had always been good to them, and they loved her.
Only Abiri faced the future without dread. Even in her weakest moments, even wracked by pain, she showed no fear, and she was still ready with a smile and a joke every morning when Natoma came to see her.
But then came the morning when Natoma went to her sister’s room and found Abiri wasn’t there. Instead, her father sat on Abiri’s bed, her mother standing beside him with a hand on his shoulder.
Natoma’s throat seized, but she managed to ask, “Where’s Abiri?”
Her father’s lower lip trembled, and that was all the answer she needed.
* * *
On a mild spring morning, on a hill overlooking the family vineyards, Natoma knelt by her sister’s grave. There had already been a memorial, a surreal experience she had muddled her way through by not talking and following her mother’s directions, and now the family shared one final private moment with Abiri.
Natoma’s father was barely half as wide as he had once been, and she couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled. Her mother’s hair was almost entirely gray now, and the laugh lines at her eyes had been joined by frown lines around her mouth.
Tears streamed down Natoma’s face, and her body shivered with silent sobs. She could not stop thinking of Abiri – of her ready smile, her grace and vigor, and her love of life. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.
I wish it had been me, she thought.
Abiri had been the family’s joy. Everyone had known she would have accomplished great things, in the guard and as a person. But more than her skill, her talent, and her beauty, they had loved her for her confidence, her quick wit, and her delight in being alive.
Without Abiri, the world seemed bereft of all color, drained of all warmth. The grief was so intense it was a physical pain – constricting her throat like a strangling hand and making her body quiver with emotion she could not control.
Her mother placed a hand on her shoulder and murmured that it was time to go. Natoma didn’t want to leave Abiri’s side, but she obeyed.
The rest of the day passed like a dream, though not a pleasant one. No one spoke save when necessary, and the great villa suddenly seemed like an empty cavern unsuitable for human habitation. Without Abiri, it was just a sad and silent place.
They forced their way through a tasteless dinner, and then sleep provided a brief respite from the grief.
The next morning, Natoma awoke with the dawn. She crept through the house, distantly hearing the servants preparing breakfast, and wandered into the courtyard.
She wanted to turn back, but her pain had taken over, and she was drawn to the clearing where Abiri had once practiced her sword postures every morning. The patch of bare dirt was still there, though the grass had started to cover it again.
Natoma’s lip trembled, and her eyes filled with tears. She remembered all the happy mornings she had spent here, watching her sister dance through the deadly yet beautiful forms.
Abiri’s mock sword was still there. It had been knocked from its usual resting place against the tree trunk, and the winter had left it slightly weathered, but it was still in fairly good condition.
Not really thinking, Natoma crept over to the length of wood and picked it up. The tears flowing freely now, she held the “sword” the way she remembered Abiri doing.
She moved to the center of the clearing and put herself in the fighter’s stance used by Urannan warriors. She could feel the way her sister’s feet had contoured the soil over the years.
She remembered the days when Abiri had begun every morning this way, moving through the postures with perfect grace. Still sniffling and feeling the hot tears running down her cheeks, Natoma began to move through the traditional forms of Urannan sword training, the same ones once practiced by her sister.
She had spent so many years watching Abiri that she knew exactly what to do. It was only a matter of practicing until she had the forms down.
And as she went through the motions, the weight of time seemed to fall away. She tried and tried and tried again to perfectly imitate the postures as Abiri had done them, and in such a state of focus, there was little space left for her grief.
Her universe became reduced down to the weight of the mock blade in her hand and the flow of her muscles as she sought the perfect form, and she became free of the past and the future alike. There was only the moment – the feel of the earth beneath her feet, the warmth of the sun above, and the strain of her body.
Thus began her new ritual as she spent her time in search of the perfect form, the perfect moment. She trained there, in her sister’s pose, day after day, week after week, year after year.