by Penny Stirling
It is New Year's Day. Agathe's city is bright with celestial flags and freshly-cleaned statuettes, loud with salutations and laughter, busy with people anointing one another with ash and sea water. It is New Year's Day: the start of both the north's rainy season and the south's fire season, though nestled on the very edge of the tropics her home feels neither to any great extent.
It is New Year's Day, but Agathe is not in her city of Ithikana and not even in her continent-country. She is too north, come near the equator where the world's tilt is meaningless, where the years are judged by the moon. She knew, when she agreed to work at this conference, that she would miss the celebrations, but she is surprised by how much she yearns for them in her downtime. Slumped on a balcony railing, she stares out at this city too large and different, imagining banners strung between Istapor's minarets and fortunes called out instead of prayers.
And then: "Lucky New Year!" says Gizem, almost managing to sound like she's been learning Helthic for more than a fortnight.
"And Lucky New Year to you too." Agathe turns to her billet host, smiling, and receives a second greeting of water sprinkled on her face.
Gizem holds out a shallow bowl. Her own smile falters when she sees Agathe's has.
"We are inside," Agathe says in Gizem's language. This is a taboo not even a child should break, but she knows that the woman means well through her ignorance so she tries to regain her smile as she covers the bowl. "Not inside, please. It's bad luck."
As Gizem apologises and Agathe tries to explain, that is when Agathe's commglove begins to chirp. It is the tune for Daphnen, and so when she accepts the audio connection and raises her glove Agathe shouts her New Year's greetings and invites Gizem to do so too. Daphnen does not reply at first, and when she does there is no greeting or joy. Though her tone and pleas to remain calm advise Agathe that there is bad news, there is nothing that could have prepared for her what Daphnen tells her.
She tries to laugh, for it must be a joke. Then she screams, for it must be a lie. Then she shudders and collapses to her knees, for it is neither.
Gizem crouches and taps her shoulder. "What has happened? Is it Dafnen? What's happened?"
"Magister are dying."
"Every single magister south of the river in Ithikana." Agathe is automatically translating what Daphnen says. "A lot have already died. Inland there are similar reports. Agathe? Agathe, stop--Agathe, you need to--uh, whomever Agathe is translating for, hello there? Can you please drag her to the Helthic Minister? Or... Someone? I don't know. This is... Oh, ancestors..."
"But they're immortal," says Gizem, translates Agathe. It is her only thought. She can barely consider the rest of the message.
"Not anymore? Please, you need to tell people. I have to go, I need to contact more--Agathe? Agathe, I have to--Agathe, can you--sorry, you again? Please, help her."
Daphnen disconnects, leaving Agathe still stunned and now silent. Gizem swallows hard.
Gizem softly pats Agathe's cheek and calls to rouse her, but Agathe just continues staring blankly and translating everything she says into Helthic. Gizem looks around for help. She only sees the bowl of water on the tiles next to her feet.
"Lucky New Year," says Gizem and splashes Agathe with water.
The southern woman reacts instantly, emotion finally showing on her face again as she wipes it with her hands. She begins to say something, and then the last few minutes register.
Gizem takes hold of her hand. "She gave us a job to do. If I help you, will you help me, Agathe?"
On the fourth day of the new year of the numbat, though neither have moved, Agathe feels much further away from her city. She sits in the Princes' library, surrounded by mages and researchers and diplomats and local magister, joined by more from all parts of the world.
Scheduled for today had been discussions on trade zones and agreements but most of the programming has changed. Now Agathe's magic and gloves transmit a presentation of the gathered fact and postulations concerning the magister deaths. Sometimes her arms and the transmission wobble but none in Ithikana who watch complain. Agathe already knows most of it; one of the few city mages from the plague's origin, she has been constantly communicating between home and here.
It horrifies her, but the map that Councillor Soner points to is also a small comfort. There have been so many arguments over the last few days. No one can argue with what the map shows. Now they must actually do something about it.
"Starting here we can see--sorry--about halfway between the eastern coast of Helthai and the Polygerine Islands," corrects Soner, for those with only audio, "we can see a sequence of dots, indicating reports of magister deaths, forming a line that has, so far, spiralled around the world three times." He runs a pointer along the line. "Fishing vessels discovered sea magister bloated on the surface, dead. Ithikana: city, coastal and river magister. Dead. Inland Helthai: river, farm, woodland..."
Every magister Agathe knew in Ithikana is now dead and she can barely comprehend that. She wonders how many times she will need to hear and repeat these deaths before she comprehends what is happening to the whole world.
Once Soner has finished going across the three lines he pauses, checks his notes. "The deaths started on the southern tropic line on the solstice, then proceeded west, and north. They are following the sun's zenith. Within twenty or so kilometres of the subsolar point magister become ill with a one hundred per cent mortality rate. Something is happening to the land itself; a healthy magister from an unaffected latitude that enters the plagued region will die. Humans and animals seem immune."
"So far," shouts someone.
Soner ignores it. What would they do, quarantine the magister? Impossible. "Now, speculation. If this continues, it will reach the equator on the equinox, and the northern tropic line on the next solstice. The zenith moves north about thirty kilometres every day. So far no reported safe zones. There has been some conjecture regarding deep sea magister, but that it is superfluous to what we need to focus on now."
"Which is?" asks a diplomat near Agathe as Soner sips the drink his aide has handed him.
It is fortuitous, Agathe supposes, for this disaster to start during the uniting nations conference. There is no shortage of national representatives, telecommers or translators in Istapor. The city has become a de facto hub for trying to make sense of and deal with the sun's plague.
"Which is," says Soner, "one: organising aid for communities who, without their magister, will lack sufficient magic to cope with disasters. Two: experiment to see if there is any way of protecting magister. Three: evacuation, where possible."
"When will it end?"
"If--and this is no certainty--if it remains the sun's zenith that is toxic, then it cannot pass north of the northern tropic line or south of the southern tropic line."
"Why did it start?"
"We don't know." Soner's grip on his glass tightens until his aide nudges him and takes it away. "I'm sorry. We don't know."
There is so much they don't know.
Councillor Soner stands before the roomful of city mages. There are some new faces, locals fluent in Southern Ashuric and Helthic languages and freelance telecommers.
"You must not make promises that we cannot keep. As much as we would like to, we do not have an army of transporters. We cannot evacuate every single magister."
There is muttering in several languages.
"It... It is only thirty kilometres a day," says Soner, though he speaks more slowly now. "It is possible, for many magister, to travel that distance. They are immortal. If a few months of hard travel will give them the rest of their endless lives, I think it's worth attempting."
"And what happens when they reach sea or mountains?"
"We can try to make arrangements." Soner refuses to meet anyone's gaze. "You must not make promises we cannot keep."
Evenings are quiet. A week ago Gizem was used to talking with Agathe, laughing about the diplomats, showing her Istapor and being taught Helthic. Now they are both tired come dinner and most nights Gizem goes running while Agathe's partner comforts her as much as she can via commglove. Lacking a wake, Agathe talks to Gizem about the Ithikana magister, friends of hers, a teacher, familiar shapes around her neighbourhood and the CBD.
When Gizem was young her family had moved constantly and she never befriended anyone. The magister she knows the best is her own teacher and even that is not a close relationship. She knows she would be sad if magister in Istapor died, but she cannot truly emphasise with Agathe. Not knowing what to say, she listens dutifully, touching the southern woman's shoulder when she cries.
They are her assistants and they have her notes and they are giving out her advice.
But: "We were expecting her," says Soner. There are shadows under his eyes.
"This is the most efficient arrangement," says an assistant. He spreads out a large map; Agathe has seen more this week than in her entire life. "She has her own work to finish before the plague finishes it for her. She would not have sent us if she did not consider us up to the challenge."
Councillor Soner concedes and apologises. Agathe is disappointed; she had been looking forward to finally meeting the biomageographer she'd heard so much about.
"Starting with Helthai," says the assistant, giving the map one last smooth down.
Agathe wonders if she will become inured to this sight: the sickness that runs across the middle of her wide country, engulfing yet more of it each day. North of the line there are various areas outlined.
He points to one on the eastern coast. "Obviously the coral magister at Harried Reefs. I'm sure you will--"
Soner signals to Agathe.
"Uh, they..." When the assistant looks up she says, "The reefers will not leave until the last possible day. It's cyclone season."
"Have you explained to them what's happening?"
"They said if a single soul were to die because they fled their duties, they could never bear the shame." She feels as humbled as when she heard those words yesterday, even though she knows many communities have close bonds between magister and human.
"Well. That is their right," says the assistant, though his expression seems less sure. He points to an inland area. "Do the rainforest magister have any similar duties?"
"Only to keep the stinging trees trimmed."
Soner and the assistant stare at her, their eyebrows quirking in near-unison when they realise there is no punch line.
"The... The trees can kill humans and livestock."
"This is why no one visits you people," says Soner.
If Daphnen were here she would stroke Agathe's back. She might make some frappé coffee or she might read their favourite poems or she might offer to cuddle, but she would touch Agathe's back.
Gizem is here and it is tempting to ask, as though a simple intimacy might be a short-cut to coping, if she'd rub her back. Agathe could imagine Daphnen were here rather than thousands of kilometres away and too busy to talk. She likes Gizem already; it wouldn't be a far jump from friend to crutch. Yet Agathe has never seen a proxy relationship end well and she'll likely be months in Istapor with little ability to evade awkwardness and Gizem when it goes sour. And she does like her. Too much to do such a thing.
Yet also too much to avoid curling up next to her and the temptations that invites.
Gizem plays with Agathe's hair, giving it short plaits and playing with the curls so rare in Ashuriye, while she sniffles into a pillow on Gizem's knees. Though this doesn't soothe her heart as sitting beside Daphnen might, this is a comfort of its own. Agathe is not alone: she has someone to watch over her when she is weak and encourage her not to be so strong that she keeps everything too tightly inside. She has done this before, she knows, she tells herself, and she will be all right this time as well.
"Magpie Snap and Lime Dingo had poetry contests," she says suddenly. "Magpie Snap would--Lime Dingo called it cheating, but I don't know."
"Ah?" Gizem shifts her hands but Agathe does not roll to look up at her.
"They'd have connections to some of their friends, sort of a collaborative reading? Like birdsong." She sighs. "The birds here are so different, so quiet. It's almost as if that's why you pray so loudly."
Gizem touches Agathe's arm. "Do you remember any? That sounds interesting."
Between tears and languages, lacking a perfect recall and multiple voices, Agathe tries to share the magister's creation.
"Earlier today I remembered what Lime Dingo said to me, just before I left," says Agathe, quietly, during a lull in the conversation.
Though they are thousands of kilometres apart, Daphnen sits up. She brushes her back clean of grass and rests her gloves arm on a raised knee. "Oh?"
"That seeing more of the world would do me good."
Not for the first time--certainly not for the last time--Daphnen wishes she could wrap her arms around her love. Even though she has left Ithikana to help with the evacuation and relief work, it is unlikely that she will end up in Istapor.
"Maybe you could start another language," says Daphnen. She wishes she could see Agathe's face, to better judge her mood and needs, but after transmitting visuals all day they are both too tired. "You always thought Marwegian would be a challenge."
"Maybe," says Agathe, then her voice perks up. "Do you remember when we finally got Lime Dingo to the beach?"
Daphnen smiles and hopes Agathe does too. It had been a good day, just the three of them. A nice break from studying. A perfect memory. "They complained the entire time."
"I still think they enjoyed it. Their tail was definitely wagging when we ran through the waves, no matter how often they deny it."
Daphnen tries to rush the conversation on, but Agathe realises her tense choice. She begins to bawl: loud, choking sobs and wheezed lamentations. The sound begins to cut out. There is nothing Daphnen can do but talk, and dig her free hand into the ground like an emotional anchor.
It takes several minutes for Agathe to calm down enough to stabilise their connection. She still has erratic breathing, and her voice quakes when she asks if their teacher died with any pain, but she is quiet.
Daphnen had thought that this question would come sooner. By now Agathe has heard about the deaths of hundreds of magister, has even seen them while transmitting. By now she knows the answer.
For every single one, their final hours are nothing but pain and confusion and anguish. For all their lives they have been immortal. Neither their bodies nor their minds are capable of handling their own deaths.
"I don't think so," says Daphnen.
"That's good," says Agathe. She must know it is a lie but there is no hint of that in her creaking voice.
"They... wanted me to tell you something, Ag."
Daphnen pauses. Perhaps this is not the best time. But... when would be? "Lime Dingo wishes you happiness. And... said to remember them, as if they were an ancestor."
She looks up to the clear night sky, and imagines Agathe doing the same as their connection returns to crying static.
Soner takes the folder of papers from his aide. "You don't have to stay late every day, Şener."
His aide shrugs. "Someone has to."
Soner leafs through the pages; every single one is marked urgent. He hands back half of them. "Weren't you finding some assistants or something?"
"Two are starting next week, Councillor."
"Don't be so formal. No one's here."
"You are, Councillor."
Agathe is on the Helthic death shift today. Magister who will not or cannot flee and mages of all disciplines have been attempting to stave off the poison of the zenith sun.
No attempt has been even slightly successful so far.
But still they try. What else is there to do?
One of Soner's researchers sits next to Agathe. She has shaved her head: an offering to the god of Ashuriye. But no matter how many Agathe sees wearing bandanas, the plague does not slow or spare any magister.
"They are under several layers of wool," says the telecommer transmitting to Agathe. "Forty-one centimetres total. Marinthe, first grade. Then, ah, six metres of ice."
There is some theory for it, something about mimicking a region that wasn't tropical. A few days ago there had been five metres of ice, different wool, fir planks.
Nothing saves the magister. Nothing stops the sun.
"It is... four minutes until the zenith," says the telecommer. His visual has been of the ice-wool construction from above; now he walks down stairs--the picture shudders with every step--to ground level. He passes polar mages with bare hands pressed against the ice to keep it solid. "Oh, yes, and it's suspended with a wooden framework. I think it's Nubbo where they're trying it underground?"
Underneath the construction is a cluster of magister--mostly dingo- and kangaroo-shaped, though some goanna-shapes sit at their feet too. Village and desert magister. There are also a few humans. Students, judging by their faces and how some cling to the magister.
"I have prayed to the ancestors every night," says the telecommer. His voice is low. "Have they... abandoned us?"
Agathe pauses her translating. She clicks her fingers, making the audio two-way. "No," she says, ignoring the researcher's queries. "I see them watching."
"Then... why?" The visual blurs and then settles on the telecommer's face.
Agathe has said and heard I don't know too many times. But she has neither answers nor lies.
Agathe would have been home by now. Today she watches more failed attempts to save magister in Helthai and overhears mages pleading from the other side of the world for assistance in moving magister through jungle.
She and Gizem sit on the balcony and drink mango lassi, listening to a nearby band practicing. She thinks of Daphnen, how they should have been at home together, and misses her lover suddenly so keenly that after she finishes setting down mosquito coils she sits close to Gizem and leans against her. Soon Agathe feels an arm around her back and waist, and by the time the next song starts Gizem's head rests against hers.
"You know what I've been hearing?" says a coast mage. Daphnen has stopped trying to remember everyone's names. "Some of the northerners. They're saying that this is because we don't believe in their god." He starts pulling his fingers to pop their knuckles. "They're only saying that because they think it's not going to reach that far."
"They say a lot of things," says Daphnen. She isn't surprised, but the lack of sympathy still shocks her. "You know some of them say that we're not as pale as them because we don't believe in their god?"
"You ever gone far? Past the equator?"
He shakes his head. "I was planning to, after I'd finished my training, but..."
Ah, a neophyte. "Well. You know the stars?"
They both look up. It's mostly overcast, but to the west there are some glitters in the sky.
"They don't see the Emu north of the equator."
"Yes. But they have stars that we can't see, too. And our grandparents wouldn't go to a place where they can't see us, would they? They must be their grandparents."
He smiles. Daphnen wonders whether he will travel with the fleeing magister to continue his training. Will aspiring mages be forced north and south, or will the country become inured to weaker mages every generation?
"We call it the Stingray, here," he says, staring at the cloudy sky.
The biomageographer only ever communicates with audio. Sometimes she speaks in one of the languages that Soner or his telecommers know; at other times she uses a language from the far north and lets an assistant translate. Today she speaks Councillor Soner's native tongue with his accent, though he knows it is neither her first nor second language.
"We already know that urban and agricultural magister are younger than wilderness magister, yes?"
"I am aware of the theory, yes." Soner slices a fried eggplant and slides half of it along his plate towards the biomageographer's assistant.
"So: magister of different collective ages are not impossible. We know this. I think that this localised extinction of magister has happened before."
Soner's fork stops just short of his mouth. "What?"
"Some groups have older stories. They remember further." There is the sound of shuffling paper. "For example: the ancient eruption of Kullaya. Magister around Ashuriye remember this event, but there are no recollections of it by those in southern Saoirse, even though both places are equidistant from Kullaya. It seems as though native magister on the Saoirsan continent are younger than other groups."
"But why do we not have records of this? There's a lot we don't know from the ancient times. Would you like me to comment on the effect of wars begun by certain monotheistic countries on these sorts of historical matters?"
Her assistant pauses chewing to smirk.
"No," says Soner. "Thank you. So what do you think of this situation, if what you say is true?"
"We cannot stop or slow it, anymore than we could stop a meteor striking the world and destroying us all. But there will also be life, some day."
"Maybe," says Soner.
"Maybe," says the biomageographer.
"Anything's fine, I just want it off my neck."
Gizem ignores the offered scissors. She touches Agathe's hair, pressing together curls and watching them spring back. "But it's so nice. Everyone loves your hair."
"Please? I don't know when my wrist will be good enough to do it myself."
She digs her fingers into the curls, brown as if sun-bleached to match Agathe's skin. "You really trust me to do this?"
"Of course I trust you. It'll grow back, anyway."
Gizem pulls a section of hair nearly straight and takes the scissors.
The magister have gone north. The cyclone has come west.
Ithikana has never, in Daphnen's lifetime, been in the path of a cyclone. Thanks to the efforts of the magister and mages, this coastal town is no longer in its direct path, and though the family hosting her has repeatedly said that they are safe, she is terrified. She could never have imagined how quickly the sky would darken, how loud the winds would become, how every sound of something being ripped up or slammed down would make her shudder.
And then the storm passes. Roof tiles and plant matter litter the town. Daphnen peers around the square. The sky still looks wrathful. The coast mage with whom she is staying gives her a shrug and a smile.
"What if another one comes?" she asks. "Will you be able to handle it?"
"We'll get some southerners, and some from Ashuriye. And when they need us, we'll head up." She pats her shoulder. "She'll be right."
There are no human deaths today.
While Agathe sleeps Gizem mouths her sentiments, not even able to whisper them.
She knows she too often holds Agathe's hand whenever they walk together, and whenever Agathe compliments her she struggles not to blush. And she knows too that Agathe has a lover and a home, and that this is a difficult time with enough emotions.
But then, Agathe has never refused her hand, has never shied from sitting next to her, has complimented her many times. Has told Gizem of the openness of her relationship with Daphnen.
It is one thing to say such a thing about your relationship, however. Were both the southern women not city mages she would not hesitate--Gizem tells herself--to propose a fling to Agathe, but Daphnen being in frequent contact adds awkwardness to Gizem's shyness.
Perhaps she will try to ask about how it's worked in the past for them. Agathe had once mentioned an ex-partner of Daphnen's, or maybe both, but Gizem became distracted by trying to understand how they could have been not been interested in sex.
Perhaps she will just ask Agathe.
Her heart beats faster just at the thought.
Gizem could not gather the courage to say it so she wrote a letter, rewriting and agonising over the wording for a week before binning that, grabbing a blank page and writing three dot points. She leaves it on Agathe's bed and goes for a walk lest she backs out.
Half an hour later Gizem is hitting a tree and regretting everything. She has almost decided to run back and see if she can beat Agathe home when her contact tattoos buzz. The emu.
Perhaps she could just never go back and somehow never bump into Agathe again.
She takes several breaths and initiates audio.
"I won't laugh," says Agathe immediately. "I like you too. Let's talk to Daphnen."
"Oh, I'm so happy," says Daphnen. "Take care of each other."
Gizem bows in front of Agathe's visual. "Th--thank you. I'll--I'll try."
Daphnen claps her hands together and says something too rapid for Gizem to translate.
"Come here," says Agathe, and when Gizem steps closer she kisses her on the cheek.
"That's from me," says Daphnen.
As Gizem's blush deepens Daphnen laughs and Agathe kisses her again.
Soner's aide finds him slumped at his desk. He pours two glasses of iced tea.
"It's not working. Nothing's working. Nothing. Nothing works." Soner sits up and looks to the man. "Şener, tell them to go home. Thank them, apologise for wasting their time and traumatising them. How did we think some ice or conifers could help?"
Scattered about the office are stacks of paper, books and scrolls. Details on the experiment everyone has lost hope in. Hundreds and hundreds of ways that the humans have failed to save the magister.
"Should we send home some telecommers too? We will still need some, but not all." He begins to knead Soner's shoulders. "And we certainly cannot spare the transporters to take everyone back home."
"Keep the good translators." Soner scolls the tea and doesn't call off the massage until he's run out of ice blocks to chew.
Agathe is sliding Gizem's shirt up when Gizem suddenly reaches back and grabs her wrists. "Are... Are you sure?"
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be."
"I meant with Daphnen."
"She told you it was all right. She doesn't lie to me. She won't lie to you."
"Right. Yes. Just... Right." Gizem lets go.
Agathe kisses her nape and pulls the shirt off. She runs her hands down Gizem's arms--her tattoos are cold--and up her back to the breastband. As she unknots it she notices the woman's quickening breath and the scars near her hips. When the last knot is loosed Agathe tosses aside the cloth band, kisses along her shoulder and cups her breasts.
But still Gizem is not relaxed.
"What about you?" asks Agathe, beginning to gently play with Gizem's nipples, wondering how dark they are. Gizem had said her mother was from the eastern archipelago, making her darker than most people in Istapor, but she is the lightest-skinned person Agathe has ever kissed. "Are you sure?"
"Y--yes! I'm sorry, I just--I've never--" Gizem turns and looks over her shoulder. "You're sure she won't be mad?"
Agathe smiles. "Do you want me to ask her again?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"I want you to be comfortable. What do you want me to do?"
Gizem looks to the fingers massaging her breasts and whispers, "To be honest I really want you to put your hands down my trousers."
"Are you sure?" Agathe strokes her abdomen.
"Yes," she says, and pushes Agathe's hand down to her waistline. "Yes."
Cyclone season is not over yet, but there is a greater danger at the moment. A monsoonal trough has lingered. Much of the north-east is flooding.
The river magister have long-died or fled. There are not many river mages here thanks to the decade-long drought, and those in southern Helthai have their own problems.
"There's just too much water," shouts a river mage, shrugging. "Can't put it anywhere. Either you let the land flood naturally, or you flood somewhere else."
"Isn't it just going to keep going downhill?" Daphnen stands on the bank, holding a lantern. The constant sound of the rain hitting her hood is giving her a headache. To think she became a city mage because she disliked the outdoors. "To the ocean? Through the farmland? And towns?"
"There's just too much water," shouts the mage. She walks to the middle of what is usually a stream. Now the water rushes past her thighs. She strides confidently with riparian magic winding around her legs and ensuring her sure footing. "Maybe if it stopped raining..."
At least it's not a fire, another river mage had said, though Daphnen could not see how this was necessarily better. At least fires were quicker, she had thought, and then instantly felt ashamed. The bushfires to the south are nothing to envy.
The river mage plunges her arms into the gushing water, unaffected by the cold or the debris it carries. She concentrates and then straightens, pointing downstream. "Definitely some weak banks. Dead trees."
She looks up, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the rain. "Depends what's happening at Fourbridge. Water's too fast. Can't see that far."
"I'll check." Daphnen rolls up a sleeve. Her commglove is wrapped in waterproof mesh. "What's there?"
"Orchards," says the mage as she pulls herself up the bank. "They'll flood anyway, but we can give them another few days to sandbag."
What a strange thing it is to be happy, to deal with the day's stresses and grief knowing that all that will fall away as soon as Gizem takes hold of her arm. Agathe knows she is lucky to have this diversion, this relationship new and charming, this woman brilliant and refreshing. Their burgeoning friendship was welcome by itself and the growing feelings that neither knew whether to stifle or gamble on were certainly a distraction from the plague. The early days of this too were something, learning boundaries, being so careful to establish accord between the two of them and Daphnen, on the one hand assuring Gizem that she wouldn't be an ancillary lover and on the other making it clear that, while this didn't have to be a finite relationship, Agathe had no long-term plans to stay in Istapor.
Ah, but now to have plunged deep into romance, where every dinner, evening walk, hug and conversation is a heady exploration of the other, where every kiss, held hand and licked patch of skin is a celebration together.
They watch the sun and count down the days.
Agathe's gloves have broken down. They wore out faster than any previous pairs; never before has she telecommed so much. There are commglove-makers in Istapor, but with this crisis they are in high demand and few specialise in southern-style. So Agathe had her arms tattooed in the local style. It hurt; every single needle and every single sigil she dedicated, through gritted teeth, to Lime Dingo. She wondered what her teacher would say about this.
Gizem helped her care for the ink while her arms healed. It hurt, also, to wear her gloves over the gauze-and-lotion-wrapped skin. Thunder Pea--Gizem's teacher--found time every few days amidst the ever-increasing work to train Agathe in using skin and ink instead of leather and wire. At first it was difficult, for she lacked time enough to both practice and sleep well, but by the time her gloves wore through she was competent enough to continue telecomming without much disruption.
"What's it like?" asks Daphnen. There is no way to add Daphnen's direct line to her tattoos while the other woman is so far away, but on the first day she didn't wear the gloves Gizem surprised her with a bracelet of leather and silver links. Daphnen's bead was fitted into the bracelet and, if Agathe tightened the links and kept her arm still so that the bead stayed pressed against a particular glyph on her arm, she had her direct line.
"It's less sweaty, but..." Agathe looks to her arm. "There's no taking it off. No being off duty."
Contact with the rest of the world has lessened since the initial weeks. There is little the Ashuric nations can do for the other continents. Gizem hears people saying how easy they must have it, evacuating magister across land instead of islands and sea--and thousands of kilometres of open ocean from some island chains--but she has seen the maps, the dense jungles and narrow land bridges.
Agathe seems happy when her lovers talk to one another, though neither is fluent in the other's language and Gizem is uncomfortable when she strictly translates rather than joining in.
As far as Gizem can tell, Daphnen is a kind and caring woman, which only makes her feel worse when she hears the two of them laughing, when she thinks about Agathe returning to Ithikana. She understands loving multiple partners, in theory, but Gizem is not sure she's suited to it. Then again, she hadn't thought she'd suit, mostly, being one of multiple lovers.
It is a week before the plague will reach Istapor, and another four days until the equator. There are plans for an emigration of most of the city's magister, but they seem less eager than the humans.
"What if we have to stay up north forever?" asks Thunder Pea. The magister's plumage has faded. Immortal and powerful it may be, but still affected by stress.
"You might not have to." Gizem smiles, but her teacher is studying Agathe's mixed-school telecomming technique.
"And we might have to. It doesn't seem like nothing much to you, but to us..." Thunder Pea takes Agathe's chalk for a moment to correct a tempglyph. "It might be all right, if the toxin does not pass the equator. If, however, we must flee past the northern tropic line to be safe... It would be like asking you to move to the top of a mountain, child. You could do it, but it would be so difficult to adjust."
"You'll die if you stay," says Gizem. "Don't you want to teach any more students?"
Thunder Pea's beak closes. Whatever the magister was going to say is lost at Gizem's addition. It steps away.
"I have a lot to do. I must help decide who is worthy of being saved and who should stay to die." The magister's voice is sharp as it flits up to the railing. "Good evening."
Gizem stammers and calls out until Thunder Pea is out of sight. Agathe hugs her and tries to assure it is just the strain getting to them all.
"It's just..." Thunder Pea sighs and continues pacing along window ledge. "You all seem more concerned about your magic dying out than about us."
Gizem gasps, but she has promised not to interrupt.
"You've made the rarest magister a priority, the ones with the fewest students. The 'useful' magister are a priority, too. You've realised the limitations of transport and your priorities have tightened. You can't save as many as you'd hoped. And I was asked to choose."
Thunder Pea stops and stares out across the city. Daily prayers are beginning, louder even than the rain thanks to city mages' amplification. They wait for Gizem and the city's echoes.
"I was asked to choose who should go and who should be doomed," the magister says, and makes a sound between a peacock's cry and a human's wail. "You asked me to judge who was worthy or not, who was useful or not, who deserved to live or not."
Lightning streaks across the sky. A minaret on the eastern hill catches it and flares. Gizem had tried to explain to Agathe how they use the lightning's power, but she hadn't understood any of it. Now she wonders at how they use the magister's power.
"I have never, in my entire life, ever hated you humans." Thunder Pea speaks quietly, as if wanting to hide in the sound of the rain. "But recently..."
Istapor's chosen magister are evacuated. Gizem and Agathe's farewell to Thunder Pea is short. The magister's tail is fanned, nearly every eyespot transmitting to different city mages and magister.
"Don't be sad for me. Think of those who remain. Think of those who still need help."
Later, Agathe strokes Gizem's hair. She thinks of Lime Dingo and all the magister she's ever met but it is raining again so she stares out at the city instead of the sky. She has never seen so little of the sun and stars as in this city. If only cloud cover helped the magister.
"We went to the botanical gardens," says Agathe. Inoffensive inventions fill in for the tedious or disturbing days. "I could have spent all day in the orchid house."
"I'm glad you finally went!" says Daphnen. "Guess what I did today."
"Did you go diving for treasure?" Agathe lies on her bed naked. She had tried to plan something romantic since Gizem said she'd be out all evening, but Daphnen is two rooms away from her hosts and inexpert at quiet climax.
"That's next week, silly! I went to the circus. They had a trained flock of budgerigars creating shapes. Their shark was pretty good."
Soner's aide crosses his arms and stands in front of the closed door. "Councillor, you are going to talk to her."
"Everything's fine!" Soner grins too widely at the doctor. "And I need to go home now."
"He's not eating or sleeping well. He's self-medicating."
"Look, I'm delegating more and everything's--"
"He has fresh scars. And I'm worried."
There is silence, only the doctor seeking eye contact, and eventually Soner gives a long sigh and sits down.
"He will return as soon as he is able," says Soner's aide, looking as though he has inherited Soner's sleep debt as well as his responsibilities overnight. "In the meantime, I am still here, and so is all the work." He surveys the morning shift of telecommers and when his gaze alights on Agathe he adds, "My name is Şener, by the way. I will no longer be responding to 'Not Soner'." As she sinks down her chair he smiles and lists the day's priorities.
Gizem wakes. The image of Thunder Pea dissolving before her--Thunder Pea crying and blaming her--lingers. Breathing staccato, her hands shaking, she runs her fingers over her tattoo, scrolling aimlessly through her contacts. Its light is faint, but enough so that she can see the room. Thunder Pea is not here. Thunder Pea is safe. She knows this. She knows this. But still Gizem shakes, her chest tight with worry. She considers contacting the magister, but it is late and he will be annoyed.
She looks to Agathe, surprised that her screams did not wake the woman. Perhaps there are too many in her own dreams for her to notice.
"Oh, Soner's back," says Agathe as she straightens the bed sheets. "Half-days, I think? He's looking better."
Gizem picks up a pillowcase. "I hope he hasn't heard too many of the rumours."
Daphnen has returned to Ithikana. The sun and other disasters have moved to lands where she is not fluent. She tries not to think herself useless, knowing Agathe feels trapped by her polyglotism, and there is plenty to keep her busy.
After reconnecting with friends and family she starts organising a surprise party for her lover. Hopefully in a couple months they can have one with no need for telecomming. Imagining the reunion makes their house stifling in its half-emptiness and Daphnen takes long walks to escape. Long-distance seemed almost convenient in unknown environs, but it is unsettling now to reacquaint herself with familiar rooms and routines bereft of Agathe.
Everywhere she walks is familiar and strange too. Shops down her road have changed, some nearby suburbs flooded and the river ferries are fewer, but that is not what disconcerts Daphnen.
There are no magister. Everything that looks like an animal is an animal.
It is not that she is surprised--she was here when it started, after all--but it is another absence she is not yet inured to. She passes the cafes and parks and verandahs where she would meet and talk with magister, and at every site she pauses, realising and accepting that she never will again. Many of these places have little memorials now: flowers, carved figurines, paper stars.
As if I were an ancestor.
Daphnen stops at Lime Dingo's favourite cafe, where they often went after lessons. The magister would ask them riddles and they would bribe it with sugar cubes for hints. It would say that the two of them were its favourite students of all time and they did not care if the magister lied.
A waitress recognises her and gives her a coffee. The afternoon is quiet, so they sit and talk. Neither is quite able to explain to the other what the last few months have been like.
Before she leaves, Daphnen places a cube of sugar at the memorial.
She wonders how Agathe will cope when she returns. She wonders too how Gizem will cope.
They always knew that there would be a limit to how much the transporters could do. Coast magister try to help where they can, but the logistics are still difficult. They can only take so many so far. Some have mental breakdowns as well as physical: they know that their land-based fellows will die if they cannot help them quickly enough. And they cannot help them quickly enough.
Transportation mages pick up the slack in the plagued lands. Certain trade cannot be slowed and emergency teams must be ferried between potential disaster zones.
More and more frequently as the weeks and strain fail to cease word must be sent to a group of magister that no transport will come for them before the zenith does.
"I'm sorry," says Gizem. "I am so, so sorry."
They have heard stories of magister crazed and angry, attacking humans and cursing mages. Today there is calm acceptance from groups in an eastern Ashuric archipelago.
"Remember us," says a binturong-shape.
Gizem, holding back her tears, tries to hear every magister's name.
Agathe will go home sometime this year. Agathe never pretends that she will stay, never treats Gizem as less important despite that.
Gizem has always known this. She first developed feelings for her knowing this. She wrote that letter knowing this. She has kissed her and she has wandered through gardens hand-in-hand and she has slept with her knowing this.
Now Gizem has fallen in love, knowing this, and she does not know what to do.
If only Gizem could bring herself to hate Daphnen. But she is so lovely and giving, almost part of what makes Agathe gorgeous. Gizem cannot even imagine her lover without Daphnen, and she knows rationally that there is more than just Daphnen waiting for Agathe. Family, friends, everything. Gizem cannot compete, especially after so many months of not thinking of them as competition.
The evening sky is clear and bright with stars. Tomorrow is her father's birthday and Agathe sings for him, low on the horizon this far north. And then she sings for Lime Dingo, her gaze settling on the six sisters.
Sometimes Agathe will talk to Thunder Pea, but Gizem sees the look in her eyes and tries to contact her teacher away from their rooms. Every day more magister reach cities just beyond the northern tropic line, hoping they will be safe, and even though fewer than expected manage to complete their journeys north there are still issues accommodating them. There are language issues, culture shock and fatigue to address before even beginning to think of what the long-term situation might be, how magister will cope with different climates and biomes.
"I chose who would die," says Thunder Pea, never consolable, "and I will forever regret not letting another take my spot, but perhaps exile is no better than death."
Gizem tries to imagine continuing on with Agathe long-distance, based on what she's seen of her relationship with Daphnen. Every time, come the evening, she holds Agathe a little bit tighter when they cuddle.
"I know what you said, but you could stay here." Gizem kisses Agathe's shoulder. Flushed and spooning after a giddy half-day break, with no way to see Agathe's reaction, she finally scrapes together the courage to say it. "For as long as you want."
"I want to go home," Agathe says after a while, squeezing Gizem's hand. "I want to see Daphnen, my family and my friends. I want it to not be humid all the time. I want to relax, to eat kangaroo souvlaki at the beach, to hear kookaburras, to cuddle under quilts, to visit my cousin's ouzerie, to... I want to go back, though I know I will miss you."
Agathe sits up and then crawls on top of Gizem, rolling her onto her back.
"I explained that you were not loved less than Daphnen. You are not." She is not smiling, but neither is she angry. "But Daphnen is not loved less than you. Maybe I will return, maybe we will return, maybe you will join us. Maybe you and I will never see each other again. I don't know. But I will not refuse to go home just because I love you."
Agathe kisses her and slides a hand across her stomach. "Nor does wanting to go home mean I don't love you," she whispers.
Gizem is not sure whether this is affirmation or distraction, but as Agathe's kisses inch down her neck she decides she will not let the future diminish what the two have shared.
Gizem joins in evening prayers, a sound Agathe has grown so used to that she wonders how quiet her home and Ithikana will seem in comparison.
Some are confident that this is the end of the plague. Some take precautions, in case death comes to the temperate zones tomorrow.
Everyone holds their breath.
The plague does not cross the northern tropic line.
There is no celebration.
Gizem watches Agathe sleep and thinks how strange it will be when she returns home, how empty the room and her skin will feel at night. She once again ponders travelling to Ithikana with her, a fanciful idea when she begins to think of the risk involved. And Daphnen. It's been one thing to share Agathe with someone so far away, but to all be in the same city together? What if, no matter how much they try, they cannot make it work? What if she hates Helthai or if Ithikana is too small and boring?
Gizem rolls over and wonders which regrets she would rather nurse.
Everyone--human and magister both--wants to know the same thing: when can they return?
"No," says Soner. "We do not know if the sun's zenith is still deadly or if the land is still venomous to magister."
"Then find out," says the northerner, translates the telecommer.
Soner and the mage exchange a look. They have heard this too many times.
"The only way to find out is to send a magister over the tropic line. Which, if the land or the sun are still bad, will kill them. Will you be the one to ask a magister to risk their life?"
"You think it's over?" Councillor Soner signs Agathe's forms and recommendation. She wonders how he is sleeping now; he seems to be regaining weight at least. "The real trouble is just beginning. Do you know how many countries and communities are in the tropics? Do you know how many will be able to keep up their standards of living without magister?"
Agathe had only been thinking of going home, of seeing Daphnen, of how to say goodbye to Gizem.
"Even if we are not forced to become reliant on the northern countries, they will still hold advantages of every kind. Do you think our farms will produce so much? Do you think our trade will be as swift? Do you think our responses to cyclones and droughts will be sufficient?" He sighs and slides the documents across to her.
She cannot think of anything to say, and he has returned to his stack of reports.
"Thank you for your work," says Şener, smiling, as she leaves.
"Well," says Agathe. She picks up her suitcase--only one, even with everything she has had to buy while in Istapor--and looks around the room. "You'll get all your space back now, huh?"
Seven months. Seven awful, unimaginable months of nothing but death and trauma and work and stress, where victories had been miniscule and almost accidental. Seven months of falling asleep and waking up every single day to the sound of Agathe's breath.
Gizem manages a smile. "A bed for my dirty clothes. I hope the journey's safe. I--I'll miss you. I really--"
"Hey, hey, this doesn't have to be the end of things. I'll contact you from the ship, I'm always just a tatt away if you want me, and remember, you're welcome in Ithikana any time."
"Yes. Maybe. I'm thinking about it."
They embrace and kiss, awkward both from Agathe's luggage and Gizem trying not to cling, and then Agathe walks to the door, waves, and leaves.
Gizem looks to her arm. An emu sits patient amongst her tattoos, waiting for her to tap it and initiate contact.
She hesitates every time. Talking to Agathe, whispering and telling her how fast to move her fingers, being shown her house and her favourite beach's sunrise--all of it is lovely but none of it is enough. Gizem misses her touch and smell, seeing her belongings around, being surprised with baklava and poetry translations, having someone who knows what she needs just by seeing her expression when she walks into the room. Talking to Agathe is wonderful, and though surely one day it will not be bittersweet, currently it leaves Gizem feeling hollow.
She knows that she needs to tell Agathe I still want to be friends but but for now she clings. Gizem has drawn up so many lists, negatives and positives and possibilities and contingencies. Every time she speaks to Agathe she imagines handing in her letter of resignation and finding out how much she can pack into a couple of suitcases. Every time she sees Daphnen and how they are together she's so certain that it'll work, the three of them will work and be perfect, that she starts thinking about what the living arrangements will be.
But when she imagines, when she thinks, Agathe and Daphnen are thousands of kilometres away in a country with strange languages, weather, food and customs, and Gizem then wonders whether she will find employment, whether their relationships will actually work, what she will do if she hates it there, whether a life with them would be better. Surely she will get over Agathe. Surely there will be other people and opportunities.
Tonight it takes her half an hour to finally sigh and scroll to the peacock.
"Mango season's coming up," says Agathe as Daphnen sets the table for dinner. "I am going to make you lassi and you will love it."
"I can't wait, dear."
"One of the things I miss most about Istapor." She sighs. One of the things.
"I took the job."
They stare at one another, unashamed at their mutual glum expressions. Though they will not be resuming their closer relationship, for a while they return to its genesis: sadness and silence.
Agathe smiles first. She knew this was coming. Every time she'd heard maybe, I'm thinking about it she had tried not to get excited. "I'm glad. I think it'll be good for you, and you'll be good for it."
"Yeah. And I haven't been to the mainland since I was young."
"It'll be winter there?" Agathe recalls the maps. Another three thousand or so kilometres north. But there is always next year, maybe, or a few years after that, maybe, and she is sure that the ache in her heart will be barely noticeable by then. It is not even the sex or the intimacy that she misses so much but the whole of their relationship, things like hearing Gizem sing while bathing, teaching one another swear words, dancing together on the balcony. Telecomming cannot measure up to their whirlwind friendship.
"Yeah." Gizem's mouth quirks, not quite a smile. "It'll be nice. Yeah."
It is New Year's Day. Agathe's city is bright with celestial flags and freshly-cleaned statuettes, loud with salutations and laughter, and busy with people anointing one another with ash and sea water.
It is New Year's Day, and Agathe does not get out of bed. Daphnen lies next to her, stroking her back, and they talk of memories until both have headaches from crying.
Gizem is in the bath when the contact tattoos on her left arm flash. An emu. She stares, wondering as she always does what the years could have held had she ventured to Helthai, and then she smiles. The years have been good and Agathe has been a good friend; she cannot complain.
Accepting the connection, she rests her arm above the water, on her chest. "Good evening." Agathe is so beautiful, so almost there and grinning so hard, that if Daphnen weren't jumping up and down in view Gizem would be tempted to drain the tub and talk while casually air drying her body. The years have dulled her heart's ache but she has found no lasting remedy. No replacement either, but that troubles her less than it does her parents. "Hope you don't mind the--"
"Gizem!" shrieks Agathe so loud that she startles, splashing water over the bath's side. "Oh, oh, Gizem. Have you heard yet?"
Daphnen pulls on Agathe's arm to focus the visual on her. "Let me tell her, Ag."
"You haven't heard?"
Agathe tries to nudge her away and the visual swings between the two women. "Magister!"
"At least twenty so far."
"And that's just here!"
"Yeah, over east they're seeing them too."
"And up north!"
"We're not sure yet how similar they are to the old ones."
"They are soooo adorable."
"Any in Ashuriye yet?"
"Maybe in the next few weeks?"
"Maybe the emigrated magister can come back."
"Are you all right?"
She stares. Is this a prank? But they look happier than she's ever seen them. What do they mean? How is this possible?
"Y--yeah." She takes a deep breath. "Are you... Are you sure they're magister?"
"What else could they be?"
"Are they... Have they..." Gizem cannot say it. She is beginning to feel faint and reaches for the cold water tap.
"They're just babies," says Daphnen. "Less than a day old."
"Maybe it doesn't matter, if they can't," says Agathe. Her hair is beginning to grey, Gizem notes as the visual steadies.
"But that is who the magister are," says Gizem.
"We could teach them, if the old ones cannot when they return."
Gizem thinks they sound too eager, but who knows how she would react if Thunder Pea had not safely reached the north.
"Lucky New Year," says Agathe. "For the other day."
Gizem splashes bathwater upwards into the women's view, even though they are all inside.
Penny Stirling is a transcriptionist and cross stitcher from Western Australia. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Goblin Fruit, Aurealis, Luna Station Quarterly, and Heiresses of Russ 2014.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I don't remember my earlier inspirations--except for the David Eddings which spawned a trashy but enjoyable fantasy saga that spanned my teen years!--but now a major inspiration is that I have never read myself. I write characters who are like me, and who are like my friends and loved ones, because there's no reason for us to exist in life and not in stories.