The map was not written in a hand I recognized, nor was the paper of a familiar weight or quality. But my fingers had known which corners to untuck, which folds to undo, unraveling the tightly bound packet into a roughly flat surface now on my lap.
The hallway was quiet of nurses and patients, only night sounding at this hour. I drew the candle closer. My fingers brush across the paper, instinctively following a path across from the bottom to the top of the map. Ink lines became grass and stone and water and, oh her voice.
The memories were like the morning wind from the mountains, awakening what I had not even been aware was asleep.
Honoka had known Minami could talk, but she hadn’t counted on nearly three days of non-stop chattering, even after they had crossed the border from their lands into the Forbidden. Minami seemed like she was on vacation, not a sacrificial journey.
The first time Honoka had witnessed the princess silent was at the Mystic Fields. Minami investigation of a flower patch had turned into a contemplation of something unseen. Her fixed expression with the afternoon sun gathered around her reminded Honoka too closely of the burnished hue of the statues in the city square.
(“Mine will be the best, of course,” Minami had proclaimed later, grinning wickedly at Honoka as she wrapped her hands around her own chest. “The best endowed, that is.”)
Honoka had managed to hold her laughter at the splat Minami’s body had made when she fell into the water, but lost it when the princess surfaced, soaked and covered in river leaves and glaring at Honoka.
Honoka regained enough composure to throw a rope over the side of the railing of the much sturdier bridge she had told Minami to use but of course the princess had refused to –
The stillness of the water caught Honoka’s breath. “Minami, don’t move.”
Minami’s eyebrows briefly lowered in confusion then flew up when Honoka called her bow, flames snapping as it formed in her hands. A fiery arrow was aimed at Minami.
“Honoka,” Minami said, her voice rising in panic, “When they said you were the failsafe, I don’t think this is what they meant -”
Minami’s words were lost in an explosion of water. A gaping cavern opened up behind Minami. Endless rows of teeth gleamed as they closed in on her.
The arrow’s heat barely missed Minami’s cheek as she lunged desperately for the rope. Three more arrows followed in rapid succession. An acrid smell rose sharply from behind her, along with a high-pitched wail.
The water surged once more, then stilled completely.
“I really thought you were going to shoot me,” Minami had sputtered, a wet pile on the bridge at Honoka’s side.
Honoka had rolled her eyes. “It’ll take more than a princess tantrum for me to do that.”
She turned and began walking down the bridge. Honoka had expected to hear the squish of Minami’s steps following after her. Instead, a soft, “I’m holding you to that,” had reached her ears.
“We should go.”
Honoka’s words had echoed through the half-collapsed room, but Minami wasn’t listening. She hadn’t been listening since they had ducked under the branches of the first row of trees, had stopped even looking at Honoka when the trees had given way to the remains of a village.
“Minami, this isn’t our mission.” Honoka winced at her own words, but this was what had been asked of her, what she had been tasked with when she and Minami had drunk from that black chalice before they had started their journey.
Honoka laid a hand on Minami‘s shoulder. It shifted under her touch as Minami reached for yet another scroll, unrolling it and poring over the contents intently.
Minami yelped when the scroll was pulled from her sight. “I wasn’t finished -”
Honoka held the scroll high above Minami‘s reach. “That’s exactly right. We’re not yet finished in our mission.”
Minami jumped for the scroll in Honoka’s hand. “This is history, Honoka, history that not even the palace library contains. We need to -”
“You’re the sacrifice, not a scholar.”
Honoka bit her tongue from saying anything more, to keep her gaze steady under Minami‘s now icy glare.
The princess was silent the whole way back to the forest’s edge. For the first time, Honoka had wished for Minami‘s chattering. A dozen jokes came to mind, one of them to ask for Minami‘s statue to enhance her big head. But the words faded before they could reach Honoka’s throat. Instead, she kept Minami‘s silence company with her own.
“You won’t take her!” The arrows flew straight and true, the flames flashing when they hit their target. The dark creature roared and reared back, finally falling over dead.
Honoka immediately checked behind her. Minami was still lying against the tree, her breath shallow, and chest stained red despite the bandages. “No,” Honoka whispered, running towards the princess.
Pain erupted across her right side. A feeling of weightlessness before she slammed onto the ground. ‘Get up, get up!’ her mind screamed.
Honoka staggered forward, blinking to clear her bleary vision. But Minami was no longer by the tree. Instead, there was a shadow looming over Minami, standing without bandages and with a sword Honoka didn’t recognize. Sword and Song sliced through the air, through the shadow.
The forest around them faded back into endless sand and harsh sun.
Honoka let herself fall to one knee. “How did you do that?”
“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific,” Minami said, a tired grin appearing on her face. “The sword? The Song? The saving your life?”
It was the first time Honoka had heard Minami‘s voice since the forest. “Yes. Tell me everything.”
The magic pulsated in waves from the tower. The entrance was clear, the path dark. They were at the end.
“Remember,” Minami said into the silence, “Make sure they capture my best features.”
Honoka managed a smirk. “I’m sure they’ve figured out how to make statues talk incessantly by now.”
Minami‘s laugh was short, a breath more than anything.
They faced the tower side by side. A quick hum of Song from Minami brought her sword into her hand, golden and gleaming like the sun. It hummed when Honoka called her bow, flames crackling with anticipation. The resonance of their weapons filled the air, following them as they walked into the darkness.
Nothing follows, not on the map nor in memory. Why had I forgotten all of this? I looked around the room once more, sending a soft Song through the night-darkened corridors of the clinic. No, she was nowhere to be found.
The thought brought a twist into my gut. I knew this feeling, had learned the hard way over many years not to ignore it.
I refolded the map and blew out the candle. She was still alive, I could feel it. Now I just had to find her.