AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story began as a writing prompt for W.A.F.F.L.E. where each member was given 25 minutes to write something inspired by the following picture. I have since continued this story – without a plan – as a free-writing escape from my current novel. The title is just something epic I came up with a few minutes ago.
Artwork by TheMichaelMacRae
The sea was peaceful, lapping against the steps of the palace. The evening sun glistened off the water like diamonds that danced on the waves. A breeze blew in from the ocean, refreshing and salty. One could even smell the fish market that was half a mile away. And it was always this, ever since the old world first began to be covered.
Every few years, a new city had to be built, for fear they would all be washed away. With every new layer, they grew closer and closer to the sky and they knew their time on this world was short. But there was no escape. The anticipation was daunting; each still moment was cherished.
And then, there, in the distance, something popped up out of the water. No, someone, a shadow cast over their eyes and hair clinging to their face. They didn’t wear the mask of a diver who had gone below the surface in hopes of finding a lost treasure, but how else could they appear so suddenly in the expanse of the water. They said nothing, gasping for air and struggling to remain afloat.
“Hello?” Constance called out to them, furrowing her brow. They seemed startled by the noise, flapping and splashing. “Do you need help?” Constance asked, but she didn’t have to wait for a reply. The answer was clear. She quickly grabbed a life ring from the wall and tossed it out to the stranger, who had the sensibility to grab hold. Pulling at the rope with haste, Constance lured the person to the steps, curious to see how they appeared so suddenly, and cautious about their purpose.
The stranger, a young woman, was dressed simply, with just a shirt and pants, but she was shoeless and her blonde hair had been hastily cropped short. She clung to the stone steps with an iron grip, her eyes wide, shaking from the chill of the ocean water. She didn’t look up.
Constance squatted next to the women, taking a deep breath to calm her own nerves. She didn’t want to startle the poor thing, but neither did she feel comfortable going for some water or further assistance. “Are you alright?”
“What is your name?”
“My name is Constance. You are at the steps of the 9th Empirical Palace.” Constance waited to see if her words jogged the woman’s memory. Still no response. Constance sighed, looking around for someone who might have an idea of who this woman was. She was used to seeing bodies float up every now and then but never like this. Then the stranger looked up, her brown eyes and slender full the picture of confusion. “It’s alright, I promise.”
The woman nodded, slowly. Constance helped her to turn and sit on the steps. The woman began to breathe deeply, steadily, looking around her, taking in her surroundings, then staring into the ocean, her eyes wide and lost.
“What is your name?” Constance asked, hoping for an answer.
“Water,” the woman said and Constance almost jumped.
“Your name is-?” Constance began to ask. Surely that wasn’t the woman’s name. And if it was, she was not from this city.
“Do you have any fresh water?” the woman said, her gaze fixated on the ocean. She was clearly out of breath, and her voice wavered with hesitation. She looked sideways for a moment at Constance, but was clearly too uncomfortable to make eye contact.
“Yes. Just a moment,” Constance replied, standing up quickly, but as she started for the palace interior she slowed, turning to look at the woman. Should she leave her alone? The water pitcher was just inside. Surely the woman wouldn’t get into any trouble before she returned. Hurrying, it only took moments for Constance to reach the water and begin pouring a cup.
She turned to see the woman, still sitting with tired shoulders on the steps at the water’s edge.
“Constance, dinner will be served-” someone said and Constance was startled, dropping the brass cup on the floor. The clanking filled the empty hall and Constance looked up to make sure it hadn’t disturbed the woman. She sat as still as ever, clutching her knees to her chest.
“Deidre, if you would, please fetch a towel and…” Constance had a mind to call for the Governor, but she knew the circumstances were extremely suspicious. After all, the few cities that had survived and built upon the waters were few, but their lust for power didn’t lessen. Instead, it evolved. Instead of battling for land, they now fought over water rights and borders. It was possible this woman was a spy, but something in Constance’s heart said the woman could be trusted.
“And?” Deidre asked. The elderly woman was concerned until she spotted the woman on the steps, and then she was entirely bewildered. “Who is that, Constance?”
“I don’t know. Would you-“
“You don’t know?” Deidre wasn’t prone to paranoia, but perhaps anyone would be suspicious of a stranger on the water steps of the governor’s mansion.
“Please, would you…would you get my brother and ask him to come to me?” Constance asked, settling on the name she thought would be most trustworthy. Although her brother, Cedrych, was a soldier and always followed protocol, his heart was compassionate and wise. He would know exactly what to do.
“Of course. I’ll be quick,” Deidre responded, nodding her head and eyeing the woman before turning to scurry down the hall. Constance picked up the glass of water and walked carefully to the water steps, which had been moistened by the constant, gentle tide that lapped against the palace.
“Here you go,” Constance said, holding out the glass. The woman flinched, but when she saw Constance, she calmed and took the glass. She held it to her nose, almost as if she was checking for poison, but her thirst overcame her distrust and she drank quickly. “What’s your name?” Constance asked. “Where are you from?”
The woman paused, her eyes searching the horizon. “I…I’m not from here,” she simply said.
“From the palace? Did you perhaps fall off the docks?” Constance questioned, hoping something she said would trigger the woman’s memory. It would be good if she had at least a little something to tell Cedrych when he arrived. She looked behind her to see if he was coming down the hall yet, but it was still empty.
“No, from this place. I don’t know where this place even is,” the woman gasped, and Constance could hear the pitch in her voice change. No doubt there were tears in the woman’s eyes, but her gaze remained constant on the waters.
“How did you get here?” Constance said, keeping an eye on the hallway. No answer. Was the amnesia just a ruse? But the woman’s fear and confusion seemed absolutely genuine. Of course, most spies were excellent actors. “What’s your name?”
“I remember…” the woman began, but then her voice trailed off.
“Constance!” Cedrych called out.
“I’ll be right back. Stay here,” Constance instructed. The woman was lost in her thoughts once more. She hesitated a moment, but then quickly hurried up the steps to her brother, who was sprinting towards her.
“Who is that?” he asked, his voice full of concern and his brown eyes narrow as he analyzed what he could see of the woman.
“I’ve yet to get a name from her,” Constance answered, hugging herself and joining him to stare. “She came up out of the water – no diving equipment or anything – just up out of the water. I threw her a ring and pulled her to the steps, but she’s has amnesia. Doesn’t remember a thing as far as I can tell.”
“Certainly sounds like a spy. But we’ve learned how to break them quickly. I’ll find out why she is here,” Cedrych said, starting towards the steps. But Constance grabbed is arm, pulling at his military uniform.
“Cedrych, I don’t think she’s a spy,” she told him. He paused, respecting her enough to at least listen. “I don’t know what she is, but she seems genuinely afraid. Let’s not jump to any conclusions.”
He sighed. “We’ll see,” was the only promise Cedrych could give her. It was good enough for Constance and she released his arm, following him to the water.
“Hello there,” Cedrych said, feigning friendliness as he squatted down beside the woman. Constance stood just behind him, arms still crossed.
“This is my brother, Cedrych,” Constance introduced plainly, wondering if the woman even understood the concept of a name.
“And you are?” Cedrych asked. The woman turned to look at him, her eyes were red. Constance wasn’t sure if she had just finished crying or if she had yet to begin, but she knew that her face – blushed, tearful blue eyes, frowning mouth – would pull at her brother’s heartstrings.
“I remember…” the woman began again.