Ava thanks God every night for the plague. She doesn’t want people to die, but as long as neighboring towns are aflame, as long as barricades block all roads to the palace, Emaline can’t leave.
Ava’s father was the court physician, a gentle man who raised her alone. A bolt of lightning in a child’s body, she spent all her time outdoors in the manicured parks around the palace.
It was by a small pond in one of the gardens that Ava befriended Emaline. The girls were both eight, covered in mud, chasing after the same frog. Ava argued that she should be the one to kiss it, break the curse, and marry the prince. Emaline pouted but conceded. She was the King’s fourth daughter and seventh child, an unimportant princess, but royal nonetheless; she didn’t need to marry a prince. Ava ended up spending days in bed while her father replaced wet cloths on her feverish forehead, shaking his head at the foolishness of kissing frogs. Emaline never left Ava’s side.
Years went by, and no tree nor flower, no blade of grass, nothing that grew near the palace remained a mystery to the girls. They chased grasshoppers, pestered blackbirds and swans. But Ava wanted more, so she pushed her reluctant friend to explore the woods, lush and replete with wildlife, which separated the King’s estate from the neighboring towns.
In the woods, they ran after rabbits and squirrels and even an errant fox, hid in the bushes and climbed on trees. Their favorite spot was a natural clearing deep in the northern forest, dark and moist. The thick crowns of mature oaks covered the sky but didn’t touch, and the flecks of blue in between formed a beautiful pattern. Ava’s father said the trees were crown shy.
It was in that spot one day, as the two girls lay side by side the way they always did, with Ava’s right arm alongside Emaline’s left, that Ava realized Emaline’s features were no longer those of a child. Her friend’s profile, the line of her long neck, her chest rising and falling as the air flowed in and out, all stirred something new deep within.
Suddenly aware that only thin linen shirts and a wisp of air separated their skins, Ava looked up toward the sky, at the filaments of light between the trees, and wondered how the trees must feel, being so close to one another, for years on end, never touching, never crossing the small but insurmountable chasm between them.
Ava wasn’t the only one to notice Emaline’s beauty. The King had wars to wage and alliances to forge, and Emaline, the fairest among her sisters, had looks that could sway the court’s friends or foes. Unimportant no more, she was paraded before ambassadors and kings. Ava often found herself alone in the woods, angry and powerless.
The girls lay in their favorite spot when Emaline said that she was to marry. Her betrothed was decades older, a crown prince and the King’s new ally. “I don’t want to marry some strange old man,” whispered Emaline. “I want to stay here, with you.” She turned toward Ava and propped herself on her forearm, locks caressing her shoulder. Ava stopped breathing. “You’ve always been the bold one,” smiled Emaline, “but I cannot wait any longer. There isn’t time.” She gently turned Ava’s face toward herself and placed a kiss on Ava’s lips, light as a summer breeze.
The kiss grew deep and hungry, as Emaline’s hand glided along Ava’s cheek, her neck, then slowly, painfully slowly, over her breast, down the ribs, her fingers fluttering, searing Ava’s skin, the hand meandering across Ava’s hip, down her quivering belly, finding at last what it sought between her thighs. Soft summer gowns were strewn aside as slivers of moonlight fought their way through thin clouds and in between bashful oak leaves desperate to illuminate droplets of sweat around moaning, trembling lips.
News of the plague arrives at the palace as the first wisps of smoke emerge on the horizon. Ava’s father says it’s best to burn the dead — not just people; animals, too — lest they poison water and food. He says everyone will be safe as long as the roads are closed.
Emaline is under lock and key, her health far too important for the kingdom’s future. Her childhood friend, the court physician’s daughter, is not allowed to see her.
Ava goes into the forest alone, despite her father’s protests. When she closes her eyes, she feels the warmth of Emaline’s body nearby. The plague keeps Emaline here, for now, but Ava dares not imagine what comes next.
Within weeks, there is smoke outside the northern forest. Ava finds a dead squirrel in the favorite spot and flees in terror.
When she returns, carrying an empty bag and wearing her father’s leather gloves, she finds half a dozen squirrels and a fox rotting in the clearing. A wave of despair washes over her. She falls to her knees, depleted, suddenly aware that all is lost. There is no future for her and Emaline, no future in which they are together, in which they aren’t married off and lorded over by unknown men.
The helplessness and pain give way to fury. Fury that rises through Ava’s chest and engulfs her mind, burning everything in its path until all that is left is a certainty of what she must do to help Emaline.
She throws her gloves on the ground and fills the bag with carcasses, then lies down in the clearing, closes her eyes, and waits for nightfall.
The bag is heavy on Ava’s back as she sets toward the palace well, where all the kitchen maids fetch water. There is no moon to illuminate droplets of sweat around her silent, unswerving lips.
Maura Yzmore is a writer and science professor based in the American Midwest. Her recent work can be found in The Molotov Cocktail, Aphotic Realm, Theme of Absence, and elsewhere. Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com/stories/ or @MauraYzmore on Twitter.