“You’re a girl,” observed Mother.
“I’m a girl today,” I corrected.
I was in Riesz’s quarters this morning again. Tutoring in the orphanage was over for the season. Heath and I usually enjoyed our time away from the tutor, but this season was different. Mother was resolute that I should be training with her every day. According to Mother, I had a lot of skills I needed to learn that the tutor did not cover. Today, we were practicing needlework and making clothes. Again. The same thing we had been doing for the past two weeks. I already knew how to sew. Why was I doing this again?
The sewing lessons started the first day after I began using a girl’s form four years ago. Mother thought my new shape was delightful and immediately began to help me make new clothing for myself. Girl undergarments were terribly uncomfortable at first, so I was more than willing to learn to make something more pleasant. And I had to admit, skirts were easier to wear than pants. The lessons continued, though, long after I was bored with them.
“Oh, please,” said Mother. “You’ve been taking on the form of a girl for a few years now. You never look like your true self anymore.”
“Maybe this is my true self,” I suggested, somewhat bothered by the remark.
Mother hummed while she stitched. “For one of your kind, I think this is called an identity, not a mask. If that’s the case, I’m happy to see it.”
I reflected on this. It was true just as she said. I had not been out of this feminine shape for four years now, save for a few occasions. I had told Riesz that I thought maybe the other children wouldn’t hurt me so often if I looked like a girl. That was a lie, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had actually worked. The others still picked on me, but the physical abuse stopped for a few months. It picked up again when Heath and I were sent to the marketplace in town and I made myself into a boy to attract less attention. The orphans saw me shapeshift and immediately started throwing rocks.
“I’m comfortable like this,” I announced as bold as I could. “I still change my form when I need to.”
“When you need to,” she mused. “You mean, when Heath isn’t around?”
I shot her a look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Sure, you do! Heath is a very handsome young man, isn’t he?” I felt my face turn red and tried to turn away, but Riesz saw me. “What’s the matter? Can’t admit that to your mother?”
I sighed. She always had this strange ability to read me. “Okay, fine. I’m very fond of Heath.”
“‘Fond’?” she said. “What a puzzling word. I think you mean something else.”
Before I could say anything in response, there was a knock at the chamber door. Mother set down her needles and made her way across the room. Her robes knocked various cuts of cloth from tables and chairs around the room as she moved. We were certainly sewing too much now. We can’t even move in here without making a mess!
Mother opened the door and Heath stepped inside. “G-G-Good morning, Etriel Riesz!” he said, bowing slightly. “Hello, Flee!”
Mother bowed low. “Good morning, Etriel Inti,” she replied, addressing him by his new title. Dawnbringers took on new names when they completed their oaths. It was a sign of respect to call each other by that name, but I had always known him as Heath. For some reason, I felt I needed to always call him that and fight the High Priest’s decisions on naming conventions.
Heath had just finished his vows this morning and was now an official cleric of the Morninglord’s temple. The ceremony took place right after the Sacrament of Sunrise. He now wore a long red and gold robe, the same as the other clerics in the temple. It was past midday now and I noticed he had somehow already wrinkled his new robe. Even so, he looked amazing, especially with the immense smile on his face. His long hair was tied back with a purple ribbon now. He was very handsome. And when exactly did he get so tall?
Mother motioned to an empty chair. “Take a seat, lad. We were just talking about you.”
“A-A-About me?” he asked, confused.
“No, we were not!” I cried, flustered.
Mother shook her head at me. “Well, what can we do for you, Heath? We’re in the middle of a lesson, you know.”
Heath shifted on his feet. “I know, and I am s-s-sorry for the interruption. I have something for you, F-F-Flee.” He pulled out a rolled parchment from his robe’s inner pocket. “It’s a s-s-summons from the High Priest.”
“The High Priest?” I asked. “What does he want with me?” Truth be told, I already knew the answer and I recognized I was in denial about it.
“I am to e-e-escort you to the sanctum.”
Mother sighed. “Sewing can wait, I suppose. Go on, Leef. You had better not keep the High Priest waiting.”
I followed Heath out of Mother’s quarters and down the hall. As usual, I was terrified to see the High Priest again. I knew exactly what he wanted to talk about, too. I was almost seventeen years old. I was going to ‘come of age’ in a week. The orphans of the temple were always given the choice of joining the temple if their families or distant relations never came to claim them. Almost all of them did. They became acolytes first, and then made their vows to become Dawnbringers when they came of age. Heath had done this just this morning. Some of the orphans chose to leave the temple and make their own living on their own. I knew that the High Priest undoubtedly meant to kick me out. I had been told years ago when Heath became an acolyte that I would never be allowed to make any vows. The option was never there for me.
My mind raced as we walked the halls of the temple. Where would I go? What would I even do? Maybe I could be like those brave adventurers from the stories, fighting monsters and saving princesses. Actually, that might work. I knew a few spells now and had memorized the somatics for most of the Morninglord’s Blessings. I wondered if I could somehow steal a sigil before I was evicted. But if I stole one, would it even work? Maybe Heath could give me his and get a new one?
“Heath, where are we going?” I asked. I had been absentmindedly following my friend, lost in my thoughts, that I didn’t notice for some time that we were headed in the wrong direction. Heath was leading me elsewhere.
He grinned down at me, his face reddening. “W-W-We can go there l-l-later. I want to sh-sh-show you something.” He was nervous. That endearing stutter was so much worse when he was nervous.
We turned a corner and Heath began reaching into his new, wrinkled robes, fumbling for something in a pocket. At a heavy wooden door, we stopped. This was one of the cleric dormitories. Of course! He took his vows this morning! That meant he was a Dawnbringer, and obviously that meant he had his own quarters in the temple now. Heath produced a slim brass key and fitted it into the door’s lock. With a click, the door swung open.
“W-W-Welcome to ‘Heath’s House’!” he announced.
“‘Heath’s House’?” I laughed, noting that he called it that instead of using his newly appointed name Inti. “That’s cute, but what kind of name is-”
Actually, ‘Heath’s House’ was more than appropriate. As I stepped inside, I thought the name was very fitting for the absolute mess I saw inside. In the orphan dormitory, Heath was notoriously untidy. His bed was rarely made up and his possessions were often scattered everywhere. That evidently extended to his new living space. Perhaps ‘untidy’ was an understatement. Heath probably moved into this new room only a few hours ago and it was already in disarray. Just like in the orphanage, his clothing and belongings were everywhere. Stockings had been piled up in the corner, though a few had escaped the group and found themselves both under and on top of the dinner table. One of the chairs was laid down across the floor. There was a pile of firewood for the hearth, but the wood was scattered across the room. For some strange reason, a singular boot was in the very center of the room. It’s mate was nowhere to be found.
“Were you robbed?” I asked. It was a jest, but the moment I said it, I wondered if it might actually be true.
“I have m-m-my own qu-qu-quarters now!” he cheered, ignoring me. He began to animatedly point at things in the room. “There’s the s-s-sitting area. Over there, I h-h-have some cups and plates. I found an old k-k-kettle in here that the last c-c-cleric must have l-l-left behind. I can c-c-cook in that fireplace. Wait, n-n-no. It’s full of cobwebs. The b-b-bedroom is in the back, through that d-d-door. Back that way is the chamberpot. It’s c-c-clean, I promise. B-B-But I threw a bar of soap in it just in case, and-”
While Heath was rambling and stuttering excitedly, I looked over the room. There were dust markings on the walls where paintings had been hung up. Dust was on the shelves and the few pieces of furniture in the room. I wondered if no one had lived in this room in a very long time. “It’s lovely, Heath. Messy as ever,” I teased, elbowing him in the side. “But I think you should decorate. It’s a little drab.”
“W-W-Would you h-h-help me with that?” he asked. “I d-d-don’t know how to do it.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Me neither,” I replied. “But we can probably steal some ideas from Mother. Maybe she has a vase or a painting of a flower she doesn’t want. We can go to the market and buy something, I suppose.”
“S-S-So,” began Heath, a twinge of awkwardness in his voice. “This m-m-means I don’t live in the orphanage anymore.”
I don’t know why this thought hadn’t occurred to me yet. In the orphanage, we had pushed our two beds together. Most nights, Heath fell asleep before I did. I would stay up late and watch him sleep, listening to the steadiness of his breath and seeing his chest rise and fall. When weariness would finally take me, I would hold his hand as I drifted off to sleep. Every morning, he would gently squeeze my hand to wake me. It would hurt to not have him there with me anymore.
“I’ll… I’ll miss you,” I said at length.
“Th-Th-That’s what… uh… I wanted to t-t-talk to you about,” he tried. “W-W-Would you consider… m-m-moving… in with m-m-me?”
I blinked. What a strange question! “That would be very improper, Heath! Living together like that?” But as I said it, I immediately questioned why that would be such a problem. We already pushed our beds next to each other. Was it so different if we shared a room in the temple? Well, maybe not the bedroom. It would be improper if we were to-
“N-N-No, not like that,” he said. He moved closer, his eyes beaming at me. He had such beautiful, wonderful green eyes. He was so close now. My heart skipped a beat. His hands reached out and met mine.
“What are you-”
“D-D-Do you w-w-wanna m-m-marry m-m-me?” he blurted.
“I beg your pardon?” I hated calling attention to his stutter like this. I know it hurt his feelings when I couldn’t understand him, but those weren’t words in any language I could speak.
Heath breathed slowly, collecting himself. His face was as red as his robes now. I think so was mine. “Flee, w-w-will you marry me?”
“M… Marry you?” I was completely in shock at the proposal.
Before either of us could say anything, Heath shrank back, dropping my hands and reaching up to his head. He wore a pained expression for a moment before saying, “Apologies, S-S-Sel Mara. We are on our w-w-way.”
I recognized the message sending spell. It was a spell of thoughts that one could use to convey messages across infinite distances. Only the most gifted clerics were able to cast this spell. Heath had said Sel Mara, the elvish phrase for Dawnmaster.
“He c-c-cannot wait,” pouted Heath. “That m-m-man is so impatient. Come on. Let’s get to the s-s-sanctum before he shouts in my head again.”
Heath and I exited ‘Heath’s House’ and began moving quickly through the halls of the temple. All the while, I thought on Heath’s proposal, my mind racing and mixed with emotion.
As expected, the High Priest was in a ghoulish mood. I knocked on the door of the sanctum and announced my arrival, only to be barked at to come in. Heath stayed outside, a look of concern on his face. The High Priest was dressed in his usual white and gold robes, pacing in the room behind his heavy oak desk. His face wore the same permanent scowl that I often associated him with.
“Sel Mara,” I said as respectfully as I could, bowing very low to the ground.
“You certainly took your time coming here,” he hissed. “Don’t bother taking a seat. This won’t take long. I assume you know why I called you here, changeling?”
That stung. After fourteen years, the other Dawnbringers in the temple could at least call me by my name. Neither Leef nor Flee were difficult to pronounce. “I have a name,” I muttered, immediately sorry I had said it out loud.
“What’s that?” he mocked. “It has a name? Do you mean ‘Flee’? What kind of stupid name is that? A good name for a creature that runs away. Tell me, Flee, what happened on the last day of tutoring? I heard you ran out during examinations.”
I bit my lip. “He was casting spells on me.”
The High Priest laughed. “Well, perhaps if you didn’t always flee from him, he would be disinclined to punish you. You provoke people, and you know it.” He stamped his foot. “I would be pleased to talk about your misdeeds and abuse of our hospitality until the Sacrament, but that is not why you are here. As I said, I assume you know why you’re here?”
I swallowed and nodded, not daring to say anything again.
The High Priest continued. “You will be seventeen years of age next week. Your ‘coming of age’, if monsters had such a thing. I think that is the perfect date for you to finally leave this temple and darken someone else’s home. You will be an adult, and you will be finally leaving us.”
It was just as I expected and feared. In all my years in the temple, I had always wanted to leave. The scenario of the High Priest kicking me out had played in my head many times, and each time I rehearsed what I would say. Maybe I could cast a spell on him, or just spit on his fancy robes. Thinking about it now just filled me with pain. Maybe if I had behaved better, the High Priest would have been kinder. I should have just been better. I liked to sneak around and play tricks on people as a child. Obviously, all of this was my fault. I didn’t deserve to be here.
This must have been why Heath proposed marriage to me, I thought. He only wanted to save me from being thrown out and embarrassed. I was such a fool!
“Hold on a m-m-minute!” cried a voice from the door.
“Who is it? Come in here!” boomed the High Priest.
Heath entered the room, throwing the door open with more force than I think he wanted to. He told me he would meet me in the courtyard to discuss our conversation further. Evidently, he had not left me alone with the High Priest. I have to remember to thank him for that.
“You c-c-can’t kick out Flee!” he argued. “She b-b-belongs here in the t-t-temple!”
“Etriel Inti, speak correctly,” growled the High Priest. “This is none of your concern. This changeling has nothing to do with us here.”
Heath swallowed and continued. “Sh-Sh-She doesn’t have a family outside. Where w-w-would you suggest she g-g-goes?”
The High Priest cackled, his long white hair wagging behind his head. “Outside? Dear boy, this monster doesn’t have a family inside the temple. What difference does that make?”
I couldn’t stop myself from crying. Didn’t the temple teach to bring hope to people? After all these years, how could they be so cruel? Heath drew upon me and threw his arms around me in a firm embrace. “She has f-f-family here, High Priest. She has R-R-Riesz.”
“Etriel Riesz is not her family, boy. Riesz is a dragonborn, not some monster.”
The laughter stopped abruptly. “What do you mean by that? You aren’t-”
Heath cut him off. “She is my family,” he said.
Understanding washed over the High Priest’s face. He raised his hand. “Stop this at once, Heath. I will not allow this. This is blasphemy to-”
“No, it is not b-b-blasphemy,” said Heath. He seemed brave suddenly. My arms found their way around his midsection, sharing in the embrace. He felt so warm, but I could feel him trembling as much as I was. “It is a rule of the temple. A cleric’s s-s-spouse lives with him or her in the temple, regardless of f-f-faith.”
“No Dawnbringer is going to perform such a ceremony. A marriage between a human and a demon?” mocked the High Priest. But as soon as he said it, his eyes widened. “No…”
It came to me, too. Mother would be more than happy to perform the ceremony.
Heath and the High Priest argued back and forth to each other, and Heath’s stutter came and went. But I was no longer listening. My mind was moving too fast and I was starting to sweat nervously. I didn’t know what to think. The threat of being thrown out of my home loomed in my mind. The idea that I could stay if I married Heath weighed heavy on me. Staying with Heath.
Staying with Heath.
Heath led me through the corridors of the temple in silence. Our pace was slow at first, but quickened as we came back to Heath’s House. The temple, usually so vibrant, seemed to lose all of its color and magnificence. I would be leaving soon. As soon as Heath closed the door behind us, I burst into tears. He only wants to marry me so I don’t have to leave. I was miserable at the thought. He was just fond of me.
“I’m s-s-so sorry, Flee,” he whispered between my sobs. His arms were around me again. “Th-Th-This isn’t how I thought this would h-h-happen.”
“I don’t want to leave the temple!” I cried, weeping into his robes. I felt so awful. I was going to wrinkle his robes even more than he had already done so. “I always wanted to leave, but… I don’t want to be away from here anymore. Not from Mother. Or from you.”
“And I d-d-don’t want you to g-g-go either,” he said, trying to speak slowly. “So, m-m-marry m-m-me.”
I closed my eyes. “You don’t have to say that, Heath,” I said, pushing him away, trying to break away from his embrace. “You shouldn’t have to marry someone just so they have a place to live.”
He surprised me, sending a shock down my back. He leaned in so very close. He said something. I couldn’t understand it. I looked up at him, and I met his lips. He kissed me. The kiss was the most beautiful thing in the entire universe, passionate and exquisite. I thought I might melt right there and fade away into the heavens. My arms, a moment ago struggling to free myself from him, moved on their own, without instruction, clasping around his waist instinctively. My mind blanked. Oh, no! I was crying! Would he hate kissing me if I was crying? And how long was this kiss supposed to last? Please, let it last forever.
“F-F-Flee,” he said, breaking away slightly. “I m-m-mean to say… I l-l-l…” He closed his eyes, wincing, trying his best. I waited, patient. I knew what he was going to say. I admitted to myself that I was longing for him to say it to me. You can do this, Heath. “I… l-l-love… y-y-you.”
“But…” The doubt was suddenly so loud in my head now. I wanted to say it back. But I couldn’t. Not yet. I said, “You can’t marry a monster.”
Heath smiled and pressed his forehead to mine. “You’re not a m-m-monster. You’re the most w-w-wonderful person I’ve ever known!”
I laughed in spite of myself. “My gross hair, my sickly skin, my-”
He stopped me with another kiss and said, “I don’t c-c-care what you look like. Gray skin, p-p-pink skin, black skin. Boy, girl, m-m-monster, I don’t care. I’m in l-l-love with you, Flee. And I always h-h-have been.”
I trembled. What do I say? The doubts were still in my head, dark thoughts about the High Priest and being forced out of the temple. But in an instant, everything was suddenly so clear and peaceful, like a morning sunrise.
Mother was right. I didn’t mean I was ‘fond’ of Heath.
I was in love with him the moment I met him, I think. Everything about him was magical to me. He was the purest form of affection, passion, friendship, and tenderness. I was utterly and completely in awe of him.
I was suddenly able to say it. The doubts in my mind were erased in an instant.
“Oh, Heath. I love you, too,” I said, pulling him close to me again.
Our wedding was to be performed in the courtyard gardens the very next day. I spent my last night in the orphanage dormitory alone. My heart was fluttering all night, keeping me awake. He loved me! And I loved him. I knew it, and I had always known it. The candles were put out by the caretaker, and she sneered at me when she saw me smiling as she left. I couldn’t help it. When everyone was asleep, I packed my belongings into a small bag I borrowed from Mother. I wanted to be ready to move into Heath’s House as soon as I could.
I had so many awful memories in this orphanage, but the only ones I could recount now were the memories of staying up late with Heath, secretly eating the chocolates we had stolen earlier in the day, practicing small bits of magic, or telling each other made-up stories of places we had never been. Tonight, I looked at his empty bed with fondness. I was right. It hurt to not have him at my side. Tomorrow night I would be sharing a bed with the man I loved. The thought made me blush, so I rolled over and tried to go to sleep.
I grinned the whole day of the wedding. The caretaker of the orphanage, cruel as ever, and the awful children could not dampen my spirits. Mother found her ceremonial wedding robes from when she was married years ago and had been up all night trying to make them fit me. I had never felt so pretty, dressed in white and silver robes embroidered with shining dragons. I changed my hair to a shade of light pink, matching the pink followers of the courtyard. Heath looked so handsome in his own white robes, made to match mine.
I couldn’t stop looking at Heath. Nothing else mattered. Mother was saying something as she performed the ceremony, but I could barely hear the words. I wasn’t even listening to the songbirds overhead, or the few clerics who gathered in the courtyard, watching with soft, smiling faces, giving us their blessings. The warmth of the Morninglord was around us, blessing our marriage with his light and fire.
All I could see was him. I could only feel his hands entwined with mine. I could only feel him wrap the small diamond wedding band around my left wrist. And I could only feel his lips press against mine.