Hiding beneath the table, she cowered in fear. Her eyes were wide and huge, beautifully fringed by black lashes, and she struggled to muffle the sounds of her breathing, lest he hear her. There he stood and he was her friend, Nate, whom she had loved since she was young. Nate had been at all her Christmas parties, had grown up helping her rip the paper from her presents and exclaim in glee as she had shouted in delight, and thrown her arms around him to hug him.
But now Nate hunted her with a gun, stepping over the glass and rubble that was her apartment, carelessly walking over the body of her father, which was lying on the floor. Melanie choked back a sob. Nate stood to attention, coming closer. She almost wanted to stand up and just shout at him: “Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember me? How can you hate me!” but she knew to do so would be stupid. She had watched him and his family burst into their apartment and begin firing bullets at random; she had watched stupidly; she had not even known he had owned a gun. Then, frightened, she had heard her mother scream her name, and she had run and tried to hide- but her hiding place was clear, and sooner rather than later, Nate would come to her.
The problem had to do with her sign. When she was younger, she had never thought much of it, but everyone was tattooed at birth with the sign of their caste and status. She was a swan, rare and respected, while Nate was a sun. The tattoos were on your cheek, and so there was no way you could hide them, and if you tried to tattoo over them, in order to blot out the swanlike shape, anyone could tell. If you covered your face with powder, you would be killed for not having the symbol, because it was the law. And so she, a Swan, once a member of the ruling caste, was now to be murdered and shot down by a simple Sun.
She had never thought of Nate that way, though, had never seen him as nothing but his cast, nothing but the image on his cheek. She had loved him like a brother, had danced with him, played with him, otherwise spent her childhood benefiting from his guidance and direction. And she believed he had loved her, too; she remembered all the different times that they had been happy together. Could it really be that he believed that everyone other than a Sun was automatically evil, automatically deserving of death? How could this be the Nate she knew? Frightened, she heard him step closer, the glass crunching under his feet. She could not help but involuntarily shiver, pulling her arms tightly around herself, trying not to let the whimper she knew she was making escape.
And then he was there, right in front of her, looking down at her, and there was such compassion in his eyes. “Melanie,” he breathed, and it was different from what she had expected, different from the automatic bullet she had expected to greet her. Dumbly, she accepted his hand as he lifted her up, stood her on her own two feet. He looked at her and his breath came faster, became labored, almost as though he was drinking her in with his eyes, memorizing her. She looked at the gun in his hand, which he had placed by his side. What was this? Was she, through some miracle she could not possibly comprehend, to be saved? She was tentative, frightened, wondered what to do. But he simply looked at her and continued looking at her.
Then he kissed her.
Forbidden, illicit, for a Sun and a Swan to kiss! People only married within their own caste, within the sign under which they were born, as all of this was determined astrologically- who would be best suited for whom, and why. But there was a sweetness to this for the very fact that it was forbidden, and she found herself reaching up higher, pushing aside the awareness that only that morning she had watched his family murder hers, watched him destroy everything she loved- she overrode everything because she hoped, in desperation, that this would be her ticket out, and her way to escape.
But then she saw him step back, cock his gun, and bring it to his hip. “It’s a pity,” he said, and then he shot her and she staggered, fell back, slammed against the floor, and with a cold precision he smiled, and said, “Filth.”
He watched her as she struggled, twisting and jerking on the floor, “You are filth; did you know that? You Swans have oppressed us for far too long a time. We will finally get what we deserve; we will finally triumph.”
Angry tears came to her eyes and she struggled to speak but could not. She did not have the words, and she did not have the power. All that she had was her rage, and the darkness that flooded her as she was embraced by another world. Gone was her ability to retaliate, to fight back, even to explain to Nate where he had erred, the fact that he had listened to the lies on the radio, that he could not even realize what he was doing, that he was truly killing another person- no, he could only do it if he saw her as filth, as vermin. In truth, he was a coward. In truth, he had no ability to kill. It was only the demon image of his imagination, which had been constructed by him for those who stood the most to gain, whom he could kill, whom he could shoot.
And she saw it fill him, the recognition, the realization, and he threw down the gun and trembling, trembling, he seized her in his arms and words dropped from his lips, of self-recrimination and self-loathing, and even then she knew that he was destined to become hardened; this would have been the most difficult kill for him, because he could not help but see her as a person, as a human, living, vibrant, breathing- but she knew that he would not see anyone else that way. A cold iron would fill his soul and dance through his eyes, and every time he looked at a person, he would see not them, but their symbol, a Swan turned into a demon, a vulture, oppressing its prey with its great, unfurled wings.
And so she struggled to do the only humane thing- the only compassionate thing- and scrabbled her hands against the floor, searching for the gun. But she could not find it, and instead, she lay in his arms as her blood soaked his shirt, and he kissed her again before laying her down, finally, and turning on his heel, to walk into darkness.
Credits: The Glasswright’s Apprentice