In the fourth Gbahn and Archipelago flash fiction story, Emlin comes to the palace as a refugee and tells Lidia something she does not want to hear.
The Blackest Hair
A Gbahn and Archipelago story
“Oh, look at this one, the new girl. The blackest hair! How ugly!”
Emlin did not lift her head as the woman went by. She did not need to. She knew what the woman looked like, fair hair, golden skin, a dress of brightly colored gauze like a butterfly’s wings. Emlin knew the woman’s companions would be dressed the same way, all the rich ladies trying so hard to look the same, even if they had to put sulfur in their hair to bleach the darkness out.
“Another refugee? What does this one do?”
“Maybe she juggles. Remember the last juggler we got? Didn’t he have black hair?”
“No, no, he came from the islands. This one is straight from Woldland. That’s the only place they grow hair as black as that. I’m surprised she could get her gloves on the right hands.”
The women laughed, leaning in toward each other with their fans and jewels. But Emlin glanced up and saw that one of them had her glove completely backwards, the button on the back of her wrist instead of the underside, and it did not match its partner at all. Emlin smiled to herself but would not let the expression touch her lips.
“Well, what does she do? If they sent her here to the palace she must do something. Does she sing?”
Then a new voice rang out, over the buzzing of the ladies. “Disgraceful! Turning refugees into performers. Better had we turned their boats away and let them find a home in the islands.”
The first woman sighed loudly. “Young Lady Lidia, always ruining our fun.”
Emlin raised her head then, wondering whether Lady Lidia’s hair was dark, whether she had the blood at the rim of her nose that spoke of sulfur. But she was as golden as the first woman. Shame at being dark was not what prompted her to speak.
Then another woman recognized Emlin. “Oh, I remember this one. My cousin saw her at the port and said she tells stories.”
Their bee-voices swirled together, shouting “Stories! Stories!” so loudly that Emlin didn’t think they would give her leave to speak. But finally they clustered around her so close they would have been touched by her hair had she tossed her head, and their buzzing subsided, and they listened.
“My grandmother had hair this black, as black as pitch, as black as the night without stars. In my country black hair is the mark of a seer, and my grandmother was the most famous seer in five generations. She saw when the harvest would fail. She saw when the snows would come early. One winter she saw that every boy in the village who was turning fourteen would manifest as a magician and have to be sent away, on a boat as a refugee or out into the tundra where he could touch no one.”
They were silent now, the ladies, still as butterflies holding their bright wings closed. Emlin had caught them as surely as if she’d had a net.
“Then my mother was born, and she had the same black hair. She saw when the lambs would be born early and when one would die in the ewe’s womb. She saw when the women in the village would bear healthy babes and when they would be born still and cold. And she saw me on the day of my birth, and she knew that fourteen years later my magic would come out and I would be sent away. She did not tell anyone what she had seen, but when my hair began to grow everyone saw it was the same black. And every day of my life people watched me to learn what I would see.”
The ladies of the palace watched her just as closely, their eyes wide, their breaths caught in their throats. Emlin did not let her smile touch her face.
“Then what?” one of the woman finally said, words tumbling from her mouth. “What did you see?”
That what when Emlin smiled, and the bright women shrank back.
“Stop it. Just stop it.” Lidia broke through the crowd and waved them away. “Acting like children. You’re an embarrassment to your class.” But when the other ladies were gone Lidia remained. She stepped closer, but not close enough that Emlin’s hair would brush her. Her voice was so low Emlin had to hold her breath to hear it. “And what do you see for me?”
Emlin paused. “You’ll lose your power over them.”
Lidia looked up, her eyes hard. “Is that true? Do you believe it?”
Emlin did not have to hide her smile this time. “No. I never believed it. My mother only imagined what she feared the most. As do you.”
The color left Lidia’s face, turning it as pale as Emlin’s for a moment, but Emlin did not stare. She turned, knowing Lidia would still be watching her, and walked out of the palace hall as if she had the right to do so, running her gloved hand over her black hair.
© 2013 Michelle M. Welch