Salt

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The edge of the arid salt plain was dotted with shadscale and black sage, but once you stepped into the playa there was nothing but a white, shiny emptiness. They said the salt plain had once been a lake. Squinting against the fierce sun, Leocadia could not imagine all that water.

She wished there was a lake again. Then there wouldn’t be any need for rain-priestesses, and the recrimination in her mother’s eyes would disappear.

Leocadia shook her head, then grabbed her pick and shovel.

There had been no need for this when she cast rain spells. She could stay inside her room and watch as the miners went to harvest the salt.

No matter. There was the lonely business of salt now. The rain spells were but a memory, bitter as the sap of the aloe.

She worked for three hours. By then it was getting very hot, and Leocadia retreated towards the crumbling stone temple where she had left the mule, safely under the shade of its tall roof.

The temple was pretty, but not very practical. Dragging stones across the playa seemed stupid to her.

Leocadia’s own home was made of salt, white bricks neatly piled on top of each other.

Leocadia sat on the back of a stone lion that guarded the temple’s steps, and ate her lunch, humming a tune to herself. Across the desert a solitary figure, waving with the heat, was heading her way. Leocadia ignored it. It was a trick of the light.

The figure kept moving, growing bigger. Leocadia took a better look. Someone was riding across the salt flat.

“What kind of idiot,” she muttered.

It was a man, all in white, on a horse, with a llama behind. He waved from afar. Leocadia jumped down from the lion, and was clutching her knife when he reined his horse.

“I’m heading for Caravaike,” he said, in a thick accent she could not place. His brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He had narrow eyes, a slight stubble, and a brilliant smile.

“That’s that way,” she said turning her head slightly in the direction of the town. “But you’re still far.”

“How far?”

“Two days’ ride.”

He dismounted and thrust a piece of paper in her direction. “Can you point out my location?”

Leocadia only clutched her knife tighter and took a step back.

“I’m sorry,” he said shaking his head and extending his hand instead of the map. “What am I thinking? I’m Abelardo.”

Leocadia frowned. “You’re near Comba.”

“Comba?” He untied a little brown bag around his neck and took out a black case, tapping his finger against it. Then he glanced up, in the direction of the shadscale and black sage. “Well, that’s not too bad. I was hoping to pass through Comba. Someone said it was around here, but you never know. The map I have is outdated and poorly made, I…”

“Are you some sort of bandit?” she asked.

“No,” he said with a chuckle. “Why do you ask that?”

“Who else’s is going to be crossing the salt plain except a bandit?”

“I’m not a thief. I chase mountains.”

Leocadia scratched her head, itchy from the scarf she was wearing.

“You’re a lunatic,” she said.

“Cartographer,” he said. “In the service of the Empress. I’m updating some maps.”

“Alone?”

“Aha.”

Maybe he was a spy sent by an enemy king and was trying to trick his way into their midst. She had read about such things when she was in the temple; forbidden storybooks which often included a brave young hero saving a young woman from the bandit-king.

Stupid stuff, illustrated with images of lovers holding hands and speaking passionate vows. Such things, just like the rain, had passed her by.

“Do you come from Comba?” he asked.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m heading there. These maps are so old that I might get lost without some guidance.”

“Not my problem.”

“I’ve got money,” he said and showed her a pouch filled with coins.

“Then you shouldn’t flaunt it so stupidly. I could rob you blind and let you rot here,” she said.

“I hope you don’t.”

She shook her head hard and put away the knife.

He tried to talk to her while they rode across the smooth salt plain, noisily telling her answers she did not ask.

She asked him to part ways at the outskirts of the town, and he waved goodbye to her with a wide smile on his face. Leocadia tried not to look at him, fearing someone inside the salt huts was watching.

She dragged her tools back to her house. Her mother was stirring the goat stew, sweat beading her forehead. She could hear a baby crying nearby. Rosaura must be visiting.

“Hello mother,” she said and kissed her mother on the cheek. “Is Rosaura here?”

“For a short while,” her mother muttered.

Leocadia could already picture Rosaura’s purple eye. Bastian beat her, but their mother had little sympathy for Rosaura’s plight. If Rosaura had been a rain-priestess she might have amassed a nice dowry. The priestess, however, had seen little aptitude in Rosaura and did not care for her. So she married Bastian. Leocadia had done even worse. Their mother’s hopes had been dashed by her useless children.

“I’m going to talk to her,” Leocadia said.

Her mother nodded. Her eyes were fixed on the large pot sitting over the fire.

#

That evening they went to walk through the town square, with its squat trees and its precious beds of flowers. Rosaura did not have a purple eye. He had hit her in the back. The sisters walked together, as cheerfully as they had before Rosaura had married, back when the boys flocked to court her. Now Rosaura had a spouse and Leocadia had lost her gift for casting rain, and her reputation. There were no more admiring boys for them.

Leocadia watched a flock of young priestesses in their white dresses stream across the square and into the temple. There was a pang of longing in her, and of loss. She looked away and found herself face to face with the cartographer.

“I’m glad to see you again,” he said, giving her another one of his big smiles. “I couldn’t even thank you earlier. You ran off too quickly.”

“I got work to do,” she muttered.

“Well thank you.”

“He was lost today,” Leocadia explained because she could feel her sister’s eyes on her. “He asked me for directions.”

She tried to pull Rosaura away when she noticed Rolan, her former lover, approaching her, but Abelardo smiled and motioned to him.

“This is the lady I told you about,” Abelardo said. “She wouldn’t even give me her name.”

Rolan looked down at her, white teeth flashing a sharp grin, and oh, how she had loved that smile when she was younger. “I’m not surprised by the lack of manners. Leocadia, this is Abelardo Anma. The imperial envoy in our little province.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Leocadia said coldly.

“Come with me now,” Rolan said. “There’s more interesting people to be met.”

Rolan clasped his shoulder. Abelardo looked back at Leocadia in confusion. Leocadia pulled her black shawl over her head. Night was falling and it was very cold after the sun set.

“You talked to a stranger,” Rosaura said, rubbing her hands nervously.

“He talked to me.”

“What will they say?”

Leocadia watched Abelardo and Rolan as they disappeared from sight. Four years before, when she had been a great deal more naive, she had taken Rolan as her lover. She knew the loss of her virginity would also mean the loss of her rain spells. Purity was the tinder to a priestess’s magic, and the sisters of her order valued innocence in gold, paying a stipend to the families of the girls who studied in their temple.

Leocadia had been loved and cherished by the sisters, by the town and the important families that lived in it. Rolan’s father, the mayor, placed a garland of flowers upon her head the summer she turned fourteen, when she was able to conjure a light rain which lasted a full fifteen minutes. It had been the season of her glory.

Her mother whispered excitedly about the money from the temple, which she was diligently saving for her dowry. A former priestess could make such a good match.

But fifteen years was a long time to serve for Leocadia, especially after Rolan had smiled at her on her way from the temple, when she went to visit her mother and her sister. He romanced Leocadia, dropping sweet notes in her path and promising he would wed her.

The sisters discovered her transgression and Leocadia was tossed from the temple. The townspeople sneered at her. When Leocadia went to work in the salt plains, the men spoke lewd words. One of them tried to touch her breasts. At first Leocadia took a knife with her, then she simply picked salt alone, far from the others.

“You must not talk to him again,” Rosaura said. “It would be very bad.”

Leocadia looked down, thinking of the droplets of rain against her hair, the pretty water spells she used to cast.

“You hear me? You understand?”

“I do,” Leocadia said, looking ahead. Her mouth felt dry, it tasted of salt and desert winds.

#

She saw Abelardo in the middle of the street two days later. He was standing behind a bronze apparatus, which was set on a three-footed stand. Abelardo squinted and bent down near the apparatus, then opened a large case with tiny drawers. A multitude of dirty children, and a stray dog, observed him. Leocadia, too, stopped to watch, even though the sun was slowly rising and moving across the sky. Abelardo sketched and wrote and mumbled to himself for a good half hour.

Then he closed his case and folded away the apparatus until it was snugly roped against a piece of canvas.

The children wandered away. Leocadia and the dog, now sleeping next to her feet, remained. Leocadia leaned against the salt walls of a house and crossed her arms.

“What’s that thing you got?” she asked.

“That’s a dioptra.”

“What does it to do?”

“It measures angles.”

“That’s the big deal? You’re measuring stuff?”

“Well, you can’t just draw a good map out of thin air.”

“I don’t see why anyone would need to find Comba on a map,” she said.

“It might be useful.”

Leocadia doubted the Empress was going to ride across the desert to buy some salt from them, and that was the only thing Comba had to offer. There were crude signs that said “salt for sale” hanging from the doors, salt piled in backyards and inside homes, and salt caked against boots and clothes when an anaemic rain chanced to slide down the sky.

“Would you mind doing me a favour?”

“What?”

“Can you take me back to that temple where I found you?”

“What for?”

“I’d like to draw it.”

One of the houses across the street had many salt cakes sitting near its door, waiting to be taken to the market. An old man in a rickety cart and two strong, younger fellows arrived to pick the cargo. They stared at Leocadia, and she wiped her hands against her clothes, the salt glistening and clinging to the dark fabric.

“I got to go,” she said.

“I’d really appreciate it,” he insisted.

“What do you want to draw it for?”

“It’s my job. Listen,” he said patting his long, flowing coat. “I can pay you. A gold piece this time.”

“You’re going to take your dioptra with you?” she asked, eyeing the bundle.

“Yes.”

Leocadia thought about it for a moment. Curiosity. It was her greatest fault and the cause of her downfall. Curiosity had driven her to a man’s arms, into a man’s bed. Curiosity had left her dry as the playa, tough as the salt bricks.

She nodded curtly. “Tomorrow. Before the dawn. You meet me here again, alright?”

#

Leocadia touched the shiny metal apparatus while he hummed and scribbled. She did not recognize the melody.

“Why do you even care about drawing this place?” she asked him. “It’s nowhere.”

“Actually it’s somewhere. It’ll serve as a landmark. When people come by they can look for it.”

“Mmm,” Leocadia said and she bent down, looking at his toolbox with all its compartments. There were pigments and brushes and pencils neatly arranged in rows. He was drawing the temple, neatly capturing her stone lion.

“Your town will appear on maps and more people can come through. It’s good for commerce.”

Leocadia fingered a lens, holding it up towards the sun.

“There’s nothing to trade except salt,” she said. “Who will come across the plain for that?”

“I did.”

“Seems like a waste of time.”

“You don’t like the salt flat? I think it looks pretty.”

“Oh, I love the salt,” Leocadia said. “When it rains over the salt plain – once or twice every year – the salt reflects the sky like a great white mirror and it seems like you are walking through clouds. The salt, the desert, those I love. But I don’t like Comba much.”

“How come?’

Leocadia raised her head and stared at the arid wasteland. She thought of the flowers in her hair, the praise and then the dishonour. She shook her head.

“The wind is picking up,” she said pulling her black shawl against her face. “We need to go inside.”

They guided the horse and the llama up the temple steps and sat before the feet of a large headless idol. The walls around them were carved with images of frogs and slender trees.

“It’s a curious place, isn’t it?” Abelardo said. “I wouldn’t have expected such imagery.”

“There was an oasis here, once. It belonged to the water priestess. Their magic allowed beautiful gardens to blossom. Their magic is weaker now and the water doesn’t flow the same way it did, so they’ve gone to better grounds and let the desert salt have their stone palace.”

“I think I’ve seen one of their priestesses.”

Leocadia had been looking inside her leather bag for a piece of dried meat. She stopped when he spoke, glancing up at him.

“Rolan pointed her out when he was showing me town. White robes, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“A virginity cult of some sort, I’m given to understand.”

“Purity of thought is required to bring forth the rain,” Leocadia said, almost automatically.

She thought of the time when water had poured from her hands. How it ached, as though blood was being drained from her veins. And yet how wonderful it was, and how much praise was heaped on her.

“Water is a valuable commodity,” she said as she continued to rummage inside her bag, her shoulders tense. “So are the priestesses who bring it.”

“In Hellekierna they adore an alligator-god who sits upon a golden throne, and youths in golden robes feed it fish from silver dishes.”

Leocadia raised an eyebrow at him. He laughed.

“I swear it’s true,” he said and opened one of the drawers in his wooden box to reveal a little notebook. He flipped the pages and pointed at an illustration, all pretty pale watercolours. “See there.”

“You painted this?”

“Yes. I record everything I see. For maps, for the Empress.”

The eyes of the crocodile were golden and it had a great jewelled collar around its neck. It seemed heavy and cumbersome. Leocadia thought it might like to swim in a river better than padding through the throne room.

“It looks ferocious.”

“Oh, you haven’t seen anything. I went on the back of an elephant three years ago. It had tusks twice the size of a man. Here, see.”

“That’s odd-looking.”

“Just beyond the mountains that encircle your desert there are pink birds with the longest necks you’ve ever seen. They’re so pretty in flight.”

He flipped the page and Leocadia leaned over his shoulder. His hand brushed her arm, the slightest touch; a gesture with no great meaning. Yet Leocadia jumped to hear feet, as if startled.

“I’ll go look out,” she said clutching the shawl.

“I thought you said to wait inside.”

“You wait. I have to see what’s happening. We’ll have to head back to town soon.”

On the temple steps she held onto her lion and glanced at the windswept plain, the sun scorching the sky. Not a drop of moisture, nothing but the harsh wind, tossing salt in her face.

#

Her mother was stirring the stew like she did every day. However, there was a piercing silence in the kitchen. Rosaura sat in a corner with the baby in her arms. Even the child was quiet, no cooing coming from her.

Leocadia rested her shovel and pick against the wall.

“Rosaura says you’re running with some stranger.”

Leocadia did not answer. She nodded.

“I did not hear you,” her mother said, without looking at her.

“Yes,” Leocadia said finally.

“You have no shame.”

“He asked me for help.”

The slap did not take her by surprise. Leocadia merely bit her lips and went towards the little dinning room strewn with a few cushions, a low table and a rug. Rosaura followed her and placed the baby in a crib. Then she turned towards Leocadia.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Rosaura said. “Somebody else told her. I couldn’t lie.”

“What did you say?”

“You can’t go off with a man like that. Don’t you remember what happened with Rolan?”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she muttered.

“That’s not what it looks like.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter? They’ll gossip.”

“Nothing they haven’t said before.”

Rosaura was upset. She pressed a hand against her chest. “If you don’t care about your reputation, think about us. How much more muck can you pour upon our family? Do you know what they call you in town?”

Leocadia did not want to discuss nicknames. She looked at the pattern of the rug, red and yellow and blue. Rosaura huffed at her.

“You want to live the rest of your life like a pariah? Keep it up. They’ll never forgive you.”

Leocadia went out of the house and stood in their backyard. There were piles of salt sitting there, like an eternal snowdrift. Leocadia grabbed a stick and drew an elephant, like in the pictures she had seen. She drew a monkey and an alligator and even a mermaid. Finally, she scrawled the cartographer’s name, the gesture of some love-sick child instead of a woman.

“Hello Leocadia,” said Bastian.

“Hello,” she said.

“I’ve come to take my wife back. Go tell her I’m here,” he said.

Leocadia did not move for a few moments. Finally, noticing the impatient look in his face, she rubbed off the letters in the salt and slowly walked back inside.

#

“I said I’m not going.”

“I can’t return alone.”

“Who cares? You already have your drawings and measurements and things,” she said.

“I’m not done yet. I need to go back today.”

“It’s not like you can’t find your way there,” she said.

“I’d like it if you accompanied me.”

Leocadia frowned and crossed her arms tight against her chest. She shouldn’t go. But he’d leave soon, taking all the pretty pictures and the nice smile away.

“We’ve got to come back quick,” she said. “And you’ll have to let me look at your other drawings.”

“Fine,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

Once inside the temple she spread his maps around her and looked at all the coasts, mountains and rivers. They surrounded her with their odd names and different topographies. She saw the white salt desert that was her land and Abelardo helped her find her home on it.

“There,” he said.

It was not even on the map. His finger fell over an empty space.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“From far, far away. Across the other corner of the empire,” he said and shuffled through some papers until he found the right one. There he tapped against a little dot. “That’s me.”

“Where were you before Comba?”

“A meandering trajectory. A little haphazard,” he said pointing at another map and tracing a serpentine route over it. “Until I crossed the mountains on a whim and here I sit with you.”

Leocadia looked at the inked locations, traced the same path he had traced with his hands over the parchment. Then her hands flew up, over his face and across his cheeks, plotting a route of a different sort.

“I’m glad you did,” she said and kissed him, first on the cheek, then on the mouth.

He smiled at her and Leocadia painted a new map on his skin using her fingers.

#

Dusk was near. She could feel it. It was terribly late. Leocadia glanced at Abelardo, asleep near the statue’s feet, before grabbing her shawl and slipping outside. She stood barefoot on the steps of the temple, observing the sky and feeling the wind.

She ought to have been more concerned about her reception at home, the town, the words used to describe her. Instead she walked all the way down the steps and stood on the salt plain, enjoying the very blue skies. It would be perfect if it rained. She wanted to show him the desert when it turned into a great mirror. It was a stupid thought: Leocadia could not cast any more spells.

She brushed the hair from her face and wished for rain.

It was not like when she had been a young priestess and cast water spells. Those spells had been difficult, piercing stabs of power that prickled her skin and made her hands ache. She did not ache now, as she threw her head back and smiled at the sky.

There was a single drop of water. It hit her cheek.

Leocadia stared at the sky in wonder and watched clouds gathering in the horizon, rolling closer like the tide. Thunder boomed so loud she pressed her hands against her ears. Heavy rain fell and turned into a full-blown storm, water splattering against the ground, water flowing as freely as in the carvings inside the temple.

Leocadia laughed and clapped her hands. Lightning streaked the sky, following her pattern. Her legs were caked in salt up to their knees and the shawl had blown away, stolen by the wind.

By then Abelardo had woken up and was watching her from the temple. He went down the steps and met her in the salt plain where the clouds reflected on the water, and it was impossible to tell where the sky began or ended.

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The edge of the arid salt plain was dotted with shadscale and black sage, but once you stepped into the playa there was nothing but a white, shiny emptiness. They said the salt plain had once been a lake. Squinting against the fierce sun, Leocadia could not imagine all that water.

She wished there was a lake again. Then there wouldn’t be any need for rain-priestesses, and the recrimination in her mother’s eyes would disappear.

Leocadia shook her head, then grabbed her pick and shovel.

There had been no need for this when she cast rain spells. She could stay inside her room and watch as the miners went to harvest the salt.

No matter. There was the lonely business of salt now. The rain spells were but a memory, bitter as the sap of the aloe.

She worked for three hours. By then it was getting very hot, and Leocadia retreated towards the crumbling stone temple where she had left the mule, safely under the shade of its tall roof.

The temple was pretty, but not very practical. Dragging stones across the playa seemed stupid to her.

Leocadia’s own home was made of salt, white bricks neatly piled on top of each other.

Leocadia sat on the back of a stone lion that guarded the temple’s steps, and ate her lunch, humming a tune to herself. Across the desert a solitary figure, waving with the heat, was heading her way. Leocadia ignored it. It was a trick of the light.

The figure kept moving, growing bigger. Leocadia took a better look. Someone was riding across the salt flat.

What kind of idiot,” she muttered.

It was a man, all in white, on a horse, with a llama behind. He waved from afar. Leocadia jumped down from the lion, and was clutching her knife when he reined his horse.

I’m heading for Caravaike,” he said, in a thick accent she could not place. His brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He had narrow eyes, a slight stubble, and a brilliant smile.

That’s that way,” she said turning her head slightly in the direction of the town. “But you’re still far.”

How far?”

Two days’ ride.”

He dismounted and thrust a piece of paper in her direction. “Can you point out my location?”

Leocadia only clutched her knife tighter and took a step back.

I’m sorry,” he said shaking his head and extending his hand instead of the map. “What am I thinking? I’m Abelardo.”

Leocadia frowned. “You’re near Comba.”

Comba?” He untied a little brown bag around his neck and took out a black case, tapping his finger against it. Then he glanced up, in the direction of the shadscale and black sage. “Well, that’s not too bad. I was hoping to pass through Comba. Someone said it was around here, but you never know. The map I have is outdated and poorly made, I…”

Are you some sort of bandit?” she asked.

No,” he said with a chuckle. “Why do you ask that?”

Who else’s is going to be crossing the salt plain except a bandit?”

I’m not a thief. I chase mountains.”

Leocadia scratched her head, itchy from the scarf she was wearing.

You’re a lunatic,” she said.

Cartographer,” he said. “In the service of the Empress. I’m updating some maps.”

Alone?”

Aha.”

Maybe he was a spy sent by an enemy king and was trying to trick his way into their midst. She had read about such things when she was in the temple; forbidden storybooks which often included a brave young hero saving a young woman from the bandit-king.

Stupid stuff, illustrated with images of lovers holding hands and speaking passionate vows. Such things, just like the rain, had passed her by.

Do you come from Comba?” he asked.

Why do you ask?”

Because I’m heading there. These maps are so old that I might get lost without some guidance.”

Not my problem.”

I’ve got money,” he said and showed her a pouch filled with coins.

Then you shouldn’t flaunt it so stupidly. I could rob you blind and let you rot here,” she said.

I hope you don’t.”

She shook her head hard and put away the knife.

He tried to talk to her while they rode across the smooth salt plain, noisily telling her answers she did not ask.

She asked him to part ways at the outskirts of the town, and he waved goodbye to her with a wide smile on his face. Leocadia tried not to look at him, fearing someone inside the salt huts was watching.

She dragged her tools back to her house. Her mother was stirring the goat stew, sweat beading her forehead. She could hear a baby crying nearby. Rosaura must be visiting.

Hello mother,” she said and kissed her mother on the cheek. “Is Rosaura here?”

For a short while,” her mother muttered.

Leocadia could already picture Rosaura’s purple eye. Bastian beat her, but their mother had little sympathy for Rosaura’s plight. If Rosaura had been a rain-priestess she might have amassed a nice dowry. The priestess, however, had seen little aptitude in Rosaura and did not care for her. So she married Bastian. Leocadia had done even worse. Their mother’s hopes had been dashed by her useless children.

I’m going to talk to her,” Leocadia said.

Her mother nodded. Her eyes were fixed on the large pot sitting over the fire.

#

That evening they went to walk through the town square, with its squat trees and its precious beds of flowers. Rosaura did not have a purple eye. He had hit her in the back. The sisters walked together, as cheerfully as they had before Rosaura had married, back when the boys flocked to court her. Now Rosaura had a spouse and Leocadia had lost her gift for casting rain, and her reputation. There were no more admiring boys for them.

Leocadia watched a flock of young priestesses in their white dresses stream across the square and into the temple. There was a pang of longing in her, and of loss. She looked away and found herself face to face with the cartographer.

I’m glad to see you again,” he said, giving her another one of his big smiles. “I couldn’t even thank you earlier. You ran off too quickly.”

I got work to do,” she muttered.

Well thank you.”

He was lost today,” Leocadia explained because she could feel her sister’s eyes on her. “He asked me for directions.”

She tried to pull Rosaura away when she noticed Rolan, her former lover, approaching her, but Abelardo smiled and motioned to him.

This is the lady I told you about,” Abelardo said. “She wouldn’t even give me her name.”

Rolan looked down at her, white teeth flashing a sharp grin, and oh, how she had loved that smile when she was younger. “I’m not surprised by the lack of manners. Leocadia, this is Abelardo Anma. The imperial envoy in our little province.”

Pleased to meet you,” Leocadia said coldly.

Come with me now,” Rolan said. “There’s more interesting people to be met.”

Rolan clasped his shoulder. Abelardo looked back at Leocadia in confusion. Leocadia pulled her black shawl over her head. Night was falling and it was very cold after the sun set.

You talked to a stranger,” Rosaura said, rubbing her hands nervously.

He talked to me.”

What will they say?”

Leocadia watched Abelardo and Rolan as they disappeared from sight. Four years before, when she had been a great deal more naive, she had taken Rolan as her lover. She knew the loss of her virginity would also mean the loss of her rain spells. Purity was the tinder to a priestess’s magic, and the sisters of her order valued innocence in gold, paying a stipend to the families of the girls who studied in their temple.

Leocadia had been loved and cherished by the sisters, by the town and the important families that lived in it. Rolan’s father, the mayor, placed a garland of flowers upon her head the summer she turned fourteen, when she was able to conjure a light rain which lasted a full fifteen minutes. It had been the season of her glory.

Her mother whispered excitedly about the money from the temple, which she was diligently saving for her dowry. A former priestess could make such a good match.

But fifteen years was a long time to serve for Leocadia, especially after Rolan had smiled at her on her way from the temple, when she went to visit her mother and her sister. He romanced Leocadia, dropping sweet notes in her path and promising he would wed her.

The sisters discovered her transgression and Leocadia was tossed from the temple. The townspeople sneered at her. When Leocadia went to work in the salt plains, the men spoke lewd words. One of them tried to touch her breasts. At first Leocadia took a knife with her, then she simply picked salt alone, far from the others.

You must not talk to him again,” Rosaura said. “It would be very bad.”

Leocadia looked down, thinking of the droplets of rain against her hair, the pretty water spells she used to cast.

You hear me? You understand?”

I do,” Leocadia said, looking ahead. Her mouth felt dry, it tasted of salt and desert winds.

#

She saw Abelardo in the middle of the street two days later. He was standing behind a bronze apparatus, which was set on a three-footed stand. Abelardo squinted and bent down near the apparatus, then opened a large case with tiny drawers. A multitude of dirty children, and a stray dog, observed him. Leocadia, too, stopped to watch, even though the sun was slowly rising and moving across the sky. Abelardo sketched and wrote and mumbled to himself for a good half hour.

Then he closed his case and folded away the apparatus until it was snugly roped against a piece of canvas.

The children wandered away. Leocadia and the dog, now sleeping next to her feet, remained. Leocadia leaned against the salt walls of a house and crossed her arms.

What’s that thing you got?” she asked.

That’s a dioptra.”

What does it to do?”

It measures angles.”

That’s the big deal? You’re measuring stuff?”

Well, you can’t just draw a good map out of thin air.”

I don’t see why anyone would need to find Comba on a map,” she said.

It might be useful.”

Leocadia doubted the Empress was going to ride across the desert to buy some salt from them, and that was the only thing Comba had to offer. There were crude signs that said “salt for sale” hanging from the doors, salt piled in backyards and inside homes, and salt caked against boots and clothes when an anaemic rain chanced to slide down the sky.

Would you mind doing me a favour?”

What?”

Can you take me back to that temple where I found you?”

What for?”

I’d like to draw it.”

One of the houses across the street had many salt cakes sitting near its door, waiting to be taken to the market. An old man in a rickety cart and two strong, younger fellows arrived to pick the cargo. They stared at Leocadia, and she wiped her hands against her clothes, the salt glistening and clinging to the dark fabric.

I got to go,” she said.

I’d really appreciate it,” he insisted.

What do you want to draw it for?”

It’s my job. Listen,” he said patting his long, flowing coat. “I can pay you. A gold piece this time.”

You’re going to take your dioptra with you?” she asked, eyeing the bundle.

Yes.”

Leocadia thought about it for a moment. Curiosity. It was her greatest fault and the cause of her downfall. Curiosity had driven her to a man’s arms, into a man’s bed. Curiosity had left her dry as the playa, tough as the salt bricks.

She nodded curtly. “Tomorrow. Before the dawn. You meet me here again, alright?”

#

Leocadia touched the shiny metal apparatus while he hummed and scribbled. She did not recognize the melody.

Why do you even care about drawing this place?” she asked him. “It’s nowhere.”

Actually it’s somewhere. It’ll serve as a landmark. When people come by they can look for it.”

Mmm,” Leocadia said and she bent down, looking at his toolbox with all its compartments. There were pigments and brushes and pencils neatly arranged in rows. He was drawing the temple, neatly capturing her stone lion.

Your town will appear on maps and more people can come through. It’s good for commerce.”

Leocadia fingered a lens, holding it up towards the sun.

There’s nothing to trade except salt,” she said. “Who will come across the plain for that?”

I did.”

Seems like a waste of time.”

You don’t like the salt flat? I think it looks pretty.”

Oh, I love the salt,” Leocadia said. “When it rains over the salt plain – once or twice every year – the salt reflects the sky like a great white mirror and it seems like you are walking through clouds. The salt, the desert, those I love. But I don’t like Comba much.”

How come?’

Leocadia raised her head and stared at the arid wasteland. She thought of the flowers in her hair, the praise and then the dishonour. She shook her head.

The wind is picking up,” she said pulling her black shawl against her face. “We need to go inside.”

They guided the horse and the llama up the temple steps and sat before the feet of a large headless idol. The walls around them were carved with images of frogs and slender trees.

It’s a curious place, isn’t it?” Abelardo said. “I wouldn’t have expected such imagery.”

There was an oasis here, once. It belonged to the water priestess. Their magic allowed beautiful gardens to blossom. Their magic is weaker now and the water doesn’t flow the same way it did, so they’ve gone to better grounds and let the desert salt have their stone palace.”

I think I’ve seen one of their priestesses.”

Leocadia had been looking inside her leather bag for a piece of dried meat. She stopped when he spoke, glancing up at him.

Rolan pointed her out when he was showing me town. White robes, isn’t it?”

Yes.”

A virginity cult of some sort, I’m given to understand.”

Purity of thought is required to bring forth the rain,” Leocadia said, almost automatically.

She thought of the time when water had poured from her hands. How it ached, as though blood was being drained from her veins. And yet how wonderful it was, and how much praise was heaped on her.

Water is a valuable commodity,” she said as she continued to rummage inside her bag, her shoulders tense. “So are the priestesses who bring it.”

In Hellekierna they adore an alligator-god who sits upon a golden throne, and youths in golden robes feed it fish from silver dishes.”

Leocadia raised an eyebrow at him. He laughed.

I swear it’s true,” he said and opened one of the drawers in his wooden box to reveal a little notebook. He flipped the pages and pointed at an illustration, all pretty pale watercolours. “See there.”

You painted this?”

Yes. I record everything I see. For maps, for the Empress.”

The eyes of the crocodile were golden and it had a great jewelled collar around its neck. It seemed heavy and cumbersome. Leocadia thought it might like to swim in a river better than padding through the throne room.

It looks ferocious.”

Oh, you haven’t seen anything. I went on the back of an elephant three years ago. It had tusks twice the size of a man. Here, see.”

That’s odd-looking.”

Just beyond the mountains that encircle your desert there are pink birds with the longest necks you’ve ever seen. They’re so pretty in flight.”

He flipped the page and Leocadia leaned over his shoulder. His hand brushed her arm, the slightest touch; a gesture with no great meaning. Yet Leocadia jumped to hear feet, as if startled.

I’ll go look out,” she said clutching the shawl.

I thought you said to wait inside.”

You wait. I have to see what’s happening. We’ll have to head back to town soon.”

On the temple steps she held onto her lion and glanced at the windswept plain, the sun scorching the sky. Not a drop of moisture, nothing but the harsh wind, tossing salt in her face.

#

Her mother was stirring the stew like she did every day. However, there was a piercing silence in the kitchen. Rosaura sat in a corner with the baby in her arms. Even the child was quiet, no cooing coming from her.

Leocadia rested her shovel and pick against the wall.

Rosaura says you’re running with some stranger.”

Leocadia did not answer. She nodded.

I did not hear you,” her mother said, without looking at her.

Yes,” Leocadia said finally.

You have no shame.”

He asked me for help.”

The slap did not take her by surprise. Leocadia merely bit her lips and went towards the little dinning room strewn with a few cushions, a low table and a rug. Rosaura followed her and placed the baby in a crib. Then she turned towards Leocadia.

Don’t look at me like that,” Rosaura said. “Somebody else told her. I couldn’t lie.”

What did you say?”

You can’t go off with a man like that. Don’t you remember what happened with Rolan?”

I didn’t do anything wrong,” she muttered.

That’s not what it looks like.”

It doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter? They’ll gossip.”

Nothing they haven’t said before.”

Rosaura was upset. She pressed a hand against her chest. “If you don’t care about your reputation, think about us. How much more muck can you pour upon our family? Do you know what they call you in town?”

Leocadia did not want to discuss nicknames. She looked at the pattern of the rug, red and yellow and blue. Rosaura huffed at her.

You want to live the rest of your life like a pariah? Keep it up. They’ll never forgive you.”

Leocadia went out of the house and stood in their backyard. There were piles of salt sitting there, like an eternal snowdrift. Leocadia grabbed a stick and drew an elephant, like in the pictures she had seen. She drew a monkey and an alligator and even a mermaid. Finally, she scrawled the cartographer’s name, the gesture of some love-sick child instead of a woman.

Hello Leocadia,” said Bastian.

Hello,” she said.

I’ve come to take my wife back. Go tell her I’m here,” he said.

Leocadia did not move for a few moments. Finally, noticing the impatient look in his face, she rubbed off the letters in the salt and slowly walked back inside.

#

I said I’m not going.”

I can’t return alone.”

Who cares? You already have your drawings and measurements and things,” she said.

I’m not done yet. I need to go back today.”

It’s not like you can’t find your way there,” she said.

I’d like it if you accompanied me.”

Leocadia frowned and crossed her arms tight against her chest. She shouldn’t go. But he’d leave soon, taking all the pretty pictures and the nice smile away.

We’ve got to come back quick,” she said. “And you’ll have to let me look at your other drawings.”

Fine,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

Once inside the temple she spread his maps around her and looked at all the coasts, mountains and rivers. They surrounded her with their odd names and different topographies. She saw the white salt desert that was her land and Abelardo helped her find her home on it.

There,” he said.

It was not even on the map. His finger fell over an empty space.

Where are you from?” she asked.

From far, far away. Across the other corner of the empire,” he said and shuffled through some papers until he found the right one. There he tapped against a little dot. “That’s me.”

Where were you before Comba?”

A meandering trajectory. A little haphazard,” he said pointing at another map and tracing a serpentine route over it. “Until I crossed the mountains on a whim and here I sit with you.”

Leocadia looked at the inked locations, traced the same path he had traced with his hands over the parchment. Then her hands flew up, over his face and across his cheeks, plotting a route of a different sort.

I’m glad you did,” she said and kissed him, first on the cheek, then on the mouth.

He smiled at her and Leocadia painted a new map on his skin using her fingers.

#

Dusk was near. She could feel it. It was terribly late. Leocadia glanced at Abelardo, asleep near the statue’s feet, before grabbing her shawl and slipping outside. She stood barefoot on the steps of the temple, observing the sky and feeling the wind.

She ought to have been more concerned about her reception at home, the town, the words used to describe her. Instead she walked all the way down the steps and stood on the salt plain, enjoying the very blue skies. It would be perfect if it rained. She wanted to show him the desert when it turned into a great mirror. It was a stupid thought: Leocadia could not cast any more spells.

She brushed the hair from her face and wished for rain.

It was not like when she had been a young priestess and cast water spells. Those spells had been difficult, piercing stabs of power that prickled her skin and made her hands ache. She did not ache now, as she threw her head back and smiled at the sky.

There was a single drop of water. It hit her cheek.

Leocadia stared at the sky in wonder and watched clouds gathering in the horizon, rolling closer like the tide. Thunder boomed so loud she pressed her hands against her ears. Heavy rain fell and turned into a full-blown storm, water splattering against the ground, water flowing as freely as in the carvings inside the temple.

Leocadia laughed and clapped her hands. Lightning streaked the sky, following her pattern. Her legs were caked in salt up to their knees and the shawl had blown away, stolen by the wind.

By then Abelardo had woken up and was watching her from the temple. He went down the steps and met her in the salt plain where the clouds reflected on the water, and it was impossible to tell where the sky began or ended.

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