Cat frowned again, putting the book on her dresser as she dug around under her sheets some more to get comfortable. She glanced at her bedside table and saw that a very ornate pen had been left for her along with the book. It was a rich deep blue, like lapis, inlaid with gold. Cat imagined it as something a high level executive…or Albion…would use. It certainly wasn’t hers, which meant it was part of the gift from Sheh.
Did Sheh want her to write back? Cat looked at the book. It almost seemed dangerous, as if writing in it would steal her soul or curse her somehow. “I-It’s not writing in blood though!” She told herself, as she sat back down on her bed, the book in her lap.
It wouldn’t be a very good gift if it was cursed, though she had only assumed it was given to her by Scheherazade. Still, Cat was not one to let fear stop her from trying something new. Taking the pen, Cat wrote ‘hello’ back, next to the original word. She stared at the page, wondering if there was going to be some secret puzzle revealed. Nothing seemed to change as the ink settled onto the page. Cat frowned, growing less convinced anything would happen with each passing uneventful moment.
“Like anything’s going to happen…hey!”
To Cat’s sudden shock, words appeared on the next line, in the same handwriting as the first ‘hello’.
“Oh hey! I thought when no one replied this book was just a practical joke or something…” The words said scrawling themselves across the page.
Cat’s eyes went wide as she read the response. Was this a real thing? A real person writing in a similar book? It had to be, but it might still be a curse. She’d have to be wary until she knew to whom she was talking. Her reply cut right to that point.
“Hi, who is this?”
“I’m Asha, sorry, I should have introduced myself to start.”
As the line wrote itself upon the page, a small picture appeared on the page opposite it, looking as if it were rapidly sketched in pencil. It didn’t move, but it clearly showed a girl with dark skin and hair a little longer than Cat’s own, dark eyes and a small, slightly embarrassed smile. She looked vaguely Middle-Eastern though Cat couldn’t really tell from the picture and her own limited knowledge. The picture didn’t move. As Cat stared at it, she realized the facial features were exaggerated slightly to better show the expression, but it did make it hard to recognize this girl’s…Asha’s…other features accurately.
“Hello?” Asha wrote again.
Cat had been staring at the picture so intently that she nearly jumped when the picture shifted suddenly, the expression changing as if the sketch had been replaced by another, this time showing Asha with a confused, slightly worried face. Apparently Cat had taken too long to reply. Quickly taking pen in hand, Cat worked to get a dialogue going.
Cat: “Ah, sorry! I was staring at the picture of…is that you?”
Asha: “Picture?” the picture on the opposite page shifted again, this time showing even more confusion.
Cat: “Yeah, it must be you! Hmm, oh, it appeared after you gave me your name! Well, my true name is a secret, evil sorcerer book, but you can call me Cat!”
Asha: “Haha, I’m not a sorcerer, Cat! And I see what you mean, a picture just popped up for me too.”
The picture of Asha had shifted again from one of confusion to laughter.
Asha: “Hehe, you’re cute.”
Though still laughing, now the picture came with a wink that made Cat blush.
Cat: “Hey! …Are you flirting with me?”
Asha: “Maybe a little. So Cat, huh? Where are you from?”
Cat: “Italy. I’m actually in Rome.”
Asha: “Wow, I always wanted to see Rome! Though I never was able to afford the trip.”
Cat: “I was born and raised in this city! But it’s still a lot smaller than it was. We’re building the city as fast as we can though! There’s all sorts of new people coming in. I live with an adoptive family and they serve in the legions here.”
Asha: “Legions? Like Imperial Legions? I didn’t know anyone still had a military.”
Cat: “Oh well it’s still pretty small.”
Asha: So there are a lot of people in Rome?
Cat: Oh ya! It’s pretty great! There’s a senate, a radio station, lots of people in the temples and the Vatican, with lots more coming in each month. There’s also this huge jerk named Rosa, but most of the people here are nice.”
There was a pause after Cat wrote out all of that. She wondered if the book waited until the last word was written before transcribing it into Asha’s book. When the girl did reply, her picture showed her just smiling pleasantly.
Asha: “What’s Rome like?”
Cat: “Now? Or before?”
Asha: “Umm…now. I know what cities were like before!”
Cat: “Hehe, but you probably don’t know the specifics of Rome! But alright. Well, to start with, we’re led by a pack of wolves. Well we were, but they’ve mostly stepped down. And when I say wolves I’m being literal too!”
Asha: “Really? Like howl at the moon wolves?”
The other girl’s eyes were wide in the picture beside the text.
Cat: “Hmm, well sometimes. I’ve seen Capi in her wolf form and I think I’ve seen Giovanni going about as a big wolf, but they are more like spirits! Most of the time they just look mostly human-ish. Ah, I guess you might not know about spirits where you are.”
There was a long pause again. When Asha finally answered, the picture her was staring at something off to the side, not looking at Cat.
Asha: “No, I know about spirits. So these are spirit wolves?”
Cat: “Yeah. They can talk and take human form. Capi is pretty amazing, leading our armies and civilians. It was thanks to her we managed to find refuge and get walls built quickly! She just sort of kept us safe for a long time until we could start getting organized.”
Asha: “Cool! Do you have a castle or something?”
Cat: “Well, no. Closest we have is the Capitoline Hill, but that’s more of a capitol than a castle, it’s where the Senate and other government people meet. I was in a castle in Syracuse though! Hehe, I stormed the walls of it!”
Cat: “Yeah. It’s kind of a long story.”
Asha: “Well, I have time. Please, tell me more. Things sound so interesting there!”
Cat: “Hehe, well, alright…”
Cat leaned back on her bed a she began to write about her escapades a year ago. Soon she found herself scribbling in the book for several hours as she chatted with Asha, mostly about herself. Asha just couldn’t hear enough about her adventures in Syracuse or what her family was like. Cat talked about everything that had happened recently, about her sister getting a Pegasus-riding boyfriend, her mother starting the legions, Rosa appearing and starting to bully everyone, her magic lessons with Albion, and on and on and on. Every so often, Cat would try to ask Asha a question, but the other girl would either give a very short answer before asking more about Cat or evade the question. She didn’t particularly mind her reticence. Cat had been starved of someone knew to talk to, so being able to chat like this, even in writing format, was a breath of fresh air.
The more they talked, the easier Cat found it to open up to a friendly face her own age, even if it was drawn in pencil. She started talking about the things that were worrying her; Hildegard’s illness seemed to be getting worse. Hanne was still almost never home with how busy her work in the legions kept her. It felt good to talk to someone about it, even through a book. As the evening settled into late night Asha’s face came back looking stressed and worried.
Asha: “Oh, damn…Sorry, Cat. I need to go. Talk to you soon?”
Cat: “Sure! I didn’t realize how late it was anyway.”
Asha: “Hehe, well it was good to talk. I’ll write and see if you’re there tomorrow.”
There was no more writing, though Cat waited a full minute before closing the book, just to make sure. As she bound the book again with the buckle and strap on the cover, she felt a plop upon her bed and heard the gentle sound of flutes playing.
“Did you enjoy my gift, dear Catarina?” The servant Scheherazade said with a smile, holding her pipe elegantly in one hand as the other stroked Basil, who had moved quickly and eagerly into the spirit’s warm lap.
“I thought it was from you!” Cat said, smiling back at her. “Where did you get this?”
“I made it myself, of course. I have quite a few tricks up my sleeves, after all. You seemed lonely and in need of a friend and, as I said, because I am bound by my own limitations…I found someone who could fill that need for you.”
“Asha?” Cat asked.
“Mhmm. Someone your age who was feeling lonely, just as you were.” Scheherazade said. “Though I trust you are feeling less lonely now that you’ve had time to just talk.”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks, Sheh.” Cat said. “Though she didn’t say where she was from…Do you know?”
“Mm, I don’t, not really anyway.” Scheherazade said, though her tone was somewhat enigmatic.
“What do you mean ‘not really’?”
“Well, my dear, when I made the book, I didn’t hand deliver it to beneath your pillow. It was created for you and so when I finished that one and its sister, they appeared where they needed to be.” She smiled again. “This one appeared in your room for you to find. The other sought out someone like you.”
“Eh? Asha didn’t seem that much like me. She was a lot quieter for one.” Cat laughed.
“She was lonely and had no one to talk to, or at least no one who would listen. She needed a friend. Just like you. She needed you as you needed her, Catarina.”
Cat blinked and sat up. “I guess I did…Thank you, Sheh.”
“Of course, Catarina.” Scheherazade said, reaching over to stroke her hair. “Now, you can pay back my efforts by filling that book with grand adventures to brighten that girl’s day.”
Cat smiled and hugged Scheherazade tightly. “Oh, I can’t wait to pay that debt back!”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=20&sl=310