There was a song that ██████ and I used to sing—an old standard about a railway train that takes on lost travelers and carries them away. How that husky voice of hers still echoes in my mind's ear… She always said the train was a metaphor for death, but the way she sang it, that song was full of life.
Well, I am uncertain where I lost my way, but it would seem the old train found me. I woke as we came to a stop, and still half asleep, stumbled off the train and into a strange new place. Very nearly left my bag behind—and with it, all of my earthly possessions—but the conductor hailed me just as I was leaving. Thank Vigil that her eyes were open just as mine were closed.
All the roads out seem to lead right back to where I started. Perhaps I will find the energy to be distressed by this tomorrow. For now, my first priority is finding a place to lay my head down.
The locals tell me the city is called San Sibilia.
Day 4: Wrong Black Mare
Prompt: distant / music in a bandstand.
I have taken up lodging these past three nights with a witchy old goat by the name of Foxglove. She lives in an upstairs apartment overlooking Vermilion Street Park, atop a little shop where she sells candied spells that more closely resemble sculptures than sweets. The walls of her home are papered with all manner of herbs and incenses, and every surface is brimming with the unfinished projects of a distractable old doe.
I find her charming, perhaps a little "rowdy" for my taste, but she smells wonderful always. I will have to ask her which fragrances she uses, and if she is willing to part with a vial or two. Alas, the company of another woman is the water of life, but lest I get lost in the weeds—
This afternoon, just as we were settling in for a late lunch, a warm voice drifted in through the open window and grasped me firmly by the heart. I froze momentarily, just long enough for my benefactor to notice something was amiss. I silenced her with a finger, told her to listen. Music, from the park, and I was certain I knew the musician.
We left our lunch behind, hurried down the stairs, and bounded across the green toward the source of the song that troubled me so. In my hurry to find a familiar face, I left my cloak by the door, and for that I felt terribly exposed as we drew nearer the stage. There she stood, tall and proud, a dusky mare with dark curls, singing from her chest as she plucked away at an instrument whose name I do not know. All appeared as I expected—but, dear journal, I am learning that this city is a canny beast, and it loves nothing more than to practice its art for passing travelers.
I hailed our lone musician, and she turned to face me, and hers was not a face I knew.
Prompt: joyous / parade through the neighborhood.
Part I: Down to the River
In the wake of yesterday's encounter, my sleep was troubled with dreams of my own black mare, who sang so sweetly, and who left me so long ago. San Sibilia itself must have been likewise troubled, and in its restless slumber tossed and turned until it altogether rearranged itself. I scarcely recognized the city that greeted me on waking.
Vermilion Street Park is now the Vermilion Street Waterfront. I am somewhat less troubled by this turn of events. I did not wish to see the park again after yesterday's tasteless performance, and so it has gone. Good riddance.
I brought the matter to Foxglove's attention over breakfast, which she took in stride, until I mentioned the waterfront—at which she leapt from her seat and bounded over to the windows to see for herself, eyes alight with a joy I had not yet seen from her. My lady explained, in her excitement, that San Sibilia is a soft place, one that is constantly renewing and reshaping itself—that such changes are usually so small as to go unnoticed, but that on occasion, entire landmarks will uproot and relocate, or even become something altogether new. This was such an occasion.
What a strange place this is!
Part II: Adolescence
There is a parade on the water! A procession of boats of all size and sort, strung with lights and heralded by a raucous brass quintet. Foxglove tells me they are celebrating the city's rebirth.
We are watching from the rooftop. My companion is fearless, but I for my part required some coaxing—and perhaps, I admit, a shot of whiskey—before I could make the climb. Nevertheless, I'm happy to be here, perched with her on high. The night is warm and Foxglove is very good company. She has been amusing me with stories of her youth, of growing up in Ladybird, and the sister she left behind.
Left behind, she says so wistfully. She is longing for someone she has lost. Homesick little doe, what secrets do you keep?
She is silent for a moment, and in the next she is whooping and cheering for a parade I had nearly forgotten all about. She adjusts her mask, and I do not pry further.
I wonder if ██████ thinks of me. I wonder if, in those moments, her mask falters too.
Day 7: A Ghost of Myself
Prompt: erratic / trip to the market.
I am trying to be less… melancholic of late. I have been traveling alone for so long, feeling oh so sorry for myself—meanwhile, little Foxglove here has been trying her best to live a life, and though she has her lows, she is thriving! She is a vivid creature who has not lost her wit nor her edge.
And what am I? A gloomy old ghost, who I fear has squandered both.
No matter. I shall live again.
Yesterday, we made a date of visiting the market at Queens Arch. Foxglove had need of an assortment of magical miscellany, and I—well, I needed to see the light of day lest I truly become a ghost, and so I joined her.
I find beauty in all women, but let it be said that I do have a "type", and she is tall, rugged, and cloaked in mystery. She helped me up after I made a scene by stumbling over myself as I gawked. I thought I might die on the spot, but she smiled and offered up an apology—for being a distraction of all things—and then I was certain I might die. All I could manage was a blush and a stammering thank-you-miss.
Foxglove, bless her, found this to be the height of comedy. So funny was it, in fact, that she was unable to remain upright. Unfortunately for her, neither was the vendor's stall on which she had been leaning. Alas, the poor, put upon merchant did not see the humor in all this, and my little companion and I found ourselves making a hasty retreat. I bade my rugged beauty a hasty farewell and we were off.
By the stars, I never asked her name!
Day 11: Wayward Daughter
Prompt: much needed / news in the broadsheets.
Foxglove had a rather large order today, so I took to the streets alone. On work, her focus is single minded, and with no projects of my own, I find solitude the less lonesome option.
Indeed, perhaps I should find a project or two of my own.
My little expedition brought me to the nearby Riverside Café. I took a seat and, over a cup of coffee just a little too bitter for my taste, sketched a portrait of my lady. The part I struggled with most by far was the sprig of dried cudweed tied to the tip of her hat—quite important, I thought, to get right. However, despite my crude attempt, the portrait was well received! Her expression was certainly much brighter than the tired smirk from my sketch.
After leaving the café, I happened by a stand selling papers with stories of the outside world—some places I recognized, some I did not, and others still that seemed entirely alien to me. No word of my home, nor of Ladybird, but still, it brought me comfort. If nothing else, it is proof that things do indeed come and go from the city, and it is a link to the world outside. I admit, though my visit has been comfortable, the thought that I might be trapped had been looming over my head despite all assurances to the contrary.
I returned to our apartment shortly after midday. Foxglove was just setting her work aside to take a late lunch, and so we ate together, and I showed her the portrait and the paper I purchased on my stroll through town.
I have already written of the portrait; the paper, on the other hand—
I do not know what, but something in her shifted as she read.I think it's time to go home, she said. Is this not her home?No, no, to leave San Sibilia, she said. And there it was, that aching void she hides so well, welling up and opening itself to me. I apologized, more times than I ought, for upsetting her, but she would not hear it. I invited her into my comfort, and she allowed herself to stay for a while. I allowed myself, as well. Perhaps we were both overdue.
We resolved to search together for a way out, and when the time comes, we will part ways. I will miss her, but I pray Foxglove finds what she needs to be whole again.
Day 13: Come My Way
Prompt: queer / rendezvous with friends.
I met her again! Her name is Torseti.
As for what sort of creature she is—a chimera, perhaps? I could not say for sure, and I fear it would be rude of me to ask. She is large and vivid, bearing antlers adorned with gemstones, and with features I have seen in no other hoofed creature.
At our last encounter, my wandering eyes got the better of me; this time, I thought that I should be bold and deliberate, so I girded my loins and made my approach.
Alas, the poor dear could not see what I set before her! Whether I was too subtle, or she, too caught up in her own fancy, my flirtatious advance fell flat. With her, I would have to be forthright—for me, a terrible ordeal, and particularly so in matters so tender. My heart is a twisted bramble, and to map its corridors is no trivial matter. And here am I, once again getting lost in the weeds.
My lady, I apologize for my inscrutability. Would you sit with me and have tea? You are a handsome creature I would like to get to know.
Terrifying, admitting it so plainly. I felt exposed, and I winced as she moved to speak, but against all odds, she agreed. So, together we spent an afternoon at the Riverside Café, sharing our stories of how we came to be in this strange place. She is gruff and opinionated, sometimes harsh—in many ways, my opposite—but it does not tarnish her charm. And, as exiles-in-disgrace, we have a few things in common as well.
What a day this has been! I thought I would not see her again, but now it seems we have plans for a date.
Day 15: Coward
I cannot sleep. Anxious thoughts, like quivering threads forming shapes i cannot begin to describe. My past is my future. Am I leading her on? I am afraid. I will break her just as my shadow-mare broke me. My heart is glass, and broken glass cuts deep.
I am trying to not be so morose, but there are days my mask weighs heavy, and even the most hollow of smiles is more than i can bear.
Day 17: The Messenger
Prompt: unexpected / show of a street performer.
I am haunted by this blessed mare and her mandolin. She accosted the three of us with an impromptu performance last eventide as we walked along the docks, and I, in my haste to find some distance, took a tumble and rent the hem of my dress in two.
A part of me still aches to see her again—not this ghost, but the woman I knew.
Another part I have come to know despises her for what she did. As much as it pains me to acknowledge, there is a dark seed of vengeance taken root in the bramble of my heart. It would see her suffer the way I have suffered for her. It has poisoned the wellspring of my affections.
I have every reason to be angry with her, but—
Well, it is certainly not her double's fault, but I lost my temper and shouted at her all the same. I am not proud. I feel I owe her an apology. I certainly owe one to my companions.
In the wake of that outburst, I took my leave of my companions to sulk alone in the half-light. Torseti followed me in her time, but I found myself unable to speak when she questioned my reaction. It was all I could do to shake my head. Bless her, that she respected my need for silence as she walked the two of us back to our apartment.
Poor Foxglove has scarcely spoken to me since my display. I fear that upwelling must have triggered some buried pain in her as well. I will speak to her on the morrow if she does not approach me first. I need some time yet to catalogue my feelings.
Day 20: Patiently Awaiting
Prompt: intriguing / stroll along the river banks.
Yesterday, we three made an expedition further down the river. I was surprised to see that we were well outside the city, though not outside its sphere of influence: no matter how far we walked, beyond a certain distance, San Sibilia would recede no further.
We came to a stretch where the waters run wide and shallow amid scattered stones slick with moss. The banks were dappled with white lilies that had burst into bloom as if overnight, finding purchase in the crevices between rocks, and it was there that Foxglove's intentions lay.
While our nimble companion hunted lilies and lichens in the stream, Torseti and I made camp and conversation at the river's edge. I explained to her the reason for my untoward behavior toward that blessed street performer, and my lady was fair and measured in her response. We agreed that an apology is in order, and I resolved to write one.
Foxglove, having concluded her business with the local flora, joined us momentarily, and we took a late lunch there by the river before breaking camp and setting out for home.
The return trip was much shorter than I expected—less than half the distance we had traveled that morning. I was grateful for the disparity, tired as I was, and decided I would not trouble myself with common sense. I am keenly aware that this city is not bound by such notions.
Day 26: Caves
Prompt: mysterious / excursion to a ruin.
These past few days have been a whirlwind of activity. We have been so preoccupied that I have scarcely found time to collect my thoughts.
In short, Foxglove has stumbled into a mystery—a hidden city beneath the city, or perhaps its dark reflection, tucked away in some forgotten alleyway. The streets there give way to tunnels, sky to stone, and buildings to burrows carved into walls. We have yet to delve its deepest reaches, but I have begun to map the shallows of its corridors. If the streets above are strange, those below are stranger still. San Sibilia lives.
I will write more on this later, as time permits.
Day 33: For the Hard Road
Prompt: fraught / incident at the bookstore.
I find myself alone again, the sole passenger of some otherworldly engine.
Three days prior, we located the city's heart—a vast library filled with the dreams of San Sibilia itself, hidden away in its depths. It was there, in the eerie glow of the underground, that we performed our little ritual.
There came a great sound, as if the sea itself had discovered our secret city and was now rushing in to fill its corridors. Then, the wailing call of some great beast—not a beast, but a distant train signaling its arrival. The moment of terror passed, leaving an uncertain hope in its wake. The trains had returned to make their home in the warrens of San Sibilia below.
My companions spent the following days getting their affairs in order, while I studied the maps and time tables that came to roost in the city along with the trains. I took the time as well to put my heart to paper.
It was an hour ago that they disembarked, and I miss them terribly already. I have my doubts that our paths will cross again, but I will find comfort in the thought that they might. Perhaps I will write to them, and perhaps my words will find their way back to that city, and from there to that other place. I will find comfort in that thought as well.
I arrived in San Sibilia with only this journal and the clothes on my back; I leave today with a heart full of longing and a handful of mementos:
A handful of pebbles, collected from the riverbed.
A rusted nail, stolen from the docks. The one that ruined my dress.
A strange gemstone, shed from Torseti's antlers—no mere decoration, I learned, but a natural product of her kind.
A pressed flower, plucked from Foxglove's tail. It is her namesake, and another mystery of their world.
A wooden mask that I have carved for myself, tinted with the dreams of a restless city.
Mine is the final stop on this line. I am heartbroken, but I am alive.
Epilogue: a collection of tear-stained letters
To the masked mare and her mandolin,
I owe you an apology, my dear, for I treated you terribly for no fault of your own. You were but a passer-by, guilty of no crime but a passing resemblance, and my bramble heart saw fit to cut you down in her stead. Your absence in the following days was felt by all.
I do not ask for your forgiveness; only that you do not blame yourself.
To my deft little doe,
You have shown me kindness that I could never repay in full. Your enthusiasm for life in the face of hardship and heartache is inspiring and infectious. Your companionship allowed me not merely to survive, but to thrive in this strange city.
I hope that you find your home. I pray that it finds you as well, and that it welcomes you in as you welcomed me.
To my looming lady justice,
You walk a lonely road, my love. I wish I could walk with you. A part of me regrets catching your eye, only to disappear from view so suddenly, but I would not trade the time between for anything.
I hope that my departure does not harden your heart. I pray that your path does not bring you to break upon the rocks of righteousness. May you find peace.
To my companions,
Would that I could have shared these feelings openly. Alas, fear gets the better of me. Words die in my throat and roll sour off my tongue, or else they sit heavy like a stone in my belly and fester there. It is better that I write. I must apologize for that.
I will remember our time together fondly. I wish so dearly that we could have had more, but I know that there are not enough days in a lifetime to satisfy my thirst. Know that I have loved you my best; that wherever you will go, you carry a part of me with you.