Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let it be.Hamlet
There is a fountain filled with statues. It stands within the walls of the Eternals’ Palace, in the center of Windrose City. Gods, mermaids, and fish stand tall in the splashing water, their bronzed metal turned green with age. Water tumbles off the mermaids’ backs and splashes around wide-mouthed fishes. In summer, the wind carries cold sprays of white water into the air, and rainbows grace the faces of the metal river gods meeting together, their hands lifted to the sky. Now, in the chill of coming winter, the water stood still and dark in the gray before sunrise. The river gods hovered above the water black and slick as oil, and even they didn’t know this was your last sunrise.
You loved that fountain. In summer, you cleaned algae from its water. In fall, you skimmed debris from its surface and plucked fallen leaves like bright crowns from the statues’ heads. As one of the many groundskeepers at the Eternals’ Palace, you have tended smaller fountains, trimmed bushes, and pruned fruit trees for over thirty years, but this fountain had remained your favorite. And you didn’t know why. That morning the water shivered in the snow-laced wind, and you hurried to get inside and begin your day. There was so much to do, and you had no idea this was your last morning. If you had, maybe you wouldn’t have hurried so.
You flexed your gnarled and calloused hands and stuffed them deeper into your pockets. Thirty years of work have grayed your beard and wrinkled the skin around your eyes, but your hands had turned tough and strong from work and dirt and thorns. Despite the callouses and the thick scarred skin, you could still tenderly plant seedlings in the dark earth, care for delicate orchids in the greenhouse, and prune basil and mint and encourage them to thrive. Sometimes you even spoke to the fragrant and velvety leaves and sang songs you just knew. You didn’t know how you knew those songs, but you did. A song of a fountain and a thief. Although you never let anyone hear you sing to the leaves—that’d mean Adjustment and Burn for sure, and you weren’t stupid.
That morning, other than the smell of snow on the wind, the world was as it should be. That morning, that cold and frosting morning, thin starbursts of ice patterned the water and glazed the statues. The mermaids and river gods turned dark and gray, almost black in the sunrise shadows. You stopped to say good morning to the statues and pulled your wool hat closer over your ears. Winters here could be harsh, and the season was only now threatening to bite. Your hands stiffened in the cold even through your coat and worn-out gloves. You would need new ones soon.
Movement behind you caught your ear. Your neck prickled like someone was watching you. You turned to see. A figure sat on the cold, stone bench facing the fountains. The dark shrouded figure’s breath swirling in front of them like dancing ghosts only to vanish, only to be born again.
Something was wrong. You were always the first one up and starting your day, and you couldn’t remember ever seeing someone sitting on that bench just to enjoy the garden. That garden and that fountain were for special occasions: photo ops, parties in summer, concerts under the stars—not enjoying. Panic rose up in you like frost.
You struggled to see the figure’s face in the growing dawn, but the figure’s dark hair hung heavy about them like a cloak. It pooled at the figure’s feet like so many waves of black velvet. This was not another groundskeeper, a guard, or a lost maid.
Fear breathed hotly on your neck and whispered in your ear, but you couldn’t hear her words, you only felt the low rumble in her throat like a threat. Anxious, you shifted from foot to foot, wondering who this dark stranger was.
“This fountain is called Meeting of the Waters,” the figure said.
And suddenly you knew that voice. Fear’s red lips smiled, and she sucked all the warmth from you, emptying you to nothing. You knew that voice: your Eternal Mother. This was Loraine herself.
You should have bowed. You should have thrown yourself to the ground paying homage to your god and made yourself known—maybe then this wouldn’t have been your last sunrise. But before you could move, she seemed to collapse under the weight of herself, hunching even farther forward. She spoke again after a moment of silence and frost.
“He’s dead,” she said, and her voice was cold as if another person spoke from somewhere deep and dark and watery within her. “Jonah, the Warrior Prophet is dead—took him long enough,” she snapped, her voice shifting hard and stern, and her back wrenching straight and tall. “I have the Unseen Prophet, my prophet, locked away, and now I just await the Last Prophet. Then the waters will meet and I will end this. It has been foretold.”
You stood utterly still, terrified at hearing your god speak like this. She was Eternal. Why would she care about prophets? Besides that, you thought the prophets had all been killed ages ago. The books you read as a child said so. Rufus-Loraine, General Eternal, Prophet Killer, had killed them all.
She hunched forward again as if a weight had been placed on her shoulders, but she seemed calmer. “Yes… you’re right. It has been foretold. Perseus will come and he will free us. No more ghosts.”
It was a different voice, soft and sure. Her words sent something cold down your spine, icy fingers sliding down your skin.
Then she looked up at you, noticing you for the first time, her eyes catching the rising sun and shining, and you knew this was your last sunrise. She straightened, and her voice turned cold. “Yes, Zulu, the prophets have foretold it,” she said, “but I choose my own destiny.”
You had seen something intimate, something dangerous, something that will blot out all of your future sunrises. Somewhere bells chimed in the morning cold.
Loraine shrieked. She stood, rising from the cold stone bench, and pointed a pale and bony finger at you.
You stumbled backward, your teeth on edge at her violent voice, your heart racing hot blood through your limbs. But you tripped. A bush behind you, one you’d trimmed and pruned for years, caught your feet like a betrayal. It twisted around your boots and toppled you to the stone and dirt and frost. You heard a snap and knew your ankle had broken just as your chin hit the paved walk beneath you. You tasted blood.
As the guards hauled you to your feet, you had no idea where they had come from so quickly. You turned to see Loraine one last time. Her eyes were… too. Her pupils too dilated, her whites too white, the red around her lids too red like blood.
You collapsed with a cry, your ankle unable to support your weight, and a guard grabbed under your arms to keep you upright. All you could think was that the guard was too young. His hands were taught and strong like young deer. He had the shaved head of a Burner, and the uncertain eyes of a lost doe. He looked to Loraine, but she smiled at you.
“He has… displeased me,” she said.
And as the young, cervine guard dragged you away, you wondered when he had been Burned and why and what Burning felt like and if you had ever truly seen a sunrise before that moment.