Candlemaiden: The Stranger Shore

Third Chapter: Ramos

The city walls of Ramos glittered in the weak sun that sifted through the afternoon’s coat of clouds. Five times as tall as Iris, the walls were covered in murals of shattered glass. While the Kaerents, short-tempered after three weeks of traveling, proffered papers and argued with the guards at the gate, Iris stared hungrily at the vibrant scenes. To her left was a depiction of the Rose and the Moon, though it took her a moment to pair the embracing couple with the story every child knows.

The mural was both breathtaking and heartbreaking. The Moon, pictured as a slender man with long hair and pale skin glowing somewhere between gold and silver, held the Rose tight against his chest, even though blood fell from the slender thorn-cut slashes on his skin. The Rose, with vibrant red hair and a green dress that wilted to brown at the bottom, leaned into him, one of her legs already crumbling into dust. Around them, splinters of white-gold glass formed the starburst tears of the purple night sky mourning the first and final embrace of the unlucky lovers.

The mural on the right was calmer, evoking serenity and nostalgia rather than melancholy. Though the glass shards were just as sharp, softer hues of blue and green painted an idyllic river scene with graceful herons and swaying reeds. A swirl of darker blue was either the lazy current or a coy river spirit, and two children in a boat fished with clumsily bound rods. Though Iris had never been fishing, she could almost hear the lapping of the river against the muddy shore and feel the sun tickling her scalp as she floated downriver…

Somebody clapped, and Iris blinked herself back into the world. The Kaerents were coming back towards the wagon while the guards cranked open the old gate. One of the Kaerents clapped again and shouted something Iris didn’t quite catch- but soon the girls were scrambling out of the wagon and it became clear they were expected to walk.

Iris had never seen the capital before, though of course she had marveled at the glasswork that came from the Isle of Aira, the twin city of Ramos with its famous cathedral that lanced at the sky from about a mile offshore. Her heart hurt as she recalled the round iridescent jars Mother Hall collected, with their butterfly patterns and rounded lead lids. One day, Mother Hall had said, they would travel together to Aira so Iris could commission her own spirit-lantern or storm rod, and Iris had always feared that day, because it would have meant Mother Hall thought she was no longer an apprentice, but a Candlemaiden ready to set off on her own.

That day would never come now. The thought scared Iris, because it shouldn’t have been true. She could still return to Mother Hall after this wretched schooling, and they could still come to Ramos and Aira. It wouldn’t be her first time seeing the cities, but Iris would still find it overwhelming and wondrous.

In her bag, the mice chittered, and Iris felt a tear bud up in her eye. The thought scared her because it was true. Somehow she knew she’d never see Mother Hall again, that she’d never be let back into her old life. Whoever she was, whoever she was going to be- it was all different now, and she couldn’t change it back.


The Kaerents first led the girls through snaking streets of the city at a wearying pace. Iris barely had time to admire the houses, which were the inverse of her villages’ in that the walls were plain colors while window and door frames were decorated, or to study the people’s clothing, which, like the houses, was a bit the same and a bit bewildering.

But the city was hilly, and after a while of walking up steep streets, the Kaerents stopped to argue with each other and point in various directions. Passersby gave the girls and their gesticulating guardians a wide berth, though they weren’t afraid to openly stare. Spinning in place, Iris returned the favor, her eyes wide wide wide to soak in all of the city.

The houses were all snug up against each other, each doorframe a riot of color that mirrored the whole of the street. Magenta leaned against azure, which pushed against orange, which clashed with the deep green of its neighbor. The rooftops were staggered, some jutting above others, some coming forward over porches that shaded gossiping women and lazy cats judging those that walked by. Children ran down the streets, tailed at times by high-flying kites, laughing and shouting and darting between tsk-ing parents who carried baskets at their hips.

Every street was like that, a microcosm of brilliant colors and colorful people, each its own world and overwhelming, until sudden alleys revealed the city sprawled beneath you, nothing but red rooftops and the endless blue of sea and sky.

They kept walking, and the city changed, houses turning into white-faced shops and streets filling with more and more people. Iris was startled to see other Kaerents walking around in the mercantile areas, welcomed by the shopkeepers and speaking passable, if rather arrhythmic, Erillen. She was more startled when an old man with sea-green eyes handed her a piece of bread with a nod of his head and a whispered Candlemaiden, before walking off. Not particularly hungry, Iris ripped off a tiny piece and offered the rest of it to the girls next to her, who tore into it at once.

Though Iris was used to wandering walks, the cobblestones took their toll on feet used to springy dirt and mulchy forest floors. By the time the Kaerents had led them down to the waterside and the sunny afternoon had given way to an evening fog, Iris wanted nothing more than to soak her feet in warm water, or perhaps to numb the pain away in the icy sea. Even with their shoes, the other girls felt much the same, and the Kaerents leading them looked ready to collapse as well. Almost everyone shuffled immediately into the inn they had arrived at, not minding its worn plain exterior or the pungent smell of fish that clung to the warehouses around it. A few girls, like Iris, stayed outside, unprepared to forfeit the cool sea-breeze for the cramped quarters inside.

Frowning, Iris stared out to the edge of the bay at the dark smudge she knew to be Aira. She had caught only glimpses of its high white cliffs from the city and wished she could see it without the haze of evening fog. Perhaps it was just the general mystique of the island, but it tugged at her. Iris felt she should visit it, that perhaps someone or something was waiting for her there.

She also felt as if someone was watching her.

Slowly, careful not to jostle the dozing mice inside, Iris picked up her bag from the ground and slid the straps over her shoulders. Whatever was staring at her didn’t feel like an ill-disposed spirit, but there was no harm in an overabundance of caution. With a sedate pace, Iris set out to walk along the docks.

The fog was thick enough to make travel without a light unwise, but the docks were neither empty nor quiet. The sea sloshing at the wood of the piers and the occasional burst of wing-flutter filled the night with fog-muffled sounds. On her walk, Iris saw several sailors gathered around a lantern, one of whom nodded at her as she passed, and a few children younger than her scampering around with stubby candles. All of them looked somewhat warily at the snaking will-o-wisp Iris had summoned to light her way, and Iris felt as always somewhat uneasy in her display of power. She would have just lit candle from her pack, but she hadn’t wanted to wake the mice. Besides, with the Kaerents crawling through their city, Iris felt that display of Erillen power was in order.

A strange man- Talvic, Iris supposed, judging by his ghostly pale skin and white-blond hair- walked by Iris without a light at all, his eyes not even drawn to the ghostly light squirming in front of her. Iris turned to look at him more closely, but only caught a glimpse of his long robes before he disappeared again into the fog.

When Iris reached a far pier, she slid off her pack and sat down with her legs over the edge, a few feet above the restless ocean that sucked at the rocky shore. She still felt she was being watched, but the only company she had on the lonely pier was a pair of birds perched on its end posts and the mice deep asleep amongst her clothing and candles.

Iris sighed, her breath ragged and shuddering. Perhaps she was imagining the weight of interested eyes against her skin, translating her general unease into a sensation more ominous, but it truly felt as if she were not alone, unable to grieve in peace.

Grieve? Well, there was in her an unnamed and almost unformed sorrow that she wished to expel. She had spent the journey so far carefully apart from her new reality, distracting herself with her mice and refusing to think of what may come tomorrow. But still it lurked, the truth that she was leaving her home behind and would have to survive in a new, unknown environ. And more than a change in place, it was a change in purpose. After all, what was a Candlemaiden without her canton to care for? Without her mentor, her counterpart Mother Hall, who was Iris? These worries, circling like sharks beneath her mind’s surface, unnerved Iris and fed in her a growing disquiet.

And yet, even alone but for the roiling ocean, Iris couldn’t get her tears to rise up and fall, no matter how much she tried to coax them. If only she could cry, she thought, she might feel clean.

But it was no use. Instead she stared angrily at the sea, at the undulating fog, at the black birds at the end of the pier. She clenched her fists and let her fingernails dig into her flesh. She felt her throat knot up even as her eyes stayed obstinately dry. She breathed in deeply and out angrily, until, with a dizzying suddenness, she was too weary even for that, and then she just let herself fall back on the pier, staring at where the sky used to be and feeling the soggy wood beneath her skin.

When she felt nearly herself again, she stood clumsily, feeling as if her limbs were swollen with sea spit like the boards beneath her. Carefully, taking comfort in its weight, she slipped her pack onto her shoulders and headed towards the inn, keeping her eyes open for those that might be watching her.

The sailors from before were gone, a black cat nosing at some scraps they had left behind, and Iris didn’t run into anyone until she saw the Talvic man almost glowing like a ghost as he leaned against a wooden post by a pier, the green and gold of his odd clothes bright against the mottled brown of the sea-rotted wood. With his pale, pale skin and slick silver-gold hair, he was already an unusual sight, but when one took into account his strange loose robes and the crows calmly perched around him, he moved from merely unusual to alarmingly so.

Iris had the sense that he had been the one watching her, that he was still watching her even though he faced out towards the fog-cloaked sea far from where she had sat to shake off the weight of his invisible gaze. And, like the Island of Aira, obscured yet still looming in her awareness, something about him tugged at her, made her want to see him clearly and whole.

Before she could think much about it, Iris had walked up beside him and thrown out a casual, lovely view, isn’t it? while gesturing out at the impenetrable fog.

“I find the empty patterns of fog soothing,” the man replied softly, turning to face her.

“I prefer the flicker of flames.”

The man let out a sudden laugh, and the crow closest to him cawed at the sound. “Well, you would.”


“Your people, you have fire in your souls.”

Iris tilted her head to the side.

“I know what you’re thinking- shouldn’t it be water? After all, we live on a miserable rainy rock in the middle of the sea.”


The man smiled, before continuing, “But I say to you, that is exactly it. How could anyone survive this place if they didn’t have fire in their soul?” He turned back to the sea, comfortable in the fog-filled quiet.

“And you?” Iris asked.


“What’s in your soul?”

Iris caught a flicker of pain cross his face before he responded.

“Water. My people are all water. Some are baptized in it, some are drowned in it, but it’s always water.”

“I’m sorry,” Iris said, hearing a tragedy behind his words but not knowing what it was. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she clarified, “Whatever wound it is that pulls at you. I’m sorry that you must suffer it.” She thought of the girls with her that cried themselves to sleep at night, tucked in tight around their own bodies, and added, a little vaguely, “There is more pain these days than I can countenance.”

He looked at her then, as if measuring her, his eyes unnervingly on her own. His irises were gray, clear but almost colorless. They reminded Iris of the fields of early morning mist you could always see but never quite reach. But there was an odd quality about them, something almost unfocussed, as if they were staring not at her but a few feet past her.

“Are you blind?” Iris blurted out.

The Talvic man smiled, breaking eye contact and the heavy mood that had settled about them. “I can see quite fine. Better than most, in truth.” His fingers drummed against the wooden post swollen with sea breath and fog, and the crow perched upon it didn’t move. “For instance, your dress is a light blue tending towards indigo with a band a bit above your waist. It is frayed at the hem and stained at its seat. Both your hands have small slivers of scars, though there are more on your left, especially around your thumb and the meat of your palm. In addition, there is candle wax beneath most of your fingernails and dirt beneath the toenails of your grass stained feet.” Unnervingly, he said all of this without his gray eyes shifting their focus from the empty air behind her. “And now you’re staring at me with a look of confusion and distaste.”

“Not distaste,” Iris objected automatically, though she wasn’t sure quite how to term the suspicion and almost-fear curling in her chest, or how it fit in with growing sense of hyper-reality she felt around him. “Perhaps unease. Have we met before?”

For some reason, that made the man smile. “Not before, no. Though,” he paused and looked out towards the sea, “in a way, I suppose, we are related.”

At the raise of his hand, one of the crows flew to him, landing on his outstretched wrist. With the gleaming black feathers as contrast, blue and green bruises seemed to bloom beneath his pale skin, more than just veins, more than just a trick of the light, more like the mottled skin of Erinlin’s Drowned.

“Our Drowned, they talk to river spirits.” Iris tilted her head to the side, amber eyes blinking. “They have water in their souls?”

The man answered with a grim smile. “Some time ago, one of our own was shipwrecked here. Shipwrecked and spirit-possessed. His legacy left water in your bloodline.”

There was disgust in his tone, and Iris’s mind flickered over the implications, unwilling to delve into the sliminess she felt at its truth.

“You’ve some of that water in you,” he continued, nodding in her direction. “All you Candlemaidens do, I think. Or at least, the proper ones.”

This was a familiar theme, a favorite of Hall’s; the girls being trained up in the city seminary were only rarely of the right blood and only barely deserved an association with the title Candlemaiden. It was improper for Candlemaidens to be raised as anything other than apprentices, Hall maintained, but the tribunes argued such a method was inefficient, and nowadays most Candlemaidens were prim young girls from large city families who were shipped out to the villages with Kaerent priests. Or so Iris heard from an irate Hall. This was, after all, her first time outside of her canton.

“An interesting thing for an outsider to know,” Iris mused, not intending offense.

“Oh. Well, I’m here to study you. I mean your culture, your magicks.” He slid a hand down his odd robes and tugged at the sash around his waist. “I’m a scholar. It’s what I do.”

Strange for a scholar to have such an air of magic and mystery around him. “Do you enjoy it?”

“I enjoy having purpose.”

Sometimes that had to be enough, Iris thought, and she hummed in agreement, or at least kindred acknowledgement.

Iris looked back at the inn, the life she was being pulled into at the cost of her foremost purpose. She didn’t want to return. She didn’t want to lose what she had left. But Mother Hall had said it was for the best.

“I should go.”

“Yes.” The man turned back to look at the sea, and Iris realized he wasn’t that old at all, perhaps just a few years older than herself. “It isn’t… time.” He shrugged at his odd phrasing, dislodging a bird from his shoulder. “My name is Cecil. Maybe we’ll meet again someday.”

It felt right to Iris that they might. She gave him a half-smile and her name in return before taking her leave.

She had worried she had stayed out too long in the timeless space of foggy night, but there were still a few girls loitering outside the inn, keeping to that small sense of freedom despite their shivers. As an afterthought, Iris waved her hand in the air and undid her will-o-wisp lantern as she headed towards the door. The Kaerents didn’t take well to her spiritcraft.

“What were you doing over there?” The girl who asked was small and shy, and Iris found both the fact someone was speaking to her and the question itself odd.

“I was talking to that man.”

“What man?”

Iris turned to see if Cecil had vanished, but he was still there, staring out at the sea and tossing cuts of fish to the crows. Looking back at the girl, she saw no trace of mischief, just honest confusion.

“Do you not see him? Leaning up against the post?” Perhaps the girl’s eyesight was bad.

“Maybe? It’s too foggy to see much of anything over there.”

Foggy? Perhaps. Iris couldn’t see far down the streets, and she lost sight of the ocean by the end of the pier, but the man by post was crystal clear in her eyes. It was as if he drank in every wisp of light left and shone with its stolen glow.

“It’s cold. Let us go inside.”


In the morning Iris woke to a crow on the windowsill. While the rest of the girls still slept, and feeling indeed as if she were still in a dream, Iris opened the window and gave the crow a small candle of violet and yellow.

“If your master ever has need of me, tell him he need only light this candle and I will know.”

Then she went back to sleep and let the whole thing become a blurred memory like a dream.


Years and years later, standing on a hill in the realm of Death, she would wonder at how so small a candle could change the paths of empires and still let her lose her closest companion.

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