She woke abruptly that night; it only took half a moment to realize that a blistering pain was cutting through the fog of her mind. And then she was screaming before it really occurred to her to do so. Her world had been reduced to the impossible burning concentrated at her chest, where the bottle–the sacred glass bottle that was never to be removed–was now not only heavy but searing hot. Cana didn’t need to look down to be aware that it had fused itself to her skin.
She screamed herself hoarse, screaming and screaming until the entire hall of secret keepers came running. But they stopped short in her doorway, as if an invisible wall separated them from her.
“Get it off!” she shrieked, frantic. The smell of scorched flesh was becoming overwhelming. No one made a move.
“Cana, I’m sorry,” Phirine said from the doorway, her voice thick.
“Then…then tell me how? How do I get rid of it?”
She was met with only silence. In fact, the only sounds in the room were coming from her, incoherently pleading. Suddenly, wildly, she recalled Phirine’s burned palms.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she shrieked, suddenly knowing what must be done. Though Cana couldn’t focus on Phirine through her tear-blurred vision, she seemed aware that she was being addressed.
“I couldn’t explain it,” she cried, raising her voice to be heard over Cana’s shouting. “But everything will be better soon. It will be easier after this, I promise!”
Phirine turned away after the last word, as if she could no longer watch Cana suffer. Cana almost wanted to laugh. So much for ‘unflinching.’ So much for promises. How much else had she listened to, and taken to heart as the truth, that would turn out to be nothing but empty words?
She saw no way around it; she would have to rip the bottle away, even if that meant ripping away half the skin of her chest in the process. If Phirine had done it, so could she. Cana gritted her teeth and reached for the bottle, intending to grasp it through her shirt, but a pair of strong hands gripped her wrists before she could make contact.
“Look at me.” Phirine was right in front of her, voice much more commanding than before. She shoved a heavy leather glove over each of Cana’s hands, and with no preamble, grabbed Cana from her bed.
“You will have to pull it off soon,” she told her. “It will hurt. There is no avoiding it.”
Cana could barely focus on her words. She shut her eyes as Phirine bore her away, whimpering any time she was jostled. She couldn’t discern where they were going as they twisted down corridor after corridor. But they stopped abruptly, and then there was no mistaking the feeling of the lift carrying them upward. Cana thought about her last trip up the lift, just that morning, and wondered why they were going back so soon.
There was far less light streaming in from the ceiling at this hour. Cana knew the concepts of “day” and “night” but had never seen the difference between the two. Night, as it turned out, was a layer of glowing pinpricks swirling over a field of black. At least, Cana thought so. It was hard to tell if her vision was accurate, with the tears of pain and the speed at which Phirine was carrying her. Cana had never seen her like this before, so serious and businesslike.
She finally set Cana down next to the basin.
“Cana, it is time now,” said Phirine loudly, catching Cana’s gaze and holding it.
“What…will happen after?”
Phirine hesitated briefly, then said, “It will be all right. I’ll be with you.”
Cana screeched through gritted teeth. Even now, when things seemed most dire, there were to be no straightforward answers to her questions. It was the frustration that propelled her hands to move; without it, Cana may not have been able to gather enough grit to do what must be done.
It was agony to wrench the bottle away from her chest. Cana could feel some of her skin ripping away as she did so. Her own howl of pain reached her ears as if coming from somewhere else; for a moment the pain seemed to lift her from her body. She had the presence of mind to look over at Phirine, just in time to see her drawing a cloth from the basin beside them. Unceremoniously, she lifted Cana’s shirt out of the way and squeezed cool water from the cloth onto the wound. Cana was past embarrassment, past any feeling at all except desperation for relief.
To her surprise, the water from the basin seemed to soothe her burning flesh to a degree. As it fell onto the ruined skin of her chest, Cana felt as if she could breathe again. Phirine kept applying the cool water until her burning sensation subsided, though the throbbing ache remained.
“Now,” said Phirine, “it’s time to move on to the next part.”
“Phirine,” Cana replied, her voice raspy but back to her normal volume, “I can’t do this on my own. Please, you have to show me.”
“Sanari would say otherwise,” Phirine said darkly.
“Will you…get into trouble? For bringing me here?”
“I will deal with Sanari,” she said, and Cana thought once again that her vision of the docile, sunny Phirine may not be the complete picture.
“For now we must focus on you and your burden,” she went on, indicating the bottle that was still hot through Cana’s thick gloves.
“When I first began this work, I often had the thought that if I could only focus hard enough on what was inside the bottle, I would find a way to end the suffering it had caused so many people.”
Phirine spoke with urgency, but Cana could tell she was choosing her words with care.
“I believed I was heartless if I ever thought of anything else. Our oath is sobering, as you know. And I felt that if my bottle was always heavy with secrets, that I was always fulfilling my purpose. I fear that you have had the same thoughts, perhaps without realizing.”
Cana listened. It all seemed to ring true, though she didn’t think she would have been able to put it to words for a long time yet.
“When we were here earlier, I think I was holding back,” Cana replied, squeezing her eyes shut. “I don’t want the weight anymore, but…I’ve grown used to it. In a way.”
“But, as you see, it will destroy you in the end. You won’t be able to continue the work this way.”
“But why should I be unburdened when they can’t be?”
Cana spoke quietly, hearing the lack of sense in her question as she asked it. Phirine looked at her sadly.
“Do you think your pain ends anyone else’s?”
Cana began to understand why secret keepers always answered questions with more questions. There were no neat, satisfactory answers; and yet Phirine’s question pointed Cana in a direction she had not yet thought to go.
“There is no prize for carrying the heaviest bottle,” Phirine went on. “We are people, Cana, not just vessels for the misery of others. We take on the weight, but we must also release it before it can damage us too much.”
Phirine looked down at her scarred palms, her face solemn.
“I don’t feel like a person anymore,” Cana admitted in a small voice; she hoped Phirine would think her tears were from physical pain.
At this, Phirine placed an arm around Cana’s shoulders and kissed her forehead like a mother.
“But you are, Cana. And remembering that is the most important thing you can do.”
Cana looked up at the vast expanse of black; the sky looked incredibly far away. Tears still flowed from her eyes, even as she squinted against the surging pain in her chest.
“It’s…getting a little hard to concentrate.”
Phirine immediately dipped her cloth back into the basin, to apply more water to Cana’s raw skin. Cana wondered briefly what sort of water this was, that it was able to soothe so quickly. As her vision cleared, the swaths of light in the sky sharpened into pinpricks again. Cana had to wonder how far it stretched, what it covered and where it went. It was a stark reminder of how deeply she was buried.
She regarded her teeming bottle yet again. She had tried so hard to push the secrets from the bottle earlier that day, and yet, a part of her had not wanted to let them go. Even now, the thought of releasing them without solving any of their mysteries was difficult. There was so much she feared she would never understand.
But she could not solve every mystery. Especially not by remaining crushed by them. The bottle was only a burden because she had allowed it to become one, burying herself in silence and duty while leaving everything else behind.
The heat through her gloves began to subside as Cana let this thought settle. Startled, she looked down to see the colors slowing their frantic movements within her bottle.
“You don’t have to stay anymore,” she said under her breath. “I’ll be all right without you.”
The words came on instinct. Even though she felt silly saying it out loud, there must have been something true about what she’d said, because the bottle seemed to respond. Cana watched in disbelief as the colors finally began to slip from the bottle, making their way to the sky. She willed them to go, despite the shades of misgivings that lingered. It seemed to take ages for each wisp to travel the height of the room; by the time they all disappeared into the night sky, Cana felt as if she herself might begin to float. It was the most peace she had felt in many days. She tried to enjoy it, rather than wondering how long it would last.
Phirine smiled, looking more like her old self as she produced a bottle of salve from her pocket.
“Put this on your burn when you get back to your room,” she instructed. “Use it until it’s gone. The scar will linger, but this will ensure that you don’t sicken further.”
“Thank you.” She pocketed the salve. “I can’t believe you did this all on your own when you were in my place.”
“You’ll find many scarred hearts among the secret keepers,” Phirine said. “It has become something of a silent rite of passage. But…I decided there was no need for you to have scarred hands as well. I could spare you that, at least.”
“Why does it have to be silent?”
“The old guard has its own ways of thinking. Sanari doesn’t believe we should have constant access to this place.”
“Perhaps that can change,” said Cana, already making plans. When she became a more senior secret keeper, she would show this chamber to the new recruits from the beginning. She would tell them what Phirine had said to her, and perhaps they would not have to lose themselves at all. They deserved that much.
In the meantime, Cana would rest. Allow her wound to heal. And then, she’d venture out of the secret keepers’ somber halls once in a while. Even the thought of it was a balm to her soul, just as the water had been for her skin.
Phirine was looking up at the sky again. The darkness seemed to be fading from black to a deep, soft grey.
“Perhaps,” she replied with a grin, “it is already beginning to change.”