(photo by DMC)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Ember Heart”
by Sarah Diemer
They carry the hearts in lanterns. The colored boxes of glass glow like living gems, here an amethyst, there a sapphire, pulsing with the beat of a lit heart. The lot of them walk down the boulevard, dangling the fragile boxes from curved metal, swaying to the communal heartbeat that threads its way through the parade music, touching each tongue as their faces turn toward the setting star, whispering the melody that has always been sung.
Alethia is there with the others, bowing and dipping and swaying as she moves the lantern from one hand to the other, kicking her elaborate skirts to the side with a diamond-toed boot. Everything she is drips with molten metal, gems, words, the delicate inscriptions cut into her skin glowing from within because that’s what they’ve been programmed to do.
But when she searches the crowd for my face and sees it, her eyes alight, just like the lantern.
And no program can do that.
Everything is dazzling. It’s the only word I can think of as they all sway and dance, as the visible hearts pulse behind the glass, held aloft and beating, turning with the beats of the murmured music. But I only half-see, my eyes only for Alethia.
And of course she is the most beautiful because she is mine. She bends her back, arching her arms with a type of grace no human could possibly envy. Her hair, red human hair shot through with metal tinsel, seems to glow like fire beneath the lantern hearts, and when she laughs, eyes flashing, she seems like a golem, a fire-made thing rather than Alethia. My Alethia.
The ritual of the dance, of the singing, ends in a crescendo punctuated by fireworks that erupt all around us, showering the festival goers and dancers with glitter and stardust, coating our skin so that we’re shimmering beings as we begin to move among one another.
Now is the best part of the dance.
Find your partner—quickly.
I run across the space between us, and she lifts me up in her arms, the lantern set and glowing at her feet. She twirls me and spins me and she embraces me tightly, pressing her cold lips against my cheek, my lips, drinking me in like the honeywine, dipping my face back like I am only a goblet. But she laughs against me, then, her perfect mouth on mine, and she whirls me about again, holding me out at arm’s length this time, putting her arms about my shoulders.
“How can you be so beautiful?” she asks me, pretty mouth in a pout against my ear. We hold each other’s hands and stand apart, as all the others do, lanterns at feet, glowing and pulsing. Everyone hushed and waiting.
The firebirds move over the sky in perfect formation, the fireworks following them like shimmering fish in a school, following them across the gloaming sky, toward the edge of the horizon were the other stars rise. The music begins as soft as a heartbeat across a room, building slowly as we begin to turn, she and I and the thousands of others, turning in a circle as old as moons, as old as earth.
Together, we build a gravity that holds us, spellbound.
It is so easy to see which of each pair is human. As we turn, back to back now, feet moving through the slow, methodic rhythm, my eyes drift over the closest couples. Those two boys there…one is handsome, yes. But imperfect. Next to his partner, it’s so obvious, his imperfections. And yet his partner gazes on his face as if he is the only creature in the universe. The only speck of beauty in a void.
When we turn again, Alethia gazes on me, eyes wide and round and dark as she gazes at me. At my body.
And down, at my feet. At the gold dusted lantern that bears my heart.
The song swells, and Alethia scoops up the lantern. They bend and sway with the lanterns, our lanterns. They were built to protect the lanterns. But their glowing hands, their shimmering bodies and glittered feet move in the old dance, the dance that binds us and holds us all. Together.
And Alethia takes my hands, and she kisses them with her silver lips. She looks up at me with her jewel-bright eyes. And she pulls me forward for a real kiss, a cold kiss. Our kiss.
My ember heart burns beneath glass.
Mortal and imperfect.
And to Alethia, utterly beautiful because it is mine.
If you liked “The Ember Heart,” you can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
eReader edition on Etsy (all proceeds to authors)
Signed paperback on Etsy, PLUS free eReader edition!
(all proceeds to authors)
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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