by Serena W. Sorrell

The place she went now was the opposite of the last. It was grimy and greasy, it was oily and slimy. It honked and it wailed, its gears ever gnashing and steam ever spraying. Sepia decided she liked this place least of all the places in the whole wide world. She couldn’t see stars here and there was no green. Only machines upon machines upon machines, and they never slept, so she didn’t either. She was led up many ladders and across dangerous planks covered in rust until at last she reached the school where he newest master took home. In her small room which reeked of machine oil already sat a large package on her cramped little desk. Cobalt.

Dear Sepia,
I hope you don’t mind the ‘dear’ part, but please tell me if you do. I feel we’ve grown to be closer these past two years than we had at our old academy. The seeds you sent are sprouting marvelously, truly you are a genius at most anything you study. The address you gave me of your next annual home seems it will be a difficult place for you, and the stars there unseeable due to the steam, smoke, and smog. I’ll write a report to let you know which they are. However, I confess, the city you’re in now is a great inventor’s place, and I envy you a little. I hope whatever it is you’ve been sent to study will serve you well. Also, I imagine the first chest I sent is quite full of letters, if you’ve kept the letters or chest. I’d hate to be a bother. Here is another, quite a bit better than the last if I can say it. If it’s a nuisance though I imagine your master can use the parts for scrap.
Forever yours,

Sepia unwrapped the promised, new letter chest. True to his writing it was more gorgeous than the last, she had thought it impossible to outdo such beauty, but here was a chest that outshined it truly. Use it for scrap! She’d write Cobalt a piece of her mind on the matter after her first lesson and her supper. Her first lesson began as soon as she’d changed. No loose clothing here, and nothing that hanged. She kept her necklace in her room, lest it become grimy, and tied up her hair and under a cloth. She was fitted with goggles and a strange earpiece. She didn’t understand until her master led her to the city deep. Here machines screamed and whistled and hissed nonstop, but through her little earpiece Sepia heard every one of her master’s words clear.

Her master explained that although they weren’t pretty, machines of this sort could help with all sorts of difficult chores. Why they could move water through the ground and through buildings. They could harvest crops faster than ten farmhands might and pick fruit faster, a dangerous job. Here Sepia marveled at the wonders she was shown. Cobalt had been right. This city had much to teach her indeed. She returned to her room, mood much improved, until she recalled that Cobalt had called his handmade chest scrap. How dare he!

Dear Cobalt, she wrote,

I don’t mind the ‘dear’, even a bit. I too feel we’ve become much closer than ever before.

Here her cheeks flushed and she thought of writing it over, but instead persevered.

I am pleased to hear the sproutlings have taken, although you flatter me too much. These studies are difficult and I’m not a master of anything I learn, I know some but am a master of none. Although I’m no master, I must confess you were right in saying this city had much to offer in learning. Over the next year I’ll do my best to take it all in and keep you updated. I’d appreciate star reports, from time to time if it’s no trouble, it will help me keep up my practice in that category. However, here is where you’re very much wrong, my dearest Cobalt, I have kept every one of your letters and, yes, the first chest you sent is quite full, but I would never, ever consider anything you gave me ‘a scrap’. The comment made me quite irate with you. You’re the kindest person I know, and thoughtful to a fault, and your handiwork is the most charming I’ve ever laid eyes upon, so you mustn’t lack confidence. Each time I look at the chest, chests now, thank you kindly, I think of you. So, please don’t call something so precious to me a scrap.
Ever yours,

Of course, a week and half later, his reply returned to her desk. It was odd, she thought, this time gain and lost. She was nervous when she saw the envelope, unusually bare, only addressed, there on her desk. At last she had upset him and he’d write her no more. As she cut open the letter this was all she could think of. She unfolded a single page, only half written upon, and read:

Dear Sepia,
Off the subject of seeds, classes, star positions, and learning, first I must write I’m deeply sorry I offended. I’m also, apologies, elated to know you’ve kept all my letters and chests. I see you discovered, as I thought you would, I crafted the chests. Is that what makes them charming to you? Or, did I misread or mishope, when you said you think of me when you look at the box? I think, I hope, it is that which makes it precious to you. For if that were true—

There his note turned to scribbling blots of dark, navy ink. It ended abrupt, with only:

Forever yours, and never a scrap,

Her heart thumped deep in her chest, heavier even than the never-ending beat of the gears and sprogs and springs living all around her. Oh, they tried to be louder, they tried, but they couldn’t. Sepia had said too much and Cobalt too little, but both just enough. Something was starting instead of ending, and Sepia knew it somewhere inside. Although it was known Sepia herself couldn’t admit it, and so her next letters went on about all types of things. Cobalt’s letters too, never mentioned any elations or hopes or what made something or someone precious to Sepia. In no time at all, her one year had ended. In all of that time, the two kept their secrets from themselves and each other.

The fourth country Sepia went to was dark. It was damp and it smelled of wet earth. To be honest, it was a cavern underground. Here she lived in darkness for the teachers and students believed in honing one’s senses. That was all well and good, but how was she to read letters? Her request for a candle to be used five minutes each day was quickly denied.She felt there was a letter, two already, waiting in the dark room she’d been given. She sat down at the desk and fumbled for paper and what she hoped was a pen, and after a ten minute battle managed to open the ink. She explained that it’d best if Cobalt focused on his own problems for the year, for under the ground it was pitch black and no matter how she touched his pages of letters all she felt were slight indentations. Then, hoping her words written in the dark legible she told the address to someone more adept at writing in the dark and sent the letter off.

Still, every day, letters came like a torment. She had told him the new address before knowing that sightlessness waited and it’d take time until he received her cease and desist. Oh, how she longed to read the letters he’d send. Already she had twelve, and none could she read. On the thirteenth day though came a new letter, not of paper, but wood. She opened it as carefully as her clumsy eyes and hands would allow. She touched the surface on either side and felt deep indentations. At the top of the board she fingered the grooves. A letter, and very much large. Letter by letter she touched and she traced.

Dear Sepia,
I am sorry for the letters I sent which you cannot read yet. Until your senses sharpen I shall carve my letters like so. I think in due time you shall be able to decipher the ones which came first. I believe in you and admire you more and more.
Ever by your side,

At least two hours went by as she deciphered the letter. When she at last finished, it was with some surprise Sepia felt warm tears her cheeks. She had expected to receive not a memo or note from Cobalt all year, and to find that he cared as much as he did frightened and excited her, for she found she cared too. How much time it must take for him to carve the large wide letters in a way she could read them by touch. She penned him a reply, carefully forming each letter with as neat a hand as she could. Every dot and line contained Sepia’s gratitude, and perhaps a bit more.

By the time half a year passed, Cobalt’s carved letters were shallow and smaller, and Sepia’s senses keener than ever. She no longer thumped her head or her knees on unseen things. She could quite almost see in some nocturnal way. It was a fascinating experience, so she wrote to Cobalt. At last, she had learned about her senses, other than sight, even Cobalt had managed to be a great teacher. But all was not such learning underground, she learned of the source of water and how it moves life underground. She learned of the types of earth and the kinds of stone. And, the last month of her time in that cavernous city she pulled out those first twelve letter Cobalt had sent and she read by the touch of her fingers. She felt the curls of his letters and where he’s scratched out some misspelling. She wrote twelve replies and apologized for their lateness, and with courage in her heart she went on to the next country. Her tutelage more than half-finished.

(part one) (part two) (part three) (the end)

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