On a distant world of towering mountains ruled by great castles and powerful men, one of the ancient Lords worshipped by the kingdom crosses a forbidden line and a child is conceived--a little girl destined to become a bridge between dimensions.
Raised by her mother on a remote mountain peak with only nature and its creatures for companionship, the eighteen-year-old Mirabel is taken down into the kingdom by a group of merchants intent on profiting from her beauty. But invisible forces seem to be protecting her and the Prince of Visioncrest unexpectedly takes her under his wing.
Apprenticed to the keep's old healer, Mirabel begins realizing how different she is as her mysterious abilities slowly begin growing along with her attraction to the keep's mysterious master. She senses that Loric has access to powers even his own people don't know about and that the key to her magically mixed nature, as well as to her happiness, rests in his hands.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from As Above, So Below by Maria Isabel Pita
A little girl stood in the open doorway of a cottage. Behind her, firelight licked like restless tongues. From a narrow chimney in the sharply angled roof, a black ribbon of smoke wove itself into the lacy fabric of flakes unfurling from a sky as deep and soft as one of her mother's bundles of cloth. It had been snowing for days. Mirabel knew this upset her mother, yet she could not imagine why--she loved the world when it looked as cozy as her bed. It felt very different--as if thousands of sewing needles had slipped beneath the covers with her--but part of her enjoyed the sensations aroused by the intense cold. She had been punished more than once for standing naked out in the snow, although the hot slap on her frosty cheek felt much too good to be considered a discouragement.
And so that evening, when Janlay was bent over her sewing in the next room, Mirabel very quietly opened the front door, her heart beating fast and hard in her small chest, reminding her of the bird that got trapped in the chimney last fall.
Outside, everything was so absolutely still it thrilled her to be the only thing moving in the world beneath the eternally falling snow. She had waited all day for the chance to sneak outside but she found her progress thwarted by a white wall nearly as tall as she was. She knew it was almost suppertime even though the sun had not joined them in the kitchen for days. She didn't have much time before her mother realized she was gone. Mirabel was feeling very proud of herself because it had occurred to her that Janlay would be less vexed with her if she at least wore her boots and cloak when she ventured out into the snow. All she had to do was get over the white wall in front of her, then she would be able to see mountains ascending into the clouds on her right and winding down forever and ever to her left.
It was easier than she could have hoped, for instead of dissolving beneath her like flour, the wall of snow supported her as firmly as the side of her bed. All she had to do was scramble over it onto the perfectly made sheet of the front yard, which was tucked in so neatly she almost felt guilty about disturbing it. She crawled a little way searching for her balance, the heat of her triumph enabling her to ignore the fact that her bare hands were freezing. Standing up would solve that problem, so she did, for a heartbeat... The next instant she found herself on her backside laughing happily up at the somber sky.
Mirabel saw the sun for the first time in days. She knew it was the sun even though it had never looked so peaceful. It was not sparkling like a reflection of her fervent desire to go play out in the stream, or flashing beautiful colors all over the yard the way it did after a summer shower. On this frozen evening the sun cast hardly any light at all where it hung small and round as a bronze button just above the horizon's straight seam. It made Mirabel wonder what she would find if she plucked it open, because she was sure she could reach it.
Pushing herself carefully to her feet, she began skating toward the softly glowing disc. The snow was as hard as the stone floor of the cottage and the path she followed across it shone like a cold flame. The man stepped out of nowhere. Her surprised cry echoed endlessly as she tried to stop herself from colliding with him by flinging her arms wide but it was too late. She slid straight into his legs and had to cling to them to hold herself up. She found it difficult to get a grip on the material he wore--black as her bedroom on a moonless night and yet shiny and slippery as the ice. She flung her head back and stared up in wonder at the face gazing down at her with the same quiet intensity as the sun.
"How did you do that?" she demanded.
"Do what, little one?"
She had never heard such a deep voice and the novelty of the sound kept her silent for a moment as she absorbed it. "How did you step over the sun?"
"Never mind." He turned her around gently. "Be a good girl now and glide back home before you end up falling off a cliff."
"I won't fall," she protested proudly.
"Oh? How can you be so sure?"
She turned back to face him very carefully, striving to prove her point. "Because I won't let myself fall." She tossed her head back defiantly but also because he was so tall it was the only way she could see all the way up to his face.
"But what if someone pushes you?"
"There's no one else around," she pointed out.
"Yes..." She frowned because she wanted him to appreciate how clever she was. "Have you come to buy one of my mother's dresses?" She changed the subject. "She makes the most beautiful dresses in the world!"
"Yes, I know she does and she would be upset if she knew you were out here all by yourself."
"But I'm not by myself," she smiled triumphantly, "I'm with you! And since you're so nice you can stay for supper."
He laid a heavy hand on her head that felt as warm and wonderful as the fire after her forbidden adventures in the snow. "And why are you so sure I'm nice?"
She had to think about this for a moment. "Why wouldn't you be?" she concluded.
"Some people aren't, little lady, just remember that."
Mirabel glanced back at the house, suddenly anxious at how dark the world was. The front door was invisible behind the wall of ice and the sharp black roof cut into her vision in a reprimanding way. "Why?" she asked stubbornly but the stranger was gone and she heard her mother calling her name with a blend of anger and concern that gripped her pulse and pulled her back, tumbling guiltily, to where she belonged.
* * * * *
"There was a man out in the snow, Mommy!"
"Nonsense." Janlay finished drying Mirabel's dark hair with one of the thick towels she always kept warming by the fire in winter. "Although it certainly would be nice if it were true." She sighed and a burning log abruptly tumbled in the grate as if moved by the wind of her breath.
"He was very nice," Mirabel agreed. "He didn't want me to fall off a cliff."
"What?" Janlay asked dreamily.
"Mommy, you aren't listening again!"
"Yes I am, dear." She smiled vaguely.
"But there really was a man out in the snow."
"It must have been a bird you saw, Mirabel, because no normal man," she suddenly sounded angry, "could possibly get through all that snow. If he were really there, he would have... I know he would have!"
Mirabel had learned that when her mother looked and sounded that way it was no use trying to talk to her anymore--it was the perfect time to run and find something forbidden to do. Yet every year the rushing stream behind the house seemed to grow a little shallower, while in contrast the surrounding mountains appeared to grow even taller, less intriguing and more confining. Eventually even snowstorms began losing their enchanted coziness.
* * * * *
It was not until after what Janlay assured her was her ninth winter in the world that Mirabel felt her heart swelling with questions she did not even know how to ask. She felt as though she had knocked a beehive off a tree without realizing it--suddenly she was burning inside in the strangest way--and Janlay's perpetually preoccupied silences offered her no soothing balm.
"Mommy, why won't birds let me touch them?"
"Oh, Mirabel, stop asking so many questions, please." Janlay curled a loose strand of crimson hair behind her delicate ear for the hundredth time that day, frowning as she wiped perspiration off her pale brow.
"I can't stop."
It was midsummer, the wind had dropped and Janlay made a general shooing gesture as if her daughter's inquiries were pesky flies. She sank into her favorite chair by the window, closing green eyes that looked as tired as the sun-scorched meadow outside.
"I stand as still as a tree," Mirabel went on fervently, "hold out my arms and don't move. I don't move at all, Mommy, yet they still won't land on me. Why?"
Her mother glanced up at her, momentarily startled out of her lethargy into asking sharply, "Who won't land on you?"
"The birds!" Mirabel cried. "The birds! The birds! You never listen to me!" She collapsed into the fetal position on the wooden floor, rocking desperately back and forth.
"Get up, Mirabel." Janlay sighed again. "I'll answer some of your questions now if you promise to leave me alone so I can get some work done. This batch of dresses isn't even close to finished and there'll be merchants here for them any day now, thank the Lords. Birds won't touch you because they can tell you're not really a tree and they're afraid you'll hurt them. What else do you want to know, my endlessly curious daughter?"
Mirabel bloomed back up to her feet, quickly rising out of despair's constricting seed beneath the cool flow of her mother's compassion. She sat at Janlay's feet but kept her eyes fixed on the mountain peaks visible through the open door. She knew she had come from her mother but she had not been sewn on the big wooden table. She was not just one of the pretty dresses the merchants came to take away with them every summer. They folded Janlay's beautiful gowns into the large sacks they carried on their backs and in one night took away what her mother had worked on all winter. "Did the Lords sew me, Mommy?"
"You could say that but not really."
"Yes or no, Mommy?"
"Yes and no, Mirabel. Yes, the Lords made you but no, they didn't actually use needles and threads as I do. Their skill far exceeds that of any poor seamstress."
"And did Father go up and get me from the Lords like the merchants come all the way up here for your dresses?" she asked excitedly.
"No, Mirabel, the Lords gave your father and me the power to make you ourselves."
Janley stared into the cold fireplace. It was still impossible for her to accept the fact that her beauty had been condemned to flower and fade in absolute isolation. The merchants she gave herself to every summer only sharpened the punishment's cruelty by whetting her passionate appetites on their dull, stonelike imaginations. Yet for nine years she had somehow made the best of it, wrapping herself around muscular men like ivy, thriving on their physical strength for the brief time they were in range of her starving senses. This, of course, was the heart of her punishment--being forced to endure the brief, blind thrusts of mortal men's cocks when she knew what it felt like to be possessed by a Lord. It was fortunate for her she had not been a virgin when one night, as she lay in bed, moonlight had poured into her room through the window and suddenly the shadows at the foot of her bed had coalesced into a man clad all in black, his hair a ghostly reflection of the sun that had long since set. He whispered her name, "Janlay!" and she knew her life would never be the same again. Even though the question had plagued her for years and she knew it would continue to haunt her for the rest of her life, she still couldn't decide whether or not she should have cried out and saved herself from his embrace and hence from her lonely fate on a mountaintop.
Yet it was not the force of his love that had undone her--it was the fierce jealousy that possessed her at the thought of sharing her blessing with another. She was too young then to understand the difference between love and lust, between profound desire and mere physical pleasure. She did not believe it could be true that he loved only her when he confessed to also having possessed another young lady of the keep. It filled her with rage to know she was not the only one who had made love to a Lord, that she was not as special as she had believed herself to be. Their magical bond was broken and with it something inside her that could see no way to make things right without destroying the cause of her despair. For a week before she chose that fatal course, she tormented herself with images of her divine lover driving himself with exquisitely conscious violence into another woman's body.
"Mommy, what are you thinking about?"
Janlay's mind abruptly returned to the room and the present to find a surprisingly lovely young girl gazing up at her with a puppy's sadly cocked head. Desperately, she reached down and pulled the cuddly creature up into her lap, tucking in the long limbs growing much more swiftly than the patient branches of a tree, but it was impossible to cradle the slender body like a baby anymore.
Mirabel squirmed halfheartedly, her mother's engulfing tenderness no longer soothing her as it used to. "Mommy, you have to talk to me," she pleaded with adult urgency.
"But if I tell you everything," Janlay declared in a strangely lilting voice, "then I'll have to face it all again, face it all and realize..."
"Realize what?" Mirabel urged breathlessly.
"Realize I've lost everything and deprived you of everything as well. You'll never be able to scale the wall of ignorance I've let build up around you. But it's for your own good, really. This way you have no idea what you're missing, so you won't suffer. You're very special, Mirabel. You belong only to yourself."
She squirmed out of Janlay's hold and stood facing her. "But I'm never by myself, not really."
"What do you mean, dear?"
"There really was a man out in the snow that night, Mommy, and even though he hasn't come back since then, I talk to him all the time because I know he's around and I know that one evening, when the world is all white and tucked in like my bed, he'll come to me again."
Janlay surged to her feet and slapped her, all in one furious motion. "If he comes again it will be for me, you little chit. It's not you he cares about. He didn't want you any more than I did!"
Mirabel's heart seemed to flop in her chest like a fish washed up on the streambed. "That was Father?"
Janlay headed toward her workroom. "Oh won't you ever stop? It couldn't have been him you saw. They sent him away. Stop making me hope! I can't hope or I'll lose my mind!"
Mirabel followed her into the next room, almost choking with questions. "Tell me!" was all she could manage to say.
Janlay picked up a pair of large scissors and flung them at her.
The shiny metal streaked past Mirabel swift as a fish with the pointed beak of a falcon. Flashing like lightning they landed with the thud of distant thunder against the wooden wall.
"Oh!" Janlay's hands fluttered up around her horrified face. "I didn't mean to...I didn't... That's why I'm here," she whispered, "because I didn't mean to but I did... I did!"
"You did." Mirabel suddenly had an intuition that if she sounded like she knew the answer it might trick her mother into revealing it.
"Yes, I did." Janlay hugged herself fiercely. "I didn't mean to but I did," she repeated. "I killed her!"
"Killed? You mean like animals and insects when they eat each other?"
"Yes, exactly." Janlay nodded fervently. "I had to do it. I had to get rid of her to stay alive. I would have died without his love!"
"Love is like food?" Mirabel asked eagerly then bit her lip because she had let a question slip. She quickly transformed it into a statement. "Love is like food. You would die without it."
"Yes." Her mother nodded again and caressed her bare arms as if she were cold, amazement resurrecting a spark of life back into her blank stare as she focused on her daughter. "How did you know?"
Mirabel marveled at the fact that Janlay was asking her a question. "So you killed her to feed on father," she concluded.
"But you said that's why you're here."
"That's why I'm condemned to sew dresses all by myself for the rest of my life without ever seeing them worn by anyone and without any other reward but bare sustenance, living off the emotional crumbs tossed my way by the merchants who come for them every summer. That's why I've been isolated up here away from everyone. Now you know."
"Now I know," Mirabel repeated without really understanding.
"I tore the garment of her flesh, which no seamstress can replace no matter how great her skill. This is the lesson I was condemned to live, Mirabel." She seated herself at the table where her latest creation lay--a gown evoking a portion of the sky reflected in water, the glimmering material several different shades of blue with violet shadows along the edges. "Her naked energy owns endless garments but I still had no right to rip the one she was wearing at the time."
Janlay's mouth set, becoming almost as thin and stiff as one of her sewing needles. "The one your father found so pleasing. Oh, it was me he loved," she fiddled with a silver thimble before abruptly tossing it away, "but he desired her as well and that's something you have to remember and never forget, Mirabel, that love and desire are not the same. Love is so much more." She caressed the sky-colored material longingly.
"So desire is food too," Mirabel said after a moment, hardly able to breathe from this sudden flood of information.
Janlay laughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair, pushing it impatiently away from her face. "No, it's more like wine, like a spirit."
"That's a very strong drink."
"May I have one?"
"Some day, Mirabel, but not now."
"What makes it different from water?"
"Love is like water."
Janlay picked up the dress and, rising, held her new creation up against her. "The queen will wear this one. With a necklace of water-stones and silver sandals she will be as beautiful as the shining curve of a river at sunrise. It's my finest work. You can hardly feel the seams. It looks like the dress your father wanted to give me but couldn't. All these years I've been working to achieve the skill to make it myself, yet now," she laid it lovingly back down across the table, "it's for someone else. I also had to wait for the material." She glanced toward the dark corner of the room always crowded with large bundles of cloth. "On the last full moon it finally came. I know he made them send it. I know he did." She collapsed into a chair again. "You see, they punished him too. There's another reason why we're all alone up here."
Mirabel stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe her mother had talked this long and wasn't planning to stop.
"We're all alone up here so I can't spread what I know--that the all-powerful Lords above are as vulnerable to beauty as any man. Most people wouldn't even believe you're possible, Mirabel. You're a bastard child such as the kingdom has never seen. That's why they're pretending you don't exist, even though they know perfectly well I gave birth to a child after they exiled me up here. Your body is literally the border between two worlds and because of that there's no place for you in either one."
* * * * *
Janlay's tale, which Mirabel had not truly understood, fermented in her feelings like yeast for the next few years. Her first attempts at baking bread had failed miserably. She soon learned how to make dough rise but comprehension was much slower growing inside her. Her mother had long since given her the run of their little household, which she did not mind at all--she had entirely too much time on her hands. At least when she was occupied with domestic chores she was like all the other creatures she observed who were always busy doing something, especially during the warm weather. Janlay told her there were even more people living below them on the mountain than there were ants in a hill and bees in a hive but Mirabel found it impossible to grasp this fact, having always enjoyed so much personal space herself. It was incomprehensible to her that her mother, the only authority she had ever known, was herself being punished by an invisible presence called a kingdom. Janlay often scolded and punished her but she never forced her to stay up in her bedroom for seasons on end. Therefore Mirabel was glad they did not live anywhere near "the people". Even though hunger for love had made her mother kill someone, it seemed wrong for everyone to stay mad at her for so long considering the fact that animals killed each other all the time. Yet when she thought about the matter in this way, it somehow didn't feel right.
She would never forget the moment it dawned on her that her life was one of the burdens shouldered by the wind-burned men whose visits her mother thrived on. Janlay brightened like a lamp running low on oil when these men were around, her green eyes glittering like grass after a sun-shower. Likewise, Mirabel would never forget the first time she saw a group of merchants walking up the mountain through a thick fog. Hunched beneath their heavy packs--stuffed with food and other necessary supplies for her and her mother--they looked small and spindly as spiders in the mist and the realization that she depended on them became the heart of a web that spun countless other questions she simply had to have the answer to in order to feel satisfied.
For instance, if the merchants didn't bring them, where did the bundles of material her mother used for her dresses come from? Did they grow from buttons that fell into cracks between the floorboards? She could almost believe this, for the bundles of cloth were soft and colorful as massive flower petals and in the end all that was left of them were wooden stems her mother tossed into the fire. In a shadowy corner of Janlay's workroom there was always a mysterious forest of rainbow-hued stumps. They had to come from father, who--her mother had made this much quite clear--did not live down with the "people".
* * * * *
It was late spring and they were expecting the first group of merchants any day now, so Janlay was constantly sewing to finish her new batch of dresses. Mirabel's appreciation of her mother's work was growing along with everything else. She sat in the open window watching her, rejoicing that the thick white cloth and wooden planks they nailed up for the winter had finally been torn down and she could see the mountains again.
"Can I stay up this time when the men come, Mommy?"
"Go see about dinner, Mirabel."
"We're almost out of food. If I hadn't found that bird's nest, we wouldn't have any eggs left. Oh and I forgot to tell you that ants got into the jar of honey it took me so long to fill! We ran out of cornmeal ages ago and there's so little flour all I can make with it are--"
"Just do what you can, dear. Fresh supplies will be here soon." Janlay was taking a break from sewing to admire her finished creations, which hung side by side along one wall.
"I know, but if Father sends you all that beautiful material why can't he just feed us, too? Why did he abandon us in this big hollowed-out tree trunk?" So she perceived their small two-story cottage.
Janlay turned to face her. "Mirabel, stop."
"Stop making me think about him. I don't want to think about him."
"Does he bring it to you at night when I'm asleep?"
"What?" Janlay gasped.
"Does he bring it to you at night when I'm asleep?" Mirabel repeated patiently. "I never see him when he comes."
Her mother stared at her intently a moment then suddenly laughed and returned to admiring her creations. "I'm a legend now. When they brought me up here, they left me only a certain amount of material to work with. It should have run out years ago and with it my punishment and my life should have ended. The symbolic atonement for my crime was not meant to go on this long. Once I stopped producing dresses the merchants would stop bringing me food. I was meant to die up here. I almost wish I had run out of material but the Lords don't believe in killing, you see. It doesn't matter that I'd rather be dead. So those cursed bundles of cloth grow like mushrooms in that dark corner and won't stop growing!"
Mirabel nodded and slipped off the windowsill. So buttons were like seeds. Satisfied with this answer, she went to the kitchen to begin preparing their meager supper. She ignored the rest of what her mother said because she had grown accustomed to her passionate complaints, which she only half understood. Everything that was wrong with Janlay was the result of having ripped off some other woman's flesh garment and there was nothing Mirabel could do about that now. A unique sense of self was gradually rising inside her and with it the idea that her life was there to be shaped by her own hands. The mysterious clothing of her skin kept growing but she had a strange feeling her fleshly garment would soon be finished. And then what would she do with it? Would she let one of those merchantmen take her away? No, she would offer herself to the Lords.