The Price Of Love

Alicia sat in her chair, looking into the mirror. She was a beautiful young woman with long, light blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, the envy of the remote village of Solaria where she lived.

Her childhood friend Yumi stood behind her, brushing her hair back lovingly. Yumi was albino, with long white hair she wore up with bangs hanging down and sparkling blue eyes. She had poor eyesight, but loved to create bright clothes. Whereas most of the village wore drab browns made from animal skins or weaving, Yumi had found berries and dyed fabrics she bought from traveling traders to make herself a purple set of clothes which made her stand apart from everybody. She had long purple sleeves, separate from the rest of her clothing, a corset style top made from silk she had bought from a boy who had no idea what it was worth, and long purple pants that she had spent hours dying and stitching herself. People laughed at her, but she didn't care. Alicia had always been there for her, and Alicia's popularity had shielded her somewhat from the worst of the insults.

"Are you all right with this?" Yumi asked, "Getting married is a big step."

"It happens to us all eventually," Alicia said, "Everybody is expecting me to settle down and have children. John is a hardworking man, a good man. The elder assures me that we are a good match."

"But... how do you really feel?" Yumi asked, "I don't want to know what people expect of you. I want to know what you want."

"I want... I just want to live a quiet life," Alicia said, "This is a part of that. Settling down and having children, living the village life. You never need marry and it wouldn't draw a lot of attention, but me..."

Yumi rested her hands on Alicia's shoulders, "You don't have to do this, Alicia," Yumi said, "You're still young. You can wait if you're not ready."

"Wait for what?" Alicia asked, "My options will be the same in a few years time, only there will be less men to choose from. If I lived in a different world, then maybe..."

"ALICIA!" came a voice from downstairs, "Hurry up! Everybody is waiting for you!"

"All right!" Alicia responded, "Just a minute."

"It's time for me to give you your present," Yumi smiled, making her way to the cupboard, "I know your mother said that you could wear her wedding dress, but I... wanted to make one for you." She opened the cupboard door, and carefully pulled down the dress she had made. It was a light yellow, beautiful and rich, made out of a material that Alicia had never seen before. The stitches were rough, as with all the things Yumi made because of her poor eyesight, but it shone with the sunlight on it, and Alicia's eyes opened wide.

"It's beautiful!" Alicia exclaimed, "Where did you get that material? What is it? I've never seen anything like it!"

"Two years ago, a trader came here from across the desert, with things I had never seen before. I had no money, so I traded him my mother's bracelet for the fabric. I knew that someday I would have a project special enough to use it on." Yumi explained.

"You told me you lost your mother's bracelet!" Alicia said, "Why did you trade away the only thing that could have led you to your mother?"

"My mother abandoned me as a child," Yumi said, "Even if I did find her now, I doubt she would want to know me. The elder told me that my mother believed me cursed because of my white hair. After that, the bracelet lost its importance to me."

"He said that?" Alicia said.

"It doesn't matter," Yumi said, "Nigel and Sarah were great parents. I'm lucky I had them."

Alicia sighed sadly. Nigel and Sarah were a childless couple who had taken Yumi in, despite her foreign looks and white hair, but they had perished in the wave of coughing sickness which had spread across the village three years previously. After they had died, Yumi had lived alone, taking care of herself. Alicia had always made sure that she had enough to eat.

"Enough of that," Yumi said, seeing Alicia's sad face, "This is a happy day, a day for you. I want you to have this dress, and wear it today."

Yumi helped Alicia dress, pulling the dress up over her full breasts and pulling her hair back. She fastened the back, and sat Alicia down to brush her hair again.

"I feel like a princess," Alicia said, "Thank you, Yumi."

"You are a princess," Yumi said, "You'll always be important to me, Alicia. I know we won't be able to spend much time together once you are married, but I'll always be there for you if you need me."

"Thank you," Alicia said, tears rolling down her face. She got up and embraced Yumi, a long, deep hug that Yumi returned. Then she let go, and wiping the tears from her face, lifted her dress and walked down the stairs.

Alicia and John exchanged vows in the wooden village church. Yumi looked on, a bittersweet feeling in her heart. Alicia had been the center of her world, all she had needed, and now Alicia belonged to somebody else, and would bear children, and lay with this man that she barely knew. She had asked for an arranged marriage so early, when she was only seventeen, and so suddenly that Yumi had always wondered why, especially considering her apparent reservations, but she also knew that Alicia's parents were poor, and needed a husband to take the cost of Alicia off their hands. Yumi could barely afford to live herself, making some coin by roughly mending clothing and dying clothes for special occasions, so she couldn't help either.

The village was filled with celebration at the marriage, the only one that year, and huge spreads were set out with everybody contributing food. The party atmosphere went on well into the night. Alicia and John looked happy, but Alicia belonged to another world now, a world far away from Yumi. Alicia spent time with her guests, but never came to talk to Yumi, and so Yumi slipped away into the night to sit down by the river.

Yumi heard distant cheers and knew that John had carried Alicia over the threshold of their new home, one he had built himself for them to move into. The festivities died down, and a little while later, Yumi saw candlelight in the upstairs window of Alicia's new home, and while she tried to stop herself from thinking, she knew what that meant. The thought of John's hands touching Alicia, the thought of him taking her virginity haunted Yumi, and she cried to herself in the night until she fell asleep on a bed of soft grass, the sound of water in her ears.

The sound of metal buckets woke Yumi. She saw it was early morning, and the women were down by the river washing their clothes. They hadn't noticed Yumi, and so she crept away, returning to her home. She busied herself with a pile of clothing, taking her time trying to see the stitches through her poor eyesight and occasional bursts of tears. How could she have even dared to dream? The world they lived in had no place for her kind of love, her desire. Especially not when it concerned a woman like Alicia, considered a fine woman to bear children to populate the village.

She both hoped and feared that Alicia would come to visit — she wanted to see her face but certainly did not want Alicia to see her tears. She could never tell Alicia how she felt — Alicia would surely be disgusted and then she would be alone with nobody to defend her from the village boys who took advantage of her poor sight to play tricks on her. Even though they lived in the same village, if Alicia hated her, she would still never see her again. She might spy her walking along, but Alicia would never talk to her, and Yumi would be dead in her eyes. She had had nightmares of this scenario, losing Alicia forever, and so she had kept quiet, even though every sense in her body, every cell in her wanted and loved Alicia.

Alicia felt ashamed and broken. It had been so frightening for her, to have John there on top of her, wanting her. It had hurt and she had been afraid to cry out, terrified that he would think she was abnormal. After all, her mother had told her this was how it was and she just had to bear it, so she kept quiet. But to her eternal shame, she had thought about Yumi when John had been with her, how it would be if Yumi had touched her breasts. She thought it would be kinder, gentler, and she found herself enjoying sex, but not with her new husband, because he was not in her mind.

She had felt that yearning for Yumi before and pushed it away, embarrassed, ashamed. It was one of the reasons she had asked for an arranged marriage and so young, hoping that all it was was some pent up desire that would be solved once she had a husband, but so far that had not been the case. Yumi was uniquely beautiful with her white hair and purple clothes, the way she wore pants when all the other women wore dresses and skirts. She was so tender and kind to Alicia, too, always stroking her hair, being there for her when she was upset. Alicia had come close to kissing Yumi, once, when she had slept at her house on the floor because her own house was cold. She had backed away only because she had not wanted to lose Yumi, or earn the spite and revulsion of the other villagers. It went against everything they had taught and so she wanted to leave it well alone, but she could not hide her feelings from herself.

Alicia had wanted to run to Yumi the next day, to run into her arms and cry while John was working in the fields, but she knew she would only make it harder for herself if she did. Every time she saw Yumi she was overcome with warmth inside, love and desire forbidden. She knew that if she went like this, vulnerable and afraid, she might not be able to hold it in. She was married now, Alicia reminded herself, and she had a duty to be loyal to her husband, to cook for him when he came home from working, to bear his children and raise them, even though the whole idea terrified her beyond belief. She wondered if even now, John's seed might be quickening inside her, and she wept again.

She cooked a poor dinner, even though her mother had taught her how to cook, her heart wasn't in it. John complained and went to bed, and Alicia felt like a failure. She wanted to run away, to die out there in the wilderness, so everybody would think that she had simply had an accident gathering herbs and would say at her funeral that she had been a good wife and honest daughter. She was afraid of death, however, and knew she could not do such a thing.

The next day she woke late, and realized she still needed to wash John's clothes in the river, as he didn't have many. She thought about asking Yumi to make him some more, then realized she was thinking about Yumi again. She got to the river as other women were leaving, and they looked at her with a look that suggested they had been talking about her. Some smiled, as if they knew all about her wedding night, and she smiled back dutifully. As she washed his clothes, they tried to engage her in conversations about pregnancy, and she felt more and more depressed hearing about morning sickness and women who had died giving birth. She felt angry, too, she didn't want this, didn't want any of it, and she was angry at the women for forcing it all down her throat.

By the time she got home, she was crying. Putting the bucket of wet clothes on the table, she pulled out a makeshift chair and slumped into it, weeping. A knock on the door interrupted her, and she wiped the tears away from her face, hoping that red blotches weren't showing on her face. Perhaps if it was some nosy neighbor, or her mother, she could just say she was tired. But if it was Yumi... she didn't know.

Still, she found herself unbolting the door, opening it up. Yumi was standing there, with a basket full of fruit. She was at once the most wonderful and most feared sight in Alicia's world.

"Come in," Alicia said, "It's been busy here," she said, trying to pass off her red face as that of being too hot from working. She closed the door and bolted it, and Yumi put the basket of fruit on the table before turning to her friend.

"You've been crying," Yumi said, "Don't try to hide it. You can talk to me." and then Alicia found herself in Yumi's warm arms, her head resting on her bosom, Yumi's hands stroking her hair, and Alicia was crying, sobbing now. Yumi held her until it passed, then guided her to a chair and sat her down.

"Now tell me what's wrong," Yumi said, "Please."

"I...I..." Alicia began, but her throat closed up on her and more tears came out. Yumi took Alicia's hand and squeezed gently.

"Did it hurt?" Yumi asked. She had heard horror stories about what men and women did, but shrugged them off. It didn't matter to her, after all. She wasn't going to marry.

Alicia nodded, "Down at the river, too, the women were talking about pregnancy, how some women die in childbirth..."

"Don't listen to them!" Yumi said, "They're just trying to have fun at your expense."

"I know, I know, but it's true, I mean, Julia...she died."

"She was sick in the first place," Yumi said, "She was just too ill to have a child. You're healthy. I know that you'll be all right. Please don't be worried about it."

"But I just... I'm afraid, Yumi. I don't even know if I want to have a child!" Alicia cried.

Yumi sighed to herself, "You did want to get married, Alicia. Why did you do it if that's not what you wanted?"

"I thought that everything would work out if I got married," Alicia said, "I was always worrying about everything. But my mother, she seems so happy with her life. I thought if I could be more like her, I'd be happy. She had an arranged marriage, so it just seemed like a good thing to do. It probably is, Yumi. It's just all new to me. Give it time, and I'll be all right. I don't want you to worry about me."

"I do worry about you," said Yumi, "I don't want you to be unhappy, Alicia. Especially since... I might not be here much longer."

"What?" asked Alicia, stunned.

"I'm leaving the village," Yumi said, "If I can make it to the city, perhaps I will be able to see all sorts of things that I never got to see. The traveling salesmen always paint this picture of a vibrant city with all sorts of colors and people. I want to see it, Alicia. I've realized that I don't belong here. I'm not going to marry, and I've done all there is to do here. You have a life now, a husband, and probably children soon. As much as I care about you, Alicia, I have no place in that life with you. I think I'm just getting in the way of your happiness."

"You... you can't go," Alicia said, the color draining out of her face, "I need you."

"You'll be all right," Yumi replied, "I have faith in you. I know you can do it."

Yumi excused herself and left then, and Alicia stood at the door, too stunned to say or do anything.

When John arrived home, Alicia was slumped at the table.

"What's all this about?" John asked, not unkindly, "Feeling under the weather?"

"I just... Yumi's leaving," Alicia managed.

"Oh, I see," John said, "Well, she never did belong here, really. Now I know you two were close and all, but I never really knew why. You're beautiful and loved by everyone, but she's kind of strange. Some of the men — not me mind you — think that she's of witch's blood. She'll have a better chance of finding a husband in another place. Maybe in the city — I hear there's all kinds of strange folk there."

"Can I at least see her go?" Alicia asked.

"Of course," John said, "You don't need to ask about silly things like that. But I do expect to have my dinner on the table lass. I've been out in those fields and I'm hungry. I know you're not used to all this, and that's all right, but I need that much from you."

"I'm sorry," Alicia said, "It's just... so out of the blue. I can't believe she's going after all these years."

"Well, that's understandable, but she's not really your concern any more." John said.

No, you are, Alicia thought, and her heart sank more.

The day of Yumi's departure came, and Alicia was there with a heavy heart. She wanted to beg Yumi to stay, but Alicia knew that Yumi had made up her mind and such discussion was pointless, as was trying to get Yumi to disclose her motives. Perhaps, Alicia thought, she had been tying Yumi down, always being needy. Now that she was married, Yumi could go and do what she wanted, and wouldn't have to be there for Alicia any more. That was her husband's job now.

She saw Yumi tying her bags to her horse, which she had gotten in a trade for her house, along with coin and supplies. She looked eager to leave, and Alicia didn't know what to say when she went over to her. She wanted to kiss Yumi, to tell her that she loved her, but that was impossible now. John was there, watching, and it was wrong for her to say such things now that she was married. She had to give it up, let her feelings go when Yumi left, as she promised herself she would.

"Yumi," she began, but felt her throat choke up.

"You'll be fine," Yumi said, smiling. She looked determined, her face set. Alicia knew that she may never see Yumi again, that Yumi was determined to go. Perhaps John was right, perhaps she would find a husband in the city and never return.

She knew it was now or never, and she rushed forward and held Yumi, giving her a kiss on each cheek. It was a foreign custom, strange to most people, but if anybody asked she would say she had been a traveling salesman do it, since they came through so much that any of them could have brought eccentric traits along with them. It was an opportunity to sneak a kiss, anyway, and Alicia loved the feel of Yumi's skin under her lips. She felt fire burning inside of her but held it down and let sorrow take over.

"Don't forget me," Alicia said.

"I could never do that," Yumi said. She mounted her horse as Alicia was tearing up behind her. She dare not look back, because she knew if she saw that heartbroken face, she would not be able to leave. It had taken her so much strength to do this, but she knew she had to go. Every day looking at Alicia she trusted herself less and less. Alicia was married now, and needed no distractions from that. Yumi felt she would be happier if she wasn't always there, putting her weird ideas into Alicia's head.

She rode off, leaving only a trail of dust behind her, and Alicia with her head in her hands, weeping.

Time seemed to go on forever for Alicia, although nothing changed. She got into her routine with John, and while he wanted sex regularly, she did not conceive and was glad. She tried to put Yumi out of her life and get on with cooking and cleaning, and for the most part seemed to keep John happy. She, however, felt deeply lonely. She felt she could not talk to John about anything, as he was not interested in much, and she did not want to bother her mother with silly worries. To make it worse, her memories of Yumi were everywhere. Down by the river where they had played as children, Yumi's house which was now owned by an old farmer, Alicia's old home where Alicia had once lived and tried to steal a kiss from Yumi. Yumi was everywhere, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not escape thinking of her.

Things got harder when after six months, Alicia still did not conceive. John insisted she visit the doctor, an old lady who gave out various potions and charms. After trying many remedies with no success, John started to get angry.

"Are you taking some herb to make yourself barren?" he started one night.

"No," Alicia said. She did not know of any such herbs, and even if some people claimed they existed, she doubted any of them would work anyway.

"People are starting to talk," John said, "The men on the fields are laughing at me, saying my seed is weak. Others are laughing, claiming you keep me from your bed. Perhaps you are frightened of childbearing Alicia, but it is not funny."

"I'm not doing anything!" she wept, "I swear!"

"Perhaps it's that witch child you always spent time with. Perhaps she cast a spell on you to keep you barren, or cursed you for marrying me. She didn't like me much, lass, I can tell these things. I thought the men were full of it when they said she was a witch, but now I'm not so sure."

"Yumi is no witch!" Alicia cried, enraged, "She's my friend!"

The rumor of Yumi's supposed witch heritage being the cause of Alicia's infertility spread around the village like wildfire. Everywhere Alicia went, she was looked at with either pitying gazes or fearful gazes, as though the curse might spread to them if they got too close. Filled with sadness and ridiculed constantly, she decided to leave. Yumi was still strong in her heart, and Alicia devised a plan to steal a horse in the dead of night and go to the city to look for Yumi.

Taking her things one night as John was sleeping heavily, she snuck out of the house in the dead of night and made her way to the stables. Unfortunately, she saw lights on, and the blacksmith talking about re shoeing the horses. Defeated, she made her way back home. Right behind her was John, and she bumped into him on the way back.

"We'll have no more of this," he said, grasping her arm tightly and pulling her back to the house, "I'm convinced that witch put a spell on you. I'm going to the priest to ask what should be done first thing tomorrow. We'll get you right, Alicia. You'll be better soon, so don't worry about it."

Alicia lay awake all night, and when John left for the fields in the morning, she heard him lock the door again behind him, and knew there would be no keys left in the house.

Yumi had done nothing but think of Alicia. Even the city, as magnificent and exotic as it was, could not drown out her yearning to be with Alicia. She stayed for a while, roaming the streets selling her trade as a traveling tailor, but met with opposition from local shop owners. After a gang tried to kill her in the dead of night as she slept, she decided to leave and make the long trip back to Solaria, where her heart lie.

The road back was harsh, filled with bandits, but Yumi had learned to fight along the way, and now carried a sword at her side, as well as some good hand-to-hand fighting skills and was easily able to take on the bandits.

As she slept, she felt a nagging feeling in her dreams, something pulling her back to Solaria with urgency. She slept less and less, desperate to get back to Solaria, fearing something was wrong with Alicia. What if Alicia had become ill while she had been away? She chided herself for leaving Alicia when she had been so vulnerable.

The priest chanted in a strange language and Alicia felt intimidated as he towered over her. He shook her, and she felt dizzy. He slapped her.

John stepped forward, "Is this really necessary?" he asked, "She is my wife. I don't want her to be hurt."

"I don't want to hurt her," the priest said, "but the bewitchment is strong. She may even be possessed by a demon. I must hurt her in order to get the demon to leave."

"Stop it!" Alicia said, "There's no demon in me! Yumi is no witch! I love her!"

"See," said the priest, "This... Yumi has her under her spell. The real Alicia would never say anything like this."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Alicia cried, "You didn't do it to Sarah, when she didn't conceive!"

"Sarah was injured in a horse-riding accident," John said, "That was a totally different case. You are a young, whole woman. There is no good reason you shouldn't conceive."

Yumi, Alicia thought, I hope you come home. I love you, Yumi. I should have told you sooner...

"Well," the priest said, "There is one more option. It's usually left for extreme cases, but I think this one qualifies."

"What's that?" asked John.

"It could be that the witch has filled her with some kind of sinful sexual desire for her. To get rid of this, we would have to remove her capability for sexual desire. I know of a doctor who can do this, he can be here tomorrow if you give the go ahead."

"What! You can't do that," John said, "She... she... we..."

"Does she pretend to enjoy you? Do not be tricked. She is probably thinking of the witch while you are in her. It is common in these kind of bewitchments." the priest said.

Alicia was shocked and frightened, wondering if they could really do as they threatened. Would they take away from her those nights when John was fast asleep and she had touched herself, thinking of Yumi's soft touch? Would they take away her desire and love for Yumi, that had helped her to go on when everything seemed impossible? No, they could take away her desire perhaps, but they could never destroy her love. Even she had not been able to do that, and had given up the fight. But... perhaps... perhaps they could free her. Perhaps they could make her happy with John, make her accept her lot. If she wasn't tortured by the thought of Yumi's touch, then maybe... No. Her love for Yumi was something Yumi had earned with all the years of kindness and warmth, and her desire a need to be close and intimate with the one who brought her the most happiness. There was nothing unnatural about it. It was the most natural thing in the world, unlike the forced relationship that she had with John.

"Perhaps it is for the best," John said, with a heavy heart, "I will kill that witch if I ever see her again."

"Do not stain yourself," the priest said, "For evildoers will burn in hellfire forever, without you sinning to send them there. As for the procedure, I will send a messenger immediately. Keep an eye on Alicia and make sure she does not run away."

The priest left, and the horde of onlookers outside the house dispersed.

Inside the house, Alicia tried to plead with John, "Please John, it's really me! Please don't do this! I can't help it!"

"I heard you whisper her name, once, in the heat of the moment. I know you're possessed. I want you back, Alicia. It's not fair that that witch has taken you!" John shouted.

"I was never yours," Alicia said, "I loved Yumi long before I ever met you. I should have been honest, John, I never should have married you. I could have ran away with Yumi, found happiness somewhere, but I thought I would try to be an honest woman. I thought I would try to live up to everybody's expectations, but I can't! I can't love you, John, and I can't bear your children, because one of us is infertile."

"But you don't want my children anyway," John said, "because you don't love me." He backed up against the wall, and slid down it, defeated.

"It was just how it worked out," Alicia said. "I'm sorry."

"What if we'd had children, Alicia? What if we had and she came back? Would you have left us then? Or carried on behind my back?"

"...I don't know," Alicia said, crying.

"I don't believe any of this!" John said, getting up, "You married me on our wedding day happily enough. She's powerful that witch, she's really good, but I'm not fooled Alicia! You will have that procedure and you will get that demon out of you and get on with your life! Even if those feelings she put in your bewitchment were real, how could you ever be happy with her? She can't give you children or work the fields to bring you money and put food on your table! It's madness!"

Alicia didn't talk any more. She was too tired from crying and trying to reason with all these people around her. Unless Yumi came back and took her away, she was doomed to spend a life loveless and cold, without even fantasies to keep her warm at night. Yumi had done everything for her and she had snubbed the girl, forcing herself into an arranged marriage without even giving Yumi the chance to turn her down. She had ignored the thought that perhaps Yumi had feelings for her, too, that she had left because of them. Alicia had made so many mistakes and now she was going to pay for them, because she had chased away the one person who could save her.

The feeling became more urgent to Yumi, and she spurred the horse to its limit, forgoing sleep in order to make it back to Solaria. Eventually the land around her seemed familiar, and as the sun became high in the sky, she finally saw the village in the distance.

Riding in, however, she saw faces turn toward her with cold steel in their gaze. As she rode through the village, some people spat at her. Dismounting her horse, she asked the man at the stable what was going on.

"Why should I talk to a witch?" he replied, "You cursed poor Miss Alicia and now she can't bear children. Not only that, but rumor says that your spell made her desire you, and so to remove the curse, they are going to..." he gulped.

"Going to do WHAT?" she asked, picking the man up by the front of his shirt and slamming him into the stable wall. She was not usually so harsh, but she needed the information and also needed to set an example to everybody else. She hoped their fear of her supposedly being a witch would keep them back if she needed to get away.

"They're going to cut off her... you know, her pleasure point," the man said, "So if you know how to take the curse off her, I suggest you do it now!"

Yumi let go of him and rushed towards the house, running faster than she ever had before. However, the villagers standing around the house were armed, so she knew she would never be able to get in...

Unless...

"I know how to lift the curse!" Yumi said, "So take me in, or I will curse this entire village!" She knew it would doom her, for the sentence in every village she knew for being a witch was stoning to death, but if she could save Alicia, she didn't care. It was her punishment for letting Alicia go through with the marriage even though Yumi knew she wasn't happy with it.

The villagers parted quickly, letting Yumi in. She rushed up the stairs, bursting into the bedroom. She surveyed the situation quickly, and saw the doctor with a knife, ready to cut into Alicia who was tied up on the bed.

"You lay one finger on her and I will curse you with a pain so excruciating you will beg for my mercy," Yumi said, playing the part. It worked, the doctor fled the room, dropping the knife in her haste. The priest and John were also there, and she turned her eyes to them as they trembled. Even Alicia, her beloved, looked up at her with frightened eyes. Had they poisoned her mind against her? She hoped not. She gave a quick wink to Alicia and saw her relax slightly, getting her signal that she was acting but keeping up her own act in order to not arouse suspicion. Alicia had always been quick on the uptake, Yumi knew.

"What are you going to do to us?" the priest asked, holding his cross in front of him.

"Please don't hurt us!" John said, "We have grain, animals... gold... do you like gold?"

Yumi didn't waste any more time with the pretense. She drew her sword and hit the priest over the head with the pommel before he could even call for villagers. He fell to the floor, knocked out. She rounded on John.

"How could you do this to a woman you claimed to love," Yumi said, "You know I'm no witch, all of you! It just became a convenient excuse when Alicia couldn't conceive. How you could even think of doing such a thing to Alicia is beyond belief. You don't love her. You don't even deserve her!"

John crumpled, then, "I wanted her to love me," he said, "but she doesn't. She desires you. I thought if I got rid of that desire, perhaps she would grow to love me instead of being distracted by thoughts of you constantly."

"John," Alicia said, "You knew I wasn't a witch... but you let them go through with this?"

"I've known all along that you loved her," John said, "Deep down, I didn't want to believe it. But when I saw you kiss her goodbye, I knew your heart was going with her. When we made love you called out her name. Last night you confirmed it, when you told me what I knew. But it was easier to keep up the pretense. I love you, Alicia, and I wanted you to love me. Even if we never had children, I think I could have lived with it if you just loved me. I thought that this... might help, somehow. I was desperate."

"Perhaps it's what I deserve," Alicia said, "for being dishonest with everyone." She sat up as Yumi untied her, "I've lied to everyone, Yumi, even you... especially you. I love you, Yumi. I was so scared that people wouldn't accept us, though. I didn't want people to hate me... I didn't want you to hate me! I thought it would be easier if I could just forget you... but I can't."

Yumi held Alicia and started to cry, "Alicia... why didn't you just tell me? Did you really think that I ever could have hated you?"

"The same could be said the other way," Alicia said.

"There's time for this later," Yumi said, "Right now, there's thirty or so angry villagers who are thinking its become awfully quiet up here. They'll be up here any minute unless you go down and explain, John."

"Why should I help you?" John said, "You've taken everything away from me. I love Alicia. What makes you think I'm going to let her go, so you can carry her off into your lustful lifestyle?"

"Because I'm begging you, John," Alicia piped up, "Even if you kept me now, locked me in this house, what makes you think I will ever be happy? Ever since Yumi left, I spent every hour of every day thinking about her. You can lie to yourself, keep me here, but neither of us will ever be fulfilled. You will never get the love you deserve, and I will forever be kept apart from Yumi, who I love with all my heart. Please let me go. This can never work."

John was crying then, but he wiped away his tears and made for the door, going downstairs. Yumi and Alicia were crying too, and held each other tightly, bittersweet emotions filling them. They heard John explaining to everybody that there had been a big misunderstanding, and telling them to go home. After a few minutes, the rabble dispersed and John came back up.

"Take your horse and go," he said, "Never come back. I don't want to see either of you ever again."

They went out into the daylight glare, eyes on them from afar. The mayor stood there, shaking his head in disgust. Alicia's parents wept, as if to wonder what they did wrong in raising their child. Alicia cried at this, but turned her face away as they made towards the horse. The mayor followed.

"Get out of here," he said, "You are both exiled. You should both be ashamed of yourselves."

They got on the horse and rode out of town. Alicia looked behind her sadly. They traveled for a few miles before setting up camp for the night.

"They all hate me now. Even my parents. All the people we grew up with... they hate us. If we ever returned... they would stone me for adultery. Is this the price of love?" Alicia said.

"I'm so sorry, Alicia," Yumi said, "All I ever wanted to do was protect you and love you the way you deserved to be loved. But because of me, you've lost everything."

"No," Alicia said, "It's not your fault. If my parents... if everybody... really loved me, they would have accepted us."

"You can't expect people to be that kind," Yumi said, "People are afraid of what is different. Through the ages, they have done the same thing — grow up, get married and have children of their own. They feel threatened when something happens outside of that order. In the end, I suppose deep down people are afraid of the end of their community, village or even the human race itself. They're desperate to protect the act of procreation, even at the sacrifice of personal happiness."

"I suppose," Alicia said, "But what that means is... we can never go home."

"Home is wherever we make it," Yumi said, "I saw a lot of things when I was in the city. The world is unfair and unjust. But there is goodness in it too. Love, kindness, all those things. I felt drawn to come back, to see you again, because inside I want to give you all those things. I love you, Alicia."

"I love you too," Alicia said, "I... Yumi. When you were gone and I thought I would never see you again, I thought that I would give anything to see you again, to have you near. It's true that we've paid a price, but it's better than living a lie."

"Alicia," Yumi said, "We've talked enough. All these years, that's all we've done." She smiled and tenderly stroked Alicia's cheek with her hand. She drew near and kissed Alicia, and Alicia kissed back with all her love. They let go, then, pushing aside the years of boundaries that had kept them apart, letting themselves touch and explore every inch of the other, exploring the places that felt the best, crying out into the night, where nobody could hear them. The firelight illuminated their naked bodies rolling together, their kisses, their laughter, their tears.

When they were sated, they looked up at the stars.

"In this world," Yumi said, "I bet there are as many villages as there are stars. You may never have left the village, but the world is a huge place, Alicia."

"Then out there," Alicia said, "There'll be a place where we can belong, where we can be together in peace, build a life with no expectations or demands of who we should be."

"I'm sure of it," Yumi said, "And if there isn't, then we'll make one."

"I left my wedding dress behind in Solaria," Alicia sighed.

"I'll make you a new one, then," Yumi said, "For our wedding."