Solange’s cave was the sort of cluttered-cozy that made me think of the stalls in the marketplace that never changed. The ones with owners who had been calmly setting their wares up since time immemorial, that every day had new antiques or glassware or books to put on the little square of space that was theirs, that existed in that little perpetual-motion cycle of caring.
Soft red-orange light spilled out from the entrance where it was tucked between a large boulder and a tree whose trunk had cracked and shattered and fallen over to form a little natural arch. Inside, little chunks of stone had been placed around to create shelves, and little alcoves had been carved, and sitting all around all of these were curious odds and ends that drew my eyes with enough force to shut out the conversation Solange and Flare were having.
On one shelf were glass jars, all organized to create a gradient cascade of color from a dark blue-black all the way up to a light pinkish. Inside each of these colored jars were little glowing things with too many legs. They skittered drunkenly around the insides of each jar, and I wondered if the jars were the only things coloring the light, or if each of the little skittering things gave off light of their jar’s color.
On a tree stump placed a little further in was a mosaic of colored stones, all different shapes and sizes. One was a deep purple, with jagged edges that faded to a pure white. Another was a striped sequence of varied blues, smooth and round. Another was geometric, octagonal towers all clustering together in a pale green. I didn’t pick any up, since I wasn’t sure what they were or how they were organized, but I felt a twisting squirming urge to race up and down my forearms.
Then there were the flasks of fizzing liquids. The monstrous limbs, chopped off and dried and preserved and tacked to the stone walls. Then there were the small clay jars filled with pigment and the fantastic images and incomprehensible mathematics scrawled all over the wall above them. Then there were the other furs and clothing hung along the back walls of the cave and extending deeper. Then there were the chairs carved out of wood and stone and anything available.
And there was the centerpiece.
The source of the light and the warmth in the cave, a huge chunk of jagged quartz, and trapped inside and writhing restlessly inside the oversized gemstone, an eel of some sort. It twisted and turned and knocked itself against the edge of the quartz, and as the eel moved the glow and warmth rolled off of it and filled the cave.
Solange picked up one of the stones off the tree stump and pressed it to the surface of the quartz, and the stone passed inside, and the eel crunched it gratefully. Flare said, “You seem to have indulged your curiosity a bit.”
Solange laughed and took a seat in one of the chairs, which creaked and groaned under the weight of her coat. Flare sat down on a rock next to her. I sat on the floor, on a fur rug.
“A bit, yeah. Not much else to indulge out here.” Solange said, and stretched. The coat’s fingertips scraped the top of the cave.
Flare nodded. Then she said, “Why not aim for Greenscap? It’s not too far off.”
“Nah, too hard to abandon the old haunts,” Solange said. “I mean, I visit ‘em sometimes. They’re nice to talk to, every so often. But I feel pretty obligated to stick around here.”
“You could just leave,” Flare said.
Solange shook her head, which due to the coat involved shaking most of her upper body. “I can’t, Flare.”
“I’ve never heard of anything that could–” Flare started, but Solange cut her off by raising a hand.
“I know,” Solange said. “I hoped if I saw you again you’d have seen something but, I know. It’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, right?”
“What’s worth trying?” I asked.
“Saving Liar’s Mint,” Solange said, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Flare wince. Solange didn’t seem to notice, because she continued. “Monsters can be really helpful. And it’s pretty fun to study them, besides. I call it studying. Studying’s a strong word. But I mess with them, and I find things out.”
“It’s why we’re all nice and warm here now. And, you know, maybe it could work. Maybe I’ll find something. You never know, right?”
“Solange…” Flare said.
“I’m doing fine out here, Flare. Really, I am,” Solange said, and her voice was so earnest it was almost believable that she was. “You don’t need to worry about me. I didn’t worry about you.”
“Crownsbreak tried to capture me. And kill me. That was last week.”
“Yeah, but you’re fine.”
“Look at yourself,” Solange said, and her voice carried a bright strong smile with it. “You’re Flare! You just gotta act like it, right? Like, I would not be here if you hadn’t–”
“Solange,” Flare said, and Solange stopped talking. Then Flare looked away and said, “Could you take off your coat?”
Solange nodded, and again it took most of her upper body to do. Then she began to take her coat off. It started with the massive hands of the coat, the stitchings coming smoothly unraveled from some setup I couldn’t see. The hand popped off, revealing Solange’s own hand. It was thin, and delicate-looking. Then the other hand of her coat came off, thudding to the ground and revealing another delicate hand. Then the tree-stump legs were removed. And then the torso of the coat unraveled, and folded back, and revealed Solange on the inside. As well as something else.
The something else was an eel similar to the one in the quartz. It was wrapped around Solange’s body tightly, and wound itself into the fabric of the coat, and nipped at her fingers as she began to unravel it from around herself. An opalescent dark green stone was removed from a pocket inside the coat, and fed to the eel, and the eel went slithering away into the furs to crunch on it.
“Ah,” Flare said.
Solange herself was surprisingly small. Petite was the word, maybe. She made up for this by radiating happiness to fill up all the space her physical body didn’t. She grinned at Flare. Flare actually smiled back at her.
“Hey,” Solange said.