Balac wiped the gore from his knife and sheathed it, then stepped over the bodies which cluttered the portal. The portal snapped closed, severing an arm of one of his assailants, but Balac ignored it – his eyes were on the cottage in front of him. The scent of gardenias wafted toward him – how his wife had managed to cultivate Earth flowers on this barren planet he’d never understood, but Mala seemed to have a natural gift for keeping things alive – mixed with the tang of strong coffee from the open window. The smells of home.
How many times he’d wished to abandon the incessant business of killing old fools who deserved it and relax peacefully beside his wife into his golden years instead. For so many years he’d waited to be home for good, and now here he was – but not for retirement. His eyes swept the cottage again, and signs of neglect jumped out at him – the vines overgrown, the gardenias and orchids brown and drooping, the smell of coffee a little too bitter, as though it had burnt on the stove – signs of his wife’s illness, the real reason he was home. The joy he’d always imagined he’d feel on return soured in his gut.
He’d spent years trying to build them a future, investing his life and his magic in service of a steady income and a solid retirement... He’d wasted his wife’s healthy years by planning for a future that he now realized would never come.
He dreaded what he might find inside, but he forced his feet forward. He had wasted too much time already.
His wife turned as he entered, her pale face lighting with surprise. “Balac. You’re home.” Her deep violet eyes focused on him as she smiled, but it didn’t escape him how she leaned into the table for support, or how her smiled quivered at the edges.
Balac hurried toward her, easing the trembling pot of coffee from her shaking hand. “Here, sit.”
She sank slowly into the chair he pulled out for her, wincing as she settled onto it.
He set the pot back on the stove and pulled a chair opposite, clasped her trembling hands. She was so pale. Her eyes fixed on him, uncertain.
“What do you need? What can I do?”
Her mouth turned down and she glanced away. “I hate for you to see me like this.”
Her eyes met his and he saw it – fear. He leaned his forehead into hers. “You’re beautiful.”
She let out a short huff. “I’ve never looked worse, but I still look better than you. You look a mess.”
He smiled, relieved to see a bit of her usual spark. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She sighed. “The plants need tending.”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.” He kissed the top of her head, then grabbed the watering can from beside the door.
“Pay special mind to the purple one,” she called after him.
Her favorite flower, the tall orchid at the edge of the yard. “Of course,” he answered again, and slipped outside.
The purple orchid was the only flower not wilted – she must have devoted her limited energy to caring for it. Balac set to work tending the others, doing his best to remember his wife’s instructions. He’d been gone a while, but he could hear her voice in his memory just like yesterday, fussing over him as he pruned and watered. She had always loved those plants – the only children they’d ever been able to have.
He knelt, careful not to crush anything important, and took to stripping weeds from the edges of the beds. It felt good to have something useful to do, something that sustained life rather than slaughtering it. Soil ground down between his fingernails and into the folds of his knuckles, but it felt satisfying – a far cry from what usually covered his hands. The majority of the orchids were in a sad state, but he hoped he could bring them around – for her.
The suns slipped down past the horizon, casting the yard in a greenish hue. Soon it would be too dark; he needed to finish. Balac’s knees popped as he stood, stretching his aching back, and ambled toward the last flower bed.
The purple orchid stood tall, despite the weeds attempting to strangle it. He carefully pulled the weeds loose, noticing not for the first time how much the flower reminded him of his wife herself. Something about the way it held itself, about the tip of its face, even the color of its petals, its center the same violet as his wife’s eyes, its cream the same shade as her skin. As he watered it, the plant seemed to stretch even taller, soaking in his attention and care. The purple on its petals seemed to deepen to a richer hue. He swore he even heard it let out a little sigh –
Balac stepped back, studying it. His wife would be pleased; she had a strange attachment to this plant. She’d had this orchid since they first settled here, and for years it had seemed it might not survive, but in recent months, though his wife’s health had faded and her energy to tend it lessened, the orchid had begun to thrive...
Something clattered within the house.
Balac dropped the watering can and rushed inside. His heart raced as his eyes strained through the dim light filtered through the windows. A dark shape slumped on the floor beside the table. He rushed toward her. “Mala!”
He hastily lit the lamp by the table and gathered her into his arms. His breath caught as he tipped her face up to him – so pale. Her eyes fluttered open, glassy, unfocused, and Balac gasped. Her irises were faded to a dull violet-gray, nearly colorless. “Mala, what have you done?”
She gave him a weak smile. “Now we’ll have plenty of time.”