@}->-->-- Escaflowne stands in the shade now, the empty exoskeleton of a dragon god, a war machine that has become a war memorial. The central valley of Fanelia is busy with reconstruction; there is a permanent smell of sawdust in the late summer air that drifts even into the quiet grove of the Fanel family shrine. The temporary shanty-towns are gradually emptying as families become able to move into new houses; diminished families spreading out into echoing new rooms, treading floorboards of pale new wood, arranging raw new furniture and telling themselves that now things will be normal again. No-one will come back to burn them out of house and home. It is time to grow and build again. It is time to resume normal life; to insist upon normal life. The dragon god is sleeping. The fire is banked. @}->-->--
‘She sleeps well,’ Allen said. ‘She sleeps very well. Not always in her own bed. Should I try to stop her creeping in with me? Do you think that should be discouraged? I don’t wish her to get into bad habits, but I think she gets very frightened if she wakes up alone. It can’t really do any harm, can it?’
The doctor regarded him gravely over the top of his pince-nez spectacles. ‘If it makes her feel more safe, I’m sure it will do positive good. Does it trouble you, though?’
‘It’s strange,’ Allen admitted. ‘I didn’t expect her to be so childish. If her idea of seeking comfort is to always crawl into someone’s bed…’ he reddened slightly, and swallowed before continuing, ‘well, what I mean to say is, that’s harmless enough at home with family but… but… it would be terribly easy for someone to take advantage of her. I don’t know whether she would understand.’
‘You don’t intend to leave her with strange men unsupervised, surely,’ the doctor said blandly. He glanced down at the pages on his desk and made a note. Allen wondered what it said, and whether it was about him.
‘No, no, obviously not.’ The young man looked at his gloves, straightened them at the wrists. ‘Do you think she will always be so… dependent on me? I love her dearly, of course, she’s the world to me and I will do all I can to protect her, but do you think there will ever be a time when she won’t need quite so much protection?’
‘For now, the only advice I can offer you is to persevere with the routine you have established. Routine will make her feel safe. Be kind to her; encourage her at all times; shield her as much as possible from anything that might worry her. If you wish to proceed from that, give her little challenges, little projects to occupy her time. Talk with her all the time, as you would with a growing child.’
‘Right,’ said Allen, ‘right, of course.’ He looked over the table at the notes, wondering if he might unobtrusively be able to read them upside-down. ‘And – and how should I talk with a child?’ He looked thoroughly worried, as though it had only just occurred to him that there might be a right and wrong way.
‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor murmured, ‘I forgot you don’t have children.’ He noticed a slight guilty flicker of the young man’s eyes, and wondered what that meant. He was so accustomed to observe patients closely that he found himself doing it with everyone he met, but it could be frustrating when, as now, he had very little clue as to what cause the symptoms might denote. Probably it was safe to assume that there was some poor little bastard somewhere, and the young popinjay in front of him was not enough of a bastard himself to be unperturbed by reminders of the fact. The doctor’s own views on the propriety of such conduct were more or less unprintable, but he also had a keen sense of the propriety of his situation as a consultant in this case. He would concern himself only with the wellbeing of the rather unfortunate young woman they were discussing. Whether she was also unfortunate in her brother; whether he would display the same lack of responsibility when she and her troubles grew tiresome; these things were not yet his concern. He reminded himself not to purse his lips.
‘Discuss everyday things with her,’ he went on, ‘chat about everything you do. Ask her questions, give her opportunities to contribute, to become interested and involved. Some little thing that she can work on by herself and take pride in, such as a small garden, might be very heartening. Obviously, avoid reminders of her former life if you can. However, try not to make her feel guilty or confused about the matter if she brings it up. Answer her questions as honestly and simply as you can, and remind her that it was not her fault.’ He had been over much of this before in previous consultations, but repetition was reassuring.
On a soft chair in the waiting room outside the doctor’s office, Celena Schezar sat on her hands, swung her ankles and looked around at the paintings on the walls. She was doing her very best to be good today. She had been good all night, too, at least insofar as ‘good’ was staying in her own room and not bothering Allen. Wetting the bed was probably not good but she couldn’t help it – she was trying to do another good thing and it was just too hard to be good on all fronts at once. When she knew she needed to go she really ought to have gotten up and gone to the bathroom; that was easy to see by daylight but it was so hard to move in the dark. The dark in her room was a special kind, very big and heavy and quiet. It got on top of her. It was quite different from the dark in Allen’s room; Allen was properly grown up and could manage the dark. He had it nicely tamed. She didn’t need to lie right up close to him any more, if he didn’t like that. But when she could hear his steady breathing, her own wasn’t such a little sound – and little sounds were scarier than big ones, tiny little sounds that got quieter till you were afraid you wouldn’t be able to hear them any more, and if you couldn’t hear them were they there? You couldn’t hear them when you were asleep, so how did you know they kept going? Allen would always keep going. Her breathing would know what to do with its big brother to show it the way. When she could feel his warmth soaking through the sheets – good clean dry warmth, not the kind of hot soaking she had managed to give herself last night – she knew she wouldn’t just keep getting colder.
She had pulled up the sheets this morning. Maybe no-one would notice.
‘Soaked,’ Mrs Rea said, and primmed up her mouth. ‘If this sort of thing is going to go on, sir, it’s my belief you should engage a proper nurse, because my girls haven’t had the training for it.’
‘Your girls, I’m sure, know perfectly well how to wash a sheet and air a mattress, Mrs Rea,’ Allen said briskly.
‘It’s the thin edge of the wedge,’ the housekeeper said portentously. ‘She could go downhill from here.’
‘It’s one wet bed,’ he sighed. ‘I’ll talk to her. I’m sure it won’t happen again.’
‘Can I grow roses?’ Celena asked eagerly. She quartered the little bed the gardener had set aside and weeded over for her with chopping movements of her arms. ‘Red roses here and white roses here and blue roses here and something else over there. I’ll think of something later.’
‘Little pet, there aren’t any blue roses – and I think they might be a little advanced for you. Why don’t we try some small plants like pansies and alyssum, that grow easily?’
‘All right,’ she said, easily enough. ‘Where’s the seeds?’
‘Where are the seeds,’ Allen said automatically.
‘Don’t you know? I thought you brought them.’ She looked around her vaguely.
‘You didn’t say it quite right, little pet, it should be “where are the seeds,” not “where is the seeds.”’ It was not one of her good days. Still, it was not one of her very bad ones. On a good day, she was lucid; she seemed almost her age. She spoke well and did not make these distressing little lapses in grammar – and in spelling, when she wrote. Mindful of the doctor’s advice to give her little projects, Allen had suggested that she write a letter to Princess Millerna thanking her for the basket of fruit and flowers she had sent. Leaving her to it for a few minutes while he gave some instructions to the gardener about the plans for Celena’s flowerbed, he had come back to find her biting her pen-handle and almost in tears because she could not think how to spell ‘sincerely’ when she signed her name.
‘I know I know!’ she’d moaned. ‘I knew yesterday because I read it in a book and I knew it! Why don’t I know any more?’ But this was still not a bad day. On a bad day she was hard to wake in the morning, had difficulty bringing a spoon to her mouth, stared off into space as though watching some personal vision that she could never explain when he asked her ‘What are you thinking about, little pet?’
He really wondered whether it was sensible to call her that. What if she forgot her proper name, or confused it with the pet-name? Still, he had begun calling her that out of pure affection, and if he stopped now it might hurt her feelings.
‘We’re not using seeds today,’ he explained, ‘we have these nice little seedlings started off for us.’ He showed her one of the punnets.
‘I thought I would grow them from the start,’ she said, a little wistfully. ‘I like how little seeds have big flowers inside them. However do you suppose they fit?’ She held up her finger and thumb, crooked in a circle, and tightened, closed the ring. ‘Down to nothing,’ she said dreamily. ‘And out from nothing!’
She crept into his bed again that night, startling him because she came so silently. He tried to conceal his irritation, stroking her rumpled hair as she whispered to him that she thought someone was listening in her room, because it was so quiet. Her hair was humidly warm and her hands when she touched his were moist. It made him worry about fevers; it made him think of damp sheets and cringe. She asked him for a goodnight kiss, and after he dropped one lightly on her forehead, settled at his side and seemed to fall asleep almost at once. It made him deeply uncomfortable that he was even bothered by her sleeping in his bed; it just seemed so inappropriate for brother and sister to share this space, although by definition there could be nothing more innocent.
He was disturbed by the contradiction in her, he supposed. She was a big, healthy girl, tall for her age, even stately if she had known the right way of holding herself. There were times when she came close, when it seemed her mind was growing into her body, and then there were times… the doctor had said he could make no prognosis at this stage; the case was simply too unusual. It might be that she would never be normal. It might be that she would always need him.
Perhaps if he got her out of the house and she saw other people, he wouldn’t feel quite so alone with her.
On a balmy evening (though the dark was coming down earlier these days) Van Fanel took a lantern and walked to the sacred grove. The central obelisk was a pale finger pointing to heaven, illuminated by such lancing shards of moonlight as were admitted by the grove’s canopy. His lantern was a little orange sun visiting the night-time, throwing jiggles of light into the shadows as he walked. Right now, the stonemasons of Fanelia were needed on the construction sites, but when those immediate needs were taken care of, someone would come and add Folken’s name to the memorial properly.
Van tried, sometimes, to talk to his family here in the grove, but although he had a feeling of their presence, of their love at one remove, there didn’t seem to be anything to say. If they were with him, as he felt them to be, watching over him, there was no need to tell them what he was doing, how hard he was working; they knew. Still, it was important to him to come here, to breathe the air of a place sacred to their memory, and return to them the wordless exhalation of his love and sorrow. I’ll be all right without you. I know you would want me to be all right without you. My mother, my father, my brother. Don’t worry about me any more.
There was a soft stirring in the bushes to one side, and he turned, expecting to see Merle, or one of the wolf people of the hill tribes coming to pay their respects. The sight of the newcomer sent his hand to his belt, seeking the hilt of his sword, but of course it was not there; he had not quite gone so far as to beat it into a ploughshare, but recent circumstances, and his recent feelings, had led him to leave it at home more and more when he went out of the castle. He had not regretted it until now.
‘Van?’ said the girl stepping into a patch of moonlight. Moonlight became her, akin to the pale ash-blonde of her hair and the weak blue of her eyes. Blonde, not grey; blue, not red. Van found himself staring at her faint night shadow, expecting it to be a different shape.
‘My name is Celena,’ she said haltingly. ‘You know my name is Celena, right? I’m Allen Schezar’s sister.’ Her voice did not have the pitch of a child’s, being low and pleasant, but possessed something of a child’s intonation. Its rhythms were not assured; one would almost have said, not fluent.
‘I know who you’re supposed to be,’ he said warily. ‘What are you doing back here?’
‘I came to say sorry,’ she said.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I,’ she said, then bit her lip before continuing. ‘I remembered everything Dilandau did… I remembered he did awful things. He burned everyone’s houses here. My brother showed me where he was in Pallas. We went to the churches where people are staying. I held a baby. A lot of people lost their homes. I know a lot of people are very sad. I came to say I’m very sorry.’
Is she a half-wit? Van wondered. Or did her mind just not grow up with her body? She was a little taller than he was, an impressive figure of a girl. She didn’t look half-witted. Her eyes were clear, although her speech was halting. She was well-dressed, in a narrow white dress with blue ribbons at the collar and cuffs, everything about her groomed and tidy. She looked too well put together to be not all there.
‘You came to say you’re sorry,’ he repeated slowly. A little ache of anger was beginning at the base of his skull. He knelt down, placing the lantern on the ground, adjusting its cover to let more light out, giving himself something on which to concentrate.
‘I’m really sorry,’ she affirmed seriously.
‘You’re really sorry.’ He left a silence, and she rushed to fill it up.
‘I’m sorry for – for the people, I’m sorry their houses got burnt up,’ she elaborated. To begin with she had been merely a little hesitant, but she was now looking mildly rattled by his attitude.
‘Not everyone got out of their houses,’ he said flatly. He wound back the cover all the way, looking into the bare bright flame.
‘I don’t, I don’t know what happened to everyone,’ she began, but he cut her off.
‘No, you don’t, do you? Because you just came charging in and sent the whole place to hell. Did you even see the people? Did you see my people? Were they just moving targets to you? Bugs you could stamp on? Tell me what you saw, Dilandau.’
‘My name’s Celena, I’ve gone back to Celena,’ she murmured. He lunged up, grabbed her right wrist and pulled her down to her knees at his side. ‘Aah!’ Her panicky cry irritated him more than all her words. It was so girly.
‘Shut up,’ he said, ‘shut up and listen.’ He was edging closer to the level of rage that frightened him, doing his damnedest to contain it. ‘It’s not just houses that burned. People burned. Do you know what it’s like to burn? Have you tried to imagine?’
‘Let go my hand,’ she whimpered.
‘Imagine it,’ he said. 'Now. You can’t get out of your house. You ran in there to be safe, or to check that the children were out, or to get something precious, and now you can’t get out. All you can hear is screaming and crashing and roaring and some crazy person laughing, and you think why is he laughing? The air is black and you can’t see for tears. Everywhere is getting hotter and brighter and the fire is all around you, eating up the air, eating up the walls and the floor and beams are falling down and you know no-one will be able to rescue you. Are you scared?’
‘Yes… please stop…’
‘No, shut up. It’s getting hotter.’ He pulled her hand nearer to the flame. ‘You can’t breathe. You can’t move. You know it’s going to happen now. What’s going to happen now?’
Her eyes were fixed on his, paralysed, hypnotised. ‘Burn…’ she murmured.
‘You burn,’ he agreed, and pulled her hand into the flame. For a moment it felt only like a warm, wet, immaterial tongue licking over the skin, and then it bit, and bit hard. Celena gasped and her whole body twitched, trying to leap away from the pain, but Van held her too tightly, bracing himself against both her impulse and his own. She was getting the worst of it. His hand was protected by a glove.
‘You burn like this, but it’s all over your body, and it goes on and on. Your hair burns and stinks, and your skin fries. Your fat melts. You’re dead meat cooking but you’re alive to know about it. And you can hear someone laughing.’
With a wail she managed to wrench her hand away from his and stared at the side of it, the meaty blade of the palm that he had forced into the flame. The skin was angry, shiny red, already puffing into a big, watery blister. She gasped again and pressed her hand to her mouth, sucking the abused skin, still staring at him from eyes full of bright tears.
Van looked at his own hand. That was a good pair of gloves ruined. There was a bad smell from the scorched leather. He dragged the glove off and looked at the hand properly; it just looked sunburnt. It would be a little sore, that was all. What a stupid, theatrical sort of thing to do.
‘You held a baby,’ he said. ‘Well, when we were clearing the ruins, I found a baby. A little black charcoal baby with arms and legs like burnt sticks and its mouth stretched open crying. It nearly broke apart when I picked it up. I didn’t know if it was a girl or a boy. No-one knew who it was; all the houses had fallen together in that street and we couldn’t even be sure what family it belonged to. There were more bodies but that was the first one I found.’
Celena took her hand from her mouth. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, again, her voice throaty with pain and bewilderment. ‘V-very sorry,’ cradling her hurt hand with the good one.
‘Come on,’ he said, and caught her arm above the elbow, dragging her to her feet. She was too startled to struggle much as he towed her towards the trees but she protested faintly. The little stream that ran near the grove was easy to find by its rushing murmur; he knew the ground well enough even in the dark, but she slipped and stumbled, turning her ankles in nice little blue boots on dirty loose stones. Van pulled her down to a crouch again and pressed her hand into the cold water.
‘Now leave it there,’ he ordered her. ‘It needs a few minutes. You can’t just suck it. You’ll make a worse mess.’ He was feeling guilty already, even on top of his anger. She obeyed him, holding the scorched hand steadily in the spring-fed stream. It was icy even at noon in midsummer. It must hurt almost as much as the flame.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, pleadingly.
‘Stop saying that. It doesn’t mean anything to me.’
‘It means please don’t be cross with me!’
‘I’m not cross with you. It’s bigger than cross.’
‘Be cross with Dilandau!’
‘Show me Dilandau!’ He shook her by the shoulders and she cringed. 'There’s just you, isn’t there? You know what you are.’
‘I’m just Celena, I’m just – I didn’t know! I woke up and it was all like a bad dream! It’s all still in my head but it’s not me, I’m sorry and Dilandau wasn’t sorry, he wasn’t ever sorry, he was glad!’ She burst into tears properly at last, undignified sobbing. He let go of her, disgusted with both of them, and sat down on the creek bank.
‘How did you even get here?’ he asked wearily. ‘Allen wouldn’t have brought you. He’d be keeping you in a gilded cage, wouldn’t he?’
‘H-he gave me pocket money in the bazaar,’ Celena said, sniffing and gulping. ‘He said choose things. I got – I got red ribbons and a music box and then we went to the churches and I was sorry. I got upset and I ran away, and I threw my ribbons away and I think I dropped the box somewhere. There was a man at the docks with a pretty little fly-boat and I gave him the rest and said take me to Fanelia and he said yes. I came all by myself to say sorry.’
‘He’ll be going crazy,’ Van said. ‘You’re not safe to be out on your own. You’re like a kid. Why would you try to do that? Why couldn’t you just stay in your place and not come back here?’
‘It’s not very nice to hurt a kid, then,’ Celena said, with the first trace of spirit he had seen in her. ‘I thought I could do things… when you knew I was sorry… other girls help at the churches and wash things and mind children and I thought maybe you didn’t have anyone to do that here.’ Defending herself, she seemed a little more coherent.
‘Charity work,’ he said sourly. ‘For a lady.’
‘I wanted to make it better for what Dilandau did,’ she said stubbornly.
‘You can never make it better,’ he said. ‘We’re doing that for ourselves. You don’t deserve to be allowed to help. What do you think a gussied-up girl like you can do? How are you going to look after children? You can’t even use your right hand now. You’ve gotten off lightly. Taking a ride with a man you didn’t even know – there are a lot of people who will hurt you just because they can.’
‘You,’ she said.
‘I can’t ever hurt you the way you hurt me.’ He regretted saying it immediately; it made him sound like a victim. He wanted to be angry, not hurt. Righteous rage on behalf of his people was one thing; it was too much like defeat to let her see the very personal pain he felt. It gave her an opening. But she said nothing. They fell silent and the creek carried on a conversation by itself, whispering to the trees and chuckling over the stones.
‘Should I go away again?’ she asked after some time.
‘I can’t send you away in the middle of the night,’ he said. ‘You can come to the castle tonight. I’ll send a message to Allen. He’ll come and get you; it should be in the next couple of days. I can put up with you that long. And you need a bandage on your hand.’
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I can’t feel it any more.’
The finger of blame has turned upon itself,
And I’m more than willing to offer myself.
Do you want my presence, or need my help?
And who knows where that might lead…
Crowded House, ‘I Fall At Your Feet.’
Van half-woke in the pre-dawn dark with the knowledge that there was someone beside him. Merle sometimes crawled into bed with him these days, as she had done when they were both smaller and needed company in the night. She was trying hard to be brave and useful these days, to be more than the beloved little pet she had been. He didn’t require it of her; he would have been glad to try to give her back her childhood, but she was purposely putting it behind her, in daylight at least. It was in the dark that her nerve sometimes failed her, and then she would join him where he slept, nestling at his side, sometimes waking him with smothering warmth in her efforts to get close, although when the perishing Fanelian winter came that would be a blessing. Poor little thing. He rolled over drowsily, laid an arm over the warm figure and drifted back into nothingness.
When the light came and he woke properly, he found Celena beside him. Her appearance there, on top of the woven bedspread that covered him, was so wrong, so misplaced, that it was almost surrealistic. She was wearing a nightdress that the housekeeper must have given her, second-hand-looking with embroidery coming unpicked at the collar. It had probably come in one of the aid packages contributed by areas less affected by the fighting. He had clothes from those packages himself; fire damage within the castle had been extensive and when he had come home he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in. The King of Fanelia wore hand-me-down trousers and shirts other people had sweated in, just like everyone else until they could get things like weaving and sewing back underway on anything more than their current running-repairs scale.
It was still a perfectly good nightdress, probably carefully washed and dried, pressed and folded by some kind mother who, despite her own misfortunes, had time to think of others who had lost more, and to send them something decent, something respectable. And it was clothing Celena Schezar, who had turned up to the kingdom she had laid waste wearing brand-new lace and ribbons. He extracted his arm from under her shoulders and gave her a push to wake her.
‘What are you doing here?’
She blinked at him. Even in her morning daze there was something more in the milky-blue eyes than there had been last night; some aspect of lucidity that had been wanting. Perhaps it just didn’t show by moonlight. Perhaps she had good days and bad days. He knew what that was like.
‘I’m not sure,’ she answered. ‘I thought I came here but it was a dream. I don’t remember lying down. I think I was looking for Allen… but I’ve got an idea at the same time I was worried about you.’
‘I don’t want you to worry about me,’ he said coolly. ‘I have people for that already. Get out of my bed.’
‘I’m not in, only on,’ she said, but sat up, and stretched, and rubbed the back of her head where her fine hair clung in tangles, and winced as she was reminded by the stinging pressure of the injury to her right hand. She dropped it in her lap and they both saw that the blister must have wept in the night; the bandage was unravelling, damp and slightly discoloured.
‘Do you feel better because you hurt me back?’ she asked. The intonation of her voice had changed; she did not sound confident, but she sounded more normal for her age.
‘If I wanted to “hurt you back” I would do much more,’ he said. ‘I’m not interested in revenge. That was just… an example. Making a point.’
‘I think you already did everything to Dilandau that he did to you,’ she said musingly. ‘I think you got him back really well. You killed everyone who loved him, just about. You cut everything out from under him. Sometimes he could feel he was going down to nothing.’
‘Go on and tell yourself that,’ he said. ‘Because you’re all right, aren’t you? You’re nicely suited. You don’t have to be him any more, you get your brother back, which is a hell of a lot more than I got – I got him back worse than I ever thought he was and then he had to die better than I ever thought he would; I lost him three times over.’ Again, that was more than he had wanted to say.
‘Folken,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Dilandau didn’t like him; he’d pull him up and say stop there. He’d do that little smile and say “oh yes, this is your first time isn’t it” and he always knew more than you did, he knew what was really going on but he didn’t understand how things really were in the cockpit.’
‘I don’t want to hear you talking about him.’
‘Anyone can talk about anyone,’ she said. ‘I think if I knew Folken I would like him. He had sad eyes and I’d wonder where he kept his hands. He was always all hidden up in his clothes, like a big black explanation mark.’
‘You talk such garbage,’ Van said. ‘And it’s exclamation mark. You’re not right in the head, anyone can tell.’
‘I’m right in my head. Right in where I should be.’
‘So you sleepwalk and crawl into men’s beds. Get a good doctor. There could be a cure for it.’
‘I don’t like sleeping alone,’ she said. ‘I get in with Allen at home but he says go back to your room, little pet. I only get to stay now if he’s already sleeping. I have to wait so long by myself before I think he’ll be asleep. It’s so nice to be by a sleeping person all warm and heavy and they don’t mind about anything. Beds are very lonely by yourself. You stretch out your arms and legs and touch the sides and it’s cold at the edges.’
‘Get a cat.’
‘It would fight with Allen’s owl.’ She looked vaguely out the window, passing a hand over her forehead.
‘Will you, for the last time, get off my bed?’
‘No,’ she said quietly, ‘because I can’t move, and I think I’m nearly gone.’ She fell back on the pillow and her face was white as salt, blue eyes staring at nothing.
‘What? Get up. If you’re trying to be dramatic it’s just pathetic.’ He took her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake. She felt limp, and she was hardly breathing. ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake.’ He heaved her back into a sitting position, her head down between her knees. After a moment she groaned faintly, and lifted her head unsteadily.
‘What was that all about?’ he asked gruffly, hoping it was not apparent that he had been startled.
‘I have… I have funny turns sometimes… it’s like the world rushes away from me…’ She sat up cautiously, wiping tendrils of hair away from her forehead. ‘Thank you for looking after me.’
‘I’m not looking after you. You’re your brother’s problem.’ Since he could not seem to make her vacate the bed, short of laying hands on her in violence – and in the clear light of day he did not feel right about that – Van got out of it himself, with a very bad grace, partly because he was embarrassed to be seen in his crumpled, slept-in underwear. But the only reason to be embarrassed, he told himself, was if he acted as though there were anything to be embarrassed about. If he behaved as though there were nothing wrong nothing would be wrong. This was just what you got for being too proud to wear charity pajamas. He folded his arms so his chest would not feel quite so bare.
‘If you’re not well, you can stay there. It’d be too much of a liability to have you walking around if you might keel over at any moment.’ He was already going to have to do some fast talking when Allen saw that hand, and it might well turn into a matter of honour. At least he would be able to say that he had done his duty, if nothing more, as a host, once she was under his roof. He found his pants on the floor, half under the bed, and started to dress.
‘What happened to your nice red shirt?’ Celena asked. He ignored her, retrieved the less nice mustard-yellow shirt he had worn yesterday from the bedpost, and pulled it over his head.
‘Why are you just putting on the same clothes and not having a bath or getting fresh ones? You’re wearing the same undies as you woke up in. That’s disgusting.’
He ignored her some more. What did she expect, that he would change in front of her? One of his socks was hiding from him, somewhere on the floor. He was half-prepared to swear that they crept around by themselves at night.
‘I wish I’d thought of bringing some clean underthings with me, but I didn’t. Why are you going under the bed?’
Van backed out from the dusty underbed space on his knees, with the vagrant sock in his hand. He was not planning to say anything to her, because really nothing she was saying merited an answer as far as he was concerned, but then she laughed at him, a daft little baby laugh.
‘You have dustbunnies in your hair!’
‘Shut the hell up.’ The words shot out, quick and stinging.
Her face froze, then seemed to crack, like ice on a winter puddle if you stamp on it. Her eyes filled with tears and her mouth twitched, the corners pulling back convulsively into something that was almost an inverse grin.
‘What are you whingeing like that for? Do you think you’ll make me feel sorry for you?’
‘I’m – I’m sorry! Sorreeee…’ She trailed off into miserable, hiccupy sobs, throwing herself face-down on the pillows.
‘When you’re finished making a stupid fuss, someone will come to fix up your hand and bring you something to eat,’ Van said, and stalked out of his room to attack the business of the day.
It was mid-afternoon, while he was assisting with the hauling into place of a hefty roof beam for the rebuilt market-street tavern, that he saw her again, once more in her delicate blue and white and leading a small runny-nosed girl by the hand. He swore under his breath, and left the works as quickly as he safely could to pursue them. He caught up with them at the end of the street, Celena standing rather passively while the child looked to left and right, apparently thinking about which way to go.
‘What d’you think you’re doing?’ he asked her abruptly. She turned eagerly, looking pleased to see him, which he found very exasperating. She could at least have the decency to hate him back.
‘Kezia’s lost her mum,’ she explained, sounding proud to be on top of the situation. ‘We’re looking for her. Kezia’s just thinking about whether she might be at the castle where she works or if she’s gone home. I told you I could help. I can do little things like this.’
Van sighed, and stepped past her to get to ragged Kezia, who was sucking the thumb of her free hand as she contemplated the dusty intersection. He dropped to one knee, to get to her eye level, and put a firm but not unkindly hand on her shoulder. She blinked at him and sniffed thickly. Van was always bothered by small children with runny noses. He was never quite sure at what age people figured out how to blow their noses properly, and whether it did any good to tell them before they were ready.
‘Kezia,’ he said gently, ‘you remember me, right? We had a talk the other day.’
Kezia nodded solemnly.
‘And you remember what I said, right? You can’t keep doing this.’
‘Doing what?’ Celena interrupted. ‘If she’s lost her mother, she’s got to look for her. The poor lady will be worried.’
Van looked up at her, trying not to speak as harshly as he wanted to, since Kezia was listening too. ‘Kezia’s mother is dead. She died in the firestorm. But Kezia keeps asking people to help her look for her.’ He turned back to the child, who would no longer meet his eyes, looking sulkily at her dusty bare feet. ‘Kezia, you can’t find your mum now. I’m really sorry, but she just isn’t in this world any more. She’s where my… mum is, where good people go at the end of their lives, and when your life’s over you’ll see her again. Not till then.’
Kezia uncorked her thumb from her mouth. ‘Lena said we’ll find her,’ she said defiantly. ‘Lena said she’ll be round here somewhere.’
Celena started to apologise again, but Van cut her off with a look. ‘Lena doesn’t know anything about it,’ he said to Kezia. ‘She just got here and she doesn’t know anyone, so she didn’t know about your mum. But everyone else knows, and I think you know too. I know how sad it is, but you can’t change it. Your mum would want you to be brave and get on with things, not keep wasting your time looking for her. Do you understand now?’
Kezia’s face had been gradually crumpling as he spoke, and she hung her head as she let go of Celena’s hand, rocking from side to side. A small thin keening sound came from her working mouth, a painful dry crying that sounded far older than she was. Van felt like a despicable bully. He knew he was doing the right thing, she couldn’t be allowed to go on with this fantasy, but it was terrible to see how he was hurting a little girl. Awkwardly and somewhat unwillingly, he put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. That made her burst into tears in earnest, and lean on his shoulder, blotting his shirt with tears and gluey snot. Van thought this was a cue to hold her tighter, but she started to pound against him with her small fists and scream, shrill and mad.
‘Mum! I want Mum! You’re mean! I want my Mu-u-um…’ The screams became jagged sobs and the child relaxed in his arms. Van patted her thin back, noticing the bony wings of her shoulderblades through the undyed flax dress, feeling hopeless.
‘Come on, now, don’t cry… don’t cry, Kezia… you’ve got to be brave…’
‘You can cry and still be brave,’ Celena contradicted him. She crouched down too, letting her lace-trimmed skirt puff in the dirt. ‘My doctor says I should cry as much as I want to. Except I try to cry by myself because it upsets Allen.’
‘Well, aren’t you a hero. Keep your nose out of this, you’ve already made things worse.’
‘I think you’re being horrible! She’s got a right to be upset about her mother! My mother died while I was away. She never knew I was all right. Don’t worry, Zia… I know how you feel…’
‘And I don’t?’ Van stared at her over Kezia’s tousled head, incensed. ‘Her name is Kezia,’ he added, perhaps absurdly, but her nicknaming one of his people was one more annoyance on the pile.
‘Who’s meant to be looking after her, anyway? Are orphans just allowed to wander round by themselves?’
‘She’s not an orphan, she lives with her father, but in case you haven’t noticed there’s a lot of work to be done around here and a man can’t spend all day watching his kids! The children are supposed to stay at the carpenters' guildhall, a committee of women have organised a crêche there. Kezia keeps wandering off, and someone always has to take her back, and it’s a waste of time for everyone, and it gets her het up all over again, and you had to go and give her false hope interfering. Why couldn’t you just stay put?’
‘I got bored,’ Celena said, and her tone was almost a whine. ‘And your cat girl kept hanging round making sarcastic comments and she pinched one of my shoes and it took ages to get it back off her. And I wanted to help.’
‘You want to know how you can help? You want me to tell you something that’d really, really help me?’
‘Drop dead.’ The smashed ice-puddle again, as though he had struck down with his heel. He didn’t have time to find that satisfying. ‘No – no, Kezia, I wasn’t talking to you – no, please don’t start crying again – look, I got cross, I didn’t really mean it.’
‘You should say sorry!’ Kezia said, and gave him another thump on the shoulder to drive the point home. Then she dragged her forearm across her face, smudging the grey snail-trail over her upper lip and onto her cheek. Van winced.
‘All right. All right. Sorry, Celena.’
‘Thank you,’ she said graciously, then spoiled it by adding ‘You see, when someone tells me they’re sorry I accept it.’
Van bit back the words that rose in his mouth and gently levered Kezia away from himself so he could stand up without toppling her over. ‘Come on, Kezia,’ he said, ‘we’ll go back to the hall now.’ He tried to take the little girl’s hand, but she wormed away from him and hooked her arm around the neck of Celena, still crouching.
‘I’m only going if Lena says.’
‘Kezia, I’m your king.’ It sounded ludicrous to have to pull rank like that.
‘He is, Kezia – you should do what he says,’ Celena said helpfully.
‘I don’t need you to back me up,’ Van said coldly. But it seemed to have done the trick. Kezia held out her hand to him, quite co-operatively, but when he took a step she refused to follow, standing still and holding out her other hand to Celena, who had risen to her feet. Celena looked at Van as though asking for permission, but then, and this was what irked him, went ahead and took the offered hand, as though she were only paying lip service, or maybe it should be eye service, to his authority. At least, he thought with some satisfaction, she had got stuck with the nose-wiping hand. They walked toward the carpenters' guildhall linked by Kezia’s warm, sticky little paws. Oddly, she seemed to be cheering up now, and in the street outside the hall insisted that they give her a swing between them. Van went along with this because he did not feel like dealing with another spate of crying, while Celena obliged gladly and laughed at the sight of Kezia kicking her legs in the air.
They returned Kezia to the care of the guild women’s committee. One of the women in charge was, in fact, her aunt, and received her with a combined hug and swat on the bottom. Van was gratefully and humbly thanked for taking the time and trouble to bring her in, and the thanks were extended to Celena when Kezia, tugging on her aunt’s skirt, insisted that she had helped too. Once more Van decided to keep the peace by taking the path of least resistance. Besides, explaining the real situation would take a long time and upset good people needlessly.
Once they were out of the guildhall he took hold of Celena’s arm, a firm grip above the elbow, and began to steer her in the direction of the castle. She seemed quite good-tempered and he wondered whether she was simply brainlessly oblivious to his feelings about her or choosing to disregard them.
‘I think it’s lovely that you know the names of little children in your kingdom,’ she volunteered halfway up Carpenters Street.
‘There aren’t a lot of people,’ he said shortly. ‘It’s not that hard to learn people’s names.’
‘I think it shows you care about all of them.’
‘Of course I care about all of them,’ he said, almost losing his stride. ‘They’re my people. What else am I here for? I’d be a pretty poor sort of king if I didn’t.’
‘I know,’ she said, ‘I was saying it’s good, you’re doing a good job. I like your way better than King Aston. He just sits in his palace. He doesn’t know my name. I think Princess Millerna is like you, though. She tries to see everyone. She remembers me too.’
‘And if people are nice to you they must be all right.’
‘You don’t have to be – be…’ She looked puzzled, frowning. ‘What’s that word when you say something in a snotty voice and it’s the opposite of what you mean?’
‘Sarcastic? What are you talking about? You said sarcastic a few minutes ago. You said Merle was being sarcastic.’
‘Did I? I knew it then? Why don’t I know it now?’ Her voice was plaintive, as though she really thought he might be able to tell her.
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘But – but you’re nice to me too.’
‘What are you babbling about now?’
‘Because – because look, you’re holding my arm, not my hand, so you wouldn’t hurt me on my burn,’ she said, wiggling the hand at the end of the arm he was gripping, the one with a clean new bandage. Now that he thought about it, she had kept that hand away from Kezia’s grasp. It must still be painful. He felt a twist of guilt about that.
‘I gave you that burn,’ he said. ‘Unless you’ve forgotten that too.’
‘But you don’t want to hurt me any more,’ she said, sounding sure she was right. ‘Because you’re a nice person. You don’t like hurting anyone. You do it when you get mad, only.’
‘You’re good at making excuses for people.’ He was marching her up the hill now, on the final approach to the castle. Merle was waiting, sitting atop the gatepost, and sprang down to run to meet him.
‘Van-sama!’ She caught hold of his free arm and swung from it, hugging it with both her own arms and butting her russet head against his shoulder. ‘I didn’t think you’d be back so early! Did she make trouble?’ She directed a sharp glare around the front of him at Celena, who looked indignant. Merle put her tongue out at the other girl and then beamed up at Van.
‘Hey,’ Van said, ‘don’t you be cheeky.’ His tone was affectionately scolding, and Merle continued to smile impudently.
‘I’ve had a busy morning,’ she said, importantly. ‘I’ve kept an eye on the men putting new tiles on the roof of the west wing. They said I was getting in the way but I told them I was there to make sure everything went right for you.’
‘Oh, so she’s a good girl but I’m interfering?’ Celena asked.
‘She lives here and knows what’s going on,’ Van said. ‘She doesn’t stick her nose in where it’s not wanted.’
‘What did she do?’ Merle asked eagerly. ‘I bet it was bad.’
‘I was trying to help!’ Celena protested. She tugged her arm out of Van’s hand; he had not expected her to be able to do that, but she was a little stronger than she looked. ‘It’s not my fault it went wrong. If you would just have given me a proper job I wouldn’t have had to walk round looking for something to do.’ She rubbed the yellow-white pressure-mark his fingers had left until it bloomed pink.
‘You shouldn’t have been walking round,’ Van told her, ‘unless you were faking sick this morning. When your brother turns up you’re not going to be able to tell him I let you exhaust yourself. I sent the letter off this morning, so it shouldn’t take too long.’
‘I’m sure she was faking,’ Merle said loftily, ‘she’s obviously as strong as an ox. She’s not very feminine. Look, she walks like a boy. She swings her arms.’
Celena caught herself and tried to find something else to do with her hands without looking as though that were what she was doing. She ended up clasping them behind her back.
‘She’s as weird as Hitomi,’ Merle went on.
‘That’s not fair to Hitomi,’ Van observed dryly.
‘I’m sure Hitomi wouldn’t be this rude to me,’ Celena snapped. ‘My brother was very fond of her and I expect that means she had some manners.’
‘You don’t know the first thing about Hitomi,’ Van said, ‘so don’t go assuming things.’ They were inside the castle gates now, the sentries saluting him as they entered, and into the big courtyard, always busy and never more so, with all the bustle of reconstruction. There were always plenty of people needing the King’s attention, and Van was swiftly buttonholed by one of the newly promoted generals of Fanelia’s decimated army. The man in question had been only a major before, and tended to feel he needed to refer to as many other people as possible before deciding anything. Van was nodding politely and trying to think of something helpful he could say about the problem of maintaining disciplinary standards without things like uniforms to create a sense of order when there was a small outcry behind him, and Merle called his name urgently. He turned to find Celena on the ground, on her hands and knees on the rush-strewn earth of the courtyard, shaking.
‘She just went all white,’ Merle reported.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ Van said, ‘she’ll be fine in a moment. I’ve seen this before. Come on, get up.’ He took hold of both Celena’s wrists and hauled up, noticing with a little annoyance that her bandage was now all dirty and would need to be changed, making more work for someone who was probably busy anyway. Celena was not coming up. She hung from his hands with her head rolling loosely. Merle put a hand under her chin and tilted her face up; her eyes were half-closed and only the whites showed. It was not an appealing sight. She seemed unconscious.
Suppressing an exclamation of annoyance, unable to suppress a grunt of effort, Van got his shoulder under her and hauled her up in a sort of fireman’s lift. It is really not easy to lift someone that way who is a bit taller than you. He was afraid someone was going to offer to help him. He did not want to be seen to need help.
‘I’ll take her up to her room,’ he said, as distinctly as he could, and started up the stairs that led off from the courtyard, Merle padding anxiously in his wake.
Celena surfaced from dizzy darkness to find that she was lying on her back on a bed somewhere. A moment’s puzzled thought brought her to the conclusion that it was the same spare room in the Fanelian castle where she had been put to sleep last night. Someone was holding her right hand, the blistered one, and she wanted to tell them to be careful, but her mind was now catching up with events and she realised that they were; very careful. She turned her head to look, and saw Van Fanel putting a new dressing on the burn. He was not a very tidy bandager but he was doing a respectable job, concentrating with a frown. Over his shoulder, she could see Merle sitting on the windowsill, also frowning, but at Celena herself, not just her hand.
‘She’s awake,’ Merle reported. Van looked up from his work, tucking the end of the bandage in at her wrist.
‘You’re to stay in bed now,’ he said, without preamble. ‘If you’re going to keep fainting all over the place you can do it where you won’t fall and hurt yourself.’
‘I should think so,’ Merle said. ‘After all he’s done for you! And he doesn’t have to do any of it. He’s too kind for his own good sometimes.’
‘I know he’s kind,’ Celena began to say, but Van made an impatient cutting-off gesture with one hand. That made her notice that he was not wearing gloves today. It looked all wrong, and she was surprised it had not occurred to her sooner. She wished she had new ones to offer him.
There was a quietly respectful tap at the door. Van went to it, glad of the opportunity to move away from Celena. He was worried about her hand; the blister was broken and the skin around it seemed to have gotten more inflamed. He had decided to dress it himself so as not to put the chore onto anyone else, but he thought soon he would have to ask a doctor to have another look. He did not want her telling him he was kind. There must be something wrong with her if she thought like that.
In the corridor the court falconer was waiting for him. This man was also in charge of the new carrier-pigeon system put in place at Princess Millerna’s suggestion, to facilitate communication between Fanelia and its neighbours. Since most of his birds had either escaped in terror or been burned in their mews, and he was only gradually rebuilding his collection, it gave him something to take his mind off his troubles. Asturian homing-pigeons were nothing much compared with Fanelian hawks and falcons, but they were something to take care of. He was always recognisable by his epaulettes of guano.
‘We just had a bird in, Van-sama,’ he said, holding his hat in one hand and extending the other with a slip of rolled paper in the palm. ‘Response to your message last night.’
Van felt mildly surprised. He had thought that Allen would come directly, responding to the message in person. It was quite a big slip, too; the pigeon must be knackered. He thanked the falconer and unrolled the paper to read it. The curly handwriting was certainly not Allen’s. His eyes skipped to the signature, then back to the start to see why Millerna had written to him.
Dear V.F, (she was writing small, to conserve space, and her script was hard to read in places. She had also tried to conserve words, which made it worse) most relieved to get your msg. Am caring for A.S. laid low with relapse of malaria (first contracted on service in swamps) and v. worried about C.S. Looked much better as soon as he heard C. in safe hands, expect easier recovery. Can’t come for her now, pls. keep her few days more, will be v. grateful. Hope no trouble. Regards, Millerna Aston.
The whole message struck him as odd, so brisk and efficient, and yet she’d dotted all her lower-case I’s with hearts. Still, that was Millerna for you. Or not so efficient, because why in the world couldn’t she send someone to collect Celena? Allen’s sergeant Gaddes would be an obvious choice. Unless he was not well either; she didn’t say so, but it was reasonable to suppose that they might have had malaria together, and might have a relapse at the same time. Malaria! What a time for it! So here he was stuck with Celena for – well, for however long it took someone to shake off a relapse of swamp fever.
‘Is there any reply?’ the falconer asked, noting the gloomy expression that had settled on Van’s face. ‘It’s not bad news, is it?’
‘Only rather inconvenient,’ he replied, crumpling the paper. ‘I don’t need to respond. Just wait till I hear from them again, I suppose. Thank you – that’s all for now.’ The falconer nodded, put his hat back on and left, absent-mindedly brushing at his shoulder. Van stood irresolute in the corridor for a moment, squashing the paper into a pellet, before returning to the spare bedroom. Celena was sitting up in bed, looking rather rosier, perhaps merely because she was obviously having an argument with Merle.
‘He could not,’ Merle was saying indignantly.
‘I tell you he could, if it was a fair fight.’
‘Are you saying Van-sama doesn’t fight fair!?’
‘I’m saying he’s got an advantage in Escaflowne. In a hand-to-hand fight, just the two of them with swords, my brother could so beat him.’
‘You couldn’t beat him,’ Merle said with immense scorn.
‘That’s not the point!’
‘Stop it, the both of you,’ Van said, feeling weary. ‘Celena, I’ve just had word that your brother can’t come for you right away. He’s ill, so you’ll have to stay here a while longer.’
‘Ill? Oh no – what’s the matter? I – I didn’t make him sick by going away, did I? Don’t people sometimes get sick from a shock? Di – Dilandau got sick when he was upset about…’ She let the thread drop.
‘Millerna says he’s got a relapse of malaria.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It’s a swamp fever. You can get better from it, but it sort of hangs around in your system and sometimes it comes back. He should be all right, since he'll be well cared for - he’ll just feel really sick for a few days.’
‘But he shouldn’t have to be sick all by himself! I was sick when I first got home, I had an awful fever and he stayed with me all the time and did cold compresses and told me when I was only dreaming and he’ll need me there!’ She made an agitated attempt to get out of bed, and was pushed back by Merle, who had descended from her windowsill to argue better.
‘He wants you to stay here,’ Van went on. ‘Apparently he’s relieved that you’re in a safe place. I expect you’ll be in a lot of trouble when you do go home. And he’s not alone; Princess Millerna is looking after him.’
‘I hope my doctor is too,’ Celena said earnestly. ‘My doctor’s a very good doctor.’ She had lost her colour again and was picking miserably at the edge of her quilt.
‘Hey, don’t worry,’ Merle said, with some sympathy. ‘She saved his life once already, so she’s had some practice and it should be easier this time.’ Celena looked a little comforted.
And of course, Van thought, the last time he needed her to save him, it was because your Dragonslayers had attacked him. You’re poison to your brother. Although this would have been an excellent and hurtful thing to say, he found himself holding back. It seemed dishonourable to use a powerful weapon on such a weak enemy. Though she should know all about that.
‘And I can stay here… until Allen’s feeling better?’
‘So it seems,’ Van said. ‘But from now on I expect you to behave yourself. You’re not fit to look after yourself. You’re childish.’
Her eyes narrowed in a way that made him quite uncomfortable. ‘I’m not that childish,’ she said, and as she spoke it seemed true, but then that nebulous, uncertain look leaked back in, and she looked as though she was not sure what she had just said.
‘Oh, don’t make a fuss,’ said Merle. ‘Stay in bed. Whether you’re childish or not you’re not well, and you need to sleep.’ Van found himself tempted to smile at her bossy tone; that was the nice thing about Merle, the lovely thing. He could depend on her to lighten his mood, even while she was one of the worries that weighed on him.
He made a conscious effort to clear his mind of those worries before talking to Hitomi. He knew, because she had told him so seriously, that their feelings could strongly affect any exercise of psychic power; the effects could ripple outward, like circles in still water where you drop a stone, and touch things that seemed unrelated, lapping against dangerous shores and stirring up currents in deep places. He waited until he felt calm, sitting in a quiet place on one of the pantiled rooves of the palace, bathed in the pinkish light of the sinking sun, gently rolling the cool teardrop-shaped stone of the pendant between his palms until it was as warm as his blood.
Then he began to build up his picture of her, in his mind. He did this slowly, because he enjoyed it; there was a meticulous pleasure in calling up every dearly-remembered detail. Not only the obvious idiosyncrasies, like the demure way she clasped her hands before her, and the tufty cowlick at the crown of her head, but things you didn’t know you were noticing until you really thought about it, the way her eyes reflected light, the subtle self-smell of her hair. He carefully pencilled in the strokes of her eyebrows, and there she was, complete. No… no, wait, her legs were not quite so thin… a tiny bit more of a dip in her back… perfect Hitomi. His idea of her body was like a paper-doll outline, of course, and apart from a few very private midnight speculations, he felt shy about building on that.
In fact, thinking of that put a little tremor in his breathing that he conscientiously smoothed away before reaching out to touch her mind. He always felt the way cautiously, and would withdraw quickly if he found her preoccupied. But she seemed to be at rest, receptive, so he went the little way further necessary to make her know he was there, and to know with more certainty where she was and what she was doing.
He found her in her own room of her family’s house, dreamily biting a pencil and vaguely contemplating the homework questions in a world history textbook. He would rather have liked to read some of it through her eyes, just out of curiosity about her world, but he only had time to wonder about a picture of a soldier shaking his fist at a stormy sky before he had Hitomi’s full attention.
Van! How are you?
Fine… thank you… how are you?
The feeling, not the sound, of a laugh. Next I think we should comment on the weather.
All right… telepathy etiquette… but you know I don’t know unless I ask.
That’s probably a good thing. Or we’d never have any privacy. I don’t mean – well, you know…
I know. It was not right to say that there was an awkward silence, because they were not speaking aloud, but there was a pause during which, if they had been face to face, they would probably have looked at the floor, or the ceiling, or developed an intense interest in the state of the toes of their shoes. It was the sort of silence you wanted desperately to fill up by saying something clever, which you felt absolutely unable to do.
Celena Schezar’s here, he told her, for lack of inspiration.
Allen’s sister? What’s she like?
A pain in the neck.
Really? She doesn’t still behave like Dilandau, does she?
No… I suppose that’s something… but I’ve got to put up with her for a few days yet, what with one thing and another, and she’s getting on my nerves.
What does she do?
Well, she – she follows me round, and she keeps saying she’s sorry, and she wants to help. And she’s kind of weak, she keeps fainting.
Hitomi’s lack of response had a faint disapproving flavour to it, as though he could see her frowning slightly. If she’s sorry, and she wants to help, isn’t that a good thing?
I don’t really want to talk about it.
Why did you bring it up?
I don’t know, I didn’t know what to say. Has anything interesting been happening to you?
Oh, yes – there’s a big interschool track meet in a few days. I’ve never qualified for anything at this level before, and I’m really excited. Yukari told Amano-sempai about it when she emailed him, and he phoned all the way from England just to wish me luck and give me some tips. She keeps teasing me about stealing her boyfriend, and saying there’s no cake I can buy her to make up for this one. She’s such a nut.
Oh… well, that’s good… isn’t it? You’re happy with that? The terms she used were so foreign. It really reminded him that although they could somehow understand each other, they spoke different languages. ‘Track meet’ sounded as though it should mean something like ‘crossroads,’ but it was something you qualified for, some event… what did you do to someone if you phoned them or emailed them? Was that mail like messages or mail like armour, or another unrelated word that just had the sound of ‘mail’ in it? He didn’t feel able to ask, didn’t want to admit the barrier of misunderstanding was there. He wanted to understand the things that were important to her. Her tone told him that this was, but it was a mystery to him.
Yes, it’s good. I mean, I’m not expecting to win any races my first time, but it’s good experience, and maybe I can make second or third. One thing I learned on Gaea was how to run like I meant it. It’s made a lot of difference to my form.
It’s a meeting for running races?
Yes… oh, I’m sorry, you wouldn’t know! It’s like a big tournament of running. The whole track club go together, the ones who aren’t racing as well, to cheer the runners on… I’ve always just been cheering before…
That’s great. Good for you!
Another ‘silence.’ Van could feel the distance between their minds, growing to match the physical distance between their worlds. He wanted to tell her everything that was going on, but it would all take so long to explain, and from his own example, he was beginning to doubt that she would understand. Their conversations were more and more like this. At first he had told her everything he did and saw and thought, pouring it out, but he had put so much time into it that it made him behind in his work, and when he admitted as much to Hitomi she said it was giving her the same trouble, so they had cut back, and he had begun to get behind in the account of his days, and the more behind he got the harder it was to catch up, and the less certain he felt that it was worth telling her anyway. What would it mean to her that the weirs in the river had been rebuilt, or that they were getting in an expert from Freid to get them started with some paddy-fields, since rice looked like a good crop and they might as well do something with all these hillsides? She would be pleased for his sake, as he was pleased for hers with this track thing, but her interest would be only for his sake, almost duty, almost politeness.
How could this be happening? He loved her. He knew he did. He could feel his love like a cool breeze sweetening a miserable muggy night, like the other side of the pillow that offers you a healing sleep, like the gentle hand that slips in and curls its fingers around yours, soft but strong. Knowing he loved her should make everything work right. Surely they were past the time when they could mess it up. But in that case, why didn’t he know what to do?
There’s something I want to ask you…
Well, I’ve got this friend… this isn’t one of those times when you say ‘I’ve got this friend’ and you’re talking about yourself… it’s this boy in my class. He’s called Takashi. You’d probably like him, he’s really nice. He’s asked me if I want to go out for ice-cream with him this Sunday afternoon.
I want to ask if it’s all right with you for me to go. Do you mind? Because I don’t want to go if you don’t want me to.
Why wouldn’t I want you to go?
Well, it would be a date.
You’re not talking about dried fruit, are you?
No… no, it’s when you spend the day with someone… you set that date aside for them… it... if they ask you, it means they like you.
And… if you say yes, it means you like them?
Well, then, you should definitely go.
Van, I didn’t mean it like that… don’t be hurt…
I’m not at all hurt. I think it’s a good idea. You’ll have fun, won’t you?
Well… I hope so…
I’m sure I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
Van! You do so mind! I won’t go, then – I only wanted to ask!
But you want to go, or you wouldn’t have asked in the first place. If you didn’t, you would have said no thank you to Taki-thingy without needing to ask me.
You do know I’m always thinking about you, don’t you?
And I’m always thinking about you. So I honestly don’t care who you’re friends with. Yukari, Amano, Taki, whoever.
Takashi, then. We’ll still feel the same way, right?
Of course. Of course! I’ll never forget you. I told you I’ll never forget you.
I’ll talk to you tomorrow, maybe.
All right… do you have to go right now?
Yes… you were busy, I think… I shouldn’t keep you, and there’s really things I’ve got to do. Goodbye.
Goodbye, Van… take care of yourself…
Van opened his eyes. The pink light of sunset was gone, and the air was growing cool. He looked down at the town, at the faint glows of lamplight and candlelight in the windows. They were not the only things glowing; fireflies were dancing in the night air, tiny golden lights, enchanting. It was difficult to see that they were beautiful in his current mood. He was trying very hard not to hope that someone he had never met called Takashi would suddenly be stricken down by gout or measles or something, and stop sniffing around other people’s… well, people who were important to other people. Van knew it wasn’t fair of him. It wasn’t reasonable. Just as he didn’t know about Takashi, Takashi didn’t know about him. Hitomi could not exactly go around telling people there was someone on another world who cared for her. They would think she was mad. He had no right to deprive her of being a normal girl of her place and time. But still!
She liked someone else.
There was a soft step behind him, and then Merle was settling herself at his side, leaning her warm little head on his shoulder. He pressed his own cheek against her soft auburn hair and they sat together in silence for some time, watching the stars gradually appear as the sky darkened from deep dusky blue to velvet black.
Millerna closed the door to Allen’s room and permitted herself the sigh of exasperation she had been holding back the whole time she had been in there. She was beginning to wonder if she was cut out for medicine at all. But she had committed herself to this case, and she would not be at all happy with herself if she palmed it onto someone else just because it was so tiresome. She looked at the upside-down nurse’s watch pinned on her blouse and made her way along the corridor to the next bedroom.
The Schezar family home must once have hosted memorable house-parties. It had far more guest bedrooms than you could imagine recent generations ever needing. At least they were convenient now, when Allen’s men all seemed to have gotten sick at once, and the city hospitals still had very little room to spare. Doctors were also very busy, and although she was still unqualified, the royal family’s surgeon had been glad to let her take charge of their care with his occasional supervision. The only doctor she could find that Allen had had any business with recently was a specialist in children’s disorders and disturbances, and his services had been devoted to Celena. So it had come down to her, and of course she didn’t shirk the responsibility, but the occasional sigh and gripe were necessary to relieve her feelings.
In the next bedroom was Gaddes. When she and her assistant nurse had first put him to bed there, he had been in no condition to take much notice of his surroundings, but now that he was feeling slightly better he had made a few jokes about being a cuckoo in the nest, and how it was a shame he never got such luxury except when he was feeling too rotten to appreciate it. He seemed to be feeling quite rotten now, having just made the transition from feeling much too cold to feeling much too hot. He had made an effort to kick off his blankets, succeeding mainly in tangling them around his legs, and was sitting up making a very shaky effort to pour himself a glass of water from the bedside pitcher. As Millerna approached the bedside he gave up and let her take the jug from his hand.
‘It’s pathetic,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’m as shaky as a newborn foal.’ He accepted the glass she held out, but nearly dropped it, so that she had to catch hold of it again and tilt it for him as he took a few sips. Millerna watched him closely. His eyes still had a fever-brightness and his skin was unhealthily flushed and damp, but she thought he looked slightly better than he had a few hours ago, and she was not seriously worried about him.
‘You’re going to be all right,’ she assured him. ‘You’ll be as strong as ever in a wee while. I’ve brought you your medication, and once you’ve had that you must try to sleep. It’s past eight o’clock.’
‘Thank you,’ he said, making another effort to take the medicine-glass. This time Millerna did not try to let go of it.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘Just let me help you. I’m just like any other nurse.’
‘Are they all secretly princesses, then?’ He smiled rather weakly, but swallowed the medicine.
‘It’s rather a relief to have a patient who makes a bit of an effort, anyway,’ Millerna said as she straightened his pillows. ‘Were you there the first time Allen had this? And was he this pathetic? He was so brave and stoic when he was injured, but now!’
‘Well, I think it’s different for him,’ Gaddes said, after another drink of water. ‘When you get hurt, especially in a battle… well, you’ve got to keep being strong about it. And the time we all got it in the swamp, he held it all together at first. He was one of the last ones to get sick and even as he was coming down with it he was staggering round trying to make sure other people were okay. Some of the rest of us were getting better by then, and we told him to bugger off to bed before he dropped dead, and let us worry about it. And he just went…’ He trailed off.
‘Pathetic?’ Millerna suggested crisply. ‘Whining all the time? Complaining that his pillows are too soft, or too thick, or the room’s too bright, or that he’d like shaved ice instead of crushed ice in his water, and could he have a straw to drink through, and please don’t talk, his head aches, and if you have to leave him for five minutes longer than you said you would he says you don’t care about him and he could have died and he feels terrible and no-one loves him and he probably will die and no-one will care?’
‘We used to just say “absolutely, you’re right, get on with it,”’ Gaddes said. ‘He’ll get over it. He was very sheepish afterwards. We just decided not to mention it again. I don’t think you can count how a man talks when he’s got a fever against him.’
‘Now that he knows his sister is all right he seems to feel he can relinquish all pretence of maturity,’ Millerna said. ‘I really am seeing a quite different side of him. Open your mouth.’ Gaddes opened obediently and she put a thermometer under his tongue. ‘Close.’ While she waited for a minute to elapse she straightened up the bed and folded the blankets so that he could easily pull them up when he wanted them again. The thermometer reading confirmed that Gaddes’ temperature was still high, but lower than it had been in the morning.
‘There we are,’ she said, showing him the little line of mercury. ‘Hurrah for quinine. Modern medicine will pull you through yet.’
‘I don’t feel that hot,’ Gaddes said. ‘I feel bloody cold now. Sorry.’ He was beginning to shiver, although he was still sweating.
‘Oh, I’ve heard worse when Father loses at bridge,’ Millerna said cheerfully. ‘Let’s get you tucked in again. Your fever will probably break sometime tonight, and after that you’ll be much more comfortable.’
‘Maybe then I’ll start whining too,’ he said, probably smiling, although it was hard to see now that he was tugging the covers up around his ears, and she could hear his teeth chattering.
‘Don’t you dare. That is a royal command.’
Van woke in the dark of the night, when the moon had set, with the feeling that something was amiss. He was alone in his room, just as when he had fallen asleep. The door was closed, the shutters, in accordance with their name, were shut, and the only sound was his own breathing. He raised his head, and stayed half-sitting, propped up on his elbows, for perhaps half a minute before another sound came to him, also of breathing; the long shaky inhalation of someone who is trying to pull themselves together and stop crying. It came from outside the door, and it did not work. It was followed by very small, half-smothered sobs, and now that his waking ears heard them Van knew that they were what had called him out of sleep.
He sat up, trying to think what was appropriate to do. If it were Merle crying, he didn’t even have to think about it; he would put his arms around her and rub behind her ears and smooth her hair, and tell her quietly not to worry, he would always look after her. But he knew what Merle sounded like weeping; these sobs were too low-pitched to be hers. Who would be crying outside his door? Did it even have anything to do with him? Should he do anything, or would it be more tactful to let whoever it was have their little cry and leave undisturbed? It could be embarrassing if he got it wrong.
But if whoever it was needed attention, it was far worse to leave them alone. He rolled out of bed, put his trousers on for the sake of respectability, and opened the door.
Because there was no moonlight, and because he was looking into an internal corridor without windows anyway, it was very dark out there, and at first he could only distinguish a pale shape piled on the floor. Then it stirred in a way that was recognisably human, and then a twist of the shadow, or some tiny bit of light refracted by an eye, told him it was Celena.
‘Please don’t be angry with me,’ she said, and if he hadn’t known her by the voice the sentiment would have clinched it.
‘What are you doing out there? What’s wrong with you? Were you sleepwalking or something?’ He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, trying to think clearly.
‘I walked here in a dream. I knew where I was but I was dreaming at the same time. I dreamed you were in trouble and I wanted to help you, but when I got here your door was shut and I knew you didn’t want me to, and I – I got confused – and…’ She doubled over again, hiding her face in her hands.
‘Oh, for God’s sake…’ Van sat down on the floorboards himself, and put his head in his hands for a moment. I’m too sleepy to get angry. I’m just tired of this. I’m tired of her being so weird. If I could figure out why she behaves this way, it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much.
He said so, and Celena looked up in surprise, as well as he could judge in this light.
‘I didn’t know you didn’t know,’ she said.
‘How am I supposed to know? You talk nonsense half the time. I don’t know if you know why you do what you do. I mean, why in the world would you come creeping to me at night? There’s a whole castle full of people!’
‘I know you.’
‘You know I don’t like you!’
‘But I like you.’
‘What for? That’s stupid! What have I ever done to make you like me? The first thing I did when you got here was burn your hand! I’ve never done anything nice for you that I didn’t have to! Can’t you tell when – look, can’t you even have the decency to hate me properly?’ The sentence sounded strange to him even as it was leaving his lips, but he could think of no other way to say what he meant.
Celena was silent for a long moment, and he began to wonder if she would say anything at all.
‘Why do you want me to hate you? I don’t want to.’
‘It’s not that I want you to. I just don’t see why you don’t.’
‘Just because I used to be Dilandau?’ She went on before he could answer. ‘But if I hated all Dilandau’s enemies I would have to hate Allen too, and I love Allen. I can’t not love him. I don’t – I mean – when there’s someone who Dilandau really hated, I feel like I should try to like them more, to make up for it. It’s sort of… he hated you so much, there must be something good about you.’ There was almost a laugh in her voice, an uneasy one.
‘That’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard.’
‘But it’s why.’
‘So you just like me on principle?’
‘N-o…’ Celena raised a hand to fiddle with her hair, as though she were embarrassed. ‘I like you because you look nice, too, and you’re very kind like you were to Kezia… and you said you didn’t do anything for me that you didn’t have to, but I don’t think you had to do any of it. You could have left me out in the woods. I think you would have if you really really hated me.’
‘But I hurt you! I burned you!’
‘I think… I think if you were glad you did that you’d have done it some more. But you keep trying to make it better. You keep looking after me. I keep feeling like you’re in trouble and I want to look after you back.’
‘Don’t you even mind about your hand?’
There was a little pause before she answered. ‘That wasn’t a nice thing to do. But I won’t be angry with you if you’ll not be angry with me any more.’
‘That’s not an even swap,’ Van said, but he said it more gently than he had been accustomed to speak to her. ‘But I’ll say I’m sorry. I regret hurting your hand. It was cruel.’ He offered her his hand to shake, as though it were some sort of gentlemen’s agreement. When she took it he felt that the bandage was dry, which was a relief. He had been afraid the burn would get infected and seep… what a revolting thought. But it seemed all right.
‘This doesn’t hurt, does it?’
‘No. It’s nice when you hold my hand.’
Van let go as though her hand itself could burn him. ‘I didn’t mean it that way!’ Now the fire had gotten into his cheeks. Thank goodness it was dark. Thank goodness no-one else had heard her say that!
‘What way?’ She sounded honestly puzzled. ‘Friends hold hands, don’t they? Allen holds my hand.’
‘He’s your brother, it’s different!’
‘Oh…’ Celena paused thoughtfully. ‘Oh, I know what you mean. Is that why you got so panicky about me being in your bed too? Please don’t worry. I won’t try to do anything to you.’
‘I didn’t think you would!’ Van was close to panic. Everything either of them said made him more embarrassed, and somehow Celena being so matter-of-fact about it made it worse. ‘I thought…’
‘Did you think I thought you were trying to do something to me? Why would I think that when you said you don’t like me?’
‘Even if I did like you I wouldn’t just try to “do things to you”,’ Van said miserably. ‘I’ve got better manners than that.’
‘I think you’ve got very good manners, if you consider holding a girl’s hand a bit forward.’ It was one of the times when she sounded startlingly sharp, and rather amused, as though she were a good deal older than him. ‘Of course, when you’re together alone in the dark…’
‘I’m just teasing you.’
‘Well, it’s very creepy and I wish you’d pick a personality and stick with it. It’s the middle of the night. You should be in your own bed asleep. It’s ridiculous to sit around in a corridor in your nightie. Go on.’ He hoped he didn’t sound as flustered as he felt.
‘I can’t remember the way back,’ she said plaintively, and suddenly her voice was a child’s again. She could have been Merle or even Kezia.
Van sighed. ‘Come on. I’ll show you.’
‘I’m not sure I can follow you in the dark. Can I hold your hand again without it being creepy?’
‘All right, all right.’ He led her through the night-time castle, tracing the path to the room that was temporarily hers. At one point they heard the sound of a sentry, approaching along a corridor that crossed the end of the one they were in like the bar of a T. Van pulled Celena into the shadow of a dented suit of armour that stood against the wall and hushed her. They waited while the footsteps faded.
‘Why are you hiding from a guard in your own castle?’ Celena whispered once the man was out of earshot and they had begun to move again.
‘Because it would be a pain in the neck explaining what we’re doing up,’ Van said.
‘Why, do you think he’s going to growl at you? You’re the King!’
‘Oh, shut- shush. Here’s your room.’
‘Thank you for looking after me again.’
Van was about to let go of Celena’s hand when she fell against him, one hand grabbing at his shoulder. For a moment he was horribly startled, but as her body sagged he realised she was having another of her fainting spells, and was able to become all practicality, bearing her up and helping her into the bedroom. He had to more or less drop her on the bed, and bent over her patting at her face.
‘Come on, Celena, look alive. Not time to go to sleep yet.’
She groaned, and her eyes flickered open.
‘I wish you’d give me some warning before you do that,’ Van said, sitting down beside her. ‘You have to go and be dramatic every time.’
‘I don’t get any warning,’ Celena said, sitting up, rubbing her face. ‘Oh, I hate that! I feel as though I’m disappearing. As though I’m going down to nothing. I’m all alone in the dark…’
‘Fifteen is a bit old to be afraid of the dark.’
‘You’re more alone in the dark. And I’ll be sixteen in Red.’
‘I’m not sixteen till White next year.’
‘I didn’t know I was older than you.’
‘Don’t worry, no-one would guess,' he said wryly.
‘I suppose I really should stay in bed,’ Celena said. ‘I wish I was well. I’m so useless.’
‘Now that,’ said Van, ‘is called fishing for compliments. You’re saying it because you want me to say you’re not useless. Which I won’t.’
‘Do you think I could grow out of it? Or am I going to be like this forever? I can’t tell. I think I’ve gotten better since I changed back. But then some days I just feel so… nothingy…’
‘I don’t know.’ Van did not want Celena to confide in him. She seemed to think he was friendlier than he felt, that they had some sort of new understanding when as far as he was concerned they had only reached a state of truce.
‘Will you stay here until I go to sleep? Please? I can go to sleep properly if there’s someone else there. If I go to sleep while you’re here I don’t think I’ll try to come to your room again. Please?’
‘All right, all right. Just get into bed. Anything to stop you roaming about.’
Celena scrambled under the covers with grateful haste, and settled herself with a comfortable little sigh.
‘You shake it off pretty fast,’ Van commented. ‘The fainting. You seem all right now.’
‘Because I’ve pushed it back,’ Celena said. ‘It sneaks up on me, but once I know it’s there I can push it back and squash it down. Or maybe the me who it beat sort of sinks down and another one comes up stronger. I feel like there’s lots of different mes inside. Some of them are very small and faraway, and some of them are big and strong, and some are very scared, and some think it’s all funny… they take turns being at the top. But all of them like you. Some of them are cross with you and some of them want you to be cross with them, but all of them are sorry. Does that make sense? I don’t think it does. When I go down to nothing… it’s like…’ Her voice faded, and she twisted under the covers, curling herself into a ball and hugging the pillow with one arm.
‘It makes me think of a story,’ she said, and her voice was a little softer, a little deeper. ‘It makes me think of something I remember from Dilandau. All his memories are still here, and I can remember them if I try. But mostly they’re down underneath all the different Celenas. There’s only one Dilandau so all of us together outweigh him. Once upon a time Folken-sama talked to the Dragonslayers, all of them together. Dilandau sat down on a chair with the rest of them, not up on his lion throne, because he had to listen too, though he didn’t want to. He was bored. Folken-sama showed them his two arms, his born arm and his made arm, his skin arm and his tin arm. He told them that he lost his old arm and the new one was put on him, and something very strange happened.
‘His arm wasn’t there any more. He didn’t tell them what happened to it, and I still don’t know, but it was gone off his body. His eyes told him it wasn’t there, and the new metal arm was. But the part of his brain that did feelings thought his arm was still there. It was an underneath part of his mind and it didn’t take messages from his thoughts. It thought his arm was still there and had had a terrible accident and he could still feel it hurting all the time. He could feel its shape and its fingers. It was like a ghost inside and around the metal arm, a ghost screaming at him. The doctors call it phantom pain.
‘Folken told them to show them how pain isn’t real. It’s only an idea a part of your mind gets, and the thinking part of your mind can say no to it. You can make yourself keep going. You can’t let it stop you. And when you do that, in the end it will go away. Dilandau thought it was a boring story. He wasn’t worried about getting hurt. He didn’t believe he ever would. When I remember that story I feel very sad for Folken. I wish I could hold his hand and keep him company. I wouldn’t be afraid of his claws. But I do get very scared when I think of what he said about a ghost haunting his arm. He was just explaining how it felt, but sometimes I think that’s what’s wrong with me. A ghost is haunting my body. I can feel it when I go down to nothing. If there weren’t all these different mes floating around I think Dilandau could get back to the top. I think if there were one big, strong me he couldn’t even make me faint, he would be gone forever. He’s why I don’t feel well. He’s why I’m scared of the dark. I know if you were my friend he would be afraid of you and stay away. I have good days and bad days, but since I’ve been here they’ve all been better, believe it or not. I mean, I haven’t wet the bed once.’
Van sat motionless at the end of the bed.
‘You shouldn’t talk so much if you want to go to sleep,’ he said. It was a dumb thing to say, but it was easier than trying to put words around what she had made him feel. She had told him something about Folken that he had never known, and it gave him new pain to think of what his brother had suffered. He was only as old as I am now. If that happened to me, could I have kept going? If I felt haunted in my own body… can it really be that she knows how he felt? Can it be that, because I can do nothing for him now, nothing but remember him with love, I could be meant to help her? I’ve messed it up from the start if I am. Even down to damaging her hand… her right hand, his right arm. A ghost screaming at you from inside…
It came to Van then that, no matter how he felt about Celena, no matter how she irritated and puzzled him, he did not want Dilandau to be able to hurt her. He did not want anyone to hurt her, and least of all did he want to hurt her himself. What he had already inflicted on her had only made him feel worse. There was no healing in continuing to hate. As long as Dilandau could make Van want to fight, in a way he was winning. My battle with Dilandau is over. He was never what was really important anyway. My war was with Folken. And I know what she means… you can’t not love your brother. Even when you’ve hated and feared and despised him too. I never wanted to fight against him. I never used to want to fight against anyone. I need to remember that. And she isn’t Dilandau. Dilandau was insane but he wasn’t daft like this. No matter what I did to her I would never reach him with it, and I don’t want to want that anyway. So how am I going to do this? Am I forgiving her? Do I want to be friends like she says? Who would I be making friends with, anyway?
He turned to speak to her, but realised halfway that her breathing had lapsed into the slow rhythm of natural sleep. Her bandaged hand was a mummified starfish on the pillow beside her face. She required nothing more of him for now. He rose carefully and left the room without making a sound.
‘I have a particular job for you today,’ Van told Merle. ‘I need you to keep an eye on Celena. Don’t tease her, and don’t take her things – just stay with her, and make sure she doesn’t run off or do anything stupid.’
‘I thought she had to stay in bed,’ Merle said resentfully. Van had interrupted her while she was washing her face after breakfast, and she felt that she did not look her best.
‘Keep her there if you can,’ he said, ‘but I won’t worry about her as long as I know you’re watching her. I trust you, Merle.’
‘Well, you should,’ said Merle, a little mollified. ‘I’m not just a pretty face. I could do lots of things to help you.’ She pushed back her hair with a preening little gesture; it was rather sophisticated for her.
‘You help me all the time, just by being yourself. I have to speak to the alpha male of the northern hills pack this morning, about letting us hunt in their territory until our farms recover, and I might be having lunch with his people if things go well, but you should see me again in the afternoon. If she whines about staying in bed, you could take her to the garden.’
It was in the garden that he found them when he came home, feeling vaguely sick to his stomach as he always did after any diplomatic dealing with the wolf people. A lunch of raw meat would probably do him no more harm than a very rare steak, but he could think of things he would rather eat. He would be tasting blood till bedtime. He had even been offered a share of the liver of the deer they had killed in honour of their agreement, which was a great compliment, liver still warm from the life-heat of the body, full of the vital energy of the prey… but it was still liver. Ick.
The castle garden, like everything else in central Fanelia, was in the early stages of recovery from devastation by fire. At the moment it had a good crop of rosebay willowherb, and determined efforts were getting some late-season vegetable plots into a respectable state. There was no time to spare on raising decorative plants, but Van found the rows of cabbage and carrots rather pleasing to his eyes. Merle and Celena were sitting in the shade of a canvas windbreak, with their heads together in a very chummy manner, giggling over something Celena held in her hands.
‘What’s the joke?’ he asked, sitting down at Merle’s side, prepared to be amicable. He also sat down rather carefully so as not to jolt his stomach, which was feeling bloated.
‘We made a fortune-teller,’ said Celena, holding out a pointed thingummy made of folded paper, its quarters scribbled in with different colours of crayon. ‘Choose your favourite colour!’
‘It isn’t there,’ Van objected. ‘You’ve only got blue, orange, green and purple.’
‘Those were the only usable crayons we could find,’ Merle explained. ‘The other ones were melted to the box. Pretend orange is red.’
‘Right!’ said Celena, snapping the foxglove mouth of the fortune-teller open and shut in time with the letters she recited. ‘R-E-D spells red.’ The fortune-teller was left split open, with four numbered panels visible inside. ‘Choose your lucky number.’
‘It isn’t there either,’ Van said.
‘Well, choose the number you like best out of two, four, six and eight.’
‘I like three.’
‘You can’t have three, it’s not in this opening,’ Merle protested. Celena nodded righteously.
‘You let me have red and it’s not there. Pretend two is three!’
‘You’re not doing it properly,’ Celena said. ‘Don’t blame me if you get the wrong fortune.’ She unfolded the flap marked with a two and offered it to him to see.
‘Before this day is out, you will be wearing a duck on your head,’ he read out, puzzled by the snorts of laughter this provoked in the two girls.
‘We made up silly ones on purpose,’ Merle explained.
‘Yes, I can see that. Give it here.’ He twitched the paper oracle out of Celena’s hands and unfolded all its panels, so that it resembled an overblown white rose.
‘A chicken will cross the road because of you. Are they all about poultry? You will learn how to hide behind yourself. Say “squrrox” straight away or you will be eaten by a badger the size of Escaflowne. What is this nonsense?’
‘We thought they were very funny when we wrote them,’ said Celena with dignity, attempting to retrieve the fortune-teller, which he held away from her. ‘You’d better hurry up and say “squrrox.”’
‘He said it when he read it,’ Merle pointed out. ‘And Van-sama’s not afraid of some crummy old badger, anyway. Did you have a good day, Van-sama?’
‘Pretty good, except I think I’m going to throw up and it’ll mostly be red. We don’t need to worry about where we’ll get meat from this winter. The wolfmen were very willing to help, so long as we asked nicely.’
‘I’m so glad!’ Celena said. Van and Merle both looked at her oddly.
‘Why? You’re not going to be here then,’ Merle said.
‘Well, I’m glad because it will make things easier for you, won’t it?’
‘Fair enough,’ said Merle, dropping the subject because she was suddenly distracted by a cabbage white butterfly fluttering through the air nearby. She pounced at it with claws outstretched, but missed by quite a long way and succeeded only in falling into Van’s lap and scratching his right leg.
‘Ouch! Get off me, furball!’
‘That’s not the way to do it,’ Celena said, gazing at the butterfly which had been diverted in her direction as it avoided Merle’s attack. A second later she reached out and simply took the butterfly from the air, as neatly and quickly as though it had waited for her. She cupped her right hand around her left, making a sort of round box of her fingers with the butterfly sealed inside.
‘Let it go!’ Van said. He had been unnerved by the swiftness and precision of that movement. A moment ago he had been scruffling Merle’s hair while she yelled in mock protest, but suddenly it had stopped feeling like a game. Celena did not know how to play.
‘I’m not hurting it,’ Celena murmured, staring at her rounded hands. ‘It’s like a little heart, a little life beating against my skin.’
‘Let it go!’ He lunged forward, spilling Merle onto the ground, and seized Celena’s wrists to force her hands apart. The cabbage white zig-zagged back into the air, seeming a little stunned but none the worse for its experience. Van found himself staring into the palms of Celena’s motionless hands, wondering what had become of her bandage.
‘You should have let her squash it,’ Merle said behind him. ‘The gardener says their caterpillars eat all the veggies.’
‘I didn’t want to squash it!’ Celena protested. ‘I only wanted to show how I could catch it.’
‘It was a really good catch, too,’ Merle told her. ‘I want you to teach me how!’
‘Where’s your bandage?’ Van asked Celena, trying to redirect the conversation.
‘The doctor came and looked at my hand this morning and he said it was so much better it didn’t need one any more,’ she explained. ‘He says it can get better in the air now. I just need to keep it clean and be careful of it, and keep putting aloe stuff on it.’ The blister was still there, flat, white and empty, with a border of inflamed skin around it, but it was no longer livid and angry.
‘Schezars are always fast healers,’ Celena said, with a trace of pride. ‘Allen told me.’
‘Oh. Good,’ Van said. At this rate there might be no sign of the burn by the time Allen turned up to claim his sister. There might be no retribution at all. He was not sure if he was glad or sorry.
‘So could you let go now? You’re kind of hurting my wrists.’
Van let go of her arms with alacrity. He felt thoroughly foolish for overreacting, but he never knew what it was appropriate to do around Celena. ‘Sorry,’ he said awkwardly.
‘That’s all right,’ she replied, carefully flexing her left wrist. ‘It’s just another example of you being kind. You didn’t want even a bug to get hurt.’
‘Yeah, but he’s happy to eat bugs,’ said Merle. ‘Like we had for lunch, those big toasted slaters. Maybe he just didn’t want you to mush butterfly guts into your hand. Maybe that’s not good for burns.’
‘Have butterflies got guts?’ Celena asked seriously. ‘I always thought that caterpillars were just little eating machines, and butterflies didn’t eat anything at all. They’re only really alive to breed, so there can be more caterpillars.’
‘To eat our cabbages, the little rotters,’ said Merle indignantly.
‘You won’t touch cabbage,’ Van reminded her. ‘You hate it.’
‘I do not! I love cabbages so much that I can’t bring myself to eat them, and I don’t think anyone else should either! Oh, the poor little things!’ Merle clasped her hands under her chin and made a sentimental shining-eyes face.
‘You little nutcase, Merly,’ said Celena, laughing.
‘Her name is Merle,’ Van said. ‘Will you please stop messing with people’s names? You can leave mine alone for a start.’
‘I’ve never done a thing to your name,’ Celena replied stiffly. ‘I only shorten people’s names when they’re my friends, and you still don’t seem to want to act like my friend. I told you all that important stuff last night and all you said was that I should go to sleep, and now you just keep being grumpy no matter what I do. And I can’t think of anything to do to your name anyway. It's too short.’ She folded her arms and turned her back on him.
‘Oh, so this is a Celena who’s angry with me? I suppose she’s a change from the other ones.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Merle asked. ‘When did you talk last night? What did you say? It’s not fair to have secrets!’
‘We don’t have secrets!’ Van exclaimed defensively. ‘I didn’t even want to talk to her but she hung around!’
‘Stop acting mean!’ Celena snapped at him over her shoulder. ‘I don’t know why you keep being like this! If you would be my friend we’d both be happy!’
‘Will you get it through your head that I don’t like you?’ Van demanded. ‘And what’s the point of making friends with you? You’re going to go away again! And good riddance!’
‘Stop fighting!’ Merle yelled. ‘You were getting along perfectly all right just a few minutes ago. And I like Celena now I know her so you can just leave her alone – um… Van-sama.’
‘Are you telling me what to do, Merle?’ Van got to his feet. He was planning to storm off. He was planning to just go and leave them feeling stupid. Celena had no right to speak to him that way and it was simply disloyal of Merle to take her side. She had never thought he was wrong before. Whatever he had said or done had been wonderful as far as Merle was concerned. He was all ready to stalk away coldly when the afternoon sun was dimmed, and a great shadow passed over them. They all looked up, automatically, and saw a sort of inky blot passing over the face of the sun. Then it was out of the dazzle and sliding across the blue and white sky, and the amorphous dark shape acquired clear features, stretched leathery wings, a swinging rudder of a tail.
‘A dragon,’ Merle breathed, huddled on the ground. ‘I thought they had gone away now people have come back.’
‘It’s just flying over,’ Van reassured her. ‘Look how high it is. It’s not coming here. You’re not in any danger. Keep still. I bet from up there it won’t even notice us.’ He was surprised that Celena was not having some silly hysterical reaction. He wanted to keep his eyes fixed on the flying dragon, moving with deceptive slowness, so that it almost seemed it should drop from the sky, but he also felt he should at least check on what she was doing. He let his eyes turn sideways and down, and located Celena standing a few feet from him, standing between two rows of cabbages, gazing up at the sky. Gazing ecstatically up at the sky. She looked like someone in a religious painting, with one hand pressed to her heart and the other reaching wistfully towards heaven. She looked as though she had never seen anything so lovely in her life. Part of him wanted to say ‘It’s just a dragon.’ Another part wanted to see it as she did, because it looked so enjoyable. He watched her watch the dragon until it vanished over the boundary of the hills around Fanelia’s heart. Then her outstretched hand gradually fell, and she gave a long, soft exhalation, as though she were being slowly deflated.
‘A flying dragon,’ she murmured. ‘It looked black, not white… but it was like the dragon in my dreams…’
‘You dream about dragons?’ Merle asked. ‘Poor you!’
‘No, they’re the most beautiful dreams,’ Celena said, shaking her head. ‘A great white dragon trailing a tail of light, like a comet, flying so fast it tears the sky. I see it and I run out and wave and it swoops down and carries me away, and I see the whole world spread out like a map. Flying is the most wonderful feeling. It’s the one thing Dilandau got to do that I really truly miss. But it’s even better in my dreams, because you aren’t all sealed in with liquid metal and hissing machinery and that. In my dreams it’s just the dragon holding me, and the air shines, and the wind plays in my hair… I’ve dreamed that three times. It’s the only dream I’ve had since I turned back. I think I dreamed it when I was little too, but it’s harder to remember. A flying white dragon…’
‘They’re sort of grey-green,’ Van said. ‘Oily-looking. And if you’d ever got close to one you wouldn’t forget the smell in a hurry. Dragons aren’t pretty dream-creatures.’
‘I don’t imagine it’s a real dragon in my dreams,’ Celena said. ‘It’s an idea of a dragon. Or a dragon of an idea. I mean, you’re not a dragon, but they called you The Dragon all through the war in Zaibach. Do you notice how if you say one word too many times it just turns into a noise, and you don’t know what it means any more?’
‘You do know, don’t you,’ Merle said hesitantly, ‘that Van-sama is half Draconian? That’s why he can fly. Without machinery. Like in your dream.’
‘It is not like her dream,’ Van said hastily. ‘I’m not giving anyone rides. I don’t even like flying.’
‘Since when?’ Merle asked.
‘Oh, stop it,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to talk about it any more. I’m tired out and I feel queasy. You might like raw liver, Merle, but I can’t take much of it. I’m going to have a bath, and you two can just both leave me alone.’
‘Van-sama!’ Merle exclaimed, her face falling in dismay.
‘Fine!’ Celena said. ‘I don’t care.’ Her eyes were very bright and wet-looking for someone who didn’t care. ‘I hope Allen’s better soon. Then I can go home and be with people who aren’t hateful. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re mean to me, but you’re supposed to love Merle.’ She turned and flounced away in the direction of the back entrance of the castle, the way Van had planned to go. Merle gave him one more dreadful hurt look, and bounded after her.
‘Oh, hell,’ said Van, with great feeling. He considered kicking a cabbage to relieve his feelings, but didn’t feel right about the waste of food. How had that happened? He hadn’t walked up to them wanting a fight. He’d thought it was nice that they were getting on. He had played along with their fortune-teller joke, even though he’d thought it was very silly, and they were sort of having fun. It had been an odd feeling to relax like that, to let someone else into the circle of his feelings besides Merle and Hitomi. Then Celena had spoiled it with that butterfly trick. Or he had spoiled it with how he reacted. And it could still have been all right if only he hadn’t bristled up when she monkeyed with Merle’s name. Why did he get so cross about that? He had decided last night not to be angry with Celena any more. Perhaps it was like the phantom pain. Even when your thinking mind knew there was no reason for it, the feeling went on. Except this was hurting other people, not just him. Upsetting Merle had made him feel horrible. With Hitomi feeling so distant, it suddenly seemed that he was alone, and making himself more alone. It was crazy to isolate himself like this. If he didn’t have any friends at all, he wouldn’t feel human. He had to apologise.
He was about to go to do so when his name was called. The castle seneschal was hurrying out into the garden towards him, looking businesslike.
‘Van-sama, we’ve just been informed that a small merchant fleet is arriving by air. They sent a messenger ahead by glider. Mr Dryden Fassa’s compliments, and could you come out to meet him? There’s something he wants to discuss.’
Van was ushered on board Dryden’s flagship with a minimum of ceremony. He was rather surprised to see that Dryden had a fleet again so soon, although the ships were not as vast as the former ones. He must have had other resources to draw on. The furnishing of the room Van was shown to certainly did not indicate any financial trimming of sails. There were woven hangings on the walls, rather good examples of traditional Freidian narrative tapestries. The carpet on the floor had the sort of patterns you could spend hours meditating upon, finding different pictures and faces as you might in clouds. The servant who had guided him left him sitting at a glassily-polished rosewood table with a glass of yellow-green wine. Van twiddled the glass around by its stem, feeling out of sorts with himself, and thoroughly underdressed.
The door opened and a young woman looked into the room. She was decidedly out of the ordinary in appearance, having long curtains of turquoise-coloured hair, which did not hide the fact that her ears were unusually long and pointed at the tips. Her complexion was so fair as to be almost translucent, and her eyes were the colour of the sea with the sun on it. She gave Van a welcoming smile and entered, a little awkwardly because she walked with the aid of a carved stick. She was handsomely dressed in rich amber-coloured silk, which rustled like softly-running water. Whoever she was, she was so pretty that he did not quite know how to look at her without staring.
‘I think you must be the young King of Fanelia,’ she said. ‘Please excuse me for not curtseying, but you see I’m still learning to walk properly, and I think it would be courting disaster.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Van, quickly rising to offer her his chair. ‘Did you have an accident?’
‘Oh no,’ she said, waving him away, ‘I’m just not used to having legs. My name is Sylvie. I’m… well, technically he’s still married so I suppose I have to call myself Dryden’s mistress, but that doesn’t sound very nice, does it? As though he were a slave. I could sound very businesslike and call myself his partner. You look rather shocked. Didn’t you hear that things haven’t worked out between him and Millerna?’
‘I was just wondering what you meant about not being used to having legs.’
‘It’s a long story, which I probably wouldn’t have time to tell you before Dryden arrives. I’m just here to see that you’re quite comfortable. He’s having to oversee some delicate unpacking. Suffice it to say that I was born a mermaid. Isn’t it funny how people can change?’
Van was making a manful effort to think of something to say in reply when the door opened again and Dryden came in. He looked rather tired, as though the past few months had been hard on him, but he seemed cheerful and greeted Van warmly.
‘It’s good to see you,’ Van said politely. ‘But I’m not sure what brings you here. No-one here can afford to buy your goods. I don’t think we could have bought much from you even before the war.’
‘Well, I hope I haven’t come for nothing,’ Dryden said. ‘I’ve got a cargo of all the most useful and utilitarian things I could think of – and a few comforts and treats just to raise people’s spirits. It makes a change from trading in luxury goods and collectors’ items, I can tell you that. But it’s a lot more satisfying sometimes, when you know people really needed what you’ve brought them. I’m sure we can arrange some terms that are mutually satisfactory.’
‘I don’t want to get into debt,’ Van said, with a touch of pride, before his tone became somewhat abashed. ‘I mean, I already am in your debt. You saved my life. I don’t want to compound that by imposing on you. And I really can’t give you a fair trade.’
‘You didn’t tell me you saved a king’s life,’ said Sylvie, who was now sitting on the edge of the table, and poked Dryden in the leg with her stick. ‘That’s not up to your normal standards of bragging.’
‘I’m sure I told you about it,’ he said. ‘The whole thing with the Ispano Clan, remember? When I was so clever and competent? In fact, Van, I don’t consider that a debt at all. I was more than repaid by the experience and knowledge that came out of it. To get to see a genuine Ispano guymelef, and to meet its makers themselves – not to mention everything that happened after! I did it because the whole situation was just so interesting. I got just what I wanted out of it. We’re even, I assure you. Consider the debt settled. What I want to propose is a new arrangement, which, again, I feel will be an even trade. In fact, I might even be said to gain more from it than you will, since it’s a sort of investment for the future.’
‘How do you mean?’ Van asked. ‘My kingdom really doesn’t have any money, and we need everything we produce for ourselves at the moment. Do you want to buy Escaflowne or something? Because I can’t sell it. Even if I’m not going to use it again, I don’t feel I have any right to get rid of it. It’s belonged to too many people before me to be fully mine to sell.’
‘No, I don’t want to buy it,’ Dryden said, ‘although if you’d let me examine it closely some time I’ll be your best friend. What I’m thinking about is somewhat more… immaterial than that, but nonetheless very useful. Let me ask you something. What’s your tax system like, here in Fanelia? I suppose things may be a little disorganised right now, you may not be collecting as normal, but am I right in thinking that you don’t have any particular taxes on businesses? That is, employers are only taxed as individuals, and you don’t levy a higher percentage from the higher income brackets?’
‘Er – no,’ said Van. ‘I’ve never looked into that too closely. Things like rents and tithes have been set for centuries, and we haven’t needed to change them. You’ve got to understand that the royal family of Fanelia has never actually been rich. Our assets are the castle and Escaflowne, practical things. When we’ve needed extra money for something like a military campaign, it’s more like taking up a collection than levying taxes. And most of our business is barter. We’re not a cash economy. I mean, unless we sold something to another country, we’d have to pay you in cattle, or bolts of cloth, or manpower. Which we simply can’t spare at the moment.’
‘Excellent!’ said Dryden. ‘Here’s what I propose. I’m severing my links to my father’s businesses and setting up by myself. I’m tired of my work benefiting him when we disagree on so many things, and when I find many of his business practices grossly unethical. Fortunately I’ve always had the sense to acquire assets in my own name. I have plenty I can take away with me, and this fleet is the beginning of it. You’re privileged to be getting in on the ground floor of the Mystic Moon Mercantile corporation.’
‘How do you mean? And why are you calling it that?’
‘It’s a whim,’ Dryden said, and shrugged. ‘I just like the Ms. I’m offering you a sizeable payment, in cash and goods, in return for something you can give me quite easily. I wish to use Fanelia as a tax haven. For all official purposes, M-M-M will be based here, and thus its revenues will be subject only to Fanelian taxes. I’ll actually run things from wherever I happen to be, but head office will be located in this lovely little city, just as a sort of figurehead.’
‘Calling it Ememem sounds silly,’ Sylvie interrupted. ‘We could say Three Ms instead.’
‘Three M? I quite like the sound of that,’ Dryden said. ‘And you see, Van, it’s not simply that I want to get out of making any financial contribution to society. You’ll find me most valuable as a pillar of the Fanelian community. I intend to make a name for myself as a philanthropist, and I certainly don’t forget people who help me. It’s simply that it’s so expensive to get a major undertaking like this off the ground that I want to minimise the drains on my resources in the first few years. It will pay off handsomely in future. I’m sure there are many material things you want for your kingdom, and I can get them for you at mates’ rates. You’ve already made your name as a warrior king. I don’t think anyone will forget what you did this year. But just think if you can also get yourself in the history books as a great peacetime monarch, an architect of growth and prosperity. Someone who saw the shape of the future and grabbed onto it with both hands.’
‘I’m not sure you need to sell it quite that hard,’ Sylvie said, smiling. ‘Now let Van-sama get a word in edgeways, and tell you what he thinks of the plan.’
‘Are you saying you’ll give us this cargo you’ve brought? Food supplies for winter? Do you have things like construction materials, tools, clothing, equipment for mills and weaving?’
‘Absolutely,’ Dryden said. ‘Everything you could want to get you through the rest of this year and off to a good start in the new one. You won’t have to struggle or depend on outside aid. If there’s something else you want as part of the first payment when you’ve seen over the lot we’ve brought, just say the word and within reason, we’ll provide it. We’ve brought things you may not have thought of, too. Does Fanelia have a printing press? When you control the spread of information, you control knowledge, and knowledge is power. What’s the literacy rate like in this kingdom? You could improve on that. You could even gain an advantage over your neighbours that way, since your population is small enough for you to directly affect and guide the lives of a high percentage of the citizens. The world’s changing. One thing you can count on about a war – there’s generally a leap in technology afterwards. Zaibach was a technocracy. Countries who can keep pace with the kind of thing they produced are going to be the frontrunners of the future, and public education will be essential to that.’
‘We don’t want to be like Zaibach,’ Van said anxiously. ‘And I don’t know that I want Fanelia to be that prominent. I think people here are happier for being a little out of the way. I’ve been out in the world and I didn’t see anything to make me wish Fanelia was more like the rest of it.’
‘I’m just saying that if you gain this power, you’ll have a choice. You can make changes, instead of being made to change.’
‘And even if Dryden’s business fails, you’ll be all right this winter, and I think that’s what you really want to know about,’ Sylvie said.
‘I beg your pardon, if my business fails? Are you a fifth column in my midst?’ Dryden grinned at his companion. ‘Don’t even mention the possibility! You’ll queer the deal. What do you say, Van?’
Van chewed at his lower lip, turning the wineglass round and round on the table in front of him. It was at times like this that he felt the least like a real king and the most like a fifteen-year-old boy from the sticks; that he wondered the most why in the world it was that he was considered the right person to make such huge decisions, potentially affecting the lives of all his people for generations to come, just because of who his parents were.
Do you want to see the children going hungry, barefoot in winter, with no new clothes to wear when the ones on their backs wear out? Do you want Fanelia to have to struggle just to get back to where it was before the war, while all the rest of them leap ahead? But what if there’s some catch in this that I can’t see because I don’t understand business? Dryden wouldn’t exploit me, would he? I wish Balgus was here. He wouldn’t tell me what to do, but I could look back at him over my shoulder, and he’d give me a tiny nod, or a little frown, just to let me know what he thought. I wish I was smart like Folken. I wish I had time to finish being a boy before having to be a man. They want an answer.
‘I’d like to see what you’re offering me before I commit myself to anything,’ he said at last.
What Van saw struck him as the most astonishing treasure trove. It was simply a sample of the merchandise laid out in one of the ships’ cargo bays, without any elaborate display or decoration, but the things themselves were more than enough to impress him.
‘That’s one of those new combination harvesters!’ he exclaimed, staring at a complicated contraption of which the most recognisable part was the place to put a horse. ‘I heard you can get a whole harvest in in a day with one of those. We couldn’t use it this season, of course, but next year – and let me see that manifest? We wouldn’t have that much flour if we’d had a normal wheat harvest. What kind of clothes did you bring? No offence, but we’re not really interested in the latest fashions from Pallas. People need practical stuff. We especially need children’s clothes. There are too many kids going round in smocks cut down from their dads’ shirts – and soon it won’t be warm enough for the men to go without shirts. And shoes.’
‘Multitudes of shoes,’ Dryden promised. ‘I think they may have bred in their cases. All sizes, and styles from workboots to slippers. I appreciate the need for practicality, and that you feel your people come first, but I wonder whether you’ve thought much about your own wardrobe?’
Van looked down at himself, and cringed slightly when he was reminded of which shirt he was wearing. ‘It had this stain on it when I got it,’ he said hastily. ‘And I don’t know what it is but I’ve had it boiled.’
‘You don’t like wearing it, do you?’ Dryden asked, cocking his head to one side quizzically.
‘Well, no, but it’s what I’ve got clean.’
‘What do you think it says to your people when they see you dressed like that?’
‘That I’m in the same boat as the rest of them. That I’m accepting the same hardships, and doing my share to get things back to normal.’
‘I’m just saying that it can be pretty discouraging for people to see their king walking around looking shabby and scruffy,’ Dryden said. ‘Looking like he can’t do any better. And Sylvie, I’ll save you the trouble of making the obvious pot and kettle analogy. I know I didn’t dress up when I was temporary top dog in Asturia, but it was wartime, a state of emergency, right? What Van has to devote himself to is a return to normality, and you can’t foster normality while dressing worse than you normally would. If you look the part it’s easier to play the part, I always think.’
‘I really admire how you can rationalise anything,’ Sylvie said, shaking her head. ‘But I do think you’re right. No-one is suggesting you should order cloth-of-gold undies, Van-sama – I’m sure they would be itchy anyway – but wouldn’t you feel good in more impressive clothes?’
‘I’m not wearing puffy sleeves,’ Van said quickly.
‘Puffy sleeves are on the way out,’ Sylvie said with assurance. ‘Military chic has had it. I’ve made a thorough survey of the fashion magazines and I know whereof I speak.’
‘Which is quite good for someone who spent the first nineteen years of her life not wearing clothes at all,’ Dryden said, glancing at his pocket-watch. ‘I’d better finish those letters if I want the messenger to catch the post at the frontier. Sylvie, why don’t you show him some things? I leave the matter in your capable hands.’
‘Right!’ said Sylvie, turning to Van, who was just trying not to think of nineteen naked years and hoping the effort didn’t show in his face. ‘If you’re agreeable, of course, I have some things I’d really like to show you. Since I’ve had to wear clothes myself I’ve gotten very interested in them. The first time I saw you, I said to myself, he’s exactly right for a Withington suit.’ She gestured to him to follow her, and made her way off among the cases and bales in the cargo bay, at quite a good pace for someone with a walking stick.
‘I’m not interested in being fashionable,’ Van said nervously, hurrying to catch up. ‘If you just show me where I can get some shirts and pants and maybe a couple of pullovers for winter I’ll be fine.’
‘Oh, it’s not about fashion. It’s about style, and knowing how to make the most of yourself. I’ve been learning the rules! No-one’s going to catch me wearing white shoes in winter or mixing gold and silver jewellery. Look here.’ She showed him a long wheeled rack with suits hanging from it, tugging one out on its hanger. ‘This should be about your size. What would you be, one sixty, one sixty-five? You might want the trouser legs taken up a little. What do you weigh?’
‘I don’t know,’ Van admitted. Without quite knowing how it happened, he found himself trying on the waistcoat and jacket, Sylvie darting around him giving little tugs here and there to get everything adjusted to her satisfaction. Rather than a row of fastenings, the waistcoat and jacket each had one large button closing a sort of triangular flap in the front, which reminded Van of the flap of an envelope. The point of the jacket’s front went left and the waistcoat’s went right; the waistcoat was a deep russet colour while the jacket was rich dark brown. The vee of ugly shirt visible at his neckline looked even worse compared with their handsomeness. Sylvie turned him toward a tall mirror he had not known was there, and exclaimed ‘There! How do you like yourself?’
Van looked at his reflection with something approaching alarm. He looked like a grown-up. All right, a short grown-up, but that was splitting hairs. He turned round slowly, stiffly, craning his neck to see himself from all angles. The jacket was darted in at the waist in the back; it went down to two broad square tails.
‘That’s very new,’ Sylvie pointed out, noticing what he was looking at. ‘People still like a bit of a sweep but the funny thing is, now girls are adopting the front-fastening overskirt with trousers, like the Princess, men are going off wearing it. So it’s tailcoats. And it really suits you. You can see it, can’t you? It looks right. You look as though you own the suit. I’ll find you a white shirt, and you can try it on with the pants.’
It was probably because Sylvie’s prettiness made him feel so shy that Van quite meekly went behind the rack of suits to change. He felt quite out of his depth, and was not at all sure why he had allowed himself to be talked into looking at clothes in the first place. He should not be thinking of himself. This suit felt good, there was no denying it. The way the coat sat on his shoulders, weight enough to feel substantial but not so much as to be cumbersome; the fit of the waist of the trousers, the same as his favourite old pair of pants that he hardly wore now because he was afraid they would wear out like everything else, and he would have nothing comfortable and familiar left at all. They felt like his clothes although they were new. When he looked again in the mirror, for what Sylvie termed ‘the full effect,’ he was taken aback again by how stately he looked, like someone to be taken seriously. He couldn’t help wondering if people like Allen Schezar and King Aston would have spoken to him differently when they first met him, if he’d been dressed like this.
‘Oh yes,’ said Sylvie, nodding with approval. ‘I was exactly right. This is the suit for you. It’s innovative, but it’s a classic in its own way. Minimalist, such a change from the puffs and ruffs of the last few years. Don’t you look handsome! I mean, I know you said you didn’t care about being fashionable, but there’s no harm in impressing the girls, right? Is there anyone special for you?’
Van could feel the blood rising in his face. ‘There – there are two girls who are very special to me, and there’s one who I sort of can’t get rid of.’
‘Oh,’ said Sylvie dryly. ‘Been exercising our droit de seigneur and now we regret it?’
‘What? No! Good grief, no!’ His cheeks were as hot as the fresh liver of the deer had been. ‘It’s not like that with either of them!’
‘Either of the special ones? What about the other?’
‘Certainly not with her. It’s none of your business anyway!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Sylvie said, and made a sort of half-bow. ‘I was forgetting myself, Van-sama. I mean, it’s not really my place to criticise other people in that department.’
‘I’m not doing anything to criticise,’ he said wretchedly. ‘How old do you think I am? I’m only fifteen.’
‘Well, fifteen is a perfectly nice age to start exploring,’ she said with a shrug, ‘although I think it’s ridiculous for people to enter into an adult relationship like marriage so young. Marrying a fifteen-year-old girl to Dryden, for example – well, obviously they weren’t going to be happy. I’m sure he would have realised that in a little while even if she had been interested in him. Don’t you think? He would have wanted to be with someone about his own age, surely. Although if Allen Schezar likes girls who are ridiculously young for him I’m sure he’s welcome to Millerna.’
‘He does like girls who are ridiculously young for him,’ Van said. ‘I think it’s creepy. His sister is that age!’
‘Your age,’ Sylvie agreed. ‘Hey! There’s a thought! He’s more or less stolen Dryden’s wife, and he's still blue about that, so why don’t you get revenge for us? Steal his sister. Do you know her? I’ve heard she’s pretty, if a bit odd.’
‘Not half!’ Van exclaimed. ‘She’s the one I can’t get rid of. Don’t say things like that – she might hear you and get ideas.’
‘What’s wrong with her? Is it the oddness? Or is she not pretty after all?’
‘Oddness,’ Van said firmly. ‘Excessive, annoying oddness, and persistence. And I haven’t really noticed whether she’s pretty or not.’ He tried to say this airily, as though it were not a complete lie. Twenty-four hours ago it would have been more or less true, but this afternoon, when he saw her standing amid the cabbages, of all places, looking as though she were experiencing a divine revelation, he had had something of a revelation himself; for the first time he had seen that she was beautiful. It was like finding an image in an apparently random pattern; like when a whorl in the grain of a board in the floor suddenly begins to look like a face to you, and ever afterward you see it as a face, and can never again see it as just the random shape it was before your mind started telling you there was something else in it. If he were honest, he would have to say that Celena was even more beautiful than Sylvie. He was not prepared to compare her with Hitomi.
‘Well, you’ll just have to be firm in fending her off,’ Sylvie said. ‘And do hurry up and decide between the two special ones, because the longer you leave it the more hurt feelings there’ll be.’
‘I don’t need to decide between them. They’re not competing for the same spot. Merle’s more like my baby sister.’ Van found his eyes were sneaking back to the mirror; he was truly not doing anything so vain as admiring himself, but he could surely admire the clothes without being vain about the person inside them. They compensated a lot for the person inside them, really; not only did the lines make him seem a little taller, but the cut made him look less skinny. Another reason for his embarrassment when he had woken up with Celena was that she could probably have counted his ribs.
‘I bet she’d be proud to see her big brother looking like this, then,’ Sylvie said.
‘I should find something for her,’ Van said, relieved to have someone to focus on besides himself. ‘It’s ages since she had anything new, and her dress is getting pretty threadbare. I want to find her something warm and pretty. Can you help me with that?’
‘I certainly can.’
Although Van’s descriptions of Merle’s physique were vague to the point of unhelpfulness (‘about yea high’ and ‘sort of smallish and gingery’) Sylvie managed to locate some dresses for young girls that looked about the right size, and Van chose three: bottle-green corduroy, blue wool that he thought would match her eyes, and rich nut-brown velvet with brass buttons shaped like acorns. They were all a good deal prettier than anything she had had before, and he was rather inclined to wonder about Dryden’s definition of utilitarian, and how much of the stock had been Sylvie’s choice, but they were all well-made and looked hardwearing and comfortable, nothing flimsy.
‘She’s never had three dresses at once before,’ he told Sylvie, who was refolding the things he had passed over and putting them back in their crate. ‘Now she’s spoilt for choice.’
‘The poor thing!’ Sylvie exclaimed. ‘No self-respecting girl likes to have to wear the same dress day in, day out.’
Van, who had been fiddling with the acorn buttons on the brown dress (secretly, he would rather have liked something for himself with buttons like that), paused, thinking of white lace and blue ribbons, getting wilted and grubby. Who knew how much longer Celena would have to stay with him? And that dress was really not practical for the conditions. And she had been complaining about not having clean underthings. He was pretty much ignorant about what she would need in that respect, but surely Sylvie could help him. With a bit of luck he could leave the selection entirely up to her and avoid appalling embarrassment.
‘Do you have anything for a girl about my age, and a bit taller?’ he asked.
It was sometimes hard to find Merle in the castle, since she had never had a room that was hers alone. Like all cute little cats and five-hundred-pound gorillas, she slept anywhere she wanted to, and any possessions she wanted to keep safe were usually in Van’s room. However, she usually found him sooner or later, so if he just kept the parcel on hand he could give it to her when he saw her. Celena might be easier to locate. He went to the door of her room and knocked, a plain businesslike knock.
A voice from within said ‘What?’ rather petulantly. Van took this as his cue to open the door, and found Celena sitting cross-legged on the bed fiddling with the paper fortune-teller.
‘Catch,’ he said briskly, and threw a large, soft parcel to her underarm before retreating and shutting the door again.
Celena did not really need to catch the parcel; it landed right in her lap with a loud crackle. It was wrapped in crisp brown paper and strong-looking twine. Written on the paper in hasty black pencil was a short message: ‘Sorry about before. This stuff should make your stay more comfortable. If it doesn’t fit let me know. V. Fanel.’
Merle was delighted with her presents. She would have put all three dresses on at once if Van had let her. She was twirling the length of the long verandah along the east wing of the castle, holding out the skirts of her new blue frock in the early evening lamplight and calling to Van to look at her, look at her, when Celena came running out. She spotted Van where he was sitting in the old basket chair with the prolapsed feather cushion, darted over, and hugged him so tightly that he gave a sort of inadvertent squeak as the air was forced out of his chest.
‘Thank you!’ she said. ‘Such lovely things! Oh, he got you something too, Merle – just look at this!’ She skipped away from Van, who was trying to get his windpipe uncrushed, and twirled to show Merle the dress she had on. It was one of Sylvie’s recommendations, soft white stuff printed with strawberries and their flowers. Its buttons were strawberry-shaped. Someone somewhere really liked making buttons shaped like fruit and nuts.
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘and thank you particularly for the undies. I felt all wrong and itchy wearing borrowed things. Even if you know they’re clean you don’t want them on you. I was wondering if that’s why you didn’t change, you were trying to make a pair that actually belonged to you last longer.’ She was using her matter-of-fact voice again, as though she thought there was nothing remotely embarrassing about discussing one’s underwear in mixed company. Van’s feelings could not have been more different, and Merle’s eyebrows were heading for her hairline.
‘You didn’t give me undies,’ she accused Van.
‘You don’t wear undies!’ he hedged desperately, trying to keep her at bay while he dealt with Celena. ‘Look, I didn’t choose any of those things, I hope you realise, I just asked Dryden’s partner to work out what underclothes you would need and put it in with the rest. I don’t know what you got and please don’t tell me.’
‘I wasn’t proposing to tell you,’ Celena said, in a tone which rather suggested she found the idea funny. ‘It was thoughtful of you, that’s all.’
‘Are you going around not changing your underwear?’ Merle demanded, frowning. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘I’m not going around not changing my underwear! I couldn’t get changed with her there, could I? I felt cruddy all day. It’s not fair.’ Van took refuge in sulking, which did not exactly get him the moral high ground but at least offered a fair chance of getting them all off the subject of underwear. He slumped down in the basket chair, causing a bunch of down to flop out of the split in the cushion and spill on the verandah floor, folded his arms over his chest and glowered at a point somewhere beyond his knees.
‘His Majesty is angry,’ Celena said archly, in her eldest voice.
‘Van-sama,’ said Merle softly, creeping up to crouch beside him and putting one hand on his knee, ‘don’t be cross. It’s a silly thing to get upset about.’ She laid her cheek against that hand and looked up into his face, trying to get him to smile. ‘I’m sorry I was bossy.’
‘And I really was just trying to tell you how much I like the things you gave me,’ Celena said, abruptly becoming humble. Perhaps she had decided to follow Merle’s example. ‘I’ll try really hard not to annoy you. Look, there goes a moth, and I’m not even going to try to catch it.’
‘That’s not a moth, it’s a bit of feather out of the busted cushion, floating about,’ Merle pointed out.
Celena plucked the fluffy light-brown scrap from the air and looked at it closely. ‘So it is.’ Van gave her a Look. ‘I said I wouldn’t try to catch a moth, and this isn’t one!’
Merle had become distracted by the other feathers, scudding across the boards of the verandah in a light evening breeze. With an expression of fierce concentration on her small features, she stalked a puff of down to a standstill, held herself motionless for a long, tense moment, then shot out a paw to strike it down. The gust of air disturbed by her movement blew the feather just out of her reach, and she lunged forward and struck again with the other paw, repeating the error, repeated the manoeuvre, and ended up pursuing the feather right across the verandah with a series of staccato thumps. The last of these blew it out between the railings to drift away into the darkness, leaving Merle awkwardly poised with her face up against the rails, one outstretched hand still swatting at the air.
Van tried not to laugh loudly, because he knew how it offended her if anyone noticed a thwarted attempt at hunting, but he could not hold it back entirely. He put a hand over his mouth and tried to keep his eyes serious. A sort of half-smothered fizzle of mirth escaped from Celena, who had not had as much practice at living with cats.
‘I meant to do that!’ cried Merle, scrambling to her feet and dusting herself off. ‘It was part of the trick! I did it to cheer you up!’
‘Of course you did,’ said Van, and made the mistake of making eye contact with Celena. She had followed his lead in covering her mouth with a hand, but above that her eyes were very bright, and her shoulders were shaking with the effort of holding it in. Laughing and yawning are both contagious. A positive snort slipped out while his guard was down. That set Celena off with a full-fledged fit of the giggles. Merle glared at them both, and her ferocious expression made it worse. Van could feel tears in his eyes, and he finally gave up and laughed for all he was worth, bent double with his head hanging. Merle punched him in the shoulder, which meant he was more or less honour bound to catch and tickle her, tussling up and down the verandah until she managed to escape and flit away over the railing and up the outside drainpipe, laughing and sticking her tongue out at him.
‘And let that be a lesson to you!’ Van called after her. He shook his head and turned back to ask Celena if she didn’t think Merle was mad even by cat standards. He lost the beat somewhat when he found her sitting in the basket chair, her chin in her hands and her eyes bright with tears that did not seem to come from laughing. It seemed as though she had been gazing at the two of them wistfully the whole time.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘You’re not feeling faint, are you?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I’m fine in myself. I just feel lonely, because you’re such good company for each other, and I know I haven’t any right to attention like that, but it doesn’t stop me feeling – well, I miss Allen, and I worry about him being sick without me, and – well, Merle is fun for you, isn’t she? I suppose I’m unhappy because I know I’m no fun for Allen. Even when he’s feeling better all he’s going to do is worry about me, and I can’t stop his worries because I’m all over the place and don’t know how to pull myself together. I truly do try but I don’t know what I can do. Even the doctor doesn’t know. He thinks maybe it’ll come right if we wait. He’s one of the cleverest doctors and he can’t think of anything to do but wait and see, and I don’t know what will ever make me better!’ She lowered her face into her hands and her shoulders shook once more as she wept.
‘Please don’t cry,’ Van said. He crossed over to her and patted her shoulder awkwardly. ‘Come on. I’m sure it will be all right. You’ve seemed better every day. Seriously, you’re not nearly as much away with the fairies as you seemed that first night. I probably made that worse being mean to you. I’ve told you I’m sorry for that. I’ve tried to show you I’m sorry for today too. I’m glad you like the new things. Don’t they cheer you up a bit?’
Celena sniffed and raised her head uncertainly, blinking the tears off her dark eyelashes. Even when she had been crying she was pretty; it just gave a sort of tremulous flush and shine to her cheeks and mouth. ‘Do you want to be friends now? Will you let me try to make things better?’
‘I think…’ Van said slowly, ‘I think you need to be better yourself before you can start making anything else better.’
‘In other words, never!’ Celena wailed, and burst into fresh tears.
‘No! Look – please…’ Van knelt down beside her, trying to get a look into her face. ‘I’ve thought of something that might help. I can’t do anything for you, but I think I could teach you something you could do. If you don’t calm down I can’t teach you anything. You’ve got to be able to concentrate to do it. Now are you going to be sensible? Have you got a handkerchief? Good. Blow your nose and listen.’
Celena blew her nose quite loudly, scrubbed at her eyes, and took several deep, hiccupy breaths before pronouncing herself ready to hear what he had to say.
‘Do you remember,’ he began, still kneeling, looking up at her tearstained face, ‘how Hitomi could see invisible things? She could tell where a cloaked Alseides was, so she could tell me when to dodge, and where to strike. You should have some memories of that from Dilandau.’
‘And after a while you could see them too,’ Celena said, nodding. ‘They couldn’t think how the hell you were doing it! It seemed demonic. And – I don’t think you are a demon – but are you going to tell me there’s something not-human about you that lets you do that?’
‘There is something not-human about me,’ Van said, ‘but that’s nothing to do with it. Anyone can learn this. Some people have more of a natural aptitude for it, but if you’re patient and you practise, and you believe it can work, it’ll come to you. Hitomi calls it dowsing, and I’m not sure where that word comes from, but what it means is seeing what’s really there, not just what’s visible. You learn to focus your mind’s eye, and you can find directions, and hidden things. It’s not the same as trying to see the future, so it’s not dangerous the way fortune-telling can be. Well, it can be dangerous, it nearly killed me once, but that’s because I was using it a risky way and didn’t understand what I was letting myself in for.’
Celena nodded again, politely but with a certain lack of comprehension. Van realised he was not making himself entirely clear.
‘I’ll give you an example. Say I have a bow and arrow, and a target. If I know where the target is, I can close my eyes, and focus on it in my mind, and shoot and hit it without looking. I don’t need a visual image because I can locate the real thing. I’ve never tried it this way, but it seems to me that you might be able to dowse inside yourself, and find the real you, the one who should be at the top and in control. Do you want to try? I can’t do it for you, but I’ll help you as much as I can. I’ll come with you, if I can, when you go inside.’
‘Is this a risky way?’ Celena asked in a whisper. ‘Like what you did?’
‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘The way I tried before was something no-one had done before. That was why I didn’t know how it could go wrong – or rather, work too well. My idea was to synchronise myself perfectly with Escaflowne, so I could fight better in it. That meant that whatever damage the armour took was done to my body as well. I was only healed when the armour was repaired. Do you know what it feels like to be welded? You don’t want to. But no, I don’t think this will be physically dangerous. It’s all in your mind. So all you have to worry about is what’s in there.’
‘It probably couldn’t get much worse,’ she said with a half-laugh. ‘I’ll try it if you think it could help. I’m having to try so hard to keep the sensible Celena at the top to listen to you! I can’t keep trying like this every day. I’m not that strong. What do I have to do?’
Van had to stop to think about it. ‘Well, I think it will work better if we’re on a level. There’s only one chair, so come on and sit on the floor like me.’ He backed away a little and sat down cross-legged, and Celena followed suit, nervously smoothing her strawberry-spotted skirts. Their knees were almost touching; not quite.
‘All right – now hold out your hands. Your blister’s looking better again, by the way.’
‘Aloe’s marvellous stuff,’ Celena said. ‘Isn’t it funny how it makes you feel better to say something that doesn’t count for anything?’ She watched cautiously as Van reached to his neck, where the pendant Hitomi had left with him hung, and took the necklace off over his head. ‘That’s very pretty. I wanted to ask about it in the morning but I forgot. The rest of the time it was under your shirt so I kept forgetting.’
‘This is Hitomi’s,’ he explained. ‘She used it whenever she was dowsing, although she said that once you learned how to do it with the pendulum you could make it work without. That’s how I did it, but I think for you it would be easier to begin with something to help you focus. You’ll sort of be doing a cross between the with and without methods, because we’ll have the pendulum out here in the real world, but you need to imagine it working inside your mind.’ He was holding the pink teardrop of a jewel in the open palm of his hand, the chain lying in a golden puddle around it. Celena reached out to touch it with her fingertips, and he instinctively drew his hand back, half-closing the fingers. ‘You’ve got to understand before we start that I’m not giving this to you. It’s Hitomi’s. I’m not even lending it because she’s just lending it to me. This is not yours, okay? I’m just letting you use it with me.’
‘All right. I understand.’ She nodded solemnly. ‘It must be very precious.’
‘Yes, it is.’ Van felt a little embarrassed at how emphatically he had just spoken, but it was only how he felt. Even when he wanted to be kind to Celena he had some reservations. He took hold of the end of the chain and held the pendant up with his right hand, hanging freely, then gave the stone a little tap so that it began to swing. Whether because of the angle of the tap he had given it, or because they were not yet focusing on anything, its motion described an oval, round and round off-centre.
‘Put your hands on mine – the one holding the chain,’ he instructed Celena. She obeyed, and he laid his left hand over the top of them. She looked so tense with concentration that he gave her a brief smile and said ‘One potato, two potato,’ thinking of the children’s hand-stacking game.
‘It is like that,’ Celena agreed, relaxing a little. ‘What do we do now?’
‘Close your eyes. Let yourself relax as much as you can. Don’t think about anything except what I’m saying to you… Pretend you’re in a dark, quiet, still, safe place. You’re not afraid. You’re quite comfortable. All you hear is my voice, and all you feel is the motion of the pendulum, coming up through my hand into yours. Can you feel how it swings?’
‘Yes,’ Celena murmured. Somewhere out in the darkness, an owl called, a mournful request for ‘more pork.’ Van watched her closely to see whether she was distracted, but there was no reaction in her face, only a very pure, clear intensity of purpose that struck him as a little Hitomi-ish. He hoped the next part would work. If it didn’t work with Celena they would both have a much more difficult job, but Hitomi was the only person he had ever tried it with, so there was no way to tell.
‘Now I’m closing my eyes too. Don’t open yours to see. Whatever I tell you is the truth. Do you trust me?’
‘Yes, Van, I trust you.’ She said it so easily. Van had to take a moment to carefully put his incredulous feeling away. Something that often helped him was to imagine smoothing a bedspread, flattening the sheets and blankets beneath so there was no interruption to the soft plane of the upper surface. The bedcover might be all made up of disparate things, like a patchwork quilt, but they were united in purpose.
‘Now my mind is going to try to touch your mind. This might feel strange, but just try to let it happen. I can’t think of a better way to show you how to do this quickly. Ready?’
Silence of the mind.
Celena, can you hear me? Speak to me the way I’m speaking to you.
Am I – is this how?
That’s just right. Just think what you want me to hear.
Can you hear everything I think?
Only what you aim at me. I can’t look anywhere private. Same goes for you. All you can see is what I show you. There are other ways to do it that are more invasive, but that’s not what we’re interested in. Are you still feeling the pendulum move?
It’s dancing in a circle.
That’s changing. Because we’re concentrating. Help me change how it moves. See it in your mind, as it swings. The circle is flattening out. It’s growing longer and thinner. Now the pendulum swings in two long curved lines. You could draw a point where it stops at the peak of each swing. Mark those two points for me, the two points it swings between.
That’s very good. Nice and clear. Now the pendulum swings in a straight line between those two points, like the pendulum of a clock. Can you hear it ticking? It ticks like your heart beats.
Like a butterfly’s wings beat.
A slower rhythm than that. Stronger. We’re going to keep feeling that beat all the time. It’s our safety line. It’s the gold chain, and I hold the end, and you hold on to my hand. You and I are standing together at the top of your mind... What’s it like? Describe it to me.
I can’t tell you in words…
Can you show me in pictures? Don’t try to hurry… Take the time to make the picture clearly. Fill in all the details you can. Do your very best. You have as long as you need to do it. When you think you’ve got it ready, show me.
Van waited in the darkness behind his eyelids, floating on the tide of his breathing. He could faintly feel the effort Celena was making to marshal her impressions and put them into a form he could understand. She was having to work extremely hard. Gradually, something began to come through, every bit of information hard-won. It was not really a picture, more of a feeling, a raw thought-perception. As it entered Van’s mind, it swum into a certain context in his memories, finding a way to show itself to him.
It was a day when he was very young, maybe four years old, when Merle was a roly-poly two-year-old. It was morning and they were in his mother’s dressing-room, playing on the floor while she put on her makeup and dressed her hair. The two children sat on the blue and grey rug, legs splayed, opposite each other, and rolled a red ball back and forth into one another’s laps. It was a very easy game to play, but Merle laughed with surprise every time she caught the ball, and laughed again every time she managed to roll it wide so Van had to move to retrieve it. They were very happily occupied with this game when they heard a sudden tinkling crash, and Varie’s voice say ‘Oh dear! Oh dear!’
Van turned to see his mother gazing at the floor and biting at her lower lip. He saw the worry on her face, and turned again to look where she was looking. Her silver-backed hand-mirror lay face up on the boards, and its face was shattered. She must have dropped it by accident. Van hitched himself closer over the rug and stared in fascination. The cracks radiated from a point slightly off-centre, reminding him of a spiderweb.
‘This is very bad luck,’ Varie was saying. ‘Don’t touch it, Van love, you might get a cut.’
‘Why’s it bad, Mother?’ he asked. ‘I think it’s pretty.’
‘It’s pitty!’ Merle agreed, stretching out a soft little paw to touch the glass. Van pushed the hand back. He knew it was his job to stop Merle doing anything silly and hurting herself, because he was the bigger one.
‘Breaking a mirror is very bad luck,’ Varie explained. ‘We’ll have to be very careful for at least seven years.’ She tried to pick up the mirror by its handle, but her fingers were shaking, and it dropped again when she had only lifted it a couple of feet in the air. There was another smashing noise, and new lines raced through the spiderweb. ‘Oh dear!’
‘Let me, Mother,’ said Van, eager to be helpful. He was sure he could hold the mirror steady, and the silver handle could not possibly cut him. When he lifted the mirror and saw his own reflection in it, he laughed with as much surprise as Merle. It was only embarrassingly recently that Van had learned there was not a little boy living behind the glass who matched him and walked into place when Van stepped in front of a mirror. If there had been a little boy back there he could have gotten out between the cracks now. He saw only his own face, but such a funny jigsaw face, some bits reflecting bigger than others, none of the lines quite matching up. It was as though there were a lot of different mirror-Vans and he could see a bit of each of them at a time.
This was the kind of picture he gained of Celena’s mind. He looked into the glass and saw her face reflected, shattered, crazed with cracks, like smashed ice on the surface of a puddle.
Van, I’m getting scared. You haven’t said anything for ages.
It’s all right. I was just thinking about what you’re showing me. I’ll try to come closer.
You can come right in if you want.
Are you sure?
Yes. Please. I don’t know what to do by myself.
Now they were together, it seemed, in a sort of hall of broken mirrors. Van was surprised to find that he was holding a golden chain in his right hand, not the slender jewellery chain of the pendant, but a sturdy ring-linked thing that you might have used to tether a big dog. His left hand was being held by Celena in both of hers. She was clearly imagining this very literally. The hall did not hold its shape; now they were at the centre of a globe whose inner surface was cracked mirror-glass, now the globe was expanding outward in shards. But Celena and Van remained themselves, the chain snaking away into the darkness towards light.
Can you hear the others? Celena asked him. Now that he was in her mind with her, there was a new quality to her voice. It seemed to have acquired multiple echoes, some of them echoing her words slightly before she spoke them. They spoke the same words, but in different voices, different tones, different attitudes.
I can hear them when you speak. Is the one who’s speaking to me the real Celena?
I don’t know. I think I’m just the Celena who was at the top when we started this conversation. Do you want me to get the others so you can try and pick out the real one?
No, that’s not how it works. I don’t know the real Celena. Only you do. Look in your right hand. What do you have there?
Celena kept a tight grip between their left hands, but lifted and opened her right. It’s the pendulum!
It’s time for you to use it. Hold the end of the chain in your hand and let it swing. It’s going to swing in the direction of the real Celena. It’s going to show us where to find her.
Do I have to close my eyes?
For this part you need to watch the pendulum. I’ll watch too. Don’t be scared. I’m right here and I know what I’m doing.
Van thought Celena gave him a slightly sceptical look at that, but she didn’t say anything. She raised the pendulum and set it swinging.
Concentrate with all your might on finding one big, strong Celena, one Celena who should be on top in charge.
The pendulum swung in a circle. They were sliding now between sheets of glass, canyon walls of it, impressions fleeting by. They were going down through layers, strata; they were ascending into an atmosphere where the clouds were crystals of glass and water vapour. They were doing all these things at once, as Van’s mind tried to translate what was happening into a coherent visual metaphor. They were going deep into the dark, carrying a little light before them.
Different voices spoke to them.
Want to go home want to go home want to go home!
Jajuka, where are you? Jajuka! I can’t find you!
Forgive me… forgive me…
Mother! Why didn’t you wait for me to come home? Mother, where did you go?
Am I still breathing? Does my heart really beat? Am I dreaming all this, and when I wake up I’ll still be Dilandau?
Allen, why are you angry with me? Cuddle me up and tell me you’re not angry.
I’ve done it again… I’ve done it again…
The Celena by Van’s side sighed and shook her head. I don’t think any of these is right.
Keep looking. Go deeper. The chain will pay out as long as we need it to. We can go anywhere we have to to find her.
The voices whispered on, growing more distressed, more distressing.
Stop hurting me! Why does everyone hurt me?
It’s not fair!
What’s he doing in here? He’s not one of us.
Van… Van, won’t you please be my friend? I’m so lonely without you…
He burned my hand! He spoiled my new body! I only just got it back and he messed it up!
He cut my beautiful face.
Celena gave a little gasp and her left hand tightened its grip convulsively on Van’s. Dilandau’s here! I didn’t know he was down here! What are we going to do? Van, help me!
Van? Van! The cities burned because of you! My scar ached because of you! I’m dead because of you! I’ll never let you out of here. I’ll hold you down in darkness. I’ll burn you down to nothing.
Celena made a high, panicky noise in her throat and threw herself against Van, pressing her face against his chest, refusing to look. That was a strange thing; here he was bigger than she was. He was the bigger one, the stronger one, the one who had to protect, because he was bigger and stronger and had the power to hurt. He put one arm around her shoulders, careful not to lose hold of the golden chain. It looped around their bodies.
Ignore him, he said boldly to Celena. Ghosts aren’t even real. He’s just a memory that thinks it’s a person. And he won’t touch you, because you’re with me, and he’s scared of me.
Scared of you!? Didn’t you hear what he said?
He’s scared of me. Aren’t you, Dilandau? You know what I could do. You know what I’ve done already.
Shut up! I’ll make you wish you were dead!
Celena’s not afraid of you.
I beg your pardon!
Celena can beat you hollow. There’s only one of you, and there’s only one of me, but there’s lots and lots of her. Celena? Do you know what to do?
I… I think so… Celena stretched out her right hand, uncertainly, letting the pendulum swing, and closed her eyes to concentrate.
When he was four, Van had not understood why his mother was so upset about the mirror being broken.
‘We’ll just get someone to fix it,’ he said reassuringly, stretching up to put the mirror on the dressing-table.
‘You can’t fix a broken mirror,’ she told him.
‘Yes you can! Just glue the bits together.’
‘They’ll never reflect a whole image again. There’ll still be cracks between them. No glue can fix that. It’s very bad luck to keep a broken mirror, too. We’ll bury it in the garden.’
‘Is the mirror dead?’ Merle asked, fascinated. Somehow that idea upset Van.
‘Of course it’s not dead! We can fix it! I’ll fix it!’ He snatched the mirror again, ready to run out of the room with it.
‘Stop it, Van! You’re being silly and naughty,’ Varie said, and gave him a little slap on the wrist to make him let go of the handle. She took the mirror away from him with the firm hand of the adult world, the world where so much is impossible.
But nothing was impossible in pure imagination. If Celena could only imagine herself whole, in this place, at this time, it would be so. Van tucked the end of the chain through his belt and put his right hand over hers as she held the pendant.
All the pieces come together. All the Celenas fit together.
Van! We were thinking about it the wrong way! It’s not that there’s one real Celena! There was one real Celena and she got broken! All these are her pieces! I’m a little piece and I can pull all the rest together!
That’s right. Go for it! Don’t be afraid!
Like hell you shouldn’t be afraid! B e VERY afraid!
Dilandau, go away.
You can’t say that to me. I’m part of you! I’ll always be in you! I should be in charge. You make me sick, you’re so weak. You can’t do a thing against me. You couldn’t even stop him hurting you.
If I’m weaker than you, why are you down here at the bottom of my mind? Go away, Dilandau. You don’t even belong here. Go away.
Her voice had that strange echo again, many voices speaking as one, a syncopated chorus, the echoes coming into focus.
The mirror-shards came together, joining up like blobs of quicksilver, the cracks filling and sealing together, seamless, whole, beautiful. They formed a great parabolic mirror into which the heat and light of Celena’s determination shone and focused, and were thrown back out as a pure beam of force.
In the same instant, the pendulum swung outward, straining at the end of its chain, disregarding the law of gravity, standing out horizontally from Celena’s hand to show the way to Dilandau, and the beam leapt along that golden line, a single sizzling stroke.
Go away, Dilandau! The patchwork choir of Celena spoke in perfect unison. The darkness became light. Van was almost afraid, but did not waver from adding his will, his purpose to the goal.
I want you to be all right. I don’t want Dilandau to be able to hurt you. I want it to be possible to mend broken things, to restore them, to make them heal without a scar. What do you know anyway, Mother? You told me to hide my wings. You made me feel ashamed of them, because they made you sad. You got married because a prophecy said you would. You left me alone when I was five years old! I’ll always love you, but damn, you were wrong about some things!
Celena… you’re so very strong… you had to be, to survive this long, even in bits and pieces. You don’t need me to protect you, to stand in front of you. But I’ll stand beside you.
Are you my friend? Celena turned hopeful blue-grey eyes on him, shining with their own light.
Yes, I’m your friend.
And Dilandau is gone?
Gone for good. You wasted him. All of you together. You were great!
I’m… I’m not having one of my funny spells… I’m just very tired. She slumped against him, and he bore up her weight as his wings opened and lifted them. They rose to the surface along the strong golden chain; the doors of perception opened and let them out.
Van felt the boards of the verandah beneath him. He had been sitting still so long his backside was numb, and his left foot was asleep. His eyes were still closed, but his mind and Celena’s were separate once more. In the trance, they had both unconsciously leaned forward until their foreheads were touching, leaning head to head, brow to brow. Nothing felt quite so real and solid as the bony pressure of her forehead on his.
‘Van,’ she whispered hoarsely, as though her mouth had grown dry, ‘the pendulum’s stopped.’
‘That’s all right.’ His own voice was a little rusty, and it seemed right to speak softly.
‘Have you ever noticed how if you fall asleep when you didn’t mean to your teeth taste bloody afterwards? What makes that?’
‘I don’t know. It’s metallic, isn’t it?’ They still remained motionless, hands clasped between them. ‘Do you feel better now? All one piece?’
‘I feel a bit better… but I think I need to put the pieces together in a different way… not to be a weapon… will you come back and help me? You help me focus.’
‘Of course I will.’ A slight motion was enough to set the pendulum swinging once more, and this time it was all easier. The reassembly was gentle, because the parts understood the purpose of the whole and found comfort in union. It was still draining work, and they grew steadily wearier. Finally the job was done, and they lapsed together into deep, quiet sleep.
The air was shining, and Van was flying. It was one of those times when you know you are dreaming, and you are free to enjoy it. The wind sang in his wings and kissed his eyelids as he closed them in the sunlight. He thought of it as sunlight, but it seemed to come from all sides, all around him, and it came to him that he was flying at the heart of a great white dragon composed of near-solid light, its wingbeats matching his, following his movements as Escaflowne did, perfectly synchronous.
He looked down through the light and saw the world beneath him like an illuminated map, seas of deep blue ink outlined with golden sand. Amid humpbacked green hills he saw Fanelia. Somewhere down there, Celena stood amid the butterfly cabbages and stretched her arms toward the sky. He swept down in a low skimming dive, caught her hands and bore her aloft. No weight, and no work to keep her up with him. By rights, if you hold someone around the waist they should bend at the middle and hang like washing over a line, but it was as though they both floated like swimmers in unusually buoyant water. She was laughing, her sweet soft girlish laugh, and tendrils of her silver-gold hair flicked and tickled at his face, smelling of cleanness and warmth. He was unafraid, unashamed, and the two of them would never fall.
Van woke around the time of sunrise, wondering why he was so uncomfortable. The answer came to him as his eyes opened and the rest of his senses started returning messages. Somehow, he and Celena had both managed to fall asleep sitting up, their heads leaning together. Of course… they had gone on mending her mind-mirror so long last night that he had no memory of how they had finished… must have gone to sleep at the end. They had both slid further forward so that their heads rested on one another’s shoulders, faces turned together, and he could feel the faint soft touch of Celena’s breathing on the side of his neck. It was strange to see her so close, so still and peaceful, and he could not move yet, could not disturb her roughly. What was the right way to wake someone in this situation, anyway? Perhaps he was the first person ever to have to try to figure that out. He could have done with some precedent to guide him.
Then the problem was taken out of his hands, because Celena’s eyelids fluttered and parted, unveiling her eyes’ blueness, so much deeper than he remembered. She took a slightly deeper breath, then seemed to hold it, gazing into his eyes with the wondering look of the newly awoken and the newly born.
When he thought about it carefully later, Van realised that at no point was he aware of making a conscious decision to kiss her. It was not true to say that it seemed to happen by itself, because obviously movement required some volition on his part, but it simply felt as though it was the next thing to happen in a natural sequence, inevitable as ice melting in the sun. It was the simplest and most obvious thing in the world to move his head a little way so his lips could touch hers. It would have been the lightest brush of a kiss had not the remnants of sleep made them both a little heavy and clumsy; the firm warm pressure of it startled Van, and after a dreamlike moment in which he could not make himself move, he drew back with a jerk, feeling absurdly as if he had been the one kissed unexpectedly. The symmetry of their position was broken; they were both sitting up properly, Celena raising her right hand to touch her lips, as though expecting to find some trace of him remaining. A shining something glimpsed at her wrist resolved itself into the chain of Hitomi’s pendant, looped over the back of her hand. How had it passed into her hand? He had thought the transfer happened only in their shared imagination.
‘I thought it might be you,’ Celena said softly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I thought you might be the one in my dreams.’
‘Dreams? What dreams?’ He was on the verge of panic for some reason; oh yes, that was why, he had just given his first kiss to a girl about whom he didn’t even know how he felt, and he seemed to have somehow handed over to her the one thing he kept sacred from the person he was supposed to love. No wonder, really. He almost wanted to laugh, but he was afraid if he started he wouldn't be able to stop.
A smile dawned on Celena’s face, soft and rosy as the pale sunrise. ‘You know – we had the same dreams tonight. I felt you there the whole time, just like when you came with me to fix things in my mind. We were having a wonderful time together, flying so high and so far, up there on the dragon wind. I thought it wasn’t just a fever dream all along, though Allen told me it was… I thought I’d seen something real on the battlefield, and it was you. The shining white dragon flying through the air. I’d dreamed of you before, because my mind wanted me to know you were coming, I would see you for real one day. I had to be prepared to meet you, although things went pretty spectacularly wrong. But it’s working out now. I was meant to meet you. All this was meant to happen, it’s just had trouble happening the way it’s supposed to.’ She spoke with perfect confidence, with faith. The hesitant quality to her voice had melted away in the night; at last her voice matched the face it came from, and her eyes were utterly clear, though their sapphire intensity was softened by her smile. They even seemed to have changed colour slightly, to a purer, less milky blue, as though they had been pools in which chalky sediment had been stirred up, but now it had settled or been filtered out.
‘Th-that’s not true,’ Van stammered. ‘I’m meant to be with Hitomi. Speaking of which, you’ve got her pendant there, give it back. I told you you couldn’t keep it.’
Celena slowly unwound the chain from her wrist, gently deposited the necklace in the palm of Van’s waiting hand. ‘If you’re meant to be together, why do you live in different worlds?’
‘Don’t say things like that. Look, what happened just now was a mistake. I’m sorry. Forget about it, okay? It wasn’t for you.’
‘Who was it for? You couldn’t have thought I was Hitomi. You took a really good look at me first. You knew who you were kissing.’
‘I was half-asleep!’ he protested, getting stiffly to his feet. His left leg was just about dead, and he had to stamp it hard on the floor to try to shock some life back into it. It was not going to be easy to walk away.
‘Oh, pscht.’ She made a cheerful, scornful noise, unimpressed by his claims. ‘You were wide awake!’ Celena leaned back on her hands, smiling up at him calmly, joyfully.
‘I think I should know, since it was me.’
‘I think I should know too, since it was you.’ A flicker of surprise crossed her face, and she hastily brought her right hand round so she could look at it.
‘It’s – it’s gone!’
‘Your hand? It’s right there!’
‘The blister!’ Celena turned the palm of her hand towards him, holding it up for inspection. There was no blister, no redness, no sign whatever of injury. Van bent down to look closer, and there was not even any shiny smoothness to indicate that a burn had been there and had healed. The little fortune-teller’s lines of the skin were perfectly intact.
‘You kissed me better,’ Celena breathed.
‘I did not!’
‘You wanted to make things better for me so much that it even worked on my hand,’ she insisted, rising to her knees. ‘Van, that’s so beautiful! I wonder if it happened while we were awake or asleep?’ Before he could give his opinion or protest in any way, she put her hand behind his head and drew him further down to kiss him again. A shot of pure panic pierced his heart and he leapt away, stumbling and catching hold of the verandah railing to steady himself, because that left leg was still not reliable.
‘You can’t do that!’
‘Well, I know it’s usual for the boy to start kisses, but I don’t see why. I’ve had enough of waiting for things to happen to me. You showed me I had to do something about it and make them happen.’ She rose and approached him, still glowing with happiness, still perfectly sure of herself and of him. The morning light made her hair shine softly, gold reflecting gold.
‘Forget about it!’ Van ordered her, pointing one finger at her as though to ward her off. ‘Even if you don’t believe me about Hitomi I bet your brother would kill me. I have to – I have to go!’ He was holding the pendant so tightly that the gold setting of the jewel hurt his palm. He turned away from her and hurried indoors, doing his damnedest not to limp, although the untrustworthy left leg had a way of not realising it had touched the floor for a second and trying to go further down. Why in the world had he kissed her? It would only confuse her. It wasn’t fair to her to raise her expectations and then – well, it was not fair to him either, because she could not be more confused than he was, or more ashamed. He hurried to his bathroom, welcoming the discomfort of pins and needles in the slowly awakening leg, and stuck his head in the bath, full of cold water since the wood-burning heater underneath was not lit. He stayed under as long as he could, listening to the ringing echo of his heartbeat in his ears, until he had to surface for lack of air. He sat on the rim of the bath, cold trickles running down his neck and face from his soaking-wet hair, and tried desperately to clear his mind.
I’ve got to think of Hitomi. She’s the important one here. I mustn’t betray her any more. At least she asked for permission when she wanted to… when… is this the same thing? Why are we in different worlds if we’re meant to be together? What’s destiny up to? You’d think it would find a more direct way to happen… and that’s what Celena thinks is happening for me and her… no! Think of Hitomi! Go and talk to her. When you talk to her you’ll know how you feel.
He could not get properly calm before he reached out to her, so he was not able to make his approach unobtrusive. She felt him arriving and turned her attention to him with some alarm. It was not the same time of day for her as it was for him, which happened sometimes, they were not sure why. He seemed to have disturbed her at bedtime.
Van? What’s wrong? I haven’t heard from you in more than a week! I tried to get through to you but you were always so busy you didn’t know I was there.
What? It hasn’t been that long! I talked to you just the other day! But this had happened before too; their days got out of synch. Sometimes more time had passed on his side, sometimes on hers. They were only on approximately the same timeline.
Well, that’s not how it’s been at this end. I wondered if you were still mad at me about Takashi.
I wasn’t mad. Honestly. I – gosh, we’ll just have to catch up. How did you do at the track meet? His tone felt a little too bright and cheerful even to him. Trying to act normal.
Well, I couldn’t believe it. I was in three events, and I placed in all of them. In my second race, I came first! Someone told me the girl who was favourite was having an off day, so maybe I didn’t totally deserve it, but I still came first!
Congratulations. I’m proud of you!
Van, is everything all right? You still seem so agitated. Has something happened?
What? No! Nothing’s happened. What could happen? I mean, of course things have HAPPENED. Stuff happens all the time, right? Nothing unusual there. Good things have happened! I’ve made a deal with Dryden Fassa and we’re going to get lots of supplies for the winter. Everything’s fine.
Van, what on earth is the matter with you? Has – well, you said Celena Schezar was there. Is she still around? Is she upsetting you?
Of course not. Of course not. Why was it impossible to tell her? Just because he felt so guilty? But the only cure he knew of for guilt, where practical redress was impossible, was confession. She’s not as bad as I thought at first. She’s getting better. I sort of tried to help her.
That was kind of you.
I have to look after her for a while because Allen’s not well.
Poor Allen! Is it serious?
I don’t think so. Princess Millerna’s looking after him and she doesn’t seem worried.
A pause. Van opened his hand and stared at the pendant. It had made a red pressure-print on his skin. How are you getting on with Takashi?
Um… pretty well…
Did he see you run? When you won, I mean?
Yes… he was there… it was wonderful hearing everyone from my school cheering for me… Van, I should tell you. Don’t get angry. When I came back after winning he gave me a kiss to celebrate. Just a kiss on the cheek. It was sort of a joking one because everyone was watching. At the end of the day, though, he walked home with me… and he said he wished he’d kissed me properly… and…
Don’t worry, then. We’re even.
What do you mean?
Celena kissed me. That was not confessing at all, that was cheating, it made it sound as though it hadn’t been his fault.
Van… Takashi said he wished I were his girlfriend… he said he’s liked me for a long time but Yukari told him I liked Amano-sempai, so he didn’t think he had a chance before… I could have thumped Yukari for telling other people about that, by the way… he wanted to know if I’d go out with him this Sunday too.
Because you went the other Sunday.
That doesn’t count! It ended up being with a group of people, because we ran into some of our friends at the café where we had ice-cream. Van, please, are you getting angry with me? If you want me to stop seeing him say so.
I think you want me to say stop so it doesn’t have to be your decision.
That’s not fair. I’m not doing anything underhanded. I’ve been honest with you from the start.
There always seems to be someone else kissing you, doesn’t there? Allen or whoever. You can’t help it, I suppose.
Oh, stop it! Why have you never kissed me, then? The words blazed out and hung there between them, sizzling firework writing in the sky, refusing to be ignored any longer.
Van struggled to be honest, to be honest with himself, which was harder. Because I knew you wanted to go home to your world… and I thought it would be so much harder to say goodbye to you if I’d ever really felt you were mine…
Van… He had so often heard her say his name that way, that soft, falling inflection, helpless.
What should we do?
Maybe it’s supposed to happen this way. Our worlds got closer together, and now they’re moving apart again. It makes much more sense for you to like someone on your world than me. Things are trying to go back to normal. Things
want to be normal. We sort of interrupted the way they should be, and now they’re sliding back into place.
I don’t ever want to forget you.
I don’t think you will. Nothing can change what you want to remember. Sometimes things can’t get back to normal unless you do remember what’s not normal. It’s like war and peace.
It’s not some kind of aberration. I love you.
I love you, too. I love you with a part of my heart I never used before. It’ll always belong to you.
But maybe it’s right that it should only be a part. Hitomi paused, considering what she wanted to say. This is the strangest feeling, I feel sad, but I feel so much better too. It’s as though I’ve been let off having to worry about something. Because I always did worry – what was going to happen to us, I mean. How would we get to be together? How could I leave Earth again? At first I thought, well, when I’ve finished school it will be easier, but then I began thinking I might want to go to university, or I might be offered a really good job, and how would I explain to my family, and my friends, and how would I cope with how much I missed Earth while I was on Gaea? I missed so many everyday things. The longer I grew up here, the harder it would really be to leave. And I thought, what if my running really takes me somewhere? I don’t want to sound vain about it, but I keep getting this feeling that it could. I keep thinking about the Olympic Games. There’ll be another one in 2000. I keep thinking, could I get that good in four more years? Or if I couldn’t, in four more after that? Maybe I’ll never get that good. Only a very few people do. But I want so much to try and see how it turns out. I realised I was thinking all along, how could I leave Earth and go back to Gaea, because there was just no way you could leave your kingdom and come to live with me. And that made me think that maybe it’s not right for me to leave here either. I tried to imagine really living on Gaea every day for the rest of my life, and I just couldn’t, any more than I could imagine you riding on the subway or buying something from a vending machine. I think maybe we belong where we are. I think maybe it’s all right for us to just go on the way we are, and love each other the way we do, and not require anything else from each other.
Which means… if you like Takashi, that’s okay.
It’s not like he’s the love of my life, but I do think he’s sweet. When he told me he liked me, he was blushing so much… and he looked so lonely and confused when I told him I couldn’t give an answer yet… it feels nice to know I can make him happy now, and I won’t be hurting you.
Hitomi? I think maybe you should be angry with me.
Because you were very honest and I was kind of sneaky. When I said Celena kissed me – she kissed me back, because I’d kissed her first. I was trying to lead up to telling you so it wouldn’t blow up.
Oh. There was a short, thoughtful pause. Well, no, I’m not angry. I think it’s kind of nice that the two of you should end up together. Very strange, but kind of nice. I suppose I just feel a little bit possessive, enough so that I think she’d just better be nice to you or I’ll have to come back to Gaea to give her a smack.
I wouldn’t call us ‘together.’ I still don’t know what I’m going to do about her.
Well, be nice to her too. She’s had a hard time. Now I know what you were all thingy about at the beginning – you were feeling guilty. When did this happen?
About fifteen minutes ago. I decided I needed to talk to you straight away, to get myself straightened out. It hasn’t turned out the way I expected at all.
I think we’re both straightened out, though. What time of day is it for you? Feels like morning.
Yes. I think it’s night-time for you.
It’s… let’s see the clock… it’s nearly eleven. Late for a school night. I wouldn’t not have had this talk with you for anything, but now it’s done I feel very tired.
Well, I wish you sweet dreams.
Celena sat on the bed in what she had begun to think of as her room. Her confidence was beginning to dissolve. Everything had seemed so very clear and certain when she first woke up. Van had kissed her and that had seemed exactly right. And then he had shot off like a frightened rabbit. Was she really that off-putting? Really, would he have kissed her if he loved Hitomi the most? She felt so close to him after dreaming together, but perhaps that was only her feeling. Perhaps it had been unpleasant for him. Perhaps she had somehow forced him to be with her, had been unfair.
She looked again at her right hand, whole and sound. He had made it better, she was sure of that. However fast Schezars healed, it wasn’t this quick. If only he really had kissed it better; she imagined Van’s lips gently descending on the palm of her hand, how warm they would be.
Celena had grown accustomed to being confused by her feelings, often contradictory to one another within a few minutes, but the feeling that she should be near Van, that they were somehow important to each other, had been constant since she had first arrived in Fanelia. That certainty, she was sure, had stabilised her mind somehow, so that she was able to get to the point where she could muster the scattered pieces of herself and make them a coherent whole again. Van was central to that. But if he was not a certainty, what was? She had thought this new, reformed mind understood the truth, but what if the idea on which she had founded her perceptions was a big mistake? She did not feel as though she were about to fall apart again, but what if it happened later, perhaps the first time she surrendered to sleep? What if she had not really purged Dilandau and now he would have his chance? She put her arms around herself, drawing her knees up to her chest, trying to give herself a comforting embrace, but she was only one person and there is only so much a person can do alone. Experimentally, she kissed the palm of her own hand. No; she could not say that she simply wanted a kiss. It had to come from the right person, and it had to be because he thought she was the right person too.
Of course he did not. He had said so many times that he didn’t even like her. Perhaps he had only said he was her friend because he was really so kind. Perhaps it was the same kindness he had shown to Kezia, the kindness of a king, a protector. Could it be? Why would he kiss her if he didn’t want to? Why would he take her flying in dreams?
She was on the verge of tears when there was a soft tap on the door.
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s Van. Can I come in and talk to you?’ Van waited on the outside, wondering why it took her so long to answer. Finally she said ‘Yes,’ so softly that he almost did not hear her through the panels of the door. When he looked into the room, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands folded in her lap, still in the strawberry dress. Her eyebrows rose as he came in.
‘You got new clothes too.’
‘I just couldn’t be bothered changing at the end of the day yesterday. Do you think I look stupid?’
‘Turn around?’ she said, her rising tone making it a request. ‘No, I think you look really nice. I bet you like having those clothes on instead of that dreadful shirt from yesterday, too.’
‘Well, they’re an improvement,’ Van conceded. He felt very self-conscious in these clothes, although he had carefully picked out the plainest things from what he had brought home yesterday. He had not felt up to the challenge of wearing a suit, and thought it should probably be reserved for more formal occasions, so this time it was just trousers and a shirt, but the garments themselves were so much better than anything he was used to that he felt he had to be on his best behaviour in them. The shirt was one of several in the right size that Sylvie had bundled together for him, and he had assumed they were all just linen like the first one he had tried on. Even the linen had been a lot finer than Fanelian weave, but this shirt lay on his back as softly as water. He had taken it back off and looked inside the collar and seams, and had been somehow embarrassed to find a small label reading ‘Pure Silk.’ It was the exact colour of fresh cream. It felt far too good to have on on an ordinary day, but when he went through the other shirts, at least half of them were also silk. It whispered when he moved. He was used to clothes that rustled coarsely. The sleeves, thank goodness, were straight and narrow, and its collar was just a band, without long points or anything Allenish like that.
‘Well, now I’m the grubby one in day-old clothes,’ Celena said, trying to make a little joke of it. The new clothes were scattered around her on the bed, where she had left them after unpacking the bundle. She had been in such a hurry to get one of the dresses on and go out and show him how happy she was that she had not had time to put anything away. She suddenly remembered the pile of soft white underwear and quickly put a pillow on top of it, so Van should not be embarrassed or annoyed.
‘You’re all right,’ he said, smiling hesitantly. ‘I like that dress on you. Sylvie says prints like that are going to be all the rage this winter, whatever that means. You’ll be fashionable even when you get back to Asturia.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I – I’m sure Allen will pay you back for everything.’
‘He doesn’t need to – it was all part of the same lot. I got a big shipment for the country in exchange for a deal with Dryden Fassa. It’ll get us through winter. It’s taken a load off my mind, I can tell you.’
‘Then… shouldn’t another girl really have these things? Someone Fanelian? I – I can give them back. I don’t mind. I want to help.’
‘But I want you to have them.’ Van glanced at the things strewn over the quilt. ‘I mean – I chose these for you, believe it or not.’ He reached over to pick up a pair of soft grey kid gloves. ‘I thought they’d protect your bandage. I guess you don’t need them now. There’s enough stuff for everyone. Now that we’ve signed the deal Dryden’s going to bring more, anyway, if we need to make up any shortfall. As long as you’re living here, I’ll take just as much care of you as I would anyone else in my kingdom.’ He was looking at the gloves as though they might at any moment do something very interesting, or perhaps he was just avoiding looking Celena in the eye. Then he pulled himself together and looked at her directly, making his voice as matter-of-fact as hers ever was.
‘If you’re serious about wanting to help, today’s the day you could start, since you’re feeling so much better. Have a wash, get some clean clothes on, we’ll have breakfast, and then we’ll get cracking on handing things out. I’ll need to make a speech first and tell people what’s happening, I suppose, and after that we can do something useful. What do you say?’
‘I would be honoured to help you,’ Celena said earnestly. ‘I’ll do anything you need me to.’
‘Thank you,’ said Van. He seemed to want to say something else, but could not quite spit it out. After a moment, he said ‘Well, I’ll let you get on with it, then,’ put the gloves back on the bed, and left. Celena took up the gloves and held them to her heart. He had not said he did not like her. He had even sort of told her he liked how she looked. He had said he would take care of her, so he could not be too angry. And now was her chance to really start making things better.
It was a long, hard, happy day. Celena really got to see very little of Van, because they were both so busy, but she could not mind that too much because she knew they were doing exactly what they should be. Besides that, she was constantly surprised and delighted at how clearly she could think now, how certainly she knew things, how sharp and strong her memory was. She kept all sorts of numbers in her head, she worked out systems to make things run efficiently, she kept her head in minor emergencies and had a surprising amount of fun.
A special committee was placed in charge of the distribution of machinery and equipment, and a sort of free-for-all market was established in the big city square for provisions. One thing that impressed Celena was how orderly and co-operative everyone was. No-one tried to grab more for their family, or to do anyone else out of a fair share. The Fanelians had a genuine spirit of collective wellbeing. She saw it again and again as she went about the business of her assigned job, giving out shoes and boots in the neighbourhoods of the town. People weren’t just looking for what they themselves needed, but had the needs of their friends and acquaintances in mind; a woman would pick out shoes for her own children and then call a friend over to say she had found just the thing for the friend’s husband while she was looking. It was the mothers that she enjoyed dealing with the most, because the expression of sheer relief on their faces, when they realised one more material need of their families would be taken care of, delighted her so. She was helping, really helping. All right, she was only doing work for someone else; Dryden Fassa had provided the goods and Van had made the decision that let them all benefit, but she had never expected to be the originator of a solution, only to help in the execution of someone else’s. Van deserved the glory of having solved his people’s immediate problems, and she would have been unhappy to take it away from him in any way.
All day she was surrounded by happy, relieved people, becoming more cheerful as the day wore on. Children tugged at her skirts, wanting her to admire their sturdy new shoes and smart new clothes; she saw Kezia, who was thrilled to bits that they both had a dress with a yellow skirt because that meant they were practically twins. Everyone smiled at her; everyone was pleased to see her and grateful for what she gave out. It was a lovely feeling. Perhaps she did not deserve to feel so good, and perhaps they would not be so welcoming if they knew who she really was, but she was not enough of a masochist to tell them, and anyway that would only spoil the day for everyone. Her own guilt was not the most important thing; their happiness was. That was rather convenient, but she was sure it was right.
She was invited to share lunch with the people who lived in the houses around one courtyard, and enjoyed herself very much. The bulk of the lunch was camp-bread quickly made up from the new supply of flour, cooked over outdoor fires, the dough wound around green sticks. There was only water to drink, and not much butter to go round, but the bounty included cans and jars of pickles and preserves. Celena sat on a bench with a plate half-forgotten on her knees, taking in the beauty of sunlight through the jamjars on a trestle table, rich jewel colours of apricot, raspberry and plum. They were simple, ordinary things and they were treasures.
She met up with Van again in the evening, when they had separately returned to the castle for dinner. She was almost too happy to feel hungry, and when they were both sitting at the table in his small private dining room she realised this was the first meal they had shared, which put her into a state of bliss in which it was impossible to think about food.
Van frowned at her untouched plate. ‘Aren’t you going to eat any of that? You’ve been busy all day, you need a good dinner. I know snails don’t sound good to eat, but with enough garlic butter you can eat nearly anything. You know, we started eating those when there was a famine, and after things got back to normal they started being a luxury food. I always think that’s funny. And there’s not going to be a famine now, so people will never have to eat snails again. Except you. You have to eat those now because I say so, and I don’t want you to be all skinny and starved-looking when your brother collects you.’ His severity in the beginning had been feigned; he was in such a good mood now that he could not hold back from smiling at her by the end of his speech.
‘I always thought snails looked good to eat, actually,’ Celena said, and managed to remember to eat two before she reverted to sitting with her chin in her hands, elbows on the table, in spite of all Allen’s efforts to revive her early training in table manners, and beaming at him foolishly. At first she was not sure, but over the course of dinner she became certain that he was returning her smiles, somewhat shyly. The conversation died and neither of them minded.
‘Bor-ing,’ said Merle, who had eaten her own dinner in no time and was bouncing around the wood-panelled room ready to be off. ‘People are going to have parties tonight, and you’re just sitting around like lumps. Don’t you want to go out and have fun, Van-sama? You worked really hard all day.’
‘Well, the work’s not over,’ Van reminded her. ‘Tomorrow we’ll need to go round all the outlying villages and see that they get their share.’
‘Can I help with that too?’ Celena asked eagerly. ‘I’d love to see more of where people live in Fanelia.’
‘Of course. You can come round with me. I’ll tell you all about what we see.’
‘Boring again,’ said Merle. ‘It’s just a lot of little dumps like Irini. Well, even if you want to be dull, I’m off out. Come and find me later if you feel like it.’ She frisked out, leaving the two of them alone. Celena took a small sip of wine – which Allen did not allow her to drink – and tried to think of something suitable to say.
Van leaned forward before she could do so, and asked ‘Have you ever seen Fanelian fireflies? The best place to watch them from is up on the roof. Do you want to see?’
They sat for a long time watching the dancing golden sparks, while the sound of music from the town faintly reached their ears.
‘This is the happiest Fanelia’s been for a long time,’ Van said. ‘Things really are going to be all right now, I can feel it. They may even get better than they were before the war. Things that weren’t finished then… well, it’s sad that they should be finished, but we’re free of the uncertainty of them now. We can stand up and walk forward. Doesn’t it feel to you like the whole kingdom is breathing out a sigh of relief?’ A cool evening breeze wafted over them just as he spoke, which made them both laugh, although it raised goosebumps on Celena’s bare arms.
‘You’re getting cold,’ Van said. ‘Maybe we should go in.’
‘Oh, no – it’s so lovely out here.’ Being a little cold was no reason at all to interrupt this peace.
‘Well, get closer to me, then, so you won’t be as chilly.’ It was nice to have that excuse to put his arm around her shoulders, and sweeter still when she leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Her wavy hair tickled his neck, and he smelled the fragrance of his dream again. Although they were ostensibly still watching the fireflies, Van found more diversion in watching Celena watch the fireflies, seeing their light reflected in her eyes, and she soon became aware of his gaze resting on her and looked up quizzically.
‘Have you changed your mind about me?’ she asked. ‘I thought you didn’t like me this morning.’
Van cleared his throat. She did have a way of asking awkward questions, or just of not realising that people wouldn’t normally ask questions about the things she did. Then again, sometimes her questions made him see answers he hadn’t thought of by himself. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I think I got nervous this morning.’
‘Because I do like you, very much by now, and it’s new to me. I’ve never actually kissed a girl before.’ He rather mumbled that last part, and although it was hard to see in the dusk, Celena thought he was blushing.
‘I like you back. I was very happy that you kissed me.’
‘You know, sometimes you still talk a funny way? I thought that would go away when your mind came right, but – “I like you back” – you just have your own way of saying things, I guess.’ He thought she looked concerned. ‘I like that. It’s unusual about you. I like you being unusual.’
‘Oh, good,’ she said, relaxing. ‘But you didn’t like it so much when I kissed you, did you?’
‘I wasn’t in the right mood to enjoy it.’
‘Are you now?’
Van thought he would honestly have to say he was far too nervous to tell, but despaired of that as cowardly. ‘I don’t know. Do you want to try?’
Celena lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him very seriously. A firefly wafted past nearby, and Van felt that he was suspended in an enchanted moment, a warm still bubble of night. His heart was kicking at his ribs as though it wanted to get out. Celena drew a little nearer to him, and her lips parted slightly.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t. I probably have garlicky breath.’ She looked worried.
‘I like garlic! Honestly! And I bet mine’s worse!’ Van was afraid he was gabbling in his desperation not to spoil the kiss, not to make her change her mind. I can’t just wait for her to decide for the two of us. He shut his eyes tightly and kissed her hastily, half-missing her mouth and bumping his nose against hers, but a small adjustment took care of that and the second time was beautiful. He had been afraid that kissing would be difficult, since he was inexperienced, but he seemed to know how to do it already. Perhaps it was just easy to kiss Celena; perhaps that explained how he had slipped into kissing her at dawn. He found himself fascinated by the softness of her lips, by the way they moved against his, wanting to explore, wanting to know every detail of a Celena-kiss so that he could feel it again in his dreams. One of his arms was already around her; he added the other to the embrace and held her close, startled and delighted when she put her own arms around his neck and pressed closer, sighing. He slid one hand up over her back, over her neck, into the softness and warmth of her hair, gently stroking, tangling among the moonsilk strands. He had a rising sense of disbelief at the sheer luck of being able to do this. How could he ever have thought he disliked her? How could he have looked at such a beautiful girl and seen an enemy? There was no way he could possibly deserve her affection, but it was offered so freely, given so joyously.
Someone coughed loudly and pointedly behind them.
Van looked up quickly, half-guiltily, surprised to notice how fast he was breathing. If anyone had a problem with him kissing Celena, he would protect her from them no matter what. It was only Merle, standing with one hand on her hip and the other holding a lantern, frowning at them by its swinging light.
‘I came to find you because everyone’s having such a good time and saying what a shame the King isn’t here, but I guess you’re not interested,’ she said. ‘I do think you might have warned me you were going to carry on like this. Does Hitomi know, Van-sama?’
‘That’s right,’ Celena said, also a little breathlessly. ‘What about Hitomi? You were upset about her before.’
‘Hitomi’s fine,’ Van said. ‘Will you stop shining that light in my eyes, Merle? Everything’s fine. She understands.’
‘That’s more than I do,’ Merle said. ‘I don’t understand you at all! You acted like you hated her at first and now I find you slurping all over her!’
‘We were not slurping,’ Celena said defensively, reddening. ‘Don’t be disgusting.’
‘I just get used to the idea that you love Hitomi and all of a sudden you’re grabbing onto someone else!’ Merle went on, sounding increasingly upset. ‘What do you think you’re playing at? Don’t you love her after all?’
‘Of course I love her! I love you too. That doesn’t mean I can’t – I mean – well, it’s not the same thing!’
‘You seem to think you have a lot of love to go round.’
‘It’s not as though it’s something that gets used up!’ Van was not sure if he was more irritated or more embarrassed by Merle’s attitude. After he had had such difficulty thinking his way through to the point where he could have a clear conscience, for her to act disapproving felt like insult upon injury.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Celena, raising her hand for attention. ‘I really don’t want to be the cause of any trouble. I’ll go in if-’
‘You’re not!’ said Van. ‘Merle’s being ridiculous. You don’t have to go anywhere. I’d like you to stay with me.’ He caught hold of her hand, because she was already rising to her feet, and drew her back down beside him. She looked pleased but uncertain, because Merle was still glaring.
‘I’d like to know why you didn’t tell me about this,’ she said to Celena. ‘I thought we were getting to be friends.’
‘Well, you and I have been friends for years,’ Van answered on Celena’s behalf, ‘and there’s no rule that you have to tell friend A about everything that happens with friend B.’
‘I didn’t think you would be interested,’ Celena protested. ‘I was all confused about it so I wouldn’t have known what to say about it. You know, I really think I’ll go to bed now. I’ve had a big day, and there’ll be another one tomorrow, and I’m very tired. I’m sure I’ll sleep soundly all night.’
‘What’s happened to you, anyway?’ Merle asked her. ‘You’re all different today. You two are having secrets and it’s not fair.’
Van sighed. ‘If I come down to the town with you, and explain things on the way, will you stop being the Grand High Inquisitor? Really, there’s nothing dodgy about any of this if you know the full story. Celena, don’t just run off, I’ll see you to your room first. I mean, if I may.’
‘Of course you may.’
‘Well, I’ll wait for you down in the courtyard,’ Merle said. ‘I’ll use the time to wash my ears. I want to get them ready because I expect whatever I hear to be pretty good.’ She stalked off with her tail twitching.
Van and Celena returned to her room hand in hand, a new and agreeable experience for both of them.
‘Do you feel all right?’ he asked at her door. ‘I mean, you’re still feeling stable, right? I’d hate to think we just made you feel better for a day and it wore off when you got tired.’
‘I really do feel fine,’ Celena said. ‘I feel better than ever because – well – because of how you are with me now. It’s the same feeling as in my dreams, that I’m lifted up and nothing can make me fall. I’m so glad I came here. The only thing I have left to worry about is when I’ll have to go home.’
‘Don’t worry about that yet,’ Van said, with a wry smile. ‘I’m sure Allen will stay sick for a nice long time.’
‘That’s not what I meant!’ she protested earnestly.
‘No, I know. I’m just being silly. I bet he’ll be fine soon. But maybe he’ll let you stay a little bit longer. You did so well today. I know it sounds hypocritical, because I was so bad-tempered about you staying in the first place, but… all I can say is that I was being an ass. I’d like you to stay just so I can make up for that. Please think about it.’ He kissed her softly on the cheek. ‘Good night. Sweet dreams, sweetheart.’
‘Sweetheart!’ Celena’s eyes lit up, and Van felt himself blushing all over again.
‘Is – is it all right to call you that? I don’t want to be…’
‘Forward? Forward’s all right. I was just thinking how nice it is that you kissed me first thing this morning, and you’ve kissed me last thing at night. And I won’t be afraid to go to sleep when I know I can meet you in my dreams. Good night.’ She smiled and disappeared into her room.
When Merle had heard the whole story, and when Van had promised on his honour not to make any more major life decisions without thoroughly consulting her, she grudgingly conceded that Van was not, perhaps, entirely in the wrong, and that possibly Celena could be forgiven for her reticence.
‘So are you in love with her now?’ she asked. ‘You do change your mind a lot.’
‘I’m not sure if I was in love with Hitomi to begin with,’ Van explained. ‘I do love her. I always will. But I don’t think that’s the same thing as how I’m beginning to feel about Celena. I think it’s more that Hitomi is my best friend, someone who can understand me and help me in a way no-one else can. So she’s very, very precious to me. But I’m actually glad I’m not in love with her. It would make life far too hard. She and I talked about that today. We can still be close in our hearts even if we never see each other face-to-face again.’
‘Oh, and I’m not your best friend?’ Merle asked huffily, turning her back on him. Then she looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out, winking to show she didn’t really mean it.
‘You’re my best friend on this planet. And the only friend who I’m buying a toffee-apple for tonight, so you can feel special.’ There was a feeling almost of carnival in Fanelia town this evening. The toffee-apples had been made in a hurry, so they were still extremely sticky, and they were only crab-apples from the woods so once you had licked off the toffee you didn’t really want the fruit, but who ever ate the apple part of a toffee-apple anyway?
‘Whabbouslena?’ Merle said, trying to get her jaws unstuck.
‘Swallow the toffee and try again?’
‘Esyersaithadone.’ After a few moments’ determined chewing and tooth-sucking, she carefully enunciated, ‘What about Celena? She’s your friend too, right?’
‘Yes… but I haven’t known her as long as you…’
‘You think she’s pretty wonderful, though, don’t you? And I suppose you know her quite well if you’ve been inside her mind. And you still haven’t said if you’re in love with her now.’
‘I don’t know if I am. I’m not sure what “in love” is supposed to feel like now. You realise I’m only saying this to you in confidence, right? You can’t talk about it to anyone else.’
‘Your ears are going red.’
‘That’s how I feel about it!’ Van looked around nervously to see if anyone was listening to them, but that was one of the nice things about being a relatively low-key king; people respected you, but they didn’t follow you around slavishly, and you didn’t have to be ‘on’ all the time you were in public, especially when other people were enjoying themselves too much to pay attention to you unless you did something interesting. Talking to Merle and having temporarily red ears did not cut it as street theatre.
‘I thought you had to be in love with someone to kiss them like that,’ Merle said. ‘And I am surprised that you feel that way about her.’
‘I know, I know, because I was so much against her when she arrived. I truly don’t understand why I behaved that way. I suppose I was still thinking of her as at least half Dilandau, and I didn’t want her to be able to feel better about everything he did. But… I suppose I just got used to her… I started feeling sorry for her… but after a while it wasn’t pity, it was just wanting her to be happier. Because it wasn’t making me feel any better to punish her.’
‘And it does help that she’s really pretty and has a nice figure,’ said Merle blandly, and gnawed some more toffee off her apple.
‘You’re such a little cynic sometimes!’ Van said, amazed at her.
‘Yeah, but I bet if she looked like Mr Mole you wouldn’t’ve come around quite so fast,’ she said, arching her eyebrows. ‘It doesn’t gum up your teeth if you just suck it in the middle of your mouth.’
‘What? Oh, you’re talking about toffee. Remind me not to discuss important things with you while you’re eating.’
Carrying a high-stacked basket of clean linen downhill to the temporary dormitory at the lower temple, soon to be emptied as the last families moved into their new houses, Celena stopped for a moment, shading her eyes against the low-slanting afternoon sun, and gazed out at the prospect before her. Fanelia was rising again, bright new terracotta tiles and freshly plastered walls; people moving through the streets purposefully and optimistically. There had been a holiday-like feeling in the past few days, as people realised that tomorrow was nothing to be dreaded and the new goods were distributed. At this time of year most people would normally have been working their hardest to get in the harvest and put up enough food to get them through winter with a minimum of hardship and scurvy. This year there was no harvest to be got in, which would normally have been a cause for widespread alarm and despondency, and yet this was not a problem. Cupboards and cellars were full. The outlying villages had not been directly devastated by the firestorm attack, but their resources had had to support far more than the usual number of people while the central population of Fanelia was displaced as refugees. The supplies were as welcome there as anywhere else, and the people’s gratitude as great.
Without the normal seasonal work to occupy them, some people threw parties and picnics, some worked harder at making their new homes comfortable, and some were already devoting themselves to pursuits made possible by the new machinery arriving in the country. An evening lecture series on integrating new farming technology into a traditional operation was well-attended, and when the Freidian paddy-field expert arrived he was quite startled by the public level of interest in what he had to say. The printing-press was set up in an outbuilding of the castle, not without a good deal of swearing at the written instructions and periodically getting so fed up that the work was abandoned until everyone had calmed down. The first entirely Fanelian-published book was said to be forthcoming any day now.
Van was so proud of all this, Celena thought fondly. There were times when he seemed overwhelmed by the changes beginning in his country, when all he could do was shake his head and laugh at the unexpected way things turned out. At other times he was inspired, ambitious; he would sketch out to her his plans and dreams for the nation.
'Will you let me help?' she asked him.
'I would love for you to help,' he said, and kissed her hand. Anything seemed possible. She sighed with happiness, looking out at the rebuilt town, breathing in the toasted smell of freshly ironed linen from her basket and bathed in the light of the clear blue sky.
Far away in the blue she saw an irregularly shaped dark speck. Over the course of few minutes it had grown a little larger in her view; it was a ship approaching through the air. Celena frowned slightly.
'Please, no,' she murmured. The speck was not yet close enough for her to distinguish its silhouette; it could still be another ship than the Crusade. But Allen's message had arrived the day before telling them to expect him today. Her time here was almost up. Better to do what she could while it was still possible. She shifted the weight of the basket to her hip and continued down the hill.
Allen was still not feeling one hundred percent well, but Millerna had pronounced him fit enough to travel if he did not over-exert himself. She had said so rather as though she was looking forward to sending him away for a couple of days. He found that a little hurtful; she was really not as sympathetic as he had always believed her to be. As he grew less seriously ill she had had less and less time for him, making excuses to leave him for more stimulating company. The only person who visited him properly was Princess Eries, who at least seemed to understand what a wretched time he had been having, how helpless he had felt and how worried he had been. It had been Eries and not Millerna who had come to see him off when he went to collect Celena.
It was strange to see Fanelia, the country of which Balgus had spoken seldom but lovingly, knowing that Balgus would never walk here again. He would have to ask where his old teacher was buried - or, if his body had not been found, if there was a memorial to which he could make a small pilgrimage while he was here. He could take Celena with him, and perhaps tell her a little about Balgus. Stories were supposed to be good for her, training her to concentrate and remember what she heard. He would have to go back to all those routines of trying to train her, to encourage her… he felt weary already at the thought of it.
Arriving at the castle, he was conducted to a waiting room by what he thought at first was a workman who had wandered in, but later realised was the seneschal. Here he was kept waiting alone for some time, with increasing impatience. What could be causing the delay? Celena would surely be anxious to see him again. Or perhaps, on the other hand, she was afraid to see her brother, afraid he would be angry with her for taking off alone. He blushed to think that she might be doing some silly thing like hiding somewhere in the castle while everyone hunted for her. Growing restless, he left his chair and paced around the room. There were louvred doors at one end, with the last of the day's sunlight falling through them in thin slices. Wanting a breath of air, he slid the doors apart and stepped through, finding that they led onto a verandah which seemed to run the length of this side of the building, with several rooms opening onto it. He looked up and down the verandah, idly, and stopped in amazement as he saw two figures leaning against the verandah railing a few yards away; a boy and a girl, her hands on his shoulders, his arm around her waist, their heads leaning together as they talked. The girl was unmistakably his sister, but it was such an unlikely way to find her that at first he could not take it in. And the boy, formally dressed in clothes of an unexpectedly good cloth and cut, was Van. They had not heard him come out onto the verandah, mainly because they were so absorbed in each other.
'We're keeping him waiting too long,' Celena was saying, speaking in a tone that was matter-of-fact, precise, yet relaxed; what sounded so strange about it was that it was perfectly normal. 'He's going to get annoyed.'
'But he's just going to take you away from me,' Van replied. 'He can wait a little bit longer. Just till the sun goes down. Just till the first stars come out. Please don't be in a hurry to leave me.' To Allen's astonishment, he had the temerity to kiss Celena on the cheek, as calmly as if he were accustomed to do it - and Celena let him as if she were equally used to being kissed.
'And then till the moon rises, and then till it sets, and then till the sun comes up,' said Celena, sounding amused, and returned the kiss to Van's lips. Allen inhaled so sharply that he made himself cough, causing them both to look round with a jump and stare at him with wide, guilty eyes.
'A-Allen,' said Celena falteringly. 'Are you all right?' She stepped away from Van and approached her brother with a look of concern.
'What's happened to you?' he asked, bewildered.
'I got better,' she said simply. 'Van's taken very good care of me.'
It looks as though he's taken advantage of you, Allen thought. I knew he was hot-headed and lacked self-control, but I never thought he would presume on the innocence of a young girl! 'I'm glad to hear it,' was all he let himself say aloud. 'Are you sure, though, little pet? We've thought you were getting better before and you were worse again the next day.'
'Of course I'm sure,' she said, smiling at his disbelief. 'This is quite different, Allen, I really am myself now. I'm so sorry I left without talking to you, but I just wasn't in a fit state then to think it out properly. I only knew that I needed to be here, and it turns out I was quite right. I've been so happy.'
'She's made such a difference here,' Van said. He had hung back for a moment, prudently. 'Your sister is a wonderful girl, Allen. I can only say that your loss was my gain.'
What do you think you have gained? Allen wondered. 'Where did you get this dress, Celena?' he asked. 'It's rather like one Millerna has. I've never seen it on you before.'
'Van gave it to me,' she said, 'of course. Don't you know about the deals he's been making? He's been so clever.'
'I've just been lucky,' Van said modestly. 'I've been very lucky.' The way he looked at Celena as he said that raised Allen's hackles in no uncertain terms, as though he had no doubt as to his place in her affections. Every protective instinct he possessed was outraged. He would have to take control of the situation as swiftly as possible, for Celena's sake; she couldn’t possibly make a decision like that for herself, in her condition and at her age, and he knew far too well how quickly impetuous young love could devolve into ruined lives and blighted hopes.
'Are you sure you're all right?' Celena asked him, looking seriously into his face. 'You've gotten thin, and your eyes look sunken. I'll have to take care of you, and make sure you eat properly, and have lots of fresh fruit and lean meat to build you up.'
'Celena, dear, there's no need for you to take care of me.' He looked her over once more, still unable to fully accept that this was the same girl. She stood there smiling at him in the sunset light, tall and confident and eager for whatever life would bring. Her dress was a sweet pale green, a wreath of lavender embroidered around the scooped neckline; her hair was hanging loosely in soft curls on her shoulders, and it seemed to have grown already since she had been away. She looked so capable, so purposeful; she was not wearing gloves and her hands bore the marks of work.
'But,' she said softly, 'I don't need as much from you as I did; not any more. I won't be such a burden to you. It sounds funny to say, but I've grown up.'
She smiled up at Allen, trying to will away his frown.
Letter: Celena Schezar to Van Fanel
St Angua's School
I could see when Allen popped out onto the verandah like that that he wasn't very happy to see me kissing you, but I never thought he'd actually put me in a convent.
All right, not in a convent. A convent school. He says that since I'm so much better it's time for me to catch up on all I've missed in my education, and the mountain climate will be very bracing and healthy for me. I was so busy getting the things I would need and packing after he told me that I didn't have a chance to send you a letter and explain without him noticing and disapproving. I certainly tried to argue, but he wouldn't listen, and told me not to make myself hysterical, which of course was extremely provoking, and then said that I was obviously not calm enough to discuss it properly and sailed out of the room.
He is out of sorts anyway because he seems to be on the outers with Princess Millerna. I have asked Gaddes to write to me too so he can keep me fully informed on the gossip regarding this. He would make a very good spy, and he and I laugh at Allen behind his back a little. Of course I love him very much, and Gaddes won't hear a word said against him. We can make fun of Allen because we know we love him really. He is just a bit much sometimes. I never realised that about him before!
I hope you're not jealous about me getting letters from Gaddes. Or rather I hope you are a little bit jealous, but you won't be unreasonable about it. Just enough so that you'll be a little bit grumpy about it, and I can coax you back into a good mood. I would enjoy that.
I think that may fall into the category of me saying things that normal people just think. I have already had trouble with the nuns that way. It's not bad here and I'm rather enjoying the things I'm learning but they are Very Strict and I am getting a reputation for being madcap, quite unintentionally.
Well, anyway, if you are at all interested in the gossip you may like to know that Allen has been moping a bit and trying to get King Aston to give him a new assignment, hopefully somewhere romantically far-flung and perilous so Millerna will feel bad about not appreciating him enough. Gaddes thinks if they get sent anywhere it will probably be back to the swamps, and he doesn't mind because he'd gotten used to it.
Now Gaddes is quite chummy with Princess Millerna, oddly enough, and he says he 'reckons' the trouble is that she's in love with someone else, and he thinks he knows who, but he's refusing to tell me who he suspects, which is very annoying. He keeps dropping smug little hints like 'Think of the person you would least expect it to be.' I guessed 'Dryden Fassa' and he just laughed. I guessed 'Gaddes' and he told me not to be cheeky. So I'll just have to wait and see how that comes out. I don't know her very well, which is a bit sad, but she doesn't seem to want to know me. I think she is put off our whole family by our problems, and it is true that when you get involved with one Schezar you rather have to take on board all our peculiar baggage. It still surprises me that you are willing to put up with all of it - except I suppose you are used to it, given the sort of things that have happened in your family. I don't mean that to sound rude. I'm just glad that you are prepared to understand me that way, and accept me as I am. I want to do the same for you, and we can help each other to cope. That sounds a bit awkward, I suppose.
I'm not good at writing love letters, but neither are you. I'm saving the notes you've written me so far in a special box. Even if they're a bit short and you seem to cut yourself off when you get embarrassed, there's a lovely lot of them. Each night I pick a different one to be my favourite and go under my pillow to make sure I dream of you.
And I did dream of you last night, but I won't tell you what happened. You should know; you were there. Except I thought you might like to know about the white feather you gave me. When I woke up it was on the pillow by my face. Do you know, it smells like your hair?
These mountains are very beautiful in autumn. The trees turn such shades of red and gold and orange that it looks as though whole hillsides have caught fire. We are painting them for Art but I can't copy those colours in paint. I just wish you were with me to see it. I'll put the prettiest leaf I can find in the envelope for you.
I miss you very much, and everything that goes with you. I miss my room in the castle, I miss Merle coming in at the window to talk to me, I miss Kezia and the other children I was getting to know, I miss the way the air smells in Fanelia. I wish I could have stayed and seen how it looks in autumn, and winter, and how it flowers in spring. But I am going to insist - and if Allen tries to stop me I'll just run away again - that I get to go and stay with you in the holidays. Everyone goes home for the holidays unless they live too far away to get there and back in time, and Fanelia is more like Home than that big house outside Pallas. Even Allen doesn't feel he belongs there, you can see.
And I won't be at school forever. Only a few more years. After that, I could come back for good - if you want me?
I don't have much more time for letter-writing today, and I had better write something to Allen so he doesn't get huffy or worried, so I have to finish off now. I love you. Please always love me.