The room is spacious, and clean, and quite well-aired. It is undoubtedly the prettiest tomb in all of Gilboa. Jack is familiar with it only on a cursory level, all except the broad windowsill, where he spends his waking hours perched. The north wall, with the davenport in the corner and the barred windows looking over the empty royal estate, is his. Lucinda keeps to the south wall, which has the bureau and the escritoire and the array of seascape paintings. The bed is situated in the middle, although she is the only one who uses it. Jack sleeps on the davenport, back to the room, usually staying awake long after the lights are turned off.
(“Jack, can I turn off the—?” “Do whatever you want.”)
They live like this, day in and day out. They do nothing but live. There is no cable, no computer, no magazines or newspapers. After some rummaging, Jack unearthed a few books in an antique cabinet, which he’d finished early on. There was an anthology of theological essays, a slim volume of classical poetry, and A Comprehensive History of Gilboa, which he dimly remembers from history lessons. It brings back all sorts of memories: of his childhood, of the palace, of his father telling stories about God—
He cuts off that train of thought. Silas. Not his father. Silas Benjamin. No relation.
Lucinda passes the time doing nothing in the myriad small ways women are so adept at. Every morning she gets up and takes a long shower. She washes her hair and oils her body and applies fragrances which color the air they breathe like smoke. Jack loathes them. He stares out the window and wonders, fatalistically, why ladies of high society seem constitutionally incapable of being honest with their bodies. They primp and perfume as though there was something wrong with the smell of sweat or musk, the same way some people put flowers out in funerals to mask the corpse’s stench. If this is supposed to be arousing he’d rather fuck a packet of incense.
There have been other such incidents. At first Lucinda used to step out of the bathroom in a robe, half-dressed, in coy attempts at seduction, but after several times of Jack pointedly looking away in disgust, she stopped. Now she clothes herself properly, a new dress for every day, each one elegant and expensive and shimmering with a different color.
(“Do you like this new—?” “No.”)
Lucinda’s hands are busy all day long, in delicate, fretful tasks. When they’re not brushing her hair or daubing at her eyelashes or powdering her nose or painting her lips, they fuss over sheaves of paper. She prepares small hills of cards, in cream-colored letterhead with white lace fringes, cordially inviting people to the wedding of Lucinda Wolfson & Jonathan Benjamin, Crown Prince of Gilboa. No date, place or hour is mentioned, although there’s an optimistic space left in each card. They perch on her desk like little paper doves and she spends her days cultivating them: tucking in errant folds, straightening ruffles, always adding more to the roster.
He sits by the window and she at the desk, each gazing at their own bracketed horizon, like two pieces of furniture in the pale gray light. He is a davenport and she an escritoire. There is no conceivable way they fit together—none at all. It’s unthinkable.
Like furniture, they are staid, unmoving. Even their sounds are small and meaningless, just like the ways they find to pass the time. Scratches on paper as Lucinda leans over her flock of invitations. Clicks against the glass as Jack taps his finger on the windowpane. Their quiet, customary breathing.
He closes his eyes and leans against the wall. From the darkness of his head, Joseph smiles, easy and companionable, while Stewart runs a large hand over his thigh; all the old loves and aborted could-have-beens parade before his eyes, unreachable. He keeps trying to imagine he’s somewhere else—a dance club, the meeting hall, anywhere but here—and nearly manages it, but whenever he breathes in, Lucinda’s perfume hits him like a genteel hammer to the face.
(“Remember that dinner when we—?” “I wish I didn’t.”)
There is no escaping her presence: like a dog that’s been trained not to bark, yet still persists in shedding hair everywhere. He knows it’s not her fault, but that helps very little. Dogs aren’t put down because they’re to blame; they’re killed because they inadvertently drove their owners mad. Jack can feel his sanity fraying at the hems. He wonders how Silas will react if he does something drastic. He wonders what that something will be. He wonders a lot of things.
He sits at the windowsill, and stares out at the empty gardens, and carefully does not glance backwards.
Their food is brought three times a day at regular hours; their meals are nutritious, identical. Lucinda always accepts the trays from the guard who brings them in, ever-gracious. Every day she sets up a small table with two chairs. Every day Jack ignores the arrangement, taking his meal near the window with his back to her. The way she constantly dabs at the corner of her mouth with a napkin drives him insane. He couldn’t bear to actually watch her chew and swallow.
(“Would you care to join—?” “Leave me alone.”)
Over time she has retreated into a reproachful, hurt silence. He does nothing to discourage her. If only she could stop breathing quite so loudly as well.
Today, Lucinda’s arms are braceleted and white and bare. Her neck is swan-like in its elegance, hair swept up off her nape and fastened with a pin. She is temperate and obedient, stunning in her beauty—everything a man could want.
Jack thinks: So help me, if I smell her perfume one more time, I will snap.
He closes his eyes and breathes in. Lucinda shrieks when a moment later the window on the far side of the room is shattered.
The prison is cold, and large, and smells strongly of disinfectant. It’s lit by fluorescents, hanging from the ceiling at set intervals, like a giant underground cellar which someone modernized with a minimum budget. Michelle stares openly as she’s marched down the hallways. She’s never been in this place. It is slowly dawning that she’s never been to lots of places when it comes to the ins and outs of the justice system. Gilboa has many secrets hidden within her glades and hills; nearly as many as her family.
The guards on either side of her walk steadily, not touching her. They must recognize her face—she’s the Crown Princess of Gilboa. Or was, at any rate. Less than three hours ago she was officially stripped of her ranks as citizen and noble. She’s not even legal here now.
She was always the one God had problems with. It’s not cancer this time, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. She wishes, in a detached, far-off sort of way, that she’d worn better shoes for the occasion: the corridors are long and her high heels aren’t making things any easier.
There are cells lining both sides of the wide hallway, although so far they’ve been uniformly empty. The three of them—herself and two guards, though frankly one would have sufficed—have passed the standard-issue ones long ago. Now, there are solid doors on either side of the corridor, massive slabs of steel with one tiny window affixed in each. Through them she can see that the cells are unlit. She doesn’t know if that means they’re empty, or whether the prisoners are simply sitting in the dark.
For once in her life, she doesn’t care to find out. Michelle was never good at turning a blind eye to reality, but now she very carefully doesn’t think about anything. Focus on simple, good things: on David, on his kiss, on the ring around his finger. David is somewhere in Gath, running, but his words echo strong: I will never stop loving you. There’s nobody else who can say that now.
But that isn’t worth contemplating. Michelle counts neon lights, and strenuously does not think too hard about where she is and why.
The guards, through a subtle tug on her handcuffs, prompt her to stop, and she realizes they’ve arrived. It’s a cell, just like any other cell, with a giant impenetrable door and a tiny window, except she can see that inside it is lit.
“Here.” It takes a moment for Michelle to register there won’t be a Your Highness following that sentence. New laws set in fast. “In your go, miss.”
She has never in her life been called miss by a serviceman. Her father made sure it was only Princess or Your Highness or Majesty, no matter how much she entreated him to let her be on equal footing with the staff. It’s impossible to understand the average person’s mind when you’re constantly being set apart from them, she’d argued, and Silas had looked askance and replied, what do you want to understand the average person for? He’s a poor, stupid, miserable thing. Much better you keep to yourself, puppy. You’re not average, you’re extraordinary.
Don’t think about father. Don’t think about mother. Don’t think about Jack or Thomasina or—no. No.
As they close the door behind her, Michelle starts crying, quietly. She’s no longer extraordinary—she’s a poor, stupid, miserable thing. She is an average person.
She will never again in her life be called puppy.
By the time she quiets down, the guards are long gone. There’s nobody there, not even God.
The woods are green, and dense, and endless like a labyrinth. Gath is roughly seventy percent woodlands, with only a fraction left over for fields and cities—a sharp contrast to Gilboa, whose forests are mostly caged in natural preserves. Gilboa’s northern border is covered with white seas of cotton and gently-swaying orchards, watched over by a gentle sun and benevolent rains. Once you cross the river-border into Gath, though, the temperature drops like an anvil; the climate becomes colder, less forgiving. Perhaps that’s why the trees are all towering pines here, with stiff and jagged bark, and the ground is black with rotten leaves, and the soil is frozen hard—
He trips, again, and is sent sprawling on the ground. The tree roots are also very tough, and have a tendency to snag your feet.
David wipes away dirt from his cheek and spends a little time staring at the earth in front of him. It’s covered by a thick carpet of underbrush, with worms and a dung-beetle happily burrowing into the litter. It’s muddy and cold, and has no foreseeable end.
Eventually he gets up, because a rustling in the bushes triggers his paranoia; he’d passed a patrolling regiment only half a mile to the west and they could still easily find his tracks. He needs to run, needs to keep moving. Grudgingly, David heaves himself to a sitting position, then to his feet, and leans against a pine to look at the sky. It’s clear, full of white clouds, and according to his watch noontime isn’t even close to being over. He’s hungry, constantly and ravenously hungry, but he has nothing to eat. There’s still a long day of fleeing ahead of him.
He used to talk to God every day. He sang hymns silently, whispering the words as he ran, and waited for a sign, a miracle. A dead rabbit. Anything. He asked, when will I be able to come back? and, where is my family? and, where do I go from here? These were familiar questions, any soldier’s company, and the very asking brought a sort of half-comfort. David is used to duty, like some people are used to coffee or their favorite overcoat.
God, for His part, remained silent. Nowadays David doesn’t bother asking Him so many questions. In the army at least you got answers, even if there were only two kinds: your death or the war being over, whichever came first. Gilboa and Gath had been busy reinstating a peace treaty the last time he’d been near civilization, so that only left one alternative.
In the army there are a lot of jokes about God. His teammates, knowing David was a devout believer, cheerfully made a point of cracking them in his presence. One of them goes: what did the officer tell God when he reached heaven?
Get out of my chair.
The words echo in his head as he jogs past trees and shrubs and more trees. Get out of my chair. It sounds awfully similar to something he’d said a while ago:
Maybe I should be king. Maybe I should be king. Maybe I should. Maybe I. Maybe I. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
He’s so hungry. So fanatically, voraciously, thunderously hungry—he feels hollowed out by it. There’s plenty of water in the forest, but precious little that’s edible, and his packed rations ran out two days ago. It’s weakening him, he knows—making him stumble more and crash through underbrush, leaving tracks and making noise—but he can’t help it. Nothing to eat and no place to sleep. Yesterday he thought he’d found a hare and tried catching it, to have it escape because he’d tripped over another tree vine. He’d followed its tracks all the way to a cave, which he’d thought he could find refuge in, only to discover signs that it was inhabited by a group of brigands. In the end he’d narrowly escaped detection. It would probably have been funny if it’d happened to someone else. He hopes that God is enjoying the show.
He thinks about Gilboa often. He thinks of Michelle—touches the ring on his finger, wedding-band gold—and Jack, and Silas on the throne. Shiloh has never held much appeal for him, only the people in it; when he thinks of landscapes he thinks of golden fields of wheat, laden fruit trees and the sharp smell of threshed grain. He thinks of his brothers, his mother. He thinks about his father a lot, and that causes him to think about Silas again. Then he sings another hymn to God, more out of habit than reverence. He’s slowly running out of piety, like a car with no gas left.
(He’s not even sure how some of the hymns go—these songs were his lullabies, and he knows them as a child does, by sound and not by meaning. He sings them anyway. It reminds him of his mother, which reminds him of his absent father. He remembers Silas instead. Repeat as necessary.)
He’s moving north-west, away from anything he’s ever known. God, Silas and Gilboa: the sacred triad. Now David is cut off from all three.
It’s a little past noontime by his watch when he reaches a clearing, and another, and another right next to it—the sign of thinning trees, which means a village nearby. These hamlets are nestled in the forest like dung beetles in mud, and presumably there’s a system of roads linking them, but David hasn’t ever seen it. He doesn’t wonder that Gath has such a giant military—anything is better than living out your days squatting in a hollow, forgotten by your government and your countryfolk, swallowed up by the woods. Young people will do anything to get away, so they enlist and spend their lives patrolling other parts of the forest. Only a chosen few get picked to man the Goliath tanks on the Gath-Gilboa border and are lucky enough to die on the battlefield. But now the war is over, so they don’t even have that.
He hasn’t eaten for two days, and he’s so, so hungry. It shouldn’t be possible to feel this empty. The village is close; can’t be more than a quarter-mile ahead. He might find a little food there, or a resting place better than a cave. At the very least he’ll be able to see some people. He is sick of running from the sounds of human voices. God may be divine, but He isn’t much of a conversationalist.
David checks his tiny, grimy mirror to determine if he looks presentable, and is actually shocked by what he sees. There’s a gaunt, hollow-eyed man staring back at him, with dirt all over his face and more beard than David has ever possessed, ever since he realized at fourteen that clean-shaven was the way to go. He’s caked in mud and filth and sweat from days of not showering, and his clothes look much the worse for wear. There are actual, honest-to-God brambles in his hair. David picks a thorn from his forelock and feels a little disturbed. He’s mucked out stables all his life, but this is unprecedented.
Then he figures: might as well make the best of a bad situation. People are likely to pity a mad beggar more than a fugitive celebrity from Gilboa, and he’d do well to remain anonymous. So David smears some more mud on himself, scratches his face, and dons fingerless gloves to cover his wedding ring. When the end result looks appropriately mad—there are even gobbets of saliva in his beard; it’s a good thing Michelle can’t see him now—he makes his way towards the village.
The room has no real heating system, which isn’t very surprising, since it’s an old room and there’s no use warming mortuaries anyway. It’s colder since he broke the window, winds blowing in freely, but Silas apparently feels no inclination to replace the glass. Perhaps he thinks the weather will make them seek each other out quicker, or maybe he just wants Jack to sit and fester in his own debris for a while. Probably both. Silas is nothing if not economic in his reasoning.
Lucinda has tried several times to initiate conversations about the incident, but Jack cuts her off before they start. There is honestly nothing he wants to say to her. Plenty to say about her—he often misses Katrina, who was an unrepentant gossip with a vicious wit—but that’s rather beside the point. There’s nobody to address; even the people he loves outside this room are dead.
He doesn’t have any hope of being rescued, least of all by anyone in the palace. Nobody would dare go against Silas’s decision. Now all that’s left is to rescind into silence, quietly, like a wrecked ship sinking to the depths. If only Lucinda would accept that.
But of course she doesn’t. It comes about three days after the incident; they’re both wearing extra layers, but Jack is still at the window and Lucinda is still at her desk, tending to her white paper doves.
“So.” Lucinda clears her throat politely. “When are we going to be wed?”
Jack turns to her, incredulous. It’s such an arbitrary, stupid question; he doesn’t even know what to say to it. He stares.
“Only, if we’re going to be here for any longer,” Lucinda elaborates, “I’d like to request a chest to store the invitations. The wind from the window keeps blowing them all over, and it’s rather damaging to the paper.”
Jack can’t help it: he laughs. It comes out more of a bark, and sounds a little crazy—Lucinda looks visibly nervous. He doesn’t care.
“What does it matter?” he asks. Later, he reflects that the words just came out of him—he didn’t even calculate to hurt, which means that by now it is his natural inclination. “Whether I fuck you before or after you put on a white dress?”
Lucinda stares at him, speechless. Her mouth is a small, perfect ’o’. Jack closes his eyes and turns away in disgust, facing the open window again.
Long minutes of silence pass. He almost thinks Lucinda has let this aborted conversation die like all the others when he hears the rustle of bedsheets; the sound of her settling on the bed, closer to him.
“You know,” she says quietly, and he can hear the nervousness in her voice, hushed, as though she’s speaking about something that could be shattered with a word. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted a white wedding. It was one of those things you can’t explain, you just—you want it. Blindly. Did you ever have that?”
You don’t know the half of it. He doesn’t say it; instead, he simply sneers. “I’m past censoring myself, Lucinda, but in case you haven’t noticed: I really could not fucking care less.”
He expects her to cringe, but she only ducks her head a little, like a traveler weathering a gale. “No,” she says, after a second. “You might not. But you don’t have anything else to do right now, so you may as well listen.”
Jack stares at her. He’d expected a flinching retreat—instead, her eyes are downcast, but otherwise she is composed. Today’s dress is a deep navy-blue, long and high-collared against the autumn chill; sitting there with her straight spine and prim posture, she has an oddly restrained air. Her hands are pale and folded in her lap, petite.
It’s still not nearly enough to diminish his hatred for her. “I would rather drown myself in the toilet.”
“And I would rather be out of this horrible little room.” Lucinda’s vehemence surprises even herself; she takes a slow, calming breath, and her hands clutch at one other. “I—I’m sorry. What I mean is, this is not a perfect situation. We both have to make some... compromises.”
“Shut up. Do you even know why you’re here?” Jack is suddenly unsure if she has realized what is going on. He certainly didn’t go out of his way to enlighten her.
Lucinda doesn’t even blink. “I’m here to marry you.”
He leers. “On a more immediate level, I mean.”
Lucinda bites her lip, but doggedly remains calm. “I am here to marry you. Whatever I must do for that to happen should be done.”
“Are you serious?” Jack is appalled and, strangely enough, angry. It’s not fair that he should always be the only one who has a problem with the way things are, the one who doesn’t fit. Inconceivable, that Silas locks him up with a woman he barely knows in a room and orders them to copulate, and he should be the only one to suffer. Perhaps there is something wrong with him—another inherent flaw. Besides the obvious, of course.
He searches for the crudest wording he can find. “You know that you’re here just to be fucked by me, and you’re fine with that?”
He’d intended the statement to provoke, but Lucinda shakes her head firmly, looking down at her hands. Her voice wavers only slightly. “Whether I’m fine with it or not is not the question. What’s—what’s done is done.”
“Then what is the question, Lulu?”
She takes a deep breath. “I think that...” she glances up at his expression and falters. Jack wonders, later, what she saw on his face. Certainly nothing kind.
Her voice is tiny, mouse-like. “The question is where we go from here.”
Jack stares at her for a long minute. He hasn’t ever considered the prospect of conceding to the situation—as far as he was concerned, ordinary life had stopped the minute he’d entered the room. This isn’t real time in a real world; all that’s worth living for was still outside. For a second, he wonders what she’d left behind, if anything, and whether the loss hurt as much as his.
There’s no way out of this room. There’s nowhere to go to. She has to understand that.
“I don’t want to have sex with you.”
Lucinda does cringe, then. Her hands, Jack notices, are clutching the folds of the dress, white-knuckled. “I’m... very sorry to hear that.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Like I said, that’s not the question.” Lucinda is shaking her head, smooth hair falling past her shoulders and curling at her breast. Everything about her is smooth: her clothes, her skin, her dainty fingers trained from birth to bear a wedding ring.
Jack abhors it. “Don’t you feel anything? How can you be so practical?”
“Because.” Lucinda takes a steadying breath. “I want a white wedding.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“White roses on all the tables. A white canopy over everything. White tablecloths, and white wine in the glasses. A white bouquet, and a beautiful white bridal dress.” Lucinda looks at him for the first time since she started talking, eyes solemn and bright. “That’s all I want. A perfect white wedding. That’s all.” She falls silent for a moment, then: “What do you want, Jack?”
The words nearly burn his tongue. “To be free.”
She doesn’t seem surprised in the least, though perhaps a little sad. “I can help you.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“I guessed.” She looks past him, out the window, to the high city skyline rising jagged above the garden. “I’m still offering it, though.”
Jack doesn’t know what to say to that.
Eventually, he settles for: “What do you want from me?” It sounds more petulant than he’d intended, which makes him angrier. She’s just a dumb socialite, and people like that shouldn’t have so much power over his life. This is all Silas’s fault—he’s been acting like he’s forgotten that Jack is still royalty, and he must remember that much, at least. At least. There isn’t anything more he can strip away by now.
Lucinda looks at him as though he were speaking in tongues. “What are you willing to give?”
“To you? Nothing.”
“That’s...” Lucinda clears her throat and starts over. “That’s not a very useful question then, is it?” Jack watches as she busies herself with the pleats of her dress again, bunching them up and smoothing them out in little purposeful movements, though her mouth is thin and turned down at the corners. “I am willing to give whatever needs to be given for this marriage to work. You are free to take what you want.”
“I don’t want anything you have to offer.” To accept anything would be to acknowledge the situation. He can’t, not yet. He can’t.
She doesn’t look up, just swallows hard and stretches her lips in a thin half-grimace which is, perhaps, intended to be a smile. Bunch and smooth, bunch and smooth. Jack can’t tell if her eyes are wet. “Then that isn’t very useful either, I’m afraid.”
They say nothing to each other after that. It’s as though the conversation has run its natural course and exhausted itself. Eventually Lucinda rises and retires to the bathroom. She stays there for a long time, and comes out with flawless makeup and her hair neatly coiffed.
“Dinner will be arriving soon,” she says politely. “I have some plans for the wedding, if you’d like to—”
“There is nothing you could possibly say that is of interest to me,” Jack says to the window dully. There’s no vitriol in it anymore, just weariness. He longs for silence.
Lucinda says nothing for a long moment, then turns once again to her desk and its hills of paper.
The cell has no clock, skylight, or any way to keep track of time. It’s all bare cement, and has exactly one cot (attached to the wall), one toilet system (also attached to the wall), and one metal-caged neon lamp (not attached to the wall per se, but attached to the ceiling, which Michelle feels is hardly any better). All other luxuries, such as food or water or toilet paper, are supplied on a periodical basis by guards who never look her in the eye.
Judging by the amount of gray prison porridge she’s consumed and the cups of water she’s been given, Michelle calculates she’s been here for two days now. That, in and of itself, is not particularly awful; the bad part is imagining the other three-hundred and sixty-three to come.
Kept from any company than her own for a period of no less than one year. The phrase persists in sticking to her memory, like a death knell in words. I told you I would take care of everything. She wonders if her mother had fancied this prison sentence as kind, or even helpful.
Michelle is lying in her cot and staring at the bland cement ceiling, asking herself that precise question, when the door opens and Queen Rose steps into the cell.
“Mother? How—” Absurdly, the first thought she has is, but it’s not time for another meal yet. Prison routine sets in fast. “What are you doing here?”
“I haven’t got much time,” Rose says, closing the door behind her in a businesslike manner. “Your father is cooped up in a meeting, but not for long, and if this ever gets out I need to avoid it being traced back to me.”
“I—” The words stick in her craw, like tears before crying. “I thought I wouldn’t get to see you again for at least a year.”
Rose levels her with a look. “And have my grandson be born in an underground prison cell, to a mother driven mad by isolation and sunlight deficiency? Please.”
“Well... yes.” Her immediate thought is feeling embarrassed and foolish—her mother always makes her feel like an utter dunce—but her second is: what does that say about your parenting skills?
“I told you I would take care of everything,” Rose says calmly. “A queen always keeps her word. Now listen carefully, because this is important. You are to be transferred to a safe place, without your father’s knowledge or consent, where you can live and eventually give birth.”
“A hideout?” Michelle tries not to gape. “I’m to be a, a fugitive?”
“Precisely.” Rose looks at her with hazel eyes that pierce like a talon. She’s wearing a fitted suit and a coat to protect against the cold of the cells: every bit a matriarch, even out of her court. “It’s the only place you will be safe, and the only place you can have the baby in peace, among people who care too much to turn you in. Still, you must keep your presence an absolute secret. One greedy idiot is all it would take to leak the story to the press, and then we are all finished: you, me, and the baby.”
“Who are these people?” Michelle always knew her mother’s network of connections was extensive, but to arrange all this, and keep it from her father, as well—
“You’ll find out when you get there. Mind, they’re not informed of your arrival, so you’ll have to track them yourself. I don’t believe that should be a problem—I’ve made the necessary arrangements beforehand.”
Michelle stares, grasping at words. The only thing she can come up with is: “Why didn’t you tell me this beforehand?” She’d never cried so hard in her life, until the sobs were a physical ache; like having all the tears wrung out of you by a giant hand squeezing your lungs. And it hadn’t even been necessary.
Rose purses her lips tightly, a sign she’s exasperated and not trying very hard to hide it. “I wasn’t sure when I’d get the opportunity to come by, seeing as this endeavor is risky enough as is. And don’t whine at me when I’m coming to save you, Michelle Benjamin. It’s highly unbecoming.”
Highly unbecoming. Her mother had always viewed Michelle’s displays of emotion as something slightly gauche, like burping in public or showing too much cleavage. Michelle assumed this was because she was a princess, and held to a higher standard of etiquette than most people. Now that she’s just a girl, though—not even a lawful subject—she wonders if Rose will stop looking at her as a prospective heir and see her as a daughter instead.
“I’ve arranged a driver for you,” Rose is saying, glancing at her watch surreptitiously. She snaps open her handbag and takes out a dull black shawl. “We should be leaving now, since I’ll be expected at the palace shortly. Wrap this around you like a cowl and don’t look anyone in the eye. Now walk quickly and follow me—”
“Can I have something of yours?” Michelle blurts. “Nothing big, just—anything, to remember you by. A pin, a ring. Whatever you like.”
Rose has rapped on the door, which is opened by a stone-faced guard, and now turns back to look at her with raised eyebrows. “I’ve given you your freedom,” she says coolly, as though speaking to a slow child. “What more could you possibly want?”
The village has no sign bearing its name, which isn’t surprising, since it would be like naming a rock or an acorn. Some things are too small for that kind of responsibility. David limps along its perimeter, which is mostly marked by a well-trampled dirt road, and peers in. There are a handful of houses, built of wood and stone, each with a tiny backyard estate: a garden, one or two chickens. This far north—or down south, if you’re a Gathian—the problem isn’t with finding empty space, it’s how to fill it.
The few townspeople he passes stop and stare at him, which David considers gratifying, even if it’s for unconventional reasons. He slobbers more on his beard and slouches around looking vaguely unhinged, which is actually easier to do than he anticipated. Three months ago he wouldn’t have survived a week alone in Gath, but hiding with Silas—and then hiding from Silas—had taught him a few things. The first one is: people see what they want to see.
(“Listen to me, David,” Silas had said. “People are fools. They can be wonderful and kind and even clever on occasion, but they’re still fools. And fools believe what they’re told over what they see. So tell them whatever you want.”
“Not everyone’s as charismatic as you, Silas,” David said.
“Try it,” Silas had prompted. “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Except two weeks later Silas had declared a reward of blood money for his head and pronounced him a national menace. Which was all wrong, utterly and horribly wrong, but David supposes that Silas believed what he told himself over what he saw.)
It’s probably a combination of his exhaustion, the village noises, and general ennui that allows the soldiers to catch him unawares. There are two of them and they don’t bother with stealth, but when one places a heavy hand on David’s shoulder, he actually startles.
“Stop there,” the soldier says. David stops; it’s never good to argue with a man holding a rifle. “What are you doing here?”
“Hnugh?” David offers. It sounds fairly convincing, as crazy noises go. He holds out a hand in supplication. “Food?”
“An idiot,” the second guy tells the first dismissively. “He’s just a mad old man.”
“Doesn’t look that old to me.” The first soldier narrows his eyes at David. “Something’s off here.”
“Nraugh?” David tried again. He tries to look harmless and mildly deranged.
The first soldier gestures to the second, who leans closer to him. They exchange a brief, muttered conversation, out of which David catches the words ’bandits’, ’scouting’ and ’raid’.
Shit, he thinks. Just his luck to be taken for a disguised brigand trying to scout out the village as a precursor to a raid. Doubtless there are plenty of bandits in these woods—he’d even run into some—but he’s the one guy who is actually an honest beggar. He’s even, according to his brothers, a bit touched in the head.
“Alright, stranger,” the first soldier says after a moment. “You’re coming with us.”
Shit, he thinks again, with great feeling.
In the end, it’s not like he has any choice. David finds himself herded into the village, flanked by the two soldiers and stared at by all the civilians, now seriously for the wrong reasons. He limps along, still slobbering a bit for good measure, and refrains from panicking. These guys have no idea who he is. They’re just greenhorns. They’ll lock him up until nightfall, maybe even give him a bit of food, and release him after a few hours.
The locking-up bit is accurate, at least. They reach a building which looks like the old tool shed his family kept back on the farm, right down to the big metal lock on the wooden doors. Except when they throw him in, David realizes it’s even smaller and not nearly as well-tended. There’s also no food.
His stomach makes an aborted sound of distress and threatens to go on strike.
He’s lying on a stack of very old, very musty hay—the shed is indeed intended for storage; David’s learned to smell a granary when he’s in one—by the time they come for him, shortly after sundown. Or rather, one person comes, and closes the wooden door behind him with more force than strictly necessary, looking as utterly displeased about interrogating David as David is about being interrogated.
“All right ,” the guy says, and props up a large gas lantern some distance away from the grain and feed. David is faintly reassured by this display of common sense, even as he marvels: these people still use gas lanterns. Actual, sputtering gas lanterns. Even the rebels in Ekron had electricity. Gath is bizarre.
“Food?” he says, not really expecting a response.
“Maybe later,” the guy shoots back, “if you cooperate.” By the light of the lantern, David can make out a few details: dark skin, black hair, tall and wide and built like a steam engine. He’s in uniform, though without a helmet: a lieutenant, with two stripes adorning the ranks on each shoulder. Probably the person in charge here—there can’t be more than thirty soldiers stationed in this outback.
“Listen up,” the soldier says. “I’m Lieutenant Malcolm Ackis, in charge here by official decree and orders from my superiors, adherent to General Malek.” A tiny, cynical part of David notes that he doesn’t seem too happy with this fact. “You are commanded by law to cooperate for the duration of this investigation, which includes not withholding any information whatsoever. Clear? Good. Now, who are you?”
“Got no name,” David mumbles, scratching at his wreck of a beard. His fingers actually snag on something. Disgusting. “Got no name, got no name.”
“Fuck.” Ackis runs a hand through his short hair, looking annoyed. He glances at David and mutters, “Just what I needed—another lunatic in this loony bin. Wonderful.”
This is a heartening reaction. David raises his head. “Go out? Away. Away. Hhrn.” He tries to appear non-threatening—not that anything much looks like it could threaten Malcolm Ackis.
“Shut up a second. And no, you can’t leave.” Ackis stares at him more closely, then cocks his head to the side. “Huh. What were you doing outside the village today? Sit up when you’re talking to me.”
David sits up, because not doing so would only invite more trouble. “Food,” he says again, since that really explains everything. He reaches out with his hands. “Have food?”
Ackis is still staring at him, more intently than David would like. “How old are you?”
David shrugs. “Gnrgh. Food?” It had worked on the soldiers, but Ackis seems unimpressed by his grunts. He drags the gas lantern nearer and steps forward, eyes narrowed.
“Eurgh,” David says, because putting fire near hay is not wise thing to do no matter how curious you are. Ackis ignores him and reaches out to grab his chin; David ducks quickly and tries to roll off the haystack. He’s weak, though, and Ackis is both stronger and faster; David’s hands are knocked away and his jaw is caught in a firm grip, face tilted up to the light.
“Mother fucker,” Ackis breathes, staring. “I thought you looked familiar, but I had no idea. Is it really you? What are you doing this far north?”
Shit, David thinks, and also, in one of the rare times in his life so far: fuck. He looks down, avoiding eye contact and looking surly and uncivilized. I am a lunatic, he tries to express, I am your local crazy man from the depths of the Gath woods—
“You’re that guy from Gilboa,” Ackis says. “David Shepherd.”
David looked up at him then, tiredly. He tries one last time. “Food?”
“How long have you been wandering around? Shit.” Ackis backs off hurriedly, as though fearing some kind of heavenly retribution for manhandling David, and opens the door of the shed a crack. “Fetch me a shaving kit, hot water, a mirror, and something ready to eat!” There are footsteps as soldiers hurry to comply.
“Crap on a stick,” Ackis mutters quietly, and closes the door again. He swears a lot, David notices, although it’s probably more to do with being a soldier than being a Gathian—David knows he’s the outlier and not the norm when it comes to military language. “This makes up for all the dumbass orders in the world.” He turns to David. “All right, Shepherd. Mind explaining to me what exactly is going on here?”
“Not particularly,” David says, moving resignedly to sit at the foot of the haystack. His voice is scratchier than usual now, but it’s still a relief to use it normally. He isn’t very adept at grunts. “Are you going to turn me in?”
“Depends,” Ackis says lightly, and David looks up at him quickly. “Are you going to give me a reason not to?”
Loyal soldiers don’t talk like that, David knows, but he also knows that armies usually consist of about a third of truly loyal soldiers and all the rest, who are just in it for the money. It seems he had landed on one of the two-thirds, and not a particularly happy one at that.
“Listen,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I was sent here by God. It’s not a mission; I’m not a spy or anything. But I can’t be discovered.” Ackis is listening, visibly intrigued, like he’s watching a good television show. “What do I need to do to ensure your silence?”
“Hm.” Ackis raises his eyebrows. “David Shepherd. The hero of Gilboa, Silas’s motherfucking champion. We’ve heard a lot about you over here. Word is you’re the best soldier in their military and that you shit grenades straight from the factory line.”
David didn’t know that. “I—grenades? Really?”
“Oh, yeah. That you’ve got a direct line to your god—it’s the only way you could have known how to blow up the Goliath.” He quirks a smile. “Me, I think you’re just good with explosives.”
Well, David is, at that. “I worked in a car shop for a few years,” he admits. “It comes with the job.”
“And do you have it?”
Ackis looks amused. “Speed dial to your man upstairs.”
David purses his lips. “That’s currently under debate.”
“Huh.” Ackis seems faintly impressed. It strikes David that for some people, church and prayer are really all there is—most folks don’t have that constant voice in the back of their head, the weight of knowing His presence, not guessing at it. He misses that certainty as though it were oxygen. “You look like a steaming pile of shit, I’ve gotta say. There’s drool in your beard.”
“I know,” David says, suddenly self-conscious. “It’s what we call a disguise.”
“Not a very good one, then.” Ackis is unruffled. “Did you honestly think nobody would recognize you with a little shit smeared on your nose? You’re a fucking celebrity here. Come on, Shepherd.”
“Well, I wasn’t aware,” David snaps, somewhat annoyed. “And I’d been wandering around in this damned forest for weeks now, and I was probably hungrier than you’ve ever been in your life, lieutenant. So, yes, you caught me. Want a promotion for it?”
“Shut the fuck up, Shepherd,” Ackis says calmly. “You’ll show me respect, even if you are the prettiest little girl in Gilboa.” The steel in his voice is unmistakable. Then he looks at David with something halfway to reproach. “The media made you out to be nicer, you know.”
“No,” David says tiredly. “I really don’t.”
Just then the food and toiletries arrive, and Ackis says, “Okay, dig in, Shepherd,” which David does, possibly with a speed and voracity that’s undignified, but he’s beyond caring because: food. He’d never been this happy to see a meal, not even during Silas’s endless political banquets, not even after coming home from boot camp.
It’s just an MRE, but it’s already prepared and it’s hot and besides, he likes MREs, kind of like how he’s fond of camping outdoors in military-issued gear. David is aware that he’s weird about those kinds of things. The transfer to Shiloh had actually been a step down in that regard.
After the meal, he gratefully sets to shaving—it’s ridiculous that he should miss a proper razor so much, given everything else that he’s lost, but oh, he does, so very much—while Ackis watches, amused. Washing off the lather also gets rid of the mud and some of the filth. The end result, in the mirror, is a lot more familiar, with cleaner skin and a distinct lack of saliva in his facial hair. He looks thinner, though.
“That’s how I remember you from the television screens,” Ackis says. “Much better, Shepherd. Let me tell you, in your case, clean-shaven is the way to go.”
“I wasn’t aware,” David says politely, still euphoric over a fuller stomach, feeling more himself than he has in weeks. “Thank you for this. I mean it.”
“It’s not a problem. Now’s payback time, though.”
David feels a little less euphoric. “Yeah?”
“Listen,” Ackis says. “We’re stationed here to protect this village and a few others in the immediate area. We’re needed in this place—there’s a bandit hideout somewhere in the region, the folks here have been suffering raids for months, and now winter’s coming up; it’s not good. I got orders, though, from the high and mighty—” his voice implies what he thinks of that “—to clear out and head towards a fortress twenty-five miles due west. Why? Fucked if I know. But we need to be out of here in two days’ time, and unless we get rid of these tree-sodomizing dickbags by then, when we leave it’s gonna be like open season.”
A stupid commanding officer—that’s the bane of every soldier, no matter how good. David knows all about struggling with orders from above, he can see how Ackis chafes under them. And he knows all about disobeying orders, too; had started off his career by doing just that, in fact.
The soldier in him sympathizes, but the fugitive is still wary. “Fine,” David says. “And how do I fit in here?”
Ackis levels him with a look. “You’ve got your god on speed dial, golden boy? Call him up and tell me where to find me those sons of bitches, so I can skin them inside out.”
There is something fundamentally wrong with Ackis demanding David to order a miracle from God, like ordering takeaway for dinner. David is just about to say as much, but then he suddenly recalls: the hare. The cave he tried to sleep in, his narrow escape. He remembers the area perfectly, of course; David always did have a head for topography.
God made sure he already knew where the bandits were. God is there—God was always there, he’d never left. He might be out of Gilboa and he might never be in Silas’s good graces again, but this one thing—this cornerstone—is present. He hasn’t got a home or a king, no wife, no friends—but he has faith.
It’s a starting point. David tilts back his head and laughs until there are tears streaming down his face; laughs and laughs and laughs, dizzy with relief.
It takes him another day to decide, after their conversation. It’s already noon; their lunch arrives, but he ignores Lucinda’s dainty clattering at the table. Jack sits at the window and stares at Shiloh’s skyline and contemplates his situation. Despite his better judgment, he thinks a lot about Lucinda.
Joseph would have said: I love you, so I’ll do whatever you ask of me, and if the feeling is mutual then you’ll do the same for me.
Katrina would have said: We both have something the other wants—let’s help each other out a little bit.
Stewart would have said: You are my prince, sir, and I am yours to command.
Jack can hear them so clearly in his head, each one a different future he could’ve had, like paths branching off from a main track. His train has missed a lot of stops along the way; he wonders where he could have gotten off in order to achieve happiness. Perhaps there’s no such destination point, or the way is closed for renovations.
Lucinda is saying: We are here in this room, together. The only way to go is forward.
He’s not sure of where he wants to go, if at all. He’s not sure he wants Lucinda to follow—in fact he’s pretty sure he doesn’t, but that’s not up to him. The delicate noises of her cutlery won’t disappear on their own, as much as he’d like them to, and eventually he will have to face reality.
There is another person living with him in this prison. Not a dog shedding hairs. A person.
He turns a fraction, from his seat at the window, to view the rest of the room. There stands the escritoire with its roost of invitations, the neatly-made bed, and at the small table, Lucinda, primly eating lunch. She keeps dabbing at her mouth with the napkin, Jack notes again, and feels disgusted. But being disgusted won’t get him anywhere, even less than being in love has. He feels like he’s tried both enough times to know.
Lucinda looks up from her entrecôte. “I’ve prepared a seat for you,” she says mildly, and puts another cut of sirloin in her mouth, before once again turning her attention to the food, lady-like.
I don’t want your seat, Jack doesn’t say. I don’t want a wife. I detest white. Your eating habits are insufferable.
Instead, he goes to the door and raps sharply, waiting until a soldier opens it a fraction. “Bring me a large wooden chest,” he says, acutely aware of Lucinda’s eyes on him. “Either that, or replace the windowpane. The winds are damaging the paper.”
He closes the door, and walks over to the small eating corner. “Don’t make this to be something it isn’t,” he says, though Lucinda hasn’t moved or done anything except stare at him in surprise. “I will sit at this table if you make no attempt to start a conversation. Is that clear?”
Lucinda spends a moment considering, eyes still wide, and eventually nods with her lips firmly shut. Jack sits down, and she turns back to her food, the epitome of good manners: cutting and spearing and taking small bites off the tip of her fork. She keeps sneaking glances at him like a child afraid to get caught, something Jack tries hard to ignore by focusing on his own plate. He’s rather not look at her right now, in case she’s actually pleased.
Her ankles, beneath the table, are neatly crossed; at no point do they touch or brush against one another.
Jack sets in, too, and for the first time since he broke the window, eats food which isn’t cold after two minutes in the wind. It tastes better than he expected. For a long while afterwards, there are no sounds in the room but the clink of cutlery and their quiet, customary breathing.
It takes her less than twenty-four hours to reach the fugitives’ camp, in the end. There’s a driver with a small, inconspicuous sedan waiting outside the prison gate, smoking and carefully looking anywhere but at them. The car is an unremarkable grey; hardly official in appearance. She peeks in and sees a change of clothes waiting in the back seat, something plebian and slightly homely—a welcome relief from her designer dress and excruciating shoes.
Rose pulls her aside at the last minute. “Be safe,” she whispers fiercely, and pulls Michelle to her breast in a brief, strong hug. Michelle is uncertain whether she intends it as a command or a blessing, or both. “Don’t try to contact anyone from outside. I won’t come to see you. Remember that it’s best for the baby, and keep low.”
“Mother—I married David Shepherd.” It seems suddenly important that Rose know this; she hadn’t had time to tell her before the shock of her punishment. “The baby won’t be born out of wedlock. And it had seemed like the right thing to do.”
Rose stares at her for a moment, stunned into silence. She recovers quickly, though. “I... see. And does it still seem that way?”
“Yes.” She doesn’t hesitate.
Her mother purses her lips. “I would say you could do worse, but you really can’t, at present. Still, it might even be of use.”
Michelle is about to protest against Rose using her marriage as some kind of demented political leverage, but the driver taps his watch pointedly, staring fixedly at the sun, and she’s bustled into the backseat of the car. They swerve out of the prison yard and onto a wide dirt road, which winds through many forests and valleys and empty fields, as noon becomes afternoon, then dusk, and eventually melts away into night.
That’s the last time I’ll see my mother for the next year, Michelle thinks once Rose is hidden behind the first curve in the road, and then: Yes, but I thought the same thing two days ago. Far from being comforting, it just makes her feel tired, like she’s on an emotional rollercoaster and would now like to get off.
She sleeps for most of the drive, blanketed by a large jacket that came with the spare clothes. It’s about David’s size, but doesn’t smell like him. She has strange and nonsensical dreams about neon fixtures and her father’s omelets and, distressingly, high heels.
The car stops just as dawn begins to wash away the stars nearest to the horizon. “Come on, miss,” the driver says, and Michelle startles awake. It had been something about the palace kitchen and her mother’s hazel eyes. “Here, take this.”
He offers a small map, tightly folded. Michelle opens it and smoothes out the creases: an area unfamiliar to her, schematically outlined, with a specific path traced in red pen. When she turns it over, there are directions scribbled on the back in a strange hand.
“Sorry,” the driver says. “This is as far as I go. You’re on your own from now.”
“I see. Thank you.” Michelle climbs out of the car and looks around. She thinks it’s somewhere in the south, where Gilboa sprawls limitless, with gently-rolling hills and glades and very few inhabitants. The soil here is troublesome and shifts at the barest sign of rain: no good for farming, and folks don’t like being so far from the capital. Even the military doesn’t patrol here much, which makes it perfect for criminals and rebels.
She starts walking as the driver rolls out again, the sky bleeding pink from the bottom up, as though God were crouched behind the distant silhouette of mountains and tossing up splashes of watercolor. It turns out to be some miles distant, but there’s a pleasant breeze and Michelle has good walking shoes now—nothing can faze her.
By the time she reaches her destination, she’s already turned the situation over in her head long enough to have an idea of who she’ll find. The little house is no surprise, hidden by a copse of trees as it is, even without the fields she’d always imagined around it. It’s only a temporary hideout, after all—they probably moved to avoid capture, same as her.
Michelle strides up the porch just as the sun breaks out over the mountains, and knocks on the door. A few moments pass, then a faint scuffling, and then a voice carefully calls out: “Who is it?”
“Open up, please,” she calls back. “I’m no threat, and I come seeking shelter.”
“Shelter from whom?”
“The king.” After a moment the door unlatches, and an eye peeks out. Michelle attempts a smile. Then the door opens completely, and Jesse Shepherd stands there, in her nightgown and a pair of slippers.
“Well, I’ll be,” she mutters.
“Good morning,” Michelle says. “May I come in?”
The operation takes about forty minutes, all in all. Ackis and his men set out in the early pre-dawn hours, guided by David’s instructions on a map and constant murmured corrections via a communications device that had probably seen its prime in David’s grandfather’s time. David, for his part, had agreed to be handcuffed and restrained in the shed, though he’d wheedled Ackis out of stationing a soldier to guard him personally.
(“You’re the only person who knows who I am,” David had said. “And I’d like to keep it that way. What are you afraid of? That I’ll run away—to where? It’s the same forest in all directions.”
“I’ve known you less than a day. You think I’m going to take you up on your word?” Ackis had snapped.
“Everyone else has so far,” David had said honestly, and grinned at him, eyes bright. Ackis had looked surly, then hesitant, then after a moment he’d sighed explosively—and, like Silas and Michelle and Jack and Ethan and everyone before him, he’d given in too.)
The bandits are where David predicts them to be, sleeping. Ackis has the cover of darkness, the element of surprise, and a group of twenty military-trained men armed for combat. There are about a dozen brigands overall, and only one sentry at the mouth of the cave. It’s like an anthill facing off a bulldozer. Most of the operation is spent walking to and from the village—the actual confrontation takes less than ten minutes.
By the time Ackis gets back the sun has already risen, rays of light shining through the cracks of the shed. He uncuffs David with something approaching cheerfulness.
“You did good, Shepherd.” Ackis has brought him breakfast, which David tackles with a will.
“It’s not me,” he says, mouth full of army bread. “It’s God.” There’s a feeling in his stomach like butterflies, like being enfolded by wings, and it warms him more than any sun.
“God or not, you upheld your end of the bargain,” Ackis says. “And being a man of my word, I’m given to upholding mine. I could let you go, easy, but I’ve got a better offer for you. Stay with my platoon, under my command. Being a crazy hobo doesn’t suit you.”
David stares. “What?”
“Listen,” Ackis says, nearly bouncing with eagerness. It’s an odd thing to see on someone so big and intimidating. “It’s really simple. We’ll say you’re a scout, sent in from Intelligence—a new attaché to the unit, some special assignment, no real mingling with the soldiers. I’ll have you on my right hand, sergeant major and professional grenade-shitter . You get food and a bed and decent clothes.”
“And what was that about me being a celebrity in Gath? The entire army will recognize me.”
“Not if you make a few adjustments.” Ackis glances at David’s hair meaningfully. “My brother was a military barber. Trust me, one buzz cut and you’ll be a changed man. Wear shades—Intelligence can do that, they’re privileged bastards—and take up smoking or something. Nobody will go around looking for David Shepherd, for fuck’s sake.”
“Well, I don’t know—” David starts, but Ackis flips him the bird dismissively and goes out to fetch the equipment.
Once the new outfit was assembled, shorn head and everything, David examines himself in a hand-mirror Ackis supplies. He does look different. The haircut changes his face, makes him look leaner, and he’d already lost weight during the past couple of weeks. His cheekbones are more prominent, along with the sharp jut of his nose. He’d stopped smoking when he’d entered Shiloh, but it’s like riding a bicycle—the cigarette already feels natural between his fingers.
The Gath uniform is an olive-green compared to Gilboa’s navy blue, and ugly as hell, but a lot more practical. It suits him well, even if there are a lot more pockets than he’s used to. Gath’s flag is divided into two equal horizontal rectangles, yellow on top and black on bottom, with a red star on the left-hand side. It makes him a little sick to see himself wearing it, but he clenches his jaw and says nothing. God is with him. Silas—and Gilboa—can wait. He’ll win them back one at a time.
He looks thinner, more vicious. More ready to fight.
“We’ll need a new name for you, Sergeant Major,” Ackis says, and then it all comes together, like several discordant notes forming a new melody. David doesn’t realize who he reminds himself of until the words are out of his mouth:
“Just call me Eli, sir.”