“You are mere flesh. I–I–I–I am utter flesh, density of desire, the gravity of skin: what makes the engine of creation run. Not physics but ecstatics makes the engine run. The body is the garden of the soul.” — The Angel1
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — e. e. cummings
She thought she saw Halward in the back of her eyelids.
Images in the misty recesses that existed when the world was shut out; like precious opals, fleeting songbirds in the corners of her thoughts, and delicate rays of light dancing behind the curtain to her perception. These made her think heavy things–like birth and death and the cost of breathing.
Usually when she was knocked flat onto her back by Thendril, her unrelenting trainer, she’d just think of something pretty and inviting. Nothing quite so grand, abstract, and out of range for a twelve-year-old. Her mother’s smile. A painting she liked. Happy music. A cute puppy. Today, however, she was training with Warner, her father–a rare occurrence of which had only happened once before–when she’d first started her training at the age of seven.
“Up, Elmiryn. Now.”
She envisioned Halward, the All-God, reaching deep within her, and the girl choked on the sudden recall that hit her mind. She remembered her mother, looking very young and pretty, working on a painting on the balcony overlooking their estate. The girl had been small then, with an infant’s vocabulary and grabby hands. One pull and the lip of a paint can tipped, sending red paint all over her. She didn’t remember what her mother said exactly–but she recalled the woman being upset, even unto tears.
“You turn thirteen in just a few days,” her father said. She heard Warner begin to pace around her. “My condition was simple. Either you defeat me in combat before this coming birthday, or you’ll spend the rest of your training locked away here until you’re ready to serve in the king’s army.” Her father paused, and the absence of his voice was heavy. When he spoke again, it was with a low tone. “Don’t you want to see your mother again?”
Elmiryn’s eyes snapped open, and all she saw was sunlight.
Years ago, when Elmiryn was seven.
In her mother’s chambers, sitting on the edge of a massive bed. Fiamman lamps in each corner lit the large room in a warm glow, making the crimson velvet curtains seem deeper and richer in shade and texture. Candles at the bedside table flickered from the breeze drafting in through the one open window.
Brianna brushed her daughter’s hair carefully, using a silver brush with a mirror on the back, humming a song as she worked. Elmiryn glowered at the paneled wall, her arms crossed over her tiny chest.
“I don’t want to wear it,” she mumbled.
“This isn’t a discussion,” was her mother’s smooth reply.
The girl let her lower lip pout even more. “It’s itchy.”
“You haven’t even worn it yet, Elle.” Her mother was the only person in the world who called her this. It brought the girl immense pleasure.
Her face brightened at the nickname. “I can tell the future,” was her riposte.
A small sigh. “You cannot tell the future.”
“I can tell the future. And when I wear the dress, I’m going to think that stupid thing is itchy.”
“Okay sweetest, if you can see so much, then what am I thinking?”
Elmiryn twisted around to grin shyly at her mother. Brianna’s cerulean eyes held mirth. The woman had long, warm hair–not quite red and not quite brown, but a shimmering shade in-between. She had an expressive mouth–long and curvaceous–and a slim button nose. The woman had sent away the attendants, opting to help her daughter get ready for the ball herself. Because of this, she still wore her domestic evening clothes, a lavender silk dress and a thin cotton robe with beaded slippers.
The seven-year-old puffed out her cheeks and stared up at the coffered ceiling as she tried to conjure up an answer. Then an idea came to her, and she doubled over, giggling, her arms rising to cover her blushing face. “Umm…’Elmiryn is the most beautiful girl in the world?'” she managed through her smile.
Her mother gasped, dropping the brush and feigning a look of shock. “Oh my goodness!” she reached around and started to tickle the girl, sending the child into a squealing fit. “You were able to read my mind!!”
The game stopped immediately at the stern voice, and both mother and child turned to see Warner standing in the doorway. He was tall and slim, with an angular face and hard gray eyes. His bright red hair was swept back neatly. At the temples, the strands were paling into a sort of platinum blond. Tonight, he wore his soldier’s dress uniform–pleated gray pants and a thick wool coat with polished golden buttons. Pristine white gloves on the hands. Draping his back was a short, blue cloak, meant more as a symbol of status than protection.
“Stop playing with the girl and get ready,” the man said, already turning and walking down the hall. “We’re due to leave in less than two hours.”
His footsteps echoed farther and farther away.
Elmiryn stuck her tongue out after him. Brianna gave her a whap on the forehead that stung. “None of that. Your father’s right. We’re late.” But as she picked her daughter up and moved to the dressing screen where the girl’s dress awaited on a hook, the mother couldn’t help but add with a slight grin, “Even if he is a stick-in-the-mud…” and they shared a conspiratorial giggle.
Two hot, itchy, and irritable hours later, they were at the Aimeri’s Ball. The Aimeri House was strong in the royal courts, playing a part in nearly every major decision of the kingdom. Their estate made those of the Manard’s, Elmiryn’s family, seem tiny in comparison. They had acres to their name, and their home was second only to the royal family.
Elmiryn didn’t understand these functions at all–and fortunately neither did her mother, something she confided to her daughter during the carriage ride over. Both were dressed in their finest, hair coiffed, cheeks powdered with rouge and eyes lined with black pencil. Elmiryn wore small diamond stud earrings and a light-blue dress with white ribbons. She felt like rolling on the ground to get at the persistent itch all around her.
Her father vanished upon arrival, stating that he had business to take care of, and since his departure, the mother and daughter were left to make what they would of the night.
They had come through the loggia out into the perrenial garden where some of the most powerful lords and ladies of the Engus province complained about the help, discussed the finer points of fashion, and debated political matters. It sounded like drivel to Brianna. To Elmiryn, it sounded like gobbledygook.
“If you don’t like it, mother, then why do you pretend?” Elmiryn whispered inquisitively as Brianna gritted a smile at the Lady Poratel, who waved at them from across the thorny rose bushes.
“Because, sweetest,” the woman explained. “It is expected of me. We are members of the royal court. We must act accordingly.”
“But you don’t like it! You told me so yourself!” the girl frowned up at her mother.
Brianna looked at her daughter, chagrined. “Even so, I have no choice. If I were to behave as I wished, it would shame your grandparents and your father. It’s difficult for you to understand, but this would bring us much trouble.”
“But if you thought someone’s hat looked funny, why can’t you say so? Maybe they’ll think it’s funny too?”
“Ahh…you’re thinking of that time you commented on Lady Mirabellum’s new hat?”
Elmiryn puckered her lips, her brow dipping low. “Father got so angry with me that time…”
“You see, Elle, you must pretend for the sake of yourself as much as for others. Your words brought you misfortune! You can be yourself when it is safe, when no one would expect otherwise. That is why I tease and jest in quiet. But until that time of freedom, you have to just…go along with how the world works.”
The girl blinked and stopped walking.
Brianna stopped as well and smiled at her daughter. “Hmm? Was there something else, dear?”
Elmiryn squinted her eyes at the woman. “I’m trying to see.”
“If you’re pretending to be happy with me.”
The smile fell from Brianna’s face, and she dropped into a crouch. She grabbed at Elmiryn’s shoulders tightly and gave her a shake. “What a thing to say! Of course I’m not pretending!”
“But you pretend with father all the time!”
Brianna moved her hands to gently cup the girl’s face. The woman’s eyes teared up and she looked at Elmiryn, wounded. “You…think I don’t love you?”
At the sight of her mother’s tears, she immediately felt sorry. She caught the woman in a tight hug.
“Mama!” She’d been told not to say this word, because it was a peasant’s word not befitting a noble. But Elmiryn found her ability to speak reduced to simple consonants and vowels as she became emotionally gripped. “M’sorry!”
Brianna hugged the girl back, wiping at her eyes carefully. “There, there. I’m sorry too, sweetest…I didn’t mean…you just…do what makes you happy. I suppose you’d be predisposed to such behavior, given your father’s bloodline…”
Elmiryn pulled back, her little hands cupping her mother’s cheeks. Her face was tight with anxiety. “You won’t cry anymore?”
“I wasn’t crying dear…”
The girl puckered her lips and frowned critically at her mother.
Brianna blinked, then laughed. The sound was melodic. She gently gripped Elmiryn’s wrists. “Ah…I suppose I was!”
“Why do you laugh when you were just crying?” The girl asked, now even more puzzled than before. “You smile when things aren’t funny, too.”
Elmiryn was about to add, “That’s really weird!” to her statement, but thought better of it. The child had decided her mother was a bit emotionally sensitive, and didn’t want to set her crying again, even if she herself sometimes forgot the various ways one could upset a person. This self-censorship made the girl start.
…Was this what her mother had meant about “pretending” until the time was right?
Brianna fussed over the girl’s appearance, tightening bows, smoothing wrinkles, and brushing back rebellious locks of auburn hair. “Because, my little Elle. One must always find a reason to laugh,” she smiled, but the expression seemed crooked somehow. “It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”
After the exchange was done, they admired the garden in peace, away from the others, the mother managing to avoid some of the chattier gossipers. But a chime from the northern clock tower had the woman pulling her daughter along, her white gown and heavy beaded throw shining in the smile of the waning moon.
“We need to hurry sweetest, or we’ll miss the main event!” Brianna explained in response to her daughters complaints. The girl would have much rather had stayed out in the fragrant garden, watching the trails of snails along the stone and the way the ants made the ground seem alive.
They rushed, not quite running but not quite walking either. Their forms cast shadows along the limestone walls. They returned to the focus of the evening, the ballroom, through large marble archways that kept the space cool despite the number of party goers. Musicians let their sound crawl along the space–magnified by the concave ceiling painted with pastel depictions of the various gods prominent in Fiamman culture–chief among them Halward, the All-God, the Creator of the Universe and the Star Ruler.
Elmiryn blinked up at the ceiling mural, at the god king that sat half-naked, surrounded by his subjects. He had a handsome, but stern face, with strawberry blond hair and a short beard. Covering him was just a white sheet around the waist that came near his knees. The girl wondered if he was cold up in heaven.
Her view to the dance floor was forested by an audience of nobles, but they had a reserved table near the front of the ballroom, close to the music. Once there, Elmiryn sat on her mother’s lap and was able to see the orchestral sway of dancers along the polished floor. It interested her for all but two minutes before her attention turned to playing with the cloth napkin on the table. She’d seen the servants dancing in their quarters, and knew for a fact that real dancing involved alot more grabbing and kicking of the feet.
As such, the girl was very glad she wasn’t passed off to an attendant that night, because Brianna had a special eye for things, and she often shared what she saw with her daughter.
“Look, look,” the woman breathed into the girl’s ear as Elmiryn made a hand puppet of her napkin. Blinking curiously, she followed where her mother pointed across the dance floor at a young couple that looked as though they were being tortured. “The boy,” she went on, “I think he’s from the Winnolm’s House, he keeps stepping on the girl. But the girl, from the Satorett’s House–you played with her little brother once–she’s doing the same to him!” Brianna giggled. “They can hardly stand it, but the poor dears are being made to dance by their parents.”
Elmiryn didn’t know the Winnolm’s, but she’d been to the Satorett’s and she remembered that particular girl as being quite the priss. When she was through giggling into her hands, she calmed down enough to turn and ask, “Why?”
Her mother smiled at her gently. “Why what, dear?”
“Why are they dancing? Why do their parents make them do it? Isn’t it s’posed to be for fun?”
“SU-pposed to. Don’t cut your words, Elmiryn.” Then Brianna’s brow wrinkled in thought. “It’s…difficult to explain, why. The simplest way to say it is that they want the two to marry.”
“Because they think good things will come of it.”
Brianna’s face turned flushed and she frowned at the girl. “Elmiryn you’re being awfully persistent tonight! Be a good girl and just enjoy the evening as best you can, hmm?”
Elmiryn puckered her lips and swung side to side in response. It had been on her mind in the latter days, ever since one of her attendants had brought up her sex life in detail whilst watching the girl play in the courtyard. She’d thought the youth was out of earshot and had called over one of the water maids to gossip. Elmiryn had learned early that adults tended to mention the most interesting things when they thought no children were around to hear them. So the girl, meanwhile, had pretended she was hunting the evil Ailuran named Felix (really, just the house cat napping on the lawn–this was before the Fiamman-Ailuran war had started in full, and the trend of killing cats on sight had become popular in the kingdom).
Brianna winced and grabbed the girl by the shoulders, ceasing her movements. “Dearest? Your bottom hurts mother when you do that,” she smoothed out the girl’s dress. “Remember what we talked about? All your lessons with Lady Priscella? Don’t fidget and–” Brianna sighed as she stopped Elmiryn from scratching at her back, “Never scratch.”
“I told you I wouldn’t like this dress…” Elmiryn muttered sullenly.
Brianna shushed the girl. “Look! The Duke is coming. He’s promised us a grand show. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
The girl sat up as quick as she could, but winced as she moved. Her father was a shadow over her, backlit by the morning light. They were in the courtyard, where the blue sky was open to them, even as they were still in the confines of her father’s private training grounds, located in Ebinus. She placed her hands over her head against the dirt, curling them back so that the fingers were directed toward the body. She pushed next with her legs, digging in with her heels. There was a twinge in her right ankle, but she could still put weight on it.
With a breath, Elmiryn kicked up from the ground hard, and as her body rose into the air feet first, she tucked her legs in and pushed at the ground with her hands.
The girl sprang up and landed on her feet with a decisive snap. Her fists were before her, clenched and sweaty. She glared at her father for a second, but let her eyes flicker to the ground behind him. She’d lost her training sword in the last assault. Though she was quicker than her father, she’d need the extra reach. That, and while the conditions for victory required her only to incapacitate Warner, she knew hand-to-hand would be nearly impossible for her.
“Excellent,” her father said, nodding once at her quick recovery. “You move like a true warrior. Now think like one!”
And they were back to fighting.
The head of the Aimeri House, Duke Dreton Aimeri, gave a speech about the new year, about the good omens coming, and his contributions to the community. Elmiryn started to nod off in Brianna’s lap, but a sharp pinch from her mother made the girl sit bolt upright. She pouted at the woman, who gave the girl a warning stare.
Then, as promised, the performers came.
This had been all the buzz in the kingdom as word had been that the Aimeri’s had hired acrobats all the way from the Higashi Kingdom.
They appeared on the center of the cleared dance floor, ten men and ten women all dressed in close-fitted clothing, cool in color–unusual for Fiamma who was used to seeing warm shades.
The acrobats, with little fanfare, started their show. They flew through the air without mechanical aid, graceful bodies arcing, perfectly poised, landing with confidence each time. They made human sculptures of taut muscles, which built a brilliant sight to Elmiryn’s young mind. These people looked so different from herself. They had pearly skin and thin, jet black hair. Their eyes were dark and narrow. It was the first time she had ever seen people from outside the kingdom.
The finale was to be a human tower, consisting of twenty people. The one to stand on top?
A small figure jogged across the dance floor to the gasps of many. Elmiryn sat forward, pulling her legs up so that she could raise herself higher. Brianna smiled with mild exasperation as she craned her head around her daughter. She thought to pull the girl down again–she wasn’t carrying herself in a proper manner at all…but none were looking their way, and the girl seemed so enthralled with the sight before her that it seemed far too stern to interrupt.
The new performer, a young girl with bobbed hair, conquered the perilous mountain of limbs and shoulders in less than eight seconds. When she reached the top, atleast fifteen feet in the air, she raised both hands and smiled winningly. To make certain all in the ballroom could see, the members on the top shuffled to the left, creating the appearance of a revolving platform.
Elmiryn smiled, her eyes wide with wonder.
All around, the crowd clapped as the tower disassembled and the performers gave their final bow. The general murmur was positive, but reserved.
“Wasn’t that just darling?”
“What a curious performance.”
“Why, they’re so like little dolls!”
Brianna stroked Elmiryn’s hair. The woman was smiling openly, showing all teeth. “Did you like that, Elmiryn?”
The girl looked at her, and mirrored her smile. But someone approached from the corner of her eye, and when they turned to see who it was, their smiles waned. The child quickly sat on her bottom, smoothing out her dress as she gazed up at the newcomer through her bangs.
Elmiryn’s father stood, hands behind his back. He raised his eyebrows at Brianna. “I need to speak with you. Unburdened, as it were.” His eyes flickered to Elmiryn.
Brianna frowned, even as she gently displaced the girl and stood. “Warner, dearest,” she said in a low voice, “Surely whatever you have to discuss with me can be done in public? If not, couldn’t this wait until we’re home? We haven’t seen you all night! You promised me we’d spend the evening as a family.”
The man’s lips thinned and his gaze narrowed a fraction. Elmiryn wondered if her father ever pretended like her mother did. If the coldness and strictness that shrouded him were really natural. “Brianna,” the voice held steel.
The woman gazed back at him quietly. Then she bowed her head. “Let me find Julianna, then–”
“No need. The Aimeri’s are kindly providing us with their child attendant.” He stepped to the side and gestured at a short woman with platinum gray hair and wrinkled eyes that stood behind him. He looked at Elmiryn. “This is Eneste. Elmiryn, I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
The girl resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose at the older woman. She smelled like cabbages. “Yes, father,” she said instead.
Eneste held out her liver-spotted hands, and the girl reluctantly stepped toward her. She looked at her mother, pleading silently with her eyes.
The woman nodded and smiled, though the expression was subdued somehow. “Go on, sweetest.”
Elmiryn craned her head as Eneste took her hand, her grip cold, and led her through the crowd of nobles. The seven-year-old could hear her mother’s voice, even when she’d lost sight of her face. “I’ll come find you soon…”
She rose to her feet, coming out from another nasty fall. She brought her fists back before her, her eyes flickering once again to her sword. Her father had effectively kept her from retrieving it. In truth, she knew he was dragging the fight out–wearing her down. She’d trained every day since she and her father had last fought. Elmiryn wanted to show her father what she could do.
She wanted him to see Halward in the back of his gods damned eyelids.
The girl bared her teeth and charged forward, kicking up dust as she rushed to engage Warner once again.
Eneste liked to talk about all the children she’d once cared for. She followed Elmiryn through the perennial garden, talking, her voice reminiscent of dead dry leaves.
“Ah, she was so darling! You’re almost as pretty as she was, dear. Lady Aimeri was such a special girl. Once, she’d played the harp for my birthday! Do you know how to play any instruments, dear? Oh, Lady Aimeri knew so many…”
And it went on and on.
Elmiryn didn’t even try to listen. The woman was slow and annoying. She wanted to get away from her.
She pointed excitedly down one of the pathways and cried, “My mother’s coming!”
Eneste turned to look, squinting her eyes. “Oh? Where?”
The girl had pretended…until the time was right.
Elmiryn pulled away from the woman with a wrench of her hand, and ran in the opposite direction. The attendant squawked as she realized what had just happened. “Lady Elmiryn, wait!”
But the girl did not wait. If anything, she ran faster.
Nobles stared after her, gasping and glaring as she pushed past dresses and cloaks and furs and legs. She knew better than to return to the ballroom–if she were caught by her father…well in truth, she didn’t know what would happen. Elmiryn had never done something so blatantly defiant before. She wasn’t behaving as she should, and the pressure that pushed on her was immense. There was so much indignation from the lords and ladies, so much open shock and so many appalled expressions. Servants moved to snatch her up, but the little girl dodged them easily. They would be poor opponents in a game of tag.
She decided she liked not pretending better.
Giggling, the girl ran through empty hallways, where guests were scarce. As she came across guards and servants, she moved carefully, avoiding them. She realized she was moving into an area she was really not supposed to be, but Elmiryn figured it was all a part of the adventure. Her mother liked to tell her stories before bed, and they were much like this. Certainly, she’d find something of interest…?
Elmiryn hopped down a short staircase, entering a peristyle–a columned porch that looked over a small garden. At the back was a man-made pond.
Seated at the water’s edge was the little acrobat girl. Elmiryn could hear her weeping from where she stood, and she stopped, transfixed in the shadows.
She was a noble girl, no matter what. Her father wouldn’t risk cutting her, wouldn’t risk damaging her face. Appearances were everything.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t bruise her in places hidden.
Elmiryn cried out as she fell again. Her body hurt with every strike of his sword. Baring her teeth, she struggled to sit up again. Her limbs quivered. They’d been at this for more than ten hours and she had yet to have eaten. Warner may have looked old, but he certainly didn’t act like it.
The man gazed down at her with imperious eyes. “Are you done?” his lip curled. “All those years I put into you, and you’re already done? Maybe it’s just as well, then. You would have been torn apart by the Ailurans, and it would’ve upset your mother beyond the point of return–”
“Shut up!” she screamed. The girl pushed to her feet, swaying. Sweat stung her eyes, and the strands from her ponytail stuck to her damp neck. She fell into a fighting stance. “Stop talking about her!” She hated hearing Warner speak of her mother. He objectified the woman, and vilified her. But Elmiryn knew better. She knew what Brianna had really thought of her father’s plans. “You’re just pretending!” Then the girl’s face drew blank and she stared at her father as though seeing him for the first time. “You’re…pretending.” She repeated slowly.
Elmiryn stepped forward quietly, the moonlight swathing her in a cool light.
“Hello?” she said.
The girl yelped and spun her head around. The sudden movement made her hands slip on the wet stone, and she tumbled back into the pond.
“Iya!” she cried, flailing.
Elmiryn winced and hurried forward, her scuffed shoes squeaking as she bent and creased them in her run. They had never been meant for such hurried movement.
At the pond, the youth wrinkled her nose at the smell of still water. The acrobat girl had ceased her struggles, and stared up at Elmiryn with dark almond shaped eyes bewildered, wet locks of hair clinging to her porcelain face. She shivered, dressed only in her thin performer outfit, and hugged her knees to her chest as she took in the sight of the redhead standing over her. This made Elmiryn feel self-conscious, and she took a hesitating step backward.
She felt scared. Her heart was loud in her ears.
Blushing, the redhead tried to summon her courage and held out her hand. “Let me help,” she said.
The Higashan blinked up at her. Then gingerly, she took Elmiryn’s hand. With a grunt, she was out of the pond on her feet.
Up close, the seven-year-old saw that the young performer’s eyes were swollen and pink. There were also tell-tale qualities in the way her expression shifted from that of fear to reservation, the gravity with which she carried herself…the acrobat girl wasn’t Elmiryn’s age. She was much older. (“Much”–in her child’s mind–being some two years at the least.)
The girl was even an inch taller than her–a detail revealed only in proximity. Elmiryn became even more bashful as she stared down at the ground. Her left thumb flexed against soft wet skin, and she became aware of the fact that she was still holding the Higashan’s hand–
“…Hanasu, chi nu hai.”
Elmiryn’s eyes raised again and was met by the Higashan’s irritated face. “Hanasu!”
Then she wrenched her hand away from the seven-year-old. The girl gave a start, stumbling back until she’d fallen on her behind.
“Gáau ngóh!” the Higashan shrilled, stomping her foot. She turned her face away quickly then, but Elmiryn saw her face start to crumple in that familiar way she’d seen her mother’s whenever the woman was upset.
The girl stood up, her palms throbbing and a little scratched from taking the brunt of her fall. She wiped them on her dress to rid herself of the rocks and dirt. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
The Higashan didn’t even look at her this time. She just waved a dismissive hand at her. “Cheh-cheh! Gáau ngóh!”
Elmiryn bit her lip and stared upward. “Umm…I dunno what that means.” Then she corrected herself, remembering what her mother had said. “I do not know what that means.” She didn’t want the Higashan to think she was stupid.
She peered at the acrobat, her brows pressing together as she took in how the girl’s shivering had gotten worse. The night was a cool one, but a dip in scummy pond water was certainly enough to turn the breeze into a frigid wind.
Elmiryn lightly touched the Higashan’s shoulder. She thought of hugging the girl, as she didn’t have her shawl with her, but the acrobat shrank away from her, hissing.
The redhead let her head drop. “I’m sorry I scared you…I didn’t mean for you to fall into the pond.” Then her eyes brightened and she looked up with a grin.
The Higashan girl, named Ting, had run away from her performance group after her mother had attacked her with a switch for not climbing the human tower faster. But now she was lost in the labyrinth that was the Aimeri estate. She had been certain she would receive an even harsher beating for this, but had decided that she’d rather die at Fiamman hands for trespassing than suffer the tyranny of her mother any longer. But instead of the guards Ting had expected, this little girl had come–and how troublesome she was! Now to add to her misfortune, she smelled like pond scum. Why was her life so hard and miserable?
Ting heard a splash and was drawn out of her angst long enough to turn around and see Elmiryn beaming up at her, her dress soaked from top-to-bottom with smelly pond water.
The redhead plucked up a lily pad, placed it on top of her head, and croaked out, “Ribbit!”
Ting didn’t know what to make of this. At first she stared at Elmiryn as though she were a lunatic. Then, unbidden, she started to laugh. She kept laughing until her ribs hurt.
Warner shook his head, scowling at her. “You’re speaking nonsense. I never pretend. Brianna was my wife before she was your mother. You think she didn’t know about my plans for you?”
Elmiryn smiled slowly.
The man’s face took on a puzzled look. “She’s weak-minded your mother. She needed someone strong like me to guide her. She needed me to protect her from those pirahnic fools that plague the royal court.”
The girl started to giggle, losing her fighting stance as she doubled over and leaned onto her knees.
Warner slashed the air angrily with his wooden sword. “Insolent girl!” He stomped forward, the weapon drawn back. “If you wish for it, then I’ll punish you for your carelessness!”
When the man was within striking range, Elmiryn tipped her body forward and rolled off to the side. Warner grunted as the blow he expected to connect fell through open air. This left him off-balance for a second, and it was all Elmiryn needed to distance herself from the man. Springing out of her roll with a newfound energy, the twelve-year-old recovered her blade from the ground and swung around into a charge.
Names were easy enough to figure out. Both girl pointed at themselves, stating their names emphatically, and the messages were well received. On the other hand, it took a fair bit of miming on Ting’s part to explain her situation to Elmiryn. The redhead delighted in this round of charades, seeing it as a sort of game. Finally she thought she had it.
“So…you were attacked by your pet monkey and was looking for food to make it less grumpy? Is that how you got lost?”
The only thing Ting got out of this was “monkey” and “food”–both Common words she’d learned one way or another–but she suspected it was quite far from what she’d been trying to say all along.
The Higashan face-palmed and waved the answer away like it were a lingering cloud of smoke. “Mei! Mei!” No! No!
Ting sighed and pointed to the southern part of the estate. She mimed running away by jogging in place and looking fearfully over her back. Elmiryn looked to the North, where she’d come from, and back at Ting, who was pretending to run the opposite way.
Realization dawned on her young face. “You…you’re running away?”
Ting nodded emphatically, touching her chest and pointing to the South. “Run!” she said, her accent making the word seem thick in her mouth. “Ting! Run!”
Elmiryn bit her lip. In her mind, she saw her actions like a stack of building blocks. First, she’d run away from Eneste, second she’d trespassed into private areas of the Aimeri estate, and third she’d ruined her expensive dress. Would helping a foreigner run away make things any worse?
“Hey!” Both girls gave a start as an adult voice cut through the garden. A servant carrying a basket of cloths pointed at them. He’d appeared from the same hall Elmiryn had. “You’re not supposed to be here!”
Elmiryn grabbed Ting’s hand and pulled her into a run, across the pond and into the cool hallway heading South…
Warner turned around just in time to see his daughter’s face vanish within the blink of an eye. What had really happened was the girl had dropped into a perfect split, and she jammed the tip of her sword into her father’s crotch. The man curled in, dropping his sword as he stared at her with a purpling face.
Elmiryn smiled up at him briefly before she swept her back leg forward, hitting the back of the man’s left knee. When he fell into a kneel, the girl thrust the edge of her sword into her father’s neck. She pushed forward with all her body, and her father gurgled as the object pressed into his windpipe. He slammed into the ground and stared up at his daughter, brows raised high and veins bulging.
“Mother taught me that,” she breathed, smirking. “Sometimes, you just gotta laugh. And sometimes, you just gotta wait till the right moment to quit faking it…”
Her father said nothing for a minute. Then his lips spread apart in an alligator’s grin.
Elmiryn straightened and clambered off her father, her face turning somber.
Warner chuckled deeply as he pushed himself onto his elbows. “Good…very good, Elmiryn. You finally used your head. You’ll need that guile when you get older.”
“Are we done?” The youth pressed, her brows knitting.
Warner straightened and nodded his head once. “We’re done. I’ll have the servants ready your bath.”
Elmiryn didn’t know the estate any better than Ting did, honestly. But together they managed to slip past more servants and guards. They entered the backwoods, and here the Higashan stopped, turning to Elmiryn with a smile.
“Kam sia. Tank-yoo, xiǎo jie Elmiryn!” Ting gently pressed at the girl’s back and pointed back North. “Ting go. Elmiryn go.” She took her hands, palms pressed together, then separated them.
Elmiryn immediately understood what the Higashan meant. The girl looked at her, pained. “But…aren’t you scared?”
Ting blinked at her. “Ss-scarred?”
“No. Scared. Afraid.” Elmiryn mimed biting her fingers anxiously. “Scared! Aren’t you?”
Ting giggled and nodded, pointing at herself. “Yesh! Ting, ss-scarred!”
Elmiryn pointed at herself shyly. “Elmiryn…go? With Ting?”
The Higashan shook her head emphatically. “Mei! Xiǎo jie Elmiryn home!” She pointed at the ground. “Stay! Fiamman!”
The girl’s eyes teared up, but she sucked at her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
Ting patted her head. “Ja, ne?”
Then they heard someone speaking, and heavy footfalls on stone. Both girls turned to see two figures emerging from the gates that protected the main grounds. They ducked, hearts hammering, and as the men drew closer, they heard what they said to one another.
“One of the servants said they saw two kids run out this way. But what kid in their right mind would pull a stunt like this on Aimeri land?”
“Who knows. But we have to check, or we could get into even more trouble for letting them get by!”
Ting turned to look at Elmiryn fearfully. “Iya!” she breathed. “Chi nán dù! Bad!”
Elmiryn grabbed at the girl, and carefully, they scuttled together behind a bush. One of the guards drew closer, and his shadowed face peered their way.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered.
Elmiryn could feel Ting trembling next to her. She looked at the girl, her heart like a humming bird in her chest. She blushed when she realized how close the Higashan was. She smelled…sweet. And her body was warm. But the look on her face twisted Elmiryn’s guts. She decided she wanted to make the look of fear go away.
“Ting!” Elmiryn whispered.
Ting looked at her.
Elmiryn kissed her cheek quickly, making Ting’s eyes turn wide. The redhead’s face was burning. “Bye!” she breathed, before bursting out of the bush and running between the surprised guard’s legs.
“Woah–hey! You! Wait!” He chased after her.
Elmiryn ran back toward the main grounds, her little lungs burning. She ran until she felt hands snatch her up from behind.
The Fiamman lamps were cold in the corners. The bedroom was dark with the velvet curtains drawn closed.
Elmiryn stood in the doorway, her eyes on the mountain of blankets seemed to collect in the center of the vast bed. She stepped into the room, aware that it was the first time in nearly five years. Back then, she’d been such a small thing, with arms like noodles and a limited understanding of what it meant to have a father who was a high ranking official in the Fiamman military. She’d worn dresses and stiff shoes, powdered her face and worn earrings. Now she strode in pants and fresh leather boots, with a sword belt around her waist and a body that would shame even the fittest boy.
Elmiryn went to the curtains. She stood before them, her body tensed like she were waiting for an attack from Thendril. Her throat was tight. Then she tore the curtains to the sides and whipped around, all smiles.
“Mother! Rise and shine!” she cried.
The bed squeaked as Brianna startled awake, her eyes glassy but wide as she stared around. Her hair was a veritable bird’s nest–quite a rare sight, as Elmiryn recalled her mother always being careful with her appearance. She was always so careful with her appearance…
The newly-turned thirteen-year-old jumped onto the bed, making the woman gasp and sit bolt upright.
Elmiryn smirked at her and tilted her head to one side. “Mama…are you happy to see me?” she asked, her voice teasing.
Elmiryn felt a little ill as she was presented to her father and mother in a private room somewhere on the estate. Unbeknowst to her was that Warner had promised Duke Dreton a fair bit of gold and a large favor to keep the matter quiet.
Brianna was in tears. “Elmiryn, you foolish child, what were you thinking!? You had me so worried!”
The girl looked down at her ruined shoes, scuffed and stained with dirt. “I’m sorry…”
“Just wait until we’re home, young lady,” Warner seethed, his face purple as he glared down at her.
The girl hunched her shoulders around her ears. Brianna moved to hug the girl, but her husband stopped her, his eyes flashing.
“We’re going home. Now!” he snapped.
And sure enough, they were home within the hour–the carriage driver pushing the horses at Warner’s order. Once there, the girl was denied supper, and instead, was sent to take a bath.
After her attendant’s had scrubbed her skin pink and the last of the pond scum was gone from her hair, Elmiryn emerged from the bath wrapped in a small robe. Her attendant led her into the hallway, and there, the girl heard her parents arguing in their bedroom down the way.
“Warner, please don’t do this!”
“Brianna, the matter is settled. I’ve decided that the girl leaves tomorrow. She’s shown the final signs.”
“It wasn’t a sign, it was childish antics–nothing more!”
“No noble child in her right mind would have done as she has. This isn’t the typical youthful rebellion.”
As Elmiryn was led to her room, she pulled at her attendant’s hand, slowing their progress. She stared, wide-eyed at the bedroom doors, and saw her father’s figure flit past the narrow opening before her mother stopped into view. She was red in the face and looking frantic. The attendant tugged at her arm, whispering that the girl had to follow, but Elmiryn only wrenched away and ran to the doorway, her slippers smacking over the polished floor. She slid into a crouch outside her parents bedroom, the light that filtered through the door crack like a line dividing her down the middle.
“You base so much off the word of a seer,” her mother shrilled, “What of me!? Her mother? Your wife. Don’t I have a say in this destiny you keep going on about!?”
“I will not argue this further. I’ve already sent a messenger to Thendril.”
No response from her father. Elmiryn felt a sense of dread pool into her stomach as the attendant caught up with her and dragged her back to her room by the robes.
“Warner!” she heard her mother scream.
The next morning, Elmiryn was sent away to begin her private training as a warrior. She cried for a full year before she remembered how to pretend. It took another year before she remembered how to smile. And once she did, it seemed hard not to laugh. And when she started to laugh, it was especially hard to stop.
“One must always find a reason to laugh. It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”
Brianna stared at her daughter, mouth agape. The five years had not been kind to her. She seemed so much older now, with gray hairs appearing at the roots and faint lines around the eyes and mouth. Her skin no longer seemed so radiant, and even her bosom seemed to yield to gravity.
The woman’s lips twitched. Then her face flashed into a wide smile, showing all teeth. “My sweetest Elle! You’re home!”
Elmiryn mirrored the expression. She couldn’t resist a smart response, however. “Oh, we’re home? I thought father had tricked me into walking into a dungeon.”
For all her combat training, Elmiryn hardly expected the sharp whap on the forehead from her mother. She also received a strong hug afterward, and she stared at the paneled wall across the room. She grinned, but her eyes watered, even as she tried to keep herself from choking up.
“Elmiryn you’re incorrigible…” Brianna hissed. Then she added quietly, “I missed you so much, dearest. Really.”
Elmiryn squeezed her mother around the shoulders and closed her eyes, two tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes. “…I missed you too, mama. Really.”
- From the HBO miniseries ‘Angels in America’; directed by Mike Nichols; written by Tony Kushner; produced by Celia D. Costas; first aired in 2003; starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Justin Kirk. [↩]