Interlude III

No one speaks to me or acknowledges me much at all these days (save the servants, and then only to answer me when I require them, or to bow as I pass by). At least the Camu watering the garden look up at me as I draw near them. Otherwise, the palace carries on as if I've already left it behind, or... It's as if I were a ghost, a silent, invisible presence haunting these walls. Arcanine is the only one I have to talk to now. He can only listen quietly, and there's no need for words between us, anyway, but... But sometimes I'm overcome by the sense that I really have disappeared. I begin to feel light and insubstantial. At those times, I tell myself to stop it, I'm being irrational, but logic does nothing to dispel the rising panic. The only thing that makes me feel solid again is the sound of my own voice, to hear myself and to be heard.

When I'm left to my own thoughts for too long, my mind inevitably drifts back to that time. Now is not as bad as then, of course, but the feeling is uncomfortably similar; no wonder I can't help thinking of it. But perhaps it has always been that way, perhaps it was only Mira's presence that kept me from noticing. Yes, that's right, as a child, I had several little friends with whom I talked and played games. But then, after everything happened... the others changed. They seemed uneasy, their smiles and laughter forced. They began to drift away from me, until only Mira was left. There were excuses, of course, about lessons and social engagements, but I knew the truth. It hurt, at first, but as long as I had Mira, I found I didn't really miss the others. Though I tried to hide my shame, somehow she always knew when I was hurting, wrapped her arms around me and told me I was really a good and loyal daughter, and everything would be all right in time. And she was right- she was the only friend I needed. Eventually, I forgot that things had ever been different.

And I suppose that none of it matters, anyway, in the end. I look up and see Sena a little ways off, standing on top of the palace wall, staring out at the horizon, as he does from time to time. Before, when I saw him do this, I had no reason to talk to him. I still don't, I suppose. But I'm bored, and goading him might provide at least a brief distraction.

So I cross the garden and enter the guard tower, Arcanine close behind me (the doorway is too narrow for us to enter side by side). Cool air hits my face, the thick stone walls mute the sound of my footsteps. How long has it been since I was last here? At least since before I fought with Mira. I've always loved standing atop the wall, looking out over Urutu, to the outlying towns and farmland, across the desert to the cities beyond... Sometimes, as the sun sets behind the distant mountains, the desert dunes look as if they were on fire. I thought I should never grow tired of gazing at that frighteningly beautiful scene. And I haven't.

But lately, the mere thought of climbing so many steps... I stare through the dim corridor, up five stories at the light from the doorway; it seems so small and distant. My body feels heavier than it did just a moment before, and I briefly consider turning around. But no. No, I am stronger than that; I can't be defeated by a simple flight of stairs. So I set my eyes on the exit and take the first step. It isn't long before my legs begin to feel weak; I push myself onward, but halfway up I have to stop and lean against the wall to recover, the cold, rough stone digging into my back. Arcanine nudges my hand with his nose, urging me to continue. "Just a moment," I say to him, though I know he's right- the longer I rest, the harder it will be to start again. So I am true to my word, and continue my climb as soon as I feel able. Finally, after what seems like a long time, we reach the top. I stop short of the doorway to collect myself- catch my breath, make sure my hair is in place. It wouldn't do for Sena to see me looking so out of sorts.

When I'm properly composed, I step through the doorway and into the light. The guard at the distant next tower barely glances at me; Sena doesn't notice me at all at first, just keeps leaning on the wall's wall and staring into the distance. I glance in the direction of his gaze- there's Enbilu, tiny from so far away, flying over the base of the mountains, spreading rain over Shul. Has that always been his reason for coming here? The timing seems right. I look back to Sena and wait for him to notice my presence. He doesn't. Finally, I grow impatient and give a small cough; that breaks his trance. He rises and turns to me abruptly, his eyes wide. Then he remembers to bow and says, "Your Highness, please forgive my rudeness, you startled me."

Good. Sena may have the advantage in the dark, musty library, but this is my world. I put on a smile and reply, "You are forgiven, Sena. You may rise."

He does so.

I approach him, managing to keep my walk steady despite my tired legs. My pace is slow, but that's all right; anyone would assume I was only taking my time. Arcanine stays right at my side.

"I'm surprised to see you here, Your Highness," Sena says. "At this time of day, I mean."

My eyebrows rise before I can stop them; I didn't think he'd noticed my habits.

"How very observant of you, Sena," I say, trying to sound unbothered. "Yes, I prefer the view at sunset."

I come to stand beside him, but look out at Enbilu; Sena also turns aside. Arcanine sits between us, and I place my hand on his head.

"You haven't been here in a while, though, have you?" Sena asks, looking down down at me.

"No," I reply. "Lately, I've been simply too busy for such things."

This is an utter lie, and I'm sure Sena knows it. I wrap my fingers around Arcanine's fur and squeeze, but try to keep up my passive smile. Why did I say that? Sena's question caught me off-guard, and I had no time to think of a response. I'll have to be more mindful.

Sena pretends not to notice my lie, nodding and saying, "I understand; it's not often that I'm able to come up here, either. Your father keeps me busy."

I hate it when he ignores my inconsistencies like that; he does it on purpose, I'm sure, to keep me from amending my statement, to keep me guessing what he's thinking. But I have my own strategy.

"Is that a complaint?" I ask, smiling at up him.

But Sena just smiles back and replies, "Not at all, it's simply the truth."

Not the response I was hoping for.

"Is that why we haven't had a lesson in so many days?" I ask.

As much as I hate to admit it, this actually bothers me a bit. I was expecting our lessons to be frequent, but it's been several days since the last one, which was only the second. I don't like being put off.

"Yes, in fact," Sena replies, clasping his hands behind his back. "Why? Have you missed them?"

He sounds pleased, and when I look back at him, he's smiling, eyes shining.

Is he mocking me again? But his smile seems genuine. Somehow, that makes it all the more infuriating, as if I'm a child to be humored. Why then... why do I find myself fighting a smile, too? But I pin the corners of my mouth down; I won't allow Sena to make me react. Arcanine looks up at him curiously, head cocked, then feels my disapproval and turns back to me.

I rest my arms on the wall and lean forward, my own hands clasped, head held high. "Not really," I say. I turn my head to look him in the eye. "But I don't take kindly to people who break their promises."

"Well, then, Your Highness, I do apologize," Sena says, confidently, without breaking eye-contact. "I promise to make it up to you as soon as I am able."

"Why not now?" I ask. "We're both here."

Sena nods and says, "Very well. Where were we? Ah, yes, the creation of the first humans." He clears his throat and turns back toward the desert, rests his hands on the wall next to mine. "In those days, the days after Tiamu of the salt water and Apsatta of the fresh water had created Lehurat who shines, and Lehursa who sees, and..."

My mind begins to drift as Sena goes through the boring, repetitive parts of the poem. Arcanine leans his warm body against mine, and I wrap my arm around his back, stroke him absent-mindedly. Silently, we watch Enbilu twisting high above the mountain, her slick, serpentine body gleaming in the morning sunlight, the clouds rising from her body spreading out behind her like a pair of vast wings. I can see why Sena enjoys watching her.

Tell me about Enbilu," I say suddenly, "You skipped over it before."

It really should've been our second lesson, but instead he moved straight to the creation of the first Pokemon. Was it because Shul's version of events was the same as what actually happened? Or because... At the time, I'd let it go without comment, but now, with Enbilu right before my eyes... Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sena turn his head toward me as if he's about to respond, but he says nothing. I wait a long moment before looking up at him; he opens his mouth as if he's about to speak, then closes it and purses his lips. His lips part again, close again, and one corner of his mouth pulls up into a grimace. So there really is something he doesn't want to tell me. But what about Enbilu's story would make him so hesitant to share it? I must admit, I really am curious. But mostly, I'm glad to have made him so uncomfortable.

So I smile sweetly at him and ask, "Is something the matter?"

I feel Arcanine's wariness as he looks up at Sena, the sensation of his fur prickling, how his upper lip keeps curling up over his front teeth despite his efforts to hold it down.

"No, Your Highness," Sena says, looking at Arcanine instead of me. When he looks back at me, he says, "It's just... I'm not sure you're ready for that story."

I pull away from Arcanine, stand tall, and look Sena in the eye. "Do you think I'm not intelligent enough to understand it?" I ask.

All at once, Sena's eyes go wide, his hands spread out in front of him, and he exclaims, "No!", so loudly that it startles me and makes me (and Arcanine) jerk back in surprise. Arcanine lets out a soft growl before he can stop himself, and I place my hand on his head for a moment to calm him.

After a moment, Sena relaxes and says, "Please excuse me, I didn't intend to startle you. But that isn't what I meant at all."

"Then what did you mean?" I ask, crossing my arms.

"It's just that..." Sena turns his head ever so slightly, shifting his gaze toward the desert, then catches himself and looks back to me. "The story told in Shul is different from the one you know. I'm afraid it would displease you."

"That's strange," I say with a coy smile and teasing tone, "When have you ever worried about displeasing me?"

Aranine looks at each of us in turn as we speak, still wary, his ears pricked up.

Sena answers with a begrudging smile and says, "It has never been my intention, at least."

I can barely keep from laughing at this bald-faced lie.

"There are things in this story that..." he continues. He holds his up-turned hands together in front of him, then moves them apart in a shrug as he says, "I'd be knowingly upsetting you."

I tilt my head, half-smiling.

"Well, now I'm curious," I say, which is true... But I also feel a strange uneasiness creeping up inside me. What's gotten into me? I'm being silly- it's only a story, nothing to fear. Arcanine senses my anxiety, but also my desire to keep it hidden. So he simply sits back on his haunches and keeps a close eye on Sena.

Sena studies my face for a moment, and I try to keep my expression from wavering under his scrutiny. Finally, he sighs in submission and says, "Well, if you insist, I suppose I have no choice."

"I do," I say.

"Very well," he says, enunciating each syllable.

I hold back a smile at his poorly concealed frustration.

Slowly, Sena turns toward the desert. He stares straight ahead and clasps his hands behind his back, as if he were reciting for his own tutor.

"Those were the days after Arceus the Creator had stretched out his thousand arms and separated Tiamu of the salt water and Apsatta of the fresh water, after he had first created the earth and sky," he begins, speaking slowly, concisely, deliberately. "But the earth was yet empty and barren; no plants grew from its soil, no Pokemon or humans walked upon its surface. Arceus looked upon his creation and saw that it was yet empty and barren, and determined it should not be so. So he stretched out his thousand arms to the earth below, to the earth that had once been Tiamu of the salt water. And-"

"I fail to see any difference," I say, trying to keep the impatience from my voice; I don't want to let him know how he's frustrating me. "Arceus shapes the earth into mountains and valleys, but he still can't create life, correct?"

"Yes," Sena says, glancing at me briefly.

"So he councils with the four," I continue, "And they tell him that only Tiamu and Apsatta could do that, and only when they were together."

"It seems you know the story well," Sena says.

"Of course I do," I say. "Did you expect less?"

Sena shakes his head and says, "No, Your Highness. I only meant to compliment you."

Although I know it's only flattery, my chest swells with pride at his comment. Arcanine looks up at me, and I feel so foolish. But it's all right as long as I can keep Sena from noticing.

I hold my head high and say, "Well, then. You may continue. But don't waste any more of my time repeating things I already know!"

"Yes, Your Highness," Sena replies. "As in the story you know, the four elder Pokemon gods tell Arceus that he must bring Tiamu and Apsatta together to create life on Earth."

"Yes" I say, "and Arceus pulled Apsatta's tail down toward Tiamu, which caused the first rain, and Enbilu formed where the rain hit the desert."

Sena turns his head abruptly and looks down at me. "No," he says firmly. I pull back without really meaning to, and he responds in kind, his mouth twitching. Arcanine stiffens and bares his teeth for a moment, but catches himself and relaxes right away. "I mean, yes, that is what happens in Urutu's story."

"That is what really happened, you mean," I say.

Sena glances sideways as he says, "Yes. But Shul has a different version of events."

I cross my arms. "Yes, I seem to recall you telling me that, some ages ago," I say.

Sena turns his head away, but I still see a silent laugh move across his face. For some reason, this makes me want to laugh, too, but I manage to keep from smiling as I say, "Are you finally getting to the point?"

"I am, I promise," Sena says, looking at me with the ghost of his laugh still playing about his lips and eyes. "In fact, it begins here." He turns his face toward the desert again, and his expression becomes serious. After another moment, he begins reciting, "And so Arceus heeded the words of the four elder Pokemon, the words of Lehurat who shines, and of Lehursa who sees, and of Muddat who cries out, and of Muddasshu who hears." This again. But he'll probably come to the point sooner if I don't interrupt; he can't stall forever. "Thus, the creator stretched out his thousand arms to the earth below, to the earth that had once been Tiamu of the salt water. And..." This time, it's Sena who hesitates. He stares down at his feet and twists his hands behind his back. Surely, he hasn't forgotten something. I keep my eyes on him, trying to pressure him, and so does Arcanine. At first, it seems to be working; I can almost feel Sena's heart pounding against his ribs. But then he swallows, lifts his head, and sets his brow resolutely. When he begins again, his voice is more loud and forceful than before. "And he began to pile the earth into a great mound, piled it higher and higher, until it became a mountain. Arceus piled yet more earth onto the mountain that he had created, piled it yet higher and higher, until the mountain pierced the sky, the sky that had once been Apsatta of the fresh water. And from the pierced sky, fresh water began to flow, began to flow down the side of the mountain, flowed until it became a river. From that river sprung Enbilu, sprung Enbilu the rain-maker, Enbilu the life-giver."

Arcanine's fur bristles as I hold down the anger that's been building inside me. When I'm sure the story's finished, I say, "But there's no mountain near Enbilu River."

Sena turns his head to me and says, "No, there isn't. That's the difference in Shul's story."

"But the story doesn't make any sense," I insist, resisting the urge to stamp my foot. But my stance is still rigid, and my voice sounds too hot. After taking a moment to calm myself, I continue with less urgency, "What kind of fool believes a story that so obviously isn't true?"

Sena looks away again, tilting his head up, and saying, "Well..."

At least his confidence seems to have disappeared.

"'Well,' what?" I press.

"Well..." He stares off in the direction opposite me, toward the guard at the end of the tower, who is leaning against the wall and yawning. "There's more to the story than that." He shakes his head. "Or, no, I suppose it's a different story."

"Well," I begin. I turn my back to the wall and lean against it, crossing my arms again; Sena glances at me, but looks away again when I turn my eyes back to him. "Let's have it, then."

He tilts his head to the side, away from me, and says, "I would prefer, Your Highness, to tell you only one story per lesson. I always found myself getting things confused when I tried to learn them too fast."

"Fine," I say with a wave of my hand, as if there's nothing to be done about it. Though I want to know more... to tell the truth, I can't help feeling apprehension about what might be in this new story. "Next time, then. But don't think I'll forget."

Sena finally turns back to me, gives me a reluctant half-smile, and says, "Quite the contrary, Your Highness; I'm certain you won't."

For a moment, I forget myself and smile at him, genuinely this time. Just as quickly I catch myself and start to turn away... but that's only more obvious, so I stop myself, leaving the trace of a smile on my face as if I meant to do it. Now, though, my mouth doesn't want to obey; I'm sure my expression looks forced. What a fool I am, letting Sena catch me off-guard like that! But... how could I have prepared myself, when I don't even understand what happened? What was that? What came over me? For that one moment, it felt as if Sena and I were old friends teasing each other, rather than real enemies.

Again, he doesn't acknowledge my indiscretion, just looks down at me with a faint smile and eyes that seem sad, somehow. But perhaps I'm only imagining things. Sena turns his face toward his home at the base of the distant mountains; I turn halfway toward him, lean with one arm on the wall, and direct my gaze there, too. Enbilu's scales glitter so brightly in the rising sun that I can't help squinting. I shield my eyes so Sena doesn't notice the way they keep moving back to his face. His smile has faded, but that faraway look in his eyes remains. What does he see there, I wonder? His feelings are irrelevant to me, of course, but it makes me think of... Arcanine keeps glancing at Sena, too, so I place my hand on his head to redirect his attention. He obeys, but with some difficulty. Poor Arcanine- I'm confusing him with my silliness; it's not fair to him. Still, I can't help wondering... Though I know I really shouldn't, and I hesitate for a long, silent moment, I finally ask Sena, "Do you miss it?"

I feel his eyes on me for a moment before he turns back to stare out in front of him. He shrugs, then says, "It's home."

Somehow, I think I know what he means... but what does that matter? It's no solace to me if Shul is home to Sena. In fact... if he misses that wasteland, then how much more will I miss the paradise of Urutu?

Mundane memories flash across my mind- lying awake mornings in the room I've slept in every night since I was a small child, staring up at the tapestries depicting the banks of Enbilu River. The view from my favorite spot under the big tree, how beautiful the garden looks in the warm afternoon light. Standing here, watching the sky turn pink and purple and gold with the sunset. How could anywhere else ever, ever replace it? Especially somewhere like Shul. The thought makes me want to cry. Again I wonder if my father is sending me away as punishment, and a pang of wanton anger fills my chest. But no, no, he knows best, it's disloyal to think such things. Arcanine nuzzles my hand with his cold, wet nose, and I look at him and try to smile away the concerned look in his eyes. I take a moment to clear my mind, let those feelings dissolve.

Sena nods toward me and says, "You know, the court at Shul isn't so different from the one here in Urutu. It's not as grand, of course, but there is beauty there, and it's very comfortable."

I turn my face to the ground to hide my flushing cheeks- was I really so obvious? And is Sena really trying to comfort me? How pathetic I am!

"If I could get along there," he continues, "I'm sure you'll be fine."

Without thinking I look up at him and ask, "What do you mean?"

Sena meets my eyes for a moment, then shrugs. "I've never felt at ease with courtly life," he says. "So much etiquette to keep up with... you must have your wits about you constantly, lest you offend the wrong person."

"So?" I say. "It's the same for me."

"Yes, but unlike me, you were born to it," Sena says with another nod toward me.

"And you weren't?" I ask.

Sena looks back at me, head tilted, brows knitted. "Didn't you know?" he asks. "I was born a peasant."

I shake my head. "No, I hadn't heard," I reply, trying to sound detached. Arcanine looks up at me, ears raised and alert. "I'm afraid you don't come up in conversation very much."

"I'm certain I don't," Sena says with a smile, seemingly unaffected by my insult.

But it was the best I could do. How humiliating to be caught unaware! Worse than humiliating, I've shown ignorance. And in front of a peasant, no less! All I can do is try not to let it happen again.

I lean back and ask, playfully, "So, how did a peasant come to live in Shul's royal court?"

"The same way he came to be part of the royal court of Urutu," Sena says with a crooked smile, "by telling stories."

"That tells me nothing," I say, copying his expression. Arcanine looks back and forth between us as we talk. Loathe though I am to admit it, I really am curious about Sena's background. "For someone whose job it is to tell stories, you're not very good at telling your own."

This time when Sena smiles, it seems genuine. "Perhaps I should start at the beginning, then," he says. He looks toward Shul again, as if his history were written there for him to read. "As you are well aware, Your Highness," he says with a quick, mischievous glance in my direction, "Shul is a barren land. My family, like most others there, are poor farmers who struggle to grow enough food to feed themselves. It's exhausting work..." He pauses and looks down at his feet, then continues "And I was never suited for it. I've always been physically weak, and when I was old enough to help work my family's field... I did my best with the small jobs I was given, but I was frequently ill."

"And they made you do it, anyway?" I ask, standing straight. Arcanine mirrors my posture. "How horrible! I knew Shul was a terrible place, but-"

"No, I wanted to do it," Sena says, shaking his head. He looks at me as if he's waiting for me to reprimand him for interrupting me; I really should, but I'm too stunned by his statement, the vehemence behind it. Farming without Oxie to till the fields or Camu to water the crops must be backbreaking work, especially in such a harsh land... The people of Shul bring it upon themselves, of course, but I can't imagine why anyone would actually want to do it. When Sena turns away, I finally ask, "Why?"

He looks back at me with pursed lips, then to his feet again. He's silent for a moment, and then he stares back out at Shul.

"Shul isn't like Urutu," he says after a moment. "Not among us peasants, anyway. Physical strength is a virtue; a man who's too weak to work the land and provide food for his family..." He pauses, tilts his head back, then finishes, "It's shameful."

"Shameful? But it wasn't your fault," I say. I can't believe I'm taking Sena's part, but it doesn't make sense.

"No," Sena sighs, "I suppose it wasn't. But... Well, consider how things are here. If someone is dull-witted, is that their fault? Yet those around them will still make fun of them, exclude them."

"Is that..." I start. But I'm not sure how to ask.

Sena nods once, not looking at me. "My older brothers. According to them, I might as well have been one of the women, since I spent most of my time indoors with them." He says this in a clipped, almost sneering tone, then pauses. After a moment he continues, in a more even voice, "I think they resented that I was excused from work so often, the way my grandmother coddled me..." He turns to me with a gentle smile on his face and shining eyes. "But it was from her that I learned Shul's stories; she always told them to me when I was sick and resting."

What is he doing? The expression on his face is so warm and genuine that I can't help... But that's probably exactly what he wants; I mustn't let my guard down. Arcanine feels drawn to him, wants to go over and lick his hand. But he knows I won't allow that, so he just looks up at him sadly. Sena stares back with a kind expression. It feels wrong to make a snide remark about his story... but I won't show any other emotion, either.

"But what does any of this have to do with the courts of Shul?" I ask.

"I'm getting to it, I promise," Sena says, holding up his hands in front of him and smiling openly. He relaxes and continues, "My grandmother thought I was very intelligent, so she sent me to take the civil servant exams."

"And you passed, because of the stories she told you?" I guess.

"Oh, no, I failed," he says with a laugh. "I had little education. But while I was there, I told stories to the other applicants, in our free time, to entertain them."

Sena gives a deep nod. "I agree, very strongly," he says, "But I think what my mother meant is..." He holds his palms up and studies them, then looks back to me. "She thought that it had nothing to do with our lives, the work we had to do. She thought it was better to live the life we were given, and that thinking about the fantastic and wondrous would only make us unhappy with our lot... That thinking of our past would only make the present seem harsher."

"That's ridiculous!" I exclaim.

He shrugs again. "I do know what she meant," he says. "But if our lives are nothing but drudgery, if there's no beauty..." He shakes his head at the thought. "What's the point of it all?"

I have no idea what to even say to that. So I say nothing.

"Anyway," Sena continues after a brief pause. "One of the king's aides heard me reciting Shul's stories. Apparently, the king thought it was a shame that there'd been no storyteller in court for so long, and was looking for one. So he brought me into his palace, had me educated, trained in etiquette and performance..."

"So you worked closely with him, then?" I ask, trying not to sound too eager. Arcanine looks away from Sena, but his ears stay alertly raised.

But Sena shakes his head. "No," he says. "I recited for him and his guests at holidays and important ceremonies, but those were the only times I saw him."

I try to keep myself from asking what I really want to know... but I can't help myself.

"Did you know the prince, then?" I ask, trying to sound as if I don't care about the answer.

Sena's eyes dart away from mine and he says, "No."

"Well, then, was there any talk of him at court?" I press. What is it he doesn't want to tell me? I can't stand not knowing.

"Well..." Sena starts.

"Yes? Don't test my patience, Sena," I demand.

He grimaces, but still doesn't look at me. Finally, he says, "I did hear it said that he was lazy and cared nothing for his duties or studies."

"So it's true, then," I say flatly, my heart sinking.

"It was only a rumor," Sena says.

"Don't patronize me, Sena," I snap.

He sighs. "I'm sorry," he says, and at least he sounds like he means it. "But he's only one person. I'm sure you'll find your place in Shul's court."

The way he says it, a little bitterly, makes me think that he never did... but that has nothing to do with me. Maybe Sena is right. Maybe things will even be better for me in Shul, where no one knows my story. The thought cheers me a little, at least. My eyes rest on Arcanine, who's leaning almost inperceptively toward Sena. I feel that pull, too... but it's only through Arcanine. It vexes me to see him developing friendly feeling toward my opposition, and I won't give in and let him go to him like he wants. Still... I feel a little bad for holding him back. He can't help it; he's just too kind-hearted for his own good. And where would I be now, without his unconditional loyalty? Arcanine senses my gratitude toward him and turns to me; I lean down to wrap my arms around his neck and hug him tight, press my face into his soft, warm fur.

When I raise my head, I see Sena looking down at us with that same sad smile. What's behind that expression, I wonder? Not knowing makes me uneasy.

"What are you staring at, Sena?" I ask, standing slowly.

He turns his face away and says, "Please forgive me, Your Highness. I was only admiring your Bond with Arcanine."

"Oh," I say. "Well, I suppose I can't blame you for that."

"Many stories speak of it, the Bond," Sena continues. "I've often wondered what it's like."

"Only the Urutu royal family and our priestesses are capable of it," I say plainly.

Surely, he already knows this; everyone does. But it couldn't hurt to remind him of his place.

He nods once and says, "Seeing you and Arcanine is the closest I'll ever get, I suppose. I feel you've given me a new appreciation for it."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

Sena shrugs. "Stories can tell you a great deal about the world," he says, still staring off into the distance. Then he finally turns back to me. "But it's not the same as experiencing something for yourself. Words could never convey the..." he stares down at his hands for a moment, then looks back up at me and continues, "the pull that exists between you and Arcanine, the way you move together, without even meeting eyes..." He pauses, then continues, "'As the moon pulls the sea by an invisible thread- or is it the sea the moon? such was the bond between Alulim and Shedu.' I thought I understood those words before, but... Well, I suppose I'll never understand them the way you must, Your Highness."

"No, I suppose you won't," I say.

So he has been paying attention. Arcanine and I fight the urge to glance at each other, lest we expose my nervousness.

After a moment of silence, Sena adds, "You know, it takes an exceptionally strong mind and will to Bond with a Pokemon as intelligent as Arcanine."

"Of course," I say, "I'm-"

The thought suddenly strikes me- does he know? Did he speak of my Bond with Arcanine with the intention of mocking me? The thought makes me burn with anger; my skin pricks as Arcanine's fur bristles; how dare he use a thing as sacred as the Bond in that way?! It's sacrilege! But then... But then, perhaps I am only imagining things. Sena does seem to have a great respect for the Bond, if not for me. Would he really speak of it so profanely? Or is his respect false? Could he really affect it so convincingly?

"You are...?" Sena says, interrupting my thoughts.

"Nothing, never you mind," I say, brushing an errant hair from my face.

He looks back at me with a question in his eyes, but it remains unvoiced. Neither of us say anything more; it seems we've reached an impasse. Arcanine shifts his paws up and down restlessly, torn between his own desire to stay and my desire to go. But I won't give in; I'll appear weak if I'm always the one to retreat. So I fold my arms and lean on the wall, watch Enbilu silently, as if I'm completely comfortable in Sena's presence, do my best to ignore the feeling of his eyes on me. The silent moment stretches on and out. I'm beginning to think he'll never leave when he says, "Well. Please excuse me, Your Highness, but I had best get back to work; His Majesty your father will not be pleased if I'm late with my latest engraving."

I nod with an absent-minded air, as if I'm in no hurry for him to leave. "You're excused, then, Sena," I say.

I keep my back turned to Sena as he passes behind me, but feel Arcanine turn his head to watch him go.