Scars on the Heart
A story inspired by The Vision of Escaflowne
By Sarah Dove
Oh, make me over
I'm all I wanna be
A walking study
- Courtney Love, 'Celebrity Skin'
"People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have tremendous impact on history."
- Dan Quayle
On Serena Schezar's first day home, she slept for many hours and did not dream. Her brother kept a vigil by her bedside, as a knight knows how to do, and wondered at the tranquillity and purity of her sleeping face. He had placed her in her mother's bed, for although she still had a bedroom in the old house, the bed was a child's, and when he had taken her to it early that morning, still asleep after the carriage ride through the night, warm and limp and heavy in his arms, he had realised she was too big for it.
After a good-sized space of time, which Allen could only have measured in terms of how far the bars of shadow and light from the window moved across Serena's pillow, the door opened quietly and Gadeth put his head into the room. He was a little uncomfortable in the Boss' grand house, as were all the men of the Crusade. As you walked through the guest quarters and gardens of the house, you might find many a man surreptitiously trying to clean his teeth with a fingernail or polish the toes of his boots on the backs of his trouser legs. But until further notice this was where they were, so they just had to grin and bear it.
'Boss?' Gadeth said, hesitant to disturb the stillness of the room. 'A messenger just came from the city. The King's feeling a bit better and the Princesses want you to come right away.'
'But I need to be here,' Allen said, a little vaguely. The greater part of his attention was still on his sister. 'If she wakes up alone she might be frightened.'
'Boss, at this point I really don't think it would be a good idea to ignore a royal request. Because at the moment that's what this is, "the Princesses Elise and Millerna request your presence post-haste." They'll make it a command if you keep them waiting. And I don't think she' ... he gestured towards the bed, unsure of how to refer to the Boss' sister ... 'will be waking up any time soon. She looks to me like she's settled down for a while. We're all here, and of course we'll send to you if there's any change.'
Allen turned to look at Gadeth. 'I would normally never ask this, Gadeth' he said, with a doubtful frown, 'but can I trust my crew? Now, in this situation? You all know who and what she was. We don't always treat our prisoners of war as well as we should. I know what happens sometimes "payback."' He said the word with a little distaste. 'Revenge' had its place in a knight's vocabulary, but 'payback' was infra dig.
Gadeth's face went blank, and Allen realised he had insulted him. 'Well, sir,' he said formally, 'she is not officially a prisoner of war, as I understand the term. What she is, sir, is your sister, and as long as you say she's your sister, none of us would harm a hair of her head. And if anyone even looked as if he was thinking about it, I'd personally come down on him like a ton of bricks. Sir.'
'Forgive me, Gadeth,' Allen said. 'I spoke out of worry, and I did you all a disservice. To have her back after so many years I think I'm just afraid that I could lose her again.'
'We understand that, Boss,' Gadeth said, relaxing slightly. 'But she'll be totally safe as long as we have anything to say about it.' He was still standing awkwardly in the doorway, so he took a step into the room to leave the door clear for Allen when he got up from his chair. Another man might have moved stiffly or said 'ow' after so long sitting still, but Allen merely stood in place for a moment, took a last look at his sister, touched her hand which lay on the pillow by her face, and turned smoothly to go. Gadeth was about to follow him out when he turned again and held up one hand as though to stop him.
'Please sit with her,' he said. 'Keep an eye on her and let her want for nothing. If you need to leave the room for any reason, get someone responsible to take your place. And if she asks for me, tell her I'll be back very soon and she is not to worry.'
'Yes, Boss,' Gadeth said. 'If you go now you can be at the palace in time for lunch.'
Allen did not need to say anything like 'I trust you, Gadeth.' The idea passed between them in a look, and the knight left. Gadeth went to the bedside and sat down in the chair Allen had just vacated. It was not a particularly comfortable one, but he expected the Boss hadn't noticed. He returned it to its place at the late Lady Schezar's dressing table and trundled over an armchair that stood by the window. Then he settled down.
It was interesting to get a chance to have a good look at her. Her face really wasn't the same as Dilandau's, although of course people looked different when they were sleeping. Younger and softer, usually. Many times, when walking through a barracks late at night, he'd been amused at the baby faces of men who, when awake, considered themselves right hard bastards. But no, the face was more delicate in structure, and although the hair was closer to grey than golden, it had a slight curl. The eyes were the clincher. Of course he wouldn't wake her up just to get a look at her eyes, but he still wondered.
Her closed eyelids flickered slightly, and her lips parted in an inaudible sigh. Dreaming, then. He wouldn't like to know what sort of dreams someone like that had.
On Serena Schezar's second day home, she woke up at about eight in the morning. Strong sunlight lanced in through the tall windows of the bedroom and made blocks and bars of gold on the quilt. She lay quite still, and blinked, and wondered what would happen to her next.
'Good morning, Serena.'
She turned her head slightly to look at the speaker. It was her brother, Allen, sitting by the bed in Mother's armchair, the Story Chair it had been. I remember Mother. I remember Allen. I remember sitting all together in that big chair, him perched on the arm and me on Mother's knee, and hearing about the boy who bounced, and the lion in the meadow, and the witch in the cherry tree. I remember all these things. They are in my mind again. Allen was smiling, a golden, gentle smile to match the sunbeams reflecting off his hair. The smile creased the corners of his eyes, and for a moment she thought she saw tears. In the dazzle of the sun it was hard to be sure. With the light behind him, his face was in shadow.
'Good morning, Allen.' That was an easy beginning.
'Are you feeling all right?'
'Yes I think I've finished sleeping.' She began to sit up, and he immediately rose to arrange the pillows behind her, to support her back. When he had made her comfortable, he leaned over and pulled a bellrope that hung from the bed's canopy.
'Someone will bring your breakfast soon,' he explained. 'I want you to eat it all, and get strong, all right?'
'I haven't been sick,' she said in some confusion, 'have I?'
'Well, no,' Allen admitted. 'I was speaking to you as if you were an invalid, wasn't I? But you must have been very tired to sleep so long. You need a good meal. Cook will make all your old favourites; she remembers.'
'That'll be nice,' Serena said, and the conversation promptly dropped dead. She looked at her hands on top of the quilt. Allen continued to smile at her; he seemed unable to stop. He sat back in the Story Chair. He didn't look quite like the adult Allen Schezar she knew, and she realised after a moment that this was because, while he had always presented a face of strength and readiness to Dilandau, now he looked tired, and a little messy, as though he had spent the night in his clothes. And he was letting her see his private face, and he was happy to be with her. It was like being given a big present, that you haven't asked for, and don't think you particularly deserve. She cast about her for some way to reciprocate, or at least show her gratitude.
Allen thought he must be feeling almost fatherly about Serena; he thought she looked adorable with her sleep-tousled hair sticking out in some places and clinging to her head in others. It was passing strange to compare this feeling with his attitude as a small boy; he had liked her well enough, and of course he had loved her, but there were many times when she had been annoying or useless or too messy or too dumb to be any fun. Being a little sister, she could be taken for granted, picked up when it would be easy to play with her and easily avoided when he had had enough of her. He had never known how precious she was. She was too thin; he'd definitely have to feed her up.
'Have you stayed with me the whole time?' she asked.
'Nearly the whole time,' he replied. 'I had to go out for a few hours yesterday, but Gadeth looked after you for me and I came straight back as soon as I could.'
'What did you go out for?'
'Just some palace business. You don't need to worry about it.'
'Gadeth's your sergeant, isn't he? The tall man with blue-black hair?'
'That's the one.'
'I don't know very much about him, but I'm sure if you like him he's a good man.'
'He's one of the best men I know.'
There was another awkward pause.
'Thank you for taking care of me,' Serena said.
'You don't need to thank me,' Allen said. 'It's natural for me to do it. You're my little sister. I'll always take care of you.'
'But still, you would want to know I was grateful, wouldn't you?' Serena said. 'Even if you do something for someone without wanting or expecting anything back, you still want to know they appreciate it.'
'I suppose that's true,' Allen admitted. There was a soft knock at the door. 'Come in,' he said. A woman entered carrying a tray, the kind with small table legs on either side that you balance over the lap of a person sitting up in bed. On it, Serena could see a tall glass of pale green-coloured fruit juice, a small bowl of fruit salad, a toast-rack holding four triangles of buttered toast, and a large bowl of porridge with honey drizzled over the top. The woman set the tray down, bobbed a curtsey and started to leave.
'Thank you,' Serena called after her.
'You're welcome, my lady,' the woman said, curtseyed again and left the room.
'Is everything how you like it?' Allen asked. 'I think there's a surprise for you there.' Tucked into the linen napkin rolled around a knife and two spoons was a pretty blue daisy.
'A serenity?' she said, touching its petals and recalling the word from childhood.
'Your flowers,' he replied. 'The bush you planted is still growing in the garden. It's always full of bees.'
'Who was that lady?' Serena asked. She did not remember her.
'I think her name is Mackie,' Allen said. 'You wouldn't know her, she's only been here two or three years. Aren't you hungry?'
'I am,' Serena said, realising it was true as she said it. 'I'm ravenous.' She unwrapped the cutlery and dipped her spoon in the milky porridge, scooped up a nice big dollop and put it in her mouth. The reason she'd always liked porridge was how full it made you feel, not just after but while you were eating it. Her cheeks bulged around the warm mouthful and she had to let it settle for a moment before she could begin to swallow. A very little dribble of milk escaped from between her pursed lips and splashed back into the bowl. She realised, with some confusion, that Allen was looking at her aghast. She swallowed, and the porridge went down, taking its load of warmth and comfort down her throat, spreading its heat through her chest before reaching her stomach.
'Did they, ah, did they feed you well in the Dragonslayers?' he asked politely.
'Quite well,' Serena said, a little thickly. 'There were always lots of vitamin supplements and things, to make us strong. Hormones, too, I think, to accelerate our growth. The whole thing was supposed to make a man of you as fast as possible. Breakfasts were never as nice as this. We had to eat these sort of compressed bricks of cereal. We were allowed as many of them as we wanted, but there was only so much milk to go round, and we being growing boys were always hungry so we ate a lot dry. And you've got no idea how bad they were dry. It was like a test of courage. My record was eight in a row, and everyone was scared of me.'
Allen looked a little unnerved by her himself, but he quickly put away that expression and asked 'What were those things you said they fed you? Vi-something?'
'Vitamins? Haven't you got those here? Well, I mean you would have them, they're in food naturally already, but you don't know what they are?'
'I'm afraid I've never heard of them.'
'Oh. Well, it's things like' She picked up the glass of juice. 'This would probably have lots of vitamin C in it. That's good for your skin and it stops you catching colds. You know scurvy? Well, you get that from not having enough vitamin C in your diet.' She sipped it, and winced. 'It's sour, so yes, probably full of vitamin C. Citric acid.'
'Oh. That's very interesting. I knew fresh fruit prevented scurvy, but I didn't know what was in it,' Allen said. He looked deeply uncomfortable for a moment. 'Serena you didn't say "whores," did you?'
'What? No! No, my gosh no. Hormones. They're like chemicals that make things happen in your body. Boys turn into men because their hormones send messages to their bodies about how to grow, things like that. Everyone's got them, everything alive.'
'It sounds as though the sorcerers of Zaibach knew a good deal more about how the body works than our philosophers and physicians do,' Allen said.
'I guess so,' Serena said, and took a bite of toast. She didn't wish to dwell on that. At the moment she was successfully Not Thinking About It, which meant it only heaved and bulged underneath all her other thoughts like foul gas under heavy layers of mud in a marsh.
'And well, I'm glad it wasn't what I thought you said. I'm sure you can understand I wouldn't want to hear my sister use a word like that.'
'Hell no. We weren't supposed to have sex at all. Although some of the boys, well, you've been in the army, you know what goes on.' She stopped, trying to read the expression on his face. He looked sort of frozen. 'That goes on in every army, doesn't it? If there are no women around, and people get'
'Please don't talk like that,' he said urgently. 'I don't wish to hear about it.'
Serena frowned, puzzled. 'But sex is just part of life. It's necessary for life to go on. Well, not that kind, but -'
'I'm warning you, Serena,' Allen said. He spoke gently, but seemed really disturbed. 'You should not speak that way. And now that you are here, you should try not to think that way. It isn't suitable for a lady, nor would I say such thoughts were appropriate for a gentleman. I don't know what you were taught in Zaibach, but you need to put those ideas behind you. This really is the best way, for your safety and happiness.'
'All right,' Serena said, confused and unhappy. She had had no idea she would offend her brother. Obviously people were a lot more inhibited in Astoria. Not that society was exactly free and easy in Zaibach, but perhaps people were franker. 'I'm sorry. I'll try.' She ate a little more of her porridge. Allen seemed to have calmed down. 'Do you want to know whether I did it?'
'That's that's good, but please, try to forget about it.' These are simply vestiges of the old, implanted personality, he told himself. It's fading out gradually. After years like that, it's only to be expected that she can't shake it off all at once. I need to be patient and understanding, and soon she will be a normal girl again. And, thank God, it seems she has not lost her virtue. That's one less thing to worry about. Although her table manners need drastic work. She uses a spoon like a shovel.
Serena finished the porridge, and considered tipping the bowl up to drink the last of the honeyed milk in the bottom, but thought perhaps this would bother Allen. She carefully put the larger spoon in the bowl, picked up the small spoon and started to eat the fruit salad. It had an interesting mixture of sweet and tart flavours. You got the best effect if you made sure each mouthful had one of the little red bits in it; they were delicious. Morganberries, that was their name. They were her favourites.
Some memories were at the top of her mind, and easy to access; others only came to her if they were prompted. Taste seemed to be a good cue. She had been distracted by their conversation while she ate the porridge, but now she remembered many breakfasts when she had eaten the very same things, or some of them, because a breakfast with all these things together was a special treat, for birthdays or name days or Starmas. She had had fruit salad like this on picnics, too. She remembered being in a hammock between two trees, sharing with Allen, jostling slightly for legroom and eating a whole bowl of morganberries that they had picked earlier. When she was small, picnics had almost always involved picking something, flowers or berries or mushrooms, so that she had thought that was where the word came from. She always wondered why they never picked nicks, and what a nick was in that case. Allen had a friend called Nick in those days but he never came with them.
'How's Nick?' she asked.
'Who?' said Allen, apparently startled out of some reverie.
'Nick. Your friend Nick. He had one blue eye and one brown one and he was really good at rounders. I just remembered about him.'
'Oh, Nick,' Allen said. 'I'm afraid I don't know. The last time I saw him was perhaps two years ago. He joined an expedition to circumnavigate Gaea. They're not back yet.'
'Perhaps he's teaching the Pelonians to play rounders,' Serena said.
'Pelonians. Pelonia is the big continent on the other side of ... you didn't know that?'
'There's been speculation that there is another large continent, but that was one of the things the expedition was supposed to find out about.'
'Oh. Well, explorers from Zaibach went there twenty years ago. It's got a lot of good natural resources, but Lord Dornkirk decided it was more important to stabilise our position on this continent, then to expand upon it, before we started worrying about whole other landmasses populated only by primitive civilisations. The plan was to establish the Empire here, and then found colonies.'
'Our' and 'we,' Allen noted. 'Well. It looks as though Zaibach has a lot to teach the rest of us. Perhaps now they'll be willing to share.'
'I expect Nick can tell you a lot when he gets back,' Serena said. She had finished the last of her toast, drained the juice, and was now twirling the serenity between her fingers. It was strange to think of an expedition thinking it was exploring new territory when really explorers had been there before; strange to think that they, and the Pelonians for that matter, probably had no idea of the recent events that had been important to everyone on this continent. 'What are we going to do today?'
'Anything you like. I think you should have a bath first.'
'I'd really like to just walk around and remember things.'
'Then that's what we'll do.'
On Serena Schezar's third day home, she woke up alone. After a few moments' uncertainty, she pulled the bellrope, and in a minute Mackie came in with another tray, this time with fried eggs and Fanelian bread. There was still fruit salad and green juice.
'Please, where is my brother?' she asked.
'Sir Allen had to go out very early this morning, on business to the palace, my lady,' the woman said. 'He said to tell you he probably won't be back until night. You're free to amuse yourself however you wish, and if you want to go out, Mr Gadeth will escort you.'
She bobbed again. 'Will that be all, my lady?'
'Yes, thank you.' Serena was left alone with her breakfast. It was the first time she had been properly alone since she came home. She had spent all yesterday with Allen, and it had been lovely, really it had, but she couldn't think in the same way when she was with him. It wasn't just what he had said about what she should not think about; he made her turn outwards to the world, and she needed to turn inwards to herself to think clearly. He had even sat beside her bed until she fell asleep at night, and goodness knew how long he had watched before going to bed himself. He was tiring himself out for her. Yesterday, when they had been sitting under the rilling tree by the river, he had become very quiet and she had realised he was sleeping, with his back against the grey trunk. He looked like a saint in his sleep. She had turned back to the river and let her thoughts run along with its green waters, and nothing much had come into her head for a good half an hour, until he had suddenly woken with a little gasp, and asked if she was all right.
It was hard to think. She remembered a time four years ago, when she was Dilandau. He had crashed his Guymelef, spectacularly badly, owing to a fault in the steering mechanism. Development of new technology went so fast, and was pressed ahead at such a pace, that they were often given new machinery to work with before it had been fully beta-tested, and sometimes serious flaws only showed up while the devices were in use. That was how Alaue Magenpie had lost his leg, off at the hip, and after that they didn't see him again. He was probably all right somewhere, but he wasn't a Dragonslayer any more. Guimel took his place, shy, sheepish Guimel, and no-one spoke about Alaue again.
Nothing so serious had happened to Dilandau, but he was knocked unconscious in the crash and quite badly concussed. There had been no permanent brain damage, but he spent the next couple of days drifting in and out of consciousness in an infirmary bed, puzzled at the way he couldn't seem to stay inside his own head. The feeling Serena had when she was with Allen was a little like that; it was hard to focus on any private thought long, before it slipped away from her like the north pole of a magnet when you try to press it against the north pole of another.
Even though the accident hadn't been his fault, he had still been caned when he got better, to teach him to be careful. What nice people. They waited until your injuries had healed before they gave you a big red and purple welt across your backside. And then they'd hit you, with great precision and artistry, across the same place again so it would hurt more. Dilandau had fiercely resented any alteration by others to his own body (not knowing that it was in itself an imposition of others' will) and had always been glad the scars were in a place he couldn't easily see, but whenever he had to sit still for any length of time he would get an odd feeling as though his heart were beating along the old lines, tracing the memory of his punishment and humiliation.
The scars were gone now; Serena had a fresh body. Her face was whole and unmarked. She had looked at herself carefully in the bath yesterday, without wishing to appear odd to Mackie, who appeared to feel that she had to attend her, and the only scar she could find was the little one on her shin from the time Allen had accidentally kicked her when he fell over ice-skating. Dilandau had not had that scar. Serena's body had a different history, different geography.
Serena finished her breakfast, without having tasted much of it. The juice, at least, had a strong, invigorating flavour. She wasn't sure what its proper name was, and realised that this was because she and Allen had always referred to it as Ordinary Juice, meaning the kind they liked to have every day. When they were taken to another family's house for tea and their hostess asked them if they would like tea or milk or any kind of juice, they would always say 'Just ordinary juice, please,' and for some reason it always got a laugh. There were a lot of alwayses in those days, patterns that repeated reassuringly.
We always have milk pudding on Moonday nights; we always have a story before we go to bed; we always look for four-leaf clovers when we're in the meadow and we always watch out for lions. We always hope to see a lion but we suspect that only happens in stories. Mother didn't always look sad but now she always does. But she'll love us and we'll love her for always.
She put the tray on the other side of the bed and swung her legs to the floor. The bedroom had two doors, and she went to the one that led into the little bathroom. The bath was not drawn, but there was a large pitcher of steaming, scented water standing ready for her in a china basin. She took off her night-dress and had a standing-up sponge bath, and was rather glad that Mackie (was that a first name or a surname?) did not seem to think she needed supervision to do this, because it gave her the opportunity to make a more thorough inspection of the body she was still getting used to wearing.
The difference she noticed most, oddly, was that her hands and feet were considerably smaller and more delicately shaped. In her movements, she felt that her hip joints seemed to be freer; she thought that she could, perhaps, bend in new ways. Then, of course, there was the matter of her breasts. It seemed positively weird to have these round weights of flesh on the front of her. It compensated for not carrying something elsewhere, she supposed. Dilandau had not been a great judge of women's figures and Serena felt she knew less, if possible. They seemed heavy to her, of course, but she didn't think they were much more than medium-sized. It would be impossible to ask anyone without a wretched degree of embarrassment. There was nothing wrong with them. Someone might like them one day. What an utterly bizarre thought. She put it away to look at another time.
Thank goodness, she had had no difficulty in going to the lavatory, because that at least was something she'd dealt with every day as a child. She was familiar with the equipment, although there had been superficial alterations. Probably, she thought, her sense of disorientation was not just because she had gone from a young man's body to a young woman's, but because she had not had the settling-in, gradually-growing period of puberty to get used to things like breasts. She was in at the deep end, as it were. Dilandau's schooling had included a basic grounding in human biology, since every citizen in Zaibach was required to understand science, and Serena could remember a few things from the chapter on the female reproductive system that she was not looking forward to.
This, she thought, might well come under the heading of things Allen did not want her to think about. Everyone had a body under their clothes, though. Dilandau had been very proud of his, and she supposed she should try to feel the same way about this one, and take good care of it.
Wrapped in a towel, she went back into the bedroom and started to dress. Again, Mackie seemed to think that now she had been shown once, she could manage by herself in future. This was true, and Serena was glad of it, because being helped into a brassière yesterday had been one of the most embarrassing experiences of her life. Now, after a couple of initial mishaps, she got the damn thing on. She hoped she was going to get used to it soon, because at the moment it was one of the least comfortable things she had ever worn. She had asked why it was necessary, and Mackie had suggested she hop up and down without one to find out why. The discomfort had been so immediate and startling that she had submitted without a murmur more. Obviously, for women as well as men, there were areas you just had to be extra careful with.
Wearing pantalets, the hated brassière and a camisole, Serena opened the wardrobe door and looked with something like despair at her mother's petticoats and dresses. Crinolines had gone out of style, it seemed, so no-one expected her to wear one of those hoop-and-horsehair monstrosities, thank God, but she had disliked the encumbering feel of layers of cotton, silk and lace around her legs, which Allen said were proper for a lady. She had worn petticoats as a child, but not many, and she didn't think she had liked them much even then. After years in trousers it was like going back to prison. On a whim, she took down the pale apricot silk dressing-gown, put it on and slipped out into the corridor. She knew where Allen's room was; he had showed her.
The door was unlocked, and she went in. There was a very slight smell of Allen's cologne in the room, which made it feel comfortable. She went to the closet, and the chest of drawers, and found a shirt she could wear and a pair of trousers which would be just fine if she turned up the bottoms and belted the waist tightly. The pantalets were too bulky to wear under trousers, since Allen seemed to favour rather tight legs, so she borrowed a pair of undershorts. He was her brother, for goodness' sake, there was nothing immoral in that. Well, except that borrowing without permission was technically stealing. But she was sure he wouldn't mind when she explained. It was perfectly reasonable to try to dress comfortably.
Serena liked what she saw in the mirror now. It was still odd to see the curves her hips made in the trousers, the more rounded, less angular look of her body overall, but at least her clothes felt right on her. One thing seemed to be missing, and when she looked across the room and saw a sword rack, she knew what. With a sword at her belt she felt fully dressed.
Allen had good cologne. The bottle stood on his dressing-table, amid a general jumble of hairbrushes, pomade tins and other accoutrements of a person who takes care of his appearance but not so much of the tools he uses to create that appearance. Perhaps, Serena thought, Allen was a little bit of a secret slob. He had never been tidy as a boy. She took out the chunky glass stopper and smelled lemongrass and rosmarain and other things whose names she didn't know, but they all smelled healthy and free. It was definitely intended to be a man's cologne, but she didn't see why she couldn't smell that way too. She could just put it on in a feminine way. Remembering how her mother had done it, she closed the bottle, tilted it to get cologne on the stopper, took the stopper out again and touched it to the inside of her left wrist. Replacing the stopper, she rubbed her wrists together, then pressed them both against the sides of her neck, just under her ears. It was a little ritual. The cologne felt pleasantly cold on her skin.
She felt ready to face the world and whatever it contained. She stood still for a moment, just listening. The house was quiet, not hushed quiet but peaceful, airy quiet. Birds were chirping outdoors and she could hear, faintly, the hum of a flying-ship passing overhead. She left Allen's room carrying the pantalets, dumped them on the bed in her mother's room, where she put on her socks and shoes, and headed downstairs and outdoors to the gravelled courtyard where she and Allen had walked the day before. She met no-one on the way. Allen had explained that there was almost no staff in the house at the moment, only a skeleton crew maintaining the place in his absence. 'Now that you're home,' he had said, 'of course we'll need more people. With a lady in residence, it will be like the old days again.'
The lady in residence scuffed cheerfully through the gravel amid the beds of lavender. It was a good day, a slightly breezy, sunny day, when the wind came in from the sea and told you about what it had seen on its journeys. The world seemed full of possibilities; a new life was opening up before her. She stood on unsteady, swampy ground, it was true, but perhaps the dark gases would stay down where they belonged and she could walk out into the meadows.
'Who are you, and what are you doing here?' Serena turned, surprised, to see who had spoken. It was Allen's sergeant Gadeth, the much-vaunted good man, with his hand ready on his sword hilt. His face lightened, then creased in puzzlement as he recognised her.
'Excuse me, miss. I didn't know who you were for a moment. I, er' he trailed off. 'Are those the Boss' clothes?'
'Yes. I'm just borrowing them for today until I can get some of my own.'
'Oh. Well, they, er, they suit you. Are you feeling well? Not tired any more?'
'I feel fine, Gadeth, thank you.' Their words were friendly and polite, but each was nervous in the presence of the other. It was only days since they had fought on opposite sides in the fiercest war either of them had known, and a sudden shift in the way the world worked had brought them face to face with no idea of how to behave.
She did not have Dilandau's eyes, Gadeth was relieved to see. There was something strange in her china-blue eyes, but nothing cruel or bloodthirsty. She was really quite a pretty girl, though it was a shame about what had happened to her hair, shot through with ashy strands. He supposed she would once have been fair-headed, like the Boss, and whatever she had undergone had aged her prematurely in some ways. She looked older than fifteen, but not quite an adult. A mixture of ages and impressions.
He looked like a kind man, Serena thought. He had the kind of wide mouth that seems to smile by nature, and friendly, honest eyes. One of Dilandau's little pleasures in life had been spying out the fear that lurked somewhere in the eyes of even people who tried to show no reaction to him. Serena still looked closely at eyes, and although there was uncertainty in Gadeth's, she thought there was a chance he might like her. She was surprised by how important it was to her now to be liked.
'Have you been with my brother for long?' she asked.
'Oh, more years than I care to think about. He's the best commander we've had. I don't know if you know much about our crew, miss, but we used to be considered pretty much rejects, and I get the impression that your brother was posted out in the swamps with us because he'd annoyed the King somehow. He never talked about that, though. He always acted glad to have us, as though he believed we were better than we thought we were, and I guess that made us try to be better. I used to be kind of a shitkicker myself ... sorry.' He looked embarrassed.
'That's all right. I've heard worse language.' Serena tried to smile encouragingly. 'He is the sort of person you want to please, isn't he?'
'He really is, miss.'
'You don't have to say "miss." You can call me Serena if you want to.'
'I don't want to sound disrespectful.'
'For someone who's used to being addressed as "sir," don't you think "miss" is kind of a come-down?' She meant it as a joke, but she saw it misfire, and cursed in her head when he looked at her oddly. To her surprise, the look changed to a smile.
'If you're walking around with a sword like that, I guess you're a knight. So I could call you Sir Ena without impropriety.' It was a pretty awful joke, but Serena laughed out of sheer relief.
'I challenge you to a duel,' she said. 'Come on. If I'm a knight you can be one too. Just a friendly.'
'What do we have to duel about?' Gadeth asked in mock indignation.
'The mortal insult to my honour of calling me "miss"! I will be avenged.' She drew Allen's spare sword. It was a little heavy in these arms, but she was sure she could handle it. Gadeth grinned, and drew.
'Have at you, then. Is that proper knightly dialogue?' It was a silly, stagey duel, because after the first couple of clangs and clashes each of the combatants began to do tricks. Whether this showing off was to impress or to entertain the other would have been hard to say. Serena's size and nimbleness gave her an advantage which she flaunted in the form of a series of backflips and pirouettes, performing complex, outrageous manoeuvres that always remained tightly under her control as she parried every blow Gadeth could come up with. This was the sort of exhibition fighting that the Dragonslayers did on feast days when they were trotted out as an inspiration to the masses.
Dilandau had been thoroughly startled the first time he saw his own face on a poster. They had not been told beforehand about the publicity campaign and the first images used were simply from their file pictures. It was explained to him that now he was getting old enough to be handsome ... and this had surprised him at first, but the more he was told it was so the more he could see it was true ... his image was important, as were those of the other Dragonslayers, and could be used to encourage the ordinary people. They did not leave their training facilities often, but when they did so after Project Hero Worship began, there was always an eager crowd of people of all ages to watch and cheer them on.
'You are especially valuable,' someone had told him, 'because you are not only a fierce fighter but a beautiful young man. The camera loves you. Take care of that face. Your country needs it.'
A cold blade cut through that memory; an evil-smelling bubble of gas surfaced and burst in the swamp of Serena's mind. She staggered for a moment, and Gadeth considerately diverted the thrust he had just begun to make. The game was no fun if there was a possibility of really hurting her, he thought.
'Silly,' she said, quite gently, recovering and neatly disarming him with a sting to the inside of his wrist. It hardly scratched the skin, but it hurt. Gadeth stood wringing his hand and staring at her in amazement. She was breathing hard and her eyes were bright with triumph. With her own sword, she flipped his up in the air and caught it, then turned it and handed it back to him hilt-first, as you would politely offer someone else a pair of scissors, or a knife to cut their birthday cake.
'I didn't really hurt you, did I?' she said, in sudden consternation. 'I just well, you gave me an opening.' Serena, she had discovered, could not feel good about hurting someone physically, even if she thoroughly enjoyed beating them in a game.
'You're right,' he said, taking back the sword, 'I did. Underestimated you. No harm done. Let's go for it again and see if I can't improve on that.'
They were on about the third round of this running mock-battle, and Gadeth thought he had Serena at bay in a corner, although she was planning to duck out under his arm the next time he used a particular lunging motion he seemed fond of, when Allen entered the courtyard.
Summoned to the palace at a ridiculously early hour, he had then been asked to wait around in an anteroom for ages until a powdered flunkey had come and told him his services would not be required after all. On his way out he had cornered a lady-in-waiting, and using a brand of aggressive charm he was rather ashamed of, learned that King Aston was back on his feet and running the show. It figured. Last time there actually had been business to discuss, with the two Princesses, but clearly the King did not want Allen getting an inflated idea of his own importance. Or seeing too much of Millerna.
This morning had simply been an exercise in pointing out to him that King Aston was firmly at the top of the heap and he, Allen, was firmly beneath him. It was frustrating. As a knight, Allen would not have considered real disloyalty to Astoria (the past few weeks' shenanigans aside), yet the King seemed to hold him in constant mistrust. Even though his actions had been justified by what had come after, he was still being punished.
He had left the palace with the thought that at least he still had the afternoon free, and after lunch he could take Serena rowing on the lake, perhaps, or go through their old scrapbooks with her. Amid the chaos of the city, where efforts to help the people made homeless by Zaibach's attacks were carrying on alongside bustling reconstruction work, the idea of Serena had seemed like an oasis of calm. And here she was, dressed like a boy, a too-big shirt slipping off her shoulder, apparently locked in single combat with his second.
'Stop that!' Allen drew his sword and entered the fray, blocking both of them. He was expecting a real fight, and to his surprise they both lowered their swords at once and looked at him, panting. Serena pulled her shirt back into a more respectable arrangement, although her appearance was still disgraceful in Allen's eyes.
'It's all right, Boss,' Gadeth said. 'It was just a game. Sorry if we startled you.'
'A game? Do you consider it a game to attack my sister?'
'Don't blame Gadeth!' Serena protested. 'I started it.'
'What devil got into you?' Allen demanded. 'Why would you want to do a thing like that?'
'It was just for fun,' she said, a little sulkily.
'And why are you dressed like that? Mother's clothes fit you! You're wearing her shoes, for goodness' sake!'
'I don't like Mother's clothes,' Serena said. 'They're heavy and uncomfortable. I'm sorry I borrowed your things without asking, but you weren't here to ask.'
'Those are not girl's clothes,' Allen said obstinately. 'If you want new dresses, you can have them, but I will not have you running around in trousers.'
'Boss' Gadeth put in. 'Princess Millerna wears trousers sometimes.'
'There!' said Serena. 'If a princess does it, it must be all right!'
'Don't help her!' Allen told Gadeth. 'And I don't approve of it when the Princess does it either.'
'Well, I bet she doesn't care what you think. And if you're going to be like this about it, I don't care either,' Serena said hotly. 'I'm not a doll for you to dress up. What kind of sissy thinks that much about girls' clothes anyway? Guess what, Gadeth, when we were little he used to borrow my dolls.'
'I did not!' said Allen, outraged, and a little too quickly.
'Not that there's anything wrong with that,' said Gadeth, trying to be conciliatory.
'Go to your room!' Allen snapped at Serena. It would have sounded pathetic if he hadn't been pointing a sword at her. As it was, it didn't impress her.
'You're not my father,' she said. 'Then again, when did we last see the old bugger?'
'You will not speak about him that way,' Allen said, and to her amazement she saw tears in his eyes. 'Go to your room, Serena, and we will talk about this when you can be sensible.' The Schezars stared at each other for a long, tense moment, and then Serena turned on her heel, put her sword in its scabbard and stalked off into the house. Allen went almost limp, then pulled himself together and put his own sword away. He gave Gadeth a clear, angry look.
'If she provoked you, I apologise on her behalf,' he said. 'But you should not have encouraged her in this behaviour. Serena has to adapt to a new life. If you stir up her memories of the old one, she can never become normal and happy. And I am amazed that you would take her side against me.'
'I thought she wasn't the enemy any more, Boss,' Gadeth said in a neutral tone. Allen pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Suddenly he looked very tired.
'She is my sister, whatever else she may have been,' he said. 'Please, Gadeth please help me with her. I don't understand her.'
'Neither do I, I've got to say. Given that she's a woman, can you expect to?'
'Why do they take these freaks into their heads?' Allen wondered aloud. 'Wearing trousers, running off into danger without telling me I thought I knew how to make women happy, but they all want different things, and they're maddening.'
'Heck,' said Gadeth, 'I like 'em anyway.' Allen ignored that. He looked up at the house, where the curtains of Lady Schezar's window were drawn, and sighed.
'I'll leave her for now,' he said. 'She's probably still very tired, and needs some time by herself. Yesterday must have been overwhelming for her. This is just an adjustment period. Things will be better soon. I'll talk to her in the morning. I'm sure she'll be reasonable if I'm just calm and patient with her.'
On the morning of Serena Schezar's fourth day home, her brother went into her room and found that she had gone.