@}----- Burning Down -----{@

Celena sat on the bed in what she had begun to think of as her room. Her confidence was beginning to dissolve. Everything had seemed so very clear and certain when she first woke up. Van had kissed her and that had seemed exactly right. And then he had shot off like a frightened rabbit. Was she really that off-putting? Really, would he have kissed her if he loved Hitomi the most? She felt so close to him after dreaming together, but perhaps that was only her feeling. Perhaps it had been unpleasant for him. Perhaps she had somehow forced him to be with her, had been unfair.

She looked again at her right hand, whole and sound. He had made it better, she was sure of that. However fast Schezars healed, it wasn't this quick. If only he really had kissed it better; she imagined Van's lips gently descending on the palm of her hand, how warm they would be.

Celena had grown accustomed to being confused by her feelings, often contradictory to one another within a few minutes, but the feeling that she should be near Van, that they were somehow important to each other, had been constant since she had first arrived in Fanelia. That certainty, she was sure, had stabilised her mind somehow, so that she was able to get to the point where she could muster the scattered pieces of herself and make them a coherent whole again. Van was central to that. But if he was not a certainty, what was? She had thought this new, reformed mind understood the truth, but what if the idea on which she had founded her perceptions was a big mistake? She did not feel as though she were about to fall apart again, but what if it happened later, perhaps the first time she surrendered to sleep? What if she had not really purged Dilandau and now he would have his chance? She put her arms around herself, drawing her knees up to her chest, trying to give herself a comforting embrace, but she was only one person and there is only so much a person can do alone. Experimentally, she kissed the palm of her own hand. No; she could not say that she simply wanted a kiss. It had to come from the right person, and it had to be because he thought she was the right person too.

Of course he did not. He had said so many times that he didn't even like her. Perhaps he had only said he was her friend because he was really so kind. Perhaps it was the same kindness he had shown to Kezia, the kindness of a king, a protector. Could it be? Why would he kiss her if he didn't want to? Why would he take her flying in dreams?

She was on the verge of tears when there was a soft tap on the door.

Who is it?'

It's Van. Can I come in and talk to you?' Van waited on the outside, wondering why it took her so long to answer. Finally she said Yes,' so softly that he almost did not hear her through the panels of the door. When he looked into the room, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands folded in her lap, still in the strawberry dress. Her eyebrows rose as he came in.

You got new clothes too.'

I just couldn't be bothered changing at the end of the day yesterday. Do you think I look stupid?'

Turn around?' she said, her rising tone making it a request. No, I think you look really nice. I bet you like having those clothes on instead of that dreadful shirt from yesterday, too.'

Well, they're an improvement,' Van conceded. He felt very self-conscious in these clothes, although he had carefully picked out the plainest things from what he had brought home yesterday. He had not felt up to the challenge of wearing a suit, and thought it should probably be reserved for more formal occasions, so this time it was just trousers and a shirt, but the garments themselves were so much better than anything he was used to that he felt he had to be on his best behaviour in them. The shirt was one of several in the right size that Sylvie had bundled together for him, and he had assumed they were all just linen like the first one he had tried on. Even the linen had been a lot finer than Fanelian weave, but this shirt lay on his back as softly as water. He had taken it back off and looked inside the collar and seams, and had been somehow embarrassed to find a small label reading Pure Silk.' It was the exact colour of fresh cream. It felt far too good to have on on an ordinary day, but when he went through the other shirts, at least half of them were also silk. It whispered when he moved. He was used to clothes that rustled coarsely. The sleeves, thank goodness, were straight and narrow, and its collar was just a band, without long points or anything Allenish like that.

Well, now I'm the grubby one in day-old clothes,' Celena said, trying to make a little joke of it. The new clothes were scattered around her on the bed, where she had left them after unpacking the bundle. She had been in such a hurry to get one of the dresses on and go out and show him how happy she was that she had not had time to put anything away. She suddenly remembered the pile of soft white underwear and quickly put a pillow on top of it, so Van should not be embarrassed or annoyed.

You're all right,' he said, smiling hesitantly. I like that dress on you. Sylvie says prints like that are going to be all the rage this winter, whatever that means. You'll be fashionable even when you get back to Asturia.'

Thank you,' she said. I I'm sure Allen will pay you back for everything.'

He doesn't need to it was all part of the same lot. I got a big shipment for the country in exchange for a deal with Dryden Fassa. It'll get us through winter. It's taken a load off my mind, I can tell you.'

shouldn't another girl really have these things? Someone Fanelian? I I can give them back. I don't mind. I want to help.'

But I want you to have them.' Van glanced at the things strewn over the quilt. I mean I chose these for you, believe it or not.' He reached over to pick up a pair of soft grey kid gloves. I thought they'd protect your bandage. I guess you don't need them now. There's enough stuff for everyone. Now that we've signed the deal Dryden's going to bring more, anyway, if we need to make up any shortfall. As long as you're living here, I'll take just as much care of you as I would anyone else in my kingdom.' He was looking at the gloves as though they might at any moment do something very interesting, or perhaps he was just avoiding looking Celena in the eye. Then he pulled himself together and looked at her directly, making his voice as matter-of-fact as hers ever was.

If you're serious about wanting to help, today's the day you could start, since you're feeling so much better. Have a wash, get some clean clothes on, we'll have breakfast, and then we'll get cracking on handing things out. I'll need to make a speech first and tell people what's happening, I suppose, and after that we can do something useful. What do you say?'

I would be honoured to help you,' Celena said earnestly. I'll do anything you need me to.'

Thank you,' said Van. He seemed to want to say something else, but could not quite spit it out. After a moment, he said Well, I'll let you get on with it, then,' put the gloves back on the bed, and left. Celena took up the gloves and held them to her heart. He had not said he did not like her. He had even sort of told her he liked how she looked. He had said he would take care of her, so he could not be too angry. And now was her chance to really start making things better.

It was a long, hard, happy day. Celena really got to see very little of Van, because they were both so busy, but she could not mind that too much because she knew they were doing exactly what they should be. Besides that, she was constantly surprised and delighted at how clearly she could think now, how certainly she knew things, how sharp and strong her memory was. She kept all sorts of numbers in her head, she worked out systems to make things run efficiently, she kept her head in minor emergencies and had a surprising amount of fun.

A special committee was placed in charge of the distribution of machinery and equipment, and a sort of free-for-all market was established in the big city square for provisions. One thing that impressed Celena was how orderly and co-operative everyone was. No-one tried to grab more for their family, or to do anyone else out of a fair share. The Fanelians had a genuine spirit of collective wellbeing. She saw it again and again as she went about the business of her assigned job, giving out shoes and boots in the neighbourhoods of the town. People weren't just looking for what they themselves needed, but had the needs of their friends and acquaintances in mind; a woman would pick out shoes for her own children and then call a friend over to say she had found just the thing for the friend's husband while she was looking. It was the mothers that she enjoyed dealing with the most, because the expression of sheer relief on their faces, when they realised one more material need of their families would be taken care of, delighted her so. She was helping, really helping. All right, she was only doing work for someone else; Dryden Fassa had provided the goods and Van had made the decision that let them all benefit, but she had never expected to be the originator of a solution, only to help in the execution of someone else's. Van deserved the glory of having solved his people's immediate problems, and she would have been unhappy to take it away from him in any way.

All day she was surrounded by happy, relieved people, becoming more cheerful as the day wore on. Children tugged at her skirts, wanting her to admire their sturdy new shoes and smart new clothes; she saw Kezia, who was thrilled to bits that they both had a dress with a yellow skirt because that meant they were practically twins. Everyone smiled at her; everyone was pleased to see her and grateful for what she gave out. It was a lovely feeling. Perhaps she did not deserve to feel so good, and perhaps they would not be so welcoming if they knew who she really was, but she was not enough of a masochist to tell them, and anyway that would only spoil the day for everyone. Her own guilt was not the most important thing; their happiness was. That was rather convenient, but she was sure it was right.

She was invited to share lunch with the people who lived in the houses around one courtyard, and enjoyed herself very much. The bulk of the lunch was camp-bread quickly made up from the new supply of flour, cooked over outdoor fires, the dough wound around green sticks. There was only water to drink, and not much butter to go round, but the bounty included cans and jars of pickles and preserves. Celena sat on a bench with a plate half-forgotten on her knees, taking in the beauty of sunlight through the jamjars on a trestle table, rich jewel colours of apricot, raspberry and plum. They were simple, ordinary things and they were treasures.

She met up with Van again in the evening, when they had separately returned to the castle for dinner. She was almost too happy to feel hungry, and when they were both sitting at the table in his small private dining room she realised this was the first meal they had shared, which put her into a state of bliss in which it was impossible to think about food.

Van frowned at her untouched plate. Aren't you going to eat any of that? You've been busy all day, you need a good dinner. I know snails don't sound good to eat, but with enough garlic butter you can eat nearly anything. You know, we started eating those when there was a famine, and after things got back to normal they started being a luxury food. I always think that's funny. And there's not going to be a famine now, so people will never have to eat snails again. Except you. You have to eat those now because I say so, and I don't want you to be all skinny and starved-looking when your brother collects you.' His severity in the beginning had been feigned; he was in such a good mood now that he could not hold back from smiling at her by the end of his speech.

I always thought snails looked good to eat, actually,' Celena said, and managed to remember to eat two before she reverted to sitting with her chin in her hands, elbows on the table, in spite of all Allen's efforts to revive her early training in table manners, and beaming at him foolishly. At first she was not sure, but over the course of dinner she became certain that he was returning her smiles, somewhat shyly. The conversation died and neither of them minded.

Bor-ing,' said Merle, who had eaten her own dinner in no time and was bouncing around the wood-panelled room ready to be off. People are going to have parties tonight, and you're just sitting around like lumps. Don't you want to go out and have fun, Van-sama? You worked really hard all day.'

Well, the work's not over,' Van reminded her. Tomorrow we'll need to go round all the outlying villages and see that they get their share.'

Can I help with that too?' Celena asked eagerly. I'd love to see more of where people live in Fanelia.'

Of course. You can come round with me. I'll tell you all about what we see.'

Boring again,' said Merle. It's just a lot of little dumps like Irini. Well, even if you want to be dull, I'm off out. Come and find me later if you feel like it.' She frisked out, leaving the two of them alone. Celena took a small sip of wine which Allen did not allow her to drink and tried to think of something suitable to say.

Van leaned forward before she could do so, and asked Have you ever seen Fanelian fireflies? The best place to watch them from is up on the roof. Do you want to see?'

Absolutely.'

They sat for a long time watching the dancing golden sparks, while the sound of music from the town faintly reached their ears.

This is the happiest Fanelia's been for a long time,' Van said. Things really are going to be all right now, I can feel it. They may even get better than they were before the war. Things that weren't finished then well, it's sad that they should be finished, but we're free of the uncertainty of them now. We can stand up and walk forward. Doesn't it feel to you like the whole kingdom is breathing out a sigh of relief?' A cool evening breeze wafted over them just as he spoke, which made them both laugh, although it raised goosebumps on Celena's bare arms.

You're getting cold,' Van said. Maybe we should go in.'

Oh, no it's so lovely out here.' Being a little cold was no reason at all to interrupt this peace.

Well, get closer to me, then, so you won't be as chilly.' It was nice to have that excuse to put his arm around her shoulders, and sweeter still when she leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Her wavy hair tickled his neck, and he smelled the fragrance of his dream again. Although they were ostensibly still watching the fireflies, Van found more diversion in watching Celena watch the fireflies, seeing their light reflected in her eyes, and she soon became aware of his gaze resting on her and looked up quizzically.

Have you changed your mind about me?' she asked. I thought you didn't like me this morning.'

Van cleared his throat. She did have a way of asking awkward questions, or just of not realising that people wouldn't normally ask questions about the things she did. Then again, sometimes her questions made him see answers he hadn't thought of by himself. Well,' he said, I think I got nervous this morning.'

Why?'

Because I do like you, very much by now, and it's new to me. I've never actually kissed a girl before.' He rather mumbled that last part, and although it was hard to see in the dusk, Celena thought he was blushing.

I like you back. I was very happy that you kissed me.'

You know, sometimes you still talk a funny way? I thought that would go away when your mind came right, but "I like you back" you just have your own way of saying things, I guess.' He thought she looked concerned. I like that. It's unusual about you. I like you being unusual.'

Oh, good,' she said, relaxing. But you didn't like it so much when I kissed you, did you?'

I wasn't in the right mood to enjoy it.'

Are you now?'

Van thought he would honestly have to say he was far too nervous to tell, but despaired of that as cowardly. I don't know. Do you want to try?'

Celena lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him very seriously. A firefly wafted past nearby, and Van felt that he was suspended in an enchanted moment, a warm still bubble of night. His heart was kicking at his ribs as though it wanted to get out. Celena drew a little nearer to him, and her lips parted slightly.

Maybe I shouldn't. I probably have garlicky breath.' She looked worried.

I like garlic! Honestly! And I bet mine's worse!' Van was afraid he was gabbling in his desperation not to spoil the kiss, not to make her change her mind. I can't just wait for her to decide for the two of us. He shut his eyes tightly and kissed her hastily, half-missing her mouth and bumping his nose against hers, but a small adjustment took care of that and the second time was beautiful. He had been afraid that kissing would be difficult, since he was inexperienced, but he seemed to know how to do it already. Perhaps it was just easy to kiss Celena; perhaps that explained how he had slipped into kissing her at dawn. He found himself fascinated by the softness of her lips, by the way they moved against his, wanting to explore, wanting to know every detail of a Celena-kiss so that he could feel it again in his dreams. One of his arms was already around her; he added the other to the embrace and held her close, startled and delighted when she put her own arms around his neck and pressed closer, sighing. He slid one hand up over her back, over her neck, into the softness and warmth of her hair, gently stroking, tangling among the moonsilk strands. He had a rising sense of disbelief at the sheer luck of being able to do this. How could he ever have thought he disliked her? How could he have looked at such a beautiful girl and seen an enemy? There was no way he could possibly deserve her affection, but it was offered so freely, given so joyously.

Someone coughed loudly and pointedly behind them.

Van looked up quickly, half-guiltily, surprised to notice how fast he was breathing. If anyone had a problem with him kissing Celena, he would protect her from them no matter what. It was only Merle, standing with one hand on her hip and the other holding a lantern, frowning at them by its swinging light.

I came to find you because everyone's having such a good time and saying what a shame the King isn't here, but I guess you're not interested,' she said. I do think you might have warned me you were going to carry on like this. Does Hitomi know, Van-sama?'

That's right,' Celena said, also a little breathlessly. What about Hitomi? You were upset about her before.'

Hitomi's fine,' Van said. Will you stop shining that light in my eyes, Merle? Everything's fine. She understands.'

That's more than I do,' Merle said. I don't understand you at all! You acted like you hated her at first and now I find you slurping all over her!'

We were not slurping,' Celena said defensively, reddening. Don't be disgusting.'

I just get used to the idea that you love Hitomi and all of a sudden you're grabbing onto someone else!' Merle went on, sounding increasingly upset. What do you think you're playing at? Don't you love her after all?'

Of course I love her! I love you too. That doesn't mean I can't I mean well, it's not the same thing!'

You seem to think you have a lot of love to go round.'

It's not as though it's something that gets used up!' Van was not sure if he was more irritated or more embarrassed by Merle's attitude. After he had had such difficulty thinking his way through to the point where he could have a clear conscience, for her to act disapproving felt like insult upon injury.

I beg your pardon,' said Celena, raising her hand for attention. I really don't want to be the cause of any trouble. I'll go in if-'

You're not!' said Van. Merle's being ridiculous. You don't have to go anywhere. I'd like you to stay with me.' He caught hold of her hand, because she was already rising to her feet, and drew her back down beside him. She looked pleased but uncertain, because Merle was still glaring.

I'd like to know why you didn't tell me about this,' she said to Celena. I thought we were getting to be friends.'

Well, you and I have been friends for years,' Van answered on Celena's behalf, and there's no rule that you have to tell friend A about everything that happens with friend B.'

I didn't think you would be interested,' Celena protested. I was all confused about it so I wouldn't have known what to say about it. You know, I really think I'll go to bed now. I've had a big day, and there'll be another one tomorrow, and I'm very tired. I'm sure I'll sleep soundly all night.'

What's happened to you, anyway?' Merle asked her. You're all different today. You two are having secrets and it's not fair.'

Van sighed. If I come down to the town with you, and explain things on the way, will you stop being the Grand High Inquisitor? Really, there's nothing dodgy about any of this if you know the full story. Celena, don't just run off, I'll see you to your room first. I mean, if I may.'

Of course you may.'

Well, I'll wait for you down in the courtyard,' Merle said. I'll use the time to wash my ears. I want to get them ready because I expect whatever I hear to be pretty good.' She stalked off with her tail twitching.

Van and Celena returned to her room hand in hand, a new and agreeable experience for both of them.

Do you feel all right?' he asked at her door. I mean, you're still feeling stable, right? I'd hate to think we just made you feel better for a day and it wore off when you got tired.'

I really do feel fine,' Celena said. I feel better than ever because well because of how you are with me now. It's the same feeling as in my dreams, that I'm lifted up and nothing can make me fall. I'm so glad I came here. The only thing I have left to worry about is when I'll have to go home.'

Don't worry about that yet,' Van said, with a wry smile. I'm sure Allen will stay sick for a nice long time.'

That's not what I meant!' she protested earnestly.

No, I know. I'm just being silly. I bet he'll be fine soon. But maybe he'll let you stay a little bit longer. You did so well today. I know it sounds hypocritical, because I was so bad-tempered about you staying in the first place, but all I can say is that I was being an ass. I'd like you to stay just so I can make up for that. Please think about it.' He kissed her softly on the cheek. Good night. Sweet dreams, sweetheart.'

Sweetheart!' Celena's eyes lit up, and Van felt himself blushing all over again.

Is is it all right to call you that? I don't want to be'

Forward? Forward's all right. I was just thinking how nice it is that you kissed me first thing this morning, and you've kissed me last thing at night. And I won't be afraid to go to sleep when I know I can meet you in my dreams. Good night.' She smiled and disappeared into her room.

When Merle had heard the whole story, and when Van had promised on his honour not to make any more major life decisions without thoroughly consulting her, she grudgingly conceded that Van was not, perhaps, entirely in the wrong, and that possibly Celena could be forgiven for her reticence.

So are you in love with her now?' she asked. You do change your mind a lot.'

I'm not sure if I was in love with Hitomi to begin with,' Van explained. I do love her. I always will. But I don't think that's the same thing as how I'm beginning to feel about Celena. I think it's more that Hitomi is my best friend, someone who can understand me and help me in a way no-one else can. So she's very, very precious to me. But I'm actually glad I'm not in love with her. It would make life far too hard. She and I talked about that today. We can still be close in our hearts even if we never see each other face-to-face again.'

Oh, and I'm not your best friend?' Merle asked huffily, turning her back on him. Then she looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out, winking to show she didn't really mean it.

You're my best friend on this planet. And the only friend who I'm buying a toffee-apple for tonight, so you can feel special.' There was a feeling almost of carnival in Fanelia town this evening. The toffee-apples had been made in a hurry, so they were still extremely sticky, and they were only crab-apples from the woods so once you had licked off the toffee you didn't really want the fruit, but who ever ate the apple part of a toffee-apple anyway?

Whabbouslena?' Merle said, trying to get her jaws unstuck.

Swallow the toffee and try again?'

Esyersaithadone.' After a few moments' determined chewing and tooth-sucking, she carefully enunciated, What about Celena? She's your friend too, right?'

but I haven't known her as long as you'

You think she's pretty wonderful, though, don't you? And I suppose you know her quite well if you've been inside her mind. And you still haven't said if you're in love with her now.'

I don't know if I am. I'm not sure what "in love" is supposed to feel like now. You realise I'm only saying this to you in confidence, right? You can't talk about it to anyone else.'

Your ears are going red.'

That's how I feel about it!' Van looked around nervously to see if anyone was listening to them, but that was one of the nice things about being a relatively low-key king; people respected you, but they didn't follow you around slavishly, and you didn't have to be on' all the time you were in public, especially when other people were enjoying themselves too much to pay attention to you unless you did something interesting. Talking to Merle and having temporarily red ears did not cut it as street theatre.

I thought you had to be in love with someone to kiss them like that,' Merle said. And I am surprised that you feel that way about her.'

I know, I know, because I was so much against her when she arrived. I truly don't understand why I behaved that way. I suppose I was still thinking of her as at least half Dilandau, and I didn't want her to be able to feel better about everything he did. But I suppose I just got used to her I started feeling sorry for her but after a while it wasn't pity, it was just wanting her to be happier. Because it wasn't making me feel any better to punish her.'

And it does help that she's really pretty and has a nice figure,' said Merle blandly, and gnawed some more toffee off her apple.

You're such a little cynic sometimes!' Van said, amazed at her.

Yeah, but I bet if she looked like Mr Mole you wouldn't've come around quite so fast,' she said, arching her eyebrows. It doesn't gum up your teeth if you just suck it in the middle of your mouth.'

What? Oh, you're talking about toffee. Remind me not to discuss important things with you while you're eating.'

Carrying a high-stacked basket of clean linen downhill to the temporary dormitory at the lower temple, soon to be emptied as the last families moved into their new houses, Celena stopped for a moment, shading her eyes against the low-slanting afternoon sun, and gazed out at the prospect before her. Fanelia was rising again, bright new terracotta tiles and freshly plastered walls; people moving through the streets purposefully and optimistically. There had been a holiday-like feeling in the past few days, as people realised that tomorrow was nothing to be dreaded and the new goods were distributed. At this time of year most people would normally have been working their hardest to get in the harvest and put up enough food to get them through winter with a minimum of hardship and scurvy. This year there was no harvest to be got in, which would normally have been a cause for widespread alarm and despondency, and yet this was not a problem. Cupboards and cellars were full. The outlying villages had not been directly devastated by the firestorm attack, but their resources had had to support far more than the usual number of people while the central population of Fanelia was displaced as refugees. The supplies were as welcome there as anywhere else, and the people's gratitude as great.

Without the normal seasonal work to occupy them, some people threw parties and picnics, some worked harder at making their new homes comfortable, and some were already devoting themselves to pursuits made possible by the new machinery arriving in the country. An evening lecture series on integrating new farming technology into a traditional operation was well-attended, and when the Freidian paddy-field expert arrived he was quite startled by the public level of interest in what he had to say. The printing-press was set up in an outbuilding of the castle, not without a good deal of swearing at the written instructions and periodically getting so fed up that the work was abandoned until everyone had calmed down. The first entirely Fanelian-published book was said to be forthcoming any day now.

Van was so proud of all this, Celena thought fondly. There were times when he seemed overwhelmed by the changes beginning in his country, when all he could do was shake his head and laugh at the unexpected way things turned out. At other times he was inspired, ambitious; he would sketch out to her his plans and dreams for the nation.

'Will you let me help?' she asked him.

'I would love for you to help,' he said, and kissed her hand. Anything seemed possible. She sighed with happiness, looking out at the rebuilt town, breathing in the toasted smell of freshly ironed linen from her basket and bathed in the light of the clear blue sky.

Far away in the blue she saw an irregularly shaped dark speck. Over the course of few minutes it had grown a little larger in her view; it was a ship approaching through the air. Celena frowned slightly.

'Please, no,' she murmured. The speck was not yet close enough for her to distinguish its silhouette; it could still be another ship than the Crusade. But Allen's message had arrived the day before telling them to expect him today. Her time here was almost up. Better to do what she could while it was still possible. She shifted the weight of the basket to her hip and continued down the hill.

Allen was still not feeling one hundred percent well, but Millerna had pronounced him fit enough to travel if he did not over-exert himself. She had said so rather as though she was looking forward to sending him away for a couple of days. He found that a little hurtful; she was really not as sympathetic as he had always believed her to be. As he grew less seriously ill she had had less and less time for him, making excuses to leave him for more stimulating company. The only person who visited him properly was Princess Eries, who at least seemed to understand what a wretched time he had been having, how helpless he had felt and how worried he had been. It had been Eries and not Millerna who had come to see him off when he went to collect Celena.

It was strange to see Fanelia, the country of which Balgus had spoken seldom but lovingly, knowing that Balgus would never walk here again. He would have to ask where his old teacher was buried - or, if his body had not been found, if there was a memorial to which he could make a small pilgrimage while he was here. He could take Celena with him, and perhaps tell her a little about Balgus. Stories were supposed to be good for her, training her to concentrate and remember what she heard. He would have to go back to all those routines of trying to train her, to encourage her he felt weary already at the thought of it.

Arriving at the castle, he was conducted to a waiting room by what he thought at first was a workman who had wandered in, but later realised was the seneschal. Here he was kept waiting alone for some time, with increasing impatience. What could be causing the delay? Celena would surely be anxious to see him again. Or perhaps, on the other hand, she was afraid to see her brother, afraid he would be angry with her for taking off alone. He blushed to think that she might be doing some silly thing like hiding somewhere in the castle while everyone hunted for her. Growing restless, he left his chair and paced around the room. There were louvred doors at one end, with the last of the day's sunlight falling through them in thin slices. Wanting a breath of air, he slid the doors apart and stepped through, finding that they led onto a verandah which seemed to run the length of this side of the building, with several rooms opening onto it. He looked up and down the verandah, idly, and stopped in amazement as he saw two figures leaning against the verandah railing a few yards away; a boy and a girl, her hands on his shoulders, his arm around her waist, their heads leaning together as they talked. The girl was unmistakably his sister, but it was such an unlikely way to find her that at first he could not take it in. And the boy, formally dressed in clothes of an unexpectedly good cloth and cut, was Van. They had not heard him come out onto the verandah, mainly because they were so absorbed in each other.

'We're keeping him waiting too long,' Celena was saying, speaking in a tone that was matter-of-fact, precise, yet relaxed; what sounded so strange about it was that it was perfectly normal. 'He's going to get annoyed.'

'But he's just going to take you away from me,' Van replied. 'He can wait a little bit longer. Just till the sun goes down. Just till the first stars come out. Please don't be in a hurry to leave me.' To Allen's astonishment, he had the temerity to kiss Celena on the cheek, as calmly as if he were accustomed to do it - and Celena let him as if she were equally used to being kissed.

'And then till the moon rises, and then till it sets, and then till the sun comes up,' said Celena, sounding amused, and returned the kiss to Van's lips. Allen inhaled so sharply that he made himself cough, causing them both to look round with a jump and stare at him with wide, guilty eyes.

'A-Allen,' said Celena falteringly. 'Are you all right?' She stepped away from Van and approached her brother with a look of concern.

'What's happened to you?' he asked, bewildered.

'I got better,' she said simply. 'Van's taken very good care of me.'

It looks as though he's taken advantage of you, Allen thought. I knew he was hot-headed and lacked self-control, but I never thought he would presume on the innocence of a young girl! 'I'm glad to hear it,' was all he let himself say aloud. 'Are you sure, though, little pet? We've thought you were getting better before and you were worse again the next day.'

'Of course I'm sure,' she said, smiling at his disbelief. 'This is quite different, Allen, I really am myself now. I'm so sorry I left without talking to you, but I just wasn't in a fit state then to think it out properly. I only knew that I needed to be here, and it turns out I was quite right. I've been so happy.'

'She's made such a difference here,' Van said. He had hung back for a moment, prudently. 'Your sister is a wonderful girl, Allen. I can only say that your loss was my gain.'

What do you think you have gained? Allen wondered. 'Where did you get this dress, Celena?' he asked. 'It's rather like one Millerna has. I've never seen it on you before.'

'Van gave it to me,' she said, 'of course. Don't you know about the deals he's been making? He's been so clever.'

'I've just been lucky,' Van said modestly. 'I've been very lucky.' The way he looked at Celena as he said that raised Allen's hackles in no uncertain terms, as though he had no doubt as to his place in her affections. Every protective instinct he possessed was outraged. He would have to take control of the situation as swiftly as possible, for Celena's sake; she couldn't possibly make a decision like that for herself, in her condition and at her age, and he knew far too well how quickly impetuous young love could devolve into ruined lives and blighted hopes.

'Are you sure you're all right?' Celena asked him, looking seriously into his face. 'You've gotten thin, and your eyes look sunken. I'll have to take care of you, and make sure you eat properly, and have lots of fresh fruit and lean meat to build you up.'

'Celena, dear, there's no need for you to take care of me.' He looked her over once more, still unable to fully accept that this was the same girl. She stood there smiling at him in the sunset light, tall and confident and eager for whatever life would bring. Her dress was a sweet pale green, a wreath of lavender embroidered around the scooped neckline; her hair was hanging loosely in soft curls on her shoulders, and it seemed to have grown already since she had been away. She looked so capable, so purposeful; she was not wearing gloves and her hands bore the marks of work.

'But,' she said softly, 'I don't need as much from you as I did; not any more. I won't be such a burden to you. It sounds funny to say, but I've grown up.'

She smiled up at Allen, trying to will away his frown.

Letter: Celena Schezar to Van Fanel

Room 7A
St Angua's School
Mt. Castida
Floresta Mountains
Asturia

Dear Van,

I could see when Allen popped out onto the verandah like that that he wasn't very happy to see me kissing you, but I never thought he'd actually put me in a convent.

All right, not in a convent. A convent school. He says that since I'm so much better it's time for me to catch up on all I've missed in my education, and the mountain climate will be very bracing and healthy for me. I was so busy getting the things I would need and packing after he told me that I didn't have a chance to send you a letter and explain without him noticing and disapproving. I certainly tried to argue, but he wouldn't listen, and told me not to make myself hysterical, which of course was extremely provoking, and then said that I was obviously not calm enough to discuss it properly and sailed out of the room.

He is out of sorts anyway because he seems to be on the outers with Princess Millerna. I have asked Gaddes to write to me too so he can keep me fully informed on the gossip regarding this. He would make a very good spy, and he and I laugh at Allen behind his back a little. Of course I love him very much, and Gaddes won't hear a word said against him. We can make fun of Allen because we know we love him really. He is just a bit much sometimes. I never realised that about him before!

I hope you're not jealous about me getting letters from Gaddes. Or rather I hope you are a little bit jealous, but you won't be unreasonable about it. Just enough so that you'll be a little bit grumpy about it, and I can coax you back into a good mood. I would enjoy that.

I think that may fall into the category of me saying things that normal people just think. I have already had trouble with the nuns that way. It's not bad here and I'm rather enjoying the things I'm learning but they are Very Strict and I am getting a reputation for being madcap, quite unintentionally.

Well, anyway, if you are at all interested in the gossip you may like to know that Allen has been moping a bit and trying to get King Aston to give him a new assignment, hopefully somewhere romantically far-flung and perilous so Millerna will feel bad about not appreciating him enough. Gaddes thinks if they get sent anywhere it will probably be back to the swamps, and he doesn't mind because he'd gotten used to it.

Now Gaddes is quite chummy with Princess Millerna, oddly enough, and he says he 'reckons' the trouble is that she's in love with someone else, and he thinks he knows who, but he's refusing to tell me who he suspects, which is very annoying. He keeps dropping smug little hints like 'Think of the person you would least expect it to be.' I guessed 'Dryden Fassa' and he just laughed. I guessed 'Gaddes' and he told me not to be cheeky. So I'll just have to wait and see how that comes out. I don't know her very well, which is a bit sad, but she doesn't seem to want to know me. I think she is put off our whole family by our problems, and it is true that when you get involved with one Schezar you rather have to take on board all our peculiar baggage. It still surprises me that you are willing to put up with all of it - except I suppose you are used to it, given the sort of things that have happened in your family. I don't mean that to sound rude. I'm just glad that you are prepared to understand me that way, and accept me as I am. I want to do the same for you, and we can help each other to cope. That sounds a bit awkward, I suppose.

I'm not good at writing love letters, but neither are you. I'm saving the notes you've written me so far in a special box. Even if they're a bit short and you seem to cut yourself off when you get embarrassed, there's a lovely lot of them. Each night I pick a different one to be my favourite and go under my pillow to make sure I dream of you.

And I did dream of you last night, but I won't tell you what happened. You should know; you were there. Except I thought you might like to know about the white feather you gave me. When I woke up it was on the pillow by my face. Do you know, it smells like your hair?

These mountains are very beautiful in autumn. The trees turn such shades of red and gold and orange that it looks as though whole hillsides have caught fire. We are painting them for Art but I can't copy those colours in paint. I just wish you were with me to see it. I'll put the prettiest leaf I can find in the envelope for you.

I miss you very much, and everything that goes with you. I miss my room in the castle, I miss Merle coming in at the window to talk to me, I miss Kezia and the other children I was getting to know, I miss the way the air smells in Fanelia. I wish I could have stayed and seen how it looks in autumn, and winter, and how it flowers in spring. But I am going to insist - and if Allen tries to stop me I'll just run away again - that I get to go and stay with you in the holidays. Everyone goes home for the holidays unless they live too far away to get there and back in time, and Fanelia is more like Home than that big house outside Pallas. Even Allen doesn't feel he belongs there, you can see.

And I won't be at school forever. Only a few more years. After that, I could come back for good - if you want me?

I don't have much more time for letter-writing today, and I had better write something to Allen so he doesn't get huffy or worried, so I have to finish off now. I love you. Please always love me.

From Your

Celena

The End