CHAPTER NINE: EPILOGUE

For the first several weeks she was silent, lost in an endless round of thought caused by Jing's words. She went through the motions of life mechanically, sleeping when Il Postino stopped to camp for the night, eating when he put food in front of her, speaking only when he spoke to her to ask if she was hungry, thirsty, or needed to rest.

So wrapped up was she in the misery and strangeness of not having to maintain the large number of creatures needed to run a kingdom, that she barely noticed where they went or who Il Postino delivered his letters to. It was an odd and lonely existence. She hadn't had much human contact at all since Cervasa had died, a victim of her stupid attempt to escape her destiny. Absinthe dismissed the mercenary army, including Cervasa's old comrades, right after they won the last battle, and encouraged her to rely on the monsters instead. She thought at first that it was because her great-aunt was afraid that more people would die because of her, because she'd tested fate once again, and once again an innocent victim paid the price. When her aunt was shot through the chest by a last Absolut family retainer who'd stayed behind hidden in the palace, waiting for his chance, Mirin knew that it was fate's way of warning her once again of her duty, and Mirin knew what she had to do to keep the people of Zenithria safe.

Since that time she hadn't so much as touched another human being in passing, yet now she spent most of each day holding onto the warm, solid, and oddly comforting form of the postman. At first she'd been vaguely worried that he'd try something. She'd seen first hand what happened to women captured in war. Her two harpies were proof of men's depravity, but the postman never touched her apart from helping her on and off the motorcycle.

Gradually she began to notice things about him. The way he smiled when he delivered letters to people, and the way they smiled back in response. His frequent acts of kindness when he'd offer advice, news, or direction along with the mail, just when it was most needed. It had an almost preternatural fortuitousness about it. She didn't know how he managed to be in the right place at the right time to give people that little boost when it would do them the most good, but she sensed in him a difference that set him apart from others, just as her gift had done. Only Cervasa had ever seen past the gift and looked at her. With his death she gave up on human understanding and companionship and threw herself into her duty with a singlemindedness that pleased her great-aunt, but brought her little happiness. Being numb was better than the wrenching agony she'd felt when she'd seen Cervasa's bloody corpse on the floor. Better to wrap herself in work than feel.

Cervasa was the one who'd seek her out and talk to her whenever he had the chance. He'd made her laugh, given her hope, and his death broke her heart.

Il Postino was nothing like Cervasa. He was polite, helpful, and left her alone with her thoughts, never intruding or offering advice. It was just as well, she was having enough trouble processing the advice Jing gave her.

"Have a little faith," he'd said, but how? What did he mean by 'faith'? It was something she pondered.

She was still pondering it one afternoon when Il Postino stopped for a picnic lunch. He laid his red tartan blanket under a tree in a meadow by the side of the road, and handed her an apple, cheese, and some bread. She sat quietly and ate it, watching his face as he stared out across the meadow with a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were seeing something she couldn't.

"What are you looking at?"

If he was surprised by the first unsolicited words she'd ever made to him, he gave no indication of it. He simply kept gazing out across the meadow with a calm expression as he answered.

"The horizon, because there's always something new beyond it."

She sighed and pulled her knees to her chest, resting her chin on her kneecaps. She'd washed her black dress at the inn the night before and the fabric still smelled of the lavender soap she'd used on it. He had his horizons to look forward to, but what did she have?

Nothing.

The King of Bandits had swiped the only jewelry she owned, the first flawless black diamond to come out of the mines after she'd taken over Zenithria. She had no money, no friends, and she was completely dependent on a man she knew nothing about. He was simultaneously her jailor and her savior, for if she'd stayed in Zenithria she would have died, if not by Jing's hand then by the people whom she'd come to realize hated her. Her purpose in life was gone, and now she couldn't help but question that purpose, that destiny. Her attempts to protect her people only made them unhappy. It took a young thief to make her realize that.

"There is nothing beyond the horizon for me," she said softly.

"Then perhaps you're not looking hard enough."

Mirin glanced up sharply. It was the closest thing to a criticism that she'd had from him, and it stung. With Jing she'd been resigned, then uncomprehending as he'd destroyed her careful little world, her belief in the way things were. Thieves took things, destroyed things, it was in a sense their job. It hadn't been personal. It hadn't hurt.

Il Postino was unfailingly kind to the people he met. She'd grown used to that kindness, used to the way he seemed to genuinely care about the concerns of others. Evidently his caring was reserved for them and not for her. She bit her lip and was silent, turning her head away to rest her cheekbone flat against her knees and wondering as she did why she was so bothered by the postman's words. He never looked at her unless he had to. Cervasa, on the other hand, had stared at her every chance he got, as if memorizing her features, drinking her in with his eyes. His stares unnerved her when they first met.

She closed her eyes. She'd been thinking about Cervasa a lot lately. He was one of an unending number of regrets and second guesses. If she hadn't fallen in love with him, would he still be alive today?

A hand, browned by the sun, was extended in front of her face when she opened her eyes again. She lifted her face to see the owner of the hand standing patiently in front of her, waiting.

"Come," he said, and more out of shock than anything else, she took his hand and allowed him to draw her to her feet. He slipped one arm around her back, positioning her, and pointed outward with the other.

"There, do you see that dot at the base of the mountain?"

Squinting, she looked and saw a smudge, far down the road, black against the forested crags rising above it.

"Yes."

"That's where we're headed. There's an innkeeper there with gout. His wife passed away and he is raising two boys on his own. He'll tell you stories about the trouble they get into that will have you smiling for months afterwards. Over the mountains, there's a long valley with farm villages. They're good people, strong, uncomplaining. We'll get to the end of the valley by nightfall and stay with a farmer and his wife. She makes apricot preserves with a flavor that explodes in your mouth. They adopted a little girl three years ago since Chalice is barren and can't have children of her own. After that we'll stay in a small town with an old married couple whose son died in the last war. We'll have to share a room, because they keep their son's room as a shrine to him. There's a trundle bed so we'll be on separate mattresses. They've had it rough, losing their only child, but they've got each other and they never forget that. They're the happiest couple I know."

She'd stiffened when he mentioned sharing a room, then relaxed when he talked about the trundle bed. His hand rested lightly, without menace, on her back. Her brow furrowed, not in fear, but in curiosity.

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"Because this is your horizon too."

She moved her head, her check accidentally brushing against his chin as she looked up at him. He looked back at her, gazing steadily, deeply, into her eyes with an expression she didn't recognize. She blinked and looked down.

"Yes, I suppose it is," she agreed dully. "I'm your prisoner. I'm bound to go wherever you go."

A warm, insistent finger touched her underneath her chin and drew her face back up to his.

"Is that what you think? That Jing gave you to me to be my prisoner?"

His eyes were searching now, as she nodded hesitantly.

"You misjudge Jing, and you misjudge me," he told her gravely.

He was disappointed in her, and for some reason that mattered. It mattered more than anything else had mattered to her for a long time.

Holding her gaze, he continued.

"Jing is a lot more perceptive than people realize. In the past fifteen years I've never delivered one letter to the tower of Zenithria. In all the times I've visited I've never seen one person enter that tower to visit you. I think it must have been a very lonely place. The road is a lonely place too. I look into people's lives. I see them with their families, I help them with their problems if I can, but I'm never truly a part of their lives. I don't belong to any of them. I think maybe Jing decided that we both needed someone to belong to."

Mirin felt herself beginning to tremble. On the motorcycle she'd always held onto Il Postino out of necessity, to keep from falling off. In that position she couldn't see his face, but now he was holding onto her, and looking at her in a way that set her heart to pounding.

Someone to belong to? She'd belonged to her duty for so long, and after Cervasa died she never thought again about belonging to anyone else. The enormity of it left her speechless.

Il Postino dropped his finger from her chin and stepped away from her. Her back felt cold without his arm around it. He lifted his face towards the horizon again and spoke.

"Or maybe he merely wanted you to see the world and meet other people you never would have met on your own locked away in that tower, and he figured I was the best way to get you to do that."

He kept staring down the road, giving her an out, a second option, a chance to go back to the way things were between them before. She could get back on the motorcycle and go back to being a silent spectator. She could go back to speaking only when spoken to, to watching the people Il Postino interacted with without any context or understanding of their lives or situations. He'd never spoken of the people on his postal route until now, and she realized it was because she'd never asked. Since Jing handed her over to Il Postino she hadn't asked anything of him, not once.

If she took his implied suggestion, and went back to the way things were, she'd continue learning about people through watching Il Postino, but it would be a dry lesson. She'd always be on the outside looking in, like an orphan looking through a window at a family dinner. And what about Il Postino? He'd had no one to share his thoughts with, until now.

Mirin forced her feet to move. She took a step forward, then another until she was at his side. Reaching down, she felt for his hand and grasped it, softly twining her fingertips with his.

There was a town at the foot of the mountains, one with a gouty innkeeper. They'd be there by nightfall. That's where they were headed. She thought of the way the postman's face softened and his eyes took on a wistful expression when he spoke of the elderly couple who'd withstood the storm of losing a child together, and her grip tightened.

"If I wanted to leave, would you let me go?" she asked.

He stiffened slightly. She could feel it through her hand, though he didn't show any change of expression on his face. She'd have to get used to that. His face was not an open book.

"Yes," he said at last. He continued to look out at the town down the road, but there was a tired stillness in him that hadn't been there before.

She felt it too. The thought of going on without him made the world seem dreary, wearisome, akin to her life alone in the tower.

"I don't want to leave. I want to stay with you."

Now that she knew that she wasn't a prisoner, that he'd never really seen her that way, the choice was an easy one. It was as if a weight lifted from her shoulders.

She laughed. "I want to stay with you," she said again, and meant it.

Suddenly, his eyes were laughing back at her and his fingers, strong and warm, curled back around her, returning her grip.

"Good," he said, and that was that.

THE END