A/N: My absence from this site has been lengthy and unplanned. It was caused by many things that would mostly be boring to read. But for a time, due to external forces, I considered giving up my writing entirely. I am back now, though, and do intend to finish this story at last. Hope someone will be reading.
The nearly three years that passed before both Graiya and Stavna were due to leave for university passed quickly and mostly peacefully. The older girls were glad to be leaving the palace tutor behind. Talissana, who was now eight years old, liked the woman no better than her sisters had.
Stavna and Graiya were mostly excited about going away to school. Stavna still had some fears for Aya's safety, but since her initial vision her anxieties had eased. While the princesses would have the same amount of freedom as any of the other students, a pair of guards from the palace were being sent along to watch over them. Stavna was reassured by this... It was Graiya who resented it.
Today, the school uniforms had arrived. The sisters rushed up to their rooms to try them on. They had been waiting for them to come since being fitted at a shop near the university some weeks before. They were eager to show their parents.
For her part, Talissana scowled when she saw the large boxes, knowing what must be inside. She most of all did not want her sisters to leave, for she was afraid to be without them. She was still intensely afraid of the dark, and not even her mama could make Tali shake off her fear like Aya could. The castle was so big that Talissana still worried about getting lost in it. It was cold all the time, and her parents so often had strangers to dinner. On these nights, Tali chose to eat in the kitchen, by the nice warm stove, and talk to the kitchen maids and the cook.
That was what Tali had gone off to do by the time her sisters returned to the downstairs, fully dressed in their new uniforms. Even the cook and her maids emerged to see how the young princesses looked, but Talissana shook her head and refused to follow when they asked. She deliberately made too much noise moving around in the kitchen, trying to drown out the sounds of everyone else's excitement. When it didn't help, she returned to her chair by the stove and sat still, staring down at the rough wooden table.
After a time, things grew quiet in the front hall, and the kitchen staff returned to their work, still talking about how grown-up the girls looked. Talissana looked up long enough to scowl at their words, even though no one saw her. Then, she left the kitchen and went to sit at the bottom of the staircase in the main hall, resting her chin on her hand with a sigh. After a few minutes, she heard someone coming down the stairs, but didn't look to see who it was.
Graiya settled onto the step beside her little sister, refusing to be scared off by Tali's gloomy demeanor. She rested one hand on the younger girl's shoulder as she began to speak.
"When I go away to school, the goodbye won't be forever, you know. I'll still get to come home in the summer. And for the winter holidays, so we can give each other presents, just like always."
"Really?" Tali kept a hopeful expression from her face, as if she was afraid Aya would tell her she was joking, making up stories to make her feel better.
"I promise." Graiya went on, feeling relieved when her sister smiled at last. "I was disappointed you didn't want to see my uniform. I don't think it's pretty, but it is special. Want to come up and see?"
"Will you try it on again, just for me? I'm sorry I was pouting and didn't come see before. Are you mad at me?" As they stood and started up the stairs, Tali held tightly to her sister's hand.
"No, I'm not angry. I was a little sad, that's all. I know you don't want us to go away, but that's what happens when people grow up. You're only eight, it's still a long time until you'll have to go. If I were you I'd feel lucky to have so much time alone with Mama and Papa."
"I never thought of that. Aya, won't you be scared living away from here?"
"A little," the older girl admitted as they reached the door to her room, "since it is pretty far away. But I can't wait to learn everything the professors can teach me. Why don't you wait on my bed, I just need a few minutes to change."
Even though her wait was very short, Tali was fidgeting by the time Graiya emerged, fully dressed in her uniform. Talissana took one look and wrinkled her nose. "Aya, it's grey. Grey's so sad."
Graiya nodded as she sat down directly beside her sister. "It is, but the uniforms are all grey and white. Mama said when she and Papa went to the university, they wore blue and white. Actually. Mama's whole uniform was blue."
"I hate blue!" Talissana cried, crossing her arms to make her point.
Graiya chuckled before she spoke. "See, aren't you happier now that I've got grey? Tali... I know you really are sad Stavna and I are going away to school. I hope you won't be mad at us."
"Even if I were madder at you than anyone, you wouldn't stay." Talissana dropped her arms to her sides and sighed. "I'm just the baby. No one listens to me."
"Is that really what you think?" Graiya frowned and took one of her sister's hands.
"Sure. You're going to be queen someday, you'll be important and busy like Mama. Avna has her singing. What can I do? I'm so little. Mama and Papa are always so busy, and now you and Avna are leaving. I'll be all alone." A single tear slipped down Tali's left cheek.
"No you won't," Graiya tried to reassure her. "Mama and Papa always make time for you, for all of us. You like to spend time with the cook... maybe she can start teaching you some things. You're eight now, that isn't too young. If you listen to her and follow directions I bet you'll learn really fast."
Tali looked up and smiled, but it faded almost immediately. "Maybe I can. Oran says princesses don't belong in the kitchen and I need to learn to act like a proper lady. Melea is a lady... I don't understand."
Graiya scowled. "Oran means you shouldn't be in the kitchen because the servants work there and you aren't one of them. Don't you listen to him, he's old and bossy. Melea is your friend, if you want to be with her you should."
"Aya, does being a princess mean I have to ignore the people that work here? Mama and Papa don't... and they aren't bossy to them. They treat them nice, and Melea and the maids say they're so glad Papa turned out like Poppy. They said when Papa was a little boy he was a real brat." Tali stifled a giggle when she saw the surprise on Graiya's face. "But they say he's so different now... They're happy he's so good to Mama."
"Like I said, you can be friends with anyone here that you want to. If they're nice and you like them it doesn't matter if they're cooks, or kings like Papa."
"That's what Mama says. We talked about it before. Aya... she's very sad you and Stavna are going away. In her eyes she looks scared. Why would school be scary?"
"She's just worried we won't get good grades." Graiya lied, unable to look her sister in the eye as she said it. "University is a lot harder than lessons with a tutor. That's all."
"No it isn't." Tali challenged. "Mama wouldn't look so scared over silly grades. Tell me why, really."
Graiya stood up from the bed. "I have to get out of this uniform now. After that I have to go take care of the garden. Okay?"
Tali stood up as well, her eyes flashing. "You won't tell me the truth just because I'm little. People always do that. I hate it, and I-"
"Don't you dare say you hate me, Talissana!" Graiya cut in, surprising her little sister into complete silence. "You know we don't say things like that in this house. You are the youngest, but that isn't why we don't always tell you things. It's because you get so scared of things sometimes. We don't want to scare you more."
"See, it is something really bad, I can tell. Please, Aya, don't go! The tutor can teach you. Please stay!"
"Tali, we talked about this. It's scary for me too... But I'm a big girl now and it's time for me to go away to school. I promised you I'd be home for the holidays. I keep my promises."
"I know, but..."
"No buts." Graiya now began to lose patience. "Everyone else my age will be starting university when term begins. I hope I can be just another student. Just this once."
"Aya, you're a princess... Are all the other girls going to be princesses too?" Under other circumstances this question may have struck Graiya as funny. Today, all it did was make her angry.
"No! Why do you ask such stupid questions? Besides, you know Mama has taught us not to act like princesses, all spoiled and bossy. But maybe you haven't listened well enough. You definitely always want things your way, you spoiled little brat!"
Without giving her sister the chance to reply, Graiya retreated to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Tali sat in silence a moment or two, listening to the sounds of Graiya changing out of her uniform. Soon, Talissana began to cry. They lasted only an instant bedore Talissana angrily wiped the tears from her face. Once she could see clearly, the girl looked calmly around the room. Her eyes came to rest on the books Graiya had left on her bedside table. The books she would be taking off to university in the morning. Talissana's anger welled up, and in the next moment, the topmost of the large books was torn to useless pieces by the young girl's first true use of soon as the act was done, Talissana's face was filled with guilt. Once the ruined book had been concealed under Graiya's bed, the younger girl went in search of her mother. She feared she'd be busy with guests, or getting ready for a party. Instead, she found her in the kitchen, talking over plans for the family's evening meal with Melea.
"Mama..." Talissana managed only this one word, in a choked whisper. This was all it took for Elphaba to turn toward her youngest child and, seeing the state she was in, to walk over and lift her into her arms. For a few minutes all Talissana could do was cry. Once the child calmed enough to speak, mother and daughter sat in a kitchen chair, Tali settled snugly on her mother's lap.
Haltingly, Talissana explained what had happened upstairs. As the child spoke, Elphaba listened quietly, frowning. Once Tali finished her tale, she asked Elphaba a question, still sounding timid and uncertain.
"Mama, was I not supposed to ask Aya that question? I wasn't trying to make her angry, honest. I didn't think I said anything bad."
"You didn't," Elphaba reassured her. "But you know you shouldn't have done that to Graiya's book. Now she will have to hope she can get a new one tomorrow. I expect you to tell her what you did and apologize to her later."
Talissana nodded quickly but would not look her mother in the eye, clearly wishing for a change in subject. Knowing her youngest felt guilty enough as it was, Elphaba granted the unspoken wish.
"Tali, do you really think no one listens to you just because you're the youngest?"
"Yes... Most of the time. You listened now, and I'm glad. I don't try to act like a brat, Mama. I don't want Aya and Stavna to go away, that's all. When they aren't here I... I get scared."
"There will still be lots of people living here. And like Aya told you, Papa and I always make time for you. What exactly are you afraid of?"
Tali looked around as if there were a large monster nearby waiting to eat her. "The castle is too big. It makes all these funny noises. I feel like such a baby, and Avna teases me sometimes. But I don't like it here, Mama. We had a real house back in the city. I wish we still lived there."
"So do I, sometimes."
Talissana gazed at her mother with surprise. "You do? You don't act like it very much. Sometimes I wish that Papa didn't have to be king. Aya said I'm so spoiled, but I don't care about being a princess. I've been thinking... Maybe I could go back to the city and live with Aunt Glinda. Just for a little while?"
"No," Elphaba answered immediately, holding Talissana closer against her body. "I know you want to and I'm sorry. But I can't let all three of you go at once. It's hard enough letting Stavna go to university three years early."
"You mean, you'll be too lonely if I go away? Can't Papa keep you company?"
"Yes, he can," Elphaba tried to smile briefly as she replied. "But Papa can only help so much, because he isn't one of my children. Do you understand that?"
"I think so." Talissana's brow furrowed with concentration. "Even when he's here you'd still miss us. But I only want to leave for a little while. Please Mama. Please?"
"Talissana, I already said no, that's the end of it. Maybe in a couple of years. You're too young to travel that far alone, and Papa and I don't have time to take you."
Talissana scowled and pushed her way off her mother's lap. "See, everyone treats me like a baby! I'm too big to sit on your lap anymore, and I'm stupid for being afraid of this place! Everyone else is so grown up... I feel like I'll be a baby forever."
Talissana started to run from the room, but Elphaba stood up and reached out in time to stop her. "Tali, listen to me. You're only eight years old. I'm not going to let you travel two days without me or Papa. The reason you can't go is because Papa and I can't leave right now, that's all. I promise. And I would be lonely without you. How would it be if I asked Glinda if she and her family can come here instead?"
"Oh, can we please? It will be so fun to have visitors... But what if they say no?"
"Then we'll sit and write them a nice long letter instead. They'll be happy to hear from us."
"Mama... Oran says I'm not supposed to call them my aunt and uncle, and that Livie's not my cousin. I know we aren't really, but you always said they're my family anyway and I should call them what I want."
"You should. Oran doesn't like children, but he's worked here so long it would be wrong to make him leave. Do your best not to listen to him when he says things like that."
"I can ignore him, Mama. He picks on Aya more than me. He tells her she's naughty and spoiled. Why doesn't he get in trouble for telling lies like that?"
"Because he's old and grouchy. And Graiya manages all right, I've asked her. She's so grown up... it doesn't seem like that long ago she was your age."
Talissana frowned and took her own seat at the table. "Mama, why can't Aya stay here where it's safe? She can learn here at home, just like always."
"She could... sort of," Elphaba admitted. "But she's growing up. We can't keep her here forever. I should go talk to her now. Do you know where she might be?"
"She said about taking care of the garden. She always goes there when she's not feeling good."
Elphaba nodded in agreement, pausing to kiss Talissana on the top of her head. She took her time walking out to the little garden that Graiya kept, knowing the girl always needed time to cool her temper at moments such as these. When she got near enough to see that Graiya was indeed where she'd expected to find her, Elphaba hung back, watching her eldest child as she worked.
The weather was still warm, but there had been rain just two days ago, sparing Graiya the task of watering the herb garden. It was always difficult, since she had to be so careful not to get wet herself. Today, Graiya was harvesting some plants that were fully grown. Some would be used in the kitchen, and others were medicinal, used by members of the household to ease their everyday aches and pains.
It took only a short while for Graiya's harvesting basket to be filled to the brim. Once she had finished, she stood and turned around. She immediately saw her mother standing off in the distance, but pretended not to. Elphaba was too far away to see the deep frown that settled on Graiya's face. Within moments, Elphaba began to walk closer. Resigning herself to the inevitable, Graiya sighed and stood waiting at the edge of the garden, setting her basket down at her feet.
Once mother and daughter stood face to face, Graiya at first refused to speak, as her mother stood with her arms crossed, clearly waiting. At last, Graiya gave in, but her words made it perfectly clear she was still angry.
"I knew you'd show up." Graiya did not try to keep the annoyance out of her voice. "Just because everyone knows where I go when I'm upset doesn't mean they have to follow me!"
"I don't see 'everyone' here, do you?" Elphaba challenged, unwilling to humor her daughter in her bout of bad temper. "You've upset your sister and I've come to talk to you. I know you're nervous and worried. But you shouldn't have spoken to Tali that way. She's very different from you, you know. She acts tough... But she's nowhere near as strong as you are."
Graiya's expression changed to one of shame as she hung her head and barely spoke above a whisper. "I know. I was so angry, and I said those things to make her cry, on purpose. I'm sorry, Mama."
"I know." Elphaba's tone was so gentle that it gave Graiya the courage to look her in the eye.
"You're going to punish me... aren't you?"
"You'd deserve it, that's true," Elphaba conceded, still keeping any trace of anger from her voice. "But I think what you need more is to talk to me about going away to school. I know you want to go, you've looked forward to it for so long. And you think admitting you're a little scared might make people think you've changed your mind."
Graiya sighed, and smiled just a little. "I'm so glad I didn't have to say it. Everything is so complicated. I'm excited and scared at the same time. I'm glad Stavna is going with me, but I'm not. And Talissana... She acts like such a baby. No matter what I say to her, it never cheers her up."
"She looks up to you. You are more than twice her age, you know. She can't imagine ever being as grown up as you are now."
"I don't feel very grown up. Part of me wishes I could stay right here. I'm seventeen! I'm not supposed to be afraid of..."
"Who said anything about 'supposed to'? You feel what you feel. When I was sent to university, even I was a little scared... and I was three years older than you are now."
"Wait. You didn't go to university until you were twenty?" Graiya paused as her mother shook her head. "Why not? You never told me that."
"And you didn't know already?" Elphaba teased, trying to lighten the mood. Graiya's expression did not brighten as she gave a slight shake of her head. At this, Elphaba sighed and took a seat on a bench that was nearby to Graiya's part of the garden.
"Sit down, darling heart. I can explain."