It wasn't supposed to end this way.
Things rarely end the way they're supposed to.
There are boots stamping down in formation as the soldiers go marching five by five and her hand in mine as we both search for a glimpse of him, but he's practically lost amongst the crowd as they prepare for war.
But this demonstration of war is a contentious one, and it's a war not everyone agrees with. Not even wealth and stature and a blue silk dress can protect her from its grasp.
They fight violence with violence, metal and fire to combat metal and fire, a fight to end the fighting that catches and tears on broken edges around them. No war is a microcosm. No war leaves its passers-by safe; preserved and protected in the sidelines.
And when war spills over its edges, I don't have to think twice to defend her from it -
- even when it means a flash of red and the world tipping beneath me.
But there are two pairs of cornflower eyes hovering above me, my lady and my soldier with fear barely visible on their faces, and it's all worth it just to see her live - a future for my princess to bring what it will, a future now denied to me.
He rests a hand on my forehead and murmurs that it's alright, and she brushes a kiss to my numb lips and whispers for me to just sleep and it'll all be fine, and I never really could deny her.
It's okay now, because she's here, a piece of grace and light chasing shadows away, and it's okay now, because he's here, fire in his eyes but hands so deceptively gentle, and it's so easy to just
The Lady of the house is of marriageable age, eighteen years old and old enough to take over the estate. She sits subdued at the dinner table, hands folded in her lap as she stares at the table service, contemplating a future simply as someone's wife.
And it hurts to see, because I can remember stolen kisses and this is wrong and I don't care and I don't want to lose her any more than she wants to lose herself.
A line of ants goes marching across the floor, searching for a destination more certain than her future. Her cornflower gaze shifts to watch them as they make their break for freedom, and her father discusses title and price.
She knows what I know - that her wishes are meaningless in this venture, and that one she loves may not be one she marries. It's reinforced in her father's blasé words as he discusses terms and conditions, and it's promised in the empty vows and vacant assurances of potential suitors. And no one but I see the way she withdraws in on herself, more and more, every day.
There's a soldier over the hill whose smile can light up the day, cornflower eyes and sunshine hair. I can see her in him, in the warmth of his smile and the gentleness of his touch. And she knows - how could she not? She knows my heart well enough to know when it's found another, almost of its own accord.
Perhaps she wishes for my happiness, as much as I wish for hers.
Her hands are smooth, clear. His are worn and coarse at the tips, but the same sweet inferno flows beneath his skin. I find eternity in his hands and salvation in his kiss. It's not a substitution - it's simply an addition. I don't forget her sweetness, I can't forget his fire.
And there's a soldier at the dinner table whose smile can light up the night, and his commander explains his deeds and his skills and how he rose from nothing, and he describes how good a match they would be for each other, and I can only watch and listen as her future is written away.
But if this is the future she is to be written in to, then it's not as bad a one as she feared. Her face is merry as she studies her new suitor, a most unladylike smile on her face as she recalls the stories I've told her of him.
She looks to me first, and there's understanding there. And I look to him, and there's understanding there also. He looks to her and nods minutely, and she seems to understand, because she nods once and says yes.
And I will stay by her side always, and with him as well, three bodies in ternary orbit, and perhaps we can find some lasting peace there.
This is wrong, I say, and I don't care, she says.
You're too young, I say, and I'm old enough, she says.
She reads grand romances and yearns to be like its heroines, and daring adventures and longs to trek through the savage wilds, and tales of marching soldiers and lost princesses and dreams of her own to save her from Auntie's stringent lessons.
There's gentle dust waltzing by the window as she takes my hands and leads me in her own dance, music in the hum of wind through the cracks of the attic roof and in the creak of our footsteps, blue silk swishing around her feet, a princess with gold sunlight crowning her brows. My footsteps march over floorboards and keep a soldier's time for her - all for her.
Briefly, I imagine another soldier's feet keeping time with my own, and bury the desire down deep. Best to forget the boys collected in the streets to train for war, and best to forget sunlit hair. Best for her to be the centre of my world.
It's an adventure when she links her hand with mine and a romance when she presses her lips to mine, up on her toes with sunshine framing her cornflower eyes.
This is wrong, but with her it feels right.
She knows what she wants, I decide ruefully, and I never could really deny her.
We're out on an adventure, an outing to the city, the Lady of the House and her Governess and the Governess's nephew. It's an excursion to see the people and find what we can learn and I don't like it.
Our places in the world. The places of others. Why she has her smart new shoes and why I wear worn boots and why there's a boy with no shoes at all.
Stay away from him, the Governess says, he may be ill.
He barely looks up, but I think he hears her because his hands tighten around dusty, rusty tin soldiers no longer marching in formation down the dirty street, sunshine hair hanging in his face like he wants to hide.
But the Lady still pauses to slip him a few coins, and he looks up. Cornflower eyes lock with hers, and his face is illuminated in a smile that could light up the street.
His thanks are soft, but the way the Lady smiles in return is a 'you're welcome' enough. I look at her, and then I look at him, and there's understanding there as I drop a few coins into his hand as well - so that for just a moment, I can see that smile (his smile? Hers? Does it matter?) too.
She's the Lady of the House, says my scary auntie-lady as she shoves me towards a little blob of blue and blonde, and I should respect the Lady of the House, but she's only three and is a bit grubby and I don't want to.
Mummy and Daddy have gone away and I won't get to see them again, but my auntie will look after me, and she'll teach the Lady of the House and I'll be her playmate and I don't want to have to play with a girl. I want to be a soldier and march and fight, not have to play dumb girl games like dolls and tea parties.
And I feel very sorry for myself and hide in a cupboard surrounded by coats and it's musty and dusty and it makes me sneeze. And an ant crawls on my hand and bites it and it hurts. And I remember that Auntie said that I won't see Mummy and Daddy ever again and start to cry, because no one wants me aside from a scary lady with white hair pulled back so much that her face looks all tight and a high dark blue collar and skirts that don't even go swish like skirts should go.
And the door squeaks open and a grubby little girl's hand lands on my knee, big eyes the same colour as the cornflowers growing in the garden peering up at me as she asks if I want to play. There's a shiny tin soldier in her hand, and she makes it march up to me to shake my hand.
You can be the soldier, she offers, and I'll be a princess, and she twirls and makes her blue silk dress go swish. That'll be fun, won't it?
zero. (the end is where we start from)
She always had known exactly what she wanted, and I never could really deny her.