Later that morning, I awake to the sound of scuffling feet, as the sun shines through the thin cracks in the curtains. For a moment confusion washes over me, until I remember the night before. But still, I steadily gather my things to leave—until I hear a meek, unfamiliar voice speak to me.
“Oh…you’re awake?” I look over and see what appears to be one of Suzette’s servants. She's taller than Suzette, yet appears younger—and also clearly rather put off by me.
“My lady’s in the dining room; she requested you be taken to her when you awoke…so if you're ready, would you mind following me?”
“Not at all,” I say lightly, trying to make her feel more at ease. But she shuffles out the doorway, and I must swiftly follow suit.
Without any windows, the hall is just as dark as during the night; but unlike before, it feels infinitely more suffocating, as the tension swirls around myself and the servant girl. She walks rapidly and stiffly, not speaking a single word. Perhaps she is always this way. Yet, with her tone of voice earlier, unfortunately I can't help but doubt it. But luckily, we soon arrive in the dining room.
“Ashon bon,” Suzette says cheerily, Good morning! Immediately I’m taken aback by her friendliness in contrast to her servant’s demeanor.
“Is there anything you need?” the girl asks.
“No,” Suzette replies, “You can go do whatever you would like, unless you know of any work which needs to be done.” The girl merely nods, and scuttles out of the room. And that just leaves the two of us.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks with a comforting smile.
“I did,” I say, “But, is there anything you need of me? Since you wanted me to come here…”
“It would be rude to just send you off without anything to eat.”
“If you say so,” I reply, and take a seat next to her.
“So…” she begins, “Where do you plan to travel after here?”
“Nowhere in particular, as usual I guess.”
“Well, Hikaru, you can stay here for as long as you like. It does not bother me.”
“I’d rather not keep disturbing your help…” I say, thinking to the girl who brought me here.
“Oh, Jeanne? She is, well—she is always nervous around new people,” Suzette attempts to reassure me, although her tone betrays all. Yet even so, I still grin at her attempts to be nice.
“I doubt I’ll be traveling too far for now,” I inform her. “Perhaps I can swing by a time or two once more."
“Whatever you would prefer,” she speaks softly, with a distant look in her eyes.
And that’s when it began.
Steadily I tread through the woods, not a sound residing aside from the crunching of dead leaves beneath my boots. It holds an odd atmosphere…the last time I was here the trees were vibrant green, and heat permeated the air. But now the trees are dabbled with red and orange, and their leaves drift on a chill wind. It’s been over a year now since I’ve come this way. The closer I draw to the village, the more shaken my body feels.
I promised to visit Suzette again, but I know she’s certainly married by now—while I’d like to be on her husband’s good graces as well, I couldn’t blame him if he’s distrusting of me. It would be better if I stayed away entirely, but it’s my fault for making a promise…and truthfully, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss her.
After a time, I make it to the outskirts of her neighborhood, and luckily for me it appears that no one is out at the moment. Slowly I scan each home, until hoping to find hers; but once I do, it’s unmistakable. Not that it stands out in any way. It is just as large and dull-colored as the rest, with moldings, windows, and a tower all thrown together in a bizarrely haphazard manner. But even if I was only there for a brief time, I suppose it still made an impression on me.
Tepidly I walk up the steps, and lightly knock upon the door. Just before I go to knock again, I hear a girl’s voice through the other side of the door.
“Hikaru.” Gradually the door opens, and I notice it’s Jeanne, the first of Suzette’s servants I met. To my surprise, she actually looks glad to see me, quite unlike our first encounter.
“My lady will be happy to see you,” see says with a smile, “But…” Suddenly, it fades.
“I’ll have to acquire the master’s permission,” she whispers. “He…doesn’t approve of her having any visitors without his approval, so it is not just you.”
“It’s all right; I can wait.” She slightly nods, and closes the door.
For a while I merely stand there, and from inside the house I can faintly hear voices. However, they aren’t calm, being only muffled by the walls. It sounds like they’re coming deeper within the house, and shouting…
At last the door opens again, but this time it’s not Jeanne who opens it, but an entirely unfamiliar, scowling face. A man nearly as tall as myself with short, blonde hair, and a finely embroidered suit; this must be him. I attempt to introduce myself, but he swiftly cuts me off—
“If you want to see her, go to the back.”
“There’s a gate to the garden,” he spits. “I’m sure she’s waiting for you already.” And with that, he slams the door in my face. When I finish processing what just happened, I sigh.
So he already loathes me, it seems…
Once more I walk down the steps and go around the large white fence, until happening upon the gate. I soon open it, surprised to find it already unlocked. As I walk in, the first thing I notice is Suzette, sitting on a stone bench in the middle of the garden. When our eyes meet, a large grin appears on her face. And mine.
“Come, have a seat!” she waves to me cheerfully.
Carefully I weave through the flowerboxes, mostly devoid of any blooms by now. Calm comes over me as I see that she appears rather happy, at least for now; however, she does appear a rather thinner than I remember her being, although perhaps I’m only imagining it…
“It’s been so long…” she whispers, as I sit down beside her.
“Have you been well?” she asks while staring off into the garden, her voice still so soft.
“Yes…” I reply, voice trailing off as I attempt to study her. Being so close now, I can clearly see she’s definitely smaller than before. Even her face seems strangely haggard, slight bags under her eyes…were those fears that tugged so deeply at her when we first met truly warranted?
“Are you all right, Suzette? Is your husband treating you well?” At last she faces me, with a faint trace of surprise on her face.
“Oh, have you met him?”
“Well, he told me I wasn’t allowed inside, if that counts.”
“Oh, do not take it personally,” she says. “He tends to be rather…specific, with who he lets in the house.”
“Do you always have to come back here to see your friends?” She chuckles, much like she did the first night we met, as she lamented her then-future marriage…
“I receive few visitors anymore, so that is not an issue.” Every time she speaks, it’s like I can feel the pit in my stomach grow deeper.
“But,” she says smiling, “I am glad you came to see me, Hikaru.”
“Of course,” I say, now grinning too. “I wouldn’t promise you if I had no intentions of keeping it.” At this she smiles even wider, and for the first time since I arrived, I feel some sense of ease.
“So,” I begin, “How did that event turn out? The one you were baking for the last time I was here?”
“Oh, that!” she exclaims excitedly, but her tone suddenly changes.
“It went wonderfully, lovelier than I could have possibly dreamed,” she says wistfully. “Everyone was very impressed, and adored what I had made…it is a shame. But I do not regret it. ”
“Even if you don’t share it with others, at least you can still bake, right?” As I say this she looks away from, and clenches her hands together.
“Not nearly as often, but…” her voice becomes strained. “…I am happy. It is…not as awful as I thought it would be, truly.” She’s such a horrible liar…
“Yes?” She looks at me inquisitively…but, I back down.
“…Never mind. It’s nothing.”
I want to say something, but it isn't my place. She’s the one who decided she must go through with this. I’m just some guy who probably shouldn’t be here at all…
I notice that she slyly looks behind her, back towards the house, and then faces me once more.
“I can see you are worried,” she says in a whisper, “I just have yet to fully adjust to this. Marc and I are still getting to know one another, but we shall soon be fine.” I look down and sigh. It took exactly one night for her and I to begin getting along, but after a year her and her husband still aren’t…?
No, she made this choice. We’re not even that close…it’s not my business. It’s not my business.
It’s so frigid. Even as I do all I can to keep myself warm, the winds are strong enough that only so much can be done. I try to focus on the sparkling snow around me, and let its beauty distract me from the horrid sensation of actually traveling out here; but, it’s no use. As my vision grows bathed in white, for a moment I feel as though I’ve been transported back in time—instead of lingering on the memory, I merely huff in frustration. I already have enough to concern myself with now, never mind such a faraway past.
My visits to Suzette only grow more and more frequent. It was over a year between the time we met and my first visit, which in turn became half a year, and now it seems at least once a season I traverse back this way. I can’t help but worry about her…every time I see her it seems she’s a little softer spoken, she looks a little more tired every time. She says she’s satisfied with her marriage, is trying to start a family, and then in the same breath asks if I could gather silphium for her. She doesn’t hide well the fact that she’s miserable.
I try not to involve myself too much. Instead, I try to bring some light into her life. But as time continues on, I wonder if I’ve made the right choice. Whether I should do more…or whether my presence at all is making everything worse. Unfortunately, I can’t tell at all. All I can do is what seems best…
After a time, I arrive near her home. Even though it’s not particularly late, darkness is already beginning to cloak the world. As I walk towards the porch, I notice Jeanne lighting a lamp just outside the door—not for long, however, as once she notices me, she rushes to see me.
“Oh,” she says in an enthusiastic whisper, “thank the gods you’re back!”
“My lady hasn’t been very well, lately…” Suddenly, I go pale.
“Did something happen?”
“We shouldn’t stay out for too long,” she says, looking back towards the house. “You know the road which leads to the larger town nearby?”
“If you wait along the road I’ll take my lady to see you tomorrow, and perhaps she can tell you—so please leave for now, all right?”
“Um…” for a moment I blank out, trying to fully process everything. “I can do that, and…mâzjêr, Jeanne.” She gets a small grin on her face and nods, before going back towards the steps of the house. As she does this, I try to get out of sight as quickly as I can. Once I make it a distance from the house, I cannot help but peer back; but in this weather, it’s scarcely visible.
What is going on?
As I tread onwards towards the road, the thoughts in my mind flurry more than the snow around me. So many possibilities, so many of them absolutely wretched…but, I know it’s no use worrying now. We should meet tomorrow. Instead of obsessing over what may be happening, I instead focus on finding some dry spot near the road to lodge for the night, and look towards the moon for guidance.
The next morning, I find myself awoken not by the sun’s light, but instead by a voice.
“Hikaru? Are you awake?” Barely so, I instinctively flinch backwards. But I sigh with relief to see it is just Suzette, swaddled within layers of furs.
“Ah…” I say, still not entirely conscious yet. “I’m so relieved to see you’re well, Suzette.”
“Me? It is freezing out here, we must get you indoors—!” she urges, and then grabs my hand to help lift me up. But as she does, she pauses.
“Your hand…even amongst the snow, without any gloves…you are still warm?”
“Well, erm, you see—” for a moment I stutter, trying to come up with a plausible reason. “I had a fire going throughout most of the night.”
“Would it keep you that warm? Well, I suppose it does not matter. We should still go to the carriage, nonetheless…” And with that she lifts me up, and we walk back to a faint light in the distance.
Although I presume it’s morning, it is still dark out, with only a faint trace of dawn in the distance. Everything is quiet and peaceful.
“How did you find me?” I ask her after a minute.
“The prints in the snow; I surely doubt many others would veer off the path like that.”
“Does he know you’re here?” She pauses.
“…I’ll tell you in the carriage.” And with that, we both stay silent until we finally enter the carriage, and our journey begins. Immediately I feel disoriented and nauseous—I cannot even remember the last time I’ve traversed in one of these things.
“Are you feeling all right?” she asks, apparently noticing my discomfort.
“Yeah…yeah, I’m fine,” I brush off, “But…what on earth is going on? Does Marc know you’re here?” When I speak his name, she flinches a little.
“Jeanne left a letter saying I was not well, so she took me to go see a physician.” I start feeling even more unwell, but now it is from more than just the carriage.
“Should we really be doing this?” I whisper. “Even if we’re not…”
“It does not matter,” she says curtly. “I am working to get a divorce.” Unsure how to respond, I say nothing.
On one hand, I’m nearly overjoyed. For years now, I’ve watched helplessly as she’s slowly withered away. But simultaneously, it’s incredibly stigmatizing for anyone to get a divorce, especially for someone of her standing. Considering how much she wished to avoid any sort of repercussions of this…
“I cannot handle this anymore,” she whispers, “I have tried as much as I can, and yet…
“If I stay too much longer, I will become insane—!” she finally bursts. “He will barely allow me to move without his permission, and I can scarcely do what I adore even as a pastime, in spite of it being appropriate for a woman…
“I am almost never allowed to interact with anyone—I must not even count how often we have had arguments over you.” I wince slightly; this is precisely what I wished to avoid…but, it was likely inevitable unless I stayed away completely. But, with the state she’s in…maybe even in spite of that, it is still better that I came to see she’s okay.
“For months now, I have been trying to separate from him,” she says hoarsely, “Yet, no matter what it seems, he will not agree to a divorce…I do not know if it is merely because he wishes to save face, or if controlling me is truly that enjoyable, or…” she sighs.
“It’ll be okay,” I console her; although in truth, I have no idea if it will be or not.
She glances up towards me, eyes overflowing with sorrow—but in an instant they grow large, and it seems all the sorrow they just held had suddenly dried up.
“That is it…” she mumbles. “You can just take me with you!”
“There is no reason why I cannot just leave, is there? I would have to leave much of my possessions behind, but…at this point, I could hardly care.”
“Not to be rude, but…why leave with me?”
“If I left with Jeanne or someone else, I would be found rather easily…but you travel all over Soleia!”
“But, do you want to wander in the wilds? Sleeping on the ground, eating once or twice a day if you’re lucky, dealing with the elements…”
“It does not appear to bother you much,” she says. “Even in this weather you keep yourself perfectly warm with merely a fire, when even indoors with the fireplace, I still require furs…” She’s not wrong, but that’s…
“What exactly do you plan on doing, traveling with me?” I ask.
“I suppose I can just find some pleasant village to settle down in, and find some work. Perhaps I could even settle in Solzédniê …” she trails off.
“You realize just how expensive Solzédniê is, right?” I don’t mean to discourage or bring her down, but she hasn’t thought this through…
“That is fine; if I cannot afford that I’ll just settle somewhere more affordable, it doesn’t really matter!” she nearly shouts, getting increasingly worked up.
“I’m just trying to be reasona—” Before I can finish my sentence, she completely snaps. At me.
“That is swell, then; if I must I will just leave alone!” She hands her head, hair obscuring her face, with her hands clasped, shaking.
“I suppose I should have known,” she mumbles, “Of course I can only rely on myself…”
“You know it’s not like that, Suzette,” I say as tenderly as I can, attempting to sooth her.
“Then…what is it like?” Then she gazes up at me with reddened eyes.
“You saw what happened to me when we first met. I have ways of finding sustenance for myself, but even if it seems easy…it’s often still difficult.”
“Is that all there is?” she asks. “Dealing with the weather, finding food and water?”
“And bandits.” I add.
“Do they ever bother you?”
“Not quite, but…”
“I can endure that if it means escaping from here,” she says. “Is that truly, truly all there is?”
In one sense, yes. It’s not always—and quite often isn’t—terribly pleasant to live far away from society’s comforts. But, if we’re to be honest…there is more to it. Although I hate to admit it to myself.
It’s been decades since I’ve lived beside another human. A person so fragile…what if something happens to her too? She doesn’t deserve that fate, and I’d rather not bear that pain again. She seems to believe she’d survive all right, and perhaps she is right. But, the only reason I even survive is—
“Hikaru.” She looks me right in the eye. “I know it will not be without hardships, yet every day I stay my spirit dies a little more. I thought following everyone’s wishes and staying respectable would make me happy, yet…” she sighs.
“No matter what, I suppose I can do this on my own.” She pauses. “But…I did save your life once before, did I not?”
What am I supposed to say to that?
“I just want you to be safe,” I say at last.
“Why do you think I will not be?”
“It’s…” now I sigh. “I’ve lost nearly everyone at some point. I’d rather not lose you too.” Now she wears a sad smile.
“You are more likely to lose me if I stay, if that is what you are worried about.”
“All right,” I finally concede. “If you really want to come with me that badly, you can.” Before I even realize what’s happened, she’s leaned over and brought me into an embrace.
“Mâzjêr vrémond né, Hikaru…”
“Ah, well,” I mutter, gently breaking free of her grasp, “It’s no problem; but, we can’t leave just yet,” I say, peering out of the curtain of the small window. It’s now mostly bright out, and yet the sun cannot even be seen. It is nothing but white.
“Wait until the spring,” I say, “And then if you wish to leave with me, you can go. Is that all right?”
“Yes,” she says. “I may even get a true divorce by then, but if I do not, then…thank you. So much.”
“Well…still prepare. Find practical clothing you can travel in, decide what possessions are worth keeping. But of course, make them light.”
“Yes, of course!” she replies excitedly. “It is comforting knowing that there is a way to be free, even if he shall be stubborn…” Even with all of my misgivings, seeing her so filled with joy puts a grin on my face. Then she leans back and closes her eyes, and exhales deeply.
“I wish I had chosen this path earlier…” she whispers, seemingly to herself. “I have known even since I was young that almost no one around me cared for me…what was the use of this whole disaster?”
“Acceptance is a strong tonic. Or maybe poison," she chuckles. "It surely is odd, is it not?”
“Not really,” I answer. “Loneliness is horrid.” She opens her eyes again, and points them towards me.
“Then why are you so often alone?”
“Hmm…” I pause for a moment, thinking of precisely how to answer. “It’s better to be alone in the woods than amongst a crowd of people.”
“Or in a musty home,” she says. “At least, I imagine so. The outdoors, at least, are more peaceful…”
“That’s a good perspective to have, if you want to travel with me.” She smiles.
“I suppose so,” As she says this, she peers out the curtain. “I believe it would be wise if we parted ways for now, before he becomes too suspicious…” Without even thinking, I sigh. It feels like I just arrived; but, if we go through with this plan, then we’ll see more of each other than I think either of us ever expected.
“Then I’ll see you later, Suzette.” She nods.
“You as well, Hikaru.” And with that, she knocks loudly on the side of the carriage, signaling for it to stop. Slowly I head outwards into the glaring white, turning around to give one final wave to her. Once she’s out of sight I give a short prayer for heat, and then continue on my way once more. As I start mulling over the situation, my pulse begins increasing more and more…
I truly want what’s best for her. I truly want to help her—but, is this the best option? But, if he doesn’t budge, what is she to do? She is right, that if she stays in the general area, she’ll be found rather easily. And if she ventures out on her own…she is far from helpless or incapable, but she still is not used to this lifestyle in the slightest.
Thinking more deeply about it…how many of my worries are rooted in selfishness? Beyond just wanting to avoid the guilt that would come if harm comes her way. Of losing someone else, which would already be wretched enough.
There’s much that I prefer to keep hidden, but with her around, she’s bound to learn so much of me. She hasn’t been put off by me so far, rather instead, she’s become one of my dearest friends. I wonder how much longer it will last?
How much longer until she comes to damn me too?
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