For roughly one and a half hours have I been huddled within the bed, listening to each and every tock of the clock. Waiting to know for certain that he is resting—even if he has been snoring for the past forty-five minutes, surely it is wise to make sure all is absolutely safe, yes?
No…I am procrastinating. Although this was planned last season, truly going onward with this is petrifying. The most daring thing I have ever done is secretly bake for an event. This is nothing like anything I could imagine.
My heart is a frantically beating drum.
I feel nauseous.
Do I truly wish to do this?
Slowly I glance over to the body by my side, and am overcome with longing. A deep yearning for freedom from this man.
Steadily I lift myself up, out of the blankets, and as I do so, he stirs.
I nearly vomit. Yet, he merely turned over to the other side. He is still asleep.
Once I am assured of this I at last arise, and gently step outside of our bedroom, down the stairwells as quietly as I can muster, and down the seemingly endless, dark hall. After a time, I finally arrive to the end, the parlor, and find a girl seated next to a single lit candle.
“Ah, my lady!” Jeanne exclaims in a whisper, “Are you ready to begin?” I nod in reply.
“Do come here,” she says, and motions towards a large duffel bag, gently opening it to reveal neatly folded clothing. “This is the outfit the tailor made for you; for some reason he made it resemble mine a little more than I anticipated, but the coloring is different…”
I reach in and marvel over the items: a creamy yellow apron lined with frills, a simple muted pink dress, a small dark ribbon. So much plainer than my normal attire. But in this moment, it appears like the wardrobe of the queen herself.
“What is this for?” I ask, picking up a beige handkerchief folded amongst the clothing.
“Oh, have you never seen the women in town with these?” Jeanne asks, and I shake my head no.
“Well, you see,” she says, grabbing the handkerchief from me, “You fold it around your head like this!” She then folds it over her head, and mock-ties it to show me how it is to look.
“It’s quite common for…average women to wear,” she adds. “I thought it would look cute on you—” As she says this, I pull her into an embrace.
“Thank you so much, Jeanne…you are the only one who has stayed here all these years.” At this, she exhales.
“Well, for once I found an employer that’s not awful…but I am going to miss you,” she mutters melancholically.
“When I settle down, I promise to send you a letter then,” I assure her. “Depending on how far I travel it may take a while; yet even so, I will.” She steps back from me, with a smile on her face.
“I hope you may finally find peace, my lady.”
“You as well, Jeanne.”
“Is there anything more you need?” For a moment I stand still, thinking over whether I want to go through with my final idea.
“There is,” I finally answer. “Do you know where the scissors are?”
“I would like for you to cut my hair, if you may. Up to my neck.”
“Eh?” she shrieks, “Why ever would you want that?”
“The less recognizable the am, the better,” I reply. “And…after tonight, I shall be a different person. Free from the world’s judgements.”
“If you say so, my lady…” she says, slightly unconvinced. “I hope all the best for you.”
Some hours have passed, I presume, since I entered the forest with Hikaru, and neither of us have yet spoken a word. By his side I have at last grown calm, although perhaps a bit too calm; with each step I am overcome more and more with drowsiness. I am rarely awake at such a late hour, but it appears the same cannot be said for him. He does not appear to be phased at all. But knowing this silence will only tempt me further to sleep, I decide to break it.
“How much further did you plan to take us, tonight?”
“As far as we can go before dawn,” he says, looking back my way. “You wanted to go as far as possible, right?”
“Yes…” I reply bleakly, half regretting the request, in my tiredness. Luckily the days only grow longer, so dawn is not as late as it could be…and besides, even then, a chance at freedom is worth the exhaustion.
For a while longer we continue without speaking. However, the deeper we descend in the woods, the more every other creature begins to sing. Owls, crickets, toads—innumerable creatures rejoicing at the darkening of the night. Although all the noise should awaken me, it is oddly pleasant and peaceful. It makes me want to lay down in the grass, drift away…but I cannot. So, to stave off dreams of sleep, I make conversation once more.
“Do you happen to have any plans, for where we are going or what we shall do?”
“Ah yes…about that. There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.” He slows down his pace ever so slightly, coming to my side instead of walking ahead.
“I got an idea of a way to get you some funds to find a place to live, or perhaps start that bakery of yours, if you wish.” Suddenly my senses come to life, and I am far more alert. A way to fund my bakery! I try not to let my hopes grow too high too swiftly, and yet—
“What is your idea?” I attempt to say emotionlessly, but I do not believe it succeeded…
“I think we should drop by my house,” he says.
“You…have a home? I thought you said you were a wanderer?”
“I visit there very rarely; for all intents and purposes, it’s abandoned.”
“All right…” I nod, finding the situation very odd. If one already has a home, why would they forsake it like that?
“All my belongings that aren’t on me are there, and I think you could make good use of some of them. It’s remote enough that I’m sure they’re still there—maybe a little dilapidated, but.”
Is your house full of treasure, or…?
I do not speak my thought aloud for fear of being rude, but it seems he still guessed it exactly.
“I don’t have gold or anything quite like that, but I do have a collection of paintings from a rather renowned artist…” his voice trails off for a moment, before he abruptly begins speaking again. “His name was Alexander Boucher…perhaps you have heard of him?”
That name…where have I heard it before? It is so extraordinarily familiar it is almost off putting, as I cannot place it at all. But then again, when I visited Solzédniê as a child, we did visit numerous art galleries and salons, although their contents rarely interested me that deeply then. If he truly is famous, I would have encountered his work there. I wonder why his name sticks out among the rest? I suppose it does not matter.
“I do believe I have heard of him,” I reply, “Although I am not terribly knowledgeable about art.”
“He was quite well known during his lifetime, but he died when he was still fairly young…” Momentarily his voice grows quiet, and his gaze shifts from mine.
“But, anyhow,” he continues, “I’m sure ‘new’ paintings of his would be worth a small fortune, if they were to be auctioned or sold.”
“You have original paintings of his? They are not merely replicas?”
“Yes, they’re original.”
“…Why?” He glares at me dumbfounded, as though having a stash of artwork by a renowned, deceased artist is perfectly normal.
Even my “husband,” with as much as he enjoyed flaunting his wealth, only kept a small number of artworks; even moderately fine paintings are not inexpensive. So admittedly, it is difficult not to be confused that someone like Hikaru would have a whole collection of these—and forsake them, no less.
“Why do you have a hoard of paintings? Why would you desert such a thing…?”
“Well…” He looks away again, clearly trying to avoid my questioning. Why can he not just be forward?
“Did you…steal them?” He does not seem to be the type to do such a thing, as if he were he surely would have stolen from me long ago. But…what else is there to think?
“What? No, it’s nothing like that, it’s—” He pauses, and sighs.
“When Alex was alive,” he says, “He was…a very good friend of mine. Once he started growing ill he spent much time at my home, and painted much there. When he passed, he left what he created there to me.
“I would keep them for myself, but seeing how long it has been since I lived in that place…I’d much rather his work see new life and be enjoyed, rather than rotting in a musty old house for eternity. And it can help you—I don’t need the money for anything.”
I ponder over his story, unsure whether to believe it or not. It is certainly very odd—but then again, this is also coming from the man who wears foreign robes wherever he goes, whose hair is longer than he is tall. He is not exactly the most normal person I have met, regardless…and so, for now, I believe him. Yet, there are still things I wonder.
“If it is all right to ask, why did you leave your home, especially in that manner?”
“Why…?” Somehow, it appears that this question has caught him even more off guard than the last. Yet, surely one cannot do so many outlandish things and expect not to be questioned at all?
“Why does it matter to you?” he says with an edge of annoyance to his voice, and now I am the one caught off guard. After years of knowing each other, I do not believe I have ever seen him so bothered by me…
“…Pshyku,” he apologizes quietly, and begins twirling around that strange moon necklace he always wears. “I didn’t mean to snap at you, let’s just say…my life was shit, and I wanted a new one. Not entirely unlike you.” For a while I speak nothing, disturbed by the sudden tension between us. We have always gotten along with one another so well, even a minor squabble feels wrong. After a time, I softly speak up again.
“I apologize, for prying too deeply…”
“No, don’t,” he says with a sigh. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Just…there’s some things I’d rather keep private. Surely you understand.” I nod.
“I do. And, anyways…” I say, trying to change the subject, “Your idea seems sound to me. I have little better to do, now,” I try reassuring myself aloud, although it only partially works. It could be a rather substantial journey, for little payoff…yet if the paintings truly are as he says, they may very well be worth the struggle.
“Also, thank you,” I add. “You did not have to help me like this…”
“It’s no problem,” he says. While he smiles at me, it seems halfhearted, like he is still upset. After that, we cease speaking once more.
While I attempt to talk to him a few more times throughout the night, he is too dour and preoccupied to speak for long. I can scarcely believe it…after years of being perfectly good friends with one another, our journey is already going so poorly, on the very first night. If it remains like this, both he and I will be in serious trouble…
After some hours pass and it seems I am on the verge of collapse, suddenly a light over the horizon blesses us. The dawn has come.
“There’s our cue,” Hikaru says. “Let’s try to find somewhere comfy to rest.”
As the days grow ever longer, luckily, I am able to rest quite a while and still awake before midday. Lifting myself from the ground, it feels like I have become one of the trees surrounding us—hard and stiff. Hikaru tried to find a comfortable spot, but it seems he has an awfully odd idea of what “comfy” means…but, then again, an untouched forest is bound to be rougher than a well-groomed garden. It shall just take adjusting to, is all…
Half-awake, I scan my surroundings, and notice something off…Hikaru is nowhere to be found, or so it seems at first. For a few minutes I merely sit in confusion; did he decide to just leave after I fell asleep? But, once I stand up and gather my wits, I finally see him in the distance. Walking towards him however, I notice something…bizarre. It…it looks like he is conversing with someone? His eye is fixated on something, and yet…there is nobody there…
So, I decide to come up as quietly as I can, and see if I can hear his… “conversation.”
“They’re this way?” he asks, pointing in a seemingly random direction. A pause.
“Thank you so much,” he says gently, “I hope she shall bless you through the summer as well.” And with that he turns to my direction. Suddenly, his face loses all of what already little color it has.
“S-sâlêzj, Suzette…” he greets meekly, hello. In reply, I merely shuffle in place, awkwardly attempting to avoid looking upon him—and yet, I still remain fully aware and alert. What is wrong with him? Is he delusional?
Although our visits with one another tended to be fairly brief, I thought we had become quite close. Yet, quickly I am beginning to question everything. It was always obvious he is rather queer, but it seems that goes deeper than even I realized…
Nervously, he speaks again.
“…You saw all of that, didn’t you?” My silence answers for me.
“Well, if you don’t mind…please follow me.”
“After that, you expect me to—?” He sighs.
“If I tell you now, you’ll think I’m out of my mind,” he says. “So please just…let me show you.”
“It is a tad late for that,” I whisper under my breath, not meant for him to hear; however, it seems he does regardless.
“I’m going to go,” he says starkly, “And you can choose to follow me or go back. We’re not so far that you can’t return.” He then turns towards the direction he previously pointed to, and begins trekking onwards. Hesitantly, I trudge behind him. He has never tried to harm me, so even if I do question his sanity…surely it will at least be harmless. And admittedly, I am extremely curious just to see what on earth this is all about.
After about ten minutes, we arrive at a clearing, filled to the brim with tiny, woodland strawberries. Suddenly realizing just how hungry I have grown, my stomach tightens; but, my eyes dazzle at the sight.
“Oh, this is wonderful!” I exclaim. “How did you find this?”
“I asked,” he quietly answers. Right, it seems somehow, I had forgotten…
“Um…who, precisely, did you ask?” As I posit this, he steps towards the bushes and seats himself, and begins carefully collecting the fruit into his bag.
“One of the trees,” he says, as though this is a perfectly logical answer. However, his insistence on avoiding my gaze even more than usual betrays that even he knows he sounds like a lunatic.
“I can see the fae,” he continues quietly. “The trees, rivers, wind, flowers, mountains…I can see their spirits as clearly as I can see you.”
My first instinct is to scoff at what he says. Stories of faeries and gods are for children, or at least those who do not know any better. Yet, he did bring us here; but then again, he could have put on a little show. His reaction upon seeing me awake, however, was clearly one of true astonishment…
It seems, for now, I have little choice but to believe him. Therefore, I place myself on the grass beside him, and continue our discussion once more.
“Where did you find this ability?”
“It’s an…acquired skill, I guess you could say.”
“How did you learn it?” While the whole affair seems patently ridiculous, the fact that there may indeed be credence to this is incredibly intriguing.
“It’s a long story,” he says. I know prying too deeply has already brought us ill, and yet…
“May you share it?”
“I just know many things long forgotten, is all.”
“…Like talking to faeries?” I say nearly laughing, although I do not mean to; and while he attempts to stay serious, even he cannot help but chuckle.
“Yeah, like that.”
“Are there other things you happen to know?” I ask.
“That’s a vague question.”
“You know what I mean,” I say. “What other things of that nature do you know?”
“That’s…” he entirely pauses, before moving and speaking once more. “That’s very personal.”
“So…there is more?” Although I know I should have ended this conversation by now, to avoid any further incidents like last evening, I suppose in the end I truly am too curious for my own good…
“You surely like asking questions often…” he comments. “But…I like this more than the alternative.”
“What would that be?” He smiles melancholically.
“After that, I assumed you would be gone by now,” he says softly. “Thinking me insane.”
“Well…” I begin, not sure if I should say what I am thinking. It would be awfully impolite, but now I believe I would rather just be honest.
“I am unsure,” I whisper. “I have never paid mind to faeries or gods, or anything of that matter. But, you have done nothing to hurt me—you have only helped me, so I suppose…” the words taper off, as thoughts whirl within my head.
I still do not know what to think of him yet, whether sane or insane…but, in the end, he is still my friend. In spite of myself, I still want his company, to be here with him, even if he is odd. And if incidents like this continue, perhaps what he says truly is real…
“Mâzjêr,” he thanks with a chuckle. “I mean it genuinely.”
“What have I done? Except…”
“You’re still staying here, even in spite of that” he says while standing up, and reaching his hand down to me. “That says quite a lot, I think.”
“If you say so,” I say as I am lifted up, all the while slightly flustered at his words.
“Would you like these now, or later?” he asks, and for a moment I look at him entirely confused, somehow forgetting why we were on the grass at all; but soon, my hunger reminds me.
“Just a few, please.”
“I hope you enjoy them,” he says. “It may be a while before we eat again.”
“Well, that is ominous…” I mutter.
“I said it wouldn’t always be easy.”
“Heh,” I chuckle, slightly worried. “I suppose not.”
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