Setting: A Garden, Summer

Okay, this will be the third of these unconnected excerpts (click here for one and two).

I’m actually really enjoying reading all of this again. It’s a world of my own creation, and possibly not one that anybody else wants to visit. But every scene is just a conversation – moving ahead through the story like dialogue in a film. That’s how it exists in my head. I’m just watching an old movie and feeling all the same old feels.

Of course there is so much more that I am skipping over. You’ve had three chunks and I’ve breezed through 150 pages. I can’t promise that any of it makes sense. People are free to ask me questions…

I suppose it’s worth something; that I’m in love with this story even if no one else ever reads it. I know exactly how it ends (I always did, right from that very first dream), but it’s still both a beautiful and grueling adventure to get there. That’s love, isn’t it?…

***

 “May I sit here?” The voice was tentative and shy.

Darbi shielded her eyes from the sun and squinted up at the woman. It was the new girl. “Sure,” Darbi said, shuffling over on the picnic rug to make more room.

“Thanks.” The girl sat down very carefully and gracefully, placing her lunch plate on the rug beside her. She had a perfect French manicure, and the hem of her long, mint-green dress hadn’t even been scuffed by the grass. Darbi noticed that the new girl had availed herself of plenty of salad and a little cold meat. She was probably still watching her figure – but out of nerves or just habit Darbi wondered. Max would be pleased.

The girl’s hair smelled of lily of the valley. The ladies were already taking bets on what the theme of the new girl’s room would be – it was as good a thing to bet on as any. If Max had chosen the lily of the valley scent, then Darbi made a mental note to bet on white and pale green.

It was always a bit of a giggle when the wives’ bedrooms got turned over to make way for a new addition, because screens were set up to funnel the workmen from the main gate of the Women’s Wing and into whatever room they were renovating. If the workmen had to visit the bathroom on the days that they put the ensuite out of commission, they had bags placed over their heads before they were allowed to cross to Max’s private quarters to use the facilities – lest they catch a glimpse of any of the wives. They were allowed a radio, but only if it stayed on the sports stations. The ladies could hear the workmen shuffling through their wooden tunnel and chatting to each other, like rats in a giant maze. And in the meantime, the new girl had to sleep in the Children’s Wing with the nannies.

Still, some of the older wives had had words with Max about the fact that he had chosen to turn over Melanie’s old room before Marcia’s. Belle had moved in just before Marcia had her ‘accident’, and the room had sat locked and vacant ever since. It was getting close to seven months now. The ladies wanted to do away with the ugly memory of Marcia and what went on in that room. Beside’s which, it wasn’t standard protocol. Rooms were generally turned over in order.

A couple of the wives had become convinced that the room was somehow cursed – seeing as how it was yet to have a permanent occupant (at least in Aarik’s tenure). They made suggestions that it should be transformed into something other than a bedroom. Katherine had taken up quilting, and dearly wanted a sewing room in which to store her growing collection of fabrics. Grace wanted a new tanning bed. Darbi wanted the other half of the library back. Max just gave them all a bored look and sent them on their way.

As the new girl ate, she watched the children squeal with pleasure in the pool just off to their left. Not many of the other wives seemed to be paying attention – that’s what they had nannies for. A couple of the older wives sat in their deck chairs, doing embroidery and gossiping. Several of the younger wives sunned themselves by the pool. One woman sat on the grass, doing her daughter’s hair. Darbi herself was beading a tiny doll’s evening gown.

The cloyingly sweet scent of jasmine swept over them. The palace gardens really were beautiful at this time of year, and it was nice to get out of the cloistered atmosphere of the Women’s Wing in order to enjoy the sun – even if they were restricted to the broad sweep of their own terraces. The flowers were flashing their come-hither colors to any passing bee. Didn’t they used to call it ‘the birds and the bees’? It’s so silly. It should’ve been ‘the flowers and the bees’. Birds and bees don’t lie together. But even the flowers just display themselves for the pleasure of passing insects – just passively waiting. She wondered whether plants derived any pleasure from it.

“It’s Thirty-One, isn’t it?” the new girl asked.

Darbi nodded. “Darbi,” she introduced.

“Rebecca,” the girl reciprocated. Her tone was polite and well-heeled. With a religious name, Darbi figured this girl probably came from old money. “That’s beautiful,” she said, indicating to the tiny pink dress in Darbi’s hands.

“Thanks,” Darbi grinned. “It’s one of Ruth’s new season gowns.” She nodded to Ruth, who didn’t look up from her knitting. “It’s got the asymmetrical cut at the back, see?” She held it up to show off the miniature fall of rose-pink chiffon. “We had to order in the silk specially, because the real fabric was still a bit too heavy to work on a doll’s dress like this.”

Rebecca looked impressed. “Is it for your own daughter?”

Darbi gave a shy smile, “No. Not there yet.” She patted her stomach. “It’s for Ruth’s youngest. Max likes the girls to be able to play with their mother’s own gowns… It’s nice, you know. They see us come out of the grand wardrobe in the real thing, and they get a version of their own to keep.” It helps us to feel like celebrities, she almost added.

“Darbi’s much better at the fine beading than I am,” Ruth added, still concentrating on her lines.

Rebecca nodded respectfully.

“So when’s the wedding?” Darbi asked

“A week from Saturday,” the girl replied quietly. It was hard to tell whether she was scared or just too well brought up to get excited.

Darbi took a gamble. “Nervous?”

“A little,” Rebecca admitted. “I’m just so excited about the whole thing… and I want to make a good first impression.”

“You haven’t seen Aarik yet?”

Rebecca shook her young head. Her soft, blonde curls bounced gently against her cheeks. “I heard that his Excellency was away for the week.”

“He left this morning. I thought maybe you would’ve had the chance to meet him before.”

Again, she shook her head. Rebecca had arrived in the Women’s Wing between dinner and dessert. Max had spent the evening getting her settled in her temporary room in the Children’s Wing and going through all the house rules – as he did with all the new girls – but Darbi had just assumed that she had been introduced to Aarik before coming to the Women’s Wing. Most of the new wives were. He generally had to meet them before he made a firm decision. Sometimes he said no.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Ruth looked up sympathetically from her knitting, “he’ll be back on the Sabbath. We’ll make sure that Max arranges a family dinner or something, so that you have time to get to know him before the ceremony next week.”

“Thank you,” Rebecca smiled demurely.

“That’s a lovely bracelet,” Darbi ventured, indicating towards the slim emerald and diamond number hanging from the new girl’s wrist.

“Thank you,” Rebecca repeated. She lifted her hand in order to show off the bracelet to the others. “It was a gift from his Excellency.” She sounded very proud. She hadn’t realized yet that it was Max who really picked out the Emperor’s generous offerings to his wives.

Ruth tapped the heavy diamond necklace she was wearing. “So was this.”

Rebecca looked a little chastened – the other woman’s gift was clearly bigger and more expensive – but that was the point.

Wife Number Three, Tyria, was ensconced in her crossword. “How about this one?” she asked. “‘The Roman took a slave’s tongue’?”

“Why do you do those things?” Ruth muttered. “They’re so pointless. It hurts my brain.”

“How many letters?” Darbi asked.

“Ten,” Tyria tapped out the letters on the page, “something-something-A-something-something-A-something-I-something-M.”

“Plagiarism,” Darbi said.

“Ooo, of course!” Tyria filled in the word.

“How did you know that?” Ruth sniped.

“It’s from Latin – ‘Plagiat’. It meant ‘to kidnap’ – or, more specifically, ‘to abduct someone for the purposes of slavery’.”

“They had a word for that?” Rebecca asked.

Darbi shrugged. “Yeah, well, I guess it used to happen a lot.”

“Peter!” Wife Number Fourteen, Tania, called out from the lawn below them. “Did anyone see where Peter went?” Peter was her son – and a right horror of a spoiled eight-year-old. But he was the only child she had, and she doted on him endlessly. The nannies actually tried to keep her away, in order to give the boy a chance to scrape his knees and generally behave like a normal child.

“Relax,” Kara called out, a little too loudly. “He’s over by the S-A tree with Lucas.” Darbi rolled her eyes. Kara had been on cocktails for an hour and was now showing signs of it.

“Peter!” Tania bellowed, turning her sights on a large sycamore at the far edge of the lawn. She started to curse as she stalked across the huge field – with two of the nannies hurriedly running to cut her off, keep her quiet and retrieve her errant son.

Rebecca was visibly uncomfortable with such rough language. “What’s an essay tree?” she asked softly, obviously trying to make conversation. “Is that a tree that grows essays?” She smiled meekly at her little joke.

“It’s code,” Tyria said matter-of-factly. “Heather named it that years ago so Max wouldn’t know what she was talking about.”

“What was she talking about?” Rebecca was confused.

Tyria lowered her tone. “Escape. That big old tree grows higher than the motion sensors above the wall.”

 

Rebecca’s brow knitted. “Escape?”

Tyria shrugged. “Rumor has it that’s how Alison got with child. She climbed the tree, hitched a ride into town and found a bar…”

“Which one’s Alison?” The new girl actually looked a little mad.

“Oh, she’s long gone.”

“She never climbed that tree,” Ruth chimed in. “There was that guy who was posing as her brother who used to visit all the time.”

“That was her real brother,” Tyria protested. “And they never proved any of that.”

Now it was Ruth’s turn to shrug.

Rebecca was really confused. “Why would anyone want to escape from here? You make it sound like it’s a prison.”

Tyria gave her a cynical smile. “Everybody’s thought about it at least once. You’ll get there eventually.”

The new girl looked at her like Tyria was trying to solicit her into Satanism, and Rebecca wasn’t sure if she should tell. Without another word, she primly rose and began to carry her plate across to one of the tables on the patio.

Tyria and Ruth both raised their eyebrows. Darbi frowned.

“Hey, wait up,” she called out, trying to sound cheery as she got up and pursued Rebecca.

When she caught her, she could see the new girl was already wiping away tears.

“It’s just a joke, you know,” Darbi hesitated, realizing she would have to tread carefully. “You get a lot of that around here. Boredom mixed with imagination. People do stupid things like hatch escape plans, but they’re only kidding… It’s kind of a running joke in the Women’s Wing.”

“I’m sorry,” Rebecca sniffed. “I guess it’s just been a very hectic week. I’ve been… I’ve been so excited ever since I found out.” She began to fan her eyes with her hand. “I can’t see how anybody would say such things, or say that one day I’ll want to run away. It makes it sound like I’m just some awful person who’d take all this for granted… I’ve waited my whole life for him.”

“I know.” Darbi rubbed her shoulder in a comforting way. Jeesh! This girl is way too young!

Her tone became a lot more dreamy. “He’s the one that I’ve always prayed for – my one true husband – and now he’s here… When I heard last week: I was floating!”

“You haven’t met him.”

“Are you saying there’s something wrong with him?”

“No! No,” Darbi rushed. “You’ll love him, really. He’s…” Wonderful? Charming? Always exhausted? A bit broken? Unable to see how much I love him?

Oh.

Rebecca was looking at her with anticipation.

“He’s wonderful, really he is. He just works a lot, and the girls here… they get a bit bored and silly.”

“Well I’m sure we could find them things to do. I used to do a lot of charity drives when I was at high school, and I was on the Homecoming committee…” Her eyes lit up as she was struck with an idea. “We could do a ball to help fundraise for veterans!”

“We do a veteran’s ball – it’s in November. You should talk to Max. I mean, you can’t put up decorations or anything but I’m sure they’re always looking for people to help with ideas.”

Rebecca clutched her arm with excitement. “We should do it together!”

“Um, I’ll be giving birth sometime around then,” Darbi apologized, patting her tummy again.

“Oh right, sorry… You know, you don’t look pregnant at all!”

Darbi blinked, then smiled. “Thanks.”

***

The two women leaned back against the cool, stone steps and surveyed the temple’s vegetable garden. It was nice to have this patch of shade to retreat to as the mid-summer sun beat down. Darbi was eating a nectarine from the tree. Leesa had her veil pulled back and her thin hands were curled around a mug of water. The guards were sitting in an adjoining storehouse about a hundred feet away, quite obviously bored out of their brains and talking between themselves.

Darbi brushed the dirt off her knees, and then fanned herself with her straw hat. “This is really nice,” she sighed.

“It’s not much to look at,” Leesa replied. “You can’t see anything over these walls. It’s really dreary in winter.”

“You can see the sky. That’s the important bit. Who wants to see the town anyway?”

“Out there,” Leesa indicated to the high stone wall on their left. “If that wall wasn’t there we could look down into the valley all the way to Hamilton Square. I could see the top of the fountain.”

“Seen it,” Darbi shrugged. “It’s not that great.”

“I’ve seen it too. I always thought it was beautiful… When I was a kid; my parents brought us all to Victory for a long weekend. I swam in that fountain. I thought it was magical.”

“I think this is better.”

“You wouldn’t say that if this was all you got to see – day after day.”

“Maybe not… Hey, are we going to get back to work?”

“What’s your rush?”

“Well, Father Toma wanted me to go weed the beds in their cloister too, remember? I wanted to get to that straight after lunch because it’ll be cooler over there.” She swallowed uncomfortably. It would probably feel a lot better if it weren’t for the fact that Toma had taken to meeting her at the temple gates each Wednesday and Friday morning, sporting a big smile and an obvious erection poking out beneath his belly.

Leesa’s face faded into a faraway expression. “Maybe you should just go and do that then.” She sounded like her feelings had been hurt

“No,” Darbi protested. “I still want to finish up here… but I’m gonna get in trouble if I don’t get over there at some point. I’d really rather stay here with you, to be honest. This is fun.”

Leesa shook off her melancholy and looked at her incredulously. “Work isn’t fun. That’s why they call it ‘work’.”

“But I don’t do this every day – I think it’s fun.”

“You’re crazy.”

There was a long pause.

“I think it’s just…” Darbi struggled to explain. “You have no idea how wonderful it is to feel useful. I mean – when I leave this garden today, you’ll be able to see that I’ve been here… I swear I could disappear out of that palace and nobody would ever notice.”

“Well, I know that’s not true,” Leesa snorted. “I think they’d send out an awful lot of search parties!”

“Yeah – men with guns and dogs!”

“At least you know someone cares about you,” Leesa suddenly sounded sad.

Darbi studied her for a minute. “Doesn’t Dalvinius care about you?”

The young novice shook her head as if clearing off a fly. “But that’s different. I think he was just happy to find someone – anyone – it wouldn’t matter whether it was me or somebody else… But what you have – that’s really special. Every girl dreams of that.”

There was another pause. Darbi was getting hints of Rebecca here and trying to push it out of her mind. She threw away the nectarine stone, picked up her gloves and stood up. “Come on, let’s get back to work. I want to get those beds dug over before I have to go.”

The purpose of her twice-weekly trips to the temple had supposedly been to work out the details of her plan with Leesa, but instead Leesa liked to pepper her with questions about the palace. At first, Darbi tried to be polite, but the talk was tiring – far more tiring than cleaning the flagstones or digging out the weeds. A couple of weeks back, she had drawn Leesa a map in the soil, showing the position of the old lodge, and then made her memorize it before scrubbing it out. Darbi then tested her again and again by getting her to redraw it. When she escaped from the temple, Leesa could pass a message through Dalvinius, and Mika would go and deliver her baby in the lodge, then sneak it back into the palace.

Privately, Darbi worried about Leesa’s ability to focus. She was concerned that, a few months down the track, Leesa would forget a plan which obviously didn’t interest her that much.

The young novice lazily leaned on her spade. “Do you remember how I used to have a little picture of the Emperor on my wall at school? And then I got in trouble for it and Sister Andrea made me take it down.”

Darbi hesitated for a moment then continued her digging. No, she didn’t remember. They’d been in the same year, and they’d shared a dorm, but she’d hardly have categorized Leesa as a friend back then.

“I never told anyone this, but I saved that picture. I just cut out his face and taped it onto the back of my watch where they’d never find it. Then I could sneak little peaks at him whenever I wanted… I never thought I’d meet him though. He’s so handsome.”

Umm… That’s my husband you’re talking about…

“He came to choral practice a few months after I started here – just before Christmas that year. And he made a point to say hello to everybody… He kissed my hand. I nearly died!”

Darbi frowned.

“So how did you first meet him?” Leesa whispered excitedly, blithely unaware of the effect she was having. “I’ll bet it was romantic.”

Darbi stopped digging for a moment and rolled her eyes.

“Oh, come on!” Leesa whined. “You always went to all the best parties at school – and I never got to go. Humor me.”

Darbi had actually graduated from school with very little idea of what she would do. All she knew she wanted was to go to Europe and look at castles, but her friends bailed on that idea.

After a few months of working for her father, mother had told her that she had arranged a job interview and driven her to the palace. As they pulled up outside the huge and beautiful East Gate they were ushered through and down a long, tree-lined avenue. Victory Palace rose up like a mausoleum set into the hillside, a full eight stories above the trees on its north face. A small squadron of staff descended upon their car. She was guided out of her seat by graceful and gloved hands, and the car was moved on down the tunnel into the old stable courtyard. Darbi and her mother were escorted into the majestic East Foyer where their coats were taken and they were given a quick guided tour. A maid came and washed their feet. It wasn’t as large (or as cold) as the Grand Foyer. This was a more intimate, human-scale side of the palace – the section that she would later learn was the Emperor’s private space. She had gazed longingly at its cool floors of champagne marble and twinkling gilt balustrades. When they were both ushered into a reception room to meet Max (her first meeting with him) she had been so overcome by the rich wood paneling of the room and the sun streaming in from the elegant formal garden, that she could hardly remember what she was supposed to say.

Max asked her a few questions about what she liked to do and how she would describe herself, and she had mumbled something about being friendly and efficient. Her mother had done a lot of the talking – saying nicer things about her daughter than Darbi had ever heard her utter before. Max then quizzed her on what, at the time, seemed like a bizarre collection of details: four generations of family illnesses; her former suitors (there weren’t any); her political leanings. Then a side door opened and the Emperor stuck his head in. Her mother visibly stiffened and clutched onto Darbi’s arm so hard that her fingernails dug into the flesh. Darbi winced but tried to smile when the Emperor looked their way. He was certainly terrifying but she was trying to play it cool. He flashed a polite but wide smile at them and her mother breathed out a barely audible “Your Excellency” before the Emperor motioned to Max. Max went over and spoke to the Emperor in hushed tones.

Darbi couldn’t help but stare at that face – that face she’d seen on so many coins. The Emperor leaned back against the door frame like a man at leisure, and she remembered thinking how normal he looked in his tailored gray suit. Just like a real person, she had said to herself. As he talked with Max, he had glanced their way a few more times. His eyes were smiling and genuine. He seemed nice. Darbi and her mother had just smiled back – her mother was almost hyperventilating. Then, after a minute, the Emperor gave Max a friendly pat on the shoulder, waved and nodded in the ladies’ direction, and was gone. Max returned to his seat.

“He likes you.”

“Well, tell him I am most honored,” Darbi had blushed.

“He would very much like you to stay.”

“Uh… Well,” she stuttered at this unexpected turn of events, “I’m very flattered but I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting to stay the night. I didn’t bring anything with me.”

“Perhaps you underestimated yourself,” Max had smiled, almost too politely. “We’ll make sure that you’re comfortable tonight, and I will have your bags brought over tomorrow.”

“I’d really rather…” Her voice trailed away.

“Well, you’re free to leave at any time, of course. But… we’re not accustomed to ladies turning down such an offer.”

“I’m really very flattered but…” She broke off. She had the sudden feeling that something else had just been arranged here.

Max cocked his head. “But what?”

“I’m just not that sort of girl,” Darbi almost whispered.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Max smiled. “No one’s asking you to do anything that might stain your character.”

“Darbi!” her mother hissed. Then, with a smile to Max “Of course she’ll stay. It would be a great honor.”

“Well that’s settled then.” He rose and held out a hand to Darbi. “If you’ll come with me…”

“I’m sorry,” Darbi broke in, not sure of what exactly had just been negotiated, “I just… I didn’t realize that it would be a live-in position.”

Max’s smile had by now frozen onto his face, and his eyes grew harder, as if he’d been insulted. “All the Emperors wives live here.”

Darbi’s eyes flew open. “Wife?” she exclaimed.

Leesa was looking at her expectantly. “It was kind of an arranged marriage,” Darbi murmured. “You can’t apply – you have to get nominated by somebody… My mother convinced a family friend – a city councilor – to nominate me. But she didn’t tell me any of this at the time. She did all the forms and stuff while I was at work – got my medical records and everything. And then she just took me to the palace and they introduced me… I thought I was there for a job.”

“And he picked you?” Leesa grinned like she was enjoying a particular fairy tale.

“He courted me for a couple weeks. We got to know each other… I stayed.”

“How’d he court you? Horse-drawn carriages in the moonlight?” She looked so excited.

“Um… He bought me jewelry. He took me to La Traviata.” She smiled ever so slightly. “I translated the Italian for him – what I could make out. I’d never seen a real professional opera before.” Or since. “We talked a lot… I remember he was really mad at my mother for tricking me into being there – I actually appreciated that. He said it wasn’t right… There was one point where, when we were sitting in his library and I said I wasn’t sure, he took me by the hand and pulled me out into the garden. It was pouring with rain. But he gave me his coat and let me shelter under the trees while he ran around in just his shirt, collecting all these flowers for me. Roses and carnations. Foxgloves. Irises. Jasmine… He said he was looking for just the right one that would convince me to stay. I ended up with this armful of flowers. He got so cold, I was scared he’d catch his death…” For a moment she could still see it: his white shirt sticking to his back and shoulders, the water dripping from his hair, and that smile. That wondrous smile.

Leesa sighed. “That’s so romantic.”

“Yeah,” Darbi nodded, coming round again. “He said he liked the fact that I was hard to impress. That he had to work at it. That I wasn’t just going to fall at his feet…”

“That you’re aloof to him,” Leesa concluded.

“I was never aloof to him. Just… I don’t know. No one had ever made me feel so wanted before. It was almost scary – like he’d mistaken me for someone else. I didn’t want to hurt him.”

“You’re so lucky. To be loved like that.”

“Yeah,” quietly nodding again. “I am lucky.”

“I wish my family could have done that for me!”

“My mother always wanted the best for me. Always expected the best of me.”

“What about your dad?”

Darbi’s expression grew eerily still. “My dad never cared what I did. He just wanted to leave me alone to just be myself.”

“I’ll bet he’s proud,” Leesa sighed. Then once more, “You’re so lucky!” She wasn’t doing any work.

“So how’d you meet Dalvinius?” Darbi countered.

Leesa just shrugged. “He comes once a week to mow the cemetery. And sometimes he brings deliveries… fertilizer and stuff…” She changed the subject. “Do you remember Deportment with Miss. Lombardo?”

“Yes!” Darbi exclaimed. “‘Your hair should bob as you go up the stairs. Bob!” she mimicked. “If I see one more ponytail swinging from side to side I’m going to chop it off!’”

Leesa giggled. “You were always so good at that stuff – I was so jealous.”

“Oh my God, I hated Deportment!” Darbi groaned. “I got like a C- that year!… Probably explains a lot.”

A strong gust of wind shook through the apple tree and circled the garden. It made the girls shiver. The stalks of corn in the center of the garden rattled. Two of them fell over.

“Oh no.” Leesa wandered over to the corn. “They’re always doing that – pretty soon there’ll be none left!… It’s these stupid walls – it just makes the wind howl through here!”

“Here –” Darbi bent over and picked up a small pumpkin, vine and all. “Stand them up again and put the pumpkins on their roots. If you train the pumpkins and the watermelons to grow around the corn, the vines will help tie the stalks to the ground. My grandmother taught me that.”

“Does that work?”

“Yep – you watch. It’s what they used to do in the old days.”

The girls moved as much of the pumpkin vine as possible over to the bed of maize. Darbi tried to wrap the vine around the corn stalks as she went. She was coming to realize just how much she loved this sort of work – if only because it was wonderfully fulfilling to come back and see how the plants had ripened and matured. She absentmindedly stroked the cool, hard, yellow skin of the pumpkins as she worked. It was almost as if they were her children.

After a minute, Leesa sat down on the edge of the garden bed and squinted at her. “I suppose things could always be worse, couldn’t they? We’re really very lucky to be living in modern times. Things used to be so much worse in the old days. Crime and sin and stuff…” her voice trailed off.

Darbi smiled a little with the irony and moved back to digging up the weeds. “My father always used to say that we were living in the olden days. He said we were just repeating what the Romans did: we started out as a small country, we grew into this huge power, became an empire, and now we’re in the corrupt, decadent period – waiting for the Goths to sweep over the hill and murder us all.” Darbi had been thinking a lot about the Romans lately.

Leesa looked confused. “I thought God killed the Romans.”

Darbi laughed. “The answer to everything isn’t simply ‘God did it’. Hubris needn’t be a sin in order to kill us.”

The young nun gave her a lingering, slightly frightened look. “You sure have some funny ideas about the world.”

Darbi stopped digging and leaned on her spade. “Don’t you ever feel that inevitability sometimes, though? Like you have no choice over where the world takes you?”

“You don’t know what it’s like to have no choice.”

Darbi wondered for a moment about whether she should protest. In the end, she didn’t.

“What does he like to do?” Leesa’s eyes flashed with naughty excitement.

“What does who like to do?” Darbi was focused on the task at hand.

“The Emperor, silly!”

“Oh,” she shrugged, “Um… Aarik likes racquetball… Bagat in the summer… He’s really competitive.”

“It sounds so weird, you calling him that… Aarik.”

She looked over, surprised. “That’s his name.”

“I know! I’ve just never met anyone who calls him by name. He lets you do that?”

“He’s never complained.”

“Gosh, you’re so ungrateful,” Leesa frowned.

Darbi had resumed her digging but gave the other girl a slow, sideways assessment. “Yeah,” she finally sighed. “I get that a lot.”

“If I had even a tenth of what you have,” Leesa said, shaking her head, “I would never come back here… You never have to work. Everything just gets brought to you… You get all the best clothes, and you get to meet lots of famous people, lots of big banquets and dancing…”

“Yeah,” Darbi struggled, “I s’pose.”

“You’re safe, you know.”

Darbi just put her head down and concentrated on her work. She didn’t reply.

After a few more seconds of silence, Leesa brightened again. “So tell me more – what else does he like to do?”

Darbi stopped working and stood up. She tried to give Leesa a ‘be reasonable’ look.

“I bet he smells good.” She had moved into an adoring tone again. “They say he’s really smart, and he’s so handsome.”

Darbi had returned to her weeding. “He works all the time. I mean, all the time… Even when we do see him, often he’s too tired to do anything other than fall asleep in front of the TV… And he snores. And he’s got pimples on his shoulders, and he likes it when we pop them.”

Leesa’s eyes bulged, shocked. “Don’t say that!”

“It’s true. He’s not Prince Charming – he’s just a person.”

The conversation met a long pause. Leesa’s lower lip had started to stick out. She looked like she was about to start crying. “You always did that!” she finally said, scolding. “You were always too cool for everything! Even in school, anything that anyone else liked you just had to… to… make fun of!”

Darbi looked up at Leesa’s sulking face, a little admonished. “Did I really do that?”

“All the time,” she replied, softly.

“I’m sorry.”

Leesa sniffed. “Forget it.”

***

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