(ext end) “Songs of the Sunset: Lullaby”

Lilibell caught up with Irene in the woods outside the temple, flitting and soaring in the form of a giant nightingale, then a finned butterfly, then finally a comet that landed at Irene’s feet.

Irene dropped the flag, leaving her hands free to sign: You know, I wasn’t there when Claire Clarice made her great speech about founding the West, but there’s some parts I keep hearing about. ‘Where the love and truth of each is free’—so did our King Mother decree this world would be. So how is it that I’m always finding myself up to my actual eyeballs in coercion and conspiracy…when I’m not being set on fire and stabbed in the face?

Lilibell folded her arms across her chest and squinted. “Is that an actual question?”

No. Why are you following me? Irene recovered the flag and continued to trudge through the forest.

“I wanted to apologize for getting you into this mess. Althea and I were both so sure that you’d prove good enough for Arabella to forgive.”

And Lilibell could recognize Irene’s exaggerated signing (which it had to be, because she was signing with one hand to Lilibell who could only see the signs from behind.) Then I failed to prove that I was good.

“Not enough for this Laetha, but,” Lilibell added, musing, “Nobody would have been. This pain goes so deep, was silenced for so long, that it just left a vicious cyclical emptiness feeding upon emptiness. After what I did to Sham, I know how that feels.”

At that, Irene turned, with a sudden panic, and signed: No! You! Don’t! Know! How! Emptiness! Feels! You can’t.

“Why are you trying to tell me how I feel?” Lilibell wondered. “Why would you lay down your life for me, like I haven’t already handled my emptiness all by myself? You act so uncomfortable with not being in control of me. This isn’t a scolding, Irene, I’ve just got to ask…Are you sure he hasn’t gotten to you, too?”

Irene gulped with apprehension and signed, tremulously, I’ve wondered. Then I decided that nobody who seriously wonders and worries about Mircea like that could be a vessel of Mircea. Then I realized that realization made me stop wondering. It stands to reasons then—I must be, but then I must not be, but then I must be, but then I must not be, but then I…

“I know what that’s like, too,” Lilibell whispered, trudging a little closer. “That doesn’t mean I know what to say. What helps you would be different from whatever I might find one day that helps me.”

I have to get out of here, Irene signed.

“I hear a river,” Lilibell trudged ahead past the princess. “It’s coming from over there—follow me. Shortcut to the Gates.” She rambled, “King Clarene’s been negotiating for hours. It’s gotten awkward. The Faery Queen wanted her faery hounds back, but most of them are some part fox and she didn’t want that—and then she wanted troops back, but most of them volunteered to become Centries, and didn’t want it undone. The Queen didn’t like that. And then she asked for you, ‘past that gay phase by now—’” Lilibell glanced back, laughing, to find that Irene had lingered. The princess turned the flag over in her hands. Lilibell sighed, trudged back, and began to drag Irene by the sleeve, towards the river. “You met Laetha Arabella’s projections and fantasies about the Ophelia back there. You’ve got the give the Ophelia a chance to speak for herself—unless you think you’re still playing Arabella’s game?”

Lilibell meant it figuratively. Still, Irene kept picking at the corners of her own eye with fingers patterned with gold crackles. They trudged on towards the River Ophelia.


Footnote:

I wanted to continue with Irene’s Faery Queen Mother waiting at the gates, but that felt like it would be too much of a slog (for me to write) and at the same time was too patchy. Some wisps of the ending chapter that might have been:

“You’re welcome to come home,” one Faery Queen said to Irene.

Lilibell translated, “The princess says that she’s had dismemberment threatened upon her person with more warmth and goodwill than your invitation, your majesty.”

“Thanks,” Althea muttered. “I was really trying, that time.”

(And after the one Faery Queen departs…)

“When was the last time we’d gone on a real date?” the Clarene asked Irene.

Lilibell translated Irene’s signing—”‘Not since we broke up. Isn’t that normal?'”—and then stopped translating, but continued—”This is becoming an awfully personal conversation. If either of you start with the pet names, I’m going to stop and head right on over to Althea over there…”