The remembering was the hardest part. She hadn't realized how easy it was to forget until she tried to remember.
At first it came back in little fits, in waking nightmares. The war, with its brutality and violence, blood everywhere, all over her, her hands… She had even forgotten the ambush, despite the scar it left on her skin. She wondered why she had never thought of it, when she woke with the ghost pain of a sword in her side every day.
And it was she, the one who had beheaded the king. When the face of her mother made her cry out, it was because she could only see the king she had slain. Who was he? Who had he been? For all she knew, he was related to her, her uncle… She had to leave the house for hours on end, so that she wouldn't tear it all apart. She went down to the beach and threw the heaviest rocks she could lift into the ocean. She took her collection of shells and crushed them under the rocks. It was only fitting that everything should be destroyed, now that she knew that was what she was, a destroyer of lives. She was not the conquering hero she had once imagined, the faraway traveler solving the plights of the people she met. She was a fool.
She didn't know what hurt her most, the war or after the war, when they returned to the castle and then… And then! She howled at night, she pulled at her hair in fury, remembering that. She had loved him, after all, she had loved him despite the violence, despite the fear, maybe even despite him, and they said she was the one who killed him. What could she do? She was already broken by then, by their deaths, and she half-believed she had killed them.
She was still broken, but at least she had more pieces now.
Therese was so kind, so patient. She stood by Vanali and took care of her, and let her rage when she needed to, and calmed her down when she threatened to hurt herself.
When the ship had arrived, Vanali couldn't say for sure. Nothing was clear, in those days as she tried to piece together the past, and she wasn't even sure until she was on the ship that it was real. Even then, she cried out in terror, and Therese had to calm her, to remind her that it was real.
She had only moments of lucidity then, and when the next one came and lasted long enough for her to pull herself together, she could no longer see the island.
"Where are we Therese?" she asked. She didn't bother looking around to check that Therese was there; she knew she would be. "Where are we going?"
"We're going to Anselia, to the North," Therese told her.
Vanali turned her gaze on Therese, and she pulled the blanket she had not noticed until then closer about her shoulders. "How did we escape?" she asked. "Whose ship is this?"
"Friends," Therese said reassuringly.
"Therese, I need to know these things," Vanali said sternly. "You cannot keep anything from me with the intention of keeping me safe, not anymore. What of Flynn and Gerard?"
"I will tell you everything then, if you're ready to hear it, but let us go inside; you'll catch your death of cold out here."
Vanali turned to smile at the wind, and she agreed to go inside, but as soon as they opened the hatch, and the awful smell of cramped cabins assailed her nose, she shook her head and she remembered why she had come out here in the first place. "Not yet," she said. The cramped, fetid space made her feel ill, made her lose herself. "We need to talk out here," she told Therese.
"Fine." Therese guided Vanali out of the way of sailors, to a spot better protected from the wind. "We're here with rebels from Cirelle, people who planned this to free you," Therese started. "They arrived before winter, on the last ship to bring supplies and a change of guard. Only they had no intention of leaving you there for the winter."
"And Gerard? Flynn? What of them?" Vanali asked. She didn't know why she suddenly felt so concerned for the guards who had kept her in her cage for so long, but she was afraid of hearing they had been killed in some ambush.
"Gerard was one of the rebels; no one was even injured on the island," Therese told Vanali. "Well, Flynn got a good knock on the head, but she's survived just fine."
"You know this for sure?"
Therese nodded. "She's here with us now. Gerard refused to leave her there. He didn't want her to tell anyone about us, and, I think, he was worried about what might happen to her if she was found without the queen."
"I'm glad," Vanali said. She was going to leave it at that, but she had a nagging feeling there was something more important she needed to ask. "And? Why are we going to Anselia?" She remembered it from geography lessons at the castle. Neighboring Nicor lands, it was a neutral country. Like Switzerland. She felt a smile creep across her lips at the memory of Earth; glad she had not lost that past as well.
"Apparently it was the Anselians who helped organize this mission," Therese said. "The Knight of Truth and the Knight of Innocence were both there, and they convinced the prince to help our cause."
"Our cause? What is our cause?" Vanali asked, feeling a fog growing in her mind. She tried to blow it away; she had more questions still.
"You will be queen again," Therese said, gripping Vanali's hand strongly. Vanali was glad for the slight pain of her bones squishing inside her skin; it kept her anchored on this boat, in reality.
"We will destroy the Magistrate," Vanali remembered.
"Yes. Yes my queen," Therese agreed. Vanali met her eyes, and they were hard and vengeful. "We will destroy them."
Her clarity didn't last much longer, and she wandered again, through memories and hallucinations. She felt cold too often, and sometimes too hot. She woke cramped in the hold, hidden away from the rest of the world. Her head hurt.
"We have landed, my queen," Therese told her. She took Vanali's hand and they walked out into the sun and the bitter cold wind.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the mountains. They reminded her of home, of her last home on Earth. The jagged peaks rose in the distance, looking close enough to touch, looking sweet and treacherous with their powdered peaks.
She knew she was insane then, when angels greeted her at the dock.
She turned to Therese fearfully, "Why didn't you tell me I'd died?"
Therese smiled at her. "Because you haven't died," she said calmly. "Trust me, when the time comes I will be the first to let you know."
They brought her to a palace in the clouds, just like a fairytale. Was that why nothing felt real then? She tried to keep herself in one place, but she was jumping all over in space and time and she couldn't keep it all straight. One moment she was watching her breath fog up the window, the next she was beheading an old friend.
"I never did that!" she yelled. She growled in frustration. She had to keep things straight; she had to learn to do it again, if that is what it took. She had to destroy the Magistrate. Yes, for that purpose she would put things straight in her mind.
"How long have we been here Therese?" she asked.
"Ten days, at the palace here," Therese told her. Vanali nodded. She started to piece it together. First came the ship, the escape. Next they landed and came up here into the mountains. She had gotten sick, a fever. Too much cold, Therese had said. She hadn't met anyone then, since she got here, on account of her illness. Good. She would hate to have given them the impression that she was insane.
She nearly burst out laughing then, but she had to remind herself that is what an insane woman would do. First she would start acting like a sane person, then maybe, eventually, she would become sane.
"I'm feeling quite well today," she told Therese. "I think, if I stay clear like this for the rest of the day, then we should meet our hosts tomorrow."
Therese nodded without comment, and the day passed by slowly, but Vanali was glad for this. If it was slow, it was only because she was aware of the time passing at last.
When she woke the next morning, still feeling somewhat whole, she told Therese to arrange a meeting with the king. "I'll have him meet you here," Therese said.
"Therese? Can we get Nate and Elaine to come as well?" Vanali asked shyly, unsure if this would make her seem weak.
Therese sighed, and she shook her head. "I'm sorry, but they aren't here anymore. They've gone on to Cirelle to spread word of your return, to start turning the people against the Magistrate."
Vanali nodded, and she turned her head a little so that her hair fell forward and covered her face. She felt she might start crying at any moment, and she was angry with herself. She could not get upset over such little things anymore. She had faced much worse disappointments, and there were surely many bitter disappointments to come. She just felt so lonely all of a sudden.
She did not cry after all, and she straightened up and faced Therese. "That's good then," she said. "Go fetch the king please."
Therese bowed and left Vanali alone for a time. While she waited, Vanali tried to decide what she would say. She must not appear hysterical, or confused. She was sure of what she would do; she would return to Cirelle and reclaim the throne. She would calmly ask the king for aid, and if he could not give it, she would ask to leave the castle in peace, and return to her country. She would not give up her position, nor would she let on that Anselia had sheltered her, in case she didn't win this battle, in case the Magistrate should come looking for revenge.
She was willing to bet her hunger for revenge was stronger than theirs.
She was caught off guard when Therese returned with a golden man wearing a crown. She hadn't expected the king right away – otherwise she would have cleaned up a bit. She didn't even know how she looked; she had expected to have time to prepare for this meeting.
She got to her feet and looked to Therese for guidance, or at least an introduction. She didn't even know the king's name – she should have asked earlier!
"My queen, the crown prince Sol," Therese said with a little curtsy. Vanali nodded as regally as she could, and held out her hand to the prince.
He bowed over her hand and kissed her little finger. Vanali frowned at the top of his golden head. He was bowing too deeply, acting more respectful than etiquette demanded, and she wondered what he meant by it. Was he mocking her? She cleared her throat and tried to smile at him, but she feared it was a terrible imitation. It had been too long. He turned his face up and smiled at her. He was dazzling. He was the brightest person she had ever met, and with his wings folded gracefully along his back, she was half-convinced she had died after all.
"Please sit," she said, realizing belatedly that this was his home after all, and she wasn't the one to be giving out invitations. "It's good to meet you," she said quickly, trying to cover her awkwardness. This was already not going as planned.
"And it is very good to finally meet you!" the prince replied brightly. She couldn't understand why he seemed so excited to meet her – she was just a broken queen, nothing to be impressed with. "I've heard so much from Elaine and Nate," he told her. "But I didn't expect you to be so…"
"Small?" Vanali offered weakly.
Sol shook his head. "I don't know exactly. You're not what I expected," he said. "Not in a bad way of course! Please don't think I mean any disrespect! I have nothing but the deepest respect for you. I want to help, in any way I can."
Vanali forced herself not to sigh too loudly with relief. Just a little sigh, and that sound was covered as Sol went on.
"I'm afraid there's not a great deal I can do, as my father doesn't approve of you being here. He's afraid of starting a war with Cirelle, but I'm sure that if you are not returned to your throne, then those usurpers will start a war no matter what. They didn't need much provocation to start a war with Nicor; why would they need an excuse to war with us?"
Vanali nodded. "I'm glad you understand why I can't let this go," she said. "You said your father does not wish to help me – what help can you give me then? I am loath to stay too long; I would like to reclaim my throne as soon as possible. That would be best for everyone I think."
"I agree, but winter is now upon us. There isn't much we can do until spring."
"It's already winter? I thought… I didn't realize it was so late in the year already."
"Winter comes early up here in the mountains," Sol said kindly. "It may be a blessing though; it will give you time to recover and plan in safety. No one will be making war on us in these treacherous mountains."
"Safe for the winter then," Vanali said softly. She didn't trust that word anymore, but there was still something comforting about it. She wanted to believe she could be safe. "I think I would like to go outside," she told Sol.
He smiled and got to his feet. "A splendid idea! I'll join you for a walk and show you about the castle."
Vanali felt a little overwhelmed by him, by his enthusiasm and beauty and presence. She felt like she had been alone for so long, and now here was someone who wanted to talk to her, who seemed to expect so much from her, who wanted so much for her. She didn't know what to do with him. "Just… give me half an hour to get ready, if you please," she said.
He looked a little embarrassed then, and he bowed. "Of course. I'll return then." He left her alone with Therese. He left her feeling tired.
"Well, I'm glad he's on our side anyway," Vanali said, once she was alone with Therese. Therese cracked a smile, and nodded.
"The prince is very enthusiastic," she said flatly. "I think he will grow on you, upon further acquaintance."
Vanali rubbed her eyebrow and sighed. "Was I that obvious?" she asked.
Therese shook her head. "I doubt it. He doesn't even know you."
"I just… I'm so tired, and he's…" she tried to find the words but couldn't. It was then she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and she grimaced at the sight. "Ah! Why did he have to see me like this?" she asked. She touched her hair, which was flat and matted, and then her cheeks. She hadn't realized she looked so much like a skull until this moment, seeing her own sunken cheeks and the dark circles under her eyes. She touched the bags under her eyes and smiled weakly, remembering him.
"Therese, where are all my clothes?" she asked, and in the next half hour Therese managed to make her look civilized at the very least. Vanali had never thought of herself as a great beauty, but she was good looking enough, when she wasn't so haggard and dirty. She sighed as she took a last look at herself and nodded to Therese. "Let's go then."
The air was cool, but not unbearable, and Vanali smiled and breathed deeply as she stepped outside. The air here was good.
Sol took her through the courtyard and past the stables to the garden. He didn't think she would be interested in seeing all the domestic buildings, though it was the opposite. Vanali was more interested in seeing how things were run here in the castle, than in how the flowers grew, but she was the guest, and she kept her peace. The gardens really were lovely, though there were no flowers left. The trees that were left smelled sweet, like cotton candy, as conifer trees sometimes do.
They hadn't been out long when Vanali saw the ghosts. Two little Nicor children, impossibilities, and yet they seemed to be playing with one of the Anselian guards. Vanali stopped walking and reached out to clutch Therese's hand. "I thought I was better," she said softly, desperately. "But I am seeing things still."
Therese glanced up at the children, and then she smiled at Vanali. "If you're seeing things, then so am I, my queen," she replied. "Those children are surely real."
Vanali coughed shyly, interrupting Sol as he talked on about the architect who had designed the garden. "Sorry, but… could you tell me, who are those children? How did they come to be here?"
Sol looked at her, and then at the Nicor children, and he frowned. "I hope it's not a problem?" he asked.
Vanali shook his head. It wasn't a problem – it was anything but that. Though the sight of them made her chest ache, she was glad to see them all the same. They seemed so… normal, so like children, that seeing them made her want to kill herself for her crimes, but she had other plans first, to make it up to them.
Sol smiled. "Good. I hoped not; after all, it was Nate who brought them here. Well, technically, Gill there brought them to the castle, but they are Nate's children."
Vanali looked at him sharply, thinking of her own parents, and he laughed and shook his head.
"I mean, he saved them during the war and took care of them. They're…"
"Adopted," Vanali whispered. She wished Nate were nearby so she could give him a hug. She hadn't known him well, but she was sure he must be a kind man.
"Adopted? Yes, I suppose that is the right word," Sol said.
Vanali suddenly found herself gasping for air, overwhelmed by the appearance of these two Nicor, creatures – people – she had thought all dead. "Sol, thank you for showing me around, but I think I need to lie down again," Vanali told him, and he immediately expressed his concern.
"You take all the time you need to recover," he told her. "While you are here, you are a guest, and you should rest as much as you can. Don't hesitate to ask for anything, and don't feel that you have to come out with me."
Vanali smiled at him. "Thank you. You're very kind." She returned to her room and lay down in bed, feeling glad that winter was coming. It would take her longer to return to normal than she had at first thought. She could use the winter to steel herself.