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Chapter 6

The city proper began to take shape three blocks from Sal’s, but it wasn’t until block six that all signs of the slow, creeping decay vanished. That was the boundary, for now. But everyone noticed in their periphery that this tiny universe was gradually imploding upon itself. For now, the people happily milled about, ignoring the encroaching threat of ruin that loomed over them like a wave. Blindness was a blessed disease. Here remained the fairytale, the physical representation of the ideals upon which the land was built. Here trees unnaturally lined the streets with leaves painted in a magical medley of rusty reds and burnt oranges. Here little, welcoming shops with open doors lined the streets, their wares displayed in clean, grand windows. Several people sat outside tiny cafes, enjoying a late breakfast in the cool morning air. Well-dressed women walked with their well-dressed children down smooth, clean sidewalks. It felt like he was watching play about a time not too long enough, but not quite his time at all. Kyle straightened his shirt, feeling a bit conspicuous but just well-hidden enough not to be noticed. In the parks children played and laughed amid their games. People smiled and said hello to each other under the pleasant rays of the sun. Noirah warned Kyle that the place looked different, once you turned your back. What you couldn’t see were the skeletons beginning to take shape and the blackness overhead.

Down the cobblestone street a horse and carriage trotted. Kyle stared agape. Now this felt like a different world. He watched as two blue birds flittered about in the sky, singing to each other. Kyle imagined that they had just left behind some poor maiden after they had helped her clean. Then off they flew in circles until their path guided his eyes to the palace that stood high atop a green hill, expanding majestically above the entire city. The mere sight of the thing made his breath hitch. It glistened white in the sun, reflecting the bright light back to the city’s denizens. High spires reached skywards as bridges to the heavens. A brilliant blue lake created the illusion that the castle floated upon the clouds and rich, green forest embraced it with a thick clustering of trees. Kyle focused on the large opened doors that were flanked on either side by sturdy, marble columns. It was like the White House reimagined through Disney.

“That would be your humble abode, my liege,” Noirah commented beside him, stopping and entering into a staring match with the mighty feat of human hands.

“I told you not to call me that, Noirah,” he said, disgruntled. She had decided to make sport of his lineage once the entered the more upstanding neighborhoods. Liege was an upgrade from princess.

“Oh, yes, please, grant me pardon.” She bowed her head low.

“Next time it’s straight to the guillotine.”

She laughed and smiled proudly.

Another horse pranced by them, carrying two girls of their age in its carriage. The girls looked down, recognized Noirah and began to whisper. Noirah’s head lifted, her eyes charged forward and Kyle could tell she began to hold her breath.

“Friends?” he asked.

“Oh yes. Bethany, the brunette with the hooked nose, her father wrote several, darling articles about my father in the weeks before our departure. And Lillian, the one who was a little cross-eyed, she is a little gossip-monger.” She ran her hand through her hair. “They’ll absolutely adore you.”

“Why do you say that?” Kyle asked affronted.

“Cause you’re new and shiny and a boy. Back then, all I used to hear about was who liked whom and who had nice hair and whose dad did what, blah, blah, blah.” She mimed her idea of their chatter with her two hands flapping open toward each other, until her right hand finally devoured the left.

A pressure was building up in her head. Then the piercing laugh of one or the other shot through her ears and burrowed into her brain. Her adolescence began to play over in her head. There were good times, loads of good times and then there were those times when those girls started cropping up. She had known them all before, but they hadn’t mattered much. Then one day they did. None of those new girls found Noirah all that pleasant to be around, but at least they hated her because of who she was, not her name. In fact, they put up with her because of her name and, of course, because of Felicity. Nevertheless walking down these streets those beneficent memories regenerated. She could see herself running with Felicity’s hand in hers, giggling and shouting in their sport. Behind them either David or Wes or one of their parents would chase after them, hardly as nimble as they in their dodging of the crowds. The giggles had died first. The rest of that girl withered away bit by bit, day by day and now here she stood with only her faded memories.

The clopping of horses hooves returned her to the unchanged setting of the city.

“There really are a lot of them!” Kyle cheered out, watching another horse and carriage pass. “Like one horse after another.”

“Guess they’re as ubiquitous as your cars.” Then after a short pause, she began to explain, “Ubiquitous means --”

“I know what it means,” Kyle was quick to reply. “I’m really not as stupid as you think I am.”

“I hope to god you’re not because if you are --”

Kyle jumped in, “It means like they’re all around. Like they’re really common.”

“Aces, pal. Now spell it.” Noirah sighed wistfully, reaching out in an attempt to brush the side of another passing horse with her hand. “They are pretty nice to have around. Add ambiance to the place. Maybe one day we’ll develop cars, but we really have no need since people here don’t really like to travel outside their borders.”

“No way. These are way cooler than cars,” Kyle said, delighting in the clacking of the hooves. He took in a deep breath of the fresh fall air which still held a morning chill. It was a wondrous breath from an amazing, new world. This was the world where he should have been raised. This foreign place felt a little like home, way more than Farmingdale ever did. Even the sight of a palace in the distance began to feel natural. He could get used to this place. He wondered if the townspeople ever gathered together to sing en masse.

Noirah envied Kyle’s ability to see this place for the first time. There was something magical and wonderful about it, regardless of its faults. It had energy but a peacefulness. It could take your breath away. But she had seen the underbelly and once you saw it and lived in it, how could you pretend like you didn’t see its taint on every single wall, in every person’s face. He saw it as a good city, no a great city and so did she once upon a time, but now it had become a cemetery of her childhood, where her happy days played over in a loop. Now she could espy the big, bad wolf lurking, ready to pounce, just behind her in her storied youth. Kyle could still feel that unbridled joy when his eyes fell upon something beautiful. She wouldn’t begrudge him that, not yet.

“Well look at that.” Noirah smiled coyly and subtly pointed out to Kyle a figure coming down the street. “You’re about to meet someone I don’t hate.”

Just ahead a tall, slender, dapper man in a fine, dark blue suit with a crisp, white shirt beneath, and fleur-de-lis tie was approaching with brisk steps, his shoes beating out a snappy rhythm. His large brown eyes were wandering from person to person beneath his shadowing grey Homburg hat. His hands in his pockets seemed to be clenching and unclenching sporadically. The veneer of ease barely veiled his hidden anxiety. Then he caught sight of Noirah and he grinned, wagging his eyebrows. He looked honestly glad to see her, which was the last thing Noirah expected to find in this town. But then again, this man wasn’t quite the norm in palace politics; he wasn’t quite the norm in general.

“Noirah Tillard! Hello!” he shouted brightly. Several people looked over at the girl. Most had tried to ignore her, but it was hard when the spotlight glared. He took a hand out and waved vigorously.

“Edward, how are you?” she called out.

When he got closer, he took off his hat and gave a half bow. “Day taking a turn for the better. Always lovely to see a lovely lady like yourself. So few exist around these parts anymore. It’s all rather garishness and vulgarity with these modern girls. But look here, you, a delightful specimen of a fine upbringing with nary a blemish on her spotless record.”

She made a face, a perfect Noirah face that indicated she could read through the act. “Silver been talking? Maybe his wife had a few things to share about me and this one.” She pointed over at Kyle.

He winked at her, smoothed out his hair and put his hat back on, “I am very happy for the both of you. Rather unexpected, but kids these days. You could have come up with something a little less tawdry.”

“Could I have, Edward? Could I have? I just saw the balding woman’s head and it squeezed out all the worst in me. You should have seen her face pucker up like I slapped her with a big, smelly fish.”

Edward tossed his head back and barked out huge laughs. “Surprised you haven’t yet. If you do, call me. Never seen a lady get slapped with a fish.” He looked to the sky thoughtfully. “Seen a man though. Don’t remember the circumstances, but a surprisingly satisfying sight,” He spied Kyle. “Oh, hello and you are, besides what the rumors say?”

“Kyle, Kyle Walters,” he answered as though rote.

The man extended his large hand, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Walters. I’m Edward Foster. Work up there.” He pointed back toward the palace, “Senator, all very official and prestigious.” He grabbed the lapels of his jacket and puffed out his chest, proud as a peacock.

“Are you now? Then what are you doing so far from home at such an early hour?” Noirah asked not quite playfully.

“Me? You know how it is in politics, all the smoozing and such, the tawdriness. Have a brunch date set with some bank chair’s wife. She’s looking for a worthy institution in which to invest. Why not me? Got a few programs that need some backing and I’m not getting any help from the regular lines -- you cannot believe how things have changed up there; rather awful and pedestrian most of the new horde are. No matter, the wives are where the money’s at,” he answered smoothly, though perhaps not honestly. His eyebrow twitched. Noirah could spot a tell from a mile away, but she didn’t call him on it. She liked him too much. Besides it might be nothing more than a tryst with a wife, a tryst of a less official, but more personal nature.

“We all know how much you love smoozing and the wives, not together of course.”

He held up a hand, a golden band surrounding his ring finger. “Not any more. Got myself hitched. Lovely woman. Wait,” he turned to Kyle, “Kyle Walters? No? No. That...Noirah? No. The devil,” he sputtered.

“Not so loud. It’s a surprise and now everyone will know.” She gave a little pout.

And it was true: gossip flew faster than the wind here.

“But it’s yes, probably. I think. Right, Noirah?” Kyle asked, assuming that he knew what the man was going on about. Who would have imagined, he’d have to travel to another universe for anyone to know his name?

“Oh, yeah, of course it’s yes. He’s Christopher and Penny’s kid. Should have known that you would have known them, being who you are and who they are and all the such.”

“And look at you,” the man said, shaking his head. “Chip off the old block, you are! Just like Chris, but shorter. Not much. He was rather too tall, if you ask me. But look at you!” He grabbed Kyle by the shoulders and gave him a light shake in his glee at the discovery. “I can’t believe it! Chris’s boy. God, we’ve all wanted to meet you since Sal mentioned it and here you are. The very definition of a dandy surprise. But you must have come from, but that’s...No. That’s amazing! That’s wrong. Oh, but I have...I really have to go.” He pulled out a pocket watch and peered over Kyle’s shoulder. “Yes, sometimes duty calls. I feel like that rabbit who’s late for a very important date. You know, that rabbit. So it’s a hippity-hop and away for me.”

“Can’t leave the wives waiting for your charms, can you, Casanova?” Noirah teased.

“Married!” He lifted his hand again as evidence. “But when I get back to the palace or whenever we can, we must talk. Can’t say how fortunate it is to run into you. And you too, Noirah. It goes without saying that we must talk. I’ve got a lot to ask you. I’ve heard things. Probably true, hoping it’s not, but understanding if it is.”

“Got a lot to ask you too,” Noirah replied mysteriously. Edward gave her a second look. The girl was really too smart for her own good.

“Yes, well, I’d never have scheduled the date – official, mind you – if I knew that you were coming this morning. But here we are with a hello and goodbye. Take care up there and I will most assuredly see you again.”

The man skipped off quickly, waving from behind him as he rushed to where he needed to go. Noirah watched him bump into an unfortunate older man and apologize with a tip of his hat and suave smile. Then he disappeared into the crowd.

“That’s odd,” she said.

“What? That he knew my dad? Seems like everyone does.”

“Not that,” she said, lightly smacking him. “That.” She pointed in the direction that Edward left. “He’s not having a breakfast date. The ritzier places are closer to the palace grounds, the type of places that donation wives prefer, the type of places where no one looks askance when you drink your breakfast. No reason to enter the western part of the city. He’s doing something else. Don’t know what; bet it’s not bad. Edward wouldn’t. But he’s doing something for sure.” She shook her head. “Can’t believe he’d marry. A regular playboy, Edward Foster. His brother, Wesley, isn’t much better. What has happened since I left?”

She looked ahead and saw that they were nearly at the palace’s doors. She missed so much of it: the stories, the people, the intrigue, the trouble. She missed being part of it. But walking up the hill, coming closer to those large doors, she knew that nothing was going to be the same. At least she had Kyle. He would keep her in the mix for as long as he stayed. For as long as he stayed with her. She looped her arm with his as they proceeded on the path up the hill to what had once been her home.

The dirt path leading up to the palace doors were lined with purple and gold flowers that offered up the feeling of a summer not quite ready to let fall take over. A gentle, calming odor wafted in the air. At certain intervals two trees would appear on either side of the walkway and appeared to grasp hands over their passerby’s head. To the left sat a pond filled with the clearest water that Kyle had seen up close. It looked like bath water that you might find in an ad for a really nice bathroom. Kyle would have liked to wander away and maybe dip a toe in it, but he doubted Noirah would allow him. As they neared the high, twisted gate of the palace, a young man rushed by them, knocking the pair into a guard standing by.

“Oh god, please don’t shoot,” Kyle yelped, helping the guard up. The man gave him a quizzical look, but then his eyes opened wide.

“Not a problem at all. We’ve been expecting your arrival. Please proceed.” The man straightened out his uniform and went back to his post, but he snuck in a peek or two as Kyle and Noirah continued past.

Kyle glanced at Noirah, who shrugged. “There are no secrets here.”

Kyle’s stomach began to clench. What was he entering? Well, besides a palace. He gazed upward at the sheer size of it: this must be what an ant feels like when he looks up and sees a foot about to squish him. They entered beneath the portico (it was bigger than Kyle’s kitchen). Kyle reached out and touched one of the four smooth white marble of a Doric columns. He almost expected the guard to rush up and reprimand him for sullying their beauty with his grubby hands. He actually expected the guard to rush up and tell them to go back home because what business did a nothing kid like Kyle have at a place like this. His hand pressed harder on the stone. A coldness filled him, as he stopped and gazed back out to the town. What was he doing here? How did life work out like this.

“This is immense,” Kyle exhaled.

“It’s a palace so obviously,” Noirah replied snidely, despite the fact that she agreed with his assessment. She gazed up to the top of the two wooden doors that seemed unnecessarily large. Then her eyes fell down and looked past the doors and into the palace. It’s how she remembered, a tableaux, a painting, but now it was real. She wasn’t looking at pictures, but the real thing. Her hands balled up into fists; they pulsed in rhythm with her heart.

“You ready?” she asked.

“We don’t have to like knock or be announced or something. Is there a doorman?” Kyle asked, also peeking inside. He felt like he was about to walk into a TV.

“Open door policy here. People are welcome to enter, you’re only limited as to where you can go once inside. That, my friend, is freedom at its finest.”

She stepped into the picture first; Kyle slowly followed. He lifted one foot and then brought the other next to it. He stood and took it all in – he was in a freaking palace! His eyes grew wide at the marvel of it all, bright white and gilded gold everywhere. Four strong columns bracketed the entrance and reached above to the domed ceiling and skylight, shining like a tiny sun. Two glistening staircases wound up to a second floor landing with a rococo banister, the twists of which seemed ready to magically grow at the snap of a witch’s finger. The floor of the atrium was a marble mosaic, depicting the image of Troy burning as Aeneas snuck away to found his city. Kyle tentatively stepped on it, afraid of breaking the picture. He read the story as best he could. All he perceived was a man safely standing away from the flames of a city. Kyle, at first, wondered if the man hadn’t set the city aflame himself, but then decided it seemed odd to put a tribute to an arsonist in the entrance of the palace. But then why was he so far away with what looked to be a monkey clamoring on his back? Up above a giant chandelier shone down. The refracted light made the fire of the mosaic come to life. The palace benignly ablaze, a wondrous illusion. Behind them the sun glared through a row of high windows. Then Kyle finally noticed the people, the sheer amount of people rushing about the tiny, self-sustained city. No one even noticed them. He walked in a circle, taking everything in. He had never seen anything this spectacular.

“All new beginnings eventually end in flames,” Noirah said, cutting in on his observations. She scoffed at the face of the Trojan who was desperately trying to save what he could of his homeland. “A stupid myth to associate yourself with, if you ask me.”

“I don’t know it,” Kyle replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” she snorted, “None of the splendor matters. None of it. Come on, this way.” She led them beneath the staircases into a long, wide hallway. Electric wall scones in the shape of torches illuminated the dark brick walls. People rushed by them, some in pairs talking intensely in low voices, others clutching pounds of paperwork, others absently skimming a paper somehow dodging all the traffic. Everyone knew where to go. It felt like some old-timey movie was rushing past Kyle. The women wore knee length skirts that swished as they walked with well-tailored jackets of neutral hues. Some more daring ladies opted for high-waisted pants and button-down shirts with shocks of red lips. The men looked like the kind his grandmother swooned over when he’d watch classic musicals. They wore suits, but suits that would smell musty in his world. Occasionally someone would sneak a glance at the pair; more and more Kyle noticed that he was the focus of their attention, not Noirah. People were looking at him! That was pretty cool.

“Noirah!” a female voice called out through the crowd. Noirah attempted to duck and turn around, even though she knew that by avoiding this meeting she was only delaying the inevitable. The owner of the voice caught them before she could flee. “Don’t go hiding, Noirah!”

Kyle looked up ahead and saw a young woman with long blond hair weaving through the hall, hardly noticing the people moving out of her way. She held the hand of a small, sandy-haired boy. Kyle looked over to Noirah and saw her grimace. Then the girl came into clearer view. She looked very familiar; he had seen her before. The long blonde hair cascading in curls, the bright, crystal blue eyes, the flawless peaches and cream skin, the feeling of warmth she spurred in him. He knew her. He blinked a few times and then he placed her.

“That’s the girl from the photo in your room,” Kyle realized, “You said she was dead.”

“Yeah, pretty sure I was being metaphoric. Metaphorically she’s dead, but literally, pretty much completely alive,” Noirah replied, fidgeting as the girl came ever closer.

“You couldn’t have --”

“No, I couldn’t. That girl in the photo died a long time ago.”

The girl was Felicity Sterne, one of King Jacob’s three children. She looked exactly as one might imagine a princess to look like: tall, beautiful and warm, and with the dignity expected from her birth. She and Noirah had been best friends from the time they were toddlers, even sharing the same birthday, but that’s about the only thing that the two shared. Felicity was smiles and laughter; Noirah was less so. People flocked to Felicity, and would have even if she hadn’t been royalty; people tended to shy away from Noirah. Often people would stare at the two girls and wonder how they had even become friends. It wasn’t that hard to understand. Felicity’s joy could make Noirah forget herself and let her play like a child; Noirah forced Felicity to be stronger than she thought herself capable and when she couldn’t fight, Noirah did it for her. They loved each other like sisters, until one day when it stopped.

Noirah glared at Kyle who was oogling Felicity as she approached.

“You might want to...” she touched her lower lip with her index finger, looking to Kyle’s own.

“What, what is it?” Kyle’s hands began to wipe frantically at his lower lip. Was there spinach or something hanging out of his mouth? No, he didn’t eat any spinach. He couldn’t feel anything. Wait, Noirah was laughing. He stopped his actions.

“You were drooling. There was a driblet there, pal.”

“You’re a jerk, you know that?” Kyle whispered harshly.

“No, that comes as an utter surprise,” she deadpanned. Noirah’s attention quickly turned to Felicity who now stood before her.

“Princess Felicity! What an honor that you should come and greet us personally.” She dropped down into a deep curtsey, with her eyes to the ground, “I am humbled by your presence.”

“Quit it, Noirah,” the girl replied in a controlled voice. She smiled at Kyle and he felt his insides melt. “Please be assured we’re hardly so formal here.” She extended her hand. “I’m Felicity, Felicity --”

“Sterne, yeah I know. I’m Kyle, Kyle --.”

“Walters, I know too.” He stared at her hand, the hand of his fairytale princess, debating whether he should shake it, kiss it, bow down to it, worship it as the perfect specimen of a hand it was. She finally took his in hers and shook it. Their hands lingered together; they both shyly smiled at each other. Kyle’s cheeks reddened. A beautiful princess just called him by his name. He was dying inside, but in a good way. “People have been talking, so I heard,” she said by way of explanation. “I suppose, Noirah –”

“Didn’t mention you once,” Noirah interrupted snidely with her arms tightly drawn across her chest.

Felicity was about to reply when the little boy at her side whimpered her name and drew him down next to her. They held a short hushed conversation which ended with Felicity lifting him up in her arms. The boy buried his face into her shoulder, glancing occasionally at Kyle, then quickly tucking his head back into Felicity.

“This is Peter, my brother. Sorry, he’s shy around strangers.” She gently brushed back a strand of his hair. “You’re kind of shy around a lot of people any more, aren’t you?” she asked the boy sadly. She bounced him on her hip; he was getting heavier with each year, but still clamored to be held. When he blinked contentedly, she smiled once more at Kyle. “So how did you hear about me, Kyle Walters?”

Kyle felt a bead of sweat form on his upper lip. He wiped it away with a clammy hand. He tried to calm himself with the mantra, you are sexy cool. Nope still didn’t help. But then he looked in her eyes and words melted out. “Oh well, Noirah had some award on her wall. You were apparently a superstar at the three-legged race as a kid. Keep up with that?”

And then she laughed. It was sweet. If rainbows were a sound, it would be her laughter, he decided. He just made a girl laugh and he meant to. He felt like he could fly.

“No, no. Had to give up the dream due to injury,” she answered.

“Oh, ha ha,” he answered. His laughter came out like bullets from a machine gun. He swallowed and try to make it sound more natural. “That was funny. A really funny joke. Injury.”

“How long are you two going to be at this? If you know his name, you know who he is and probably know why we’re here, which is not whatever this is.” She waved a disgusted hand between them. “He’s going to leave soon for the Outside, far, far from here, so any budding romantic feelings, think about squashing them because nothing is sadder than tragic, teenage love.”

“Do you mind if I grab Noirah for a sec?” Kyle asked, pulling Noirah aside. When they were far enough away, he dropped his hold on her arm.

“You’re being kind of mean,” he whispered.

“And you’re being kind of confrontational.” Noirah smirked while flicking her hair carelessly behind her shoulder and mewled, “It hurts my feelings.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he begged, both annoyed and concerned.

“Nothing’s wrong. Why would anything be wrong? I love it here and I love her and I love everything and the way that you are so obviously flirting like some idiot. Love that the most.”

“Is that what this is about? Are you jealous?”

And that was the last thing that Noirah needed to hear. Kyle knew it when he said it. He waited for her to scream at him, to lunge at his throat, to breath fire, but none of that happened. Her face turned to stone and she glared.

“I didn’t mean to say that. I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.

She looked off to the side. Two years ago things would have been so different. They could have all been joking. They’d be hanging out in one of their rooms, plotting some sort of prank on David or Sam. Felicity hadn’t changed at all. She looked just like she had when Noirah left, maybe a little thinner, more tired. Their eyes caught and held. Felicity broke away first when Peter squirmed to be put down. No, they weren’t quite the same either. Peter used to be vivacious and extremely loud and chatty. And Felicity. Noirah knew something was wrong; it wasn’t hard to tell, but things were different. They weren’t friends and now she found some pleasure in the grief that she witnessed. Noirah needed someone else to hurt.

“Save the apology.” She avoided his eyes. “I’m...I just...okay?” It expressed what she was feeling well enough. She shook her head, inhaling sharply through her nose. “Let’s not keep her highness waiting.”

They taciturnly accepted the situation and walked back, neither pleased about how things would turn out.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” Noirah said to Felicity, “He’s shy around strangers.”

Kyle shrugged: it wasn’t untrue.

“Well,” Felicity started, ignoring Noirah’s last comment, “my father is currently busy, but Sam should be apprising him of the situation later this morning and I’m certain that he’ll want to speak with you. The both of you. And I’ve already put forth the order to set up accommodations for you,” she once again added, “the both of you.” She turned to Noirah uncomfortably. She tried to smile, but that failed. Her face couldn’t decide how to handle the situation. In the end, it settled on a blank mask. “Noirah, you can have your old room. It hasn’t much changed since --” Felicity couldn’t finish the thought, but the words hung over them. She continued, “My father hasn’t let anyone disturb it, except to keep it clean.”

“Lovely. I’ll thank the king for his kind consideration in regards to my family and their private property,” Noirah replied. “It’s nice to know that if he can’t respect the people, he can respect their material possessions, unless it’s someone’s territory.” She covered her mouth, “I made a gaffe. Shouldn’t be saying such things --”

“You don’t know anything, Noirah, so don’t you dare start,” Felicity commanded, her voice taking on a low hiss that shocked Kyle.

“That’s right,” Noirah replied in a bored tone, “I wouldn’t know anything about palace politics. I’m just a lowly serf. Forgive me, princess.”

Felicity opened her mouth to answer, but Kyle stepped in, “I heard about coffee and I would love some. Takers?”

“A cup of diversion would be nice right now,” Noirah agreed.

“Great,” Kyle answered.

“Yes, wonderful idea, Kyle,” Felicity replied in a falsely cheery voice. Her composure felt shaken with Noirah so close. She had been on edge all morning since news came that Noirah Tillard had been spotted with a boy named Kyle Walters from the Outside. She knew that there was something more to his story, but she couldn’t find out what it was. Voices had grown hushed when she had entered a room. More and more whispered conversations started when she was around. Most days she could pretend that it meant nothing, but deep inside, she couldn’t lie to herself. Something was happening and it wasn’t good. Worst of all, she couldn’t talk to her father about it or her mother. And now here was Noirah and she couldn’t even talk to her, even if that was her first impulse. Now the name made her hands shake. Now she was part of the problem. They were both part of the problem.

She put her hand on Peter’s head. “I should drop him off first. I don’t necessarily think that all conversations might be appropriate for him this morning. Do you mind a detour?” Felicity asked.

“Of course not, princess!” Noirah complied, “One of us should remain happy and innocent.” The tone was sarcastic, but the sentiment was true.

*

Felicity had left Peter with his nanny after much fanfare. She apologetically explained that Peter had grown rather clingy, but didn’t expound further on the issue. Kyle had sympathized with the little boy’s desire to remain in Felicity’s arms. Who would want to leave those? They finally left and were now walking to the opposite end of the castle through the twists and turns of the hall. Kyle walked in between the two girls; it was not an enviable position.

“So how’s the family?” Noirah asked.

It seemed an innocent enough question but when Kyle looked over to Felicity, he noticed that the girl froze. She was scrutinizing Noirah, and Kyle hadn’t a clue for what she could possibly be looking. Even Noirah was taken aback at the response her innocuous question procured.

“Fine,” Felicity answered in a clip tone. “Father’s busy with this and that. And David is, well, he’s also busy and mother...”

“Is busy?” Noirah finished looking triumphant.

“She is. She actually just left for Lanchester for diplomatic reasons, so you won’t see her and that’s not at all...”

“Blah, blah, blah. All very interesting,” Noirah cut her off pleasantly with a wave of her hand. “It wasn’t as though I was asking out of concern. I mean, you understand niceties. It’s what society runs on. But look to whom I speak. You know better than anyone about the superficialities of human conventions.”

Felicity’s lips drew into a tight line as though they were the sole barrier between Noirah and the deluge of words which were pressing to be set free. Only Felicity’s dogged determination kept those words locked away. After a calming breath she turned to Kyle with a closed lipped smile which was meant to be warm, but might put out the flames of Hell. “I hope that your trip here wasn’t too awful. Those woods aren’t what they --”

“Yes, even Kyle knows that the woods aren’t safe. He’s less informed about your family’s role in the current ruinous state of the kingdom,” Noirah interrupted in a polite tone.

Felicity still maintained her grace, “The kingdom is hardly ruined.”

“Oh?” Noirah lifted an eyebrow. “I guess behind these lovely walls things look simply felicitous?”

“You have really strong opinions for someone who defected to the Northern Realm,” the princess challenged, her tone remaining threateningly stoic.

“We had no choice,” Noirah snapped back. A warm flush rushed upon her cheeks, and her gaze dropped to the ground. If her meeting with Emily Silver taught her anything, it was that other people had their own bombs to throw and sometimes her own games could explode in her face.

Felicity looked around and caught people staring. Even she had the good sense to keep things quiet and not implicate Noirah and her family in further scandal. Part of her relished seeing Noirah get served her own medicine, but her old self was ashamed of what she did, and grew even more ashamed that she wasn’t about to apologize. No, she would continue to feed her own anger.

She opened a nearby door and drew the other two into a small, windowless room filled with filing cabinets. Felicity pulled on a string in the middle of the room and turned on a light. The three stood all too close in the cramped space. Kyle wanted to raise his hand and ask if he could leave. This wasn’t exactly the dream Kyle had about being locked in a closet with two girls. Although, to be honest, he felt the same amount anxiety that he might should he have been trapped in a small room with two girls who were interested in doing things that did not involve murdering each other.

“Oh, you didn’t have a choice but to go north? I doubt that was your only option,” Felicity protested.

“What reason did we have to stay loyal to you? You ruined us!” Noirah yelled, leaning in towards the girl and roughly pushing Kyle out of the way.

“Keep it down. I wouldn’t go shouting about disloyalty within these walls.”

“Oh thanks for the concern. Where were you two years ago?”

“I did what I could. You chose to alienate yourself. You didn’t exactly make yourself likable,” Felicity retorted.

“I didn’t have to be likable, I was right! That should have been enough.”

Felicity’s voice dropped, “What do you know about right and wrong? Who are you? Who was your father?” When Noirah remained uncharacteristically quiet, the princess continued, “Exactly, you didn’t. You never did. No one does. You settled yourself on a pedestal of righteousness, so far above the dirt in which this palace has been buried. Probably happy now that things have fallen into such mire, just so you might be as haughty and self-righteous as you are now, as you always have been and always will be. Always shouting in that snide little tone of yours about something of which you are appallingly ignorant. Come strutting in here, like you always have. But things are different now. Things kept going when you left.”

Noirah was about to respond, but Felicity raised her hand, “No, I am speaking. Don’t you dare interrupt me now.” Kyle could see Noirah’s face growing red, ready to retort, but something in the princess’ demeanor forced her to keep silent. “My father has been trying so hard, he has worked himself into the ground. He’s constantly in meetings and talks. Everyone’s been struggling to come up with a solution to problems, but it isn’t that simple. No one is happy. Everyone wants everything without having to budge an inch and that isn’t possible. Things have spiraled...it can’t be that simple anymore. The ground has already crumbled away and people delight in the ruins and shield themselves with dead bodies as they climb to power. And unless you have been here, unless you have –” Felicity stopped herself. No, Noirah hadn’t been here, but not because she wanted to leave. In her anger and frustration she forgot that bit. Sometimes that happened in these two years. Sometimes she could blame that girl for being absent. It was easier to hate her when guilt didn’t abate the feeling, when she didn’t have to look her in the face and see those eyes that she had known for years. Everything was so confused anymore. From the moment Noirah left to now, Felicity so wanted to say that she was sorry and she was ready to accept any apology from Noirah, but that wasn’t going to happen. They simply weren’t friends anymore. That was the fact, but Felicity still couldn’t understand why, even though she knew the exact reason.

The passion she had felt dissipated and she sighed, “It’s not as easy as you might think. People would rather be right than make things better.”

No one said a word, but the room was hardly silent. Noirah slumped against a filing cabinet, her anger still radiating, but not sure where to go. The princess was pinching the bridge of her nose. Kyle began to feel terribly out of place. He was peeking into two separate, private rooms; there wasn’t space to fit both. Kyle wanted desperately to break the silence, cut apart the thick air of hostility, but he didn’t know what to say. His mom would have.

Then the door opened and all three jumped. Noirah and Felicity relaxed when they saw the intruder: Anna Reynolds, a rational, articulate, neutral party. Anna seemed to have been created for politics. From the days when they were kids, Anna served as their mediator. She rarely got angry and the sight of her face could always dispel any tension.

“Hi, everyone. I wanted to let you know that everyone outside can hear you. Might want to keep down, or end it. Either way, you should really depart from the record’s room; it’s not meant to be used in this manner.” She began to leave and shut the door, but Felicity stopped her. Seeing Anna gave her a brilliant idea.

“Anna, I have a favor to ask.”

Anna gave a quick smile, but it was clear that she hadn’t the time for this or that. She had simply wanted to warn her friends, whose voices she recognized straight away when she neared the little room, about the racket they were creating and then carry on with her business. Quite honestly she had been on alert for any indications of a quarrel since she had heard Noirah was back. The greatest perk of her apprenticeship here in the palace was the information that she was privy to, but a disadvantage was her lack of time to act on it. After she had eavesdropped on Senator Samuel’s conversation with someone whom Anna never identified, she had to continue on with her work like over-achieving Anna who had no idea that her friend Noirah Tillard had returned. It wasn’t an unusual sight to see Anna rushing every which way with her arms full of papers; her hair such a jumbled mess on top of her head that she was constantly berated with jokes about birds roosting in there. She was usually too busy to put much stock in what others said about her though. Rather she wondered why people were so concerned with her hair and clothes and lack of polish -- no, she would not like to borrow anyone’s lipstick -- when there was so much important, sensitive information to be soaked up within the walls. Well, there was one obvious reason people were so concerned with her appearance and so eager to whitewash her to fit the mold. They could say what they wanted, stare at her all they wanted, she took far too much pride in herself and her family to be ashamed of who she was and from where she came. Perhaps people might claim that race wasn’t an issue here as it was on the Outside, but you simply had to be something other than white to realize that the sentiment didn’t quite intersect with the truth.

“Felicity, I haven’t all day. What is the favor?” Anna pressed.

“Good day to you too,” Felicity drawled.

“Of course, good day and all that, but if I don’t get these papers into Mr. Samuel’s hands in the next two minutes, just please proceed.” Anna’s eyes were already looking in the direction of her goal, and Felicity could tell that if she didn’t speak soon that Anna’s mind would start racing ahead to the next things on her to-do list and she would be completely lost to all else. Felicity stepped outside of the room with Kyle following and Noirah content to remain in the dark.

“How would you feel about leading a tour of the palace to a tiny but eclectic group?”

“Felicity, I can’t skive off work to play games with you,” Anna insisted. “Me, job, responsibilities.”

Just then someone bumped into her and all the papers in Anna’s arms flew to the ground in a mess. She looked from the papers to Felicity. It didn’t always look it, but everything Anna did and carried was utterly organized. On the hallway floor was an hour of time. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from yelling.

“Did you pay him to do that?” she asked. Felicity shook her head, “Then what in the deuces? People just walking into people? No apology? It’s really turning into anarchy here! Have you heard of such a thing?” Anna stuttered, seeking answers from Felicity and Kyle.

She paused, recognized Kyle as someone whom she could not identify and, for the first time in this whole exchange, Anna afforded him some attention. After a hard look over, some computation of facts, comprehension dawned on her. “You’re the young gentleman whom Mr. Kinney mentioned. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kyle Walters from the Outside, or would be under different circumstance.” Anna frowned looking down at the ground as she saw the papers surrounding her. “Well, this isn’t good, now is it? I suppose we can delay handing off these paper. I suppose we have to since...oh, no matter. I’ve just freed up I’d say an hour.” She looked once more to where she was heading with a grimace, “It’s not as though Mr. Samuels will even really notice that these haven’t arrived with everything else he has to do. It’s not as though I’ve ever been late. He can’t fault me this one time. And he’s often told me not to work so hard. I’ll just take an early lunch and add thirty minutes personal time, no, I’ll just stay thirty minutes later. It’s nice to get work done when the offices are a little quieter. The traffic in Mr. Kinney’s and Mr. Samuels’ offices has really increased in the past --”

“Anna, concentrate.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “I am, just on something that doesn’t concern you, not directly anyhow.”

“Can’t you make a little more time? I’m certain no one would take exception to your being late if the princess delays you,” Felicity interrupted as Anna had gotten absorbed in her own thought process once again. Anna crouched down to the ground, scooping up all the papers in her arms.

“That would only work if people weren’t aware of the fact that you and I are friends and we were probably discussing personal rather than official matters.” Anna stood back up and shuffled the papers until they were all even. “An hour and be glad you have that much. If these papers hadn’t fallen, I’d be gone.” She caught sight of Noirah still lurking in the shadows and with very little patience left to endure their squabbles, she called out, “Noirah, come on out of there. I should really lock that. Other people should, but who ever does their job anymore? Honest to god anarchy. ” Anna shoved the papers into Kyle’s arms. “Be a dear and carry those for me, but be careful not to read them. Classified matters.” When she had passed off her burden, she once again shifted gears and drew out a giant set of keys, flipping through until she found the correct one. She smiled at Noirah when the girl slunk out of her hiding spot. “Lovely to see you, Noirah.”

“I assumed as much, Anna. You a janitor now?” Noirah asked, looking at the keys.

“I think that might actually be part of my job description. I wouldn’t mind it. The palace could do with a good cleaning,” she answered earnestly, despite detecting the sarcasm. She shut and locked the door and tucked her keys away again. With that task done, she turned again to Kyle. She ignored the two girls and focused solely on him. Her intensity rivalled Noirah’s. “You know, I shouldn’t know where you’re from. That little bit of news has been suppressed in the gossip mills, unsuccessfully, but the intention to keep it under wraps exists. There’s something else, but I don’t know it yet. I will find out eventually. Unless you tell me now. You have any ideas, Kyle?”

“I just came here. I really know very little,” Kyle hedged, aware of what a terrible liar he was. Anna seemed to recognize that by the look on her face.

“Sure,” Anna answered dubiously, but didn’t press. A good politician would wait. “What about you, Noirah? What exactly do you know?”

“I know more than he since he does, in fact, know very little,” Noirah asserted, squeezing through Kyle and Felicity to join Anna up ahead, “And I bet I know more about this palace than our ad hoc tour guide.”

“Challenge accepted,” Anna retorted, “Did you know that this hallway --”

“Housed a duel between my great, great, great grandfather and --”

“I’m fairly sure you missed a great,” Anna corrected.

“Oh no, I do believe that I know my own family’s greatness,” Noirah replied.

Kyle didn’t quite catch Anna’s reply, as the two were already far ahead of him. It seemed that they were now going on about the commission date of a certain portrait of a certain man. Kyle was happy to see that much of Noirah’s malice had faded when she and Anna began to quarrel over quibbles.

The foursome stepped through the palace doors. Kyle paused and looked around him. From this high up he felt like he could see for miles. When he walked through the city streets, it felt so small, but from this distance it looked expansive. Clumps of green, trees and grass and parks, popped out between the buildings and streets. Here and there loud signs, colorful shutters, a surprising shock of brightness livened the town’s low brick buildings. There was something eclectic and quaint about the place. Kyle watched people wander along the roads and he wondered where they were off to. Further in the distance he could see the edges of town, its darkness like a moat, and the towering gates. Even further he saw the rising hills and forest, where just a day ago Mogren had saved his life. His life. What a turn it had taken. This panorama was his new reality.

“Sometimes I feel the same way. It isn’t until someone like you comes along that I get to experience this place all over again. It makes me regret that I take it for granted,” Felicity spoke as she came to walk next to him. “You never know how long you might get to enjoy it.”

Kyle nodded. “It’s amazing. It’s so different. It’s like another world,” he chuckled awkwardly. “It is another world for me.”

Felicity sighed: it felt like another world for her, despite the fact that she spent her childhood living in that fantasy. She could still see the beauty, but there was something else. Everyday her eyes were opened a little more. For a time she could lie to herself; she could accept the lies others told her, but she was beginning to see things she couldn’t unsee, and hear things she couldn’t unhear. It felt like she had been happily skating on ice for years. She could hear the muddled whispers, feel the pounding beneath her feet, but she wouldn’t look down. She had been so afraid. Then one day, she peeked and she couldn’t look away. Beneath her feet, through the ice, she could see the reality, she could see the faces with mouths open begging for air; it was horrible and terrifying, but it was the world. The moment she interacted with it, she could feel herself drowning in the cold water below, unable to get out, when all she wanted to do was go up to the surface and skate happily once more. In vain she struggled and fought to return to that place of ignorance. Now Noirah grabbed her hand and was pulling her further below. She focused on that girl’s dark head right in front of her.

“Noirah’s not wrong. It’s partially my family’s fault that we’re in this mess.” She shook her head in defeat, then took a breath, “My grandfather, he ruled here for a long time, maybe too long. He loved us, his family and when I was a kid, that’s the only thing that mattered. Now that I’m older, I’ve learned things. How can he be both the man who used to bounce me on his knee, and the one who instigated this current maelstrom? I really want to believe the best, but that’s not enough. Nothing stops the flood once it rages. No amount of belief that things will get better might stop it.” She stopped and looked over at Kyle. He appeared uncomfortable. She did that. She had been trained so much better than this, than to allow her own feelings to discomfort a guest. And Kyle seemed so sweet, so blissfully light. She didn’t want to put this on him; he had enough troubles. “I’m sorry. You’ve caught me at an awful time and Noirah isn’t prone, well at least now, to lighten my mood. Usually I’m quite a delight. I’ve even been described as charming from time to time. Hard to believe now. But I promise, it’s true.”

“You are charming,” Kyle said aloud, not in his head, but so that she could hear. He coughed and amended, “Charming, you know, for a person. People can be charming. Girls too. Stress gets to people, but you’re still very -- uh, I understand.” Running completely on instinct, Kyle shut his rambling mouth and reached out to take her hand in his, giving it a gentle squeeze. For a moment he thought she was going to draw away, because that’s what girls did. But then she smiled at him and his heart literally fluttered.

“You’re kind of charming too, for a person because boys can be charming too,” she replied. The two locked eyes and smiled. Kyle wished his phone worked so he could take a picture. #ImInLove.

Up ahead, Noirah happened to glance back at the pair. She had a feeling that this would happen. It always happened this way: Felicity would come along and enchant everyone in her path, leaving behind Noirah in her wake. Even when Noirah tried, Felicity had that natural ease about her that drew people in. And now Kyle drifted that way too. She raised an eyebrow at Anna who saw what she saw.

“How are you?” Anna asked. Noirah shrugged indifferently. “I’m happy you’re here. Really, I am. I haven’t really had a challenge in a while.”

“You think I’m challenging?” Noirah replied. At least there’d always be Anna who would never choose a side. Noirah felt assured that Anna didn’t even know what a side was. Everything was unified for her. Everything could co-exist, if you made it so. She was probably the best of the three and was hardly recognized at all.

“In a good way,” Anna elucidated. “Once you left, I hardly had to lift a finger to acquire first rank in the class. It helped alleviate some stress, mind you. You only ever wanted first rank to win; I needed it for my scholarship. But, the gods, we were the best. No one will ever touch our achievements. Wasn’t as much fun by myself.”

“Not like I wanted to leave. And technically you were the best; I was second.”

“A very close second. And you’re here now. You’ve come back. It’s good that you did. I think that this is good. Nothing’s been the same since. Things have felt off somehow on a micro- and macro-level.”

She put her arm around the tinier girl’s shoulder and took no offense when Noirah tensed up. Tough, little Noirah rarely felt comfortable with physical contact, but Anna thought that most of the time she needed it the most, “I’m here for you. I would have been there when, well, when you, when it happened --well, why mince words, when your family was exiled -- but I didn’t know. I woke up that morning and people were talking about it at school and I didn’t know what happened to you. I’ve heard things about you guys since, but I assume only half of it is true. Like you and Kyle and a baby?”

“You heard that! Not true, not true at all,” Noirah laughed. It was the first time she had laughed on the grounds in years. The leaves in the trees rustled with the sound. “And I understand. I know you would have been there. You weren’t the only one missing.”

Anna nodded. “Our tour is failing.”

“Yeah, well, wasn’t ever really meant to be one, now was it? To your left please note the grass. And just yonder a pond.”

Anna shook her head with a smile and pulled Noirah closer. “I’m glad I took the break. I really am glad to see you, Noirah.”

The settling peace lasted only a few moments. From behind a tenor voice yelled out Felicity’s name. The group stopped and turned around and caught sight of a young man with wild gangly legs sprinting to the group. Each girl grew tense: his entrance was inopportune. Noirah and Felicity might now harbor mutual ill-will, but Noirah and MacCartney had always had open hostilities toward one another for as long as they had known each other. The three girls had grown up with each other: MacCartney was a late addition. Felicity had gone out with her mother in the city to shop for a new dress for her thirteenth birthday and as they travelled along, Felicity had spotted MacCartney laid out on the sidewalk. She had been sheltered from such things her whole life long and when she saw a boy, her own age, alone and sick and cold without anyone, sleeping on the hard concrete, she wanted to help and so she did. MacCartney had been a fixture in the palace ever since. He was aware of his pariah status, the gutter trash whose mom dumped him and whose dad was unknown, and he relished it. He made people love him or hate him and was more than well equipped to cause real trouble. Only Anna could reign him in. He saw in her a kindred spirit: they were the outsiders. Felicity’s guilt over his circumstances granted him immunity in her eyes.

When he reached them, he stopped and slumped over, catching his breath. Once restored, he perked up and caught sight of Felicity and Kyle’s entwined hands. He grinned and pointed. “Cute. Holding hands, that’s cute,” he commented.

“MacCartney?” she snipped, wrenching her hand out of Kyle’s.

He sobered, and somberly informed Felicity that her father required her due to some issue with her mother. The comment was vague, but struck Felicity. She apologized to Kyle for her departure, nearly told Noirah that she was happy to see her, before she realized how ridiculous that would sound, and headed back home to see to family matters, leaving behind a very different quartet. With the exchange of one person, the dynamic shifted completely.

“This isn’t awkward at all,” MacCartney said, smacking his lips. He brought his hands together in front of him, looking ready to pray, but then he pointed his fingers at Noirah. “Should I go first, or, you’re a guest here now, so maybe you start this? How do you want to play it? Cause seeing you here, honestly Noirah, I have so many things to say. I don’t know if you heard me shouting some of them as you were dragged --”

“MacCartney,” Anna warned.

“No, Anna. Let it speak. It’s about time someone spoke openly. All the withering stares wear on a girl. So have at it, Mac. Please berate me with your rapier wit. How I ache to hear your clownish jesting. So come on now, dance, little monkey, put on your funny little show,” Noirah replied aloofly, approaching him like a winding snake. Mac stared at her silently. “Hm? Nothing.”

“Nobody wants you here. You shouldn’t have come back,” Mac answered.

“And God shouldn’t have wasted the breath that gave you life. Poor decisions all around, I think.” She looked at each of them indifferently. “This is boring. I’m going to the library. I have some research to do.” She gave Kyle a pointed look.

He misunderstood it. “Yeah, I have research too?”

“No, you don’t. You play with your new friends. I want to be alone.”

“You don’t have to --”

“Anna, let her go,” Mac whined. “Count our blessings that we didn’t have to call the troops in to drag her away like last time.”

Noirah gave a little wave over her shoulder to Kyle and Anna, then stepped in front of Mac. Her eyes bore straight into his, as she whispered in his ear, “I’d be careful. People like you are expendable. And when things start changing, you’ll be taken out like the piece of garbage you are.”

When she went to walk away, he grabbed her upper right arm with enough pressure that it could leave a bruise. “I wouldn’t go threatening people if I were you. We all know where you’ve been and they’re plenty of people who’d like to see your dead body in a gutter.”

“Maybe the one in which you were found?” She clasped her left hand onto his and dug her nails in, trying to pry him off her. He pulled harder.

“Enough, you two!” Anna came over and yanked them apart. “If you need to go to the library, go and you stay here and keep quiet.”

They stood, deadlocked for a bit longer, until Anna pulled Mac away, forcing him to concede their staring match. Noirah turned and strutted forward in long, deliberate steps without looking back.

MacCartney exhaled his ire, much more pleased with this other visitor. There were better ways to get back at Noirah than with empty insults. “Kyle Walters. Great to put a face to a name. People twittering about you throughout the palace. A great big uproar you’re causing and now I can see the man himself.” Mac threw his arm around him as though they were old friends. He began to walk down the path that Noirah had just taken. “And now you’ve met me, which is great news for you because I know things and I’m a guy that you should know.”

“Okay,” Kyle replied timidly, completely taken aback by MacCartney’s loud, ebullient energy. It was the type of energy that led Kyle to believe if he should turn around, he would find an audience staring back at him. For whom the performance was being led, Kyle hadn’t an inkling, but the show was clearly marked.

“Mac.” Anna dragged him off Kyle. Mac’s face dropped when he sensed the beginning of an Anna reprimand. “I need you to lay off Noirah, okay? Please. I don’t beg, but in this case, I will. And not for her, for me. I am way too stressed to mediate between the two of you for however long she is here.”

“Then don’t. She deserves it. Her family deserves it,” Mac retorted, grabbing her shoulders from behind and giving them a hearty squeeze.

“Why?” Kyle asked. “They were kind of nice-ish to me. I mean, they’re a little…things were a little tense, but they were nice.”

“They aren’t, trust me,” Mac replied more meanly than he had intended. “I can forgive your feelings because you’re from the Outside and you don’t know.” Mac jumped up ahead of them, and, walking backwards, continued, “Her father basically tried to usurp the throne and cause a revolution and on top of that Noirah is a nasty, entitled piece of,” Mac stopped, looked at Anna and smiled coyly, “piece of heaven. She’s an angel.”

“That’s not what happened,” Anna said quietly, but with a certain lack of conviction. The whole fiasco two years ago wore on everyone. Official matters locked behind closed doors had seeped out and invaded and tainted everything. The whole thing was sad; Mac had taken a queer pleasure in it. It was the closest Anna had ever come to hating him, but she kind of understood. It didn’t make it better, only understandable.

“Then what did happen? Did they, Mr. Tillard, do something wrong?” Kyle asked.

Anna made a pained face. “It’s complicated. No really, Kyle, it is. I was fifteen. Nobody talked to me about these things and my father owns a shop. He didn’t have any access to the information that I do now. Opinions and facts changed from paper to paper. Talk to senators now and the stories are told through hindsight. Mr. Tillard did try to enact laws to dethrone the king. He didn’t believe that kingship should be hereditary or that our realm needed one any longer – it was only supposed to be a temporary position. Some of his other beliefs were against popular opinion and he took a really ill-advised stand against some very powerful men. It wasn’t good. He had no feel for the political climate. He wasn’t part of either political faction so neither side supported him and both could detest him. If I was his advisor, I would have definitely advised against the moves he made.”

“And if I were your advisor, I’d tell you to stay away from her, for your own good. Anna, fine whatever, she can be friends with the she-devil. People know Anna. No one knows you. You came here pretty dubiously. People will start to talk,” Mac advised seriously, for once some of his facade fading away. “Hey, I know, you don’t know me. I’ve said things that probably have irked you, but this comes from a good place, Kyle. I know how it is here. I know how to maneuver when you’re an outsider. Trust me.”

Kyle looked from Mac to Anna back to Mac who began to waggle his brows in sport, encouraging Kyle to join the bandwagon. It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Mac completely without really getting to know him. Plus Mac seemed cool and never had a cool kid ever actively sought Kyle’s friendship. Even the averagely cool kids usually passed him over, which made for some awkward moments when he was the only person in his SciFi Club not to be invited to a party. Mac, however, looked like one of those kids who got invited to parties where people drank and hooked up or whatever they did (Kyle’s ideas about parties mostly came from TV). If Mac were in a superhero movie, he’d be the ambiguous bad guy who made snarky comments and was so much cooler than the heroes, but he was also kind of a hero himself. He had stubble! He had an actual sexy jawline that Kyle thought he should probably stop looking at. When Kyle looked in the mirror, he kind of wanted to see Mac looking back. His body looked like that of a runner with olive brown skin. His eyes were dark; Kyle would definitely call them mysterious. But more than anything he had cockiness foreign to Kyle. Most cocky people didn’t notice Kyle where he was from. Why not see how the other side lived?

“Um, well, I mean, Noirah and I are friends, but we can still hang. Right? So, is there anything fun to do here?” Kyle asked, trying to sound casual.

Mac grinned and slung his arm around Kyle once more. “You better believe it.”

*

That night Kyle tossed and turned in bed. The whole day had been a muddled mess. When he had finally found Noirah again, she had been reticent and moody. She had only warmed up when Kyle said something unintentionally mean about MacCartney. He had intentionally kept quiet about Felicity who remained absent the rest of the night. Maneuvering between everyone proved a difficult, stressful task. Then he went to bed and found he couldn’t sleep. Thousands of images flitted across his lids whenever he closed his eyes, a million thoughts. He felt uncomfortable and uneasy. When did life become such an entropic whirlwind? With every step, he worried that he might tread on a land mine. Being a nobody was easier. Invisible, he could traipse about without worrying about anyone. Now if he blinked the wrong way, someone got mad at him.

After he decided pretending to sleep was useless, Kyle took advantage of his insomnia to explore the castle and conveniently found himself outside on the grounds. There was something about being outside late at night: the way the grass was just a little bit wet, the air held a clean crispness, crickets sounded and there were stars everywhere. They were one of the few permanent, steady things in life. However, he couldn’t identify a single constellation. No, he wasn’t home.

Kyle zipped up his sweatshirt, surprised by the drop in the temperature but found it welcoming. As he neared the pond, he noticed that he wasn’t the only person unable to sleep. Sitting at the edge was the princess, staring out, unaware of his approach. Or so he thought. He stopped a few feet behind her, unsure whether or not he should interrupt her. Did she want company? Did she want his company?

“I don’t sleep much anymore, so I come here.” she said, without turning. He smiled. She had known that he was there. Either he was a loud walker or maybe, this he hoped, they had some connection. They could just sense each other. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t sleep. She was calling out to him, consciously, unconsciously, and he was forced to come and join her. He stepped next to her and cautiously took a seat. Even in the dead of night, with the slightest tinges of darkness under her eyes, she was the most beautiful girl that he had ever seen. And to think she actually talked to him, Kyle Walters.

They were quiet. Kyle was too absorbed in admiration to think of words, and the princess too absorbed in thoughts to think of speaking.

But as the seconds made their steady march, she began, “I like it out here. It’s always the same. When I’m out here, it feels safe and steady. It...” she trailed off.

Kyle cleared his throat. “I, uh, I had this place at home, I used to go there all the time. I liked it because when everything at school was...it reminded me of when I was little. My mom would take me there and I liked remembering those days. I was always happy there and sometimes, I could feel that way again.”

She smiled weakly at him, “I understand. I have so many memories of this place. I sit here and I can hear my mother laughing while my father chases us like a giant ogre. I can feel that little spark of joy that comes from nothing. It was nothing special at all, just a tiny, little moment and I wish I could have it back. But it passes and disappears except in my head.” She stopped and placed her hands on her lap, playing with the fabric of her skirt. “Do you miss your parents?”

“My mom, yeah. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone this long without hearing or seeing her. I don’t think the word miss describes how I feel right now.” Kyle ran his hand atop the wet grass, “I don’t know my dad.”

“I’m sorry.” she said sincerely.

“Me too.” He wondered if she would be, if she knew who his father was. Was being a Leonard as bad as being a Tillard? Hey Romeo and Juliet made it work, sort of. He’d willingly die for just one kiss. ‘I hope that you do,’ he heard the voice of Noirah say in his head. Oh why was she living in his head now? That would complicate his life…more.

“I miss my mom,” she sighed.

“How much longer will she be gone?” Kyle asked.

His question startled her. Then she remembered. “Oh, hopefully not long. Maybe tomorrow. She might come back tomorrow.”

Kyle felt Felicity scoot a little bit closer to him. A slight tremble ran through her body. He didn’t know what to do: did she want him to move over too? She glanced sheepishly at him.

“It’s getting a little cold and I thought, well, with body heat and all that...” Felicity’s cheeks were becoming flushed.

Did he do that? Was he making her nervous? The news didn’t make him feel any more confident. His own bubbling nerves resulted in him blurting out, much to his own consternation: “We could go back in.” He tightened his hands in a fist around a few blades of grass, just to keep from hitting himself.

“Oh.” Felicity seemed to stiffen and she dropped her eyes.

“Uh, no. I thought...if you want to...but I like it out here. It’s fun with you. I’m enjoying this. But yeah, body heat could work with making us warm. So let’s try -- here.” Kyle put his arm around her shoulders and drew her closer. The two adjusted to their new position. She tucked herself beneath his arm. Kyle stiffly made room, trying to figure everything out. How tight should he hold her? Where should he hold? Why couldn’t he get his heart to stop pounding? And why did the air feel so thick? God, she must have thought he was dying. Or insane. He tried to relax, but was pretty sure from an outsider’s perspective he looked like a terrified deer about to get shot.

His discomfiture made Felicity smile, not that he could see. It had been so long since she met someone sweet like him. Felicity felt excited with him, but more importantly she felt safe; she felt young. For a moment she could pretend that she was just a kid and tomorrow she’d be happy.

“It’s nice that you came here,” she said.

“I don’t know if I would say that I came here. I was more brought. But it’s nice, yeah. This is really nice. Sometimes accidents can be that, you know, nice,” Kyle replied.

Then the girl in his arms answered, “Yeah, accidents can be nice. This is really nice.”

“Yeah, really, really nice.” Kyle gave her shoulders a quick squeeze, quite astounded that he possessed such an impulse. He never felt comfortable around girls, but with Felicity: this was right. This was better than anything he could have imagined. Some of the tension slipped out of his body.

“If I stick around, maybe, if we can’t sleep, or if we just want to hang out, we should do this again. I mean, here or somewhere else. Maybe not even at night, you know at another time and place, together, hanging out. This has been, I mean, I like hanging out with you and if you want, we could...”

“Yeah, we could.” Felicity reached up and took hold of his hand which was resting on her shoulder. She intertwined her own slender fingers with his, pulling his arm further around her, like it were a blanket to cover her. “Let’s stay out here a little bit longer though, okay?”

“Okay.” Kyle felt her shift her weight onto him. They sat in silence. Her breath gradually deepened. He had a pretty good idea that she was falling asleep. He liked the feeling. He liked that she didn’t mind falling asleep in his arms. He liked her. He let his gaze drift out over the water. Somewhere past there was his past life. While his mind wandered, his thumb took the initiative to stroke Felicity’s exposed shoulder. Yeah, this was nice.

Those two, however, weren’t the only ones who couldn’t fall asleep. In her own room, Noirah was pacing. It disconcerted her, to be there again. To think that not too long ago she was friends with that girl. She was giggling and skipping through the halls as though she just might fit in with these people. Like she could ever fit in.

Nothing had changed in the room, just as Felicity had said. It was as though time stood still. She imagined that her hands were the last to make the bed. Even in the rush, she couldn’t let that habit go. She wouldn’t leave behind a messy bed for them to judge. She was sitting in the room of sixteen-year-old Noirah. Poor, delusional, stupid girl.

There on the nightstand still stood a picture of her and Felicity on their shared sixth birthday. She looked so happy. There was a glimmer in her eye that made it look like she was really enjoying herself. She looked carefree. Noirah picked up the picture and just stared at it. Had things changed so much that she couldn’t even recognize that girl? She couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, what she wanted. When she fell asleep what did that girl dream about? Who did she think she would be a decade later? Not what she was becoming certainly. Would that Noirah be disappointed in this Noirah?

“You’re lucky you never have to grow. You wouldn’t be so happy, if knew what came next,” she lectured the girl. The girl’s face didn’t change. It’d go on smiling forever, locked in a dead moment. She ran her thumb over her former face, but that was as close as she could get to touching that girl.

She put the photo back on the desk, sat down on the bed and looked out the window. Once upon a time, she used to believe in wishing on stars. She closed her eyes and could feel memories swirling around her.

“I wished that you’d finally get a pony,” a youthful Noirah commented, to an equally tiny Felicity.

“Why’d you make a wish for me; they’re for you,” Felicity retorted, bouncing on her knees, trying to spot a shooting star for herself.

“Because my mom would never let me have one. Yours will. This way I’m not wasting it.”

Felicity stopped her sport and laid herself out next to Noirah on her bed. They both turned their heads, so they were staring straight at each other, “Well then, the pony can be yours too. It’ll be a secret. Oh and we can each have a secret name for it. How about Gus for you?”

Noirah giggled and the two entered into a laughing fit for no other reason than that they were six. Then there was a knock at the door.

“Flea? Rah? Are you in there?”

“Oh no, it’s Davey!” Noirah whispered, sitting up, peering at the door nervously.

“You have to hide me! He’s going to kill me!” Felicity covered her mouth to stifle another laugh at the memory of sticking oatmeal in David’s shoes.

“Get under my sheets.”

Felicity quickly scrambled, and Noirah jumped on top of the covered body, eliciting a grunt from Felicity, just as the doorknob turned and the door was pushed open. A teenage boy stood in the door frame, holding up shoes, from which clumps of oatmeal dripped.

“Noirah, I know she’s in here,” David said, trying to maintain his annoyance at the comical appearance of Noirah trying to lie casually on her bed as though Felicity was not directly underneath her.

“No,” Noirah said. “It’s just me in here, Davey. Me and nobody else.” Lissy laughed beneath the sheet; Noirah jabbed the girl with her elbow and commanded, “Lissy, stop laughing or he’ll hear you!”

“So, just you and nobody else?” Davey asked.

“Oh,” Noirah grinned up at David. “I found her. I thought my bed felt lumpy.”

Neither of them got that pony and David never did get all he oatmeal out of his shoe.

Noirah had Kyle now. He made her smile. He came to her without any preconceived notions of who she was or how she’d behave. That little bit of good that she had burrowed away, that was slowly fading, he found and forced out. He wouldn’t desert her. Maybe he’d let her call him Gus.

Her mind began to settle and she burrowed into her covers. Maybe she could start again.

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