37th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2008 D.C.E.
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
22 years before the Solstice War.
Achim Lehner stood by his father’s side and waited for the number thirteen train from Junzien to Citadel Nocht, the seat of the presidency and his current home. It had been his home for the past four years and he had waited for that train and its special silver car many times before. He was familiar with the raised platform of the train station, with the man in the ticket booth and his curly mustache, with the posters on the walls exalting the iron eagle and the tricolor flag.
On this familiar picture intruded the rifle-armed soldiers patrolling the station, and the crews of the anti-balloon pom pom heavy machine guns stationed on purposefully unused tracks. As Achim and his father arrived they saw men replacing the old water jackets around the 30mm gun barrels with new ones. One man kept a long scope pointed to the sky at all times.
Having no escort, and having spent much of the week isolated from the war, the Lehners had become a touch disconnected as to the latest events in Junzien. Achim figured that whatever had happened to necessitate this had happened in quite a snap; these preparations weren’t here a few days ago. Achim did not feel unsettled by them; he had a young boy’s fervent confidence in the actions of his Fatherland, and in this particular case, in those of his own father.
After all he traveled with Nocht’s own president — Nore Lehner glanced calmly over the men and the equipment. He tapped Achim on the shoulder, and together they approached a stray landser patrolling the platform. President Lehner spoked up. “Soldier; are we expecting an attack? I’m afraid I have not been appraised of such news quite yet, which worries me.”
Astonished by the appearance of the commander-in-chief, the soldier saluted stiffly, and he replied as though speaking to a drill sergeant. “Sir no sir! Just precautions sir! There were recent rumors of Frank attack balloons in the east sir! We want to be ready if true, sir!”
President Lehner smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder. For an older man, the President had sharp features, youthful for his age, and he looked strong and assertive. But his touch was gentle and his words slow and soothing. “At ease my boy. You needn’t be so tense.”
“Sorry,” replied the soldier, putting down his hand from over his forehead.
“No need to apologize, you have carried yourself wonderfully. What is your name?”
“Private Anschel sir. Rudolf Anschel,” replied the soldier. He was bright-eyed, clean-shaven, round-jawed, like the soldiers in the posters. Achim was impressed by his effects: grey uniform, ammo pouches, his pickelhaube helm with a stubby spike, and his full-length combat rifle.
“Private Anschel, I have the utmost confidence that if the Franks try anything sneaky you will send them crying back to the kingdom.” President Lehner said, looking him in the eye.
There was a spark in the Landser’s eyes. “Yes sir! We sure will! We’ll keep everyone safe.”
Nore Lehner patted the soldier on the shoulder once more as he and Achim walked past and stood again at the end of the platform. He watched them leave with fresh admiration.
In the distance they heard their train coming. Its gleaming silver cars pulled up to the station, dragged along by a big black and gray locomotive. In front of them the doors opened. The interior of the car was like a small dining room, with a booth table surrounded by a plush couch in a square frame, and a kitchenette where a young woman tended to some coffee.
An austere, bespectacled, gray-haired man sat on the booth, awaiting the President.
He nodded to the side of the table opposite him. Nore and Achim sat down with him.
Nobody talked until the train whistled got going again. The young lady set down coffee and soft bread for everyone, and sat in the kitchenette area away from them. Their cups vibrated gently on the table. Achim did not like coffee; nonetheless he took respectful sips of it every so often, swallowing the bitter draught. His father and the old man did not touch their cups at all.
“Something has happened for you to be here, Senator. I want to know.” said the President.
Senator Sultzer sat back on the table and sighed. He set his hands on the table and interlinked the fingers. He flicked his wrists, his square face implacable throughout the process.
“Nore, the congress is preparing a motion to midterm you. I believe that it will pass.”
Achim contained a gasp with a mouthful of hot, disgusting coffee in his cheeks.
President Lehner nodded his head to the Senator. “I understand Sultzer. Proceed.”
“Yes. I knew you would respond this way. In a way, I am grateful, though it also pains me.” Senator Sultzer cleared his throat, and began to speak in a higher, more official voice. Perhaps the woman in the kitchenette was meant to be a witness. “As a Senator of the 58th Congress of the Federation of Northern States, I am tasked with delivering to you, President Nore Lehner, both written and verbal notice of the motion to challenge your second term, and your rights with regard to this motion as the highest executive in the land and commander-in-chief.”
President Lehner nodded his head. Achim stared at him. His expression was stony.
“You will have 120 days to campaign against your opponent, August Kieselman. You are required to engage in at least one formal debate to be held three weeks before the election, and may hold other witnessed and recorded debates, as established by mutual agreement between you. You will continue to uphold the duties of the Presidency; if you are defeated in the contest you will remain in Office until the 50th of the Aster’s Gloom, where a transition period will begin that will end by the 30th of the Hazel’s Frost, when the new President shall be sworn in.”
“I understand and acknowledge. Thank you, Senator Sultzer.” replied the President.
Thank you? Achim was speechless. Here he was, under attack, and yet– thank you?
Senator Sultzer spread open his coat and drew a letter from the pocket. He handed it to the President. Tipping his hat solemnly, he and the young woman took their leave of the first family, and departed to the next car in the train. When the door shut, Achim felt rudely awakened by the sound. Everything that had transpired felt unreal, as though it had been performed by puppets and not men with fire in their souls and blood in their veins.
Achim tugged on his father’s sleeve, drawing his attention away from the empty table.
“Father, why didn’t you say anything? These men have declared war on you!” He said.
“No, they haven’t.” Nore said sternly. “They are performing their civic duty, Achim.”
“Their civic duty to make stuff up against you while you were out of town? Out of town talking to the people, making them comfortable! How dare they do this, Father?”
“You are overreacting.” Nore said. “What just transpired is the people voicing their discontent, as they should rightly be able to. We live in a democracy, these are legitimate procedures.”
Achim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was purely absurd to him. “That man isn’t the people! People, real people, touched your hand, and told you they loved you and believed in you! You told them you would keep them safe from the Franks and the Lachy and they applauded you! This happened just hours ago! You need to fight this, Father!”
Nore shook his head. He sighed. He turned around on the table and took Achim gently by his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. “Achim, you are still young, and someday you will understand, but I implore you to listen. You have no right to be angry about this. This is our country working the way it should. I cannot fight it; I do not want to fight it. Because it is our country that I would be fighting. This is law, it is sacred; all of us will abide by the decision the people take on the Aster’s Gloom. Should they want me, I will know, and I will stay.”
Achim averted his eyes. He did not want to hear these words, he found them cowardly.
“Do you understand, Achim? In elected office we put the country above our own needs. We must preserve the values that make us Nocht, no matter what. This is a part of that.”
Though he nodded his head in acknowledgment, the boy secretly resented the idea.
“We must restrain ourselves. We must make sacrifices. That is what this office means. Should you ever aspire to any elected office, as I hope you will, you need to understand this.”
“Yes father.” Achim said. Truly, he didn’t understand it. His father had power and influence. He had money. Why was he letting these wicked men push him around? It just made no sense.
* * *
The Presidential Estate was a beautiful white villa a few kilometers from Citadel Nocht, set into the wintry forests to Rhinea’s north. It boasted a cylindrical main building three stories high and two long, rectangular two-story wings, fully encircled by four meter high perimeter fences. In the gloomy forest paths, the lights coming from the villa could be seen from quite a distance.
From the train station the first family took a private car north, first toward and then past the black, rocky hill upon which the eponymous Nocht Citadel was built, and through the wooded paths on the edge of the massive icy peaks of the Jotun mountain range. They drove leisurely through the woods, until Achim could see the dancing lights in the distance. They crossed thick, dark lines of trees, and a guard at the gates personally opened the way through the fence.
It was dark out; almost pitch black. In Rhinea the gloom was additive. Days were gray, and nights turned pitch black. Most of the estate lights were out, but the Foyer shone brightly.
The car rounded the unadorned front green of the estate and stopped at the steps leading into the foyer. Achim and Nore dismounted and quickly climbed the steps. Cold wind blew against them, snaking its way through any unprotected surface and chilling the flesh beneath.
At the top of the stairway the President opened their own door and he locked it behind them without assistance. Inside the broad and open foyer two older women waited for them with their heads bowed a dozen meters from the door; and an unfamiliar face waited with them. Beside their servants was a woman Achim did not know. She stood with the maids in the middle of the atrium, one hand behind her back, another extended before her.
Without hesitation his father approached the group. Achim followed, brow furrowed.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” President Lehner asked. He smiled fondly at the woman. He took her hand and kissed it. She smiled back, and bowed her head to him with respect.
Achim blinked. She was dressed in modest but fine clothes, a shawl made of fur, a long dress with plenty of embroidery. She had visible wrinkles, and thick streaks of white hair amid luxuriantly curled black locks; but what was most curious about her in his eyes was the dark color of her skin. She looked almost a glistening dark blue under the chandelier light.
“I’m afraid it is tragedy that brings about our meeting, Mr. President.” She replied. She spoke perfect Nochtish, same as anyone Achim had ever heard — there was not a hint of an accent.
Nore bowed his own head. He still held the woman’s hand. He raised his other hand in order to hold her with both at once. “My sincerest condolences; what is the status of the Empire?”
She sighed with grief, and she replied heavily, her words clipped halfway and almost blurted out through her teeth from then on. “The Imperial Authority has fallen, Mr. President.”
Achim looked to his father, and found the man’s eyes drawn farther than ever before. He saw the surprise and fear, the fallibility, of his father in a way that he could not remember ever having seen before. It made him afraid too, though he little understood the issues here.
“Makemba,” he drew closer to her and raised his hand to her shoulder to comfort her, “what do you mean by this? What has become of the family? What has happened to the state?”
Though tears did not escape Makemba’s eyes, Achim thought she was all but crying nonetheless. She was crying while dry of tears; her breathing quickened, she blinked her eyes rapidly, she wiped them, though they were dry. Soft sobbing interrupted her speech.
“The Imperial Family was slaughtered in their palace, Mr. President, and the state has collapsed. There is open rebellion in the Dominances, with a clear north against south divide. The Zaidi hold the greatest strength, including Solstice — and they committed the greatest atrocities to achieve that position. They murdered everyone but little Sarahastra.”
Makemba turned and gestured toward a side room. There was a door, cracked slightly ajar. It fully opened — from it strode a small, beautiful girl in long golden gown with a purple sash across her shoulders. She approached them with a neutral expression on her face. Achim’s eyes fixed on her and followed her every step from the door toward the middle of the atrium.
For a moment there was no sound in the room but the steps of her gilded, cloth shoes.
When she reached her servant’s side she raised her head. Her bright green eyes looked too keenly aware of the surroundings, as though she were examining everyone and everything. Her face stared straight ahead, but her eyes turned from corner to corner, from face to face. Everyone was staring at her suddenly but she seemed to have no reaction to this.
Next to the tall and stately Makemba, Sarahastra looked delicate enough to break with the wind. Her skin was a lighter shade of brown, and her features soft, her face round, her lips and nose thinner. Her black hair was tied into a circular, braided bun behind the back of her head, decorated with a golden chain studded with gems. She had a gem-studded choker and bracelets clipped around the sleeves of her dress, right over the wrists. Achim would have placed her in her early teens, his own age. Maybe 12 or 13; maybe younger, but he couldn’t tell with folks like her, he had never seen her kind much before. He could’ve told if she was Nochtish.
Nore descended to his knees, and he looked Sarahastra in her innocent eyes. He comforted her as well, rubbing her shoulders gently. At first he seemed to be in disbelief as to whether he was even touching her, whether she was really there. He stared at his own hands briefly as if caressing a phantom. When he finally spoke Achim was sure he heard a slight stutter at first.
“You are a strong girl, Sarahastra.” The President said. “I’m so sorry for what you have had to go through. No child should have to suffer that; and especially no child of your standing. I will do everything in my power to have justice for you, Sarahastra. But that is for the grown-ups to worry about. Me and Makemba have a lot to discuss; you should go with my son, Achim.”
The President looked over his shoulder, and bid Achim to come closer. The boy stepped forward without thinking, and he felt a little jolt when his father took Sarahastra’s hand and entrusted her to him, entwining their little fingers together. “Achim, play with her for a bit, show her around. This will be her home for a time; until some decisions are made.”
He gingerly pushed the children in their own direction, and urged them to depart for the east wing. Meanwhile he took Makemba’s hand, comforted her one last time and led her arm-in-arm to the opposite wing with the maids in tow. When the doors slammed shut behind them, they left a sudden silence, as if all of the air in the room had stormed out with them.
Achim and Sarahastra were left holding hands in the middle of the atrium, and for a moment Achim stood still, feeling the warmth in her hand, and fearing to look directly at her. She was a princess wasn’t she? He felt that same jolt down his spine whenever the word recurred in his mind, and whenever he recognized again that warmth from her hand — a princess.
“Gosh, I really hope Dietrich is here, and awake.” Achim said nervously, aloud, to himself.
He quickly noticed that the words coming out of him could be heard. In an unthinking snap he turned his gaze on Sarahastra, and met her bright, blinking eyes. He resisted the urge to evade again; he tried to smile. But there was just something disconcerting about being left alone holding the hand of an imperial princess. What was the proper etiquette here? He was stunned. This sort of thing did not happen in real life, this was all storybook material. Achim thought, who even had princesses anymore? He supposed the Franks did, but they were all awful!
“Um, hey, let’s go to the reading room. Ok?” He said. He grew tired of his own thoughts.
Sarahastra did not offer a peep to him in return and instead looking him up and down.
Achim felt stupid; she was from another country. She might not know Nochtish at all, even though her attendant could speak it. What did they speak in her country? What even was her country? He searched his head for it. Judging by her looks, maybe Occiden? No, it wasn’t–
“Bestätigend,” the girl suddenly said. Achim nearly jumped, but he held on to her.
So she could speak Nochtish! “Oh, well, ok then. That’s a weird word choice, you could have just said ‘ok’ or something, y’know? Do you understand me, um, Sarahastra?”
“I do. I speak your tongue.” She said. Her voice sounded rather sweet, but her pronunciation was just a little slow. “I am sorry I did not reply sooner. I was taken by your suit.”
“Um, thank you. It’s my Seventhday suit. It’s sharp.” Achim said. “Can you walk with me?”
Sarahastra nodded. Achim led her by the hand out the big doors to the eastern wing of the estate. Across dark hallways, flanked by snow-battered windows, through long lines of doors, and up a flight of stairs, the children traveled the eastern wing. Achim finally stopped in front of a door in the middle of the foremost hall in the wing’s second floor. He knocked on it.
“Dietrich, are you in there? Dietrich you must be! Open up, it’s Achim! I have company!”
In a minute the doors cracked, and a boy with bright hazel eyes and short brown hair peeked his head around it. When he opened the door all the way Dietrich stood perplexed at the threshold, holding a gigantic book under his right arm. He was a tall boy, just like his father, the estate guardsman. Normally he looked a little askew compared to Achim, but today it was like he had dressed for church, all cleaned up with a vest, long pants and a blazer.
Suddenly feeling the heat from the reading room chimney, Achim removed his coat and he tied the arms around his waist. He took Sarahastra’s hand and led her past Dietrich.
“I like her bracelets. Who is she?” Dietrich asked, following them.
“You’ve been here all day and you didn’t see her come in?” Achim asked.
Dietrich rolled his eyes. “Yes, because I’ve been here all day.”
“You didn’t notice how you got all those nice clothes? There was probably a reason.”
“I bet there was but I just didn’t really care. She looks sick though.”
Sarahastra briefly spoke up. “I am not sick, but thank you for your concern.”
“Do you need to lie down though? You’re lookin’ kind of gloomy.” Dietrich asked.
“Don’t be rude to her Dietrich!” Achim whispered in a fit of emotion.
“I am fine.” Sarahastra dispassionately interjected again.
Dietrich shrugged comically. “She says she is fine Achim.”
“You know who needs to sit down though? I do.” Achim said, sighing.
Though it was called a reading room, the room’s broad floor space, wide walls and tall ceiling contained only one sizable bookshelf. Since the Lehners moved in it was mostly a play-room for the kids. A large and open area had been set aside that was full of toys. There were tops to spin, airplanes that could be thrown and would fly a small distance, simple balls and sticks, pedal cars to run around in, little logs to build with, a chest of board games.
There were a few tables that played host to model trains and even to terrain that one could use to play toy soldiers — one of these tables could not be touched under any circumstances, as Dietrich had spent a long time setting up a big cavalry battle there and did not want anyone to mess it up. Achim led Sarahastra past this little monument, and pulled up a few large chairs with big fluffy cushions. Everyone sat down in a little circle. Achim let out a long breath.
“Dietrich, she’s a princess, her name is Sarahastra. Her country’s in trouble.”
“You’re the worst fibber, Achim, just look at you.” Dietrich replied.
“I’m not fibbing! It’s true! I could hardly believe it myself but it’s true!”
Dietrich looked at Sarahastra as if silently demanding an explanation.
“I think I am the Empress now. Everyone else has passed on.” Sarahastra said sadly.
Dietrich’s mouth hung. He shivered suddenly. “Messiah defend! Princess, I, I, uh–”
“Oh god,” Achim reached out and took Sarahastra’s hands. “I’m, I’m so sorry–”
She shook her head. “It is fine. I did not know my Father well. I was the daughter of his third wife. Mother died a long time ago. She did not have to see any of the deaths like I did.”
Dietrich and Achim froze up. Neither of them could think of anything to say that might possibly soothe the girl or even so much as enliven her. They simply took her hands and tried to silently comfort her, and to look concerned with her troubles. They squeezed her fingers in their own.
She smiled at them and squeezed their hands back. Neither of them knew how to take it. For a long and awkward stretch of time they were silent, staring at each other. She did not stop smiling. Something about it felt contrived to Achim, but at least she didn’t look so miserable.
“Um, well, I am Dietrich Haus. I, um, I like soldiers and maps and things.” Dietrich said.
“I am Achim Lehner. I’m the son of the President. I like planes a lot.” Achim added.
The Empress nodded her head. “I am Sarahastra Ayvarta II. I like to read stories.”
“What kind of stories?” Achim said. “We have all kinds of books here if you want to read.”
“I like stories about princesses and princes and knights; perhaps that’s inappropriate now.”
“W-Well, if you like those,” Achim stammered a little, “you’ll find a lot on the shelves.”
Sarahastra stared at them closely. She seemed amused by something. She held a finger to her lips and her eyes went up and down Dietrich and up and down Achim once again.
“Dietrich, I must say, you do look like a knight; and Achim looks like a prince.”
Achim was left speechless again. This time he did not quite recover from it.
* * *
Eventually the maids reappeared and broke up the children’s little circle. Dietrich, Achim and Sarahastra went their separate ways. Achim laid awake in his pajamas all night, staring at the ceiling and at the snow falling out the window. Before he had never heard another child say any word related to death, except perhaps in an emphatic, playful way — hunters killing drakes, wolves killing pigs, that sort of thing. When Dietrich killed him he just caught him and knocked him down in the snow when they played hunters and drakes. That was all it was.
He knew what it was like to lose people. He had lost his mother. But that was a long time ago and it was peaceful. He was a really little kid back then. He still believed, in that way one thoroughly believed anything one was told when young enough, that she was in heaven. That it was angels that had taken her, softly and gently, from the pain and illness of this world.
Sarahastra had seen someone die; her own family. And she just talked about it. It was scary. It was the intrusion of something too real into his world of make-believe, into his unending days playing with the guardsman’s boy and going out into town when his father wanted to.
To her it was like any other thing, she said it as easily as she complimented his good suit.
She even smiled! What kind of smile was that? It looked genuine enough. Was she really ok?
And she called him a prince. Was she just nervous? Was her mouth just spitting out words?
He rolled in bed, thinking about her; she was so strange, and yet, he felt like she had to be incredibly strong, incredibly smart, incredibly tough; he was mystified with her. She was not like any child he had met. She was incredible, in every sense of the word. She was important. He felt like a fairy had come and touched him and shown him magic in his mundane world.
Before he knew it, the sun was out again in the clearing. It was still gloomy — it was always gloomy at the estate. Over the forest the sky was always gray. But the bright white piles of snow everywhere made up for it. He could see that icy wonderland from his window even while lying on his bed. He had not slept at all that he could remember, but he did not feel tired.
In fact, he felt like playing, and he quite felt like playing with someone specifically.
He pulled a coat over his pajamas and put on a pair of boots without socks. Wrapped up, he ran out of his room. He had an idea of where they could be keeping Sarahastra. In a few minutes he was downstairs and running past a few of the guest rooms. He crouched and looked under each one, and found one door where the floor mat had been disturbed. He allowed himself in.
Like his own bedroom the guest room was sizable and Sarahastra looked very small in the middle of the adult bed there. She was sitting up against the backboard, wrapped up in blankets. Her hair was down — it was long and a little wavy. She smiled again at him. Her expression was nicer this time. She did not look so tired. Unlike him she appeared to have slept the night, and perhaps she had gained some more distance from her own terrors now.
“Hey, let’s go out and play.” Achim said. He climbed on the bed with her, and pulled the blankets off her head, like taking down the hood of a cloak. He tried to smile at her.
Sarahastra looked sternly at him. “I am supposed to stay here Mr. Lehner.” She said.
“Mr. Lehner? Ew. That’s my dad; call me Achim.” He pronounced it slowly. “Ah-kim.”
Sarahastra nodded. “Ah-kim.” She said. “I would like to go see the snow, Achim, but I do not know if I am allowed to do so. I think the adults would rather I stay indoors today.”
“Aw, to heck with ’em.” Achim said. “What are they gonna do? You’re their boss now.”
“I am their boss? Really?” Sarahastra crossed her arms and tipped her head to one side.
“You are! You said it yourself, you’re the Empress. That’s even more important than my dad, he’s just the President. People can just vote him out; heck they’re already doing that.”
“They are? That is dreadful; he seems like a very nice man.” Sarahastra said.
Achim felt a little aggravated with the idea. “Sometimes not enough, sometimes too much.”
He took Sarahastra’s hands again. “Come on, lets go play. We just need a coat.”
“Well, if you say so; I am trusting you with this, Achim, because you seem reliable.”
“I don’t think you’re a good judge of that, to be totally honest.”
“Oh, but I am. I meant everything that I said about you. I can just feel it.”
She followed him off the bed. Once all the blankets were off her he found she was dressed in a set of pajamas much like his own, with long sleeves and long pants. Good. All she needed was a coat, and they found an ill-fitting one in the guest room closet. Bundled tight, the princess followed the president’s son down the halls and out through a side a door. A trio of big stone steps led into an ocean of snow. Sarahastra was hesitant at first, but plunged in after Achim.
“It is cold out here!” She said, shivering, but with a smile. Achim laughed with delight.
“That’s what’s great about it though!” He said. “It really wakes you up!”
They trudged through the snow and around the back of the estate, Achim promising Sarahastra that she would get used to the cold and that it would be fun once they found Dietrich. He knew where he would be on a sunny, snow-covered day. Like the front of the Estate, the back was mostly featureless aside from a statue of Gunther Von Nocht and a few trees that were allowed inside the fenced perimeter on its edges. Near one of those few trees they found a large pile of snow with a slit carved through it, and a pair of eyes peering out at them from inside.
“I made a pillbox.” Dietrich shouted. He was always up earlier than anyone else. He got up when his dad started his shift, and his dad was up with the sun since he was the guardsman.
Achim crouched, gathered up snow into a ball, and tossed it at Dietrich’s little fortress.
“Not gonna do anything with that, you’re gonna need a 5 cm gun or bigger.” Dietrich said.
Sarahastra crouched, gathered up her own snowball and threw it at the fort as well. Dietrich’s slit collapsed from the strike, forcing him to stand up and break through the roof of his little mound. He laughed and threw his own snowball, falling short of Sarahastra’s shoes.
“You’re gonna need to brush up on that aim soldier!” Achim replied, laughing also.
Conspiratorial grins adorned every face; the children crouched, gathered up snow and started an impromptu snowball war. Sarahastra was pelted in her hair, Achim took two balls at once to the chest, and within moments Dietrich was almost buried again in the remains of his fort. Running and jumping and ducking projectiles, taking cover wherever they could, the children laughed and protested jokingly whenever hit and pretended to keel over when tired. They their arms in the snow, making shapes. They dug into the powder like snakes or worms.
Soon everyone was covered in snow, it was on their coats and shoes and in their hair.
They laid on the ground together, holding hands, breathing heavy between bouts of laughter, and Achim felt a great comfort in seeing Sarahastra smiling and laughing. He thought to himself that whatever happened next, maybe there was a way he could come out smiling.
“Strange. I no longer feel so cold!” Sarahastra said, beaming cheerfully at the boys.
She picked up a big clump of snow and tossed it overhead and it rained down on them.
“I told you!” Achim said. “After a while you just get used to it. It becomes natural.”
She smiled at him, and she raised her hands to his shoulders, and sidled closer. She touched her forehead to his own. Achim was stunned; his cheeks and ears turned a bright red.
“Thank you for your kindness to me Achim. I thought I would never see another happy child again. I felt like there could not have been a place without misery left in the world.”
She remained there, embracing him, and he embraced her back while Dietrich stared.
“N-No problem. I am glad you feel happy. H-Hey um, um, want to climb the big tree?”
Sarahastra backed a few centimeters away from him, their eyes meeting, still close.
“I would love to.” She said. She got up before him, and helped him to stand.
The three of them approached the big tree closer to the fence. There were planks nailed to its trunk, and a few nailed between its branches, just under its thick canopy of snow-covered marcescent leaves, where the kids could sit. Dietrich climbed up first, showing everyone where to step. Achim went second, and he urged Sarahastra to stick close to him so he might reach down if she fell; but she had no trouble. She deftly took the handholds, and pulled herself up to the plank with the boys. She whistled; they had a great view of the lawns from 5 meters up.
“Never seen a girl climb that well. You’re not scared at all?” Dietrich asked, swinging his legs in mid-air. Achim started to reprimand him but the princess interjected too quickly.
“No. I could have told beforehand if I was going to be hurt.” Sarahastra replied.
She swung her legs happily on the tree while Dietrich and Achim stared in bewilderment.
“What is that object up there?” She asked, pointing up into the canopy.
Achim looked up. He saw a thin wooden toy stuck in the branches.
“Oh, that’s one of my gliders. I threw it from the roof and it just coasted down there.”
“You should get it back.” Sarahastra said.
“No way, it’s hard enough getting up here.” Dietrich said.
“He will not be hurt, I promise you.” Sarahastra said.
Achim peered overhead. There were a few good branches to step on, but they had never laid any handholds that far up, so he would have to grab and pull himself up by the tree.
“You really think I can get it?” He asked.
“I know you will get it.” Sarahastra said.
The boy craned his head toward the canopy once more, and carefully he stood up on the plank. Dietrich shook his head and waved his arms as if to signal him back to the ground, but Achim lifted his leg onto a branch and reached overhead. He started to climb but froze up; he had one leg on a branch, two hands holding higher branches, and one dangling in mid-air.
“Do not stop! You will reach the top and you will not be hurt, trust me!”
Sarahastra’s voice compelled him forward. He saw his plane just a few meters up.
Achim pulled himself up, standing on the higher branch he reached.
He saw no other branches near him that he could use — so he jumped.
His chest hit a branch and he curled his arms around it.
Pulling himself up, he stood on that one, and seized another set just above him.
Finally he was on the level of the plane. He reached out to the leafy little branches holding it, and he took the object in one hand and pulled it close. Then he sat back against the tree, in awe. He had his plane back, and he was high enough up that he could see on the roof of the estate’s central structure, and he could look out over the fence spears and into the gloomy forest.
Triumphantly, he threw his plane and he watched it fly on the cold winds, down from the tree, in a circle around the back yard, and coming to land right in front of the statue.
Dietrich stared up from the planks in awe. Sarahastra waved. Had she really known so certainly? Achim was so high up that he felt like he was flying. He stretched out his arms and he laughed. To think that this seemed so daunting and impossible just a few minutes ago.
Then he saw a maid in the window; she pointed; she shouted.
* * *
“What were you thinking, Achim? I thought I taught you sense, boy!”
There was a massive portrait in the room of Lenore Von Fiegelmann, dearly departed wife and mother. She looked like she was watching the family drama disapprovingly. Only Achim looked her in the eyes. Nore paced and paced as if he wanted to distract himself from her sight.
“You could have been hurt! Sarahastra could have been hurt!”
Nore’s office was massive; there used to be a lot of portraits there, but now there was only one hung. She had left the world when Achim was very small. All he had left of her were pictures, and vast sums of money that she had declared to be exclusively his. Innocent that he was he never thought about why his mother might have denied his father any of her wealth.
Innocent that he was, he listened whenever his father told him about restraint, about covetousness, about keeping those vaults sealed up and living judiciously, on his own means. He didn’t think that perhaps it was a way his father tried to take back control. Instead, like now, he bowed his head, and he watched his father pace the room, stern, but with a gentle voice that made him appear amicable. He took his father’s advice to heart, on most days.
“I understand your desire to include her in your activities, but she is a special child, Achim. Your generosity cannot reach her. You are only troubling her. You may visit her briefly and wish her well but I insist that you give her distance. Are we clear about this?”
But he felt angry in that instant. Behind his back, he closed his fists. Achim didn’t know why his father was denying him this. He just could not understand. Everything else made sense, but was playing with another kid so wrong? He liked Sarahastra. He wanted to be with her more. She had a way with words; she was interesting! She made him feel really good.
“You are a good child, Achim. Please behave; please think about your actions. Moderation is important. It is paramount. Hold your indulgences back, or they will overcome you.”
He started to hate it when his father became like this. There was a nascent anger, building and building. Little statements that tasted like vinegar flooded his mind. He denies me everything; he’s always like this; he’s such a spoil-sport; he doesn’t understand anything.
Nore patted him on the shoulder and stroked his hair. He sent the boy on his way.
Achim hardly listened to his praises. Head down, he kept tasting the vinegar.
Whether or not Nore wanted him to, Achim was going to see Sarahastra again. He owed her that, he thought. She was so nice, and it was not fair to keep her holed up after all she went through. Whatever Father said; whatever her Guardian said; he wanted to play with her again.