The first time, she pulled on my skirt. Whatdya want, I had asked. She didnt answer, but took her thumb out of her mouth and pointed to her eyes. Oh, yeah, they are pretty pink, I had said to her with a smile, bending to look into them. A sign of the magic she and I had in common. She pulled on my skirt again and had responded, friend. She was three.
She was ten, walking with me in the fields. Ill be leavin next year, I had said proudly. Leavin this place and going off to school where Ill learn all that magic they teach you there. She just looked up at me, uncomprehending. Why would you have to learn more magic, she had asked. You have all the magic you need right now, theyll just kill it. Make it neat. Make it fit. I shook my head, no, I had said, theyll make it focused. Make it stronger. Youll see.
A year later, we were parting, spending out last night together. I laid out the cards, a reading with the deck I had stolen, and she looked at me, eleven, and apprehensive. Are you sure, she had asked, three times now. I gave her a smile and flipped the first card, then the second, and the third. I looked at her, gathered the cards, and laid the spread again. The same three cards. The same order. Power and strength and happy endings. She leaned over. Is it good, she had asked. Are the cards showing good? I closed my eyes and fell backwards into the grass. Yes, I had answered. Yes, it was all good. Do it again, she had demanded. Maybe later, I had replied. Maybe when I get back, next time I have vacation. Promise, she had asked, hopeful. I promise, I had said with a smile, even though I knew just as well as she did I wasnt coming back here. She toppled over next to me, dropping the subject. Were not going to be friends tomorrow, are we, she had said, after a pause. It wasnt a question, and I didnt answer her.
Two looks was all I got from her as she strode past me at thirteen, her first day at
the academy. Anyway, not like I expected her to stop and have a full conversation with me. Not after two years, not after Im head of the class, and shes just some new girl thats coming in, looking unsure of herself. Not after that card reading of hers, that came up again and again, when all I kept getting was The Fool. It took three days for me to come to her, and I didnt even say anything, just waved. Good morning, she had said, formally, as if it was the first time we were meeting. Hope youre doing well for yourself. I am, I had said firmly, knowing full well I was destined to be in the Elite class. Im sure youll catch up in no time, though. Maybe, was all she had said. A maybe and a wave, before she disappeared again with her books in hand.
I looked over at her, and she at me, but neither of us spoke. After a while I turned to look at the ceiling, still rubbing my hand where the knuckles were red. I had spoken first, you know, I had said, Ive been here before. Twice. Really, she had said, as a statement. I pressed on anyway. Yeah, once when I was fourteen, to get classified. And once last year, for the Elites briefing. She wasnt looking at me when she spoke, either, I could tell by the sound of her voice she was looking away from me. Ive never been up here, she had admitted, which caused me to whip around to stare at the back of her head. Never, I had questioned. Never, she had repeated. But then, I had pressed on, if you havent been here, then youre not an Elite, right? No response. I dont get it, I had admitted. You have more talent than anyone else in your class. Maybe, was all she had said. Everythings maybe, I had mumbled, almost positive she hadnt heard me. But she had. Im sorry, she had rounded on me, looking me full on for the first time in a little over a year. I thought you said we werent friends anymore. I thought you realized you were two years up, Elite class, and I was the stupid new girl who barely scrapes by a lowly Ambassador class. I physically recoiled from her as she leaned closer. Whyd you help me, anyway, she had asked after an initial hesitation. I didnt have an answer for her, so I squirmed in my seat. Pick a side, she had demanded. Friends or not friends, just pick one and let me know for sure. You know it cant be like
like it was, I had said, uncomfortable under her stare. So how can it be, she had asked with a sigh. Like this, I had answered. Like this. I knew she wouldnt like it, and I was sure she wouldnt take it. This was a snippet of a conversation every now and then, a wave and a maybe and not a word for months and months. This was me rushing into a fight with her against a band of near-grads, Ambassadors and Militaries who thought her an embarrassment. This was waiting for the Headmistresss door to open, only to know I wouldnt be punished Im a would-be Elite. But she would be twice over, because I was let off and shes an Ambassador, and no one would miss it if an Ambassador disappeared for a while, but an Elite vanishing because of a visit to the Headmistress would make everyones head turn. I wouldnt take this over nothing either. The Headmistress opened her door, glanced at me, and then at her. Come in, the Headmistress had intoned, and then gave me a simple wave that was the understood signal to leave before vanishing into the office once more. I stood, each step I took coming faster and faster as I put distance between me and her, and her silence, and her maybes, and her questions. Friends, she had said suddenly a few steps after I had passed her. I want to be friends. I gave a small nod, not looking back, and kept walking as she entered the office and shut the door behind her.
I had barely been out of school a year before I got a message from her again, asking me to come back. It had taken me a moment to realize she was nineteen this year, and she was soon going to be tested. I caught her before she went in. Neither of us said anything, but she leaned her head on my shoulder as we waited. This was the most friendly weve acted towards each other in years. Does it hurt, she had asked. Not really, I had lied at first, but then relented. Yes. A lot. Thats why its called a test. I dont understand it, she had said finally, after a long pause. It doesnt help your magic. It doesnt even hurt your magic. They just want you to do it, just so you can prove youll do whatever they want. I had sighed softly. Loyalty, I had said, reciting from memory, is a magic all by itself. And this is how you prove it. Loyalty, she had repeated softly. Its not magic, you know. Its a debt. A way to tie us down to them, so we can never be free. Thats what loyalty is. She didnt say anything else until her name was called, and neither did I. I knew arguing the point wouldnt have gotten me anywhere. Were just too different now. She was going to be an Ambassador. She was going to go back to the old village and live there quietly, like some commoner. She thought, maybe, that theyd accept her, even with her pink eyes and wings and power. That they wouldnt whisper behind her back, that theyd only be nice to her face, but she wouldnt belong. Thats what she wanted to do. And I had given up on trying to stop her.
Once, I had visited, since she graduated. Once was enough. She had made herself a small house over time, growing things in a garden out front and keeping to herself. She smiled when she saw me. I smiled back. We lied our way through tea and cake, until I pretended to have to go on a mission. Oh, so soon, she had asked, all politeness. I had nodded, and thanked her for the snacks and company. She had asked me to come again, and I had responded carelessly about missions these days, stacking up, unsure of how much time Id have anyway. Of course, she had said. We both knew I wasnt coming back there, and she wasnt coming after me anymore. Youre wasting it, I had said, before I left. Already on the doorstep, sending me off, she paused before replying. Its mine to waste, was all it took. All it took for me to have hit her across her cheek, before I even realized it. She didnt fight. She didnt do anything. She never did, not anymore. Not since loyalty had been instilled in her. Youre wasting it, I had repeated. Its disgusting. She didnt say anything more, and neither did I.
It wasnt more than a few years later, at twenty-five, that I was forced to look at the tiny house again. She wasnt in it. She was packing, over at her folks place, and it made what I had to do even harder now that theyd be there. But an order is an order. Loyalty was being cashed in. I was almost at her parents house when she came out and, after a moment, merely smiled at me. She was carrying a box, which she set down carefully, and turned to face me. So thats the way it is, she had said. What did you expect, I had questioned. She knows youre wasting it. No, she doesnt, she had replied. But that doesnt matter now, does it? What matters is what you intend to do. I paused. Was she really expecting me to do anything other than follow my orders? She saw me pause, saw me hesitate, and laughed. But it wasnt the same laugh she used to have, all those years ago. But of course, she had said. But of course, you would follow orders. Follow them blindly off the face of the planet. Isnt that what loyalty is? Yes, I had replied. Thats what loyalty is, to me. She laughed again. Alright, she had said, stepping away from the house, away from the doorframe where her parents were watching. Alright, I guess thats it, then. I cant afford to waste it anymore. I stared at her, perplexed. You intend to fight, I had asked. Of course, she had said. To lie down and die when told
thats something only you would do. So? Have at it. Im just an Ambassador. Youre an Elite. Leaving here without my head would be shameful. Not shameful, I had said. Not shameful to me. We both know if you really try, itd be a tie. At least. But I aim to kill. Do you? I dont think you do, she had replied. Not really. Maybe next time we meet, but today? Were both walking away from this. I didnt tell her. I didnt tell her she was right.
The fifth time we met since that day, she was already running when I saw her, running over the plain as the sky lit up from the explosions. Dont run, I had yelled at her back. Dont you dare run, you coward! She stopped abruptly. I stopped too. But she simply turned her head towards me, looked at me, and smiled. Not this time either, she had said. But if you want to try, I suppose I cant stop you. Shut up, I had said quietly. Shut up! Dont you understand? Im here to kill you! Why dont you understand that? Because we both know youre not, she had replied. Not really. But youll try. And Ill have to fight. So lets get this over with.
It wasnt that time either. Nor was it the next seven times we met, each one ending with us parting ways, sometimes injured, sometimes just plain exhausted. But I kept trying. Kept coming up to her and trying, and she kept holding back so she wouldnt hurt me too badly. And I hated it, I hated knowing that, and I hated her for it. But I kept coming, every time. And I kept going, every time after that. Always starting out the same way.
What about this time?
She didnt say anything for a while, merely looked at me. When she spoke, her voice was shaking. This time
she smiled, but not like before. This time, you mean it. So I guess I have to, too.