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the unvoiced name

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As twilight deepened into night, moonglow blanched the land.

It was a good time for ghosts. Before she’d been sent to the monastery, Veronica had heard fanciful stories of the forgotten sky spirits who kept peace for the ghosts of the otherworld and with their light dared to fight the ink-dark monsters of the witching hour. Thereafter her maid was dismissed and disappeared, and the princess herself kindly disabused of this passing fancy—for this was unsanctioned by the Church, so surely she must know that these were not the true spirits, that such heresy was unthinkable in the royal family—so, surely, the princess understood? But of course she did. She was allotted neither time nor chance to say otherwise.  

The maid’s old tale was a ghost of a memory by now—but Veronica remained fond of full moons, and the spirits had seen fit to grant her one the night before her wedding. Outside her rooms, she hefted a lantern onto the parapet of the nearby terrace and rearranged the cloak she’d brought to wear over her nightgown. The air was more crisp than chilly, so at last she let the cloak slide off her shoulders and breathed in deeply, as if fresh air could stave off all disquiet. She could not sit in her room, not now: the perfume was too nauseating, the blankets too stifling. After tomorrow she would move quarters, and live as a wife. Is this what it’s like, to look forward to your marriage? It wasn’t how she had imagined it, when she lived at the Rakedonia monastery, for then she had only possessed a simple, childish wish: I want to marry this person, so he will never leave me. But even then she was not so childish to expect that as an absolute for herself. After all, she was the one who had left.

Footsteps echoed. Veronica glanced to her right. Her heart leapt and then settled back down, soothed. “Carlo!” she exclaimed, turning toward him. “I knew Rida would have no trouble finding you.”

“Princess,” Carlo said in acknowledgment. He looked strangely grave, caught half by lantern light and half by shadow—and still, all the while, pinned down by Veronica’s smile like an impaled butterfly. Then he frowned and stepped closer, reaching out to draw the cloak up along Veronica’s back, through the tangles of her hair. She felt his knuckles graze her bare skin.

“Oh Carlo, I’m fine—it’s not that cold,” Veronica told him. But she shivered at his touch.

Carlo let his hand fall away, and stepped back. The cloak stayed in place. “You should keep warm or else you’ll catch a cold. I won’t pray away your sneezes, even for something as important as your wedding.”

“You came to oversee it, of course I couldn’t worry!” Veronica traced circles upon the stone with her index finger. “You’ve been taking care of so much and I’ve seen you less than I’d like. Since everything’s prepared for tomorrow, I thought you might be free.”

“Now, the night before your wedding? Princess, you should sleep.”

“You were still awake when Rida came looking for you, aren’t I right?” Veronica pointed out. “Since I won’t be able to fall asleep anytime soon, I was thinking about when we were at the monastery, and used to sit out in the gardens in the evening, and talk about what we were reading… and, you know, when a girl gets married, wouldn’t she want to spend some time with her big brother?”

“I’ve already told you before, Princess—please call me your friend. It’d be an insult to your royal brothers to claim otherwise.”

“They’d hardly know,” Veronica teased. “Fine, if you must insist.” Perhaps Carlo might dislike the label, but it wasn’t a lie. They’d grown up together at the monastery; they’d known each other longer than Veronica knew most. The two years without Carlo had been exciting—here now were Rida, and Adele, and Glen, new faces turned dear companions and all so wonderful to know—yet she couldn’t help but miss Carlo too, though she had no claim on him as the Church did. His letters were rare and throughout his pilgrimage had turned shorter and plainer, till the end of his journey when no more letters came at all. The Church must’ve kept him busy; the next one she’d received had only been when he wrote that he would come to the castle, and to her. “But I’m so happy you’re here—of all the priests who could be here for my wedding, the Church sent you!”

At this Carlo finally smiled. His eyes reflected the flames held captive by Veronica’s lantern, the light and its mirror image both opaque in their warmth. “It was my duty,” he replied, “but for you, it was also my honor.”

Veronica blinked at him. “You sound like Rida when you say that,” she said. “Though I’ve told her I also want to be her friend first, and she mine. I’m afraid she’s still unwilling to let herself think so.”

“I have also been subjected to your presence far longer,” Carlo said dryly. He pushed his lantern along the top of the parapet and followed in its wake to stand near. He turned to her—like a sunflower, Veronica thought with good cheer, though Carlo wouldn’t appreciate such a comparison. But that was the secret joy his presence, newly strange though familiar, summoned up within her heart. He’d forsaken the robes of the priesthood for the simple shirt and dark coat underneath—more casual, more companionable. The tight line of his mouth had softened with his smile into a resting curve. “But she is already yours, Princess, as am I.” He coughed; his gaze drifted. “Like vines do we see duty as must—“

Intertwine with sun-struck trust. I know the Farmer Child’s Prayer as well as you do, Carlo. But I don’t ask Rida to accompany me just because she’s my sworn knight. You never bother to continue with the second rhyme! Borne by spirits of the earth, from which spring fruits of love and mirth.” Veronica tapped her fingers against stone in unison with the rhythm. “Though Rida and I failed in our actual gardening attempts,” she said, rue in her voice. “I’m sure I wrote you about the camellias that died. Now I let the chief gardener do as he must, for I’m no expert.”

“You don’t need to be an expert in gardening. Since you’re the Princess—“

“I just need to be married for the sake of Zerestria,” Veronica finished, though she could guess from Carlo’s half-formed frown that, in all his severe sincerity, he had intended to end his words with a kinder truth for her. She glanced away, smiling down instead at the land. “I know that. Diplomacy doesn’t need gardening. I only wish I could do more, but it seems this is all that’s worth requiring of me.” What was left: all that she could do for the people of the castle, to love them and protect them as was her duty—and as was her desire. “To be honest,” she added, “I would like to see more of Zerestria once I’m married. I’ve travelled so little in my own country, when I should know it inside and out as one ought. If a princess could do a pilgrimage, like you… Carlo?”

Carlo had grown still, his face too smooth, at the passing mention of his pilgrimage. “If Prince Eugene is open to the suggestion,” he answered, “then once the war is ended you could petition your royal brother. But I wouldn’t recommend a pilgrimage like mine. I don’t think you would enjoy it, Princess.”

“I can’t say yes or no to that since you told me so little about it in your letters,” Veronica said with the air of a long-practiced complainant, “though at least you’ll make up for it in the future, right? Teaching, learning, saving lives wherever you go… Though I wouldn’t know where to start.” She propped her chin in her hands, and framed her face like a makeshift ornament. “Brother might think it silly.”

“It isn’t silly. But we do what the Church accords to us,” Carlo replied. He wrapped his words with certainty, as if in doing so he could chase out all doubt. “If everyone did as they desired, we’d court disorder.”

“Oh, Teacher Carlo!” Veronica tilted her head to the side to catch Carlo’s gaze, till with reluctance he returned hers. “But who gets to name disorder when they see it? Poor Bishop Moston, I pestered him with questions about that all the time—and you too. I’m glad you don’t dislike me for it, since you made sure to tell me off when you were bothered.”

“You weren’t shy about returning the favor,” Carlo remarked.

“Only when it was well-deserved! I don’t think it was generosity that inspired you to ask for carrot recipes for a whole month, back then.”

Carlo nearly smiled again. “I promise that the wedding feast will have no carrots,” he said. “I hope… Prince Eugene fares better than me with you, Princess.”

“He seems like someone who would prefer I don’t hold back.” Veronica shifted to face Carlo. “Since we’re going to be married, I’ll definitely do my best. And you’re not leaving right away, so I’ll have you to help. Here, Carlo, give me your hand.”

When Carlo offered it to her, she gently pulled him closer—her thumb folded with his thumb, fingers interlaced and locked in a formal weave. She had rehearsed the movement during a flurry of wedding rehearsals over the past week, Carlo walking her through the details with cool, impassive patience. Now, quickened by practice and memory, she clasped his hand in the correct ceremonial position as she would with Eugene, the next day. It felt like she might as well hold a burning ember: the heat of Carlo’s grasp melded with hers. “See, there we go! I remember the proper way, thanks to you. I’ll make sure there aren’t any missteps tomorrow.”

“… I know,” he replied, his voice a little hoarse. “I don’t doubt you.”

She smiled up at him. I want to marry this person, so he will never leave me—what a simple, childish wish in her youth, to be Carlo’s wife! Carlo had sometimes seemed more irritated than pleased by her at the Rakedonia monastery; and even then, she’d known that princesses didn’t marry priests. But if she had to be forever tied to her brothers, at least she could name one for her own whom she truly loved, whom she wanted to see—who might leave her, but would always return. Just as Carlo had.

“I’m glad I’ll still be living at the castle once I’m married,” said Veronica, “but I miss the monastery too. If I do a pilgrimage some day, I could visit Bishop Moston again. You could come with me—it’d be like old times! What do you think, Carlo?”

Carlo was slow to answer her. For a few heartbeats Veronica heard only silence. But at last he said in a low voice, “As you wish”—and, added almost as an afterthought, as a reminder to himself: “Princess.” He did not let go.

 

 

 

coda:

Day, unlike night, was a bad time for ghosts. But as he squinted against the sun in morning, Minami stepped into the school yard on his first day at Minato High—and saw one.

It wasn’t a perfect resemblance. Yet Minami faltered in his stride when he realized they were going to walk into the same room; he tried hard not to stare during his classmates’ introductions, and catalogued all the differences with deliberate calm as he heard the boy with Carlo’s face say: “I’m Ootomo Tatsuya.”

And the old name, unvoiced, faded upon Minami’s tongue. What had he expected? No one here would remember him as Veronica; he couldn’t impose the past upon the present, and he couldn’t look for the dead in the living. Or perhaps Carlo had lived on, beyond the limit of Veronica’s own circumscribed existence—and perhaps, in the end, he’d been happy.

Ootomo had nothing to do with Veronica. So Minami told himself to forget this passing fancy, to let it go. After all, they hardly knew each other.