"Of course, I'm going to Italia," Lady Pole said, as soon as the news came to her. She was ready to fight tooth and nail against any contrary opinion. It was unnecessary - her husband already knew she was eager to leave his house, and approved wholeheartedly. It would make less talk than if she went back to her parents, or left for another residence wherever. All of this was the Minister's opinion - the husband was sadder about this turn of events.
As she was travelling, Emma was thinking about Arabella a lot. About Arabella's patience and affection as she visited her, even then she wasn't able to understand the terrible truth. About how Arabella had learned to fake a smile somewhere during the Lost-Hope balls, and it was hard to remember her real one, from her visits at her husband's home. About the pressure of her fingers and the tickle of her hair against Emma's face.
She also thought a lot about the anger she felt when she discovered she had been the only one saved and had left her friend alone. She had wanted to escape, of course, but not alone. She’d wanted to save Arabella. So she’d been angry to discover Jonathan had been the one to finally do it. Arabella would be so grateful to him, and, at the times where Emma worried the most, she was afraid Arabella would resent her for her desertion.
Of course she was wrong! When she got to Padua, Arabella hugged her like the dearest of friends. And already she had learned how to smile again, even if it was rarer than before. Emma promised herself that she would have to do the same. It was just hard to remember a time where she wasn't sick or under an enchantment, but she thought it might be possible. Especially as Arabella's friend.
She didn't want to visit historical places or go to the theater. It didn't revolt her as much as the idea of dancing, but what she loved the most was to stay home with Arabella and talk. Flora Greysteel could have been jealous, but she was a good soul. She knew only part of what Lady Pole had endured, and it was enough for her to look at her with compassion and respect. And as Lady Pole kept her own company when Arabella and Flora were talking about Jonathan, Flora offered them all the privacy they needed to discuss their shared experiences far from prying ears.
"I'm sorry I left you," Emma said more than one time, even though Arabella reminded her gently she had had no choice on the matter.
Arabella was also unable to tell her how the Gentleman had fallen, but she was sure of it. She had felt it, so Emma didn't need to be afraid of him coming back. She was worried for Stephen, though. Emma had felt compassion for Stephen while they were both captive, and still esteemed him highly. So she didn't tell Arabella how much her life counted more than Stephen's to her, even if her eyes were eloquent, burning with half-held tears.
"I'm so glad you came back!" she said, holding Arabella’s hands. "I'm so glad you didn't die!" And Emma was also glad to have escaped. She managed to no longer resent the human world, even if she was struggling to love it. And when Emma was with Arabella, she was even glad she herself didn't die.
"Are you sure it's your husband who saved you?" she asked. "Since you were not here?" Emma was assured by everyone Jonathan Strange had sent her the finger that had freed her from her enchantment, but she was not sure about it, and Arabella's circumstances seemed even more nebular.
"I'm sure," Arabella answered. "I saw him, still prisoner of the darkness. He told me."
Emma would have shared her doubts, but after Strange had confessed, in front of them both, that he hadn't come to Lost-Hope to rescue Arabella, painting him as a liar was a hard task. It still seemed to her that in Arabella's place, she would have asked how! But maybe she was not an expert in the manner of loving husbands and wives. She sighed.
Arabella was a good woman. Emma had been a good girl, once. Then she had died, and lost the patience for it.
"Were you tempted to stay in the darkness with him?" Emma asked, hoping from the depths of her heart Arabella wasn't.
"A bit," Arabella confessed. "But I didn't go to war with him. I trusted him to come back, and he did. I will trust him again this time. And when we are together again, it will be in light and peace."
Light and peace - was it what Emma had now?
"Are you happy?" Emma asked.
"Yes, I'm happy most of the time," Arabella answered. "Of course, I miss him. Of course, I worry for him, sometimes. But I escaped our hellish prison thanks to his love, and I'm learning again to feel peace and contentment at least. I'm learning to feel safe." She looked at Emma with some measure of worry. "Do you feel safe? Are you all right? I never saw you, I never knew you free before now."
Emma felt intimidated - they had been so close, hugging each other at Lost-Hope's balls after everyone had left. Of course, it was a nightmare, and of course, Emma hated everything related to any kind of fairies, but she still wanted to believe these moments, outside of any kind of English civilisation, counted.
"I'm so sorry I wasn't able to understand you when you were a prisoner," Arabella said. "But I'm more sorry I didn't transmit your words of warning, because it was a failure of honesty, not of judgement."
Emma shouldn't have forgiven this, but she loved Arabella too much, and she did.
"And I'm sorry for having repeated so many times that your husband wouldn't come to save you," she answered.
"It’s nothing. Do you feel safe?" Arabella asked again.
And Emma felt her heart burst with gratitude, because everyone asks this, but who would have asked until they got a real answer?
"I feel safe from the monsters," she answered, fighting the tears. "I even feel happy when I'm with you. But I don't feel free. Is it freedom if I do nothing with it? Every second I'm not screaming about how unfair is the world, I feel caged again. Maybe I should try to shoot Norrell again, the awful little man. Do you know where he is?"
"He's travelling with my husband," Arabella answered.
Emma sighed in frustration. "Are you sure your husband loves you?"
"Emma!" Arabella protested.
"How can you know?" Emma protested. "Explain me, please! What does his love like? Would he kill someone for you?" She was sobbing now. "How do you know you love him?"
"Oh, Emma," Arabella answered softly, having forgotten all of her anger in front of her friend's distress. She felt like she had never seen it fully, and worse, never understood it. "Were you... do you remember ever being in love?"
"No, no!" Emma protested. "That's why I'm asking!" But it was not exactly true.
"Do you mind, if, as a dear friend, I hug you and stroke you hair?" Arabella asked.
"Of course not!" Emma answered. But she knew she was lying; there was still something wrong in the as a dear friend words, something like all the cages having ever restrained her.
Oh, she shivered at the touch; it was like witnessing a new dawn.
"I'm so very sorry I can’t return your feelings, Emma," Arabella said. "I promise you I care about you with all my heart, you're very important to me and my affection is no less than being in love, but it's different and different it will stay."
Emma wanted to protest, to say she wasn't in love with Arabella, but the words died in her mouth, just like they had done when she wanted to explain her awful condition. Or rather, the other way, as this time it was truth that sealed her lips. You only deny what you feel ashamed about, and Emma obstinately refused herself shame.
She felt illuminated with a new light, and at the same time she felt sad, like something had been stolen from her, that she never knew she had, something made all of dark hopes.
"I'll love you forever," she promised, "even if you don't love me," and was sad to hear it sounded like a threat, like fairies gave at night in the Lost-Hope gardens.
"Is it what you want?" Arabella asked. She hadn't stopped stroking her hair. Did she even know how it made Emma feel? Of course, Emma thought with venom in her heart, her husband had probably already done this to her, and the other way too.
"I don't know," Emma answered. "I'll never love my husband, never! He let me down! I'll never love any man!"
"That's all right," Arabella answered softly. Emma knew she had only blamed her for her lack of gratitude, but women like Arabella who actually loved her husbands seemed to live in another world where it was the norm. "Maria Absalom, my husband's mentor, never married a man and loved a few women in her life. It’s a thing that happens."
"Are you sure?" Emma asked. She hated how pitiful her voice sounded.
"Well, I'm sure he told me this. Maybe he was trying to stop me from getting jealous of his torrid affair with a ghost." Arabella's voice became softer. "I shouldn't joke about this. Of course I'm sure."
"I love it when you joke," Emma answered. Her heart was still hurting, as she had set it free for a first painful adventure. But it was also more alive than it had ever been, and it understood part of while she did still feel angry, she didn't feel free. "Please be my friend always and keep touching my hair for now."
Arabella hummed quietly and didn't stop.