Goodbye was a thick syrup that gurgled near the back of the throat, coating fleshy walls with a dense, guttural flavor that would not let go. The taste of it has tipped my tongue for the past twelve years since I left the palace. I pursued something grander than a royal enclosure could offer, though most figured the daughter of a lord could want for nothing else, and what was there to seek out in the world anyway? For me, it was the insects.
I heard it time and again, the chastising tongues that flicked and wagged, unrelenting over the matter of a prospective Court Lady’s decision to become an entomologist. The Princess, dearest childhood friend she was, never added to the discussion, much as I wished to know her opinion, for it was her who I’d ultimately leave behind. Physically I put us at a distance, but she never quite left my headspace, everlasting in the little instances of my fieldwork—amidst dew-dropped dragonfly wings and the sleek sheen of segmented millipede bodies.
I thought of her often, but it was only ever that: dancing thoughts. Holding the letter disclosing our significant increase in funding, I found myself transfixed to the physicality of her name, neat and defined at the bottom of the page, Princess Feira. It brought her from the well worn corners of my mind towards a concrete, unmistakable reality. It took all of me to refrain from grazing my fingertips across the pen strokes.
I cleared my throat, joining my fellow entomologists in cheer, all of which had felt their careers slipping through their grasp just weeks earlier, myself included among them. With increased funding, we could continue our work in newly emblazoned enthusiasm. Class Insecta still held, through the lens of millions of tiny creatures, more of the world to discover. The land never seemed so open to possibility, not since I first left the Royal Court. That day when I first left Feira.
Not once did I ever journey back to the palace; the weight of something tense on back always kept me at bay, though truthfully I hadn’t much the appetite to return altogether. Only one thing beckoned me, and in seeing her signage, I could muster the unbelievably fickle strength required to come back home. Home for what? I had not the foggiest idea. Such a daunting task I’d willed myself into undertaking, yet for such an ambiguous reason. I couldn’t help but realize how much more complicated humans were to insects, a wonder why I preferred the former, even as a girl.
Unsurprisingly, the palace remained much unchanged to when I saw it last, with the same thick outer wall surrounding the same iron-ornamented drawbridge. The opening felt like a gaping mouth that sucked in the air with a slight, hungry pull. Following the meticulous path to the inner wall, I was greeted by the familiar defense towers, positioned around the main castle town gate that read Harfodin Square. Proud family crests adorned several hanging pennants leading to the castle doors. I recognized the Princess’ crest, a Ulysses Butterfly perched atop a bundle of berries, and it gave me pause. Another confirmation of her clear existence, in conjunction with my own—how we existed together all at once—and how it somehow seemed to ache from somewhere rooted within me.
Upon my arrival, much unprecedented, the townsfolk whispered as I was sure they would, their overlapping words clambering together in the wind like the chirps of crickets. I walked the square, perusing certain wares in hopes that the gossip would stir itself up to a boil, hot enough to travel the cracks of the walls and reach Feira’s ears, and so she’d know exactly where to go. This of course, assuming my presence did not immediately offend her, which it very well could. The mere idea of it could crush me where I stood. Still I walked onward, steeling my gaze to a distant point in front of me, intensely narrowed in on nothing at all, but shielded with an expression that did not invite conversation. I wished to speak with only one person.
I found myself back on the outer edge of the town, on a steady pace toward the wooded area surrounded by the warm stones of the inner wall, away from the whispers and now enveloped in the song of the cicadas. The white pines stretched out to the sky, and our familiar playground spilled before me in a gush of nostalgic haze. Here we explored in simulated freedom, turning rocks and digging up holes hoping to find the shiniest beatle.
Further in, there lay a pond, encircled by tufts of dandelions in the shade of a humbly sized, honeylocust tree. My reflection peered at me, distorted in delicate ripples by the small water striders that skidded across the glass surface. I waited patiently for something I was not certain would ever occur, except, in what felt like seconds, it did.
From in front of me she suddenly materialized, more physical than ever. Disbelief splashed across her face and her cheeks were flushed, but her breath remained steady, as if to hide the fact that she might have sprinted here. Her hair, much longer than before, blew across her shoulders in a silky smoke. I was struck mute. She folded her hands together, as if unsure of herself for the first time in her life.
Then, in controlled syllables, she spoke. “The funding was meant to keep you away from this little grove, you know?” It was spoken so softly I could scarcely hear it.
“You are unhappy to see me, then?” I asked. All it would take was for her to affirm my suspicions, even slightly, for me to gather myself and quietly disappear again. She could say yes, if only with her eyes or a shift of stance, say that she despised the fool I was for leaving, and that I was never supposed to return, unofficially banished. She could say that even though my research proved fruitless now, she would humor it with palace funds if it meant I was pushed away from Harfodin forever. I braced myself, but Feira did not jump at the question, instead choosing to sit down and stare at the pond.
“The feeling is not so simple. It never is, with you, I suppose,” she answered with a pressed smile. She patted the earth next to her, prompting me to take a tentative seat. “It is odd to see your posture stiffen so around me.”
I gave a hoarse laugh. “I think it more odd that you seem much relaxed.” She hummed and we sat in silence for a moment, the cicadas murmuring their tune in the baked air. In a strange sense, I could almost delude myself into believing no time had passed at all. We were young girls gazing at the water, whimsically going on about the richness of the palace cook’s cakes and the amusing shapes of certain clouds. I could not allow myself the pleasure of the trance for very long, for I very well might have remained there my entire life, sitting contentedly as the woods grew over me.
I tore at the silence. “It couldn’t have been easy. The funding, I mean. I’m not sure how you managed its approval.”
“Certainly one of my more challenging pursuits.”
“Why go to the trouble? Our previously depleted funding shows well enough that my team hasn’t found anything of note in the past year.”
“Untrue. Your last journal on limb regeneration amongst the Coccinellidae was only six months ago, and personally I found it fascinating enough.”
I blinked. “You read my reports?”
“Is it so shocking? You may be the entomologist now, but we shared the very same interest in insects back then.” She adjusted the butterfly hair pendant holding her locks together, as if illustrating her point.
Another silent pause from both of us.
“You fell from this tree once.” she motioned her chin to the honeylocust behind us. “Do you recall?”
“Of course.” My voice creaked like stained wood.
“May I conclude you’re not as recklessly distracted these days?”
She asked something simple, though the nature of it hung in the air, unspoken and complex. I remembered the exact moment I plunged from the tree. Both of us, twelve and overzealous, climbed upon the branches in an effort to pick off a caterpillar that had found itself ensnared in a sticky web. I reached up, plucking the poor green thing with the tenderest of care, and presented it to Feira who found herself so delighted at the gallant rescue that she rewarded me with a firm kiss square upon my lips. I fell backward, landing flatly as the princess laughed above me, her cackles bouncing through the woods. Somehow I’d become the only girl this side of Aegenfeld to have met a princess’ lips.
Was she asking if my lips landed anywhere else, beyond these walls?
May I conclude you’re not as recklessly distracted these days?
I wasn’t, not even close, but I was still unsure of how to reply. I tugged at the ends of my hair, a nervous habit persisting from youth. Feira’s mouth whisked up into a small smile.
“I’m focused on the bugs, rest assured.” I offered.
Her eyes glistened slightly, mixed with something akin to ‘Ah, I see. I’m sorry to hear that, in as much as I’m glad for it,’ though it's possible I imagined it.
“Still,” I took a breath, “my focus means little when our findings are so minimal as of late. My knowledge of these insects feels like a plaything I should have left behind in this grove, years ago.”
“Come now—” she began, but I felt myself breaking open from the second I saw her name on that funds approval document, and it built far too fast, uncontainable.
“All my life I’ve been called a fool for following this path, and now the well’s dried up, except it hasn’t really, only because you refilled it and I don’t know what to make of that, or why I’m here.” My shoulders trembled embarrassingly. It was not my intention to release my words so freely. I hold myself, pinching at my elbows in an attempt to steady the very rumbling of my life from within me.
“Oh, my dear Margot,” Feira said. The sound of my name from her lips felt like a deep, surgical cut.
“Perhaps I should have stayed and become a lady of the court like everyone expected, then we could have possibly…”
“I am happy you left.” I met her eyes, completely startled, but she did not turn away. “I’m elated that you’re out there, living. Margot, that funding is yours because I know you’re one of the interesting ones that got out of here. You’re bigger than Harfodin palace, I knew it then, as much as it pained me, and I know it now still.”
“But if I had stayed—”
“You would have been a refined, but surely unhappy lady of the court. Of that, I am certain.” She ran her fingers through the grass, the puddles of sunlight through the tree leaves pooling at the pores of her soft skin. “It gives me great solace, you know. The fact that you and many others are out there, spreading ideas and discovering change, is a great blessing to this kingdom of mine.”
I struggled to contain myself, salt water pricking at my eyes. A part of me wished for her to abhor me, though another wished for her to order that I stay, relinquishing the life I’d sacrificed for. However, another part still, one I wasn’t even aware of, burst into a beautiful flurry of adoration at her encouragement. I felt something bubble against my heart and I bit my lip, but my words lept forth regardless.
I knew well in my heart what Feira would say, but still I spoke. “The world is big enough for the both of us to explore, you know.”
“I am happy to fulfill my life right here. Besides, I’ve more interesting people to send out there. Perhaps one of them will hone your conversation skills and provide an enthralling topic.”
It was a resolute and tender answer, brimming with an unbridled honesty. My decision all those years ago stated something plain.
I choose this, I leave you behind because this other thing, this other life that I seek means more, and I am sorry.
The day I departed, in my actions alone, I gifted these words to the princess and buried them deep. In the grove together, twelve years later, with an unyielding loyalty to her duties and her life, she gently handed me a similar answer.
I choose this. I choose it in spite of you, and I am sorry.
The entomologist would not stay. The princess, she would not go.
The silence returned around us again, save for the cicadas who dowsed us raw music. Our hands rested next to each other, tingled at the faint presence of the other person. I noted a lady beetle crawl between our fingers, and it suddenly felt as though the world was just that moment—a second layed out over complete eternity.
“Margot,” she turned to whisper, “Go find something breathtaking, so that in your next report you may write something small and innocuous within its pages, just for me, knowing that I will read it. In that way, across the earth, I am with you still.”
I gazed at her, breaking out into a smile as the unforgiving taste of goodbye slipped from my mouth and into the air. I pondered what I might discover next, already clicking together the words I might give the princess then. I’d have to make it something worth the wait. We sat, our expressions delicate like the girls we used to be.
The cicadas crooned, approving.
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I was hooked from the first paragraph. In my opinion, there's something very engaging and pleasant about your prose. The descriptions are apt, and the tempo is just right. And for some reason the part about the song of the cicadas made me think of those older animes where there's always the cicadas sawing incessantly in the background whenever the characters are in the country. I really loved this story.
Oh my thank you! You're totally right LMAO the sound effect they use in those animes is SO nostalgic. I listened to cicada background noise while writing this and it just amped me up more LOL
Yes, it's so nostalgic. I used to listen to background noise when I was writing too, but it's been a while.
This was so good! And I agree, the first sentence was a smashing success of an opener! And I love how you portrayed the princess. Well done!
Thank you so much!! Openings are killer for me, so I'm glad I got this one down. Then again, the middle and end are just as difficult sometimes. Writing is hard LOL
Your first sentence just fire <3
Thank you so much! First sentences are always the hardest..
Oh my gosh, this was amazing! I am glad I took a peek (thank you for commenting on mine so it could lead me here). You are truly gifted at storytelling, especially at metaphor. I got a little misty at the ending, but it was so well done, I'm not sure if it was because of the bittersweetness, or because I was witnessing majesty as a writer. Seriously, WOW! Maybe a little of both. I started to clip lines I loved, but you made that difficult since it was pretty much all of them. My favorites if I had to narrow it down... - Goodbye was a thick...
Oh my, I missed such a wonderful comment! You're much too kind!! Thank you thank you for taking the time to read and respond. Personally I loved writing the very last bit between the two ladies. Though it's a little sad to read, for them, it's one of their happiest and most cathartic moments. They'd lived so long feeling cut off from the other, it was nice to give them a sort of closure and confirmation that they would think of each other still, despite not being together. I get such a kick out of delivering a very complex feeling like tha...
My pleasure! :)