Once Sir Ayren was gone, Lu couldn't stop thinking about how odd he was. Strange. He had seemed fake at first glance, but he sounded—no, felt—real. Lu couldn't decide yet, she didn't have anything to go off of.
And his question about blue. He spoke of the color as if it were alive. He had mentioned something about it lying. Could colors speak?
No, of course not.
Blue only lies half the time.
Well, there was plenty blue in her room, so maybe she could try to listen to it.
“Henna, where's my room?”
“Oh, this way.” Henna proceeded to lead her up one flight of stairs, turning left twice and right once before they came to her bedroom door. Lu could only guess they had taken the scenic route before, because the journey was not the same this time. Rehearsing the path in her head, Lu memorized the way to the kitchen. She'd need to know how to get there later.
Lu opened the door and stepped into her blue world. When Henna didn't follow her into the room, Lu turned to see her standing in the hall, facing away from the open door.
“Um….” Lu looked around the room self-consciously. Did Henna not like blue?
“We're not allowed to see inside each other's rooms. Sir Ayren has always made that clear.” Henna said it as if rehearsing a script.
“Why? Ren came in here.”
“Then he broke the rules.”
Lu thought about that. If it was a rule, it made Ren’s warning even more frightening. But he had told the physician that Lu was awake, hadn't he? That had to mean something. Could he be exempt from the rule? Henna didn't seem to think so.
“I'll stay out here until you come out,” Henna said patiently.
“No it's okay. I'd actually like to sleep, so you can do other things.”
“Okay.” Henna ran away from Lu’s room too quickly to say goodbye. Puzzled, Lu shut the door. Maybe that was just Henna being Henna. She wasn't necessarily acting weird. Hopefully she wouldn't get Ren in trouble.
Lu opened her wardrobe, taking in the sight of so many dresses. And all of them were for her! Shoving her unbelief aside, Lu stepped closer to the clothes and put her ear to them.
Straining to hear something, anything, all she heard was the rustle of fabric against her ear.
Why was she taking Ayren so seriously? He could have been using a figure of speech, after all, or quoting a poet. Not everything people said was what it seemed. Life just wasn't that simple.
Lu changed into a more comfortable, less fancy dress and flopped into the giant bed. She tried to stop thinking about Sir Ayren, but the image of him kept coming to mind.
His serious face, formal smile, those haunting—or maybe haunted?—eyes staring solemnly into Lu’s.
Lu closed her eyes to hide from the reminder of the life she had just arrived in. The soft pillow she lay on stayed, keeping her aware of the strangeness of it all. She, an orphan from another city, was in the mansion of a possible madman who was taking in stray children for no apparent reason. Why?
Lu let her mind drift through ideas until she fell into dreams of green pools, speaking dresses, and stars.
The wind slammed against Lu’s window, startling her awake. She lay in her bed for a few moments, staring at the ceiling to let her fear wear off. Once the tightness of being startled was gone, Lu slid off her bed and walked quietly to her wardrobe. She needed to say hello to the stars again and talk to Fin, which required dressing up. Well, the stars required it. Fin would listen to her whether or not she dressed up.
Lu selected a light blue dress with white lace sewn all down one side. The nebulous web of white string reminded her of the stars, and how they seemed connected even though they were so, so distant.
Lu felt her mind drift off for a moment, remembering the countless times she had stared at the stars and felt lonely for them. They had always kept shining, even though they didn't seem to have have a reason to, and Fin had said people needed to be more like stars.
So Lu had kept shining even after Fin had left. She kept going even though she sometimes felt like it didn't matter.
And she was here now.
Lu changed into the fancy dress and crept out of her room. The halls were dark, only moonlight coming through the skylights to light the house. Lu walked in the middle of the corridor properly, head high. She tried to gather calm, but she kept letting her curiosity distract her, peeking into ballrooms and closets and doors that led to stairways. The identical doors made it hard to predict what the room would be.
Lu took a chance and decided to go down one of the staircases. The door to outside would be closer to the ground, anyway, so it was the right direction.
The set of stairs she chose didn't go outside, though. Instead Lu came to a narrow hallway with one door at each end. One of the doors was open. When Lu peeked into it, she saw more stairs going down. Timid, Lu descended, coming out into a normal hallway. A sigh of relief escaped her mouth. She wasn't sure what she had expected, but she was glad to not have found some kind of secret.
Then Lu saw a different door, unlike any other in the house. Instead of one slab of wood, it was a double set of doors, painted with intricate white images. There were so many small depictions of people, animals, objects and scenery that Lu had to kneel down to see them properly. Tiny faces smiling, snarling fangs bared, the metallic gleam of sunlight on a sword. There was even a dragon along the bottom of the the doors, each scale intricately outlined.
The center of the door was completely white, and the closer the painted people and objects were to the center, the more they seemed to be unfinished, or maybe breaking. Around the corners of the doors the pictures were detailed meticulously and made Lu feel like they wanted to say something to her.
A sound came from the other side of the door. A thump.
Lu’s heart pounded, trying to beat its way out of her body. Was someone on the other side?
Lu suddenly wanted to be as far away from this strange door as possible. But something inside her screamed that she needed to know what—or who—was in the room.
Lu ran away, back up the stairs, quietly closing the doors she had gone through, retracing her path until she was back in her room. In the silence of her own space, she breathed deeply and tried to calm herself. She wasn’t in any danger.
Then she remembered the stars. She had forgotten her purpose for dressing up and leaving in the first place. Well, it wasn’t her fault the door to outside was so hard to find. Or that the house was so impossibly big.
She could still try to go outside, as long as she didn’t go near the painted door. It wasn't her business, and it had scared her anyway.
Lu focused on breathing. Inhale...exhale. Her fear trickled away slowly, until the idea of leaving her room didn't terrify her.
Lu hurried. If her calm ran out while she was in the dark halls, there would be problems.
This time, Lu went straight until she couldn't continue, then turned left. Her room had a window, so it had to be on the edge of the mansion. Continuing this method, Lu finally came to a room that had to be the entrance room.
It had a balcony, which she was standing on, looking out over a huge, decorated room. There were wide, curving staircases arching down from both sides of the balcony to the floor. Lu slid her hand along the banister as she inched her way down the stone steps. The dark and the silence of the huge room combined to make an eerie, reverent feeling inside Lu.
On the far wall were what had to be the main doors. They were twice as tall as Sir Ayren and had squarish designs carved into them. As long as they weren't locked, she had found a way outside.
Lu gripped the doorknob and twisted it, relishing the pulse of relief that thrilled through her as it turned. The door was open.
A wave of cold air invaded the warmth of Ayren’s mansion as Lu slipped through the door and into the darkness of the night.
From the porch, hills and bushes were the only thing in view. There were no other houses, or buildings at all. Mountains made long ribbons of darkness on the horizon, distant and flat.
Hadn't the letter mentioned a city?
Maybe… Maybe a city wasn't what Lu had always thought? Maybe one building could be a city. Or maybe Ayren was crazy. Brushing the question to the back of her mind, Lu ran from the porch and into the night.
Lu’s bare feet slapped the cold stone walkway as she ran away from the house, to a position away from the mansion’s shadow. Again, she remembered that she had access to multiple pairs of shoes. She'd have to use those sometime.
Lu looked around, finding a patch of grass to lay on. It was cold underneath her, but soft, and Lu found it comfortable.
The stars were above. They were so bright, the flickering, shining lights that she loved.
Lu closed her eyes and imagined the stars from the perspective of her old hideout on the mansion’s roof. She opened them again, comparing both images. Yes, they were brighter here. If she observed carefully, they seemed to be different colors.
“I love the stars,” Lu said to Fin.
The wind rustled over Lu, brushing the grass against her cheek. She couldn't stop thinking that if Fin was there, he'd say something like, “Everyone does, when they take the time to see them.”
And he would be right.
“Fin, I wish you could be here.”
Crickets chirped from all around, their noises rhythmic, syncopated and random.
“I'm here, Fin,” Lu sighed. “What do I do now?”
The ribbon of stars in the sky sparkled. A pigeon cooed somewhere nearby, a sound Lu had never cared for.
Then another sound. A click. Then the soft groan of a heavy door opening. Lu tried to lay perfectly still, only turning her head to see who had opened the door.
It was Ren. From her position, she watched as he pulled on the doorknob again to make sure the door closed all the way. He looked up without even glancing anywhere else and stared at the night sky. His nightclothes were baggy and pure white, sticking out against the shadow of the house.
Lu kept her eyes on him, not sure how to feel about his presence.
Moments stretched away, measured only by Lu’s pounding heart. How would he feel if he knew she was here?
Angry. He'd probably be angry.
Ren took a step away from the door, turning to look at the moon. Step by slow step, Ren came closer to Lu, oblivious to her.
As he approached, his face became clearer, and Lu could see hints of sadness in his expression. He was just looking at the stars, peaceful and alone. Or so he thought.
Lu felt sorry. With every moment, she felt more sorry for being there. The twisting guilt of knowing she was intruding.
Ren stepped forward again. He was only a few steps away from Lu now.
“I'm sorry.” Lu whispered.
Ren jumped, yelping with surprise. In the moonlight his eyes were wide open as they looked at Lu. The tension of the moment was too much for Lu.
“I'm sorry,” she said again, louder, “I'm sorry for being here.” She wanted to vanish, sink into the ground—anything to be away from this situation.
Ren stared at her, breathing deeply.
“That's okay,” he said at last. “It's okay.”
The wind was back, chilly and brisk. Lu successfully managed to keep from shivering.
“You scared me,” Ren said.
“I'm so sorry.” Lu cringed inside. Was he offended? Hurt?
“Don't be sorry,” Ren said matter-of-factly. “If I can wander out here this early, it's only fair that you can, too.”
So it was early morning. Lu breathed an acknowledgement. Ren was looking much more composed than Lu felt. Was he done being startled?
“So,” Ren questioned, “why are you out here, laying on the grass in a formal dress?”
Lu wasn't sure how to answer. She couldn't tell him she was here to say hello to the stars, he'd think she was crazy. She also didn't want to mention Fin. But she probably looked crazy anyway, shoeless and sprawled on the ground.
“I'm looking at the stars.”
“Ah. Me too.”
“Why are you looking at them?” The question popped out of Lu before she could check it for flaws.
Ren was caught off guard.
“Well… It's peaceful, you know?”
Crickets, pigeons, the wind and Lu’s heart were a cacophony of noises, making the pause in conversation seem more awkward. Lu tapped her fingers against the ground, trying to think of what to say.
“Look.” Ren pointed at the horizon. “It's almost sunrise.”
Lu took the opportunity to stand up, looking into the east where Ren had pointed.
A dull ribbon of light was hovering over the mountain desert, not orange, not red, but some combination of both that made Lu’s heart ache for her old hiding places, from which she had watched so many similar sunrises.
Ren didn't speak, instead staring silently as the light gradually brightened into a full-on sunrise. The sun peeked over the hills, a blinding sliver at first, turning into a warped sphere as it rose.
The silence stretched into minutes, but Lu tried to ignore it. If she stared at the sun, she could pretend she was alone.
The sun was soon too bright to look at, so Lu turned her face upwards, to the stars. They were faint now, almost invisible.
“Goodbye,” Lu murmured under her breath.
Ren turned to look at her.
“Nothing.” Lu still wasn't sure if Ren would understand her relationship with the stars. He seemed nice, but… Lu didn't want to risk him teasing her.
“I should probably get back to my room and change.” Lu said quietly.
Ren looked down at his white nightclothes, nodding.
“Me too, but I like to wait until the birds start singing.”
As if on cue, several sparrows swept by, chirping their presence to the world. Ren smiled.
“Okay. Now we can go.” He started walking back to the house, and Lu stumbled after him, not wanting to be left alone.
“I don't know where my room is.”
Ren waved a hand. “I can show you.”
Lu followed behind him as he navigated the massive house, soon giving up on mapping it out. There were too many different halls and confusing turns. The lack of landmarks made it even harder.
When they came to Lu’s room, Ren said a quick goodbye, then hurried away.
A newly-wakened Henna was sent to fetch Lu a while later, and Lu, in a different blue dress, followed her to the small dining room for breakfast.
The wonderful smell of fresh bread poured from the table, mouth-watering as ever.
The two youngest boys, Turin and Lef, were already sitting on their chairs, hungrily eying the breakfast laid out before them. Lu avoided looking at his eyes. She didn't need to be distracted again.
Lu understood their anticipation. Next to the bread was a jar of golden honey, and a plate of butter to put on the bread. A pot in the middle of the table held oatmeal, steaming and radiating warmth. Red and purple splotches in the cereal suggested the presence of strawberries, maybe blackberries too.
Lu felt an automatic pang of desire before she realized, again, that it was for her. She could eat it. She could eat that warm flavorful breakfast that wasn't dry at all. It was hard to believe.
Ren, now dressed in a white tunic, slid into a chair, following Lu’s gaze to the oatmeal. He didn't mention her hungry stare, he just looked thoughtfully at Lu. She met his gaze questioningly. He nodded as if to say “It's for us. We get to eat that.”
Lu almost listened to her hunger and attacked the food then and there, but she wasn't sure what mealtime was like here. At the rich parties Lu had watched, the men and women had just eaten randomly throughout the night, but that food hadn't seemed like a meal, exactly.
Lu sat awkwardly, mouth watering at the smell of the fresh, warm bread. It brought a flood of nostalgia to smell bread. It made Lu think of the bakery, and the nice people who had given her bread sometimes.
She might never see them again, Lu realized. She would probably stay here for a long time, and if she went back, they might have already left, like Fin.
The boy who had followed Lu came to mind again. The people in that city probably thought he was dead now. They probably thought Lu was dead. They would be left to wonder about that—if they even thought about it—while all Lu wondered was whether the boy in the infirmary was getting a breakfast this nice.
Lef fidgeted in his seat, sighing impatiently.
“When are we…” he trailed off in the middle of his sentence. Something had caught his eye, behind Lu. Turin cleared his throat and smiled.
Lu turned around to see what was happening, and there was the cook, one arm around the little boy’s shoulders. Buried in the cooks apron, his timid face was hardly visible.
Lu stood up and reached out an arm. Slowly, he peeked up at her. Then his clean face lit up with a smile. He darted across the room into Lu’s arms, hugging her tightly.
Lu didn't know what to say, so she didn't say anything. Henna moved over one chair so Lu could sit by the boy as they ate.
And the breakfast was wonderful.
Author Notes: Feedback is more than welcome.