Lulu at last waded out of sleep, struggling to shake off the last filmy tendrils of the dream that had been clinging to her like the fronds of underwater plants. It seemed as though a long time had passed since she had last been fully awake. For what had felt like days she had been lying like an exhausted swimmer cast onto an unfamiliar shore as a swirl of fever dreams, muddled with a dim half-wakefulness, had lapped over her in waves.
She opened her eyes, wincing at the sudden stab of brightness. The pain had lessened but there was still a dull throbbing in her head that collected behind her eyes when she tried to focus them. One of them was still covered by the bandage patched over the left side of her forehead. The first thing she could see was her battered old moogle doll, lying lifelessly beside her. It was looking a bit cleaner and fluffier than it had been before. Someone had mended it, and washed out the dirt and the bloodstains.
She was lying on a narrow bed which was not her own, with her unscarred cheek resting on a pillow that was warm beneath it from the weight of her head. Beside the bed she could see a small wooden table, upon which stood a basin with a damp terry cloth hanging over its rim. Underneath the blankets it was uncomfortably warm; she could feel her nightclothes clinging to her skin and her mouth was sticky with dryness.
The tugging question of where she was and how long she had been there prompted her to try to sit up. She felt very light and hollow, aware of her bones like a bundle of sticks pressing through her fragile skin into the mattress as she lay curled up on the bed, but at the same time it seemed to take a tremendous effort just to turn over and lift her head. She found herself in a spacious, scrubbed room with a row of eight simple brass bedsteads, one of which contained her pale, wispy self, lined neatly up against the back wall. Midafternoon daylight streamed in through the high, arched windows, reflecting a blinding, sterile whiteness from the walls, the curtains, the bleached and pressed sheets on the tidy little beds, and the apron of the approaching nun.
“You’re awake!” The relief audible in her voice bolstered Lulu’s suspicion that it had been some time since this had been the case. She hurried over to the side of the bed and pressed her somewhat forcefully back against the pillow as she managed to prop herself up on her elbows. “There, there. Don’t try to get up just yet. You’ve been very ill. You had a close call, little miss.” The nun fussed about her, straightening the tangled covers Lulu had tried to kick off. She had a plump, smiling, grandmotherly face, but her hands were too firm and persistent and Lulu wished she would go away.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, a question to which a response was prevented by the glass thermometer pushed into her mouth, even if she had felt inclined to speak. In truth, she felt terrible – aching and weak, and while she was clear-headed for the first time in a long while, the awakening lucidity of her memory was giving shape to things she didn’t want to think about just yet. The nurse, apparently unmindful of her lack of reply, took her pulse, checked the reading on the thermometer, inspected the dressing on her forehead, and then, without divulging any of her findings to their subject, continued to bustle about the room keeping up a steady conversation in which she did not seem to mind that she was the only participant.
“I must say, it’s a good thing that summoner party found you and brought you back here. What were you doing out there all by yourself? A child of your age should know better than to wander the Calm Lands alone. You’re lucky to be alive.” She checked herself, and then went on in a gentler tone, “But never you mind that. You just rest.” She crossed the room to a wall of shelves containing an array of bottled potions and began scanning the labels. All Lulu wanted at the moment was a drink of water, but she could not muster the voice to ask for it. Even if she had, she doubted she could have made her voice carry enough to be heard.
She reached up and gingerly probed her forehead. She could still feel the faint grooves of the scars below the edge of the bandage, following the line of her cheek. Not even the white magic of the summoner who had saved her had been able to erase them completely. The fiend that had struck her down had been a thing of much older, stronger, and darker magic than his, and its claws had been wicked, long, and sharp. With tentative fingers she began to feel beneath the bandage for the eye it had struck, then shuddered and left it alone. Truthfully, she was afraid to know what she would find. Reaching up, she straightened the part of her hair and drew her bangs down over her eye, so that her hair curled around the wounded half of her face and covered it. Half-hidden, she felt a bit better.
Slowly she managed to ease herself up into a sitting position against the pillow, even though she had to bite back a little cry of pain as she did. She discovered she was dressed in a plain, shapeless nightshirt that was too big for her and sliding from one of her shoulders. The sleeves came down over the backs of her hands. Underneath she could feel the constriction of more bandages bound tightly around her ribs, and one of her knees. Her long hair was unbound, which was not customary for it, and fell around her shoulders in a thick, dark mess of snarls that she despaired in ever getting out. Who had been so careless as to leave it unbraided, she wondered irritably as she began to run her fingers through it, working out the tangles as best she could. Catching sight of her hand, she noticed that they had removed the two small silver rings she had been wearing and even, for some reason, her purple nail polish.
Lulu looked up. Taking in the ornate panes of the windows, the Yevon scriptures on gilded hangings upon the walls, the orange and green habit of the nun, she began to realize where the “here” was to which she had been brought. Bevelle. Specifically, the Temple of Bevelle, capital of Spira, heart of Yevon.
Her heart sank. She had never been to Bevelle before, but it had been the next planned stop on her pilgrimage. Lady Ginnem had been telling her all about the beauty of the temple in the holy city that had once been her home, and everything they would see there when they came for her to pray for the blessing of the fayth. She had even promised they would look for a new winter coat to replace the old one that Lulu had been outgrowing, and which now lay on the floor of the cavern, torn apart by the fangs of fiends as Lulu herself very nearly had been. So she had come to Bevelle at last, but she had come alone.
She cast her gaze back down to her hands, which had given up on her hair as the little strength they had left them and were lying idly in her lap. If they hadn’t made the detour over the Calm Lands to seek out the hidden fayth there, in that forsaken valley where the rest of her companions had died, they would all be here together now.
Shame pricked at her eyes and pooled at the corners of her eyelids in hot, stinging drops. Lulu quickly lowered her head so that her hair fell forward, obscuring her face completely, before the nun could see the tears. The last thing she wanted right now was to be caught crying, and have her tears rewarded with empty reassurances from someone who could not possibly have known the reason for them.
Fortunately the nun had her back to her, busy pouring the potion she had selected into a cup. Lulu surreptitiously scrubbed the tears away on the cuff of one too-long sleeve before they could escape her eyelashes. She had wept when she had found the summoner party. It had been all she could do to stumble, badly wounded and half frozen, back up the slope out of the snow-dusted gorge and call out to them as they were crossing the bridge. “Please,” she had pleaded, even though, rationally, she knew it was already too late, “Please, you have to come help my summoner.”
The other travelers had hastened across the bridge to her. The summoner had tried to get a clear account of what had happened from her, but when she tried to tell him the words had knotted in her throat. She had been shaking violently from cold and shock, and when he crouched down to her level to put around her shoulders a coat, which one of his guardians had shrugged off and handed to him, the concern on his face had overwhelmed her with relief and despair. Unable to bear his kindness after what she had done, she had shielded her torn and bleeding face with her hands and sobbed, helplessly, in defeat.
The nurse returned to her bedside, bearing a blue-enameled cup and a kindly smile. “Drink this up, and you’ll feel better.” Lulu tried to say that she didn’t want it, even though she was thirsty, but her voice would not give shape to the words. She could only shake her head. The fixed smile on the face of the nun did not waver. “Now, now,” her voice slid into a saccharine, singsong lilt that made Lulu’s skin crawl, “You’ll never get better if you don’t take your medicine.” Realizing that her only hope of being left alone lay in doing what she was told, Lulu reached out to accept the proffered cup, embarrassed that she had to take it with both hands like a small child, and that the nurse had to steady it while she drank. The potion was bitter, and slid down her throat with an unpleasant slipperiness. “There’s a good girl,” said the nun, smiling in affected sympathy at the face Lulu had tried not to make, and took the cup away.
As the liquid settled uncomfortably in her stomach she began to feel a chain of creeping twinges spread out under her skin and along the edges of the still-healing wounds that started to draw together beneath the bandages. The long, deep ache began to subside, and she did feel better. In its wake there was left only a vague soreness that was more a weariness, as though she hadn’t been resting all this while. She drew the moogle into her arms and leaned her head back against the brass bars of the bedstead.
The nurse continued to prattle amiably, as though she felt that what Lulu had been longing for all this time was conversation. “The fever’s broken at last, praise be to Yevon. You should be on your feet again in a day or two. You’ve been through quite an ordeal, haven’t you? Poor baby. Maybe when you’re feeling up to it you can tell me all about it, hm?”
Lulu sank back into the pillow and drew her knees up defensively in front of herself. She had no intention of telling anyone all about it, ever. She couldn’t. Just the thought of retelling that story, with each step of the unwinding narrative drawing her back further into the nightmare-colored darkness of that cavern, amid the eerie, drifting dead lights of the pyreflies, the closeness of the dripping walls, the furtive scuttling of the claws of fiends that were audible all around but impossible to see through the gloom, filled her with unbearable dread.
She shook her head emphatically, starting to shake as horror rippled over her skin. Her heart had begun to thud dully against the inside of her ribs, and her stomach rolled over with a sick flop. Lulu squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her trembling hands to her mouth, suddenly afraid she was going to lose the awful potion that had been so difficult to get down in the first place.
“All right. There, there,” said the nun, hastily coming to her side when she noticed the change in her expression. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Calm down.” With an intuition doubtless born of many years of attending sick children, she picked up the basin from the table and waited to see if it would be needed. But after a moment Lulu managed to steady herself, drawing in and letting out a deep and shuddery breath.
The nurse petted her comfortingly on the head, a gesture which Lulu found insultingly patronizing, but the touch of her hand tugged up a sudden hazy string of memories, like pulling up a weed and discovering a long and tangled underground vine attached to it. She of course hadn’t been alone all the time she had lain here. Someone had been with her, tending to her wounds, murmuring a few words of white magic over her, sponging cool water onto her fevered forehead, spooning a thin broth between her lips, soothing her when she had been unable to keep herself from crying out.
Despite the flush of mortification that prickled over her at the memory of being so helpless, she realized that the woman meant well. She simply had no idea who she was or what she had been through, and how could she be expected to? To Bevelle, Lulu must have appeared just another child, a foundling orphan brought in to be taken under the care of the temple. The nun had no way of knowing that her wounds were battle-scars, that the plush doll now lying motionless beside her had once been not a toy but a tool used to channel powerful black magic, that she had not been lost when the summoner found her alone but at the end of a failed quest from which she had been the only survivor.
She would if I told her, Lulu reminded herself, but she couldn’t. Even if she could bring herself to confess, she did not think she would be able to make her understand.
“Why don’t you lie back down for a bit,” suggested the nurse, and Lulu did. She was already feeling worn out even though she had not been awake for very long, or even managed to get out of the bed. The nurse at last brought her the longed-for glass of water, then tucked her into bed with a practiced air. “You needn’t be afraid,” she said, her tone mellow and mollifying, “You can tell me anything you like, you know. Won’t you at least tell me your name?”
She would not. The nun sighed a little but left her alone then, and drew the curtains shut over the nearby window so she could sleep. Lulu turned over onto her side and drew her doll up under her chin, no longer caring how babyish she must have looked like that. She closed her eyes.
As she began to drift off again she silently sorted through the catalogue of things she could not let herself forget, turning them over one by one in her head and forcing herself to remember as she mentally packed them into a box she would never open for anyone. My name is Lulu. I used to be a black mage. I was a guardian to a summoner on pilgrimage. I failed.
Two days later the nurse, whose name Lulu had learned was Sister Betony, consented to allow her to leave the infirmary. She probably could have benefited from a few more days of rest; she still tired easily, and doing anything more strenuous than sitting up in bed was a laborious chore, but the wounds – on her body, at least – had healed and she wanted to leave. She was tired of being fussed over, she was tired of the constant well-intentioned presence of the nun, she was tired of having her hair in disarray, she was tired of potions and salves, she was tired of the smell of the rice porridge Sister Betony had been bringing her for the last six meals, and she was tired of being treated as though she hadn’t done something awful.
She had at last surrendered the two syllables of her name, realizing she was dooming herself to being addressed as “poor baby” and “little miss” forever if she did not, but she had not been able to muster the will to confide where she had come from, who she had been with, or what she had been doing in the Calm Lands. It would not have done any good, anyway. She knew she could not go back to her village. Even if the pass through the mountains was still navigable at this time of year, she did not feel she could ever call it home again with Lady Ginnem gone, and she could not bear the shame and sorrow of returning to the village without her.
It had therefore been decided, since there was nothing else to be done with her, that Lulu would begin to attend the temple school, with the far-off, dreary expectation of entering the clergy in five years, at seventeen. The prospect of having the rest of her life already planned out for her was like looking down a long, dim, narrow corridor, but she did not have the heart to offer much resistance. She deserved no better. She had had a chance to live the life she wanted, using her talents to serve the woman she had loved, and she had ruined it.
While she waited for Sister Betony, Lulu examined herself in a mirror behind a folding screen that had been set up as a dressing area in the corner of the infirmary. It had been something of a shock to see her own reflection for the first time since the morning her summoner party had left Macalania Temple a few weeks ago, heading north to the Calm Lands. The surprise wasn’t that she looked like a completely different person, after all she had been through, but that she still recognized herself, despite appearing so changed.
She looked older; the girlish rosiness had been all but washed from her cheeks, and her features were sharper, her expression harder, than they had been. The fine outlines of her jaw and cheekbones stood out in greater definition. Lifting the scalloped lace edge of her camisole, she inspected the faint, puckered lines of the scars tracing the shape of her ribs. She supposed she would have them forever, but they were not nearly as bad as the ones that had been left on her face.
Beneath the curtain of her hair, there was a set of parallel furrows carved from forehead to cheek, with a sharp, almost surgical precision. The ruby-hued iris of her left eye had been clouded over by a pearl-pale translucent film. No one’s white magic had been able to restore the vision to it taken by the ghostly claws of the fiend that had struck her. The sight of the blinded eye, staring dead and white as a shell from her own face, still made her shudder a little when she lifted her hair, but she found herself less concerned about it than she felt she should have been. By rights, she ought not to have been alive at all, and the missing eye in truth seemed somewhat trivial compared to everything else that had happened.
“Here you go, dear,” said Sister Betony cheerfully, returning, and Lulu let her hair fall back into place. “Let’s see if these fit.” She had brought with her a set of girls’ school clothes, consisting of a prim cream-colored blouse with long sleeves and a round collar, a woolen jumper dress in Bevelle-green, knee socks, and sensible-looking shoes. Lulu hated it immediately. “Oh, don’t make that face,” the nun reprimanded her lightly, “You want to fit in with all the other girls in your class, don’t you?”
Fitting in had never been a particular goal, or skill, of Lulu’s, but she had a feeling that her old clothes were probably damaged beyond repair even if she had been allowed to wear them. They had most likely been thrown out by now. At least Sister Betony had brought some hair ribbons, even if they were green.
The nurse helped her dress, clucking over Lulu’s bony shoulders and knobby elbows as she did. The overall effect, as it came together in the mirror, was not promising. The clothing fit poorly and seemed to hang from her with all the grace of hanging from a coatrack. The wool dress was already becoming intolerably itchy where it touched her skin and it took a great deal of composure not to squirm. And green proved to be a frightful color on her, pushing her complexion from merely wan to outright sickly-looking. She was not going to be making a very good first impression on Bevelle.
Sister Betony, who seemed to disagree, told her she looked “very pretty” and then folded away the screen and went to change the sheets while Lulu began the lengthy process of braiding her hair, still slightly damp from a recent washing. As the long braids grew between her fingers, she began to feel a little more like herself, but not much.
“What are you doing here?” Sister Betony demanded suddenly, and the sudden change in her voice from the indulgent tone she had been speaking in before made Lulu startle. But the woman’s sharpness was directed at the infirmary doorway, where there lingered a very small shape, mostly hidden in the shadow from the hall. It was a little girl, hanging back with the uncertainty of a stray kitten. She looked about ready to flee, but the nun’s attention had pinned her to the spot.
“I don’t feel well,” she mumbled in a tiny voice, drawing back from the nurse’s scrutiny and all but disappearing behind the doorframe. From the corner where she was standing, Lulu could scarcely see her.
“You’ll feel a lot worse if Sister Meena catches you trying to get out of lessons again.” The nun crossed to the doorway and caught the shrinking child by the wrist, eliciting a squeak of protest as she dragged her up out of hiding. “Go on, shoo, you sneaky little heathen.” She sent her on her way with a slight shove, and Lulu could hear the unsteady patter of her footfalls fading off down the hall, in accompaniment to a muffled little sob.
“There, now.” She turned away from the door, wiping her hands on her apron as though to clean them of the thing she had just done. Lulu looked quickly back to the mirror, puzzled by the marked shift in her attitude. She would not have guessed the smiling, lenient nurse had it in her to be so unkind to a child. Perhaps it was true that that particular one had been known to shirk her lessons as she was accused, but the nun’s abrupt rejection of her seemed uncharacteristically severe. And why, of all the dismissive things she could have called her as she shunted her out the door, “heathen?”
She was mulling over the peculiar resonance of that word when Sister Betony returned to her and began tying one of the ribbons to the end of the braid she had finished. Lulu drew away uneasily, mistrustful of her after what she had just witnessed, but she could only go as far as the length of her hair permitted. Hurriedly, she tied off the other braid.
“There! All set?” asked Sister Betony, her creased and friendly countenance all smiles again. She cupped her face affectionately in her plump, warm hands, and for a moment Lulu was uncomfortably worried that she was going to kiss her on the cheek, but she did not.
The nun ushered her to the door with all the ceremony of a parent sending off a young child on the very first day of school, which made the unceremonious booting she had given the other child seem all the more surreal in contrast. “Don’t forget your little friend. Good luck with your lessons. You come back if you aren’t feeling well, all right? Take care, little miss.”
Yuna plodded along down the hall with her head down. The fingers of one hand trailed along the carved and painted molding on the wall; the fingers of the other were in her mouth. Beneath the edge of her hair she watched the stone floor go by, unable to see much else through the blur of tears she was fighting to keep from falling. It wasn’t fair. Sister Betony in the infirmary wouldn’t believe her, but she did have a tummyache, she had had a tummyache for days and nobody would listen to her. Nobody ever listened to her.
But she listened to them. And they were saying that Papa and Sir Jecht and Sir Auron had come back to Bevelle, on the night it had rained so hard. But that couldn’t be true because Papa had said goodbye, and he wasn’t ever coming back because he had gone away to defeat Sin. He was going to defeat Sin and become High Summoner and he wasn’t ever coming back.
But they were saying that he had come back, and that he had brought a girl with him that he had found in the wilderness, and that the girl was now in the infirmary because she had been hurt by a fiend. She wanted to see if it was true. But Sister Betony wouldn’t let her in, even though she did have a tummyache.
She had just wanted to see the girl. Even though the thought of her father paying attention to another little girl, when he had not even come to say goodbye to Yuna one more time, made her feel hot all over under her skin and her chest hurt with the effort of not crying, she wanted to see her. Because even if he had been here, he was already gone now. And that meant that the last person who had seen him had been the mysterious girl.
She wanted to talk to her, and ask if she had really seen him. She wanted to know how his pilgrimage was going, and if they had gone a very long way, and how long it would be, before he defeated Sin. She wanted to know if he and his guardians were having a good time. She wanted to know if he had mentioned her.
Yuna paused at the place where two hallways met, pulled up one of her sliding socks, and looked around the corner in each direction, wondering where to go. If she went on to the classroom, Sister Constance would be angry with her for being late and interrupting the lesson, but if she went back to the dormitory, Sister Meena would be much, much angrier if she caught her not at the lesson. She wished she knew somewhere she could hide. The deep, listening stillness of the long corridors made her feel like a small animal caught out in the open.
If only she were allowed into the infirmary. Then she could lie down for a little while and not be in anybody’s way and not worry about where she was supposed to be. And then she could talk to the girl and ask her if she had seen her father. She could ask if she had talked to him, and if she knew how his pilgrimage was going, and if he had said anything about his daughter and how much he loved and missed her. And she could ask what he had looked like, and what he had sounded like, and what he had been like. Because, deep in her heart, Yuna was a little afraid that she was starting to forget.