Dulcinea is seven when she meets Her. Later, much later in life, she’ll wonder if it was on purpose. If the whole thing was arranged to give it more meaning. But in that young moment, Dulcinea just fancies it’s fate. She understands fate and its cruel definitions better than most. Even as small as she is. But then, Death has a weight of matters most are blessed to ignore.. And Dulcinea is twice over burdened.
Protesilaus is there. Newly appointed, if even that. There’s whispers of him staying longer than just a few days, of maybe someone closer to her own age. She likes him, though. Likes how large he is, how gentle. Her father’s faithful shadow that blocks the sun when her father couldn’t. But even Pro can’t block the shine She radiates.
Not radiates. That isn’t quite right. But not consuming energy either. Reclining in a chair, overlooking the hall, She seems to just Be. A block of presence. She simply just. Is. Like white noise in an already crowded room. Never growing any louder the more Dulcinea focuses - Lord, is it hard to focus on her - just. More Present.
“Goodness, aren’t you simply a vision?” She says when Dulcinea tugs at Pro in the right direction. And the center of all that attention is more of a rush than the sweetest dessert. It’s all she can do not to ruin the perfectly wonderful moment with a cough. She fails, but only just. The Woman waits, impossibly blue eyes watching with impossibly knowing sadness. A different sort than others. Like she’s been exactly where Dulcinea is - terribly young and frighteningly old all at once. But there’s an endless vibrance in those eyes. A galaxy of life in a gaze. Dulcinea shakes at the possibility, at the hint of a promise. Of being something more than an object to direct pity and grief.
That, and at the small stain on Her sleeve.
“You have blood on your dress,” says the Young Mistress of the Seventh House, Duchess of Rhodes, by way of greeting. The Woman only laughs. A warm, beautiful bell chime Dulcinea will practice in secret, later, when no one can hear.
Cytherea as She is called, exists on a level Dulcinea prays to some and all gods she may someday achieve. Through study, through mimicry, through sheer Will alone. It only matters that she gets to the summit. She coughs, heaves, dies, and reknits, reanimates herself back together night after night when Cytherea is gone. Which, perhaps, is more than would be allowed under circumstances. But no one but Protesilaus suspects the depths of her little habit.
Well, maybe not simply Pro.
“You push yourself,” She says one afternoon in the garden.
It is a good day. The weather is nice and the garden is warm. She’s only needed to sew bronchial tubing back into proper breathing structures seven times this morning. Protesilaus waits off in his corner, quietly practicing his forms or checking his holopad. Every now and then he comes to adjust the blanket over her legs. She knows it’s his way of fussing without hovering. It feels slightly like smothering. As if she can’t manage the simplest of tasks herself. But she had talked him into allowing her the crutches today. Her arms and shoulders ache pleasantly for once, the heaviness of her blood momentarily lifted. So she supposes she could let him fuss. Maybe just a bit.
But the comment still seems pointed at her more prominent teenage rebellion.
“I must,” Dulcinea says, her voice small. Weak, she thinks, in contrast to Cytherea’s whose every word seems to be plucked effortlessly into existence. Summoned almost. Dulcinea burns with the need to know how.
A gentle hum, steady on the midday breeze. “I didn’t mean to scold,” Cytherea says, shoulders tugging in apology. “It was mostly an observation. You just look tired.”
Dulcinea doesn’t quite know how to answer that. “Will you rest here long?”
Cytherea smiles over her sunglasses, pride at the deflection. It’s still unclear exactly the purpose, even source, of that pride. It still fills Dulcinea with warmth and lightens her next few breaths.
“Delightful,” Cytherea says under her breath. “My business has changed hands once more,” she continues at normal volume. Her glasses resume their perch high up on her nose. “Normally, I’d be more reluctant to take such a long vacation but…”
It’s a struggle not to stare. It always is for Dulcinea. There’s something that just absorbs her attention until Cytherea is all that she can see. She settles for trying to control her breathing into a somewhat normal pattern. To try and make her excitement not completely obvious. One day she might be successful.
“But rest waits for no creature,” Dulcinea suggests instead. She attempts for breezy. Casual. Makes the words more of a whimsical sigh than a sentence. Bless whoever created sunglasses and gave the universe the ability to watch with full intention without being absolutely conspicuous.
Cytherea lets out that chiming laugh, soft as can be, and gifts Dulcinea one of her beautiful sunrise smiles. The one that means Dulcinea said something particularly clever or funny. Really, what it means is an extra hour later tonight reliving their conversation, picking the moment apart word by word. No biggie. She was going to do it anyways.
“No creature indeed,” Cytherea says, almost to herself.
She almost scolds herself at her excitement. Especially since it spurs a bit of a fit. Not much to be done about that these days. The elders say it is a miracle she’s made it to twenty at all. Protesilaus says it’s just his luck he can’t retire yet. She loves his jokes.
Cythera smiles. It’s a tired thing today, but it is raining. The rain drains them both but even some days are worse than others. Her steps make noise against the garden path today. And there’s an echoing rattle that harmonizes with Dulcinea’s own. Wet and permanent. Something that sticks and seals and breaks apart just to stick and seal more places.
It’s more than just the rain.
“No Mountain-Man today?” Cytherea says in way of answer. It’s hard to watch, the way she sits. No grace at all today. She’s all limbs falling in slow motion through space. Like it’s a conscious thought instead of her natural movement. There’s still a fluidity but it’s almost viscous. Overtly intentional. Dulcinea practically vibrates trying not to pay attention.
“Family day,” she answers. Cytherea only hums, busy trying to find a comfortable spot in her chair. “Did you finish your project?”
They almost heave in unison - Cytherea in surprise and Dulcinea in close sympathy. From somewhere across the field, a servant mutters about the tragedy of a beautiful silence. Or maybe it’s just Dulcinea’s thoughts finally sprung to life.
“Project,” Cythera hums after wiping blood from her chin with the heel of her hand. It shines in cloudlight. Matte gleaming against alabaster. Not for the first time Dulcinea dreams of cleaning those hands herself. Quiet and tender and utterly devoted. “Is that what I called it last?”
That, of all things, gives Dulcinea pause. Matte red meets the pale, pale pink of Cytherea’s mouth and it’s thunder rolling through Dulcinea’s veins. The Woman in the chair next to her is suddenly a storm of fury. Of something far, far older than Dulcinea really knows how to place. Old and Dark. Dark enough to turn her trembling into something far more childlike. Thunder rolls and lightning cracks beyond the garden enclosure. Cytherea breathes a heavy death rattle and Dulcinea struggles to give her the air from her own lungs.
“Will you hate me, child?”
Dulcinea’s shivers pick up in violence. It’s hard to hear now. Between her blood strangling her eardrums and the rain pelting the plexi that encloses the garden she can barely make out the words. But she hears the depth of sadness, hears it echo across the space between their garden chairs. The same her parents look at her with every time she coughs. The same that Protesilaus says her name with on a bad day. The same she knows that the boy on a far away planet must speak about her to his friends.
She wants to scream. Wishes for once in her life for the strength to physically launch herself into Being. To prove she is more than this sad sack of blood and tendons and bones. Much more than the pitied useless thing they see her as. That she is worth the pride exactly one being has looked at her with.
“ Never ,” she says instead, muscling down the clot of air that threatens to betray her strength. The effort burns away at her skin, her veins, the very fiber of her essence.
Cytherea for her part just looks old. Terribly, awfully old. It only makes Dulcinea shake harder. Harder still when Cytherea’s hand reaches to rest on her sallow cheek.
“God has left us, child.” Cytherea says the words almost like a prayer. Her thumb wipes at a spot of blood Dulcinea missed. There’s more care and understanding in such a small movement than entire lifetimes of pampering. Dulcinea closes her eyes. It feels wrong to watch her hero cry. “God has left you. ”
There’s a press of lips to her forehead. Dulcinea lets the tremors sit. Lets them both feel the moment.
“You haven’t,” she breathes her own prayer.
“Never, child. Never.”