To See the Moon So Clearly [extract]

[This is an extract from the title story in Gai Sever’s magical collection of stories “To See the Moon So Clearly”]

Her head was aching, and ringing, and buzzing – there was no way she could get to sleep. The princess tossed and turned, then turned and tossed, then tossed and turned some more. In the end, her cold compress came off and left a stain on her satin pillow. Thar-Agne crawled out of bed and put the compress on her bedside table, then made her way to the window and crawled under the curtain. She rested her injured forehead on the cold glass. “Wonderful,” she whispered, “I shall sit like this. Until I die.”
Then all of a sudden she had the thought that it was, all things considered, too soon for her to die, and she could go for a walk. She crossed over to her dressing room, fished out a cloak and some shoes, arrayed herself in them, and went out onto the small inner courtyard.
It was wonderful there. The rain had recently stopped. Pudgy wisps with grey bellies swam across the heavens. A soft breeze blew, not in the least bit cold. The garden was inundated with the fragrances – fresher than fresh – of herbs and flowers, joyous after the rain.
Thar-Agne decided that it would be distinctly premature to die, and stepped out along the neat paths. The flowers on each side smelled so nice, they were breathing out such sweet perfumes, that her headache began to fade. The princess wandered about, taking in the fragrances, and in the end she had sniffed so much in that her head began to buzz from quite a different cause: the scents.
At this point Thar-Agne sat down on a bench near the doors and began to gaze up at the heavens. The damp, torn, grey clouds were floating so low that they had swallowed the top of the tower.
There was a resonant silence, as always happens in small courtyards after the rain where there are drops of water squelching noisily down from the leaves into the puddles at the roots. The breeze had died away completely. Thar-Agne snuggled up in her cloak, which was soft, furry and warm, and she felt glorious (at least, as glorious as anyone could feel with a lump like that on their forehead). She looked around at her courtyard, at the damp, mossy walls and rooftops all about.
Suddenly, somewhere off to her right, there was a bang. The princess sprang to her feet and started to peer through the leaves that were studded with pearly rain drops. It was clear, someone had fallen off the wall! “Yikes!” exclaimed the girl in delighted horror. “Someone is prowling towards me! Someone wants to intrude upon me! And here I was, meaning to die!” She lifted the hem of her cloak and ran towards the sound. Once she had pushed her way through the leaves and got soaked by a waterfall of droplets, she ran over to the wall and made out a boy who was just beginning to raise himself up from the damp ground. On the boy’s back, hanging from a strap, there was a lute. The boy lifted his eyes to see the princess, and froze.
“Who are you?” asked the princess, trying with all her might to appear stern. “And why are you falling down from the wall, when you are carrying a lute? You might break it!”
“Nothing will happen to it,” said the boy. “Look, it’s not even spattered with mud.”
“You haven’t broken your leg?
“No, why? Should I have? And anyway, I fell headfirst. I’d be more likely to break my neck. Why do you ask?”
“My uncle forbids me to jump from the walls. He says I might break my leg, and then I won’t even be allowed out of bed.”
“Don’t you like lying in bed?”
“I hate it. Why, do you like it? You should sleep in bed, not do anything else there. But why did you fall down to me?” The princess finally made up her mind to approach a little closer. “Tell me, but be honest.”
“I came to see whether you had died or not,” the boy looked the princess right in the eye – hers were a dark fathomless blue here, in the half light under the damp tree.
“What am I to you? And why did you think that I should have died?”
“People were saying,” the boy replied, “that the emissaries from the East had slammed you into a door. So as to spare all the expense of going to war.”
“People say all kinds of things,” retorted the princess, angrily. “I’m sure they’ll want to slam me into a door when I order them all to have their heads struck off. But why do you have a lute, here, in my presence?”
“It’s always with me. I can’t leave it anywhere.”
“And do you sleep with it?”
“Of course,” and the boy patted the strap on his shoulder, “what else would I sleep with?”
“Where do you live?”
“In the tower.”
“Really?” In this one?” Thar-Agne pointed at the clouds pierced by the tower. “How wonderful! Do you think I could come and visit you? I have never ever been in the tower!”
“Will your uncle let you away to visit? He’s a strict one you’ve got there, and no mistake. He makes you stand in the corner for three hours a day, and sometimes four.”
“Is that what people say?” The princess grew angry. “He does nothing of the sort! My uncle is the kindest uncle in the world. And also he’s the wonderfullest uncle in the world. And the very bestest. And if anyone says anything nasty about him, I will order him to have his head struck off.”
“Who’s ‘him’? Your uncle?”
“No, no, no!” cried the princess, and stamped her foot, sending up a little fountain of spray. “The one who says it, don’t tell me that wasn’t obvious. You’re not very clever, are you? Go and tell that to your people.”
“I’m not about to start telling anyone I’m not very clever. But if your uncle will let you go, come and visit me at night.”
“Why?” said the princess, in surprise.
“You know, from my window, you get such a marvellous view of the Moon!”
“I don’t know.” The princess had got upset again, and started to whine. “How would I know? I’ve never been in the tower, have I? I said so, didn’t I?” she sighed. “But what difference does it make, where you look at the Moon from? From here,” and she indicated the walls and leaves around her, “you can see it pretty well too, you know.”
“Ha,” sniffed the boy, scornfully, “You just haven’t seen it for yourself. And, anyway, there are places from where you can get such a good view of the Moon that even my window in the tower seems like nonsense.”
“Really?” the princess seized the boy by his damp sleeve. “And do you know these places?”
“Only one, if truth be told. But what a place it is. Oh, if only you knew.”
“I want to know! I want to see the Moon from that place, I do, I do! Show it to me, I’m ordering you!”
“It’s just that it’s not exactly close by. Do you know the forest on the mountain the other side of the river?”
“Really?” the princess gave a horrified shudder. “But that’s outside the castle, isn’t it? And I’ve never been outside the castle… How can we get there?”
“I know a secret passage,” said the boy. “It’s really not that hard to get out of the castle. I’ve got out scores of times, and got back in again, without anyone catching me.”
“Then let’s go and look at the Moon, right now!” Thar-Agne bounced up and down several times, and tugged at the boy’s sleeve.
“It won’t work out today,” he sighed. “Today I’ve got a rehearsal. In fact, I’ve got to go, now. You see, I only thought to catch a glimpse of you on the off-chance you were still alive. And then get straight to my rehearsal.”
“It was the right thing to do, too,” nodded the princess. “You should check everything for yourself. But this bump of mine hurts so badly! Do you know how much I am suffering? Ohh, how I am suffering.” Thar-Agne moaned a little (not because her bump was hurting, but because the situation demanded it).
“That’s a nasty bump you have there,” said the boy, seriously. He carefully ran his fingers over it. “A bump like that will take a long time to heal. I bet they’re putting cold compresses on, aren’t they?”
“They certainly are. You can’t even imagine how much they smart!”
“Ha, I can imagine only too well. Last year, when I fell out of a beech tree and also cracked my head open – only, even worse and on the other side – they put these cold compresses on that nearly killed me. I could have died, and I would never have seen you.”
“What do you mean, have you been wanting to see me since last year? Why didn’t you come then, then? And why did you want to see me at all?”
“Because the first time I saw you was last year, when I got a position in the orchestra, and I liked you very much straight away.”
“Really? How wonderful! You’re the first person who has ever talked to me like that. But why?”
“Not telling… though, actually, I don’t know.” The boy thought for a bit, and scratched his nose. “I liked you, and that’s that. I even composed some music for you.”
“Really?” In her delight and amazement, Thar-Agne bounced up and down and again sent the puddle under her feet splashing everywhere. “Play it for me, play it! I’m ordering you!”
“Not right now. Now I need to climb back up home. And also, if I start playing right here, the warders will catch me and send me to have my head struck off. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that?”
“I did know,” and yet again the princess grew upset. “But when will you come back? When will you perform music for me? And when will we go and look at the Moon?”
“Let’s do it tomorrow,” said the boy, thoughtfully. “I don’t have any rehearsals tomorrow. I’ll come for you, and we’ll go and look at the Moon from that place I know.”
“How wonderful!” The princess clapped her hands and jumped up and down. Her eyes sparkled. “Wonderful! But when tomorrow?”
“In the evening, of course,” said the boy. “If you don’t have any important matters of state to attend to.”
“I won’t have! I will order them all to have their heads struck off. And will we go to look at the Moon? And will you perform music for me?” Again she tugged at the boy’s sleeve.
“Yes. But now I have to go.”
The boy cautiously disentangled the princess from his sleeve and climbed up the creepers that spread across the wall, making his way up and out of view.
“If you don’t come, I will order you to have your head struck off!” shouted the princess after him. “Well, there we are,” and she finally broke down completely. “Again I’m alone, and no-one needs me.”

She returned to her bedchamber, sat down on an ottoman, and began to wait. Three minutes later she sprang up, went over to her settee and began to wait there. Three minutes after that she crossed over to her bed and continued to wait there, instead. But it was hopeless: a huge expanse of time remained until tomorrow evening. While tomorrow morning would again bring those awful people with their idiotic scimitars. She definitely had to send them all to have their heads struck off. She had had enough of them, the stupid idiots, she was at the end of her tether.
Dreaming of how wonderful it would be to send every last idiotic emissary to have their heads struck off, the princess fell asleep.

This translation © 2014 Ian Appleby
Original story © 2001-2014 Gai Sever