- Chapter 13 -

- "Do you think it is possible to love more than one person at a time?" I asked Finks.

The butler wrapped his arms around a broom twice as tall as he was and turned his expressionless button eyes towards me. "Pardon me, sir?"

I dropped the book that I had been trying to read for the past fifteen minutes without success and hugged my knees. "If it is possible to love more than one person at a time. What do you think?"

- "I am but a humble clockwork lion, and unfamiliar with the workings of the human heart," Finks said. "I could not say."

- "Oh." I had expected it. "Never mind, then."

He resumed sweeping the paved alleyway that meandered through our front-yard garden. When he was done, he waddled up to me, flailing his arms to keep his plump body in equilibrium, and stopped at the side of the bench on which I reclined. "I cannot answer your question," he said, "but I know a story that might interest you."

It was a hot, lazy summer afternoon, and I had nothing better to do with my time. "Go ahead. Try me."

- "It occurred before the world ended, when your father was alone and a homeless wanderer. One day, he knocked at a temple's door to beg for shelter. The priestess told him to take off his shoes at the door, as a sign of reverence for the Goddess that people worshipped then. "Only bare flesh may touch holy ground," she said. Your father did not want to remove his shoes; it struck him as a ridiculous custom, as indeed it was. So he went up on his hands, right there in front of the priestess. He walked into the temple on his hands."

The image made me smile. "I find that hard to believe," I said. "He takes himself so seriously nowadays."

- "He is serious because he has serious concerns. He was much more careless then. Insouciant, I believe, is the correct word. So he walked into the temple on his hands. But that's not the end of the story. When he walked past the Tabernacle, he saw a stained glass window that was intended to show a sword piercing an overturned chalice, that represented love according to that ancient religion. However, from his reverse perspective, it showed a cross planted into the ground, which was his own symbol for love. That goes to show that the different meanings which people give to things depend perhaps not on the things, but on whether these people view them right-side up or upside-down."

- "The different meanings which we give to things depends not on the things, but on whether we view them right-side up or upside-down," I repeated. I did not see the connection to my own dilemma, but I liked the idea. "Thank you."

- "You're welcome." He tottered away.

- "Right-side up," I said as I wandered away from the path to a grassy spot beneath a thick oak tree. "Upside down." I pressed my hands against the ground and kicked up my legs. I remained for a moment in precarious balance before I fell, rather hard, on my backside. "Damn it." I could cut a handspring, a backflip or a cartwheel as well as any mountebank, but making a proper handstand and keeping it, I realized, was much more difficult. "Right-side up. Upside-down." I tried again. And again. And again. My wrists ached from the inordinate stress which I imposed on them, my arms shook, and my butt, which bore the brunt of my falls, sent shoots of pain up my spinal cord, but at last I was able to stand on my hands. I took one tiny, hesitant step, more like a crawl really, as my fingers scrabbled into the dirt. I folded my legs backwards and found out that it was easier to balance myself that way. I took another step. Endless blue stretched below my feet. I am walking into the sky! I realized, and smiled in spite of the blood that rushed to my face.

- "What are you doing?" someone asked.

I found myself face to face with Eleanor. Literally; she also stood upon her hands.

I collapsed with a dull thud. Eleanor kept the pose for a moment before she gave a dainty kick of her little black boot that brought her back to the ground. She sat, flushed and dishevelled, with her legs wide apart and her petticoats mussed. "Really. Why were you standing on your hands?"

- "Just practicing." The lie was obvious even to my own ears. "Actually, I asked Finks for his thoughts on love, and he suggested that I look at it upside-down."

- "Love. L-O-V-E. E-V-O-L. Evil." She laughed. "For such a cute little fellow, your butler is quite the misanthrope."

- "Evil," I repeated. "Could that be it?" What would Finks mean by that? A joke? A warning? Or was I reading too much into it?

- "I know what love is," Eleanor said. "It's playing in the grass on a nice summer afternoon." She crawled up to me on all fours and kissed me on the nose. "And perhaps having a picnic. And picking a nice bouquet of flowers for the living room, even though we know they will all end up in our hair by the end of the day. And staying up all night to look at the stars. That's love, if you ask me. There's no need to stand on your head to know it."

- "I was standing on my hands, not my head." The feat had taken me trouble enough to accomplish; it deserved to be suitably acknowledged. "Perhaps you are right, though." I gave her own nose a playful twist.

She made a face and pulled away. "Is that a yes?"

- "Let's pretend it is for now. Eleanor, may I ask you a question?"

She became serious at once. "Go ahead."

- "What made you change your mind about me?"

- "What do you mean?"

- "You wept the first time you saw me."

- "I wept at our wedding, and I was happy."

- "You were not happy that first time. Don't pretend you were."

She chewed her lower lip. "People change. When that lover of yours – " pink rose to her cheeks as she spoke the word, "was chastised, I wondered what she had seen in you, that made her willing to risk such punishment."

- "No one else would pay any attention to her."

- "That is what I have heard. I was intrigued, though. Why would you pay any attention to her, when no one else would? You are the future lord of this town; you could have had any woman you wanted. Why would you choose a widow, a woman who has been used up, and a witch besides?"

- "Hannah is not a witch. People say that because she potters around with plants. She just makes medicine. That and the best herbal tea in the area."

- "Perhaps, but for most people, that is enough to brand her a witch. Yours was an unusual choice, and one that put her in great danger. If your lord father had been any stricter, she would not have been flogged; she would have been executed. I wondered what great love must have inspired such devotion, so I began to observe you."

Her speech aroused my guilt. I had not spoken to Hannah since her punishment. She had recovered, the doctor once told me, but her reputation was damaged beyond hope of repair, and Ruth herself had cast her out of her home. My father had given her a small plot of land, that she might grow a garden and provide for her own needs. She had no friends, no one who would sympathize with her besides myself, and I had forgotten her. "You should not have observed me. You should have observed her. Hers was the love, the devotion, the courage; not mine."

- "I'm beginning to feel a little jealous," Eleanor said. "I'm sure she was a nice enough girl, though it pains me to say so. But since you were the one that I would marry, I was more interested in you. I interrogated your family, and that flaky doctor of yours, about your character. I asked people about town. I even – " she blushed again, "followed you around a little, oh, not everywhere, but from a distance, with my maid."

She paused. "What did you find out?" I asked when I could no longer wait.

- "Not everyone will wed a god or a hero," she said. "Some girls will just marry a very nice boy. That's good enough for me." Her face approached my own, so that I felt her warm breath upon my skin. "I found out that I was a little bit in love with you. I am. Kiss me."

In spite of her conventional femininity, she rarely spoke about her feelings. I kissed her.

One evening, I realized with a start that I had not thought of Lola a single time that day. Before my wedding, I had found pleasure in holding long conversations with her in my mind, making witty remarks at other people's expense that I would never have dared speak aloud, expounding my philosophy on life in tedious detail, countering her objections, and revelling in her agreement and praise. Now that I could have genuine conversations with Eleanor, I no longer found as much interest in these imaginary exchanges. After an initial shyness, Eleanor had also thrown herself into the arcane pleasures and mysteries of the bedroom chamber with gusto. Lola, on the other hand (I thought with dawning horror) would probably be physically incapable of deriving any pleasure from lovemaking, even if she did agree to marry me at last. As a gentleman, I would therefore be required to abstain. For the rest of my life.

The prospect of running away with Lola lost some of its charm, and began to seem like a foolish and dangerous enterprise. In order to put it off, I took to blaming her for her misfortunes. "This idealism of hers is all well and good," I argued to myself, "but when one lives in an imperfect world, one must be willing to alter some of one's principles to suit its defects. If she got rid of that absurd "one question" rule of hers, no one would ever have tortured or imprisoned her. She might have found a safe and honoured position as an oracle for some powerful lord. Not only that, but as Doctor Green said, she could do lots of good. If human beings all knew the truth about everything, wouldn't that get rid of most of the world's conflicts already? No one would wage wars over which religion is right, no one would ever be falsely accused of crime, in fact, no one would ever commit crime anymore, because Lola would be able to foresee it. We would have paradise on earth! But she refuses to answer more than one question, and of course, no one wants to sacrifice this question to ask about world peace. That's a shame."

Now that I had acquired a duty to Eleanor, I was tempted to forsake the promise I had made to Lola. Only one consideration kept me on my course. Eleanor, abandoned, would certainly weep; but my father and my sister would be there to keep her company and attend to her needs and comforts. After a few years had passed, she might even find herself another husband. Lola, betrayed, would spend the rest of her wretched life in prison, alone and friendless, despised by the few people who remembered her. She may be more responsible for her own fate than she liked to admit, but that did not make it any less unfair. With all the enthusiasm of a condemned man approaching the block, I therefore paid the required visit to my brother-in-law.

- "You want to see Lola," the Macchabeus repeated after me as he looked up from his schoolwork. He had forgotten what little rudiments of reading and writing he had learned as a child, so my sister had become his teacher, and a strict one at that. The sight of him, with his strong warrior's body and his bohemian clothes, studying his ABCs with the scowl and devotion of a dense young pupil, would often tickle me, but I was too flustered to smile. "What for?"

- "She grants everyone who asks one question. I have never asked her mine."

- "I have never asked her mine either, but I do not want to see her, no. That would ruin the surprise. The surprise is what I live for. It keeps a person looking, on a quest, on a journey, trying to explain things. That's me, always looking."

- "She only answers one question. One can only spoil so many surprises with one answer. If you please, I would like to see her."

He pushed his book away, rested his cheek against his hand, and stared into my eyes. I shifted but held his gaze. He broke the contact. "If you will, then. I will tell the guard to let you in. Please do not tell your father. He might be unhappy with me."

- "Wait for me just one moment," I told him, and went to kiss Eleanor one last time.

Lola appeared not to hear me when I entered her cell. She lay curled up on her bed, and stared at the wall. I thought she might be asleep and tiptoed to her, but she started and turned round. "Jack!" she said. "I no longer expected you."

I flushed at the implied reproach. "I'm sorry. Life caught up with me."

- "So I heard. You got married. How is your lady wife?"

I disliked the sardonic twist she put on the last two words. "Eleanor is well. I'm sorry, were you asleep?"

- "No, I was contemplating the absurdity of the universe and the utter meaninglessness of life. How time destroys all things, and human beings are no more than grains of sand lost in the great void of space, and the finest accomplishments of civilisation are doomed to be destroyed and forgotten until at last there is nothing left to destroy and no one left to forget. I'm trying to put my suffering in perspective, so that it becomes more tolerable, you see."

- "Does it work?"

- "No."

- "Ah."

- "It passes the time, though. So, do you still want to run away with me?" She sat up and threw her legs over her cot.

- "I do, but I must warn you, this is the only chance we will ever have. I have obtained permission to speak to you, but only for this once, to demand of you that one answer I never obtained. We must run away this evening, if we are to do it."

- "Good. I have a plan. You'll be my hostage."

- "What?"

- "You've brought your dagger, haven't you?" She pointed at my belt. "Give it to me."

I hesitated but complied. She jumped to her feet, slipped behind me, and held it right below my chin. "Be careful with that," I told her. "It's sharp."

- "Don't worry." She pulled back. "That's what I'll do, though. I'll press the dagger at your throat, and tell the guard to go fetch the general, or else. Once the general is here, I will tell him to give us a week's worth of victuals, a few other necessities, and his solemn promise not to go after us for at least two weeks. I know everything, I'll tell him: I will know it if you disobey, and I will slay your lord's son. He'll obey. We'll go to that town your father just razed to the ground. The survivors despise him. They will hide us. From there, we will board a ride with a gypsy caravan, and go – wherever. South, East, West. Anywhere but here."

I thought about it. "That might work, actually."

- "Of course it will. And if it doesn't, you won't be in trouble, since you did not comply with me. And I can hardly be in any worse trouble than I am already. It's perfect."

- "Once we leave, though…" I hesitated. "You might want to reconsider that "one question" rule of yours, in case you are ever found out again. I admire your idealism, I really do, but when one lives in a pragmatic world, one has to be pragmatic. You could have avoided a lot of your own suffering if you had been more willing to accommodate people's flaws."

- "Are you trying to say that what happened to me is all my fault?"

- "No! No, you shouldn't feel guilty for it. I am just saying that you might avoid similar misfortunes in the future if you agreed to be a little more… Let's say… Indulgent. For human weaknesses. You know?"

- "I'll think about it. Now, what about my plan?"

- "All right." I took a deep breath. "Let's do it."

- "Thank you!" Her eyes brightened invitingly. I would have kissed her on the lips, but she drew back. "You know," she said, "you never did get a proper answer. To that one question of yours."

- "That's true."

- "You answered it yourself. I will therefore permit you another."

I had hoped she would answer my first question, and was disappointed. "Oh, I don't know. I don't really want to know anything. As my brother-in-law says, I like to be surprised."

- "I will tell you about your destiny," she said. "You do have one, even though you aren't a messiah. What do you say?"

- "It's hard to say no to that," I admitted. "I hope it is a good one, though."

She took my hands, threw her head back, and closed her eyes. She remained in this position for a long time, until I grew restless. "Strange," she said when she opened her eyes.

- "What is it?"

She frowned. "Most people have several possible paths stretched out before them, and I cannot tell for sure which one they will take. You have only one path… One destination."

- "Is that bad?"

- "No, it's strange, that's all. I have never encountered it before. Perhaps you are special, although not in the way that you once thought."

My curiosity was becoming intolerable. "What is it, Lola? What is my destiny?"

She lost her smile, and looked at me blankly. "You will suffer the worst fate that ever befell a human being, and yet you will praise God for it daily."

- "Oh." I was struck dumb by the pronouncement, until an idea dawned at the back of my mind. "Lola! Could it be – "

- "Let's not talk about it now. I don't want you to lose heart." She bent in two and tore a long strip of cloth from her woollen gown. "Put your hands behind your back."

- "What?"

- "I'm going to bind them."

- "No!" I stepped back.

- "I have to. People will wonder if your hands are free, and yet you don't do anything to defend yourself. And I will have moments of distraction. I may not be able to hold the knife at your throat all the time."

- "If we get in trouble, I wouldn't be able to help you."

- "If we get in trouble, one man more or less won't make much of a difference against an army. Besides, we only have one blade and it's your dagger. Jack, be reasonable."

I chewed my lower lip. "I don't like it. I know. I'll put my hands behind my back and pretend they are bound."

- "If you trip, you will not be able to keep the pose. Oh! This is so childish." She sighed, exasperated.

Her insistence began to make me feel a little queasy. "I won't trip. I'm as serious as you are about this, Lola, but I don't want to be bound. I would feel too helpless. It wouldn't be right."

- "Fine, then. Do as you will. But keep your mouth shut from now on. Pretend to be frightened, if you're not too manly to do that. I'll speak." She put the dagger at my throat again, until I felt its cool blade against my skin. "Are you ready?"

- "As ready as I'll ever be." I paused. "Yes."

- "Let's go." She called out at the guard. "Daniel! My lord wants out."

The guard gaped. "What is going on here?"

Lola pressed the blunt edge of the dagger against my throat and shook me. "I have captured my lord," she said. "I stole his dagger while he wasn't looking. Go fetch the general, or I will slit his throat right here and now, just for you."

The guard hesitated. He had no liking for me, I recalled, and wondered in a moment of panic whether he might refuse. Then he spun on his heels and walked out. Lola and I both sighed with relief. She was trembling, I realized as the dagger tapped against my flesh. She was trembling, and so was I.

The Macchabeus was not impressed. "You will not escape with this, girl," he told Lola. "My lord Gabriel will arrest you. He will punish you more than he did before."

- "Let him do his worst. Take me to him."

As we strode through the dusky streets, I tried to remember if a visit to my father had been part of the plan. I did not recall Lola ever mentioning it. I would have asked her, but a word from me would ruin the plan for certain and I bit my tongue. The metal of the dagger grew warmer in proximity with my flesh.

When the Macchabeus left us in the living room to fetch my father, I opened my mouth. "Lola," I said, "what are you doing?"

There was a long silence. Her voice came at last, low and hoarse. "I'm being pragmatic."

- "What do you mean?" I shifted. "I don't like this, Lola."

- "Hold still." She pressed the dagger harder against my throat, even though there was no one to see us.

- "Lola! What are you doing?" When she did not answer, I tried to shake her off. Her hold tightened. I made to grab her arm. A sharp pain at my throat forced me to desist. My hands flew to my neck and came back bloody.

- "One inch at the left and I would have opened your jugular." Her voice was still strangely muffled. "Hold still and I won't hurt you."

Gabriel strode into the room, followed by the rest of my family in various stages of undress. They had been preparing for bed, I realized with a start, for I had not seen the time pass by. At Gabriel's sign, the Macchabeus pulled an armchair before us. Gabriel sat back and crossed his arms. "All right," he said. "What do you want?"

- "Holy Mother of God," my sister said, "he's bleeding."

- "He's fine," Lola said. "Just a little cut, because he wouldn't hold still, the way I told him to. What do I want, Gabriel? I want marriage."

- "I thought we'd already gone over this. I can't marry you. Do you sincerely think holding a dagger at my son's throat will endear you to me?"

- "I'm not looking for your affection. I want safety. I'm sick unto death of running from one town to another, trying to find one that will accept me. I've toured all the prisons in this country, and found none of them that was to my liking. I want protection. I want my freedom. Most of all, I want a home."

- "Let go of Jack and we'll talk."

- "None of that. You've betrayed me before. I want your solemn promise that you'll marry me."

- "Yes, and what else?"

- "I've told you already. Your protection. My freedom. A home. I don't want to be jailed, or tortured, or exiled, or otherwise persecuted. I want a bedroom of my own, permission to go as I please, a place at your family's table, the assurance that you'll defend my safety and honour. I want to be your wife."

- "All right. You have it." Gabriel yawned. "Is that all? I'm recovering from illness. If you don't mind, I would like to go back to bed."

- "That's it?" Lola sounded uncertain. "I have your solemn promise?"

- "I solemnly promise to marry you, protect you, and give you your freedom. Are you happy now? Please let go of Jack, so that Doctor Green may take a look at his cut."

Lola still held me, no doubt wondering if it was a trick, before she complied. I walked away from her, nursing my throat. It still bled, although the flow was not as strong as it first had been. "Go sleep with your husband for tonight," Gabriel told my sister, "and let her sleep in your bedroom. Give her what she needs. We'll plan the wedding tomorrow."

- "Come and see me in my laboratory," Doctor Green told me. "I'll see what I can do for your wound."

When they were gone, I walked back to Lola. "May I have my dagger back?" I asked politely.

She dropped the weapon to the ground. I stooped to pick it up. When I stood up, I realized why her voice had sounded muffled. She had been weeping. "You betrayed me once," she told me.

- "You're right. It's only fair."

- "I would not have cut you if you had not struggled. You should have allowed me to bind you."

- "It's all right. I've known worse."

- "Don't look at me like that."

I looked away. "Did you intend this from the start?"

- "No. When I kissed you, I meant it. I changed my mind afterwards."

- "I see."

- "Do you believe me?"

I sighed. "I don't know. Have a good night, Lola."

She sniffled. "Have a good night."

Love upside-down. The reverse side of the coin. The other side of the looking-glass. I knew it at last, a throbbing pain that even Eleanor could not assuage.