Marie caught a glimpse of Galen every time the road curved around to the left. He led the entourage, being the only one who could get them to The Castle without being constantly turned back towards The Hamlet. The Woods were thick all around them, so thick it was impossible to see the spires of The Castle even though they were getting closer and closer all the time.

Supposedly.

Marie had decided that if she was going to pay an official visit, she was going to do it right. She consulted with Anne to provide clothes not only for her and Nyota, but for the entire party. Galen visited the madwoman to inform her of Marie’s intentions. Moose suggested Clovis accompany them, and they had also gathered a small coterie whose interests directly served either Marie and Nyota or the community at large through Marie and Nyota. Phillip, a nervous man of middle years, had only arrived the day before their audience at The Castle.

Nyota was grinning. “You’re watching him, aren’t you?” she teased.

“I…” Marie’s jaw worked open and closed, trying to find something to say that sounded more dignified than she felt. She and Nyota were accompanied by two young maids, girls from The City who had sought employment at The Trianon shortly after Marie arrived. Both girls pretended to be reading, but they smiled shyly and glanced up at her, obviously hoping their employer would admit to the crush.

Marie gave in. “All right. Yes, I’m watching him. And why not? He’s a very handsome man.”

“He cares for you, you know.”

Marie didn’t believe that for a second. “Galen? No. Galen is… aloof. He has no interest in me other than… well, as a friend and cohort. Someone else newly arrived and trying to make sense of our situation. Who knows where he spends his days? For all I know, he has a dozen lovers scattered throughout The Place already.”

“Galen spends his days stalking you, Marie.”  Nyota said. Marie’s head snapped to her friend, chin tilted down and eyebrow raised, incredulous. “No, really. Moose may be your escort, your bodyguard if you will, but it is Galen who rides the perimeter, who checks ahead and makes sure everything is secure long before you get there.”

“And is everything secure? Have any threats been found?”

“Well, once there was a cart with a broken wheel blocking the road. He helped them fix it before your carriage came by.”

Marie thought about that. She rarely spoke with Galen, and when she did it was obvious that there was a gulf of centuries between them. With Nyota, the gulf was not only smaller, but Nyota knew of Marie through the lens of history. Besides, Marie and Nyota were both women, both mothers with small daughters to take care of. There was far more that bound them than separated them.

But Galen was an enigma. She knew that his father was a gladiator and his mother a slave, in the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. She knew that he had been trying to leave the Roman Empire, or at least get as far from its influence as he could. She was fairly certain he wasn’t a criminal or political refugee… he was just a man dissatisfied with the excesses of government who wanted to live simply and freely.

“Oh my…” one of the maids said, peering out the window on the right. Marie leaned over to see The Castle, brilliantly white and delicate, rising above a city unlike any she’d ever seen. Conveyances of every sort, with and without harnessed animals, whizzed along smooth paved streets. Galen led them along a side street with far less traffic, through a gate in The Castle wall. The guards at the gate opened it as they approached, evidently recognizing them from a distance.

For the first time in… not just since coming to The Place, but for the first time in years, Marie felt royal. She and her entourage were greeted warmly by a bevy of servants, and escorted to a comfortable parlor where they were all seated comfortably.

“The noble Jane Charlotte.” a loud voice announced from a door she had not noticed before. In walked a tall, slender woman of indeterminate age. Her hair was such a pale blonde that it seemed almost white. Marie guessed that she was at least fifty, however when she turned a certain way, she looked far older.

“I am glad you have come to me at last. Welcome.” The women approached Marie, who stood, and they clasped hands as if they were friends already.

She seems sweet…what does she mean “At last?” Has she been waiting for me? Was I supposed to come earlier? How could I?

A million thoughts passed through Marie’s head in an instant. “Forgive me if I have been neglectful. It has been rather disorienting, arriving in…” she looked to her entourage, who all supported her in her lack of proper names, “In The Place.”

The so-called madwoman, or sorceress, or whatever she was gestured for them all to resume their seats, and she did the same. “That’s part of the problem I suppose. Calling it “The Place” just doesn’t seem right.”

“Does it have a name?” Marie asked.

“Well, I haven’t thought about it much. I suppose not. But… that is one thing I hoped to speak with you regarding.”

Marie hoped Jane would go on, but the woman seemed to be a bit distracted. Her eyes kept meandering to Galen, who stood between them and the door through which Jane had come. “I do have many questions. Perhaps if you could just explain…”

Jane’s head snapped back. “Explain? Tell? Not show?” She seemed somehow offended. “No, that just wouldn’t do.” Jane’s eyes wandered to the other people in the room. “Galen… my darling Galen… and Nyota! Yes… this is good.”

“Shall I introduce you?” Marie was uncertain of the protocol. If she only knew if Jane Charlotte was French, or Italian, or…

But she is none of those, is she? No… she is from somewhere else entirely.

“Oh, no. Introductions are not necessary. I know them all. I think…” Her eyes fell on Phillip, the new arrival. The poor man cringed under her scrutiny. “Your…name…is…Phillip.” She seemed disturbed by him. “But…” Jane took a deep breath, looking very sad for a moment before composing herself. “You are not my Phillip. You have a piece of him, the closest I’ve ever come. But you are not him.” Jane addressed Marie directly. “I must remember that.”

Marie smiled pleasantly. It was the only social discourse she was sure of. She opened her mouth, thinking to say something polite that might prompt Jane to explain something… anything… but Jane started in again with no prompt.

“It has grown unwieldy. And you were my choice. You, and Nyota, but I’m afraid Phillip must tell you why. And Jamie…” Marie wondered who Jamie was, but Jane’s eyes were on Galen. He stoically returned her gaze, refusing to smile or engage the madwoman in any way.

Not that he ever smiles anyway…

“I should have known he would be stubborn. Sometimes they tend to think for themselves more than…”

Jane’s eyes found Moose. She stopped mid sentence, staring at him with knit brows, her displeasure obvious. “I thought… it was on the shelf. It is unfinished. It always will be…” she stood, taking a few menacing steps towards the astronaut. “It lives with the dust bunnies. I should have hidden it better…” She was very close to Moose now; he stood his ground, remaining calm. “From plot bunnies to dust bunnies… it wasn’t working. Your science is implausible!”

Those last words she shouted, and in the briefest of moments she brought her hands up in front of her and moved as if she was going to push the large man away from her.

Marie’s sight was disrupted for a moment. She couldn’t tell if it was a flash of light or sudden darkness, but it seemed to knock her backwards.

Instead of landing against the back of her chair, she fell farther than she expected. Her rear end met with soft grass, and she reached back to catch herself.

“Baa!” came a familiar bleet. She looked around her, to see her entire party dusting themselves off and helping each other up.

They were in The Meadow.

What Would Have Been

What Would Have Been is a short story (or novella… who knows?) that I am publishing one chapter at a time… as I write it. It’s a fun exercise for me, and hopefully a bit of entertaining reading for you!

This story is dedicated to the Janes. The real ones and the fictional, the ones who survived, and the ones who didn’t. For all of you.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1rMYd-kl