Nuvole Bianche (White Clouds)

by Cue Vas
Sono nato su un luminoso pomeriggio d’estate, sotto un cielo azzurro e puro, nuvole bianche.

I was born on a bright summer afternoon, under blue skies and pure, white clouds.

The superstitious midwife who had delivered me liked to make prophesies about her deliveries. And she had made a certain prophesy about me.

My name is Artemis Medici.

The world that received my coming was not a kind one. It was a cruel, unkind place. It was a world where Life was not greatly valued, and though Death was not much of a welcome improvement, it was greatly sought-after. Many people in my time sought Death very much indeed and worshipped it by waging wars on each other in the guise of military strength and uniforms. They killed in the name of Glory, and died in the name of Honour. They committed acts of cruelty and blasphemy, and justified those acts as legal and true. Why this was so, I would eventually find out as I grew older. But for the moment, I was but an infant girl born in the midst of a chaotic and war-torn continent: Europe in 1920.

And I was all alone.

I had a father who gave his seed to my mother so she could carry me in her womb. But I had no real parents. I was given away the moment I was born, not because father and mother were too poor to have me, but rather they were too rich and influential. They had families of their own, children born of their loins who were their true heirs. I was given away because though I was their child I could never be one of those children. I was a huge mistake. A tragedy of scandalous proportions were I ever discovered. A child born out of wedlock between a man and a woman who were both tied to someone else.

So the minute I left the foetal dreams and warmth of my mother’s body, I was whisked away secretly to a country estate in the foreign shores of England, given to a barren but wealthy Italian immigrant couple who could never make a mistake or a baby like me in their lonely lifetimes. They were bluebloods like my birth parents, and they had needed a blueblood baby to continue the lineage. I had proved suitable.

They had welcomed me at first, and tried very hard to love me. They really did. They named me after the Greek Goddess of the Hunt – Artemis – and provided their family name as a sufficient surname. But a childless marriage of many years that is falling apart cannot suddenly be fixed by the arrival of a fat, cherubic baby on its doorstep. Even if the baby was me.

So mother Medici left father Medici and I was given to the servants to raise, while the people who were supposed to raise me disintegrated their own marriage. And the servants of the parent I was left with became the family I never had, substituting for the parents who gave me away and the ones who wanted me badly but not enough to truly love me.

I grew up on a succession of nannies and governesses, giving my mother many faces and yet none. Mother became an imaginary friend during lonely days and lonely nights, and an unforgiving critic on days when I was sad or depressed. My Father was so much more material. He became the wind when I rode my horse across our large estate, or the fire in the hearth on a quiet evening, or the angry, loving sound of rain on a stormy night. Father was my black Cane Corso, Ambrosi, when I frolicked and played with him; or he was the head groom in the stables who taught me how to ride. He was in the face of our kind and gentle butler, our faithful manservants, and in the books I read and studied. He was my sense of security and stability, and taught me so I could learn.

I was all alone, but I strove hard never to be lonely.


*


I had been born in chaotic times, just right after the First War in Europe. So much death had gone on before my birth, and so much was still going on as I grew up. I strived to live Life and enjoy it as much as I could. I was also an apt pupil, sharper than most kids my age.

When father Medici – the parent who was forced to cope with me after mother Medici left him – found out that I had an aptitude for learning, he gave me free reign of the family library and access to his books. He gave me the best governesses he could hire, so they could cope with the rate with which I learned things. I was a very smart girl, much to father Medici’s delight. He was a busy man who tended to his business interests with much zeal and had no time for me, so he gave me material and quantifiable comfort instead. He could’ve given me more, but I think he lost a huge part of himself when his marriage broke down.

He had loved mother Medici in his own way, just like she had loved him in hers. And when she left him, father Medici lost that part of him that knew how to love. So he had none for me. But deep inside, I knew that I would have to love father Medici enough for both of us. It was the least I could do.


*


On my fourteenth birthday, father Medici gave me a beautiful white stallion, born and bred from the harsh deserts of Arabia. I named him Aamir – which was Arabic for “commander” or “leader” – and he also became my Father.

He was a wild one.

I had loved riding since being taught by the head groom at the tender age of six. Aamir was a wilful horse, but I was a wilful owner – and apparently, that was a potent mix. We eventually got on very well. I loved Aamir very, very much. Many of the servants gossiped and criticized father Medici for being too thoughtless as to gift his only daughter with a wild animal like Aamir. But I personally thought that it was the best gift I had received so far in my entire fourteen years of existence. For once in my life, I felt exceedingly grateful to father Medici.

And briefly, I wondered if maybe Father lived in him too.


*


The years passed gracefully for me, even puberty. I was not a child given to flighty ideas or even rebellious ones. Although maybe I was a bit fanciful – after all, it was my imagination that kept me sane in this parody of a good life that I knew. But I could honestly say that I was a fairly temperate and modest child who grew up into a fairly temperate and modest adult. I was never subject to any spells of rebellious outrage and teenage indignance. Maybe I was simply too old for my age.

I was no stunning creature of great beauty, although I had been blessed with some good looks. Modest looks, at that. For the most part, I imagined myself to be plain and ordinary, and completely unremarkable. I had brown hair, brown eyes, and a pale complexion that never tanned or browned even if I stayed in the sun too long. Sometimes, I wished I could go brown too. That way, everything about me would be brown.

But at least, and on this no one would disagree, I laid claim to mountains of curiosity and a fair amount of more than just female intelligence.


*


Father Medici introduced me into London Society shortly after my seventeenth birthday, as was the custom amongst the nobility and wealthy – and even those who were not but who wished to be – and he let me stay there for as long as I wanted. I was an heiress in my own right, my father’s family having been nobility back in Italy. I knew that I was being “put on the marriage market” as it were, but I was not interested in anything of the sort. I was alarmingly indifferent to the opposite gender. But maybe that was only because I soon grew bored with the company of the gentlemen I was with. They seemed like an incompetent lot. And I wanted a real conversation with a person who could match my wit.

So I spent my seasons satiating my interest of the city and ignoring propriety – much to father Medici’s chagrin and surprisingly, his secret amusement. He was obviously not one of those fathers who were so strict as to be incorrigible. During this time, I met several people, all from different walks of life. I may have been a temperate personality, but I was also curious one – thanks to a childhood of books and books. And more books.

I looked for my birth parents.

I looked for them in every ball, in every party, in every theatre invitation. I looked for them in the faces of those who danced with me and smiled with me. I looked for them in the crowds of London on sunny afternoons when I shopped, chaperoned of course, but still inquisitive and still searching. I looked for my mother in the faces of several mothers I met, and I looked for my father in the placid expressions of the elderly gentlemen.

I just wanted to see them, wanted to know what they looked like – and if I looked anything like them. Mother and Father Medici were both fair-haired creatures, blonde and blue-eyed. I was so radically different that my parentage screamed the obvious. I was not theirs, not really.

It was a futile search, of course, and I knew it. There was no way my birth parents could have been one of the immigrants who came from the Fatherland after the First War. And even if there was some possibility of it, it was very, very small. I had no chance, right from the beginning.

But I resolved to be okay, after all, it was only mere curiosity on my part. It wasn’t like I suffered any delusions about the idea of meeting the warm, welcoming parents who made me. I had supposed, a long time ago – when a chatty servant told me the truth of my birth – that the notion was just a particularly fanciful fairy-tale. Fairy tales weren’t real.


*


In the spring of 1939, rumours of a war brewing in Europe reached our country estate in Suffolk. I was nineteen years old. Germany, a rising world power, was gearing up to unleash a terror on its neighbours, and on Jews in particular, and it seemed that we were going to be dragged along with it. Everyone and no one in particular, wanted another war like the first one – which was full of blood and mass murder. There was an unpopular prediction that this one, if it ever came about, would be a colossal war of immense proportions – larger than the First War – tearing through lives and families as if they were fragile Japanese paper.

I was nineteen years old then, young and confident of myself and in my abilities, and of Life itself.

But my life was never going to be the same.


*


Father Medici was not too old to enlist. So enlist, he did.

He had been in the First War during his youth, so he was an experienced veteran with years under his belt. He did not seem like a military man to me, for truthfully, father Medici seemed more like an absent-minded scholar than someone who had seen death, mayhem and murder. In massive proportions. He also did not look like a man who could instigate a horrible and terrific conclusion to Life.

I protested vigorously. Something I never done before. Father Medici was shocked.

He had never imagined me to be the kind of lady who made blatant protests at male decisions. At best, though he suspected that I could be headstrong, he thought I was the kind of woman to back down in the face of minor opposition and accept the hand I’d been dealt with.

But I was not.

I was incensed that he would have the nerve to enlist in Her Majesty’s Army so he could fight in another war, this time from the opposing side. Why did people seek so much Death? When all they had to do was just wait for it, since it was all around them? I voiced these opinions to father Medici, but he ignored me. Did he not see the futility of going to war? It was a madman’s war. Adolf Hitler, the parent of the terror arising in Europe, was obviously mentally unstable and very dangerous, even to himself. He was a mad, mad man. And his war…It was madness!

I was a person who loved Life passionately. I loved it in the cries of birds in the early morning, in the wet dampness of the ground after a long bout of rain. I loved Life in its base form in the mating of animals; in the births that came as a result afterwards. I loved it in the tranquillity of the forest and in the noise of water rushing in the streams; in the deep and endless blue sky, in the white clouds that filled my vision whenever I looked up, reminding me of the weather into which I had been born. I loved Life because Life was me and in me.

And the person I had come to care for, whom I imagined had Father in him, father Medici, was throwing away his life to fight in a war that would take him away and never give him back. To me. Father Medici – Giovanni to most – may not have been able to love me like a father should. But I loved him dearly like a child should her parent. He was my Father too.

I tried to stop him, but he would have none of it. He told me he was risking his life in order to save others. It made sense to me, but I wanted to ignore it.
And on the day that he left, Giovanni Medici smiled at me like I always imagined a father would smile at his daughter. My heart broke then, in that instant, for the first time. Then he left.

And I never saw him again.



*


I died slowly, that first year of the War, left alone with our servants – the majority of my family – while waiting for news of my father’s health. His letters came regularly and punctually, but they never eased the pain of loss I deeply felt, or the fear that I would lose a father. I wrote to him regularly too, hoping to find ease in the act, but never really doing so. I wrote to him to comfort him and remind him of home, of us, that we were waiting because we fervently hoped and prayed he would come back.

I wrote to him, partially because I had a childish notion to make him so homesick he would have no choice to come back to us. And also partially because I wanted to comfort myself, by telling myself that my letters would keep him alive.


*


Exactly one year after father left, his letters stopped.

The servants and I, we waited. Long and hard. And prayed every day, looking out for the messenger man to come passing by and tell us if he had any letters for us. But every day that we waited, we received no word. Nothing. Not even a note or a telegram. The emptiness in the house that father had left upon his enlistment, grew and grew until it started to suffocate me.

I began to spend my days outside the house, helping with the stables, or riding out with Aamir. My horse became my comfort in my loneliness and fear. Then finally, three months after father’s letters stopped, we received word that he was in London, in a hospital, shot but recuperating. I left Suffolk the very next day.


*


In the one year since my absence from London, it had changed drastically from the bright and gleaming city I knew it to be, to a dreary place full of mourners like me. It was suddenly grey and drab and sad, like Life had been sucked out of its walls.

I looked for the hospital that was mentioned in the note, the one where father was supposed to be recuperating. I found it quickly and a kind nurse dressed in white led to the bed where they said a man named Giovanni Medici lay recuperating. My heart beat in excitement, I was finally going to see father again! I had half a mind to point out his misfortunes and convince him to come home.

But I was wrong.

The nurse and I reached a bed curtained off with what looked like white blanket sheets. She opened it. And to my great disappointment, the man who lay on the bed was not my father.



*


I must’ve screamed, or looked like I was about to, since the nurse who had led me gave an alarmed look. I strove to calm down and pointed to the unconscious man on the bed: “But that isn’t my father.”

The nurse’s look of alarm became one of puzzlement as she worked out what I had said.

“He’s not?” she said. ‘Are you sure?”

I almost snorted. “I’ve lived with my father since I was a babe. I would recognize him anywhere.” The nurse looked embarrassed.

The man who lay on the bed, covered from head to toe in filthy bandages, must’ve woken in the midst of my exchange with the nurse, for he spoke, “Artemis?” I looked at him in surprise. He knew my name. The nurse shook her head incredulously and left us alone.

“What?” I was incredulous myself. But there were other Artemises out there, besides me. Probably. I could hardly be the only one. I held very, very still.

“Artemis Medici?” He struggled to rise, but he was obviously too weak. “Is that you?”

Well, there was no denying that there could only be one Artemis Medici in the world. I studied the man under my eyelashes, scrutinizing him thoroughly. He seemed to be a man of considerable height, but it was hard to tell since he lay on the bed. He was very thoroughly covered in bandages, so much that he resembled an Egyptian mummy. Tufts of red-brown hair stuck out from between gaps in his bandages on his head. But though his head was bound, his face wasn’t, and I could see clearly – for the first time – that he had good features. He had an aquiline profile, a hard profile. Three days’ worth of stubble grew on his chin and gave him a roguish appearance. He looked to be considerably a few years older than me.

Well, he was strikingly handsome.

Blue eyes, very arresting and intelligent blue eyes that were suddenly alert, regarded me intently with what I could comprehend as wariness and a certain gleam of amusement. Huh.

I answered him in the haughtiest tone I could manage. “Yes.” Why I was suddenly so wary and alert around this man, I could not figure out. He reminded me of a coiled animal waiting to strike. And I felt very much like the prey to his predator. Good heavens, I was thinking incoherently. Maybe I was going mad.

He grinned shamelessly at me, then proceeded to stick out his hand as if in handshake. “It’s nice to meet you.” He spoke in cultured tones, reminding me of the same tones that the gentlemen of my acquaintance used when they spoke. I narrowed my eyes at him as he continued, “My name is William Hiddleston.”

I took his politely offered hand and shook it vigorously, like a man, without considering that the man whose hand I was shaking was probably weak from his injuries – considering that he was dressed up like a mummy. His eyes widened for a fraction when he realized that I was no dainty damsel who offered her hand to be kissed when a handshake was clearly more needed. “Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Hiddleston.” I wanted to choose my next words more carefully, more politely, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I said: “Why are you here under my father’s name?”

“Please, call me William.” He answered. “And because your father asked me to.” He put up a hand when I started to speak, “And he’s alright.” He chuckled. “I was the one who got injured, obviously, not him. There was a bullet going for him, and I tried to push him out of the way. I got shot instead.”

He looked at me expectantly.

I said, “How very brave of you.”

He smirked. “Right on cue.”

I cleared my throat, grasped his hand tightly and looked him in the eye. “Thank you, for saving his life. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

William looked at me oddly for one moment, then he looked away.

“So why are you Giovanni Medici for the moment, really?” I asked. I was starting to think that my father may have sent this man with a message for me.

William looked at me again, the odd look in eyes gone so quickly I must’ve imagined them. “Your father wanted me to give you a message. His letters to you had stopped since we got deployed. It is so hard to send letters when you’re in the middle of a war. You can’t imagine.” William tried to smile, failed and said instead, “When Medici found out I was being sent home to recover, he told me to send you a note telling you he was here in London. He told me to pretend to be him so you would come, so I would be able to tell you that he misses you.”

“He did not have to.” I said. “I would’ve come regardless, whether or not it was him or it was just a message from him. Anything, just to know he was safe.”

“He did not have much faith in his ability to make you listen to him.” William answered gently. “He seems to think that you don’t hold that much in high esteem.”

His eyes searched mine. I’d come closer to William’ bedside without noticing it, and now our eyes were on a level with each other. I felt like crying.

Oh father. Were it so that I were a man so that I could come and take him home, I would’ve gladly given up all I had. How blind I was to the pain of Giovanni’s suffering from his marriage that for the longest time in my childhood, I regarded him as a stranger first and not as a father. My father. But I did love him. Very much. And I wished badly that father was not in the war; that he was back home with us. Safe.

“Is he safe?” I asked.

“We soldiers never are.” William answered. Sadness lurked in his eyes like an unforgotten shadow.

And that was all the answer I ever needed. Really. I knew then what I wanted to do, what I needed to do. It was madness, I knew. But I was going to do it.

I was going to bring my father home.


*


I hired the Honourable Sir William Hiddleston – I later learned that he had been knighted by the Queen for some act of bravery, he wouldn’t tell me which – on the spot, while he was still covered in his filthy bandages and recovering from a gunshot wound to his chest. The bullet had missed his heart by mere inches, and I gave a prayer of thanks that he had been alive enough to tell me about my father. I told him that I was going to bring my father home, one way or another – even if I had to drag him screaming and kicking from the battlefield – and damn it all to hell. I told him that I needed a guide or bodyguard for that. As much as I was a very headstrong person, I was also aware that I was a woman – who did not know how to protect herself, but who could learn if she were taught properly. But I did not care what people thought, or what the Germans thought, for that matter. I was going to keep my father alive and safe, and bring him home. And that was that. Damn them all to hell.

William first looked shocked at the language I’d used, then he gave me a critical look that told me he thought I was a complete ninny, who had gone completely out of her mind. After a minute of silence, he commented that he never before heard a lady swear so crossly, then bluntly declined me – almost bellowing the two-letter word “No” at me. Not, he said, because he thought I would make terrible employer. Just apparently a horribly foolish one.

I disagreed with him – on the ninny part, mostly – and told him where to get off. I was going to war, and if William was not going to let me hire him, I was just going to have to do it on my own – consequences be damned.

William had sighed loudly, closed his eyes, and then counted to ten. And when he opened them again, his blue gaze piercing in the dim light of the hospital, he told me that he was coming with me whether I hired him or not. I smiled beatifically, then I told him I would give him two weeks rest and then we were off.

As I left his bedside, I heard William muttering something like, “Going to war? Heaven help us all.”

We left London and sailed for France exactly two weeks later, when William was feeling and looking much better. We decided to travel in secret, since ships were banned to leave England for any of the places that Germany was invading. But William knew a friend who knew someone with a ship and we sailed away from Liverpool at the first light of dawn, and made our way across the North Atlantic Ocean for the better part of a month. I wasn’t by all means, a seaworthy individual, and I never had a change to get my sailor’s legs. But though the sea travel was horrible for me, I did my best to enjoy it.

This was so exciting, I thought. The sea, the wind, whipping my hair and face. I felt so alive, so wild. So full of the world. William, on the other hand, kept mostly to himself and seemed to enjoy maintaining a look of perpetual sternness. I tried to steer him several times into a cheerful mood by conversing with him about the most inane things. I asked about his family, to which he gave a curt reply of, “They’re fine.” I asked him how old he was and got a vague answer. I guessed him to be in his early thirties.

Then I asked him if he had a fiancé back home that he was missing.

The look he gave me shut me up for the rest of the trip.

Several times though, I often caught William giving me an odd look that had me shivering most of the time. I wondered then if William was interested at me as a female. But the more thought I gave it, I became more convinced that William did not have it him to be that base. He was honourable as far as I could tell. In fact, he was so honourable he seemed like a rock. He did not speak to me much, except when he related something about my father. William knew how much I missed him.

I had already previously made mention of my insatiable curiosity. I would go so far as to admit that Sir William Hiddleston intrigued me. And I desired to explore him. I suspected that he was a man of many depths, and that those were depths that a woman could lose herself in if she wasn’t careful. I wanted to know what made him tick, what made him the man he was – and yes, I wanted to find out why he was knighted for bravery. Was he truly brave? My father had seemed to trust him with me, from the stories of camaraderie that he and my father had shared. They had seemed like good friends.

I felt though, that there was something more to his stories that William wasn’t telling me. I bided my time, because I wanted to pry William open. But I would not do it before I found my father, I decided. I would do it after.

We arrived in France in secret, in the middle of April, expecting to see the evidences of the war that had ravaged this country. We were not disappointed. France was were one of the first counties to feel the wrath of Hitler’s Nazi armies. Then William suddenly commanded me to dress like a man, so we could travel in relative safety – if that was even possible at all in this ravaged land – and to minimize the risk to my maidenhead. I had rolled my eyes at this, but William, being the rock that he was, did not budge until I gave in.

I eventually gave in.


*


We travelled cross-country, in secret and by night mostly, avoiding the main roads and keeping to the deer trails in the forests. We did not cross open plains, and if we heard gunshots in the distance, we steered away from them. We were looking for the British encampments that William had mentioned he and my father came from.

William began to teach me how to defend myself, and how to track. He taught me how to hunt and how to manage and rummage for food myself. Increasingly, I found myself being drawn to this man who came with me, in my madness, to look for my father. He was a man of great depths, as I had first suspected, and he was also a man of many dimensions. I felt both safe and unsafe with him. He…intrigued me. He was someone I could match my wit against and lose. Something that had never happened to me before, with the gentlemen of my acquaintance.

And he was dangerous, I realized. Very dangerous. To me, at least.

We were not completely invisible in our journey.

There were bad days – days when we would come across one or two German soldiers, and William would have no choice but to kill them. He always made me look away, as if afraid that I would lose some part of my innocence if I saw men die. William could be very ruthless, he told me. And I might not be able to live with the images that I saw. But always, I defied him. I was not a delicate female. I was not scared of seeing men die, no matter how much I hated the idea of Death. I wasn’t going to back away from the harsh reality of the world I had been born in.

I’d made a mad dash to save my father from this terrible war, but I wasn’t going to back down from it.

And truthfully, I also wanted to show William that I could be strong. I could be stoic. I wanted him to realize that if this was his and my father’s world, I could accept it. I may not like it, and I may make crazy decisions to randomly rescue the people I love, but I would never fear it. It was the pain of losing them that I feared, not the war that was causing it.

I was angry at the war.

I was angry at the people who caused it. How dare they? How dare they make a mockery of human life and frailty? How dare they make the decisions that would take away loved ones from their homes and put them in the line of fire to be killed? War was not a battle for a cause. It was the political chess that politicians played with human lives. How dare they play God?


*


We found my father’s encampment exactly a week after we set foot in France. Or rather, they found us. William and I woke one morning to the sound of cocked rifles and boots marching. Too late, we were found and we were brought to the commanding officer for questioning.

A stern-looking Officer Thornton met us in his quarters for interrogation. The minute he saw me, however, he doffed his hat and said, “My lady.”

I stared at him. Then I stared at William. How in the world–

William nodded curtly. “This is Lady Artemis Medici, daughter of Giovanni Medici – one of our officers.” Then he bowed graciously and added, “And I am Sir William Hiddleston of his Majesty’s Army. At your service, Officer Thornton.”

Officer Thornton had looked at me in surprise when William bared my identity, his brown eyes widening like two saucers. Then, as William proceeded bowed and introduced himself, Officer Thornton had choked. I was secretly amused.

He cleared his throat and stammered out, “I-I had not known that such nobility would grace my quarters today. “ He bowed gracefully to me and to William as well. “A fine pleasure to meet you finally, my lady. Your father spoke highly of you. “He looked sad for moment before turning to William. “Your reputation precedes you Sir Knight.”

I was stunned. Officer Thornton had known my father, had in fact spoken with him. And I was on the right track. My head was reeling with thoughts. I had so much information to process. William had been addressed with more formality than I, that itself convinced me that I definitely needed to find out what he been knighted for, But I focused on the only thing I could think of a that moment: My father.

The two men had fallen into a rapid discussion of our current situation. William was explaining our motives for coming here, and Officer Thornton seemed to be disagreeing, looking sadder by the minute. I could tell that he was burdened with something – something heavy. He kept glancing at me, and I realized that his burden had something to do with me.

“Excuse me Officer,” I said as imperiously as I could. Given my current state of dress, I did not have much confidence in my hauteur. But I was a Medici, even if I wasn’t truly one by blood. But still.

“Excuse me Officer, “I repeated. “But you mentioned my father. Where is he?”

Officer Thornton paled and looked ill. William winced. My heart started pounding furiously in my chest, like a caged bird flapping its wings and wanting to get out.

Officer Thornton took a long minute to answer me. A long, long, agonizing minute that tortured me by the seconds. William cleared his throat, but Officer Thornton and I had locked eyes, and mine would not give up the stare. Emotions flashed across the officer’s stern face – emotions that I was familiar with – because I had felt them far too often in the past months.

No, I thought. I suddenly understood what he was going to say but I did not want him to say it. Father.

No.

No. No. No. No. No.

NO.

NO.

NO!

NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!

I was screaming the word in my head over and over, denying what my instincts and my heart insisted were true. The confirmation came as surely as if the officer had spoken the damning truth himself. I realized that I was making a fist so hard that my nails bit into my skin, drawing red, red blood.

I looked down at my hands, trauma at the sight of blood blinding me. I could not breathe and it suddenly seemed so airless in Officer Thornton’s quarters. I wanted to run, run far away and never look back. But my legs would not carry me away from this horrible truth that I was told – this terrifying new world that had opened its dark arms to embrace me.

I was a raging, churning mass of denial and grief, and I barely heard Officer Thornton’s next words: “We saw no sign of his troops, alive. We found only a burning mess and the acrid smell of burnt flesh.”

No! I screamed again. Still in my head.

No!

I would not accept it. Could not accept it.

And then William broke the spell that anguish held upon me. His voice, soft and gentle, pierced through the mess of my mind: “Run Artemis. Run and give yourself in to it. Don’t hold back. Run.”

So I ran.

Out of that room. Out of that encampment. I hear Officer Thornton shouting that it was not safe in the open, and I heard that William told him to shut up and let me be. Sweet William. Sweet, mysterious William.

I ran and ran and ran until I could run no more. I ran into an open field. I ran. Until my breath was not enough to support my heaving chest. Until broken tears blurred my sight. I ran until I cried incoherently and wildly, screaming abandon into the wind. There was no Father in the wind here, no Faceless Mother now to comfort my sorrow.

I ran and then I cried ceaselessly. And then my tears abated.

I looked up at the unbroken sky above me, and willed myself to find peace.

And there it was, the sky as blue and as endless as ever, since I had first known it. Drifting clouds of pure, silver white passed across the blue ocean of air. And I remembered the weather that I had been born into. It must’ve been on a day like this. I wondered, if my birth parents had decided to keep me… would I be here now, crying in a French field for a father I had never truly known and never would? If I had led a different life, where would I have been? Still a wealthy Italian heiress dressed as a boy and looking for a father that would never come back?

I gave myself in to my raging emotions, doing as William told me. Stoic William. I willed myself to have peace. I told myself that I would go back, because I could make something out of my acquaintanceship with William. I swore I would. I would forgive this war, but never forget it, and I would embrace Life more dearly than ever.

I began to turn, steeling myself to go back. Unaware of the chaos that had erupted behind me. William was running, fast, and shouting at me. He was waving his hands. “Run for cover Artemis!” I started toward him, but stopped in shock as I saw him jerk violently.

Behind him, the British encampment was in blazes.

I looked at William again, flowers of red had bloomed on his shirt. Then I realized with horror that it was blood. Shot, William had been shot, I thought wildly, running to him. Barely a month from his recent injury, and now he was getting shot at again. But William had gone pale; had gone down on his knees, looking at me with a mixture of alarm and fear as a trickle of blood slid down his lips and dribbled on his chin.

I ran again, this time to William. No! The hateful word was in my head again.But I never reached William in time. I felt a sudden rush of air surging through my head. Why– Then I, too, fell on the field on my back.

And I saw the blue, unbroken and endless sky above me… with pure, silver white clouds drifting across its ocean of air in a kind of dance.

The white clouds were beautiful.

***

Artemis Medici was born on a bright summer afternoon, under blue skies and pure, white clouds. The superstitious midwife who had delivered her liked to make prophesies about her deliveries. And she had made a certain prophesy about the baby girl. The old crone had looked sadly at the baby girl while she spoke the words of her prophecy with stunning clarity.

“She who was born under the endless ocean of blue sky, flitted with fine clouds of pure, white silver. She will die under such a sky in her own time.”












~FIN~
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