The clock ticks. She remembers a time when it used to be calming; a soothing rhythm to play her to sleep. Now it sounds tight, urgent, as harried and exhausted as the house’s other occupants.
The room is empty. Though a huge canopied bed takes up nearly half of it, and the walls are lined with shelves crammed with books, toys, dolls—it is empty. The tiny red Xweetok girl sits in the middle of the floor with her knees hugged to her chest, and feels her heart ache with loneliness.
When she lines up the plushies, they sit in a neat row, their button eyes staring soundlessly back at her.
The Game is a complicated one; half the time she doesn’t understand it herself. She must arrange everything just so. The big grey Lupe in the cloth-chainmail must go on a long and difficult journey, a quest to find monsters and magical roses. Only when he returns will he be worthy to lift a powerful and old curse from his little sister. Day by day, the little sister waits for him to return...
The sky that day looked as if some great hand had tipped a bucket of grey paint over it, so that the grey bled into the usual blue of the sky and dripped down onto the hopeless landscape.
The strong Lupe knight was close to passing out from exhaustion as he struggled forward on the hot and dusty terrain. Though the sky was dull, no rain every came, just the faint ominous rumblings of thunder. The Lupe raised his head to the sky in a mute cry of hopelessness; only the thought of his little sister kept him going.
A knock on the door startles her. She leaps up, the plushies toppling over. Her wide eyes find the door as it opens, allowing the narrow face of a Gelert to poke itself in.
“Miss, you should be coming down for dinner now,” the maid says. The girl jerks her chin once, a tiny nod, and the pink Gelert pushes the door farther open, stepping inside.
Silently, the maid helps the little Xweetok into a thin white dress, brushes her hair, ties it with matching ribbons. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she passes it; a narrow, pointed face stares back at her, brown eyes wide and expressionless.
When the door closes behind the two pets, the plushies lie alone, abandoned on the floor.
She waits for him to come back. She has been waiting for forever, or at least it seems that way to her. Waiting at her window, staring out of the glass, across the endless expanse of greenery, the vast gardens of the mansion that is her home, up to the wide, empty sky.
The war with Meridell is not going well. Her parents will never say anything, but their tight-lipped silence at dinner is enough; she knows.
When she twirls her fork around her china plate, she imagines him walking in through the majestic double doors, striding through in that way he always did, grinning, his helmet in his paw. He would come over to her and ruffle her hair, call her princess in that way he always did.
Her brother. The strong grey Lupe knight.
She is alone in the room again. The clock ticks the seconds past, indeterminable moments while she sits motionless on the floor, hands folded neatly in her lap. She watches the clock on the white wall, gazes at it as it measures out the time in beats.
The plushies are lined up again. The Game goes on.
The forest is so dark at night. He pushes through with all his strength, searching, always searching. The thoughts of his sister at home, waiting for him, keep him going. He will find the cure and bring it back to her, at all costs.
There is more to the Game. Sometimes the brother and sister are together again. Sometimes it is before either of them know about the curse, when they are strong and free. The little red Xweetok plushie cannot stand up on her own. The Lupe is taller, stronger; his legs are stiffer and the sword he holds in one paw can help to stabilise him.
She must move the Xweetok carefully, always leaning her against something. The edge of the bed, the wall, the cardboard castle someone once made the girl. It is tiring work; she likes it best when the two plushies are together, holding each other up, the way it should be.
She looks out the window, at the sky, and rubs a paw across her face, brushing back the hair. Then she turns back to her plushies once more.
There is a dark day, one full of coldness and the feeling of dread. There are so many people flying about and whispering. There is no laughter. She stands at her window and stares out across the green lawns, watching the slow procession of black. The sun shines down benignly, as if it cannot tell. She feels empty, alone. No one notices her, or comes to get her. The house echoes with the empty sound of silence.
When the plushies are knocked over that day, they stay that way. She picks at a thread on her white pinafore, worrying it back and forth. Her hair is in white ribbons again. They have neglected to dress her in black. Perhaps they have forgotten about her.
The window is open. The evening is coming on quickly; the sky outside has flushed to blood red, and the orange streaks it like angry slashes.
The clock ticks its endless beats of time, while she sits in front of it and stares at it. She watches it carefully, as if it might tell her something, disclose a vital detail that they have forgotten to mention.
The window sash flutters in the light breeze, swinging back and forth as though it has suddenly gotten a life of its own. She looks up at it. Freedom lies outside the window; she can escape the Game. The plushies are knocked over. Maybe they will stay that way.
She looks down at the floor, at her lap. She worries the thread on her pinafore. Finally, she reaches out and carefully stands the strong grey Lupe plushie up. She takes the little Xweetok plushie, and leans her against his side. Then she gets slowly up.
But it had been many months, and the Lupe knight did not return; no one knew what had become of him. At home, his sister began to worry. She could not sleep and she could not eat. She knew what she must do, and so one day, she packed herself a small bundle of the things she knew she would need, and then she set off in search of her brother.
The sky dims to a dull purple; the noise outside has faded. The room is empty, save for the shadows that creep in on the walls, stealing along like masked intruders. The plushies lie carelessly on the floor, staring blankly up at the ceiling. They have been forgotten by the little girl who made up their Game.
The window is still open; the sash flutters a little in the breeze, and the hem of a white pinafore blows up, a loose thread drifting up into the empty air.
The little sister has gone in search of her brother.