Yes, I was just a girl. A sick girl. One who, when the time came, was helpless. Because that was what being a sick girl meant.
"I'll see about finding a locksmith in the morning," Papa finally said, hesitant. "I won't let anyone hurt us."
"You can't guarantee that," she shot back.
His hand twitched—the right one, the one not supporting my elbow in case my world started spinning—as if he was reaching for her. But by the time I'd closed my eyes and opened them again, my vision was filled with Papa's frame. Then by my mother bustling around with bowls, the creak of wooden chairs, and Papa's laughter melting together into a song, one that was less of a memory of years past and more of a feeling, one amid the past few months' arguments and icy eyes I was sure I'd forgotten.
* * *
What do they call someone like me? Fragile. Sickly. Weak. At least, that's what doctors one, two, and three told my mother when she presented me to them at age twelve, the sky swimming like some inverted lake above me.
Each one looked at me like I was something not of this world. Then again, maybe I wasn't. That was what the priest thought, at least, when my mother took me to the local church in a last-ditch attempt at a cure.
The dizziness hadn't happened suddenly. I didn't wake up one morning and, instead of leaping out of bed bright-eyed and ready to start the day, fall over in a dazed stupor. No, it was slow, careful, pernicious. It crept in, only soft waves at first. A bit of blurred vision while playing in the marketplace, an ache that whined in my head. Then came the weakness in my legs upon standing.
At first, my mother thought it was a trick. I was, after all, a child. That was what children did, wasn't it? Faked being sick to keep from doing chores?
Normal girls didn't have to grasp the sides of their chairs before standing. Normal girls didn't see everything drowning in pools of black ink, didn't feel their hearts screaming against their rib cages, didn't have legs that trembled before collapsing underneath them. Normal girls didn't watch helplessly as men—men who'd threatened to kill their mothers, who'd threatened to kill them— escaped into the night. Normal girls didn't let those men run between the dark spires of trees with swords ready and waiting until the next time, until the next time they came back and slit their throats through—
I woke up gasping so loudly it almost drowned out the whispers carrying through the cracks in the paneling.
The robbers. They were back.
No—my parents; the lilt of their voices. They were talking about what had happened. Which meant they were talking about 'me'. And this time was different, somehow, than their past discussions. There'd been something different in how my mother regarded me as I stood up carefully amid the ruined study, the blaze in her eyes the one she always used to conceal hurt and pain. Once, when she'd slipped and hit her knee against the table, turning the skin mottled and blue, she'd had fury in her face for days. She'd never looked at me like that before, though. Like she could no longer only blame my body for all the trouble I caused.
Maybe I didn't know, truly, what normal girls did and did not do. But what I did know? The way how, under my mother's gaze, I shrank to something so small, so insignificant, I wasn't sure I could recognize myself in the mirror. And oh, how I wanted her to see me as someone strong and worthy of her arm always supporting mine. How I wanted to be a reflection of her carefully controlled blaze.
"I don't understand what I did wrong." My mother's voice.
Careful not to overexert myself, I raised myself out of bed, paused until my world had righted itself, then went to press my ear against the far wall. My bedroom used to be Papa's library. But that was before I became sick, before stairs were no longer an option for my dizzy body, my crumbling legs.
"You didn't do anything wrong," Papa soothed. "You and Tania, ma chère, you are all I've ever wanted."
"It's bad enough I couldn't give you a son, but I gave you a daughter who's...who's...'broken'."
Papa said something I couldn't hear.
"I don't want you training her anymore. No more fencing—promise me. I know you want to impart your talent, but you can't expect to live vicariously through her without consequences. I can't have her wasting every waking moment, all her energy, on something that will never aid her in the future. She doesn't need to know how to protect herself—she needs to learn skills. Women's skills. For when she is..." She stopped, but I knew. I knew what she was going to say: when she is 'married'.
"We'll figure it out. No, listen to me. We will." A pause; words muffled by the wall. My father's voice again: "Those bastards waited until I was out of town. Well, they've underestimated my willingness to stay home when my family is concerned. They won't dare try anything while I'm here."