Cordelia often felt alone when it was just her and her parents, but never as much as when Alastair went away to the Academy. While he was gone, the rest of the Carstairs family traveled to India, to Paris, to Cape Town and Canada, but they were at Cirenworth for the holidays when he finally returned.
She had waited months for his return, but when he stepped out of the carriage — taller, more angular and sharp than ever —he seemed like a different person. He’d always been short-tempered and prickly, but now he would barely speak to her. When he did, it was mostly to tell her not to bother him.
Her parents ignored the transformation. When Cordelia asked her father why Alastair wouldn’t spend time with her, he smiled at her and told her that teenage boys went through “times like this” and she would “understand when she was older.” “He’s been having fun with boys his own age all year and now he’s got to be back in the countryside with the likes of us,” Elias said with a chuckle. “He’ll get over it.”
This was not a satisfying answer. Cordelia tried to put herself in Alastair’s path as much as she could, to force him to acknowledge her. Often, though, she couldn’t even find him. He spent hours locked in his bedroom, and when she knocked on the door, he didn’t even bother to tell her to go away. He just ignored her. The only way she knew he’d been in there was when he emerged to eat, or to announce he was going out for a long walk by himself.
This went on for a few weeks. Cordelia’s feelings changed from disappointment, to sorrow, to blaming herself, to annoyance, and then to anger. At dinner one night she threw a spoon at him and shouted, “Why won’t you talk to me?” Alastair caught the spoon out of the air, put it down on the table, and glared at her in silence.
“Don’t throw things, Cordelia,” her mother said.
“Mâmân!” Cordelia protested in a tone of betrayal. Her father ignored the entire business and went on eating as though nothing had happened. Risa glided by and set a new spoon down at Cordelia’s place, which Cordelia found extremely irritating.
Alastair’s refusal to engage with Cordelia was, she understood, meant to cause her to give up and stop trying. So she redoubled her efforts. “Well,” she would announce, if she found herself in the same room with him, “I’m going to collect wild blackberries down the lane.” (Alastair loved blackberries.) Or, “I think I’ll do some tumbling in the training room after lunch.” (Alastair was always on her to practice how to fall safely, and she’d need a partner for that.)
One day when he went out for one of his walks, Cordelia waited a minute and then followed. It was good practice, she told herself—stealthy movement, awareness of her surroundings, honing her senses. She made it a game: how long could she track her brother before he noticed? Could she remain undetected long enough to find out where he went?
It turned out Alastair didn’t go anywhere. He just walked and walked, knowing these woods well enough not to get lost. Cordelia began to get tired after a couple of hours. Then she began to get hungry.
Then she got distracted, and hooked her foot into a protruding tree root, and fell in a thud on the hard-packed dirt. Ahead, Alastair turned at the noise and spotted her as she, annoyed, scrambled to her feet. She folded her arms and held up her chin, stubborn and determined to retain her pride in the face of whatever unpleasant reaction he was preparing: his contempt, his rage, his dismissal.
Instead, he let out sigh and walked over to her. Without preamble he said, gruffly, “Are you hurt?”
Cordelia lifted her foot and wiggled it experimentally. “I’ll be okay. Just bruised, I think.”
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
They walked in silence, Alastair a few steps ahead, not speaking. Eventually, driven mad by the silence, Cordelia burst out, “Don’t you want to know why I was following you?”
He turned and considered her. “I assume you thought I was coming out here to do something exciting.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, growing—as always—more agitated in the face of Alastair’s imperturbable calm. “I’m sorry that since you went away to the Academy you’ve become all grown up and mature and you have fancy new friends. I’m sorry I’m just your stupid little sister.”
Alastair stared at her a moment, and then let out a bark of laughter. There was no humor in it. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m sorry you’re too good for your family now! I’m sorry you’re too good to train with me!”
He shook his head, dismissive. “Don’t be daft, Cordelia.”
“Just talk to me!” she said. “I don’t know why you’re so grumpy. You’re the lucky one who got to go away. Who got to have fun in Idris. You know how alone I’ve been all year?”
For a moment, Alastair looked lost, hesitant. It had been a long time since Cordelia had seen an expression so open on his face. Then he slammed shut like a iron gate. “We’re all of us alone,” he said. “In the end.”
“What does that mean?” she demanded, but he’d turned to walk away. After a moment, wiping the wetness from her face with her sleeve, she followed.
When they got back to the house, she left him in the entryway while she retrieved the entire stock of throwing knives from the china cabinet that served as the house’s armory. She walked past her brother on the way from cabinet to training room, glaring at him, barely able to carry the pile. He watched her in silence.
In the training room she set up and went through her paces. Thunk. Thunk. Throwing knives were not her strongest weapon, but she needed the sense of impact, of getting to hurt something, even just a target on a backstop. As usual, the rhythm of training soothed her. Her breathing became more calm and even. The repetition grounded her: five throws, then the walk to retrieve the knives from the target and the walk back to try again. Five throws. Walk. Retrieve. Walk. Five throws.
After twenty minutes or so of this she realized that Alastair was standing in the doorway of the training room. She ignored him.
Someone else might have said that she’d gotten better since he saw her last, or asked if he could take a turn. Alastair, though, eventually cleared his throat and said, “You’re turning your left foot on the release. That’s why you’re so inconsistent.”
She glared and went back to throwing. But she paid more attention to her footwork.
After a while Alastair said, “It’s stupid to say I’m lucky. I’m not lucky.”
“You weren’t stuck here all year.”
“Oh?” Alastair sneered. “How many people came here this year to mock you? How many asked what was wrong with you that you didn’t have a private tutor? Or suggested your family was some kind of ne’er-do-wells because we’ve moved around a lot?”
Cordelia looked over at him, expecting to see vulnerability and sadness there, but Alastair’s eyes were hard, his mouth a thin line. “They treated you badly?”
Alastair let out another mirthless laugh. “For a while. I realized I had a choice. There were only two kinds of people at the Academy. The bullies and the bullied.”
Alastair said tightly, “Which would you have chosen?”
“If those were my only two choices,” Cordelia said, “I would have left and come home.”
“Yes, well,” he said. “I chose the one where I wasn’t made to feel like a laughingstock.”
Cordelia was very still and silent. Alastair’s face was impassive.
“And how has that worked out?” she said, as mildly as she dared.
“Awful,” he said. “It’s awful.”
Cordelia did not know what to say or what to do. She wanted to go and throw her arms around her brother, to tell him that she loved him, but he stood rigid, with his arms crossed in front of him, and she didn’t dare. Finally she held out the knife in her hand. “Do you want to have a throw? You’re much better than I am.”
When he looked suspicious she said, “I could use some help, Alastair. You see how careless my form is.”
Alastair came and took the knife from her. “Very careless,” he agreed. “I know the swordplay comes naturally to you, but not everything will. You must slow down. Pay attention to your feet. Now, follow my gestures. That’s it, Layla. Stay with me.”
And she would.