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Jeffrey C. Wells
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She had a name for herself. Her name was "Faithful Student."
This wasn't how the Sun Princess referred to her, of course; the two did not speak in quite the same language, after all. The Sun Princess's actual name for her Faithful Student was a quick series of low liquid yowls which were honestly a little difficult to hear at a distance. Sometimes Faithful Student preferred it when the Sun Princess addressed her merely by whistling sharply. The high frequencies carried a little better over the hills.
Why had she picked the name "Faithful Student"? Well, it was at least a little obvious, wasn't it? Faithful Student was exceptionally, painfully faithful to her Princess. And, why be faithful to the Sun Princess particularly? Did Faithful Student need any reason beyond the fact that the Sun Princess was huge and strong and potent and wise beyond all measure? Beyond the fact that the Sun Princess deserved every scrap of her faithfulness?
No, but the regular feeding didn't hurt, either.
So, that was the "faithful" part, right there. But what about "student"? That one was pretty easy, too. After all, there were all sorts of lessons to be learned about the silly old universe that the two of them shared. "Don't mark the corner of the laundry room." Good lesson. She had learned that one early. "Don't eat an entire half-rotted squirrel and then regurgitate it all over the living room rug." Another fine lesson. "Don't bother the smelly little waddling black things with the stripes on their backs." Strictly speaking, the smelly little waddling black things had taught Faithful Student this message more-or-less directly, but the Sun Princess's obvious disappointment over the resulting situation (as well as the aggressive series of baths that had followed) really hammered the lesson home.
The derivation of the Sun Princess's name was obvious. She was high and warm and provided good things from above. Plus, to Faithful Student's eyes, the long hair that spilled out from under her sensible brown hat was the same color as the luminous ball overhead. She believed that this could not possibly be a coincidence.
Faithful Student had many responsibilities as the Sun Princess's, ah, faithful student. When the Sun Princess was feeling happy, it was Faithful Student's content duty to participate in the stick-throwing game that the Sun Princess seemed to favor. When Sun Princess was feeling down, it was Faithful Student's solemn charge to lie by her side, nuzzling in under her elbow and placing her chin against the Princess's side until she felt better. And best of all, when the Sun Princess was feeling industrious, which was almost every day, it was Faithful Student's joy and pleasure to help the Sun Princess move the Stupid Wooly Things from place to place, because the Stupid Wooly Things were extremely stupid and would wander all over if you didn't threaten them a little and put the fear of the Princess into 'em from time to time.
One mustn't actually bite them, of course. There was a fine line of deception that Faithful Student was forced to walk. She accepted it all with boundless joy. This was her duty; and to her duty, perhaps above all, Faithful Student was faithful.
Therefore, it came as the greatest of all blows when the Faithful Student found that she could not execute her duty.
She had seen the warning signs for several months. Joints that didn't spring back to working trim quite as quickly as they used to. Eyes that had, truth to tell, become a little foggy of late. Ears that didn't pick up on little details the way that they should. Faithful Student was, in her own way, dimly aware that this was the natural order of things. Students grow old and gray, while Princesses remain young and strong for—as best as Faithful Student could tell—forever. She knew that there was no sense in despairing about it, but Faithful Student despaired nonetheless. Not for her own sake, no. Faithful Student merely feared that there would come a day when the Sun Princess would whistle for her and she would not be able to respond.
One day, quite out of the blue, Faithful Student's gut decided that it didn't want to pack food away as nicely as it always had. Sun Princess had responded with characteristic kindness by giving her food that was extra, extra tasty, and while this worked for a while (and set Faithful Student's tail to wagging in the process) it didn't work forever; and eventually the day came when she had to heave it all up again. Faithful Student expected to be scolded at having violated her carefully-learned lessons about making messes in the house, but instead, all she could perceive from the Sun Princess was a sort of deep sadness.
Slowly, Faithful Student's gut began to feel absolutely wretched. This wasn't the sort of sickness she remembered from her youth. This was something much different. The Sun Princess eventually took her to see the ambiguous female in the white coat who lived in the clean, harsh-smelling place. Faithful Student was never certain what to make of this one; she alternately petted Faithful Student and gave her painful pokes and pinches. Faithful Student found this to be untrustworthy behavior (but she did enjoy the petting).
Faithful Student looked on from the table as the white-coated female and the Sun Princess had a long, long talk. Eventually, the Sun Princess got angry and started barking very loud. Then she began to make choking and howling sounds, and Faithful Student's uncompromised nose picked up the distinct smell of despair. More than anything, Faithful Student wanted to get off the shiny table and comfort the Sun Princess, but she really wasn't feeling up to the jump, or even the walk, for that matter.
At this point, Faithful Student had pretty much come to the conclusion that the mere fact of leaving the harsh-smelling place wouldn't make her feel any better this time, but she found herself hoping that the beautiful Sun Princess at least would start to perk up. Something in the harsh-smelling place had clearly upset her.
It was not Faithful Student's lucky day. The Sun Princess remained as broken and black-smelling as ever, even as the Princess took her to the happiest place that Faithful Student could even think of, the sunny field where the Sun Princess had first taught her the stick-throwing game. The field was warm, the Princess-like sun was high overhead, and the field was full of good smells and chaseable birds. Faithful Student idly found herself wishing that she were in better condition to appreciate these things, but no, even if she had been in perfect health, the Sun Princess was despairing for some reason, and it was Faithful Student's job to stay by her side.
The Princess set Faithful Student down in the sweet-smelling clovery grass of the field, lay her head across Faithful Student's back, and howled. Moisture dripped down from her big gray eyes and the deep scent of her sorrow washed over Faithful Student as the Princess spent her sadness onto the grass and onto Faithful Student's shaggy sides.
Faithful Student wagged her tail, despite the fact that even this small of a gesture made her hurt a little. Don't worry, Sun Princess, she said. I'm here. Whatever it is, I will make it all better. She wasn't sure that this was true, but it was a nonetheless necessary thing to say. There was a fine line of deception that Faithful Student was forced to walk.
Time passed. The tears stopped, eventually. The Sun Princess held her Faithful Student close, as though she never wanted to let go. The warmth of the Princess's body felt good to Faithful Student's aching belly, and gradually, she found herself drifting off into sleep, clutched there in her Princess's embrace. Sleep was good. Sleep made the pain go away.
And then, suddenly, a thought struck Faithful Student. For the first time in her short little life, she began to wonder what it would be like to go to sleep and not wake up again. An impossible concept, at first. Faithful Student still had many jobs to do for the Sun Princess, which she would most certainly get right back to doing as soon as she was back on her game.
But... what if? What if such a thing were to happen?
Something close to dread began clawing at Faithful Student's mind. From a very early age, she had thrown herself, heart and soul, into being the absolute best student she could be. She had taken all the Princess's lessons to heart, and even when she had occasionally slipped up, like that one mishap with the bag of potatoes, she had always striven to better herself in the eyes of her perfect, beautiful, ageless teacher. She knew that she was nowhere near perfect yet. If one could really go to sleep and never wake up again...
...if she would, eventually and effectively, stop being her Princess's Faithful Student...
...what had been the point of it all? What was the point of all her lessons, all the happy times that she and the Princess had shared? What was the point, if it was all going to end like this?
The doubt was short-lived. What was the point, she asked? The Princess was the point, as she always was. The Princess would remember all the lessons she had learned. The Princess would remember the good times. The Princess would remember her.
The thought gave Faithful Student a small measure of comfort against the grim aching of her belly, and she gave herself over to sleep, there in her Princess's embrace.
At least there would always be someone to remember her.
At least something in this silly old universe would last forever.