One Century to Marriage

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Prisoners of the Magic Kingdom

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Medea Shai

The red and white fairy fought fiercely in the sky above the battlefield. Their bright robes merged with the sunset glow. They say it is not good to see them. But King of Aluar did not believe in omens. Today he was going to win a great victory. Never mind that the fortresses of the black kingdom, which emerged as if from nowhere in the wasteland, were supposedly guarded by evil spirits.

King Conrad believed neither in evil spirits nor in an entire kingdom under the strange name of Shai. It could grow on the wasteland all by itself overnight. An ambassador who had lost an important message in the wastelands supposedly saw this black wonder with his own eyes. Towers like darkness grew straight out of the dry, barren ground, and spikes of iron stretched across them. And then there was the shrieking of a multitude of monsters. It sounded more like the fiction of a boy who had failed an errand and feared punishment.

There was no point in punishing him. The boy himself was sick with some horrible disease. He must have caught it on the badlands. His skin was green, his eyes were overgrown with a black film, and his fingers were covered with fur and claws.

And later was a declaration of war, written in red on a scroll of perfectly black parchment. Fine letters appeared in bloody ligature:

«We will attack human lands until someone defeats us!»

It was a clear threat, but the signature «Fairies’ Queen Medea Shai» might have belonged in the banter section.

No fairies’ queen in a land where everything is poisoned and scorched by dragon fire. It is dangerous to go there. The ambassador who passed through there is a case in point.

Conrad would have thought the message a practical joke, but Aluar had indeed been plagued by wildlings at twilight. They could easily be mistaken for monsters. And they attacked at dusk every time. The frightened people began to beg for protection. The commoners could be ignored, but the nobles also suffered. Several knights, who had gone to fight the outlaws alone, were mauled alive. In the royal castle, incidents began to occur that caused panic. The cauldrons in the kitchen began to ooze volcanic lava and nearly burned down the entire castle, or all the statues suddenly came to life and began to strangle the guests with their marble hands. All the ambassadors fled from Aluar, spreading rumors of the curse. Conrad himself saw none of this, so he slept soundly. And yet the ill ambassador assured that a black-winged lady had come to him and threatened to destroy the whole kingdom.

Rumors are often more dangerous than war. The situation had become so tense that Conrad had no choice but to call in the militia and march on Shai.

They were already waiting for him there. It was an army of black armor, remotely resembling dragon scales. It lined up in endless lines. The black warriors emerged as if they’d risen from the ground as the sun set. There were countless of them.

But Conrad was no coward either. Young and willful, he was more eager to fight than any of the victims who’d filled him with complaints about the Cursed Kingdom, as they called Shai.

The king was sure he would win. A couple of years ago, when his father died suddenly, he had already had to fight the invaders. The price of power was military strength. Conrad knew how to lead an army and fight in such a way as to destroy the enemy. Should he be afraid of an army of black demons?

It was a good thing he hadn’t brought the court wizard, who had been in his father’s service. He would have seen bad omens in all this. He was a foreteller of misfortune. Ever since Conrad was born, he had been foretold nothing but bad fortune, that he would not live to see his coronation day, that he would fall prey to evil spirits and foreign usurpers, that he would be cursed and forgotten. And he became king and victor, spitting on all the prophecies. The wizard seemed to have had no choice but to shut his mouth, but he cawed like a crow, continuing to foretell misfortune. And so he did! Shai’s kingdom had become a barrier to trade routes and any relations with other powers. Behind Aluar was only the sea, but ahead on the road to the wider world, Shai had risen. So we must tear it down from the face of the earth! Black fortresses that resembled dragon’s teeth on the horizon disfigured the landscape. They must be destroyed soon. And to do that, we must first defeat the enemy troops.

The red and white fairy clashed furiously, hovering over a field that was about to bleed.

«I tell you this is pure love!» The white fairy screamed, her voice lost in the roar of weapons and armor. «He will die of pure and sincere love! Love, like a white rose with thorns, will sprout in his breast and warp his whole heart. They will both perish from love!»

«I insist that it is passion,» the red fairy shouted scandalously, fluttering her flaming wings that made the air burn. «Passion is like a red rose with poisonous thorns. It sprouts not in hearts but in two bodies, devouring them completely. These two will be mine!»

What are they two! Conrad looked around perplexedly. What is love? What is passion? There are only armies of stern warriors unaccustomed to tenderness here. And all of them can neither look nor hear the two fairies. They can tear their own throats out. Let them scream. There is something tragic in their screams. They were dancing in the air, locked in a fistfight.

Darkness fell, and they were gone. It was probably just a game of sunset rays. Some hunchbacked creature, like a rhinoceros in a herald’s dress, blew a black horn and retreated behind the flank of the enemy armies. It’s time to fight!

There will be no negotiations for peace! Shai is to be destroyed. Conrad rushed forward, but in time to notice how the hooves of his horse pressed two roses: a red and a white. Why would there be roses on barren ground, parched by dragon fire? Witchcraft was involved. Not for nothing did the threatening letters come supposedly from the queen of the fairies. It was a veiled hint that powerful sorcerers had taken up residence in Shai. Though what could they do against a sword? Conrad had heard that evil spirits were afraid of steel.

He slashed left and right. The battle was the fiercest he had ever fought. The blood made even the skies above his head seem red. The limbs he chopped off from his enemies fell to the ground, and indeed turned out to be the paws of monsters. They moved even after they were severed. The enemy troops trumpeted a black horn as their warriors fell dead. Every time! From the resounding sound of the many horns, there was a rumble in his ears. And something suspicious was happening on the field among the dead bodies. The king wasn’t the only one who noticed it.

«They’re coming back to life!» Conrad’s marshal pointed somewhere forward. «The corpses are getting up and going back into battle.»

«You imagined it!» Conrad did look closely. It seems to be true! Maybe they just weren’t finished? Though how could a badly wounded warrior stand up as if nothing had happened? The monstrous bodies that had been churned through the meat grinder would stand up as good as new and fight again.

«We’ll never beat them that way!» Conrad bit his lips in annoyance.

Magic is a nuisance! No matter how much you work with your blade, it’s all blown away in one fell swoop once they blow the horn. So we must take the horns from them. But how is it? There are many of them. They blow here and there. Each warrior has a black horn. We have to kill them all to take their horns. And you can’t kill them because they come back to life. You can’t kill them all at once.

A new, powerful rumble of horns sounded from on high. Conrad looked up and saw, instead of the beast blowing the horn, a huge black dragon with its mouth open and a growling sound. Now that’s someone who could take down an entire army in one fell swoop. But unfortunately the dragon didn’t belong to him. What a pity! What can be done to tame such an animal?

«Fight me!» The beautiful voice came from the commander of the enemy armies, whom Conrad had never seen until now. But now the rows of monster warriors parted. On horseback rode someone wrapped in purple silks. His helmet, elaborately carved in the shape of a black dragon’s head, covered his neck and face. The leader of the alien armies seemed to have a dragon’s head growing out of his shoulders instead of his normal head. Nothing surprising when you look at his ugly troops! The leader of the monsters can be nothing but a monster himself. But here, hands in scaly gloves rose gracefully to remove his helmet. These are not the hands of a knight. They were too fragile. And why remove the helmet before battle? Why leave your head unprotected?

Such a foolish commander would be easy to deal with. Conrad gripped the bloody sword tighter. And the enemy warlord had just freed his head from his helmet and turned out to be a beautiful black-haired girl with eyes so lingering that it was impossible not to submit to her gaze. Conrad felt himself drowning in those eyes.

«The gaze of the fairies’ queen is more powerful than any weapon,» someone whispered to him.

Above the battlefield hovered an unusual black bird with a red stone in its forehead. Not long ago a dragon had flown there.

The rider who led the monster troops also had a red stone on her forehead.

«And is it so?» She smiled as she unsheathed her sword, strapped to her saddle. Behind her two dark wings fluttered open. A fairy indeed! Conrad was taken aback.

«If you want my kingdom and my dragon, you will have to fight me!»

Her sword hissed like a living thing. The metal begged for blood. Its whispers reached his ears. Conrad had heard of such swords. They start cutting indiscriminately as soon as you take them out of their sheaths. But somehow the mistress of the sword knew how to control it. The grip was in the shape of a salamander wrapped around her palm.

«I am Medea Shai», queen of the black fairies,» she said.

More like queen of the black beasts. There were no fairies behind her, but the monsters multiplied like locusts.

«I am King Conrad of Aluar,» he introduced himself, knowing he would not be able to fight her.

She shouldn’t have to remove her helmet if she wanted to keep fighting him. No one would fight a woman so beautiful.

But the blackbird thought otherwise. It was still hovering over the battlefield, screaming with malice, and the red stone in its forehead was like a living flame.

Castle of the Queen of the Black Fairies

And just like that, the war was over! Who would have thought? In most cases, after the leaders have agreed to negotiate, there is no smell of truce, but in the case of a male leader and a female leader. And such a seductive one, too!

Conrad swallowed hard. No one said it was the end of the war. Medea Shai had merely invited him to spend the night in her castle. Her army of black monsters parted, letting the king’s small detachment through. Perhaps she wished to show him some hidden weaponry, which, upon seeing it, he would immediately decide to pay off rather than fight.

Conrad felt himself already surrendered. To follow the beautiful queen into her fortress was the same as surrendering at the mercy of the victor.

The fairies’ queen’s face was as pretty as an adorable child, but her body, with its high breasts and slim waist, looked inexpressibly seductive. She’d dropped her robe for nothing, leaving her in a deep-cut purple gown. Conrad felt the heat in his loins. He had to avert his eyes from her, lest he attack her in the presence of his own knights. He had never been a rapist. His good looks allowed him to get women for nothing.

The sand around the fortress was as black as ash. Probably a dragon had scorched all the land around it. But then why hadn’t the fortress itself been burned?

The ghastly gargoyles and harpies that propped up the vaults of the gate were alive. They grinned angrily at their guest and winked at him. Their snide laughter echoed in his ears even after Conrad had entered the castle.

Why were they so triumphant? Do they think they are winners already? The same creatures were nesting inside the castle. Some of them propped up the vault, some crawled up the columns and played the role of caryatids. They could hang or stand motionless for quite a long time, pretending to be statues, and then they came to life and laughed so hard that it made your blood run cold.

Once in Medea Shai’s castle, you’d better not believe that any objects here can be motionless and soulless. Any pillar or arch can come to life at any moment and attack you with a real monster. There’s no way to feel safe here.

Monsters dangled from the terra-cotta ceilings like giant bats. The doors were shaped like the mouths and heads of monsters. They looked as if they were about to come to life and speak to you.

And these were all the servants of the Fairies’ Queen! How can you call even the most beautiful woman in the world, to whom only monsters obey, the queen of fairies?

There was also luxury in the castle. Purple curtains fluttered over niches. Large floor amphorae of red and black roses exuded a wondrous fragrance. In the middle of one room was a tiered fountain, in which clumps of dark red roses also grew instead of water. Their color was so reminiscent of blood.

It seemed to Conrad that the petals of each rose were opening, repeating the shape of hungry mouths.

«Make yourself at home,» Medea Shai walked forward, rustling the gorgeous silks. Her layered skirts also resembled a rose. A train stretched across the carpet in a blood-red wave. Some keys in the shape of sickles, months, and hearts hung from her belt tinkled melodiously.

There were fairies in the castle besides the monsters. They were all black-winged, black-haired, black-robed, and with gray ashy skin as if they had just climbed out of their graves. Conrad had heard legends of grave fairies, but always thought they were fiction.

The black fairies silently brought various dishes of viands, furnishing the round quartz table with them. Even kings did not have dishes made entirely of gold, but Medea Shai did.

In her abode, Conrad felt not like a guest, but like a temple, where some ancient and bloodthirsty deity was about to crawl from the altar.

«Do you like me?» Medea Shai placed her sword on the table between the trays of figs and grapes. It was good that Conrad did not immediately engage her in a duel. Her sword snapped open, unleashing several even longer, sharper steel-tongue-like blades from a single blade. What if she had pulled such a trick in combat? He would have been dead or maimed by now, in spite of his sturdy armor.

Conrad took a closer look. Is there a hidden spring in the hilt to release the blades? More like a cunning mechanism than magic. But the manticore handle, which instantly came to life and mangled its face, dissuaded Conrad in an instant. The blades could indeed be mistaken for her tongues.

«I like you,» the queen of the fairies said first, before he could answer. «That’s why you’re still alive. But for how long is it?»

«We’re not going to fight at the feast table, are we?» Conrad thought belatedly that the treats might be poisoned. However, he was in for an even worse surprise. Among the vases and trays of fruit and sweets, one dish drenched in blood stood out too sharply. It is not customary to serve fresh meat to guests unless the guests are monsters. The ghastly warriors of Medea Shae certainly don’t eat meat when it’s roasted. And he just didn’t eat fresh. For it is against human nature. A man should not become entangled with fairies, and he became entangled, enchanted by the beauty of a magical woman.

Blood dripped from the platter onto the table. There was a head of a man on the plate. Conrad could scarcely recognize it as the head of one of his generals.

«Ah, pardon!» The hostess made a quick sign to her maids, and they hurriedly removed the dish with the mutilated head. One of the black fairies deliberately or accidentally whipped the king in the face with her wing.

«This dish got here by mistake,» Medea Shai apologized with a charming smile.

«And for whom was this dish intended?» Conrad almost asked. That would have been an unnecessary question, for he had seen for himself the monstrous army of the fairy queen.

«Sit down, help yourself!» Medea Shai poured him some wine. There were no chairs near the table except for her throne, but here some glittering creature crawled up behind him and touched Conrad on the shoulder with a claw. He turned around and saw a pedestal that resembled a coiled snake.

He could not sit on it. He didn’t feel like eating either.

«Why such monsters serve you?» — He went straight to what he was worried about.

«Do you think I have to fight this war alone?»

«That’s not what I mean! Aren’t your subjects supposed to be exclusively elves and fairies?»

«Oh, no,» she even laughed. «Fairies’ Queen is just a title. It means that all magical creatures are subject to me. Fairies are the strongest among us, they form the highest caste, and to rule them is to subjugate them all at once.»

«And I thought monsters were the strongest. They are such giants!»

«People are naive. But I can teach you to see deeper than any man can.»

Corundum sprouted in Medea Shai’s forehead. The skin around it gave the impression of porcelain about to crack under the weight of the stone. But the stone itself resembled a third eye. Is it true that the third eye is all-seeing?

«Do you enjoy my company?»

Conrad nodded.

«Do you want to fight me further?»

«It was you who declared war on me!» He reasonably reminded me.

«I had to lure you to Shai.»

«Where did your kingdom come from? From nothing!»

«Shai exists wherever I wish it to be,» Medea Shai raked her sharp fingernails across the table. The corundum in her forehead seemed to glow with fire.

«You may summon your advisor and the knights to join in the feast. It is not proper to leave them in the vestibule.»

Conrad first made sure that there were no more severed heads on the table among the courses and only then called his retinue.

The two roses, scarlet and white, had been crushed by the hooves of the horses on the battlefield, but in her hands they came to life. One of the monsters picked them up from the bloody field and brought them to her with a bow. Even if you put the flowers in a vase of water, they do not refresh as quickly as from the touch of her hands.

«But these same hands cause rashes, leprosy, pustules, and various infections. Don’t touch her,» whispered the counselor, who had reluctantly joined the feast. He squinted warily at the lady of the castle. «Do not sleep with her! Do not sleep with her, or you will not awake alive! Or worse, you’ll be a cripple. Why do we need a crippled king?»

But Conrad wouldn’t listen. Who could listen to it? Near him was such a beautiful woman. She was not a match for his ailing and stunted bride. The princess of Luan Araminta has gray skin and a gaunt body, but Medea Shai has tall, feminine breasts, a face like a porcelain doll and beautiful wings. It does not matter that they are black. They go very well with the slender waist.

There is a purple blush on her cheeks, like the crust of an apple showing through under a layer of porcelain.

Could she break? It feels like she’s all made of porcelain.

«So touch it, check it out?»

Someone’s voice rang in his brain. Or was it coming from the walls, where bas-reliefs of inhuman faces were carved? Or was it the roses whispering with their hundreds of scarlet mouths? The roses here are so reminiscent of a maiden’s mouth, and sometimes the lips of vampires.

In the presence of the insolent counselor, the feast turned to hell.

«Don’t drink the wine!» He whispered to the king. «She will poison you! She will bewitch you! Enchant you!»

But Conrad ignored the advice and drank. And he didn’t die! The counselor bit his tongue.

However, besides poison, there might be other reasons to feel fear.

The fruit on the plates turned out to be alive. One peach slipped from his hands and rolled on the floor, laughing. A ruddy apple rolled over in his fingers, smiled at him with a woman’s face as if painted on the rind and winked. The same faces appeared on the unfamiliar tropical fruit. The mouths on the peels opened and sang in unfamiliar languages.

«And these creatures we ate!» The counselor jumped up from the table. The knights felt sick, but not from fear. It seemed that the fruit was already stirring and singing in their bellies.

«They will vomit, but they will survive,» Medea Shai accompanied them with a glance as they fled.

«Now we are alone!» Conrad was glad he hadn’t eaten anything, or he would be sick now, too.

The living fruit at the feast, the statues that came to life, the flowers with talking mouths — it was enough to drive even a strong wrestler mad. But he proved to be a tough nut to crack, and he got the prize. The mistress of the castle ushered him into her bedroom.

A black salamander flew in front of them, posing as a candelabra lighting the way. There was lighter from its scales than from real candles.

Medea Shai’s bed appeared to be made of black flowers. Only the canopy and silk bedspread stood out in bright purple. But a dragon, coiled in rings around the bed, would have alarmed anyone. He glared so fiercely at his guest that the king instinctively drew his sword.

«He’s not jealous,» Medea Shai gently stroked the dragon’s scaly spine.

«Should he be jealous?»

She only smiled enigmatically.

«People are so innocent!»

I’ve had many women before, Conrad wanted to say, but realized that by innocence she meant something else. Was it naivety? Was it people’s ignorance of enchantments and magic? Was it a mystery that united only her and the dragon? And it was a secret Conrad shouldn’t have poked his nose into. He felt as if he were standing under a keyhole watching Medea Shai make love to a dragon. And in fact it would be the dragon who would be watching their coitus. Even an experienced womanizer would be uncomfortable here. Conrad already was. The dragon’s eyes were staring right at him as Medea Shai unbuttoned his sash.

The white and red fairies were already fighting under the window in the dizzying height above the wasteland. The red fairy was winning.

Passion is strongest! The black moths that had fluttered out of the gloom were lacing Medea Shai’s corset, trying not to catch her wings. Conrad looked at the half-naked fairies’ queen and realized he didn’t care. Let the dragon watch as much as he wanted. It was as long as he didn’t interrupt them.

Thorns in the heart

When Conrad awoke, Medea Shai was not there. Even the bed was not crumpled where she lay. Her black dragon was gone, too. But the other two, the white one and the amber one, sat unobtrusively in the doorway. They did not interfere with Conrad as he left the bedroom.

Going through the castle in search of the queen was not the smartest thing to do. The enfilades of the hall resembled a labyrinth. After ten minutes, Conrad realized that he would not be able to find his way back to the bedroom on his own. Servants were nowhere to be seen, and the wattles of black roses that abundantly braided the walls and columns proved biting. Conrad almost lost an arm when he caught them.

All that remained was to turn down a dark corridor where there were no roses. True, he had to find his way through it as well. The chandeliers and chandeliers which had previously gnawed at him through the eyes of salamanders were gone. But the keyholes in the many doors let out a measured glow, now azure, now pink and emerald. Behind the doors one might have thought they had locked a rainbow. All of the doors were different shapes and sizes.

The end of the corridor spiraled into darkness and was lost in infinity. Closed doors of fanciful shapes stretched across the entire corridor.

«Let me out! Let me out! I already regret not obeying you.»

«Who are you?» Conrad leaned toward the door, pushing it open, but it was locked.

«Who are you?» Out of the keyhole flashed a frightened, bright red eye.

«I am a man!» The prisoner howled, either enthusiastically or disapprovingly. It was impossible to tell from his tone. «Bend your ear to me! I will whisper something secret to you.»

Probably out of curiosity, Conrad bent down, and immediately a sharp black claw nimbly peeked out of the crevice and nearly pierced his ear.

«Don’t listen to him! Come to me!»

This time the king did not yield, though the summons came from behind a very different door. It was of black metal, and its shape was that of a great sheaf of ears.

«The queen has us locked in here. She forbids you, too. Get out of here!»

He wondered if this was a dream. Conrad even pinched himself. The voice moaned in different ways, as if a whole regiment of different creatures were lurking behind the same door.

«Let us out! And we will tear the villainess to shreds!» The voices of all sorts of tones croaked and muttered.

And only one squeaky voice warned:

«Run for your life! Get away from her! Or you will be imprisoned, as we have been, for all eternity!»

Conrad looked at the fancy door. Were it not for the keyhole, it might have been a bas-relief of black spikes. In any case, it was too small to hold many prisoners, and he could hear a chorus of voices. One hoarse bass in the chorus was surely that of a giant. No more, no less!

Except that it was unbelievable that a crowd of creatures could fit into such a narrow space at once. Behind the door was probably a tiny storeroom, not a room. Conrad tapped the wall, checking by the sound to see if the interior was hollow. There was no echo. The door seemed to have a blank wall.

«Hey, mortal!» That same squeaky voice, apparently belonging to the dwarf, called. «The fairies’ queen has a soft spot. I can tell you where it is.»

Conrad already knew.

«It’s her heart,» he suggested, remembering the night before with Medea Shai. If she hadn’t fallen in love with him, there would have been a bloody battle between them.

«No, it would not!» Someone jumped at the door. «It is Honeydew!»

«What is it?»

«Not what is it, who is it!»

«And who is it?» Conrad scolded himself for having conversations with someone he couldn’t even see. But he was torn by curiosity.

«Honeydew is a living black flower. It can strangle you with its stems if you get close, or it can give you the key to a secret if you ask very hard. Speaking of keys...Medea Shai has a bunch of keys, each with a head the same shape as these doors. You couldn’t steal her key to the door where I’m languishing! It’s the one with the black sheaf notch.»

«Are you alone in there?» Why is the polyphonic chorus here? «It seemed to me that there were many of you inside.»

There was a wheezing laugh in reply.

«How stupid mortals are!»

Conrad took offense, reached for his sword, and realized he did not have his sword with him. If one of the fairies’ queen’s monsters attacked him now, he would not be able to fight back.

«It is at your service!» A voice at the door insisted. «I told you how to overpower her, and you get me the key!»

Conrad wanted to blurt out that he wasn’t a thief, but it would have been nice to ask something first:

«What were you locked in here for?»

There was a long silence on the other side of the strange door.

«So… A minor transgression! It was sorcery against her majesty’s charms. It was trampling her fields.»

«But there are no fields, only black wasteland.»

«This is Shai! You see only a black wasteland, and if the dragons of the queen burn your army, the wasteland will be covered with black sand from ashes like a blanket. The ash from your warriors will pile up into whole barchans. Medea Shai likes to sow her fields with seeds from human bones.»

The man who spoke chuckled like a madman. Maybe he is insane.

«What is going on here? Who are you talking to?» Medea Shai walked down the corridor, rustling her black and scarlet skirts. A living candlestick flew ahead of her, rustling with notches in the shape of golden wings.

Conrad noticed that the train of the fairies’ queen’s new outfit was woven of thousands of black butterflies. It stretched across the carpet, rustling unpleasantly. The butterflies looked as if they had been captured. They also adorned the neckline and sleeves. Conrad couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead? They seemed to be moving their wings, as if they wanted to warn him about something. But he was no longer willing to listen to warnings. The beauty of the fairies’ queen captivated him once more. One look at her face, at the black curls tangled in the shoulders of moths, and he couldn’t think of anything but love.

«I’ve heard that when people start talking to emptiness, it means they’re going crazy.» Medea Shai brushed some butterflies off her sleeve, and they encircled her forehead in a living hoop. «I have a tincture for insanity. Would you like some?»

As Medea Shai approached, the voices outside the door fell silent, as if they were not there at all.

«I heard the ghosts…»

«Believe me, if there were ghosts nesting here, I’d be the first to hear and see them. I love taming ghosts and genies. It’s been my favorite pastime for centuries.»

«Is it several centuries?»

Medea Shai nodded. How old is she? She looks young and beautiful. Conrad had heard that time flows differently for fairies than it does for mortals. Humans tend to grow old and die in a century. Fairies, on the other hand, live forever and never grow old at all. That’s why they are called magical creatures.

«I’m older than you… by a couple of millennia,» Medea Shai noticed his embarrassment and began to calculate her age. «But that doesn’t mean anything. If I like someone very much, I can give them eternal life. And there are still conditions not to go outside of my realm, or you will grow old and die despite my charms. Only within Shai can you live forever with me.»

Forever enjoying the love of a true fairy! How tempting that sounds! But Conrad remembered his responsibility for his people. Even though his kingdom is made up of humans and not immortal creatures, he is responsible for them. And he also has a fiancée! How can he tell Medea Shae about this? Or is it better not to say anything at all? How about forgetting the stunted princess Araminta for the sake of the beautiful black-haired fairy?

Medea Shai reached out and kissed him. She didn’t even have to stand on tiptoe, even though Conrad was taller. She simply flew over the rug and touched his lips.

«Who would have thought I would like a mere mortal so much!» She frowned.

«I am a king, not a mere mortal,» Conrad corrected.

«Kings and peasants are mere mortals to the Fairy people,» Medea Shai told.

Morals are complicated! The aristocrats were considered special in Aluar. They belonged to the upper classes.

Something jerked at the door. Conrad looked around quickly. It felt as if a force imprisoned within was trying to tear all the doors off their hinges.

«Who’s locked in here?»

Conrad counted on an honest answer, but the fairies’ queen pretended not to understand him.

«What makes you think there’s anyone locked in here?» Her graceful eyebrows rose in surprise.

«It looked so to me. Is this place like a dungeon?»

«Are dungeons ever this grand?» Medea Shai grinned.

Indeed! The doors are all shaped like works of art.

«What lies behind them?»

«There are rarities from distant lands, treasures and wonders.»

«And are they not prisoners? Say, punished subjects?»

«I don’t lock up my subjects. They’re loyal enough,» the fairies’ queen jangled a bunch of keys hanging from her belt. They all had whimsical shapes, like the sun, elephant, mermaid, crown, moon, month, sickle, apple, heart. And even a sheaf of ears! The voice at the door was not lying.

«Would you have locked me in here?» He decided to test her.

«Why would I lock up someone who already belongs to me?»

«Someone who loves you,» Conrad corrected. «And how do you feel about me?»

Medea Shai turned on her dragon. He muffled and crawled away resentfully.

«What do you feel for me, not your dragons?» Conrad insisted.

«I love you,» she said, her voice indifferent, but her dark eyebrows rose in surprise.

What’s the matter with her? Can’t she understand her own feelings? And he can’t dare tell her about his fiancée. Or does she already know? They say fairies can read people’s minds.

Medea Shai touched her hand to his chest, and his heart was pierced with pain. When the queen of the fairies took her hand away, a rose with black and red petals was left on his skin. A moment and it dissolved into his skin, but he felt the thorns of its stem pierce his heart. It was painful and sweet at the same time. It was strange that he had survived. After all, if you pierce the human heart with something, people die. Unless, after the nights he spent with the fairy, he got a piece of her immortality himself.

«I propose that we unite,» Medea Shai proclaimed. «You are the ruler of Aluar. I am the lord of magic, dragons and fairies. Together we can build a great state where mortals and immortals can learn to get along together.»

«But you must be my wife to do so…» Conrad shrugged. «I have already tried to make an alliance with one empire.»

«Is it by marriage?» She guessed.

He nodded.

«But you are not married yet.»

«But the wedding has been arranged, though we must hope for Araminta’s frail health. Her physicians said she would not last more than a year.» The illness was a mysterious one, contracted on the magical moors on the road to Aluar. Araminta was summoned from the mire by strange voices, and after that she fell ill. It was said that only a fairy could heal the king’s bride. Fairies were searched all over Aluar and found none. And so, as soon as he met a real fairy, he realized that he no longer needed a bride.

«Don’t be worried!» Medea Shai brushed an unruly lock of hair from his forehead. «I can be your co-ruler without being your wife. Besides, your wife would die in a century, and you yourself could have eternity.»

She added the last sentence coquettishly, but the dragon grumbled unkindly behind her back. Steam billowed from its nostrils and wafted down the corridor. Behind the doors someone sighed, sobbed, whispered:

«As soon as she gets tired of him, he’ll join us!»

But Conrad no longer believed the voices. Nor did he believe that humans and fairies could become one people, but on leaving the castle he discovered that his warriors were already getting along with the monsters of Medea Shai. The monsters were teaching the knights to play a strange game similar to a golden checkers. Purple tents and shawls with witchcraft emblems woven on them were reminiscent of palace luxury. They were displayed on the black field by Medea Shai’s servants. The tents themselves were already populated by slender fairies, and not only black-winged ones. Conrad had seen silver fairies, gold fairies, rainbow fairies, and even those with wings like rose and peony petals. Some of the fairies wore exotic oriental robes.

«It’s peri!» His marshal whispered to Conrad. «They were sent to entertain the warriors. The queen of the fairies turned out to be generous.»

Above one of the tents it rained gold coins. They fell to the black soil with a melodious ringing. The rank-and-file warriors eagerly collected them. Their eyes became enchanted, seeing nothing but the glitter of gold. A little more and they would have a fight on their hands.

«We shall have to pay for our gifts in blood,» remarked one of the Councilors sullenly. «Considering that they may give a lot, they’ll ask for something impossible to return, like some ancient faerie relic from the sea floor.»

«The queen of the fairies and I have a deal,» Conrad brushed it aside. He wasn’t so sure of that himself. The strange voices at the door might have seemed like a nightmare, but they warned of danger.

Only now Conrad remembered that he had not obeyed the request of the invisible adviser and tried to take one of the keys from Medea Shai. Though he could have! She was standing beside him, and on her belt were as many keys as pendants on a Christmas tree. He could have discreetly taken one off while she was kissing him. Someone at the door was waiting for his help, but he didn’t give it. Probably no one would help him at the crucial moment, either.

Against his puny mortal army, the fairy queen’s monsters seemed like giants. So far they had treated humans as if they were amusing toys and entertained them with magic. Surely the queen must have told them to be nice. And what would happen if she told them to attack? Such an outcome is best not even thought of.

Roses’ charms

Araminta will have to be married, even though she’s ill. The King’s physicians are swarming around her night and day. They use every potion they can get, even from across the sea, but her skin grows ever greyer, and her strength dwindles. She will not live long. You can wait a year or two and she will die a natural death. There is no need to hurry. But Conrad so desired the fairies’ queen that he didn’t care.

He had been foretold that he would die by the blade of a conspirator, by an enemy tyrant king, by a contagious epidemic, but never by unhappy love. There was no such thing in the prophecies. His love for the fairies’ queen made him feel even sicker and weaker than Araminta did. When he returned to Aluar, he realized that he could not go on without Medea Shai. Separation from her was like torture, and the thorns in his heart were becoming knives. It was not for nothing that the fairies over the battlefield had foretold him trouble.

Now they were hovering outside the window over the sunny garden, but no longer fighting, but arguing in a half-voiced voice.

«He will not do it!» The white fairy insisted.

«Yes he will!» The red one objected.

«Love was supposed to ennoble him,» the white-winged fairy sighed almost in despair.

«Passion rules him!» The red fairy protested. She clutched at the hands of her snow-white either rival or girlfriend. The bodies of the two fairies intertwined in flight over the garden, and suddenly disappeared, while the petals of red and white roses rained down like fireworks over the garden.

Conrad looked out the window in amazement. The whole garden was overgrown with prickly pink wattle and daub. They encircled the castle walls, the wrought iron garden fence, stretched along the borders of the fountains, braided the garden sculptures, even lay on the curtains. Earlier the garden had been filled with camellias and honeysuckle, but now red and white roses swarmed the place. Even the lilac bushes could not be seen behind them. The roses had very prickly stems, but they exuded a wonderful fragrance.

Either Conrad was imagining it, or there were quiet whispers coming from the roses:

«What would the king choose: passion or love? Is it the fairies’ queen or the mortal girl?»

Conrad’s sister Princess Marianne had already noticed the changes in the garden and asked the gardener for something. Probably that he cleared away the thorny wattles of her favorite magnolia trees.

«The elves have made a fuss,» she complained noisily. «The mischievous creatures threatened to eat my magnolias if they were not allowed to enter the Queen’s Cup. I told them the tournament was for men, not beasts. And now they’ve decided to get back at me!»

«They promised to turn your magnolias into toads, not smother them with roses,» her maid of honor objected judiciously.

The gardener obediently went to carry out the princess’ orders. Conrad shuddered at the sight of sharp garden shears. Somehow he was sure that cutting roses was the same act of villainy as killing beautiful girls. After all, roses are two slender fairies. He watched with his own eyes as the fairies turned into flowers.

The prickly twigs did not yield to the blades of the scissors. The gardener pushed hard, and the scissors broke.

«Take the axe!» Marianne commanded one of her knights, who shadowed behind her. He obediently rushed to please the princess, and suddenly the whips of roses coiled around his arm. The thorns bit into his skin, piercing the sturdy armor.

Marianne cried out and prudently retreated toward the garden’s exit. And the long twigs of roses, like boas, wrapped around the knight and gardener’s bodies, squeezing them a little, leaving only bloody relics in their grip instead of men. The roses sprouted on the remains of human bodies, as if on soil liberally sprinkled with fertilizer. Instead of two corpses, there were two sprawling rose bushes in the garden.

What a miracle! Conrad watched with his mouth ajar. Roses were suddenly his favorite flowers. They are more powerful than the might of knights! Fighting flowers! Surely they must be from the realm of Shai. He involuntarily remembered that the roses in the fairies’ queen’s castle were capable of drinking blood. But they had not attacked Marianne, even though she had been the one who had initiated the cleansing of the garden. Is it possible to cut roses like weeds! His sister had to be told off. But the princess was on his way, rustling her brocade skirts.

«I hate roses!» She muttered to herself, although her festive beige costume was embroidered with golden roses gracefully inscribed with the coat of arms of Aluar.

«There is witchcraft going on in the garden! Everything in it must be burned!» Marianne demanded.

«And where will the ladies of the court walk?» Conrad protested.

«Evil elves have taken up residence in the garden!» The princess stamped her heels angrily.

«How could you know that?» Conrad himself saw not evil elves, but two beautiful fairies.

«They sent a messenger to me while I occupied the throne in your absence and received ambassadors. When all the earthly ambassadors were gone, a horned creature suddenly grew out of a puddle of spilled wine on the floor. Quite pretty, but very angry. It claimed to be a messenger from the realm of elves.»

«Maybe it lied.»

«No, it didn’t,» Marianne was hiding something. Perhaps she had a conflict with the elves who wanted her attention. Conrad knew what a prude his sister was, and how capricious she was. Now two people were dead in the garden because of her caprice, and she blamed it on some elves.

«I didn’t want the elves on the guest list for the tournament, and they threatened to repay me by destroying my most precious possessions. The company of mischievous elves even began to sing frivolous songs under my windows at night. They keep me awake, and the archers are powerless to drive them away. The arrows do them no harm.»

«Perhaps it is because you have not slept that you are so irritable!»

«The smell of roses makes me ill,» complained Marianne. «It’s so luscious and heavy, like it’s a portent of misfortune.»

Conrad hurriedly wrapped his ermine-embroidered robe around his chest. He couldn’t let Marianne see the thorns in his skin where his heart was.

«So this whole argument is because they’re not invited to the tournament?»


«So let them in and be done with it.»

«But that’s against the rules! Elves are not men. Their strength is greater than that of men. Our knights can be wounded and even killed, but elves are invulnerable. The contestants will be unequal.»

«Then in the first round let everyone fight only a member of their own race. And in the second, if elves and humans, weighing each other’s possibilities, agree with each other, then let everyone choose an opponent himself. Whichever one wants! Whoever wants, will measure his strength with elves. Whoever chickens out has the right to refuse.»

«To be a knight is worse than to be killed!» Marianne grew indignant. «You would leave Aluar without knights at all if you allowed them to fight the elves.»

«I am going to invite more fairy knights from Shai to the tournament. They’re real monsters in armor. Even immortal elves would be sickened by the sight of them.»

«You are a villain!» Marianne clenched her fists.

«Didn’t you know that before?» Conrad pulled back the hem of his cloak and stalked away. He probably thought the ermine on his cloak came to life and squinted unhappily.

«I’m ashamed that you’re my brother!» Marianne’s angry words caught up with him.

And such scandals have run in their family ever since their parents passed away. Marianne, though younger, had decided to take on the responsibilities of a mother. Conrad tolerated her feisty temper as best he could. Never mind, Marianne would soon marry and leave Aluar for her fiancé’s small principality. To choose her consort-king she did not allow herself. Conrad unsuccessfully proposed one or the other to her. Marianne rejected all suitors: this one is too old, this one is too fat, this one is a tyrant, and this one is weak in character. In the end, she chose her betrothed based on facial beauty, not position. Conrad only had to accept her choice. It was unseemly for a royal sister to become a princess in a tiny mountainous country, but there was nothing to be done. He would have to help her future husband guard the borders against barbarian raids and nomads and demons from the same Shai. He and Queen of Shai are friends and allies now. With her they can negotiate, not fight.

With Marianne, there’s no bargain. She is more stubborn than a skittish young horse. She would never be at odds with the elves. She would make enemies who would come ravaging the Realm with a vengeance. Now she would have to apologize to them. And that’s not going to be easy. Probably some of the elves who sought her favor had already been turned away by her. Conrad noticed a pair of golden roses thrown near the throne. Usually golden roses symbolize elves’ love. Elves in love give such flowers to their chosen ladies. Bad luck for the one who tried to present them to Marianne. She tried to crush the golden flowers, but only cut her fingers.

Conrad picked up one golden rose. It turned out to be cast of pure gold, but it was alive. Its stem continued to grow, searching for a place to take root. In an instant it twisted around the king’s wrist like a bizarre, multi-layered bracelet.

«Oh, no! I’ve had enough of the rose in my heart!» Conrad gently released his hand, and a low sigh was heard from the golden rose.

A bright golden drop splashed onto the floor of the throne room. Where had it come from? A stately figure of a handsome elf with shoulder-length blond hair and a silver hoop on his forehead rose from the golden pool. He bowed to the king with one clenched fist to his heart.

Conrad stared at him in amazement. Such impertinence as to appear in his palace had never before been dared by elves. But Marianne, whom he had carelessly left to rule in his absence, had annoyed everyone. She was probably the reason every young man at Court Aluar had a crush on her. The elf now resembled an unhappy lover. He appeared before the king, fully equipped, with a quiver of arrows at his back, and a green cloak woven with elves’ coats of arms.

«So are you about the tournament?» Forgetting all etiquette, Conrad blurted out. «My sister was overreacting.»

«Lady Marianne is as beautiful as a summer flower, but her temper is hotter than a dragon’s,» the elf said impetuously, and then he blushed with embarrassment. Marianne must have hit him hard.

«She’s a moody girl,» Conrad said. «And she is not always sincere. I shall be glad to see your whole elves’ court at the tournament as honored guests.»

«But my Lady Marianne has expressly forbidden us…»

«I am king, not she!»

The elf still had his doubts. What had Marianne told him that he should be so bashful?

«I promise a kiss from my sister as a reward for anyone who wins the tournament, whether elf or mortal or a black knight from the realm of fairies!»

When the elf heard this, he glowed and shook his quiver of arrows with joy. Apparently, he expected to be the victor.

The envoy disappeared as magically as he had appeared. Conrad was left alone in the throne room. Only a pair of golden roses tinkled their petals beneath the throne. A low whisper could be heard in their ringing:

«It is a mistake! The king has made a fatal mistake!»

Conrad let the warning of the roses pass his ears. What mistake could there be. The elves are excellent allies, if their friendship can be secured. And the promise of Marianne’s kiss is worth far less than the traditional gold wreath that the winner of the tournament receives as a gift for his lady of the heart. Except that Marianne can be capricious and refuse the winner elf the prize. Then there will be no war. Conrad put his faith in luck and in the charms of the Queen of Fairies. Maybe something could be conjured up, so that the beauty of the elves would captivate even the grumpy princess.

Bride’s Sickness

Araminta has had many dreams about driving to her betrothed through stunted, enchanted woods where the trees have not a single leaf and the branches are as crooked as trolls’ fingers. Her companions whisper that the forest is haunted by evil spirits. Some sort of dwarf monster is indeed swirling under the hooves of the horses, trying to lead the entire cortege into the swamp. And voices call out from the swamp. They call out her name:

«Araminta! Araminta! Araminta!»

There is a whole chorus of voices. But where are they coming from? White winged figures swirl over the mire, like the ghosts of fairies. Araminta’s companions can’t see them, but she can. Could it be that she has discovered a secret sight? The swamp fairies turn toward her. Their faces are like plaster masks.

«Another will take your place!» They whisper.

The wheel of the carriage carrying Araminta becomes stuck in the mire. It is so easy to get stuck in the swamp forever. Araminta tries to get out. Pale, webbed hands reach out of the mire. One of them holds out a ripe fruit, like a winged apple. It is fresh and beautiful on the outside, but beneath the ruddy rind is a deadly disease.

And that’s it! The dream ends! Each time it repeats the same thing that happened to her in reality. According to the royal physician, it is a normal reaction to the shock she has undergone, but the courtiers whisper worriedly for some reason:

«She has fallen prey to the forest fairies!»

Araminta opened her eyes with difficulty. Her eyelids began to grow a film, like cobwebs. Her whole body was covered with gray pustules. She could hardly feel her arms or legs. She would only sit for hours in a rocking chair in front of a window overlooking the royal garden. Sore growths appeared on her back, as if wings were about to grow out of it. And then she would become like those swamp ghostly fairies who had called her. Because of these outgrowths she will not be able to wear the exquisite wedding gown she brought from Fenir. The Fenir’s princess was to be married in the most expensive gown, trimmed with diamonds and silver. But instead of the wedding, it was time to prepare the coffin. Araminta was rotting alive. And all because of a wonderful apple that was held out to her by a hand from the mire.

There was no need to take a bite out of that fruit. But the voices of the fairies enchanted her.

Now there were ordinary human voices in the room above her, and she wanted to hear the whispers of the swamp fairies again.

«She won’t last a year!» This was Marianne, the sister of the king whom Araminta is to marry, saying. «Everyone says it’s a disease from the marshes, but I’m sure she’s been sick ever since she ate the poisoned fruit from the strange tree that sprouted in the corner of the garden. It would have been cut down, but it withered itself and now resembles a sleeping goblin. My maidens complain that when they approach it, its branches cling to their dresses as if they were alive.»

«What if she was ill to begin with?» The second voice seemed to belong to the king.

«I doubt the ruler of Fenir would hide that from you. After all, the alliance is dynastic, not made for love.»

«What do you know of love?»

Marianne sighed resentfully. Araminta could barely hear her. She was sinking back into sleep. She hadn’t been awake for more than an hour lately. She was constantly drawn to sleep. Her eyelids were slipping, her mind racing back to the swamps full of evil and fairies, where the winged fruit waited. She probably took too small a bite out of it to die at once.

«Does she ever wake up?» Marianne carefully straightened her brother’s fiancée’s blond curls. They had turned almost gray, and a meshed gray rash stretched across the skin under her bangs.

«Don’t touch it! You may be infected!» Conrad warned.

«It is nonsense! I would have caught it a long time ago if it were contagious.»

«You probably only get it from swamp creatures, not humans,» Conrad agreed.

«I don’t want to say anything bad, but if you don’t get married right away, you’ll have to marry a corpse.»

«Shut up about the wedding!» Conrad suddenly became furious. Marianne had never seen him like that. He had changed since his return from Shai’s lands. He had seemed a stranger to her, as if an evil spirit had taken over his brother’s familiar body.

Conrad announced that there would be no war with Shai. Allegedly he had not found enemies there, but allies.

But the king looked grim, as if he was expecting a devastating war. The castle was flooded with monstrous knights from Shai. Each of them was a giant. Marianne was a little afraid of them. These monsters were completely indifferent to female beauty, so she could not twirl them around like ordinary knights. Attack her with one such monster, and her faithful admirers Lance and Henrik would not be able to protect her. What could ordinary warriors do against the giants?

Conrad assured her that there was nothing to fear. After all, Queen of Shai favors him. Marianne was struck by the very fact that Shai was ruled by a queen, not a king. Normally even widows retreated into the shadows, ceding their place on the throne to male heirs. And Medea Shai was no widow. But she was a lord of an army of giants.

Queen of Shai sent gifts for all of Aluar: baskets of black fruit, with wing-shaped growths on the stalks instead of leaves. They were the lightest cloths woven with mysterious symbols, daggers of unusual black steel. The maidens received wondrous ornaments and flowers which did not need soil, but took root directly in the carpet. The townspeople were given bundles of berries that evoked pleasant visions. Even the peasants Medea Shai had not forgotten, sending them sacks of black grain, the harvest from which should ripen in just three days after sowing.

«I don’t want any trouble with all these wonderful gifts,» Marianne worried, but her brother brushed her off like an annoying gnat. He had never been so inconsiderate toward her. But he looked at Araminta asleep, even with hostility. And he had liked her very much before. Marianne had the feeling that Conrad’s heart had remained in distant Shai.

«Better put that away!» She removed a light beige veil woven from Araminta’s curls, another gift from the strange queen.

Conrad was saying something about fairies. They lived in Shai and wove magical capes of cobwebs, but the two servants sent by Medea Shai were not fairies, but monstrous dwarfs in gorgeous oriental robes. They resembled two living bushes, one black, other green. Arms like branches held trays with gifts for Araminta. One held a box of costume jewelry, the other a symbol of sun and moon, and a peculiar star-shaped phial with a lid.

It is an elixir for sickness!» Conrad explained. «My new ally is kind, even though she is the queen of the black fairies.»

«She is a real fairy queen! Why didn’t you say so before?» Marianne’s mood immediately changed. She had only seen elves up close, but never fairies. But her dream since childhood had been to meet a living fairy. There were rumors about them that they were divinely beautiful and could bestow magical talents on anyone who appealed to them.

«Is the Fairies’ Queen really your ally?»

Conrad nodded silently.

«What did you do to make her your ally? Did you accomplish some feat?»

«She liked me.»

«Did you?»

For some reason Conrad became darker than a cloud.

«I might even have married her, had I not already been engaged.»

Marianne thought feverishly about what she heard. She knew she was being naive, but she wanted a fairy sister-in-law so much that nothing else made sense.

«You’d better marry a fairies’ queen!» She advised Conrad impulsively.

«And what is about Araminta?»

Marianne bit her lip. Becoming a fairy sister-in-law was far more interesting than being related to a Fenir’s princess. Besides, a fairies’ queen would be able to drive the aggressive giants away from Cassian’s mountain kingdom.

«Politics is complicated,» Conrad said philosophically, «and sorcery is even more so.»

What’s his point? Marianne watched the two bush creatures as they carefully poured drops of sparkling elixir into Araminta’s morning tea. The king’s bride was asleep, but the twig-like fingers of the servant still poured some of the drink into her pale lips.

«It is a medicine,» Conrad explained.

«It’s from Shai, like all the gifts he sent,» Marianne suspected. The queen of the fairies is too generous.

«So what is of it?» Conrad noticed the dark scarlet cloud flying across the sky. His sadness was immediately blown away. The cloud was approaching the window of the royal armory.

«You go to the tournament, and I will go away!»

Marianne watched in amazement as her brother hurried off like a schoolboy out of school. What should she do with Araminta now? Leave the girl in the company of two unimaginable creatures? To herself, Marianne had already called them both porcupines. One of them reached out to her with stubby twiggy fingers. Two proboscis-like noses sniffed the air.

«Madam has arrived!» A hoarse voice called out. «And in the kitchen they are making deer blood soup for us and other servants of her dusky majesty.»

Are they really picking up smells from the kitchen, which is in the basement below the tower? It is magic.

One of the creatures braided its limbs- twigs around Araminta’s blonde head.

«Her consciousness is far from here, a prisoner of the swamp fairies,» it determined.

«Could you heal her?» Marianne turned to them. She must be insane to put their opinion above that of the Court Physician.

«She can be put back on her feet, but not her consciousness,» the two husky voices answered in unison. «She will remain a weakling puppet forever.»

Marianne had the feeling that she was now in the forest, not in the palace, and the dry branches were crunching beneath her feet.

«Her soul would be carried away into the fairy swamp if she died,» the green creature squinted at the vial of elixir.

Marianne was dizzy with cryptic phrases. Better to leave these creatures alone. Let them figure out how to heal Araminta on their own.

Winged Swords

Medea Shai stood in the empty armory, gracefully spreading her patterned wings. The guards thought it best to leave as soon as she appeared here. Conrad was happy to see her again. Though she brought waves of darkness with her, to him she was like the black sun.

«I’ve been waiting for you!» He exclaimed from the threshold. «You took your time.»

«But I have sent gifts to all your subjects that will radically change the country.»

Conrad did not detect a note of guile in her tone. Medea Shai paced around the circular holder on which the rarest of weapons was laid out. Her dainty black-nailed fingers slid over the double-edged blades. She’d better not hurt herself!

«You collect swords from Menuel!» Medea Shai was delighted at the sight of his collection. Others were frightened by the hilts in the shape of wings, but she was fascinated by it.

«There are legends that such swords fly into the heart of the enemy, if you send them, even through the country, strongly wishing someone death,» Conrad remembered the fables of arms dealers. «Such a sword will find its prey and plunge into it.»

«It’s not a legend, it’s the truth,» the queen of the fairies interrupted him, almost harshly. «True, there is a spell you must first recite before you can send a sword to seek out your enemy. I can teach you…»

She was silent for a moment, and her brow furrowed in incomprehension. Her wings twitched nervously.

«But why should I teach you anything? You’re mortal, aren’t you? Not even a mundane elf! I always wanted to marry an elves’ king. No more, no less. And now I’ve changed my mind. I don’t believe it.»

She gently brushed a lock of hair from his forehead.

«You were so extraordinary. I didn’t expect a human to have the consciousness of an elf.»

«Was it all because of the armory? Has your opinion of me increased so much because I keep Menuel’s swords in my possession?»

«It’s not an arsenal, it’s a treasure trove.»

Medea Shai manipulated one of the swords in some way, and the steel notched wings flapped like they were alive. The sword hung in the air.

«Who do you want it to kill?» She asked him curtly.

At first Conrad didn’t even believe her.

«Do you mean it?»

«And yourself, what do you think?» Medea Shai flapped her wings sharply and knocked over the sword basket. They scattered across the floor. Their clanging sounded like the echo of a bloodbath.

«I don’t want to hurt anyone since I met you,» Conrad admitted.

Medea Shai frowned. The streams of gloom that flew from the tips of her wings grew thicker.

«It’s strange! I usually bring out the darkest qualities in even the nicest people,» she thought aloud.

«So it’s different with me.»

«But every king has at least one mortal enemy. You name it!»

Well, all right.

«It is King Meron of Arador.»

By naming the name Condor didn’t think he was signing his death warrant. The sword dashed through the open window of the armory and flew over the sleeping city like a big arrow.

«In an hour it will have done the job!» Medea Shai promised.

Her luxurious wings scuffed the walls of armoires and spears stacked in niches. Conrad was again afraid she would hurt herself. With wings like hers, it’s hard to walk around earthly apartments. There’s too little room, and she doesn’t want to fold her wings with a cape behind her back like her fairies do. She is, after all, a queen.

Condor noticed the dark-winged fairies circling above the tallest tower spire.

«They are my retinue,» Medea Shai explained.

«Don’t they want to fly into the castle?»

«They’re more at ease in the heights.»

Conrad didn’t insist. The fairies looked ominous. They seemed to be calling for a storm. Black storm clouds were gathering where they were dancing.

«Will you grace the royal tournament with your presence?» Conrad gestured to the queen of the fairies. Even though she is a magical guest, but we must observe the etiquette. But to enter through the windows instead of the doors, as Medea Shai had already done, was a clear violation of all the rules.

«That is unnecessary!» She shrugged. «I don’t like mortal tournaments. Magic tournaments are more fun.»

«But there aren’t any in Aluar.»

«We shall remedy that,» «Medea Shai levitated off the floor to catch up with Conrad and kissed him. The kiss of a fairies’ queen must make everyone lose their mind. Conrad momentarily forgot what he was about to say. Medea Shae’s lips tasted and smelled of the dark forest, pine and witch berries. Conrad was ready to forget everything and make love to the fairy right now in the armory, among the scattered weapons, regardless of the risk of severe injury. But there was a sharp whistle outside the window. It was the winged sword coming back. It flew back on its own, moving the notches of its hilt like real wings. Its blade was covered in blood. A flap of Arador’s coat of arms clung to its hilt.

«Your opponent is dead!» Medea Shai took the sword, twirled it in her hands, and suddenly licked the blood from the blade. «And he was no longer young, but cunning. It would have been nice to get to know him while he was still alive. I can talk to the dead, too, but it’s not as interesting as talking to the living.»

The sword dropped from her fingers and took its former place in the hollow of its holder. The blood wasn’t caked on it, but disappeared, as if the steel had absorbed it.

«You said it would take an hour for the sword to do its job, and it came back much sooner.»

Medea Shai only grinned wryly. He must have been the one who lost track of time while he was kissing the fairy.

Conrad picked up the sword that had just killed his rival.

«What are you doing?» Medea Shai grew wary.

«It boggles my mind to think that an hour ago it was in the heart of my enemy,» Conrad confessed.

«What surprises me is that this sword does not crave your blood. Ordinarily, if you draw it from its sheath, it would be as thirsty as its proprietor. And it only drinks blood.»

Medea Shai’s slender but incredibly strong fingers slipped over Conrad’s sword-clutching hand.

«I suddenly realized that you were special…» she whispered, and somehow she was frightened. «You’d rather not give Araminta elixirs anymore.»

«Why is it not?»

Medea Shai didn’t want to explain. She stormed out of the armory and into the corridors of the castle like an arrow. The footmen and knights, whom she had knocked down, did not understand what was wrong. It must have seemed to them that a black hurricane had just rushed past them. Conrad hurried after the fairies’ queen. She flew straight to his bride’s chambers. It smelled familiarly of musk, fresh flowers, and medicine. The two horrid creatures were still swarming over Araminta’s bedside, but this time they were no longer medicating her with elixirs, but dressing her cold corpse.

«It is the horror!» Medea Shai folded her wings in a horn.

«You mean her appearance?»

Even the gray faeries, each the size of beetles, crawled away from the bed of relics, expressing distaste.

«I mean her death,» Medea Shai clarified. «She could be raised from the dead, but only the shell would come back to life, not Araminta, who is already dead and accounted for in the records of the Dead Realm. It is too late to bring her back to life.»

«So you’re not happy that I’m free now and can choose a new bride. Don’t you want to be my queen?»

«You are silly! I don’t want to lose you for a century. I could fall out of love with you in a year, let alone a century. Fairies are fickle.»

«I will not live a century,» Conrad laughed at that, and suddenly he realized his mistake.

«Don’t say that for a century!» Medea Shai reached out to kiss him, but the air around him turned cold to ice. The cabinets and tapestries were covered in an icy crust.

Some icy creatures crawled down the corridors and peered through door crevices.

«We must hide from them before they find me,» Medea Shai worried.

«Who are they?»

«They are the guardians of the law of one century before the wedding. But I will try to deceive them.»

But one of the creatures was already looking right at them from a gap that had suddenly formed right in the wall.

«No, I don’t want to go to the castle beyond the clouds! It’s too cold!» Medea Shai cried out, but her silhouette suddenly began to pale, covered in an icy crust.

Conrad tried to grab her, but all he felt was ice. Medea Shai’s fingers managed to press against his chest for a moment.

«The rose sprouted firmly! You will never betray me!» The queen of the fairies exclaimed triumphantly before the dense mist covered her figure for good.

The mist spiraled and vanished, along with all the ice creatures. Only two or three of them crawled around Araminta’s corpse, obviously intent on taking her with them. The two servants of Medea Shai, who had managed to dress the princess in her wedding garb, had also disappeared.

The vial of elixir that had been given to Araminta tipped onto the carpet. The liquid gave off a pungent fume. It looked like poison!

Conrad did not know what to do now. Rose squeezed his heart with steel thorns.

«She’s ours for life,» one icy creature wheezed, running its fingers through Araminta’s tresses. «And this one stays with you! Bury her with honors and wait a century from now. With any luck, the queen will return to you. There are some trials to be passed before the end of the term…»

One icy creature blew on the clock, and it suddenly stopped. One century of waiting appeared to have begun.

Conrad couldn’t think of an hour without the fairy queen, and now he would have to suffer without her for a century! And would he live through the century? What if he is not immortal after all?

Elves at the Tournament

Conrad has not yet graced the company with his appearance. Good! Marianne took the empty throne. Good if her brother doesn’t come at all. She had enjoyed sitting on the royal throne in his absence.

It was a pity his new ally hadn’t come. To see a real fairy was so exciting! Especially it was the fairies’ queen. She must be incredibly beautiful! Marianne looked out for her in the crowd of courtiers. But there were only elves around. They flooded the tournament. Except for a few monster knights sent from Shai, the contest was becoming purely elves.

The blond winged elves fought solely against each other so far, soaring in battle over the field. Magical sparks were flying from their combat. Someone in the audience had already been burned.

There was no bloodshed. The mortal knights had agreed with the elves that in the first rounds of the tournament, each would fight only members of his own race. And then, as fate would have it! If there were knights of equal strength to elves, then there would be inter-racial duels. So far elves fought elves and men fought men. Boring! Marianne yawned.

For some reason her admirers weren’t even looking at her. Someone had spread a rumor that she had behaved unworthily, forbidding the elves to be honorary guests of Aluar. Most of the knights sulked at the princess for ignoring their advances. They used to shower her with flowers, gifts, and madrigals of their own composition, but now there is an icy indifference. Only the commoners who watched the tournament from behind the fences pointed fingers at her.

«There’s the princess all the elves are in love with! It was because of her that they made a commotion and began bewitching the townspeople in the streets of the capital, and the peasants in the fields! All evil spells have been summoned by her!»

The Church! What to expect from them? Marianne cracked open the fan. Somehow she wanted to hide her face behind it. And the accusations were groundless! Witchcraft tricks like that are usually done by fairies, not elves.

«You’ve been too capricious, and they blamed all their troubles on you,» one of the maidens whispered to Marianne. The princess brushed her off.

Someone had left a magnificent Menuel’s dagger with an intricate hilt beside the throne. She picked it up, drew it from its sheath, and then heard a whisper:

«I want your blood!»

Who said that? Marinna looked around the stands helplessly. Everyone was busy watching the tournament. No one would speak to her. Except the maid of honor! But this voice was distinctly masculine and hoarse. It sounded as if it were coming from a blade of steel. Blades cannot talk, can they? Though there were many legends of Menuel’s steel. The doors of the armory where Conrad kept his Menuel’s swords were forever locked by order of the king. This could have meant that they were either very expensive or very dangerous. Once as she walked past the armory, Marianne had already heard the same hoarse whispering that urged her to break open the door and steal one of the swords. Naturally she did not, though the voice had a hypnotic effect.

«I want your blood, Princess!» Someone whispered again. She no longer doubted that the insolent whisper came from the dagger. She wanted to sheath it again, but the hilt slipped from her hand as if by itself. The blade of the dagger pricked her finger.

How painful! Marianne had not expected that a slight prick with the tip of a dagger could be so painful. A drop of blood dripped onto the ivory and jade throne. A scarlet and white rose instantly grew right on the armrest of the throne.

Marianne watched breathlessly. The two lush roses seemed for a moment like two women’s faces, one under a scarlet veil, other under a white one.

Some slender girls in fancy airy robes appeared beside the throne. They were hugging one another by their thin waists. Surely they must have been two friends who had come from distant exotic lands. One lady was dressed in a scarlet dress, the other in white. And both had real wings fluttering behind their backs. Marianne gasped. Surely these must be two fairies in the entourage of the Fairies’ Queen Medea Shai.

It seemed that no one but Marianne could see them. They both winked at the princess.

«Tonight is no reason to fight,» the two fairies said in chorus. «Ordinarily, our alliance is a tournament, but with you it is already decided. You should not have summoned us.»

«But I didn’t call you!»

The two fairies pointed to her sore thumb.

How could you tell? A pair of roses did sprout from her blood. Maybe the roses were a signal to the fairies.

«I’ve been dying to see a real fairy,» said Marianne. «Why don’t you sit beside the throne?»

The velvet covered pedestals were for guests of honor, but two fairies shook their heads in disapproval. Marianne noticed that their feet in gold sandals did not touch the ground. Both winged guests hovered an inch above the bleachers. And both of them were watching Marianne so intently that she felt uncomfortable.

«It’s definitely not passion!» said the scarlet fairy, waving her wings as bright as blood.

«It is love!» joyfully determined white fairy. «It is pure love! How I like it!»

She was staring into the ring where the elves were fighting.

«It is a poor comparison!» Marianne muttered. «I can’t stand those impudent elves!»

Her eyes fell on the victor, the one who had won the contest. They say that love is like an arrow through the heart, but Marianne felt as if she’d been scalded with boiling water, head over heels.

«Who is he?» She clutched at the lady in waiting behind her.

«Which one is it?» Lady Hilaria, the blonde-haired lady, could barely get her hand out of the princess’ grasp.

«It is that one! It is the one with the winged helmet!»

«They almost all have winged helmets!» Hilaria determined, bewildered. «Only a few had helmets made of golden leaves, ornamented with horns or winged snakes.»

«It is the one with the gilded armor!» Marianne pointed forward, though the gesture might have seemed indecent. This was a royal tournament, not a marketplace. And she was a princess, not a bazaar girl.

«It reminds one of dawn! And he has notches in the shape of golden maples running down the side of his cuirass.»

«Ah! It is this one!» Hilaria opened the fan with a bang. «At the sight of him I too am ready to faint, as most ladies. He is an elves’ prince! Lurel.»

«It is an elves’ name for sure, but looks like an angel.»

«And he fights like the devil! All elves look like angels, but they fight like demons. So much magic,» Hilaria was both indignant and delighted.

«Do you know if the Fairies’ Queen’s knights will be in the tournament?»

«They already did. The elves’ prince defeated them. Didn’t you see that?»

Marianne was ashamed to admit that she had missed most of the tournament because of the conversation with the fairies. However, they quickly disappeared. Only the scarlet and white roses were left, which were fragrant on the armrest of the throne. The magical dagger, which Marianne had retracted into its scabbard, hissed unhappily.

«I was dreaming!» Marianne fidgeted nervously with her peacock feather fan. «You do not know how to call the winner to me? I want to make a solemn speech in his honor instead of the king.»

Hilarie hesitated.

«You think it would be difficult, after all the fights I’ve had with the elves?»

«They don’t like you now, Your Highness, and the people agree with them.»

The commoners would have been about to throw rotten vegetables at Marianne if the fence and the guards hadn’t separated the crowd from the tribunes where the nobles sat.

But the handsome elf prince suddenly looked at her sympathetically. Marianne felt as on hot coals, as if the throne beneath her turned into a roaster. And Lurel just got a wreath of golden laurel, which is customary to give the lady of the heart. Such a lady will be called the most beautiful all day long just because the winner of the royal tournament gave his reward to her.

Who will Lurel choose? Is it fairy? By the way, there were no fairies in the audience. There were only mortal ladies. Elves are renowned as magical benefactors. So Lurelle might give a golden crown to some beggar from the city.

He did not hesitate to choose. Earth etiquette was broken, too. Instead of picking up the trophy with the tip of his spear, as earthly knights do, he dismounted and took the wreath with his hands, then confidently headed forward. At once, clearly, he already knew which lady he was hurrying to. Marianne tensed.

«The tournament is not yet over by any rules,» she muttered grudgingly. «The elves have not yet fought the humans.»

«But a fight like that would be suicide!» Hilaria protested.

«So what is it!» Out of jealousy and envy of her unknown rival, Marianna had easily overstepped her own principles.

«The elves had defeated the monsters of the fairies’ queen! That meant they had won!» Hilaria was on their side.

Marianne merely pursed her lips and rose from her throne.

«I will demand a new round of the tournament!» She resolved, but before she could summon a herald to proclaim her will, the most beautiful elf imaginable was standing at her side. Marianne’s wrists began to shake. Without helmet Lurel was even more beautiful than she had previously seen.

Elves are unbelievably brave. The slits in their helmets were so wide they barely covered their faces. Not surprising for invincible warriors, though. After all, any wound on them would instantly heal.

The handsome elf bent one knee in defense of her. He was neither more nor less than an elf prince! And she still thought Cassian handsome! Marianne suddenly regretted that she was already engaged.

Prince Lourel presented the victor’s crown to her. That meant he had chosen her to be his lady. Victory on the one hand, defeat on the other. After all, she already has a fiancé. And why was she in such a hurry to choose.

Hilaria sighed enviously behind her back, and the elf rose leisurely. He had looked arrogant when he had fought, but now he was suddenly modest, even timid. But Marianne grew bolder.

«How is it that I did not notice you before?» She asked flirtatiously. — «Either I was blind, or someone put a magical blindness on me.»

«But you chased me from the window of the throne room a week ago,» Lurel admitted with a half smile. «Don’t you remember? You had my companions doused with boiling pitch.»

«Were you one of them?»

Perhaps she should apologize to him. But Marianne could not get over her pride. The chancellor, who had heard her speaking to the elf, was red as a lobster and began nervously fidgeting in his chair. What kind of a fly bit him?

«You don’t look burned,» Marianne looked at the elf’s clear skin. Elves don’t seem invulnerable. The burn must have healed instantly, but she pretended not to know that they healed fast. But how good-looking they were, she realized only now. People don’t have skin as delicate as lily petals. Nor do humans have golden eyelashes and eyebrows.

«Elves can’t be burned, not with pitch, flaming arrows, or boiling water,» Lurel explained kindly.

«Did I ever poison you with any of that? And you are not angry with me?»

«How can you be angry at the most beautiful princess in the universe?»

That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to her! It seemed that a kiss with him was a reward for her, not the other way around.

Marianne suddenly realized that her heart was already captive to the winner of the tournament. The fairies weren’t lying. This is love! Until now, the capricious princess had never suspected that she was capable of such feelings.

Only after the magic kiss did she notice how jealously Prince Cassian was looking at her and the elf. He grew increasingly gloomy and clutched the hilt of his sword nervously. He seemed to have encouraged the knights to chant some frivolous ballad about how it wasn’t proper for elves to steal girls away from Earth boys. The elves, who had long been eyeing the ladies in the stands, were visibly offended. The next round of the tournament was looming, in which mortals would surely lose. Marianne wanted to take some action. If she did not want Conrad to be without his knights, she could not delay. However, Lurel was the first to rush into battle. What if he wins? Marianne had a stray thought: what if he kills Cassian and frees her from her promise? She had heard something about how elves had no right to marry girls who were already betrothed to men. Let the duel decide.

«You’d better tell them to stop the tournament,» Hilaria whispered nervously.

«Why is it not? Let them compete with each other.»

«There’s a magic rule. I can’t remember exactly! But I think there’s a rule that says an elf must never fight A bridegroom of a girl he’s attracted to. Otherwise, something bad will happen.»

«How do you know that?»

«I heard about it when I was a child from my nanny, who was a witch doctor.»

«They hired a nurse who was a witch doctor?» Marianne was indignant. «Witches are not welcome in feudal castles.»

«Except those who heal and drive away evil spirits from the cradle,» she said.

«But no one chased the elves away from me, and now I feel as if I am in captivity.»

«Such are love spells!» determined an observant Hilaria.

Was it charms? No, it isn’t! Marianne sensed that her love was genuine. And the contest was gathering momentum. Magic had not yet gone against swords, but elves were still stronger than humans.

Yet the rules were not broken. There was nothing to be faulted. The mortal knights had volunteered to wrestle with the elves. Yes, this is tantamount to suicide. But a valiant knight has the right to go out to fight even against a giant. Stopping him without cause was not an option.

Marianne was troubled by one thought. She was like a bird in a cage, beating in her head. Hilaria had a point, even if she did not make it explicit. The tournament must be ended before the first kill. After all, there is some ancient law about which the old soothsayers, familiar with the elves, have so much to say. Something ruling out happiness if one kills the fiancé of the one the elf has glimpsed.

Lurel and Cassian faced each other in a duel. The mortal prince fought against the immortal elf prince. The audience screamed with delight. And the red and white roses on the armrest of the throne were dripping with dew as if they were tears.

Just then Conrad returned, pale as a dead man. He sat silently on the pedestal beside Marianne, as if the throne were no longer for him. What was the matter with him? She would have roused him with questions, but other things were more important now.

«Stop them!»

«Why is it?» Conrad looked up at her with a face the color of white chalk. Marianne shuddered. It felt like some evil fairy drank all the life out of her brother with her kiss.

«Fighting with elves is pure suicide! You are the king! It is your duty to prevent senseless bloodshed.»

«Forgive me, Marianne, but in a tournament everyone chooses who they fight. Even a king has no right to interfere. The knights must be brave, or if war breaks out with the elves, all the warriors will be hiding in the bushes.»

«Why do you speak of war with the elves?» Marianne became agitated. For sure her brother was hiding something from her. She was well aware of his habits. Now he was acting as if he had a guilty conscience.

«I am not saying that!» Conrad brushed her off.

A black mist, like a teain of darkness, stretched across the stands behind the king who had come to the tournament. The elves had cast magic against the humans. It was unintentional. In the heat of battle, no one thinks of methods. Everyone wants to win at all costs. Some wizards tried to stop Lurel and Cassian. Vines grew on their crossed swords, which intertwined between their blades and prevented them from fighting. Lurel whispered some magic word, and the vines burned.

Before Marianne could see, the duel came to an end. Cassian was dead. His auburn locks were strewn across the bloodstained place. The helmet flew off. Lurel was not triumphant, but victory was important to him.

«He didn’t notice the wedding ring on your hand,» whispered a voice coming from the roses.

«The elves broke the law of hospitality by killing the knights,» Conrad muttered. Menuel’s dagger decided to back him up on that and released from its sheath. It soared like a bird of steel and launched itself at everyone. Hilaria cried out in fright, but Marianne was more concerned with Lurel’s victory. Now she was free. She could remove her earthly diamond engagement ring from her finger, and the elf prince would give her a magic ring in return.

Lurel was already on his way to her. Officially he must ask Conrad for her hand. Marianne became worried. This was the moment she had dreamed of. The elf prince would be her fiancé, but her chest suddenly felt a dead chill. Marianne realized with horror that she could not breathe. She wanted to grab her brother’s hand, but instead of Conrad’s fingers, she felt emptiness. The rally ground and the bleachers were obscured by a thick, whitish fog. Some kind of icy creature crept beneath her feet. Nor could Marianne feel the throne beneath her. And Lurel, and the tournament, and the familiar landscape of Aluar had disappeared. There was nothing but a white void of snow, and the claws of an ice dragon that suddenly closed around Marianne’s waist. Coldness came from its icy wings. They flapped, creating a blizzard, and the dragon carried the kidnapped princess to lofty heights, to the cold skies.


The steel dagger hovered like a bird of prey. It swooped down, mercilessly wounding the crowd, and soared over the stands. Some it killed, some it maimed, some ite scarred. The Lady Hilaria, wounded in the cheek, wept loudly.

It took the efforts of several elves and a royal wizard to capture the hovering dagger.

«Menuel’s steel is constantly thirsty for blood,» the roses whispered on the armrest of the throne, «let’s crawl to safety before it shreds us.»

Do roses contain blood? Conrad was astonished. The scarlet and white fairy roses must have been meant. He remembered the moment he had seen them fighting over the battlefield. As he had correctly determined at the time, they foretold misfortune.

Conrad felt sick to his stomach. A whole century of separation from his beloved was hell! He could not stand it. He wanted to rush into battle with the elves to surely die. By the way, the elves were looking at him with mild disapproval. Probably noticed he was a hostage of the ancient magic law.

The elves’ prince wondered where Marianne was. She had seemingly disappeared. She had been sitting on her brother’s throne a minute before. Now the throne was empty. The glittering ice chips were on the seat. They didn’t melt in the heat.

«I don’t know where she is,» Conrad assured him. «I suppose she’s gone off on some new prank. You can expect anything from that capricious girl.»

«May I go and ask her to marry me?» The elf prince seemed nervous. A noble son-in-law he would make, but Conrad thought aloud:

«Marianne already has a fiancé…» he paused, glancing at Cassian’s corpse. «I mean, she had.»

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