Rhianon-2. Princess of Fire and the Winged Warrior

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Rhianon felt the caress of satin gloved fingers on her cheek and turned to look out the back window anyway. The road behind them was empty.

«Sure enough, he trailed after the carriage. How could he possibly leave you behind?» Fresia hummed grudgingly.

«But I can’t see him,» Rhianon suddenly realized that she didn’t want to lose her only companion. As mischievous as he was, she felt much freer in his company than she did in the company of two graceful ladies.

«Is it possible to see the silver smoke,» Fresia shrugged her naked shoulders and the fiery ruffles gathered in a whole bouquet of folds at her cleavage. It seemed as if the whole of her were drowned in flower petals, miraculously connected to each other. «It was only a pity that this smoke could be so sticky. He could ruin our carriage in revenge for us stealing the girl away from him.»

Rhianon looked again at her dress, beautiful, studded with flower petals and embroidered with an intricate pattern of rhombuses and triangles and polyhedrons connected and multicolored. It seemed to be not a cloth, but a map of starry heavens, astrological symbols, and the whole universe. It was all complemented by a purple cloak with a hood and ruffles, and, of course, a garniture of large rubies. It seemed that only he could match such an intricate outfit. The rubies, polished in the shape of drops of blood, flashed around her neck, wrists, and ears like bits of living flame. The second lady wore a lush pastel dress embroidered with sprigs of myrtle, as if to contrast the first. The half-mask on her face resembled the wings of a butterfly. The cape behind her also looked more like transparent wings.

«Are we going to a masquerade?» Rhiannon squinted, because the too bright red was beginning to hurt her.

«Oh, yes, it is a masquerade,» Fresia laughed for some reason.

Rhianon wondered if she felt so uncomfortable in the company of the two ladies because she was not herself dressed in fancy dress. For a masquerade ball, of course, her pageant garb would do just fine, but any modestly dressed girl would naturally feel like a sissy next to such fashionable women. If she had been at the palace it would have been different. But what dressmaker she could order such a dress, which seemed to be sewn of flame and flowers. Not even royal white seamstresses would be capable of that. The feeling that she was in the company of non-humans only intensified further. Rhianon could have asked about it directly, but she was afraid of causing another burst of laughter.

«He’s clingy,» the other lady glanced through the carriage window as if she could really see the spirit flying behind them. She wondered if she could see anything in the darkness outside the windows. Rhianon snorted incredulously. But Fresia, too, seemed to see something. She frowned in displeasure and hugged Rhianon tighter.

«Haven’t you had enough of his company?» She muttered softly.

«You can’t get rid of him,» she murmured, trying to be diplomatic.

Someone just knocked quietly on the window, though no one was visible behind the glass.

«Distract him, Chloe,» Fresia commanded. «Let him look at you for now, not at her.»

«Why is it?» Rhianon did not like the way Fresia’s long thin fingers slipped under the collar of her jacket and began to undo the buttons. They slid over her skin like cold, uncomfortable insects. It was as if the skin on them oozed no warmth at all and would never be able to warm itself. Rhianon shuddered, thinking, these are the kind of creatures that drink people’s blood to take a little bit of their life. They waited in the dark and their skin was as cold as the dead and their calling voices were as melodic as sirens. She didn’t have to look out the window to guess that they were already out of town. The carriage raced through uninhabited countryside. Only once in the darkness did a road post and a cross at a crossroads glimmer. Fresia grumbled unhappily at the sight of it.

«We must dress you for the masquerade,» she announced.

«No,» Rhianon reached out to shake her clammy, cold fingers from her collar, but the buttons of her jacket were still undoing themselves, without Freesia’s help.

«Silly girl, it’s so simple…»

Before she knew it, the familiar, unobtrusive jacket was gone, replaced by soft waves of silk that drifted down her arms. Rhianon stared incredulously at the purple ruffles and pearls that lined the hard satin corset. It wasn’t even satin, but some much nicer and more expensive material, but she didn’t know exactly what kind. It was the first time she had ever touched such soft and delicate matter. The diamonds embedded in it seemed like dew scattered on a flower. The dress itself was also like a flower, like an iris, white with purple petals. Good thing the color was embroidered purple instead of say, red; Rhianon could only tolerate cold tones. The dress she wore was woven of snowflakes, as if they were about to cling to her skin, and the flame inside would go out, frozen by them. But it didn’t go out; it only hid. Rianon took a mask from Fresia’s hands, the same white and purple one made in the shape of a blossoming iris. She could have sworn that the mask hadn’t been there a moment ago, only Fresia herself making strange gestures with her hands. Now those same hands were again encircling Rhianon and sliding up and down her tightly corseted waist like pesky gummy bugs. Rhianon winced slightly. The corset seemed to be too tight. Or maybe it was Fresia’s embrace that was too tight.

«The diamonds in your hair are like dew,» she whispered, leaning close to her ear. Rhianon sensed that her hair, twisted into a high-pitched bob, was indeed a glittering net. Orpheus had already shown her the exact same tiered, curly hair that seemed to have been woven out of curls. He said it seemed that only fairies did it that way. But where was he? Rhianon thought she could see his freckled face and red strands dislodged from under the cap right on the other side of the window. Chloe was whispering something just into the darkness that passed outside the windows, and occasionally gestured. It seemed as if she was really communicating with an invisible fellow traveler, flying behind the carriage. Rhianon knew it had to be that way. With her hair entwined with jewel threads she felt a little out of place. It was as if a cloud of gold flew over the back of her head and her head, in spite of the jewelry, was unusually light. The ladies at her court never wore such hairstyles. They couldn’t have done anything like that. Rhianon herself did not know how she could have had her hair styled into a ballooning pyramid and have jewels embedded in it.

«It suits you,» said Fresia. She stared at Rhianon and her eyes sparkled. Like two emeralds shining out of her eyes. Rhianon stared at them, and felt as if she were drowning in a greenish pool. Dizzy, she could not even hear Chloe whispering something impertinent to Orpheus, freezing in the cold wind on the other side of the window. He flew behind the rushing carriage so fast that he himself must have joined the gust of wind. Rhianon felt a slight satisfaction that this time he was uncomfortable. Before, his insolent jokes and advances toward random strangers had made her the only one uncomfortable. Now she seems to have gotten her revenge on him. In any case, she could tell from his hurtful remarks on the other side of the window that he was uncomfortable.

Rhianon herself did not know whether to be pleased or surprised. The two ladies were clearly not among the people interested in her capture. Looking at how dispassionately they treated her spirit-companion, they themselves hardly had anything in common with humans.

Rhianon looked at Fresia. Her mottled dress, as if sewn from autumn leaves, would have rather suited an actress or a colombina, but the expensive fabric and glittering rubies and proud posture clearly spoke in favor of a higher origin. She wondered if her patterned flame cloak might actually be fairy wings folded behind her back. Rhianon wondered about that and imperceptibly even ran her hand over the shiny folds, they seemed warm to the touch. Was it possible that they were about to move.

«And you are very beautiful,» while Chloe distracted Orpheus’ attention, Fresia continued to look at Rhianon, long and carefully, as if she was giving her appraisal to some rare jewel. «Such beauty is rare, even among us…»

Her thin, cold fingers touched Rhianon’s chin and lifted her face slightly to look directly into her eyes.

«They’re like sapphires,» she said, and then she whispered softly, «a piece of heaven is in your eyes…»

«And a piece of hell is in your cloak,» Rhianon joked in time with her. She wondered how that riot of scarlet color had not ignited a fire in her, or at least a desire to burn someone. Why weren’t the hands of Fresia caressing her still covered in burns?

«I must confess that until now I’d considered it a rarity, his privilege alone.» Her fingers stroked Rhianon’s hair, her neck, her cheekbones, and strangely enough, they didn’t burn. Rhianon expected her skin to blister, like a nettle burn, but it did not. It was as if Fresia was immune to the effects of her inner fire. Maybe it’s because her skin is as cold as ice. It is simply impossible to burn her or even warm her cold a little. But then why is the cloak behind her back so warm, almost exuding heat. Rhianon could not explain it. She only stared at her new friend in silence. Girlfriend! Could she call her that? Who was this Fresia, anyway? Rhianon knew nothing about her except her name, which was more like the name of a flower. And she herself had only seen her for a few minutes, but seemed to know her forever.

«I’m used to seeing only one of these things,» she whispered confidentially, touching Rhianon’s face again, as if she hadn’t dared to believe that it really existed. «It is so strange to me to realize that such beauty is possessed by someone other than our god… other than our cursed one.»

Her voice dropped to an almost indistinguishable whisper, and then suddenly there was a low hiss. It sounded like the hiss of a snake, not a woman. Rhianon recoiled, seeing the line of razor-sharp teeth beneath her blood-red lips.

«What do you mean?» she didn’t understand.

«Oh,» she said, shrugging her shoulders as if she couldn’t remember what she’d just said. Yes, she does have the memory of a carefree fairy. Rhianon wondered if fairies really could instantly forget and leave their chosen ones behind just because they were eternal and human life was only a moment to them, or if sometimes it was just convenient for them not to remember anything. In any case, there was a twinkle in Fresia’s eyes, and then they went from two sparkling emeralds to murky green lakes.

«I just like you a lot,» she explained.

«So do I,» Rhianon nodded, not knowing why, and then she heard Orpheus squeak in an angry, disgruntled voice outside the carriage window. Surely he could hear everything. Could he be jealous? Rhianon smiled smugly on her lips.

«You would have liked diamonds,» said Fresia.

She felt the drops of water cascading down her skin. They joined together and were as heavy as dew on a flower, but they never slipped behind her corset. Just a moment and Rhianon felt them harden around her neck into a thin, sparkling necklace. In her ears she found earrings to match. A matching bracelet wrapped around her arm, and she felt it touch her skin like clear water.

«Thank you,» Rhianon touched the jewelry around her neck, and felt its beneficial coolness. It felt so good. It was as if the fire inside her had subsided. She’d never felt cooler, as if the fire had been doused in a mountain stream.

Outside the window she passed unfamiliar landscapes, expanses and glades covered with darkness. Sometimes she could see a faint glimpse of the sky, studded with stars.

Rhianon gripped frantically at Fresia’s arm. «We’re not going east.»

She hadn’t even realized they’d turned, but now the carriage was taking a detour. They had made a circle, and probably more than one. But she didn’t need a compass to know that they’d changed direction; she could feel it, as if the ship had veered off course. This wasn’t where she needed to get to, after all. How she had allowed herself to be led astray by these ladies to some masquerade, to which, by the way, they had not yet made it, though they had been on their way for quite some time. Once, as a child, she had heard horror stories about ghostly carriages that circled from night to night along the same route, and those who saw them then disappeared themselves. She didn’t want to be in that position at all. She was looking for the way to the School of Witchcraft, after all. She needed to go there, not to some nocturnal masquerade.

«Order the carriage to stop,» she demanded of Fresia. «I need to get out.»

«How is it? Is it right now?» The lady frowned incredulously. «But we’re nearly there.»

Rhiannon couldn’t understand her, since it was all moss-covered heaths and valleys and darkness at night. They hadn’t encountered a single village, farmhouse, or hamlet along the way. So, where could they have come to, all around there was nothing but deserted land.

Fresia took her by the shoulders and turned her to face the window. Yes, now Rhianon also noticed sparkling lights in the distance, like fireworks they scattered the mist in a whole flock and seemed to be settling on the roof of some large building.

«The feast of sowing and harvesting has long passed, but we have come to harvest our crops only now, because the profits were not shared with us. And we are the true masters of the fields here. Then it’s time to claim what’s ours,» Fresia smiled in anticipation. «The master of the manor is mortal. Mortals think it’s so easy to deceive the Magical People. All you have to do is leave us a jug of milk and we’ll be satisfied. And if not, we can be raided by peasants armed with pitchforks, sickles and torches. How wrong he is.»

«Who will be at the masquerade?» Rhianon has already seen the driveway and the beautiful white stone facade with the colonnade. A motley crowd had already gathered there in the light of the night lights. Fresia could see it all over her shoulder, too.

«People like us,» she muttered. «People are hosts only, or think that if they make a reception for us at night, no one will suspect them of communicating with us afterward. Though there are a few other guests from distant places, they’re human too. Everyone else is just like us.»

«They are just like us,» Rhianon repeated and looked at her questioningly. But Fresia didn’t seem to notice the question in her gaze or in her intonation. She seemed to have no doubt that Rhianon was no different from her, her friend, or even the disembodied Orpheus. She herself was beginning to doubt her own sanity. Was it all a dream? She’d realized already that the people in the carriage beside her weren’t human, as Fresia herself had repeatedly reminded her. So why did they think she was of their unearthly company? Just because of the company of Orpheus who accompanied her? Then why did they drive him away from her? He was beside her as if he were superfluous. The fairies needed only her. There, the word came to her mind by itself. Fairies! Rhiannon had often heard of them, but never seen them. And how could she ever see something that didn’t really exist? She had been told stories about fairies when she was a child, about their glittering wings and their humming voices. But why did she think these two ladies were fairies? What gave them away? Why did she think they were fairies and not witches or peri or, say, ghosts? Rhianon racked her brain some more, remembering the forgotten names. But the first definition that had already popped into her brain somehow couldn’t displace anything. Yes, that was exactly how she had imagined fairies to be, ethereal, beautiful, elegant, and uninhibited. They are absolutely sure of their own power, so they behave in a way that no earthly noble lady would allow herself. They can do anything, because they are above all. They are never shy about anything, because they know that any mortal would fall at their feet, if only they were to beckon. But what did they want with her? Rhianon suddenly felt a strange heartbeat. Her heart fluttered like a caged bird under a hard satin corset. Fresia’s closeness was so pleasurable. The cool touch of her hands left a feeling of ineffable tenderness, and her voice was mesmerizing. Rhianon looked at the rustling folds of her dress and kept expecting a flock of colorful butterflies to fly out of them. The dress seemed to be made entirely of their wings and flower petals. Rhianon caught herself thinking that she wanted to touch Fresia and see if her skin was really as cool as water in a mountain stream and if she had wings hidden behind her back. She had already reached out her hand to her outfit, not afraid to skin the bright red fabric. She usually avoided touching things of a warm hue, but now something pulled her like a magnet. No sooner had she touched Fresia, however, than the carriage came to a stop.

«Well, here we are,» Chloe sighed in relief and adjusted the cream ruffles on her skirt. A bone fan appeared from somewhere in her hand. She shook off a few pesky butterflies from it and began to wave it around herself. She was obviously tired of diverting a flying spirit from her carriage.

Rhianon leaned on Fresia’s arm to get out of the carriage. As soon as she was on solid ground, she began to look around for Orpheus. He was standing just behind them, two or three meters away. His reddish strands contrasted sharply with the brown alder trunk he was leaning against. He looked at his mistress with a challenge, almost a reproach.

«You had no right to leave me, much less trade me for this unseemly company,» his eyes spoke without words. Now with ineffable anger, they too were like two jewels.

«Come,» Fresia pulled her forward, but Rhianon still could not take her eyes off Orpheus. She had never seen him so angry before. He was still standing there by the tree. Long strands of hair were hanging down over his face, and he wouldn’t even raise his hand to fix them. It was unusual for him to do nothing. He’d been so vigorous before, but now it was as if he’d lost all his strength at once. Without his companion, it was as if he had lost himself. There seemed to be more life in those red locks than in his colorless face. They would have burned his cheek like a living flame.

Rhianon turned around several times to check again to see if he was following them, but he stood motionless.

«Of course he’s not invited, so he can’t follow us,» Fresia said in answer to her unspoken question.

«Is that so? — Rhianon turned once more. Her argument seemed quite logical. Orpheus could not violate unwritten etiquette and follow the ladies where no one called him. It happened to him for the first time. Earlier he was not afraid to break any prohibitions, and he had no respect for anybody, but today it was different. Orpheus did not dare to move, as if he were chained.

Chloe, who was adjusting her train showed him her tongue. Rhiannon shuddered involuntarily. Here was more proof that these were not just prim court ladies. None of them would allow themselves such a thing.

Guests were already gathering at the front door. The crowd, surrounded by soaring high-poverty lights, looked festive. Rhianon began to look closely at the lushly dressed figures. Fresia was insistently dragging her forward up the wide marble staircase, but Rianon did manage to get a glimpse of some of them. Under a dome of stars and obscure lights flying in the sky, everything might have seemed phantasmagoric, but some of the guests were truly astounding. Rhianon even parted her lips in amazement. Even at Athénaïs table she had never seen anything like this before. Wasn’t it all a dream, a question she had asked herself more than once?

«No, it is not a dream. Could it all be a dream? You’d better remember heaven…»

She turned around and began to look frantically at the masked faces. Who could have said it? The voice sounded not here, but somewhere far away and at the same time right in her mind. It spoke of heaven.

«What’s the matter with you?»

Fresia saw Rhianon gasp frantically for air and press her hand against her corset, in the very place where a person’s heart should be beating. But do fairies have one? Rhianon was afraid of giving herself away. It seemed to her that a moth was imprisoned in her chest instead of her heart, beating its wings frantically against the wall of her chest. Her head felt foggy. There was someone beside her, someone, but not Fresia. Someone was standing so close that she could feel his presence, but she couldn’t see him.

«It is all right,» she tried to hide the fact that her dizziness and beating heart plagued her. Whether Fresia believed her or she was too perceptive for that. At any rate, they moved on smoothly. Rhianon stopped only once, feeling something press her sliding train to the floor behind her. She turned around and noticed the culprit. Someone in a harlequin costume was squatting and dislodging a piece of material that clung to the bobbin on his shoe. Or maybe he had stepped on it on purpose and was now pretending to be concerned in order to delay her even more. He suddenly looked up at her and one long, long look told her a lot. Whoever this visitor under the mask was, he knew her. Black as agates, his eyes almost grinned. Rhianon waited impatiently for him to release her, but even then, though she walked without turning around, she could still feel his gaze behind her. He seemed to follow her. She clutched tightly at Fresia’s arm, as if that could keep her from anything. In any case, she wanted whoever walked behind her to see that she was not alone here, but with her companions.

«You should have been here on the autumnal equinox, or even earlier on the winter solstice. We’re so late,» Fresia lamented on the way. «This masquerade should have been arranged a long time ago.»

«But then you wouldn’t have had time to invite me,» Rhianon didn’t know why she reminded her of that, probably because she always wanted to console those who complained loudly in front of her.

«Yes, it wouldn’t have been the same without you,» Fresia said, and she couldn’t quite make out whether she was joking or serious, but her arm was suddenly about Rhianon’s waist. It seemed no longer an arm, but a snake or a rope, wrapped tightly around her waist. Rhianon could still feel the coolness of the mountain stream, but being in such close proximity with someone was suddenly not very pleasant.

«Are we here all night?» Rhianon watched the chandeliers above the ballroom light up one by one. Maybe she thought she saw bats hiding among the pendants.

«Nightfall would not begin until after the master had greeted us all,» Fresia grinned, not in a very amiable way. Rhianon shuddered at the grin. She could sense at once when others were up to something. What could Fresia be up to? Chloe was just teasing some of the guests at this moment, telling them that their masks were no good. It was inconsiderate to impose so much on the quarrel, but Rhianon herself didn’t like their costumes and half-masks the color of flame either. They looked as if they were made of living flames, and if you came near them they would scorch you. Rhianon turned away quickly. The mere sight of red disturbed her. Lush greens, or gentle whites, were another matter. Those seemed to prevail here. Only once did a lady in a tight golden outfit and the same mask slip past them. Salamander, Rhianon called her to herself. The woman seemed to notice her, too, and touched her lightly as she passed. And it was no longer clear whether it was a woman or some extraordinary animal that really looked like a huge salamander. Rhianon suppressed the urge to turn around and stare after her. Instead she scrutinized the others in front of her. No one wore a mask. Many even wore fancy headdresses. Rhianon saw hats with veils and veil, peacock-feather headdresses, and whole flower pyramids in place of the tiaras. More than once she wondered if the sprouts of outlandish little flowers really did sprout from under the transparent skin of the ladies, or if it was just an illusion. Only she dared not ask Fresia that question. She might just laugh in response. For she knew all she knew for certain. But Rhianon could only guess at what guests in non-human societies might be like. But if Freesia was to be believed, the owner of this house was human. She spotted him in the center of the hall, just as he was greeting guests. He and his wife and children were unmasked. Though a small group of guests in well-made masquerade costume stood beside them, Rhianon knew at once that they were only human. People like the master of the house and his family, who had been called here on this particular night by accident or on purpose. For some reason Rhianon felt pity for them, and she didn’t even know why. Of course, it could be explained by the fact that in their usual costumes, sewn by mere mortal tailors, they looked too shabby in comparison to the gathering of unearthly guests. Rhianon looked questioningly at Fresia.

«What would happen next?»

The fairy squeezed her hand tightly.

«Don’t ask questions. You do not want them to know that you were not privy to their plans, do you?»

Rhianon shuddered. What does that mean? Isn’t she being mistaken for one of their own here? Or does it stand out all too well that she is human? But after all, the dress she is wearing and the jewels in her hair are fairy creation. Hasn’t Fresia tried to make Rhianon look like them and even better than them. Did she not bring her here as a last-minute treat. At the end of the masquerade, when it is time to remove the masks, Fresia will announce to everyone that her companion is only human.

Rhianon looked once more at Chloe. She was already flirting animatedly with some strangers and expressing her excitement at someone’s particularly well-done masks. Both her condemnation and unconcealed admiration seemed to be expressed directly, like a child’s. She could not bring herself to pretend or lie. It wasn’t inherent in humans, but she wasn’t human. And she didn’t see Rhianon as a victim at all. Although on the other hand, maybe she was used to her friend picking up here and there her companions for the night to get rid of them in the morning. And Chloe herself was simply indifferent to these temporary companions. She probably lost count of them.

«Where have I got to,» Rhianon wondered if it would be possible to find ways to retreat, but ahead of her in the middle of it already seemed to begin to unfold the drama. No one was paying any attention to Rhianon herself yet. The guests, however, were encircling the host in a tight ring, and that ring was narrowing. How many of them were there, all dressed in fabulous costumes? Rhianon tried to count them, and felt dizzy. The counting seemed to only make more of them.

Could someone from the School of Witchcraft be here? A hunch struck her suddenly, and Rhianon began to look around. A couple in black caught her eye. The lady and the gentleman were conspiringly dressed in dark colors, and they stood out sharply in the crowd. They looked strange amidst the riot of color, but elegant all the same. White lace was gracefully woven into black velvet and silk. It looked like an ornament, and there seemed to be some symbols lost in its weaving. Not just a pattern… Rhianon squinted to get a better look. The two were standing too far away from her, but a cavalier in exactly the same black camisole could also be seen beside her. They were black velvet and white lace. It was like a uniform. Had Orpheus told her that the School of Witchcraft had its own uniform? Rhianon strained her memory, but remembered nothing of the sort. Orpheus generally tried not to talk particularly much about the School of Black Arts. He did not talk about the other students in it at all. Rhianon looked once more at the stranger, and she thought that even under the black mask she recognized the same condemned man who had left her a star. It was only an illusion, of course. The blond hair, scattered across the dark collar, seemed so familiar, but the face beneath the mask was as if it didn’t exist at all.

Just for a moment she was embarrassed. She didn’t like how long and attentive his gaze was. He continued to stare at her even as the attention of everyone present turned to the host of the reception.

Fresia pushed her under the elbow.


Rhianon watched as several graceful women brought a basket full of grapes to the hosts. The gift must have been symbolic. But what it meant.

«From our fields…» explained the girl in red whose hair and cleavage were also adorned with miniature tassels of grapes. Only whether the berries were made of jewels or whether the vines grew straight from her hands and scalp. Rhianon did not know; she could not get a closer look, nor could she hear all the remarks, as only scraps of phrase came to her. The master was saying something, frightened. He did not want to accept the gift, but the guests insisted. They wished that all his family could taste their fruit from the basket covered with leaves.

«Imagine him as a lord, not a country gent,» said Freesia with a chuckle. «And he can’t behave himself.»

Rhianon glanced over her shoulder and noticed the grapes rolling rapidly across the floor from the basket and seeming to turn into something else. One berry rolled so far that it fell right under her feet. For some reason Rhianon really didn’t want it to touch the hem of her dress. It glistened on the floor between her shoes, like a real ruby. Just a moment and that ruby spread across the floor in a living, sizzling juice. Rhianon clutched at Fresia’s arm and picked up her own hem. She saw the juice of the disintegrated grape burn through the floor, and small insect-like creatures swarming inside it.

«Don’t be silly, no one’s forcing you to eat it,» Freesia hissed at her. Rhianon backed away, watching the other berries warily. They rolled off across the marble floor like hard stones. It seemed as if they were bouncing between shoes and hemlines of polished round rubies.

Rhianon grimaced dismissively. What could be with those who tasted it. The piteous cries told her that before she could look. Something strange was already happening to all the people in the center of the reception; they were falling to the floor, whimpering, as if they were being burned from within. Rhianon saw the blood mixing with the crushed berries on the floor. And the fairies were laughing. Their laughter made their ears ring.

«Why is it?» She asked Fresia quietly, so that the others could not hear.

«He used to cheat us out of our fields and pay us no taxes,» Fresia explained.

«You mean us?» Rhianon didn’t immediately realize that the term generalized everyone here, even her. It was as if she was already among them, and all because no one had noticed she was an outsider. And what would happen when they noticed.

She tried not to look frightened, but a shiver ran down her spine. Watching the carnage begin was hard. Rhianon had never thought that all it took to kill was a touch of hands, fangs, and claws, not hard steel. Some creature only remotely resembling a disembodied lady merely touched the last survivors. They were children, unformed teenagers, crying, unaware of what was happening to them. The fairy only pretended to want to caress them, but the light touch of her fingers opened a network of sores on their bodies. The sores would appear and burst, and nasty parasites would crawl out of them, tearing the clothes on their already dying bodies.

«And then the masquerade begins?» Rhianon asked softly when she saw the fairy take the masks off the dying men and throw them into the fireplace.

«No, it is not at all,» Fresia ran her fingers playfully over her shoulders and leaned close to her ear to whisper, «we won’t need masks after that. After all, there’s no one else to hide from.»

Even if that was a joke, it was a good one. Several of the fairies had already thrown off their bows, bravely displaying their bodies, covered only by a cloth of fresh flowers. One of the guests had slit the wrist of a corpse and placed a gilded goblet under it. The other fairies, who had cast off their masks, pinched and scratched the host’s body with pins. They checked to see if he was alive and laughed. Rhianon noticed that the clusters of rowanberries and grapes and buckthorn in their hair were most likely real and seemed to grow straight out of their skin rather than serve as decoration. How beautiful and scary it was. She wondered how she herself would feel if the flowers grew right out of her body.

Her musings were interrupted by the whimpering of a dog. Someone who looked like a mischievous elf had fed the leftover berries to the lord’s hounds, and now they were wriggling in agony on the floor.

«I don’t like dogs, it’s as if they were designed to interfere with my music and everyone’s fun,» remarked the same harlequin who had recently touched her train. Whether he had done it accidentally or on purpose, she did not know. He did not notice her now. He sat down in a comfortable chair by the fireplace, snatched a harp from somewhere and tossed off his jester’s cap. This fell to the floor with the mask attached to it. It must have been a mask, and not the whitewash and makeup on her face, as Rhianon had at first assumed.

«What to play gentlemen?» The harlequin laughed, the harp, which had fallen with the mask at his feet, was now making sounds all by itself, as if someone invisible was plucking the strings.

«You’d better not play at all, you’re not wanted here,» remarked some lady, who had also removed her mask to expose her face, whose forehead and temples were covered with a lush veil of violets, which stretched over her ears and even her neck, but the angry eyes on her face seemed even brighter than they were. They burned like two blue lights.

«Is it redundant?» The harlequin raised his head, tossing back his thick brown hair, and Rhianon recognized his face. He had expressive and enigmatic eyes, which sometimes danced with laughter, but the pleasant tanned face belonged to a young man, not a supernatural being. This minstrel had come to play under her tower windows more than once. He got nothing for it except a slap from her servants, but still he came back again and again. He was variously called a bard, a songbird, a troubadour, or more often just an unhappy admirer. He would appear under the windows of her tower with the sunset and play all night if he was not driven away. From other noble lords for his songs he could get gold pieces, from Rhianon he could not even count on words of approval and still he played for her as often as he could. Only once had she seen him in the hall at a feast. Her curls were then adorned with a crown, and power had not yet been taken away by the regents, and Arno said that his singing today was dedicated only to her. She tolerated this, as she did the fact that with every sunset he literally grew out of the ground beneath her window, unmistakably guessing in which wing of the castle she was, as if he could watch over her through the walls. Where had he been during the day? Was he communicating with evil spirits? Or was he only pretending to be human, when in fact he belonged to their secret society? No, he was most likely human. Rianon could tell, and so could everyone else here. But then why didn’t they touch him? After all, they had easily torn the other men apart. And Rhianon was sure that if someone suddenly noticed the presence of uninvited guests, ordinary mortals, they would be attacked.

Some of the fairies did attack Arno, but so far only in words; they would not, or could not, harm him. That was interesting. Rhianon took a closer look at his face, but there was nothing unusual about it.

«Go away, you’re embarrassing us,» the girl, who had vines growing in her dark hair, actually clutched at his sleeve and tried to pull him from his chair. «Why do we need an ordinary mortal minstrel? Go and entertain the high-born lords, not their bones. There’s nothing left here but bones. We want to have fun without you.»

The bodies left lying on the floor of the hall would indeed soon become naked bones, Rhianon thought. Beautiful and elegant creatures pounced on the remains like dogs. Exactly the same fairy as the one that had been pinching Arno was just nestled against the former lord’s throat. For a moment she broke away from the meat and bones and looked at the harp lying nearby. Its strings twitched slowly, making faint sounds as Arno himself tried to free himself from his attacker’s claws.

«Thank God for unearthly music, not for the pitiful skills of musicians,» she hissed in his ear. «You’re not wanted here, you’re not wanted. No one invited you. Don’t you dare follow us again and spoil our heavenly tunes. This hall is not for the likes of you.»

«But there are others here worse than me,» he exploded. «Even I can smell extra, and you can’t.»

Rhianon involuntarily shuddered. Had he really decided to give her away? He had recognized her, that was for sure, but how could he expose her in front of everyone. She had not expected such meanness from him. Involuntarily she clutched at Fresia’s elbow, but she didn’t even notice it. Her dainty nostrils flared oddly. She sniffed the air, as if trying to smell something. It was like a dog following a trail. For a moment Rhianon felt disgust, and then suddenly realized that Arno was not going to give her away. He pointed his hand toward the gentlemen in the black robes. His eyes suddenly flashed a hostile glow. Such a fierce and impudent expression on his calm face she had never seen. It was as if he had changed in an instant, becoming a very different man, unfamiliar and possessed.

«They’re not one of yours,» he shouted. «But they’re allowed to be here, and I’m not. That’s not fair.»

His harp strings jerked sharply, as if to prove the accusation. At that moment Rhianon wanted to be invisible. She was afraid the next time someone would point her out. But so far that had not happened.

«Fresia, I’m sorry, but I have to go,» she was already looking for an escape route. So far, no crowd had gathered around the guests in black, as they had around the master of the house before. Rhianon did not know what would happen next, but she did not want to see it. Besides, for some reason it seemed to her that she herself, though doing nothing, was drawing much more attention to herself than the figures in black. No one was looking at her directly, but she felt the stares from the crowd burned her. These were non-humans, after all; they didn’t have to look someone straight in the eye to notice them. She felt uncomfortable here. And the doors of the hall, wide open, seemed to be beckoning her to leave. It was still possible to slip through them unnoticed and return to Orpheus, who was waiting for her downstairs. At the exit she might even run into the very guests in black who had attracted her attention. After all, unless they get mauled right now, they’ll probably have to leave. After all, Arno had said they were superfluous here, and the crowd seemed to agree with him. But he was superfluous here, too. Rhianon could no longer see him or the harp ahead of her. He had managed to disappear somewhere. It was time for her to go too.

«You should stay,» Fresia turned to her. «It’s too far before dawn. It’s too early to leave. When the rooster crowed, it would be time to observe tradition, but now…»

«I’m already too late,» she remembered perfectly that she’d agreed to go with them, but now she felt as if she’d made a mistake. Her instinct for self-preservation told her to get out of this house as soon as possible, but Fresia’s eyes beckoned her to stay, so expressive and alluring, and they changed color on top of that. Looking into them seemed to plunge you into a floral abyss. Rhianon forced herself to look away. She turned and walked away, not so fast as to draw attention, but trying not to linger either. The train slid freely across the floor behind her, and it felt like a blue wave running. The hem was cold on her legs. For the umpteenth time that evening, for some reason she had the association of a mountain stream in her mind. She wanted so badly to turn around and look at Fresia one more time. Rhianon did not want to leave her at all. On the contrary, she wanted to be close to her, to touch her hand, to feel her light embrace, to drown in her bottomless eyes. But it was dangerous.

«Wait, don’t go,» a worried Chloe grabbed her near the stairs. The whole time she was flying after her. It was not walking, but flying. Rhianon noticed that the hem of her beige dress hung an inch above the floor, and the toes of her light beaded shoes did not touch the ground either.

«Better stay with us for the night,» Chloe’s pale hand tried to catch her wrist, but Rhianon dodged and picked up the train to make it easier to run up the stairs. The least resistance she expected from Chloe. Fresia’s passive and carefree companion seemed to notice her no more than a piece of furniture. It turned out that her distracted attention was capable of focusing on something after all. At any rate, she wasn’t about to let Rhianon just walk away.

«Stay with us for good, not just one night,» the unfamiliar fairy was now nimbly clutching at Rhianon’s waist. How could she have crept up behind her so silently? She hadn’t been there a moment ago. She hadn’t even been there a moment before. It was a tiny, fragile arm, but that wasn’t what made Rhianon sick. The fairy was dressed in a bright red outfit, as if woven from a purple web. Instead of a mask, her heart-shaped face was covered by the same red thread veil. To top it all off were her crimson lips, the scarlet plume of her hat, and an incredibly bright blush on her very pale face. Two scarlet blotches seemed spread across her dead-white skin. Rhianon almost vomited. It was as if on purpose the color of fire was chasing her. Could this all be a practical joke? She lashed out sharply, but someone else approached her.

«Stay with us!» In a second the voices turned into a chorus. Before she could count how many figures in fanciful costumes and masks rose up before her, one after the other.

«We won’t let you go,» the others murmured.

«We like you too much. You’re so beautiful.» Some of them were running their fingers through her hair, others were stroking her shoulders. What cold fingers they were, and how tenacious. She looked around helplessly, but all she saw were masks. It was a whirlwind of bizarre and fantastical images. White, red, purple, silk, satin, with peacock feathers or flowers-all around her were masks, and the faces under them must have been laughing. If only there were any faces under them at all. Somehow it seemed to Rhianon that it was not the masks, but nature itself that had made these creatures so unimaginative. They surrounded her. Everyone wanted to touch her. That’s how you surround a shrine, so that everyone can touch it. That was how they treated her, but she was not. Now she really felt cursed. That must have been what Manfred called her. Rhianon tried to shield herself from the touch of the masks, but they grew more insistent. Perhaps she should still thank fate that they were not trying to kill her, like the owners of this house, where they had decided to hold a masquerade. The feeling that these masks could not be removed for the simple reason that there were no other faces beneath them only intensified. She was getting scared.

«Stay with us, Goldilocks,» the hissing voices kept whispering to her. They called her many things: angel, child, princess, even my love, but she did not like the sound of their intonation. They seemed to tease her and at the same time could not understand why they were all so attracted to her. Rhianon would have used any weakness in the circle of masks to escape, but it seemed impossible to break through the breach.

«Leave me alone!» she shook off the strangers’ hands. Their coldness was making her uncomfortable. Gnarly shivers coursed down her spine, but somewhere deep inside her a flame was beginning to rise.

«Go away!» she pushed someone away, but another sprang up in his place.

«My darling,» someone whispered softly, and cold fingers touched her face again. That’s when Rhianon couldn’t take it anymore. Perhaps the strong emotions in her were always triggered in the same way, whether it was fear or anger. In any case, now a jet of fire burst from her lips as she breathed, and the man beside her recoiled. He was screaming and hiding his face. Rhianon understood why. Her brain was working feverishly and everything inside felt like it was shrinking. She felt the heat. The cold tones of the corset she was laced in could no longer contain it. Flames were bursting out and not just with her breath. Those who touched her naked shoulders jerked their hands away in horror. They were burned. Rhianon turned around at the crowd of masks. Some of them shouted, some blew on their palms, some just backed away, slowly and incredulously. Along with this, the objects around them ignited. Curtains burst into flames, flames ran through the ceiling beams. If it had found a way out, now the tension inside her would only subside after something was burnt. Rhianon feared that now the whole house would burn down, all just because they tried to keep her here. Did anyone need this house, after the owners themselves were gone. The fairies were only going to enjoy themselves here for one night and fly away for good. In that case, they could fly out of the flames as well. As if to confirm her thoughts, figures began to fly out of the burning rooms, just as unusual and masked as the ones that had followed her. They did not know what was happening, or they were furious. Rhianon did not wait for what was to come; with her hand she picked up the hem of her dress and hurried down the stairs. She tried not to touch the railing and still there were sparks dancing on it. It was the most uncontrollable flash of flame she’d ever produced. She didn’t even know she was capable of that. And, of course, she wondered why she didn’t burn with it. Each time her anger or fear burned the others, but the flames only burst out, as if there was a hearth inside her, like the mouth of a dormant volcano. She herself remained unharmed. That must be how a basilisk or salamander felt, but they knew the nature of their powers, and she didn’t. Rhianon didn’t know where it came from, and she probably didn’t even want to know. It was scary. Do dragons know the nature of their powers? There she thought again about those mythical monsters, but instead of gleaming jewel-like scales she somehow imagined someone else’s armor and a helmeted blond head, and under the visor his dragon’s gaze. There were all-seeing dragon eyes on an ever-young face. Why did she think of it that way? Maybe because if all that was left of the mansion after tonight was a crumbling wreck, the locals would blame it on the dragon. Rumor had it the creatures had rarely, if ever, been seen and not invented, but it was easier to lay the blame on them than on the princess who’d escaped. The only pity is that Manfred could link such a fire that came out of nowhere to her and then he’d be on the right trail. Then it’s a good thing the gossip didn’t get to him. Peasants in nearby villages would be far more alarmed by the bloodless corpses than by a burnt-out house. Fires sometimes do happen, with or without dragons. If the flames reached enormous proportions, it was easier, of course, to make up a dragon. Rhianon didn’t even know what would happen to her if she encountered such a creature, with scales that glittered like precious chainmail and flames bursting from its nostrils and mouth. Such a creature would be like her, but would it accept her as its own. Or would it have to assert its rights to life with its own fiery breath. She, too, could produce fire, but unlike dragons she could not do so by choice, and she had no control over her ability. She wanted only to break free of the ring of masks that surrounded her, but instead she set the whole house on fire.

The flames were devouring the mystery that would remain after the fairies were gone. She imagined those bones, adorned with velvet and jewels, but stripped of their flesh, and thought of the talk it might provoke. The superstitious villagers were ready to gossip about anything, and here was such an accident. It turns out sometimes a fire is even good for you. Once you light a house, the flames will cleanse it of the coming of evil, and then no one will know of the drama that has unfolded in it. Rhianon was only glad it wasn’t her own house or the estate of someone she knew. Such an outburst of rage would have been inappropriate there, and from here she was fleeing for good.

By the same tree Orpheus was waiting for her. He leaned carelessly against the trunk, crossed his arms across his chest, and watched apathetically as flames burst from the windows.

«Best fireworks I’ve ever seen in my life,» he commented as he spotted the Mistress running down the stairs.

«You mean all eternity,» she frowned. «Oh, don’t be so modest, I’m sure you’ve seen better fireworks. There were at least the dragon raids. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen one in your whole life.»

«Are we expecting something like that here?»

«I won’t stay long here,» she was reluctant to give him the details, and she was sure he knew all too well.

«How are we leaving already?» Orpheus pretended to be amazed. «And I thought my beautiful lady would be celebrating all night. It is the death of other people’s enemies, not yours, but who cares if you can feast at other people’s expense. Besides, the enemies of friends are our enemies. You liked being friends with the fairies, by the way.»

«Don’t waste your breath,» she snapped at him. «Would you steal a carriage or horses for us?»

«What is it for?» Now he really didn’t understand her.

«I can’t go on the muddy roads dressed like this,» Rhianon wondered how he didn’t understand her at once. She could barely hold the train of her dress with her hand so it wouldn’t end up in the dust.

«Ah,» Orpheus snapped his fingers at her as if he hadn’t noticed just now. «Well, all right. I think I’ve seen a suitable carriage here.»


The carriage did not shake at all on the desert road, and the wheels did not rattle. Orpheus turned out to be a skilled coachman as well. Rhianon already thought that all he knew how to do was steal. Though the carriage he most likely stole from the master of the house, it is unlikely he would dare touch the carriages of any of his supernatural brethren. After all, the dead lord didn’t care that he was left without a carriage, and the extraordinary and overly exuberant horses in fairy cabriolets could have carried on, after all. She had to hand it to Orpheus for his ingenuity. He had chosen ordinary and unsightly, but obedient horses. Now he could steer them easily. And Rhianon could fall asleep. Inside the carriage it was dark and comfortable. Only occasional glimmers of light penetrated the window. Only it was impossible to determine their source. Where in the wilderness, where there was nothing but heath and forest thickets, could lights come from? She was beginning to fall asleep when someone gently touched her shoulder.

«Is this right? Are we going east?»

A familiar voice sounded right above her ear and brought her to her senses. Rhianon stared at Orpheus in amazement. He was here, beside her, then who was sitting on the horses. The carriage had not stopped; the horses were galloping forward, which meant that someone was directing them.

«They obey me anyway,» Orpheus said, understanding what she was thinking, «they don’t need me to hold the reins.»

«And you’re sure they won’t have to at the turn, too?» She feared a catastrophe that would naturally have no effect on the disembodied spirit, but would have a very tangible effect on her.

«Surely,» Orpheus snapped his fingers as if to prove it, and the carriage horses took a sharp turn, dragging the carriage after them.

«Wait, we must keep to one direction,» she was not surprised by his skill and was already worried about the course.

«That is to the east,» Orpheus finished for her. «Or where is your star pointing now? Don’t you want to take it out and check?»

Rhianon frowned. After the way the fairies had so deftly transformed her outfit, she was no longer sure she would find the star at all. The pendant would have been in her pocket. But the pocket itself was now gone. She felt only the folds of her ball gown.

«Look in its folds,» her spirit suggested.

Rhiannon slid her fingers through the fabric. A star seemed to slip from her sleeve.

«It is a focus,» Orpheus perked his ears happily. «How I love these little tricks. Not magic, and a little more inventive than pulling a rabbit out of a hat.»

«Shut up,» Rhianon interrupted him, not quite politely. «You are disturbing my thinking.»

«As you say, ma’am,» he bowed playfully, and surprisingly, even in the narrow space of the carriage, he did not bump into anything.

Rhianon regarded the star. One of its tips still remained elongated. It was pointing the same way.

«Straight ahead,» she concluded.

«And let’s hope the road at least leads somewhere,» he whistled expressively.

«Don’t be ironic,» she glanced at him thoughtfully. «It’s better than hanging around with other people’s company again, isn’t it? In the end it’s better than hanging around another man’s company again, don’t you think?»

She was well aware of his weaknesses. Orpheus immediately fell silent.

«But isn’t there another stranger’s company you’re going to seek out at the School of Witchcraft?» He asked after a pause. «Why do you need other people if you have me?»

«What do you have to do with me?» She burst into anger. «I’m interested in the place. What is it like? What do they teach there? Is it really a path only for the chosen ones?»

«Yes, but it is not for people like you.»

«Are you saying I’m worse than them?»

«No, you’re chosen too, but not like them. You’re better than them.»

«Oh, come on. I just get burned if I’m touched by people I don’t like.

«What if I do?» He arched his eyebrows defiantly. «Why else would I love you so much?»

«Because no one else was stupid enough to put up with a companion as chatty as you,» she wasn’t even surprised that he was suddenly confessing his love, she took it for granted that, after all, he was never serious, which meant he shouldn’t be taken too seriously. «Besides, you had nothing to do in those caves, so you picked on me. It’s boring to be stuck in the same place for centuries without anyone to talk to.»

«Yes, of course,» he wasn’t trying to lie, «but if you weren’t special, I couldn’t relate to you like that. There’s something inside you. It fascinates us all. I mean all magical people.»

«It is the flame,» she prompted him. It was the only thing inside her.

«I don’t know,» he looked at her seriously for the first time.

Rhianon looked away. She tried to comprehend what had just happened to her.

They’d tried to keep her in someone else’s house for a masquerade party, and she’d ignited everything there. And who was there? Masks, just masks, and she thought they were real demons. They flew out of the fire to talk her into staying with them. She wanted to forget it. Rhianon began to watch the glitter of the gold star in her palm. It calmed her. Even though she had seen this very pendant around the condemned man’s neck, it did not make her fearful. The gold warmed her hand pleasantly, and sometimes it was cold. The pendant seemed to have a way of cooling or warming itself, regardless of the ambient temperature or someone else’s touch.

She held the chain in her weight and watched the star rotate quietly. Strangely, no matter where she turned, the elongated end remained pointing in the same direction.

«So we’re going in the right direction,» she concluded to herself, but Orpheus immediately responded to her statement.

«You’re drawn to that place, where snobs gather, or a threatening emptiness reigns. It’s bad there, believe me. They try to tame the magic there. They want to keep your talent within limits, and there are no limits.»

Rhiannon looked at him with interest. «Were any of them at the masquerade?»

«There were only students, not teachers.»

«But there can’t be any teachers, because magic is an element that can only be controlled by a higher power. I’ve heard that teachers always remain invisible, because they are not living beings — they themselves are a force from the darkness that, without calling themselves, teaches evil to others.»

«You’re being a bit dramatic, but in many ways it’s true. The only pity is that unnamed forces sometimes retreat into the shadows for fun, and charlatans begin to claim their places.»

«If that’s the case, I’ll know right away and won’t be there long. I can tell when someone is trying to trick me.»

«Rhianon,» he called her by her name for the first time, and his voice sounded pitiful. «You wouldn’t leave me at the gate, would you?»

She felt pity for him for a moment. Orpheus’ handsome face expressed such longing. The freckles that had recently scattered across his cheeks were now almost invisible on his white skin. Somehow it seemed to her that if he were human he would be red to the roots of his hair now. He clearly felt out of place because he was forced to ask for something. Perhaps he even needed sympathy. Rhianon didn’t even think about the fact that he was hardly pleased to be stomping under the windows of the manor while she herself was inside. But she decided that tenderness would not do him any good. Orpheus had to be handled more strictly, so that he wouldn’t get all riled up. That was his nature.

«You’ll have to learn to behave, then I’ll treat you better, but not before,» she warned him and decided to calculate, almost by the hour, how long it would take to get him to settle down.

The star-shaped pendant was still twirling smoothly on the chain. Rhianon was mesmerized by its brilliance. She never even once compared it to the luster of the axe blade that had sliced the young man’s neck. How terrible it must be to die so young. But she did not see fear in that young man’s eyes. Maybe Orpheus was right and the blade of the axe only unleashes an unspeakably strong spirit from the human body. Then she wanted to believe that the young man was not dead, that somewhere is still his soul guarding the witch secrets entrusted to him in life.

Rhianon suddenly felt that they had crossed a bridge of some kind and was involuntarily astonished. Why would there be a bridge in such a wilderness? She did not even hear the sound of flowing water. And if there was a bridge, there had to be a river. Rhianon wanted to look out the window, but there was nothing but darkness behind the ajar curtain. A star, dangling on a chain, seemed to be the only source of light in the darkness around her. Rhianon peered at it, and caught sight of something in its rays of light. It was a speck of debris. The object grew to the size of a walnut shell, and now it was a tiny man, taking off his head a hat made just from the shell of a walnut or acorn.

«Madam,» he bowed to her exquisitely. Though all of him could fit in a thimble, Rhianon was flattered by his gesture. She smiled back. She’d heard of leprechauns before. She’d heard of leprechauns, and had been told that if you caught one and then held it in check, it would grant you every wish. Only somehow it seemed to her that there was no need to catch him. He is already caught, attracted and enchanted by the light of the star she holds in her hands.

«Who are you looking at?»

Rhianon could hardly drop the spell and look back at Orpheus.

«What do you mean? Can’t you see for yourself?»

But the tiny creature was gone. It had disappeared, as if it hadn’t appeared at all. But after its departure the moonlight shone just outside the window.

«Here we are,» Orpheus commented. «This is where you wanted to be.»

«There’s nothing beyond this window,» she commented, not seeing anything but the clearing and the bridge that had sprung up over it. It led nowhere, and there was no river, not even a ditch to span it. But the bridge itself was beautiful. Rhianon couldn’t help but notice how exquisitely the railings were gilded and how finely the ornate carvings had been chiseled on them.

«This is the spot,» Orpheus said. «They seem to have been waiting for you.»

Rhianon closed her eyes and imagined the couple in their elegant black robes. What would she say to them if she saw them here on the road, waiting for her for some unknown reason? And wouldn’t the horses have bucked at the sight of the mysterious strangers? Considering that they were already used to Orpheus, it was unlikely. But Rhianon herself could not get used to the fact that the world around her was becoming unusual. It was no longer the world she knew. It was a whole universe, hidden from human eyes, in which anything was possible.

Rhianon looked at the star in her hand. Neither end of it was so stretched out anymore as to be different from the others. So they really did come. There was nothing around, no palace, no chateau or rotunda, not even a shabby shack. And still the girl got out of the carriage. It was as if the bridge was waiting for her. And she went in its direction, leaving Orpheus to soothe the disgruntled snoring horses.

«Your Highness,» a voice came unexpectedly, and before she had even set foot on the bridge, she saw the very young man from the masquerade in front of her. The dainty black clothes matched his platinum curls. This time he wore no mask and was visibly pale. More pale than a dead man. And at the same time his voice was pleasant and his manners courteous.

He was not blocking her way to the bridge, but he seemed to be the one deciding whether or not she could set foot in that territory.

«No! No!» She noticed another dwarf nimbly gesticulating on the other side of the bridge. He was darting in one place, waving his arms as if he wanted to block the way for them both. «She’s not allowed in here. She belongs to him, not us. Wake up, Clive, he’ll burn us all if you let her in here.»

The young man reacted in no way to the dwarf’s obsessive cries. He stared at Rhianon, and though his face was expressionless, she sensed that he was on her side.

«I have it,» she held out the glittering star to him without knowing why.

«I know,» his bloodless lips parted in a faint smile. «And there are special rules today. You keep your pass. Come along.»

He held out his hand, which Rhianon touched reluctantly. Her skin was white as if it had been dusted with flour or chalk.

«Headless!» The dwarf muttered angrily before she ducked into the shadows.

Maybe she thought he meant it twice, but she didn’t. Rhianon tried to see the dwarf’s red hat in the darkness, but she could not. The darkness seemed to swallow him up. Orpheus, on the other hand, was not a step behind her now. He stayed close to her train as it slid across the bridge. He stayed just beside her train as it slid across the bridge. She and the young man in black seemed deliberately oblivious to each other.

«I have a right to be here, because I am your personal spirit, and here it is like a shadow,» Orpheus’ laughing eyes informed her triumphantly, but he himself was trying to keep quiet now. He really did stick close to her as an inaudible and invisible shadow. Except that, unlike the shadow, he was too bright. His red hair and motley attire would have stood out sharply even in a fairground, let alone here.

Rhianon stopped wondering where they were going. She had barely set foot on the bridge when the outlines of towers and bastions appeared in the distance on the other side of it. She could see the silhouette of a somber building, with its beautifully curved parapets and almost tracery of interlocking pediments, colonnades, and covered galleries. It was not even a building, but an entire city. It was an empty city. The dead silence ahead made her uneasy. Could it be that all those towers and bastions, even the basement below them, were completely empty. Or so it seemed. The sheer length of the building ahead made her wary, not to mention the fact that there must have been an immense space beneath the floor. She noticed staircases swiftly descending at times, wide and narrow, grand and spiral, half-covered by some dark living creeper, or simply hanging in the dark space without any visible support. She blinked quickly to get rid of the feeling that it was all a dream. Everything here was dark: the passageways, the carvings on the doors, the ampel plants that seemed to move on their own. Candles flickered on and off in sconces or large floor chandeliers, adding to the sense of blackness. At any rate, they only brought out black objects from the gloom. Rhianon only couldn’t tell what materials were used here. What was it, black wood, black stone to upholster the few pieces of furniture?

«It’s easy to get used to,» she heard Orpheus’ insistent voice in her head. «The fiery letters, which appear and disappear on their own when you ask questions, are best seen against such a background.»

Rhianon squinted at him. Of course, his lips weren’t moving, and he wasn’t saying anything out loud, but the words were coming out.

Suddenly the sound of music caught her attention. In one of the opened doors she noticed a harpsichord. And it seemed to be playing by itself. She would have thought it was the wind pressing the keys, but of course there was no wind. Why would there be any wind in such a confined space?

Rhianon imagined a girl in a gorgeous black dress sitting on a pedestal in front of the harpsichord and playing it. And beside her, of course, would be her gentleman, also dressed in black, correcting the sheets of music on the easel. For a moment she thought she saw those two, the same couple from the masquerade, but of course they were no longer masked, and the faces under them were as pale, bloodless, and expressionless as those of her companion. Is that how everyone here becomes? Does the power gained through magic drain all the joy of life from them? Is this the price of knowledge? They say one must sell one’s soul to gain the key to forbidden knowledge. And what happens then, will what you buy be worth its price, or do forbidden sciences merely open a gateway to darkness. Rhianon felt out of place here. She didn’t like the darkness around her and the rustles that echoed within it.

«It won’t always be like this, you’ll get used to it,» Clive didn’t whisper the words to her, but they seemed to sound to her alone, while his fingers gripped her hand harder and harder. He didn’t seem to want to let her go, but he already knew that she would soon want to leave.

She remembered the execution and the way the blade cut through a defenseless neck. The magical pendant was powerless to preserve flesh from the fatal blow. Maybe, by stepping in here, she was setting herself up for the same blow. There is a difference between physical strength and the evil energy hidden within these walls. The second is even worse, because it is more insidious and much stronger. Rhianon felt the crushing emptiness with every cell of her body. Maybe Orpheus had been right when he’d told her that a stroke of the blade was merely liberating. Here, on the contrary, she felt as if she were shackled. The darkness seemed to try to take her captive and never let her out again. Rhianon struggled to breathe in the stinking air and felt a flame build up in her chest. In a second she’d breathe out a trickle of fire into the darkness. She didn’t want to burn her companion, but the flame was bursting out. She couldn’t hold back any longer.

«Calm,» he turned around just as the air next to her heated up, «there’s nothing to defend yourself against, you can live here in peace for centuries without even noticing that they’ve passed, because nothing disturbs the silence.

«And so you can live here quietly side by side with the living and the dead?» She asked without knowing why. «And not even know that someone who died a long time ago is now keeping you company?»

«Yes,» he admitted simply and unashamedly. «It would be one grandiose crypt if it were not for magic, it equals all of us, both the living and the dead, or rather there is neither one nor the other, neither life nor death has no meaning here, because the soul is the same after death, and it hungers for magical knowledge no less than the living. Here we all die and are born to darkness. And some die before that.»

She tried to wrest her hand from his.

«I remember the execution,» she whispered.

Clive stopped abruptly, and looked at her differently, not with the long, hard stare she’d received the first time, but with a look of dismay. His unexpressive eyes twisted for a moment, his lips twitched slightly, as if he wanted to say something and couldn’t. Rhianon looked closely at him, and for a moment thought she had a glimpse into his soul.

«You’d better leave us,» Orpheus looked as if he were about to come between her and her escort. «You see, she doesn’t need a guide. She can learn a great deal more about this place herself than she can in your presence.»

Rhianon was frightened that a furious altercation was about to break out between her two companions. Orpheus looked angry and disheveled, as if he’d just had a fight with a bunch of rivals and was ready to get into more. There was a palpable power coming from Clive. But unlike the talkative Orpheus, he was still restrained and wise. Apparently, death adds to wisdom. Rhianon had no doubt that he had survived it, and now saw the world very differently than they did. At any rate, instead of the expected quarrel, only a slight nod of the head followed. Clive let it be known that he accepted the remark and was ready to step into the shadows temporarily.

«You shouldn’t be here,» Orpheus clutched at her shoulders as soon as Clive left them, pulling at the lush flounces of the fabric. His ethereal touch was suddenly very tangible. He hurried to lead her somewhere forward through the dark galleries, and seemed ready even to rip her off the ground and carry her in his arms. «You will die here,» he whispered, «and so will I.»

«You think we have somewhere else to go,» she hissed at him. «Perhaps to my castle, where I would be headless and you could sit guarding my corpse or pestering other people. You’d better go and be a companion for someone who’ll really need you.»

He didn’t even take offense at her.

«I’m already too attached to you.»

«Yeah, I can see that,» she grudgingly looked at the way his thin, too-long fingers wrapped around her shoulders.

«I can hardly keep up with you anymore.»

«That’s what parasites do when they suck on some plant. Vines in the garden or mushrooms at the roots of trees, you, like them, just need to live off someone else. On your own, you are nothing. You are zero. You are an empty space. You become more material the closer you get to me. And you think I haven’t noticed it yet.»

«Chill out! Otherwise your breath will ignite this gallery.»

His remark was sarcastic, but it was the right one. She tried to hold her breath. The tight corset tightening her breasts worked well for that. The fire that had matured inside her never broke free with a gasp. But Rhianon was still staring into the darkness, afraid that it was about to burst into flames.

«To think that you’re so golden and delicate, and you’re what I’d call a fiery beauty.»

She did not react at all to Orpheus’ remark. Sometimes even he was right. But that truth was of little use. Nothing could be changed. She was what she was and that was why they had come here now.

«Stop dragging me along,» she snapped at him, «I can find my own way around here.»

«Well, please,» Orpheus obediently took a step back from her. «Choose your direction. You’re the only one who can get where you want to go. After all, you were the one invited here, not me. Move at random and try not to inflame everything in the process. It’s so dangerous with you.»

He rubbed his hands as if they were burned. He could hardly have been burned by the contact with her shoulders. Rhianon regarded his gestures condescendingly, as if they were a joke. You would have been a fine clown, she wanted to say, but she listened to herself instead of bickering. She wondered if she should just take a random route and let the magic take her where she needed to go.

Rhianon stared down one of the branches of the wide, dark corridor, and long rows of sconces flashed on either side, as if pointing the right way. It was so reminiscent of the Milky Way. Rhianon involuntarily stared at the flickering lights in the darkness.

And then it suddenly seemed to her that she had missed something. There should have been some other rite or ritual, a test of her abilities, an initiation and a meeting, but there was none. The road before her seemed eerily empty.

«Why does no one greet us?» She asked Orpheus quietly.

«You are different and your story is special,» he shrugged nonchalantly, the ringing of the stirring bells in this space seemed ghostly rather than perky. It was so unaccustomed. Rhianon felt the fire inside her. But an icy wind had blown.

«You are allowed to walk around here alone. The others wouldn’t be allowed to do that. And you go wherever you want, though there are so many forbidden paths here.»

«I thought the way here was forbidden in itself.»

«But there are rules, too,» he too stared into the darkness expectantly, as if he could see something she hadn’t seen yet. «Let’s hope you don’t get hurt, my beautiful princess. After all, you are special, and so pretty. If anyone is offended by your presence in their midst, they will be silent, out of respect for the fire within you.»

«Stop your chattering,» she paced ahead of him.

«I’m only trying to talk sense,» Orpheus kept her at her side for several paces. Orpheus would not allow her to go more than a few paces away from him, and he would be at her side as if he were bound to her. There was really no getting away from him. But if she could bear to be around him, listening to his endless chatter was becoming unbearable.

«All you’re going to do is make my ears hurt,» she hissed, silencing him at least for a few moments. How nice it would be if he only commented on business and kept his own considerations to himself. Shall she tell him to do that? Was he bound to her by so much sorcery as to be compelled to do her every wish? That would have to be checked sometime. For now she was more interested in the aura of the place. Rhianon went wherever it seemed to be calling her.

The train glided smoothly behind her on the marble floor. In the silence ahead some rustling could be heard. There were hundreds of voices. They were talking and whispering, making absurd suggestions and jokes and promises, but they were all part of one big overarching silence. Perhaps she could have singled out any one of these voices just by wishing to listen to it alone, but she didn’t want to. She didn’t even want to look beneath her feet and notice in the cracks of the floor a multitude of tiny uncertain creatures, like the midget she had seen in the carriage just for a moment. Then he gave her a bow. Did this mean that she had been expected here for a long time.

Rhianon walked down the corridor for a long time before one of the open doors caught her eye. Every door she’d seen before had been closed, but here a golden light shone through the crack. She stepped closer, and all kinds of hues flashed through it. It reminded her of a rainbow. Rhianon was about to reach out and open the door, when she remembered that the star was still clutched in her hand.

«There is a pendant from the neck of the condemned man,» she must have said the words out loud when someone in the empty space answered her.

«Do you want to call out to him?»

It was not the voice of Orpheus behind her, and it was coming from somewhere above, not behind. She looked up and saw that a tiny man, just like the one she had seen in the carriage, was sitting over the doorpost. He, too, had taken off his wide-brimmed hat when she looked at him, exposing his tiny head. He would have easily fit into a thimble or a walnut shell all by himself. The creature was no bigger than a ladybug or a bug, but he acted as if he sensed his own importance. It was dressed somewhat differently than her last acquaintance. Tiny legs in gold stockings dangled over the ajar door. Rhianon was sure that if he wanted to jump down, he wouldn’t crash, despite his tiny size. She even thought she could put her hand under his arm and he would fly down with a sweep of his cloak like a butterfly’s wings.

«What do you mean?» she asked softly.

«A dead one,» was the serious reply, «a dead one can be the mentor of a living one. You could choose him.»

«I don’t need tutors. I like to learn everything myself, that’s why I came here. Those who are really good at something don’t need a mentor.»

«It seems that way.»

The lilliput was staring somewhere beneath her feet, and Rhianon glanced there, too, and noticed the scarlet drops on the floor. She’d squeezed the star too hard in her palm, and it had sharp ends. They were too sharp. Droplets of blood rolled to her feet, a few of them staining the hem of her dress. Others touched the floor and began to faintly ignite on it. But there was no smell of burning, as there usually was, and no shower of sparks or scorching flames. Rhianon saw the scarlet drops fade, and black flowers sprout from them.

«No more frogs and toads that would emerge from the drops of my blood,» she whispered, looking at the tiny black magnolias or orange blossoms. She didn’t even know what they might be called. They don’t look like clover either, but they’re exactly the size of clover heads.

«It is like a drop of your blood,» someone remarked.

Rhianon glanced at the doorway, but there was no sign of the little man.

«Don’t talk to them,» Orpheus warned her. «You see, they’re all over everyone, trying to lead you astray. They are empty-headed insects. They’ll do as much harm to you as locusts do to a field.»

«But they’re funny,» Rhianon stared into the empty space, trying to see what else was there. But all the tiny creatures seemed to hide after Orpheus’ reproof. It was so easy for them to hide. After all, there are so many cracks and burrows and just dark corners around. They could fit everywhere.

«What did he say about me?» she frowned and looked questioningly at Orpheus. «What do drops of blood mean?»

«Well, if your blood is spilled, but fell on no treaty, then your soul is of no use to anyone here.»

«Is it my soul?» She didn’t understand him.

«There is a price to pay for learning, my princess. And what did you expect?»

There is a golden crown, a triumphal procession, and a fanfare,» she joked, but then she realized this was no place for humor. Her laughter seemed to sink into the endless darkness, leaving only a crushing sense of emptiness. It was as if her soul had been drained out of her.

«Don’t be afraid, they don’t want to take your soul for some reason, it must belong to someone else,» his own voice cut off and fell silent. Orpheus obviously did not want to finish something.

«Is it my soul,» Rhianon repeated involuntarily, and this word sounded like a sigh and somehow frightened her.

«Yes,» Orpheus confirmed nonchalantly. «There are general rules for everyone, both for the marginally gifted and the super-talented. But they don’t seem to apply to you.»

«Do you know those rules?»

«Of course, and I wonder why no one has introduced you to them yet.»

«Then you name them.»

«Well, okay,» he shrugged. «First, anyone lucky enough to come here has to sign the contract with his own blood. It doesn’t matter if you stab your toe with a thorn, a pin, a needle, or just happen to cut yourself on a clump stuck in the doorpost, but the fact is, not a single drop of blood spilled here will be wasted. Barely a drop of it will get on the treaty, and you’ll see it. By the way, it’s already strange to me that you didn’t hurt yourself on the way in, no sharp teeth on the doorknob, no sharpened end of the pin you found. They don’t seem to want your blood too much. Otherwise you’d have found a sharp object, or stumbled across one. This is a school of the arcane arts.»

«Now,» she interrupted him abruptly. «What other rules are there? Or is there just one? And that’s my signature on the document, which, by the way, I haven’t even seen yet. And I probably won’t see it again, or else a drop of my blood will burn through it. Maybe that’s the only reason it wasn’t offered to me to sign.»

«I don’t think so,» Orpheus began to curl his fingers, clearly recalling the other terms, and Rhianon involuntarily noticed that there were more than five fingers on his hand. «One, you must sign with your own blood before you can begin training, two, no payment will be accepted — no payment in gold, because you must make your own gold,» he gestured briskly, and the doubloon glinted in his palm. «You see,» he showed the full coin triumphantly, «the third rule is, if you can’t do it, you have no business here.»

«Is it creating gold out of nothing?» She frowned.

«And what do you want, my dear, it is sorcery?» He tossed the coin, and it disappeared into thin air, just vanished into thin air. Rhianon would rather have thought he’d managed to hide it in his sleeve, but she didn’t see anything like that. The glittering gold really did seem to just emerge from the gloom and drown in it.

«You make your own gold, that’s the immutable rule of this place, which is why students would flock here in droves if it were open to all, but the trick is that only the chosen can come here. Everyone would like to be able to do something like this, but only the lucky few or the unfortunate can do it, they somehow consider themselves to be the latter, though if I were them…»

«You’re not,» she interrupted him, «and yet you can do it, too.»

«But not quite like them,» he corrected her reasonably. «Even you could do more if you wanted to.»

«I will someday, you bet I will,» she thought of her desperate longing to regain her lost kingdom, and the pain stirred in her soul again. She wanted power, and if only she had power, she would have no doubt in which direction to direct it and how to destroy her enemies. «Are you saying that those who come here are unhappy, despite their great gift?»

She arched her eyebrows skeptically.

«Well, personally I think it’s just bliss, but unlike me they have living hearts, they beat and hurt, they have human feelings, and they are not at odds with the burden of black talent that has fallen on them. You, for example, are not at all happy that fire lives inside you.»

She gave a silent gasp, though she should have realized long ago that he had guessed it. He could see inside her.

«And all because you’re used to living among people and thinking you’re a simple human,» he said, «you know you’re surrounded by simple vulnerable people, you’re used to feeling like them, you’re vulnerable like a fragile girl, and inside you lives such power. Too powerful even for a magical being, it burns through your graceful body. Never mind the broken feelings.»

«I wasn’t asking you about myself,» she reminded him.

«Oh, of course, there are the rules,» he continued to curl his fingers, more and more of them on his hand, as if new ones could grow at his will. «Create your own gold, and then you can create everything else, too,» he proclaimed, «No unelected tutors. No food but sorcery. No gratitude, nobody needs it here. No „thank you,“ no „goodbye,“ you just never leave here, because your soul will stay here, no matter where you go. The term of your training will expire, but the term of dependence on the magical forces you control will never, and believe me, one day you will stumble so that your own magic will destroy you itself. That’s when every student of the School of Witchcraft realizes that there was no one to thank and nothing to thank. He wove his own net and got tangled in it himself. And the victims that any disciple of this place can drag down, I don’t count anymore; there are always countless of them. You destroy yourself when you sign the contract with your blood, but you have no choice. The fragile human body, by a whim of fate, which holds a non-human talent, leaves the newcomer no choice. All the chosen ones come here, and here the same thing always awaits them. I think it’s very tragic to be born human and have non-human qualities. You’re like a moth tied to a candle in advance, you don’t even have to fly at it and you’ll burn anyway. And don’t look at me so accusingly, Rhianon, in your heart you know I’m right. With your unearthly gifts, you’re neither angel nor demon, though something in between, but you’re not human either, and thus you’re superfluous everywhere. That is why you think that your path lies with the School of Witchcraft. As a spirit I approve of you. It really is the only true path. It is better to perish after gaining a moment of your power here than to be an outcast for both humans and supernatural beings for a lifetime. For centuries I’ve watched humans discovering their magical powers as if from heaven, and I can assure you that a shelter here is the perfect way out for them. But you are different. You came here of your own free will, not because it’s time to improve your gift. So just remember one last rule. No gratitude. When a newcomer memorizes this condition as the last one, there is usually another one — someone’s shadow accompanying you. It will stay with you forever.»

Rhianon looked over her shoulder and saw no one. Orpheus had spoken his monologue with such self-confidence. She even flinched, though no one was following her.

«Is something wrong?» He was already smiling mockingly.

«Are you scaring me on purpose?» She snapped back angrily.

«No, I’m just testing how brave you are.»

«You are idiot! I should have you thrown out like a careless servant. Though you may be a spirit, you’re no better than a lazy peasant who’s been admitted to the castle kitchen and doesn’t know what he’s doing.»

«Hey, I merely said the general rules,» he said defensively. «You asked me to. Remember?»

«Yeah, but I didn’t ask you to comment on all those rules, just to name them.»

«If you were really meant to be here, you’d know them by now, they’d be written in fiery letters on the walls, like tablets or right in your brain, but believe me, you wouldn’t be left uninformed.»

«So why did they let me in at all?»

«It’s a mystery to me, too,» he stepped away from her and looked around as if he were looking for something. It was unclear whether he was joking, or whether he was really trying to find some clue. Nothing was ever quite clear with him, and his mood was always changing. One minute he was serious, and the next he was bursting into laughter and making obscene jokes. Rhianon was tired of him, but she could not drive him away. For one thing she did not know how to do it, and for another she was afraid to experiment, that she might drive him away for good, and then she would need him again. While she was not yet on the throne of her country, she could tolerate his presence around her. And then we’ll see if she needs such an advisor, who can find out everything about everyone, or if she will chase him away for being garrulous. At any rate, it will not be soon.

«Think about it, seven years,» he said, as if he could read her mind. «Do you really want to stay in that dark mansion for seven years? It’s a dark place. Besides, you won’t learn anything useful here. It’s so uncomfortable and dark.»

«But I can see light,» she nodded at the rainbow rays dancing in the gap between the door and the lintel.

«It’s just an illusion,» Orpheus tried with all his might to influence her decisions, but so far he had failed, and he was beginning to get angry. It seemed that if he found the tiny humans now, he would crush them with his own fingers.

«It’s all an illusion,» Rhianon corrected him. «You said yourself that magic is all there is. Magic is the only thing that can help me.»

«You’re exaggerating. There are many other ways to get back what you want,» he trailed after her, a gruesome look on his face. Rhianon shrugged, feeling the chill of his breath on her shoulders. He himself remained motley and bright, but it seemed to her that his sighs might freeze with ice.

«It is like picking up a companion spirit,» she teased him.

«Well…» Orpheus didn’t find something to say, probably for the first time in all eternity, and so he looked bewildered.

She was glad. So it was possible to surprise or offend him to the point where he would stop talking. Or maybe she should just not answer him so he’d shut up. His chatter would soon give her a headache. Rhianon sighed and reached for the opened door. Was the light really an illusion, or was a rainbow sheltering beyond the threshold? Her fingers touched the doorjamb, her movements unsure.

«You don’t have to follow me if you don’t want to,» she muttered, and involuntarily dropped her gaze to the hem of her dress. It was stained. There weren’t many red stains from blood drops, but they stood out sharply against the pale blue fabric.

«You don’t have your uniform yet,» someone said behind her, but not Orpheus. The voice was clearly that of a woman. Rhianon turned around and spotted the same couple at the end of the dark corridor. Strangely, their black outfits instead of blending into the darkness stood out sharply against her. She only recognized them by their clothes, though if black outfits were the uniform for everyone here, then the lady and the gentleman might not have been the ones she’d seen at the masquerade at all. They could have been other students of the School of Witchcraft dressed exactly the same. Yet something told her it was them. She liked the lady’s dress, which exposed her shoulders and was embellished with puffy trim, but she herself would have preferred men’s clothing. She was tired of dresses. She would have felt more comfortable in velvet breeches and a black camisole than in a corset that restrained her.

As soon as she looked away from the strange couple and glanced at herself, everything changed. There was white lace stretching across her breasts in place of the dainty cleavage. On her hands she noticed dark lapels and puffy cuffs. Diamond cufflinks gleamed slightly. Gold thread was gracefully woven into the white lace.

«It’s a privilege,» Orpheus remarked, «it’s obvious you’re special.»

Rhianon examined her black camisole. Just the way she wanted it. The wall next to her, which had been dark until recently, suddenly showed her a mirrored reflection. The costume looked good on her. The black was such a shade for her golden hair and pale skin. For a moment Rhianon studied the mirror reflection, tinged with a light haze. It was as if she did not know it. Who was this girl? Was she the perfect student of the School of Witchcraft? No, it was as if she was already standing on her way out of here, though she was still wearing her uniform, there was something childish or boyish about her, but it was immediately obvious that she was a seductive beauty.

The wall went dark again, and Rhianon turned away from her. And then, despite Orpheus’ protests, she opened the door and stepped into some room. At first she thought it was quite small, but in a moment she realized that she had miscalculated. In only a second it seemed to have grown in size, and it was already an entire miniature universe. Behind the huge windows stretched a starry night. For some reason only the heavens were visible, as if the earth was far away, and the hall itself was high above the Earth’s expanse. Rhianon was only confused by the bleachers placed there in a circle instead of the desks. They left vacant only a large circle in the center, as if a performance was being prepared here. One of the stands at the end of the hall seemed very much like a pulpit set up for a teacher or a judge. Somehow she found the latter suggestion absurd, but she couldn’t shake the intuition that it was not only a place of teaching and performance. There were also trials. Who and why would be tried in a place whose mere existence was probably against the law. If people found out about such a place, they would come here with a crowd of inquisitors and executioners. Yes, it is, and the supernatural beings seemed to be against humans being likened to them here. Rhianon could not understand the purpose of the strange objects in this hall. She ran her fingertips over the lid of some desk, shooting golden sparks out of the walnut wood.

«What is this place?» She asked Orpheus, when her own attempts to guess were in vain.

«It is the corner of the School of Witchcraft,» he looked around enigmatically, «it is an assembly or courtroom, they too have their own problems, inventions, and laws.»

He shrugged indefinitely, and it was clear he had nothing more to say.

«I wonder if that’s how you learn magic and pay for it.» She ran her slender fingers over the desk once more, almost shooting out a flame, but she jerked her hand away just in time.

«And your magic is stronger,» Orpheus remarked, as if casually. «Students can’t use their charms in this room, but you can. Perhaps you have great power.»

«I hope so, but it is involuntary. I have no control over it.»

Rhianon stared at the tips of her fingers that had just been emitting sparks, as if she were searching for an answer or looking for burns that weren’t there.

«They could teach you anything here, but you wouldn’t want to, your talent is beyond all teachings, sitting at a desk would be boring to you, learning is unpleasant because your latent abilities are beyond all developed programs and do not fit into their frames, you will learn to control your gift yourself.»

«You think?» For the first time she listened to Orpheus’ words, maybe because this place seemed too gloomy or someone invisible but tangible leaned over her and whispered that it was not for her. And it was impossible not to listen to that whisper. It was creeping into her soul.

«Do you really want to be here for seven years,» Orpheus was already sitting on top of one of the desks, gesticulating wildly, as if to scare away strange spirits from his mistress. She hadn’t even noticed how he managed to jump onto the desk and settle imposingly on it, but he looked in this pose as if he were a tempting and dangerous evil spirit. His exhortations were as never-ending as always, but this time they seemed more sensible to her.

«Think, belle,» Orpheus insisted, «you yourself can learn to control your fire in days or months, but here it will take you years. You need space, not confined space. You need flight…»

He was already leaning over her ear, unknowingly behind her.

«I’m afraid of heights,» Rhiannon said to herself in surprise. She had not wanted to tell him, but when he spoke of flying she became frightened, and the starry skies outside the window were beckoning. She was afraid to even look in their direction. She was afraid of falling. She was separated from the starry heights by clear or mica panes, surely as strong as magic itself, and she was still afraid.

«It will pass,» Orpheus assured her, «it really will.»

His voice was more ingratiating than ever. Rhianon would have liked to believe him, but she could not. She had had this fear since she was a child, ever since she could remember herself. How strange, she could carve flames, but she was afraid to look out of a high window. Maybe this panic fear was payback for her magical ability. She wasn’t afraid of the fire she exhaled, but a few feet below the window might have given her a panicked terror.

«There’s nothing to be afraid of,» Orpheus kept whispering.

«I know there’s nothing to be afraid of,» she snapped, «and I’m still afraid.»

There seemed to be nothing she could do about that fear, and she squeezed her eyes shut so that she couldn’t see the starry skies, they were too vast and all-encompassing. It seemed another second and they would burst in through the glass, covering everything else, and then there would be only height.

«Don’t imagine too much,» Orpheus made her open her eyes and look at the sparkling stars. «Look, the one that shines the brightest looks a lot like your pendant.»

She twirled the star in her hand. Maybe it only seemed to her that one end of the star had lengthened again, and was now pointing away from her. Her direction now lay to where those starry skies stretched. And their vastness lay beyond the borders of the School of Witchcraft. She was ready to accept the star’s new direction.

«But then why had I come here in the first place?» She must have asked Orpheus a question he couldn’t answer.

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