Rhianon-5. Along the Way of Deception

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The Deal

Five demons circled over the forbidden hall. Rhianon found her way here easily now. And she was no longer intimidated by their company. She was even used to being surrounded by five disembodied, glowing knights, kissing her hands and taking turns honoring her as both their queen and their mistress. Their touches are as the movement of dew on a flower. Only sometimes she felt as if it were not air but prickly grains of sand running across her skin. The touch didn’t excite her, it made her sleepy, but she knew she shouldn’t fall asleep in that place. Maybe once she fell asleep here, she would never wake up again, and the consciousness that had escaped her captive body would hover over the ground forever.

Where is the sixth spirit? Rhianon had seen its vague silhouette looming in the passage, but it had never dared to cross the threshold. Perhaps there was something taboo about it. What if he simply could not? That was why he had brought her into the tower. Now she kept the five spirits company.

«Where would you like to be this time?» A low voice came over her ear, and before she knew it, a spirit had drifted toward her, almost nuzzling her cheek. It was weightless and nimble, like a cat. She was used to spirits creeping up on her silently and almost imperceptibly, but sometimes she still marveled at their speed and nimbleness. And now she couldn’t answer at once, only because she was startled.

«I don’t know.» Actually, she knew she wanted to get back to Loretta, but why? Rhianon stopped herself. Why would she want to poison her soul unnecessarily? There are plenty of other interesting places in the world for her to visit. The power of magic would take her anywhere she wanted to go in a jiffy.

«Do you doubt it?» A spirit whispered in her ear. «You don’t know where you’ll go this time. You could take a torch or a lantern and make us lead you down the dark road of dreams. Do you know what creatures are hiding there? The kind you’ve never seen before. And the road itself is endless. It’s easy to get lost and no one will find you.»

«What’s with the lantern?» She had the feeling that even a tiny light would draw Madael or Seti. And what is about the fire inside her? All those things could probably smell it from afar.

«Oh, you don’t need a lantern, do you? Fire and light are what keep the creatures of nightmares away. They’ll whimper and scurry away into the shadows. They won’t have to scare you anymore, because you can scare them with your fire. They’ll think you want to set them all on fire, and they’ll howl. The whole universe will hear it. That’ll be fun.»

«It is tempting,» Rhianon said, as she thought to herself, listing all the countries and cities she’d like to visit. Dozens, even hundreds of names passed through her mind, but so far she hadn’t settled on any. How strange, the strongest warrior in the world is her protector, and she is already trying to find other allies. She needs to choose a kingdom strong enough, or several that could provide her with an army. If she had even a few magical creatures under her command, she would easily intimidate any ruler. Rhianon looked with a sigh at the spirit whispering to her. If only she could convince a few spirits to accompany her, no one would refuse her an army.

«So will you visit the land of dreams? There, too, are ruled by former cohort leaders from your lover’s troops. You won’t know whether they’re seductive women, warriors, or monsters. You know those demons…»

«And they were the ones who sent me dreams?» Rhianon remembered the voices coming from heaven. They were somehow not quite associated with the black and gold visions of the land of dreams that the spirit had conveyed to her. There were only disembodied creatures woven of darkness and golden shackles, rocky slopes brushed like palaces and small creatures that could only exist and leap in darkness.

«Some other time.» «Rhianon turned her back on the speaker.

Considering that the reality around her was more like a startling fantasy, she wasn’t lying.

«Then what would you choose?»

Rhianon was reminded of a traveling theater. A fairground circus she’d only seen once, when she’d wandered through towns and cities with Orpheus. Then she had accidentally set fire to the tent. Were the actors hurt?

As soon as Rhianon thought of them, she suddenly imagined the deafening woods of chirping grasshoppers. They were now in those places where the winter chill had receded. She wondered where that was. It might be worth checking.

Rhianon decided to take a chance. She clutched the pendant in her fingers and thought of the ornate tent adorned with a cockade on top. Just a moment and she was already standing in front of it. The colorful strips of fabric were clearly distinguishable even in the semi-darkness. One of them, the one blocking the entrance, was slightly raised. A lamp burned peacefully inside. No one had gone to bed yet. Rhianon could tell by the sound of voices coming from inside the tent.

She bent down and peered through the gap in the aisle. What she saw stunned her. In the blink of an eye everything became clear. The wandering actors had not been harmed in the slightest by her fire. It was more likely that what she had scorched the square then they had not even noticed. They’d been burned, of course, but long before — years before Rhianon herself, or anyone else in the world, had been born.

Wandering faeries dressed as harlequins, pierros, and colombinae laughed merrily, drank, and played cards. How easily they fooled the audience. The mossy mustiness of the bright costumes could be mistaken for peculiar makeup. And who cares if tattered wings fluttered behind the red-haired colombina’s back and moss sprouted along her cheeks. She was still pretty enough, as a pretty little fallen angel should be. The combination of naivety, mischief, and vice was astounding. It seemed as if the seductive woman and the devil were merged into one.

«Come on, Gloria,» someone in a devil costume, which might not have been a costume at all, leaned over her shoulder, watching the game. The black wings trembled painfully at the proximity of the lamp. He stared at the cards in the pretty girl’s hands.

Well, there, thought Rhianon, the game went on. When Orpheus had invented cards for them as a joke, she had no idea that they would become so popular that even the whole of the devil would rush to play them. Apparently, the game was fascinating. Their keen ears didn’t even catch her steps in front of the tent. This was unusual for supernatural creatures. The likes of them would have smelled even a mosquito a hundred yards away, but they were only playing and didn’t want to be interrupted. Gradually the game was getting to the point. Rhianon, who was watching them, suddenly realized that the players were about to have a fight. The laughter and jokes ended and a heated argument began.

Apparently, Orpheus knew what he was doing when he created the cards. He wanted to bring discord to everything, after all. Rhianon just didn’t realize that he wanted to affect both mortal men and his former brethren. Or was it just an accident? Maybe he himself didn’t know how powerful a weapon he’d invented. Or maybe now he was making custom cards for paying customers himself, and laughing at them to himself. Rhianon hadn’t seen Orpheus or felt his presence near her for a long time. She couldn’t know where he was or what was wrong with him, but one thing was certain, he didn’t sit still. Without regular mischief he would cease to be himself.

The argument was heating up. Pretty Gloria was almost fighting with the harlequin already. One awkward movement and they could topple the lamp hanging in the air above the table. Their wings trembled from the proximity of the fire, but the argument did not stop. Rhianon backed away from the entrance to the tent. She didn’t want them to accidentally glance this way and notice her. It would have worked out very well if a dry branch had not crunched beneath her feet.

The crunch was loud and unexpectedly sharp. The faerie ears couldn’t help but pick it up. In an instant all eyes turned toward her, green and bright and unnaturally burning. They looked straight ahead and saw everything, but they reflected nothing but emptiness. Rhianon shuddered as she faced Gloria’s equally blank and magnetically glowing gaze. She hadn’t had time yet to snatch the trump cards from her partner’s hands, and already she was looking ahead as if she’d seen her rightful prey.

«Get back!» No one rushed toward her yet, but Rhianon had already picked up a dry branch from the ground and thrust it forward for protection, like a sword. Fear made fire rush to her blood. The branch erupted in her hands and took on a blinding flame. Of course, it was not enough. Rhianon knew that it would not cost them anything to break loose, to fly above the ground and surround her. Then a burning branch would do her no good. They would fly around her, like spirits, and someone would be sure to snatch her. She was already imagining Gloria’s long, webbed fingers, and how they would claw at her hair.

«Don’t you dare come near me!»

«Then you come with us,» Gloria beckoned her with a graceful gesture. Both she and her partner had already let the cards out of their hands, but they hadn’t scattered across the floor but remained hanging in the air.

«Go,» she waved her hand again. «We have a wonderful drink of blackberries and bat’s blood, and it helps you see things that aren’t there… You want to see that you have a kingdom, don’t you?»

She didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a joke. Perhaps they were fooling the audience with this very drink and the faint remnants of their own charms. Rhianon looked at the thick, viscous liquid in the unfinished glasses. A flask, strapped like a spider web, was lying beside it as well. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the flask had never run out of wine, but she didn’t want to taste it.

«Be resolute,» Gloria strode toward her, the hem of her colorful, diamond-striped dress never touching the ground. In a moment the fairy would be at her side. Her slimy hands would touch her shoulders, and her sharp-toothed lips would be close at hand.

Involuntarily Rhianon panicked. The burning branch could not keep her away from the evil one for long. Gloria was already very close. Her red lips, red as if lined with paint, were moving, but Rhianon heard no words. A wave of fear came over her. Her emotions were running high and her fire was growing stronger. A surge of energy shot through her, sending a shattering wave. Even Rianon herself did not realize that the flaming cloths of the tent were her doing. For the first time, it was as if the fire had sprung from her rather than ripped out of her, and now a sucking emptiness was gaping inside. She could hear a burnt Gloria screaming nearby. The fairy tried to tear the burnt crust from her face like a mask, but Rhianon was no longer concerned with that. She bent in half, trying to overcome the inner spasm of pain. Her stomach still stung. And the tent before her burned. It took on a lighter light than a luminary. Gloria wailed beside it, the others tried to put out the fire. Rhianon realized it was time to disappear. The pendant around her neck turned into a tiny model of an axe. What could that mean?»

«Any town near Loretta,» she riddled to herself, hoping that she would be there instantly. And so she was. A few minutes later there was not even a memory of the flaming tent. Rhianon was in a dark city. Despite the late hour, there were a lot of people around. People were shouting and chanting something. She began to make her way through the crowd. No one paid much attention to her. People were much more interested in something else, something that was in the square. Rhianon began to make her way there. Out of the corner of her eye she saw dwarves and harpies scampering through the forest of people’s feet, either cutting off purses from gawkers or poking holes in people’s boots and clothes for fun. Obviously, it was a familiar sight. Where there was a crowd, there were the bad guys. When people’s attention was diverted to something, there was room for mischief.

Preparations of some sort were underway in the square. Rhianon recognized the platform to the front door. It seemed there would be an execution. She wondered who would be taken to the scaffold. She still thought of the condemned man who had looked her over in the crowd. Would it be so now? Would she attract the gazes of all the people condemned to death? So far she had not seen the condemned. Only the executioner and some indistinct bluish silhouette resting at ease on the scaffold, as if in his personal chair. It was as if the others did not notice him. Rhianon wondered why rotten vegetables and taunts weren’t flying at the insolent man. She looked closely and exhaled indignantly when she recognized Orpheus. Surely others could not have noticed him. Her personal spirit was incorrigible. He sought amusement in the most unexpected places.

Is he here by accident or to tease her? Rhianon was afraid to bump into him with her eyes, but Orpheus obviously sensed something and looked into the crowd. His pupils gleamed joyfully, like two sparks.

«My dear Madam,» he took off his rather luxurious hat with a feather and bowed to her exquisitely without getting up. He had become a dandy since they had not seen each other. Rhianon couldn’t help noticing it. He should have been more of a buffoon. Of course, the people around him had not noticed his bow.

Rhianon remembered the bird she had let out of its cage. Had she not done harm to herself? She did not even know what kind of creature she was releasing. Nor did she know what kind of companion she had found when she first spoke to Orpheus. Now sitting on the scaffold he looked like a real demon in an expensive camisole. One glimpse of him was enough to realize how dangerous he was. Rhianon had a sudden urge to hide from him.

She tilted her head so that she could not see her face behind the brim of the hats of the people standing nearby, but still the feeling that Orpheus saw her remained. He could see her through the walls, too. Rhianon was already thinking about whether she should disappear from here, when suddenly she heard voices announcing the verdict. The condemned were being led to the platform. The sullen procession moved slowly forward under the watchful eye of the guards. Rhianon was surprised to see any familiar faces. Harold, Brome, Bob, William, Raven… It was like a dream. Despite the bruises and the strange rash on their skin, Rhianon recognized her former friends. To say that she was amazed was to say nothing. And she couldn’t have been shown anything more frightening in the realm of dreams. Of course, there was nothing to be surprised about. They were all outlaws, and sooner or later their path lay to the scaffold. They were aware that they were playing with death. They could get caught at any moment. And Rhianon was well aware of the risks in joining them. Nevertheless, seeing them now in front of the frontal seat hurt her intensely.

She pondered feverishly what she could do to save them. It was nothing. And not even the evil creatures scurrying through the crowd here would be powerless. All those little creatures could do was make a mess, or cut someone’s purse strings, and then scatter the coins across the square to watch the beggars fight over the gold. Such a maneuver might have delayed the execution by minutes, but not stopped it. If only there was a dragon to blow fire over the rooftops. Then everyone would scatter for sure. Rhianon looked wistfully up at the dark sky. Surely not one of Madael’s servants would come here to witness an execution, and certainly not one who would obey her orders. And she desperately needed such a servant to dictate her terms to the executioners. In her mind she focused on the valley of dragons, trying to summon one of them. She remembered one with a bright ruby crest, one that could sweep across the sky like an arrow, terrifying everyone and exhaling a jet of flame. Rhianon imagined him as clearly as if he were here, but the sky remained empty, no one heard her mental call. Only some winged, disembodied creatures swarmed over the rooftops and near the chimneys. They, too, were watching the execution, but not to intervene, but with mockery. There was no help to be had from them.

Rhianon looked once more to the heavens, waiting for a miracle. Perhaps one of the winged reptiles had heard her call. But there were only dark clouds in the sky. It was as gloomy as her soul.

Orpheus, who had once sat proudly on the scaffold, had now disappeared, but his quiet laughter still echoed through the crowd like the sound of jingle bells. Perhaps she was the only one to hear it, or perhaps the condemned too. Rhiannon pushed her way forward, trying to get a good look at each condemned man. There were many of them, and she met several unfamiliar faces. Apparently more thugs had joined the gang since she’d left them. Naturally the people rejoiced, the king’s guards had finally managed to disarm an entire nest of outlaws. Rhianon remembered the forest and the feeling that there was a den of outlaws somewhere nearby. Maybe she only thought she saw one blind man among the condemned. Could a man who once saw an angel without a helmet have survived? It seems not. Even if he had not lived much longer since he had been blind, his path was now inevitably to the scaffold. He would never have time to tell anyone what he had seen. His head, which retained the memory of the beautiful devil, was about to be severed by an axe. Rhianon squeezed her eyes shut when she saw the sharp blade. It was rather unusual. Outlaws were usually hanged or quartered, and this was suddenly an easy execution. It was the way aristocrats were executed, not outlaws. Ron had once been an aristocrat. Her gut twisted. She tried to look for his fair-haired head among the condemned men and could not. He was not among them. Did that mean he was the only one who was saved? Or was he already dead? She swallowed hard. There was no doubt that Ron was a good fighter. But he could have died in an unexpected confrontation, too. She wouldn’t want that to happen. She might have been cruel to him, but he still commanded her sympathy.

«Where are you?» She asked a mental question, imagining a pale, pleasant face with golden eyebrows and beautiful cheekbones. The answer to her question was a quick vision-the oak walls, the table, the lamp, the drunken scolding like an echoing sound behind and the knife. Fingers with skin scraped to blood were drawing something with the blade on the wooden table. And right next to it, some creepy little creatures were crawling across the tabletop. Disgusting, but Ron was alive after all. An inner voice told her so clearly.

Still, Rhianon pushed herself closer to the dais. She couldn’t wait to see the face of each condemned man to be sure. There she saw Harold, hurt and tired, Raven next to him, followed by Brom. All that was missing was the dwarf Shivo. He might have died too, or he might still be alive. His nasty looks and small stature would have helped him hide, even in the world of the dwarves. Rhianon sighed in relief. At least someone else had survived. She no longer expected miracles and help from heaven, but the dream of a dragon coming still lingered. She longed for the sound of wings whistling through the air, but the roof was littered with shingles. Madael’s neglected servants were playing cards at the chimneys and laughing venomously. No one noticed them, and they could have spat at passersby from on high if they’d wanted to, but for now they limited themselves to cursing. It was easy for people to mistake their words for echoes in the old house, but Rhianon could hear everything. She didn’t want to hear it, but all the sounds of the crowd reached her ears, the coughing, the laughter, the swearing, and even the thoughts, human and non-human. She became equally susceptible to people and things. She did not want to distract herself from the execution, but her mind distracted itself. Here is some gnome counts the proceeds from the cut purse, and people passing by take him for a child. They can’t see his wrinkled face hidden by his cap, and they even hand him change. There are pixies scattering buckwheat grains from a torn sack, griffins scratching at roofs with their claws, black faeries fiddling in spilled flour, dyeing their wings white, elves making jokes about drunks in the pub. She hears everything and the whole world is as if in her power. Human thoughts and the thoughts of magical beings are intertwined in her perception. Maybe it’s because there is as much ethereal in her as there is human. There were equal parts of both. It is as if she is divided into two halves, as if a day is divided into day and night. Both are at her mercy. She feels the vibrations of both worlds and can captivate them both. It felt that way, but if she is so powerful, then why can’t she save her friends.

Rianon intercepted Brom’s gaze fixed on her. He noticed her quite casually and opened his mouth in amazement. None of the bandits had ever seen her dressed as a noblewoman before. Rhianon realized it too late. Of course, no one would have counted on her help or intervention now. But she wanted to intervene. She could have saved them. Rhianon took one last look at the dark clouds streaking across the sky. There was no help in sight. No dragon could come, and even if he did, it would be too late.

«But you’re like a dragon,» the voice inside her reminded her playfully. «You’re even stronger than a dragon. You have a more powerful fire.»

Even if Orpheus had appeared behind her back now, he couldn’t have been that heartfelt.

She did feel stuffy. Her lungs were constricting. She was sure that if she could breathe in now, she would exhale not oxygen but a jet of flame. It was cold and damp in the night plaza, and it felt like heat all around. Rhianon felt as if she were in a furnace. She didn’t even notice the dragging of her friends toward the scaffold. She had to hold back somehow to keep from burning the whole town down, but the flames had already burst out. The rush of fire and explosion was as powerful as ever. Rhianon wouldn’t have thought it was bursting out of her own body if she hadn’t felt the burning inside. First the scaffold burst into flames. Then a trickle of flame ran all over the platform. No one knew what it was or how dangerous the fire was, so they did not hurry to put it out. Even the guards were stunned. The flames had appeared out of nowhere beneath their feet. The flames had affected the square as well as some of the nearby buildings. Out of the corner of her eye, Rhianon saw the creatures of Madael swiftly fly from the rooftops, and the leprechauns flee the crowd, dashing off toward their dens below ground. It’s nice and damp there, and the fire won’t touch them. But the people already felt its heat. It was as if hell was near. Some cried out in fright, knocking sparks from their clothes. The eaves of the houses were collapsing in flames. The guards looked around in bewilderment. No one could have imagined that the fire was caused by a girl standing in the crowd. She could not have been suspected. But Brom looked at her again. He knew that she was capable of igniting the world around her with her mere presence. He just didn’t know what she was capable of. Her talent had grown since the last time they had seen each other.

She had met the devil. His proximity had made her shattering gift even more powerful. Perhaps that was what made their meeting so dangerous. Rhianon wanted to become her beloved’s equal. She gave free rein to the fire and many more buildings were occupied. Flames burst from the windows themselves, erupting on the sidewalk beneath the feet of passersby. Those who stood near the dais could already feel the heat on the ground. It was hell. It was only fire and no escape. People cried out in fright, but Rhianon could not be appeased. Those who had watched so indifferently the execution of her friends deserved no mercy. Now fire was blazing everywhere, pillars of flame arising right beside her. The blowing wind could not put them out.

«I’m stronger,» Rhianon looked up at the sky, which promised a storm. Neither wind nor rain could extinguish the kind of fire she caused. Already the entire city was ablaze, not just the square. The flames were spreading with astonishing speed. Rhianon could hear the screeching of the fleeing supernatural creatures. Unlike humans, they could escape. Some opened their wings and flew away, others hid under the ground or dissolved into small puddles. There was always a way for the unearthly to preserve themselves, but the mortals were so vulnerable. They were powerless against the flames. Rianon suddenly realized what terrible power she possessed. Why would she need armies of man or beast when she herself is more powerful than an army of dragons? She has the power to burn or spare those who fear fire.

Spare? Rhianon only began to think about that as the flames began to consume her friends along with the guards. They must have been counting on her help. Brom, who’d seen her and known what was wrong, would have been the last to know. But Rhianon could not help him. She tensed and realized that it was not in her power to stop the fire that had already been released. On the contrary, the heat from it was now making her uncomfortable as well. Pillars of fire were closing in on her. What if they swallowed her too?

For the first time Rhianon was afraid. She could have easily squeezed the pendant, but she didn’t want to leave her friends behind, and meanwhile the flames were growing more fierce. It was near, in front, behind, everywhere. Her skin was about to blister from its proximity. Rhianon swallowed hard. Hot saliva burned her palate. There was still fire inside her, but it was blazing on the outside, too. There was nowhere to retreat to. The fire in front of her blazed brighter and brighter. Behind its wall, she could no longer see the faces of Brom and the rest of the bandits. In a second, one big bonfire would consume her and all of them. Like a witch. It is customary to burn witches. Rhianon made the bonfire for herself. She was frightened, but only for a moment, and in a second she was relieved. The heat seemed to fade, and a gentle breeze blew it away. She could smell the lilies, the coolness of the water, and the nearness of the clouds. Her wings flapped violently over the flames, and then strong arms snatched her up and lifted her off the ground.

Rhianon wanted to dash downward, but everything was jumbled, the square, the scaffold, and where she had stood was engulfed in flames. Not even a tiny island of unaffected land remained. Absolutely everything was on fire. Rhianon didn’t even have time to feel sorry for her friends. Madael shook her abruptly and pulled her against him.

«In a moment you would have burned, silly-eyed,» his voice was no longer his usual softness, his hissing savagely, almost scorching. But Rhianon was glad to hear it than the crackling of the fire. «Don’t you ever risk yourself again, you hear me, don’t you ever. Or I will get you out of the other side of the world.»

«What is it for?» She hissed angrily, turning her back on him so that she could see his eyes glowing furiously, her hair blowing gold in a storm against the darkening sky.

«To reason,» he said briefly.

They were flying too fast. Rhianon felt such fierce gusts of wind that she had to hide her face against his chest. The speed and frosty wind seemed capable of destroying her. And yet everything below them was blazing. In an instant the orange-red dot of fire was far behind them. Soon they were home. Madael tossed her onto the polar bear skins that lined the bed and dashed to the window. He seemed angry now that he couldn’t seal up all the entrances and exits.

«But you were the one who suggested I use the door,» Rhianon said, pulling the pelts together. They weren’t here before, and now the emeralds embedded in the polar bears’ empty eye sockets watched her as if they were living eyes. The dead and gutted doors somehow reminded her of the guards. Now she would not have been surprised if the leaden sphinxes in the park had come to life and blocked her way out of the castle.

«You didn’t want me to go. Then why did you lie about letting me go? So you would have brought me back even if I had left. And you promised…»

He turned toward her, only instead of anger his beautiful face flashed a helpless expression. She’d never seen him like that before. He looked as if he’d regained his childlike innocence since his fall from Heaven. Something that looked like tears glistened in the corners of his beautiful eyes. Or maybe it was just that his eyes were too intense a blue color. He can’t cry, can he? Not him. Tears are for people and for those who have lost him. He himself always betrayed, no one could betray him.

«You didn’t use the door, or I would have called,» he pulled a long golden strand away from her ear, his thin, angelic fingers delicate, but Rhianon knew they could kill. She was frightened that this was exactly what Madael was going to do when his hands rested on her shoulders. Those graceful but incredibly strong fingers could have wrapped around her neck and strangled her, but the angel only leaned over and looked into her eyes. Rhianon became dizzy from his gaze. She seemed to sink into an endless blue abyss. That’s what it means to drown in someone’s eyes. The immense blue sucked her in, stripping her of all resistance, and it was like heaven, cloudy and endless in a storm, with the shrieks of burnt-out fallen angels.

Rhianon shuddered. She saw before her an unburned face, pure and beautiful, with arcs of golden eyebrows and lips like roses’ petals. The perfect strong body, too, was white, not black with ash. The golden wings behind it, on the other hand, seemed to be beginning to darken. Rhianon blinked a few times to check it out. No, she didn’t think so. Madael himself was still as bright as the dawn, but his wings… They had grown noticeably darker.

Involuntarily, Rhianon was frightened. Something had gone wrong. Something inevitable and irreversible was happening. She felt it with every fiber of her being and it made her afraid. There was nothing she could do.

«So you take it back?» She didn’t know where she got the nerve to argue with him again.

Madael was taken aback for a moment. He looked at her and didn’t know what to say. Maybe he just didn’t want to give her a definite answer.

«You don’t care what I want, just what you want.»

«It is not true,» his whisper sounded a little strained, and she continued to press on.

«It’s just like when we were in heaven. You felt forged, so you rebelled. And now you want to shackle me.»

«Not shackle you, but love you,» the thin, angelic fingers traced her cheek gently. He wanted to be reconciled already, but Rhianon only shook her head.

«Love is no substitute for freedom.»

«Maybe…» His lips were very close, cool and fragrant, and to touch them was like touching a mountain stream. No flame would burst from them.

«It is for you, not for me. Naturally you feel free to captivate someone else. That’s what you and all your hordes are for, to captivate the imagination of those unfortunate mortals that the lord God is angry at. Perhaps you yourself do not realize how blindly you do his will.»

His whisper turned fiery for a moment, though. «You know me.»

«No, I don’t know you. I thought you could keep your word. I thought you belonged to me, not the other way around.»

«What do you want?»

Now it was her turn to say nothing. Rhianon was already regretting the quarrel. Walk away right now, and spend all eternity wandering the world looking for a way back to the magic realm? Was that what she wanted?

She was about to change her mind, but Madael’s last furious words changed everything.

«You will never leave. I won’t allow it.»

Now he was really angry. His words were not an empty threat. Rhianon could see that he was angry and perhaps struggling to keep himself from destroying everything here. From the way he clenched his fists tightly, the gold plates of his armor dug into his flesh. He didn’t even seem to notice the pain. His wings fluttered behind him so that the wind alone could have brought down things in the room. He was beautiful in his anger, of course, but his beauty would hardly make the fate of those he went to kill any less enviable. As he moved toward the exit, Rhianon guessed that he would be out there all night, tearing and thrashing until he calmed down. It would be bad enough for humans and dark vassals alike. For the first time, Rhianon felt pity for neither of them. She felt pity for herself first. She wanted some understanding, not empty tantrums. What difference did it make that Madael went to destroy someone else’s armies and torment his own subjects, as long as he wasn’t destroying Loretta’s armies. He could have done her bidding long ago instead of needlessly venting his anger on just anyone.

Rhianon scowled like a hurt child and buried her face in the polar bear’s soft hide. The two large emeralds embedded in its empty eye sockets no longer stalked her, and the soft fur was soothing. She was so oblivious that she didn’t even notice the silvery haze that swirled above her.

«Wasn’t it time to go back to the tower, to visit the spirits?»

She wasn’t the least bit surprised by the voice that broke through her reverie.

«I don’t want to travel anymore,» she protested.

«How easily you give up.»

«I don’t give up, I just compromise. Besides, I need some rest.»

She hoped he’d understand her forceful tone and not be so obtrusive, but the spirit kept up.

«You do want someone to comfort you, don’t you?»

«But it is not with you.»

«And I am offering you the company of others. It is from the beginning. Remember?»

She wondered. Indeed, why did he keep calling her to them? He had only appeared to take her to a place he couldn’t enter himself.

«What do you want?» She asked directly, as if he would answer honestly.

«I want to serve you because you are the most beautiful girl in the world.»

«I don’t believe you.»

«If you don’t believe you’re the prettiest,» he pretended not to understand her, «then take the mirror and see for yourself. It won’t deceive you. It has no more reason to lie than I do.»

Rhianon looked involuntarily at the cracked mirror. She did not care to look in it, so she only shook her head in disapproval.

«Leave me alone.»

«Leave you alone when you’re about to cry.

Rhianon put her fingers to her cheeks. Really soon tears would run down them, salty and searing like turpentine. They might burn her skin if she didn’t handle them. If Orpheus were here he would make her laugh.

She rose and sat up in bed. The gleaming smoke still hovered above her.

«You can’t replace the company of those I like,» she said with a touch of reproach.»

«But I can be useful to you,» he moved closer, almost to her. «I really can.»

«You don’t know what I want.»

«So tell me.»

She just laughed.

«How you try to simplify things, and they are so complicated.»

«I know, but it will get easier if you believe me.»

She didn’t believe him, and she didn’t want to, but there was no one else around. Even the harpy, who had been on her heels the whole time, had disappeared this time. Rhianon sat staring at the smoke billowing over the floor. It gleamed so beautifully, but it was cold. If it had been material, it would surely have felt as prickly to the touch as golden sand.

She stared at it long enough, and then she suddenly really wanted to go to the tower. Could he have instilled that in her? Or maybe she had a need for companionship. The five spirits were always courting her. Sometimes it was even pleasant to be with them. Now that she was alone, she needed to unwind. Let Madael tear up the world below if he so desired, and here in the sinister underworld she could discover her own corner of pleasure and sorcery. She was drawn to the spirits as strongly as if they were standing beside her and calling to her.

«All right,» she stood up, brushed her fingers through her tangled locks, and then moved toward the exit, trying not to watch the emeralds in the bears’ eyes flash and fade behind her. It was as if they were signaling her to stay. Otherwise something terrible would happen, her emerald gleam warned her, but she paid no attention. It was just a few minutes and she was already in the tower with the spirits. This time it was unaccustomedly quiet around her, no laughter, no jokes, no promises. Each spirit sat in its own niche, gleaming in the darkness with multicolored sparks that surrounded each vague figure. Rhianon stopped in the center. She had to turn her head to look at each in turn. The tense silence made her tired.

«Well?» She glanced at the spirit whose fuzzy silhouette had ruby sparks danced across it. «Is there anything else you want to offer me?»

«Not much,» the orange spirit replied.

«Is it a new country? Or is it a place of interest?»

Several of the ghostly voices nodded in agreement. Rhianon sensed a slight movement in the air, as if she thought she heard a breeze inside the tower.

«Look!» A hand of smoke and gold flecks deftly wrapped around her wrist and forced her to place her fingers against the partition above the alcove. «What do you see? What do you feel?»

The smoke was no longer enveloping her, and Rhianon kept running her fingers along the wall. She could feel the cold stones, but she could see nothing. There wasn’t even a spider’s web that had insects with human limbs crawling all over it. Elsewhere in the castle there was such a web, it stretched in golden lace around the corners or the ceiling and looked quite beautiful, but the strange parasites stuck in it could frighten anyone. Here, on the other hand, there was no slime, no mud, no spider nets, not a crack in the stones, but they seemed damp for some reason. Rhianon did not immediately manage to fumble for something that looked like a bas-relief.

«Is it a symbol or a coat of arms?» She frowned, tracing a fancy monogram with her finger. She could see well into the darkness, but she couldn’t make it out clearly. She had to study it by touch. It was quite elaborate, covered in delicate curls, and the carving was deeply embedded in the wall. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it at once.

«What is it?» Rhianon asked, but the spirits were stubbornly silent. Did they want her to guess for herself? Rhianon shook her head. They were so stubborn. They could have easily explained it to her, but they didn’t hurry. Maybe it was the oppressive silence that was causing her to have strange visions. She heard screams, the way only children can scream, shrill and hoarse, as if their cervical vertebrae had been broken, and she saw blood. Someone was twisting the head of a black hen and dipping a dagger in its blood to carve a magic wand out of the alder tree with it. Someone is summoning spirits. She recognized Hildegard’s hands carving something whimsical out of wood. And then it was the turn of incomparably ancient visions. People dancing in a ring lined with demons, Madael’s servants dragging blocks and laying them in a circle, and then watching from above as sacrifices were offered on the altars. It was human sacrifices.

Rhianon swallowed hard. They want to flatter their lord with these sacrifices. Stonehenge, as it would later be called, the place where he first appeared in the midst of the ritual, simply emerged from a halo of fire, her warrior-lover, fresh from battle, bloodied sword in hand and helmetless. Even those who had conjured and offered sacrifices to him on the altars, seeing him without his helmet, went blind. But she herself, instead of going blind with the appearance of Madael in her life, on the contrary, began to see well in the dark. Maybe it’s because fire is her element. She herself is made of fire. And a fallen angel in fire cannot be a stranger to her. Still, Rhianon was scared. Those rituals were terrible. They meant nothing to Madael, he took the pain of others for granted, because he thought that no one would ever go through the same pain as he himself after the fall. The horror, suffering, and stupid self-sacrifice of mortals became something he took for granted. He despised people, but he accepted their sacrifices. He was indifferent to his own army as well, but condescended to let them herd a bloody temple for him. Every block of his unfinished chapel is stained with blood. We must ask him to forbid his demons to continue dragging the blocks. That temple must never be finished. No way.

To think how much inanimate stones can tell us. Rhianon kept running her hand over them, and the wall seemed to vibrate and come alive under her touch. The surface was no longer cold; on the contrary, it began to seem fiery.

«It’s a letter,» Rhianon realized at last. Beneath the swirls and monograms she could see the familiar shape of a letter. «It is the letter «A.»

«Well done, you guessed it,» the emerald-colored spirit pretended to clap his hands, but the clapping wasn’t even louder than the echo. «Now keep watching.»

Rhianon moved on to the next partition and fumbled for a similar symbol. She no longer had to run her fingers over it as long to figure it out.

«It is the letter «D.»

She didn’t know what it was, but the spirits were nudging her toward something. There was a vague sense of panic, merriment, even excitement in the tower now. Everything stirred. They were expecting her to do something. She felt as if a storm was about to break out of the autumn leaves flying at her.

«Keep watching,» someone commanded.

Rhianon obeyed. She found the next symbol.

«B,» she said aloud, and frowned. It was an Earth alphabet, or so she thought, but in fact she found some unknown symbols and interpreted them in a way that was close to human perception. It could have happened to her, after all. Living with Madael, she learned to understand the language of angels, but to perceive it as human speech. Now she thought she encountered familiar letters, but really they were forbidden and dangerous symbols that meant something terrible.

«Farther, farther…» they urged her on.

In the next two partitions she discovered two more letters, «E» and «N.» What could this mean? There were five spirits and five letters. As many ghosts fill the hall, so many symbols are in it. Rhianon tried to draw a parallel, but she had little success.

«They’re the first letters of your names,» she surmised.

For a moment the air in the hall was heavy with laughter, low as the wall, more like the rustle of a leaf whirling against the wall, but more affecting to her than deafening laughter.

«What’s the matter? Are you trying to play a trick on me?»

«Not at all, most beautiful, not at all,» the spirits flew from their seats and touched her shoulders and hands and face affectionately — all as they had the first time and yet in a very different way.

«What do you want from me?» Their caressing touches this time felt slippery and clammy, like the embrace of a grave full of worms. It was as if the worms were sliding across her skin, not her hands. If one day she died and ended up in the ground, the grave bugs would caress her the same way.

«It is just a little, divine beauty,» the golden spirit whispered in her ear, and the others echoed.

«It is just a little.»

Rhianon wanted to put her hands over her ears so she couldn’t hear them. It sounded like a funeral choir. It was as if the spirits were performing a requiem for her. She is a princess and she is about to die, to be walled up here, and the spirits will begin to circle around her burial place. And so it might have been, had it not been for the spark of fire inside her that they feared.

«It’s true already inside you,» the reddish spirit whispered, the ruby sparks flashing beautifully on her transparent body, it seemed magnificent, like a whole treasure trove of scarlet gems. His glowing hand slid gently around her waist, as if seeking to penetrate her corset and press against her skin.

«There’s fire inside me,» she whispered, as if she were confiding in them a deep secret.

«And what fire is it,» the greenish spirit confirmed. «It is a creature of fire. It is a great creature. So magnificent, it would be impossible to believe your eyes. No mortal would believe it, no immortal either. You have no idea how much pain and suffering he would bring to humans and demons alike.»

«Is it he?» Rhianon looked from one spirit to the next perplexed, but they all seemed to be talking to each other. No one was quick to offer an explanation.

«He’ll be magnificent,» the spirits whispered, breathless and delighted. «He couldn’t be more wonderful, but his character leaves a lot to be desired…»

«What can you do, the blood of the fallen archangel, his fire, his vengeance…» The golden-haired spirit took his place in the niche, but he seemed to sit on the throne, his posture defiant and majestic, and he himself seemed to become clearer. «It is the fire of the fall, the beauty of the dawn, the sizzling effect of the sun, and with it is your grace, my dear princess. It is all in him. And with so many qualities he manages to drive everyone mad, mortals and immortals alike, and even the incorporeal. It seems he will also be unlovable. Can you imagine what it’s like to cause obsessive passion in others and never fall in love himself? I swear he’ll end up getting the whole world cut off because of him, and we’ll have no one to take revenge on. He will unknowingly do everything for us. It is by the power of his charm alone.»

«Why does he need fire at all,» the green spirit wondered. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned his back against the wall so that he could almost disappear into it. «If he’s beautiful as gold, he doesn’t need power. I’d rather give him moderation, so he’ll never know ruinous emotions. Let him burn people himself, and remain cold.»

«Fire is necessary,» the orange spirit protested immediately, still hovering above the hall and resembling a disk of the sun itself. «He is a creature of fire. And fire has great power. He would never need anyone’s help. He can burn anyone and anything he doesn’t like.»

«And he’ll have blue eyes, just like you,» the bluish spirit said, turning to Rhianon. «To think, two fiery creatures merged to produce a creature with blue eyes and lilac skin.»

«He is gentle as a girl and strong as the elements,» the fifth spirit chimed in, flashing his eyes slyly. «Or is he the offspring of an angel? You don’t call your lover an incubus. You sleep in the arms of a fallen archangel, and you are as warm as in the bosom of a god. Will you love someone who is like your deity? He himself will be divine, but he will no longer be a warrior with a sword, but a refined cavalier… graceful, statuesque, well-mannered and yet powerful. He will break hearts at the same speed as your friend Hildegard breaks crystal glasses. How beautiful he will be…»

«And there will be a dragon inside him,» the golden spirit said triumphantly, and somehow his words seemed scary to her. She was not afraid of dragons, they were all part of the great army that had fallen from heaven, and they all served her lover. Only this time it was not just a dragon, but something incommensurably more terrifying.

«They are terror, power, fire, majesty, a throne.» The golden spirit’s golden eyebrows arched. «All this is inseparable. They are all the best qualities of the world in one golden being. We are all ready to become his protectors. You will receive us, as in the mortal world you receive your godparents. We can all unite to protect him. We would be honored. Wouldn’t you agree?»

«Do I agree? If I had any idea what you’re talking about?» Rhianon looked around, trying to catch the facial expressions of each spirit. «Who are you talking about?»

«It is the child,» the golden spirit said indifferently, as if she should know all that by now.

«Is is a child?» She remembered Eve for some reason, his blond hair, his unearthly beauty, and his frail, broken body, which had become incredibly strong after the torture. He was sitting on the arrow of the devil’s watch, looking up at her from below. His bloodied lips opened for a moment only to utter the single word «mother». He wanted to call her his mother, Rhianon only now realized, and shuddered, but the spirit hastened to dissuade her.

«It is about your child,» he said. «About what’s already inside you. Can’t you feel it?»

That’s where all those fiery explosions came from inside her. Rhianon put her hands to her lips.

«No,» she recoiled from the golden spirit so quickly that she nearly collided with the ones grating behind her, they passed through her like colored sparks, leaving a slight tingling sensation throughout her body.

«Yes,» the golden spirit jerked forward. «Or did you think you could only be carried by the swept ones?»

He was clearly mocking her. He knew it was impossible, he knew it himself. Rhianon broke into tears.

«It couldn’t be. It couldn’t, that’s all. Madael is not human.»

«And you are not,» the spirit nodded eagerly, shaking his weightless head like a lump of golden sand. «And the child inside you is not mortal. It is a catastrophe, the fruit of the union of two spirits, something that was not meant to be and that will become untold.»

«I don’t want that,» she backed away until she was against the wall, as if that were a way to escape her destiny.

«So what does it matter what you want? You should have thought about desire before you shared a bed with a fallen angel. You wanted him, just as others want a throne and piles of gold. So you get it all together. «You get wealth and power and the child of Dennitsa inside you. He burns you already, worse than any fire.»

Rhianon squinted at the golden spirit. She could feel it glowing intensely now.

«Can I get rid of it?»

«No, you can’t. Even if you kill yourself, he will go on living. He already is.»

How indifferent it all sounded. She felt trapped. There was no escaping it. It was inside her. Rhianon panicked. What if she really did die, producing such a creature? Is there a way to destroy it before it is born? She knew that there were tinctures and herbal potions to help induce a miscarriage. Any herbalist would be able to make them. Especially if she asked Madael for such a potion, he could get it for her. And what if he doesn’t want to destroy this child? What if that’s what he wanted? Did he fly over the worlds and seek out his mistress just to conceive? He wanted a son, a descendant, an heir, someone who would train with him to lead his dark army, grow by leaps and bounds and become an even more deadly creature than his father? He wanted to have such a toy, but he did not know how to acquire one. Mortal girls did not appeal to him, and so he found one that had fire inside her. She could be coveted, but not for long and for one specific purpose only.

If she died in childbirth, it would only benefit him. He would be alone with a creature who had no right to be born and who would probably be unusually strong. No one else will go after him and woo him. And if she even survives, he can send her to Loretta and keep the baby. Will she then be happy in her newfound kingdom, but with no hope of returning back to the magical world. Or would she, like any human exiled from the realm of fairies, be haunted by madness.

«This child is a mistake,» the spirit continued to whisper softly, hovering beside her. «It is a fatal mistake for all of us.»

«Is it a mistake for his father?»

«Well, you can protect him from his father.»

«How is it?» She lifted her weary eyes to the golden-haired spirit. She wanted to take what he needed from Madael. But how is it?»

«Give him a name.»

«What do you mean?»

The spirit nodded quickly at the walls.

«Put the letters together and it’s a name.»

She laughed tiredly.

«I’m serious,» said the spirit. «If you put all the letters together and call it that, we will all protect it. All together we are strength, separately we are not, but the five of us can handle anything. Unite us and we won’t let the father touch this baby. Our strength is a gift to the newborn. We will hide it from the one who conceived it.»

«And what favor do you expect from me?»

He nodded again at the wall. Rhianon reluctantly moved forward and again fumbled with the letters, one by one. They seemed to burn with fire. Five letters, one name. She didn’t even have to arrange them in any particular order; she just put them all together at random, from first to last.

«Edwin,» she said. She didn’t think it would be so easy to put unusual symbols together into one sound. Demon signs are a name for an unborn child, a name that in and of itself can be devastating. «Let it be Edwin. I like the sound of that.»

The spirits fell silent. They encircled her in a tight ring and at the same time seemed so intangible. Multicolored sparks fluttered before her like a rainbow, like a circle of autumn leaves. It was as if her five suitors had ceased to exist, and yet each rushed to touch her, to merge with her living body in a final embrace. They were all ethereal, but she could feel them.

«Where do you want to go this time, Princess?» The golden spirit whispered to her.

She knew it was the last question. They would never ask her again. They would simply be gone.

«I don’t know,» she said simply.

«There is one country that would have no difficulty, even without allies, in standing up to Loretta. Would you like to see its king?»

She only nodded. The pendant between her fingers warmed slightly, taking the shape of a crown. The next moment she was standing in a lavishly furnished room. It was night outside the windows. The curtains, woven with heralded insignia, fluttered gently. From behind the curtains of the closed doors voices echoed. Rhianon stepped silently on the tufted carpet. She was not alone here. Surprisingly the golden-haired spirit was beside her.

«Look,» he said, pointing to a table piled high with scrolls and charters.

Rhianon glanced at the velvet pad and the delightful crown, at the sharpened feathers and wax seals. The young man sitting at the table, parsing the papers, was surprisingly handsome and youthful. She suddenly felt the urge to go closer and flick the blond locks from his clean forehead. What a kind face he had, and what a pleasant one. She would never have imagined that such a handsome court dandy could be sympathetic and understanding. One glance at him was enough to know that he would be very pleasant to talk to. There was no evil in him at all, no dark vibe inherent in both demons and selfish mortals. Beautiful long lashes cast a shadow over his cheeks, ashy eyebrows frowned. He was tired, some edge of consciousness he was already in the realm of dreams but he had a lot more to do today. There was no sleeping, he kept telling himself. Rhianon caught his thoughts. She wonder who he is, a poor nobleman forced to serve as secretary, a member of the royal council, an archivist… he is so young, after all.

«You promised to show me the king, not this boy,» she reproached the spirit in a whisper. With the ruler she could negotiate, but not with the child. What could he do for her? The spirit had set her up with the wrong kind of meeting that could come to important negotiations. Here she would rather have a rendezvous.

«I would like to see the king,» she was sorry to leave the man who had grudgingly aroused such sympathy in her, but business comes first.

«It is the king,» the spirit leaned in beside her, the golden smoke almost penetrating her ear.

«Is this boy a king?» She stared in disbelief at the clean face and the long blond locks scattered across his collar.

«He’s not a boy anymore. Not looking at his innocent face, not even Manfred had to work as hard for his place upon the throne as this boy. But now his position is secure and his armies are extremely strong. You’ve got half the world in your hands by bargaining with him. I brought you to Vinor, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world.»

«It was more as if you had brought me into the realm of dreams,» Rhianon moved forward. The young man never took his head away from the table, nor did he hear her movements. He looked up as she moved closer to him, touching his cheek with her hand. They were bright blue, tinted with wheat-colored lashes and the same light arcs of eyebrows. It was such a simple face and so beautiful. The mere sight of him reminded her of summer, of rye in the fields and the warmth of the sun. Rhianon smiled at him as if she had met an old friend. He dropped his quill in surprise. Was it just her imagination, or was he fascinated? Or was it the sight of the golden spirit nestled against her shoulder that confused him? Even before she could ask him about it, Rhianon heard footsteps and loud shouts outside the door. «Your Majesty.» Someone repeated it several times and asked permission to enter. The young man took his time answering. He still looked at Rhianon in silence, his lips slightly parted in astonishment. What could be done here? Rhianon turned toward the door. The door was knocked on desperately.

«Back,» she commanded mentally, and despite her spirit’s protests, they left the palace. She wanted to continue among the draperies with coats of arms, books and fine furniture, in silence and solitude, beside the handsome blue-eyed young man, but she was afraid of the unexpected arrival of the crowd and of being mistaken for a ghost. Of course, the young king could stand up for her and let her know that she was his new favorite, but Rhianon was afraid of embarrassing both him and herself. What if yelling «witch» made her angry and burn the palace down. She would not have wanted that.

«You missed your chance,» the spirit hissed resentfully.

«I don’t think so.»

She was still clutching the pendant tensely. It had become almost red-hot in her hand. Did it mean she was destined for the crown? Rhianon grinned. What a thought that would have been. She did not dream of another’s kingdom, only her own, but the handsome young man was never far from her mind. His eyes were full of wonder and admiration when he looked up and saw her. Well, he’d dozed over his papers and the beautiful woman who’d appeared out of nowhere in his apartment might well have been the fruit of a dream. Besides, if he told anyone that something golden and unimaginable lurked behind that beauty, who would believe him. He has so many important affairs of state, and he gets so tired of dealing with them all personally, it’s no wonder he starts seeing strange things.

«I remember you promised to take me through the realm of dreams,» she reminded the still-present spirit. They were home again, not in the tower, but in the ramified corridors of the castle. Hearing a straining wheezing ahead, Rhianon quickly hid in an alcove. She waited for the creepy sculptor to crawl past before climbing out. She wanted to visit the clock tower again, which she did. The clock worked smoothly as one organism. There were no dwarves in sight, and Rhianon ventured around the enclosure and peered inside the mechanisms. It was a whole forest, a world of branching tracks and intricate counterweights. She bent down a little and ducked inside. She had to duck to get under the girders and hold the train with her hand so it wouldn’t accidentally get caught in the spinning gears. It was dark and dangerous, but she pushed forward. What did she expect to find? Is it him? It must have really taken a terrifying dream to meet him, and all around her was a terrifying reality. And it was like a horrible dream, too. Rhianon spotted a dwarf ahead in the thick of the beams and counterweights bent over his work. Cautiously she approached him. He was not dressed like the others. His apricot-colored coat sat unfortunate on his short, pudgy body. A cap of the same color almost fell off his head. Clumsy hands fiddled with nails stained with something thick and scarlet.

Rhianon came close and touched the dwarf by the shoulder. She didn’t even know why she wanted him to turn around so badly. Maybe she was just curious to know who he was. It was the first time she had seen him and she didn’t know his name. Horace didn’t introduce her to anyone like him.

When the little man turned to her, Rhianon flinched. She didn’t recognize him immediately, and when she did, she almost shrieked. The swollen face was almost impossible to match Dominic’s gentle boyish features, but now she saw what she saw. Dominic’s eyes stared at her with an unaccustomed puffy mask. Perhaps because she’d known him differently, his face seemed shapeless to her.

Rhianon darted quickly away, ducked hard to run under the gears, and felt herself burned again from within. Devil child, mistake, child of Dennitsa, hundreds of names swirled in her head, but they all didn’t quite fit. Pronouncing them was inaccurate; in fact, it was as if something like a fiery ball of sunlight had matured inside her and was burning her from the inside out.

Rhianon gave up trying to run away from herself. She still wandered between the machinery and sometimes she imagined a willow or a bloody box on the lid of which a black winged creature was sitting and poring over scarlet colored nails.

She stopped. What she should have wished for right now was somewhere else and to be far away from here. Could the spirits make it so Madael couldn’t find her in the big world? And why would she do that? Didn’t she want to be with him forever? Rhianon wondered. The dark romance had given way to an eerie truth. Something superhuman was maturing inside her. It might kill her, or maybe she was afraid for nothing. Everything is so mixed up. Why shouldn’t she be forever happy in the same bed with a demon? Who cares who he is and what he wants, as long as she feels so good with him. It was a shame that Loretta came between them, but after all, Madael claimed it was only temporary.

Rhianon looked at the case of the supernatural clock with anguish. It moved incessantly, but what was measured by its movement. Clearly not a time commensurate with what mortals lived. There was something else. She didn’t want to stand near those machines anymore. There was a pervasive sense of darkness and evil. The golden, inked hands seemed more ominous than the darkness gathering around them. Rhianon turned and walked away. It seemed it was time to choose her path.

Dark and Light

«Did anyone even see her?» Conrad tensed and gripped the armrests of his chair so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Manfred wondered if he should be dismissed, but the boy had become unmanageable. He might make a scandal, he might resist. They couldn’t have the guards drag him out of here. Marcus and Drusill who stood behind him would hardly dare calm the prince. Certainly none of them would have dared to advise him. And it would have been nice if any of them had advised him to stop loving Rhianon. Manfred longed for his son to be free of this love that had become an addiction. Not even a spell could have done to Conrad what the fiery girl had done to him. How could the court ladies distract him? Conrad wouldn’t want to hear about marriage to an overseas princess. As if there were no one left in the world but the unchanging object of his desire. He would become like his friends. No matter how well they had learned to hide their nocturnal exploits, rumors of their adventures reached Manfred. Many of their deeds were vile. But if Manfred had previously considered how to find more decent company for his son, now he wouldn’t mind having Conrad go through the taverns and whores. He needed some way to reconcile his passion before it burned him, as Rianon had burned the small provincial town south of Loretta yesterday.

«They were executing criminals there that day, weren’t they?» Hermione asked, in a businesslike tone, as he rattled through the verdicts. «It was a whole gang of captured outlaws.»

«And an entire town burned in their place,» Angus added grimly. He was the first to hear the news and was more worried about his holdings in the southern provinces than about the dead people. Conrad snorted contemptuously. The lowly man would have been more frightened by a dragon raid on his lands than by the myth of the girl who summoned fire.

«She couldn’t… no one could,» Roderick muttered, but his statement was weak. He himself wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying.

Manfred, unlike him, was not inclined to reassure himself. He knew what Rhianon was capable of. She would enter the dark chamber and the candles would flicker in the candelabra as if someone unseen had lit them. One caustic word was enough to make the hair on the head of her offender burst into flames. As if there weren’t enough hot young men at court always ready to protect her, Rhianon continually turned someone’s dress, train, or a lock of someone’s hair into a lamp. And that wasn’t the worst thing she could do. It was far worse when she scorched someone’s heart. Manfred was glad that he himself was not in love, but Conrad’s malleability was his punishment. The prince easily succumbed to the charms of the golden-haired witch. Rhianon! He should kill her, but where to find her now, and how to deal with her. The whole city! She has burned the whole city. Manfred ran his fingers through his graying hair. Even yesterday there were more dark strands in his head than today. Today he had grown old. He used to have energy boiling inside him, but now Rianon was the victor. Who would have thought her talent would have developed to such an extent. The crushing gift she possessed only gained strength over time.

«What about the dragons…» Manfred whispered softly. Rumors of dragons had long been circulating in Loretta’s countryside, bad tidings from burned villages, firebrands streaming into the capital to relay their harrowing tales, and circles of witchcraft and fierce evil in the scorched fields. The king did not believe it all, as he was supposed to, or pretended not to. Manfred did not want to feed the dragon rumors. They were troubling enough as it was. But just one girl was more dangerous than an entire dragon pack.

What was he thinking before, fool, he should have destroyed her. He knew, after all, that the gift of fire like vice lurked within her, he had seen the strings of the lute flare under her fingers, the candles themselves lit, the unearthly voices sounding in the heights above her head. A girl with fire inside her, followed on her heels by invisible companions, is a frightening power. We should have sent assassins to her, accused her of witchcraft and executed her as a witch, and let Conrad slit his wrists for her. Even he didn’t matter now. It was worth sacrificing his own son to get rid of a danger like Rhianon.

«What if she came to Loretta and burned the place down?» A naive question came over his ear, but Manfred couldn’t figure out who it was. The voice was unfamiliar to him, but how pleasant it seemed. Manfred would have turned to look at the speaker if he had not known he had an empty space behind him. His exquisite ivory throne stood close to the open window, but there was no one outside. Fortunately no one had ever seen a dragon in Loretta. The people were contented and undaunted, despite the fact that a war was raging somewhere on the borders of Menuel. The capital was unaffected by it. But Rhianon, with her gift of fire, could indeed destroy it. Manfred suddenly realized he was afraid of her. It was funny and bitter at the same time. He was afraid of some girl who had a destructive power slumbering in her frail body. She has the whole element of fire in her. Manfred himself gripped the armrests of the throne so tightly that his fingers ached. He scraped at the sharp serrations of the carving, but he did not care. He would have given all of blood to kill Rhianon.

«She herself was unharmed, was she not?» Conrad shocked his father with his questions, but he didn’t even notice it. He was too worried about himself to be sensitive to the feelings of those around him. «Hildegard says she cannot be burned. Is this true?»

Hildegard herself resembled a gloomy shadow lurking behind the draperies of the great hall. Manfred did not immediately notice her. She was eavesdropping, as usual, but she did not hurry to interfere in the argument. She was diplomatic and artful, and sly as a cat. In his mind he complimented her. He would have had a son of such character and finesse. The princess, dressed in black, with the usual raven on her shoulder and a whole arsenal of witchcraft tricks remained inconspicuous and heard everything. Conrad, on the other hand, noisily continued to demand answers from one or all of them at once. And everyone was already fed up with him. Sometimes even the prince was difficult to maintain respect for.

«Surely she and the bandits she slept with are all in one piece,» said Angus venomously, cutting off the young prince’s temper.

«What do you mean?» Conrad was momentarily taken aback. «Why would she do that?»

«Perhaps she was drawn to befriending the commoners,» Angus smiled. «Or perhaps the eyewitnesses were mistaken and she did not mean to save anyone but was merely nervous about an execution. Either way there are many questions.»

«And more to lose,» Hermione remarked. «Just count how many things burned for miles around. A few more attacks like that and there’d be nothing left of the country.»

«Well, that’s an exaggeration,» Roderick interjected.

«Stop arguing,» Conrad suddenly slammed his fist on the table so hard that the objects on it rattled. «I want to know who she was with. Was there a blond in this executed gang?»

There was silence over the council chamber for a moment. It should have been followed by amused laughter. Manfred himself would have laughed at other times. He cared about national problems, perhaps the country was in danger, and Conrad wondered if there was even one blond in some band of outlaws. There might have been a dozen of them, thieves, robbers, murderers, all those for whom the noose cries. And he’s looking for one. Or did he think Rhianon had disguised herself as a boy? Manfred frowned. It was quite an obvious possibility. Why couldn’t they find her? The princess was not invisible, and she could not have fallen underground, but to change her dresses for men’s clothing, it might have occurred to her. He remembered the girl’s archery skills; she could go far with other weapons as well.

«Was there a blond boy?» Hermione clearly couldn’t figure out what the prince was getting at.

«No,» Conrad said, his cheeks crimson for a moment with the blood rushing in. «Was there someone… who, like a dawn…»

He said it as if in a dream, and shrank back. He did not seem to understand himself, but his words made Manfred shudder. Dawn, the light, the warrior… everything he was looking for, but if this conversation were to go on now, he would no longer be able to control himself.

«I think their leader was blond,» Angus broke the lingering silence. «He looks very much like the son of a certain nobleman, a traitor.»

«Is he still alive?» Conrad tensed up.

It was the only question no one could answer. There was a silence hanging over the hall even longer than on the first occasion. It was Conrad himself who interrupted it.

«I want his head,» he demanded. «Immediately, now…»

He seemed about to lose control of himself and go into a scream. Even Manfred looked at him in amazement. For the first time Conrad had demanded something in such a way that those around him were frightened. Before he had been unfit to rule, nervous and melancholy, he had not made the right impression on anyone. Now a ruler was awakening in him. The boy began to behave like a man.

Manfred wondered. She could burn other cities, after all. How could she be stopped? No one had ever been able to catch her. It was useless to send guards to look for her. It was as if she vanished into space, only to reappear for a brief moment, make trouble, and then disappear again. Was there anything he could do against her at all? He could think of nothing himself. Nor was it any use going to his advisors. Everyone in the hall looked lost and dejected. Angus was worried about his lost lands, Hermione was nervously biting his lower lip, Roderick, Darius and Clotair were muttering silent glances at each other. No one was in a hurry to suggest anything. Manfred himself was confused. At moments like this, it seemed to him that all earthly and material things were powerless, kingdoms and armies and weapons, nothing could help. So is it not time to resort to the unearthly and forbidden. It is worth calling for Douglas. He balled his hand firmly into a fist and almost shouted his name. The young warlock was just what he needed. Let him earn his keep as court sorcerer. He was honored that the king wanted to see him at all.

Douglas himself did not think so. He watched the hall from his secret loopholes. Beneath him the two standards pinned above the doors were just crossed and the wall clock was nervously ticking. It was curious to watch the gathering from here, but not being able to fly from place to place and the fear of falling would chase him away. Too high, and he had no wings. Douglas sighed dolefully, catching the call in Manfred’s head. He didn’t want to use his wits right now. Besides, the wind seemed to have changed. The beautiful Rhianon was about to reclaim hers. He wished he had wings so he could fly to the burned city, scoop up a handful of ash, and let it fall between his fingers until the fragments of the night were upon him. Rhianon returns, and with her comes the element of fire. Douglas has lived long enough to fear fire, dragons, and any confrontation with what he himself is powerless against. But rumors of Rhianon suddenly drew him in as well. It is interesting to see a girl stronger than an entire dragon pack. The only thing was whether you would live to see such a beauty. He had nothing left to lose. A vision flashed through the tower and shook him. It was as if Mastema and Rhianon were together. He should have felt a burning jealousy, but he felt nothing. After Rianon had appeared and gone, a surprising emptiness had formed inside him. The wound once scorched in his mind by the image of Dennitsa began to heal. It was replaced by something else.

She longed unbearably for another glimpse of Madael. If only sometimes he’d fallen asleep, she could have looked at him asleep and imprinted every feature in her mind. But it was as if sleep was unnecessary for him. The seductive image of the angel sleeping with his own wings and sunny curls spread across the pillow was just a play on her imagination. He would be vulnerable if he could sleep. Even she, his lover, could sneak up on him and wound him. As long as a man sleeps, he is defenseless. Can a supernatural being sleep sensitively enough to wake up at the first approach of danger? And can such a creature be wounded at all? Rhianon had a lot of questions piling up. She had noticed that Madael never sleeps. Even when he cradled her in his arms at night, he himself never felt sleepy. He was also never tired, never eating or drinking, except for entertainment. Since his subjects had mutilated corpses on the battlefield, why shouldn’t he taste blood from time to time? It was a matter of principle, not necessity. He drank without taste and hardly touched raw meat. He took no pleasure in human suffering, but he didn’t want to end it either. He was tired of battles that meant nothing to him, but he still flew off to some of them just for the call of duty. Perhaps now he was flying off somewhere, too. Pity, Rhianon would have liked to see his golden-blond head bowed on their bed or beasts’ skins, would have liked to see how he slept for once and whether in his sleep he looked as vulnerable as any living person. She would like to see him one more time at all before she might be gone forever.

Forever! Is that really what she wants? Rhianon nervously clutched the pendant in her hand. The pendant had taken on the appearance of a pink thorn, and she could have wound herself on it in a moment. She did prick her finger. A scarlet drop of blood protruded from it, and it reminded her of death. She wondered if she had the strength and nerve to draw her sword and cut off the head of a sleeping angel. Would she have been able to do something like that out of jealousy or revenge, or maybe out of a desire to protect her own life? Was she the only one who dreamed of possessing Dennitsa’s non-smoldering head and taking it with her as a priceless trophy?

«I wanted to,» said a voice behind her, but Rhianon knew it was useless to turn around, because there was nothing but the vibrations of air and emptiness, but the voice sounded, stern. «I loved him, too. I too dreamed of his tenderness, not his war. Don’t make my mistake again.»

«I already did,» she said into the void. In the human world it would have been strange, everyone would have looked back at the girl who was talking to herself, but here in the celestial castle it was the order of the day. Rhianon suddenly realized that she had heard this voice before. Two voices, to be exact, one sterner, the other more gentle, but both full of sounds of unearthly harmony. These were the voices spoken to her by those who called to her in her dreams. Perhaps she should have been wary, for they always wanted to take her somewhere far away, to a height she feared. And what would be there? Where would the endless staircase of her dreams lead? Why were they so anxious for her not to meet Madael? They were jealous. They wanted to take her far away from the earth before she saw the inimitable warrior. And what would happen up there, on the heights? Wouldn’t they have pushed her down? It seemed time to ask questions, but her tongue would not listen. Rhianon was numb for a moment. She realized who was calling her, and it frightened her.

«I am like him, and you decided to replace him with me, because I am not strong enough to rebel against anyone,» she asked questions into the void, but she was not afraid of getting silence in return. She had already figured it all out on her own. «Do you think I would be more obedient than him?»

There was only a breeze that blew against her shoulders, but it felt like a touch. Rhianon closed her eyelids, feeling the pleasure of a previously unfamiliar closeness. It felt like a void caressing her, and in that void she could see the outlines of wings, beautiful faces, the movements of lips. She would have enjoyed it forever if the serene harmony had not been replaced by the familiar images of heavenly war, fire, and scorched bodies. These fragments had not left her mind for a long time. And they fundamentally changed everything. She really wasn’t the only one who dreamed of cutting off Madael’s head and keeping it as a precious trophy. Such dreams and desires had arisen in the minds of celestial creatures long before humans were born. He was a temptation to all, the one she loved. So now why did she suddenly want to leave him?

It was as if it wasn’t even her idea. Rhianon was confused. She shook her head tiredly. The black creature that had been cowering in Madael’s tower and then pestering her in the tent seemed to begin whispering poisonous incitements to her again. Kill yourself to free him. Rhianon did not want to hear any more of this.

She clutched the pendant in her hands and wished she were somewhere as far away from here as possible. Most of all she wished she was back in Vinor, and finding herself suddenly in a dark alleyway she realized she was in one of the cities of that kingdom.

Moonlight poured down on the sidewalk. The dirty reflections of the torches fixed in brackets over the gables of the houses could not spoil its purity. Rhianon was suddenly frightened that with this glow, those who had spoken to her had been transported to Vinor. She turned around cautiously, but now there was really nothing but emptiness behind her shoulders. The streets of the city diverged in several directions. Rhianon stepped forward a little. It was dark and deserted. Rhianon liked to feel that she was alone wandering in the night, and the night felt as if it belonged to her.

It felt like she was the only one here. She could do anything she wanted, even fly over the city. Maybe she should summon fairies and dance with them in the streets. Rhianon felt like kicking off her shoes and dancing on the sidewalk. She took the pins out of her hair, spread her arms, and twirled on the spot. The moonlight shone out around her. For the first time in her life, she didn’t want to spew or quench the fire inside her. She wanted only to enjoy the calmness of the night.

The pleasant feeling of being here alone was interrupted by the quick flutter of wings. Rhianon immediately stopped. The first association was painful. Madael might have already flown in for her and was now watching from above, but somehow she did not feel his presence near her. On the contrary, the city seemed to her free of both his servants and his minions. No magic but a slight otherworldly vibe. Only a few witch doctors could roam here, but not Lucifer’s armies.

A low cawing sound from above confirmed that she was wrong. Rhianon looked up to see crows perched on the perimeter of the roof. The darkening stranglehold of tiny figures on the beautifully sloping eaves was ominous. Rhianon only now noticed how beautiful the house she was standing in front of was. It was two stories high, decorated with tiles and slender columns, and the curved friezes and pediments gave the impression of something fabulous. Rhianon stared. She wished she could live alone in a house like this, away from everything. The walls made her feel cozy. It must be beautiful inside, too. And why have a castle full of gossiping servants, when she could live in such a quiet secluded place. Here she wouldn’t be affected by wars, or the strife of men and angels, or the crushing power of Madael’s secrets. It would be so nice here. Rhianon approached the porch. The frame of the canopy concealed a door with an exquisite hammer made in the shape of a lion’s head. She barely touched it when she realized she was not alone. She turned around quickly. Standing nearby was a gentleman, very tall and sturdily built, dressed in black. Wavy strands of black hair fell from beneath his broad-brimmed hat and though it had not rained for a long time it looked as if water were dripping from it.

«Would you like to buy this house?» The echoing voice sounded as if it had never been heard. Rhianon scrutinized the face hidden by the shadow of the hat and could not make out a single feature. It was as if she were speaking to a void.

The offer was tempting, but somehow too hasty. It made her a little wary. «How much would it cost?»

«How much would you give?»

The question puzzled her. Rianon wondered how little jewelry she wore at the moment. She could pull off strings of pearls and a sapphire-trimmed sash, and one of her feathers would probably be worth a whole small estate. But what could she offer for a house? Suddenly she remembered the coins Dominic had given her. She didn’t carry much with her, just a handful. She pulled out three of them and held them out to the stranger.

«What could you buy with them in Vinor?»

He studied the exquisite coinage for a long time. The gold gleamed oddly against the black leather gloves lined with mink. Rhianon noticed how disproportionately large his hands were. It frightened her a little. He could easily squeeze her throat with his hands.

«Dwarf’s gold…» he whispered softly.

«It is right,» she didn’t know how he could have guessed, but she was struck by his expertise. Maybe he was a wandering magician himself, or maybe he was just a connoisseur of magical rarities. Manfred was such a connoisseur, too, and even as Hildegard found out, those who cannot conjure themselves appreciate the fruits of other mages’ efforts. And there are also those who do not mind collecting wondrous objects. If the Inquisition gets its hands on such collectors, they’ll be in trouble, unless they’re rich and noble. This stranger, judging by his clothes, might have been both rich and noble. The mountain fur on his cloak and velvet of the best quality from which the camisole was made spoke of the exquisite taste and solvency of the customer. Only the black color was so gloomy.

«Have you any more of these coins?» he inquired cautiously, not letting go of the first three ducats.

«I’ll give you two more to buy the house.» Rhianon was not accustomed to bargaining, which was unbecoming to royalty, but now she wanted to bring the price down to a minimum. She had a dozen coins left, but held out only two to the stranger. He greedily grabbed them.

«Enjoy your new accommodations,» his bow was courteous, but the brim of his hat didn’t even line up with the level of her head. He was too tall. Rhianon watched him walk away. The flaps of his short cloak flapped in the wind like the wings of a raven.

«The keys are under the door,» he said as he hurried away.

He sounded like one of the birds on the roof. Rhianon grinned. His voice was not husky, but sounded like the cawing of a raven.

«Why did you decide to sell the house?» She shouted after him, not expecting to wait for an answer.

«I didn’t decide,» he turned and looked at her carefully, as if in a hurry to read something curious in her unfolding mind. «It was the house that had decided it was time to change ownership.»

Rhianon heard no further words from him. Ravens, meanwhile, were flying off the roof and following him as if he were their tribesman. Strangely enough, he was a man, not a raven, but in her mind he became associated with the bird for some reason after he left.

She did find the keys on the doorstep. She had only to push aside one of the poorly held planks, and beneath it, like a nest, the whole brass bundle gleamed. Rhianon stepped over the threshold of her new abode. One would say it was a fortunate acquisition. It was indeed very cozy inside.

Rhianon ran her fingers over the wrought iron grate of the great fireplace. Copper faeries seemed to be tangled in it. Intricate arabesques joined together in an intricate pattern. The soft, fluffy mats underfoot were also covered in intricate patterns. There were on the walls small tapestries with pastoral scenes. Rhianon stopped in front of one depicting a lady who had tamed a unicorn. She would have liked to see the scene of the dragon-tamed lady herself. If she knew how to draw or weave a pattern of colored threads, she would have thought of just such a picture.

She also liked the dressers with their carved walls and the brass-rimmed mirrors. There were no animal skins or hunting trophies around, unless you counted the branching deer antlers pinned to the wall. Not far away, two broadswords were crossed in staples. Such a weapon would have suited her well for self-defense. Rhianon wished she had brought a sword with her. Though a bulky weapon could hardly be worn with a dress, she would have been more suited to a stiletto hidden behind a corsage or a small, dainty dagger. Madael had plenty of weapons, but she hadn’t had time to take any with her. Now she had only these two broadswords. Rhianon removed one of them from its bracket and removed the leather scabbard. The blade was rusted and blunt. She set it aside in annoyance. Such a weapon was good for nothing. She couldn’t sharpen knives, and was in no mood for it. And she was bound to have trouble cooking if she lived alone. There was a kitchen in the house, of course, and plenty of cast-iron utensils, but Rhianon had no idea how to melt an oven, mix bread dough, or even make a pot of stew. She rarely watched others cook, and she certainly wasn’t going to do it herself. Perhaps she should have had gnomes or fairies do it for her. With their powers and charms, simple household chores wouldn’t be difficult for them. Rhianon was sure that it was only necessary to mentally utter the names of the magical creatures who had befriended her, and they would immediately come to her call, but for some reason she did not dare.

She remembered the embrace of the fairies and the simple courtesy of the field dwarves. She could afford to have company if she had her own house, but she put it off until later. She could invite old friends over later.

Rhianon sat down by the fireplace and casually glanced at the oval wall mirror. The sight of her own exposed throat startled her. The chain with the lovely pendant was somehow not reflected in the mirror. Or was it missing altogether? Rhianon ran a hand up and down her neck. The pendant had disappeared. She jumped to her feet as quickly as she could and searched the floor. The gold chain was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t lost in her belongings, and it wasn’t on the porch, either. Nor was it to be found on the street. Rhianon walked for a long time along the sidewalk, but saw nothing.

Back in the house, she sank wearily to the same spot by the fireplace. The pendant was her only way back. If it was gone, there was no way back to the castle beyond the clouds. The hard realization of the truth paralyzed her for a moment. Now the games were over, she really might never see Madael again. Unless you say his name right now, you have to call out to him and he will come. Rhianon felt confusion. Should she ask his forgiveness and go back, or wait it out for a while. Her mental effort alone was enough to make the dry kindling in the fireplace catch fire. Rhianon rested her hands on her chin and watched the sparks play on the flaming logs. The flames grew hotter with every passing second, and as she watched them whirr and dance, she was so enraptured that she forgot herself. She never said her cherished name.

Ron knew they would come again. The moments when he wrote were only a temporary respite. He had ruined more than one sheet of paper and cut up several tabletops with a knife trying to carve the signs he had dreamed of. He should have left a warning for Rhianon to keep her out of all this. Would that she knew how dangerous it was and how invincible those who sought her out were.

It was light and dark. Ron saw them as soon as he closed his eyes. It was as if they were still standing on the doorstep of the tavern, beckoning him invisible to the others, and he’d start hysterical and chase them away, making people think he was crazy. He didn’t care anymore. The only thing he wanted to do was to leave a warning, but his knife-cut fingers were almost impossible to obey. The innkeeper had already stopped shouting at him, and the other drunks had stopped bothering him, because despite his physical exhaustion, he was still able to fight very well. No one dared to admonish him for defacing other people’s property.

Of course, what he was doing was pointless. It was unlikely that Rhianon would ever walk into that inn and see the inscription. She was now a noblewoman, pampered and dressed up, a girl in satin and silks who might have been a match for a prince or a king, not the country boy he was now. Yet would she have known what danger was flying after her. Ron was smart enough to understand, supernatural beings are two kinds — light and dark, but both are equally dangerous. No matter how one was light they were still capable of killing, and absolutely ruthlessly and without feeling any remorse. They were considered good, but the evil caused to man became something ordinary and natural to them. They considered it their right to destroy anyone and did it without any regret. The fact that man was innocent meant nothing to them. Such was fate and the will of the Almighty, they nodded, leaving Ron to be torn apart by the demons each time. His dark guests weren’t so restrained; they ripped objects from his hands, pointed the blade of a knife so as to hurt him, spilled their drinks on passersby, drawing Ron into the fray. They laughed at him. They whispered that he meant nothing to Rhianon. None of the bright ones tried to restrain them. On the contrary, it was as if the two elements of light and dark were encouraging each other.

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