Rhianon — Princess of Fire

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«They were as winged as my former brethren, and just as badly disfigured.»

In the overcast autumn sky above the mountain range, a bright cloud of scaly dragon bodies mottled and wriggled. Red coral crests, webbed paws with claws, powerful tails, black and emerald, eyes sparkling with fury, and mouths that gnawed at the fiery flames that were about to burst forth-an army worthy of Lucifer. Madeel grinned wryly. His thin, pale fingers tugged at his scarlet cloak, a cloak he no longer needed. Rumors of what he was like were now openly circulating around the world, but few guessed the truth. Only these creatures saw through him and worshipped him almost as a god, and he paid tribute to their strength and singularity. They were dragons. A whole firework of multicolored, wriggling, living ornamented bodies. They were shapeless rainbows over the darkening sky. The tearful cries of birds subsided in the distance. No more songbirds survived; over the mountains and valley, only a vast, all-powerful army of angry dragons. Today their fire would fall upon the city at his command, and all would be over.

«Will you not feel pity at all when all that you valued recently dies?» The young traveler, perched on a boulder, stared thoughtfully at the swirling cloud over the mountains.

«This world is only a place of exile for me. Yes, it’s almost entirely mine, but if it perishes, I’ll have nothing to be sorry about,» he might have been lying a little, perhaps those crazy dangerous nights when she had walked with him through the dark streets of Loretta were the only things to regret.

«Are you sorry about them?» The traveler nodded at the swarm of dragons that were growing in number, and beyond the sweep of their leathery wings the sky was hardly visible anymore. «They really were your brethren once.»

«Perhaps,» Madeel shrugged, and the wings fluttered behind him. He still hid them and pretended not to know why he was invulnerable. Let the rivals whisper that the knight who defeats them is not a human, his beautiful eyes flash with lightning in the heat of battle, that his sword always strikes without a miss, that there is an invisible power in his armor, that wings are hidden beneath his armor. Their attempts to discover who he really is are in vain. Only one knows that… but, Madeel preferred not to think of her now. And his heart burned even harder and more painfully than the heavenly fire that had once burned his forehead millennia ago. Now his skin was still smooth and translucent, but the invisible seal remained.

Madeel shook his head, trying to shake off the memory like a bad dream. The wind fluttered his angelic curls. They had once been brighter than the sun, so bright and pure that they had been admired even in paradise; now they had faded to a golden wheat color, but they still continued to fascinate mortals. He was lucky; at least he was still beautiful, but his former friends had become too ugly. Only for some did beauty return for a brief moment, only to fade again and give way to more ugliness. And more than once it had happened in front of mortals. Madeel squeezed his eyes shut painfully.

«I hope it never happens to me. Some of them might have been like me. The ones the others missed, but now… look at them. Even if I knew them before, I don’t recognize them now…»

«You don’t want to be like them, do you?»

«Of course not,» he said, and his pale wings were already beginning to darken. His insides were churning with anger and fire. «But after tonight, maybe I’ll be worse.»

«Don’t do this…»

«I’ve already made up my mind. Perhaps the higher powers are of a different opinion, but those who live in Loretta deserve it. Their evil has gone beyond all limits. It’s time for vigilante justice. I could do it alone, sweeping over the city with my sword, but what a commander without an army. With dragons at my back, anyone would be more impressive.»

«Would she, too?»

Madeel shuddered. His wings fluttered so that not even his cloak could conceal them. He wanted to fly now, to outrun the dragons, the wind, and most importantly, the nightfall. The night would take everything from him, so why not get ahead of it. After all, he has strong wings and he can penetrate the tower with the last light and take what he needs with him. It was only with a tremendous effort of will that he pulled himself together. What was all this for? He was used to being alone.

«Don’t worry about her,» he muttered, then leaned carelessly against the huge boulder to watch the dragons indifferently. Their scales glittered like jewels against the gray sky. Above the dark cliffs, their cries and their cries shook everything. And inexpressibly beautiful, still childlike purity, Madeel’s face showed no emotion. Arno, the traveler, stowed his harp back in his travel bag without touching its strings. The face of the former angel before him looked as if it had descended from one of the frescos of an ethereal painter. When you look at such beauty, you want no words, no music, nothing.

You want only to look at these uncreated and at the same time not created by nature, but by some unknown magic, and not to think about time, because time has no power over them.

«You may die today, but you don’t want to die alone. You want to take this girl with you, you want to drag her to hell, because her embrace was more beautiful to you than heaven, wasn’t it?» Arnaud sounded like he was almost eternal himself. That’s probably where it’s going. It’s worth waiting to see how what he’s done reflects on him.

«Why lie?» Madeel stroked the razor sharp green scaled wing of the flying dragon, touched the comb with his pale lips, felt his curls explode in the fire’s powerful breath, felt the faint heat wash over his skin. Even the strongest fire could not burn him, nor could it do any harm. His pale, shimmering skin remained unscathed against both sword and flame. Invulnerability was as much a gift as his strength, and he needed it all, until he strayed from his chosen path.

«I wanted to give one beautiful, dishonorable creature the whole world, but all I can give us both is a tiny slice of hell.»

«You did. That means you’re already better than me, even though I haven’t done what you’ve done,» Arnaud still looked sadly at the harp. Maybe play it one last time, but why, the roar of the dragons would drown out all his music anyway.

«I just felt like I’d found someone as beautiful as the ones I’d been with before. This girl, she wasn’t just prettier than them...she was the only one who looked into my soul and didn’t shudder at what she saw there.»

«So spare these people for her sake.»

«I will kill them for her. They deserve it,» the dragon flew back to his friends. Madeel mentally ordered the others to prepare to attack. Fly. It’s about time. The daylight is going out. Night is the time of fire. It will rain like ginger rain on the copper roofs of the city, and the spires of palaces and the domes of cathedrals where there is no divinity, and even on the cherished towers. Like hail, the orange fireworks of dragon fire will fall upon the city, and for tomorrow there will be only ashes and memories. There need be no war, no clang of swords, no long duels, just one raid and in the flames all cries and pleas for mercy are silenced. The world is merciless to his desire, so too will he, the immortal, be merciless to the world. Madeel’s cloak fluttered in the wind. It is time.

«Nor will you spare her,» Arno questioned one last time.

Madeel stopped. His face grew impenetrable, like a stone statue in the glow of a flame that was already blazing over the mountains in the sky.

«Would you have any mortal follow my fate? Better that one of the most beautiful of mortals should die than that thousands should be burned alive? Wouldn’t you?»

Arnaud didn’t know what to say. He had to agree, but suddenly he remembered the tower, and the reflection of the candles in the golden curls and the sound of her enchanting music. Maybe it was better to let thousands perish, and let the angel’s voice singing of love remain in eternity. But it was too late to change his mind. Flames were already erupting over the valley, turning the previously blooming terrain into a steaming inferno. Madeel was gone, and the dragons were in flight.

Escape from Fate

Winning again! The dice fell again for luck. And this was not the first dozen times it had come out. Superior points had fallen regularly since she’d sat down at the gaming table, as if someone had cast a spell on the dice. As long as none of the partners accused her of cheating, because she was not cheating at all, she was just incredibly, amazingly lucky. Rhianon pulled her beret down over her forehead to hide the strands of golden hair that fell out of the bun. No one should doubt that she was just a cheeky, pretty boy, a page or a gamekeeper who’d escaped from her lord for the evening to try his luck at the first pub and have a drink. It is only a pity she had a face too delicate and girlishly beautiful for a boy. She must not be recognized. She will never come back. When she is missed the noble lady must disappear, leaving only the young man, who travels light and wins unusually often.

One of the players slammed his fist on the table in frustration. He had already lost all his money. A mountain of copper change was growing on the table in front of Rhianon, a few gold coins even jingled under her hands. It was all her winnings.

It was another game of luck. The players dispersed, some outraged, others lamenting their bad luck, but that the boy was a cheat was out of the question, for everyone was taking turns rolling the same dice, and he had done nothing to ensure that only he was lucky. The last partner, muttering something about the newcomer’s luck, also moved to another table, and Rhianon collected her winnings. Her long, slender hands dipped into the copper and gold. Treasures like a dragon’s. They would come in handy on her journey.

She should have trimmed her hair so she wouldn’t fear the beret was about to fall from her head and her curls would scatter down her back. It was as if someone was watching her all the time, trying to denounce the girl in her, but who? She looked around the tavern in vain for more than the first time. All the customers were occupied only with themselves and their drinks. No one was watching her. So where did this feeling of someone staring intently at her, trying to remember all her features, and the flame of the candle on the table was already trembling with the close breath of the watcher.

Someone was looking at her through the window of the tavern. It seemed so to her, and she flinched. What is this stalking mania, can’t someone be watching her so long and so intently while remaining unnoticed.

But someone’s silhouette outside the window did loom. Someone with a hood pulled down over his face, a vagabond or a monk. Rhianon would have turned away if suddenly a thin, pale hand had not pressed against the glass. It was too white and long, with elongated fingers and almost translucent skin. A non-human hand!

What strange thoughts? Rhianon would have shaken her head to drive them away if she hadn’t feared her beret might fly off. Whoever was watching her was already in the tavern. She could feel it with every pore of her skin, though no one present could be suspected. Did the feeling deceive her. Everyone seemed preoccupied only with their own business. Still, she looked around every corner, even the chandelier and the stove with the burning coals. It seemed as if someone’s gaze could be on her from anywhere, even from places where no human being was standing. It was especially from these places. Someone was staring, as if from a void, and the feeling made her uncomfortable. Rhianon shuddered. She would have to get out of the tavern and take a walk. Maybe it was because it was too stuffy in here. Her horse was just growling anxiously outside the door to the stable. It was far away, but she heard it and rushed over there. Fresh air wafted in her face, and the thought that someone might be watching her sitting right on the swinging chandelier under the ceiling or perched almost in the mouth of a glowing oven seemed absurd. Was it Imagination? No, her fantasies had dried up since the council sentenced the heiress to the harsh reality that the country, of which she was to be the sole ruler, would never be hers alone. Or it was not yet. Rhianon was used to insisting on her own, only now it was pointless. She had to wait it out, had to stall until she was of age, until she was free.

Her groomed, white horse stood out sharply among the inconspicuous, brown-haired stallions and geldings. We must change him later, or pass ourselves off as a royal messenger. Only that one could have an outfit and a horse of such value. There is no need to arouse anyone’s suspicions now. They must be looking for her by now. They should search the castle first, all cellars, wells, ponds, and houses in the city. It would be wonderful if no one could place the young page at the head of an expensive thoroughbred and the missing princess. But her pursuers might be too cautious, so they would have to be clever at hiding.

Rhianon put a finger to her lips, calling for silence. She should have taken the horse by the bridle, stroked it, patted its withers, calmed it down in general by usual methods, but she was used to doing otherwise. The animals understood her, and she didn’t need physical force to subdue them, just a faint mental contact, a subtle sign «obey me», and it worked. One gesture, one thought, and the beasts understood her in a way humans never would.

Someone clapped their hands, but the clapping sounded not in the night, but in her brain.

«You’re gorgeous!»

No one said it, no one breathed in her ear. Just a whiff of wind touched her cheek. The strange thing was that this wind was only felt for one moment, and then the calm of the night closed over the windless space again. It was cold, but there was no draught. Her head felt like it was on fire, maybe from the feeling of her own daring and boldness. She would never have dared to run away before, but now she could smell the freedom. She did what she had to do.

The horse was worried, spinning his ears, and not at all because it was the first time he had been so far from the castle stables. He was feeling something. Rhiannon touched him with her hand and felt him tremble.

He may not have had enough hay today, and he may have been cold in the wind, but she could sense that his behavior was not one of resentment over a bad life. Rhianon recognized that expression in the animal’s eyes. He was afraid. She ran her fingers over his fur and wondered if he looked as numb as humans do when they’re startled, but she could feel the shivers inside him.

The girl backed away. Something flapped behind her, an enormous wing, it seemed, but no bird’s presence was felt nearby. There was no flight, no long cry, only the flap of a wing and the soft contact with the coat that covered her back. The wounds on her shoulder blades immediately began to ache. Rhianon shivered from the cold and the pain. She should go back to the warm tavern, warm herself by the fire, drink a cup of something hot and dismiss the thought that there was someone lurking in the hearth, bold, laughing, watching her. No one’s eyes were watching her from an empty space, and it was time to accept that.

Still, she wanted to check out what was behind the horse’s back. What was the animal so afraid of? Rhianon looked around, in the distance is nothing but wasteland, and in front of her an old abandoned village cemetery. It was all overgrown with sod, and only now and then she could see the tombstones, lit by the moon. It was not a cross or a tombstone, but something else in the dreary landscape. It looked more like a monument, except that it stood too far from the cemetery and suspiciously close to the inn, almost a couple of meters from the horse-holding stable with the frightened stallion. Rhianon was willing to swear that when she’d come here a few hours ago, she’d never seen anything like it. And what was it. She moved forward, hoping to get a better look. Someone’s ears seemed to catch her every uncertain step, and they succeeded, even though her footsteps were muffled on the loose soil. Someone had pointed ears, an oddly shaped head, and huge wings extending over a bulky bronze torso. It’s a statue. It was just a huge bronze statue. Rhianon was already sighing in relief, but the horse’s frantic snorting made her wonder, even wonder what makes this thing so distinctive, a pedestal with something written on it. Such a huge, majestic sculpture in a place where there are hardly any craftsmen capable of creating such a marvel. Rhianon could not even examine the beautiful or ugly winged creature. She had to raise her hand to reach the edge of the pedestal and touch the long bronze claws with her fingers. They were sharp and warm. She immediately jerked her hand away. There was something wrong here.

She took a few steps back. The moonlight almost caught her face out of the gloom, framed by the wings folded behind her head in a circle, but Rhianon had already turned and ran away. Back to the tavern, back to the warmth, back to the people. Someone came out of the warm building and slammed the door behind him. He stared at her. Something glittered in his hands in the darkness, a folded penknife it seemed.

«You’re a nifty boy,» said a gruff, mocking voice.

Before Rhiannon realized she had to run, someone had wrapped his arms around her from behind. One or two, someone’s arm held her too tightly.

«I’ve been watching you from Loretta,» the knife-wielding man approached her, the blade pressed against her throat, gleaming in the moonlight. Rhianon shuddered; she was a second away from having her throat slashed. Maybe it was the duke’s men. They didn’t look like his retinue, more like mercenaries. The poorly dressed, tipsy men reeked of booze, sweat and blood. One of them had just cut himself. Rhiannon could smell blood, even when the injured man was a great distance from her. Her nostrils immediately flared and caught the strangely pleasant scent. Her nostrils flared up, picking up a strangely pleasant scent and associating it with the opening of a wound. Rhianon almost smiled, though it was inappropriate now. Where did it all come from in her head, scratches like flowers of fire, a bowl of blood, and someone with wings.

«And don’t tell me fairy tales about the princess disappearing at the mountain pass itself, kid,» the bandit grinned a gap-toothed smile, his accomplices clawing harder at her.

«You’re a hustler, you’re a runaway servant, you clever boy, but now you’ll pay,» the blade sliced harder into her neck, and now her own blood would gush out. That was the smell of her blood, and it wouldn’t smell so good. On the contrary, the smell of her own blood always made Rhianon sick, but the blood of this cut man, though disgusting, smelled so appealing. He didn’t recognize her, or he did, but he was in no hurry to reveal his plans. In any case, she was about to get her throat slashed for her lucky winnings, and something had to be done, but not a thought occurred to her.

Rhianon covered her eyes, trying not to look at the blade pressing closer and closer to her. She sniffed at her enemy’s blood, and it seemed to her that someone else had caught that divine scent in his nostrils, and his nostrils had widened just as much as hers.

A second more and her blood would gush directly onto this knife from her opened jugular vein. Rhianon flinched after the knife had been taken from her throat. Whoever was standing in front of her was already lying on the ground, screaming in pain. She couldn’t see what had happened, and it was dark, but she caught sight of someone’s clawed paw stabbing at her. The writhing body under her feet, writhing in a pool of blood, was nauseating.

The two behind her had already let her go. They had no time for their victim.

«Look!» One of them was pointing to an empty pedestal. There was a third man between the men, but it was not a man. He had a non-human figure. Rhianon definitely saw wings and claws. She watched until the carnage was over. One could have huddled against the wall of the inn and watched others being killed. We need to get out of here before the bodies are discovered was her first thought, but someone or something was already dragging the bodies into the darkness, dragging them along the ground, leaving bloody footprints. The pedestal plunged into darkness, but something was still there. It was foolish to think about avoiding people’s questions about the murders when they might have killed her, too. Someone clawed at her shoulders and pressed her tighter against the inn wall. Someone’s clawed hands either squeezed or hugged her. It looks like love, it flashed through her mind. How strange it was that they wanted to kill her, and these wings rustling in the darkness, these claws and the blood on them seemed to her to be symbols of love incarnate.

«Don’t tell anyone,» whispered a quiet and commanding yet penetrating voice over her ear. Some very tall creature leaned down to examine her features. And then it abruptly let her go, and the girl nearly fell. It was hard to stay on her feet, not only from the suddenness of her release, but also from the intense nervous shock. She herself did not fully understand. She could only look around confusedly, looking for someone who was no longer there. The horse was still snorting fearfully, but the reason for its fear was gone. The surroundings were empty and dark. Maybe just someone was sitting on the roof, waiting to spring into action.

Rhiannon tucked her beret back into place, to cover the long locks of hair. It was cold and frightening. Her feet carried her back to the warmth and comfort of the tavern. Even the rough shouts and noisy laughter of the customers didn’t seem so nasty to her now. She sank heavily into a chair near the empty table, as a swaggering boy should, and gestured to the innkeeper. He had already brought another glass of wine before she ordered. Rhianon had already had a few today, but now she needed another. Of course, it wouldn’t hit her head and erase the memory of what had happened, because she had never been drunk. That was one of her strange innate traits. Wine didn’t get her drunk. And it was one more thing. If she needed to get warm or turn the lives of others into a blazing inferno, that wasn’t a problem for her either. She snapped her slender fingers, cutting a thin spark from beneath her skin. Fire was born of emptiness and air when she needed it. I had to smile guiltily at the astonished innkeeper, who couldn’t understand how a light could have flashed in the boy’s hand if he wasn’t holding a candle.

She could still play and win again. She felt she could. Luck was with her for now and would not leave her until morning, maybe longer. She was devilishly lucky at gambling, and her former partners were calling for her again, but Rhianon shook her head in the negative. It was enough gambling for today. She needed to calm down, finish her wine, and banish the intrusive thoughts of someone watching her from the most unexpected places.

«Do you believe in luck?» A sudden question brought her out of her thoughts. On the other side of the table, in the seat that had been empty a moment ago, someone was already sitting there, and his eyes glared at her feline-like from the half-darkness. How unceremoniously he sat down, and how silently he approached, as if he had materialized out of nowhere. Around him, the darkness seemed to thicken. A white, narrow, extremely long palm floated out of the darkness and tossed a gold coin over the table.

«I can give you luck… along with this gold piece.»

Rhianon was taken aback, not by the strange offer, but by the sight of the stranger. Dressed all in green, with bells dangling from his hat and an unpleasant glint in his eyes, he resembled an evil elf from a fairy tale. Red and yellow patches seemed to slip into his attire, but it was impossible to see exactly, for the whole figure on the other side of the table seemed to be woven of fog. The stranger sat beside him, it was only necessary to reach out a hand to touch him, and at the same time Rhianon did not dare to do so, for she was afraid of feeling of emptiness instead of him. This must be what a creature from the looking-glass must look like, not entirely in this world, but balancing somewhere between here and nowhere else. It would not take much to frighten it away, one gesture, one movement, and it would disappear, but the girl did not dare. She looked at the man who sat down beside her as if he were a curiosity. He looked a wonder, too, in that outfit, with his skin like it was covered with white clay, what a lean, mobile body he had, and what unusually thin long fingers. They caught the tossed coin so deftly that the dime barely had time to flash over the table before it was clenched again in his thin fist.

«I don’t want to play anymore tonight,» Rhianon muttered, not taking her eyes off the red glittering eyes on the other side of the table.

«Winning is good, isn’t it?» The stranger grinned merrily, but not at all kindly. «And will it be so tomorrow?»

«Tomorrow is still to come,» Rhianon thundered down her mug on the table, she had to be swaggering, now that she was a boy, no one should question that.

«Yes, it is extremely difficult to survive in these times, isn’t it?» The stranger winked understandingly and leaned a little closer, the bells on his hat tinkling playfully in time with the movement of his head. It didn’t seem to be ringing really, but laughter. It was the laughter of dozens of little tongues.

Rhianon moved a little farther away so that the skinny hand reaching across the table would not touch her in any way. She didn’t like the intrusive interlocutor, though there was something about him that made her heart beat faster. It was as if she recognized an old acquaintance who shared all her interests with her. Except that this was a man she had never seen before. And was he human? He acted like a buffoon, but his eyes… That voice, those understanding nods. She clenched her hand under the table so no one could see. The lines on her palm began to itch. It had happened before. That momentary flash of recognition occurred to her at the sight of those who knew of her secret predilections.. A fleeting sorcery, quick, secret, inept… She had done it herself and now invariably recognized in the crowd those who had done it as well. And they recognized her, though they had never seen her before. But the doomed, that is, those who roll down the same path to hell and can no longer stop, easily recognize each other, easily dragged along with them. She had no choice, they might have, but they always looked at her derisively, just like this stranger sitting imposingly on the other side of the table. There was something else entirely.

«I’m almost on the run myself,» he whispered confidentially, and his eyes flashed dangerously again, as if he could see into her thoughts.

«I’m not,» Rhiannon finished the glass in front of her with a gulp. She tried to be rude and manly, but her overly-cute appearance must have spoiled the impression. It also made her feel uncomfortable how easily the man had figured out her plans. It was a fact one could only look at her wary demeanor and realize she had someone to run from.

«We’re on the run from ourselves,» the stranger said in a gentle voice, and he brushed aside any disbelief that might have been created by his first indiscreet words. «Sometimes what’s inside creatures is stronger than they are, and they try to escape it, but there’s nowhere to go. The danger is inside you, not outside. There’s no escape.»

«What do you know about it?» She asked haughtily, but nevertheless she glanced cautiously at the already-empty glass. The half-full bottle beside her now disgusted her and almost terrified her. How many times they had tried to convince her that her peculiarity was born in herself, like a curse. This curse needed no fuel to fuel it, but Rhianon was certain that alcohol promoted ignition. She couldn’t feel the heat inside her, and she didn’t see the fire rising out of nowhere, but even now she feared that if she got angry, the fire would flare up right on her fingertips, right on the dice on the wooden table in front of her.

She swallowed hard. Can the damned be seen in their faces? It is said that extraordinary beauty marks only those, like rebellious angels, close to the fall. In any case, at court so often whispered behind her back, unaware that she could hear everything from a mile around her. The royal astrologer hated her in silence until her father’s death, but on the king’s deathbed he was able to say it all.

Extraordinary beauty marks those from whom the fallen angel will come. Then she will be the worst of all, because no one has ever been more beautiful than her. Did the stargazer know of the terrible forbidden books she had collected? Rhianon guessed that he hated her for a very different reason. Just like every other mage she encountered. They all looked at her with envy and jealousy. And why was it? She wasn’t all-powerful and unlikely to ever be. Though she needed it so much, to gain superhuman strength and regain all that had been taken from her. To claim her property, she must first defeat all her enemies. And for that, even becoming a powerful king is not enough. Rhianon sighed. The trickster, ready to perform tricks now at her table, could hardly be of any real help to her. But he, with that same sly smile, kept making suggestions.

«I can make you win every time, every day, every night, at whatever hour you wish, the dice will fall as you wish. But do you want to?»

She looked at him for the first time with mild interest and wonder, the haggard face under the brim of his hat suddenly even began to look cute to her. The feverish, hungry gleam in his eyes was gone. They no longer glowed red. The skin on his cheeks was a little pinker. He seemed to be the kind of creature that feeds on the sympathy of his interlocutor. Like magic smoke, it only became alive and tangible when someone paid attention to it. That’s why he’s so interested in communication. Rhianon smiled at her own thoughts. He obviously took that smile as encouragement and continued to flirt as best he could. His bells were ringing even more merrily now. Their tongues no longer exuded laughter, but song.

«I want so much that I’m scared of my own desires,» she wanted blood, her hand clenched into a fist under the table again.

«And surely you don’t believe you can conquer entire kingdoms with agility?» He made some quick motions with his hands, and the dice on the table tipped over by themselves, revealing high points, and the gold jangled inexplicably.

Rhianon took a closer look at the coins. They were unusually minted. They were unlike anything she had ever seen. There were wings and sun on one side, there was a rose on the other. Somewhere she had seen this before, but not on doubloons. Somewhere else, and she couldn’t remember where.

«At least with dexterity you can get by,» she said smugly, though what she really wanted was something else. She had to take an entire country, overcoming the resistance of all her allies as well as the hired troops, mages, and diviners. Is it possible to accomplish such a thing? Somehow she became more and more convinced of this.

«Show me some more tricks,» she suggested in a commanding tone, wondering how, after all that had happened to her, she had not yet forgotten how to give orders. The capricious princess was sometimes dominant in her, and sometimes she tried to imitate the royal advisors, hypocritical and cunning, capable of prying everything out of their interlocutor and using it to their advantage. «I want to see something more serious than all the tricks you can see in the marketplace, too.»

He frowned, a little puzzled, a little disappointed.

At last she managed to get the better of him in some way. The playful, mocking look vanished from his face as if he’d had a moment’s makeup washed off. His features became elongated and pointed, the luster of his eyes faded.

«Well… here,» he muttered uncertainly, then he turned warily toward the inn.

«Not sure of your abilities?» She teased him.

He shrugged his angular shoulders as if they twitched violently in a comical manner. His expression became even more wary, and even the bells on his hat were somehow silent. He could tell he wasn’t telling the whole truth, or there was something he wasn’t letting on. «It’s not just my territory here…»

As if on cue, they both stared at the hearth. Not long ago she had felt as if someone were watching her right from the blazing fire and from every inch of ground and log wall and every pile, but that was impossible. Some super-powerful being cannot envelop the entire space around them with its power. It can’t be everywhere, like God himself. It can’t see and feel everything, and braid itself around every millimeter of air around them, and not burn in the flames. No one is capable of lurking in a burning hearth and peeking at everyone from there. No one can suppress the will of all powerful mages by their proximity alone. No one can be everywhere at once. Such a creature simply does not exist. But what if there is? After all, she could feel it. Unless it was a hallucination someone else had sent her. Such a game could have been a good thing, after all, to gain her trust. A lot of sorcerers do that — they send a person visions or premonitions on purpose, and then they sit down with him and pretend that they also went through such a thing. It’s a clever kind of scam. Rhianon had seen it before, and it wasn’t hard for her to figure out the trickster. When you know all the mages’ tricks, you can somehow parry them. She had learned too much when she had spied on wizards in the palace, including how to instill some sort of fear in a person that benefited you. But there was something else here. Her interlocutor wasn’t just trying to instill fear in her, he was afraid himself. She could sense that for sure.

He stared warily at the fire for a minute, then at the wine glass as if he could see dancing fairies in the liquid. He thought long and hard about something, his thin eyebrows furrowed at the bridge of his nose, he even bit his lips with sharp incisors, and then suddenly his eyes sparkled again, joyfully and mischievously.

«I’ve got it!» At last he exclaimed. «There is a place here. Well, more or less safe. Anyway, if there’s anywhere you can do tricks without worrying, it’s there.»

He must have meant forbidden «tricks,» so called magic tricks, which not everyone is allowed to do. She didn’t care. She was wary of something else. He had been so good at bringing it all up in that «one place». She wondered if he was going to trap her. Sometimes spirits do that to too trusting travelers. And often they’re not spirits at all. She didn’t want to end up in an outlaw’s den, or in some backwoods tract where evil spirits ran wild. And she’d heard tales of mortals being enchanted at such secret nocturnal gatherings.

«What is this place?» She wondered.

«Oh,» he smiled slyly. «It’s in the middle of nowhere, and no one can get there but us. I mean, no one but me, even if they wanted to, could find their way there, and I’m inviting you along.»

«That’s very kind, but I won’t go,» she moved his glass and bottle away from the mysterious gold glittering on the table, as if to say that she didn’t need it.

«I think we’ll go,» he leaned over the table and grasped her hand with his skeleton palm, as thin and dry as a skeleton. And how strong those withered fingers were.

She flinched, but he immediately loosened his grip. He didn’t hurry to drag her, but pointed with his free hand toward something far away, where just outside the window she could hear the snorting of approaching horses and the shouting of horsemen. Someone had come at night, and these men, who looked like palace guards, were in a hurry.

«It would be better for you to spend the night where they can’t find you,» the man continued in a lazy tone. «Unless, of course, you’d rather spend time with them…»

He was evidently sure that she wouldn’t. Rhianon emptied her refilled glass in a gulp. It was a pity she wasn’t getting drunk. She would need it now. She glanced once more at the commotion outside the window, recognized some of the faces, and pulled the brim of her hat down over her face.

«How are we going to get past them?» She whispered to her companion.

«Do you trust me, then?» He shook off his mottled coat and put out a long dry hand to her as if he were calling her to go with him into a forbidden realm.

«I don’t trust you,» she pondered for only a few seconds. «But I’d like to believe in luck.»

His eyes lit up with an understanding fire.

Brocade and Flame

He led her to a strange place. Not that it was strange because of its appearance. Just no, it was the same driftwood, moss underfoot, and thin streams covered with fallen leaves. Nothing was drastically different from other thickets, ravines, or glades in the forest. Even the hollows in the trunks were the same as everywhere else, and yet there was something special, heavy and pressing, as if it came from the bowels of the earth. It was only here, nowhere else in the forest.

«We have farther to go», the guide reminded her.

Rhianon nodded and walked on. The view was the same, the trees and stumps all around, and yet something was wrong.

Rhianon felt strangely excited. Fire was about to burst from her nostrils again.

«Come on, little henchman, it’s freezing in the autumn.»

«What do you mean?» The strange escort seemed to read her mind, and she didn’t like it. She never understood how he’d managed to get her out of the tavern without the new arrivals noticing, but he had. No one realized it was her, the one they were looking for, no one noticed that they had left at all, and Rhianon was willing to bet that the owner of the tavern was extremely surprised when he realized he was demanding payment from a table that was already empty and not from those he thought had just been seated there. Well, from that one could conclude that casual acquaintances could sometimes be useful. At the very least, it was worth chatting with from time to time, or rather, once you got into special trouble, call him. That’s how it looked so far, unless he was leading her to a place far more dangerous than the one he was taking her from. Rhianon was wary. She knew that such tricks were common to all evil spirits. She could do anything with someone who was already in their care, but somehow she felt no danger, only a little unease.

«Come quickly!» A lean, lanky figure beckoned her into the thicket. His robes, more mottled than fall foliage, stood out among the trees, and his pale, luminous hands were the clearest contrast to the darkness. The skinny, long fingers dared not touch Rhianon herself, but gestured to her constantly.

She was cold. She was not accustomed to being cold. The heat lurking within her warmed her, even slightly scalding her in the bitterest of frosts. And now it was only early autumn, and if she counted the days she’d spent away from the castle, it was already October. The winter cold has not yet blown, and the forest, covered with a motley carpet of fallen leaves, feels warm and cozy, and she is so cold that she wraps herself in her coat and does not know how to warm her icy hands.

It’s all about this patch of woods. It’s not like other places. There’s something in the air itself, in the aura, in the circle of falling leaves. Something whispers and hides, and it’s everywhere.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the stirring in the deep hollows in the oaks and the silent flickering of some strange silvery insects on the bare branches, and sometimes there were piles of glowing mushrooms by the stumps. She noticed on the way only mushrooms growing in bunches and whole rings, and if she suddenly came across one that stood alone by the stump, its colorful cap seemed like someone’s home. Everyone in the villages believed in evil spirits, in elves and fairies, but Rhianon had long ago realized that if there were magic folk, they bore very little resemblance to the abstract stories about them that the old men could tell. In fact, magic has always turned out to be black and scary. That was what Rhianon believed. She had been convinced of that when she was still in her parents’ castle. And nothing could dissuade her, not even a smiling fairy, if she suddenly appeared before them right now, such as coming out from behind a tree and summoning them both with her.

Witchcraft has always hidden behind the hypocritical smiles of courtiers, and this witchcraft has not produced winged fairies at all, it has contributed to the sending of pestilence and disease, secret poisonings, spoiling, hundreds of ways to drive a person with spells, while remaining above suspicion. Rhianon despised such people who, hiding behind a corner, slowly and painfully killed others, while they themselves always remained innocent to witnesses. Such were all her friends and vassals. They would never lie and pretend not to believe in anything, but black magic had already enslaved each and every one of them. After all, it was such an easy way to achieve your goal, to take out your enemy, to intrigue, to corrupt those you envy. Spells could not create beautiful creatures with wings, but they killed, brought misery and enmity. If one could believe in a world of beautiful fairies, if one could use enchantments to create or summon an unearthly winged lover to one’s empty royal bedroom. But that was impossible. One could only be enchanted to torment each other. The intrigue wove slowly but ruinously. People often sat at the same feast table, expecting each other’s deaths from one day to the next, but they all smiled sweetly at each other, hiding their thoughts. And Rhianon could read the thoughts of them all, so she alone was getting sick at noisy receptions. She alone by her silence aroused the suspicion, because she could not laugh and joke with those whose secret plans terrified her. So she read and about what they want to do to herself, and she ran away, but if she ran away from the castle, she could again believe that there is a magical world and under the ground, on which she now treads may well be a friendly clanging hammers dwarves — smiths.

The girl sighed. How long ago she had believed in beauty! And that belief had worn thin, killed by the intricacies of palace intrigue and the cruelty of life.

Rhianon fixed an unruly lock of gold that had fallen from her beret. It would have been better to cut her hair, at least then there would be less danger of exposure, but foolish sentimentality would not allow her to get rid of the heavy golden braid. That way, at least, anyone who saw her would still be able to believe in magic. Her beauty has always been called magical.

«Where are we going?» Rhianon looked out over the same monotonous forest landscape in front of them. In the darkness, even the splendor of colorful autumn foliage could not diminish the overall impression. It was a lost place, and her companion was leading her deeper and deeper into it.

«Be patient,» he said with a strained nonchalance, «we’re nearly there.»

«Come? We’re nearly there!» She involuntarily reached for the dart she had hidden in her boot.

«Hey, are you trying to tell me you don’t trust me after the way I saved your life back at the tavern?» The escort, who had evidently noticed that she was drawing her weapon somehow, became alarmed. God, aren’t there eyes on his back?

«Saving mtis life is an overstatement,» Rhianon corrected him; she didn’t like to be obligated to anyone, much less such a strange-looking fellow.

«You mean the King’s soldiers didn’t scare you?» He tried to crack a joke.

«What king is this?» Rhianon involuntarily broke out in a huff and no longer felt cold even as she struggled to contain the heat and fire that was coursing through her veins. That’s how others were warmed by the wine they drank. She leaned tiredly against a tree trunk. Is it any wonder that the mention of impostors and regents infuriates the only legitimate heir? It was a truth she could explain to no one without losing her head.

«I wasn’t serious,» her companion suddenly realized he’d overreacted and sprang back toward her, «just don’t get upset.»

His skinny hands tried to touch her shoulders, but Rhianon recoiled. A man’s hands would never be like that, she was sure of that.

«We should continue on our way.»

«Yes, of course,» she nodded and tried to push his palms away from her. She could see the sudden twist in his face, and she noticed that he leaned down so that his eyes were hidden by the brim of his hat. Of course she had burned him. And now he tried to hide the burn from her and from himself, though an itchy stain was already spreading over his long, dead-white hand. Did he realize that it was she who had burned him with her touch? People usually didn’t understand. Rarely did anyone realize that it was dangerous to be around her. And few were willing to believe that the fragile princess could incinerate anyone, and then she herself could stand there in bewilderment to see what, in its own words, had happened and why the recent interlocutor now writhing in agony at her feet. Victims rarely suspected anything, and Rhianon burned many. Not that her conscience particularly tormented her when she managed to light the clothes on a negligent guard, or the hair on a lord’s eavesdropping footman, or cause a blaze of fire in the fireplace when the discussions in the throne room reached their limits. Her only regret was that her tiny talent was too insignificant to conquer an entire kingdom. To do little mischief yes, but to assert her own rights to the throne — that with a pair of miraculously lit candles she simply could not do. Yes, if she were to return suddenly, all the candelabras would erupt when she entered the hall and the flames would whisper something in the fireplace, but it would hardly be enough even the heavenly fire itself so that all her enemies would be dead, all the rebellious subdued, and the throne already occupied by an arbitrary regent would be vacant. And to have an army of demons at her back, with only she could control, and powerful supporters, and inexhaustible power. To get her goal, all methods are good.

Yes, that was her dream. Why be hypocritical or overly noble when others in her country had long ago abandoned nobility. It would be good to defeat them with the same weapons they had used more than once. If only she could, if only her tiny gift would eventually flare up to the point where it would be enough for any exploit. And to take back a kingdom as powerful as Loretta was no mere feat, not even a theme worthy of the tales and legends of the people. Bringing Loretta back was like turning the whole world upside down.

If only some powerful demon had supposed her help in this, she would have agreed to anything. But all that stood before her was a skinny, buffoonish ghost. He could be compared to a petty demon, a jester spirit, or just a mischievous ghost. Most likely now he would lead her into the swamp and that would be the end of their little nighttime adventure.

«Shall we go?» He was clearly nervous and was pushing her to where.

«Are we late for the ball?» she asked irritably, for he had torn her away from all the hard thinking she’d done over and over in her head to make her own strategy, and every time for nothing. It was easier just to watch the falling leaves dance and think about nothing. «You’re in a hurry to get me to a night coven or any other feast of the damned, where everyone expects a man as a treat, and you bring him.

«Well, yeah, a lot of people have a feast of sorts,» he answered evasively, «but that’s none of our business. Fairies have balls every day, but we’ve never been invited.»

«Speak for you,» said Rhianon, eyeing his frail and lanky build with disdain. She herself boasted a good — too good — build that often drew attention from men and women alike. In any case, both dreamed of dancing with her, and not just dancing. It was a pity that real balls with quick dances in the castle happened quite seldom. More often it was unhurried movement under the sluggish music of minstrels, moreover, burdened with a heavy dress. And the partners most often were not those she herself had chosen. The castle had lately become a prison. There everyone chose for her, from the page carrying her train and ending even the groom. So now she was no longer in the castle. The fresh air and smells of the forest should have cheered her up, for it was the scent of freedom, but for some reason Rhianon was afraid. Everything about this corner of the forest was somehow wrong, not to mention a very unusual escort.

And yet she kept following him, warily looking around. Everything about her was unnecessarily frightening, and most suspicious of all was the long, nimble figure looming up ahead. Perhaps it was stupid to be afraid, though. She had nothing to lose, that’s for sure. She’d already lost everything. It was her whole kingdom. Everything was now a stranger. She could only be glad that her head was still on her shoulders, as the minstrel who had once joked outside her tower window. He, too, had only the wind in his pockets and a harp, and he used to sit for hours under her tower, especially during sunset. Yes, her head was indeed still on her shoulders, and perhaps that was something to be glad about, but her conscience would not allow it. What good is that preserved head if there is nothing else at all.

«Do you think it would be much better if the natives deprived you of your mind?»

The voice didn’t come through; she was probably just imagining it. No one would be out there in the nighttime woods. Suddenly it was a woman’s squeaky voice, like a tiny fairy perched on the nearest driftwood.

And yet there was a point to what was being said. Rhianon knew from the tales of bards and the frequent arrivals at the castle gates that an encounter with fairy folk could drive a man mad. It was to be believed. In the castle, even the most innocuous spell had the power to take the mind of any court lady or gentleman. It often happened. Someone was thus deprived of an enemy, but sometimes there were occasional casualties. That’s the worst thing about witchcraft, you never know what powers you might summon and against whom they might turn.

You wouldn’t want to meet a creature that would drive you insane without even noticing it. Or maybe it was worth the risk, to see if everything was as they said.

Rhiannon looked around carefully. There was nothing but fallen foliage, tree stumps, and bare branches that weaved an intricate lace overhead so that the sky was barely visible. There was no movement, not even a remote hint that anyone was around, and yet her senses could not deceive her. There was life bubbling nearby. And it didn’t matter that there was silence all around. Even the sounds of an entire civilization could not excite her as much as what she felt.

«Come, come, we’re almost there,» her companion urged her on and on. He must have said that a hundred times, as if he believed that his words would determine how quickly they reached her.

«What is it?» As the forest landscape in front of them began to change into a cave-like darkness, Rhianon became worried.

«They are only abandoned mines,» said the companion nonchalantly, walking hurriedly down the rocky steps in the darkness of the cave. — Wouldn’t you like to find gold down there? You said you wanted to believe in luck.

«Wait, that wasn’t our agreement,» she didn’t want to go with him to the bottom of some forgotten mine, but she didn’t seem to have a choice; she wouldn’t be able to find her way back, and the green cap of her escort was already disappearing around the corner of the rocky staircase. Here’s the thing, it seems that not long ago it was a hat with bells, not a cap.

«Well, are you coming or not,» she heard from the depths of the ground, where the crumbling steps led. Rhianon looked back one last time; there the forest was behind her, and in front of her went down an impenetrable darkness, and that was where she had to go. She was afraid to step on the stairs carved in the cave, and when she did step, the darkness became impenetrable. It was as if something had closed in behind her, cutting off the way back.

«Hey,» she called out to her guide, but her voice was lost in the cave’s ramifications. No one answered her, only an echo, but not the usual kind of echo, a kind of polyphonic and multi-voiced, as if thousands of tiny creatures were laughing back.

Rhiannon moved forward, hoping to find her guide, but he was long gone. She groped her way forward, hoping to find her guide, but she soon saw him gone, his green cap lined with a single bell on one of the steps. Rhiannon bent down and picked it up, and suddenly the world around her was transformed.

It was still a cave, but no longer as narrow and cramped. The stairway carved in the stone was far behind her, and ahead of her was no mine, only a vast oval-shaped hall, surrounded on all sides by uneven walls of caves. Rhianon was standing in the very center of it. Strangely, it was no longer dark around her. The girl lifted her head and looked around. The vaults of the ceiling were invisible to her, and up there, there was no source of light at all; the light was coming from everywhere, from the very depths of the earth and at the same time, from nowhere. Rhianon didn’t even try to lift the hat that had come off her head, and her hair fell loosely to her shoulders. Something in her clothing was also subtly changing, instead of the stiff man’s clothes she now felt the touch of brocade against her skin, and a long turquoise train swirled behind her.

«Look in the mirror, my dear,» came the voice of her recent escort, though he was still out of sight.

«There isn’t a mirror,» Rhianon said indignantly, but she glanced around for the strange creature who had brought her here. It might be hiding somewhere. But above her head was a wisp of silver smoke. Sometimes she could see the shape of a face through the smoke. Here and there the smoke swirled, causing her to turn back and forth so that she couldn’t let it out of her sight.

When she turned around for him once more, her gaze stumbled upon the mirror. She froze in amazement. The lady whose reflection she could see full-length in front of her was dressed far more richly and elegantly than the princess she remembered. A turquoise dress with a tight corsage gracefully encircled her figure, flowing from her slim waist in clouds of iridescent brocade and seemed not to end at all, because the train lying on the floor stretched endlessly.

«Shall I make it a little shorter?» The voice asked sympathetically. And why would anyone care so much about her? Rhianon turned around to examine it more closely, and the train itself seemed to her like a living snake that slid across the floor.

And then she noticed several more mirrors in the walls and was struck, but not because they perfectly copied and multiplied her reflection. It was something else that caught her attention. The mirrors were magnificent, but not straight, as if granite had grown into the amalgam and frames, the pebbles were unevenly interlocked here and there at the edges, and seemed to be an integral part of these strange shining mirrors. They did not grow out of the walls, did they? But then why were they not even hanging tightly against the walls, but as if they were growing out of them, like fungus or other parasitic growths. And there are more and more of them, whichever way you look. So many recesses with mirrors made the room seem polygonal rather than oval.

«You look beautiful, your Highness,» the same voice said, and Rhianon noticed that she had a diadem in her loose hair and that the long locks of her hair were being gathered into a beautiful hairdo as if someone were setting them and pins the top of it with tiny diamonds.

«Splendid,» the voice went on, «I swear you are the loveliest lady that could have been here, and if we hadn’t been there in time you might have had your charming head cut off.»

«What do you mean?» she said the question with her lips, but the silvery smoke above her rippled, took on a fuzzy shape, coiled itself in a thin ring around her head, and disintegrated back into a myriad of sparkling sprays. And still, even if for a moment it split or disappeared, it looked like one living thing.

«I recognized you,» she remarked toward the swirling silvery dust that made up the smoke. Though the shape was different now, her recent escort’s voice echoed her remark with a laugh thick as smoke.

«You’d better watch yourself,» he advised her.

She did so, noting with pleasure that she liked it better than what she’d worn at Court, and not because it was more beautiful, the brocade gently warming her skin without arousing the firestorm in her veins. On the contrary, it was as if the fabric dulled her inner fire. It felt so good to feel the texture of the precious fabric. And the color was just her favorite blue. Delicate as the morning sky, as water, as ice… perhaps it was this shade that appealed to her because it challenged the element of fire raging in her blood. It was the color of the sea and ice blocks. It went with her eyes. Maybe it wasn’t chosen by accident. In any case, it was the best dress Rhianon had ever felt in her life. She was only surprised by the border of gold lace running cloudy across the hemispheres of her breasts. After all, where there is sun there is fire, even if it is a thin ray.

«But you’re a royal princess. The color of kings is gold,» the voice reminded her softly, and it was clear from his tone that he was lying, trying to divert her attention from something more important. Something she didn’t know yet.

«Why can’t I see you?» Rhianon looked around for the nonexistent person she was talking to. «And where does your voice come from when you can’t be seen? Are you behind one of the mirrors?»

She had seen illusions produced by mirrors at Court before, but this was something else, and she no longer dared to call it a mere trick. She did not feel the presence of a living body nearby, not in the cavernous hall or behind the alcoves of the mirrors. Only the silvery smoke wafted over her head, thinning, gathering back into a cloud, sometimes vibrating, and the voice seemed to emanate from it.

In answer to her, of course, only a light laugh sounded, like the quiet ringing of a bell on the green cap she still clutched in her hands.

«I guessed who you were,» Rianon declared, to reassure him a little. She wanted to stop playing hide-and-seek with him, but then suddenly realized that she didn’t even know his name. He never introduced himself, no name, no title, no position in society, had he at least been a court jester or if she could have called him a spirit for sure, but she couldn’t. She just didn’t have time to ask him his name.

«What is your name?» She looked around quickly, trying in vain to catch sight of the fumes that kept escaping. Now it seemed to envelop her in a shimmering cloud overhead, with a mocking, low jingle.

«Give me a name!» He either asked or demanded.

«But…» She clutched the green cap tighter with her hands and turned her head again sharply, trying to focus her gaze on the haze. It was in motion, and her voice sounded like it was coming from all around the room.

«Courage, princess, call me something,» he began to tease. «I am your own personal demon, after all.»

«What do you mean?» She was already wrinkling the cap nervously with her cold fingers; she wanted to think he was joking this time, but the intonation didn’t sound like it. Even the bells went silent for a moment. «What did you say?»

She’d heard of something like this before, seen even more glazed eyes and corpses, blue with blood loss, with veins ripped open, with dead lips still seemingly ready to whisper the forbidden name of the one who had ripped them from their normal human life to give a moment of sparkle and then ruin them.

«Don’t pretend it’s nothing to you,» he said, as if he had read her mind.

Rhianon shrugged her bared shoulders in contempt, but the images of the terrible premature deaths of those who had become famous were still vivid in her mind. One of these men had even become a court poet, he was granted a title, given an estate, made welcome at all the banquets, the other peasant boy would rejoice to tears that he was out of the mud for his talent almost made a prince, but he just stood in the corner with glowing eyes, drank a lot, did not want to look at women, and once confessed that there is someone who is always watching him from the void and even more owns him. His personal demon was the companion of all the brilliant and illustrious. After such a confession, he was found dead the next morning. It happened long ago, when Rhianon’s father, King of Loretta, was still alive, and she remembered to this day. And even his father’s death did not make such a terrible impression on her as that untimely death. After that, something dark and creepy seemed to take up residence in the castle and remained there until the corpse was burned in the main castle square. Rhianon shuddered in fear and disgust, so as not to betray all her feelings, she could only pretend that she knew nothing of it.

«What is the meaning of this?» She asked as if she hadn’t already done so.

«Haven’t you ever heard of a personal demon, Princess?» It was as if he knew already, and he laughed at her incredulity. It was as if he was looking at her from inside herself, but it couldn’t be. She has no talent for which such an attack as a black companion can be unleashed upon her. The flame within that made the princess dangerous.

«Don’t call me that,» she looked around the mirrors, as if not inserted but grown between the cavernous partitions, searching in vain for his reflection.

«No one can hear us here,» tried to calm her the voice, but Rhianon somehow still thought that these mirrors, as if grown from crumbling walls, can serve as a window to the outside world.

She noticed tiny, strange-looking insects crawling over the scraps of gilded frame visible from the sandstone and stone. How strange, thought Rhianon, the pieces of mirror growing directly from the cave stone, as if inseparable from it, and on the other side of them might well be the fun of the magical folk imprisoned there. Or not imprisoned at all, but just like her, peering through a window into an alien world. She thought she heard laughter and clinking glasses and music. On the other side of one of the mirrors it was as if the merriment of the feast had reached her.

«They, too, were singing and cheering and challenging each other, just like humans, but they weren’t humans at all.»

«Would it be possible to have a look at them sometime?» She knew the risk. But the world, not even open yet, only reflected behind one of the mirrors, drew her irresistibly toward it. After all, nothing bad could happen if she just looked at them once. It is the dream of all men that touching the forbidden will leave them without consequence. There haven’t been any such people who have succeeded, if the rumors are to be believed, yet, but who knows, maybe she’s the lucky one. Gee, how the bottom of a moment of fairy intimacy can cloud a mortal’s mind. She immediately forgot almost everything, the past full of troubles, the danger that still threatened her, and even the silvery haze that had already enveloped her shoulders.

«I’ll take you through all the worlds and show you anything you want to see, but first give me a name,» the voice asked softly, and the shimmering smoke, already shaped like a young man’s head, was bent right up to her ear. «Call me whatever you like, whatever comes to your mind.»

«Orpheus,» she said almost automatically, in memory of the harp, whose enchanting sounds she heard beneath her tower in the evening, and of course in memory of the harpist himself. The sound of her new acquaintance’s voice was just like that harp, just as piercing, invading her brain and completely enchanting. — Is that all right with you?

«Of course,» he pulled back from her shoulders so quickly it would have seemed like an acrobat’s trick, no longer a shapeless smoke but the man she’d met in the tavern. He looked a little different now, as if he had been transformed from a pale buffoon to an almost handsome man. His eyes, at any rate, shone like jewels and his smile became charming. He sat up high on something resembling a long golden pole, stretched flat between the mirrors. Well, with his dexterity and seemingly weightless body he belonged there. It seemed that Orpheus was so dexterous, that he could make his roost from dust particles flying in air. Orpheus. She thought that’s what she called him.

«May I have it back, unless you wish to try it on, ma’am?» He pointed to the cap in her hands.

«Oh, of course,» she stood on tiptoe and held it out to him, watching with interest as the thin, spidery fingers curled in a tenacious grip on the soft velvet. As she passed back to her master, the bells began to jingle merrily again. Admittedly, Rhianon couldn’t figure out why he’d left his cap on the stairs if he valued it so much. And where the thin golden perch had come from, she never understood. Yet it was all so curious to watch.

«Where are my own clothes?» She had only now thought to ask; of course, the dress suited her very well and caressed her skin nicely, but she could not go far in the woods and muddy country roads in such an outfit. In addition, the whole conspiracy came to naught, since she was again dressed as a princess and could, walking around alone, cause a lot of speculation and suspicion. It is better to return the breeches and the pageboy’s coat. They may not be so luxurious, but they are quite comfortable for the journey she has embarked on.

Orpheus shrugged his shoulders expressively.

«Somewhere where it will lead the pursuers astray,» he said nonchalantly.

«You mean the sentinels?» Rhianon was surprised.

«Well, they have hounds.»

«And wizards, of course,» she realized.

«Oh, don’t worry, child,» he scrambled from his golden perch at a pace that would have startled a trickster. «After all, they’re only human, and the very concept of magic came to them from us. And if we give something to someone temporarily, we can take it back at any time. All you had to do was to come to us, or rather to our border, and now you’re more important to us than anyone who imitates us on earth.»

«Yes, let’s say they took magic from you, but now they have their own rules.»

«And you think they know what they do and how they do it, if they don’t even suspect that we give it to them. We make fun of them because of a mirror,» he pointed to the nearest wall, «because of one of those mirrors, and there are windows like that scattered all over the universe. I can, of course, admit that there is one force we fear, but it doesn’t come from the human world.»

«What does it mean?»

«From where we all come from,» he answered cryptically. «You know, my dear, we’re just a splinter, too. And what we’re chipped from, oh, it is better that no one knows.»

He took something that looked like a blowpipe from the folds of his robes and quickly played it, covering one hole and another with his thin, nimble fingers. It should have sounded disgusting, but strangely enough it sounded good. Like the notes to a long-forgotten song or a nursery rhyme, but how could you play it all at such a pace.

«Well, I promised to show you what’s on the other side of the mirror,» Orpheus stopped playing, but the music remained as if hanging in the air. «Choose any mirror?»

She looked around. The room now seemed to her no longer an oval, but a complex polygon, like a multi-faceted gem imprisoned in the womb of a cave and who knows where the light pouring in refracted in each facet, creating different scenes. Behind each mirror a new picture awaited. Rhianon saw sunflower fields yellowing with sunflowers, where, like motley butterflies, the most unimaginable creatures with and without wings were flying in a wild dance; there were also mountain ranges, canyons, fortresses on the rock, meadows, river lagoons, uncultivated croplands or closed deep clefts, and everywhere they were — not people. Even at the bottom of the ravines their voices echoed, and sparks of color flew from the charms they conjured.

Rhianon turned away from the scene of the macabre carnival, where the creatures dressed in red were dancing wildly, quite attractive though dangerous. After thinking for a while, she stopped at the very first mirror she saw. From behind it she could still hear the sounds of the feast and hear the wine glasses being filled.

«It is a good choice,» Orpheus nodded approvingly and bowed his hand to her as if she were his lady at the ball. «Follow me, Princess.»

«Shh,» she put a finger to her lips, letting him know not to call her that anymore, no matter what world they found themselves in, human or not, and she didn’t want anyone there to know about her title and flight. There were few who were capable of informing. She wasn’t the only one who had ever entered a magical world. Maybe someone in the castle could communicate with these creatures, too. Then they might let them know. Any tiny fairy caught could spill everything she knows to get away. Not to mention leprechauns or dwarves or some other insidious creature. Orpheus seemed to understand her and nodded. Anyway, this time he obeyed the order. Since she had given him the name, he no longer laughed at her at all, as if he had become part of her, or for some unknown reason was obliged to obey her orders. Maybe he would even be forced to do her bidding. This was the first time Rhianon had dealt with such a creature, and he never ceased to amaze her.

He led her straight through the mirror, ignoring the long, agonizing moan that the cavernous wall made. The glass was as insensible as ripples in the water, and the opening must have closed the moment she stepped through it, following Orpheus, who was clutching her arm, because she was pinned by the train. She tried to free it and could not. The mirror was hard again. Behind it she could still see the cave and some tiny black creatures now scurrying about there, while on the inside the wall had become smooth and colorful, decorated with some elaborate tapestry.

«Do you like it?» Someone from behind the banquet table called out to her in a low voice.

Rhianon nodded; the tapestry impressed her in some way, but she could not say exactly what it was. Threads lay upon each other, joined together, creating an intricate pattern. There were skies, an abyss, and a transverse line of verdant forests, and all these places were full of unimaginable creatures.

«Doesn’t your lady want to come to the table?»

«Yes, I do,» Rhianon took the liberty of answering for the pandering Orpheus, and she pulled harder on the train to free it, but the case yielded only a little.

Someone at the table laughed resoundingly, sparkling wine was still pouring into the goblets as if there was no end to it, not only was the tabletop piled high with viands, fruit and grapes were also rolling across the floor as if they were growing out of it, some of them turning into golden balls, or so it only seemed.

Rhianon abandoned her futile attempts to tear out the stuck train and looked at the gathering. They were creatures of the ethereal world, with wings of many colors, with skin from which sprouts of flowers or vines sprouted, with eyes that burned with evil fire, with arms full of wool and horns and claws. Such indescribable creatures she could not have imagined.

The scarlet-haired, childlike fairy at the head of the table made an inviting gesture. Her eyes glowed like two rotted beads, and here and there a crust of wood crusted over her lily skin. The mushroom fairy, as Rhianon called her to herself, because her dress and jewelry took on the coloring of a bizarre flyswatter. But Orpheus called her something else.

«Leave her alone, Athenais, I brought her here as a guest, not as entertainment for you.»

«Oh, guest,» Athenais said, and her eyes sparkled slyly. «We’ve been missing her, so beautiful, so sweet…» she smiled, her sharp teeth gleaming dangerously under her blood-red lips. «She is sweeter than the dew on May flowers.»

«I told you she’s not for you,» Orpheus reminded her sharper.

«You mean you brought her here for him,» Athenais’s puppet face mirrored a moment of consternation, even a moment of panic. But what could a fairy be afraid of? Rhianon looked at her with interest.

«Is it he?» She said again, and everyone fell silent at once. Not only the talking and the music stopped, but it was as if life itself had frozen for a moment.

«Who is he? Haven’t I seen everyone else here?» She turned to Orpheus, because everyone else was unfriendly and silent.

«Well…» he hesitated for a moment. «I think the first thing we need to do is find a fairy to make you a camisole.»

«Is it here?» She paused. Rhianon glanced around the feast hall, which, in spite of its profusion of luxuries such as drapery, gold tableware, and chandeliers, was more like a forest. It was not the trees with pomegranate stones instead of berries that looked artful decorations, but the objects of the interior themselves seemed to be merely decorations set in a wild forest. The wind would sweep them away, and all that was left would be rowan thickets.

Once more the girl tried to free herself, but the train stuck tight. True, it was long enough to allow her to take a couple of steps into the depths of the hall; on the third step the brocade crunched, letting her know that the train was tearing.

«That’s all right, get Griselda’s gnats over here, they’ll sort it out quickly,» Orpheus worried. Clapping his hands, he did manage to summon some tiny creatures dragging gold scissors and thread. They looked more like fleas than fairies in size, but they got to work quite bravely. They were called pixies, Rhianon recalled. The tiny dressmakers worked, and Athenais watched her intently from across the table with unblinking, long stares. She had even set the goblet of wine aside, and now her fingers, covered with ingrown wood, were clearly visible. What a creature is it? Rhianon had found the doll peculiar and pretty, but even she shuddered at the sight of such ugliness.

«Restore the pattern, this brocade is very valuable,» Orpheus directed the work. «Not a single sign must be changed…»

Is it a sign? Rhianon hadn’t noticed that the dress was embroidered with signs. They were probably quite tiny, almost indistinguishable to the mortal eye. But judging by Orpheus’ commands and the intense work of the fairies, every inch of the brocade abounded with them. And they could not be confused with anything else. Orpheus repeated this many times.

«Or else your friend will be ignited?» Athenais raised her defiantly arrogant voice.

«I am his mistress, not his friend,» Rhianon stepped forward, not even thinking about how Athenais could know about her inner flame. And when she did, it was too late to take it back.

«Ah, that’s how,» the fairy smiled coldly, at that moment looked ominous both herself and her not at all childish, but dwarfed, because the tiny face here and there covered with a crust of wood suddenly seemed old, not doll-like. She must be thousands of years old, like all these creatures sitting at the table with her, Rhianon thought. And she talks to her like a child.

«No offense to you,» the fairy dwarf said, and with a graceful gesture of her tiny hand she adjusted her curls. They, too, were the color of tree bark, brown and stiff, but curled in a way that made her look like a porcelain doll. If only it hadn’t been for the crusts that plagued her skin and the fingernails that looked more like the growths on a tree.

«Me, too,» Rhianon said, and her beautiful but human voice boomed over the banquet table like something foreign. There were no bells and no violin in her speech. Everyone here should have realized long ago that she was a mere human being, yet no one made the slightest attempt to attack her, take her captive, or dope her with her wine. The table was as full of fruit as a cornucopia, and a single crumb of those plums or apples is probably enough to poison a person. Fairies always did. Their fruit seemed especially juicy, poured with color like sparkling jewels, but their juice was only enough to act as a potion to drive a mortal mad rather than quench his thirst.

An eternal thirst awaited her if she tasted anything from their table. They say it happens to everyone, they want to see the fairies again and can’t, and the impossibility of that desire drives them mad. After all, the magical world seems so close, yesterday you were in it, and today you can no longer find it.

Rhianon looked at Athénais. Her eyes twinkled as if she wouldn’t mind drawing the princess to herself, treating her to her wine, her fruit, and maybe even bewitching her.

Some furry creatures in bright hats were swinging from the chandelier, as if it were attached not to the ceiling, but to the branches of trees woven above the table. Candles in candelabras lit on their own, like fireflies. The pomegranates rolled from dish to dish as if they were alive, and Rhianon felt herself drowning in an abyss of inhuman, laughing eyes, now green with foliage, now dark with agate. Athenais would not let her go, but she could not hold her back either. Rhianon had already gathered her willpower and was about to turn away, when suddenly it was even darker than it had been. The candle lights were still lit, but the feeling of darkness thickening around her like a black cloud was so strong and oppressive. It seemed as if the darkness was not descending, but flying wildly and swiftly toward the hall. The candles fluttered in the oncoming wind. Soon it would be a real hurricane.

Rhianon noticed the consternation and then the wild fear on the tiny faces of those seated at the table.

«It’s him, it’s him,» several voices shouted at once. «Run quickly. He’s coming back.»

She shuddered.

«Who is he,» she wanted to ask, but didn’t, remembering that the first time she’d never heard the answer to that question.

The tiny creatures scurried from the table, some dashing across it, others picking up fruit as they went. Everyone was in a hurry to escape, and only Athenaïs alone was still slow, keeping her piercing eyes on Rhianon.

«What does it mean?» the girl asked her, and, like the first time, the question went unanswered, except that someone’s shadow suddenly descended on the table and the unfinished wine in the glasses changed its hue in an instant, thickened, poured over the edge of the tablecloth. How similar to blood, Rhianon’s mind flashed. The fruit was changing, too, rolling across the table like burnt heads, and if it had been worth painting a still life here before, now the girl shuddered with revulsion. It was bones and meat and entrails. She turned away from the table in horror and noticed that the ceiling was gone, too, and that the tree branches woven into the canopy ended in height, revealing a bottomless sky. She spotted there someone’s winged shadow too high above the ground and against such blackness that she became frightened. The wings flapped gently. The thing was approaching swiftly. It was hurtling this way, but already toward another frightening feast.

Now even Athénais preferred to run away. Picking up her puffy scarlet skirts and rustling tree bark, she cast a vengeful and hostile glance at the thing that had interrupted her feast, and so quickly, as if she feared being burned by the sight of it as she had been by the sun. And then there was no sign of her. The low, luxuriously dressed figure disappeared behind a tree as if she had slipped into a burrow.

«Go away!» Orpheus was alarmed this time as well, for he had time to gather in a handful as many tiny portly fairies as he could fit into his arms.

Perhaps he was right, he should have fled from the unknown but tangible danger, but Rhianon could not take her eyes off the skies, split by the storm and the beating of the black wings. There was evil coming from up there, for sure, but it was beckoning. It pierced her like lightning, like a jet of fire through her body, and there, high in the sky, a dazzling golden beam shone in the darkness.

«Let’s go, quick,» Orpheus couldn’t stand it, he grabbed her by the hand and he burned himself. His excited shriek of incredulity lifted Rhianon out of her torpor.

«Yes, of course let’s go,» she agreed, but she really didn’t want to take her eyes off the sky and what might be there. It was what everyone feared, but it was what she longed for. Surely it must have been something startling, if its appearance was facilitated by such a commotion. But Orpheus didn’t let her think about it; he had already opened the door to another world. The mirrored surface rippled and became as if it did not exist. It was time to leave, because now it was no more of an obstacle than, say, the air. The ground in the hall was already shaking. Dried leaves were beginning to fall from the nearby trees. Something was approaching, but Rhianon had already stepped through the mirror following Orpheus and the entrance closed quickly, this one not catching the train she had picked up at the elbow. Rhianon could feel the golden needles of the fairies still working in the fabric on the dress, stitching the tear and tried not to touch the place. The train was so long that it was barely made shorter by the fact that she had wrapped it around her elbow.

«What was that?» She demanded an answer from Orpheus.

«What? Oh… it’s…» He was visibly confused, not knowing what to say. Out of his pockets spilled the fruit that he had managed to pick up at the feast. And it was true that they were only gems skillfully shaped like grapes.

«Does this happen here often?» She glanced at the food that was just gems, which she might have been seduced by, and at the fairies that flew out of his cuffs, the ones he’d brought with him. «Well, I mean there,» she corrected herself, turning back to the mirror.

«Oh, it happens,» he drawled with feigned disdain. «Things happen there. You haven’t seen a hundredth of it, have you, ma’am?»

«But it seems to take an eternity to live with them and learn all about them in detail.»

«Well, yes,» he shrugged his shoulders in a silly fashion, pretending not to take the hint. She’s only human and doesn’t have forever ahead of her, not to keep him company for life. He’s probably as old as Athenais, though he looks like a boy, and he’s been around for thousands of years. They’re all spirits, aren’t they? Or who knows.

Rhianon could barely keep herself from asking whose personal demon he would become after she died, and what happens to black tempting companions of geniuses in general after their owner dies. Such a question would clearly have stumped him. Rhianon still couldn’t believe that he really was what he said he was.

The fairies who had already repaired her train were now nimbly weaving a new garment. The fabric of the blue camisole seemed to have materialized out of thin air. Again it was made of brocade.

Blue brocade was her favorite color and seemingly ready to become an expensive material, as if blue brocade could quench the flames that were born from time to time inside Rianon’s fragile body.

No matter how hard she tried, she could not keep track of the fairies’ work. They were doing everything so fast. It really was magic. Things were appearing as if by themselves, and the golden needles and celestials fluttering over the crafts seemed to be just a crumb of some glitter. When the clothes were ready, the pixies surrounded them in a glowing swarm to check the quality of the work once more. It seemed like dozens of flashlights scattered over the fabric. Someone was hurriedly finishing the cuff on her sleeve, waving a golden needle.

«It is fine, just fine,» Rhianon didn’t want to offend Orpheus or them in any way, «but it’s not exactly what I need.»

«I mean,» Orpheus stretched out again on his thin golden pole, carelessly putting his leg over his leg. «It’s just your size, isn’t it?»

«Yes, it is» she agreed after a moment.

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