There once were two sisters, close in age, who had been birthed and loved and became stooped and wise and were now old women together. They lived in a house in a courtyard surrounded by a tall stone wall, meant to keep out most children and all men, though starlings made their nests in the boughs of the elms. One day, the king—an old man himself—was walking by the wall when he heard the lilting voices of the sisters, who had become accomplished singers over their long years.
Once upon a time, a fox came across a cat in the forest. Or something very similar to a cat, at least. The thing was neither flesh nor fur, but pale enamel, the tip of its nose and the insides of its ears daubed with blood. It sat on its polished haunches atop a mossy log beside a babbling brook, paw metronoming in salute. “Hello,” said the fox to the cat, drawn to its gleam and its amiable expression, its bobbing foreleg, but mostly by the golden coin at its throat.
Always had the sages known that they would come. The first princess, in her bed of jewels and smelted gold, had dreamt of them; dreamt their terrible faces, their terrible claws, their endless hunger that is greater than the mountain and deeper than the deepest-diving seam. She had wept in the night, to have such dreams, and some say that her death—as the deaths of all princesses since her—came hard and early, because she could not know the peace of slumber.
There once lived a man who was stolen from the sea. Rare and magnificent, he lived in his cave, rising to the surface every so often to pluck the strings of his violin for the birds before retreating into the water to play for his kin. They spent their days enthralled by the doleful songs of the man who lived in the littoral cave. But there came a day when the songs ceased and the people stopped going and the man was nowhere to be seen.
The madman whistled an unfamiliar tune as he walked past the tangle-choked fields along a road in little better shape; before the plague, it had been surfaced with polished brick. Bricks that the dreamers hadn’t pried up or been chewed into gravel by the weeds and weather. The guide followed close behind, scheming again. The madman paused to light his pipe and take a preposterously deep drag from the tight-packed bowl.
It is never lucky for a child to kill her mother in the course of her own birth. Perhaps for this reason, the soothsayer who attended the naming ceremony for Princess Essylt was not a celebrated one. Haidis had barely finished his own apprenticeship when the summons came. He knew that delivering the prophecy for this princess was a thankless job, because no soothsayer in his right mind would attempt to foretell the life of a girl-child born out of death.
Well, the 101,201st Emperor needed some levies to build a huge statue of himself, so he said, “Okay, all of my recently subjugated peoples: If you’ve got at least two sons, you need to give me your first-born. But don’t worry, I’ll give him back, assuming he can survive ten years of lifting these big heavy stones.” In some places, people weren’t happy about this. The city of Yashar revolted, and in response the Emperor’s legions killed the men, castrated the boys, and sold all the survivors into slavery.
In his later years, when he spoke, a faint whirring came from his lower jaw. His mouth opened and closed rhythmically, accurately, displaying a full set of human teeth gleaned from fallen comrades and the stitched tube of plush leather that was his tongue. The metal mustache and eyebrows were ridiculously fake, but the eyes were the most beautiful glass facsimiles, creamy white with irises like dark blue flowers. Instead of hair, his scalp was sandpaper.
Travel to Scandinavia if you can, the older cats told me, the queens in their raftered kingdoms. The coffee there, they said, is bitter as an old lie. The Norsemen are beautiful, their women even more sublime, but most importantly, they are quiet. Preoccupied only with Nordic things, disinterested in the outside world. This is crucial. This is what makes them safe. But this is not the only reason I am here.
The boy who will become court magician this time is not a cruel child. Not like the last one, or the one before her. He never stole money from Blind Carel’s cup, or thrashed a smaller child for sweets, or kicked a dog. This boy is a market rat, which sets him apart from the last several, all from highborn or merchant families. This isn’t about lineage, or even talent. He watches the street magicians every day, with a hunger in his eyes that says he knows he could do what they do.