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"Haley Ward!" A sharp voice broke into her reverie, and she looked up in surprise. Then Haley ducked her head, sinking down in her seat and trying without success to shove her notebook out of sight beneath her math textbook. Her teacher stood beside her, staring knowingly down, the woman’s long shadow cast across Haley’s desk by the chilly late afternoon sun outside the classroom windows.
A wave of suppressed snickers rippled through the rows of students, as they watched their classmate get into trouble. Again.
“Um…what?” Haley mumbled.
"I was just wondering," Ms. Taylor said, in that too-sweet voice of hers, “what you’re doing. Quadratic equations, I assume? Since that’s what the rest of the class is doing?" Her deep blue eyes focused sharply beneath the luxurious fall of her black hair.
The teacher could see she wasn't doing quadratic equations. Haley wished for the thousandth time this semester that the woman would quit speaking to her high school students as though they were five years old. It was the most irritating thing about this irritating first-year teacher, how she talked in that 12-year old voice, and acted as though her students needed babysitting. It made Haley think of that story about the wicked witch who lived in the forest and drew children into her clutches by promising them sweets.
Haley pushed a stray lock of brown hair behind one ear, glancing furtively around the classroom and finding no supportive face among her fellow students. Not unusual. They weren’t unfriendly, they were just glad of a chance to interrupt the monotony of another boring math lesson.
Haley herself wasn't doing math; she just couldn't face it today. When she looked at it, she saw nothing but rows of mystical symbols, arcane gibberish that was clear to the powerful and initiated, but utterly obscure to commoners like her. The last thing she needed was a kindergarten teacher/wicked witch chiding her before her whole high school class. She’d been having a wonderful daydream and had been writing it down before it faded. She didn't know where it had come from; maybe she’d dreamt it last night. It had been an exciting and dangerous scene, unusually vivid even for her vivid imagination. A carriage had been travelling on a steep, muddy road, and --
"I can see we'll just have to discover what you've been writing," said Ms. Taylor in her so-sweet voice, again interrupting Haley's reverie. She reached down, and the girl came abruptly back to reality as the notebook began to slip from her hands. A fresh murmur arose from the students around her, as the entertainment kicked up to another level.
Haley’s fingers tightened convulsively, and color flooded her face at the thought of anyone -- particularly this woman -- reading her private thoughts and discovering the secret things that were keeping her going through this interminable school year. She couldn't understand Ms. Taylor's secret mathematical symbols, but she had secrets of her own that the wicked witch would mock and ridicule.
"No!" she cried, hardly realizing she’d spoken, and tugged the notebook back toward her. The girl behind her gasped at the unexpected rebellion. The entertainment was taking surprising turns today.
But Ms. Taylor was not about to give up easily. Supernatural beings like her were tenacious creatures. She kept her claws -- her hands, rather – upon the little book, jerking determinedly at it. "You will give me your notebook -- now!" she commanded, her voice losing a little of its sweetness.
Aha! She was beginning to betray her true nature. Haley would have felt satisfied if the moment weren’t so critical. With a final heave she got the book away and held it close, hands wrapped protectively around it. She would die before she let anyone into the world she’d discovered in its pages! The place would be defiled if anyone else were to find it. That other world was exciting, and dangerous, and most of all magical, and certainly not for the eyes of anyone so bent on destruction as Ms. Taylor.
“Very well," said the teacher, eyes going hard. "You will either do mathematics in this class or you will get out. You may take your choice."
She hadn’t yet learned that some students could not be taken in, and drawn into her clutches. She clearly expected Haley to back down, now that she had the avid attention of the whole class. But she didn’t know what was truly at stake here: the fate of a kingdom – maybe a world? And she was plainly surprised by the look of relief that swept across her student’s face.
"Good," Haley said, and stood up. She snatched up her notebook and jacket, heading toward the classroom door.
“Wait – what are you – “ Ms. Taylor sputtered, the other students tittering around her.
Haley made no reply as she left the room, taking the sacred notebook safely with her, head held high in triumphant detachment. But she allowed herself to return to reality long enough to slam the door as hard as possible, as she left. The sound filled her with satisfaction, and reminded her of a boulder rolling with gathering speed down a steep mountainside. She hoped it landed on the witch's cottage and smashed it to bits.
Haley dashed down the hall to an exit and, once outside in the cool, early spring air, took a deep breath to calm her racing pulse. She couldn't believe she’d finally done it -- what she had often wished to do to teachers who were obnoxious. They weren't all like that, and she was usually quiet and cooperative, but sometimes people like Ms. Taylor came along and you just had to take a stand.
But what to do now, she wondered as she pulled her jacket on. For the moment, she was exiled and outcast. There would be trouble later, of course, but right now she was free. A prisoner who had escaped her fetters, stumbling out of the dungeon into the afternoon light, falling to her knees to worship the sun which she had despaired of ever seeing again…
Well, maybe not literally falling to her knees. The snow had only just started melting and the ground was still muddy, so maybe the falling-to-the-knees routine could wait till later. There were students in the schoolyard, too, and Haley wasn’t so far gone that she acted out her fantasies with an audience. But she didn't want to stay near the school, in case someone came hunting for her. Today she hated the place more than usual, and resented most of all that she’d been interrupted in the middle of a most fascinating daydream.
She walked along the south wing of the school, shivering as she zipped her jacket against the air. The faint sound of traffic came to her from the other side of the building, and as she took a deep breath, she could just detect, faintly, the scent of something that was thinking of starting to grow. It was almost Haley’s favorite time of year: when the dead world began to come back to life. She crossed the small field running along the east side, and peered down. The field was lined at this edge by a high chain link fence, to protect people from the sudden drop where the ground plunged to the football field a considerable distance below.
She had often stood here alone, looking into the lower field and to the city skyline beyond, imagining she stood on the battlements of a high castle. Sometimes she had even come at night, where the bright city lights had become the torches of a besieging army, a huge horde that surrounded the castle as far as the eye could see. Where the army came from she didn’t know, but she knew it was crucial that the castle be saved.
Haley could almost see the castle itself as she turned around. The school vanished, and instead the battlement walls upon which she stood overlooked an enclosed central courtyard, full of figures who scurried in all directions. That was new; any time she’d imagined the courtyard before, it had been empty. She walked, musing, along the east wall, or rather the chain link fence. There would be a small tower at the corner, with a staircase inside, spiralling steeply downward into the dark. But the walkway also continued along the inward-facing wall of the tower, turning the corner following the northern battlement wall. She traced the path until, halfway along, she came to a little drawbridge which crossed to the inner buildings. This would save her the necessity of going down into the mucky courtyard below, to get into the castle proper. Excellent.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm of the sunlight outside, it still took a minute for Haley’s eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the castle. When she’d come here before, dreaming at her desk in the dreary grey days of winter, she’d rarely gone past this point. Today, two things caught her by surprise: where she had previously imagined the grey walls of this hallway to be bare, they were now adorned with faded tapestries; and this time there were guards on either side of the entry, clad in chain mail and each bearing two swords. She had always been alone here before.
Sometimes her daydreams took on their own character, and went where she hadn’t consciously sent them. But Haley hardly had time to think about this, for a voice broke into her reverie. And in fact the guards were so interested in the voice, themselves, that they hadn’t yet noticed her.
"Prepare!" said the voice, distinctly irritated. "I am as prepared as I wish to be. Why should I dress this twisted wreck in fancy clothes for no good cause?"
"No cause!" repeated an older voice, plainly aghast. "Highness, the betrothal banquet of your brother is hardly ‘no good cause’!"
"It's Mikkel's little betrothal party -- not mine. Let him dress up for it."
"Prince Gerik, it is imperative that all members of the royal family be present on such a momentous occasion -- "
"Of course I'll be present," interrupted the first voice even more irritably. "I haven't said I'm not going, you old fool. I just see no need for silks and jewels. One might as well adorn an ape. I have no wish to put myself so obviously on display. Fancy clothes and jewels are not for me. Let the eager courtiers gaze their fill at Mikkel and his pretty princess, and let me be."
Haley peered around the edge of the entrance, past the guard to her left, consumed by curiosity. Though her daydreams of this place had never included people before, today it was downright crowded. She saw a tall, older man with shoulder-length grey hair and a neatly trimmed grey beard. He stood, stiff and affronted, his long, dull purple tunic falling in straight lines to his ankles. The gold braid trim around the cuffs and shoulders gave off muted glints in the light of a torch in one of the sconces. In contrast, his younger companion wore only a plain, short, dark brown tunic and slightly longer beige under-tunic. He wore no extra adornment at all, even though he was plainly the one who’d been addressed as a prince. And there was something else wrong about him, that didn’t match Haley’s previous dreams at all...
"Highness," the older man tried again, taking a deep breath and gathering all his patience, "as I was trying to say, all members of the royal family are to be present and dressed fittingly. It is not only custom, it is your royal brother's express command."
"Oh, is it?" the younger man retorted. "I find that hard to believe."
"He very specifically commanded it, I assure you. Perhaps he anticipated your, ah, reluctance in the matter. Highness." Haley wanted to laugh at the distinct aura of satisfaction that had crept into the older man’s demeanor.
"Oh, I’m sure he did. And left me with no choice."
"It would appear not, my prince. Therefore if you would accompany me, we shall make proper preparations -- "
"You! Girl! What are you doing here?"
Haley gasped as the guard on her right suddenly took her arm in a rough, tight grip. She had completely forgotten the guards in her fascination with this dream, and had stepped too far into the hallway to be ignored. Now the other one was also alerted, drawing his sword, and the speakers further down the hall were distracted from their discussion.
The older man strode quickly toward the entrance. "What have we here?" he demanded.
"An intruder, my Lord," said the first guard. "A foreigner, from the look of her."
"Indeed," murmured the man. He looked her up and down, curiosity mingling with the sharp suspicion in his gaze. Finally, "What outlandish clothing," he remarked, eyebrows raised almost to his hairline.
Haley suddenly realized how she must look to these people, with her faded blue jeans, light blue shirt, and tattered Nikes from last season. Her straight, nondescript brown hair hung over her shoulders and halfway down her back, while she was sure that the women in the castle wore their hair far more beautifully. Small wonder the old man in the purple tunic surveyed her in astonishment. But at the same time, she had the uncomfortable impression that even the faded blue of her jeans was brighter than the colors around her. Maybe because this was a dream world, so the colors were duller than those of the real world?
"Where do you come from?" the man demanded, interrupting her thoughts. "And how do you come here?"
"Canada," Haley said, then stifled a sudden urge to laugh. As though “Canada” would mean anything to him. "And I don't know how I got here. I mean – I should really ask how you got here, when you think about it." After all, it was her daydream, not theirs, right?
"I will not tolerate insolence, girl!" he glowered. "This passage is forbidden to any but the royal family and their servants. How did you come here?"
"I came from the wall," Haley retorted irritably, waving her hand vaguely at the entryway behind her. "Anybody can walk there, can't they? I didn't know where the little bridge and the door went, so I – "
"Didn't know!" the man cried, aghast. "That is the most blatant lie I have ever – "
"Oh, my Lord Chamberlain, be silent a moment," came a sudden voice behind him. The prince stirred and came to join Haley’s interrogator. And for the first time, Haley got a clear look at him, and realized why he didn’t fit the rest of her daydreams.
He walked slowly, laboriously, supported by a crutch, his right leg twisted and barely usable. His right arm, though functional, hung at an uncomfortable angle, the hand gripping the crutch with an intensity that suggested pain. Haley's eyes moved to his face, and shock jolted through her as she saw the wide, ragged patch of scarring that ran from his right cheekbone to his chin. It looked as though the very flesh had once been scraped from the side of his face, and had then been badly infected. Though most of the lumpy scar tissue was now white, it was mottled with livid, unhealthy red patches that stood out starkly against his otherwise pale skin.
But the worst shock was that she recognized him. It was only a few minutes ago, in class, that she had dreamed his face and watched him struggle to save the carriage from falling into a chasm. For some reason he looked older now, but he had the same curly black hair and intense brown eyes, and she would have recognized him anywhere. But this was wrong, terribly wrong! He hadn’t been so crippled then! What had happened? Why was her daydream going off on its own, in such a dreadful way?
Then she remembered, and said softly, "Oh my gosh. The horses." She’d forgotten when Ms. Taylor had interrupted her, but now it all came back with terrible clarity. This was the brother who had jumped into the storm, who had fallen under the horses' hooves. She remembered how they had come down on his legs...he had screamed...even though it was just a daydream she had hardly been able to bear that scream...
The Prince's lips twisted into a tight, bitter little smile. "The horses. Yes," he replied lightly. "She may be from some place with a barbaric name, but she seems to know recent Karnis history, at least."
"Anybody would know that history," the Chamberlain retorted stiffly. "That still does not explain how she came to be here, and what her purpose is."
"Purpose!" laughed the prince. He raked her form with a dismissive eye and drawled sarcastically, "Look at her, my lord. She's as confused as these poor mystified guards. What purpose could she possibly have, except to find her way out after blundering in by mistake?"
"Prince Gerik, however innocent she may look, I cannot allow this intrusion to go unquestioned – "
"Ah, but I can, Lord Chamberlain," said the prince. There was the slightest defiant jut to his chin. "I do not intend to allow you to question a girl who is obviously such a simpleton that she cannot even dress herself properly."
"I am not a – " Haley began angrily, but the prince turned on her and snapped, "Be silent!" in the manner of one who expected obedience. She shut her mouth in astonishment. She was definitely not used to having her daydreams order her around like this.
"My prince, surely you are not suggesting I let her go!" the chamberlain cried in frustration.
Incongruously, Prince Gerik grinned. But on second glance, Haley thought, his grin wasn’t the least bit casual. In fact, there was a strange, reckless glint in his eyes as he stared down the court official. "Not at all,” he answered pleasantly. “She is not going anywhere. She is coming with me." And as he glared at the chamberlain, Haley got the impression he was holding his breath in suspense.
"I beg your pardon – "
"Pardon granted. I have decided to follow your advice after all, and prepare for my brother's betrothal feast. And this young lady -- what is your name, girl?" he interrupted himself.
"H - Haley," she said uncertainly.
"And this young lady, Haley, will accompany me to the banquet." The words came out in a rush, as though the prince were hurrying to say them before he lost his nerve.
"What?" The chamberlain gaped, horrified, and Haley didn’t blame him.
"I have decided to escort our guest to the banquet," the prince repeated imperiously. "There has to be something there to interest me, and I find this mysterious stranger -- not to mention your reaction -- infinitely diverting. You want me to attend Mikkel's betrothal feast in a proper manner; very well, I will. On the condition that Lady Haley accompanies me."
"'Lady' Haley! Why, why, she is probably nothing more than a kitchen drudge!"
"I am not," Haley retorted indignantly. "I’m a student." She brandished her notebook as proof, but they ignored it.
"Prince Gerik, I beg you, be reasonable," said the chamberlain, summoning the last dregs of his patience. "You can hardly take this -- this -- you can hardly take her to such a function. Why, just – just look at her! You cannot be serious."
Gerik looked her up and down again. She was starting to get sick of being constantly examined this way. "I'm perfectly serious," he said absently, "but I will make a concession. I'll have her properly dressed for the banquet. After all, one must attend such an important function in the proper attire, isn’t that right?" He flashed the chamberlain another challenging (and thoroughly unpleasant) smile, then added, "I must admit, though, that it would be very entertaining to see the reactions to Lady Haley dressed just like this."
"Prince Gerik, you wouldn't!" the Chamberlain cried. His face had gone so red that Haley expected him to have a heart attack at any moment.
"Oh, calm down," the prince retorted irritably. "I told you I'll dress her properly. Now let us go, my lord, or we'll be late, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
The official protested again, spluttering, until Prince Gerik finally commanded him to leave, giving the man no choice but to obey. He walked away, slowly, glaring distrustfully at Haley, until the prince turned her around and led her the opposite way. "Free at last," Gerik said, propelling himself laboriously at her side. "Pompous fool. I was on my way to prepare myself for the banquet when he accosted me, but he never thought to ask, and I wasn't about to answer to him."
"Thanks for getting me away from him," Haley said. "He was making me nervous."
"He is forever shouting about something. I think Mikkel keeps him here just to provide some liveliness around this otherwise dull place."
"Whatever. It was nice of you to make him leave me alone. I suppose I should go back now, before I cause any more problems around here -- "
"Wait a moment, young lady." The prince halted, his dark eyes piercing her, glittering coldly until she shifted in discomfort. "I did not get you away from him so you could simply leave. You are accompanying me to the betrothal banquet; I told you that."
"Then you were serious? Why on earth?" Haley wondered. "You can't possibly want me there -- and I’d rather not go, actually. Why would you want me to come?"
"For the reasons already given. And also," his eyes narrowed, "because I wish to discover why you recognized me though I have never seen you before. And why you do not address me with any deference. In some ways it is refreshing to meet someone – aside from my brother and our worthy chamberlain -- who does not bow and scrape to me, but it is also disconcerting."
"Why shouldn't I recognize you?" the girl retorted. "You're prince of this place. Doesn't everyone around here know you?"
"Yet you said you were not from Karnis," he snapped in return.
"Even if I'm not, I've heard of your accident," she snapped back without thinking. "It would be awfully hard not to recognize you."
At his expression, she regretted her words, but she couldn’t take them back now. He gave a bitter little laugh. "True. But you are different. I am quite adept at watching the expressions on people's faces, when they try to face my deformities without offending me. I saw you recognize me, yes, but my leg and face surprised you. You would have recognized me even if I were whole. That intrigues me."
"Oh, you're too suspicious. All of you are, from what I’ve seen. This is getting ridiculous. I think I'm just going to go home now." Haley turned back the way they had come, but he halted her with a painful grip on her arm. His good hand was very strong. And his gaze was downright hostile.
"You will come with me," Gerik said softly. "Either you do it voluntarily, or I will call the guards and have you dragged behind me. One way or another, you will accompany me to the banquet. You will not depart until I give you leave."
What an arrogant pig he was! Haley felt a sudden twinge of sympathy for the chamberlain's exasperation. On the other hand, it was also kind of funny to hear this guy making threats, when she secretly controlled his whole world. Without warning, she laughed. "Oh, all right," she agreed cheerfully. "I'll come. It might be fun after all. But I think you should know, prince, that if I wanted to go home, you couldn't possibly stop me."
"Indeed?" He raised a dubious eyebrow. "Then you must be a great sorceress," he responded sarcastically, making a lopsided bow, hanging onto his crutch. "Except of course there is no power left to practise your arts," he added, continuing down the hall. Haley followed, wondering what on earth he meant by that.
She had no time to question him, however, for he immediately swept her into one of the most marvelous daydreams of her life. Prince Gerik took her to his own apartments, where he rang a bell and summoned about ten thousand servants to attend her. He imperiously commanded that she be made presentable for the banquet, then limped away to make his own preparations.
Haley was avid to examine everything: the faded tapestries of woodland scenes, that concealed the cold, grey stone walls, the rugs of soft, exotic fur that made her want to throw herself into them, the golden statuettes standing in the corners and by the fireplace, portraying magical and exotic creatures, the jewelled swords in their stands – everything. But the prince's servants were bent on making her presentable, and apparently (judging by their grim and determined expressions) it was going to take a lot of work.
First, they took her through a private corridor leading from Gerik’s chambers, to a large room whose walls were paneled with white stone. Steamy heat washed over her the moment she entered, and as they led her through a row of tall, white pillars, she understood why. They came upon a little blue-and-white-tiled swimming pool, full of warm, scented water, and here she was given a luxurious bath. She’d had a shower that morning, but it was so wonderful to slide into the shallow pool and lean back, breathing the faint smell of roses, that she didn't mind. They washed her long hair, kneading her scalp until she almost fell asleep. Then they anointed her skin with oils that made it feel soft and silky, and dried her with huge, deliciously soft towels.
After that, they took her to a room off the pool, that was hung with silk curtains and lined with divans and big puffy floor cushions. And there, dressed her. Well, tried to. Apparently it was not the usual thing to wear underwear here, but to pile layers and layers on top, against the cold (and this was a cold place, she was discovering, despite the blazing fire in the huge stone fireplace along one wall of the dressing room). But Haley found that no matter how many layers she had on top, there was still a persistent cool breeze that came up from the floor, under her tunic. So she kept on her regular underwear, despite the protests of the other women.
"How barbaric!" one of them muttered under her breath.
"Barbaric, maybe," Haley replied cheerfully, "but I'm warm where it matters."
The clothes they gave her were like nothing she’d ever seen before, much less worn. First came a long pale blue linen undertunic which fell almost to her ankles, with long sleeves whose voluminous cuffs were wound around until her wrists were enclosed almost to the elbow in a tight band. These were fastened down the side of her arm with a row of tiny diamond clasps. That is, she assumed they were diamonds, though she thought diamonds had a little more sparkle to them. Next came a slightly darker blue tunic, which hung past her knees whose sleeves opened like bells to just past her elbows. Last was a sleeveless overtunic of dark blue, down to her knees, its bottom edge trimmed with intricate gold braid, and diamonds and sapphires embroidered in a complex pattern across the neck and shoulders. A wide belt of flat gold links was clasped about her waist, with a tassel of gold that hung down the front almost to the bottom of the tunic.
It was while the women were debating about what sort of belt to give her that Haley did a little idle exploration of the items on the mantel above the fireplace. There were no family pictures, of course, in a world without cameras. But there were some little boxes: one of carved wood with gold inlay, and another couple made of pure gold. One of the gold boxes, long and flat with tiny curved legs at each corner, was locked. But the lid of the other, smaller, one came open as soon as she touched it. There was nothing inside but a ring of gold, with a large, dark blue stone. She thought it was probably a sapphire, although it looked, to her inexperienced eye, more like blue glass. Whatever it was, when she took it out of the box and slid it onto one of the fingers on her left hand, it fit fairly well and matched her outfit rather nicely.
In fact, this whole ensemble was the most wonderful thing Haley had ever worn. She spied a long mirror standing in a polished wooden frame beside the fireplace, and stepped in front of it, twirling around, admiring herself from all sides. She felt so elegant and enchanted that she could almost imagine her image shimmering as she moved. Yet at the same time…the colors seemed a bit dull. Somehow, considering that these were meant to be pretty fancy clothes, she felt that the colors ought to have a little more life to them.
But now the hair. The ladies braided it into a long, loose braid, then set a circular padded roll on her head, wound with blue ribbons, some of which hung in front of her ears and had jewels at the ends. Finally, they produced a long strip of dark blue cloth which she thought must be some sort of cape. But they draped one end in front over her left shoulder, letting it hang to her knees, and brought the other end around her back and across the front, finally draping it over her left arm.
Haley tested the limited range of movement this left her. "Awfully awkward, isn't it? Hard to use your left hand for anything," she murmured, but the women ignored her.
They put soft leather shoes on her feet, with blue ribbons that tied around her ankles, and stepped back to admire their handiwork. They seemed to feel that they’d done a fine job, despite the poor material they’d had to work with.
Finally they allowed Prince Gerik into the dressing room, and Haley was as stunned by his appearance as he was by hers. He, too, wore a light blue linen undertunic and dark blue overtunic, with intricate embroidery across the shoulders. His was done in silver, with diamonds and sapphires woven into the design. In fact, all his adornment was of silver, a fine silver circlet, shining with diamonds, resting on his black curly hair. A short sword hung at his left side, its ornamental sheath of silver and blue, and he wore a dark blue cape lined with white satin, clasped at the right shoulder and flung back over his left. The only incongruous thing was the plain wooden crutch upon which he leaned, but this was hardly noticeable, so regal did he look in his finery.
And yet…again it seemed that some element of liveliness was missing from the colors, and from the shine of the silver. It was odd, Haley thought, like a movement caught just out of the corner of one's eye, but never seen directly.
Everyone bowed or curtseyed deeply, but Haley just stood gaping at Gerik. He limped further into the room and managed a civil smile. "Well," he commented, "even I did not expect such a beauty to await me when my ladies were done with her!" He inclined his head. "My lady. All the nobles of the kingdom will envy me this evening." And he grinned impudently as Haley blushed.
Then she couldn't help grinning back. "I've never dressed like this in my life," she told him. "I couldn't believe it. I just had to gawk at myself in that mirror over there -- " She waved her hand at it, then stopped abruptly. For there was nothing there but a clear pane of glass in a wooden frame.
Gerik’s smile vanished instantly, his face darkening in sudden anger. He grabbed her waving hand, the one with the ring on it, and demanded fiercely, "What are you doing with this?"
What was going on? He was acting like she’d committed a crime, something worse than just borrowing the ring. "I -- I was just looking!" she stammered. "It just seemed to match what I was wearing -- "
"How dare you wear her ring!" he shouted.
"Whose ring -- "
"My mother's!" he shouted again. "The ring that operates her mirror!"
Operates? She mouthed the word in bewilderment. This whole thing was suddenly way beyond weird.
"Never mind," Gerik growled. "There are some things I will allow you to wear," he indicated her clothing, "but other things I forbid you to touch -- especially her ring!" He glanced over his shoulder, as a minor court official entered the room and bowed. "Put it back where you got it," he ordered as he turned toward the newcomer.
She really did intend to do what he told her. But at that moment, the ladies descended upon her again, to administer some final touches while she tried to hear what the visitor was saying. So with one thing and another, by the time Prince Gerik turned back to her, saying, "It is time to go," she’d completely forgotten about the ring.
Gerik didn't talk as they walked toward the banquet hall, but Haley was too fascinated by her surroundings to notice, anyway. As they left the royal apartments the population increased drastically. Many people dressed as regally as the prince, though most were servants or minor officials and wore plainer clothes. She was briefly taken aback when they bowed low as Gerik approached, because they were also bowing to her, but once she decided just to enjoy it and pretend she deserved it, it didn't bother her.
What did bother her was how some nobles stared at Gerik’s twisted leg as though he’d ruined it deliberately, to spite their sense of beauty or something. It was mean, and she resented it. She couldn't help admiring the way Gerik held his head up, gazing straight ahead as though he didn't notice. But from the tightness of his jaw and the fixed stare of his eyes, she guessed it hurt more than he would ever admit.
When they reached the high, arched wooden doors to the banquet hall, all of the guests were already inside. But Haley became aware of another young man standing nearby, surrounded by obsequious officials. He, like her escort, wore blue and silver, although his tunic and cape were white, with the cape’s lining of midnight blue, and he wore a full crown on his straight black hair instead of the circlet Gerik wore. She would have recognized him, though, whatever he wore; earlier today she had watched as he was thrown free of a storm-wracked carriage while it toppled over a cliff-edge. This was obviously Mikkel, Gerik's older brother, the king of Karnis. And at his side, peering shyly about her, was a lovely girl with silky black hair wound in a coronet about her head, and delicate alabaster skin. She wore a long satin tunic which looked as though it should have been a rich red, but which once again lacked the lustre it should have had. The rubies at her throat and wrists, and wound through her dark hair, shone dully and only glittered with proper beauty when they caught the light from the torches in the sconces beside the door.
"Who’s the lady?" Haley whispered to the prince, and he replied in astonishment. "That is Princess Elianora of Lashkar," he said quietly. "She's the reason we're here tonight, I thought you knew that."
"I'm not from your country," Haley reminded him.
"I can't imagine where you're from, that you haven't heard of their betrothal. This marriage will seal the peace between Karnis and Lashkar. If that's possible, which I doubt -- " He stopped suddenly as his brother glanced over at him past all the officials, and their eyes met. Gerik's face tightened and he flushed at the scrutiny, but refused to look away. Mikkel eyed Haley briefly and raised a questioning eyebrow at Gerik, who shrugged too casually and managed a defiant little smile. Obviously the chamberlain had been tale-telling.
"Look," Haley said nervously. "If it's going to get you in trouble having me here, I can go home. It's still not too late."
"You couldn't possibly get me into trouble with my brother," Gerik snapped. "No more than usual."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, but at that moment the doors to the banquet hall were flung open and a herald loudly announced King Mikkel, Princess Elianora, and Prince Gerik. What sounded like a thousand trumpets blasted a deafening fanfare, and all Haley's attention suddenly diverted to the million faces turned toward the King and his party as they entered the hall.
Gerik whispered bitterly as they came to the doorway, "Normally I should offer you my right arm and you would place your hand on it, but you'll just have to manage on your own."
"How about I walk on your left side and hold your hand?" she suggested. "Would that look bad?"
"It's never done that way...but do it anyway. Give them some gossip," he grinned suddenly, and she grinned back.
Haley was momentarily overwhelmed by all the staring people, hundreds of them, standing on either side of the rows and rows of tables. The men all bowed, virtually in unison, while their ladies curtseyed deeply as Mikkel and Elianora, and then Gerik and Haley, proceeded down the open aisle in the center of the banquet hall. But after the initial shock of being at the center of so much attention, Haley was struck once again by the “faded postcard” feel of the scene. It should have been magnificent. The hall was huge, paneled with polished wood hung with portraits in ornately carved frames. Between the portraits, lamps burned brightly, resting on the backs of tiny bronze dragons crouched on perches, wings spread and ready to fly. The roof arched high above, and gave Haley the impression of the hull of a huge ship turned upside down on top of the hall. Mighty wooden beams curved into arches, carved as intricately and delicately as lace, with banners of (Haley presumed) the great noble families of Karnis hanging from them.
The royal procession walked on a dark marble floor, between the rows of long tables running lengthwise along the hall. A dais waited at the far end, while on the wall behind it hung a huge banner bearing a golden winged dragon blazing flame from its gaping jaws. The dragon should have glowed, but looked merely yellow instead.
Yet for all its lack of bright color, the hall was still pretty impressive. And the whole effect was powerful enough that when Prince Gerik directed her toward the raised dais where the king's table stood perpendicular to all the other tables, Haley stopped. "I can't sit up there!" she whispered in panic.
"You're not sitting on the floor," Gerik retorted. "I told you you were coming with me; where did you expect to sit?"
"I had no idea," she replied faintly, and stepped with shaking knees onto the dais.
Though it was awkward, Gerik pulled out the high-backed wooden chair for her, and she sat gingerly on its embroidered seat. But when he tried to push it in again the task was too much for him. He began to swear under his breath until another pair of hands gently nudged him aside and pushed the chair closer to the table. Gerik turned angry eyes on his brother. "I don't need your help!" he hissed.
"Sorry," Mikkel retorted. "I should have let you struggle with it all night, with everybody watching. Sit down, Gerik, and try to enjoy the evening, won't you?"
"I intend to enjoy it," Gerik frowned grimly, lowering himself slowly into the chair, and propping his crutch against it.
Mikkel had already seated the princess, and now sat to Gerik's left, between his brother and Elianora. Servers had entered the room with the first course, and while one of them attended the princess, Mikkel leaned over and murmured quietly to Gerik, "I cannot believe you would defy me so. To bring a guest to this table who has never even been presented to me -- and a kitchen drudge at that -- "
Haley couldn't help it. "I am not a kitchen drudge!" she answered irately, leaning in front of Gerik and glaring at his brother. Then, as he simply stared at her in silence, "Your Majesty," she added quickly, suddenly remembering who he was.
Gerik remarked sardonically, "She, ah, is not a kitchen drudge, brother. You may have gathered that. And since we have not had time for the formalities yet, King Mikkel, may I present the Lady Haley, a young woman from -- what is the name of your land again?" he asked her abruptly.
"Canada," she replied.
"From Canada," he finished.
"I...I'm pleased to meet you. Your Majesty," she stammered. "And congratulations on getting engaged. Betrothed, I mean."
Again a silence, while the king contemplated her with no expression. Then he nodded very slightly and murmured, "Thank you. You're very kind." And he sat back in his chair, flashing his brother a look which promised a long discussion later. Haley wanted to melt away in mortification, but Gerik glanced at her with such hilarity in his eyes that she burst out laughing instead, and had to stifle it in her napkin. The last thing she needed was to get the king of this place angry at her!
"I suppose he'd behead me if I offended him," she muttered.
"Hang you, actually," Gerik said cheerfully. "Beheading is reserved for royal traitors. Like me." He seemed to have recovered his good humour, and went on between sips of his thick, steaming soup, "Of course, in the old days when magic was common, Mikkel would only have needed to summon a basilisk, and that would have sufficed."
"A what?" she repeated stupidly.
"You know what a basilisk is, surely? A creature that looks partly like a cock and partly like a serpent. And its direct gaze causes plants to wither and animals to perish. Including people."
"Sounds wonderful," Haley remarked, taking a spoonful of her own soup. She wasn't sure what was in it, but the word "barley" floated through her mind for some reason. It was delicious, anyway. "So why not now?" she said. "The bas -- basilisk, I mean. Doesn't anyone do magic any more?"
Gerik stared at her as though she’d gone mad. "You jest, surely," he said. "Or have I been deceived, and you are a complete simpleton?"
"Like I told you, I'm not from your country. I don't know these things."
"You would have to have come far indeed not to know. It is the same throughout the whole world."
"Oh. Well, humour me." And at his blank stare, she said, "Pretend I really don't know. Why doesn't anyone do magic?"
"The source of power has faded," he answered, still staring oddly at her. "Only the most powerful sorcerers can still summon the strength for workings of magic, after much preparation and study and patience. So magical implements no longer function and are used only as ornamentation, and a reminder of how things were in the past." He went on, "I am told by the oldest, and I learn from the books, that much of the wonder has departed from the world with the loss of magic. Worst of all, the creatures have disappeared." And he pointed over his shoulder to the huge dragon banner.
Haley gaped at it. "You mean...there are real dragons here? Your banner was patterned after a real live dragon??"
"Yes. That is, there are no dragons now, but there were at one time. The last one was sighted during my great grandfather's time, and it was buried in a deep cave, so deeply asleep that it could not be roused."
"Is this ever strange," Haley mused. She had not had time to imagine much of this world, but one thing she had known from the beginning was that it was full of magic: things, creatures, people, there was magic everywhere. Once again her daydream had taken a life of its own and gone where she had not sent it, gone, as before, in an unpleasant direction. "This isn't right," she said.
Gerik shrugged. "Perhaps not, but we can do very little. Our Sorcerers study the matter, and they say they can sense other sources of magic, dimly, as though echoing down a long valley. But there are barriers between them that they have never been able to breach."
"It must be sad," she said solemnly, "to see magic fade from your world."
Gerik raised an eyebrow at her choice of words, but said only, "It is. There was a time when the Kings and Queens of Karnis were Sorcerers as well as rulers. But as magic came to require more and more devotion and study we have had to abandon our second vocation. My father was the first in a long time who learned magic, and even he eventually had to abandon it. But he was a powerful Sorcerer when he practised."
She mused thoughtfully, "So that was what he meant about that storm, and not being able to do anything without preparation -- "
Gerik almost spilled his soup, so swiftly did he turn toward her, his face white and his eyes crackling. "Be silent!" he whispered. "I know you somehow know more about that than anyone realizes, but if you value your life you will say nothing here! If Mikkel were even to suspect that you knew about it, he would have you questioned until it cost you every drop of blood you had! He is a kind person in most things, but where it comes to our parents' deaths he tends to go quite mad. Both of us do," he added, taking a long drink from his goblet to calm himself. But his eyes were intense as they peered at her over the rim. She remembered his comment to the Chamberlain, that he was taking her to the banquet to find out how she knew so much. He hadn't brought her out of sheer kindness, and she didn't yet know what he was capable of if he thought she were somehow dangerous.
Haley sighed. "Sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you." She set down her spoon, having no appetite for the moment, and looked the crowd over instead. She had never seen such finery in her life, but how could she have seen any finery in her dull high school? Even periodic school dances never drew out the nobility, after all. Sitting in her prominent position in that magnificent place, she made full use of her wonderful vantage point. She caught many people staring at her, most looking away in embarrassment when she noticed, but she didn't mind now. It still bothered her, though, to see how they looked at Prince Gerik.
There was entertainment throughout the evening; most of it rather sedate, though the juggling became spirited now and then. But when a young woman seated herself on a stool before the dais, long blonde hair flowing down her back and a small wooden harp set on the knee of her dark blue robe, Haley was in for an unexpected treat. The minstrel sang a tale of long ago, when magic creatures shared the world with humans and took part in romantic adventures. It spoke of Gerik's ancestors, the first king and queen of Karnis, a great golden dragon who aided them in a long quest and thereby became their patron. This was the dragon represented on the banner which the royal pair designed to hang in the great hall of their castle. He became the symbol of the house they established and of the vast power they wielded as chief sorcerer and sorceress of the realm.
Haley listened with rapt attention, and only became aware that she was holding her breath when the long tale ended and the last notes of the harp faded into the shadows high above. She ventured a glance at Gerik, to find his gaze fixed on the minstrel, lips parted, hardly breathing.
King Mikkel pushed back his chair and stood. As he took hold of his goblet, the flickering light of the candles placed along the head table set the diamonds glittering in his crown. "My lords and ladies of Lashkar and Karnis," his voice rang through the hall, "I have often heard sweet tales from the lips of my own minstrels, yet this woman from my lady's land has moved me as deeply as any of them. Madam minstrel, you honour us with your music and words, and I trust we shall hear from you again." He smiled down at the young woman, his dark eyes warm with sincere pleasure.
"As often as Your Majesty wishes," the woman smiled in return, lowering her eyes and inclining her head.
"Lords and ladies," Mikkel addressed the crowd again, raising the goblet high. "Please join me in saluting our guest, who is as skilful in the sorcery of music as anyone I have ever known." And all in the hall lifted their own goblets to the minstrel, who turned and bowed to the whole crowd as she left the front of the hall. Meanwhile, Haley took her first drink of wine ever, gulped down too much of the pungent sweet stuff, and had to press her napkin over her mouth as she coughed and spluttered and fought to catch her breath. Gerik watched in amusement and was no help at all, but at least she managed to keep quiet so his brother didn't notice.
The king now went on: "I thank you all for being with us on this momentous evening. It is a day of celebration for the peoples of both Lashkar and Karnis. And it is a very personal day of celebration for myself and for the woman who is to be my bride. My lords and ladies, I present Princess Elianora of Lashkar, queen of my heart and soon to be Queen of Karnis, in whose honour we have gathered this evening." And he raised the princess to her feet and bowed to her, all the guests standing and following suit.
All, of course, except Prince Gerik, who couldn’t possibly have gotten to his feet in time. He sat staring at his plate in stoic silence, jaw set, and Haley glanced sidelong at him with a pang of sympathy.
Mikkel took the hand of his betrothed and pressed his lips to it, smiling softly at her. Then, after he had seated her and motioned the crowd as well to take their own seats, he addressed the people again: "In honour of this occasion, Banack, a learned sorcerer of Lashkar, has prepared a work of power and benediction for us. My lords and ladies, the great Banack." And once again he raised his heavy golden goblet as the sorcerer came forward.
Banack’s form was draped in a bright green robe, almost the only piece of clothing in the hall that had with some life to it. Haley frowned at the man, wondering why he should be different from anyone else, but had no time to try to work out an answer, for he immediately raised his arms. He held a stick in one hand -- no, she couldn’t believe it, a magic wand! -- while a gigantic, glowing red jewel rested in the palm of the other hand. His robe became even brighter, until it almost shone. The man began to speak the words of his power, and it crackled about him like invisible lightning. Haley could almost feel her hair trying to stand up.
"This is unbelievable!" Gerik whispered, leaning forward in his seat, his eyes fixed raptly upon the sorcerer, his breath coming in quick, uncontrollable jerks. "I have never seen a sorcerer so full of power. And he has barely even begun!"
"Is that bad?" Haley ventured, eyeing him uncertainly. "That should be good...shouldn't it?"
"I don't know. I cannot believe they have sorcerers of such might in Lashkar. Mikkel, did you know this? Mikkel...?"
But his brother didn’t hear. He, too, stared in amazement as the sorcerer continued speaking the words of power, shaping the might that emanated from him. The king stood transfixed, goblet still raised, gaze locked with Banack’s black, piercing eyes, as the words went on and on. A golden glow shone all about the sorcerer, his robe giving off sparks as though bathed in sunlight. And gradually this glow drew an answer: a nimbus of silver slowly grew about King Mikkel’s body, the dull blues he wore beginning to gleam, his silver crown and sword shining like stars in response to the flaming radiance of Banack’s crimson jewel.
Haley’s soul thrilled with delight, but her excitement was short-lived. Mikkel's hand began to tremble, so markedly that wine spilled from his goblet, brilliant red drops sprinkling the table like blood. His eyes widened, lips working as he struggling to speak. Banack's chant took on a frantic speed, as though he were desperate to finish his spell. Or perhaps to keep up with it? Haley's eyes darted between the two men in alarm. "No,” she protested softly. "There's something wrong here. He's got to stop."
Gerik was already labouring to stand, reaching for his brother.
Then it all happened at once, and Haley would remember every detail as long as she lived. The glow around Mikkel intensified to an almost blinding brightness. He cried out, a long, desperate shriek, before the light engulfed him and he disappeared in a blinding flash. Banack the sorcerer collapsed in a dead faint, his power snuffed out. Gerik, finally on his feet but too late, clutched the place where his brother had been and screamed, "MIKKEL!!" as though his heart had been torn out.
And Haley blinked, finding herself on the front steps of her high school. "No!" she shouted in horror, but it was too late. The shock had shaken her back to the reality of her own world, to discover that it was dark, and cold, and she was alone.
She looked around the schoolyard forlornly, hugging her arms about her. Of course she was back in her jeans, shirt, and jacket, and the cold was already making her shiver. Or was she having a reaction to the events in the Great Hall of the castle, rather than responding to the cold? How long had she been standing here dreaming, blind to the world? This was the most intense daydream she’d ever had, and it was hard to reorient herself to reality.
Especially when she wanted, almost more than anything, to find out what had happened to King Mikkel. He’d looked so scared – he hadn’t even been able to move while this terrible thing had happened to him! Everything in her daydream had gone in such an unexpected direction that she had no idea whether the young king would have been alive or dead after the events in the banquet hall. She didn’t dare try to imagine any more of the dream tonight; seeing Mikkel taken that way had shaken her so badly that it might keep her awake for hours as it was. No matter how much she wanted to find out what happened next, she’d have to wait for tomorrow, which, fortunately, was Saturday. She’d have lots of time to invent something then --
Except that she was going to have even less control of tomorrow's dream than she’d had today. The understanding struck her like a dagger of ice in her heart. For as she rubbed her hands on her arms to warm them up, two realizations exploded into her mind in a burst of terrible clarity. The first was that her precious notebook was nowhere to be seen, and she knew she’d never have let it slip her grasp out in the schoolyard, no matter how immersed in daydream she might have been.
She might have wondered where it had gotten to – if, that is, she didn’t already know. Because the second thing she realized was that she still wore the ring upon her right forefinger: the ring that had belonged to Gerik's mother, and which she’d been distracted from putting back into its gold box. She stood utterly still in front of the school, staring at the glittering thing on her hand as though she had never seen it before.
Gerik. Mikkel. And their mother, the Queen of Karnis, whose sapphire ring she had brought back to her world from theirs. She almost could have laughed, wondering what Ms. Taylor would make of this. But Haley couldn't laugh, not really. For she had found this ring in another world, a world that was real, and not a dream. The implications of this fact whirled so dizzily through her mind that she couldn't begin to sort them out. But one fact stood out sharply in the midst of the maelstrom, and it twisted her stomach until she thought she might be sick. Young King Mikkel had really vanished, in a torrent of treacherous magic. Prince Gerik had lost the last remaining member of his family.
And in some way, though she couldn’t begin to guess how, she had a suspicion that it was her fault.