The White Palace

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by 2013

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/235962.html)

Fard walked in the house, hung up his cloak and scarf by the door, and flopped face-down on the couch with such dramatic force that he felt a cord or two pop under his weight. Daanil didn’t even look up from his paper. “Went well, hm.” It was only a question by the most technical of definitions.

“I hate everything,” said Fard, though the sentiment was muffled through couch cushions that smelled like they’d had all manner of horrors spilled on them, which they had. They tasted even worse. He sat up. “I hate damned everything,” he said again, just in case it hadn’t come across the first time.

“Is that so,” said Daanil. Once upon a time Fard had mistaken Daanil’s unflappable tone for serenity, before he’d learned to recognize sarcasm for what it really was.

Fard blew a raspberry at the ceiling, then stopped when he saw the little drops of spittle fall back and dot his glasses; he tugged them off and wiped them with the tail of his shirt, shutting his eyes against the blurry world for the duration of the cleaning. “If I hear ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ one more time, I may scream and set the place on fire with my mind.”

“Because that will help you get the position for sure,” said Daanil, his nose still in the pages of the Gazette. Fard want to punch him right in his pencil-thin moustache, but Fard was too tired from depression, and besides, if Daanil got punched every time he deserved it, Fard and his six other housemates would never have any time left over for anything else.

After a minute of sitting quietly, Fard stood and resolved to let that little outburst be the end of his complaints. His status as the only member of the household without steady employment was no secret, and he didn’t want to give any of them another reason to trot out the ‘maybe you should have majored in something more useful’ line of argument again, especially when he knew they were right. “Anyway,” he said, smoothing his nicest pair of trousers as though he hadn’t just pitched a tantrum in them, “I’ll start dinner.”

“It’s Khay’s night,” Daanil said.

“Well, I’m not doing anything better,” Fard pointed out without snapping, a bit of control he was proud to have exerted, and he went off to the kitchen to see what he could make.

By the time Khay got home, still reeking of the blood and cleaning fluids that saturated the Royal Medical Academy’s teaching wards, Fard had already finished the rice and the vegetables and started the mutton, and when he saw how bone-weary Khay looked, Fard offered to finish the whole meal anyway. “You’re magnificent,” said Khay, giving Fard a little kiss on his cheek before going up to his room to clean up for the meal. That was the worst part about rooming with such nice, successful people: Fard couldn’t even work up a good hatred for any of them, even for Daanil on his grumpiest days. It wasn’t as though they’d gotten to where they were by undercutting or outperforming Fard; they weren’t even remotely interested in the positions Fard kept applying for. They’d just made better life choices.

He used the mess he’d made fixing dinner to excuse himself from the house meal, despite all the things the Masters said about eating together and learning from one another. After today’s failed interview, he wasn’t sure how many work stories he could stand. He made the water as hot as he could get it short of boiling and scrubbed the inside of the pots by hand and pretended the steam was what was bothering his eyes.

That evening, he took his midwakh pipe and a pillow up to the rooftop, where he sat and smoked and watched night fall over the city. The daylight lingered long into the evening on midsummer days like this, and the breeze off the sea was a nice remedy to the day’s heavy heat. If anything, it was a bit too much of a contrast, as he had to re-light the herb-and-tobacco mix in his pipe every time a strong gust carried the embers out of the chamber. Down in the temple compound, a line of novitiates carried candles across the square, shielding the flames with their hands and stopping to share fire every time someone’s light was puffed out. He took in a deep breath of smoke and let it out slowly, watching as the grey clouds plumed from his lips before being swept away in the twilight breeze.

He heard the roof door open behind him and was surprised to see Paqat struggle up through the trapdoor. “Need a hand?” Fard asked, setting his pipe down on the roof’s flat tile surface.

“No, no, I’ve got it,” said Paqat, who didn’t sound very sure of himself. He was a child’s play-ball of a man, almost wider than he was tall, and neither the ladder to the roof nor the square door in the stairwell’s ceiling had been designed for someone of his dimensions. Nonetheless, with one last determined grunt, he hauled himself all the way up to the roof and stood, dusting himself off. “Nice up here,” he said, looking around. The wind blew his rust-red curls into his face; he’d always explained that they were from his mother, who’d come from one of the cities in the far north, past the steppes, and Fard didn’t know whether to believe him or not, as he barely knew of his own parents or whether they’d come from. “I can see why you like it.”

“Want to sit?” asked Fard, scooting over until barely half his backside was still on the purple satin pillow.

“Love to,” said Paqat, who took the portion of the pillow offered him and put his hand on Fard’s thigh. “Sorry about the interview.”

That was the other reason he didn’t complain in front of his housemates. “Daanil told you?”

“He told me it didn’t go well.” Paqat shrugged and took the pipe as Fard offered it to him. “That’s all.”

“Well, that’s enough.” Fard sighed. “And that was it. I don’t have anything else lined up. Even guild offices are telling me they don’t have positions open for someone with my skill set, and that’s depressing, because they’ll hire anyone.”

Paqat took a deep drag and held the air in his mouth as he handed the pipe back to Fard. He wasn’t an ugly man at all — just this side of handsome, even, only on the same side occupied by everyone else in the household. His eyelashes were the same red as the hair on top of his head, almost the same wet-clay shade as the roof. “Well, that’s why I came up here to talk to you. I overheard the Head Librarian today, and he was talking about a job that sounded right up your alley.”

Fard was embarrassed at how fast his head snapped around to hear that. “A job? At the Library?”

“Oh, no.” Paqat shook his head. “A bit … more exotic.”

Fard politely didn’t point out that just about everything in the world was more exotic than the Central Library. “And…?” He traced circles with his fingers, urging Paqat onward.

Paqat took the pipe from Fard’s fingers and took another lungful of smoke before continuing. “He’d said he’d gotten a parcel today, a gift of a collection of books. Well, not a gift, really. A bequeathment, or whatever you call it when someone leaves it to you in a will.” Paqat was a sweet man, very tender-hearted, but his desire to inject drama into everything got tiring fast; Fard again gestured him onward. “All really old books — antiques, definitely, some amazing stuff. And he said the messenger who’d brought it had come from the White Palace.”

Fard — again, politely — did not laugh in Paqat’s face. “So what, he’s looking for someone to take them back for him?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked Paqat, though to Fard it was not. “It means Abias ar-Dal is dead.”

Fard was aware that his jaw had dropped almost to his chest, but for a moment couldn’t quite summon enough strength to get it back. “I thought he was supposed to be immortal.”

Paqat shrugged. “I don’t know! Maybe he’s just … gone somewhere and pretended to be dead. Or traveled into some realm where earthly possessions are meaningless. Whatever it is, he’s dead enough that they’ve executed his will and started splitting up all his possessions. And, if you think about it, he can’t have been that immortal, what with having a will and all.”

“So–” Fard put his hand on top of Paqat’s, making sure he had the other man’s full attention. “Why are you telling me this now?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Paqat asked again. “The Dragon King will need another illusionist!”

Fard let out a snort of air and fell back from where he was sitting, winding up splayed across the roof’s surface. The tile was still warm from the day and felt good against his bare scalp. “No.”

“Come on.” Paqat turned on the pillow so he and Fard were facing another again. “You’ve got the qualifications! The Head Librarian said Abias ar-Dal was an illusionist and a pyromancer. You’re an illusionist and a pyromancer!”

While it was sweet to have a friend who thought so much of him, Fard couldn’t really believe this discussion was happening at all, much less that his name was a part of it. “Thank you, Paqat. Thank you. I’m honestly flattered. Your faith in me warms my heart. Thank you.”

Paqat reached over and poked Fard in the gap of exposed skin between his shirt and pants. “I’m being serious!”

“As am I!” With a sigh, Fard draped an arm across his face. “You’re talking about the greatest illusionist ever. Not just top in his class or his master’s best apprentice. Ever. Maybe if I had a century’s worth of experience, or even a single job’s worth of experience, I might be able, maybe, in my most fanciful moments, to begin to entertain the idea of possibly submitting myself for consideration. And even then.”

With a sigh, Paqat took the pipe again and stuck it in the corner of his mouth so it puffed as he spoke. “Now, you’re definitely not going to get the position with that kind of negative thinking.”

That was easy for Paqat to say; he’d graduated with his position already lined up for him and loved everything about unhexing dusty old spellbooks and helping enchanters find the words and recipes they were looking for. Even the Library’s brown-and-cream robes, which Fard felt looked stodgy on anyone else, suited his round face and amazing hair. “…Well, has the Dragon King posted a bill of employment in the Great Hall yet?”

“No!” Paqat shook his head. “Which is why you’ve got an advantage. You,” he punctuated the word by poking Fard’s side again, and Fard tugged down his shirt so as no longer to provide an easy target, “can apply for the position before most people even know there’s a position to be applied for.”

Or more likely, Fard thought but didn’t say, it meant there was no position to be applied for, and any attempts to do so might attract the no-doubt-negative attention of a man about whom Fard knew exactly two things: he was powerful and he was reclusive. “Of course, you’re right,” Fard said; he wanted this conversation to be over so he could sulk about his future prospects in peace.

“So you’ll do it?” Paqat’s voice was bright.

“I’ll do it,” Fard lied as he reclaimed his pipe from Paqat. The embers had gone out again, so he touched the bits of leaf with his fingertip, whispering the fire in them to life. “Now, can we celebrate my decision with a bit of meditative silence?”

Paqat pressed his lips together and nodded, though his smile was nothing short of smug. Well, that was all right; Fard could say later that he’d sent a letter of inquiry and never heard anything back, and Paqat would have no reason not to believe him, and that would be the end of that. And maybe in the interim, Fard would find a position where the interview didn’t conclude with the words ‘don’t have quite the skill set we’re looking for’ or ‘need someone with a little more experience’ or the hollow promise of ‘we’ll keep your application on file’.

Right, Fard thought. He might have a better chance with the Dragon King.

~*~

The messenger arrived three days later and in the middle of dinner, so not one of the housemates missed the gilt envelope of a summons with Fard’s name on the front. Paqat tried to cover his extra-smug expression with a veneer of innocence, and Fard tried not to be so mad he ignited something on accident. But with the seven of them having seen the delivery, Fard couldn’t get out of opening the summons and reading it aloud, and once he’d made the contents known to everyone, he couldn’t get out of going. The address listed on the card was even only a block away from the Royal Medical Academy, which of course meant both Khay and Gathaz offered on the spot to escort him there on their collective way to work the next morning. The situation was the definition of unavoidable.

Thus, Fard found himself outside a palatial house in the richest district in town, standing in his best robes, trying not to throw up. He clenched his hands in his sleeves to keep them from shaking, but it mostly just made his sleeves shake. Gathaz put a hand on the small of Fard’s back and nudged him forward. “You’ll be fine,” he said, though the words came out strange through his half-twisted mouth; they’d been friends long enough that Fard could now understand him with no difficulty, though that hadn’t been true when they’d first met. “Just be yourself.”

Khay gave a gentle tug on wrap of cloth that encircled all of Fard’s head but his face. “Remember, they asked for you. So you already know they’re interested.”

“Right.” Fard nodded and waited for them to leave, and when they didn’t, he realized that there was no way they were going to let him hide behind one of the larger plants in the courtyard until nightfall. With a heavy heart, he trudged forward and pulled the cord by the door. He didn’t tug very hard, but the bell toll that followed was so mighty that he just about jumped out of his skin, and might very well have gone for cover in the foliage anyway had the door not opened a fraction of a second later, revealing a tall woman whose long limbs reminded Fard of nothing so much as of spiders. Fard hated spiders.

She peered at him through a small curtain of dangling silver beads that half-veiled her face and neck, and as the strands parted, he could see her eyes were shockingly blue. At first he thought she might be wearing a large headpiece of some sort, but on closer examination, it was only her long powder-white hair, piled up in intricate twists atop her head and cascading down her shoulders and back. She was, he supposed, probably very pretty. “Fard of House Hariima?” she asked, her voice voice a husky contralto.

Fard gave one last glance back over his shoulder to see if he could get away with lying, but Khay and Gathaz were there at the entrance, waving him on with great smiles on their faces. “Ah, yes,” said Fard, clearing his throat. “That would be — I mean — I would be that. Yes. You’re correct.”

Her expression moved not an inch. “Come in,” she said, gesturing with her long, spindly arms, and deprived of all other options, Fard stepped inside.

The architecture of the interior was ornate, but the place was unfurnished except for some heavy pillows on the floor. It must have been some sort of rental property, Fard figured, called into service to give them a private meeting place. He looked from the pillows back to the woman — and then stopped and really looked at her. It was impolite for a man of his status to stare at a woman as obviously high-class as she, but the more he did, the more he realized she wasn’t really a woman at all. “You’re an illusion,” he said, unable to keep the surprise from her voice.

“Very good,” she said. She gestured to a large burgundy pillow and sat on a gold fringed one herself. “That was your first test.” She sat like a man, with her ankles crossed and her knees apart, and her long, pale fingers curled around the bony curves of her knees.

“First?” Fard sat with as much grace as he could muster, which wasn’t a lot even at the best of times. He straightened his scarf around his forehead and neck before meeting her gaze again.

“Surely your other interviews have asked you to perform tests to prove your skills.”

Fard began some sentence that would have explained to her how, yes, it was fairly standard practice to have potential hires demonstrate their abilities on designated tasks, but no one ever called them ‘tests’. He didn’t get even to the first word, though, because the woman reached up and removed the veil of beads from her face. With it gone, there was no mistaking what she was — her features were soft, but too soft, as though someone had carved her out of wax and left her too close to the window on a warm day. She was solid, but she was fading. Most illusions, by the time they reached that stage of decline, could not even have held themselves upright, much less spoken or answered a door. He looked around the room, but the great room in which they sat was empty save the two of them. “No, I didn’t pass the first test.” When she looked at him without reply, he added, “You’re Abias ar-Dal’s illusion.”

Her melted mouth, pink in the center but lined with blue-black kohl, lifted into a quiet smile. “I am Mim. Abias ar-Dal conjured thirteen illusions strong enough to exist beyond his death. I am the last, and the last remaining.”

“You’re–” To create an illusion that could exist more than few spans away from the illusionist was a remarkable feat; to create one that could survive longer than the illusionist himself was unthinkable. However, the last thing Fard wanted was to tell the woman in front of him, the one who was considering him for a job, that she was impossible, so he folded his hands in his lap and let the matter drop. “So, should we discuss my qualifications, or…?”

Mim shook her head. “Between the first letter from your friend Paqat and a discussion with the Records-Master of House Hariima, your qualifications are known to us already. If they were not satisfactory, you would not be seated here now.”

“Oh,” said Fard. He felt equal parts betrayed and relieved, and decided to lean on the latter. “Well, then, what’s the next test?”

Mim reached one spindly hand into her robes and produced an amulet, a round circle of bright yellow stone set in pale gold. She held it out across the distance between them, and he took it from her; the stone was warm to the touch even as the gold around it felt like ice. He looked at it for a moment, then looked back up to her — and was astonished to see her face well-defined now, with a sharp, narrow bridge to her nose and high cheekbones. “That was it,” she said. “The position is yours. Should you agree to take it, please place the amulet beneath your clothes and against your skin, and do not take it off again.”

Intellectually, Fard knew that what seemed too good to be true rarely was. Under any other circumstances, he might very likely have said no on the spot to such a suspicious offer, and would have at least asked for some clarification — the pay, the hours, the duties, anything — before giving an answer. However, multiple failed interviews, crippling anxieties about his future, and the stress of seeing all his other housemates start successful careers had combined to form a weight on him so heavy that without a second thought, he placed the chain around his neck, pulled aside his head covering and undershirt, and hissed as the cold metal hit flesh. It met his body heat soon enough, though, and the stone sat in the middle of his chest, as warm as though someone had just taken it from an oven. “All right,” he said, giving her his most confident look and hoping it wasn’t as transparent as he felt it might be.

She didn’t nod back, but pulled herself instead to her feet and started for the door. He followed after her. “The coach is outside, and the driver will take you to your room to gather your possessions.” She opened the door and he stepped past her out into the midday sun. “We should reach the White Palace before nightfall.”

“When will I be coming back?” he asked, but by the time he turned back, the door swung open on its hinges and the rest of the house stood empty. For a moment, all he could do was stand there, holding his hand to his chest to feel the amulet beneath it, his one piece of evidence that he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. It was warm even through his shirt, and heavy, far heavier than it had been in his hand. It seemed to pulse, even, though he knew that was only feeling his own heartbeat in his fingertips, and presently he dropped his hand to his side and turned to the black-lacquered cart waiting for him by the side of the road.

~*~

Everything he owned that was actually his and not just on loan from the House fit into a single shoulder-bag. Everyone was either at work or asleep, so he left a brief letter explaining that he’d gotten the job and would send word as soon as he could. Everything felt slowed down, as though he were moving underwater, or even in a dream. He supposed it just hadn’t all sunk in yet.

He dozed inside the coach, and though he was almost certain it never stopped, when he opened his eyes again, he was started to see Mim in the seat across from him. Startled, he pulled himself upright and tightened his scarf around his neck; the hood of his traveling cloak still covered the top of his head. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, dragging the back of his hand across his mouth and hoping against all odds he hadn’t drooled in his sleep. He had.

“We’re nearly there,” she said, her voice pleasant and unreadable. She was wearing a different dress now, one of the same deep burgundy as his cloak.

“Are we?” Perhaps he’d slept longer than he’d thought. He pulled back the curtain over the window and blinded by white; he shut his eyes to let them adjust before looking again, and realized when he did that what had burned out his eyes had been the late afternoon sunlight off the high mountain snow. When he exhaled, his warm breath frosted the window for a moment, then disappeared again. He squinted and could see remnants of the path they’d taken, a mud-brown line that cut through what must have been knee-high drifts outside. He pulled his cloak closer to him on instinct before he realized he wasn’t cold. “So … what happens next?”

“You will be escorted to His Majesty’s throne chamber upon your arrival. In advance of this, I have a letter for you.” She reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a bit of parchment, folded twice into a square.

He took it from her and unfolded it. The words inside were in ordinary blank ink, and though they had the slight palsied tremble of age to them, the flowing script was still clear:

To my successor–

By now Mim should have given you the amulet. The first thing you must say is Kthalya. You must say this three times.

I have bequeathed to others most of my library, but all those volumes can be replaced — assuming, of course, you do not possess copies of your own already. What is irreplaceable is now yours: my collection of personal works and notebooks spanning the five centuries of my employment here and the two before that, and the works of our predecessors. My secrets are now your secrets; use them well.

–Abias ar-Dal ar-Cathras, House of Tur, twelfth illusionist to the Dragon King, the White Palace

There was a line nearer to the bottom, in far less formal cramped print:

Take care of him. He needs you for more than this.

Fard folded the letter and put it in the breast pocket of his inner robe. “These are all the instructions I get?” He pushed his glasses back up his nose and sighed.

Mim nodded once. “You will be escorted to His Majesty’s throne chamber upon your arrival.”

“So you said.” Fard sighed. “I apologize. What can you tell me about my new employer?”

She looked at him with the same pleasant, flat expression he’d come to expect from her. “I have never met His Majesty.”

“You … haven’t?” That seemed odd to Fard, that she would be conducting his business absent any direct contact with him. “Well, all right, what was Abias ar-Dal like?”

“I have never met Abias ar-Dal,” Mim said, her hands still in her lap.

Fard frowned deep furrows between his brows. “You said, though, that you were conjured by him.”

“I was. And now I am conjured by you.” The coach gave a lurch sharp enough that Fard nearly slipped off the seat. “And now we are here.” She opened the door to the coach and stepped out into the afternoon light.

Fard followed her out, and was this time only snowblinded for a moment; he shaded his eyes from the glare with the hood of his cloak. Fresh snow crunched under his boots, though he’d left high summer heat only hours before. Mim set ahead of him and he followed her up a narrow stairway that led through two ornate wrought-iron gates. The high mountain air was thin, making Fard draw frequent breaths, and every exhale plumed into frost on the air. It must have been cold, but he felt a sweat come over him.

On the other side was a building that could have been nothing other than the White Palace. Carved out of what looked like marble, it towered high in such a way that Fard realized he’d seen it earlier, from afar, but mistaken it for a mountain peak. The whole face was decorated with intricate geometric carvings, the same sorts of swirling designs that had decorated the gates. It had to be a dozen stories high at its apex, and Fard couldn’t tell while standing before it how far back it stretched. Its construction must have been a undertaking so massive as to be unimaginable, assuming it had been done by human hands at all. Snow settled on all its high roofs and buttresses, which meant that every time a sharp gust of wind tore by, a sparkling mist blew with it that pelted Fard’s face with tiny crystals of ice.

A thought struck him as they climbed the great steps to the front door. “Mim,” he called, taking her arm to make sure she (who of course didn’t need to breathe) didn’t leave him, “was this place built by dragons?”

“Dragons are extinct creatures,” Mim answered, her face forward and her pace steady. “All reported dragon sightings for the last three thousand years have been either uncorroborated or can be otherwise explained.”

Fard picked up the hem of his robe as he ascended the last few steep steps; he didn’t want his new employer’s first impression of him to be of his falling on his face. “But before that.”

She placed her white-gloved hand on top of his. “I can only know what you tell me to know.”

That made as little sense to Fard as had her cryptic statement about how he had created her. He knew what was involved in conjuring an illusion, and though he could put aside modesty enough to acknowledge that he was in fact talented at the art, he was hardly talented enough to bypass the process, much less to do so without even being aware of it. Before he could think of how even to question this, though, the front door opened and a tall, fur-bundled man gave them a deep bow. “Master Fard,” he said. His face was barely visible in the gap between the white fluff of his collar and the white fluff of his hat. “Welcome here.”

Fard, who had never been called ‘master’ in his life, stomped the snow from his boots before stepping inside. “Ah, hello,” he said, looking around. The entryway was as white and ornate as the outside had been, but a great blaze raged in a fireplace that took up a quarter of the room’s far wall, making the polished marble seem warm instead of like ice itself.

The main door shut behind them, the fur-covered man took off his hat and unbuttoned the high collar of his coat, revealing quite a sight beneath: shockingly orange hair, cheeks and nose as red as apples, and skin elsewhere a pale pink dotted with a galaxy of little brown freckles. Yet for as strange as the man looked, Fard could tell he was at last in the presence of another human. “This man is Ewwa Ji, butler to this great house,” he said with another bow; he had a strange, pretty accent that made his speech sound like song. “May this man take Master Fard’s cloak?”

“Well … yes, all right.” Fard made sure the scarf across his head was secure before unfastening the cloak clasp at his throat. The heavy fabric fell back into the waiting arms of Ewwa Ji, who straightened it with a stiff jerk and placed it on the same rack by the door that supported his fur hat. “Nice to meet you.”

“Those who are here have awaited Master Fard’s arrival and meet now it with joy. Please, Master Fard will come this way.” Ewwa Ji indicated a door to the left of the fireplace and started off toward it, and Fard followed, trying not to gawk at the beauty of the palace like a tourist might. He was a professional, he was here to do a job, and if he had to break every bone in his own body doing that, then by the Goddess, he would. Mim stayed a step behind him here, just close enough to remain a flicker in the periphery of his vision, and though he knew she wasn’t real in the strictest sense of the word, her presence made him feel better for its familiarity.

They passed straight ahead through five rooms, each larger than the last, and each upholstered in a different shade and decorated with different stone inlaid in the marble. Great fires blazed in each of the rooms, though no one tended to them and Fard could not see what material it was they burned. His hands fisted again in the long sleeves of his robe, a terrible habit that he swore he’d try to break someday, but not right now. While Fard huffed with each step, Ewwa Ji moved with no extra effort; he must have been acclimated to the altitude. Once, he glanced back to make sure Mim was still with him, and when she met his gaze, she gave him the ghost of a smile.

At last they reached what must have been near the center of the palace, a small chamber still large enough that a hundred people might have fit inside with ease. At the middle of the room was a high ivory chair with what looked to be a body slumped in the center, though Fard could see as he looked closer that they were only empty robes arranged in the shape of a person. Ewwa Ji stopped at one side of the doors and Mim paused at the other, leaving Fard to step forward alone.

In the midst of the robes sat a crown, a high, thorny thing made of what looked to be bone, as branched and twisted as a high column of fire. Fard reached out his hand to touch it, feeling the cold smoothness of the material beneath his fingertips. Fit for a king, indeed. He looked back to Mim and Ewwa Ji, but neither gave him any hint as to how he was expected to proceed. In fact, he’d had only one instruction thus far. “Kthalya,” he said, figuring it was a long shot but not knowing what else to do. “Kthalya.” His voice rang off the bare walls and bounced back to him, startling him with its boldness. “Kthalya.”

Knashtheth,” replied a voice from behind him, a rich, smoky bass, and Fard spun on his heel to see a third figure in the doorway now, a man whose hair and skin were as white as the marble around them, but whose eyes had the same bright glacial quality as Mim’s. “Why don’t you have a beard? Proper wizards have beards.”

Fard stood speechless as the man passed him. He was not a tall man, perhaps half a head shorter than Fard, and his face had the timeless quality that could on a mortal man have meant anywhere between twenty and sixty summers, though Fard did not for a moment believe ‘mortal’ applied here, at least not in the customary sense. His hair was pulled back from his face into a high knot and fell around his shoulders in thick, woolen locks, through which were threaded several stones and bits of silver. He didn’t so much as spare Fard a second glance as he crossed the room to the throne and took the crown; he placed it upon his head with no ceremony and threw the regal robe beneath around his shoulders with even less care.

“His Majesty,” said Ewwa Ji as the man seated himself where the robe had been, “this man would delight to present the Illusionist Fard of the Great House Hariima.”

“Hello,” said Fard. He started to bow, then stopped, realizing he had no idea what protocol was in this situation. “A pleasure to meet Your Majesty.”

illustrated by 2013

The king folded his arms; the sleeves were slit from the wrist up nearly to the shoulder, so that they draped by his sides while exposing his lean, well-muscled arms. He hadn’t bothered to fasten the robe, leaving his equally sculpted chest bare for all to see. “So?”

It took Fard an awkward moment before he realized the king was waiting for an answer to his previous question. “I’ve never felt the need for one, Your Majesty,” he answered, hoping that would suffice without getting into the true particulars of why he kept his face clean-shaven like a boy. “I’ve only had twenty-three summers.”

“Twenty-three?” One of the king’s eyebrows arched to a suspicious angle. “When Abias ar-Dal came to me, he’d seen two hundred and six.”

On any other day, challenged like that, Fard would have backed down, apologized, made excuses, shrunk back. But he was tired and hungry, and he’d been travelling all day, and since the sunrise that morning he’d had a bizarre interview, gotten a job offer, relocated himself at a moment’s notice, and consented to be carted up a mountain in a cart that smelled of mothballs — and his nigh-inexhaustible patience was at its limits. “If age and facial hair are Your Majesty’s only qualifications for the job, I’m sure some of the drunks in the city square would be suited better for the position.”

The king’s expression didn’t soften, but neither did it harden, and he unfolded his arms and stood. “Don’t remove the amulet under any circumstances. Don’t leave the palace grounds unless it’s on my order. There are no forbidden places to you here; you may go anywhere at any time, provide you do not cross the wall that marks the edge of the grounds. When I need you, I will call for you and you will come. What you do with your spare time is not my concern. Are we clear?”

Fard straightened himself to his full height, though the peak of the king’s crown still stretched higher than the top of Fard’s head. “Of course, Your Majesty,” he said, biting his tongue before any other remark could slip past. Ah, so this was why all the old folk tales warned against going to work for royalty.

“Good.” The king stepped close until they were nearly nose-to-nose, close enough that Fard could see no vapor escaped the king’s lips when he spoke. He tapped the center of Fard’s chest, hitting right where the amulet’s stone lay beneath Fard’s clothes. “Under any circumstances.”

“You were clear the first time,” said Fard, adding at the last moment, “Your Majesty.” If this was what the job was going to be like, if he was going to have to fight for every inch of it, then he had best get to fighting sooner rather than later. It wasn’t in his nature, but he was amenable to learning on the job.

With a snort, the king pulled his hand back and strode out of the room, the robe’s long hem dragging behind him. As he disappeared behind the far room’s heavy doors, Ewwa Ji turned to Fard and gave another deep bow. “If Master Fard would be pleased, this man will show the way to Master Fard’s quarters.”

Fard looked to Mim, who looked back at him with her usual inscrutable expression, leaving him wondering else what he’d expected from her. “Thank you,” said Fard, who was relieved when Ewwa Ji took him down a corridor that ran opposite to the direction in which the king had gone. He still knew very little about his job, but he’d already learned at least that he wanted as little contact with his employer as possible.

~*~

For the next four days, Fard didn’t see the king at all. He took his employer at his word, though, and proceeded to explore the palace at will, where he met two more actual, living humans: Sriti, who kept the kitchens, and Nonna, who kept everything else clean. Sriti was a plump, gruff older woman who shared no common language with Fard, which meant Ewwa Ji had to translate; after a few tortured exchanges, Fard got the impression that their shared tongue wasn’t Ewwa Ji’s first language either, but it worked well enough to convey basic information. Nonna looked to be all of ten years old and didn’t speak at all, but had a bright, expressive face and seemed to understand whatever Fard said to her. The three were nice for banishing basic loneliness, but not much for conversation.

Though snow covered the grounds outside and the other humans in the palace bundled up or lingered near fireplaces at all times, Fard found himself so prone to overheating that he wound up walking the bare stone floors and drafty corridors in nothing more than the light summer clothes he’d brought with him. He didn’t know if that was the amulet’s purpose, but it was a nice side effect; he’d always hated being cold.

Alas, for all the promise of exploration it had held, the palace was dull. There were guest rooms and ballrooms and dining rooms aplenty, but they all stood hollow with disuse, and after a while they all began to look the same. The most interesting room was the one adjacent to Fard’s sleeping quarters: a library that had once been Abias ar-Dal’s. Despite what of his collection had been bequeathed to others, volumes still packed the shelves and covered most bare, level surfaces. Fard picked one book at random, read two sentences, sighed, and put it back. This was all so far over his head he didn’t know where to start.

He was halfway through a chess game on the sunny back porch with Mim when he heard a voice from behind him: “She’s not real, you know.”

Fard’s eyebrow twitched. “I know,” he said, trying not to let show any annoyance at the suggestion that he, a trained illusionist, might still be confused on that matter. She might not have been the most creative conversationalist, and she was as terrible at chess as Fard himself, but they spoke the same language and her face was familiar, and that counted for a great deal. “She’s just stayed around; I have nothing to do with it. Is that a problem?” He slid a piece forward.

“Come with me,” said the king, ignoring the question. “We’re having guests tonight and I need you to prepare.”

“Guests?” Fard frowned as he stood. The palace as it stood now seemed ill-suited to hosting of any kind.

“Fourteen.” The king turned and headed back indoors, gesturing for Fard to follow him. His head and feet were both bare, though his robe today had a high collar and no gaps in the sleeves to show the skin beneath. “A special envoy from the Empress of Tyl. It’s mostly a formality — to renew treaties regarding mining rights, to celebrate my return — but we should still make an effort.”

Fard followed, keeping pace as best he could over the slick stone floors; for all their height difference, the king had a mighty stride. “Your return? Where have you been?”

“Here,” said the king, stepping into a large room with high windows. The only furniture was a small table on which sat an leather-bound book with gilded pages. “Forty. Twenty for waitstaff, twenty for pleasure. Our guests come from Tyl, so men and women, all young. I’ll be back to inspect them in two hours’ time.”

Fard felt as though the king had asked him to level a glacier with a spoon before lunchtime. One solid, convincing illusion was an effort in itself; maintaining ten at once had been the requirement for his graduation with honors; twenty would have tried the skills even of a practiced master; but forty? “Your Majesty, I don’t think–”

“Good,” said the king, turning to leave. “I hired you for tasks other than that.”

Fard very professionally waited until the king had left and closed the door before bursting into tears of frustration.

He allowed himself only five minutes’ worth of a tantrum, though, because if he gave up and died every time the universe defecated on him, he’d never get anything done. At the end of it, he picked himself up, straightened his tunic, pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, and looked at the blank space in front of him, imagining it filled with forty people, five rows of eight. Breaking it down mathematically made it at least easier to think, if not easier to execute.

The book stood before him, and at this point, anything was worth a shot; he pulled open the cover and turn it to the first page. He expected to see Abias ar-Dal’s now-familiar script, but instead was met with the cramped, meticulous calligraphy of an author identified as Mayrat af-Qash — a woman’s name, which gave Fard pause, as he’d never heard of an Academy that accepted female students. Here behold the mysteries, read the archaic writing just beneath her name, and the secrets unto them for those who might succeed me in the service of the Dragon-King. Know that untrue hands which turn even one page more will surely wither and betray an unworthy mind.

Well, that was a warning that would have given anyone pause. Fard took a deep breath, grasped the edge of the paper between cautious fingers, and ferried it gingerly from left to right. His hands remained whole. He supposed that was a good sign.

As large as the book was, everything Fard needed for the task before him was in the first dozen pages, though they were so thick with her script that by the time he’d finished reading them through enough times to commit their contents to memory, the light through the window panes had shifted considerably with the sun’s passing movement. There was nothing for it but to get on with it, and if he was doomed to fail, at least there’d be no way to accuse him of not having tried. Following the book’s instructions, he changed his stance, putting his right hand flat over his chest just above the amulet and placing his left hand sideways, three fingers extended, just before his lips. It felt at the same time strange and familiar, and was certainly more comfortable than the upraised-arms conjuring stance the Academy taught. That settled, he read from the lines of ancient script copied and transliterated, then closed his eyes and began to work.

The process of conjuring an illusionary object was simple and intuitive, one easy step and one hard step: picture the desired object, then will it into existence. The objects weren’t real, and would fade away eventually if not banished by the conjurer first, but while they existed, they could be real enough to fool most casual observers. An amateur conjurer might be able to create a glass of wine that looked real but tasted of nothing; a more accomplished conjurer could replicate the taste, but no effort could make it quench the thirst of or intoxicate the drinker. Fard had chosen illusion as a discipline for largely selfish reasons, before anyone had taught him the First Flaw of Magic: no enchantment could ever be used on the person who cast it.

The first man appeared, a head taller than Fard and handsome. He had short, dark hair combed back from his face and the deep bronze skin Fard associated with men who worked in the sun, though he had none of the roughness to him of a laborer. He wore a plain burgundy servant’s uniform, a long, gold-embroidered tunic and loose pants, all of which seemed unobjectionable enough. As soon as the casting was done, the man turned to Fard and gave a deep, proper bow that Fard had not instructed him to do. That really was one hell of a book.

“Hello,” said Fard, giving an awkward little wave. “You are, ah, going to be my … my coordinator tonight, I suppose. Is that all right?”

“Of course, Master Fard.” The man bowed again, and when he straightened, not a hair was out of place. Any trained illusionist would have been able to see him for what he was, but even a suspicious layperson might not have given him a second glance. “Shall I go forth to perform my duties now or wait until you finish here?”

“Wait, please,” said Fard, who took up his stance again. He focused on his breathing and the words in his head until a second man appeared next to the first, looking similar but not the same; Fard wanted to create a uniform staff, not an identical one. This new man gave two bows, first to Fard, then to the first illusion. Keeping still, Fard brought a third, a fourth, and a fifth man into being next to them.

About this time, Fard began to wonder why his head didn’t hurt. The final exam for his program had nearly broken him by demanding his focus on so many things at once, and he’d taken a day’s bed rest to recover. Five illusive men of his own creation stood before him now, but he felt no more strain keeping them present than he did when he read a book. He thought one at a time about five women, dressed the same way, with their long black hair pulled up at the backs of their heads in tight, orderly buns. They might all have been siblings, or cousins at the very least, all beautiful but none extraordinary. With a little effort more on his part, ten more joined them, equal numbers male and female, until his twenty waitstaff stood before him in their neat dress, smiling at him from twenty individual faces. To call it incredible would have been an understatement. Even he wouldn’t have believed it had he not just done it himself.

He knew they would have waited without complaint until the end of the world for his instructions, but it still seemed rude to leave them like that. “You’ll be reporting to Ewwa Ji this evening,” he told them, though he suspected they knew that already. “Trust him and obey his orders without question. Understood?”

“Yes, Master Fard,” said twenty different mouths, out of which came twenty different voices. He was amazed at how little he had to think about each of them; in fact, he didn’t really have to think about them as individuals at all. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard for several seconds about something unrelated — a garden at the temple where he’d taken walks in his youth — and when he opened his eyes again, they were all still there, smiling, waiting.

Fard was glad, really, that the king hadn’t been so euphemistic as to declare the other twenty ‘for entertainment’, or something equally vague. They were for sex, or at least for looking at in a sexual way, which meant Fard would waste no time making sure they knew how to recite poetry or juggle. He knew from his time in the temple what was considered attractive, and so he thought on the faces and bodies he’d known in his adolescence, the ones who’d been the most popular and warranted the most attention. Theirs were the frames Fard mimicked here — not in exact copies, because that would have been unsettling for him, but the same general features. He tried for more variety here than he had with the waitstaff: these twenty ranged in height from petite to looming, in build from slight to sturdy, in skin and hair tone from fair to dark. All were fit and looked to be in their late teens, and all looked inviting in the sheer wine-red robes they had belted loosely at their waists. A smallish harem, perhaps, but one still fit for a king.

He took the time to pass by each of these one at a time, fine-tuning their hair, their makeup, their facial features with simple gestures. He didn’t need to lay hands on them to change them now, he found, but he did so anyway; he hadn’t realized how starved he’d been for contact until he’d put his hand to a green-eyed illusive woman’s cheek and felt her turn into the touch. She wasn’t real, but she was beautiful and warm, and that was, for the moment, enough.

Fard had his hands on the last man, coaxing an ebony beard from his cheeks, when he heard the doors behind him open and the sound of forty servants’ clothes shuffling as they all bowed. Fard stayed fixed on what he was doing, however; if the king wanted the job done right, then the king could damn well wait for it to get done. And if the man’s beard wound up being a little longer than Fard had first intended, well, who was to know?

At last, and with no small pride in having completed what had been until two hours previous an impossible task, Fard turned to face his employer. “Your Majesty,” he said, giving only a slight nod where a more formal bow might have gone. “I trust they’re to your liking.”

The king looked over the waitstaff first with a critical eye, scrutinizing them as they looked back at him with pleasant, untroubled expressions. “They look small,” he said with a frown as he tugged at the embroidered cuff of one woman’s shirt, smoothing out a wrinkle.

Fard blinked. “Small?”

“Small,” repeated the king. “Not very strong. They have to carry heavy trays and baggage.”

“They’ll be able to,” said Fard, feeling his pride shift quickly into defensiveness. An illusion’s strength had no correlation with appearance; they could have looked like children and still have been able to perform the tasks required of them.

The king tugged again at the servant’s sleeve, though it needed no more straightening. “They should be in white.”

“I can make that change,” said Fard, setting his jaw.

“I don’t know why you thought this would match. It doesn’t.” With a sigh, the king turned to the other half of Fard’s assignment before Fard could manage to change their outfits to white as well. At least they weren’t likely to be wearing theirs very long. “Why do they all look the same?”

Fard had been prepared for any number of criticisms about his creative work here, but he’d also been prepared for them to have been ones grounded in truth. “They don’t all look the same,” he said, risking the direct contradiction because he had obvious visual evidence on his side.

“They all look the same. Look at them. Barely any difference.” The king sighed again and shook his head. “It’s too late to change it now, and these emissaries will be too drunk to care when it does become an issue. But never do this again.”

“They don’t all look the same,” said Fard through clenched teeth. He wasn’t a prideful man, but neither would he stand for direct lies about his work.

The king turned on him with a withering glare, his full lips pulled tight into two white lines. “Don’t contradict me,” he said, his voice as cold and clear as the marble around them. “Not in public, not in private, not again, not ever. Two dozen summers and he thinks he knows the world better than someone who’s seen three thousand. When I tell you to make a change, you say yes and you have it done. Are we clear?”

Fard wished he were still wearing a long outer robe so he could have used the sleeves to hide how his hands had knotted into fists, not because he feared reprisal, but because he didn’t want to give the king the satisfaction of knowing how mad he’d made Fard. “Yes.” He spat out the word as though it tasted bitter.

“Yes?” echoed the king.

Fard bit his tongue hard to keep from saying anything except what finally came out: “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Good.” The king straightened his spine and drew his long, corded hair away from his neck. “With me,” he said, addressing the servants. “You’ll be needed soon, and you,” he added, pointing to the pleasure company, “will debut near the end of the meal; someone will ring for you, and you’ll come.” Without waiting for a response of confirmation from any of them, the king strode out of the room, leading twenty human-like illusions following behind him in two neat lines; Fard barely managed to bleach the color from their uniforms before they were out of his sight.

With the king gone, Fard conjured up a chair just so he could seethe while sitting down. Though he hadn’t asked specifically for it, the burliest of the men he’d created came up behind him and began kneading his strong thumbs into Fard’s shoulders, while two of the women each took one of his hands and rubbed the muscles there. Fard let his chin drop against his chest. “Thank you,” he said.

“Of course,” one of the women answered. They didn’t offer to do any more than that, and he didn’t ask it of them, but after half an hour or so of their attentions, Fard was feeling better. He gave them each one last touch of individual attention, a preemptive strike against future criticism, then left for his quarters, intending to spend the evening in the library. The books, at least, wouldn’t yell at him.

~*~

When he woke again after nodding off while sitting at his reading-desk, face-down in one of Abias ar-Dal’s volumes, the sky outside his window had only the faintest hint of blue left to it. He was hungry, he realized, and for a moment he hoped Nonna might have brought him something for dinner, before remembering that she and Sriti were probably beyond busy keeping the kitchens going for their guests. He thought about calling for Mim or even conjuring another illusion to wait on him, but he’d had enough conjuring for one day. No, if he wanted something, he’d have to go get it himself.

Throwing a scarf around his head and throat, he stepped out into the hallway. Night gave the palace an eerie softness; it took the sunlight’s harsh glare from the marble and turned the wall and floors instead into pale ghosts, dreamlike enough that Fard had the wild idea that any step he took might give way. But his bare feet held him up all the way down the corridor, then down a staircase that led to the ground floor and the shortest way he knew of to get to the kitchens.

The banquet was loud enough to be heard from a fair distance, and from the noise of it, ‘banquet’ was too proper of a word for what was happening inside that large ballroom. Voices he didn’t recognize mingled with laughter from his own illusions, which sounded to be going strong despite his abandoning them for sleep — though, he thought with a stab of anger, he was certain that had all not gone well, he would have heard about it and at length.

As he rounded the corner to the kitchen area, he saw a woman from the waitstaff carrying an empty decanter of wine in her arms, and he flagged her down. She was beginning to soften at the edges, and he’d need to do something about that come morning, lest the fading begin to disturb the guests; for now, though, no untrained eye would have seen anything amiss. “Is everything all right?” he asked, taking the opportunity to tighten up a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her bun.

“Yes, Master Fard,” she replied with a bow. “Business has concluded successfully, the meal is nearing its conclusion, and the guests will soon retire to their rooms.”

Fard nodded, supposing all these things are good. “And the king. Did he give any of you a hard time?”

She shook her head. “No, Master Fard. His Majesty has been very pleasant and complimentary all evening.”

Now that was impossible to believe, but Fard supposed that was the problem with designing servants for whom politeness was a cardinal virtue. “Please let everyone know that if there are any problems with the evening, I need to be told about them in the morning. All right?” He gave her a stern look and she nodded. “All right. Go on, don’t keep the wine waiting.”

“Thank you, Master Fard,” she said, giving him one last bow before scurrying down to the cellars.

He stole some bread and sliced meats from a tray of food left over from the meal, and when he looked embarrassed as Sriti caught him in the act, she rolled her eyes and waved her hands until he took even more. Nonna brought him a platter of tiny cakes and made him take a few of those as well, then looked delighted when he rewarded her with a half-hug around her shoulders. She was so sweet that he wondered how on earth she could have come to be in a frozen place like this. He suspected at first that she might have been Sriti or Ewwa Ji’s child, or perhaps their child together, but where Ewwa Ji was freckled pink and Sriti darker even than Fard, Nonna had a milk-paleness to her, the kind where at the right angles, the blue veins beneath her skin stood out like rivers drawn on a map.

He didn’t like to think about how he’d been dedicated to the Fifth Temple when he’d been not much more than her age. It had seemed natural at the time — he’d had his height and voice change come on him early, and had felt indeed on the cusp of adulthood — but he barely felt old enough to the task now, much less a dozen years before. How would he have reacted if someone had chosen him to share a ritual then? Would he have cried, the way he’d seen some of his peers do? Would it have made a difference?

Fard shook his head. These were useless questions because they were ones he’d never have to answer. He’d reached adulthood without being called upon to share any ritual, and he’d subsequently been enrolled in the Academy, and that was that. And Nonna was here, far from dedication to any temple, which was its own kind of safe. At least, he hoped so.

With his kerchief of food tucked into his pocket, Fard set out of the kitchen, meaning to take the back way to return to his room and give the banquet hall a wide berth. He wanted little to do with the event and even less to be seen there. He was still mad, after all, though the pain of insult had faded from a rage into a simmering sulk. He was a good illusionist, and more than that, he’d managed to complete — with minimal warning — a task even his instructors at the Academy would have declared beyond the realm of possibility. He deserved at least some credit.

While he was caught up in being grouchy, however, his feet conspired with his curiosity, and the two got the better of him until he found himself standing by the side entrance to the banquet hall. There were no doors, but heavy velvet curtains hung over the room’s entryways, through which servants slipped in and out with no fuss. Fard caught the curtain as a man with a tray of ice cream passed by; he held it there for a full minute before curiosity got the better of him and he peeked in.

He’d never heard of Tyl before and therefore had no idea what to expect from its citizens or special envoys, but that didn’t stop him from being stopped cold by the scene before him: a dozen women were seated around the table, dressed in fine furs and heavy garments against the chill, laughing and swinging their cups around as raucously as Fard had ever seen any group of men behave. Men and women of the latter illusionary group stood and sat all around them, their clothes disheveled, if not removed entirely, and every time one of the women of Tyr touched them, they smiled and moaned as befit the situation. These women were not shy about displaying their desires in public, and Fard’s illusions were similarly bold about reciprocating, to the point where Fard believed that if the party did not break up to their own rooms soon, they might not bother going there at all.

Seated at the head of the table was the king, whose smile was wide but who did not laugh as the rest of them did. His high-collared robe had drifted away sometime in the evening, leaving his white chest bare, and his hair no longer knotted atop his head, but fell in its snakelike cords around his neck and chest. All the chairs were large and high-armed, hewn from some deep, dark wood, and across the king’s lap sat one of Fard’s men, one of the smallest-statured he’d conjured, naked. The man’s head rested on the curve of the king’s shoulder, his dark, thick curls a stark contrast to the king’s pale skin. He lay there quietly as the king stroked his back, his eyes shut, a blissful cat in its owner’s arms.

The king was beautiful. Fard had no trouble admitting that; he could recognize attractiveness in others for what it was, even when what it was was a lovely coating for something much less lovely beneath. The king was some statue come to life, someone’s idea of beauty that didn’t burden itself with the concerns of substance. That was all.

One of the women said something to the king in her own language, and he smiled and made some reply that had the entire table howling; one of the women proposed what seemed to be a toast, giving a brief and loud speech until everyone else cheered and drank, the king included. The deep red wine left a whisper of a stain across his lips, and the man in his lap sat up and kissed away whatever liquid might have been lingering there. Fard caught his own tongue in the middle of licking his lower lip, so he bit it to teach it a lesson about unconscious response.

“Master Fard?” A servant tapped him on his shoulder and he nearly jumped out of his skin, letting go of the curtain and falling back. With a full decanter of wine in her hands, she gave him a brief half-bow before pushing past the place he’d been standing a moment before, letting herself back in.

The curtains parted in her wake for only a fraction of a second, but in that instant he saw the king’s bright blue eyes pointed in his direction. Fard flattened himself against the far wall, then took off as fast as he could without actually running down the corridors back to his quarters.

After he’d had several minutes to sit on his bed and catch his breath, he kicked himself for being stupid. The king had told him he could go anywhere in the palace at any time, and though Fard hadn’t been invited to the dinner, neither had he been disinvited. His first-ever large group of illusions had been at work; he had ample reason to want to check on them. He had neither reason to be ashamed of being there nor cause to run.

The instructors at the Academy had warned students about this time and again: for people of their profession, terms of employment were often strange; arrangements could always be negotiated after an employee had acquired a certain amount of seniority; one should accept what was offered and only protest in cases of exploitation or truly intolerable conditions. And this wasn’t intolerable, it was just … not what he’d been expecting. At all. He curled up on his side and nibbled at his dinner, feeling an embarrassing wave of homesickness that he couldn’t beat back. He fell asleep with his clothes on and all the candles still lit.

Despite his self-admonitions about how he had no need to feel any embarrassment about being seen — if he even had been seen at all — Fard kept to his rooms for the next few days, ready to be summoned but otherwise in no mood to chat. For two days, Nonna brought him meals and left them outside his door in little wrapped bundles, but on the third day of his self-imposed exile, after the customary knock to announce the meal’s arrival, Fard didn’t hear a little girl’s footsteps scurry away. “Come in,” he said, drawing up the hood of his cloak.

The door opened and Ewwa Ji stood on the other side, tray in hand. “Is the condition of Master Fard well?” he asked, stepping inside and setting the tray down on a low table.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” Fard said, standing to meet his visitor; he suddenly felt self-conscious about the way the papers he’d brought over from Abias ar-Dal’s study had staged a hostile, messy takeover of most of the free surfaces in his bedroom. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been … reading.”

Ewwa Ji gave a nod of acknowledgment, though his face still seemed lined with worry. “These three people have been concerned for the condition of Master Fard. Miss Nonna brings Master Fard’s meals, which are taken into Master Fard’s room but do not emerge again.”

Fard glanced guiltily over to the stack of dirty dishes he’d let pile up by the side of his bed. “I’m sorry, I’ll bring them down to the kitchen later.”

“Master Fard has no need.” With a polite nod, Ewwa Ji went over and scooped up all the remnants in his arms, balancing them with an acrobat’s precision. “This man will make the return to Mistress Sriti’s kitchen.”

“You really shouldn’t have to–”

“This man’s job is,” said Ewwa Ji, his tone as polite and flat as it ever was. “If Master Fard leaves items outside the door, this man or Miss Nonna will make disposals as necessary.”

Realizing he was fighting a losing battle, Fard gave up and nodded. “Thank you, Ewwa Ji. I know this is a big job for you three, running the whole place like this. When are you going to start hiring?”

“Hiring?” The way Ewwa Ji echoed the word almost made Fard suspect he’d never heard it before. That seemed unlikely, however, as Fard had come to recognize Ewwa Ji’s strange speech as the result of some translation matrix spell that boosted a basic understanding of the language. Such enchantments tended to be excellent in terms of vocabulary, if hell on grammar.

“Well, if His Majesty,” Fard tried to keep the bite from his voice as he said the title, “was gone for a while, wherever he was, I can understand how he might have let a lot of the staff go, but now that he’s back, if there are going to be a lot more people coming, there’s going to be a lot more work to do.”

Ewwa Ji looked at him for a moment with a curious expression, leaving Fard wondering what he’d said wrong. When he spoke again, he had the clear air to his voice of a man explaining something he believed until that moment his conversation partner had known already. “Miss Nonna, Mistress Sriti, and this man came to this household the full moon following the winter solstice. These three met the thirteen illusions left by Master Abias ar-Dal. No living people served this house.”

This was more explanation than Fard had gotten out of anyone in a while, but it somehow made things make less sense. “Can you put all that down and stay for a minute?”

“Of course, Master Fard,” said Ewwa Ji without hesitation. With the same grace he’d shown earlier, he deposited the trays and plates in a pile on the floor, then sat in the sparse wooden chair on the other side of Fard’s desk. “This man has been without knowing that Master Fard has been without understanding of the situation before Master Fard’s arrival.”

“I … was not told a lot,” said Fard, making the understatement of the year. “So where did all the people who served you before go?”

Ewwa Ji folded his hands in his lap. “This man regrets not being clear. No living people served before these three arrived. Even before the time of Master Abias ar-Dal’s departure, following which no fires burned and His Majesty was unseen.”

“So you hadn’t met him either?”

“No, Master Fard.” Ewwa Ji shook his head. “This man has a letter of instruction from Master Abias ar-Dal and guidance from the twelve illusions that have gone and the one that remains. So is the case with Mistress Sriti and Miss Nonna. In this man’s knowing, His Majesty has not spoken to any of these three.”

Fard’s foolishness at having taken the job while knowing so little about it became more apparent every day, such that he cursed the bad decisions that had come of his desperation. He would have taken a hundred more interviews and charity support from his housemates before walking into this situation knowing what he did now. Leaving was hardly an option; he’d been here a week, and as bad as zero experience looked on a resume, it still looked better than a single aborted attempt at prestigious employment. “So why did you accept the job, if I may ask?”

Ewwa Ji’s face took on the same uncertain expression it had held earlier. “These three were gifts to His Majesty from three regents in His Majesty’s debt, on the occasion of the passing of Abias ar-Dal.”

The fact that such a possibility hadn’t even occurred to Fard shamed him terribly, and he sunk down deeper into the shadows of his cloak. “My apologies,” he mumbled, staring down at his papers and feeling like an ass.

“No apologies are necessary,” said Ewwa Ji, who looked at Fard for a long moment before his demeanor shifted — his stiff shoulders slackened a fraction, and a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “This man prefers this place to the former household to which this man was bound. This palace is a stillness made manifest. His Majesty does not speak to this man, but this man’s job is done and done well. Mistress Sriti and Miss Nonna feel the same. These three are bound now to this house, but this house is good. Cold, but good.” Ewwa Ji’s smile broadened even further. “And now Master Fard is here, fires burn everywhere.”

Fard pushed his glasses up his nose, a nervous gesture. “When we’re alone, you can just call me ‘Fard’. I understand when we’re in public there’s all kinds of protocol, but in private, you can drop the ‘Master’ part. I’ve never been a master to anyone before and I’m not really used to it. And I’m not your master, anyway.”

“This man will work to remember.” Ewwa Ji nodded. “Does M– Fard require anything else of this man?”

Fard was about to respond in the negative, but stopped, remembering something from earlier. “So .. before you came, this place had no human staff, right?” he asked; Ewwa Ji shook his head. “Was it run entirely by an illusionary staff?”

“That is the impression this man was given.”

“And would it help you to have one of your own? Not just a temporary one, called up for guests, but a permanent, longer-term solution?”

After a moment’s consideration, Ewwa Ji nodded again. “Should that be such a thing as Fard deems appropriate, this man would benefit from the extra help, as would Mistress Sriti and Miss Nonna.”

A month ago, he would have considered such a thing the equivalent of a healer’s promise to resurrect the long-dead; that it seemed even within the realm of possibility now was a testament to how much had changed so quickly. “I will see what I can do,” Fard said, gesturing to the books before him. “If the answer’s in here, I’ll do what I can with it. But no promises, all right?”

“This man is very pleased,” said Ewwa Ji, still wearing that honest smile. He was a strange-looking man, but the strangeness was handsome. “If Fard ever has need of anything, this man needs only to be asked.” He pushed back from his chair and stood.

“I will keep that in mind.” Fard stood in kind and extended his hand across the table, holding it palm-out. Though his face read confusion, Ewwa Ji did the same, and Fard took Ewwa Ji’s leather-gloved hand in his own, grasping him at the wrist in the manner of equals. “And I’ll try to see what I can do about making it warmer for you all.”

With a nod, Ewwa Ji let his hand drop, and he bent back down to pick up the trays. “Master Fard’s presence has done much for the heat. No extra effort should be spent on this. Some things eat warmth and give none in return.” Without further explanation, he made his way back out the room’s door, leaving Fard to wonder what precisely he’d meant by that. Anyone who’d walked barefoot across a marble terrace on a high summer day knew that stone was as capable of holding great heat as it was of locking in the chill, and snow would melt after enough time in the sun. Even cold iron turned soft and then liquid in the blacksmith’s forge. Pyromancers learned early in their studies that enough heat would change anything.

~*~

Making a whole staff was a daunting prospect, so Fard decided to start with one: a human illusion, meant to be permanent, regardless of how long he ignored it. He had no reason to expect that he was capable of this except that Mim was still around, haunting the palace but ready to come to him as soon as he called for her; he suspected her having been conjured first by Abias ar-Dal had a great deal to do with how she was still around, but he could no longer pretend he didn’t have something to do with it. She’d regained her form when he’d touched the stone, and she repeated whenever asked that she’d never met Abias ar-Dal and was of Fard’s making. That had to count for something.

The more Fard looked at the books in the study, the more he realized they were disordered in the extreme; either Abias ar-Dal had been a careless man or the remaining volumes had all been scattered when the bequeathments from his will had been parceled out, and from what Fard was learning of the man from his work, the latter seemed far more likely. He had Mayrat af-Qash’s volume at the ready, though, so it was what he read cover to cover, committing her techniques and secrets to memory until he was ready to give it a try.

The man he conjured came out looking more than a bit like Sriti, which had been unintentional, but once it had happened, Fard liked the connection; he was for her, after all. And since he was for Sriti, and not for the king, Fard had no qualms about dressing the man in a soft saffron robe that made Fard think of Sriti’s cooking and most assuredly did not match the white walls. “I need you to read this,” Fard said, handing the man a simple bilingual dictionary that Ewwa Ji had identified as being for the language of Sriti’s homeland. “Read this and learn it. Can you do that?”

“I can, Master Fard,” said the man, who remained standing as he turned the volume to the first page and began.

The next morning, Fard returned to the study to find the man still on his feet, only now nearing the last page. Fard poked at him a few times, but he appeared to have remained intact throughout the night, with not even the beginnings of the fade that happened around the edges of old illusions. Satisfied that he had at least the beginnings of a success on his hands, Fard led the man down to the kitchens.

He spent an embarrassingly long time trying to explain what was happening to a baffled Sriti before realizing that all he had to do was tell the man to translate. When the first words of her native tongue came out of the man’s mouth, Sriti’s dark eyes became as round as bowls and she clutched the edge of the high counter behind which she stood. She addressed the man, and he bowed and responded, then turned back to Fard. “How have you done this?” he asked, and Fard took a moment before realizing that the man was not speaking, but translating.

“Tell her it’s just … what I do,” said Fard, giving a little shrug. “Tell her that you’re hers. You are to listen to her and aid her as she commands. Listen to how she speaks and improve yourself. And she should probably give you a name, too, if she wants. Or not.”

The man turned back to Sriti and conveyed what Fard assumed was the same sentiment he’d expressed. He listened as Sriti and the man spoke to one another, understanding not a word but enjoying the sound of their speech. He’d never been any good with languages, but he loved listening to them all the same. At last, the man turned back. “Osmith, his name is Osmith,” he said. “What does he cost?”

“Cost?” Fard frowned at Sriti, then shook his head. “Oh, no. He costs nothing. You don’t–” He stuttered as Osmith began speaking over him, then soldiered forward, trying not to be distracted by the noise. “You don’t pay me for him, for any of this. This is my job. I want to make things better here for everyone. Anything you need, I want you to tell me.”

Sriti dabbed her apron to the corners of her eyes, then gripped Fard’s hands in her own sturdy ones. She spoke, and a moment later, Osmith translated: “May the gods bless you.”

There was a scuttling sound behind him, and they all turned to see Nonna walk in with cautious steps, a bundle of linens in her arms, half-lost inside the oversized coat that covered everything but her hands and her face. She gave Osmith a wary look. “Nonna, I’d like you to meet Osmith. He’s going to be helping out around here.” Fard gestured to Osmith, who made a deep bow to her. In reply, she gave as much of a curtsey as her clothes and burdens would allow.

All things considered, Fard felt this had gone exceptionally well.

Spending the next few days keeping an eye on Osmith taught Fard how much the kitchens really were the warm heart of the palace — literally so; they were several degrees hotter than any other rooms, so much so that Fard suspected Sriti just cooked even when there was no one to cook for in an effort to keep the fires warming the rooms. Sriti herself wore only a light wrapped dress and an apron as she cooked, Ewwa Ji hung his furs on a hook by the door when he entered, and whenever Nonna was helping out there, she wore only a simple A-frame tunic that left her pale arms and legs bare. They were so comfortable around one another that Fard felt like an intruder in their strange little family, but as he watched Osmith become Sriti’s shadow and voice, Fard found a certain comfort begin to settle around him: the peace of belonging.

Nonna was the last of the three to warm to him, and what it took in the end was not promises of his skills or gifts of his talent, but a book. He was sitting at one of the kitchen tables, listening as Sriti sang to herself and pounded out the dough for bread, when he became aware of a presence over his shoulder. Trying his best not to startle her, Fard leaned away and pushed the book closer to the side Nonna stood on.

“She can’t read,” said Osmith before Fard even realized that Sriti’s singing had turned into speech. “She wants to, though. She picks up books and boxes and whatever else has words, but she can’t read them. I want to teach her, but I can’t. I can’t read any language, yours or mine.”

“You want to read?” Fard asked her. She looked back at him with the frightened-rabbit stare of someone stopped in the market by a soldier, so Fard held up his hands and smiled. “It’s okay if you do. You can learn.”

Nonna’s eyes widened even further with the promise — then shook her head no, looking down at her feet. “It’s okay,” Fard repeated. He nudged the book closer to where she stood. “I was about your age when I was taught to read. That’s part of why I have these. They make reading easier.” He grabbed the bridge of his glasses and slid them off his face, then held them out for her to take.

She considered the offer for a moment before taking the wire arms in her pale fingers and placing them on her face. She opened her eyes wide, looking through the lenses, then shut them tight and shook her head, taking them off. Fard laughed as he took them back from her. “That’s because you have good eyes,” he said, holding the glasses in the palm of his hand. “When I was little, littler than you, I got sick. I got really sick, and lots of people thought I was going to die. And my parents and my two brothers died, but I didn’t. But the sickness did a lot of things to me, and one of the things it did was hurt my eyes.” Leaning closer to her, he put his fingertips against the soft skin beneath his eye and tugged gently down.

Nonna hesitated for a moment, but curiosity in the end won out, convincing her to lean in closer. Her mouth opened a little as she looked at what Fard himself had seen thousands of times in the mirror: tiny silver threads running horizontally across his cornea, pretty little scars. From a distance, the darkness of his eyes and the lenses of his glasses covered them, but close up, the damage was clear. Healers had spent hours stripping the cataracts away, layer upon layer, but some things were just too deep to fix. Even Khay, who was something of a prodigy at cosmetic reconstruction and who had done so much painstaking work elsewhere on Fard’s body, had taken one look into Fard’s eyes and refused to attempt any further correction; Fard’s vision would probably never get worse, had been Khay’s expert opinion, but it would definitely never get better.

illustrated by 2013

At last, Fard sat back and slipped his glasses back on his face. “Where I come from, girls don’t usually go to school,” he told her. “They sometimes do, if they’re from good families, but not usually. But we’re not there, so if you want to learn….”

With a shy smile, Nonna nodded. “All right!” Fard smiled right back at her. “I think I saw a slate around here, so we can practice writing and sounds. I guess that’s the best way to start. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never taught anybody to read before. But I’ve learned to read before, so that counts for something, right?” He gave her what he hoped was his most earnest grin and was gratified when she giggled a little in return.

Thus began the lessons, for which Fard was grateful to no end, as he hadn’t quite realized how starved he’d been for human contact until he’d had it again. Sure, it was a strange sort of human contact — Sriti’s thoughts came entirely from Osmith’s mouth, Ewwa Ji kept ‘Master’ in front of Fard’s name whenever anyone else was around, and despite how comfortable she’d become with him, Nonna still would (or could) not say a word — but the strangeness made Fard begin to feel at home. He’d always been someone on the margins of acceptable society, after all; why should his employment be any different? He set up a workspace in the kitchen’s warm heart and studied Abias ar-Dal’s volumes while Nonna did what few tasks her position demanded of her, then sat by her when she’d finished and helped her trace characters time and again onto a slate, making their sounds and hoping she understood. When the day was done and the sun had gone down, he cleaned things off the table and the four of them sat down to the evening meal, overseen by Osmith’s hungerless shadow.

They kept this up for a week, uninterrupted, until one afternoon a messenger arrived in a cart drawn by two hairy oxen. She was a messenger from the Grey Islands, Ewwa Ji explained, and she was come to announce that her king and queen would be arriving with their full retinue in two days’ time. Fard felt his heart sink, and as though on cue, he turned to see the king standing in the doorway behind him, his arms folded into his sleeves, his face unreadable.

~*~

“Perhaps if you could tell me in a bit more detail what you want–”

“You’re the illusionist. You’re supposed to already know.”

Slumped in the chair, Fard rubbed his temples; he was long, long past the point of caring whether or not he let his annoyance show. He’d spent a while in the process frustrated to the point of tears, then had moved on to being frustrated to the point of punching inanimate objects, and was now past frustration and just plain depressed. If he could have pulled up the hood of his cloak all the way and disappeared inside of it, he would have. “That’s like saying to a painter, paint this wall! and then being mad when he gets the color you never specified wrong.”

The king snorted and folded his arms across his chest, and Fard just sighed. First Fard had made too few servants. Then they’d all been wearing the wrong things. Then they’d all be wearing the wrong things again in a complete different way. Then they’d had something offensive about their accents. Then there had been too few female attendants. Then the new female attendants needed to be wearing something entirely different from what all the others were wearing. They they’d all needed to be wearing a different style of shoes. And all that had seemed like a walk in the park compared to putting together the pleasure company.

They stood before Fard and the king now, sixty of them in total, and bless them, they didn’t take Fard’s great failures personally. It was strange to think that a month ago, he would have gone down in the annals of the Academy for being able to make, let alone maintain, the two hundred individual anthropomorphic illusions that had joined the palace staff in the last twelve hours; now, he was being chastised for performing such a miracle, but not doing it well enough. Right now, all he wanted was a nap.

The king touched one of the women along the curve of her shoulder, then reached up and pulled out the comb that held up her long black hair. “Like that,” he said as the thick black strands fell down her shoulders and back.

Fard frowned; that was too easy. “You want them all to have their hair down?”

No,” said the king, his tone exasperated.

Fard threw up his hands. “Then that demonstration was unhelpful!” He stood and snatched the lacquered comb from the king’s hand, then crushed it into nothingness inside his fist. It was a pointless gesture, but a satisfying one nonetheless.

The king gave him a scowl that was no doubt intended to be dangerous and intimidating, except that Fard had seen it so often over the past day that he was beginning to become immune. “Abias ar-Dal would have known what I meant.”

And there it was again, the king’s most frequent insulting comparison. “Oh, for the love of the Three Sisters,” Fard swore, irritated enough to tempt blasphemy, “once again: I am not Abias ar-Dal. If you wanted him, you should have either hired somebody more like him or found a way to keep him on your staff–”

The sharp set of the king’s jaw stopped Fard mid-sentence; he knew he’d scored a hit, and he immediately wished he hadn’t. “Or just … done something different,” Fard finished, trying to soften the end of his sentence into something that wasn’t likely to get his head bitten off — perhaps literally, as he still hadn’t figured out what the ‘dragon’ part of the Dragon King’s title had to do with anything. “Because I am reading and I am studying and I am doing the best I damn can, but if you want a mind-reader, wow, you’re looking for someone who majored in something I surely did not.”

After a moment of silence long enough to gauge that the king wasn’t going to dignify that with a response, Fard sighed and looked at the illusionary people before him. He literally did not know what was wrong with them: they were beautiful, they were well-dressed, and they had enough variety of features presumably to keep a multitude of tastes happy. He’d spent six years at the Temple, from the onset of his pubescence to his eighteenth summer, and during that time he’d seen countless devotees come and choose the partners and enact their rituals, and Fard knew exactly what kind of people the devotees always chose. The Temple’s permanent priesthood consisted of people who were known far and wide for their beauty and allurement; once, in the Central Market, he’d been ushered into a dark tent with scrolls and books that contained pictures of naked men and women for sale, several of whom had been the spitting images of the Temple staff Fard saw there every day. He knew what it was to look desirable, and that was how, with some variation, these illusory people looked. If the king wasn’t happy with that, it was for no rational reason Fard could determine.

Well, fine: if the king wasn’t going to be specific, specificity would become Fard’s job. “Do you think,” he began, after a moment’s consideration, “that there should be more men or women?”

“Women,” answered the king without hesitation. “The Grey Islands have a long artistic tradition of praising erotic love between women.”

“See, I’ve never been there, I wouldn’t know that,” said Fard, biting the inside of his cheek to keep the words from sounding as sharp as he felt. “And now I do. More women, all right. Younger or older?”

“Older. And younger. More extremes.” The king held up an index finger on each hand, then drew them apart to ends on an imaginary continuum.

Fard looked over the faces of the illusions there, all of whom he’d made with the twenty-summered look as he had. Age was variable; he could do that. He stood before a woman with thick chestnut hair and put his hands on either side of her face until lines had begun to form around the corners of her eyes and mouth, and wisps of white had begun to snake through her curls. “Better?” he asked, turning her to the king for approval.

The king looked her over for a long, tense minute before giving her a quick nod. “Better. Humans too often all look the same.”

There was much to be unpacked from the treasure chest of that comment, but Fard’s most immediate take from it was about the king’s definition of difference. Looking at the illusions now, he could see how someone could read sameness from their youthful features, how the ranges of color and shape Fard had thought sufficient were in fact far narrower than he had given them credit for being. He stepped in front of a man next to the now-different woman and placed one hand on his cheek and another on his belly; as Fard thought about his friend Paqat, the man grew stouter until his cheeks were plump and his soft belly peeked over the waistband of his pants. “And this?” Fard asked, feeling the anxiety knotting in his chest beginning to spring from hope, not fear.

“Much,” said the king, coming over to put his hands on the man’s chest; he placed his palms flat against the man’s freckled skin and the man shut his eyes with a pleased smile. He wasn’t feeling pleasure, of course — illusions didn’t feel pleasure, didn’t feel anything — but he knew how to mimic it well enough that Fard saw the barest hint of a smile tug at the corner of the king’s mouth in response. “A significant improvement,” said the king, who lingered a few seconds more before turning and heading toward the door. “More like that. Not all, but more.”

“Not all?” Fard asked in the vain hope of any more detail.

“But more,” the king repeated before vanishing.

Fard looked over the sixty faces that looked back at him, their expressions pleasant but blank, waiting on him for their cue. He was still frustrated and more than a bit exhausted, but it had been his first interaction with the king where he hadn’t come out of it feeling like a complete idiot, and considering the trajectory of the last year or so of his life, he was going to take a victory where he could get it. “You are so sorry right now that you do not have the capacity to understand irony,” he said to no one illusion in particular.

The aged woman bowed. “I’m have no doubt we are, Master Fard.”

~*~

Of all the things he couldn’t seem to get right, being unable to keep Mim from walking two paces behind him was driving him the battiest; he’d had to give up and take to giving her his arm so he wasn’t constantly speaking to the air and hoping she hadn’t evaporated, as she was sometimes wont to do. “Speaking at what is perceived to be an unnecessary volume. Interrupting a noblewoman when she is speaking. Consuming wine and meat in the same mouthful.”

Fard sighed as they made their way together down a flight of stairs. He’d told her to do the research, and she’d done just that. “Wonderful. Anything else that’s going to cause a diplomatic incident?”

“Again, it is considered rude to keep the crown of one’s head covered while one is indoors,” said Mim, whose facial expression did not change as Fard glared at her; Ewwa Ji had told them both that when he’d come to convey the king’s wishes that Fard be there with him when the Islanders arrived, none of which Fard had considered to qualify as good news. “But they are guests in your house, and you are not in theirs, and their regard of what is right and proper must take into account your customs as surely as you take into account theirs.”

“It’s not my house,” said Fard, tugging his scarf farther down his forehead. No illusionary garment he himself made would last past the moment he put it on, but Nonna had showed him to a great closet of fine robes and silks, hidden away in one the far wings of the house, and he had decided to commandeer them first and ask questions later.

“As you say.” Mim nodded, reaching up to tug back at where he’d pulled the scarf askew.

The nearly two hundred illusory staff he’d created stood at the ready, a blatant demonstration of wealth that Fard didn’t quite know how to interpret. Amidst them stood the king, who turned as Fard and Mim entered the great hall by the entryway. A long robe the same snow-white color as his skin covered his arms past his wrists and skimmed along the floor as he approached them; he was wearing a great, complicated silver necklace with flat, geometric panels that gleamed against his bare chest, and the intricate, branching designs engraved on them matched the great crown atop his head. “You’re late,” he said, speaking to Fard as though Mim were not even there.

Fard glanced around the room, which contained nothing but the two men and a full complement of imaginary people. “…For what?”

“Is that what you’re wearing?” The king looked Fard up and down, his gaze lingering on Fard’s scarf long enough to make Fard almost as self-conscious as he would have been without it, which was saying something.

“My apologies,” said Fard, trying not to grit his teeth too hard as he spoke, “but if Your Majesty would prefer I wear something else, Your Majesty would both have to specify what that something should be and provide me with a means of acquiring it. I can’t clothe myself from thin air.”

“I know that.” The king frowned and crossed his arms across his chest; the silver pieces of the necklace clanked together as he touched them. “It’s fine; you’re meant to be my wizard, after all. And not my illusionist, is that clear? Little conveniences, general spells, simple incantations only. If anyone asks, tell them of your facility for pyromancy, but stop there. Do you understand?”

Fard shook his head, no longer defiant but now honestly confused. Illusory magic was nothing to be ashamed of; it was one of the Thirteen Noble Disciplines of the Academy, and though it was the smallest of the thirteen, it had a distinguished history and several notable alumni. The fact that scholars of the other twelve disciplines called it the ‘worthless’ major when they thought no one else was listening was something Fard tried not to let bother him. “I’ll obey, but I don’t understand.”

The king sighed, but the expression on his face had lost all its former pique. “Suffice it to say,” he began to explain after a moment’s pause, “some things are best left unsaid.”

Whatever Fard might have said next was preempted by the sound of distant trumpets, heralds that echoed off the mountain peaks. Ewwa Ji, all but invisible against the wall in his great white furs, stiffened his spine to attention and opened the door, letting six footmen out the door before him; they would mind the chill far less than any human would. Though he himself was quite comfortable, Fard drew his robe tighter around his chest at the mere thought of what conditions must be like outside. He turned to look for Mim, but she had disappeared, which was no doubt for the best; the less he might have to explain, the more likely he might be to remain compliant to his employer’s demands.

When Fard turned back to await the arrival of their guests, he found the king’s blue eyes fixed on him, making him feel first like a piece of fruit being considered by a housewife at the market, then more like a fighter being sized up by his opponent. His instinct under such scrutiny was to shrink back, become small, feign invisibility — but he found himself standing his ground instead, meeting the king’s gaze with an equal stare. He’d told Mim this wasn’t his house, but in a way it was, and he was no ordinary member of its staff. Without his efforts, the coming guests would throw the door open wide to find a monarch who ruled over only a maze of empty rooms and three servants. The Dragon King’s legend preceded and no doubt protected him, as even Fard had known prior to taking the job only enough to make him fearful. But this king had no armies, no real staff, no arable land, no obvious exports — and, so far as Fard could tell, no dragons. He was the king of a high, cold house and the lifeless mountains that surrounded it, and what kind of a king was that?

“They’re not the most hospitable of people,” said the king, startling Fard with the way his voice cut the room’s heavy, expectant silence. He pushed the thick, woolen cords of his white hair from his shoulders, and Fard could see several silver hoops that pierced his ears from his lobes all the way up to the slightly pointed tips. He was a magical thing, possibly, maybe, but Fard had never heard of a monster or demon who had cause to employ a human in its service; more likely he’d begun his life as a normal person and had enough magical changes along the way to leave much of that humanity behind. “Six generations ago, the current queen’s ancestor swore he’d have my head mounted on his wall. Not metaphorically, either; he had a fondness for taxidermy I’ve never understood.”

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t be expecting to find his head on yours?” Fard asked, and was gratified when that won a quiet laugh from the king.

“No, the only bones here are my own,” said the king with a wry smile, turning away from Fard to face the door. “The dispute was settled without bloodshed, and he died old and frustrated in his bed without having conquered a single inch of anything of mine.”

Fard stepped closer to him, careful to keep a servant’s appropriate distance. “So … why have they come now?”

The king shrugged, though his voice had a patient tone to it that didn’t sound confused at all. “They’ve heard I’ve been away for some time — which I had been, of course, prior to your arrival.”

“Of course,” echoed Fard.

“So they’ve come to welcome me back, to size me up, to hope that my absence was the result of some debilitating catastrophe that has left me in a weakened condition, and to see how interested they are in adding my head — and all that comes with it — to their collection. In other words, politics as usual.”

Fard considered this with a frown, especially the implications of that third clause. “…Did it?”

Without answering or even acknowledging that he’d heard, the king took two great strides toward the door, which Ewwa Ji opened wide to reveal to him a wide throng of fur-wrapped nobles, chattering and pushing as they hurried their way inside. Fard increased the intensity of the blazes in the room’s two fireplaces to chase away the chill that drafted in through the open doors, then stepped back among the servants and said nothing. He stood out from them, he knew, with his deep crimson robes and the gold-embroidered fabric wrapped over all of his head and neck save his face, but he found himself at ease there, despite whatever the king’s misgivings might have been. Let him be seen, then, even if those who looked at him didn’t know why he was important; he simply was.

Royal greetings and introductions followed as soon as the door had closed behind them, though of the nearly fifty new arrivals, fewer than a dozen merited specific introductions and Fard only retained four of the names: Queen Tzjani, the silver-haired matriarch with sharp features and sharper eyes; King Langtse, whose great grey beard couldn’t hide how forced his smile was; and Princesses Pezjlo and Pilno, identical-looking young women with hair black as ravens. Despite their outward pleasantries, Fard couldn’t look at their expressions without thinking about the king’s comments regarding the stuffing and mounting of heads.

When their herald had finished, Ewwa Ji stepped forward and gave them all a deep bow. “This man’s great pleasure is to present His Royal Majesty the Dragon King, lord of the mountains and mines, high ruler at the White Palace,” he said, though surely no one in the room had any doubt as to the identity of the snow-white man in their midst. The king gave a regal nod of greeting, matching their forced politeness with a quiet, smug smile. “This man’s great pleasure is to present also,” Ewwa Ji continued; Fard tried not to flinch as fifty pairs of eyes locked on him, “Master Fard of House Hariima, thirteenth magician to the Dragon King.”

“The magician!” chirped one of the princesses — Pilno, he thought, though he wouldn’t have sworn an oath to it — whose delight still rang as false as the rest of their pleasantries. “How exciting!”

“Perhaps he’ll do some tricks for us later,” said the other princess, huddling with her sister in their heavy brown coats.

After a moment’s pause to make sure the king himself had no response to that, Fard swept his outer cape aside with one hand and made his best bow. “Your Graces, it would be my pleasure,” he said in what he hoped was his most charming tone, and he was gratified when they giggled in response and hid their pretty faces behind their high fur collars.

Flights of servants descended on the guests afterward, lifting luggage and directing the visiting delegations to their respective quarters, a flurry of activity that gave Fard the idea to disappear with everyone else, follow the tide of suits and furs out the door and away from the throng. When he tried to slip away to the back of the crowd, though, he found himself backing right up into the king. “By me,” said the king beneath his breath, and the order in his tone was unmistakable. Without saying a word, Fard fell in line at the king’s side as they made their way down to the lavish accommodations set up for the royal family. The king chattered with King Langtse and Queen Tzjani as they walked by, a discussion of foreign history that went so far over Fard’s head, he didn’t bother paying attention. The princesses spoke to their servants in a language Fard didn’t recognize, their coy giggles from earlier having been replaced by commanding tones intelligible in any language. He wondered what they might be saying, though from the terrified looks on the servants’ faces, he didn’t assume the young women were handing out compliments.

The king saw them to their quarters and announced that dinner would be ready within the hour, so that they might have a little time to relax and freshen up after their journey. His pleasant host’s smile disappeared the moment the doors were shut between them, though, and when he set off down the hall without further comment, Fard followed, the white king’s silent red shadow. At times the king would stop and place his hand against the bare walls, closing his eyes as though in deep thought, then nodding and moving on. Fard might have suspected the king of checking some magical wards, except that he felt no magic transfer in the gesture at all. He followed, though, as was his duty, watching everything and saying nothing.

At last they came to the dining hall, where only the feast’s cold dishes had been laid out on the great carved table. With his long, snowy fingers, the king picked up one of the silver goblets and brushed his thumb along the rim. “Be careful when they speak to you,” he said, looking not at Fard but at the cup’s reflective surface. “They’ve brought old magics with them. Blood magics.”

Had that been what the king had feared? It seemed so silly to hear it said that Fard needed a show of effort to keep his expression steady. “Your majesty, blood magics are not easily disguised. If they’d walked in with that kind of work following them, I–”

“The unseen world does not begin and end with your provincial temple teachings,” snapped the king, his eyes still fixed on whatever the mirror might show him. His reflection must have bored him, though, because presently he put the cup down and walked away. This time Fard did not follow, and the king did not ask him to come.

~*~

Dinner seemed to be going well, which Fard supposed should have been his first sign of trouble. One of his professors had likened it to the heartbeat between the lightning and the thunder in the storm, the silence between the onset of awareness and the consequences that would follow. After the king’s departure, Fard had set every scrying spell he’d known on the room — he’d even gone and touched the wall as the king had, just to make sure he wasn’t missing an important component — but nothing had made itself known to him. Blood magics were fierce and short-lived; even one cast at the gates to the palace would have burnt itself through the life of the sacrifice by the time the conjurer stepped through the front doorway. Thus, he tried not to let the king’s obviously misguided assessment bother him.

He tried not to let the king’s hot-and cold- temper bother him either, but that was a more difficult task, and try as he might to be dignified about it, Fard still felt like sinking beneath his robes and having a good sulk. The moods might not have been so bad had they been at all predictable, or even had they come with any warning at all. One minute the king wanted him near, a co-conspirator, an important member of his house; the next the king turned on him for the slightest infraction. Every time he thought he was doing well, he suddenly wasn’t.

But he couldn’t let that train of thought sour his mood through dinner — at least, not while guests were watching — so he put on his best smile and ate what was put before him, and though all he wanted was to claim a bottle of wine for his own and disappear down its glass neck, he drank only water as the conversation went on without him. For the first four courses, he might as well have not existed.

When the smoked fish trays came out, though, Fard found his invisibility had expired, and a pair of lovely dark eyes had set on him with the same intensity with which an archer’s arrow stared down its intended target. Princess Pilno leaned in close to Fard, though she spoke in a voice intended for the whole table. “I’ve been reading about your people during our own lessons in the magical arts,” she said, letting the tips of her fingers touch the edge of his sleeve; he did not pull away but stayed still as a rabbit fearing it had been spotted. “House Hariima, was it? I think I’ve heard of that. That’s one of the houses bound to your sex goddess, isn’t it?”

Despite how odd it was to hear things put in those terms, she was technically correct. “It is, Your Grace. Lady Iri is the goddess set over all pleasures of the flesh, including the erotic.”

The ladies-in-waiting around her tittered to hear him say so, and even the queen, seated directly opposite them across the long table, appeared to take interest in the conversation now. “But that’s funny.” Her black eyes sparkled, and Fard knew exactly where she was going with this line of inquiry. “Bound to a sex goddess, but those of your order you don’t fuck women. Is that true?” Her pretty lacquered nails tapped against her painted lips as she waited for his response.

“Women or otherwise, Your Grace,” Fard answered in the most diplomatic fashion he could manage. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the king turn his full attention to Fard, so Fard kept his gaze fixed firmly on the bottom of his wine goblet. The room felt warmer than it should have, and he could hear his heart drum in his ears.

“Isn’t that extraordinary,” she said, this time to the women around her, who all made noises of agreement. “Such dedication to your craft.”

Princess Pezjlo leaned in from her sister’s other side, her smile not even trying to hide the knives behind it. “I’d heard even more,” she said. “I’d heard you only get to join your order if no one will fuck you. For six years. Is that so?”

Seven, in fact, it had been, from the time Fard had begun the changes that marked his adolescence until his eighteenth summer, but he felt no urge to correct her — seven years of serving the Fifth Temple with the others, of seeing the devotees come to worship, look them over, and pass him by. No one said anything to the Goddess’ magicians to their faces, but Fard’s ears were good. “It is, Your Grace,” he said, hearing the deadness in his response.

“You look so young,” she said, though he couldn’t imagine he’d seen many more summers pass than she herself had. Young for any given person, however, was not the same as young for a powerful magician. “Have you been in our gracious host’s service for long?”

“Not long,” said Fard, realizing what he’d said only after the admission had left his mouth. It had seemed a safe enough question — after all, news of Abias ar-Dal’s passing, though not shouted from the rooftops, had hardly been a guarded secret — but something of the way she smiled when he said it made him wonder what sort of hole saying so had begun to dig him. “The post, as Your Grace may be aware, was only made vacant in very recent memory.”

“Yes, of course. And it’s only natural that if you’ve been here such a short time, you’d might not yet quite look the part. Oh, but didn’t I read also that your order has no standard dress, and that each man — and it’s only men, isn’t it? — may choose his attire as he sees fit?”

“We may, Your Grace,” Fard confirmed, feeling a trickle a sweat begin to seep down from his temple, “and yes, we are all men.”

Princess Pilno clucked her tongue, setting off another gale of laughter from her attendants, and even her mother did not bother to hide a smile. “What a shame,” she said. “Just a waste, especially if all the men of your order are as handsome as you.”

Broadsided by the compliment, all Fard could do was stammer, which caused the table even greater amusement than the princess’ comments had. ‘Handsome’ was a word he’d never heard used to describe himself, and only then did it begin to occur to him that she might be making fun of him in some way he didn’t quite understand. “I would hardly be able to say, Your Grace,” he said, which got an even more uproarious response. Now he was sure he was being mocked, and it took all the effort he had to keep the corners of his mouth propped up in something resembling a smile.

It was a sign of how poorly the evening was going for Fard that what happened next, in retrospect, actually seemed to improve matters.

He’d gotten away with falling asleep while his illusions ran their courses, but the way the princesses made him feel was more distracting than sleep — it was as though the princesses had placed a little piece of rot deep inside him that had proceeded to devour his confidence from the inside. All eyes in the room were on him, which was precisely where he did not want them to be, not now, not ever. He glanced up to his king (and how strange it was, he’d realize later, to have in that moment thought so clearly of the man as his king) for help, but all he found there was that strange unreadable snowy gaze, somehow at the same time authoritatively regal and as helpless as the illusions’ faces as they waited for Fard’s command. He wanted to disappear so much, in the same way as the hands of the wine-servant next to the princess in that moment disappeared, spilling a great flagon of deep red wine all over the laughing girl.

Princess Pilno shrieked as the chilled liquid hit her skin and pushed back from the table so fast she toppled her chair. The servant, a meek little brown-haired girl, looked surprised, but wasn’t human enough to put forth the degree of startlement the situation required. Fard was to his feet an instant later, throwing himself bodily between the furious, sodden princess and the illusive servant. “What have you done?” shrieked the princess, blasting her fury in the servant’s direction as though Fard weren’t even there. “You idiot!”

The king was to his feet, but there was no way he could invent in time the types of failed-illusion fabrications Fard had been spinning from the day he’d first tried his hand at magic. “Allow me, Your Grace,” Fard said, raising a hand between them, “to punish the girl for her error.” He used the connection still between them to tell her to cower, and cower the servant did, clutching at Fard’s robes and making a soft whimpering noise.

“The magician?” The queen, observing the scene from the far side of the table with detached amusement, raised a snowy eyebrow. “Your fire-stealer deals out punishment to your servants?”

Still shielding the servant, Fard turned to the queen and gave a slight bow. “Your Majesty, can you name a member of the household staff better suited to teaching a lesson not soon forgotten? With your permission, Your Majesty,” he said, addressing the second title to the king, whose lips told the story of a man who could not find the situation before him amusing and yet did nonetheless.

“Yes, take her away,” said the king, shooing Fard off with a grand sweep of his hands. “Deal with her as you see fit, and send in others to see to Princess Pilno’s well-being and garments.”

“Right away.” With one more bow for propriety, Fard caught up the servant in a sweep of his robes and ushered her out through the heavy curtains and into the hallway. By the time the fabric fell shut behind them, blocking them at last from all prying eyes inside the dining room, Fard was alone. He conjured up two more young female servants, taking an extra moment to make sure they looked nothing like the one who’d spilled the wine, and sent them rushing on in. The guest quarters were at one end of the corridor; Fard turned and went the other way. At least the physical part of the mess would clean itself.

Halfway down the hall to the kitchen, Ewwa Ji met him and Fard explained what had happened, in large part so that, if asked, Ewwa Ji could confirm that, yes, Master Fard had given the young woman the punishment she deserved. In truth, Master Fard had done no such thing — illusions did not know whether they existed or not, and as such, discorporation was no more a punishment than was erasing a line made with a pencil — but he had dealt with the matter in a way that made certain that servant girl would never spill wine on anyone again, much less the princess, and that was the best he could offer. Nonna came to him for a hug, and he obliged for a moment before sending her back to the kitchens and making his way up to his quarters alone. He wasn’t in a companionable mood.

His desire for solitude didn’t stop Mim from waiting at the top of the stairs, though, and she watched him in silence as he climbed it, and when he walked by her without saying a word, she fell into step behind. Fard no longer had the strength to argue. Followed by the sound of her swishing skirts, he trudged back to his bedroom; he closed the door behind him while knowing she was on the other side of it, but when he turned around, she was inside with him. “Do you think he’ll kill me or just fire me?” asked Fard, and Mim did not reply. That was all right; it had been a rhetorical question anyway. He undressed and handed his clothes to Mim, who hung them for him article by article.

Naked except for the pendant, he crawled into bed and whispered at all the flames in his room to be still, until the only light came from the near-full moon outside his window. In the quiet dark, he could let himself give into his pettier anxieties, the ones he’d thought he’d sublimated years before. “Mim,” he asked, hoping she hadn’t left, “am I handsome?”

The noise of rustling fabric from just to his left told him she was still there. “You believe yourself not to be,” she replied. Of course she didn’t have the capacity to disagree; he could not give her the ability to make that assessment on her own anyway.

Fard sighed and hugged his pillow close to his face. “Well, you’re pretty,” he said after a long moment. “I didn’t think so at first, and I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind.”

“Thank you.” Mim’s smoky voice was as strange as her shape, but he’d grown to find both comforting.

“Are you going to stay here while I sleep?”

“Would you like me to?”

Fard considered it for a moment. “I would, yes.”

“Then I will,” promised Mim, and Fard meant to thank her, but he’d already closed his eyes, and the great unconscious darkness was not far behind.

~*~

He stayed in his quarters for the next two days; Nonna brought him his meals and showed him the slates where she’d been practicing what he’d taught her, but that was the only interaction he had with anyone, real or imaginary. On the third morning after their arrival, he saw from his window the long caravan train wind down the mountain road, and about the time the last of the carriages disappeared from sight, Ewwa Ji announced his arrival with a sharp knock.

Fard wrapped himself in some of the deep blue fabric he’d found with Nonna, standing in front of the mirror as he wrapped the long bolt about his head and neck. The silver embroidery sparkled like stars in the light as he drew a full-length, darker robe around it and another still over that, then pulled on elbow-length gloves beneath that, covering every reasonable inch of his skin before setting out. It was the most he’d worn inside the palace since his arrival, but it made him feel a little more at ease — he wasn’t invisible, but he was less visible, and that gave him the last bit of courage he needed to set forth.

Several floors up, in a great hall that opened to a high balcony, the king stood at the marble railing, staring out across the snow-capped mountain range. He wore only a pair of loose white pants and a long sleeveless vest to match; he had no jewelry on, and even his crown lay at his feet. His hair, much shorter now than it had been before, was knotted at the back of his head, up away from his neck. Though Fard made noise enough as he approached, the king never turned, not even as Fard got close enough to the railing that he placed his own hands atop it for lack of anything more natural to do with himself. Even the mid-day sun did nothing to warm the icy chill on the breezes that came ripping down the slopes, carrying powdery clouds of snow in its wake. “Your Majesty,” Fard said, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

The king sighed, though the noise was little louder than the wind. “I don’t warn of blood magics lightly.”

The padding of the gloves around his fingers was the only thing that kept Fard from balling his hands into fists of frustration; that was one way to break a habit. “Your Majesty, blood magics are not subtle spells–”

With a wave of his bare, slender hand, the king cut Fard’s protests to an early end. “They had a bound servant with them — the man at the queen’s side.” Fard frowned at the king’s explanation; he’d seen many men by Queen Tzjani, but none that had caught his eye more than any other. “Beneath his robe, a thin, sharp blade stuck between his ribs, then bandaged in place so it would neither open more nor close. It took me two days to find him, and when I did, they first denied everything, then claimed the accusation was an insult, then took it as an excuse to leave.”

For a moment, Fard couldn’t find his voice; he swallowed three times, but neither his mouth nor his throat got any wetter for it. “I had no idea–”

“You can’t let this happen,” said the king, and before Fard could respond, he continued, “because they’re not so foolish as to weave spells on me. They’ve learned little from their ancestors’ failures, but they’ve learned that.”

Fard put two and two together, but didn’t like the equation’s result. “…They were watching me.”

“Of course they were. They’re not stupid. Abias ar-Dal was an illusionist; he’d made his name in that field long before he came into my service.” The king pulled away from the balcony and paced as he spoke, and when he stepped inside the great hall, his voice resounded off every hard wall. “When King Markpa brought his army — ten thousand men, Island-born and -trained but no stranger to the snows — and came up the side of my mountain, they were met with the full might of the White Palace. My ghosts came pouring down the slopes, armed to the teeth and unaware of death, and the difference between real and illusionary steel makes little difference to the man who catches it in his gut. They saw Abias ar-Dal standing in one of my high towers, and they turned tail and fled because they knew they could have brought ten thousand thousand men and he would have answered every one.” He turned and pierced Fard through the heart with his cold crystal gaze. “Where are my ghosts now, illusionist?”

Fard felt bile rise in the back of his throat, the sick mix of anger and dread, and as the king spoke, Fard bit the inside of his cheek until it bled. “Perhaps,” he said, hating himself for how the shake in his voice came through daylight-clear, “Your Majesty would be happier to choose another–”

Illusionist, the next word would have been, but it died in Fard’s mouth as the king took a great an menacing step forward. “I didn’t choose you!” he roared, and the air from his lungs licked at Fard’s face like flames. “There never should have needed to be a choice. He should still be here!”

Of all the things Fard had done worth apologizing for, at least Abias ar-Dal’s death had not been among them, so he held both his tongue and ground. Ready as he was to weather whatever came next his way, however, he was still startled when the king turned his next gale of rage not at Fard, but behind him and to his right. “You brought me this fool!” the king shouted, and Fard turned to see the object of his ire: Mim, standing still as her garments and hair fluttered around her in the breeze, face unveiled, expression impassive. “You mad scrap of a senile old wizard’s magic.”

Mim took a step forward. “Do be quiet, little snowflake,” she said, her husky voice somehow even deeper now as the wind ripped around the words; the king froze in his tracks, and Fard had to bite the inside of his cheek even harder to keep his jaw from going slack with surprise. “You’ve never known what’s best for you and you’re never going to learn with your mouth open.”

That was it, Fard knew; they were both dead. The king would throw them both off the balcony and Mim wouldn’t mind because she had no sense of death and the coming snows would cover his bloodied corpse until the spring thaw and who the hell had told her to talk like that? Terrifying visions of his own death scattered on the rocks below came stampeding through his head so fast that he almost couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him as the king snatched up his crown from the ground and stormed off, his bare feet slapping across the floor in a thunderous, receding rhythm. Only when they were alone did Fard realize he’d been clutching the railing with such might, his fingers wouldn’t release without great conscious effort.

“Mim,” he asked at last, his voice a breathy warble, “what just happened?”

“It’s very cold here,” she said, glancing out over the incredible view before them; her brows were wrinkled in thoughtful frown, the likes of which he’d never seen cross her face. “Most can’t stand the chill. Everything else can be learned, but cold seeps right in to the bone. Up here, you can protect yourself or you can endure. The animals on the mountains’ sides protect themselves. The mountains endure.”

Stunned now too many times in such a short span, Fard could hardly keep himself on his feet, much less understand what she was saying. “I’m not,” he said, not sure quite it was he wasn’t, and came back to finish the sentence with, “cold.”

“Come inside anyway.” Mim gave him a polite, formal bow before returning back to the palace’s interior, tracing with great dignity the same path the king had tromped across mere minutes before, and Fard, sure only that he had just seen his own death come and vanish, had little choice save to follow.

With the near-disaster closer in his memory than was comfortable, and the looming threat of what the Islanders’ scrutiny had seen in him, Fard turned himself toward his studies, vowing to make his way through every book in that library or die trying. Death became the more likely outcome, though, when he realized that the books on the shelves were in fact stacked three deep, and for every book he could see, there were two behind it he could not. There was an index of sorts, but it was written in a hand even older than Abias ar-Dal’s and had only the vaguest relation to the reality of the organization system at hand. Steeling himself, Fard took Mayrat af-Qash’s collected notebooks, which he at least was certain would be somewhat useful, and committed himself to them.

To say that what he found within was ‘somewhat useful’ was a cosmic understatement. What she’d written there would have put the masters of his house to shame. All magic came in two parts: the first was desire and the second was embodiment. Students of different disciplines alternately found one or the other easier, and Fard, like most interested in illusionary work, had found little problem with the former and great difficulty with the latter. Desire for an illusionist was only that: desire, imagining the possible, wanting to bring into view something which could be seen. The intensity was different for an illusionist, of course, but anyone with even the slightest imagination could envision a thing which was not immediately present. Even babies knew enough to cry upon realizing the difference between what they had and what they wanted.

However — and fortunately for most of the world, Fard felt — for most people, imagining was as far as it ever went. The job of the illusionist was to take things a step farther, to reach down into the power he channeled through himself until he could pull back up a reasonable facsimile of that thing. When Fard had first started his studies, he’d made boxes, flowers, small and simple objects with no substance to them; any hand that had tried to pluck one of his blossoms would have found itself closed in on nothing but itself. From there, he had followed his course of study to more solid objects, animate objects, representations of people. What held him and all his classmates back from fashioning themselves entire cities out of thin air was not a lack of imagination, but the illusionist’s own bodily limitations; illusions were parasitic, drawing all their energy from the illusionist, and as the illusionist failed, as Fard had on the night of the banquet, so did whatever he had created.

The writings of Mayrat af-Qash, however, pulled his body into stances he’d never considered, and as he took the positions, he could feel low, heavy energy begin to pound out through his veins. He wondered at first why he’d never been taught such things, but the more he practiced, the more he began to realize how all her positions and poses took into account the presence of the amulet. Several times, she made explicit reference to it as a focal point, writing about its refracting power the way light traveled and scattered through a crystal. He’d considered its contributions to his life before, mostly in terms of connecting its presence to his continued steady warmth in the high, cold air, and he’d been suspicious from the start of the role it might be playing in his increased illusionary abilities, but he’d regarded it as a passive, background object at best; thinking of it as a tool for active use gave him an entirely different context for its necessity.

Every student of magic traded on the unexplained by necessity — after all, knowing why an incantation worked didn’t make it work any better than not knowing. But he’d learned as a child to keep his mouth shut about most things he didn’t understand, and as an adult he’d gotten even better about not even conjuring the questions in his head to begin with. Even the volumes and explanations before him didn’t have many answers in their pages about the things he had taken for granted as givens during his time in the king’s service. The king himself — ageless, nameless, questionably human — was little more to Fard than an angry collection of things Fard neither knew nor dared to ask about.

Thinking on the amulet, though, had begun to open the floodgates of Fard’s curiosity. When his entire relationship to it had been the command to put it on and never take it off again, he’d been able to content himself knowing that it was doing whatever it was supposed to be doing, and that was that. To think about what it meant, though, as a conduit, as a pivot, as a purposeful addition to his abilities, as his protection from the environment, as the likely amplifier for maintaining his illusions even when his conscious mind was elsewhere — Fard could hardly do any of it without feeling the why of it all come scratching at the door to his brain, begging to be let in.

He wanted to ask Mim what she’d meant by what she’d said to the king, or what he’d meant by saying that she’d been the one to choose Fard, but she was nowhere to be found and did not come when he called for her. He suspected she might be with the king, or at least near him, but as he did not want to walk into that particular beast’s den again, he decided to leave well enough alone.

At last, after nearly a week of studious solitude, Fard added a third option to his ‘read every page or die trying’ vow, which was to continue to make his way through the books but take breaks in-between so that death might be avoided. He’d been raised in orphanages, brought up in the temple, and given over to a dorm with seven housemates, and thus was not cut out for this kind of extended solitude. He took a long bath and afterwards took care of the half-dozen whiskers which had deigned sprout on the bottommost tip of his chin, then donned scarf, tunic, and trousers before setting out into the palace proper.

After having seen the palace so full of life, Fard found the quiet strange, self-conscious as he became of the way every footfall seemed to echo to the far ends of every hall. The sky was cloudless and the high sun streamed in through every window, sending the marble beneath it sparkling as brilliantly as did the snow outside. Even a casual observer could have figured out on a day like this why this place was called the White Palace; that, at least, was no great mystery.

As he passed the back veranda on which he and Mim often played their chess games, he found both seats occupied — Mim in her usual seat, her long hair knotted at the back of her neck, and Nonna opposite her in the chair Fard usually took, still bundled against the elements but having shed all her heavier layers under the midday sun. The air was cold but still, and high above them, great eagles made long, lazy circles on the gentle currents that rose along the sheer mountain faces. Nonna produced one gloved hand from inside her coat pocket and pushed a black piece forward across the board, looking pleased with herself; Mim nodded but did not otherwise react as she considered her next move for a moment, then picked her own white knight and marched him forward.

“It started, as most things do, once upon a time,” said Mim, and Fard puzzled over the statement for a moment before realizing she wasn’t speaking to him. “Back then there were no mountains here. There were only gentle hills that rolled their way from the deserts in the east to the oceans in the west, from the high snowy plains of the north to the river-rich lowlands of the south.”

They’d both seen him, Fard knew — there was no way they could have been unaware of his presence, as he hadn’t exactly tried to make a secret of his coming. But neither of them paid him any mind, and so he held his ground at a distance, just close enough to be within earshot. Nonna looked at Mim for a moment, and Mim shook her head. “No one lived here, and there were no cities on the hills, because in caves beneath the hills, and in the caves deep underground, lived the dragons.”

Nonna hopped another piece forward, a move that gave her one of Mim’s. “Dozens,” Mim continued, as though Nonna had asked for clarification. “Dozens of dragons lived here — some weak and small, some giant and mighty; some that swam, some that flew; some that breathed fire, some that breathed ice. They didn’t care for humans, but neither were they cruel or antagonistic toward them. They said to the humans, you may have free passage over our land, but you may not stay here longer than you need to sleep on your journey, and you may not build here, and you may not come into our caves, and you may not demand we concern ourselves with your petty human concerns, and you may not call upon our might to fight your wars. We do not want to hurt you, they said, but we value our peace and we will protect what is ours.

“And this was how it was for a thousand years. The dragons lived beneath the land, and the humans passed over it on their way to other places. Around them, human kingdoms rose and fell — in the desert, on the great islands, in the snows, between the rivers — but the dragons kept to themselves. A lucky person might see one soaring across the sky, or plunging into the sea, but for the most part, they stayed out of the humans’ way with the same intensity they demanded the humans stay out of theirs.”

The story was strange to Fard’s ears, to say the least. He’d heard children’s stories about dragons when he’d been a child himself, but those had always contained a single dragon at best, some fine specimen of his species held in thrall to a good king or some destructive monster at the mercy of an evil sorcerer, always an excellent co-conspirator regardless of alignment. Those tales, too, had all been fables, mere fantasies attributed to the great storytellers of the age, intended to teach morals for modern behavior instead of preserve history. Despite the fanciful language of her tale, though, Mim hardly seemed the type for idle fictions.

After a brief pause for consideration, Mim made her move on the board. “But three thousand years ago, a dragon was born who wanted nothing to do with her kind and their ways. She was young and small, but she was strong, and she could fly. At night, she slipped out and flew all around the lands, until one day she came to the palace of a great and wicked magician, who worked in the service of a duke whose wealth was small but whose desire for power was great. The dragon said to the magician, my people are foolish and greedy, and the reason they won’t let you humans in beneath the ground is that they sit on an unimaginable treasure. They are large and they roar, she said, but anyone who knows the secret ways in and out could defeat them, and then the treasure would be theirs. All the dragon wanted was to have for herself charge of the territory that remained, rule over all the dragons, and a sufficient share of the treasure.

“The magician smiled, because though she had no desire for wealth, she desired power, and she knew that the power her duke could claim with the wealth would be transferred to her. Thus, she agreed to the dragon’s terms and, with her duke’s forces behind her, prepared their attack.

“They set great sulphur fires at all the smaller entrances to the caverns, blocking any entrance or exit, and at the one great cave mouth all the humans amassed, swords and spells at the ready. With the traitorous dragon at one side and the greedy duke at the other, the magician came forward. Give up, she said, and accept our terms of surrender, or we will push the fires deeper into your caverns and wait until the smoke has chased you all away, then go in and take the treasure for ourselves anyway. Your loss is assured; how much you lose is your choice.”

Mim’s voice neither rose nor fell in intensity as she told the tale, and her expression remained impassive. Her hands had stilled in her lap, though, and Nonna’s had done the same, the game forgotten in the name of storytelling. “What the dragon was too young to know, though,” Mim continued, “is that dragon hearts are made of stone, and they would rather die before living under someone else’s rule. After the magician gave her demand, there was a period of silence, followed by a great rumbling in the earth. First cracks began to split then ground; then the hills began to rise; then where there had once been hills, mountains shot toward the sky as every dragon living beneath the ground gave its bones over to the earth and rose high, locking their treasure deep within them where no humans could ever get to it. Even the traitorous dragon could not resist the others’ collective decision, and as her own body ripped from her and became a high rocky outcropping, the magician was carried up, higher and higher, into the thin, cold air.”

Nonna looked out over the mountain range, and Fard found himself staring there too, looking at the snowy slopes and the exposed rock, trying to see creatures in their contours in the same way people often looked for familiar shapes in clouds. It was useless, of course; they looked just like mountains to him, and even if they had contained some deeper meaning in their forms, he had no idea what a dragon looked like at all. He’d seen pictures in the books of the great, long lizards with their wings and toothy mouths, but he’d always figured those depictions were as fictional as the stories they accompanied. Before Mim’s story, he’d never heard of a small dragon, or a swimming one, or one that could breathe in or out any element. And if a story was in fact all it was, no matter how hard he looked, he’d find no creatures in the mountains that his own imagination hadn’t put there.

At last, sensing a gap in the telling large enough to insert himself in, Fard stepped forward. “I’d always wondered why he was called the Dragon King,” he said, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible; both ladies turned to him with a bit of a start, as though not surprised that he’d been there, but that he’d spoken. “I thought when I arrived there’d be … maybe a family crest, or some coat of arms with dragons in the design, or maybe just motifs in the tapestries and architecture. But if that’s the legend about where these mountains came from, then I’m not surprised.”

Nonna looked back at Mim and shook her head vigorously, and Mim gave her a nod in return. “Legends come from truth,” she said, standing, and Nonna did the same. “And now he has emerged, you can go change his sheets.” She smiled at Nonna, who smiled and touched Mim’s hand before scurrying off into the palace at a child’s running pace, her long gold hair bouncing in two plaits down her back.

“You don’t have to–” Fard called after her, but by the time he could voice the objection, Nonna was already well beyond earshot. Defeated by her speed, he sighed. “I can clean my own room,” he said to Mim, a sullen little protest against the still-unfamiliar sensation of being attended to.

“Of course,” said Mim, giving him a bow before setting back off toward the palace interior.

“Mim,” Fard called after her, and Mim stopped where she stood. “Why were you telling Nonna that story?”

“She wanted to hear a story. I don’t know many.”

“And…” Fard pursed his lips, trying to find a way to phrase his next question so he didn’t sound like a thoroughly credulous lunatic. “Is that the end of the story?”

Mim shook her head. “Do you want to hear the rest?”

Fard nodded. “Please.”

“Then I’ll confess I’ve lied to you, because some version of the story do stop there. In the version of the story told on the great islands, the magician and all the duke’s men die atop the high mountains, unable to find their way back down before the chill and exposure punish them for their sins. When the riverside villages tell the tale, all the innocent soldiers survive, tumbling free from disaster as the earth rises up around them, and only the guilty magician and duke meet their ends at high altitudes. In the desert cities, such as your home, they do not tell this story at all, because the duke and magician alike both came from the desert, and because they see no moral to the tale that does not assign blame to the people there, they choose to say nothing of the matter.”

“I’ve never heard it before, no,” Fard told her, shaking his head. “…You said some versions stop there; how do they tell it in the north?”

“The north understands the snow.” Mim turned from the house and walked back toward the veranda’s far edge, her pace measured and slow as a mourner’s. “They know the duke and all of his men died; they were men of the desert and their weapons were fire. Fire is quickly extinguished, though, and when the ground rose beneath them, they could not escape and did not last the first cold, dark night. But they also knew that the fire had to come from someplace, and it had come from the magician’s breath. She suffered, but she did not freeze, and when she could not find her way down, she chose to ascend.”

“Ascend?” Fard echoed. “Toward what?”

“Dragons can be killed, but do not die of old age, and as such, only one at most will be born in a century. When the dragons turned themselves into the mountains, there was one egg with them, having matured for a hundred years and almost ready to hatch. It was carried high atop the bodies of all the others, and because it was still inside its shell, its transformation was incomplete. She forced her way through the cracks of the great shell and climbed the petrified bones of the creature inside, until she found its heart, pure stone but still warm and beating.”

She stopped and fell silent then, her arms clasped before her as she stood, looking out over the great expanse. Fard waited a full minute, but when she did not speak again, he put his hand on her arm. “…And then what?”

Mim shrugged. “Even the most complete version ends there. Northern stories, as I’m given to understand, rarely have satisfying conclusions.”

With a grunt, Fard kicked a loose rock off the edge of the porch and into the ravine below; even with the wind as still as it was, he never heard it hit the ground. “Well, it doesn’t matter,” he sighed, trying to swallow down his childlike irritation at the ambiguous end. “It’s just a legend anyway, right? Not true. Just its own kind of illusion.”

“Of course,” said Mim, though she didn’t look at him as she spoke.

He knew her well enough by now to know that was all the answer he’d get out of her on the matter, and so he sighed and let it rest. It was just one of a million questions he had for her, and he knew neither where to start nor if he really wanted the answers she had. At last, he settled on a more conversational compromise: “So where did you learn the story anyway?”

“Where anyone learns stories: by hearing and telling.” At last she turned to face him and placed her hand in the crook of his arm, then began to lead him away from the far edge. “Illusionists know stories can’t be trusted to be what they seem. But illusionists also have difficulty accepting the truth that comes with the lie. You are accustomed to thinking of illusions as unreal, but what about the parts that are? You can hear me, see me, feel me; you could come close enough to smell and taste me if you wanted. Are those parts unreal because I am?”

Fard had been staring at his books far too long recently to be able to hold forth on a philosophical discussion with any facility. “Are you saying the story’s true?” he asked.

“The parts that aren’t true no longer matter; the parts that are true still do,” she answered, cryptic as ever.

“Is this … the baby dragon heart?” Fard tapped the amulet under his chest, conscious of its constant warmth as he did so.

For a moment, he swore he saw a ghost of a smile quirk the corner of her long, thin mouth. “Would it change anything for you if it were?”

Fard found he had no answer to that.

~*~

When the note arrived at his door, borne in Ewwa Ji’s capable gloved hands, Fard was only surprised by it in that it hadn’t come sooner. In beautiful flowing script, the handwritten page delivered the king’s orders. If their relationship were to be conducted entirely by written correspondence, Fard had no problems with that.

The contents of the demand were simple: four illusions, two men and two women, all to arrive at the king’s chambers as soon as possible and all to be gone by the next sunrise. Fard had never before put such a timer on his illusions — he was used to either keeping them in continued service, as was the case with Osmith, or letting them decay organically, as did the rest — but he supposed that wasn’t the real challenge here. That was in reading the king’s mind.

Fard began with two men and two women, naked and all but identical to one another. He stood them in a row facing him, shoulder to shoulder, then sank back into his chair to stare at them and think.

“Well, you’re all too pretty,” he sighed, though their same pleasant smiles persisted through the news of their collective deficiency. He tried to think of what he’d once found desirable in the bodies around him, but found nothing helpful in his memory; even back when he’d been subject to random desires of the flesh, he’d kept his preferences undeveloped, lest the devotee who chose him be someone not to his taste. That had never come to pass, though, and while he wouldn’t trade such carnal knowledge for the powers he now had, magic came at a high price. The goddess of pleasure, in one of the cosmos’ great ironies, made eunuchs of those who channeled her gifts. That the illusions before him were objectively beautiful, he could tell, but whether or not they were desirable, he had no metric left to judge.

With a gesture, he beckoned one of the women closer and thought about her body. Her breasts were pert and round; he placed his hands on them and dragged them down until they reached her belly. He gave her hips and thighs to match, then rounded out her face and channeled her sleek black hair into long brown curls. She looked like she would be good to touch, at any rate, and that would do for her. “Do you feel beautiful now?” he asked, tucking a stray lock of hair back behind her ear.

He’d expected the question to be rhetorical, and was thus surprised when she answered, “I do, Master Fard.” Of course it was nothing but a reflex, the answer she was supposed to give, but even hearing it made Fard feel better. He took the second woman and made her as thin as he’d made the first, boyishly so, and gave her the same short, near-white hairstyle he’d seen on the heads of visiting scholars from the north. At least if the king hated one, he’d have an alternate.

With the men, he gave one a great beard and left one without, then contemplated for a moment just leaving them like that, interchangeable men distinguished only by their facial hair. The thought amused him for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. If he couldn’t explain it to himself, though, he’d have a difficult time, if pressed, giving his reasoning for the king, so he thickened the bearded man about his shoulders and chest, then furred the rest of his skin with dark, curly hair.

The fourth, however, gave him pause as he realized not what he could do, but what he’d done in the first place without even thinking: made a man not unlike himself, only with flawless olive skin and a thick black mane that reached down to his shoulders. Fard lifted his hand to stroke the man’s bare, smooth neck and shoulder. “I wanted to look like you,” he told the beardless man, feeling a strange confessional urge bubble up from his chest. “That was what I was going to do. Back before anyone ever told me that I never would, it was what I thought illusions would be most useful for.”

The man stood quietly, giving no reply as he had been asked no question, and presently Fard sighed and pressed their foreheads together, with only the thin fabric of his scarf dividing them. “Well, come on, pretty things,” he said, addressing them all. “Let’s get you dressed.”

Clothing the four took little work; he wrapped them all in long white robes, having no illusions himself about how long they’d likely spend wearing them. Brushing his thumb across their lips and eyelids, Fard painted the women’s mouths the color of dark plums and lined all eight of their eyes with heavy kohl, the kind he’d always found so alluring on others and never felt himself worth sporting. Taking a step back, he surveyed his work. Well, at least he’d get no complaints about their being indistinguishable from one another. And for what it was worth, he thought they looked beautiful.

Though certain he’d created them with the knowledge, he still took the time to give them directions to the king’s chambers, then sent them out the door on their own and lay back on his bed. The conjuring had taken no effort at all, but the corresponding self-pity had been exhausting, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

He woke long past the next sunrise, and when he pushed open the door to his room to go downstairs, a second sheet of paper fluttered down from where it had been wedged into the gap between the door and the frame. The same handwriting as he’d seen the night before told him: again, those four, this time not to disappear. Despite how he hated working on an empty stomach, Fard did not hesitate in recreating his work from the previous afternoon. He sent them on their return trip to the king’s chambers, and heard nothing more, good or ill, about it.

~*~

The raven landed on the balcony just before sunset, shaky and half-frozen, its left leg bound in red cloth. Fard bundled it inside his shirt and took it into the kitchen — the warmest room he could think of — before unbinding the message it had brought him. Some combination of training and weariness kept the raven still through all these little indignities visited upon it, and it let Nonna pet it as it ate at the meat pie Sriti placed before it. “Ravens are good luck,” Osmith said for her. “Very smart. We should give him a place to stay.”

“For a time, to be sure; we’ll have to give him back, though,” said Fard, unrolling the scroll that had been tied there. “He’s one of the messengers from the Central Library.”

“A library?” Sriti frowned as she pounded out a great roll of dough. “Why does a library have birds for its messengers?”

Fard shrugged. “Tradition, I suppose. Is he okay?” he asked Nonna, who looked away from her petting duties just long enough to give Fard a stern diagnostic nod. “…And it seems we’ll be able to actually give him back instead of having him make the return trip. The Library’s sending a representative tomorrow.”

Ewwa Ji looked up from the ledger on the counter before him. “A representative? This man should prepare to welcome.”

“No need,” said Fard, smiling as he saw the signature at the bottom of the scroll. “I’ll handle the welcome.”

Despite Fard’s multiple insistences that he could handle things himself, Ewwa Ji was committed to his duties regardless of how necessary Fard deemed them to be. He agreed that no great reception was required, and though he wouldn’t let Fard get away with not telling the king, he agreed His Majesty should not trouble himself making a personal appearance. On the matter of being at the door when guests arrived, however, Ewwa Ji stood firm: Fard could of course come forth to greet their guests as he desired, but he would not do so alone.

Thus when the black carriage pulled up to the front gates, both Ewwa Ji and Fard were standing in the mid-morning sun on the front steps of the palace. Fard wanted to run for the vehicle the second he saw its door open, but mindful of his agreed-upon perimeter, he stood and waited with his hands clasped tight in his pockets. He hadn’t let himself register his own homesickness until he saw a familiar shape, now swaddled in heavy woolen wraps, hop out of the cab and trundle through the front gates. His self-control lasted all of a heartbeat, and then he was sprinting across the distance, leaping at Paqat, and tackling them both down into the snow.

Paqat went down with a yelp that turned into laughter, tossing his meaty around around Fard and gripping him into a back-breaking hug. “Wild man! Help! I’ve been attacked by a savage!” he shouted, kicking up snow as he flailed beneath Fard.

I’m the savage?” Fard kissed him in the middle of his forehead. “Look at your beard!”

“It’s still growing out!” Paqat finally let go of the embrace long enough to get a good look at Fard. “Aren’t you frozen?”

It was a fair question, especially considering that Paqat, bundled as thickly as a package ready for transit, was already shivering and red-nosed against the cold. “Let’s get you inside,” said Fard, standing and extending his arms to help Paqat to his feet. With a few quick brushes he knocked as much of the snow as he could off Paqat’s clothes, then linked their arms together and led him toward the palace.

Ewwa Ji, clearly amused by the interaction before him, still made a dignified bow to Paqat. “This man welcomes Master Paqat to the White Palace, and sees that Master Paqat already has the knowledge of Master Fard.”

“Since we were boys,” said Paqat, who, with his customary lack of decorum, extended a hand to Ewwa Ji. After a hesitation so slight only Fard could have noticed it, Ewwa Ji answered Paqat’s gesture and kept his smile polite as Paqat clasped hands vigorously with him. “Hope you didn’t go to any great trouble on my behalf.”

With his freed hand, Ewwa Ji gestured to the door. “If these men would follow, please?”

“Lead the way,” said Fard, and the three together went inside.

After standing in front of a roaring fire for several minutes, Paqat proclaimed himself sufficiently thawed to continue his tour. Ewwa Ji complied, leading him on a small walk through the more notable features of the palace’s ground floor, complete with the occasional color commentary from Fard about what went on here and there. Paqat said ooh and ahh at all the appropriate moments, and looked sincerely impressed at the scope and magnitude of the architecture. Though he knew it wasn’t on Ewwa Ji’s more formal rounds, Fard insisted they make a detour to the kitchens, where Paqat could meet the others and collect his bird. The raven perked when it heard Paqat’s voice, and when Paqat whistled for it, it flew to him and settled inside the hood of his cloak. Nonna was so delighted by this trick that Paqat did it twice more for her, setting the bird down and calling for it again, and every time the raven waited until its command before coming straightaway. Even Fard had to admit he was impressed.

“It’s not even magic,” Paqat explained as they made their way up toward Fard’s rooms. There were few places in the palace Fard trusted enough to believe they might carry on a conversation unobserved, and that was one of them. “They’re just very obedient little things. Aren’t you, Kif?” Paqat whisted again and the bird gave a squawk in reply. “That’s actually a great deal of what I’ve been doing of late — caring for the birds, taking orders, sending them places, processing requests. It’s a lot of paperwork.”

Fard smiled. “But you sound content. And you look good.”

“Oh, they feed me right.” Paqat laughed and slapped his belly. Though it might just have been the heavy clothing or an illusion from his scruffy clay-red beard, Paqat looked to have put on weight since Fard had last seen him, and he looked as happy as could be. “The body is the machine the fuels the mind, says the Head Librarian.”

“Well, Nonna should be up with lunch presently, so I don’t think we have to worry about your machine’s running out of its own fuel.” Fard smiled and Paqat laughed in return as Fard drew back the door to his study and showed Paqat inside. He’d conjured up three burly illusive men to help him steal a luxurious sofa from downstairs and place it one of the cleaner corners of the room, and it was to that sofa he now directed Paqat; the austere, slender wooden chairs might have held his and Ewwa Ji’s slender frames without complaint, but he didn’t imagine such an arrangement would have been too comfortable for someone of any greater size. With a sigh, Fard turned his own chair around and sat backward in it, letting the back rise between his legs and resting his arms and chin across the top. “It’s so good to see you,” he said, breathing a sigh of quiet relief.

“It’s good to see you too!” Paqat leaned forward and squeezed Fard’s knee. “When you disappeared like that, we were all a bit worried. We got the note, of course, but it was still a surprise to find you gone.”

Fard shook his head, thinking back on how many millions of years ago it seemed that he’d last seen any of the cities of the desert. It was easy to lose track of time up here, with only the faintest of schedules and timed obligations. He was almost certain he’d been up here nearly five months by now, but he wouldn’t have been able to swear to it. “There was a sense of immediacy, it seemed. I’m still not sure why. I’m still not sure about a large number of things.” Fard drew in a great breath and exhaled, shaking his head to clear it. “But you wouldn’t have come all this way without a reason. What was it?”

With a guilty sort of smile, Paqat reached into a bag half-hidden in his clothing and pulled out a tattered scroll wrapped in a blue ribbon. “Officially, this. It was in with Abias ar-Dal’s library, but it’s not his.” He handed it over, and Fard took it with care. “At least, he didn’t write it, and we couldn’t be certain he’d meant to include it, so we erred on the side of bringing it back, except I argued that we couldn’t afford to send such a rare old thing by raven courier — you’re a lovely bird, Kif, but you’re not the most graceful of all creatures — so I said, well, let me bring it back! Which is why I can’t stay; I really ought to turn around right after the meal and head back.”

It had been silly, of course, to hope that his friend might be able to make a longer visit, but that didn’t keep a pang of sadness from touching Fard at the idea of Paqat’s leaving so soon. “You said ‘officially’,” he said, placing the scroll with care atop a pile of others like it.

“Officially, my business here is complete. Unofficially, I came to see you! And see how you’re doing.” A shadow passed over Paqat’s cheerful expression. “…And pass on something I heard.”

Something about the way his ever-cheerful friend had said that made the hairs on Fard’s loose-covered arms stand on end. “Something you couldn’t send in a letter?”

“Didn’t want to. One, didn’t want to risk it getting intercepted; two, didn’t want to make a raven carry all the papers it’d take to explain.” Paqat sat up and leaned in a little closer, dropping his voice though they were alone. “If there’s one thing the Central Library does well, it’s deal in information. All sorts of information. Requests and queries, sure, but also rumors and gossip. A lot of it flies by me, but when I hear it concern your king, now, I sit up and take notice.”

Anxious, Fard gestured him onward. “And…?”

“Did you…” Paqat wiggled his fingers as he chewed on the phrasing. “Did you somehow insult the King and Queen of the Grey Islands?”

Fard let his chin drop against his forearms with a grunt. “Apparently.

“Ah.” Paqat cleared his throat. “For … any particular reason?”

“Because I got tossed into a political situation I didn’t understand with no warning. I didn’t mean to. I just … slipped. Because I’m terrible at my job.”

Paqat reached over and squeezed Fard’s knee again. “I bet that’s not true. You’re the best illusionist I know!”

A burst of false self-modesty rose to Fard’s lips, but he realized it for what it was and reined it in; he wasn’t going to give into pretense, not with his friend. “By now? I’m the best illusionist I know. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve done if I told you. A hundred servants, all with different faces and different jobs, performing their tasks for days, even while I sleep. I know it sounds like madness,” he said, caught short by the skeptical expression on Paqat’s face, “but you’ve got to believe me. I am doing the impossible daily and I don’t even have a good idea of how. So when it fails, I don’t really have a good idea of how that happens either.”

“And can you talk to your employer about this?”

Fard choked down a laugh that was half bile. “Honestly? I have no idea why I haven’t been fired yet. None.” He didn’t mean to sound as angry as he knew he did, but it was so amazing to be able to talk about the problems bothering him here that once he’d started, he found he couldn’t stop. “He hates me, and I have no idea why — or why, if he hates me, I’m still here. I’m performing illusions that would make the masters of the Academy pale to see, and yet they’re not good enough. I’m not good enough. I’m not….” Fard sighed. “Well, I’m not Abias ar-Dal. And therein, I think, lies the problem.”

Paqat screwed up his face into a frown. “Well, I’m sorry, but it’s just not fair to hold it against you that you’re not one of the greatest wizards of the age.”

“I don’t think ‘fair’ is large on his list of concerns,” said Fard.

Any further complaints, however, were cut short by Nonna’s arrival with a tray of food and a flagon of wine. Paqat chattered at her for a bit and even let her feed his bird a scrap of the flatbread, something which brought her no end of delight. When she’d left again, Paqat gestured to the space where she’d stood moments before. “Thought about getting an aviary of your own up here? She’d be a natural at it.”

“Maybe,” said Fard, who hadn’t thought about such a thing at all but was now open to the possibility. Nonna was a bright girl, after all, and she could make better use of herself than doing menial tasks that an illusion could handle without much effort. “So who told you I’d insulted royalty?”

That was just my speculation. The context I heard it was in terms of rumblings of war.” Before Fard could even so much as gasp at that, Paqat raised a hand to still him. “There’s rumblings of war all the time in the world. Some days it seems like all I hear is that this baron wants to lay that dutchess’ land to waste, or that empress wants to expand her territory into some other tribe’s traditional holdings, and more often than not, nothing at all comes of it. Sabers rattle at the drop of a hat. But you’re so isolated up here and this sounded like something worth worrying about, so I came to tell you: there’s a rumor that’s come out of the Grey Islands that says your king is weak, and your holdings are weak. And by weak I mean vulnerable.”

Fard didn’t need an entire library to tell him what that vulnerability was; he only needed a mirror. “He’s fine. I’m a mess.”

“I honestly doubt a thing will come of it. But you’re so isolated up here, I thought, well, that you should know.”

“Thank you,” said Fard. He nudged his plate away from where he’d set it upon a nearby desk; he’d lost all his appetite. “I honestly can’t tell what’s dire and what isn’t. Which is just one more thing the king doesn’t let me know, then gets mad at me for not knowing. I’m not made for war, or politics, or any of this. I wish I hadn’t been so damn desperate, or I might have done the smart thing and actually asked questions about the position before putting on strange jewelry. Which is a fine lesson, if I live long enough to use it.” Fard shook his head and straightened his spine. “None of which is your problem, anyway. Thank you for letting me know, and I’d appreciate it if this weren’t the only dispatch I got from you.”

“Of course not!” Paqat shook his head. “Now I know Kif can find his way safely here, I’ll be sure you know what I know.”

Fard let the rest of their conversation be more of a monologue from Paqat, wherein he detailed the various exploits of Fard’s former housemates over past several months. Fard listened, and laughed at all the appropriate punchlines, and told Paqat to convey all greetings and good wishes — but he couldn’t shake the cloud that had settled over him, and as glad as he’d been to see Paqat arrive, he was equally glad when Paqat finished his meal and declared with regret that it was time for him to go. Ewwa Ji stood ready by the door to make all formal good-byes, though he seemed surprised when Paqat shook his hand again in parting before kissing Fard on the corner of his mouth. “Oh!” said Paqat, rummaging into his cloak. “Can’t believe I almost forgot this.” He produced a leather-bound package and pressed it into Fard’s hands. “Careful you don’t use it all at once, now. Winter’s on its way, and it may be some time before any vehicle the library owns has the strength to make this climb again.”

Politeness demanded Fard wait until Paqat had climbed in his carriage and started along his way home before unwrapping Paqat’s gift, and he knew what it was the moment he undid the first flap and his nose caught the scent of what was inside. He packed it away safely again and squirreled it up to his room, where he opened it again only enough to take from it a small pinch of the dokha. He packed the tobacco mixture into the bowl of his pipe and tucked it away in the sleeve of his robe, then set off into the palace.

Most of the time, his own quarters were as high as he bothered to ascend. Now, though, he went up, and kept going up; whenever he hit a new floor, he wandered it until he found another set of stairs, then took them ever higher. He passed the floor where the king’s chambers were, and though he tiptoed by its closed doors, he heard no sound from inside to indicate that anyone was home. Still he went higher, until he found a tower and a spiral staircase, and then he kept walking up its thin, high steps, circling the ever-longer fall back to the hard ground below as he rose. Light from the windows above guided him until he reached an open room. The ground below looked miles away, and still he could see spires taller than this one, towers he had no idea how to reach.

With a touch of his fingertip, he lit his pipe and sat back on one of the wide windowsills to enjoy the smoke. He thought about falling, just pushing himself out until gravity grabbed hold and drew him to the snow-dusted rocks below. He’d never been the type to entertain thoughts of suicide, but there was a first time for everything.

His thoughts were turned from this morbid reverie, though, by a hint of motion from the corner of his eye, too deliberate to be shifting snow. He turned to see the king out on one of the high balconies, pale enough that had he been standing still, Fard’s poor eyes might have skimmed right over him. He was walking, pacing in no pattern Fard could discern across the marble floor. For a moment, Fard entertained the wild notion of calling to him — come on up, share my pipe, sit a spell — but instead he filled his mouth with smoke and let it steam out from his nostrils. Now he was a dragon too.

illustrated by 2013

He’d miss this view when he went, and Nonna and Sriti and Ewwa Ji too, but this wasn’t his place, and he didn’t know how much longer he could pretend it was. He was made of the desert, not the mountains; he should have been performing tricks to entertain the children of rich families, not causing international incidents. Now that he’d seen the job, two centuries of prior experience hardly seemed like an unreasonable requirement.

The wind was stronger at this altitude, tugging at his clothes and stealing the smoke from his mouth. He wondered what it was the king did all day, if this pacing was an occasional habit or a constant duty. Fard had never met many kings or king-like figures, but he had the impression that most of the day-to-day duties of royalty involved dealing, one way or another, with their subjects’ needs and concerns. This king had four subjects, so far as Fard could tell, and he talked to one of them occasionally and three of them rarely, if at all. What was here, besides the palace, that was worth declaring the land a kingdom?

What frustrated him more than not knowing the answer was knowing that knowing the answer wouldn’t change a thing. He sighed and closed his eyes and smoked in silence, focusing on his breath to drown out the rest of the world. By the time he opened them again, when the leaf in his pipe had turned to ash, the king had taken his pacing elsewhere and Fard was indeed as alone as he felt.

~*~

Late one evening, in the kitchen, the four members of the palace staff were gathered around the kitchen’s great table, attending to their various tasks, when Fard sneezed and the candles flickered.

The other three paid no mind; Sriti kept mending a pocket on her apron, Ewwa Ji sighed at the ledger columns before him, and Nonna never once looked up from the slate where she was tracing the letters that formed the best approximation Fard could devise of her name. Fard himself might have paid it no mind, had the candle closest to his face not flared up afterward as the flame retook the wick. Fard froze, staring at it as a chill began to creep down his spine. It was probably just his imagination, of course, but….

A great fire burned in the corner, bringing light and heat to the whole room. Fard looked at it, then began to imagine a wall between him and it — nothing that would touch or affect that blaze in any way, just a separation that affirmed its independence from him. When the giant blaze went out as fast as a spark tossed into water, Fard jumped back from the table so fast he toppled his chair.

That, at least, got the others’ notice. Sriti frowned and spoke, and an instant later, Osmith translated: “What happened? Did something put it out?”

He’d been so tired since he’d arrived. During his time at the academy he’d sometimes slept four hours a night, if he’d been lucky, and even as a youth at the temple, he’d sometimes lay awake long after the time for rest was called — but he’d been sleeping through the night and taking naps during the day. He’d thought nothing of it, since he hadn’t felt ill, just tired.

“Before I came,” said Fard, hoping against hope that he was just being paranoid, “you said there were no fires. You said there were none.” He looked at Ewwa Ji. “None?”

“Fires in the stoves, made by Mistress Sriti, and small fires in the hearths, tended by these people, burning wood.” Ewwa Ji rested his pencil in the spine and closed the ledger, looking at Fard with a frown of concern. “A candle to light the way. No more.”

There were fires all over the palace, fires burning even now in empty rooms — huge blazes that brought heat to entire halls, chasing away the snow. They burned day and night, and he’d never thought to ask how. There were charmed objects that would burn without ceasing, of course, expensive but not above the means of a king, but not one of them would have cared how isolated he became from it. In his mind’s eye, he pictured dropping the wall between himself and the kitchen blaze, and this time he could feel the tug as the fire pulled its life from his chest. He’d given it no such permission to do that. “And when I came…?”

“Fire came to the palace,” answered Ewwa Ji. “To all the rooms came light.”

The amulet’s weight was always a conscious presence around Fard’s neck, but now it dragged down like an anchor. “I’m sorry, will you excuse me,” he said, and without waiting for an response, he stormed off into the palace.

The platform where he’d seen the king the previous week was seven flights up, and Fard took the stairs two at a time, never slowing for fear that if he did, he might lose his nerve. He’d been angry many times before in his life, most of them since arriving here, but could never before remember having been possessed by this kind of blind fury. With all his strength, he threw open the door to the hall that led to the balcony, and he had a moment of dark pleasure at seeing a look of genuine surprise on the king’s face as he turned on his heel to see Fard standing there. “What are you–”

“You didn’t tell me this was a sanguisuge!” Propriety and good sense alike demanded Fard give the king a wide berth, but he was beyond that point; he marched right up to well within arm’s reach of the king. “A parasite!” He rapped his knuckles against his chest, hitting hard against the amulet beneath his thin shirt. “Without my consent!”

The king’s expression of shock lasted for only a moment longer before it twisted into a cold scowl. “A better magician would have known sooner.”

“Oh, no. You are not going to make this my fault.” Fard knocked at the amulet again. “It’s bleeding me.”

“And it does so no more or less than it has to the dozen who’ve held it before you,” the king said, folding his arms across his chest, “and yet you are the only one I’ve heard complain.”

Fard wanted to smack the look of contempt right off the king’s face, and if that might not have been the smartest idea in terms of self-preservation, well, he was well on his way past caring. “I would never have agreed to this,” he spat — which wasn’t the whole truth, perhaps, considering how shiftless and desperate he’d been feeling at the time, but Fard felt no need to split that particular hair at the moment. “I know what you think of me, but this is even beyond that.”

One of the king’s snowy eyebrows arched with skepticism. “And what do I think of you, illusionist?”

Being made to verbalize his own failings; yes, Fard’s humiliation was now complete. “You think I’m an idiot. And a child and a fool and pathetic and … any number of other things on the same theme. And you’re right, I don’t care. But I still have pride. I am a trained illusionist and pyromancer of House Hariima, and I may not be spectacular enough to know and execute your every little whim before you even know you have it, but I still have powers and talents above and beyond being a mute sack of fuel to be bled dry before being discarded!”

“Please.” The king rolled his eyes and turned from Fard. “It’s not my fault this position has bested you. Abias ar-Dal would never–”

Will you shut up about him!” The words ripped from Fard’s mouth and left his throat jagged and sore in their wake. “He’s dead, and I’m sorry that he was your model of great perfection I will never achieve, but he’s gone, and no matter how many times you compare me to his seven hundred years of experience, it won’t make me suddenly be him.”

“How dare you–”

“How dare I?”

“How dare you,” the king roared over him, drawing near to Fard with such angry speed that Fard stepped back, fearing he might be struck, “speak to me about what you don’t understand?”

“I don’t understand any of this!” Fard shouted back, clenching his fists with frustration. “You’ve told me nothing! I’ve had to figure out everything on my own! And you shout at me when I get things wrong, and you shout at me when I get them right, and if all you’re doing is punishing me for not being him, then I hope you’re prepared to do a lot of shouting, because we’re both out of luck.”

The king screwed up his face into something that was almost a snarl before turning where he stood and walking away, his body language suddenly as casual as though nothing that had passed between them had bothered him at all. “You’re not worthy to wear the stone,” he said, waving his hand through the air like one might to shoo a bothersome insect.

The force of the snub made Fard see red. Furious, he shoved his hand down the front of the shirt and grasped the amulet itself, then tore it upward over his head; it knocked his scarf aside but vanity was the least of his concerns. “Then take it back! I quit!” With a surge of pure pettiness, he tossed the amulet to the floor.

He realized something was wrong the instant it left his hand, but by then it was too late to take it back. The cold hit him like a crossbow bolt, gutting him with its force and knocking all the wind from his lungs. The sweat he’d worked up running up all the flights of stairs became frost against his skin, and he doubled over with pain, which only made matters worse when the marble floor he fell to was even icier than the air around him. The light clothes he’d become so accustomed to wearing provided no insulation against this sudden assault. He felt his fingers knot up like bird’s talons as he drew his knees to his chest, trying to save what little heat his body still had before the chill could rip it from him too.

Half-deafened though he was by the shock and agony, he heard twin clattering sounds before him. One was the amulet, glowing and pulsing just within arm’s reach, though as bent as his body was, it might as well have been on the other side of the mountain; the other, even farther off, was the king’s crown, gone falling to the floor through the empty space where the king had stood only an instant before. In the bare white moonlight, Fard could see only absence.

Cold burned like fire through his limbs, starting with his extremities and moving inward. Every joint in his body felt brittle. He wasn’t sure he still even had hands or feet at all. A thin trickle of air wheezed from his chest with a sick little whistle that he couldn’t stop because he couldn’t control his mouth or lungs or any other part of his body. He was cold beyond shivering. The world was dark and void, and this was how he would die in it.

With a last surge of effort, he wrenched his arm out from his body and threw it out in a blind grope for the amulet. The second his hand made contact with it, he howled in pain as the even-greater agony of thawing pulsed out through his body. Tears ran freely down his cheeks — but they were water now, not ice. When he could control his fingers again, he made a fist around the stone and pulled it close to his chest. He was no longer cold himself, nor did he feel the chill from the stone floor, but his body shook regardless, and he could not force it to do anything but remain knotted in a fetal position as he lay on his side.

When Fard could look up again, he saw the king where he’d been moments before, his back still turned to Fard. He was kneeling now, though, bent over and breathing heavily. The king hadn’t been away at all following Abias ar-Dal’s death; he’d been right here. But there could be no illusion without an illusionist.

At last, the king grabbed his crown and pulled himself with great care to his full height. “Keep it on,” he said, though his voice sounded as weary and ravaged as Fard’s body felt. “For now.” There was a small pause, after which the king added, “Please.”

Trembling with such violence he couldn’t speak, Fard still managed only a compliant nod, and after a moment more, without looking back to confirm, the king staggered out the far door, not bothering to close it behind him.

The instant the king disappeared, Fard felt strong arms wrap around his frame, picking him up from the floor and cradling him like a baby. “You stupid boys,” a rough, familiar voice said in his ear, and though the body it came from had no heat of its own, he clung to her anyway and buried his face in the crook of her neck. “As bad as children. At least you have an excuse.”

Fard kept his death grip on the amulet as Mim carried him back down the stairs and into his room, and by the time she lay him on his bed, he’d nearly stopped shivering. Careful never to wrench it from his grasp, Mim eased the cord over Fard’s head and replaced the stone against his bare chest beneath his shirt; only when it lay there securely again did Fard begin to coax his fingers into the business of letting it go.

“Sleep now,” she said, unfolding a heavy blanket from the foot of Fard’s bed and draping it over him.

With his free hand, Fard reached out and grabbed her arm, drawing her close so he could see into those strange, glacial blue eyes of hers. The question had been a long time coming, but as weak as he was, gritting it out between his teeth was still an effort indeed: “What are you?”

She stared back at him, unblinking. “One of His Majesty’s ghosts,” she said without emotion, “though more a ghost than even he expected. Still, only an illusion. One of yours, like the fires.”

Fard shut his eyes. “…And like him.”

“Sleep now,” she repeated; she slipped from his grasp and patted the blanket once, a maternal sort of gesture. “You need your rest.”

With a miserable sort of groan, Fard rolled on his side, facing away from the door. He no longer felt the cold, but he couldn’t so easily banish the memory of how it had twisted his body and rendered him helpless on the dark floor. “I don’t,” he began, then stopped as his body trembled with an involuntary shudder that rattled his teeth. “I don’t think I can do this. I can’t. I can’t do any of this.”

Mim chuckled, an unearthly little sound. “All I hear is a man who claims he cannot swim, yet won’t look up long enough to see he’s already come halfway across the lake.”

Fard made no reply and heard no movement behind him, but when he turned again to look her in the eye, he found himself as alone as he’d ever been. He tried to take her advice, to sleep, but no matter how exhausted he was, every time he shut his eyes, all he could think of was the cold. At last, giving up the effort for now, he wrapped himself in the blanket and walked over to the small fireplace in his room. It alone had been dim since his arrival, as he’d been content with the temperature as it was, but now with a breath he coaxed it to a roaring blaze, until the heat from the flames made beads of sweat roll down his face. He even considered shedding all his clothes and just climbing atop the pyre, tucking himself between the blackened stone walls that marked its boundaries. During his exams he’d been called upon to stick his hand into a furnace and keep it from burning; how much less, then, would a fire be tempted to consume him if it were his own creation?

In the end, what kept him from following through was not concern for what the blaze might do to his body, but the dimensions of the fireplace; wedging himself between the walls might be possible, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. He sat there staring at it instead, watching the flames burn nothing. No, they weren’t burning nothing — they were burning him, devouring the magic he channeled. Against his will, he’d become the heart of a great stone body, and now he was stuck as firmly as his own, smaller organ was in his chest, just as constant and immovable. And just as trapped.

He woke sometime that afternoon where he’d fallen asleep by the fire, and the first order of business was to untangle himself from the blanket. He next stripped naked — naked, of course, except for the stone around his neck, of whose weight he was now greatly aware — and climbed into the deep marble tub in his bathroom, sinking in all the way to his upper lip. The water was just this side of frozen, but he lay back in it and shut his eyes; the amulet didn’t rob him of his ability to distinguish one temperature from another so much as it reset his body’s entire scale of what was and was not unbearable. He wasn’t protected; he simply could endure.

When the sweat and terror had all been washed away, Fard stood and walked, still dripping wet, back into his bedroom and out the door to his balcony. He stood there until the wind and sun had dried him, staring out at the mountains, trying his hardest to think of nothing. When his stomach began to growl, he stepped back inside, dressed lightly, and took the tray Nonna had left outside his door into the study. Perhaps the best thing was to get some more reading done while he still was here with books to read.

A sharp knock sounded at his door an hour or so later. “Come in,” he said without lifting his head; he was in the middle of a particularly interesting passage about the properties of gold, and he knew neither Ewwa Ji nor Nonna, whichever of them it was at the door, had any problem being patient.

“It’s strange,” began the person who opened the door, and Fard jumped both out of his seat and nearly out of his skin, “to see this room so full of sunlight. Most of your predecessors have chosen to keep the curtains drawn.”

Fard stammered as he found himself within easy reach of the king. The previous night’s fury had retreated from his face, and he wore a plain white tunic and pants that covered most of his skin; his long hair was gone, replaced with short curls that clung to his scalp and reminded Fard of a lamb a week after shearing. His strange, pointed ears were all the more visible now, though they were bare of all adornments, as were his wrists, fingers, neck, and even head, with his great silver crown nowhere to be seen. Were it not for his powder-white skin and his clear blue eyes, he would have looked like any man Fard might have passed on the city street without giving a second glance. “I thought there might be something to illusionists and foreboding candlelight.” The king stared up at the windows, and when Fard followed his gaze, he could see heavy white curtains he’d never noticed before, rolled so tightly at the tops of the frames as to look more like part of the window-dressing than like anything functional. “Must have been personal preference, then, I suppose?”

“I … suppose,” answered Fard, for lack of knowing what else to do in this situation. Trying to appear relaxed but still cautious, he folded his arms inside his sleeves. “What can I do for Your Majesty?”

The king’s fingers traced down the gilt spine of an old book, one half in a language Fard could not identify, much less decipher. Without looking at Fard, he sighed and said, “You were right.”

If he’d been lost before, Fard was now completely at sea. Saying yes, I was seemed like a foolhardy response, but saying no, I wasn’t ran the risk of being both a lie and a contradiction. “Your Majesty?” he said instead, urging the king onward. Were this truly to be an apology, Fard didn’t want to cut it short.

“I’ve been unfair,” said the king, and this time he looked Fard in the eye. “And ungracious. And unpleasant when called on it.”

Struck dumb by the words and the strength of the king’s gaze alike, Fard managed only a deferential bow before sinking back into his seat. There was little to wonder about why the king made him so nervous, but he wished it didn’t happen all the same. There’s no apology necessary, his reflexive politeness supplied, and he bit that back down before he could lie. “I’ve … been uncertain as to what you want from me,” he finally managed — and then, with a burst of courage, added, “and puzzled as to why you’ve kept me here when you are obviously unhappy with my ability to perform the tasks you require.”

The king appeared to consider this for a moment, shrugged, and walked over toward the window, weaving his way through the stacks of books Fard had not yet dealt with. “For the last five hundred years,” he pointed to the entrance to Fard’s study before turning again to the sunlight, to where Fard could no longer see his face, “that door has been open every time I’ve passed by, and every time I stopped to look in, I’d find Abi-ji in here, reading something or writing something or carving something. He liked to work with his hands to relax. He’d take a knife and a piece of wood, and whittle little figures out of it, no magic at all except, he said, what he needed to keep his old hands from shaking. I’ve got them all in my quarters, everything he made. Little people, houses, animals. Dragons sometimes. He thought he was being funny.”

The king’s language and use of the familial title was so casual that Fard didn’t catch on right away who it was the king meant — and when he did, he bit the insides of his mouth to keep from making a noise of surprise. Without knowing how he should respond to that, Fard stayed silent, and after a moment, the king began to talk again, his voice low and soft as distant thunder: “Most humans have no idea how long five hundred years can be.”

When Fard looked away, the brightness from the window lingered, burnt onto his eyes. “I know I’m not worthy to succeed him,” he said, hoping such a show of humility would work in his favor.

“What? No, no.” The king chased away the smoke of the idea with a wave of his hand. “You’re fine. Quite good. Far better than you realize, in fact. That’s likely why it took you so long to notice.”

Fard had held his tongue more times over the past half-year than he had for the two decades before that, but some things were above and beyond even his control. “Your Majesty has seemed dissatisfied with everything I’ve done since my arrival,” he said, unable to keep the snappish tone from his voice.

The king’s shoulders slumped a little, and he leaned against the bookshelf closest to the window. “It isn’t true, but I suppose that’s not the point,” he said, running his fingers along the smooth marble surface of the windowsill. His hands were large yet delicate, his fingers so long and graceful they made Fard think of plumes from a snowbird’s wing. “Even for ageless things, five hundred years is a long time. Long enough to build certain habits, and then to be angry when those habits are disrupted. Abi-ji came to know me, so much so that we had little gap between my desire and his production of what would satisfy it.”

Fard wrung his own short, knobby hands in lap. “Then you two were, ah, close?” he asked, hoping to approach his inquiry without insult.

“Not lovers, if that’s what you mean.” The king laughed, which calmed Fard’s heart a small degree. “Not that I would have objected, but by the time he made my acquaintance, he said, he’d grown bored with bodily distractions from his work. And he did love his craft. When he came to me, this palace had three hundred people living in it, maybe four hundred, servants and soldiers and cooks and even families and children. Then when they’d die, as humans do, or leave for whatever reason found them needed elsewhere, instead of calling up others from the lands down from the mountain, Abi-ji simply replaced them with one of his ghosts. They never aged and they never had children of their own, and after a while, the palace became very…” The king paused, biting his lips together as he stared at the bookshelves before him. “Still.”

The palace constantly full of people, even illusive ones, was such a foreign concept to Fard that he couldn’t even picture what it would be like. The brief bursts of visitors had brought their own noise and motion, but even royal envoys could only fill up so much of the palace, leaving whole wings and floors cold and quiet. Even the kind of stasis that centuries of a conjured staff would create would have to be more full of life than the frozen, empty rooms Fard now knew well. “May I ask a question, Your Majesty?” Fard stood at the desk, no longer able to sit without fidgeting.

“Of course.” The king waved him on. “Please do. I need you to. My assumptions only carry me so far, I have learned to my cost.”

“What became of Abias ar-Dal?”

A smile settled across the king’s lips, but it was sad and strained. “He had grown weary of living, and thus he made the decision that he did not want to continue doing so. He made preparations behind my back, so I could not object and stop him, and then when everything was ready, he lay down and died. And when the stone is nothing but a stone, well….” The king swept his hands up and down his body. “I’m not here.”

Fard touched the amulet through his shirt, pressing his fingers against it until he could almost, if he imagined, feel a pulse. “And where are you when you’re not here?”

“Everywhere and nowhere,” said the king, and when he turned to see the frown that furrowed Fard’s brow, he laughed. “It’s hard to get much more specific than that sometimes. Where would you be if you had no body? I wait for the next bearer to come. Humans can take their time when charged with selecting a successor to the position. Illusions don’t have that luxury.”

With a sigh, Fard looked away. He’d long suspected he’d been a rush choice, a stopgap measure, but it still stung to have it confirmed. “I’d say it’s the story of my life, but it’s a novelty to have been chosen at all.” He drummed his fingers atop the desk’s edge, feeling self-pity tug at him.

“Tell me, what’s wrong with you?”

The question came from out of nowhere, so much so that Fard felt a bit like he’d been slapped across his face. “Your Majesty?” he asked, hoping he’d somehow managed to mishear.

“With you,” the king repeated, gesturing vaguely in Fard’s direction. “As those awful princesses said. You had five years, was it, at the temple? I don’t know the rules — they were put in place after Abi-ji went through the Academy, and that was centuries ago — but in all that time, no one wanted to bed you? At all?”

Ah, so that was the substance of the inquiry. Fard knew he should be upset, or at the very least insulted, but being asked so openly had its own kind of respect to it. There was nothing he could say about it that would be better than seeing it, though, and so many eyes had looked on him with scorn and disgust that he supposed one more pair didn’t matter. He took off his glasses and set them atop the book he’d been reading, then reached up to unhook the three small brass clips that kept his scarf in place. Keeping his eyes downcast, he drew the scarf from his head and draped it over the back of his chair. After a beat, he decided that to do this meant doing it properly, so he reached for the hem of his tunic and pulled it up and over his head, until he was bare to the waist.

A thin mirror that hung from a far bookshelf caught his eye, and as he looked into it, he too could see a blurry version of the answer to his question. His face and hands to just past his wrists were unscarred, but only through long hours of Khay’s careful attention. The rest of his body was mottled light and dark flesh and run through with the red-silver threads of heavy-metal-poisoned blood collected beneath his skin. What small hair would still grow atop his scalp and beneath his arms was patchy and came in wispy clumps that looked like desert grass. The scarring continued on down beneath the waistband of his pants, but Fard didn’t feel the need to remove them and belabor the point. Given the opportunity to dress himself, he chose to wrap the marked portions of his skin, but as a temple acolyte, he’d had no choice in his attire, and the sleeveless tunics and short pants all the boys had worn made no secret of his condition. No devotee who’d come had looked on his bare head and marked face with anything but revulsion, and though the older attendants had explained that he was not contagious, that no matter how fresh his scars looked they were as inert as old tattoos, not one of the visitors had so much as taken another step closer.

All of which was why Fard couldn’t understand when the king, after a full minute’s silence, asked, “And…?”

Fard snatched up his glasses to see if the king was making fun of him, but the king’s frown of confusion looked sincere. “My skin?” Fard gestured up his torso and down his arms. “Is horrifying?”

“But what was the real reason?”

“That was the real reason.”

The king frowned a moment longer, then shook his head and leaned back against the bookcase, folding his arms across his chest. “Humans are odd. You’re beautiful.”

Self-conscious now in the extreme, Fard turned his tunic right-side-out and pulled it back over his head and arms. He was all but certain now the king was mocking him, but he drew up his pride as shelter against the assault on his dignity. “I was a child in arms when my village’s well was poisoned by another tribal leader, or so they tell me.” As he spoke, he took the scarf from the back of the chair and folded it in preparation for putting it back on. “I drank the poison through my mother, and I survived when few others did, and I was taken by some unremembered benefactor to the temple, which is where all the unwanted children go. The rest, you know.” He snapped the clips back in their customary places.

“Leave it off,” said the king, and Fard froze mid-pleat. “Or you should, if you choose. Wear whatever you want here. I only ask that when you present yourself as my illusionist on formal occasions, you do so in white.”

Fard channeled his exasperation into a thin smile. “That was all you ever needed to say, and I would have gotten it right the first time.”

“Ah.” With a sigh, the king turned back toward the window. “Well.”

In the silence that followed, Fard continued folding the scarf, but in the end he chose to drape it around his neck and let the ends trail down each side of his chest, leaving his scalp and throat bare. He pulled off his glasses and wiped them with the soft material, and by the time he’d put them back on his face, he was ready to speak again. “I will stay,” he said, and he was gratified to see the king’s blink of surprise. “But on the condition that you have to talk to me. I can’t figure this out by guesswork, and the time it will take me to read all these books is, I suspect, longer than your patience with me.”

“And talking with you is what will keep you here?” asked the king, and Fard flattered himself to think His Majesty’s expression might be categorized as ‘hopeful’.

“Yes,” Fard said, then added, “if you still want me. And if you don’t, I’ll understand and help you search for my replacement.”

The king walked around the desk to stand before Fard, and indeed came so close that Fard feared for a moment the king might be going to grab him somehow. Instead, though, he touched his fingertips to Fard’s chest and let them linger just atop the stone; Fard could feel a surge of heat as the connection was made, even through the fabric of his shirt. “Were it that easy,” he said, looking down at his own hand, “I might have demanded your leave months ago, and wrongly so. No, stay. The old man’s magic has wisdom in it yet. Besides, he would have liked you.”

And here Fard had understood everything that had transpired in his job as something akin to punishment, not favoritism. “He would?”

“Oh, yes.” The king laughed and withdrew his hand, then looked Fard straight on and didn’t flinch or stare at the marks on his skin. A smile curled his mouth, but too-fresh grief kept it from reaching his brilliant blue eyes. “He had a certain fondness for oddities. Birds with broken wings. Three-legged dogs. Orphaned children. He taught compassion, and I was never a very good student. Of course, as with any good teacher, he didn’t let my failings stop him.”

Had he not been present for the apology that had preceded this conversation, Fard might have concluded that there were in fact two kings ruling here, an angry one and a pleasant one, identical in every way except that one of them seemed to delight in calling out Fard’s every flaw and the other seemed almost confessional. If the king truly had been trapped in the castle before Fard’s arrival, though, and then had spent the next six months engaged in only diplomatic discussions — and even those only few and far between — then it was little wonder that the chance to finally talk might have begun to let everything out. “Do you eat, Your Majesty?” asked Fard, who knew he’d seen the king with food before him at official meals but couldn’t recall having seen the king bring any to his mouth.

“I do,” answered the king after a moment’s consideration. “I don’t require food, but I can eat.”

“Then you should come to supper with us. The four of us who live here,” Fard added for clarity. “We take evening meals in the kitchen — or, well, the three of them do regularly, and I do when I haven’t forgotten myself reading or fallen asleep. I don’t know what you’re accustomed to in terms of servants, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway because we’re what you’ve got. And they work harder for you than I do for less recognition.” Good sense told him to stop right there, but if they were going to be honest with one another, now was the time to start. “And you seem as though you’ve forgotten how to talk to real people.”

The king opened and shut his mouth twice like a fish, then ran his hand across the top of his head. “You’re not wrong,” he said with a soft laugh that made Fard stop fearing for his life. “I tend to be a solitary creature when left to my own devices, and perhaps that’s not for the best. I’d like to join you this evening, thank you.”

“Down in the kitchen, after the sun sets.” Fard looked at the king’s attire, which was about the least threatening thing he’d ever seen the king have on. “Wear what you’re wearing now.”

The king gestured back to Fard. “I will if you will.”

Self-conscious about his bared head but determined to be bold, Fard nodded. “Agreed.”

Without further comment, the king left, leaving Fard alone in his study, spinning inside as though a team of horses had just run him down. Despite what he knew to be the enormous age difference between them, Fard had almost felt like the elder partner in that conversation, a near-graduate instructing an underclassman in decorum and propriety. Then again, he supposed, royals weren’t so unlike children themselves, with only the smallest gaps between desire and satisfaction. Anything that interfered with that instant gratification was a source of frustration and resentment. But maybe it was good now that the king had to work for his metaphorical supper, just like everyone else did.

Well, Fard supposed, if they were going to have company for dinner, he might as well let Sriti know she’d be cooking both for five and for royalty. If she got mad at his springing this on her, so be it. He was willing to take the blame for any short-term inconveniences in the hope that this would improve something, anything, everything.

~*~

When the king walked into the kitchen, Fard was the only one at the table who didn’t rise, though he looked up and smiled to make sure the king knew Fard hadn’t managed not to notice, but had instead chosen to keep his seat. “We’re glad you came, Your Majesty,” Fard said, gesturing to the chair to his immediate right. “The food is almost ready.”

“Thank you,” said the king as he walked over and took his indicated place at the table. He bore himself as coolly as ever, though Fard was watching close enough to see how the king’s eyes darted about the room, making a cautious survey of the unfamiliar setting. Ewwa Ji and Nonna took their seats again after him, and Sriti went back to scooping out rice from a large copper kettle that Osmith held for her. They’d all been tenser than usual since Fard had told them the king intended to join them for dinner, but to his great relief, none of them had asked Fard why he’d made the invitation.

Not one of his friends had asked about his attire, either — or about his lack thereof, to the more relevant degree. He hadn’t expected the impeccably polite Ewwa Ji to so much as bat an eyelash, and he figured from the tales Sriti sometimes told that she’d seen worse in her lifetime, but he’d been braced for some surprise or even revulsion from Nonna, young as she was. She hadn’t hidden her looking at his bared head and throat, but after a minute to register the change, she’d turned away again without fear or pity. Fard hadn’t gone this long uncovered around others since he’d been living with his housemates, and even so he didn’t know how ready he felt to make a permanent change in his dressing habits. Still, the possibility that he might be able to without judgment took a weight off his shoulders he hadn’t known had been there.

At last, relaxing at the end of his brief investigation of his surroundings, the king looked at Nonna and smiled, then looked at the slate she held to her chest. “Are you learning to write?” he asked, folding his hands atop the table.

Nonna bit her lip and nodded. “You can show him,” said Fard, patting her on the shoulder, so Nonna turned over the slate to reveal a side filled with chalky white letters. Fard had yet to convince her to begin composing her own thoughts, but she copied exercise fragments with furious intensity, repeating every line and curve until they were indistinguishable from the calligraphy in the books Fard gave her. The current page was nonsense out of context, the middle of a larger fable about three hungry dogs and a clever camel, but she’d written and erased it so many times she’d nearly perfected the imitation. “She hasn’t been learning for long. She’s a quick study.”

The king looked again at the slate, then back to Nonna’s cautious little smile. “Excellent penmanship. Very artistic, especially in one so young. Why are you here?”

“If this man may, Majesty,” said Ewwa Ji, whose spine and shoulders looked stiff as stone pillars. “This girl has comprehension, but does not have speaking. Would His Majesty permit this man to answer His Majesty’s question on this girl’s behalf?”

If he found Ewwa Ji’s formal speech odd, the king gave no sign of it. “If he pleases.”

Ewwa Ji nodded gravely, which was as much of a bow as Fard supposed he could manage while still seated. “When last it was His Majesty went into seclusion and absence, three ravens flew from this place at the doing of Lord Abias ar-Dal. To this man’s lord it came a message: Thane Caugh of the Middle Steppes owes to His Majesty a great debt of gold, to be repaid in exchange for a man given to His Majesty’s service. This man was called most worthy and came to the White Palace to oversee functionings in His Majesty’s absence. To Lady Nali-na-varti of the Six Rivers came a same message, and to reply came the Lady’s personal cook, Mistress Sriti, to the White Palace. To Jansa Krath, Baroness of the Black Wood, came the third message, and to reply came Miss Nonna.”

“I see, thank you,” said the king, and Ewwa Ji relaxed a fraction in his chair. The king took a drink from the goblet before him before looking at Nonna with a bitter little smile. “You’re a bit of an insult, aren’t you?”

Ewwa Ji’s eyes went wide as planets, and Fard tensed in his seat, ready to put himself bodily between the king and the girl if such was needed. Nonna only looked right back at him, face blank with the force of bravery in the face of terror; she’d understood every word, that much was clear, but she wasn’t backing down from the accusation. “Your Majesty,” Fard began, “she’s dedicated and hardworking–”

“Oh, I know that.” The king dismissed Fard’s protests with a wave of his hand, not once taking his eyes off Nonna. “I’ve seen the parts of the castle you’ve tended to, and you do your task thoroughly; I find no fault in your service to me. But consider: the finest butler from a selection of many and a chef to royalty, and you? I bet the Black Wood thought you’d not last the first winter, and they’d be off the hook for their debt to me without noticing the loss.”

The silence in the kitchen was tense; even Sriti had stopped her preparations and was listening, her hands clenched tight around the serving tray she’d been in the process of loading. With utmost calm, Nonna reached for her napkin and dragged it across the face of her slate, releasing all her careful words into dust. She picked up her chalk and held the slate close to her chest as her hand traced a single word, then turned the board around so the king could see what her trembling yet careful hand had written: true.

Fard stared at her in disbelief, then looked back to the king, whose grin was so wide and toothy it nearly split his face. “But you did. You must be clever. And clever people have their own uses.” The king at last turned away from her to look at Fard. “Can’t you call up some ghosts to do her tasks? Let her study, read your books, learn what you do?”

“Of course,” said Fard, who’d considered the idea before but thought better of rearranging staff duties of his own accord. But getting the king’s permission was one thing; having it all be the king’s idea was another entirely, and Fard was felt bold enough to continue testing the boundaries of his authority: “Provided it’s what Nonna would prefer to do.”

There’d been no question, of course; the bright look in Nonna’s eyes said everything about how she’d rather spend her time. “Settled, then,” said the king, unfolding his napkin as Sriti brought the meal over to the table.

She placed the largest platter in the center of the table — a roast that had arrived that very morning on the grocer’s enchanted delivery-cart, she’d told him, after his news about their dinner guest had sent her into a frenzy of making certain the fare was fit for her king — then took three steaming bowls from Osmith’s arms and placed them all around. Sriti made some statement directed at the king, but before Osmith could supply a translation, the king responded in the same tongue, and as Sriti spoke again to him, Osmith remained quiet. Fard looked to Ewwa Ji, who shrugged and shook his head in the face of the rapid speech. Giving up, Fard reached for the salted potatoes and put two on Nonna’s plate before serving himself; a bilingual dinner that was half nonsense to him was still well within the realm of things he could manage.

As Sriti took her seat at the table, the king reached for the knife and sliced open the roast with a single deft stroke. “Be glad you’re an insult,” he said to Nonna as he made four more cuts behind it. “It’s good to be underestimated. Someday the Baroness will come calling, and on that day, I want you visible. The best response to a slight is to turn it into an advantage.” The first slice he took from the roast went not to Nonna, but to Fard, and as the king said those last words, he met Fard’s gaze with tangible intensity. The connection lasted only for the span of a heartbeat, though, before the king went back to his self-appointed serving duties and Fard set about chewing on more than just the meat before him.

~*~

A heavy winter storm had set its fury on the palace, sending howling winds ripping down through hallways and piling up all the entrances with several feet of snow. The fires burned as best they could against the terrible cold, but between the wind and the chill, their fight had tapped Fard’s reserves until he’d woken up on the storm’s third morning with barely the strength to lift his head from the pillow. He’d pulled together the energy to summon Mim, but when she’d tried to help him, he’d sent her away with instructions to tell the castle’s other inhabitants to confine themselves to their rooms or the kitchen. With that settled, he closed his eyes and began the task of putting out fires.

The first he extinguished was the simplest: the blaze in his own room, visible at the foot of his bed. His room was already sealed against most of the gusts from beyond the palace walls, but drafts still tugged the flames up the high chimney, making the fire battle for survival. Fard didn’t mind the cold, though, and he could deal with the dark. He took a deep breath and concentrated on making the blaze smaller and smaller, soothing the magic that sought to keep burning through him; he’d bring it back to life later, he promised, but for now it should sleep. The fire dimmed and flickered until, with one last spark, it went out. Fard gasped, feeling the pressure already begin to lift from his chest.

He let his awareness bleed out past himself, seeping through the castle toward the bright, blazing spots that burned him just as as any non-magical fire consumed oxygen. The fire in the Great Hall drew his attention most; the fireplace in which it burned was as tall as Fard and three times as long. By the time he’d eased it cold, he felt strong enough to sit up, and when he was finished with the dozen others that heated the various ground-floor banquet halls, the headache that had gripped his temples like a vise had disappeared.

In his mind’s eye, he walked through familiar sections of the palace, blowing out candles and talking down flames. He could feel their desire to ignite again, a child’s tugging for attention at its mother’s sleeve, but he only repeated his earlier instruction to wait, wait. When the storm had passed over and would not longer fight them for their lives, he’d left them burn again. One by one, the lights in the castle flickered and fell, until everywhere but the living areas was dark and silent.

All that finished, he decided that he deserved a nap and promptly fell asleep again.

When he woke later, the faint glow from his window told him the sun was still up in the sky, though the great snow clouds gave no clues as to its exact position. Feeling the way he’d heard being hungover described, he stood and stretched, then dunked his head into the clean water standing in his bathtub; the wetness was more of a shock to his system than the temperature, and it helped clear his head. He dressed and ventured out into the palace for something to eat.

The sundial on the patio could be no indicator of the hour, for even had there been clear sunlight, the whole apparatus was buried under snow. The kitchen was empty, though some of the remains of the midday meal lay out on the table; Fard devoured three entire stacks of cold meat on bread before he felt full enough to stop. When had he eaten last? He couldn’t remember. No wonder the fires had weakened him so much.

He still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the idea that the palace fed off him, though found the fires’ demands easier to wrap his head around than his relationship to the king’s appearance. Of all the complicated illusions Fard had seen and read about before, he’d only encountered in the oldest, most fanciful stories the idea of an illusionist’s providing a tangible body for an incorporeal being. Said beings were usually deities or spirits of the dead, though, and those elements to their respective stories had always given Fard pause; despite his everyday connections to magic, Fard had very little faith that most of the magical creatures he’d read about were even remotely real, and he even doubted with some regularity the existence of the very goddess through whom he was said to have his powers.

The king didn’t seem to be anything like the gods Fard knew of, though, and all the real ghosts Fard had ever read about had specific goals to accomplish so they could reach the ultimate reward of moving past the great veil that divided worlds. And while Mim’s story seemed like the most fanciful explanation of all, the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Perhaps he could find that mythic eggshell somewhere in the palace; maybe that would be the proof he needed. And if he couldn’t locate anything like it, well, that was its own weight in the argument.

For his own part, the king had been good about their bargain, and every day, one of them had made a point of finding the other; the king didn’t always come to dinner, but he did stop by Fard’s study from time to time, and more than one afternoon Fard had found him standing out on the back terrace, looking out into the distance. Their discussions were never of any real importance or length, but the mere fact of their maintaining contact had made Fard start to feel more comfortable in his position. Maybe he’d last.

Thinking of the king, Fard decided not to go back to his rooms just yet, but to seek out the king and make the explanations he hadn’t been able to convey through Mim for why the palace had needed to go dark. The king had told Fard he was allowed anywhere, after all, and though he’d never been closer to the king’s personal chambers than just to pass by the exterior doors, he’d never been ordered away from them either. Thus, he only needed to steel his courage a little before rapping on the white wooden doors. They were indistinguishable from most other doors in the palace, except there were two instead of one, wide enough that four or five people walking abreast would still be able to get through.

Fard was glad he had nothing in his hands, because if he had been carrying an object, he would have dropped it to the floor when the slenderer of his illusive women answered the door wearing only a sheer robe that did little to hide what was beneath. “Welcome, Master Fard,” she greeted him, giving a bow that caused her robe to shift open and expose her small breasts.

He’d made all four of them before he’d clothed them, and he’d never had any misconceptions or misgivings about what use they would be put to, but the sight of her like this in context still took him aback. “I was– I can– I’m just stopping by, and now I’m going again. Everything is well. Thank you.”

Ignoring his protests, the woman turned back to the interior rooms. “Master Fard is here, Your Majesty,” she called. There was a reply too muffled for Fard to hear from this side of the door, but a moment later, the woman bowed to Fard again. “Please come in. He’s hoped you would stop by.”

“I’m–” Fard began again, but the woman took his elbow and tugged him inside. Her wrists and fingers were adorned with silver jewelry he hadn’t made for her, and they jingled together as she linked her arm with his. Realizing that fighting a summons like this was futile in the extreme, Fard stiffened his upper lip and resolved to be as casual about this as he could be.

His resolve failed when he was brought from the austere-yet-pleasant sitting-room into the king’s bedchamber. He had no bed there like Fard had seen in the other rooms, but half the floor had been replaced with a sea of pillows and cushions. In a pile by the wall, the hairier man and the heavier woman were tangled in one another’s arms in sleep, holding on as lovers might. The king lay stretched upon them, propped up on the pile closest to the remaining firelight, with a heavy book in his hand; the other illusive man sprawled across his lap, naked and dozing, with his head on the king’s thigh. Fard heard a soft rustle behind him and turned in time to see the blonde woman toss off her robe. He appeared to be the only person still clothed in the room. “My apologies, Your Majesty.” Fard drew himself together as best he could. “I came by to explain about the fires.”

“The storm, I know.” The king drew a ribbon from the spine of his book and marked his place before setting the volume aside. He was beautiful, naked as he was, from the long cords of hair that spread like serpents across the pillows, all the way down his bare and muscular body to the silver rings that circled several of his toes. The man lying across the king’s lap shifted in his sleep, moving his head enough to reveal the soft, plump cock curled in the junction of the king’s legs. “It should blow over in a day or so. The mountains always get one or two of these a year, when the winter winds bring over the ocean air.”

Sensing that his predecessors had made similar decisions in the past made Fard feel both better about shutting down the fires and worse that he hadn’t thought to do so before exhaustion had nearly claimed him. “Good. I see. Then I’ll excuse myself–”

“Why go?” The king gestured to the empty pillows, a sweep of his arm which also managed to indicate the three other naked people on them. “You should stay. Enjoy the fruits of your efforts.”

Fard looked down at his feet; this was managing to become more embarrassing by the second, and though he didn’t want the king to feel bad about placing him in such a predicament, Fard didn’t know how longer he could manage to swallow back his discomfort. “With all due respect, Your Majesty, I can’t.” He clasped his hands together in front of his stomach and twisted the loose skin around his knuckles.

“Of course you can,” said the king. “You have my permission.”

“No, I can’t. I may, thank you, but I can’t.” Before the king could ask any more probing questions, Fard took a deep breath and laid everything out: “I couldn’t even try. The vows I take and by which I maintain my power render me incapable of sexual performance. Physically incapable,” he added, just in case that part hadn’t been made clear.

The king looked lost in thought for a moment, then stood, his lean body gilded by the firelight. He was shockingly perfect, a sculptor’s masterpiece given life; Fard’s own sexual abilities were no longer something under his control, and he’d never felt much attraction to men in particular before such impulses had abandoned him, but he couldn’t imagine a person alive who would have gazed on the king’s body with anything but reverent awe. Silver beads in his hair clinked together as he moved, one liquid step after another. “That seems unfair,” he said, his voice now that same distant rumble that had before filled Fard with such dread.

Fard shrugged; the fairness of the situation had never seemed to him up for debate. “We’re told it’s to keep us from fathering children. …In practice, though, I suspect it’s to keep us focused and well-behaved. I’ll never elope with one of your maids or seduce your wife — even if you did have one or the other at present. I can’t be seduced to spill your secrets.”

“A master to whom a servant would be that disloyal? That says more about the master than the man.” The king stepped close, within easy reach of Fard, but kept his muscled arms loose at his sides; a swirling spiral band wound around his right bicep, its curves gleaming in the fire’s glow. “I’ve had twelve illusionists before you, and many minor magicians besides, and not one of them has ever given me cause to worry on account of what they did or didn’t do in bed.” He put his hand against Fard’s clothed chest again, though this time the ball of the hidden jewel pressed against the king’s cupped palm, leaving his fingertips to land in five bright points around it. He leveled his gaze at Fard. “There are other sources of power.”

“I know,” said Fard, who wanted either to pull away from the touch or to lean into it, and instead did neither.

“You know your gods don’t exist.” The king splayed his fingers farther against Fard’s chest, wrinkling his shirt. “Or if they do, they have no power up here. The only things with power in these mountains are ice and stone and bone and fire.”

“And ghosts,” Fard added, thinking of Abias ar-Dal’s armies streaming down the mountain, unliving and deathless.

The king’s smile widened. “And ghosts. Your ghosts.”

Fard gazed around the room to the quartet of illusions he’d made at the king’s behest. They were all sitting upright now, awake and watching with the same muted interest illusions always had. “And you?” asked Fard, looking at them but addressing the king. “Are you one of my ghosts too?”

The king reached for Fard’s right and placed it flat upon his chest, until their positions mirrored one another. Fard was startled to realize that the king was no warmer than the air around them; beneath his fingertips the king’s skin was powdery and smooth, so much so that had the king stood still and held his breath, Fard might indeed have mistaken him for a statue made from the same material as the palace walls. “More haunted than haunting,” the king said, that sad, faraway look in his eyes. “Yet yours as much as anyone’s now.”

Fard looked at his dark hand against the king’s chest, then at the king’s white hand against his own deep green shirt, and with a sigh, he dropped his arm and stepped back, out of the king’s reach. Nothing good could possibly come of this, and thus it was better to stop before something even more unmanageable began. “I will think on it, Your Majesty,” he said with a short bow, and without waiting for a response or looking to see the king’s reaction, he turned and saw himself out.

He headed straight back for his room, trying not to think about anything — not the king, not the way he’d looked, not how they’d touched, and surely not the way spoiled monarchs got anything they want and could afford to be indiscriminate. Only a few weeks ago, Fard had been certain the man hated him; now the king was apparently trying not only to bed him, but to do so immediately following a conversation on how bedding Fard wouldn’t work for either of them. He hoped he hadn’t angered the king by his sudden departure, but staying would have been terrible folly followed by worse disappointment. The king might have been one of Fard’s ghosts, but that didn’t make the king his. Not by a long shot.

When he turned the last corner into his own near-dark hallway, a pale figure standing by the door made him jump out of his skin. He let out a rather undignified shriek and grabbed the wall so he didn’t fall over. “Mim!” he gasped, heart racing. “Don’t do that.”

Mim unfolded her sleeves to reveal a black bird cradled within them. At first Fard thought she’d brought it to him dead, but as he grew closer, it stirred. “Bring it in,” he said, waving her into his room; he snapped his fingers and the fire jumped to life in the fireplace. They both knelt before the blaze and Fard placed the raven as close as he dared to its bright tongues. He couldn’t tell if it was Kif or not — he had no basis by which to tell one black bird from another — but it certainly was one of the Library’s. Fard unwrapped the bird from its bundling only long enough to take the message from its leg, then swaddled it again; close again to warmth, the bird shut its eyes and fell into an exhausted sleep. “Who would send a raven up in this storm?” he asked as he unrolled it.

“The sunset sides of the mountains catch all the storms,” said Mim. “The desert cities might not even see the darkened skies, and would not know the weather at this altitude.”

Fard opened his mouth to speak, but his response was cut short by the sight of Paqat’s distinctive, cramped handwriting. He read the note through, then read it again before rolling it back up and sighing. He’d hoped his sins might take longer to find him out, but all his life he’d had a consistent record of having the things he wished for not come true, and he saw no reason why that streak should break now.

~*~

The king tightened the scroll and shook his head. “First thaw? That will be a brutal ascent.”

“I don’t think they care.” They stood in the king’s drawing room now; he’d sent Ewwa Ji ahead with news of his coming, both to give the king a clear sense of the gravity of the situation and to avoid a repeat of the earlier tension. The king himself had met Fard at the door, expression concerned and serious, and if what had passed between them barely an hour before still weighed on his mind, he gave no indication. Fard pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Not if Queen Tzjani has indeed struck all the alliances my friend thinks she has. And if anything, I’m inclined to believe his estimate is a conservative one.”

Outside, the storm still howled past the windows, painting the world a uniform white. The piled snow had already begun to reach the second story, and at this rate might cover Fard’s own windows before the weather relented. Digging out seemed an impossibility itself, and calling for reinforcements doubly so. The king balled a fist in front of his lips as he paced. “I won’t lie and say I’ve many friends to call upon,” he said, scowling at the floor. “And none of those could come to my side before our unwanted guests arrive.”

“What are their intentions?” asked Fard, running his fingertips along the table’s edge just to give his hands something to do.

“First and foremost, to kill you,” said the king, and when Fard gripped the table to account for his knees’ giving out, the king’s businesslike expression softened. “Which I will kill them all to keep from happening. But they know now you’re my weak spot. Of course, they don’t know just how much of a weak spot you are, but taking your life would earn them a quick lesson.”

Fard felt ill; he glanced around for the nearest chair and took it. He’d been aware, of course, that the Islanders had been watching him during their disastrous former visit, but he hadn’t known they’d had their eyes turned on him with such cruel intent. Then again, any queen willing to keep open a servant’s near-mortal wound just so she could determine the scope of her enemy’s defenses should not be mistaken for a woman of mercy. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice a sickly whisper.

The king stepped toward him, and Fard braced for one of the king’s familiar old tirades — but instead the king dropped to his knee in front of Fard and lifted Fard’s chin with his stonelike fingers. “Shh. Now’s not the time for self-pity. Besides, if I’m not allowed it, then neither are you.” That startled a soft laugh from Fard, and the king smiled in return. “House rules.”

“You’ll forgive me, Your Majesty,” said Fard, shyly dropping his gaze, “but not long ago you would have had my head for this.”

“I’ll thank you to keep your head where it is. We need it there.” The king patted Fard once on the cheek before standing again and resuming his pacing, though this time with a less dire cadence to his stride. “They’ve been clever, though. I hate it when people who oppose me are clever. So much effort to circumvent. And the fact they’re acting in secret — or trying to, at any rate — means they’re likely not open to negotiation, which is even more inconvenient. You say your source is reliable?”

As much as Fard hated to admit it, the invasion was indeed well-planned, up to and including how had Fard not known the biggest gossip-monger at the Central Library, no one in the White Palace would have had the slightest idea to expect anything at all. “I’d trust him with my life.”

“Good, because that’s precisely what you’re doing.”

Fard didn’t want to dwell on that aspect of their situation. “All right, according to their plan, after they kill me, what do they do?”

“If I were they, and I knew only what I have to assume they know….” A small, glassy red sphere rested in a brass stand above the fireplace, one of the few objects in the room that wasn’t both a piece of furniture and white, and the king plucked it from there and rolled it between his hands as he spoke. “To begin with, I’d be rather startled when the master of the house suddenly vanished. I’d do a full search of the grounds and, finding nothing but three humans and a hundred empty rooms, declare victory in the owner’s absence, move in, parcel up land and mining rights as repayment to my allies, and give in to smug, complacent self-satisfaction at having settled one of my ancestral grudges.” With a disgusted snort, the king rolled his eyes. “And then find the climate miserable, abandon the grounds to be controlled by a skeleton crew, and die, leaving the stone and its meaning to be rediscovered centuries later by some inquisitive academic. It’s happened before.”

Fard cocked an eyebrow. “It has?”

The king nodded. “My third illusionist — a river-dweller by the name of Galphor, a fine wizard but a sickly man — took suddenly and gravely ill while a duke of some long-forgotten kingdom of the northern steppes was here. I suspect poison, but I never had the chance to confirm. He died during the night, without warning, and said duke, finding himself in my castle with no family of mine to argue his claim, declared himself lord of the White Palace and all the lands the snows reach. He lasted here exactly one winter, then decided having a kingdom of his own wasn’t worth freezing to death. Two hundred and seventy years later, some great-grand-descendent of the king wandered back here and read enough of the library to sort it all out on her own. But that was nearly three centuries where I could do nothing.”

As the king spoke, his face was even, expressionless, and his voice never rose in anger, but his tone hardened beneath his words all the same, and Fard saw his hands grip tight around the glass. “Where were you all that time?” asked Fard, chancing some furious response.

The king grew silent and walked to the closest wall, stroking its surface with his open palm. “Here,” he said, brushing his fingertips in slow circles. “Haunting.”

Fard rose from his seat and walked close until he stood just beyond the king’s reach. In the months he’d been in the palace, he’d many occasions to touch the palace walls, and had found himself arrested many times by the simple beauty of the architecture, carved, it seemed, from immense, seamless blocks of marble. The king’s words, though, planted a seed of doubt about what his senses had told him before, and when he ran his hands over the wall this time, Fard realized that the flat, rough texture was indeed familiar to him, though not in the way he’d assumed before. The Fifth Temple was carved of red granite, a stone given a very different texture, and though he’d caressed the surfaces of the beautiful marble carvings given by wealthier patrons, he’d spent far more time preparing food in the palace kitchens, a chore which involved breaking and discarding hundreds of eggshells.

Fard walked toward one of the room’s inner columns, knowing what his fingers would find there and cringing anyway as they made contact. He’d seen all sorts of furnishings and jewelry in the marketplaces made of ivory, and thus had come to think of bone as coming only in yellowed, antiqued shades. The bones of men who’d died in the desert, though, the ones from corpses picked clean by animals and bleached by the elements, had this same grainy whiteness to them.

He turned back to find that the king was watching him, observing the whole process of Fard’s discovery with perfect calm. They stood their with their eyes locked a long moment before the king drew one stray cord of hair from where it had fallen in his face and sighed. “You can be a little slow at times, can’t you?”

Fard picked up a small cushion from the chair beside him and hurled it at the king’s head, and though it missed by a considerable distance, he felt better for having done it. “And you wonder why you have no friends,” Fard said, though it was more in jest than not, and he was pleased to see the comment win a smile back from the king.

“I don’t wonder at all.” The king ticked off the characteristics on his fingers as he spoke. “I’m ill-tempered. I’m reclusive. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m vain. And that’s all that can fit on one hand.” He waved all five fingers toward Fard. “All of which are vices, though, only to humans. I was never meant to be human, nor was I ever to have to depend on humans. And I resent having to, which is no fault of yours. If you hadn’t faltered under the weight of their disruptions, they would have found another reason for their approach, and might even have been subtler about it, such that your friend could not have noticed and alerted us.”

There was a certain charm to the king’s brutal optimism, and Fard felt strangely better to hear it. “So, then, what are we going to do about this?”

The king spun the glass orb in his fingertips before tossing it toward Fard; the king’s aim was good enough to compensate for Fard’s poor eyesight, and Fard needed little skill to catch the easy lob. He’d thought it just refracted the light, but up close he could see how it burned with its own inner glow. “Now,” said the king, “you learn to trust me.”

~*~

The morning after the storm was bright blue and clear and so cold Fard’s pipe made clouds of vapor in the still air even as it rested in his hand. He stood atop one of the palace’s high platforms in only a pair of loose pants, his bare feet sunk halfway into what of the new-fallen snow the previous day’s storm winds hadn’t shorn off as soon as they’d deposited it. All the palace fires burned again now, and though he’d expected re-lighting them to be a grueling task, he found he felt better now than he even had when they were out. It was strange, what a body could get used to.

Even after several months here, much of which had been spent staring out the window while lost in thought, Fard still had no real sense of perspective when it came to the great mountain range. All the peaks seemed so large as to be impossible at any size, whether simply huge and close, or distant and incomprehensibly massive. The only route to the palace wound its way through them, and though he’d only been over it once and it was at the moment packed over with snow, Fard could see the trail that would bring their enemies to their door. They might already have been gathering there, just out of sight at the foothills. Now it was only a matter of time and thaw.

A hand as white as the snows around him snatched the pipe from Fard, and Fard turned to see the king put the end of the midwakh into his mouth and take a long breath of it; the king then turned his face toward the sky and parted his lips, sending forth a great pillar of white steam. Up it rose, until it too lost its heat and became indistinguishable from the air around it. “This is good,” the king said at last, holding the lacquered pipe up to his face for a closer inspection.

“I know; that’s why I have it,” said Fard, plucking it back from the king with a deft grab. By all rights he should have found the king’s presumption annoying, but instead, and to some small chagrin, he found himself smiling. “All right, what does His Majesty, King of the Tobacco Thieves, want so much that he brings us both here for it?”

The king walked toward the square platform’s short railing; he wore a coat with wide, open sleeves and a furred hem so long it trailed behind him in the snow as he walked, brushing away his footprints. “This is where I come to think.”

“I can see why.” Fard followed him toward the edge, though stopped a respectful distance away. “The quiet is nice.”

“It is, but that’s not why.” The king opened his arms wide, as though welcoming in all the mountains surrounding him. “I know what it is to have little guidance. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned on my own, whether from stories or books or experience. I’ve had to have humans teach me how to be inhuman. I don’t even know if the tales I’m told are true. Mayrat swore they were, but by the time I was old enough to recognize the scent of human falsehood, she was far older and two centuries of cold and magics had weakened her mind so far that some days she no longer knew her own name. She made me and this place what we both are, but she paid a heavy price.”

No wonder she’d felt the needed to document everything, Fard thought. This whole place embodied the idea of learning by doing. “Here, though,” the king continued, “I can believe it all: that these rocks are my mother and father, my brothers and sisters; that they still sleep inside, deathless and dreamless; that one far-off day, when the humans have all moved on, the spell will be undone and the mountains will rise and I’ll no longer be fated to leave my heart in another’s hands. I come to ask them for guidance.”

Fard closed the distance between them by another step. “What do they say?”

The king shut his eyes for a moment, as though listening to some far-off voice Fard could never hope to hear. For a full minute, the only sound was the cry of far-off hawks and distant rumbles as the sunlight sent snow in sheets down the mountains — until the king broke the stillness with a bitter little laugh. “Nothing,” he said, taking the pipe again from Fard; this time Fard let him. “They never do.” He took another long drag from the pipe, though this time he puffed out the smoke in five perfect rings.

The largest of the rings drifted toward Fard, who ran his fingers through its smoky rim and broke it apart. “Yet you continue to come here anyway.”

“You might think I’d learn,” said the king, “but perhaps sometimes I can be slow too. You brought the orb?”

Fard reached into the pocket of his pants and produced the red glass sphere the king had given him the previous afternoon. He’d kept it on his body through the night, and when he’d woken that morning, he’d noticed a change in it, where every time he focused his attention on it, the inside began to glow brighter. “So what is it?” he asked, holding it perched atop his fingertips.

The king touched its surface, and the points where he made contact sparked. “Petrified fire.”

Not once before in his life had Fard heard of such a thing. “You can’t petrify fire.”

“Perhaps you can’t.” The king withdrew his hand. “This is another of those sources of power I spoke of earlier. It comes from the heart of the mountains, hewn from the rock and polished. Unlike your broad goddess-magic, this does only one sort of thing, but it does that perfectly well. And here is where you and I are going to learn to use it.”

“Don’t you know already?” Fard looked from the sphere to the king and back again.

“It doesn’t matter what I know. You’ve seen what use I am on my own. Place it flat on your palm,” the king instructed, and Fard obeyed. The king reached out his own hand and placed it atop Fard’s, curved just enough to accommodate the orb, so their hands just touched one another all around it.

Through the gaps between their fingers, a soft red light began to shine, faint against the morning sun. “Good. It recognizes you as mine. We can begin.”

“Was there a chance it wouldn’t?”

The king shrugged and took his hand away; the brighter glow vanished, but the sphere kept its dim, flickering core. “That’s why she chose you. Not because of what you could do at the time, but because you had the capacity to learn more. I was angry about that choice, but I always understood it. Abi-ji always knew the difference between what I wanted and what was good for me, and I’m not surprised his most tenacious ghost operates by the same principles. I’d be more furious if it hadn’t brought me you.”

Fard hoped the bright daylight might cover any awkward blushing on his part; he dropped his eyes to stare at the round stone fire. “Your Majesty is too kind.”

“I’m nothing of the sort. You’re going to help me save my life and my home. I wouldn’t be nearly so kind if I didn’t believe you could do it. Now come here.” The king took Fard by the arm — a curious gesture, as the king need only have ordered Fard somewhere to relocate him — and walked with him toward the platform’s edge. The decorative low railing came only to Fard’s mid-calf, which might have stopped a small animal from going over the edge, but nothing more. Several stories below them was the courtyard outside the front door, now buried by a massive snowdrift. “Now hold it like this,” he said, positioning Fard’s arms so both his hands wrapped around the orb and then held it to his chest. “How does it feel?”

“Warm,” said Fard, though that was the obvious answer. “…Warmer even than that. Like standing outside a room with some great bonfire inside.”

“Good,” said the king, placing a hand flat on Fard’s bare back; Fard shivered and gripped the stone tight. “Concentrate on that heat. Listen to it.”

Fard did, closing his eyes. At first he heard nothing in the stillness surrounding them but his own heavy breathing, but a second sound came up behind it. At first Fard thought it just the crackling and splitting of burning logs, but the noise was greater than that. There was air to it, fierce whooshing sounds like the beating of giant wings. Those too were far away, though as Fard concentrated, he could imagine their growing ever closer.

The king moved so his body was just behind Fard’s, until his chest and furred coat collar pressed up against Fard’s bare back. “Good,” he whispered, caressing Fard’s shoulder. His breath smelled like pipe smoke and ash, but sweetly so, and though they were both ice-skinned, Fard burned at the touch. “Whatever happens, don’t let go.”

That was when the king pushed him off the roof.

The first few grey trails of smoke rising from beyond the foothills might have been from the fires of villages digging themselves out from winter, or even from a large traveling caravan forced to make camp for several days. Fard knew better, though, and when several more wafted upward beside them over the next few days, he wasn’t surprised. The last of the winter storms had torn its way through the mountains more than a month previous, and now the tops of the tallest bushes and boulders had begun to peek their way up through the heavy white blankets of snow. The first real thaw wouldn’t be far behind.

One night around the dinner table, after the plates had been cleared and the others had left them to their lessons, instead of copying more of her exercises, Nonna pushed a slate into Fard’s hands. I want to help.

Fard read it and handed it back to her, shaking his head. She’d been expressing herself more and more since that first dinner with the king, which Fard counted as a positive development, but that didn’t mean he had to support that trend by indulging her every written desire. “You can’t. I’m not even sure I can, and I’ve had a lot of training.”

With a frown, Nonna pushed the slate back to him and tapped it twice. In the nine months since he’d met her, she’d grown nearly half a foot and her face had begun to to lose some of its childish roundness, so that now when she glared at him, the sentiment behind the expression had some weight to it. “I know,” he said, this time not so quick to dismiss her eagerness. “And I’m grateful. I really am. It’s not because I think badly of you.”

She grabbed the slate back and erased it with her sleeve, then wrote: Why?

Fard sighed and sat back in his chair. The fires in the otherwise-empty kitchen roared low, such that when he took off his glasses to wipe them on his shirt, much of the room disappeared into muted orange-lit shapes. “All right,” he said after a moment’s thought, “If you want me to explain, then I’m going to tell you something, and it’s likely to scare you, and I don’t mean for it to scare you, but it scares me. Is that what you want?”

Without hesitation, Nonna nodded. She was such a brave little thing now, all spark and fury; she’d taken to reading and writing almost as well as she’d taken to pyromancy, and once she’d found her footing she’d never looked back. After a moment’s pause to make sure she wouldn’t change her mind, Fard reached beneath his shirt and drew out the amulet, letting it dangle from his fingertips and refract the light. “If the palace is taken, you need to find this, and it will probably be on my … on my dead body. Don’t be afraid of that; just take it and put it on, and come back here to the palace. There’s a letter in my study, in the top drawer, that has instructions. You–” He bit his lip as he looked at her, realizing the first of what was no doubt many flaws in his plan. “You’ll have to say something. One word, three times. Can you?”

Again, Nonna nodded yes. Fard had long suspected her silence to be more voluntary than not; when Fard had brought forth his hypotheses about her lack of verbal communication, the king had dismissed his explanations, saying, She’ll speak when the time is right. Fard was inclined to agree, but also wanted to be around for that dramatic moment, not absent on account of having passed into the invisible world so young in his career. Nonna reached her hand out to touch the amulet, and Fard pulled it back. “It’s, ah, probably not a good idea to touch it, unless … unless you have to.” He dropped it back within his shirt.

Nonna looked at him for a moment, her mouth curled to the side of her face in thought, then took the slate and wrote again: What does it do?

“It, well…” Despite his own experiences, Fard felt a more-than-fleeting urge to lie to her; she was at least half his age, and thus less likely even than he to turn her whole life over to this mad symbiosis he’d found himself in. But she deserved to know, and no matter how young she was, she also deserved to have the final decision be an informed one. “It will tie you to the king forever. As long as you live. You’ll be his heart, and as much as it may look like he’s your master, you’ll be his. Because he’s at your mercy. And he hates that he is, but it’s true.” Fard laughed a little to himself as he gazed into the fireplace. “And he’ll be mad because you can’t read his mind and because you aren’t what he’s grown accustomed to, but you can call his bluff and he’ll back down every time, because what he wants … is to not need you, or even like you, because you are mortal and you will die, and someday he’ll be left alone again. As he always is.”

The silence that followed was disturbed a minute later when Nonna reached for the slate again and chalked her words across its dusty grey surface. She took a long time, writing and erasing and writing again, and Fard did not rush her. He drew in a deep breath and watched as all the candles flickered higher in response. Thinking on what he’d said to her, he wondered how many of his predecessors had trained their successors, and how many, like him, had learned from the written word. He’d never expected to last in the position for five centuries, but had hoped his magic would give him at least one; now it looked as though he might not last one single year.

At last she turned the slate back to him with a firm shove. Fard drew it closer so he could read it in the dim light: He is not a bad man. I do what you say I need to do. But– Fard could tell from the cloud around the words that the next part had been erased and rewritten the most. But you are very good and you make very good magic. Please be alive and teach me.

Fard became aware that he’d started holding his breath, and he let it out in a heavy rush. “Yes,” he said, “I’d very much like to be alive to teach you.”

“What His Majesty and Master Fard are planning will require a great deal of concentration,” said a voice from the door, and both Fard and Nonna turned to see Mim standing in the doorway; how long she’d been there, he couldn’t say. “All lights in the castle will be extinguished to allow for this. Can he trust you to keep lit what would be necessary for you and the others, for warmth and safety?”

Nonna again gave a confident nod, and Mim bowed in response. Fard himself was taken aback, not by the suggestion, but by how he hadn’t thought of it first. The two of them hadn’t devoted much time to Nonna’s magical instruction, as Fard had determined that her ability to read the books in which the magic was contained was an important prerequisite for her being allowed to perform that magic, but on evenings when they’d both grown tired of text, he’d begun her first lessons in feeling the fire. He doubted she could start a large blaze on her own, but with enough effort on her part, she might be able to keep one going.

“Then perhaps,” Mim continued, “the slate might be retired for the evening, and other instruction begun.” She took a candle from the far end of the table, blew it out, and placed it before Nonna, who looked up at Mim with a bright smile. They were an odd pair, perhaps, but Mim could afford Nonna the attention the others in the palace were often too busy to give, and Fard knew how much such a thing could mean.

Fard shut his book and closed his hand in a fist around the top of the candle; when he took it away, the wick was lit again. “Focus.” Fard reached across the table and took her hands, then placed them flat across the table’s surface so that her body was poised right before the candle. “It’s all about focus. Feel the heat and space where the fire belongs.” With a quick breath, Fard extinguished the flame. “Now you know where the fire should be. Bring it back.”

Nonna closed her eyes and furrowed her brow, making little grunts of effort as she breathed — a classic beginner’s mistake, but Fard knew that nothing could teach someone how much that wouldn’t work until that person tried it and had it not work. Her nostrils flared and she pressed her lips together into a thin line. For several minutes she stared like that, her body vibrating with the effort, her cheeks beginning to redden. Just as Fard was about to take pity on her and suggest they try something else, Mim walked up behind Nonna. Without comment, she placed one hand flat against Nonna’s chest and another on the small of Nonna’s back, then squeezed so that Nonna’s spine was straight, rather than hunched over with tension. The candle snapped to life.

Fard didn’t bother keeping the delight from his face. “Very good!” he said, giving her a brief, one-man round of applause. From the grin that bloomed on her lips, he suspected she felt as good as he did about it. Even in the face of disaster, there were always little triumphs. “Nicely done! And you,” he added, turning to Mim, “were an excellent coach, thank you.”

“Of course.” Mim bowed to him. “I still have a trick or two left.”

Before he could ask what she meant by that, Nonna was climbing up on the table to blow out the candle so that she could practice her new skill again. Over and over, the evening continued on much like that, with the three of them surrounding the wick, caught in alternating patches of dark and light.

~*~

In his heart of hearts, he’d been expecting it, but the blow still knocked the wind out of him, bringing him to his knees in the snow. “Well, so much for peace negotiations,” he said, hunching over until he could regain his breath. “I didn’t think you were supposed to kill envoys like that.”

“They knew it was only an illusion.” Standing just to Fard’s left, the king did not look down to his fallen servant, but instead stared out into the peaks and valleys that stretched out before them. “Still, I would have preferred avoiding this altogether.” Two days before, a huge sheet of snow had plummeted off the kitchen roof, scaring Sriti half to death during dinner preparations with its sudden, heavy crunch; when she’d told Fard, he’d known the time was near. The following morning, the grey towers of campfire smoke on the horizon had begun closing in.

Giving the knees of his trousers a dusting-off, Fard stood again. He’d never had one of his illusions ripped from him so suddenly before, and given the option, he’d never have it happen again. His eyes were not as sharp as he knew the king’s to be, and while he could see some movement in the distance, it was all only suggestions to him. “How many, do you suppose?”

The king crossed his arms over his chest. “I see eight distinct banners … only three of which are even half a surprise. Ungrateful wretches tend to have bastard children who are even more ungrateful. Monarchy makes a vicious cycle.”

“…I was wondering more in terms of soldiers.”

“Oh. A few hundred each, perhaps. Some more, most fewer. They’ve underestimated you, which is to our advantage.”

Never before had Fard been quite so grateful for someone else’s poor opinion of him. He belted his deep amber robe more tightly around his waist; he didn’t know if he could be seen at such a distance, but if he could be, he wanted to be visible — and if he were to die today, at least he would have a well-dressed corpse. Footsteps crunched against the snow behind them, and Fard turned to see Mim come forth onto the high platform where they stood. “Is everyone else all right?” he asked.

“Safe and waiting,” Mim replied. As much as Fard hated to entertain the idea, the question of the others’ security in a worst-case scenario had been an issue; those three were the closest things he had to family, and his responsibility to them would not end with his death. Thus, he’d been pleased when Mim had taken him and Ewwa Ji down into the wine cellars, then pressed a stone in the wall where a centuries-old enchantment opened a door to a vast network of caverns and rooms. While they were hardly accommodation fit for a king, they would not be discovered by anything but the most diligent of magical investigations, and someone would already have to have suspected a presence there to even bother checking into the far corner of a cellar with empty shelves. Ewwa Ji had thanked her and begun the process of transferring down the necessary supplies for what might be a very long stay.

Had he been told from the beginning that he might find himself, in less than a year’s time, facing down an army bent on killing him, unseating his employer, and enslaving or doing even worse to three people in his direct care, it would have been just one of a million reasons why Fard would have refused the position and never looked back. Now, though, standing here with that weight on his shoulders, he felt at ease with how it had all turned out. He still wasn’t looking forward to an early death, of course, but if it had to happen at all, then having it happen like this might be all right.

At the far edge of the platform, the king stood like a watchman’s hawk, eyes fixed on the ground far below as his long white cloak flapped in the icy wind. Perched there, he looked more regal than Fard had ever seen him before, full of cold, patient fury. The clear blue sky was the color of the king’s eyes, and his skin and hair matched the snow that had begun to shift with the spring thaw; this place was more than his home, it was what he was, and he was ready to defend it. “They’re almost at the pass,” said the king, translating the scene before them for Fard’s feeble eyes. “Soon.”

“Soon,” Fard echoed, steadying himself with a deep breath. “I’m ready.”

“No, you’re not,” said Mim, and her words caused both Fard and the king to turn to her with a start. She turned to Fard. “Focus, as you said, is the key. You don’t need to have your attentions divided.”

Fard frowned; he didn’t understand. “Did I miss one of the fires?” He’d walked through most of the palace to check with his own eyes that all the hearths and candles had gone dark, but the palace was large and he was more than ready to believe that he’d overlooked at least one.

The snow behind Fard crunched as the king stepped forward. “Illusions too,” he said with a heavy note in his voice.

“I took care of those.” Some few nameless, near-identical bodies had taken over Nonna’s more routine chores to allow her more time to her studies, and with a word, they’d vanished. The quartet of lovers who kept the king’s chamber occupied had been the next to go, but he’d recreated them before and knew he could do it again. Silencing Osmith had been the most difficult, since Sriti had grown so attached to him, but Fard had promised that the first thing he’d do when it was all over was to bring him back to her; with his help, her grip of their common language had begun to improve, but his presence still facilitated all but the most basic communication between her and anyone but the king. With Nonna, Sriti, and Ewwa Ji safe beneath the palace, the only moving things, living or otherwise, anywhere in the palace were the three of them standing on the platform–

Fard’s heart sank into his chest. “Oh, Mim,” he said, reaching to take her hands in his. “I’m sorry. I’ll have you right back just as soon as this is over.”

“No, you won’t,” she said, bringing their joined hands together to Fard’s chest before letting them go. “For an illusion to survive past the death of the one who made it, it must contain some of that illusionist’s essence. In me is the last of Abias ar-Dal, living on through you; when I am gone, I will not return.”

“No!” Fard shook his head; her proposition was unacceptable. “Then don’t worry; I can manage–”

“You have no concept of how much of your strength I take. You will need it.” She cocked her head at him, an insectlike gesture that made Fard think of how uncertain of her he’d been when they’d met, of how much of a fixture she’d become to him in the time since. “It does not matter to me whether I am here or gone, but it matters to you, and for that, I offer my apologies.” With that, Mim turned to the king and gave a deep bow. “He would be sorry that he had left you so long with only ghosts for compay, and happy that you have returned to the world of the living.”

The king’s stone facade had begun to crack, and despite how strong his bearing continued to be, lines of worry wrinkled his forehead and drew down the corners of his mouth. The expression made his already-young face seem almost childlike in its sorrow. “He left me,” the king said softly.

“He was tired, little snowflake. He loved you with all a father’s love, but it was his time to sleep.” Mim turned back to Fard. “As it is now mine.”

Fard looked to the king, hoping to get some sign from him that this was wrong, that he should do anything but obey — but the king gave a solemn nod. “Thank you for your service,” he said to Mim, this time bowing low to her in a gesture of deference Fard had never seen the king adopt before.

“Thanks are not necessary,” said Mim, who added after a moment, “but Your Majesty is most welcome.”

Once more, Fard reached for her hands, and this time Mim did not pull away. “I can’t,” he whispered, even though he knew not only that he could, but that he should. Nothing else made as much sense or hurt as much to contemplate.

With a soft smile, Mim stepped closer, until they were nearly chest-to-chest. “I trust you to continue Nonna’s lessons in my absence. Train her not to be your successor, but to be your colleague. The stone and all that comes with it belong rightly to you.”

Fard choked out a laugh, and was surprised to find as he did that he was crying. “Because you lied to me,” he said, though the accusation no longer had any bitterness in it.

“I was created to accomplish a certain task. Honesty and full disclosure were secondary concerns.” Mim looked to the king, then back again to Fard. “My task is complete.”

With a sudden burst of affection, Fard tossed his arms around her and drew her into a great, strong embrace. She did not raise her arms to hug him back, but that was just as well; she was always awkward and remote by nature, and had she suddenly become demonstrative, Fard might not have been able to complete his own task. He shut his eyes tight and hugged her with as much fierce gratitude as he could summon, then took a deep breath and continued to draw his arms closer to his body until they met his chest with nothing between them. When he could bear to look again, his cheeks were damp and Mim was gone.

He expected one of any number of reactions from the king, most of which might have involved mockery or exasperation, but instead he felt the king’s cold hand brush down the side of Fard’s face, wiping it dry. “Are you well?”

Fard nodded and squared his shoulders; there would be time for grief later, or there wouldn’t, and either way, mourning wouldn’t help him now. “I’m ready,” he said, reaching into his breast pocket and pulling out the red sphere he’d kept tucked away in there. It reached to his touch now without delay, shining in response to the familiar contact.

The first time he’d gone off the roof had startled him so badly that he nearly had dropped the sphere, but instinct had helped him hang on, and just before he’d hit the ground (or really, hit the two stories’ worth of snow atop the ground), he’d heard those wings rush in and had felt himself borne aloft, turning his fall into flight. It hadn’t carried him more than the length of his body over again, and it hadn’t saved him from having to dig his way out of a self-shaped crater in the snow, but it had worked. The next time he’d gone over the edge — after he’d stopped shaking with fright — had been of his own volition, as had every time after that, though making the decision to take the plunge never erased the terror. In the absence of calm, calculated, learned ability, the fear of falling made a great summoner.

That had been from one of the palace’s lower platforms, though, and into heavy drifts. Where they stood now was atop one of the great roofs, high above the thawing ground below. Fard could see the banners now, little specks of color dancing in the high mountain winds. Hundreds of people he’d never met were on their way to kill him. It was enough to make a man wish he’d stayed in bed that morning.

The king looked down at the stone. “Swallow it.”

Certain he hadn’t heard right, Fard frowned at the king. The sphere was as wide as a large egg was tall, too large to fit in Fard’s mouth, much less down his throat. “Swallow it how?”

“The usual way.” The king tapped his own lips.

Irritated, Fard held it out toward the king. “You swallow it.”

“I’m not the one who needs to.”

“It’s not going to fit!”

“Then make it smaller!”

Fard opened his mouth to say something rude to the king, then clamped his lips shut and looked at the sphere in his hands. Petrified fire, the king had called it, and while its petrified qualities were obvious, Fard had yet to see what besides glowing it had to do with being fire. He’d told Nonna what he’d been told himself as he’d been learning: that to create fire, one had to feel the space where the fire needed to be, and then fill it. The same went for making flames increase or decrease in intensity. Fard closed his hands around the sphere and thought as hard as he could about how the fire inside needed to fill a smaller space. “If this doesn’t work, you’re eating it,” he said, with a little more volume to his irritation than he’d intended.

The king rolled his eyes, but a little smile played on his lips. “If it doesn’t work, I may eat you.”

I’m delicious. This is a rock.” Complaining aside, though, Fard did feel stronger now — it was strange to think of its being because of Mim’s departure, but there was no getting around the connection — and when he pulled his hands apart again, he was only slightly surprised to find the sphere had condensed to an orb no larger than a grape. It shone more brightly now, though, condensed as it was, so much so that Fard could only bear to look at it for short bursts before his eyes began to burn.

“You see there, illusionist?” The king put his hand near the sphere, causing sparks to leap out and create tiny arcs of red lightning between its surface and the king’s fingertips. “Open wide.”

The sphere, glowing fiercely in Fard’s hands didn’t look like anything anyone would want to eat, and now that the possibility seemed less of a joke, the idea gave Fard pause. “Can’t I just hold it?”

“If you drop it,” the king began, and instead of finishing the sentence, he pointed to the sky, then let his fingertip trace a slow line downward, the imagined descent of some far-off object’s plummeting from the sky down toward ground that would not break its fall.

Fard winced. “Point taken.” He put the sphere between his lips and swallowed it down before he could change his mind.

He’d expected it to be warm inside him, but the orb remained cold all the way down his throat; he could feel it settle in his stomach, a sensation that brought a wave of nausea so strong he was afraid he might vomit it up again. He staggered forward, but this time the king’s arms reached out to catch him, grabbing him and pulling him so close that Fard’s cheek came to rest against the king’s bare chest. “Don’t fight it,” the king said, gripping Fard tight as he held them both upright. “It won’t hurt you. It knows you.”

The words were supposed to be comforting, he knew, but they seemed ridiculous: every reflex in his body told him the stone was alien to him and wanted it out. The hot tang of bile crept up the back of his throat, making him gag. “Don’t fight it,” repeated the king, clutching at Fard’s body hard enough that Fard knew he’d have bruises the next morning, if he lived to see such a thing. He lurched forward and felt the stone move inside him — then felt no stone at all as a great fever overtook him. His whole body burned for what felt like forever but must only have been a few seconds, then went slack as the fever broke and sweat poured over his skin, soaking his clothes. He coughed and a plume of grey-white smoke poured out into the air, leaving his mouth tasting like ash.

Once Fard felt less like he was going to pass out, he let the king help him into a standing position, though he didn’t release the bundles of the king’s cloak he’d bunched into his fists. In the distance, a war-horn blew, making Fard shiver in spite of how hot his body still felt. His breath came in quick, short gasps that made his chest heave. He tried to speak, but his throat was parched, as dry as a campfire gone cold in the night, so he shook his head instead. If he went over the edge now, he’d lose consciousness and fall to his death.

“Shh,” whispered the king, letting go of Fard with one hand and using those fingers to grab Fard’s face; they were nose-to-nose now, so close Fard could barely focus even over the tops of his glasses. “Don’t hold it in. That’s what’s making you sick. Let it go.” In one swift movement, he leaned forward and clamped his mouth against Fard’s.

Shocked by the contact, Fard let his jaw go slack. Instead of kissing him, though, the king drew in a great breath, sucking all the air from Fard’s lungs — and when the air was gone, then came the fire. Spilling from Fard’s mouth, licking at the king’s clothes and hair, the fire burned blue-hot and tasted of earth and metal. It melted the snow around them, but ran over their hair and skin the way water ran over oilcloth, touching but not seeping in. The metal of Fard’s amulet, the one that bound him to the king, grew began to spark against his skin, and the stone at its center began to beat like the heart it was. All the hurt inside him, all the fever, all the sorrow, all the rage — all of our poured out in a great blaze at whose warm heart the two of them stood.

The king drew back and clamped his hand over Fard’s mouth, stopping the flow of the flames, then wrapped his other arm around Fard’s waist until they were standing chest-to-chest, tangled in the fabric of one another’s clothes. “Hold tight,” he said, and taking one final step, he pulled them both over the edge.

The ground never even got close. The wings that had held Fard aloft every other time he’d plummeted downward didn’t have to travel at all to reach him; they were already there, wrapped around him, protecting him from the fall. At first, he could no longer feel the king’s arms around him; then he could no longer even feel his body as a thing separate from anything else around him. Somewhere, his mouth opened again, but it wasn’t his mouth, and he wasn’t opening it. He was still the source, however, and from him poured the pure, white blaze of dragon-fire.

His eyes were shut, yet he could see everything around him with a raptor’s clarity: the peaks, the trees, the distant cities, the towers of the White Palace, and all the faces of the soldiers far below him as they stared up at him in horror. Perhaps they’d been prepared to face an army of illusory warriors, or perhaps they hadn’t been told what they might encounter, but from the way they stood frozen with fright, he knew they hadn’t been told to expect a dragon. Hadn’t Mim said that all dragon sightings for the past three millennia had been apocryphal at best? Such lucky men, being there to witness history.

Fard opened the mouth he didn’t have, belching fire once more, and was wickedly delighted to see the way they all shrunk back. He wanted to kill them all and eat them. He wanted to crunch their bones in his great and toothy jaw. He wanted to cut them down with his great talons and let his gleaming white scales be the last thing they saw. He’d waited trapped in his own body for thousands of years because of humans. He wanted to cause them pain.

No, that was wrong; he didn’t want to hurt anyone. He just wanted to stop them. He wanted all the humans to go away. He wanted them to die. No, he didn’t want that at all; he just wanted them to go away. If he could make them go away, that would be enough. No one had to die.

He twisted his body in long circles in the cold, clear sky, letting them all see the way the sun reflected off his scales. He was magnificent, terrifying, free. Perhaps some of them knew he was only an illusion, but surely most of those then also knew that just because something was an illusion didn’t make it unreal. He shot another plume of fire, this one down toward the frightened armies, and laughed to see them scatter. A few commanders shouted at them to hold their posts, but what were human orders in the face of a dragon? They’d brought their swords and pikes and knives for killing humans. Not one of them had expected such a monster come down from the sky.

He could smell their fear, which made him rage and pause at the same time. He wanted more of the fear. He wanted everyone to bow to him. He wanted to maul them. He wanted them to go away, to go home, to go back to their families, to raise their children, to grow old, to tell their grandchildren one day about the time they saw the only dragon still left in the world.

No, thought Fard, and that thought was both clear and clearly Fard’s. The greedy human rulers had sent their subjects up the mountain for them; the soldiers could never have refused. Their deaths would solve nothing, and for every one life taken here, a dozen somewhere else would feel it. Fard thought of grief, of loneliness, of loss, of his housemates, of the family he’d never known, of Mim. There was nothing to those feelings that could ever justify making someone else feel them. Some things were lost forever, and nothing could either bring them back or fill the holes they left behind. Washing the mountains red with human blood do nothing to erase the thousands of years the of the king’s imprisonment or free any of the other souls that might sleeping in the great rocks beneath. No further harm could undo the past.

Anguished, he let out a roar so loud it bounced off the mountains and caused the people beneath to clap their hands to their ears. They were running now, sprinting and sliding through the high snow, but they might be back, and he couldn’t chance that. He yelled again, until the heavy sheets on the peaks surrounding the pass began to creak and shift. Foolish humans, who’d traveled so far into a land that wasn’t theirs and had never been from the start.

He perched atop a high ridge, resting his great wings for a moment, and looked out over the foothills below. His sharp eyes could see there was a tent there, a high canopy of fine red fabric, surrounded by the eight banners that had ridden against him. He knew them all now on sight. Blue with a black tree for the Black Wood baroness who’d erred so gravely in throwing away Nonna to his service. Three in various reds for three of the tribes of the High Steppes. Two blue and two green from the seafaring independent coastal city-states, well-known for agreeing to anything if money got involved. And in the center, above all others, a blank grey field edged in silver, the crest of the Grey Islands. The little people who poured from it looked so important in their fine mail, so betrayed in their shock. Couldn’t he at least burn that?

Yes. He swooped down with all the speed he could muster, drawing his wings to his sides and pulling his body taut as an arrow from a bow. He delighted to see them scatter, to run as fast as their elaborate and impractical armor could carry them. With pleasure, he drew in a deep breath and spat it back out as fire, torching the roof of the tent and most of the ground around it. A row of supply-carts nearby fell to the fire as well, and he couldn’t be bothered to feel sorrow for that. Let them retreat if they didn’t want to starve.

That was enough. He wound around his serpentine body and headed back up the mountain, skimming just over the heads of the fleeing soldiers, close enough that the beating of his wings knocked many of them down. Let them tell their grandchildren about that. He was magnificent and terrifying, and they deserved to see. He’d make the story as good as it could be.

Through the last pass, he gave one last great cry and all the snows came down in his wake. Down they came with their own mighty roar, like a hundred thunderstorms at once, creaking and rumbling and shifting. White clouds rose around them, obscuring the sun, and when at last the snows had settled, no evidence remained that any humans had ever come through there at all, much less an entire army, much less only half an hour before. Everything again was as it should have been.

He was tired, though, and now when he opened his mouth again, only puffs of smoke wafted out. He’d had only one shot, and he’d taken it, and it had been all he’d had. If they’d been able to hold out mere minutes longer, they would have had him and the palace for their own, and the day would have been theirs. But they were running and would not find the strength to return in the time it’d take for him to call upon old alliances and forge new ones. He was safe. They were all safe. He made one last circle through the sky, making sure he’d be seen one final, terrifying time, then spread his wings wide and rode the currents to the ground. He collapsed in front of the palace with such force that it shook all the snow from the roofs of the White Palace. They’d probably even felt that underground. He should tell them somehow that he was all right, that he had won. He’d do it himself, just as soon as he’d gotten his breath back. He closed his eyes and let the cold and silence welcome him home.

~*~

He woke stiff and sore and surrounded by pillows, but he was alive, which was better than he’d suspected he might wind up. He took a deep breath and tried to let it out slowly, but his lungs seized up and he wound up doubled over in a fit of coughing. At his side, he felt movement followed by a hand on his forehead, leaning him back to put a glass of water to his lips. He sipped until he felt his chest calm again. “Is…?”

“Everyone is fine,” said a familiar voice, and Fard looked up to see the king’s face smiling down at him. “I went and called them out myself. They helped me bring you here to rest.”

Even without his glasses, Fard had no trouble recognizing his location once he sat up to get a better look around. The king’s chambers looked different now, with bright daylight coming through the windows and only a low fire at the hearth, but nowhere else Fard had seen in the palace looked quite like this. “You carried me all the way up here?” He remembered the crash, but nothing following.

“Carried you down,” the king corrected, and when Fard frowned at him, puzzled, the king laughed. “My bed was closer than yours.”

That made no sense; Fard’s room was only half as many flights up from the front courtyard as the king’s. When he frowned at the king, puzzled, the king pointed upward. “But I thought,” said Fard, who stopped the sentence upon realizing he didn’t know what he’d thought. Had any of it been real? Was he even here now?

The king placed a hand on Fard’s chest, and Fard was startled to realize that his chest was bare — and not only that, but the rest of him as well. Reflexively bashful, he grabbed a nearby pillow and pulled it over his lap, and the king laughed again, though the sound was kind. “Fear not for your modesty, we sent the women out of the room for that. Your clothes were ruined, burnt and soaked with snowmelt. You would have been miserable and a mess.”

With a great embarrassed exhale, Fard lay back against the pillows and thought about grabbing another pillow, this one to cover his face. “I’m sorry I’ve been such trouble.”

“Trouble?” The king shook his head; little crystals hung from his ears on silver chains, and they made noises like windchimes when he moved. “You saved us: the others from the enemy, and me from my own worst nature. To my mind, that affords a man a trip down some stairs, a change of clothes, and a few days’ convalescence.”

“A few days?”

“Almost three. I was going to try waking you if you hadn’t stirred by tomorrow. Our hosts will be expecting us within the week, and while I approve of fashionable lateness, I’d rather not make them too impatient.” The king stood and walked over to a small table just beyond the edge of the pillowed floor, on which stood two crystal pitchers; he was dressed, but his robes were loose and showed as much of his skin as they hid. Under other circumstances, Fard would have accepted this as one of the king’s fashion peculiarities, but being naked made him self-conscious. “I’ve given my own house as neutral ground for a number of peace summits, but haven’t been a participant in quite some time. It’s marginally more exciting.”

“Then they surrendered.” Fard pulled himself upright again, trying to adopt a sitting posture as formal as the situation would allow him; he hardly thought it required, but it made him feel better.

“A surrender of sorts. Pleas for clemency, more like it.” The king took the ewer filled with a brown-gold liquid and poured it into a small glass as he spoke. “I imagine said summit will involve a great deal of our looking menacing while listening to their promises of how they’ll never do that again. One of the many benefits this job offers.”

Fard meant to ask more about what would be expected of him there, but the king took a sip from his glass and Fard was struck with conflicting bouts of pleasure and disgust. He gagged, coughing a dry, bark-like taste up from the back of his throat. “What is that?” he asked, pressing a fist to his lips. He’d had enough of vomiting in recent memory.

The king looked at Fard, then then at the glass, then back to Fard with a frown. “Mushroom brandy.”

“It’s vile.” The part of him that liked the taste and effect of the alcohol had been beaten down by the part that registered the full weight of the fungal bouquet.

The king lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed, and again Fard recoiled. “And here I thought that would have faded by now,” the king said with a strange smile, putting the glass back down on the table. “I suppose untested magic can have some interesting side effects.”

“Untested?” The pushing, the falling, the practice, the swallowing — the king had seemed so sure throughout. “You said you knew what it would do!”

“I knew, in the general, what it should do.” The king walked back over to the bed and lay beside Fard, looking innocent as could be. “And that, it did.”

Fard scowled. “I thought we were going to be honest with one another.”

“I was only slightly dishonest,” said the king, “and what’s more, I know you. I will apologize if you can look me in the eye and tell me this truly: that had I told you outright of the boundaries of my knowledge on this matter, you still would have been able to maintain the confidence necessary to succeed.”

This time Fard did pull a second pillow over his face, though mostly so he wouldn’t have to see the king’s smug expression. “I hate you so much,” he said into the pillow. Some small part of him hoped he might suffocate that way.

“This is a terrible way to treat your lord and master.” The king poked Fard in the side, and Fard squirmed so hard he dislodged both of the his modesty pillows in the process of getting away.

“You’re a terrible lord and master,” Fard said, though he couldn’t quite keep a smile from his face. “Abusive, reckless, fire-breathing….”

“The fire-breathing is your fault.”

“Its being my fault is your fault.”

With that wicked, beautiful grin still on his lips, the king touched his own throat and slid his fingertips down his bare chest. “You can’t blame me for everything,” he purred.

The sensation was electric. The connectivity that had let Fard’s mind fly, dragon-like, while leaving his body where it had fallen in the snow now shook him hard, making him shiver as he gripped the pillows closest to his hands. He looked down at his body to see that his own penis was still in its soft, familiar resting state — but the king was growing hard now, so much so that his erection had started to bulge through his robe, and regardless of what Fard’s own body was doing, that was what he felt. His own body hadn’t responded like that in years, not since he’d come of age and taken vows to enter the Academy, and he’d focused so hard on other matters since that he’d been able to convince himself he didn’t miss it.

Having that sensation back, even only by proxy, gave him good cause to reconsider many of his life choices. Seeing Fard shiver, the king laughed and let his hand slip lower, to the part of his belly just below where the lapels of his robe belted shut. “If you wish me to stop, you’d best say something now.” He gave Fard a wicked wink.

Fard should say something, he knew; he should complain, excuse himself, make apologies, fall back asleep, something, anything. Instead, he licked his lips and shut his eyes. “…I hope Your Majesty isn’t expecting me to be able to participate.”

“Nothing, really?” The king looked pointedly at Fard’s lap, but instead of stopping in disappointment when Fard shook his head sadly, the king shrugged. “Then I’ll count us both fortunate that there are other ways of participating. Come here.” He touched the cushions at his side.

Blushing but unable to refuse such an enticing offer — and it had been an offer, not an order, Fard knew the difference by now — Fard pulled himself toward the king in an ungainly half-roll, half-scoot. When they were closer, the king lay his still-clothed arm across the pillows and Fard lay down against it, touching but still not touching, kept away by that last breath of fabric. And it wasn’t even fabric, Fard thought as he felt its grain against his cheek; it was as imaginary as the rest of the king, the fires, the dragon, everything. That didn’t mean, though, it wasn’t real.

The king smiled at him. “You’re very handsome,” he said, and when Fard groaned and hid his face in the king’s sleeve, the king laughed. “I thought so when I met you. A little plain, perhaps, but only when dressed. You look much better like this.”

“Your Majesty doesn’t need to flatter me to make me stay,” said Fard, his words muffled and his cheeks blazing. He’d always been so uncomfortable with any comments on his appearance, though he’d had far less experience with positive ones.

“It’s not flattery.” The king bent over so his mouth was close enough to Fard’s ear that Fard could feel the breath of his words; his hair spilled over his shoulders and across Fard’s bare skin, soft and wooly. “Listen and know I tell the truth.” He brushed the tips of his cold fingers down the length of his cock, leaving Fard gasping.

The Academy had spent little time talking to its students about sexual propriety and appropriate workplace relationships, no doubt on the presumption that a lack of sexual response would stop most of those issues before they even arose, but he had few doubts that this was not an arrangement of which the Masters would have approved. Fard also didn’t care. The king still made him furious with his spoiled nature and insufferable, persistent tendency to expect Fard to have anticipated his every desire, but now those weren’t Fard’s only associations with his employer, or even his primary ones. Now when he thought of the king, he thought not of the terrifying figure who’d berated Fard for every slight, but of the fierce yet gentle man who encouraged Nonna, stared at the mountains for guidance, and swore he’d slay an army to keep Fard safe.

None of which, of course, made Fard any better of a lover, and of that failing he was painfully aware. “Perhaps Your Majesty would prefer I brought back your, ah, quartet.” He picked at a loose thread at the corner of one of the pillows.

“Unless you’d be more comfortable that way.” The king shifted toward Fard, and though he’d made no move to unbelt it, his robe fell open, giving Fard a view of the curve of his snowy hip and long legs. “Later, I want you to call them, and this time I want you to stay with me so you can feel through me what pleasures they can give. For now, I’d rather kiss you.”

Fard wanted to have some suave reply, but all the moisture had vanished from his mouth, so he nodded instead, and the king bent to touch their mouths together. The kiss had nothing of the earlier fire-breathing ferociousness, such that Fard was surprised by the tenderness into parting his lips wider. While it didn’t arouse him any more than he’d been in years, Fard couldn’t get enough of being touched. What the contact didn’t do for Fard, though, was more than made up for by what it did do for the king, and Fard pressed in, feeling how much his touch was wanted and more than willing to answer that desire.

The king leaned over and rolled them both so Fard was on his back and the king was atop him, pressing their naked bodies together, with only Fard’s pendant caught between them. Rather than shying away from Fard’s mottled skin the way many before had, the king ran his hands up and down Fard’s arms as he coaxed them back above Fard’s head; at the same time he parted Fard’s thighs with one of his knees, until Fard lay naked and spread against the pillows, breathless and helpless. “If we’re going to be together for a while,” said the king, kissing his way up Fard’s throat to his ear, “we might as well become comfortable with one another. Are you comfortable, illusionist?”

The low rumble of the king’s voice thundered through Fard’s body, all the way to the tips of his toes. “I am, Your Majesty,” he said, turning his head so their lips brushed again. He’d gotten past the fear of sex years before, when he’d been told how he one day might be called upon to lay atop the altar and let some man or woman use his body until someone’s seed was spilt. He had that, and he had the feedback from his lingering connection with the king, and both were telling him to kiss and move and touch without fear or shame. Though his arms were trapped in the king’s loose grip, his legs were free, and he brought them up until they wrapped around the king’s waist. “Are you?”

With a soft laugh, the king pressed his hips in against Fard’s body, until his hard cock prodded Fard’s soft one. “I see you know what I want from you,” he said, grinding his erection slowly into Fard’s belly.

“I figure it has to be more pleasant than your mushroom brandy.” Fard locked his ankles together behind the king’s back, letting him have what access he wanted. This was what all the boys who’d been through the ritual told about it, after all, and Fard wanted to make sure he was as little of a disappointment as possible.

Instead, the king let go of Fard’s arms and grabbed both sides of his face to kiss him. “I want it,” the king whispered against Fard’s mouth, “but I want you to want it too. If it’s not worth it for you, I’ll never hear the end of your complaints about it tomorrow.” When Fard pulled away from the embrace with a surprised scowl, the king smirked and kissed his nose. “I am a man of exceptional patience.”

A year ago, the idea of calling from a different power source, one that did not demand so much in return, would have seen blasphemous at best; now, though, with everything he’d seen and experienced, he wasn’t about to discount the possibility. That would be a long way off, though, and if the king intended to be patient, then that patience would indeed need to be exceptional. The king was right, though — there were more ways than one to participate. He tightened his legs around the king’s waist again, pulling him back in for a deeper kiss as the king began to thrust against him.

Under more disconnected conditions, Fard might still have been all right with the arrangement — the contact felt good, and there was a special sort of power in making someone else feel that good. The feedback from the king, though, left Fard gasping in kind as they rocked their bodies together. The line between what was and wasn’t real no longer mattered to Fard when they were like this. He knew what felt good, and he wanted both to give and to get more of it.

At last, the king tensed and shivered, and Fard was surprised to feel not only the shared orgasm, but a dampness between their bellies as his own cock shot out thin ropes of seed. He hadn’t even noticed it stiffen, nor had he thought much of the friction their bodies had created together, except for how it had pleased the king. His long-defunct organ had performed as expected, though, and as Fard collapsed back against the pillows with the king atop him, he felt a sense of relief at realizing what he’d thought was lost forever might not have gone that far away at all. He would just have to be patient as well.

When the king finally lifted his head again, he wore a sleepy smile that robbed him of all regal dignity, which Fard was beginning to realize was just the way he liked the king. “I trust my service was up to Your Majesty’s high standards,” Fard said with a smirk.

“Oh, standards met.” The king drew his hair away from the back of his neck and nodded. “Perfectly acceptable. Quite adequate.”

Fard rolled his eyes and shoved the king off him, then grabbed the hem of the king’s own robe and wiped his stomach and thighs clean. “Alas, I doubt my mind-reading skills will last much longer. You should appreciate them while you can.”

The king laughed. “I intend to. You didn’t have other engagements, did you?”

“Oh, no, of course not. Nothing I can’t excuse myself from, anyway. Just some musty old peace summit for the terrible, cantankerous gasbag who employs me.” Fard shrugged. “It can’t be that important of a date; I don’t even know his name.”

“Of course you did,” said the king, and when Fard turned to him with a curious frown, the king reached over to tap the amulet. “It was the first thing you ever said to me.”

Fard had thought the strange word on Abias ar-Dal’s note to be some sort of ritual greeting or incantation; he’d never thought it might be something so simple. “And what did you say to me in return?”

“Oh, now I think I might not tell you,” said the king, rolling onto his back with his hands behind his head, so Fard picked up the nearest pillow and swung it through a fluffy arc to come smashing down in the middle of the king’s exposed stomach. It took the wind out of Fard, too, but it was worth it. “This is a terrible way to treat your lord and master,” the king said again, clutching his stomach but still smiling.

“You’re a terrible lord and master,” Fard replied in kind, but he leaned over to kiss the king and let the king draw him into a long, soft embrace. The king’s hands were soft and felt good as they roamed over Fard’s skin, caressing places only doctors had been brave enough to touch before, wandering up his sides and down his thighs and over his back. Even without their strange connection, Fard would have known of the king’s growing arousal by feeling his beautiful, stiffening cock press against Fard’s thigh, but the king made no move to satisfy this urge, at least not directly. There was more than enough pleasure, Fard could feel, to be had in waiting.

When the king at last nudged Fard off the top of him, Fard thought it was to reverse their positions, but instead the king moved them so they were both equal on their sides, facing one another, legs tangled and foreheads touching. “You must call three times so my bones can hear you, to prevent usurpers from snatching the stone and binding themselves to me without knowing or deserving the honor.” The king brushed his knuckles down Fard’s throat and shoulder, then let his finger drag along the chain around Fard’s neck. “Mayrat was the one to name me, long ago, from some old, dead tongue, and told me when I heard it, I should respond by saying, welcome, my light and my heart.”

Fard had known from a young age he’d likely never marry, but he knew of the rituals as well as did anyone who served in the the pleasure-goddess’ house. “You know that’s what a woman says the first time she welcomes her new husband into their bed-chamber, yes?”

The startled silence from the king told Fard that, no, he hadn’t quite been aware of that implication. “…I suppose I did mention that by the end of her life, she was no longer quite in her right mind.” The king chuckled and let his arm drape across Fard’s waist as they settled amongst the pillows. “Then again, she was far cleverer than I ever knew about until long after she was gone.”

“You miss her,” said Fard. He settled his hand across the king’s bare hip, feeling the way the king’s skin rested over muscle and bone. He was a complicated, detailed illusion, handed down in much the same way Mim had been. Of course he was imaginary; no one living could have looked so perfect, so beautiful.

The king nodded. “I do. I miss them all.” He pressed a brief, sweet kiss to Fard’s lips. “But I suppose you’ll have to do.”

Fard snorted. “Are you ever going to stop being mean to me?”

“No.” The king kissed him again. “Perhaps we should put that in the job description: must be willing to endure abuse.”

“And I’ll write beneath it: employer is a spoiled monster; must be willing to give as good as you get.”

The king slipped his hand between their bodies and took both their cocks together in his grip, then began to squeeze lightly, such that Fard could not distinguish the pleasure from the feedback from what would have been his own pleasure. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted from you.”

“Oh, you are a liar,” laughed Fard, but the words were barely more than breath. The king needed to know no further lies were acceptable, though, and Fard decided the best way to do that was to kiss him so hard he couldn’t do anything else with his mouth. As tactics went, it was quite successful.

~*~

The third clip snapped into place, the one that kept the end of the scarf draped across Fard’s throat, framing his jaw, and he was ready. He could have summoned any number of servants to attend to him, but he preferred to dress himself, in solitude. The white looked strange and bright against his brown face, but he found the contrast pleasing. The rest of his skin was covered; even his hands were hidden beneath pale gloves that reached all the way to his elbow beneath the sleeves of his robe. He took one last look at himself in the room’s tall mirror, then headed for the door.

Just beyond his bed-chamber was the suite’s common space, onto which all of the four smaller rooms opened. House Hariima had been greatly honored to be asked to serve as the neutral ground for these talks, especially since one of their own was to play such an important role, and when Fard and the rest had arrived deep under cover of the previous night, they’d found the main complex’s most luxurious accommodations had been prepared for them. Fard had come a long way since the last time he’d been in the city, staying in a cramped dorm and assuming he’d be doing much the same for the rest of his life. He took a dried date from an ornate silver bowl and smiled as its sweetness broke between his teeth. Sometimes it was nice to be wrong.

In the center of the room, Nonna stood on a stepstool as Sriti and Osmith both chided her about staying still while Sriti finished wrapping her up in a long white bolt of cloth and pinning it at the left shoulder, leaving her pale right arm bare. Nonna’s hair had already been braided with white ribbons and wound into a ball at the back of her head, a look which Fard felt suited her. “Are you ready?”

Nonna nodded at the same time that Sriti shook her head. “A few more pleats,” Osmith said for her. “If you’re going to stand by the king, you’ve got to look your best.” Nonna sighed and rolled her eyes, and Sriti gave her a playful swat on her nose with the loose end of the fabric. “Don’t complain. You look beautiful.”

“You do,” Fard confirmed, and though Nonna rolled her eyes again at him too, she did so with a smile. She’d kept the fires burning in the tunnel from the moment she and the others stepped inside until well after the king had released them, she’d told him when next they’d been together with her chalk and slate; it had worn her out, but she’d done it, and was proud of what she’d accomplished. She’d borne up under the news of Mim’s departure well, and Fard had resolved to fill that gap in her life, so that neither of them need be lonely again. “Are you nervous?”

Nonna shook her head. “Good,” said Sriti, giving one last twist to the fabric before slipping in one last long silver pin. “You don’t need to be. You’re magnificent.” With one last tug to straighten the front of the garment, she stood and gave an approving nod.

The doors to the common room opened and Ewwa Ji stepped inside, looking strangely small without his customary layers of heavy fur. “His Majesty wonders if Master Fard and Mistress Nonna will come,” he said, gesturing to the door.

With a playful bow, Fard extended his arm to Nonna. “Shall we?” Nonna grinned and placed her small hand in the crook of his elbow, and together they went, out of the suite and down the corridor that led to the Great Hall. Though he knew they were more for form than for function, Fard had stationed white-clad guards throughout the section of the great house designated as theirs for the duration. He knew he needn’t trouble himself with making too grand of a show of force, though; that had been done already, and all that was left was to savor the repercussions.

At the end of the corridor stood the king, dressed in full regalia and countless pieces of silver jewelry, crown perched atop his head; his long, loose hair fell nearly to his waist. When he saw his three servants, he smiled the smile of a man greeting his friends. “These people serve to the pleasure of His Majesty,” said Ewwa Ji, indicating Fard and Nonna with a sweep of his hand. “This man shall go speak His Majesty’s readiness to the lord hosts.”

“Thank you,” said the king as Ewwa Ji slipped through the doors and shut them behind him. From the noise that had escaped through the portal, Fard had no doubt the great hall the doors opened onto was packed to every side with people, and Fard knew ten times that number had ears to every grate and eyes to every keyhole, trying to get even a glimpse of the goings-on inside. Mere talk of the first appearance of the Dragon King beyond his palace walls in centuries would have been enough on its own to cause a stir; talk of an actual dragon would have spread through the city with all the speed of a wildfire. Though Fard was of course willing to endure whatever else might be needed in the service of his king, he would be more than happy if all that talk kept him from ever having to create such an illusion again. It was good, sometimes, to trade on such an impressive reputation.

Left in the antechamber now with only his staff, the king first gave an approving nod to Nonna, then turned to Fard. “You look good in white,” he said, placing his palm flat against Fard’s chest, just over where, hidden, lay both their hearts.

Unable to resist the urge to roll his own eyes at the compliment, Fard still managed to smile and bow. Dressing so fully had been king’s idea, in fact; Fard had been prepared to bare his head and walk proudly back in amongst both his enemies and those who had known him when, but the king had seen things differently. Let them wonder what you’re hiding, he’d said, stretched naked across Fard’s bed as Fard folded pieces of his formal attire into chests in preparation for the journey. Let them wonder what I’m using you to hide. You’re the illusionist, after all. And he was. He was the thirteenth illusionist to the Dragon King, and he had more power within him than anyone gazing upon him would ever suspect.

From beyond the doors, a ram’s-horn trumpet sounded, and the king drew himself straight and tall. “At my left,” he said to Nonna, and Fard, unasked, took his place by the king’s right side. The king nodded to the servants at the doors, who pulled them back, revealing a room of light and noise and prying eyes. Side by side, quiet and powerful together, the three of them at last came forth.

Author’s Notes

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