Alena's castle fell while she was out chasing her dreams. It didn't have to happen that way.
Author's Note: I extrapolated some dream-related powers for Necrosaro in "The Edge of the Rainbow" and used them again here. Shamelessly!
Alena peers into the hallway, listening carefully for footsteps. The carpenter has left her room, and her earlier half-hearted show of contrition should be enough to buy her a few minutes alone.
The pillowcase she packed with spare coins and old bread is still tucked away under her mattress. A few seconds' work rewards her with a bedsheet rope. Supplies in hand, Alena goes to inspect the makeshift barrier over her window and grins when she sees how thin the wood is. At least they're consistent in underestimating her strength.
After securing one end of her rope to her bedpost, she stands before the window and draws back her leg. The walls should muffle the sound, but she has been caught before under more secure circumstances. She plans a single motion, kick and crack and out the window. One smooth kick―
The wood splinters into teeth, and she bites back a cry as her foot catches in the jagged maw she has created. Blood runs warm into her shoe.
As she struggles to free herself, her nurse's carefree humming drifts in from the hallway. Seconds later comes shrieking. Alena gives up and scowls at her leg as commotion erupts throughout the castle.
She won't be going anywhere today.
The waking dreams that steal her sleep and spill into her silences have not always been with her. When she first found the castle empty, she still burned with the elation of winning the tournament, and shock and rage only fed her flames. For months after, Alena blazed like a falling star.
Cristo and Brey had worried then because she was too hot to console, hot enough to vaporize tears before they began to form. She swept over the world, trailing mania in her wake, until the night that they celebrated her birthday on a ship to Stancia. Suddenly she was seventeen and homeless.
Alena hasn't slept properly since.
She shouldn't tell Cristo where her thoughts wander, but his is an artless and polite persistence that wears like centuries of rain on a stone. When he finds her insomniac, rubbing her shin, he asks.
"Alena," he says, and already she regrets telling him anything, "you would have left the castle sooner or later. You were unhappy, and you've done a lot of good out in the world. Don't regret it."
She didn't expect him to understand.
In the moonlight, they are all ghosts. The pair at the far end of the graveyard hold a third specter captive between them, and when Alena approaches the leader bids her halt. "The bracelet first," he says, "or the princess dies."
Alena has to fight not to laugh and tell everyone that the princess is invincible, the slayer of monsters and savior of villages. The metal warms against her palm.
She remembers what the old man said about the golden bracelet, that it can amplify the force of darkness. The kidnapper's eyes glitter with greed as he stares at it―does he know the legend, or does he think only of selling it? The thought makes bile rise in her throat, and Alena is disgusted with him, with his accomplice, with the charlatans, with the terrified girl wearing a stolen name.
When the thug demands the bracelet again, Alena glares at him and fastens it around her forearm.
A brain-shattering pulse turns her inside-out. Now the bile that was choking her drips away; the steady beat of her blood vanishes in a moment of rain. Her disgust evaporates in the open air. Everyone around her is speaking, but she doesn't have to hear them now and doesn't care what they have to say. Crimson infuses her vision, and she realizes, with a predatory grin, that she can see better in the dark than she ever could in daylight.
"―kill her," shrieks the accomplice, his voice distorted, "if you don't hand it over right now! What the hell―"
"Then kill her." Alena's voice reverberates deep in her chest. She could split the sky if she screamed. "None of you deserves to live."
The air sags with the weight of a coming storm as Alena snuffs out sound again. She raises her claw; Cristo grabs her sleeve, his lips moving feverishly in prayer.
Alena pushes him aside without undue force―because he is Cristo, because he is dear and bright no matter how dark she becomes―and stalks forward. The bracelet throbs like a leech, drawing out what remains of her soft imperfections, leaving her clean and silent inside. When she flexes her arm, her claw becomes a part of her, welded to tendons of wire and bones of steel.
What good are the kidnappers' knives, when she is the great and terrible knife-made-flesh? They scream in tritone: the impostor is caught with them. Alena swallows the noise and lets it echo away to nothing inside her, in a place only recently hollowed.
When she opens her ears again, Cristo is crying her name. With a smile, she abandons the scene of her purification and presses a gory finger to his lips. Somewhere behind her, Brey is speaking; he irritates her, but she doesn't have to listen to him anymore.
Straightening her hat, she glides off in search of enemies to unmake.
The violent fantasies should disturb Alena, but part of her―the part that crouched with taut muscles in the offering litter, eager to tear apart the monster that held Tempe hostage―revels in them. When she comes out of her fog with fistfuls of grass, broken stones littering the gashed earth at her feet, her worries drown in waves of adrenaline. She does wrong, but at least she does.
When she lies awake talking to Cristo, Alena censors herself. It upsets him enough that she has ever smiled with blood on her hands. "Remember what happened in Frenor?" she asks. "If that bracelet is so powerful, we should have kept it. We could have―"
He frowns. "I doubt that bracelet would have done anything for us, if it even does anything at all. I'm afraid isolation might have addled that old man's wits."
Cristo prays to a nameless dragon in the sky, but he is otherwise infuriatingly sensible. Of course a backwater village's bauble isn't an artifact of devastating power. And birdsong nectar is a myth, and entire populations don't vanish without a trace.
In her moments of dread, the bracelet gleams against Necrosaro's wrist.
"I won't stop you," the king says with gentle resignation. "Travel the world, Alena, and see what's happening in it."
Before he can continue, she shakes her head. "Thank you, Father, but no. If the world is in danger, then my place is here, protecting Santeem."
Cristo stares at her, and Brey gives her a look of quiet approval. After a stunned moment, her father chuckles and says, "Ever one to be contrary, aren't you?"
She smiles back. "I saved Tempe and a fake princess and you, Father. I've tested my strength. Now I want to stay, and and I want to join the guard."
Her father stops chuckling. Steepling his fingers, he regards her for what feels like half an age. Her smile doesn't waver.
"You'd have your way in the end, regardless." His sigh is long-suffering, but his eyes twinkle. "We'll arrange the details tomorrow. Tonight, let us celebrate the triumphant return of the princess!"
As the servants scatter to prepare a feast, he beckons her closer and says, "I missed you terribly, Alena."
"I missed you, too." Her flesh is quicksilver; her blood, lightning. She could open a window and soar to the tips of the turrets.
When she turns to head for her room and a change of clothes, his voice registers softly in her ears: "I'm so proud of you."
Alena orbits the decision. Her other dreams hang on accidents and shifting stars, but she left the castle on her own feet, under her own power. Waking from her revision rips holes in her heart.
So she keeps the fantasy at arm's length, gazing at it with the same longing she felt when she stared out her bedroom window, and the glaze over her world grows thicker. Whenever they stop to rest, Brey and Cristo speak in whispers that she isn't meant to hear, using words that she doesn't understand. Alena doesn't care about curses unless they can turn back time.
Brey talks to her every evening just as he did when she was still a princess, and his didactic tone blurs present and memory: Are you feeling ill, Alena? What are the principal exports of Bonmalmo? What is thrice fourteen? Did that potion do anything to quiet your dreams?
What Alena always hated most about her lessons was the abuse of the question mark. Brey never asked for an answer he didn't already know.
But Cristo's inquiries hang from little hooks that pull his face forward and his voice up, and no matter how she might regret it later, Alena hates to let him fall. When he asks what's troubling her tonight, she stares at the grass, clutches her knees, and tries to condense everything into a sentence about someone else. Her hands shake despite her efforts.
He moves to embrace her but stops when she hunches her shoulders. Alena holds her breath as she waits for him to reply.
"If you had been there, you would have died." Cristo's tone leaves no room for condemnation. She exhales. "The entire guard vanished, Alena. You couldn't possibly have stopped him on your own."
"I could have /tried/." Her voice cracks, and she has to bite off each word to keep from crying.
His hand touches hers, hesitant and gentle. "I'm so glad you didn't."
It isn't his place to forgive her.
Her heart sings like a kettle. Licking her lips, she flexes and waits for the gate to open. Only one man stands between her and eternal glory, and even now the announcer calls his name and gives the signal.
Something isn't right. The man striding into the arena is too tall, too graceful, and his eyes are red as embers. The sword and spaulders he bears with ease would burden a giant.
Suddenly Alena feels the weight of her clothes, heavy with sand and sweat and blood. Her right leg still tingles from the herbal poultice she applied between rounds, and she hears a voice in the back of her mind, clear and sweet as nectar, telling her that she won't last a minute. She ignores it and grits her teeth.
When the bell rings he doesn't move.
Every muscle in her body is tensed, and she burns to fly at him in same frenzy that overwhelmed her other opponents. But he is not like them; he watches her as if she is an insect he can't yet be bothered to swat. Empty arrogance, she tells herself. No need to hesitate. But she does.
Then his mouth twitches in amusement, and her caution snaps.
In a heartbeat she regrets her charge. He is fast, far faster than anyone in armor has any business being, and he effortlessly dodges her strike. Before she can collect herself, his sword darts at her like a snake's tongue.
Instinctively she springs away on her right leg, but it fails her, seizing up as soon as she trusts her weight to it. The world slows down around her as his blade opens the length of her thigh. As she falls, Alena parries with her claw, and a cut meant to destroy her face only grazes her forehead. Wet heat trickles down into her eyes.
He feints, and in her desperate scramble to get to her feet, she falls for it. Her left arm burns, screams, implodes. Reflex snaps her good leg out to trip him and gets her standing again.
Echoes overlap in her mind: "Immensely strong―merciless―like an extermination―"
The blood in her eyes has half-blinded her, but when she tries to wipe it away, her left arm doesn't move. She might not have a left arm anymore.
Whatever sound the crowd is making is swallowed by the din inside her head. She fights blind now, hobbling as she slashes. If she dies, she wants it to be with her claw buried in his flesh.
She doesn't want to die.
With a roar, Alena slashes to her right, deflecting his sword. She can hear him―she can smell him―and something like laughter gurgles in her throat. She catches his sword again and topples from the force of the blow, but she strikes at his legs as she falls. Metal screeches against metal.
She thrusts upward and this time hits home. Giddy, she tears her claw from his wrist and tries to roll away, only to discover that she can't move. Belated pain bursts in her left shoulder.
A kick from her good leg connects, buying her a moment to wipe her eyes with her right arm. His sword fills half her field of vision, gleaming where it isn't darkened by her blood. When she scrabbles to pull the blade out, she can't reach the hilt with her shaking hand.
He has regained his balance and looms over her, cradling his torn wrist. Alena snarls and spits blood.
She lashes feebly with her claw, but he is well out of range. Darkness clouds her vision.
With silent contempt, he rips his sword from her shoulder and plunges it into her throat.
Gasping, her right hand scrambling over her neck and left arm, Alena bolts upright. Sweat runs in a cold trickle from her jugular notch. When she has control of her breath again, she slips out into the night, to the edge of the camp where Cristo broods under the pretense of keeping watch.
He acknowledges her with a concerned half-smile. "Trouble sleeping again?"
Part of Alena is forever fading into slumber; it's waking she can't quite manage. She sits down beside him without answering.
"It's a nice night," says Cristo, almost managing to sound casual. In the distance an owl cries, resonant and alien. He tilts his chin back and points overhead. "You can see the constellations. There's the archer, the demons' ring, the ghost ship―"
"If Necrosaro had been there." Brey would disapprove; that wasn't a proper sentence. Alena tries again: "What if he hadn't left the tournament?"
After a confused pause, Cristo shakes his head. "Every day I thank Zenithia that he wasn't behind that door. He would have―" his fists clench in his lap― "you heard what he did to the other fighters."
Like an extermination, they said. She hears the words in every silence. "If he had been behind the door, he wouldn't have been at Santeem."
"Don't ever say that." Cristo softens his tone and puts his arm tentatively around her shoulders. "Please."
She doesn't answer. Her body curls like a nautilus shell.
"Alena, it isn't your fault. It was never your fault. There was nothing you could have done."
Such comfort suffocates her.
Alena staggers toward the inn, laughing as her head bubbles with exhilaration and an entire evening's worth of free drinks that no amount of disapproval from Brey could stop her from sampling. Cristo has to catch her after every third step, and despite the darkness, she knows that he blushes whenever he touches her.
"I'm the champion," she announces to the stars, twirling away from Cristo. The world spins longer and faster than it ought, then wobbles back the other way as he snatches her away from the ground. Her hat lands upside-down at her feet, and she falls against him, laughing.
"Here," says Cristo, leading her to the nearest wall, "I think you should sit down for a while. Um."
The last word comes as a reaction to her grabbing the front of his robe and pulling him down with her. He's so close now that Alena can feel the heat rising from his face.
Without giving him a chance to protest, she grabs his shoulders and presses her lips against his. She has no idea what she's doing and twice bumps noses with him, but when she tilts her head a bit she thinks she's getting the hang of it. Cristo stiffens and jerks away from her.
"Princess Alena―" the first word rolls like a verbal boulder― "this isn't―we shouldn't―"
"Oh, hush." She knocks off his hat for equity's sake and pulls him tight against her, chest to chest. If he wants to get away, he's going to have to do better than stutter at her.
His breath hitches. "Your father―"
Alena presses a finger to his lips and giggles as he goes cross-eyed trying to stare at it. "I won," she says, and she must have fit everything she means into those two words; Cristo kisses her back this time.
Let the world crash in on her tomorrow. Tonight she stands on top of it.
It wouldn't have lasted a day. The next morning Santeem's only other survivor died at her feet, and Alena ran hard and sleepless back to the west. By the time Cristo and Brey caught up with her, she was too wracked with dread and exhaustion even to feel foolish that she hadn't thought to use a wyvern's wing.
Whatever else she felt―whatever else had changed in her―burned to ash at the threshold of her empty castle.
She knows what Cristo feels for her. He doesn't realize, of course; he clings to the idea of her innocence, and he must not know how expressive his face is. When he puts his arm around her shoulders, she can feel his muscles twitching to pull her close.
If she had noticed earlier, back in Frenor or Tempe or even Santeem, she doesn't know how she would have reacted. She can remember thinking dizzily, as he helped her back to the inn in Endor, that she liked the way his hair curled at his temples, but she decided in her next breath that she couldn't think that way about Cristo, who once tattled on her for using a gown as a parachute.
It wouldn't have lasted a day, and for all she knew it would have made everything worse. But he talks with her at night, lacing his long fingers together in his lap, and Alena regrets.
When she meets him tonight, her head pulsing with exhaustion and her mouth still foul with the taste of another failed sleeping draught, she evades his questions. It's too late now to do any good, but not too late to harm.
Santeem is hollow, home only to echoes. When Alena hurtles into the throne room, leaving Cristo and Brey behind, she finds nothing, not even a footprint. All the humanity has been scrubbed out.
A chill grips her spine. Biting her lip, she approaches the throne and runs her hand over the red cushion. She finds no trace of warmth, no invisible mass, no crusted bloodstain.
When Alena looks up, her gaze falls on the royal tapestries. The familiar scenes―of peasants at work, of centuries-old coronations, of mythic heroes―have changed; every face is distorted into a screaming mask. Where once was depicted the triumph of Zenithia over the Ruler of Evil, a thousand spears impale the Master Dragon, and a fanged darkness oozes upward from a black pit.
"Stop it!" She grabs the tapestry, but she finds that she can no more shred it than she could a puddle. Sobbing with frustration, she throws the hanging back against the wall and runs for the door, only to see that it has vanished.
Alena whirls to face the throne room again, her pulse throbbing. Her shadows stare back from the stone walls, from the high ceiling, from the spaces where doors used to be. As she watches, frozen, the silhouettes begin to move on their own, skittering over the surface of the walls and peering out from beneath the tapestries.
The wall deflects her claw in a burst of sparks. "Stop it!"
Across the room, the throne has turned to glass, and Alena's reflection sits inside it, a little girl in a crown so large that only her ears keep it from becoming a necklace. The shadows slither across the floor. As Alena fights her way forward, echoes of fingers scrabbling at her feet, her smaller self says, "It's like an extermination."
Time is liquid here, a beautiful place to drown. Alena has only to sit on the throne and sink beneath the surface, to become the ripple that washes away her father's unlucky dreams. Her reflection extends its glass-blanched hand.
When she hesitates, the light shifts, and Alena watches the world in the mirror multiply itself a thousandfold, layering emptiness over emptiness. In the instant before the light twists back, the child in the throne has crimson eyes.
"This never happened." Alena's voice makes the walls flicker. "This isn't real." Cursing herself for her blindness, she leaps aside as the shadows, now deformed beyond any pretense of her shape, surge toward her legs. Alena lands at the foot of the throne, which melts into a vitreous ooze as the arms of her reflection become the arms of the chair.
The pale distortion of her face sneers. "And whose fault is that?"
Searing cold shoots up Alena's right leg, followed by a total loss of sensation. She glances down to see the alien shadows flowing into her own, anchoring her to the floor. Wild kicking cannot save her left leg from the same fate. Numbing tendrils weave their way up her spine, and Alena shakes with the effort not to collapse into the arms of her reflection.
"Your choices have brought nothing but ruin," says the thing in the throne. Prisms of possibilities glisten in its hands; its voice is an anodyne lullaby. "Blot them out, and choose again."
Alena has already chosen. In a flash of clarity she raises her claw.
Her strike shatters the mirror-seat. The throne room ripples away with a shriek half-glass and half-organic, and Alena tips through a sudden change in gravity as the shards melt into the dark canopy of her tent. For a sharp second, the center of her forehead stings like a puncture wound.
Her confusion fades as she falls into a true sleep for the first time in weeks.
Only faint violet tinges the horizon, but she's already more than half-sick of shadows. Alena shakes out her cape and dons her hat, giving the latter a jaunty tilt, then marches over to plant her feet in the cold remains of last night's campfire. "Wake up!" she yells, at Cristo and Brey and Santeem and all the stars winking out overheard. Startled thumps resound from the other tent. "Come on, get up! We're leaving!"
As her companions stumble into the predawn, she stamps her feet, kicking up the ashes. "Do you have any idea how many places we haven't looked? Burland! Soretta! Monbaraba!"
"So you didn't entirely ignore geography," says Brey, emerging from the tent with Cristo at his heels. The skin around his eyes crinkles. "It's good to see that you're yourself again, Princess."
She smiles back, then sets one arm on her hip and uses the other to point at the tents. "Well, don't just stand there. The sooner we get to―where are we closest to?"
"Konenber," says Cristo.
"Then the sooner we get to Konenber, the sooner we set sail!" Alena misses sailing; she's been leading them overland for a long time now, scribbling a path through sand and grass, and she's ready again to cut through the water and shout cheerfully mangled nautical terms at the sailors. Someday they'll realize that she doesn't care whether the mainsail can be battened.
The poles of her tent clang together when she rolls them up in the canvas. As she finishes tying the bundle, she feels a tap on her shoulder.
"So," Cristo says, but he doesn't seem to know how to continue the sentence. He tucks an unruly tendril of hair behind his ear. "Are you all right now?"
"I'm going to rip off his head and wear it as a belt buckle," she replies brightly.
In spite of himself Cristo smiles. "You're really feeling better?"
Alena grins broadly enough to force aside the twinges of anything else still clinging to her, then slings the tent over her shoulder. "I'm awake."