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The Path of Water

After I came in from the thorns and the princess wept sight back into my scarred eyes, we were married. The chapel was full of people but I cared only for the doves that coasted from rafter to rafter, and as we approached the altar and the organ music faded, my eyes—unused to seeing—drifted closed, and the sound of the birds’ flapping wings flooded my mouth with saliva. Later, as my memories returned, I would understand why. In my centuries of wandering lost and blind, I had eaten only songbirds.

At the wedding feast, we sat side by side at the head of a vast table. The princess was wearing a gown of light blue silk and it rustled like feathers when she leaned over to me. She whispered, “Your name. I can’t remember it.”

I cleared my throat. I wet my lips. “Oscine,” I said.

“No,” she said, after a moment. “That’s my name.”

I did not care. I was hungry. The table was laden with food, venison and trout and bread and cheese, but all I could think about were the birds that had flocked to the sound of the princess’s voice as she sang down to me, how they’d perched still and tame amongst the sterile branches that had encircled the base of her tower. They’d been my fruit, each one a soft living heart thumping in my hands.

Then, with the taste of blood, I remembered. “Cedl,” I said.

“Prince Cedl,” said Oscine, “will you open your eyes and look at me?”

I’d closed them without noticing. I said, “I’m used to the darkness.”

“And I am used to singing,” said Oscine. “I’d rather scream, but we rule this kingdom now and I can’t do either.”

Then I did look at her. She was as beautiful as when I’d first found her singing in a forest glen, cloaked, hooded, kneeling by a rushing stream. She had seemed so small and gentle until I’d dismounted from my horse; then I’d seen her for what she was. Tall and strong. Holding a sword.

Was this a memory?

I said, “What happened to me?”

“To us,” she corrected. She was staring at me, intent. Her eyes were very blue and bright. “They say it’s been a thousand years,” she said.

“What happened to us?” I said again.

“It was a spell,” the princess said. “An enchantment.”

“But how did we fall under?”

“Someone cast it.”

“Who?” I said. “Why?”

“I do not know,” said Oscine.

Over the next weeks, our faculties returned by slow degrees. After seven days of wakefulness I could keep my eyes open mostly of their own accord, and my experience of time felt linear once again. But our memories were slow to return, sluggish and trickling like snowmelt. Oscine remembered even less than I: not any family, nor feelings, nor that day by the stream.

“A sword?” she said, when I told her of my recollection, and looked down at her little flowerlike hands, clearly doubting they could wield a weapon; though I thought I saw the flicker of a smile on her face, as if she could warm to the idea.

“There is nothing of swords in the manuscripts,” the palace librarian said, overhearing.

“And so?” Oscine returned. “All accounts mention roses, but I remember only the thorns. They were in Cedl’s eyes. I took them out.”

It was some days or weeks after our wedding and we were together in the library, at either end of the long, polished wooden table, manuscripts piled between us. I was there because Oscine wished to remember, and I wished to please her, this woman everybody said I loved. But I did not feel the same pull towards the past as she did. I felt grateful for the present-day, for our large castle, our skilled servants, our healthy land. The past was behind us—and I could feel it slinking there, the way a cat slinks behind a mouse, mouth open, throat dark. I preferred to keep a safe distance from it. Oscine did not share my preference. She had sent for historians and mythologists, who in turn sent for these hundreds of manuscripts, each one relating a different version of our myth, variably called The Thorn-Eyed Prince or The Singing Princess, variably tragic or treacly. There was always a witch, a curse, a kiss, an ever-after. Not a one made note of birds.

The library had a single large window set high in the stone wall. From it the late afternoon sun shone down thick as honey, carving my wife in half. In the light Oscine’s hair was fiery gold, her pale skin glowing like a fresh egg; but in the shadows, her coloring was fungal.

“Maybe,” I suggested, “we are dead.”

“I’d like to know how we died, then,” Oscine said, undisturbed. To the librarian she said, “Take these away and go see if the surveyors have finished the map yet.”

The librarian, whose green hood could not fully conceal her great shining plumes of chestnut hair, removed the manuscripts and bowed herself out of the room.

When she had gone, Oscine came up the table to sit in the chair beside my own. She was smaller than I remembered from the stream but as beautiful as all the legends claimed, yet I found her loveliest when I closed my eyes. She always smelled as if she’d flown a long way on a fresh breeze, and every time she moved I heard the gentle grasp of claws on a branch.

“Cedl,” she said. “Please regard me.”

I opened my eyes again. Her gaze was clever and blue and rested heavy on me. When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a young man with a strong jaw, tanned cheek, dark hair, and a filigreed trace of scars around his green eyes. Handsome like a painting and with a painting’s fixed expression, eyebrows always raised in mild surprise, because every time I looked I was startled by my reflection. I don’t know what I expected, but it was never myself. What did Oscine see, when she looked upon me?

“Have you any new memories?” she asked.

“I have not,” I said. Her fresh-air scent made me long to be outside, although I’d only just come back in from my daily ride. Each morning I went into the woods, gave my horse to my manservant, closed my eyes, and went walking in the sweet, leafy darkness, listening to the birds warbling. In the forest my constant hunger was almost agreeable, an ache that started in my belly and spread outward like poured water. I could feel it always on my lips and tongue and even in my teeth. Whenever I spoke, the hunger spoke with me.

“Not a one?” Oscine asked.

My hunger and I said, “Not a one.”

Oscine’s long eyelashes swept across her cheek, soft as down. I could imagine what they’d feel like on my own cheek, a sensation so clear it was like a memory, though it could not be. We had slept in bed together on our first night as King and Queen but had not moved a hand to one another, only lain side-by-side. Our tongues were still too unused to speech to converse and so we had not even spoken, only breathed silently into the comforting darkness. Since then we had kept to our own chambers.

“Well,” said Oscine. “I remembered something.”

“Did you?” I sat up straighter, intrigued. “From your life?”

“No,” she said. “Only from the tower, still.” Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. “Perhaps that’s all I ever knew.”

Privately I agreed it was curious that she should remember our moment of waking but nothing before. Meanwhile I recalled my mother’s face, my favorite horse, a green shirt I had loved, the feel of feathers between my teeth, the salty wholesome taste of blood; yet of the tower I remembered not a thing.

“Regarding the thorns,” Oscine went on, gesturing to my eyes. “When I took them from your sockets…I did not remove them with my fingers.” She glanced over her shoulder as footsteps approached. Very quietly she said, “I think I took them with my mouth.”

“Your mouth?

“Yes. But it wasn’t a mouth. It was hard and pointed—like a tooth—or a—” She shifted her attention to the waiting librarian, who held a huge map of our kingdom, the paper nailed to wood, the ink still glistening slightly. “Ah!” Oscine said. “It’s finished!”

We stood to allow the librarian to lay the map on the table.

“It isn’t quite dry yet,” the librarian cautioned. Her dark hair rustled and gleamed as if it would take flight from her head. “Careful lest you smudge it. Your majesty.”

It was fine work for such short notice, our kingdom drawn in miniature; a birds-eye view.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“The stream,” said Oscine.

“It has been a thousand years,” I said. “The path of water is not constant.”

Oscine glanced to our librarian, who cleared her throat.

“With all due respect, my queen,” the librarian said, “the course of a river is dependent on the speed of the water, the amount of rainfall, the shifting of the earth—many factors that time may play with. Water follows the easiest way. The easiest way changes.”

Oscine let out a small breath, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. She leaned farther over the map, tracing the path of the blue river with her slim finger, careful not to touch the ink-damp paper itself. Even her hands were exquisite. I looked at my own fingers, my own palms. Elegant, strong. Beautiful. In all these myths and stories, our beauty had been the basis for our love; and then, for our curse. We were both still beautiful. Were we to love one another again?

“There are other methods,” the librarian said, and we both turned to her. “To bring back memories, I mean.”

“Do tell,” Oscine said dryly.

The librarian tipped her head and her face came into better view. I was surprised to notice for the first time that she was young and very lovely.

“One may wait for nightfall to darken a room,” she said. “And seat oneself before a mirror, with a candle lit just here beneath one’s face. Then one drinks a draught of particular herbs, and one speaks a phrase of particular words—and staring into the mirror, staring into one’s own eyes, one waits.”

“We have tried mesmerism,” Oscine said.

“This is not that.”

“Is it magic, then?” I asked.

The librarian inclined her pretty head. “Of a sort. Low and rough. Hedge-magic, one might call it.”

“Do you know the herbs, and the phrase?” Oscine said.

“Yes, your majesty. I can write them out for you, if it pleases.”

“It pleases,” Oscine said, with no hesitation. “We will try what we can, won’t we, King Cedl?”

I did not know how to refuse her.

That evening, Oscine and I met in my dark chambers, attended by the librarian. My man had taken the mirrors from our walls, arranged them side-by-side on my dressing table, and set up candles before them. The librarian had agreed to mix the draught of herbs. All was ready, save for me.

“Come now, King Cedl,” Oscine said, all whispering silk and scent of wind. “It is an experiment, nothing more.”

“We were cursed by magic,” I said. “I mislike employing it now.”

“This is simple village magic,” Oscine said. “Nothing like the spell that put us under. It will last no more than ten minutes, isn’t that right?”

“Perhaps less, your majesty,” the librarian said.

“Regardless,” I said, and faltered. In fact, I did not understand the source of my own misgivings. I only knew that the sight of the flickering candles and the glistening mirrors had put me ill at ease. I tried again. “We are not cursed anymore,” I said. “Is that not the most important truth?”

“The truth is that we were cursed,” Oscine said, frustration clear in her voice. “All our freedom now cannot erase that fact.”

“Well, what of happiness?” I said. “The stories tell us we have found it. Perhaps we ought to heed them and accept it.”

Oscine gave me a brief, searching look, then turned to the librarian. “Wait outside and guard our door.”

The librarian curtseyed, left the room, and we were alone.

Oscine said to me, “I am not happy.”

Her voice was quiet and the room was warm and dark. I smelled hot wax, brewed herbs, the sky. My hunger shifted in my belly, mouth opening as if it had an answer for her, but neither of us spoke. After a moment, Oscine turned back towards the dressing table, towards the mirrors, and defeated, I did the same. The flames guttered and swayed at our movements. The librarian had prepared two bowls of hot murky liquid that smelled of mulch, and we held them to our lips.

“To your health,” Oscine said. Unhesitating, she drank it all and set the bowl down with a gasp of distaste, then looked to me. Reluctantly I followed. It was sour and scalded my tongue and throat.

“We must speak the words together now,” Oscine said, and with our burned tongues, we did.

Illumed by small flame, my face glowed and shifted in the glass, highlighting now the bridge of my straight nose, now my chin, shadowing my cheekbones, the hollows of my scarred eyes. I wanted to turn from my own reflection and lean over to watch Oscine watch herself but I found my gaze fixed on my face, unblinking. My eyes glinted back at me from the shadows of my sockets.

Then suddenly they didn’t. Suddenly, where eyes had been shining, there was now only darkness, a pool of shifting black beneath my brows. It roiled and twisted like a stormcloud, alive, alert, and I felt an answering twist in my belly, the pull of deep and desperate hunger. I opened my mouth and saw that my teeth were no longer straight and white but jagged, yellowed, serrated like a knife, and when I moved my tongue I cut myself against them and swallowed down the hot salt of blood. The hunger arched its back in pleasure at the taste and my empty eyes seethed.

Beside me, Oscine began to sing.

It was not the voice of a woman that came from her throat, but something else, warbling and repetitive, the same few notes over and over, shrill and fluting and so delicious I nearly gagged from the desire that screamed into my mouth. My bloodied tongue lolled from my lips and my fingers dug into my thighs, puncturing the flesh as if they were tipped with daggers. Oscine trilled on. I wanted to lick the song from her lips. I wanted to eat her voice from the cage of her breast. I wanted—I wanted—

With a cry, I wrenched my gaze from my terrible hungering face and swept out a frantic arm, catching the mirror, the candle, the empty bowl. The sound of shattering glass filled the room and suddenly everything was brighter; the candle had set the carpet aflame.

“Cedl!” Oscine cried, but I was already fleeing, slamming through the door, past the wide bright eyes of the librarian, through the claustrophobic tunnel of our hallways, and out, out into the moonless night.

Outside the sky was huge and shallow with stars. I did not pause to take my horse from the stables, only stumbled past ranks of confused guards who called out but did not move after me, for I was the King and none could bid me halt. Across the moat I went, across the fields, towards the forest. The farther I ran from our brightly lit castle, the darker the world became, and in relief I allowed my eyes to close and let my other senses flare to life. I could smell the faint, woody damp of the forest somewhere before me, and the fresh crush of grass beneath my boots, and above, wheeling through the summer night, I heard the drone of a thousand different nighttime creatures intently sating their appetites on one another.

Eventually the air changed, became cooler, and when I put out a hand I touched the muscled trunk of a tree. I was in the woods. Immediately my body began to slow and calm, my breath evening out, my pulse thudding down from its frantic pace. The roar of my body quieted, quieted. There were no thorns here to prick or hurt me, there were only the leaves and bushes and branches—and the sound of a tiny heart, thrumming from somewhere near.

I could do this in my sleep. I had, for a thousand years.

Quietly, so quietly, I wove my hand through a dense tangle of shrubbery and took a small bird in my fist. It awoke as I snatched it, soft and light and warm and helpless, trying in vain to beat the wings I held down. Its beak was sharp against my tongue but its skull cracked easily beneath my teeth, a nut full of rich meat, and its blood tasted sweet as spring rain. The breast, the loins, the talons, the tail, even the feathers, with every bite I groaned my relief. I sank to my knees as I finished, licking my fingers, catching the last droplets of blood running down my wrist, and then I bent and put my forehead to the cool, loamy soil. I stayed like that, curled forward on the ground, trembling in satisfaction and horror, until I fell asleep.

The next morning I found my room scrubbed and aired-out, though the smell of charred rug was still redolent in the air. A different carpet lay on the stone floor, now, a hunting scene; a man with a spear chasing a boar. The glass had been swept from the floor and a new mirror had been hung in the place of the one I’d shattered. In it I saw the cracked hints of dried blood at the corners of my mouth, the darkness down the front of my doublet. I undressed and redressed myself and rinsed my face in a basin of water, working a feather loose from my back teeth. Then I went to look for Oscine. What had she seen last night? Had she seen my teeth, my empty sockets, had she felt my hunger?

I found her in her own chambers, perched in her open window, knees drawn to her chest as she gazed out. Her hair was let down and shone molten in the sun, falling across her narrow shoulders like a set of golden wings, and her feet were shockingly bare. When I came in she did not seem startled, only looked long at me. I let the silence stretch but she said nothing.

At last I said, “I did not like what I saw in the mirror.”

“So I gathered.”

I shifted from foot to foot, looking around. This was my first time in her bedchamber and I was surprised to find it looked much like mine, although with lighter colors. “The librarian ought to be punished,” I said.

“She was quite contrite. And anyway it isn’t her fault our memories were less than pleasant.”

“What did you see?” I asked, unable to help my curiosity, although I myself did not wish to answer the question.

Oscine gazed out the window into the flawless blue of the morning sky, the same color as her eyes. For a moment I did not think she would reply, but then she said, “This.”

I waited, not understanding. She beckoned me closer and I came to stand beside her. She swept a hand through the window frame and into the air. I looked down upon our grounds, the gem-bright grass, the distant gold of wheat, the dark edges of the forest, all of it far below and far away. I was leaning over her now, my chest lightly against her back. I could feel the fine ridge of her shoulder blade, her fresh-air scent indistinguishable from the scent of the fresh air.

“Imagine it, all of it, covered with brambles,” she said. “Brown, ungrowing, unliving, undying. Leagues of tangled branches spiked with thorns, and the sun coming and going, the moon rising and falling…”

“I remember,” I said. “I was there.”

“Do you remember my voice?” she said.

I hesitated on the verge of a lie, then told the truth. “No,” I said. “I remember only birdsong.”

“Yes,” she said, and sighed. With the rise and fall of her breath I was suddenly conscious again of her back against my chest, the warmth of her body, the softness of her hair. My hunger, so recently sated, stirred but did not rouse. This was not a power that could wake it. “What did you see, King Cedl?” Oscine asked.

I could not tell her. “Thorns in my eyes. As you said.”

She angled her body towards me so she could look me full in the face. We were so close I could see myself in her pupils. It was hard not to notice that if I gave her even the gentlest of pushes, she would fall backwards to her death. That thought did not wake the hunger either.

“We’re missing something,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “A thousand years’ worth of memories.”

“Something else.”

“What, then?”

She stood suddenly and I fell back. My brief memory of our first meeting still insisted she was tall and I was again, always, surprised by how small she truly was, how slight. “Meet me in the armory in an hour.”

“What? Why?”

She was already on her way out the door but she paused and looked back at me, skirts whirling, loose hair tumbling. “So you can see me with a sword,” she said. “Perhaps it will jog your memory.” Then she was gone.

I went to the library. It was bright, fusty, calming. The librarian was high on a ladder in a corner, dusting a row of bound manuscripts. She smiled when she looked down and saw me standing with my arms folded across my chest.

“Your majesty,” she said, managing a bow even from her great height. “I beg your forgiveness. I could not know you would have such a reaction to the spell.”

She did not, I noticed, make to descend.

“Are you from the village?” I asked her. “Our village?”

She looked down on me. “Yes, your majesty.”

“So you have always known this castle,” I said.

“Yes, though from a distance. By sight I knew only the highest tower, coming out from the landscape of thorns.” Finally, rung by rung, she began to come to the ground. “As a girl I used to think it was the finger of god, pointing to heaven.”

“And now? What do you think of us now?”

She reached the stone library floor and turned to me, shaking her skirts so that dust rose around her in a glittering cloud. This close her face was clearly visible even in the shadow of her hood. She was striking, her eyes dark and finely lashed, her face well-carved. She was as tall as I.

“I think nothing,” she said. “I am merely a servant of the crown.”

“You have seen the same manuscripts we’ve seen,” I said. “You know what the written stories say. But what of the spoken tales? Do they differ?”

“They are very like the ones in books,” she said, and I began to turn from her in frustration. “Very like,” she repeated, “except for one.”

I paused. “Will you tell it?”

She acquiesced with a curtsy, sending new dust motes shimmering. “It begins much the same,” she said. “The enchantress, the princess, the jealousy, the curse. The brambles and tower. But unlike the other stories, this one continues.” Her voice was clear and rhythmic. “There are no magical roses. There is no true love’s kiss to end the spell. There is no end at all. The prince wanders through the brambles forever, for so long that he becomes a part of them, a creature of thorns, their monster.”

I felt a shiver run down my spine. The place where the bird’s beak had torn my tongue was still tender, throbbing.

“And the princess?” I said.

“She sings for so many thousands of years that she becomes nothing but an instrument of song. She becomes the song itself. Thus they live in harmony, the monster and the music, forever.”

“So it is a tragedy,” I said.

The librarian moved a shoulder. “By some definition, perhaps.”

Something she had said was sticking in my mind, insinuating itself as an idea that, however farfetched, needed immediate attention. I nodded to her distractedly. “My thanks. I will not keep you longer from your work.”

“You are my work,” she said, curtsying again.

Our armory was in the south corner, by the garrison. It was a huge stone room, filled with light from the many square windows that marched along its perimeter, and baked thus in the summer sun it felt several degrees warmer than the halls I’d just quit. Oscine was there already, lovely in a dress of pale linen much different than her normal brightly colored silks, the skirt falling straight from hips to ankle. It made her look like the strong neck of a swan. She stood by a wall of swords that were mounted and shining. There was no one else in the armory with her.

“I sent them all away,” she said, seeing me look about.

“Do you love me?” I asked her.

She blinked at me with those sky-filled eyes. “What?”

“We are married,” I said. “Man and wife, yet you did not kiss me in the tower, after you took the thorns from my eyes. We did not kiss even at our wedding.”

“We are scarcely acquainted,” she said, and took a step towards me.

“The stories say we loved one another at first glance,” I said. “So look now upon me. Does the sight of me strike any feeling in your breast?”

Oscine, who had been drifting ever closer, stopped and shrugged. “I have been a thousand years away from love. Would I even recognize the sensation should it come?”

“I do not believe the spell has ended,” I told her.

She regarded me. A ray of sun pierced down and gilded her long hair, and on the wall behind her, the hanging swords gleamed with the same sharp light that was in her eyes. I could see her thinking, could see her following my words and reaching a conclusion. My wife was clever.

“True love’s kiss,” she said. “It’s in all the stories.”

I nodded. “Except the one we’re living.”

“But you aren’t blinded by thorns,” she said. “I’m not singing. We’re awake.”

“Are we?” I said.

At these words she put a hand lightly to her mouth. For a moment all was quiet. “Kiss me then,” she said. “What can it hurt?”

When I did not move, she stepped forward and wound her arms around my neck, pulling me against her, her breasts sliding up my chest as she stood on her toes. I settled my hands on her waist, curved and warm beneath my fingers. I waited for the pull of my hunger, but it did not come. Perhaps that single bird, raw and thrumming, had sated it forever.

But at the thought of the bird, there it was, tossing warningly in its sleep. With effort I put the bird from my mind, I focused again on Oscine.

“Kiss me,” she said again. Her breath was warm, her face was close, she smelled like a wide bright sky. I kissed her.

Nothing happened.

“Try again,” she said.

We kissed again. We kissed more deeply, her lips parting beneath mine, her hand on my cheek, then the back of my neck, and it was good to be close to someone, good to be held, good to feel my body responding naturally to her presence, but there was nothing more to it until I tried to weave my fingers in her hair and found that I was touching feathers.

I gasped against her mouth and she let out a high, clear note of song.

The hunger screamed up in me so violently I fell to my knees, and Oscine fell with me—but she was not falling, no, she was shrinking, her body collapsing into itself with a sound like strong wind, the golden feathers of her hair whirling around her, all the while singing; the warble, the trill, the birdsong, it was more real and more delicious than anything I’d heard in this waking life. It put the forest birds to shame and it made tasteless the memory of last night’s meal, as if I’d eaten tree bark and mistook it for steak. I panted with hunger. My tongue hung dripping and the sharp razor of my teeth sliced its underside, blood welling in my mouth, a savory caress of flavor that obliterated nearly all other thoughts. I swallowed the hot salt of it down with eager thirst, licking it from my teeth, and turned to Oscine.

She was not human any longer, if she ever had been. She was a small golden bird with shining black eyes, shining black claws, a shining black beak, perched on the stone floor and staring up at me.

In a second, I had her in my fist.

I raised her to my lips, feeling her heartbeat thrum through her body, my own body trembling with ravenous anticipation; with anticipation, and with my last helpless effort to hold back from the wild joy of it. The golden bird shook in my hand, shook, shook. Tenderly I licked her tiny golden head, dragging my bloodied tongue across feathers that tasted like sunshine. I put my teeth around her ruffled neck. I closed my eyes. Oscine. My wife. She struggled against my fingers, twisting in my grasp, her muscles bunching and her bones so brittle, her head moving against my tongue as my lips shut around her. I would do her one last kindness. I would make this painless. I closed my eyes.

I tipped back my head and swallowed her whole.

She was still fighting as I swallowed, her claws dragging down my throat, her beak sharp as a fishbone, and my whole body was alight with the taste of her, like being caught by the wind and riding it under a joyful, honeyed sun, all the way to a glittering sea. She landed in my belly and my hunger screamed with ecstatic satisfaction, a roiling blaze of perfect satiation—

Then, as abruptly as it had come, it vanished. I dropped to the floor and curled over myself, sobbing with relief and regret.

“King Cedl!”

The name, my name, shouted in that clear, ringing voice, halted something in me. I opened my streaming eyes, crouched there on the stone floor with Oscine’s feathers on my lips. The librarian was framed in the doorway of the armory and now she was moving towards me, the green cloth of her cloak rippling as she walked. My stomach roiled with Oscine’s body, pain twisting through me. She took a broadsword from the wall and held it easily, throwing back her hood as she did so, her beautiful face fierce. She was tall and strong. I smelled fast water.

“You,” I rasped.

The woman from my memory. The woman by the stream.

“Lie back,” she said gently. Around us the armory was blurring, as if seen through a rippling lake. Dry, thorny branches cracked its stone walls and snaked upwards.

“Was it you?” I said. “Did you do this to us?”

“This time,” she said.

I could not make sense of that. I could not make sense of anything. My stomach churned and I bent double as a cramp took me.

“Lie back,” the librarian said again.

“What is happening?” I whispered. My eyes were throbbing where phantom brambles had once been. I smelled roses. My stomach was a torment. I lay back.

The librarian did not hesitate. She took her sword and dragged it across my belly, cutting through silk and skin and muscle. The pain was so searing that I could not even scream, only stretch my mouth in a silent rictus as she drew a line of agony across my body, the sound like wet cloth ripping. A second later, the golden bird burst forth in a flurry of viscera and wings, soaring upwards and spinning in frenzied circles, then diving down to light on the librarian’s outstretched hand. My blood seeped across the floor. The pain was gone but I could not move.

The librarian went to her knees beside me. She set the bird on the ground and I heard the howl of wind as its body began to shimmer and swell, its black talons pinkening to fingers, its feathers separating into strands of hair, and then Oscine herself was kneeling there, her eyes huge and blue and fathomless.

“You ate me,” Oscine said.

I could make no reply.

“Well,” the librarian said to me. “You have been the monster. Which will you choose next time?”

I licked my lips. When I found my voice, it was hoarse and weak. “We must do it again?” I said.

“Yes,” said the librarian. “And over and over, until we break the spell.”

Oscine touched my cold hand. “So what is your next choice?” she said. “Will you be the monster, the princess, or the witch?”

I looked up at the ceiling, which was now half-crumbled away, showing a slice of perfect blue sky, framed by thick dark ropes of brambles.

“You both knew?” I said.

“Not at first,” the librarian said. “But then I remembered.”

Oscine nodded in agreement. “Only the monster never knows.”

I still did not know; I was still the monster.

I stared at the sky. I had done everything all wrong. I should have taken myself from the castle and gone to live in the forest, hunting birds, giving in. Or I should have told Oscine the truth of myself, showed her my teeth, asked for her help. I should have gone into the village seeking advice from a hedge witch. I should not have eaten Oscine. I should have done so much better. I should have done it right.

Next time.

“The monster,” I said.

Oscine and the librarian exchanged glances. “Again?” Oscine said.

Across that blue fragment of sky, a bird darted, followed by another, then another. I felt the hunger twitch its eyes in the wound of my belly.

“Again,” I said. “Again, again, again.”

 

(Editors’ Note: Emma Törzs is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2023 with William Morrow.

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