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Ink bled up through a crack in the stone floor by the child’s bedside, puddling in the shape of two distinct footprints. Long tendrils slowly emerged from the liquid’s surface, swaying like charmed snakes and extending upward, wrapping and twisting until the dark shape of something both like and unlike a man solidified, its shadow laying upon Mina as she slumbered unaware.

...

The morning sun had risen high and bright as it climbed toward noon. Mina sat at her writing desk peering out of the bedchamber window at the forest, imagining the great deep sea beyond. At ten she’d yet to step foot on a ship but longed to adventure on the high seas as the Corierres did in the stories her handmaid read to her at bedtime all the same. She often pictured herself standing upon the deck of a great ship clinging to a railing as the bow cleaved the heaving sea, conjuring sensations of cool sea-spray on her skin, a warm breeze in her hair, salt on her tongue. And then she was falling. Darkness swept the ship away from underneath her tiny feet and the sea was night, as cold and waterless as space. Above, a tiny light hung against the black like a little window, shrinking as she fell away until finally only the deep dark remained. Somewhere, a lone gull cried.

...

Elias woke with a start, struggling to remember the content of a fleeting dream: a man that was also a machine…a horrible voice from the black depths of the sea…the corpses of children rising from the worm-filled dirt…. He shook it off and returned to the present.

Ariana slept peacefully beside him. Propping himself with an elbow, he gazed down at her, brushing a spill of auburn hair from her serene features, watching the gentle undulations of her swollen belly ebb against the bedclothes. Smiling, he leaned in until his lips lightly touched her forehead and kissed her softly before sliding from beneath the blankets. Being careful not to wake her, he slipped his arms through the sleeves of a robe that had patiently awaited him throughout the night.

Stepping from the room in a sweep of white silk, Elias sailed down the hallway like a ship. Oncoming servants swam wide like frightened fish as he glided past, and the ghosts—of which there were many here—gave him no birth at all, but simply passed straight through his mass. Ever watchful from alcoves along the steel walls, automatons stood perpetually frozen at their posts like suits of armor, inanimate remnants of the ones who came before, their purpose long forgotten. Things were as they had always been.

Elias stopped at a doorway and eased the wooden plank door half-open. He leaned in to find his daughter sleeping. An elderly nursemaid at her bedside watched over her patiently. She turned, noticing Elias, and with a stern nod rose from her post and motioned Elias out of the room. She emerged in the hallway, easing the door closed, her countenance severe. She spoke before Elias could greet her:

“Mina’s worse this morning. She keeps calling that name in her sleep.”

“What did the seers have to make of it?”

“Hmmph. They never heard of such a name: Makka Suhn—who ever heard of such a thing?

“Fever-talk. A couple more helpings of your soup and I’m sure she’ll be up and about.”

“I don’t know, Elias. Something about her voice when she’s talking in her sleep…I don’t like it, not one bit. Something’s amiss—I have a sense for these things. If that kooky physician doesn’t figure out what is wrong with her soon, I’m going to summon the Skykeeper shaman and I don’t care what your father says, let him have me flogged.”

Elias smiled coyly at the woman: “I’m sure it wouldn’t come to that, my father’s more afraid of you than I am.”

“Mmm, don’t be so sure, Elias. Something’s been off with him as well these past few weeks. He’s been harsh with the servants. A dark mood’s been upon him. And pardon my saying…”

“Always.”

“…the way he’s been slinking about with that guard, Virette. They stalk the corridors like wolves looking upon the servants as if they were prey. I don’t like it.”

Elias rolled his eyes and grinned sheepishly at the woman. “Is he back?”

“Of course not! You asked me that yesterday. He’s not due back until tomorrow, you know that. You’re too young to be forgetting things.”

“Perhaps all of those hours you spent forcing me to study as a boy were for naught. My mind is a sieve.

Elias grinned at Lorna. Exasperated, she slapped the young prince’s arm and he laughed out loud. “Oh, you….” She cast him a stern expression and slipped back through the door without a sound.

...

Sunlight warmed Ariana’s face as she lay in the dreamy comfort of half-sleep, the aura of a whimsical dream fleeting beyond the reaches of memory. She could feel herself emerging from the depths of slumber, the day aglow behind her eyelids. Suddenly, a shadow stretched across her vision and she opened her eyes to find a half-dragon whelp perched upon her windowsill and smiled.

“Mercus, didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s not proper to sneak in people’s windows?” Ariana struggled to a stand and approached the young half-dragon.

Mercus looked down at his feet, shuffling them timidly. “No, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, sweetie.” She tapped his chin with her forefinger. Mercus blushed.

“How did you get past the watchmen?”

“Aww, they’re easy. They never look up.”

“Clever. Are you looking for Mina?”

“Can she play?”

“No, I’m sorry—she’s not feeling well. Why didn’t you go to her window, instead?”

“Momma said it’s good manners to always ask first.”

“Your mother sounds very wise, Mercus.”

“She knows lots of stories, too.”

“Does she? Well, I’d like to hear one someday.”

“Okay. Can Mina play tomorrow?”

“Well, that depends on how she’s feeling. Why don’t you come back in the morning?”

“Okay.”

Ariana tickled Mercus and he twisted with a giggle. He then lit into the sky, shooting straight up into the clouds.

Ariana leaned out of the window. She looked to the watchman stationed on the rampart nearest her and he met her gaze. He glanced up into the clouds and then back at her, giving a wink before turning his attention back to the landscape. Ariana smiled.

...

Elias emerged in the atrium and noticed Winda standing at a window overlooking the courtyard. The banshee’s translucent form shuddered slightly as she quietly wept. He greeted her as he always did, and she in turn ignored him, just as she had always done. Amused, Elias approached an easel draped with linen in the center of the room. He pulled the fabric back to reveal a nearly completed portrait of Ariana. In it, she stood in a flower garden reaching up to a lilac blossom which hung in the bright sky like a lavender balloon. She seemed to hold it as tenderly as a mother would her child’s face. Her loving eyes blazed like sapphires from her milky complexion, blue and brilliant.

Elias stepped back to admire the portrait in its entirety and, with a nod, turned to the north wall where a mortar and pestle sat upon a bench surrounded by tiny clay jars. He removed the lids of a few and then, choosing one, tapped a few nuggets of crimson pigment into the mortar and crushed it into a fine powder with the pestle. Then, taking an egg from the shelf above, he cracked it on the edge of the bench and separated the yolk by passing it between each half-shell. Satisfied that only the yolk remained, he plopped it onto his palette and dumped the pigment on top, stirring the mixture with his brush until he achieved uniform color and consistency. He repeated this process twice more using emerald and lemon pigments and, with another nod, returned to the portrait.

Elias set the palette upon a wooden stand next to the easel and returned to the bench. Here, he poured a cup of water into a small clay pot, gathered a set of brushes from the shelf, and returned to the stand which held his palette.

“There is my husband!” Ariana stood in the doorway beaming at Elias. Stepping into the room, Ariana greeted Winda. The ghost only sniffled in reply.

“She is chatty as usual,” Ariana said with a giggle.

“Can barely get a word in.”

Ariana moved around to the side of the easel. “When am I going to get to see this magnificent painting of yours? By the time you finish I will be old and withered; no one will even know that it is me.”

“Never-mind.” Elias pulled the sheet up over the back of the easel to shield the painting from her view. “You will see it when I’m finished, and not a moment before.” Ariana craned her neck around. Elias snapped the sheet down over the painting.

“Hmmph.” Ariana feigned a look of disappointment and Elias raised his eyebrows expectantly. They both began to laugh and embraced.

“Lorna told me you stopped to check on Mina earlier. She was saying that name again—so odd.”

“Probably a playmate she made up. It must get lonely being the only child her age in the castle.”

“Mmm, maybe. That reminds me. I had a visitor this morning.”

“Hmm?”

“I found Mercus perched on our sill when I woke. We should have his family over when Mina is feeling better. Her and Mercus get along so well.”

“Father won’t allow it. He’s been in a foul mood these past couple of weeks. The Skykeepers aren’t even allowed to fly over the ramparts anymore.” Then, with a chuckle: “Lorna thinks there’s a conspiracy afoot.”

“I know, she told me he let one of the servants go last week for spilling a bit of his soup.”

“Really? She hadn’t mentioned that.”

“It’s true. He must have turned her out on foot; her father came to the castle the next day looking for her.”

“That doesn’t sound right. I’m sure she had an escort. She may have stopped somewhere...perhaps she has a lover.”

“Or maybe a dark, sinister creature snatched her away like you did me.”

“I remember it the other way around.”

Ariana slapped Elias’s arm. “Ooh, you—you’re a beast.”

Alyas chuckled.

“Well, my dear husband, I am going to change into something warmer. I have a chill about me this morning. I’ll leave you to…” Ariana made a playful attempt to lift the sheet before Elias could stop her, but he was too quick.

“Nice try.” Elias grinned at her as she scowled back at him playfully before disappearing through the doorway.

...

Ariana made her way along the hallway, smiling at servants as they shuffled by. An elderly man carrying flowers happened by and offered her a single red rose. She accepted it with a smile.

As she rounded a corner, a young, timid servant girl began to pass by, noticeably afraid to make eye contact. Ariana held the flower out to the girl and she rigidly accepted it with a small grunt as if the simple act of raising her arm brought pain. As she passed, Ariana stopped and called after her: “Wait…” she began to come around the girl to look her in the face, noticing traces of blood on the back of her gown. “Is something wrong? Are you hurt?” The girl stared at the floor. “Look at me, Dear.” The girl looked up at Ariana, revealing the tears in her eyes. “What is it? You can tell me.”

“I,” the girl began and broke down sobbing.

“Here now, you're bleeding—let me see your back.” The girl froze as if paralyzed as Ariana untied the string at the nape of her neck and opened the back of her servant’s gown, exposing flesh striped by the tip of a whip. “Oh, my...who did this to you!?” The girl did not reply, merely stood trembling in the center of the hallway as passing servants gawked. Ariana refastened her gown.

“Come with me.”

Ariana took the girl by the hand and led her just outside of Mina’s room. Here, she opened the door halfway and motioned for Lorna to come out into the hallway. “Look at this.” She opened the back of the girl’s habit again and showed Lorna the damage there.

“Who did this to you, Cyna?”

“The guard, ma’am.” Her voice came meekly, barely audible.

Lorna looked to Ariana and back to the girl. “Did they give you a reason? Why would they do this?”

Ariana bent to look directly into her eyes. “You aren’t going to get into trouble; do you understand?” The girl nodded. “I’m going to talk to the captain right now. We’ll make sure the guard who did this never sees the inside of this castle again.”

“No… The captain…he…was the one with the whip.”

First shock then rage stole across Ariana’s face and she stormed away as Lorna drew the sobbing girl into an embrace.

...

Elias was putting the finishing touches to the portrait as Ariana stormed past, her face red with anger. Elias knew that face. “Aw, damn.” He started toward her, unaware that the sleeve of his robe had dragged through the paint, and as he reached up to pull the sheet over the canvas, he dragged crimson across his lover’s midsection without noticing and quickly exited the room in pursuit.

In the hallway, he could see Ariana marching toward the stairwell. He broke into a sprint, calling after her, but by the time he reached the stair she had descended out of view.

At the bottom, the hallways ran off in three directions. He looked first down one, then another, and then the last—no sign of Ariana. He stood there a moment, uncertain of which way to go when he heard Ariana shouting. “Ah.” With a nod he hurried down the hall to the north wall where the guards were training.

“And what made you think you had the right to discipline that child! You know damn well, Virette, that’s the Head Matron’s responsibility! I have never seen…”

“Whoa, whoa.” Elias jumped between Ariana and Virette Drakhon, Captain of the Guard--a man who was his own shadow.

“What’s going on here?”

“Ask the mighty abuser of small children. You count your days here, Captain. I assure you they are few.”

Virette glared at Ariana as she pulled away from Elias and stomped back into the castle—Elias noticed his contempt.

“Mind how you look upon my wife, Captain. You surely forget your place.” Virette turned to Elias, coolly, and the young prince looked past him at the rest of the guard. Were they smirking? He postured to Virette despite the chill rushing down his spine. “Now, tell me what this is about.”

“Seems we’re not to discipline the servants anymore, my Prince.” Virette replied, ending Prince with a subtle hiss. “Please give milady my assurances that it will not happen again.” The two men held a silent stare a moment and Elias was about to reprimand Virette further when a trumpet sounded, drawing his attention away from the dark man. When he looked back Virette was walking toward to the rest of the guard.

“Virette!”

Virette turned to Elias with mock interest.

“We will speak more of this when my father returns.”

“Of course, my Lord.” Virette grinned and bowed. He watched Elias with contempt as the prince walked away

Elias found Ariana pacing in their bedchamber, biting her nails.

“Don’t look at me like that. You didn’t see what he did to that girl.”

“He was a little overzealous disciplining her. Still, it’s not your place. And you shouldn’t let yourself get so upset with the baby coming. You know what Lorna says about that.”

“Elias don’t fight me on this. Not this. When your father gets back he’s going to hear from me, I promise you that. I want that fiend out of here, out of the entire kingdom. I never trusted him.”

“My father is going to tell you the same thing that I just did. You can’t just go reprimanding the guard because you don’t agree with their disciplinary methods.”

“Disciplinary methods? You sound more like one of those pompous noble windbags you used to complain about every day. We’re talking about a young girl, Elias. There’s a great big, thick line between discipline and cruelty. They beat that girl for sport.”

“You don’t know that.”

“She told me they were laughing. I won’t have it. Not in the home we’re to raise our children in. There’s going to be payment for this, Elias, mark my words.”

“Okay, okay, calm down. Sit down on the bed.”

Ariana glared at Elias and he took her hand.

“I’ll talk to father when he gets back. Don’t worry any more on this. I’ll take care of it.”

“He better be punished, Elias—I mean it. He better have stripes of his own.”

“I know, my love. Please lie down and rest.”

Ariana let out a weary sigh and allowed Elias to lead her to the bed.

“I’m going to check on Mina again. I’ll send Berta by with some fresh water.”

...

After Elias had exited the room, Ariana laid back into the pillows as fatigue drained from her body. She closed her eyes, listening to the sounds of the courtyard outside her window. She began drifting when a shadow moved into her field of vision, a blot moving past her closed eyelids.

“Oh, Berta, just put it on the stand, please.” She waited for the blot to respond. When it didn’t, she opened her eyes to find a dark figure looming over her, swathed completely in black. She opened her mouth to scream, but the figure stole her breath with a motion of its hand.

...

As Elias reentered the atrium, he noticed red paint on his sleeve. As he pulled the sheet away from the portrait, he noticed the streak of red across it. “Nooo!” In an impulse of rage and frustration he threw the canvas to the floor.

Exasperated, he stood over the painting clenching his fists. He looked to Winda.

“All that time....” For the first time in his life, Winda looked back.

“The children…” she said. “The Pale Children are coming.” Then she began to wail.

...

Mina woke to the awful sound of the banshee’s wail. Someone had died—someone in her family. She looked to the nursemaid, Lorna, peeking out through a half-opened door. The elderly woman stared worriedly at the servants bustling about in the dim hall outside her room. “Is that...” Mina asked weakly. “...for me?”

The nursemaid looked down at her as if she had been shaken awake by the young girl’s question. “Oh, no princess...someone else.” Dread washed over the child.

From her bed, Mina could see the pale blue sky outside the window. It seemed clearer than she could ever remember, like the surface of a pool of still water. It seemed impossible that anything bad could happen beneath something so beautiful.

She could see also the turrets, and upon them the archers of Windbreed—stoic, like painted statues. She knew that they were there to protect her, the sick little girl who everyone pretended wasn’t dying although she knew that she was. They were her defenders, but they also stood as a constant reminder that there were things beneath the beautiful sky that would harm her—maybe even things worse than the Cann Bohr.

Elias appeared in Mina’s doorway panting, his thin features drawn into an expression of surprise as he peered at her through long strands of disheveled blonde hair. He appeared relieved as he puffed the wind back into his heaving lungs. The sleeve of his white robe had been smeared with red. He began to say something but, before he could get the words out, a terrible scream issued from far down the hallway.

Then he was gone, whirling away into the shadows, leaving Mina to wonder who the banshee’s wail had been for if not for her. This thought was interrupted by the horrible pain of sickness and it overtook her, as it always did. Darkness closed in around and life seemed nothing but a shrinking window floating upon a sea of nothing.

...

As Elias burst into the hallway, his wife’s handmaid rushed screaming from his bedchamber. She was bleeding, a little. A thin stream of violent red raced from her temple to her jawline, painting her face with madness. As he reached the doorway, she clung to him, her mouth full of gibberish. Elias shouldered past her roughly, sending her sprawling to the floor.

Inside, the chamber was empty. Soft breezes animated the curtains, their forms rising and falling with slow, deep breaths. Elias entered cautiously, his heart swelling against the confines of the shrinking cavity within his chest. He ignored the growing congregation of chattering spectators at his back, their quiet mouths shouting with muffled voices that seemed under water. He could barely hear them at all through the pounding in his head. They clambered into the room behind him, moving slowly, awkwardly, as if running on legs made of springs and cotton.

Then he saw her; or rather, a spill of her auburn hair from behind the foot of the bed, and the world became a river gushing past. People spilled about like marbles, their mouths strobes of sound, an incomprehensible language. Elias struggled to cling to his sanity, but it had become an oily beast with cold, smooth scales of steel. He rounded the bed and found Ariana there, her eyes wide and watching, her mouth nursing the air like a fish’s as it lay dying upon a shore, and then her life was simply gone.

With a guttural half cry, half moan, Elias drove his knees roughly to the floor beside her. He gathered her limp body as best he could against his own, but she spilled from his trembling arms like a bundle of lifeless fish. In the end, only her head remained in the cradle of his lap. He caressed her face, beads of sweat standing upon her brow like drops of silver.

She gazed into the blue nothing above through the open window, as if looking for the light that had been stolen from her. The slender arms that had held Elias’s neck in a thousand embraces lay upon the place where her belly had swelled like a melon over the last eight months. Now it lay flat; their child’s little heart beat there no longer.

Suddenly, Ariana’s eyes clouded, glazing over the bright blue irises with an opalescent quality. Mist began to form on the surface of her pale skin, slowly at first, drifting up and dissolving in the air. Somewhere behind, someone gasped. Then it was all she was. Nothing of her corporeal form remained—she had entirely dissolved into vapor. Elias clutched at it futilely, watching her escape through his fingers like steam, whirling away into nothing, and moaned deep into the void in his center.

...

Mina woke again, this time to find the violet cloak of dusk covering her window. At the foot of her bed, Lorna dozed in a velvet chair, its straining joints creaking wearily as she restlessly shifted her mass about. Her stomach lurched, and when it did the edges of her vision dimmed, threatening to cast her down into the pitch-black depths once again. She waited a moment as the sensation faded, then silently crept from her bed and stumbled down the hallway toward her parents’ bedchamber.

...

The day had bled away, revealing the ashen tapestry it was painted upon. The moon cast its searchlight through the bedchamber window, searching for the ghosts and dark forms imprisoned here and found Ariana’s spirit waiting as the shadows cowered behind the furniture, and even behind Elias, lest they be discovered and dissolved by the haunted light of night. They found no cover behind Ariana’s incorporeal form.

She sat beside Elias, a wisp of silvery smoke, watching compassionately as he succumbed to his grief.

Soft, occasional breezes climbed through the open window, and as they passed the couple gently by Ariana’s features shifted subtly. Her dark eyes glinted as if glass. They sat there a while in silence, he unaware of her presence, she awaiting what would come.

Ariana brushed her ghostly fingers against Elias’s cheek and he started with a gasp. He could see her now, though only vaguely, and pressed the tears from his eyes with upturned palms.

“Ariana?” he whispered.

She only stared back at him.

“I can see you. Can you hear me?”

“I hear you, Love.” Her voice was distant, barely audible.

Elias attempted to take her hand, but she was smoke.

Suddenly, through her misty visage he could see bright, thin lines forming upon the stone wall behind her, an odd geometry. As he watched, a door emerged and swung slowly open to reveal an apparition standing upon the threshold—a ghostly man with skin of steel superimposed on a backdrop of gloom and fog. Somewhere far beyond, the hollow chorus of a thousand wailing souls could be heard.

Ariana’s features narrowed. “What is it, Elias?”

“There’s someone else here.”

The silver man stepped from the doorway and stretched his hand out over Ariana’s head. She looked up at it with a quizzical expression. Elias sprang to his feet and squared off with the figure.

“Don’t touch her!”

The silver man shot Elias a quizzical glance and withdrew his hand. “You can see me, manchild? Curious.”

“She’s not going with you.”

“How is it that you are aware of me, young one? What sort of strange magic is it that you have come upon?”

Elias attempted to gather Ariana to him, but her form flowed through his fingers.

“Take me in her stead, Spirit.”

“She must go, child; it is written. This thing neither you nor I can alter.”

Elias let out a moan and swung wildly at the mechanical ghost, his blows passing through ether, wisps of silver mist streaming from his fists. The figure stood unaffected. He looked upon Elias sympathetically.

“You will have your time. Spend your days here piously, and you may see her again one day if the machine wills it.”

Myael helped Ariana from the floor and Elias advanced once again. This time Ariana held her palm up to halt his advance.

“It’s alright, Elias. I think I’m supposed to.”

“No, no, no.”

“Be strong for Mina, and for yourself, my love. We will all be together again, one day. I am sure of it.

Elias watched helplessly as they receded through the doorway. Just as they dissolved into the light, Ariana turned back and, looking past Elias, smiled and blew a kiss just before the door swung shut and he turned to find a wide-eyed Mina standing in the doorway.

“Mommy?”

Tears streamed from her eyes and she slowly put her hand to her mouth and returned her mother’s gesture. Her pale face then turned toward Elias, strands of hair clinging to glistening beads of sweat upon her face and she stepped forward, teetered, and collapsed.

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