The old man was coughing again – thick, rough sounds wet with phlegm and sour spit. They are getting worse, Goat reflected as she did every time he succumbed to one of his fits, every time his mouth hobbled for a taste of air. Like a fish gulping for breath. She had watched the great slick goldfins imitate the action each time she went fishing in the garden pools, sunlight flashing from their splendid skins with every desperate throe.
He was like a fish himself, only the old man was gray and withered and hidden from the sun. He drank his paints instead of water, and there was nothing eye-catching about his leaf-thin skin or paper bones.
"Let it pass, child," he wheezed whenever she wound her way to his bedside. "It always passes." But he would accept the glass she proffered despite his complaints, the sticky cordial dotting his side-whiskers the moment he drew away.
"A fine pair we make, us together," the old man had confided once, following a fit that left his lips as blanched and curdled as spoiled cheese. It had taken several seconds for his eyes to find her. They were bright, ill-fitting ovals, so out-of-place it seemed as though someone had stuck two glassy coins into his skull. "A princess and a knight, Goat and I. We've our own kingdom up here."
His smile was meek and splintered – the closest to gratitude he would offer.
A princess. She didn't mind his lies; they warmed her, in fact. When he wasn't coughing or mumbling over his work, the old man had a knack for tale-telling. She appreciated his voice then – the croaky way it spiraled through their chamber and chiseled magic from thin air. She was always in his stories, masquerading as Princess Gisele instead of scrawny Scapegoat. No matter the tale, he always found a place for her.
(And so lovely was little Gisele that the Queen, her own birthmother, fell prey to the vice of envy. The day she was born, any love the Queen felt for her daughter withered into spite, and she commanded her guards to take the babe far, far away, where no eyes could reach her…)
Goat liked the old man's words, though she didn't understand many of them. (On numerous occasions she had begged him to tell her what "Scapegoat" meant, to no avail.)
"Words don't matter," he would tell her at such times. Often he sat by the empty hearth during his tale-telling, as far from the balcony-windows as he could get. His hands made half-gestures as he talked (incomplete circles and open-ended lines) as if they were too tired to complete the motion. Goat perched at his feet or lingered by the cot, ever-wary of the fits that never came. The old man's voice never failed him when he told his stories. "It's the pictures that count, little Goat, the things they let you see."
His assurances never helped her much, for she couldn't envision the great hulk of mountains the story-heroes had to conquer or glimpse in her head the white waterfalls of the Small. She knew no castle other than their own barren tower, and the thought of crossing a land of salt-water on wooden mats befuddled Goat. (Wouldn't the wind swallow them whole? And where did the sea end?) But the old man only chuckled at her incredulity.
"Some soon day you will know, child. You will see it all for yourself."
On his rotating sculptor's wheel he made the little figures to help her see. It took days, depending on his cough, but they blossomed between his knotty hands like perfect children – tiny maids in clay dresses and stable boys with their brooms. As his stories progressed so did the cast of characters: palm-sized ponies with solid manes, rock-goblins with their gory teeth, beady-eyed archivists and fruit-merchants from distant worlds. The old man would spend hours bent over his corner, gnarled and stump-like, while he plied the river-clay into shape and detailed creases into a squire's hat or a lady's gown.
But the figures were faceless and never much to look at until after Goat had fetched them from the balcony, where the sun's baking eye sucked the moisture from the clay and deemed the miniature joints immovable. Only when the old man had cleansed his hair-brushes and arranged the colored paint-pots around the wooden table-stool did the true work begin. The inks were boldly-colored despite their pungent smell, and often Goat hovered nearby with a swimming head for the sake of seeing the Queen's gown change from brown to dusky-violet, or to watch the jester's breeches gradually checker with greens and reds.
Sometimes the old man offered her a brush, but Goat always refused for fear of wrecking his work. Though his hands were root-like and plump with veins they encompassed her own, and despite being small and quick enough to catch a garden-fish she doubted that she could wield such a delicate tool.
"Expand your mind," he would chide, "for how else will you adventure? Gisele would have taken to the task like a bird to air."
Goat sulked at his words, because in truth she was nothing like the princess of his tales. Gisele's figurine was golden-haired and straight-shouldered, her cheeks pink and her eyes glittery and leaf-colored. While Goat picked the scabs on her knees and collected knots in her hair, her counterpart traveled the land in clean trousers and soaked her hair in oils sent from the east. Gisele encountered trolls and consulted with tree-people while Goat had no one but the old man to listen to. Though she thirsted for the next adventure, these small injustices clambered in her head between tales. After the magic had been spoken it was her own thoughts that kept her company.
It isn't fair, she yearned to tell the old man following such moments, while he skulked in his world of dreams and smoothed the next set of characters with careful fingers. It wasn't fair that Gisele explored her kingdom while Goat was hardly allowed to go beyond the river that touched the outskirts of the overgrown garden. It wasn't fair that the princess dined on pulpy fruits brought by her forest friends while Goat had to fish through the meager supply of goldfins to keep them sustained. It wasn't fair that Gisele went unbridled day and night while Goat wasn't allowed out when the temple glittered.
Goat had asked the old man about those summer evenings, when she could see the parapets of the sacred palace blaze like fire beyond the berth of garden trees. Tell me the story, she had pleaded, but he had tightened his lips with distaste and waved the question aside as if to chase away a gnat.
"Only a ritual, child. Nothing but the practice of harvest-hoping and prayers to the warm moon." But his eyes had looked like stone, and he never explained why she wasn't allowed to walk in the gardens while everyone else gathered at the temple.
That wasn't fair, either, and Goat knew she didn't have to listen to him. Without her fishing and berry-picking the old man would have turned to dust before long, scattered like the empty ashes in the old fireside. If she wanted to she could have abandoned the small chamber just as Gisele had left her hidden home. She could have scaled the crumbling tower-steps, this time for good, and found her way beyond the river and down the road which led to houses that from the balcony looked small enough to eat. It didn't matter if the people scowled at her or gave her odd looks, like the farmer's boys who spied her occasionally from the opposite side of the river. She could go anywhere, live as anyone… except she knew she couldn't leave the old man.
Her knight, the clay-worker called himself, and in a way he was. From mud-gathering to knowing the safe types of berries to pick to the names of the ancient garden-herbs, everything she knew she had discovered from him. His stories kept her replenished, so much so that sometimes she felt as if she lived between lives, jumping like a magician from the journeys of each story-hero to her own bland existence.
Sometimes it helped to bury her head under his words.
And yet the old man was nothing like the brave soldiers who traipsed from tale to tale and saved their Ladies. His vulnerability was clear to see when the fits put him to bed and robbed the breath from his throat. He lay small and shriveled, skull-eyed and raw as a newborn bird.
They won't stop, Goat thought as she listened to the fresh batch of coughs building behind her. The realization wasn't a new one; perhaps it was the fire that sent the chill through her, the temple-lights she had taken to watching while the old man wheezed. They flickered in the distance like angry fireflies, enchanting and at once foreboding.
They won't pass no matter what he says.
Despite the summer heat he was wrapped in blankets, and as Goat crept from the balcony she noticed with a small start the unfocused set of his eyes. Though they glimmered with tears of strain there was a faraway vagueness in them, as if he wasn't looking at the ceiling but somewhere beyond it.
Did he count out the stars in his head, or was he mapping Gisele's final adventure? Goat had no way of knowing.
His hand was rough but warm against her palm, and she took what she could from it. Perhaps he felt her touch, for the old man's eyes shifted from the ceiling to find her face. He had managed to lose some of his abstraction. Encouraged, Goat opened her mouth and listened to the words slip.
"Tell me the story," she croaked, and in that instant she knew what she had always tried to forget.
He was no knight, and she was no princess.