| Prologue |
Kedean is young.
Younger than he is in the waking world, at least, a part of him notes, well aware, somehow, that he's dreaming. He doesn't know how he got where he is – a bustling market by the sea, it seems, given the close calls of seagulls and the gonging bells of nearby ships – but the street, though not remarkable in any way, is familiar. He's been here before.
Without thinking, his feet carry him down the dirt and cobblestone path. A rich tapestry of sights and smells weave around him, all saturated with a sense of familiarity so acute it feels like déjà vu. Shoppers, children, animals – everyone there skirts to either side of him, paying him so little mind he might as well not exist, but it doesn't matter. He knows where he's going.
When he reaches a low, patched purple canvas overhang, tattered like the sail of a ghost ship, he steps under its shadow, pushes back the curtain of multi-sized and multi-colored beads serving as a door behind that and enters a room that smells of incense, magic, and death. Squinting, he waits as his eyes adjust to the thin reddish-yellow light that the bedraggled striped curtains cast the room in. Ahead of him, darker even then the last, waits another doorway leading to an upwards spiraling staircase. A moment later, he takes it.
Up, up, up…
The stairs wind on endlessly – one, after another, after another, after another – and perhaps it's the dream, but he loses track of how many stairs he's climbed long before he gets any sense of nearing the top. It looked like a tiny shack from the outside, it couldn't possibly go on forev-
He reaches the top. He stills there though, uncertain. The sense of familiarity remains, but this time it's stronger and accompanied by something else – a dread of something – and he knows abruptly that what awaits him won't be favorable, just as surely as he knows that whatever it is is inevitable. He enters the room.
Feathers litter the floor. Chicken feathers, goose feathers, raven feathers, turkey feathers, and a thousand he doesn't recognize. Empty bird cages hang from the ceiling at haphazard intervals, half of them with their doors wide open on their hinges. All shapes, sizes and designs: some plain, wooden, and old, others gilded gold or silver and ornate.
"Oh there you are," greets a tittery voice that sounds something like he expects a mockingbird or a robin might sound if given a human body: chirpy, high pitched, and thin somehow.
The speaker looks up at him, an old woman whose face looks like a mouth, nose, and pair of eyes drowning in a sea of wrinkled, folding skin. She's sitting, perched behind a rickety, wooden-paneled table that looks like a butcher once owned it thanks to the nicks, splinters and ample bloodstains, and when she grins, the folds of her face edge back like curtains to reveal a maw of teeth scattered far apart, yellow and white gravestones protruding from her gums.
"Knew you'd make it," she professes. "Come, come…" Gnarled fingers motion him forward, and despite the growing, sickening anxiety building in his chest, he proceeds, approaching the table with the air of a man closing in on a noose. "You came to know your fate, yes?"
No. His heart lurches, gut roiling and he means to shake his head, but she isn't looking at him anymore and he can't speak.
"Such a strange thing, fate, you know," she says, her fingers tapping out a rythmless beat on blood-splattered wood. Seven fingers, he thinks. Seven fingers on her left hand. "Humans spend so much time thinking about the future, the past…never want to live in the present," she says. "Always wondering, always wanting something else, something more, wanting control…but do you know, for all their wondering, they don't really want answers? Tell me my fate, they say, please tell me…" she coos.
She reaches down, rouses a sleeping hen from an open nest of hay by her side and jerks it up, prompting loud, startled squawks and clucking. He feels like a stone as he watches. Like he's frozen or dead, watching something on replay, except not, because this is different. The same, but fatally different.
"Tell me what happens, they say, always want to know the end, but the end…" She snatches the protesting bird to her, latching it under her arm and wringing its neck in a fraction of an instant before dropping its limp body to the bloodied table, "…is always the same. And they never want to hear that." She draws out a knife. "What they really want…" Feathered, still twitching, she slits its belly open, a gush of blood and innards spilling out onto the tabletop, a collection of which – after hacking a bit more at said innards – she spills into a pot (Where did the pot come from?), "…is fairy tales…to hear retellings of their dreams, told to them as facts to come…"
"You've told me this story," he manages to say.
Her eyes dart up, eyebrows rising impressively like little rippling mountains of soft crinkled paper, as though she didn't expect him to speak at all. Then, she grins again, her surprise softening out into sharp amusement, but the smile's somehow more predatory this time. More toothy, and sharper edged, as though the jagged rows are fangs, not the harmless human teeth of an old woman.
"Oh, you remember me, do you? Yes, well, not this story," she says. "This is different. You have come a long way since I last saw you, though," she admits. "Good progress, much good progress, but…" She raises a waggling finger reprimandingly before shaking her newly filled, sizzling pot of chicken guts, "…you are still a coward."
He frowns. "I-"
"Ah! Listen…" She looks to her pot as she places it over its small-
Fire? When did she build a fire? He doesn't remember there being a fire or even a place to safely start one when he entered the room, but there it is, just to the side of where she's sitting like a handy little cook stove.
He listens. It sounds like meat cooking.
"You have so much fear in you…great courage, too, yes, but so much fear…" She prods at the meat with a bare stick, the rest of the chicken still laying, bleeding, on the table as its insides sizzle and pop. "You've grown used to it. You've let it grow in you, like a parasite, let it own you…so afraid of loss that you push away everything you think you might one day fear to lose…" In a flurry of movement, she jerks the pot up, upending its contents on the table, still boiling with heat as they plop onto the soaked red wood. "Blood plots against blood in this war they're brewing. Sons against mothers, sisters against brothers…and you…" She lifts and points the bloodied tip of the blade she'd used earlier at him, "…you are still running," she accuses, "…acting like it has nothing to do with you…"
"I had no choi-"
"Always a choice," she objects, grumbling it more than saying it to him as she lowers her blade to the half-cooked giblets. "Always, always, always…"
"How can there be fate," he argues, frustrated, "if there is-"
"Choice," she snaps, "determines your fate. Yes, it is set that things will happen, but how they happen, why they happen, when, with whom, all these things you decide with choice. Your brother, for instance," she says. "You will kill him."
His fingers grip, digging into his palms.
"But which brother?" she says, and then shrugs. "The one you've grown with, protected, loved your entire life…or another?"
"I only have one-"
Her grin looks like a shark's this time. Jagged rows. Sharp. Vicious. "Now, yes," she concedes, "but if you wait…if you make the right choices…maybe then you will have three."
Three? He blinks, feeling dizzy. Is the room spinning? He can't seem to focus. "Three?" he repeats, barely managing to get the word out. It feels fat on his tongue. Surreal. "How…when will I have three?"
"When?" she mimics, as if surprised. Or amused. It's getting harder to pay attention. "Why…when you become the dragon lord's bride, of course…"
The room is spinning. No, the world is spinning, and he can't breathe. He was standing, but now he staggers, toppling, dragging too-hot air into his lungs, and her voice echoes in his head like a solid object ricocheting off the sides of bell. Back and forth. Up, down…
"And remember…" The floor ripples, like water, and he shuts his eyes, already on his knees as the floor sifts out from under his fingers like sand through an hour glass, "…if the shadow of black wings hangs over the City of the Ancients before the first rise of the winter moon and the Red Witch dies by the hand of a traitor…" Can he wake yet? Gods, he can't breathe, "…your son will never draw his first breath."