In the Land of Sycosaia
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young princess who lived in an enormous castle. She led the court well and she ruled the land wisely and everyone adored her. She was safe and she was happy and the sun was warm and the earth was rich.
But one morning, the princess awoke to a great wind drafting through her bedroom. She didn't think much of it at the moment, only that the air was cold and it made her feel sad. But as the days and weeks went on she began to notice trouble in the castle. Here and there, people were missing. Jobs that were once done by multiple servants together were seen performed by one person struggling alone through the task. Little touches in the palace were suddenly absent, like flowers on the tables and certain banners on the walls. She couldn't find the right faces in the crowds, and then one day, she realized there were no longer crowds at all, just the occasional thin man scurrying between rooms, and always the great, cold, drafting wind.
Finally, the princess approached one of the old servants and asked him, "Please sir, but is everything alright? Where is everyone hiding themselves these days? I can't seem to find anybody." The man turned to her in surprise.
"Haven't you noticed milady?" he said. "They've gone."
"Gone?" said the princess, and she pulled her shawl tighter as a particular gust ricocheted down the corridor.
"Of course," said the servant mildly. "They've been carried off in the breezes. It's been picking us off, a few every day." The princess' face scrunched up in confusion and the man gestured with his hands to emphasize. "A puff comes down the hall," he said. "And just picks people up—then out the window, through the air, and poof." He gave his fingers a little pop on the word, and smiled again.
"Poof?" said the princess, bewildered. "But who has it taken? Can't they just come back?"
"By now it's only taken us little people," said the servant, "but I believe a few courtiers have been swept off lately. And surely you've noticed how much colder it's gotten."
The princess could only nod in her shawl.
"Why," said the servant, "I wouldn't be surprised if the royal family began to disappear soon as well."
"But—how can you be so calm about it?" demanded the princess. "Why has no one told me about this? I would have done something! I wouldn't just let this just happen."
"Well we thought you knew of course, milady," said the man.
"Knew?" said the princess. "Of course I didn't know. There have been winds sweeping through my castle and taking away my people! What about you? What about me? Can't we bring them all back?"
The servant only smiled.
"But milady," he said, "I was only ever here for you. And in any case, you were the one that's been causing the wind."
"What—?" the princess began to say, but then a mighty roar interrupted her. She spun on her heel just as the great doors opened and a rush of wind burst in, whipping all about her and ripping the banners from the wall. The princess squeezed her eyes shut and dug her fingers into the stone walls until the gust had passed, and when she opened them again and took her ground, she was alone.
Indeed, the entire castle was empty.
That was the first real day of the coldness. After that, the princess wandered through the castle, gray days smearing into gray nights.
And she lived like this for a few years until the armies arrived.
The invasion began when they arrived with north dragons.
The princess had woken up one morning in her bed, unsurprised to find her skin cold as marble and the air above her floating with white dust. She was accustomed, at that time, to lay in her bed, huddled under as many blankets as she could find, and wait out the morning. Eventually she would come to understand that the blankets were still just as useless against the chill as they had been the morning before, and all the mornings before that, and she might as well start moving about.
But today she had made a point to get up on time. The castle was feeling warmer than usual and she thought she heard voices down the hall. Perhaps there were people again. Every now and then, visitors got lost and wound up in her parlor. It wasn't as if they ever stayed long of course, for the wind always carried them off eventually and left her by herself again. But then, perhaps she should search the corners and see if anyone had turned up in the night. Perhaps this time it was someone who would stay.
Instead she heard the screams.
Now, the princess was from the land of the south, and had never heard the north dragons before. Indeed she had never felt the cold until the past few years, but once it settled in, it had certainly stayed. She would later realize these north dragons had only followed the cold.
They brought armies with them, or perhaps the armies brought the dragons. She could never tell who was fighting who or even if it was her castle they were attacking, but all of a sudden, the castle grounds that had once been so utterly still hosted a massive battle with chaos on every side, presided over by the screaming north dragons soaring far above. The frostbitten land was churned into angry red dirt, the trees mauled over by war, the rivers turned to foam, and the skies full of storms. Mornings that she had laid in bed, thinking nothing and feeling nothing, became days of locking herself in the dungeons, scrabbling at the walls, heaping chains and arms upon herself, anything to drown out the horrible, horrible noise.
There in the dungeons she began to train. The cold had brought ennui and stagnation, but the armies brought an overwhelming urge to fight. In those early days, she still thought she could make herself into something of an overwhelming fighter to match. Anything, she thought, was better than nothing. She learned to ride, she learned to fence, she learned the mace, the axe, and the arrow. But she didn't learn how to hide.
Her first day at war was a disaster. She entered the fray through a secret hole in the castle wall, slipping into the battle and taking on the closest man to her. Parry, cut, cut, bash. He was dead at her feet.
This, she thought, was far more interesting than the cold.
She took on the next man, and the next. Of every one of them, she demanded answers: "Who are you?" She asked. "Why are you here?" Slash. Cut. "What do you want from me?" There were no answers to be given, only fighting, slashing, cut, cut, bashing.
She was doing well, for all of ten minutes. She was beginning to manage, beginning to think that maybe she could hold her own long enough that they would take her to a leader, to negotiate, to send them away. Just when she thought she had bashed it all down into a dull roar, the enemy released the screaming north dragons.
All at once their voices were like children wailing and dry throats cracking, with the percussion of battle and the melody of a funeral canticle. The battlefield bowed like trees under a hard wind, the flashing helmets turning up like the silver sides of leaves. All around, soldiers began to lie down and cry.
Amidst them all, the princess gripped her sword and whirled in a circle. The screams affected her worst of all. She felt as though her soul were so itchy it should crawl out and drown itself, her head hurt so badly she wanted to cut it off, indeed her whole body ached so much she wanted to cut it away, but even then the screams were in her head, in her mind, and would not be shut out. She couldn't think, as if there was no room inside her for focus or thought or even memory, only room for the dragons. Pounding and pounding, till she couldn't see, couldn't stand, and the sword clattered from her hands as her knees hit the dirt, pathetic now and shaking. She could no longer tell who was screaming, the dragons, or the battlefield, or the long noise coming from her own throat. Her hands were over her ears and the battle around consumed her.
She awoke back in the palace, her marble sheets pulled up to her shoulders, her skin clammy and crusted with dark blood. She waited a week until she ventured onto the battlefield again, and again the dragons screamed her into submission, again she woke in her own halls.
It was an old magic of the castle, she finally realized, put in place to protect her, when she was so very close to dying. True fear and true danger called upon the magic of the castle, and it would swiftly pick her up and tuck her back inside. All it took to activate was sleep, but she vowed if it was ever going to take her, it was going to take her unconscious.
There were many days when the princess couldn't bear to go out to the battlefield. Days when she knew she was to wander through the halls and memorize the stones. The wind blew so hard she nearly couldn't hear the war outside. It was on one of these days that she came across the hidden door.
She was walking through one of the old wings, when a great gust of wind hit. The princess was used to these by now and she withdrew her fingers into her sleeves and ducked into her cape as the rush passed. But just as the mantle around her shoulders began to flap in the wind, the tapestry beside her fluttered wide.
And behind it was a handle.
As the gale passed over her, the princess' eyes grew round. A secret door in the old wing? She struggled against the blast to reach the door and as her hand gripped around it, a loud 'ha!' burst from her lips.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! echoed down the corridors, carried by the wind. The princess didn't care that they were laughing at her. She pulled the door open and tumbled inside.
She fell into a layer of dust so thick it softened the landing. She stood, sneezing, and found a ready torch mounted beside the door. She struck flint until the fire flamed up, and waited till her eyes adjusted. Then she turned and saw.
Before her was a great laboratory, with high walls stretching far back and great arches leading on to yet more rooms. A low stone table lay in the center of the first room, the walls around it crammed high with bookshelves while loose sheaves of parchments littered the floor. But lying there on the center table, was a man.
The princess drew closer, her torch raised high for light, her footsteps lighter still in case she needed to bolt away. But as the flames cast shadows across the man's face, the princess realized it was not a living person, but in fact a machine. She cast her eyes about her. The arches led to identical rooms, and beyond those more, and the next bay over had another low stone table. Each slab held a person, laid back and peaceful, gleaming softly in the light with metal skin and satin-stranded hair. As the princess listened closer, she could hear them all, whispering together in unison. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
She learned over the next few weeks, from the scrolls and charts on the walls, that this laboratory had been her father the king's before the cold set in. She learned how all those days and weeks when he had gone missing in the castle, he had been here, working, always working. His product was perhaps the most impressive thing she'd ever seen. She began to read his journals, take tools to the automatons and open them up, pulling wires, changing gears, making improvements where she could. Like her father, she began to spend her days in this room. Once, she realized, she had been there for a whole week and not noticed.
It was a beautiful day when she built her first man all by herself. The golden eyes shifted open and she watched the lenses focus on her face.
"Good morning," she said, feeling something blossom in her stomach. ('Love!' she thinks. 'Pride,' says a voice.) "I hope you're well," she continued, pushing these thoughts aside. "I've—I've made you. I've brought you to life."
The man turned to her and said, for the first of many times, "What can I do for you?"
She did not realize it then, or later after she'd built five more of them, or even after their ranks had swelled to twenty. But after the fiftieth creature, she began to notice what they had become for her.
She had repurposed the old wing for them, the one that once held royal family and visitors. This she privately called the Inner Court. The automatons began to fill the place out, adopting the rolls of jesters, nurses, children, and friends. As the princess' finesse grew with practice, she began to recycle the old friends to build the new, despite their protests when she scrapped them. She quickly figured out how to add a silencer button.
"What can I do for you?" was all they ever asked and her list only ever grew. They took care of her and complimented her and satisfied her and sometimes it was almost enough that she thought they loved her. Perhaps she even loved them. Perhaps she's safe and she is happy. But if ever she left them, the door closed behind her, and she locked it from the outside.
"What can we do for you?" sounded angrier and angrier.
Sometimes she would stand on the parapets and look out across the kingdom. She carried up a telescope and a basket of cotton whenever she went, and when she looked out across the battlefield, she stuffed her ears with the white fluff and did her best to ignore the beasts above and below.
To the north of the battlefield was the old monastery, and she liked to think she could see them scurrying out there, the monks looking for provisions to send her, waving, offering help and encouragement. There was once a point when she had tried to wade through the battle to get to them. Now she tried to stay indoors and do most of her fighting by the castle walls.
She didn't really trust them, for the armies had come in by the way of the monastery and that was where the cold wind blew from, but she hoped that they had at least made some attempt to stop the invaders before they reached her. Stars above, she knew they had the resources.
But it was comforting to know they were there, and when she was feeling most alone, she would realize that the only reason she hadn't yet joined them was because she wasn't strong enough to reach them. She really wanted it to be her own fault; matters that were her fault were matters she could fix. But if they'd always lied about the power they had, if they'd been leaving her to the fate of the armies all along—sometimes she wanted to wade through the battle just to attack her old allies for the betrayal.
Maybe one day, she thought, I'll reach them. Maybe they'll give me sanctuary.
Every palace drain led to the river and the river led to the sea to the south. The princess liked to write messages in bottles and set them floating down the fast-moving current. From her place in the automaton laboratories it was easy to access the moat, flowing low beneath the castle. She didn't mind the smell terribly here, and really the sound of water was something pleasant. The war outside was quietest when she was under the castle, a whole building above her to block out the noise.
The stories that went into the bottles were mostly silly things—old war plans and ideas, or maybe tales from the Court, she liked to write these down and let them loose. The important ones were usually snatched out of the water farther down—all those calls for help, requests for aid, descriptions of her dilemma—these were skimmed from the water and destroyed by the enemy with impeccable accuracy. The important ones never do make it.
But the stories about the Court usually survived, for whatever forsaken reason, and they made their unsteady way out into the ocean. Sometimes she got answers and compliments for these bottles, drifting back up the current or inexplicably washed up on the dungeon shores. She learned not to question it, but they didn't mean much. Courtly tales and odd wonderings were generally unhelpful. She wanted a reply to her war stories, or maybe a copy of someone else's. That didn't happen very often.
She sometimes wondered about times of peace—when she was very small and her father was out of the laboratory and her mother still wore the crown and a smile. Then they had had jesters and nurses and courtiers and children filling the court, filling the castle, filling the kingdom, and there were no chains or locks at all. Everyone was nearby and everyone was very real.
Ever since the castle had grown cold and then the enemy had set in, she hadn't known many days where she wasn't screaming or panicking or slowly lying in bed. But the automaton laboratory worked for now, and she spent more time in the Inner Court anyway, not tinkering or scribbling in the moatway. And that was better wasn't it? Because at least she was talking to someone again. She fiddled with cogs and gears in her hands, fitting together the mechanisms for another little metal girl's eyes. Yes, these people liked to talk to her.
It was about the same time that she discovered the automatons when all the mirrors woke up. Every mirror in the castle, from the massive ornate one hung in the great hall to the small looking glasses in each empty bedchamber, was suddenly charged with an old enchantment. The princess recognized this magic—her mother had dabbled in sorcery for a time and taught tricks to much of the castle furniture—but it had seemed glamourous in those days. The mirrors now were a terrible nuisance.
She learned that unless she stared very hard and kindly at herself, the mirrors would throw her out onto the battlefield. It was conceived as a quick mode of transportation to find the palace grounds, but in the daily life of making her way from room to Inner Court to laboratory, the mirrors created something of a mine field. Many were the days that she passed one of the enchanted glasses and merely caught her reflection off guard. Behind her, the walls began to fade and the light grew brighter and her stomach hurt, and suddenly she was out in the field again, surrounded by the battle. She learned after the first time to keep her sword always on her person in case it happened again. Even then, it took a while to learn how bash it all down to a manageable state before the dragons came and ruined her for the day entirely.
The best way, as it turned out, to return from the field to the castle was a secret passage running under the palace walls that only she could access. It took her up into the Inner Court but, since she'd entered from within, the doors stay locked from the outside. Afterwards, it always took forever for her to convince the doors to release her. But it was better than the war of course. Some days it was all she could do to drop the sword and sprint into the derelicted tunnel that brought her back home. She would leap upon the servants inside and they quickly obliged her whims. Farces and short plays and action jousts and absurd symposiums and guilty whippings and apothecarians handing her potion after potion to make her think that it was a dream, all just one awful, terrible dream. And after a while, they calmed her down well enough that she could stumble out into the castle again and write down their activities for a new bottle message.
It's a wonder her mother ever created those bloody mirrors.
One day, she left the laboratories early to make her way to the kitchens, hovering outside the door for a moment and feeling a bit disgusted with herself. After a moment, she let herself in and cleaned out the cupboards.
With a flagon in one hand and a chicken's leg in the other, she headed towards the center courtyard of the castle. Most days she forgot this sector existed, but every now and then she'd be reminded and feel compelled to visit a few times a day until the feeling passed again. In the very middle was a massive sundial with a golden rod to mark the time. She watched as the shadows changed across its face, and in the distance one dragon let out high scream. She stuffed her ears full of cotton and moved along, marking how a few of the rosebushes were making a brave attempt to come back along the trellis.
At the back wall, one of the automatons was busy working away, chipping carefully at the old stones. She'd given him the title Royal Inscriber on a whim, but he only had the one job. For every day that passed, he was to make a mark on the stones, and these days the wall was nearly covered in his tallies. She had asked him to make the marks differently when the armies moved in to note their arrival, and so halfway along the expanse, the pattern changed to signify the day the kingdom went from totally silent to blindingly loud. Looking at the wall, she felt a little bored and a little triumphant and a little hungry and a little afraid of mirrors, and somewhere out there, a dragon made a noise that cut through the cotton. The tallies were certainly getting extensive now.
It had been years that she'd lived in this mental state.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young princess who lived in an enormous castle. She was happy and she was loved and the sun was warm and the earth was rich. But one morning a wind blew in, and the fickle breezes seemed to take away all the people and all the warmth and all the joy. And then she was alone, and then came the war. And for years she had to learn how to take care of herself again and how to keep the enemies at bay. And the wind blew and the armies raged.
And then one day, they stopped.
The princess let herself down to breakfast one morning and found her usual companion sitting at the chair beside her.
"Good morning," she said, as was their custom.
"Good morning," replied the automaton. Something sounded a little strange about the metal girl's voice and the princess wondered if something had gone wrong with her programming. It wasn't often that she made that sort of mistake anymore.
"Is everything alright?" She asked.
The companion looked up, her round eyes dim with thought.
"Everything is just fine," she replied. "Only, I wonder if I could take my meal with the others today? It's been such a while since I have, and the winds were so low today, and with the army gone, they were thinking to have breakfast on the north porch."
The princess was so startled that she could only stammer consent. As the doors swung shut behind the excited automaton, the princess spoke the words out loud.
"The winds are low and the army is gone."
Indeed, the winds were very low, and the castle, for the first time that she could remember, felt warm. And the grounds, for that matter, were totally empty. She spent the day, and all of the next week, marveling at these things on her own. The flagstones were cracked here and there where the chill had frozen the dew within and split, and everywhere that had once been a garden or a field was a trampled plain of dust, but they were warm and they were empty. The princess was so delighted with the new world that she didn't notice a change in the automatons until they came to speak to her about it.
"Excuse me Princess," came a voice one evening. She looked up to find a rather surprising crowd in the doorway of her writing room. At their head was the Duke, the first man she'd ever created.
"Yes?" she said, setting down her pen.
The Duke looked a bit abashed.
"The others and I, we were wondering…" He trailed off and looked down at his feet.
"Go on," she said, feeling very curious.
"We were wondering if we might move out of the castle."
At first she was a little afraid of their absence, but she granted them the request, and as the automatons moved away from the palace, even those of the Inner Court, the princess began to adjust again to this new castle. It wasn't nearly so bad as she had expected it, for she didn't mind to be a little lonely if the palace stayed warm, and after all they promised to visit.
And in any case, it was only once the automatons moved that that the new people started moving in to replace them.
The princess awoke one morning to hear the clip clop of horse hooves on the courtyard's cobbles. She'd never built a horse before, so it could not be one of her own people. In an instant she was fully awake and standing at her window, the sashes flung wide. Looking out from her balcony, she saw a tall brown stallion coming in through the open gates, followed by another horse, and another. Nearly a dozen beautiful animals came in through the gates before the final one entered, a white horse with long legs and a beautiful girl on its back. Running along past its feet came a pack of baying hounds.
The girl, as it turned out, was another young royal looking for a place to stay and the princess was only too happy to let her move in. She took up residence in the apartments above the stables, and spent much of her time taking care of the horses and the hounds. She was good at taking care of things, and always had a dozen things on her mind that she wanted to check in on and help. Often she would invite the princess to go out riding with her, to the beach and back or out beneath the moonlight, and they would tell each other stories all night long. It was the happiest the princess had been in years, the kind of happy she wasn't jealous of and tried to keep, but merely let herself enjoy.
It wasn't long before there was a new sound in the courtyard, and the princess awoke to see another girl out on the athletic pitch, flying over a pole with her long skirts trailing behind her. The vaulting woman was a third princess, who wanted a place to stay and she too received apartments on the yard. She wore dresses cut unlike anything the princess had ever seen, with beads on the hem and long sleeves embroidered with roses and bees and fish. She spent her days on the pitch, riding tricks on the horses' backs and dancing barefoot in the grass. Her laugh had a way of drifting through every part of the castle.
It seemed that word had gone out, for soon there was another one who took residence in the dungeons. She was different from the first two and seemed to the princess to be a bit more familiar. She trained with sword and javelin as the princess had done herself so many years before and she slept on a pile of old, wide books. Her eyes wanted to smile, but there were calluses and blisters in her hands from how often she held her sword. The princess began to think that the winds weren't native to her own halls, and sometimes she and the other girl would spar and shoot together when they both wanted to practice.
A final princess found her way into the castle one night and though she didn't ask for an apartment of her own, she never seemed to leave the library. She was often up on the ladders with two tomes in her hands, languages on her tongue, and ink staining her fingers. There was a mess wherever she went, and eventually the princess just relegated her to a loft above the section meant for fairytales.
The castle's population built up quickly from there. There were two men in suits of armor who claimed that they were knights, and though they were certainly brave and loyal, they were stupid if they thought the princess didn't know they were the wizards who lived in the high tower. A jester who wore his rebec on his back danced into the hall one afternoon and sat his stool down in the corner. After that, he never seemed to stop singing. An old man with snow white hair knocked upon their door one night and claimed he was a traveling tutor looking for a princess to teach. She gave him the suite beside the chapel and they held lessons in the bell tower, where he would spin the globe around and tell stories instead of lessons, and somehow she felt like he made her understand the stars. A retired captain of the guard, who walked with the hard thunk of a wooden leg, offered himself as her advisor but he seemed to adopt her as a daughter and the princess certainly didn't mind. And when she visited the woodshop one day to borrow a knife, the carpenter there let her have one on the one condition that she come work for his shop. From the twinkle in his eye she knew she'd just been offered lessons in artistry, and she let him put her to work. Everywhere the castle began to sparkle again, with flowers and banners and conversations and the feel that if she looked for just a moment there would always be something to do.
One evening they threw a party and left the gates open for travelers, and sure enough, just as they were thinking to retire, a great crowd bustled in through the door. It was a troupe of acrobats who came in to join the festival and they crowded up to her oaken table.
"Good evening my lady," said the first one, looking down. "We wish you a warm evening. I am sorry, but I feel we must say this before we begin. We came to perform here tonight as a detail with our lord, but it seems we broke one of your golden mirrors in the anteroom."
The princess didn't mind the loss of a mirror in the slightest, for they were still the greatest nuisance, but she wasn't about to let them know that just now.
"Very well," she said sternly. "And just who are you and your lord?"
"We're a band of actors, my lady," said the first, "and we travel with him when he goes—" But at that moment, there was crash in the grand foyer and the hall fell silent. Slowly through the doors came a new figure, a tall, handsome young prince, whose stature and presence were a bit marred with a sheepish grin.
"I'm so sorry," he said, and his voice was deep and kind. "But I think I just broke another mirror."
At the fireplace that night, the castle's inhabitants gathered around the hearth and settled in to their usual chairs. In the background, the jester sang songs and the new troubadours told stories and the wizards spoke quietly with each other in old languages. The princess rested her head against the shoulder beside her—her stallion princess—and watched the shapes in the fire. There was something about them that reminded her of dragons, but the smell was heady like the sweet musk of flowers and the light was like the stars. And there were too many people here for dragons anyway.
As the years passed, people moved back into the castle and built their village around it, surrounded further by flower beds, gardens, and golden fields of wheat. There were days when the wind would blow and a few of the people would vanish, and sometimes the rage war would come back to the land or even to her doorstep. But these days she knew who to consult, which rooms to hide in, what soldiers to deploy, what armor to wear, what to read, what to say, and eventually, what to feel. And after a while, the wind blew the people back in and the war moved on without damaging too much of the country. It wasn't perfect, and she kept the Royal Inscriber chipping away, just to keep the tallies in check, but it's better and kinder than it had been for so long that it feels like it might be perfect.