To the girl I dance with in my dreams:
You seduced my soul with surety, as if you knew me even more intimately than I knew myself. To this day I suspect you were a manifestation of everything I had ever wanted. If I took your hand and followed your footsteps, I could escape from my world.
I would never dare say these thoughts aloud, never quite allow myself to entertain the notion that I could abandon the duty chained upon me at birth. Yet in your smile, there was the alluring promise that one day, perhaps, I would never return from where you led.
I could sit here and write you love letters, telling you that you have forced me to abandon all reason for your sake, but it would mean nothing. You have never existed except as a glamour, an illusion I created to keep myself from going insane. I must force myself to believe this, so I can at last strip away the lie I keep telling myself: that you will emerge from this clockwork world, chuckle at my shock, and say that you were waiting for me all along. Why do I never see you now, when I need you most? I stride alone among empty, turning gears as decades pass, and I swear I am losing my mind. You must exist, I tell myself, because what else could you be aside from real? And so I am trapped in this endless loop: I bitterly wish you were real, squash my hopes, and then futilely imagine how I would react when you appear.
Even as I write it is evident what a mess I have become. You must understand you found me at my desperate hour, when I could trust no one, and offered me refuge. I believe the first time I met you was when Mallory Finsch summoned me, when the countess was midway through plotting our marriage—and I knew I could not talk to Mallory when I was so sunk in despair, that he would read and catalogue the weakness he saw in my eyes. I stayed awake that night by candlelight, determined not to let him reach me, and stared out my window in utter desperation at stars glimmering brilliant in the night. Day broke, and my head began to spin as the sun crept further into the sky. I could hear the faintest echoes of Mallory's talismans in my head, almost as if I heard his voice through space and time itself.
Time for us to chat.
Dusk approached. I stumbled from room to room as the countess tailed me with an entourage of minstrels singing love songs, and obliviously she peppered me with useless questions about what flowers I wanted at our wedding. My head aching, I pressed my palms against the walls and gripped the staircases as if I could anchor myself to this world and keep from slipping to the next. I nearly fell asleep at dinner, and resorted to pinching myself under the table. Mallory's talismans began to echo still louder in my ears; I knew I was fighting a losing battle.
I would fall asleep eventually, and this I knew. I began to think how I could outwit Mallory, and yet came up blank. My focus faltering, I furrowed my brow at the blue shadows that fell that evening… I was only consumed by the desire to outwit him, to waive this appointment until I had formulated a coherent strategy. I was weak then, of course, and did not yet know how to face my enemies with bravado regardless of what I felt.
I stayed awake for three days and three nights, and then I succumbed.
I stood once more in the clockwork world, finding myself atop a silver gear that had turned to a standstill. Mallory Finsch was nowhere to be seen. I sensed a flurry of activity in the periphery of my vision, a glimmer of white amidst metallics, and then there you were, standing across from me.
You have always looked the same every time we meet, and your long, loose hair is an unearthly shade of pure white. You never fail to come barefoot, dressed in a long, pleated white gown; your garb is simple and plain cotton, yet you carry yourself with more grace and confidence than all the ladies in the court. Isn't the metal cold on your feet? You carry the same surreal, unchangeable quality as an idea, a concept, a yearning. And for a moment we stood looking at each other, the entire world frozen for that instant.
When I extended my hand, you stepped towards me as if we were not strangers. No, in your eyes I saw recognition, as if we already knew each other. There was no possibility, no foreseeable future, in which I would not want to dance with you.
Yet I was certain I had never seen you before in my life. You looked over your shoulder as if waiting for something. Then from the distance sounded a stringed instrument similar to a harp, or perhaps a lyre: mysterious and beautiful, lyrically enchanting and yet played with weight, power, clarity. I can't help but wonder if this was your idea of entertainment—finding those who were lost, and promising an escape that would never come.
Instead of Mallory, I found you in my dreams. Perhaps it was your lightly reassuring touch, or the inexplicable peace and contentment your presence sent through me, but I suspect our regular excursions caused me to slip into even greater denial. I routinely ignored my impending marriage to the countess, the anger I felt emanating from Mallory at my continued dismissal of his summons, the secretive, even threatening glances I received from my parents when they thought I wasn't looking.
I had you, so none of them mattered. I didn't ever dare mention you in the real world, since people would think me quite insane for falling so thoroughly for an apparition. Still it was true; you brought me a sense of well-being, an implicit feeling that I could trust you, that I could not find anywhere or in anyone else.
While I remember my conversations with Mallory in perfect detail, my time with you felt strangely dreamlike. Nothing quite made sense and each second seemed to stretch into forever, yet I felt I had only seen you for an instant. You never spoke as we wandered through the world of gears, hand in hand, and there was no need for words. Oftentimes we would waltz across the gears, sweeping through the empty air together as if this was our last dance. Of course you knew all the steps to all the most modern court waltzes, as if you had been there learning the steps with me. There are so many reasons why I must accept you as merely an extension of my own mind, and yet some part of me stubbornly insists you are worth addressing a letter to as a separate entity.
As we danced together over the nights, you must have noticed how gaunt my face had become, the constant wariness in my step. I did not want to betray to you the struggles I faced everyday, and so I cast aside my demons and reached for your hand.
When we parted for the last time, I knew I had hurt you. Forgive me for casting blame onto others, but you must know that I had been under a great deal of pressure. My greatest nemesis succeeded in shaking the calm our meetings had given me, my bride-to-be was gradually wearing away at my sanity, and I could not turn to my parents for help. If you'll allow me to tell you the full circumstances of our last parting, I know it cannot atone for what I have done. At least, I will have the comfort of recounting it to you in this letter, which I know you shall never read.
Fate is cruel, isn't it?
One day before our last meeting, I had gathered the misplaced courage to face off my sworn enemy from my dreams from the warm reassurance I saw in your eyes. I only met him when I chose to, and only because I relished the discomfort in his demeanor.
"Hello, Johan," Mallory Finsch said, but his face was hard and he didn't smile as he once had.
"Good to see you again," I said, as flippantly as I could.
"Tell me," he said bluntly, "how you avoided my summons."
"Easily," I said simply. "Were you surprised?"
He gave me a long look. "Yes," he said, and I was stricken by the sense that he was telling the truth. "I have spent years upon years working on talisman magic, and it is alarming to see it fail. Was your answer to the last question a lie?"
I paused, watching Mallory study me. "Perhaps," I shrugged, deciding to savor his agitation. "And this time, do you believe I am here because you summoned me?"
"No," Mallory said simply. "You are here because you choose to be here. I suppose it is a meeting of equals now." A strange look crossed his face. "And yet you are here. Why?"
"I have nothing to fear from you," I said. Again, this was because you gave me the sense I had nothing to fear from anyone.
Mallory waited, but I did not ask him a question. "Forfeiting your turn, Johan," he said slowly. "You are that confident, hm?"
Always he prodded for weakness. "Yes," I said finally. "Are you not?"
"You must know the answer to that already," Mallory sighed. "You have supposedly been blessed with superior wisdom at birth, and yet you ask questions with such obvious answers. Besides, confidence is a poor indicator of likelihood of success." He paused. "Are you strategizing for the spring?"
"Yes," I said, because to admit otherwise would have been a tremendous blunder. I reached for another question, growing bolder. "You work with talisman magic. What does that mean?"
Mallory's gaze was unflinching. "I write reality as I wish it to be."
"If your magic works," I continued, not giving him the chance to ask another question, "no one has a chance against you. Isn't that so?"
"That is the foe you face," Mallory shrugged. "You, for your part, are said to be the most powerful and wise sorcerer in the land. We all have our strengths and flaws." He leaned forward. "Now, Johan. Since you are supposedly so intelligent, I will ask you: do you believe destiny exists?"
It was a such a strange question that I nearly laughed in his face. "Destiny? That there is only one possible fate? I do not think we could ever know. But if you want me to guess, I will say that it does not exist. Your fate is your own, you choose where it will lead."
He nodded without seeming to agree. "A follow-up question. Do you have a sense of where your destiny leads?"
I thought. The heroes of old who were bold, brave, handsome, and wise all met tragic ends, despite their accomplishments and skills. I felt certain that as long as I could see you again, mine would be different. And yet…
"No," I said finally. "I do not."
He seemed as if he wanted to say more, but instead settled on silence. "You," I continued. "You seem to be interested in fate. What destiny do you see?"
Mallory's gaze was searing, and I remembered again that he could simply be a brilliant liar. "I see only destruction," he says. "Surely you must understand?"
I hesitated, unwilling to admit I had entirely no idea what he was talking about. Mallory had said himself lies were entirely acceptable here; he had made no pretense of telling the truth. Why had he called these conversations? I had no way of knowing his full motivations.
"I understand," I said finally, curiosity taking hold of me. "Your destruction, or mine?"
"Yours," he said, without hesitation. His voice was chilling. "Don't forget that."
Silence settled again between us.
"You are here to fill my head with false thoughts," I said finally. "You have the power to summon those you wish and speak to them… you aimed to establish a false rapport between us so you might have the power to influence me. You hope that some part of me will trust in your words, believe in your access to fate, and that I will subconsciously consign myself to the destruction you claim to have seen. Very good, Mallory Finsch. It is quite a strategy."
His face closed off. He was still playing the game, betting I would believe him. "Fate is rarely kind to us, Johan," he said, as if offering me consolation. "I'm sure you have noticed. May the best one win, then."
"I'm sure he shall," I said, making it clear I did not believe his proclamations that I would lose. Admitting defeat before I even began? I could not, I would not. "Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?"
"Ah, yes, perhaps I should mention. A warning for this winter," Mallory said, shrugging slightly as if we were discussing the weather and not my impending doom. "Prepare to lose everything."
"Why would you tell me?" I asked, too quickly.
He smiled. "Why not?"
"The advantage of surprise," I returned. "Maneuvering an army in the blizzard would mean near-certain death for most of your troops, not to mention that you would easily perish before our walls. If you meant to attack and set on fire…"
"You forget I am your enemy," Mallory said, watching me as if this were highly entertaining. "Maybe you do that a little too often, Johan."
"I'm leaving," I said, confidence dissolved. "Perhaps you forget that I come here of my own accord. I wish you luck with your plots, for you will certainly need it."
He merely shrugged, and then I was awake, dizzy and nauseous. I did not want to believe him; and yet some part of me internalized his words. We believed we were safe in the blizzards of winter, but Mallory Finsch wielded talismans, the very hands of fate. I confronted my parents again, convinced we needed to brainstorm all possible ways Mallory Finsch could plot our destruction and prepare for each of them.
"He's coming this winter," I told them the next day, confronting them in the throne room. "Mallory Finsch, the enemy prince."
"That would be very foolish," my father said. "And I think you are making things up to weasel out of marriage. Your wedding is in three days, and that is final. Goodbye, Johan."
"I am certain," I protested, stepping forward. "This is real."
"And how?" My father fixed me with a steely glare. "Pray tell."
"He uses talisman magic," I said. "He reached out to me and specifically told me he would be attacking in the winter."
"Firstly," my father said, "that's a lie. He reaches out to you? Don't make me laugh. You merely don't want to marry the countess, and you'll tell us anything in hopes that we squander our precious resources to inflate your ego. Secondly, not even the most inexperienced war strategist would attack in the dead of winter."
"I'm telling you," I said, standing my ground, "this is real-"
"Good luck to him," my mother said suddenly, sipping at her elderberry tea. "The winter is unforgiving. Many a commander has been known to lose their way in the snows, and still more have lost wars that way. If he makes it out alive, maybe we can give him some tea."
She was right, of course. But some part of me hoped that this information would force them to consider me as a real person.
"Can't you trust me?" I asked, hating that I had to resort to tugging on the familial ties that bound us. "Your cause is my cause, you must know that."
My mother rose abruptly.
"Don't," my father began, but my mother had already begun to come down the steps.
"Do you want to hear reason?" my mother asked, but it was not a question. "Johan, your life is forfeit. At eighteen, you will die in battle. Not now, not in two weeks, but at eighteen. That enemy prince foretold your death, but he did not predict his victory. You want to be useful to us? Give us an heir before your demise so the royal line may continue, and then die with honor."
"The boy isn't ready to discuss his own death-"
"He is sixteen now," my mother said, and I remembered my birthday had passed on a day like all the rest, a cold and dreary day when I had desperately been trying to stay awake so Mallory Finsch could not gauge my weakness.
"He wanted to hear the truth," she continued, "so he shall have it. I hope he hadn't entertained the notion of living like everyone else?" She turned to me again. "Any children of yours would surely be powerful sages as well. If you aren't successful in defeating our enemies, perhaps we can try them. All the more incentive for you to die well, and take our enemy with you."
I reeled. My parents had never even considered that my life was worth fighting for; they had already consigned me to perish by the hand of Mallory Finsch. If my end was written anyway, all they needed from me was a continuation of the royal line and the defeat of our enemies.
Some part of me had known this all along, and I had merely refused to admit it to myself. Yet I did not want to die, and I did not want to live as if I would die. The grand, noble heroes of old could sacrifice life and limb for their causes, but I was interested in no such thing.
I would live, no matter what it took, and I would emerge in victory—I could not forfeit one for the other.
I knew, then, that my parents and I were not only in discord, but on fully opposing sides. They would send me to my demise if it meant even a slight advantage over the enemy; they believed Mallory Finsch had written my fate not only on my hand, but also in the stars.
"I understand," I said, smothering my fury. "That makes the most sense." The bitterness coiled in my heart began to coalesce into a drive to win at any cost, even at the expense of those around me. What had my parents and the court ever given me such that I should treasure their well-being?
That night, I danced with you again. My head was spinning with shame and despair, my heart thudding with paranoia, my hands shaking with some distant terror. Your presence gave me a feeling of calm, but I knew it would subside as soon as I awakened and you were gone.
I remember how I had desperately needed to talk to you. I knew I would be breaking the rules of the dreamworld should I try to exchange words with you, but I didn't care. You were the only person I could confide in, the only one who wasn't out to use me, manipulate me, or kill me.
And so when we paused from our dance, I reached out towards you to take both of your hands in mine; somehow I feared you would disappear the moment I uttered any words. Still you wore your long white dress, your hair tumbling unbound down your back, your face youthful yet strangely ageless.
"Who are you?" I asked.
I saw you sinking into a deep disappointment. For whatever reason, my words cut you deeply.
"Don't ask me that ever again," you said, a little sharply. There was a strange lilt to your voice, an accent I could not place. "You know who I am."
"I'm sorry," I said, making sure you knew I meant what I said, "but I don't."
There was a long silence.
"Don't do this," you said, desperately. "Please."
I stared at you for a long moment. A terrible thought crossed my mind, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it sooner. What if you, too, were hopelessly bound to me beyond your own volition, because some sage had decreed it? Were you like the countess who had defied will and reason to marry me, the men and women who threw themselves at my feet at every royal ball, the countless anonymous admirers who wrote me love poems without ever speaking to me, the strangers who approached me, out of nowhere, to swear themselves to me should I want them?
I had intuitively believed that this realm was outside the rules of space and time, and thus, so were you. You couldn't be like them, I told myself, you didn't see me through the warping lens of the "gift" Vlad had bestowed. Ours was a meeting of equals, wasn't it?
Yet when I read desperation in you, as if you loved me with all the depth and meaning of something that was irrevocably true, it all came crashing back with a wrenching reality. You couldn't feel like this for me, not when we had only walked together in dreams. How do you ask someone if they love of their own accord? You must have seen the panic, the pain, the despair materializing on my face, because your eyes widened.
"Are you alright-"
But my hand had slipped out of yours like water. My breaths heaving, I scrambled away from you.
"Wait," you said, and I recognized the look I had seen in the countess' eyes the night before the ball, when I had fled from both her and my own uneasy conscience.
For the first time I began to suspect that I might have imagined you all along. Had I been so desperate to believe I could be loved without some falsifying magic at my back?
You called out my name as if heartbroken, as if it were the most familiar thing in the world.
But I couldn't say anything, I couldn't speak. I wanted to return and kneel before you, beg you to swear that you were under no enchantment, but no words passed my lips. It was all futile, wasn't it?
I left you there, standing alone amidst a giant metal contraption larger than either of us could ever know. Perhaps my mind had decided that I could no longer bear to deceive myself like this, perhaps I had severed my connection with you for good… no matter what the reason, that was our farewell.
I know I must make no sense. I do not know how to address you, and writing this letter has been the hardest so far.
It is a terrible thing to say, now, but I will say it anyway. I do not care if you are a figment of my imagination, if you are bound by a curse that has followed me since birth, if you do not exist.
I only want to see you again.