A/n: a little one-shot from my current project, a genderbent sleeping beauty retelling but with archnemeses. Written for the seventh turn of Twelve Shots of Summer. Come join us! We have tea and cookies and plenty of one-shots to go around~
The princess and the harpist
When the song was done I clutched my harp as if it could keep me upright. My fingers scrabbled uselessly against the carved wood and the bright lights of the ballroom almost blinded me; even the sound of my own breathing was too loud.
Everything was eerily quiet.
They'd known, in those last moments. My head was spinning. They'd known. They just hadn't had enough breath to exact punishment.
I wanted to stand, needed to make a quick getaway, and yet I was already sinking towards the ground. Helplessly, I braced myself on hands and knees as nausea roiled through me. These kinds of spells came with deep, absolute costs.
I should have died for this.
I didn't notice the girl gowned in silver and gold until she was standing over me, hands on her hips. I blinked, willing her face into focus. She shouldn't have lived. Not if she'd been in the same building barricaded to the outside world, in the same three-dimensional space—
Abruptly, the girl sat beside me in a pool of gauzy golden fabric, as close as her enormous dress would allow; I faintly recognized a delicate crown sparkling on her head.
Of course. The bride whose wedding I had ruined.
"The harpist!" She didn't even seem fazed by those who lay unmoving around her, each of them bearing a new expression of abject terror. "What's your name?"
I'd be damned if I was going to tell her my name, not when I barely knew it myself.
She smoothed out her skirts expectantly.
"Johan." I was nearly delirious with nausea; coughing just made it worse. "Did you see him? Was he with you?"
"Ah, so you were trying to kill my dear fiancé!" The girl gave an expression of mock horror. "And you've even forgotten your own name about it. Really, how dreadful. But you're not a particularly good assassin, dear. Anyone worth their technique would have been a little more… precise."
I coughed again, my vision blurring.
"But, drab as you are, you do have skills." Even I could see that she was wearing a knowing smirk. "Did you know, two-hundred years ago, in the grand tournament to choose Navarre's Ruler Supreme, there was a boy who thought he could end his enemies with music? A magic flute, except its sound stilled all air until there was no breath left to breathe."
I tried to struggle upright, but the effort toppled me over and I collapsed hard onto the ground, dizzy and short of breath. The bride grinned, clearly entertained, and stretched out beside me as if we were best friends sharing secrets.
"But," she said to the ceiling, "that boy only killed one person. And that, of course, was himself. The air thickened in his lungs before it did in anybody else's; it was futile from the start, really. And no one's tried it again."
She turned to look at me, gaze catlike and luminous. "Doesn't that sound like a sad story, drab harpist?"
"I don't know what you want from me," I said bluntly, closing my eyes. "That maneuver left me drained and now I do not have the energy for roundabout conversations."
"Poor thing." Blearily, I noticed she was grinning. "So, how'd you do it?"
"The Language." Though I felt a little steadier, lying still like this, I didn't trust myself to rise. "I wrote a series of sentences on the harp in the only language that bids reality to obey. I commanded reality to do exactly as I asked, and so it did."
"You must think yourself a God." She pulled jeweled ornamental pins out of her hair one by one, tossing them aside onto the floor.
"A God would create," I said solemnly. "I can only mold what is there. But perhaps, one day…"
The bride laughed; the sound echoed empty and disconcerting across the vast hall.
"Grand delusions for a plain little harpist who crashed a wedding." She flung another hairpin away, flashing gold and emerald in the harsh light. "There is no God. And if you fancy yourself one, you deserve whatever that delusion brings you."
Gingerly, I sat up, clutching my aching temples.
"Tell me," she continued, "about those carvings on your harp. Would I be able to write them?"
"Intent and precision is needed behind every word." I lumbered to my feet, every movement careful so I wouldn't fall over again. "You need a perfect understanding of the Language. Only then, only then will your runes echo with its vast library and fully take hold of the wood grain."
"And why do you speak as if that is beyond me?"
It was beyond her.
Humanity was beyond me.
I couldn't have an answer for that, so I furrowed my brow and kept walking, one painstaking step at a time over yet another corpse.
"You are delusional." The bride sat cross-legged on the floor in a heap of fabric; another hairpin came flying after me. "Don't go through the front doors, they've been barricaded. No, disappear from the rooftop. Find an unassuming little door behind the marzipan cake array in the foyer, and take its winding stone staircase all the way up."
I could climb down buildings; I'd done it often enough. If I rested for a bit before climbing, I'd have a good chance at a clean escape.
But I turned to look back at her strangely. "Why are you helping me?"
"I didn't see Johan among the dead." She grinned, sharp-toothed and almost feral. "I think he escaped. He's smarter than you are, homely harpist."
Dread prickled in my chest. I should have snapped back in disbelief, but I couldn't. Instead I was sinking, sinking further into the bottomless pit created by my own mistakes.
All this, and for what?
"Tell him," I said, voice low with fury. I could barely see, and my steps were faltering, and my coordination was gone, but I knew I'd return. "Tell him that he's a coward. That he deserves every last bit of suffering, that justice will find him, that he will be staring into my eyes when he dies."
The bride pulled out the last of her hairpins and tossed it high, then smirked.
"Tell him yourself."