The Troublesome Old Soldier
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There was a set of mortal girls who loved more than anything to dance. For otherwise they lived in an inarguably dull place, a grey and dreary place where the crops died and the rivers dried and the people’s eyes had all been eaten by blackbirds. It was a love passed down to them by their late mother, and all leisure found them in the ballroom retracing their steps.

Each day their father growled gibberish to petitioners that rattled in their great stone building like an empty goblet. The girls, well-practiced in the art of deciphering gibberish, knew that he intended to marry them off. From the time of this realization they had set about devising a means of avoiding this, but confinement within the stone prison under strict and loathsome guard made the endeavor difficult.

In the thick heat of summer one of them had a dream. She was neither the oldest nor the youngest, neither ugliest nor prettiest, one of those plain mortals about whom stories would not be written were she not a princess. (In their parlance, prince and princess are a sort of rank conferred upon offspring of certain attributes begotten from royal bloodlines, commonly produced through shallower equivalents of the intrigues familiar to our readers and other vagaries of human procreation with which I shall not bore you.)

She had this dream while sleeping, for their dreams are not like ours. In the dream she stood in a vast hall draped with heavy tapestries all in shades of red. As her eyes tracked upward she saw dancers waltzing, not only across the floor on which she stood but the floors above and to the sides—to her eyes, the walls and ceiling. Sweet music wound its way through the space, of tinkling bells and snaking flutes. Deep into the hall she ventured, until she came upon a dark and lonely corner, lit by a single lamp.

There sat a figure writing at a desk. These were, of course, the sanguine halls of our Mirthful Lord, and their seneschal the Cerise Intercessor.

“I understand you have sisters,” said our colleague, without looking up from their work. The girl nodded. “And you are all fond of the waltz.”

She nodded again, somewhat entranced by the melody. Then something shook her from her reverie. It was our colleague’s face. How hard and white it was, she thought, like fine porcelain upon the mantelpiece of their late mother’s parlor.

“Not only the waltz,” she added. “We also know the branle, the pavane, and the galliard.”

“Wonderful!” said the Intercessor, passing her the sheet of paper. On it was written the first gibberish that she had not been able to decipher in all her life. At the bottom of the page was a line. “Sign here, if you please.”

Lacking in gratitude, the maiden tarried. “But what are the terms?”

“Simple. Every night, you and your sisters have our leave to come and dance here in our halls.” They indicated the ballrooms behind her. “Your fatigue and scuffed shoes will become the mystery of the court; your father will allow no marriage until he discovers how this came to be. Take care not to reveal it! For then the deal will be broken.”

“And what, good sir, will you receive in return?”

The Intercessor gave her a look that indicated the answer should be obvious, the effect of which was unfortunately lost on her. “More guests for the dance, of course.”

After waiting a moment that felt to her could have been an eternity, or perhaps two hours, she indicated that she would like to confer with her sisters before coming to a decision. Generously our colleague agreed to her doing so. The following night she returned forthwith and signed the page. In exchange, she received a recipe.

Thus did the princesses enter a new stage in their lives. By day they would dwell in their grey and dried-up world, moving sluggishly through the rituals of meals and lessons, waiting for the release of nightfall. Then they would fling open the door beneath their bed, which in truth would only appear to them in the early stages of sleep. Hereupon the wine that they had imbibed—for this was the recipe given by our colleague—allowed them to enter a shared dream: one into which they could bring things like their dancing-shoes, and the mind to make decisions. But to all observers their bodies remained sleeping, and none could see them go.

Into this door they would step, and down the winding stairs emerge beneath our saffron skies with their multitude of sable stars.

Their father decreed that any man capable of uncovering the reason for their fatigue could marry any one of them and become heir—for he was mortal, and mortal kings expired. So too did he have a streak of whimsy about him, and declared that any who failed in this were to be put to death. To this game many princes lost their lives, some in the bloom of youth and beauty, and some very good dancers too, which we must count as an unfortunate corollary to the Intercessor’s bargain.

Now from the west there came a man. Dark was his eye and grim his step, for he had gone afield and known that most odious art of war. Thus changed, he returned with a limp in his step and a bone-deep weariness that could only be felt by mortals.

Dull as most mortals are, the soldier sought no glory. Strangely, he sought no pleasures nor even great riches. Only enough to feed his ailing parents, and his three small children, whose mother had in his absence run off to join the wolf-bandits in the hills—but that is a tale for another recounting.

Once as he traveled near foreign woods in search of work—for employers shunned him on account of his injury—he found himself gazing deep into a space between the trees. The darkness soon resolved into one who had cheated us before. A horrible old flautist, bent-back and cowled, who shuffled towards him with uncanny determination. “You there,” said she. “You look like a man in need of something to do.”

He replied that he was, if it paid. She replied that no job paid better than a king’s. He asked how it was that he might become a king, and she spoke to him of the bewitched princesses. (Bewitched! As though they had not come into our demesne of their own accord.)

“And how could I succeed, when all these king’s sons have failed?”

“Practice and preparation,” she told him. “They will offer you wine. You must drink—but that alone is not enough. All others it sends into a deep and dreamless sleep. The land that claims them—do you know what it wants?”

He replied that he did not.

“Their skill at dance,” said she. “And their passion. Garb yourself as one of them, and it may help. But the wine will answer only to the light of step, the graceful of movement.”

He gestured at his leg. She said that he should figure that out himself, as she was not his mother. And he saw that although she carried an old flute-case, her hands and mouth had been scarred so as to render her unable to play.

And so the man arrived at the great stone building of the foreign royalty, but not before he taught himself the waltz and many dances besides. He picked these up performing odd jobs for a local noblewoman’s dancing-master, a steely old man who perhaps saw something of himself in the soldier. Then with his last savings he paid for special shoes that would allow him to dance even with his limp. Finally, remembering what the flautist had said, he stuffed one of his wife’s old dresses into his pack.

When our princesses saw him they thought little, though the youngest distrusted the grizzled look on his face. The eldest was heard to remark that if they were down to such wretches, then soon enough only rats would be left. The middling princess, our deal-broker, eyed his limp and said nothing.

Alone in his rooms the man felt discomfited, for although royal furnishings are to us little better than rags, he had never seen such luxury in his life. That night they offered him the wine, as they had to the other contenders. He drank it in full view of them, their eyes fixed on him like the mouths of hookworms. How canny our princesses were! How patient and exacting! Yet mere canniness cannot account for all things.

They returned to their rooms. Fumblingly he exchanged his tattered uniform for the dress. How constricting it was, how difficult to move in! But we know that such is the price of beauty. Likewise he pulled on his dancing shoes. Thus attired, he laid back on the bed and allowed the dreamful sleep to claim him.

And here is where we err. Or rather, I should say, the Red errs. For it must be said that they care little for precise numbering where mortals are concerned, and one who can move with grace and wear what is required seems to them not so very different from another. So it was that when the dream-door of our esteemed colleague opened for the princesses, it opened for him as well.

Under our stars their faces had been made suitable for the City. With utmost tenderness she welcomed them, auspices unfolded in a murmuring of black waves. But the soldier marveled not at our shining groves: not the trees strung with quicksilver, nor the ones that wept golden ichor, nor the ones that dripped with crimson diamonds. He was unsettled by our smooth-growing buildings, and shuddered in distaste at the texture of his face. But this ingratitude did not stop him from plucking a token from each of the groves. The gall, when we would have given them had he only asked—for a small price, of course.

With his newfound skill at dance, he did not tread on any dresses. But the keen-eared youngest would have heard the complaints of the trees, if not for the reproach of the eldest, who was in truth a rather disagreeable and wish-minded sort.

Soon again they came to the canal where a host of our fair citizens awaited them on gondolas. These were apportioned according to the number of guests who were to arrive, and so the soldier had one all to himself, in the company of—and I tell no lie!—yours truly. But I was not yet wise in the ways of the otherworld, and so did not detect anything amiss, save that this guest seemed more taciturn than the others. When they departed at the castle I watched him go, for I had never been one for dancing.

For a mortal he performed admirably. So admirably that our colleague the Intercessor grew suspicious of his abilities, for none of the princesses had ever displayed such a singular step. And so they summoned him to the floor, to dance with them the volta.

Courteously, all the other dancers paused to observe. Faster and faster they whirled, until they were a blur of red and yellow—once some alien color favored by the soldier’s wife, transformed by the City into a dull goldenrod. At last, even our colleague had to concede defeat, though having been consigned to a desk for too long to suit their carnelian sensibilities, they were glad for the challenge.

At the height of the festivities the middling princess pulled him aside.

“I know very well that you are not one of us,” she said.

The soldier did not know what to say.

“We will not be able to return after tonight. All I can ask is for you to marry me, instead of one of my sisters, for it was I who got us into this mess in the first place.”

“I would rather not marry any of you if I could help it,” said the soldier—out of some strange mortal sentiment, for he could have been a king. “I have a wife. She ran off to join the wolf-bandits.”

“Then why did you undertake this quest?”

The soldier told her about the flautist in the woods, and his family. “But now that I have these,” he showed her the tokens he had taken from our groves. “I hardly need to be a king. If I were to escape before the night is over, I can sell them, and you all can dance for as long as you like.”

“No,” said the princess. “In truth, I fear for my sisters. We waste away during the day. We forget to eat and drink. I think… that we will lose ourselves to this place. Better that we end this deal.” The traitorous whelp! As though dancing was not what she and her sisters lived for.

And having made this choice for the lot of them, as mortals are wont to do, our merry conspirators plotted their way through the remaining night. Again they passed the dark canal with the citizens, and the groves of shining trees, and the staircase that descended upward. Struck by the City’s wonders, no other noticed the extra among their number—though the youngest came the closest.

In the morning the soldier approached the king and presented him with the pilfered tokens. “Drink this, Your Majesty,” said he, offering the wine, “and you will see the land from where these come.” Dazzled by the glittering wealth, the king downed it in one swallow. For the middling princess had confessed all, and why should a daughter lie to her father?

Well! Lie she did not, and that is a feat worthy of the City. But she did omit. For this was the Intercessor’s recipe: one cup of good red wine, four drops of blackbird’s blood, a thimbleful of dandelion fluff, the yolk of a viper’s egg, and fifteen seeds of the poppy. Enough to help them dream, and send any forbidden by the City into a deep and dreamless sleep.

This was what the princess placed in her father’s cup: two-thirds a cup of good red wine, a third-cup of blackbird’s blood, a handful of dandelion fluff, three yolks of viper’s eggs, and forty seeds of the poppy.

When he sipped from this concoction, the king fell into a sleep from which he would not wake. In a fortnight the eldest princess became regent, then queen regnant, and although she would never be a very good ruler she at least had the youngest to advise her. Though they were aggrieved—and rightfully so—at being stolen from the City, they could still dance, which was after all what they cared for most in the end.

As for the middling princess and the soldier, they vanished in the middle of the night. Weeks later in the soldier’s homeland, a foreign dancing-master could be seen setting up shop with her assistant. Recognizable by his limp and distinctive shoes, he sent what he earned to his family, and sometimes dreamed of wolves in the hills. And sometimes he would dance the woman’s part and her the man’s, and they seemed no sorrier for it.

And that was how we were robbed of twelve (for that was the number after all! twelve!) of our most promising guests by a homely girl, a troublesome old soldier, and the undiscerning nature of our rubescent colleagues.

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