On a lotus leaf on an ivory spire in the centre of the most beautiful valley there was, the girl sat and waited. Through the gaps in the petals that surrounded her she could hear her chancellor explain how deathly ill she was, hear him turn down her champion and accept him again, the child with the heart of a hero.
Her child-hero left and she twisted her thumbs and waited. In the centre of Fantasia, the Childlike Empress had trust. She had trust and faith and patience and hope, and above all, time on her hands. She sagged back against the cushions of her chair, permitted fatigue when there was no one to see. Closing her eyes, the Empress dreamed…
…the bubbles floated light on the air, carried by gentle breezes over jungle and maze and crowded, grubby city. As they returned to their maker, they settled into his black gloved hand, consumed by the will of their King. He left one sphere intact, inside it the image of a young girl watching him in silence. Her dress was soft and white and reminded him of feathers. He liked that.
“Do you ever hope you’ll win?” she asked curiously. “Or wonder what it would be like to keep a human baby all for yourself to raise?”
“They need us as much as we need them,” he said, his voice harsh, light, mocking. His upper lip curled over sharp canine teeth.
In the crib at his feet the sleeping baby stirred. The Empress smiled and waved her fingers at the boy. But he wasn’t hers to keep or even to borrow, and anyway too young. She sighed.
The Goblin King turned his head to glance at a thirteen hour clock. Whether it had been unnoticed until now or never been at all was immaterial. He frowned and turned his fingers twice to put back the time. “It’ll be a while yet,” he told the Empress. “You want to go down the pub?”
The showman peered in the mirror, smoothed his moustache anxiously, and produced a small pair of scissors to trim errant hairs. “What do you think?” he asked. “Do I pass muster?”
The Empress eyed him up and down: a little middle aged, a little round about the middle, clad in shirt sleeves and braces ready for his great green ceremonial robes. She could see a tremendous contraption set up in his workroom – levers and lenses and peculiar chemicals, all with the distorted bentness of a funhouse mirror. “What does it matter what you look like in here? They won’t notice how your moustache looks once it’s been blown up and turned green.”
“Give them a good show, that’s the ticket.” The Wizard of Oz patted his hair smooth. “It’s important to keep up standards! Even when I’m hiding behind the curtain.”
“But who will know?”
“I’ll know, young lady. Now be off with you. I have a girl of my own, who’ll be paying dear for her interview. I’m not in the business of giving out freebies.”
The woman in the white brocade dress walked slowly into her room. Sorrow, sorrow, all was sorrow. She sat at her desk, the moonlight through the window and one flickering candle mottling her fair skin and freckled nose. She sighed and produced a mirror, reviewed herself critically. She was about to have company after all. Or… she eyed the face reflected in the dark window – company was already here. She smiled: there were few opportunities for girl talk in this story. Her eyes grew bright and uncharacteristically frank. The girl in the dark glass smiled back, despite herself.
Princess Buttercup carefully smoothed unguents on her brow, and examined her face for minute lines. “It’s hard work being an Object of Desire, you know. Your value rests on how likeable you are. If I get crows-feet, will I still be worth rescuing? It makes me so cross. Still,” she gazed fondly at the unconscious Man in Black slumped on the bed behind her, “I do get all the prettiest dresses.”
Settled in the chair behind Buttercup, feeling ghastly as death, the Childlike Empress smiled slightly. “So do I.”
“You have a good voice,” Buttercup added with professional interest. “There’s a fluting quality to it. And the pearl thingamabob on your forehead – unusual without being peculiar.” She readied her dagger, point against her perfect breast, and waited for the first stirrings of her lover waking. “Now if you’ll excuse me?”
By the lake, the fisherman was taking his time. He looked up and smiled kindly, “come here, my dear, keep some old bones company.”
The Childlike Empress sat on the grass and watched old, capable hands pulling worms out of a basket, baiting a hook, casting into the green-brown water. “You already know my story, of course,” he said.
She said quietly: “You’re dying.”
“Oh, but in the most genteel way.” The Fisher King wrapped his gnarled fingers around his rod and touching it lightly flicked a glimmering fish out of the water. “That will do for today, I think. I’ve a likely lad for tonight, if a bit garish in his fashion choices. We’ll give him dinner, of course, and this young chap seemed a good conversationalist so that will be something.”
“And will you put on a good show?” the Empress asked, watching the man lever himself up and hobble into his castle, leaning hard on his walking stick, his fishing gear an awkward bundle.
“I always do,” he grinned sweetly: “picture this, my dear, a solemn procession led by a bleeding lance, young women crying, ominously lit candles, a beautiful golden grail gleaming as if it carried its own light… Would you not take a moment in the middle of your meal to ask: what the hell is that?”
“I might,” said the Empress, feeling sly, “but there’s far stranger in my story.”
“Clever girl,” said the Fisher King. He extended one finger to chuff where her nose ought to be. “Clever, clever girl.”
A stone man wept as he stared at his hands, not strong enough or big enough to save his friends. A dark wolf growled, injured and left to starve. Her child-hero still wept for the loss of his horse, so beset by sadness it could walk no farther. The Childlike Empress looked at her own hands in horror, so much suffering and pain, all to bring her her newest name. She closed her eyes.
...and walked solemnly to the bound animal. Pity, pity; she wept to see his shaved head and the ropes wrapped around him. Two tear-streaked girls lay wrapped around the corpse, their own kind of bond. She reached out to stroke the lion’s head, naked and small and besmirched without the glory of his mane.
“Did it hurt?” she asked. “Were you afraid?”
“The unconquered sun will always rise again,” Aslan growled, low and deep. “Let my girls sleep, there will be time for waking soon enough.”
“Aslan,” the Childlike Empress whispered, “I’m frightened.”
In the dim light of false dawn, the lion’s huge eyes lidded open. “There is Deep Magic and there is Deeper Magic. At the end of time my world will be rolled up and folded away and we all will go onwards and upwards. It is the way of things. Trust.”
The Childlike Empress backed away as tiny grey mice swarmed over the lion. He was to be freed from his bonds, and reborn, his two girls there as witnesses. It was important business, but not hers to see.
As the new sun crept over the boundary where the sea and sky met there was an enormous CRACK and she was blinded.
The world of Fantasia cracked, all hope, all joy, all love splintering into pieces. The Childlike Empress rested in her lotus leaf atop an ivory spire, and waited. For her child-hero, and for the human child from beyond the boundaries to come to her. Please, she thought, please don’t make me a lie.
Who would she be? she wondered. Would she be permitted to grow up this time? Would it hurt? Would she remember what she had been before?
She folded her hands in the moment of stillness before life and imagination and essential fire might fill her anew, for a child to read: DO WHAT YOU WISH.