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Shadow and Thorn

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Years before, when Wild and Rapunzel had first been freed from the binding spell that had imprisoned them in the house near the jewel cave, they had made lists of all the places they were now free to travel to. They had talked about sleeping in a different bed every night—in an inn, or with friends, or on a mountaintop under the stars ("With moss for a pillow and stars for a blanket!" Rapunzel had said), or in a flower-canopied jungle bower, or lullabied by ocean waves on an undiscovered shore—but in the end, knowing they had centuries to enjoy their freedom was enough. Without hesitation they returned to their old home in the east, to the familiar chairs and bowls, to the ancient gardenia trees and the overgrown garden, and to the tower whose spiral stairway had once held a hundred malevolent guardians. The study room at the top of the tower had more than enough space for a bed—wide, but not too wide—and was isolated from the chaos of visiting friends. Wild could work through the night as Rapunzel slept, and, in the morning, could watch as the sunlight slanted through the window and touched Rapunzel's hair with a faint dusting of gold.

It was a sight Wild knew he might see every morning for the rest of his life… a thought that always him feel as though he might burst from happiness.

.

It was a chilly morning despite the sun: Wild held his teacup with both hands and watched Rapunzel through the steam. This was another of their morning rituals, him sitting in the kitchen doorway while Rapunzel worked in the dewy garden. He never tired of watching Rapunzel's gentle efficiency in gathering up the yellowed leaves, pruning dead branches, discouraging the weeds. As Rapunzel finished tending each plant he'd press down the cleared soil at its base with such care that it often reminded Wild of the first time he'd tucked a blanket around that child he'd so reluctantly taken in so long ago. How suddenly, how unexpectedly, he'd been paralyzed with guilt the day he'd discovered the boy—who never, ever, complained about anything—shivering as he slept on his tiny mattress in the tower's icy storeroom. It had been a moment of such crystalline clarity that even now, more than a century later, it still made Wild's stomach churn. How oblivious he'd been back then.

Rapunzel turned, and then asked with a smile, "Why so glum?"

"Not glum. Enjoying the quiet," Wild said. It wasn't exactly a lie: for the first day in years, there were no guests invading the house and garden, interrupting private moments and monopolizing Rapunzel's time.

"You didn't like having them here?"

"We're not running an inn," Wild said, and sipped his tea.

"But it's fun to cook for so many!" Rapunzel said, dusting the dirt from his hands as he stood. "And it's a nice change to have new people to talk to."

"Oh, so I'm that boring?" Wild asked. He'd meant for the comment to be teasing, but spoken aloud it sounded like an accusation. He shook his head: it was pathetic that after so long he still felt jealous.

Rapunzel plucked two sprigs of his favorite white flower, then bent to tuck them behind Wild's ears. "Grumpy old fool." He sat and lifted his empty teacup, and as Wild poured for him he said, "I think having guests makes the moments we manage to be alone more precious, don't you?" He sipped, then added demurely, "More exciting."

"Exciting, eh?" Decades ago, when Rapunzel had first started sleeping in Wild's bed their relationship had been entirely chaste. Not that falling asleep fully clothed holding hands was a bad thing—after all, sleeping in the same bed meant waking up in the same bed—but after a time Wild had begun to worry that he'd cast the immortality spell on Rapunzel too soon, that the combination of magic and isolation in tandem with a naturally innocent nature meant that Rapunzel would be forever childlike in his affections. And then, somehow… "The gardener himself bloomed."

"Hm?" Rapunzel asked, leaning against his shoulder.

"Nothing." Wild took one of the sprigs from behind his ear and worked it into Rapunzel's braid.

.

It was late afternoon when Rapunzel called to him to say that a group of riders had come out of the forest and were heading toward the house.

Wild glanced out the window—and then did a double-take. One of the riders was on a dragon horse. Wild hadn't seen one of those creatures in over a century.

He followed Rapunzel through the kitchen door and out into the yard next to the garden.

"I don't recognize them, do you?" Rapunzel asked, shading his eyes with his hand and squinting at the approaching figures. "Who would come all the way out here to see us? Could they be friends of Ishuca? Or Selghi?"

"A dragon horse would never consent to serve an ordinary human," Wild quietly replied. "Rapunzel, if I asked you to go into the house and bar the door—"

"Oh, of course I wouldn't," Rapunzel said with a laugh.

Wild sighed. "No, of course you wouldn't."

As the group came nearer Wild's skin began to prickle. The lead rider, a black-clad man with long pale hair, radiated discordant magical energy. The second rider, a young man with short brown hair—Wild's practiced eye could tell that his clothes and bearing signified wealth, if not nobility—had an odd aura as well, as if he was not entirely human. The last two riders, a sour-faced blond and a ponytailed swordsman, didn't seem to be dangerous: nevertheless, Wild moved closer to Rapunzel and murmured a shielding spell.

The mage stopped just outside the gate. "I'm looking for the Bearer of Darkness," he said. He had a pleasant voice, with just enough arrogance for Wild to take a liking to him.

The Bearer of Darkness. Wild hadn't been called by that epithet in many many years, but as it generally had been used by those looking to kill or imprison him, he wasn't about to own up to it now.

"This has to be his tower," the sour-faced man said. "The Registry of Demons is never wrong."

"Yes, this is his tower," Wild said carefully. "But he's been dead for, oh, at least seventy years."

"A day's ride wasted, then," the mage said scornfully. As he turned his dragon horse and began to ride away Wild noticed that he avoided looking at the young lord—who had been watching him intently.

"How was I to know?" the sour-faced man grumbled. "The Registry is usually infallible."

"It should have been obvious," the mage said. "Old books, old men, useless knowledge."

"I could have annotated the Registry when I returned to Celeasdeile," the sour-faced man shot back as the mage passed him, "that is, if it, along with most of the cities' other most precious magical texts hadn't been stolen and then destroyed in a fire!" He glared at the mage's back.

The swordsman cringed.

Wild was beginning to wonder what a group so clearly in conflict expected to accomplish by visiting him. "Of course, it's your choice if you want to leave," he called after the mage, "but if you tell me why you came looking for the Bearer of Darkness perhaps I might know someone who could help you."

"Master Halrein's book said—" the swordsman started to say, then stopped short when the sour-faced man shot him a look.

"Don't you know anything about demons?" the sour-faced man—apparently his name was Halrein—asked sharply. "Now it has power over me!"

"He's a demon?" the swordsman wailed. "But—"

"What did your book say about the Bearer?" Wild asked, still hoping to satisfy his curiosity.

"That he created demonic weapons," Halrein said promptly, glaring at the swordsman.

"The prince possesses such a weapon," the mage said, sounding bored. He was still riding away from the group. "We thought the Bearer might be persuaded to tell us why it changed color."

"Changed color, you say? How intriguing." Wild said. He held out his hand. "Show it to me. I am a master weaponsmith: if I can't tell you why it changed, no one can."

"So modest," Rapunzel chuckled.

"It's no ordinary blade," the young lord—ah right, he was a prince—said as he put his hand on his scabbard. "It's cursed." What Wild had taken to be a white fur collar on the prince's cloak then stirred, opened suspicious pink eyes, and shook out long ears.

"You're lucky that I am no ordinary weaponsmith," Wild replied. A charismatic mage with a dragon horse mount? A prince with a cursed blade and a rabbit familiar? This was becoming more and more intriguing. "I was the Bearer of Darkness' apprentice in all things magical, which means my knowledge of infernal weapons surpassed even his."

"How typically boastful," the mage said, but nevertheless he stopped and turned his mount around. "Your price?"

"I have no need for gold," Wild said. "I will require only a single replete gem to power my magic. I'll return it when I'm done. You have my word."

"The word of a demon," Halrein scoffed.

"We can enter a binding magical contract, if you like," Wild said, twirling his finger in the air to trail glowing runes. "If I don't return the gem, I die?"

"No need to go that far," the prince said. "What is a replete gem?"

"It is how some magic users gather power for spells," the rabbit told him. "They draw the power from certain gemstones." Wild could have sworn he heard the rabbit mutter, "It's a much more respectable method than what some use."

"I don't know if this is replete," the prince said, starting to pull off his ring.

"Don't bother," the mage said, spurring his dragon horse past the prince to the gate. He dismounted, then took something from his saddlebag. "Use this," he said as he tossed it to Wild.

It was an elaborate piece of jewelry, a hair ornament of segmented gold filigree and chainwork surrounding a green dreamstone four finger-widths across. Wild weighed the piece in his hand, pretending to consider its value, but that was merely for show: the jewel was dense with power, and the mage knew it.

This close to him Wild felt another of those disconcerting moments of clarity. For all that this mage, with his long pale hair and beautiful face, resembled the Blood of decades past—the Blood who had been known as Kaerichi, He Who Wears the Blood of His Enemies, the Leader of the North—his eyes were not like Kaerichi's eyes, chillingly empty. No, this mage's eyes blazed with tightly-bound secrets, with passion and fury and sorrow, and Wild was going to unbind those secrets using the dreamstone, because the dreamstone shimmered with the mage's essence.

"This will serve," Wild said. "This will serve quite well."

.

As the group followed them into the house Wild said, "Let me see the sword for a moment so that I know what to prepare for the, er, analysis ritual."

"Analysis ritual?" The mage looked suspicious. "There is no such thing."

"Maybe it's a secret weaponsmith teaching," the swordsman offered.

"Yes, we all have secrets," Wild said, nodding. He was gratified that this seemed to startle both the mage and the prince—but only for an instant. Then the prince drew the sword, and Wild couldn't help but gasp as it was laid on the table.

From a distance the black blade looked like polished onyx, but as Wild got closer he could see a roiling just under the surface, as if the sword were a glass prison for living smoke.

"Don't touch it," the mage said casually, "unless you want to die. It was made to destroy demons, and can only be wielded by the royal descendants."

"It changed color?" Wild asked. "What color was it originally?"

"Red," the prince said.

"Hm… and when did it change?"

"A few days ago."

"And you have no idea why it changed? Was there some event?"

The prince glanced at the mage, then quickly away as the mage said sharply, "Isn't it is you that should be telling us that?"

"True enough." Wild held his hands over the blade, but kept his face carefully expressionless at the immense power he sensed at its core. "Feels like a combination of Zenedolra and Celeasdeile magic."

"Correct," the mage said curtly. "Three generations ago."

Wild wondered if he was the only one attuned enough to darkness to see the miasma that had begun to rise from the blade and stretch out shadowy tendrils to encircle both mage and prince. It was puzzling: the connection between the prince and the sword Wild could understand—the prince's ancestors had wielded it, and his ancestors' magicians had made it—but why would the mage be connected to the sword as well? Unless… was the shadow from the blade being drawn forth because of the energy flowing between the mage and the prince? It couldn't be anything else: there was anger and frustration between them, building like the air charging for a lightning strike, laced with a physical attraction so intense Wild felt as though any moment they would lunge at each other in a frenzy…

He stumbled back, his heart pounding as though he had just escaped quicksand, and looked around. Did the others in the room truly not sense any of this energy, or were they just pretending not to notice? The prince's rabbit, who had flown to the top of a tall cabinet upon entering the house, seemed to be sleeping; Halrein was scowling out the window at the storm clouds building in the late afternoon sky; the swordsman was sprawled in a chair, rubbing his belly. Wild glanced at Rapunzel, who had the expectant look that meant he was thinking it's late, they rode far, they're probably hungry, can I feed them, can I invite them to stay the night?

Wild took a deep breath. Without looking at either the mage or the prince, he said, "I will now prepare for the ritual," and then hurried up the tower stairs to his study.

.

Anything that is or was once living has a memory of all it has witnessed. A dreamstone, although not living, functioned in a similar way: it absorbed a person's strongest memories and fantasies, storing them as magical energy to be released as needed. In this way it functioned as a rechargeable replete gem, which meant that all but the poorest mages had at least one—although most dreamstones were small, no bigger than a fingertip. That this dreamstone was more than fifty times the usual size told Wild quite a lot about his visitor. Bad magicians died. Mediocre ones scraped by doing small spells. Those with skill, talent, and daring got rich. Only an exceptionally powerful magician could acquire a dreamstone of this size.

As it was, Wild didn't intend to use the dreamstone's power as a replete gem: instead, he intended to read it, to sift through the mage's most intense memories and dreams. That would be the "analysis ritual" that would give him the answer to the mystery of the sword.

He could almost hear Rapunzel protesting—"It's spying! It's rude! it's totally not nice!"—but surely the mage knew what he was doing. Giving someone your dreamstone was a clear invitation, almost a seduction.

Having shaken off his moral gnats, Wild sat on the floor of his study, cradling the dreamstone in his hands. The window framed a square of light blue afternoon sky.

.

The oldest memory is a blur of looming, monstrous creatures who leave behind a cold, silent, infinite void.

He is alone. His screams are soundless, because there is no one to hear them.

The years flicker past.

There is pursuit and pain, trickery and abandonment. Hunger and cold force him to the edge of a city. He befriends, only to be mocked. He heals animals, only to have them flee, or die of fear in his hands. He soon comes to disdain and distrust all living things, his mute scowl keeping most at a distance. He is invisible to most. His only comfort, his only joy, comes from the objects he hides in his room, the broken trinkets and shiny scraps he finds as he sweeps the school's endless hallways and courtyards and draws water from a hundred wells… and then something awakens in him. He has learned enough from listening to the magisters as he scrubs the floors outside the academy's classrooms to know that there are binders, destroyers, and summoners, and so the first time that he turns a corner and finds something that he had imagined, a fantastical cat-snake-bird, he realizes that he is a summoner. He is torn between developing this new power and keeping it hidden, but curiosity wins out over caution, after much practice, he feels like there is nothing he could not draw forth with the proper knowledge.

The kind, handsome teacher discovers him. Expecting punishment, the boy is instead praised, and tutored, and soon he can summon things from deep in the earth or uncharted dimensions. The power is exhilirating, but even more important to him is the warmth of Master Halceles' approval...

Wild came back to the present. The sky in the window was now deep cornflower. Ribbons of sound, voices and laughter, came from below. He went to look.

Below, in the slanting, reddish-gold light of the setting sun, the swordsman, the prince, and Halrein were walking in the garden with Rapunzel. "There are some plants here I've never been able to identify," Rapunzel was saying, glowing with delight at being able to play the gracious host.

"Master Halrein can help with that!" the swordsman said eagerly. "He's an expert botanist!"

"Expert?" The voice that cut in was the mage's. Wild finally located him, nearly hidden by the branches above the solitary bench he'd taken in a secluded corner of the garden. "Ten years ago he couldn't grow a seed."

"Strange how much easier it got once you were banished, Halvir," Halrein replied. "It was as if someone was no longer blocking my plants."

Halvir. Wild liked the sound of this name. With a smile, he returned to the dreamstone.

He is tricked into releasing the time worm! The old men will not listen, they cast him out of the school, away from the one he loves, and once again he is alone—but now he can summon protectors. Again he sweeps, scrubs, draws water, but now the floors and well are his. He is surprised at first when former classmates and teachers begin visiting him in secret, but quickly understands that it is only his power they value, not him. As the years go by he forces them to travel further and further to find him, demands—and receives—more and more outrageous payments. After ten years he despises them so much that the mere sight of another human being enrages him.

And then one day there is a prince. When the mage asks for what he knows the prince cannot, should not, pay him—assuming that, like all the others, the prince will hand over anything that is requested—to Halvir's surprise the prince says no.

"Ah…" Wild murmured, pausing a moment to polish the dreamstone with his sleeve. "Finally, the good stuff. The prince."

A wounded beast. Beautiful, powerful, but trapped and raging, starved for release.

So this was why that shining price had such a strange aura! The sword had cursed him to be a duality, possessed by a glorious beast. It certainly explained the physical attraction Wild had sensed, but not the tension, the frustration. Was the attraction unrequited or unconsummated?

Neither, it seemed. As Wild viewed the last few memories—wryly aware that doing so without Rapunzel made him vaguely guilty—he saw glimpses of striped skin, black eyes wide in ecstasy, clawed hands clutching Halvir's pale, muscled arms and inadvertently drawing blood, fervent kisses from a fanged, purring mouth… and a sated beast melting back into the form of the prince. There were chaster memories, too: Halvir ruffling the prince's hair, kissing the palm of his hand, watching him sleep, asking him questions about his life at court, and telling him, "When the time comes for me to save your heart, I will."

It made no sense. It seemed to Wild that the mage ought to be happy. He had found friendship's warmth, love's radiance, and passion's heat in the prince and his alter ego, and together they seemed to have achieved balance in this triad in an enviably brief time. What had happened to put such turmoil between them? Wild held the dreamstone up to the light. There was something else in the dreamstone, a small shadowy smudge. A nightmare Halvir had wanted to bury? Wild wasn't eager to see it, but if it was part of the story…

He's alone on the parapet, wind cooling his face. Once again, he has been tricked, lured out. He's angry that he's fooled himself into thinking that if he cherished, he would be cherished in return… and then, before he can defend himself something pierces his chest, something that drains the light from him even as he struggles to fight it off. The others are there, they buy him some time, but when the prince appears that thing touches him...

No! That can't be allowed! He calls to the dimension creature, opens a portal… the prince's stricken face is the last thing he sees before a swarm of thick, sibilant shards cover his mouth and eyes, smothering him…

... a forked tongue burning fangs the taste of blood and seed slick burning flesh he arcs in shame hides just long enough to feel the slow drowning obliterating him piece by piece, until a question slices through the darkness like a blade of light, like a hand held out to one drowning, like a bell leading the lost one home. "Why did you kiss me, Halvir Hroptr?" and with desperation he lunges toward that voice, the voice of the one he loves…

.

Wild came out of the nightmare-world to find Rapunzel holding him. The room was dark: the tower's window showed starry sky. His face was wet, and his throat felt raw.

"Wild?" Rapunzel asked, his voice shaky as he smoothed Wild's hair out of his eyes. "Please tell me you're done reading this dreamstone?"

In reply Wild rested his head on Rapunzel's chest until he stopped shaking, then sat up to kiss him tenderly on the cheek.

"What was that for?"

"To say how much I love you," Wild said. "You want to feed those guys and invite them to stay the night, don't you?"

"Yes. You wouldn't mind?"

"No."

"Do you know why the blade turned black?" Rapunzel asked.

"Almost," Wild said. "I'm almost there."

"How can I help?"

"There's not… actually, maybe there is," Wild said. "I only have half of the story. You spent the afternoon with the prince. Tell me what he's like."

"He reminds me of Klaus," Rapunzel said, continuing to stroke Wild's hair. "Headstrong, but with a kind heart. He's recklessly put himself in mortal danger several times for Halvir."

"He told you that?"

"No, Rulca did."

"Rulca?"

"The rabbit. He's very devoted to the prince."

Wild chuckled. "Don't tell me the rabbit's in love with him too? What about the swordsman?"

"Marse? I suppose," Rapunzel said thoughtfully, "Prince Valdrigr doesn't seem nearly as accepting of men loving each other as Prince Klaus was."

"I hope at least he's more observant than Klaus," Wild said, reaching over to run Rapunzel's braid through his fingers. "Klaus still mistook you for a girl even after you fell on him."

"You're horrible," Rapunzel said. "You know very well your brambles broke my fall, not Klaus."

"If you want to help," Wild said, "get the prince out of earshot of the others and tell him I need to borrow another gem to finish the ritual, something he's worn or is wearing. Ideally something with jet or amber. Or a pearl. A pearl would work."

"Jet or amber or pearl?" Rapunzel repeated. "You want something you can read? Why?"

"Because I don't have the whole story," Wild said, "and I'm certain the prince has the part I'm missing."

.

It was long past midnight, and Wild and Rapunzel were sitting on the bed. Wild had just finished reading what he could from the ring that Valdrigr had given Rapunzel, and had recounted what he'd seen: Halvir impaling himself through the heart on Valdrigr's sword to free himself from Guile's influence; Halvir's death, Valdrigr's horror, the beast's anguish, the demon's rage; Halvir's resurrection; Valdrigr acting on his attraction to Halvir, experiencing sexual fulfillment for the first time in his life… and then vowing that he'd never experience it again.

"It should be simple," Rapunzel said sadly. "They all care for each other."

"It might have been at the very beginning," Wild said, "if Halvir had broken the curse the day he met Valdrigr. But now the prince is getting used to the beast's power, starting to enjoy it. He might not want to break the curse."

"Well that's not a problem, is it? They could both have Halvir, and he could have both of them. Everyone would get what they want."

Wild shook his head. "Valdrigr cannot accept his attraction to Halvir, so he attributes it to 'corruption' from his beast side… and he also worries that Halvir is only interested in a physical relationship, and thus prefers the beast to him. That's why he's put an end to Halvir's intimacy with both his human self and his cursed self." Wild shrugged. "I'm just surprised that Halvir doesn't separate himself from one who has so completely rejected him."

"But it was Halvir's realization that he loves Valdrigr that brought him out of darkness!" Rapunzel said, indignant. "I don't understand why Halvir doesn't tell him!"

Wild smiled. "They have known each other only a few months. How long did it take you and I to be honest with each other? More than sixty years."

"Well, that is true." Rapunzel blew out the candle, and they settled down into each other's arms.

And then the kitchen door slammed.

"This late?" Wild asked, reluctantly getting up from the bed and going to the window.

"What is he doing?" Rapunzel asked, coming over to lean on the sill next to Wild.

Below them, Halvir, his cascade of hair glowing in the faint moonlight, was walking to the far end of the garden. He was alone.

A moment later the door slammed again. Valdrigr. He ran after Halvir, and they began to argue.

Wild couldn't make out the words, but he heard their tones clearly: Valdrigr was demanding, and Halvir was replying with the chill rudeness that served as his armor. Wild shook his head. How could the prince hear that tone and not know it was a facade to hide a breaking heart?

A moment later the scene in the garden changed: no longer mage and prince but mage and beast, the beast who heard no voice but Halvir's. The beast dropped to the ground, crawled to Halvir, and pressed his forehead against the mage's boots, then raised his head and put his arms around Halvir's legs, beseeching.

"What does he want?" Rapunzel asked.

"Most likely, for things to be as they once were," Wild said. "The beast always welcomed Halvir without hesitation or restriction: it probably doesn't understand why things have changed between them."

Rapunzel, tenderhearted fool that he was, put his hand over his mouth to stifle a sob. "Isn't there anything we can do to help them?" he whispered.

"No," Wild said as gently as he could. "If they're meant to be together they'll sort it out." When Rapunzel continued to sniffle Wild added, "Look at all I did to interfere with Blood and Ishuca! And they still—"

"You interfered with Blood and Ishuca because you thought they would make each other miserable," Rapunzel said.

"Well, that's not exactly—"

"Just the way Klaus tried to interfere with you and me," Rapunzel said triumphantly. "But I knew he was wrong about you, because you gave me the I love you kiss every night, and whenever I was sad you'd bring me a basket of white flowers from my parents' garden. I know you didn't like doing it, but it meant a lot to me that you did those things anyhow. Those actions told me more than your silence, or Klaus' words."

Wild stared down at the garden. The moonlight had gone, obscured by clouds, and the two below, if they were still there, had melted into vague, shadowy shapes. He knew there was nothing to be gained by pointing out to Rapunzel that his examples only proved Wild's point, and so he said, "I suppose you're right. Everyone deserves the chance to make someone miserable."

.

The next morning Wild awoke to an empty bed. Somewhat apprehensive, he hurried down the stairs just in time to hear the swordsman say, "Is there any more?"

"You're still hungry, after all that?" Rapunzel, who had a spoon in one hand and an empty pan in the other, smiled at Wild.

"But it was so good!" Marse wailed as Halrein slapped the back of his head. The two of them were the only ones at the table: Valdrigr—with Rulca in rabbit form on his shoulder—leaned against a tall cabinet at one end of the room, while Halvir stood opposite him, near the kitchen door.

"I have completed the analysis ritual," Wild said. "I would like to speak to the mage. Alone."

"No," Valdrigr said firmly. "I want to hear too."

"Are you sure?" Halvir asked him. "Aren't you afraid the discussion might be too uncultured for your noble ears?"

Valdrigr looked stunned and hurt by the bitterness in Halvir's voice, but Wild was more concerned with how the remark had distressed Rapunzel. "Maybe they should raid your garden before they go," Wild said to him, "take fruits and vegetables to eat on their journey? We won't be able to eat it all, and there's no point in letting your hard work go to waste."

As Marse and Halrein hurried outside with a grateful Rapunzel, Valdrigr folded his arms and said angrily, "Well, I'm staying right here until I hear what this demon weaponsmith has to say." He glanced at Wild, as if worried that he'd sounded insulting, then said more calmly, "It's my blade. My curse. My responsibility."

"I got it," Halvir said coldly. "It's all about you."

"The blade's original color," Wild said loudly, interrupting them before they could do more harm to each other, "the red, came from the raging fury in the summoned arch-demon's heart."

Halvir and Valdrigr stopped glaring at each other and looked at him.

Good. He had their attention.

"You might not believe it," Wild said, "but some demons are capable of more than hatred and destruction and lust. We can understand, appreciate, even feel things like affection, loyalty, and love."

"Don't patronize me," Halvir said. "Do you think you're the only one observing people and listening to conversations here?" He nodded at the window, at where Rapunzel was handing out baskets to Halrein and Marse. "He has been with you since he was a child. You feel that you have deprived him of normal human happiness twice, first by keeping him captive, and later by causing him to become a demon. Because life with you is all he knows, you worry that if he experienced more of the world he would leave you." Halvir folded his arms. "Guilt, remorse, and jealousy are also on the list of emotions that demons are capable of… but that has nothing to do with the sword."

"The blade turned black," Wild said, feeling unexpectedly stung by the accuracy of Halvir's summary, "in part because it absorbed a corrupting curse as it passed through your heart —"

"How does he know about that?" Vald demanded of Halvir. "What other private things did you tell to this stranger? Did you tell him what we—what I—"

"Vald—" Halvir started to say, but with a cry Valdrigr rushed out the door and into the garden. Shaking off Marse and Rapunzel, the prince ran to where his horse was tethered, jumped into the saddle, and galloped away from the house toward the far-off forest.

"Huh," Wild said, "he gets upset too easily. A royal should have thicker skin." He started for the door, but to his surprise Halvir put an arm out to stop him.

"Let him go." The mage looked stricken, near exhaustion. He turned away from Wild and asked wearily, "Have you ever regretted something so much that you looked for a way to entirely undo it?"

It sounded like the beginning of a confession, and if Wild's decades as a fortune-teller had taught him anything, it was that humans often found it easier to tell their deepest, most secret fears and longings to a stranger rather than those they loved. Whenever this had happened, he'd noticed that it didn't seem to matter whether he understood the speaker's story or not: all that mattered was the telling and the listening. As a demon he'd always known that words could bind and wound, but he'd learned that they could also break bonds and heal.

"I want, more than anything, to make him forget," Halvir said, his voice rough with misery. "To do whatever it would take for him to forget what I did to him, what I forced him to do. To forget what he saw done to me." Halvir passed his hand over his eyes. "But I won't do such a thing without his permission."

Wild thought of the contract that had wrapped his body in thorns, and how love had forced Rapunzel to share his imprisonment for sixty years. He thought of Klaus falling from the tower, and of Ishuca saying, It is so easy to sacrifice for those we love, and so difficult to let them sacrifice for us. "The blade was stained black," Wild said, "not just from taking up your tormentor's poison, but from your own deep despair. And the beast's. And the prince's."

"His despair?" Halvir looked at him, astonished, then shook his head as disbelief twisted his features. "I should have known better than to do business with a demon," he said. "They always charge high prices for worthless answers."

"Not always," Wild said, holding out the dreamstone. "Sometimes it amuses us to give away our services."

Halvir took the dreamstone, puzzled. "You didn't use the stored power? — ah, I see. I had forgotten that some demons can read memories from certain objects."

"Yes, we can," Wild said as he placed the prince's ring into Halvir's hand next to the dreamstone. "And from them truths unexpressed." He then stepped past Halvir into the garden.

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Rapunzel waved enthusiastically to the departing quartet. "What a colorful group they were."

The four rode to join the prince at the edge of the forest, and soon all five were out of sight.

"Halvir seemed so surprised," Rapunzel said, "that you gave back the dreamstone and the ring."

"Well, I'm a demon of my word," Wild said. "I did do my best to help those two, but they're both very stubborn."

"I appreciate that you tried," Rapunzel said, and then, "I'll go make tea"—but a moment later he was distracted, as usual, by some mysterious garden matter.

"No hurry." Wild sat on the steps and smiled. The sun was warm, Rapunzel's favorite white flowers were in full bloom—and best of all, just before Halvir had ridden away Wild had glimpsed in his eyes a spark of something that looked very much like hope.

And then Rapunzel brought out the tea tray and shook out his braid, and there was no more talk of princes or mages until the afternoon of the following day.

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~ The End ~

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~ Whether human or demon or something between,
all that matters is whether one chooses to walk the path of light or the path of darkness,
and whether one understands that flawed gems can still be treasured. ~

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12 Dec 2013; rev 8 August 2016