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Lilac Wine

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The Lady Amalthea fled down the steps from Haggard's highest tower with the instinct of a small animal seeking a safe burrow. She ran not from Haggard, who had gone down before her, but from her own thoughts. She did not know that the attempt was in vain, having never made it before, having never felt the need. There was salt strung along her eyelashes. On the parapet, Schmendrick held a finger out to the air, and licked it, and then, for want of other conclusion, observed aloud that there was little chance of rain.

Prince Lír, arriving home victorious, stabled his horse, shucked his armour, and washed his head and hands in a bucket from the well. With the modest attitude that now distinguished his brand of heroism, he climbed up through the byways of the castle, the head of the ogre he had killed still dangling by its hair from his fist.

In this manner, prince and lady encountered each other, and jumped.

The ogre's head stopped mumbling an awkward moment later.

In the silence that flowed from his lady's lips, Lír heard a call that he had longed to answer before he was born, or Hagsgate built, or men made mortal.

The prince's tongue, never silver, lay in his mouth like a coward dog, but Lír was a hero, and so he hummed. He nodded courteously to Amalthea, and stepped past her. His tune trailed behind him like a kind gesture.

He went up to his chamber, never looking behind him. She followed.

In his doorway, Lír hesitated. The Lady Amalthea waited behind his shoulder, but she did not put out her hand. Then he stepped inside, and she after him.

It was a large room, an ungenerous allotment, as Lír never could keep it warm. Former rugs, too worn to be of use as rugs, hung on the walls, as though Lír clothed the stone in rags. The carpets still worthy of covering the floor were piled in eddies and rumples, giving the entire chamber the look of an unmade bed. The bed itself was neat. Lír waded across to the window and put the ogre's head down on the window ledge, looking out to sea.

Amalthea stood one step in from the doorway, watching Lír.

Under her gaze, his returning steps slowed. "Hello," he said foolishly. "What's wrong?"

"Your father," Amalthea started, and stopped. The thoughts she had fled came boiling up into the room with them. Prince Lír grew briefly tense, like the tightrope underneath him, strung between his anxious, filial fealty and Haggard's desire to possess something the Lady Amalthea was and wasn't.

"He spoke of fancies in the sea," said the Lady Amalthea.

"Ah," said Lír wisely, and trod back to the window again to pull an inadequate curtain between them and the view, wrapping the monster's head away. There was a tinderbox by the window. He struck a light and lit a candle. "So much for the sea," he said gallantly.

Amalthea looked at him.

"I have a gift for you, my lady," Lír offered. "I thought to save it for a true celebration, however that happened upon us, but - you've had a bit of an upset. I can tell. What may lift the spirit in a time of joy may also poise it against peril."

He sat down next to the bed and fished about under it, coming up with a tall, dark, slender bottle and two dented goblets. He held one cup out to the Lady Amalthea, then, when she did not move toward him to take it, he half leaned, half lunged forward so that he knelt before her, holding it up.

Now that it was in reach, her hand grazed past it, collecting it on the way, as a wind will lift a dead leaf. She tilted it towards her face, sniffing delicately at its past contents, as if to drink the air it held.

"Here," said Lír, lifting the bottle. The glass was so dark it could have been obsidian, and there were no markings on it. The reflection of the candle flame curved around its side as if peering in. But when he uncorked it, the room seemed to grow lighter. The Lady Amalthea made a tiny movement that, if magnified, might have been a toss of the head.

"Lilac," she said.

"Wine of the lilac flower," Prince Lír announced unnecessarily, "the gift of a white witch."

"I know lilacs," the Lady Amalthea told him, and herself. "But I knew them when they were younger. Or was it I who was younger?" She held out the hand with the goblet, one finger uncurling from its stem to pass across the bottle's open mouth. She licked the breath of the wine off her finger.

"This holds the magic of midsummer, or so I was promised," Lír said, extending that promise to her.

"Summer," echoed the Lady Amalthea, as though it were a fable; and yet, in Haggard's castle, it well might be.

He poured wine into her cup and his, and, looking up at her, began to tell her what he knew of summer, describing it like a distant country, its borders patrolled by cicadas, fireflies, and bees. He expected her to laugh at this conceit, to correct him, and to join in, but she only listened, and smiled, and sipped.

She swayed a little as she stood above him, or so it seemed to him; all at once he realised that it was his vision that wavered, and he who was swaying above stiff knees. He made an uncertain sound, and she put out her empty hand to steady him. She had never touched him before.

He stood up, which was a very good effort.

"What have I given you?" he asked, meaning: what benediction did her touch repay. It was not what he had meant to say. His gifts reversed themselves into requirements; solicitous words became solicitations; and he fooled himself that he had earned this touch, and wanted to know how.

"You gave me summer in a lilac wood," Amalthea told him. "Surely she is there: she, whom I once was. First, I was another, and then there were two of me - someone told me that, I think. But she lives on in her lilac wood - I am sure of it - there is no other place for her. I am only the Lady Amalthea, whom you love."

Lír listened to this between blinks. Fear and wonder beat behind his eyelids, but each time he opened his eyes again the sight of the Lady Amalthea dulled them both. "Yes," he said, to the last.

He kissed the Lady Amalthea, or she kissed him - later he could never be certain. He drew back from her to look into her eyes, braving fathomless depths, but they were only human eyes in a lovely human face. He stumbled anyway, going to one knee again, but this time she followed him down.

She kissed him curiously, making slight sounds as she discovered how his lips matched hers, and how sounds felt against lips, and then as she discovered the wry delight of an imperfect fit against his mouth, especially as he smiled. Slowly his hands came up to her shoulders, her hair. That was as soft as he had imagined it would be, only heavier. It parted as smoothly between his fingers as though he dipped his hands in milk; though he twisted curls around his finger, they flowed away from him when he let them go. His fingertips came to rest lightly against her scalp, and he blinked faster, surfacing into a more immediate awareness. She was still kissing him.

Her hands, braced on his shoulder and his hip, might as well have been cupping skin; he realised for the first time that it was all the same to her. She had walked up and down the ways of the castle as naked to his gaze as a baby bird. But I clothed her, he thought, and swam through his confusion to discover that he meant both the satin dress and the veil of impressions and assumptions he had hung about her. Meanwhile she had looked at him and seen beneath his skin.

So did she now. Her touch passed through his tunic like light prizing gaps in the threads; he had the strange feeling that had she wished, she could have swept her hands through him. She opened him up like a box, like a mine veined with crystals, his very bones shining with the reflection of her. He said to her, "See, my lady, you run through my blood," and it turned true. He unclasped his belt, shrugged his tunic over his shoulders, merely to show her this. They both had to wrestle with his boots.

The Lady Amalthea declared, "You said you could not guard my dreams unless I dreamed of you, and so I have; for we have walked and talked and sung together, and I was dreaming until now. Now I am awake." She reached behind him to discover the line of his back. Her sleeve brushed his side, and he shivered.

The Lady Amalthea leaned around him, stroking his side; she sprawled on the rugs beside him, if a woman as graceful as she was could ever sprawl, and turned to laugh up at him from between her elbows. "This is good," she told him solemnly, or asked.

"Yes," he answered, kneeling above her, his hands submerged in her hair. His eyes followed the curves of her pale curls, streaming away from his hands, and he was dizzy: it seemed to him that her hair gave way beneath him, as though he leaned on waves, and he was falling forward and forward, spinning over her shoulders, until she was above him, not below.

"Yes," she said, more calmly and clearly than he.

He grew less and less graceful the closer he pressed against her, but so did she. She tugged on his hair as roughly as if she were a bird seeking strands for a nest; he drew a hand across her stomach, meaning to be tender, but tickled her instead. She winced, but then she laughed, and kissed him more. Their lovemaking was disjointed, and merry, and inconclusive. Once she made an involuntary cry, and later she made it again, when he was not touching her, but she could not tell him why. Lír grew tired rather than quite satisfied, but it did not seem to matter, and he did not mind.

They helped each other up to the bed, and with ingrained courtesy he brought her water and tucked her in. He brushed his teeth and closed his eyes. He slept fitfully. The clock struck nonsense, dealing equal blows to the future and past, rushing forward and back in an uninterpretable dance, for a night that was much longer than a night.

The prince and his lady grew old in that room, laughing in that bed as often as they slept. Seasons whirled past them. Deprived of the last unicorn, Haggard's hunger ate him up until there was nothing left of him. The prince sallied forth to slay wyverns and water-rats, and Amalthea climbed up through the castle's caverns and culverts to its very tower-tops. There she would push her hair back from her smooth forehead and weave daylight or moonlight into her braids; in time, this turned the silver-white of her hair into a grey too dull to hurt the eyes, or heart.

The prince and his lady slept never so far from each other as the width of a fingernail, and when they met they would hold hands.

So two lifetimes passed in that room, in one night, while Lír neither quite rested nor roused, and time tossed and turned about him. At last, the clock struck a blow strong enough to shatter sleep. Lír woke with an aching head. It was early in the morning. He was sprawled on his bed, and his boots were still on. The bottle of lilac wine stood empty by the window sill, where the head of a monster, half shrouded in his curtain, muttered dismally to itself, and the clock was striking the right time.

He did not know when the Lady Amalthea had gone: whether, like the castle's time, she had rushed him and retreated like a wave, or if she had never truly stepped within his room.

But, since she was gone, the simplest thing was that he should follow her. He stepped down through the castle as though it were sand, and found Molly Grue and the Lady Amalthea in a place where the sand had not quite resolved itself again into stone; the world was a gritty, glittering haze. The clock was still striking, not his death knell - as had been his first thought, when he woke - but its own.

"You would have gone without me," Prince Lír said to the Lady Amalthea, and it was no less true for the life she had spent in his arms.

"I would have come back," she said.

But they went on.