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THE RITUAL by Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko [translation]

Chapter Text

Sweet flame scours the throat.

As from a wrongly toppled cup,

The earth spills by.

— Arm-An

His steps echoed as he wound through the dark corridors, stumbling into walls. He felt the faint traces of damp wind on his face and hurried.

The sound of his steps dulled as the walls parted before him. He came into a wide chamber, and the walls opened out until the light barely illuminated them, though the torch in his hand burned as bright as ever. The ceiling, too, vaulted up and disappeared into the dark.

He’d been here countless times, in this great and empty chamber, yet today the solitude felt disturbed. It felt like there was someone here, but who? The only traces of life here were the names carved into the stone walls, their owners long buried. The torch illuminated a column—monumental, its surface covered in what looked like a net of intricate lace.

How does a leaf on a tree know when to break out of its bud? When to turn to the sun, change its colour, and fall to the feet of the living? Is the very last leaf not a continuance of the shoot, of the branch, of the trunk? Is the endmost bud not an emissary of the roots, whose deep forms are a sight hidden from the laity?

He raised his hand and traced the ancient carvings on the column:

And so cried out the Magnificent Sam-Ar, calling for his allies, and his roar was like the voice of the sick sky, and bitter were his words, like poisonous lead. He called his children under his wing, and his siblings, and all his kin who carried fire… A great battle arose, and under Yucca’s terrible blows fell his children, and his siblings, and all his kin, bleeding fire… Sam-Ar looked about himself and saw the Monstrous Yucca, rising once again from the water... Again, they battled, and the sun looked away in horror, and the stars fled in fear, and the burned wind plummeted, weakened, to the ground… Undefeatable was Sam-Ar, and thus he was prevailing, but the Deceitful Yucca, cursed be his name, tricked and bound Sam-Ar with ropes, and dragged him to the deep abyss, and extinguished his fire, and disarmed him. Thus died the Magnificent Sam-Ar. Remember, kin, whose blood suffuses you…

He struggled to read this. In places, the text was faded, the stone crumbling to dust, though it had been protected from the weathering forces of the sun, rain, and wind for centuries.

It was time to decide, he thought wearily. Time to choose if what would happen, should happen.

Whose blood suffuses you…”

He rounded the column. On the opposite side was a carving, enormous and brilliantly preserved: a grotesque monster rising from the churning sea, and above it, a fire-breathing dragon twisting through the sky.

“Whose blood suffuses you…”

He had to decide. He had to. This was only a ritual. Painful, but ultimately harmless. Just a ritual.

He crossed the darkness to another column, just as monumental and striking. The flickering torch illuminated more symbols, signs, disjointed lines of faded text:

“…days…glory of…was devastated…the name Lir-Ira, son of Nur-Ara, grandson of…his success in the hunt…”

His success…

He went back the way he came with surety, even with haste. He had been trekking through this stone citadel since he was a child and could make the journey just as easily without the torch. He only needed the light to make out the carvings, to glean the text.

In his large and dusty bedchamber, he put out the torch and approached a towering, cracked mirror. Grey light streamed through a narrow window, casting most of the room in deep shadow.

He had to decide.

A flowery scent tugged at his senses. For a moment, the world dimmed, and a wave of nausea rolled over him. He pushed it down with considerable effort, struggling to master himself. Damned weakness.

Reaching out, he dragged a hand through the thick layer of dust on the mirror, clearing it. His face stared back at him from the murky depths—thin, dark-haired, gaunt and haunted.

He had to decide. Again, he brushed his hand over the glass, clearing away more dust.

Slowly, the mirror began to glow from within: first faintly, then with more and more strength. Images shone through from the other side of the glass, flickering like candleflame.

A horse’s head… a hoof… a cartwheel…

He frowned and leaned closer, trying to puzzle out the rest.

A crowd of people, all bustling together… A celebration of some sort, a festival of hats… Mountains of hatboxes and ornate chests, gifts piled up to the ceiling… The painted towers of a princely house, its gates opened for the throng… Cooks in the kitchen… Porters… A page shamelessly ruffling someone’s skirts… The kitchen again… A momentous feasting hall… Maids… Women… What a commotion!

Then, very faintly: “Princess, try this on!”

A princess…

He narrowed his eyes.

In the mirror, the princess turned, and he caught her face. Blue eyes, pale hair, wearing a full-bodied turquoise dress.

“Magnificent, Your Highness!”

Someone’s hands were crowning her head with a blue velvet cap. On its front, he could make out a sailboat embroidered in silver.

He bared his teeth. Remember, kin, whose blood suffuses you.

 


 

Princess May took another step back, squared her shoulders, and let out a bright laugh. The hatmaker smiled proudly, clapping his hands. The two court ladies nodded their approval, and the maid, struggling under the weight of the mirror in her hands, also muttered something positive.

The turquoise and silver-detailed dress accentuated her figure pleasantly, and her neat, bejewelled shoes clicked brightly against the floor. Her blue eyes creased in delight as she took herself in, trailing upwards to admire her new hat.

The hatmaker clapped once again, humming with content. The Princess’ hat was sure to be a highlight of the festival—lovingly crafted, embroidered with a scene of a stormy sea. Velvet blue waves dove and rose, topped with froth of white lace. One wave, the tallest, towered up at the hat’s crown, carrying on its peak a tiny little fishing boat with a starched white sail, no bigger than a snuffbox. Inside the box was a tiny little fisherman, battling furiously with the elements. If you squinted, you could pick out each individual button on his tiny, wind-torn coat. When May tilted her head this way and that, the little boat listed and bobbed along; the sail fluttered, and the velvet sea glittered as it caught the light. The masterful artwork struck you dumb with wonder.

“Magnificent, Your Highness,” said the maid. “Simply magnificent.”

Her helpers—and in the packed, expansive chamber, they numbered in the dozen—hurried to agree, all nodding their heads.

May was yet unpractised in concealing her true feelings: forgetting that a Princess must be dignified and restrained, she instead began to twirl about the room in loud delight.

In the corner, her sister, Vertrana—also a Princess, though two years older—sighed disdainfully. She was just as elegant as her sister, and just as handsome, though perhaps her hair was a touch darker, and her manner more serious.

She was trying on a lush rose dress with long, lace gloves. Embroidered on her hat was a circle dance. Figurines were sewn into position on top; little satin things stuffed with aromatic salts, so that when she moved, a delicate scent followed.

May ran up, almost crashing into the maid at her sister’s side. She threw her arms around Vertrana’s neck and kissed her mushily on the cheek. “Verta, I adore you!”

“May…” said Vertrana, smiling tightly.

“And I adore you, Yuta!” May exclaimed, abandoning Vertrana to go hug their oldest sister in the corner. Yuta stumbled and stepped back, extracting herself from May’s embrace with a tepid nod.

Yuta’s dress was a baby pink and seemed too short. The hem hung high above the ground, revealing stumpy, overlarge feet. Yuta glared into the mirror and saw in it a lanky, awkward girl wearing her luxurious dress with the grace of a costumed monkey.

“Princess, be still, please,” said the porter at her elbow.

Yuta turned her glare to him.

“Your hat, Your Highness,” said the hatmaker, extending Yuta’s hat to her.

Yuta turned away.

The hat was pretty enough, depicting the battle of Day and Night. From Night’s side, shimmering velvet unfurled with strewn glass stars, and on Day’s, pink silk fluttered in shreds. Above it all, an embroidered golden sun hung on threading rays, circled by a pearl button-moon.

“I don’t want it,” said Yuta.

The hatmaker stuttered, “But, Your Highness! This drawing, you had approved it… Everything is as discussed.”

Yuta’s maid was already wrestling the hat onto Yuta’s coarse hair with thick pins. Yuta cast a hopeless glance at the mirror. Now the hat brim hid half of her face, its shimmery veil hanging to the tip of her nose. Her mouth twisted in a grimace.

“Should we remove the veil, do you think?” said the maid to the porter.

The porter hummed and scratched his chin. “No. It should be thicker, I think… The darkest possible. And long, to the neckline…”

The maid started nodding. Yuta twitched. She could swear she’d heard someone giggle, though she might have imagined it.

May came closer once again and started pawing at Yuta’s hat, grinning happily.

“It’s beautiful, Yuta! Simply gorgeous. And your dress, too!”

May was a bit naïve, even for her sixteen years. Vertrana looked over at her happy prancing and sighed, fixing her dress.

Yuta, meanwhile, was fumbling with her hat, repositioning it this way and that. She pulled it forward and then pushed it back, gnawing at her lips and only growing redder from the effort. Behind her back, the maids were sharing sideways glances. Yuta caught them and struggled to hold back bitter tears. No matter which way you looked at it, she was ugly. Grotesque.

“Your Highness…” the hatmaker began softly. A maid tugged on his sleeve, and he fell silent. In another corner, someone giggled and was immediately silenced by pointed glares.

Yuta flushed.

“Don’t slouch like that, Yuta,” said Vertrana. “Don’t bite your lips, don’t… twist all up like that. It doesn’t suit you.”

Yuta turned around sharply and snapped, “Yes, but everything suits you. This, and… and that…”

She trailed off, flustered, losing her train of thought. The maids gaped at her. With a huff, Yuta turned on her heel and stormed out of the chamber, slamming the door behind her.

Young May blinked and turned to Vertrana for guidance, her eyes misting with tears.

“Why would… she’s ruining the party for herself…” she said.

“And for others, too,” Vertrana muttered, turning back to the mirror.

 

Three kingdoms had existed side by side for centuries, and if the ancient chronicles were to be believed, they had only ever warred twice: once, when Prince Contestarius abducted a princess from the neighbouring Kingdom of Akmalia and took her to wife without her parents' permission; and a second time, a few decades later, when some drunk Akmlaian tinsmith insulted a cat—the heraldic animal of the Kingdom of Upper Conta—as the beastie tripped him up in a tavern.

Otherwise, the three kingdoms existed in peaceful contentment, from time to time renewing their bonds of friendship through a royal marriage, so that all three courts found themselves related by blood to some degree or other.

 

All about, flags adorned with snarling cats flapped about in the wind. Preparations for the festival had pushed aside all other worries for the moment. Upper Conta was the host this year, and Yuta, wandering through the palace passages, stumbled frequently upon her father. The King rushed about, giving out final commands and muttering his favourite curse under his breath: “You gargoyle…”. His bedraggled retinue skirted around Yuta like an unsavoury obstacle.

The arrival of their illustrious guests from the neighbouring kingdoms was expected at any moment now. Yuta could see from her bedroom window how plush carpets were being unfurled over the cobblestoned palace courtyard, how the orchestra assembled on the side, their burnished brass instruments shining in the sun. In the joyous humdrum, little May’s pale curls and turquoise dress bobbed in and out of the crowd. The young Princess had joined the pre-party fray with gusto.

Having wandered about the palace, stood by the heaving shelves of the library and worn holes in the cover of her beloved novel, Yuta tugged at her hateful pink dress and began making her way to her mother’s apartments.

They were empty. She peeked in, spotting the open clavichord, heaving with a mountain of hatboxes. Forgotten embroidery hoops littered the carpet. Yuta tidied them up mechanically—her mother was embroidering fragments of a legend, a dragon kidnapping a maid. The green silk dragon was almost finished, breathing licks of orange fire, but the shape of the princess was only outlined by a few threads.

Without knowing why, Yuta wandered towards the chambers of the ladies-in-waiting.

She walked and traced the stucco curls on the walls, sighing and trying to touch the tip of her nose with her tongue. Thankfully, the corridors were empty, and there was no one there to judge whether this suited her or not. She stopped when she heard the faint strains of a conversation drifting from down the hall. She recognised her mother’s voice and strained to make out which room it was coming from.

“…partially our fault, too,” the Queen confessed to someone.

Yuta stalled and turned towards the sound, finding herself in a room partitioned by a heavy curtain. There, behind the velvet barrier, the Queen listened to the response of the second speaker:

“Unlikely, Your Majesty. You spared her no amount of care or affection.”

Yuta’s heart stopped for a second, only to restart in disordered confusion.

“The Royal Astrologer has assured us that the weather shall be brilliant all day,” said the speaker, a lady-in-waiting, trying to change the subject.

The Queen sighed loudly. “No, my dear… Her features, her figure, and to add to that, her coarse character, her ill temper and stubbornness… We must confront the truth: she will never marry.”

Yuta bit her lip and stepped back into the corridor. A passing page, startled by her sudden appearance, stumbled back before finding his feet and hurrying away.

No, she wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. As if she should burst into tears at every small slight… Ha!

She wandered about the palace blindly. Tears sat like a stone in her throat.

Somewhere outside, trumpets blew joyfully—the guests had finally arrived. The monarchs of Akmalia with their daughter Princess Olivia, and the greying King Contestarius with his son…

Yuta sobbed.

Sitting on the grass in the empty palace garden, she decided that she wouldn’t ruin the celebration for anyone else. She would just… leave. Right now.

She felt lighter, having decided that. This was her favourite thing to play—the I Am Leaving Forever game. She played it when her heart felt heaviest.

Once again, she heard the trumpets blow. Yuta stood and, slouching more than normal, wandered towards the gates. She was going into exile. She would never again see her father, or mother, or May and Vertrana. She would never return to this old garden, filled with precious memories of childhood.

At first, Yuta walked with conviction, but with every step, her confidence waned. The bitter reality of her exile weighed on her more and more, until she saw it in its full enmity and fell to her knees, sobbing, at the foot of an old sycamore tree.

Mother, dearest, she thought. Forgive me.

The little sun on her hat clinked pitifully, knocking against the embroidered glass stars.

The tears helped her find some emotional equilibrium. She rose, padded over to a small, burbling fountain and sat on its edge, thinking deeply.

Truly, when your nose is a bit longer than usual, when your mouth splays wider, and your height resembles that of a royal guard more than that of a princess, you have plenty of time to sit and think. Why, upon hearing the word “princess”, do people melt into smiles and hurry to supplement it with “beautiful”? And should the princess be less handsome than preferred, why then should there be such resentment, such bitter disappointment?

Somewhere in the depths of the garden, a woodpecker began drumming. Yuta leaned in to listen and smiled absentmindedly. Would the little bird have such success breaking through the tough bark with a nose as small as Vertrana’s? Yuta touched her own nose and smiled wider, though it faded just as fast.

Vertrana… She shouldn’t have shouted at her. Yuta, you gargoyle, you don’t have that many sisters that you can treat them so harshly! After firmly deciding to pay Vertrana a compliment today, Yuta relaxed.

In the fountain’s pool, little goldfish darted about. Yuta shoved her hand into the warm, greenish water and the goldfish began kissing at her fingers. How did fish breathe underwater? Once, in her distant childhood, Yuta had also tried it and almost drowned.

Unable to stand the ticklish fishy nibbling any longer, she started giggling and snatched back her hand, raising an entire curtain of sparkling drops.

Yes, her nose really did look beakish, but it could discern the difference between a dozen sorts of roses, not to mention cheeses and gravies! And with eyes, their size mattered less than their sharpness. Her lips, well… she wouldn’t bite them anymore, she could find better things to chew on, and maybe she could do away with her slouching as well. Her mother would have to take back what she said about Yuta’s temper and stubbornness then. Yes, Yuta really was a gargoyle if she couldn’t pull herself together.

Out in the palace courtyard, the trumpets resounded again. Yuta jumped up. Ostin must have arrived by now. She glanced into the fountain water—no, no sign of tears in her eyes anymore—and gathered her dress, hurrying back towards the palace.

Halfway through a topiary corridor, she was halted by the sound of her name. May’s bright voice seemed to fill the whole garden:

“Yuta, Yuta! There you are!”

A discrete bubble of laughter followed. Yuta looked back.

Down a path carpeted with sea sand, Vertrana paraded arm in arm with the Princess Olivia of Akmalia. May pranced about their feet. Olivia’s attendant—Olivia had an attendant!—held up a bright parasol over them momentously, as if bearing an heraldic flag. A little way behind them, chewing on a straw, came the Prince Ostin of Upper Conta.

Yuta’s breath caught. She hadn’t seen him in more than a year. He’d grown. His skin had darkened in the sun, and his shoulders had widened. The parted collar of his thin white shirt revealed his long neck, from which dangled a golden talisman, swaying side to side with each step he made. Yuta wanted to run, but instead, she plastered on her best smile and stepped forward.

“Where have you been?” May said. “The welcoming ceremony, the orchestra… Do you know, do you know what kind of carriage Olivia has?!”

“Papa paid ten gold ingots,” Olivia murmured. If Yuta’s sisters were considered pretty, then the Akmalian princess was a beauty famed far beyond her own borders. Now, she was clad in blinding gold: her dress flowed around her in a sunlit waterfall, and on her hat perched a golden swan with real feathers and an amber beak.

“Hello, Olivia. Hello, Ostin,” mumbled Yuta.

Ostin burst into a grin. His cheeks dimpled.

“Yuta—why weren’t you at the opening ceremony?” said Vertrana.

Yuta immediately changed her mind about saying something nice to her sister.

“Perhaps,” suggested Olivia softly. “Yuta just doesn’t like guests.”

Her attendant, for some reason, giggled.

Vertrana’s eyes widened in horror. “Yuta!” she hissed. “Your dress!”

Yuta looked down at her pink skirts and saw that they were covered in grass stains.

“Oh, don’t fret.” Olivia smiled delicately. “Such small green stains won’t ruin such a large pink dress... Right, Yuta?”

The attendant snorted again.

“Only just…” continued Olivia with false concern. “Only her hat… Perhaps, something green should be added to it, hmm, to reflect the new ensemble?”

“Yes, isn’t Yuta’s hat just gorgeous?” jumped in May, oblivious to the conversation’s undertone. “There’s a sun and a moon.”

Olivia made a show of stretching out her graceful neck and standing on her tiptoes, miming how hard it was to see the hat atop Yuta’s lanky frame.

Loudly, she said, “Well, I see the sun… But the moon! My, instead of the moon, there’s just some thread dangling. I think that the moon has tragically detached during Princess Yuta’s traipse through the gardens. Maybe we should look for it together.”

“Oh, no…” May whispered, tearing up and immediately looking down, looking for the lost button-moon.

“No worries,” interjected Ostin. “Yuta has plenty of time to fix it up. There’s an hour left until the beginning of the main events, no?”

“Go into the palace, Yuta,” said Vertrana.

“But why?” Olivia exclaimed. “She could hardly improve much on what she has now. Except, perhaps, if she puts on a completely opaque veil.”

Her attendant inhaled noisily and said, struggling to contain her laughter, “Yes, perhaps she should… should wrap herself up in it completely!”

May just stared in confusion while Vertrana said nothing, afraid to ruin her relationship with the Akmalian princess. Ostin, mortified by Olivia’s antics, looked ready to reprimand her, but at that moment Yuta regained the gift of speech:

“Some people like to drag their lapdogs and pugs around with them,” she said with all the contempt she could muster. “Congratulations, Olivia: your little pug is like you in every way.”

“She is my attendant,” Olivia replied coolly. “Something that you shall never have. An attendant must be inferior in beauty to her mistress. I can’t imagine how long you would have to look to find an attendant for yourself.”

Yuta flushed, glancing at Ostin. He was hearing, hearing all of this. In two strides, Yuta seized Olivia’s hair and dragged her down.

May screamed, Vertrana jumped back, and Ostin froze in place… but Yuta noticed none of this. Golden feathers from Olivia’s pretty swan flew up into the air, glass stars rained down in shards, her pink dress crumpled. Olivia’s attendant launched herself onto Yuta’s back.

“Get this freak off me!” Olivia screeched.

Ostin managed to drag the clawing, dishevelled Yuta off the two Akmalian girls. Her hat, now divested of its sun too, lay in tatters on the grass. No longer caring for decorum, Yuta pushed away Ostin’s hand and vaulted over the hedge, fleeing.

 

The opening of the festival was delayed by half an hour. When the question of Yuta’s absence came up, only Prince Ostin’s intersession permitted the delay of the punishment. Olivia’s golden dress, thankfully, was only damaged a little—the palace seamstresses managed to restore it in the nick of time. The greater damage was to the Princess’ darling face—long, deep scratches had to be carefully painted and powdered over.

Yuta was coldly offered the dress of one of the ladies-in-waiting and a plain, flat cap. At that point, she couldn’t care less.

Just when the celebrations were about to start, Yuta’s bedroom door opened to reveal May’s sly face. Under her arm, she carried a hatbox.

“Promise me that you’ll take it!” she whispered.

“What’s inside?” asked Yuta.

“Promise me!” May hissed.

“I promise…”

She pried the box open, but May was already gone. Inside lay a glittering velvet cap embroidered with towering blue waves. The darling May was giving her hapless sister her own hat.

 

The hat festival had long become a beloved tradition for all three kingdoms.

The sun-drenched palace courtyard was packed with guests and spectators. Young boys hung bat-like from the lampposts, and colourful hats bobbed through the crowd like absurd boats. The most creative citizens had decorated their hats with brass and silver bells, pinwheels, real and plaster tarts. One hat even featured a real mouse in a tiny copper cage. To avoid losing their precious creations to the flirty wind, guests tied them down with pins, chains, and ribbons of every colour.

The festival opened with a parade of the Hatmakers Guild. The procession was led by the palace hatmaker himself, the very one who had made the princesses’ hats. Above his head fluttered the guild’s flag with its nightcap standard.

The hatmakers assembled in a circle around an ornate, carpeted scaffold, upon which sat all three of the royal families. Olivia’s golden dress glittered in the sun, catching the eye of every attendant. Hushed whispers of “Oh, what a beauty!” could be heard everywhere.

Yuta sat silently, head bowed, afraid to accidentally catch Ostin’s eye. He sat right at her side—she could feel his closeness on her skin.

Her father, the King, stood up and gave a short speech about prosperity and good fortune, after which he ceded control of the party proceedings to the Master of Ceremonies. The man, marked by his huge cylindrical hat, began rattling off a cascade of jokes to liven the crowd. They laughed.

Then, with a flick of his ivy-covered staff, he gave the signal for every party guest to open their purses and let out their wasps. Every attendant had caught said insect that morning to be released now, as according to tradition, money would fall into the place the wasp vacated. A few unfortunate souls were discovering that their insects had died—this, of course, promised losses.

The hedgehog fights were announced next. A huge drum was rolled out for the trained hedgehogs to tumble upon. Around it, spectators laughed and waved their hands, placed bets, and handed money to the bookkeeper. The hedgehogs, painted in bright colours by their owners, snorter and whistled, stamping on the thick drum hide, curled up into defensive balls or jumped to grab their opponents by their long, black snouts. The drum hummed, beating out an odd rhythm. The winner ended up being a minute, cinnabar-dyed female of a particularly ferocious character.

Finally, then came the time for the hat competition. Yuta’s velvet sea-scene hat should have won her a prize, but she had refused to take part. The first prize was won by Olivia’s golden swan, despite it being a little more plucked than expected.

The sun stood high above the courtyard. The first half of the festival was almost over. The evening amusements would begin at sunset—torch-lit circle dances, free wine paid for by the Hatmakers’ Guild, fireworks presented by the treasury, and general dances and celebrations.

The royal families stood, congratulated each other, waved to the crowd, and then began making their way back inside the palace to rest before night fell.

The courtyard orchestra burst into slightly disjointed music. The thinning crowd waved their handkerchiefs to cool themselves and catch the eye of the departing royals. The Master of Ceremonies lowered his staff and wiped his sweaty forehead in relief.

Yuta was boiling in her clothes.

A swift breeze blew, bringing some relief, which wouldn’t have been remarked upon if it hadn’t immediately then changed into a strong gust of scorching hot wind.

The crowd jolted and began muttering in discontent. Someone’s hat was floating in the air, taken clean off their head.

Yuta grabbed at her blowing skirts, wrestling them under control, and then looked up at the sun.

The sun wasn’t there.

The courtyard plunged into shadow, despite the Royal Astrologer predicting clear skies that morning. The wind picked up again, sudden and fearsome. A wave of sharp, unplaceable scent rolled over them all, drying throats and making eyes prickle.

For a moment, there was dead silence. The only thing to be heard was the sharp whistle of the wind. The sun flickered into life and then disappeared again, as if covered by a racing storm cloud.

“AAAAAH!”

A woman’s piercing cry broke the guests out of their spell. Panicked attendees burst into movement, running in different directions, trampling each other underfoot and pushing over festival stalls.

Yuta was still on the carpeted scaffold, holding May’s hat to her head with all her might. Nothing felt more important then.

She watched as her father—gripping Vertrana with one hand and the Queen with the other—tried to squeeze through the crowd. A way ahead of him stood the royal carriage. On Yuta’s other side, Ostin was trying to push May under the cover of the scaffold. In front of her, Olivia—as collected as ever—was moving closer to the centre of the courtyard, where a dusty black tornado spun into life. Bits of colourful ribbons danced through it, whirling manically.

The darkness worsened.

Yuta raised her head and watched as a great, scale-covered belly flew past. The beast had claws like knives, hooked and ready.

“Run, Yuta! Save yourself!”

Was that Ostin’s voice?

Still clutching May’s hat, Yuta burst into a run, certain that she would never stop again. She sprinted across the emptied courtyard blindly, chased by waves of that same sharp scent. She tripped over abandoned bags, flags, and toys. Circling above her, blotting out the entire sky, was a monstrous winged beast—a dragon.

“Yuta!”

She spotted Ostin.

He was racing towards her in leaping bounds, screaming something with his mouth wide open, but the sound was carried off by the wind.

Yuta turned to meet him, but suddenly he was somehow underneath her. His face was turned up, pale with terror. His opened collar was buffeted by the wind, the little golden talisman on his neck swaying wildly. Then, the courtyard looked like it flipped and became tiny, and Ostin was a little dot on it, as tiny as the fisherman on May’s hat.

Yuta saw the roof of the palace, the garden, the courtyard, and the winding streets of the city. She saw the panicked crowd, milling like black ants below her.

Held firmly in the claws of the dragon, Princess Yuta was carried further and further away from home, spirited away to God knows where by a grotesque monster.

Finally, she had the sense to scream—but nobody heard her.