May my song pierce your slumber, my lady of silver, bearer of such lonely fate. May you hear and remember my sorrows and joys, for the night is short, and the hour is late.
A grand, imposing castle stood before a wide courtyard, staring down at squads of drilling soldiers clad in green as they hurled lightning down the field to strike the mountainside. A spire rose from the ground at every corner of the structure, each with a pointed top and faded-blue tiles. They guarded its body like silent sentinels, with their eyes turned out to face the world, and all the dangers it might bring. Smaller, flat-topped towers trailed away from the walls to a lower shelf of rock on the mountainside, as though the castle had moved and left pieces of itself behind.
Within the castle’s bulk stood a tower taller than any other—the leader of the sentinels. The wind, borne of snowy mountaintops and eager to race down their slopes, buffeted its side, lending the monolith a voice to groan. It was a thing of contradictions: whimsical, but sober. Regal, but crude. Beautiful, but terrible. One had to know its purpose to understand.
Inset into the castle’s walls were magnificent windows of stained glass and shimmering metal. They glowed orange in the setting sun’s light, enhancing the structure’s facade and elevating its countenance. But even with such jewelry, it remained the face of an old, grumpy giant, sitting on its mountain and glaring down at the rest of the world, as if to say, ‘stay away!’ The rest of the world must’ve heard because it was the only building to call the mountainside its home. All the other, smaller, less-imposing buildings contented themselves with the forests far below, hidden beneath the canopy and wrapping around to the other side of the mountain, fleeing the behemoth’s stony gaze.
But the castle, its windows, its sentinels, and its tall, cynical tower were not the only observers of its strange, magical denizens. Above the gardens, shaded by all manner of dense foliage, was an outcrop of rock fondly named the Overlook. It was a place that begged not to be seen, to remain hidden; to stay a secret known only to the few lucky enough to find it and quiet enough to keep it. For what makes a secret a special, precious thing, is its silence.
It was here where two figures lounged on ragged blankets, stolen from the castle's soldiers at great risk to themselves. They were the secret’s only acolytes, and they devoted all their hearts and minds to keeping it that way. Nobody knew silence as well as they.
“What about that one?” asked the first.
“I call her, ‘Lady Boil.’”
“She doesn’t look that pimply to me. Far from it.”
“She gets angry a lot,” the second figure explained. “And when she does her face gets red enough to boil water. Then she starts slapping people.”
The first speaker shook her head. “I don’t know if I’d call her that then. Maybe something like, ‘Lady Doom’ instead, on account of how she hands out doom to everyone around her.”
“Don’t be jealous. It doesn’t suit you.”
The shadows across the grounds grew longer as the sun sank behind the mountain’s ridge. A kind breeze blew over the cliffside as the evening bells rang out, banishing the day’s heat. The flowers in the courtyard garden, normally vibrant enough to make any painter weep, had been robbed of their colors and replaced with a pervasive shade of gold. It was with great hope that the boy, the second of the two speakers, wished that he might walk among them one day.
Both he and his friend had their spyglasses to their faces, spying on the soldiers as they went about their business. The boy had collectively named them all Fablings, on account of the fantastical features each of them sported, with no two ever being exactly alike. They could have only been born from a story.
“I’ll call her what I want,” he said, brushing his ratty brown-blond hair back from his face. It had never felt the bristles of a comb, and only rarely the edge of a knife. “My name sounds much better than ‘lady doom.’”
His companion—the elder of the two by several years—sighed, and readjusted the blanket over her head. “I’m not arguing with you. Go ahead and be flowery.”
The iron helm of a knight peeked out from beneath her covering, made for a head two sizes bigger than hers and sweeping along her skull to hide all her hair and most of her cheeks. Where once the metal had been lavishly emblazoned with silver celestial embossments, now it was scratched and worn. Its visor slumped over her forehead in a perpetual fight to shade the green in her irises. But it always lost.
She moved her glass, training it on someone new. “What about that one by the flyers? What about him?”
The boy followed her path, moving his glass from the lady near the geisthound kennels to fix it on a short soldier with leaves growing out of his shirt. “The one with the bark-looking skin?”
“No, the one with half a wing.”
The boy moved his spyglass again to peer at a sorry-looking figure with a pair of lace wings on his back. One of them was broken. “Raindrop,” he said.
The corner of the girl’s mouth tightened in a practiced manner, waiting for an explanation that never came. Finally, she said, “Well? Why is he called that?”
“He always looks ready to fall to the ground, like a raindrop,” the boy said, following their target as he shuffled from one side of the courtyard to the other. He had a stack of papers in his arms, which he clutched tighter as he weaved between a squad of soldiers.
The girl laughed. “You’ve got a funny way of seeing people.”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you call him then?”
“Pariah. Or maybe Lost Cause.”
She added a bite to her words that was both nonchalant and unnecessary. It made the boy pause. “Lily—”
“No, he doesn’t look like a Lily. I would know. How about, ‘Forsaken?’ Cause it looks like the gods—oooo, that must’ve hurt.”
Lily laughed as a bigger, burlier figure with four arms shoved Raindrop, causing the latter to stumble, fall, and drop his papers in every direction. The breeze quickly picked up the sheets and carried them away, proving to be not as kind to Raindrop as it had been to his observers. “Or Fallen, cause, y’know, that must’ve hurt. But you were right, he was ready to fall,” she said.
The boy sighed, watching as Raindrop flicked his hands and caught the wind in his grip before it could slip away entirely, reeling the floating papers back within reach. He tried mimicking the gesture, waving his hand in the hopes he could summon the wind himself one day. “Why are you so mean today?”
“You think I’m mean? I’m like this every day.”
The boy put down his spyglass and turned a hazel eye on her. On his other he wore an eyepatch with a large scar poking out from beneath. The grisly wound traveled along his face from the top of his left brow and swooped down his cheek, exiting at the jawbone. Another scar, just barely visible at the hollow of his throat, peeked out from the collar of his shirt in the shape of a star exploding in all directions, seared into his skin. “Lily, what’s going on?”
“I told you,” Lily said absently, still looking through her spyglass. “Nothing.”
The boy watched her a moment longer. When she stayed quiet, he scowled. “Fine.”
Lily shook her head, keeping her eyes on the courtyard below. “Don’t get dramatic.”
“I tell you everything, Lily.”
“Sometimes I wish you wouldn’t,” she muttered.
The boy’s expression fell. At his sullen silence, Lily put her glass down and turned to him, revealing a cherubic face. “Having a tantrum?”
The boy crossed his arms. “You can try to hide it, but I know when you’re upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
“You’re never like this without a reason.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I just don’t like him.”
“You’ve never met him.”
“But you said it yourself, I’m a heartless little girl who doesn’t tell you everything.”
The boy huffed indignantly. “I never said that!”
“Yeah, well, it’s what you meant.”
He stared at her in disbelief for several breaths before grunting and standing up. He was done with this back-and-forth. Gods only knew how often they’d gone through it before.
“Sevi.” She sighed. “Stop.”
“I’m going to get food,” Sevi said, turning away.
Lily watched for a moment, allowing him to walk a distance away, before finally throwing up her hands. “Gods. Fine.”
Sevi stopped, turning to face her expectantly. His clothing—threadbare and torn—hung loosely on a lean frame that was hollowed out from years of hunger. Lily was in no better shape, but he could pride himself in the extra head of height he had on her. She, however, could boast of retaining her shadow. His own had been absent for quite some time.
“I hate it when you do this,” Lily grumbled. “I wasn’t going to tell you, just because I knew this would put you into one of your sulking moods, but hey, you went there yourself.” She crossed her arms.
Sevi scoffed. “You know, I don’t have—”
“I heard something coming from the mines last night.”
His protest died on his lips as quickly as it formed.
“They weren’t the kind of echoes you’d hear from Outside, or the kitchen,” Lily continued. “It sounded… not like an animal, but not like the normal cavern sounds. More like scratching, or hammering, as if something had struck a wall.”
A shiver washed through Sevi. He clutched a hand to his chest, touching the scar beneath his shirt. His lungs fluttered, and his heartbeat spiked.
Seeming to have expected this, Lily immediately raised her hands in a placating gesture. “See, I knew you would… ugh. Relax. I checked it out. We’re still sealed up tight. Whoever or whatever it was must’ve just gotten lost in the mines, if they ever existed at all. Maybe it was a large rock falling. Maybe it caused a cascade somewhere. Echoes are weird in the Cut.”
Sevi nodded and closed his eyes, forcing his breathing to settle. He didn’t say anything for a moment. When he opened them, it was just in time to catch Lily scooping up a pebble. She chucked it at his face with frightening accuracy, bouncing it off his nose.
“Get me something, too, while you’re at it.” She settled back down with her spyglass.
“Food. Get. Me. Food,” she said slowly, enunciating each word. “I’ve been lying on my belly all day. I could use something to eat.”
Sevi inhaled and let his breath go, bit by bit, until the tightness in his chest loosened. “Food. Right. Yeah.”
“Do you have your iron?”
Sevi patted at his clothing until he felt the familiar handle of a small, needly knife, wrapped with cloth in his pants pocket. “Yes.”
Sevi reached into another pocket and brought out a well-used signal whistle carved from bone. He blew two chirps into it.
Lily nodded in approval. “Will you be stopping by the garden?”
“Only if I can’t get enough food from the kitchens. I have enough effizinum to last another couple nights.”
“You’re all set, then. And it’s alright, Sev,” she added, throwing him a smile. “Relax yourself, or you might break.”
Sevi shot her another scowl. He grabbed some rope and a dirty pack, slinging them over his shoulder before stepping away. Leaving Lily to her surveyance, he set his mind to the daunting task of finding them a meal.