I watch myself in the gilded mirror as my blood hardens. It is an ache like sore muscles, like hard nausea, streaming slowly from my heart.
I cannot move, but only stare. My eyes remain the same for so long, tiny capillaries changing from pink to scarlet and then fading into a golden glow.
That is when I stop breathing. My lungs cannot move in the hard cage of blood and bone. Pain cracks sharp and fast over my skin – my skin splits like the bottom of a desert-dry riverbed. But there is no blood flow, only layers of flesh becoming hard glass and wood.
“Is it worth it?” the magician asks, slipping behind me so I can see his face in the mirror. He smiles over my shoulder.
Five nights ago Dominic Apollonius the Third slipped on the highly polished ballroom floor at St. Alphonse See’s birthday celebration. No doubt the moment of quick panic that he’d fall and smash his nose made my reaching out my hand to steady his elbow seem like a hand from heaven. The chandeliers sparkled in his pretty eyes as he gazed into my face. “Lady,” he bowed, sliding his hand into mine and raising it to his lips.
I shivered, despite humid air in the packed ballroom and my many layers of superfluous taffeta. In his eyes was a fever and it was directed all at me.
We danced, because one does not refuse Dominic Apollonius the Third, and I nodded and smiled and giggled as I had done all my life. His words flowed over me and his lips quirked with his standard charm. He is from a long line of Zephyrs, and dancing with him ought to make me light on my feet. His voice should sooth me, seduce me, tease at the hairs on the back of my neck. But they say my great-grandmother had Cassandric blood, so the subtle tricks of the air mages rarely affect me.
At the end of eight dances, and unheard of number, he guided me to the gardens and behind a statue of his patron god kissed my lips and told me he would speak to my father.
I wish to tell the magician yes, yes it is worth it to never wed a man I do not love, a man who gripped my arm so tightly it bruised all because I demurred from his advances.
But I cannot speak. My jaw is locked closed and I feel my tongue closing up my throat. The magician runs a long-fingered hand down my arm and raises it up so that I am reaching toward the skylight.
“Yes,” said the woman with a butterfly-heart and cold pink stones where her eyes should have been. “Yes, my lord can help you.”
“I have money.” Judging by the shabby office with its damp windowsills and cluttered shelves, I thought that would be enough. I stood with my arms pressed to my sides, clutching my purse and trying not to show her how distraught I was that the hem of my gown was picking up dust from the floor.
She smiled. I could see the beauty in her features, made terrible by her missing eyes. When she moved to lead me out of the office, her thin red gown shuffled around her legs like rags. I followed her up a winding stair, around and around, until my knees were weak and my curls stuck to my cheeks. She pushed open a heavy door wrapped in iron and averted her eyes from the bright light inside. “Sir,” she called. “There is commission come for you.”
The disembodied voice replied, “My thanks, Melea.”
The woman gestured for me to pass her, keeping her face turned away from the glory of the room as if it pained her. I thanked her quietly, and strode in. The last I saw as she shut the door was a long, wicked smile part over her sharp teeth.
I rise, of no volition of my own, onto my toes, stretching up and up toward the sunlight streaming liquid-soft through the stained glass of the skylight. As if the sun will save me. My bones shatter and I am trapped in myself, unable to scream or bend. Extra limbs break off and grow, my fingers multiply and the growing is fire that turns to light. I am taller now, too tall to see myself in the mirror. I sense the magician stepping back and craning to see what he has made.
His desk sat in the center of a room too large to logically fit into the tower. Along the walls were oddities I’d never imagined: men made of glass playing a game of chess, a life-sized clockwork horse, candles lit by purple flames, a waterfall dropping into nothing but smoke, ghostly-birds darting around the ceiling and singing with violin voices. And the ceiling itself! I craned my neck and for moments forgot my fears. A vast dome of stained-glass so delicately fixed it was like an oil painting depicted an ancient bucolic scene of magic. Each corner housed one of the elements: a Zephyr with his sylphs and rain and gusting winds, a Niobe with her bear, with earth parting for her footsteps, a Nymph in the center of a pond, skimming fishes around her fingers, and a Prometheus alive with flame. In the center of all was the blue sun symbol of a Zeus, who could call on all the magics.
And directly below it the magician known in the Upper Isle only as Titan leaned back in his chair and watched me.
I hugged my purse to my stomach, to the hard lines of steel sown into my corset.
For a famous magician, Titan was surprisingly slight and not at all frightening. His pale hair hung loose over shoulders clothed in a homely blue jacket. Although rumors claim he has lived here in the Green City for centuries, he looked barely older than me. As he waits, he toys with a small contraption of metal poles and copper wire. But his attention is on me.
Finally, I whispered, “I need your help.”
Swooping to his feet, Titan came to me. His jacket billowed slightly around his thighs and he stopped a mere foot away. Close, I realized his dark eyes were the green of old dead things, and tiny wrinkles crawled away from the corners. “What can I do for you?” His voice was low and soothing, like a lullaby.
He led me to a divan of spotted orange fur and gave me a glass of water collected from the waterfall. It tasted like moonlight.
And I told him that my father threatened to have me serving in the stables of a nunnery if I refused Dominic Apollonius the Third, that it was an honor and my duty, that my children would number among the finest Zephyrs in all the Isle. I told him that I needed something to make Dominic stop loving me. And I told him that I know he helped Margolee Ephera escape the Isle when her mother went mad. It is how I thought to come here.
“I cannot change love, Lady Daphne,” Titan said with a quiet shake of his head. “But I can remove you from his pleasure.”
“Thank you,” I gasped. “I have money, here.” I thrust my purse at him.
“I am a collector.” Titan glances around at the strange contraptions. The clockwork horse raised its head and tapped a silver hoof on the floor. When the magician looked back at me, he smiled. “Come here. I will make you uninteresting to him.”
I hesitated. “Will I be ugly?”
“No.” He walked across to an empty spot beside a full-sized gilded mirror, then held out his hand. A long, thin wand in black lacquer appeared there.
“What will you do to me?” My heart thumped in my chest. I stepped forward, my slippers whispering on the floor. Suddenly, I needed to know how he helped Margolee escape.
Titan spread his hands. “I will make you more perfect than he is.”
It surprised a laugh out of me. “You’ve met him, have you?”
“I have had that displeasure, indeed. Come.”
Standing before the mirror, I watched as he tapped his wand to the crown of my head, then drew it up and pointed toward the skylight. He whispered, “There is little in this world so perfect as the mountain laurel, you know.”
I did not know.
I do not see with eyes, but with every petal of the white flowers weighing down my twisting branches. I am a tree of light and glass, emerald leaves stretching for the sunlight. It warms me, and slowly, slowly, I spread out. My roots crack through the floor and spill below into the layers of stone and wood of the tower. A man touches my slender trunk. His fingers are cool and I sigh into them.*This week our prompt comes from Anne Marie, and was Bernini's statue of Apollo and Daphne.