When the otherworldly visitors arrived, I had my hands full with their unusual needs: no salt, everything baked or boiled until it was pure–what did that mean?–and only cream to drink. While the rest of the castle whispered about their motives and admired every nuance of their behavior, I rushed about the kitchen, commander of an army of cooks and cutlery. I was as curious as the next person, but I had a job to do.
After a welcome feast of venison curry and roast peacock, I slumped in my chair by the servant’s courtyard and wished I could make myself move. Sticky summer air pressed down on my body, settling into the same places the heat of cook fires had blasted earlier. I thought about stripping, but it was too much effort to reach the ties.
“Are you all right, Verel?” a raspy baritone asked. “I heard bloodcurdling screams from the direction of the kitchen.”
I sat up sharply, feeling hot in a third, not entirely unpleasant way. Delin stood in the stone archway, outlined by the moonlight–lean, perfectly proportioned, a face like rock. We had been friends for years, and when I first realized I was attracted to him, I had stared at that face, hoping to remind myself of our friendship in the familiarity of hazel eyes. Then I discovered I enjoyed staring too much.
“If you wish to know if there was blood in the red velvet cake,” I said, “the answer is yes. How else do you think I achieved that color?”
Delin laughed. “That will put me off my dinner.”
“Tell me about the feast,” I said.
He dropped on the well-trod dirt of the courtyard, absently fingering a hoof print. “The best of the known world–especially from the kitchen,” he added with a nod to me. “But all the guests were tense, trying to be better than their natures.”
“And…?” I prodded.
“Our visitors are beautiful, but not in the way of anything human,” he said. The excitement came off him in waves. I basked in it as I listened. “Their speech is–sometimes I cannot be sure it is words at all, and we choose to hear the familiar. The king tried to get them to agree to an alliance,” he continued. “But they said we were primitive and crude, with our iron weapons and our deafness to the natural world.”
“That was rude of them,” I said.
“No–they’re right.” Delin sighed. “But there’s hope. They want to take a few people with them, to live in their cities, learn their ways, and bring that wisdom back.” He fidgeted as if he could hardly hold the thought in. “I want to be one of them.”
My heart took a step off the castle parapet. “But people abducted in the past were gone for decades,” I said. “They left and returned only when their friends had become old and grey-” when I was old and grey, I wanted to shout, “-and the world they knew had crumbled to dust.”
“But young,” Delin countered. “And still with all the possibilities in the world to pursue. And the chance to see their home realm!”
“You’re needed here,” I said. I wasn’t sure who perturbed me more: Delin or these mysterious visitors. The question of the unknown and the imagined–cities of glass, places where everyone flew on gossamer wings; powers that could cure any sickness–was as heady as the king’s anniversary wine… but I was sobered by the idea of how much one would leave behind. Delin, apparently, had no such concerns.
“Needed?” He shook his head. “I’m the junior healer, and there are plenty of young faces waiting to replace me. Anyhow, it’s not assured. They want to pick from a group of candidates.” He slid forward, catching my hands. “I want you to come stand with me, Verel. For support, and maybe…” He hesitated.
It was foolish, but the little catch in his voice turned everything the other way around. He wanted me with him, and a journey into the unknown with a good friend–never mind more–was less daunting, even conceivable. As long as they let me cook, and who knew what arcane ingredients and obscure techniques the visitors might use for their food?
“Of course I will,” I said. Meanwhile, a portion of my brain wondered how long I could hold onto him before he noticed. I waited until the last to free my hands.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll feel better with someone I can trust at my side. Not so inclined to run away, maybe.” His smile was sheepish.
He was trying to make a joke, but he was anxious. “I will be there for you,” I said firmly. “Even if you run.”
He laughed. “With a show of confidence like that, Verel,” he said. “What could go wrong?”
The next morning, after a hectic breakfast, I hurried into the royal gardens. It was the pride of the kingdom, waterfalls of blossoming vines tumbling into lush beds. I hid myself behind a clump of rosebushes as the queen took the visitors on a tour. Clad in a velvet gown and with a silver circlet perched upon her brow, she carried herself with an air of majesty that paled next to the visitors.
Their skin was pale and soft, their forms–while human in shape–as thin and delicate as crystal. Their voices rang like bells and echoed inside my head. I wondered if they were speaking or somehow projecting their thoughts. They wore sleek white robes, but the whispers I heard among the servants indicated this was not the fashion of their kind. Perhaps they typically wore nothing.
The five visitors glided along in the queen’s wake. One seemed to be in charge; when he spoke or gestured, the others halted. I strained to overhear, but the only dialogue I caught was about the perfume of the flowers.
The smallest visitor turned her head in my direction. I jerked backwards into the bushes, cursing as my hand scraped on a thorn. I felt childish–but these beings seemed so ancient, how could one not be a child? To play at their feet seemed natural.
I withdrew, sucking at the line of blood on my hand. For as long as I could remember, we had seen signs of them: dancing lights on the horizon, intricate circles left in field and forest. Their only contact had been occasional abductions of our people. Now that they had shown themselves, there were more questions than answers–questions as basic as whether their kind had women and men. By appearance, they were neither, or perhaps I didn’t know what to look for.
As I approached the whiteblossom trellises at the garden gate, I saw Delin leaning against them. He huffed out a sigh. “Morning, Verel.”
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“Guard had a training accident this morning–patched up now. Messy, though.” He looked at me and smirked. “You’re bleeding. Your cooks are supposed to supply dye for the cake, not you.”
“I’ve got tastier blood.” He was too close; his slightly rapid breaths sent a shiver through me. To distract myself, I continued, “Are you sure you want to volunteer to go with the visitors? We know nothing about their intentions. They could mean to feast on us like cattle.”
“Seems a lot of trouble for a meal,” he said.
“No trouble too great,” I retorted.
Delin laughed. “I understand you: we have only their word they mean to help us. But there is no such thing as a one-way journey, Verel. Wherever they take us, we can return.”
I knew I should point out he was wrong, how many actions could not be undone, but I wanted to believe him. His face was luminous, inspired. I wobbled on the first step of my own one-way journey. A few fierce words would tell him how I felt.
The risks held me back. To lose a friend, to chance he would want nothing more to do with me and he would insist on making his journey alone… I couldn’t bear the thought.
I might not have a choice. Who was to say the visitors would want a cook, much less this one? We could be separated forever.
Would I tell him if those were the last words we would share? Would that make it easier or harder?
“Verel?” He tilted his head inquisitively. “You look concerned.”
“No salt,” I said. “I can’t work with bacon or most kinds of cured ham.”
“You could use me,” he offered. “I’m a ham.”
Did the man know what he was saying? I took an obscure comfort in the fact that if he had any clue of my feelings, he wouldn’t have bantered.
“But not cured,” I said. “Healers can’t cure themselves.” I paused. “If you change your mind about the visitors…”
“I won’t,” he said. “I was meant to do this. It’s destiny.”
The day of the visitors’ departure arrived more quickly than I had expected. Delin barged in on me wearing a frilly yellow court shirt, asked how he looked, and vanished before I could tell him the only possible description was bridal. I shook my head, changed into my second-best tunic–crimson with wide sleeves–and went out to catch him.
“They’ll choose you because they want to choose you–not because you look good,” I said.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Because they’re not fools,” I answered. “If we’ve figured that much out, enlightened beings from the otherworld certainly have.”
Delin laughed. “I’m sorry, Verel. I’m being a clodpate about this.”
I clapped his shoulder. “Courage.”
We descended into the courtyard, where thirty-some people gathered to await the selection. Some were at the height of their field, honored warriors and the finest master of horse-flesh in six kingdoms. The royal party stood on a raised dais. By the king’s expression, he was not pleased by the potential for losing these paragons, but to object would risk offending his guests and the unknown bounty they might bestow.
Everyone tried to speak quietly, but voices echoed off the stone as if an entire city crammed into the courtyard. Softer whispers still pierced like the cries of hunted birds.
Delin craned his neck towards the archway into the great hall, the rust-dappled main gate winched up out of sight. “Can you see them?”
“Stand still,” I said.
The clock in the center tower of the castle chimed the hour. The scarlet-clad herald stepped forward and announced the visitors. Until that moment, I had not noticed they had no names–or none that they shared.
The five figures glided into view, their too-large eyes tranquil and impenetrable. They halted a few paces from the front of the crowd. Delin gripped my arm.
The king stepped forward on the dais. “These are the ones who dream of accompanying you to your other world,” he said. “Each choice will serve you in good stead.”
The visitors separated and moved through the crowd, sometimes close enough to touch but never speaking–their glances among each other as fluid as water and concealing thought like ocean depths. I felt as if I were drowning under a tide I could not even perceive. What were they thinking? Were they judging us? A prickle of indignation surged through me. By what right?
Delin gasped. “Verel…”
The little one stood in front of us. She–she? I might as well assume–was shorter than I had realized; I found myself looking down as her eyes turned up. I could have lost myself in that gaze, but I was also aware of Delin: quick, shallow breaths, the tension of excitement, the beating of his heart. I was in time with my old friend, waiting.
She lowered her gaze and walked away.
I stayed silent, not wanting to break the moment. He did, finally, puffing out a breath. “What just happened?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I said.
The visitors converged in front of the crowd. Their leader spoke first, and it vibrated in my bones. “The older man on the end, with the crooked shoulder. You.”
Startled, then with a gap-toothed grin, the horse-master stepped forward. The king scowled, then schooled his expression.
Another visitor I arbitrarily thought of as female said, “The short young woman with the gold curls.”
One for each, then. Delin gripped my arm harder. I stepped on his foot. “Calm.”
The others chose in quick succession. Three stood there, then four.
The little one scanned the crowd–then looked again. She seemed to have trouble deciding.
The math dawned on me. If Delin went, he went alone. Part of me wanted to whirl and beg him not to accept if he was chosen–but what kind of friend would do that? Nor would a beloved try to keep him from going.
“The woman in the red tunic.”
The Left Fork
I froze, stunned – but I was the only female wearing red, and her gaze was direct. I turned to Delin in confusion.
He clasped my hands. “Go for both of us, Verel,” he said.
The chill of loss in his eyes burned away under complete trust. It was ridiculous, but in that fervent look I found all the encouragement I needed. His dreams sparked inside me, celestial fire.
The words rushed out. “I love you,” I said. Common sense asserted itself: why invite rejection when it was so close to not mattering, I could not expect anything from him when we would be worlds and centuries apart…
Delin leaned forward and brushed my lips in a quick kiss. It tasted of sunlight. Whispered breath. Medicinal herbs, tart, tangy and cutting through the senses.
Then over–too fast. “I’ll be here for you,” he said.
I wanted to protest, but could not find words. The horse-master pulled at my arm, and I found myself facing the alien visitors, massive dark eyes expectant. With their pale grey skin, spindly limbs and outsized heads, they should have been ugly, and yet the tranquility–and now, finally, the welcome–radiated from them like warmth, and it was impossible to notice anything else.
“We thank our hosts,” the leader said. “We shall take our leave of you now.”
“We hope this will be the start of a long and profitable friendship,” the king replied.
I pivoted and caught Delin’s eye in the crowd. The wistful expression that burst into a smile when our gazes met was fuel enough for a decade.
The visitors guided us to the clearing where they had left their sky-ship. It looked like nothing so much as two silver plates fused together, no sign of seam or rivet. As they approached, segments unfolded like opening hands to reveal a doorway.
“We travel as if we could catch light in its speed,” the little one explained. “You will not even feel the ship move.”
The gold-curled girl started to speak, then fidgeted silent. Our hosts ushered us inside. The interior of the ship was as featureless as its exterior, moonlight metal cocooning without reflection. The corridors were perfectly round, spiraling off in all directions like chambers of a honeycomb.
“Your quarters are here,” the leader said, leading us to an unadorned chamber. Bunks flowed out of the walls, pillowed with what looked like silk. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“Where do we-” the horse-master began, but the door had closed–in fact, vanished, and we could not find it again.
It was the first sign that something was wrong.
The bedding was not silk, rather a strange, viscous substance that shaped itself to the sleeper and gave an uncomfortable sense of drowning. The alcove on one side of the room, with only two sapphire-blue buttons to distinguish it, dispensed a bland but edible food substance. I itched to improve the taste, but there was no seasoning to hand. We had no way of counting time as it passed. I wondered anxiously how long it had been for Delin.
“Maybe they aren’t used to having visitors,” the gold-curled girl said.
We slept, and when we awoke, the horse-master was gone. Our frantic arguments were interrupted by his piercing scream.
I swallowed hard as the sound was followed by another–the pitch, intensity and emotion in his voice varying like a morbid symphony. If there were words, distance and agony destroyed them. It stopped, and the silence brought an absurd hope.
Then it started again.
The third silence was longer. I couldn’t look at the others–to meet their eyes would be to realize it was more than a nightmare. Terror clutched me.
The door irised open. Two of the visitors stood there. My fury died before it could reach my body. What way did we have to resist them?
“We require another person,” one said.
I stepped forward before I knew I was going to. “Take me,” I said.
The door melted into the wall. I thought about fighting back, running, but there was nowhere to go. I thought of Delin, grateful he would never know what was behind his dreams–even if he waited forever.
I tried to distract myself from the crushing dread as we wound through the unending, spiraling corridors, walls pale as bone. It felt as if we circled forever, should have ended up where we started. “Why the charade?” I wondered. “Why not just take what you want?”
“Why work to steal the dregs when your best will volunteer?” the other figure said. “Every kingdom in your world will be eager to participate.”
“What did you do to the horse master?” I asked.
“We studied his physical reactions to assorted environmental stresses,” the first said. “Unfortunately, his system gave out.”
The fear vised around me, driving out thought. “Will you do the same to me?”
“Oh, no,” the first said. “Your tests will relate to mental and psychological stress. We’re fascinated to see how much your kind can handle.”
Whatever my strengths, I knew I wouldn’t make our destination. As I walked, it seemed I could feel the vastness of night beyond the ship, traveling through starlight without end.
The Right Fork
I glanced down the line and saw that, though three other men wore red as I did, there was only one woman, a wispy seamstress–and I couldn’t be mistaken for female.
The seamstress beamed as she stepped forward. I concentrated on not feeling relieved. I didn’t want Delin to sense it. The familiar kitchens for me, and I would keep my friend –
“And the tall man with the dark curls,” the little visitor finished.
I stared. Could she do that? Weren’t they each choosing one? But if that was the rule, the leader indulged her–maybe his daughter?–for there was no protest.
I thought Delin would leap out of his skin for happiness. He whirled, grabbing me in an exuberant bear-hug. “Wish me luck, Verel,” he said.
Now or never, I realized. Say what I had to say or never have a chance, keep it bottled up like sour poison until it faded–if it ever faded. Twice, I tried to speak.
“Good luck,” I said.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “And you’ll be the first person to hear about it.” Like a dream, he was out of my grasp.
“I’ll be here for you,” I muttered, knowing he couldn’t hear me. Coward. Fool. I branded myself and didn’t even feel it burn.
The fairy visitors waited expectantly as their chosen joined them. With their shining starlight skin, their ethereal frames and long tresses, they should have seemed like dolls, not people, yet a power radiated from them that was impossible to deny.
Delin turned on his heel and flashed me a final grin. I returned it, feeling the strain about my lips, and saw his expression flicker uncertainly.
The visitors departed, taking their guests to the door in the mound that led through the veil. On the other side, a world I could only imagine–and might learn about someday, as an old man, hopefully with something to show for my years.
But I would never again have a heart.
I fled to the kitchen and poured my pain into a recipe. When I emerged from my personal ruin, I had a new dessert, and it could only have one name: Fairies’ Cake.
Whether due to inspiration or something intangible, Fairies’ Cake was good to the point of being addictive. People came from all directions for a slice–or a second. With success came some measure of fame: recognition, wealth, women… none of whom truly made an impression on me. In their very softness, I saw Delin and my own cowardice.
Whenever the will-o-wisps lights appeared on the horizon, I went out faithfully to watch them, waiting for the doorway to open. I wondered what marvels Delin had discovered in the otherworld and what wisdom he had gained, and I yearned for both in equal measure.
As years became decades, I had to face the thought he might have become so enlightened–like the visitors themselves–that he no longer wished to come home.
I hoped–I still hope–for his return, but mostly now I think of him as a man of their world, traveling through starlight without end.