The Boy Who Would Be King

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There is a tower of spun glass at the seam of the world, where heaven joins earth. It perches atop the highest peak of a nameless mountain range, lashed by frozen winds, a spike of purest light when the sun shines. At night it glows, but softer, with its own spectral radiance, like a creature from the ocean depths. Within, behind a rosewood door, a princess sleeps eternally, dreamless, guarded by clanking automatons of black iron. She waits for a savior, for one who would be king. Harpers sing her sad tale, and young men take up swords and quest, but fruitlessly. Someday these men will settle to till the earth or shape metal, wed and raise children. They will be content, but at times their eyes will stray to the star-spattered darkness, and they will wonder what might have been.

The once-baker's boy pauses outside the rosewood door. He has ascended the great spiraling staircase for days now; he looks down and sees, far below, the tiny shattered hulks of the tower's guardians. They had rolled towards him when he first entered, hissing steam and gnashing metal teeth, but his sword Bright had passed through them as if they were flesh and blood, spilling gouts of oil that had slid along the glass floor and stained his boots black.

Inside, he knows, a princess sleeps, her perfect rosebud mouth slightly parted, awaiting the brush of a hero's lips. Her eyes will flutter open and see his face — a good face, not beautiful, perhaps, but strong, creased by the cares of his journey and rubbed raw by the winds that batter the tower. She will smile like the dawn breaking, and proclaim him king, and together they will travel to the castle that has lain empty since her father died so many centuries ago.

His heart beats quick as he raises his hand and lays it against the door. The hand, too, has been scarred by his long quest; his smallest finger ends just above the knuckle. It was given freely for passage across the Skirling Plains, a blood-price for protection against the winds that churn and scour endlessly. The gray priest had taken it with one quick twist of his quartz dagger. The once-baker's boy remembers the fierce pain, but he also remembers the sound the roiling elementals had made as they bellowed in frustration above him, and he is glad for making that bargain.

He opens the door. He sees the silver casket and the sleeping princess, veiled by a silken canopy, but before him, in the middle of the room, a creature of glass shards uncoils, shimmering in the sunlight pouring through the walls. The once-baker's boy draws Bright, which flashes with its own brilliance as it leaves its golden sheathe, and meets the creature as it lunges towards him. They dance: the creature's arms, long slabs of jagged glass, flicker and stab, but the once-baker's boy deflects its thrusts, slicing off fragments that spin away to tinkle against the floor. Within the creature's body, etched in every glass shard, he sees a tiny reflection of himself - and yes, the creature's movements seem familiar, as graceful as his own.

A feint fools the once-baker's boy, and he twists to avoid a slash that nearly disembowels him. Glass tears his tunic and pierces his leather cuirass. He stumbles away, clutching his side. The creature rushes to press it advantage, its red-streaked arm upraised, but now the once-baker's boy has fooled it, and he blocks its killing blow and drives Bright hilt-deep into its chest. A spider-web of cracks appears, and then the creature shatters. The sound is almost musical.

The once-baker's boy retreats outside the princess's chamber to examine the wound. The cut is not deep, but it is layered over an old injury, which has split open. He slices a strip of cloth from his tunic and binds it around his waist, wincing. He remembers other fingers gently probing the older wound, delicate fingers that had washed it clean, smeared poultices on it. The whey-haired girl had found him sprawled among the tangled roots of a great elm, deep within the Wilds, surrounded by the bodies of a robber prince and his brigands. She had taken him back to her cottage and nursed him to health, and come to love him. He still remembers her smell, lilacs and dried herbs, and the old sadness briefly rises.

He pushes it down. He must revel in the present, in this moment of final triumph. Glass crunches beneath his boots as he crosses the chamber and slips within the hanging silks. His breath catches, for she lies so still that at first glance she appears dead, or else carved from marble. Amber curls frame her milk-white face and tumble over the lacy fringe of her high-necked dress. The faintest blush stains her cheeks; her lips are a deep red. She is perfection, frozen.

His breath quickens as he leans closer. He finds that he is trembling. "My queen," he murmurs as he gently strokes her hair. How many times has he imagined this moment? He remembers the first, crouched at the feet of a wandering minstrel, listening rapt as the shivering notes and mournful voice revealed a world beyond the kitchens and pitted streets he knew so well. A world of mystery and magic and beauty, where a boy once beaten for singeing bread could grow up to become the greatest hero of his age.

No doubt some of his adventures have already been spun into song. There had been many bards trapped within Caer Calan during the black days of the siege, and they must have watched from the walls as he led the final sortie that shattered the Pashqua's silken horde. Or perhaps a follower of the Mirthful One has brought to verse the tale of how he had rescued the Laughing God's crystal eye from the sunken city of Kabal-Zann. And the half-men tribes of the Burning Lands have their own songs, after a sort, but any concerning him would be a lament for the death of their great warlord and prophet, whom the once-baker's boy had slain under a molten sun while pillars of steam vented from the cracked and broken earth.

Will he sit in his great hall and listen to bards recount his deeds? The once-baker's boy sees himself at the head of a long oaken table, in a hall so high and vaulted that the ceiling is lost in shadows. A burnished circlet of gold rests on his head, gleaming in the reflected light of the fireplace. Nobles garbed in a panoply of colors surround the table, laughing and jesting and toasting to him with silver goblets sloshing over with wine, and across from him, at the table's far end, sits his alabaster-faced wife, watching him with the slightest of smiles. His eyes are on his beautiful frozen queen, but his ears are only for the words of the bard strumming his lute by the fire, words that carry him back to a time when he was free, when the wonders of the world lay before him, waiting to be explored.

The scene dissolves in the brilliant daylight flooding the glass room. His lips are almost brushing the sleeping princess; he hesitates, pulls back. The once-baker's boy lightly touches her forehead, watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Then he turns and leaves the chamber, and sets his foot upon the first step of the great spiraling staircase.

As he descends he considers what he has done, knowing that it might have been some final sorcery that compelled him to abandon his quest. But he does not think so. Soon he will saddle his charger and ride south; he will dine on hard biscuits, and sleep under the stars, and dream, perhaps, of a whey-haired girl.

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