In the summer of my twentieth year, through a series of trifling coincidences, certain of my writings gained the attention of Her Royal Highness the Princess Vasilisa of Windflower Island.
At the time, my literary career was in shambles. For the first few months after its publication, An Eschaton of Dragons, my debut work, sold at a satisfactory pace from the fiction stacks in a few of the great cities of Saîd. Then the book was discovered by members of an unsavory cult who proclaimed the work to be true, and further that I was their long-awaited prophet. The resulting unpleasantness ruined my reputation among the Serpent Coast publishers.
Since then my scribblings largely consisted of fatuous fairy tales, generally featuring strong-willed peasant girls who have adventures and discover themselves to be princesses. Standard fare, but in my tales rather than settling down to marry some prince or other and live happily ever after, the girls turn around and go gallivanting after adventure again. Princess Vasilisa, having lived a life remarkably like those of my protagonists, liked my stories very much. She summoned me to her court at Windflower Palace so that I might tell my tales in person.
I cannot describe my glee at being thus summoned. The island of Windflower is one of the famed Flying Islands that sail high over the world. Several fairy tales of mine were set in this far-flung conglomeration of lands great and small, but all my knowledge was book learning. I had never yet set sole to cloudstone.
As Vasilisa’s guest at Windflower I shared with her what remained of my poor stock of stories and imagined my visit with her would be swiftly concluded, a prospect I greeted with sad resignation. However, an incident involving an irate diplomat in her court left the princess in need of someone capable of attentively recording a lengthy dialogue, a skill I mastered long ago.
The princess was so pleased with my secretarial skill that she immediately created a role for me among her ministers; the position of Chronicler. Being new to the business of princessing, she hadn’t much of a household yet, so the post of Chronicler quickly grew to encompass the tasks of scribe, diarist, secretary, and herald.
I had been thus pleasantly engaged for several weeks when a curious incident disturbed the business of the palace. It was about twilight and the princess was in her throne room receiving the last of the day’s visitors, courtiers, messengers, and the like. Because the cloud island of Windflower travels over much of the Heartlands, Spice Lands, and the Wyvern Sea, it can always be counted upon that many strange folk can be found in the throne room. Tonight it was a deputation of gray dwarves from the Storm Pillars, a beautiful and heavily-jeweled black giant who called himself King of Ingolan, a trio of scarlet-scaled lizardmen from the Ajaranti Archipelago, and a griffon wizard from the plateaus of the Measureless Marches. I was seated at Vasilisa’s foot recording the proceedings. The King of Ingolan had just uttered some unfortunate personal comments regarding the hygiene of Ajaranti lizardmen, when suddenly two women of the princess’s feared Lorikeet Guard rushed into the room with urgent news.
A burglar had been apprehended in the palace, a strange character of the most unsavory sort, clearly a magician and consequently up to no good. He had been caught in the most unlikely place – the treasure vault. I say unlikely, because it is widely known that the vault of Windflower Palace is guarded by a rather large dragon named Matheia. Admittedly, Matheia is more courtly scholar than bloodthirsty reptile, but his sheer dragon-ness is incontestable.
How the intruder got into the palace, located the vault, and got past the dragon is of an order of improbability impinging on the miraculous. Months later, as I begin to understand our intruder’s purpose, I wonder if Matheia might have had his own reasons for permitting the burglary, despite his claims to the contrary.
Princess Vasilisa, too wise in her youth to be much excited by this, calmly bid the Lorikeet Guard to bring the burglar into her presence. The man – if such he may be called – was duly led forth, well-weighted with chains. A more outlandish figure I cannot conceive. To begin, he was only half-man – this from about the knee to the throat – the other half being that of a thoroughly disreputable looking bird with ragged blue feathers.
His feet were scaly and black, bird-toed and tipped with shining claws. His arms were human enough, but his hands were bird-like as well, representing a kind of compromise between his two natures. His head was entirely bird, from the iridescent blue feathers of his throat to his dull black beak, from his shining black eyes to the untidy crest of blue-black feathers standing out from his head. He had no wings that I could see, although he might have had them concealed under his garments.
His gaudily-colored clothing, such as it was, hung in tatters from his thin body, and hung all the more ill upon his frame thanks to his numerous pockets, all of which bulged as if stuffed with beans. And, as if the rest of his appearance were not astonishing enough, the creature had chosen to adorn himself with dozens of keys of every shape, size, and material, all hung from his ragged clothing by means of short lengths of cord haphazardly sewn into the cloth.
Behind him strode Layla Sibonakaliso, Captain of the Lorikeet Guard, with two of her warriors holding the chains that bound the strange trespasser. Captain Sibonakaliso, if I might be permitted to diverge, is rather like a cup of excessively strong coffee – first in her coloration, second in her galvanizing power, and third in her capacity to render even the strong nearly helpless with nervous exhaustion. She was quaking with fury, of which I was very glad not to be the cause.
“Kneel before the princess!” Captain Sibonakaliso cried, and the pitiable creature complied without giving any sign of being in awe of Vasilisa’s terrible retainer.
Vasilisa leaned forward in her throne. “What is your name?” she asked.
The bird-man cocked his head and gave her a cagey look. “You do not recall?” he asked.
Vasilisa frowned. “We have never met, sir.”
“Tell the princess your name,” said Captain Sibonakaliso, “or I shall chop off your head.” A scimitar was already conveniently in her hand; she raised it. Princess Vasilisa gave her head the tiniest shake and the Captain lowered her blade with a tinge of disappointment to her face.
“Virgil Blue,” said the bird-man, and although many of us later agreed that he had made the name up on the spot, the princess did not question him further on the matter.
“I am told you were apprehended attempting to break into the treasure vault,” said Princess Vasilisa.
“Untrue,” replied Virgil Blue. “I was merely testing whether any of my keys –” he jerked his shoulders, causing the odd assortment of keys dangling from his person to jingle “– would fit the lock.”
Vasilisa stifled a smile. “The distinction is a touch too subtle for me,” she said. “What did you hope to steal?”
“Not to steal,” the burglar said. “To take back what was taken from me.”
Now the Captain stepped forward and drew a pouch from her belt. She poured some of its contents into the palm of her hand to the show the princess. “This is what his pockets are stuffed with,” she said. “He had nothing else, save the keys.”
In her palm lay a half-dozen slender shards of sky-blue crystal, which shone with such sparkling purity it was evident they were of considerable worth.
“I don’t recall seeing anything like that in Matheia’s vault,” said Princess Vasilisa, although to tell the truth Matheia has at least one of everything imaginable in his vault, and at least two or three of everything un-imaginable.
“They are pieces of a larger stone, which was broken long ago,” said Blue. “Like the scattered keys, I have been reassembling them. I am nearly finished.”
“Indeed,” muttered Layla, and I swear I heard her scimitar utter a thirsty little whimper.
Blue ignored her. “However, the shattered gem and the scattered keys are not the only reason I have come. I have a greater purpose even than these.”
“And?” Vasilisa prompted.
Not that a bird can smirk, but this one did. “I have come to tell you a story about yourself.”
Vasilisa gazed at him in silence for a moment, and the court held its collective breath. It was well-known that Princess Vasilisa had not always been a princess, that she came from humble beginnings – and it was widely rumored that there was perhaps even more to her story than this.
“Perhaps,” said the princess at last, “you should tell your story, and when it’s finished I’ll decide whether Layla can chop off your head.” And she smiled sweetly, leaning back in her throne. The assembled courtiers laughed, although those guests who knew her well eyed each other uneasily. There is nearly always honey in Vasilisa’s words, but the wise man knows that the bees gather even from poison flowers.
The bird-man considered for a moment. “It is a rather long story. It may take more than a night to finish it. Perhaps, once you have heard the beginning, you will see fit to spare my life another night or two, that I may finish it.”
“I’ve heard this ruse before,” Captain Sibonakaliso growled.
“Patience, Layla,” said Vasilisa. “Remove his chains.”
At the Captain’s begrudging gesture the women of the Lorikeet Guard removed the chains binding the magician and brought him a seat, an act requiring some delicacy, given the nearness of their captain’s scimitar. When Blue was seated, he smoothed the feathers of his crest and folded his scaly legs one over the other.
“Where to start? Where to start?” he murmured. “There is so much you need to know, it is difficult to begin. Really I should start with Hokma and the Creation, the shattering of the Spheres and the Fall of the Qliphoth, or else with the rule of the Emerald Dynasty and the War of the Second Men, or perhaps with the Harrowing of the Witch Queen. But there is no time for all that. The Equinox of the Gods is upon us; we must move quickly. So many tales to tell. Let us begin with a dream . . .”
And now, seven hundred and one nights later, Virgil Blue’s tale continues . . .
Where this tale is going, where it will end, to what degree it shall involve the princess and myself, these are mysteries I cannot apprehend.
Will we even reach the end of this tale alive? I do not know.