"If I've told you once, child, I've told you a hundred times... a thousand times... more than that." Gef, his face still hot from the "calling-down" of the guard chief, knew that his voice was rasping with irritation, but tried his best to sound magelike and dignified. "One does not play fetch with the werewolves."
"Why?" The small hand enfolded in his tugged, a mild attempt to break free of his grasp as the girl-child trotted at his side, taking two steps for each of her long-shanked tutor's one. Jenna made a small noise of frustration, like an irritated dove, then ceased to struggle. "Why?" she asked again. "They like it."
Gef sighed, slowing his pace. Jenna was a sensitive child... a bright child... a child with a keen sense of logic, for all she was seven years old. How to explain, in words the child would accept, that the captain of the King's werewolf guards considered it an unforgivable breach of discipline when his barracks were routinely invaded by a mere reed of a girl, who would turn honey-sweet innocent eyes on his troops and invariably cajole one to shift into wolf form so that she might toss a red rubber ball for him to retrieve? Or to note, like some spinster lady of the court, that it was hardly proper for a young princess to reduce a battle-hardened soldier to wriggling jelly simply by rubbing his tummy?
Never mind that Jenna was no princess, for all she lived among the royal family. Never mind that the werewolf captain himself was so petrified of the girl that he smiled most benignly at her, but vented his every frustration on her tutor.
Never mind that I don't stand a chance in the Underworld of convincing her, and next week we'll be right back in this very same conversation...
"They like it." Jenna said again, her tone one of the sweetest logic. "And I like it. So?"
"So it simply isn't done!" And Gef knew that he had lost yet again, for all he was an eighth-year mage and a grown man. He stopped in his striding, catching his young charge by the shoulders and boosting her to sit on the bluestone garden wall. "Jenna. Sweeting. You wouldn't accost a vampire midday and ask him to change into a bat just so you could go kite flying, now, would you?"
Jenna pursed her pretty lips into a pout, turning a disapproving eye on her tutor. "No..." she said, almost defiantly.
"Vampires sleep all day, silly! And nobody goes kite flying at night. That's stupid." With that, the imp hopped down off the wall, turned a neat somersault in the grass, then busied herself collecting wayside flowers.
Gef sank to the wall-seat himself and watched her, well-accustomed by now to the roiling feelings of confusion, resignation, and affection that always accompanied these conversations. At least Jenna was out of the captain's hair... well, fur... for now. And the Magus himself, senior among the kingdom's mages, had commended him on his handling of the girl, so things couldn't be entirely desperate.
Finished with her daisy-picking, Jenna flounced up in a riot of green and white silks and climbed sweetly into his lap. Arranging herself, she began to thread the flowers into the corded hem of his cloak, humming a tune slightly off-key. Gef sighed, allowing affection to swim to the forefront of his thoughts, and stroked Jenna's cinnamon-colored hair.
"So what will we learn today, Gef?" Her voice was, as always, a small bird's song, though her attention never strayed from her task of redecorating his cloak, and the incident with the werewolves was already behind her.
"Well, now... I thought we might go down to the golem's cave and learn a bit of earth-magic."
Instantly the daisies were forgotten, and Jenna knelt in his lap imploringly. "Oh, no, please, Gef... not the golems again!" She made a face, small pink tongue protruding from wrinkled lips. "I don't like them. They're all icky and yucky and they SMELL, peeyeuw!" Dainty fingers pinched her nose to illustrate the point.
Gef had to cover his mouth discreetly to prevent his own laughter. In truth, he wasn't any fonder of visiting the moist clay-deposit hollows inhabited by the golems than Jenna was, where the air was thick with the scents of moisture and earthworms and things underground in dry or rainy weather. But the king had said the girl must be taught, and the Magus had expressly commanded it, so it was off to the golems they trudged at set intervals.
But today, the sky was blue and the cloud-shadows crossed the gardens like dragons kiting on an updraft. Who, in their right mind, would willingly visit the golems on such a day - particularly as warm, dry weather always made the wretched creatures cranky?
"Oh, very well." And Gef allowed himself a smile as Jenna squealed with delight. "We'll visit the dryads, perhaps, out in the birch grove... there's earth-magic there, too. But first..."
"Ohhhh, no, no, no..." But this time the protest was giggled as Jenna slipped off his lap, tugging at his cloak for him to follow.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes." Gef stayed where he was, eyes dancing but raising an admonitory finger. "You know what I'm about to say, sweeting. Before we give up on the poor golems for today..."
"I know, I know." One delicate foot twisted the grass with its toe. "I gotta say the words."
"That's right. Nice and clear, so Gef can hear. Let's have them, then."
"No." Her coquettish grin would have suited one of the castle's many blink-cats, who were known to be here and there and gone again in a wink.
"Uh-uh." The girl was all mischief now. If only he could have allowed this amiable refusal, Gef would have... but the statement of belief was no matter of choice. Not for Jenna.
"Jenna! Let's have it, before I get angry. I believe..." he prompted, foot tapping.
"Ohhhh, fine. I believe..." She hesitated again, drawing the moment out, testing him. Gef's face remained impassive.
"In golems." she acceded, then sighed. "I believe in golems. There. Now can we go?" She resumed her tugging, and this time, with a chuckle, Gef allowed himself to be led. As soon as it was clear that he would follow, his charge scampered on ahead, fairly dancing the way, occasionally glancing back to him with an unfettered smile.
Gef sighed. If only this were a standard tutoring, he would not be bound to confirm her belief in every last magical thing. If only Jenna were a normal child... royal or peasant, gifted with magic. But she was not, and every flash of her eyes told him that, reminded him, lest he forget.
Jenna was not any normal child. Jenna was - and the word still sent chills through him, for all he loved the pixie - a Sleeper. And he could not afford the least laxness in his duty.
She had brown eyes, after all... eyes brown as loam, as the earth to which the Sleepers were bound. Magicless, rooted to the barest of concrete realities, it was said that Sleepers wandered through lives as though they dreamed, perpetually wide-eyed as children at the simplest of everyday sights: a salamander burning off the fallow fields, a gryphon in flight. Such wonder evoked, in those who witnessed it, thoughts both tender and terrified... and word was sent to the King, and in days or weeks the man with the green silk mask came riding, mounted on a pacing fog-gray steed, with a huge black hound cantering at his side.
Folk consoled themselves by saying that, as the Sleeper believed that in waking they dreamed, they suffered not at all when the King's executioner appeared at their door, and took them, all trusting, into the surrounding Wildlands, never to return. Few had witnessed that act most terrible, but every village child knew from their nurses that naughty children's eyes turned Sleeper-brown... and then would come the man with the silver sword and silken mask, tap-tapping on the kitchen door.
The King's Man would cut out a child's heart and bring it to the king in an ivory box, some said... others, that his hound would devour you, boots to bones. Still others claimed he was of the Faerie race, older than the hills his folk dwelled beneath, and that the Sleeper was given over to the Faerie queen to be bound and chained in Evermore Night, where he slept in a night without end, and could do no harm to mortal folk. Gef had spent much of his boyhood anxiously examining his own eyes in the looking-glass, watching for telltale darkening of the iris.
It had to be that way... or, it had always been that way. It was a simple fact that for every state of life or nature there existed a two-halved balance: good and evil, life and death, day and night, sleep and wakefulness. One could not exist without the other, and to each came its turn. It was inevitable that the Sleeper would awake... through some confrontation or fright, more often than not... and then the entire kingdom paid the price.
Gef's fingers still trembled as he recalled the trek every first year mage was required to make, out beyond the frozen wastes of the north to the Ginungagap... a howling void beyond a frail protective shield of magic, nothingness in its most terrifying form, where the Northland Kingdoms had once been. When a Sleeper awoke, all that had been was dismissed as a dream... and faded into that non-reality where dead dreams were sent.
So unsettling was the thought, even to a trained mage, that it was no wonder that the common folk consoled themselves with the thought that the King's executioner would ride out to protect his lord's people at the first whisper of a Sleeper, and the kingdom would prosper and thrive. It had always been so, and the penalty of death lay upon any who sheltered such a wide-eyed and innocent horror.
Perhaps the penalty of death held no terror for Jenna's young mother, whose body was ravaged by fever and weakness from the time of the child's birth. Perhaps having brought her daughter into the world at such a cost set in stone her resolve that the girl would not die. Whatever the reason, when the King's Executioner came for the young Sleeper, summoned by her dutiful father, the woman had gone to her knees, pleading for mercy.
It was said that the King's Executioner was a man apart... necessarily without pity or remorse, bound to his duty by blood and oaths. Legend had it that he was immortal and eternal, and when he rode out into the world beyond the castle walls, he left behind him his heart in a silver box, so that he might not be swayed by the emotions which so troubled lesser men. Perhaps it was because there had been no Sleepers among the folk for generations, some thought, that the Executioner had become careless. Perhaps it was the desperation in the woman's eyes, or the fact that she wept tears of blood before the stone-still figure on horseback. It was certain that, when the silent rider had entered the house and carried the child away, that the mother had no way of knowing that her pleas had not fallen on deaf ears.
But the Executioner was neither immortal, nor heartless, nor yet careless or deaf. The king, known to be a just monarch and a man possessed of intense curiosity and an active intelligence, had heard the mother's plea, and being a father himself, had vowed to test the justice of the centuries-old dictate. The Sleeper Jenna, at that time a bright-eyed child just past her fifth birthday, was brought to the castle wrapped in the bright cloak of her savior, freckled face tear-stained, having cried herself to sleep, and soon afterward took up residence on castle grounds as one of the King's own children.
A Sleeper, the King had theorized, was a danger only in waking, and then only because the waking world was disavowed, disbelieved. If a Sleeper could be made to believe in her magic-borne surroundings intensely, feeling them as one with her heart and soul and mind, to view them with the pride and possession of a royal family, then waking could pose no real threat... for who would voluntarily wake from such a lovely dream? And, if all this effort came to naught, where would the kingdom be more aptly shielded from the disruption of a waking Sleeper than from the palace, where the most powerful forces of magic could converge to prevent a catastrophe?
And that, thought Gef, was where his part in the tale began. It was the King's wish - his express command - that Jenna be tutored... taught up in the workings of all magic, white and black and green. Without magic of her own, she would have no means to act on those teachings... but ignorance, for a child of such power, was hardly an option. Ignorance might lead to disbelief. And so a tutor had been appointed. The king himself had come to the college of mages, and interviewed the best and brightest of the students and instructors there - from the Magus, headmaster of the college, to the first year students, most of them no more than ten years old.
And me, I've never been best and brightest of anything, and I certainly didn't want to be this time, but here I am, nonetheless. Maybe it was the fact that he had seven younger sisters of his own. Maybe it was that his own parents had been schoolteachers. Maybe it was the Magus's favor, for the old man looked on him as a son. Maybe it was little purple dragons whispering in His Majesty's ears at night.
For whatever reason - and despite his initial fears - Gef had been brought up to the castle grounds, informed of his duties, and set on his path. And, despite everything he'd ever been taught, everything he believed in the deepest hollows of his bones, he'd set his shoulder to the task and taken the Sleeper-girl under his tutelage.
The plan had worked marvelously, Gef had to admit... with the exception of the unicorns. It was bad enough that the high-strung creatures would not allow the child to ride them... even the castle unicorns, raised and trained up in the service of the young princesses, snorted and pawed and retreated whenever she came within their senses. But Jenna, like most young girls, was enamored of the beasts, and insisted repeatedly upon trying to "make nice." Gef lived in dread of the day that Jenna, her patience exhausted, wished the silly things into oblivion.
She was, in all truth, a rapt pupil in virtually every magical subject, and insatiably curious. If only she'd been magic-gifted, she'd have certainly leaped to the top of any mage class. Even without magic, without the ability to put into practice one iota of what he imparted to her, Jenna was remarkably tractable in her lessons. Except, of course, for the necessary statement of belief.
"Gef, why do I have to say the words?" As though she could pick his thoughts as easily as she snatched wildflowers from their stalks, Jenna turned her brown eyes back to him.
"It's very important you do. You know that." Gef replied equably. It was not the first time she'd asked... and would certainly not be the last. One day, as the Magus and the king had said, she would be old enough to understand... old enough to be told what she was, and what she'd escaped. Until then, Gef hoped that her child's trust in him would carry her through.
"But why?" she pressed, dropping back to tug on his hand. "Gef, why? You never tell me. And I want to know."
"Well..." Gef drawled, trying to distract the question by playing the clown. "Maybe I just like to hear your pretty voice. Maybe I want to hear it all the time, as much as I can. Maybe..." Well, no harm in tempering things with truth. He dropped his voice into a storyteller's whisper. "Maybe if you don't, the world will go POOF and just fade away... just because you didn't believe!" And he winked at her broadly. Jenna made a face at him, but squeezed his hand as she skipped.
"Oh, Gef, you're fooling me!"
"Am I?" He was all innocence. "Well, just maybe."
"You're always fooling me, Gef." Jenna giggled. "And someday, someday I'm just going to say, I don't believe in you - so there!"
For a fractured second, Gef felt the world drop out from beneath him.
"Don't say that!" It was barely a gasp, purely horrified at the closeness of the call. Gef felt his knees buckle, the blood drain from his face, and his hands instinctively patting his torso. Still there. He let out a quavering breath, then turned the child to face him, going down on one knee, hands on her shoulders. "Jenna... I want you to listen to me. Listen to Gef, now. It's very important. You must never, ever say that, Jenna. Do you understand?"
"A-course I understand." And the girl's hands went to her hips, face mirroring her irritation at the interrupted walk. "I'm not a BABY, Gef. I was just JOKING with you. You keep saying, believe, so I say, DON'T believe... a joke, see?"
"Dragonscales, girl, that's not something to joke about!" Especially when it's me! His tone was fiercer than he'd intended... and he hadn't meant to shake the child as he'd said it. Gef could see in her face that Jenna's consternation had shifted into near-fright, and her brown eyes were brimming with tears at the unexpected rebuke. He released her, closing his eyes and lowering his chin, fighting to keep a calm exterior. "I'm sorry, sweeting. It's just very, very important that..."
"I know!" And this time, the tone was petulant, though touched with repentance. "It's very, very important that I believe... and you tell me, and tell me, and tell me, and don't I, Gef? Don't I always mind you? And don't I always say, yes-I-believe, even when you show me sillies and make-believe-magic things? Don't I, Gef?"
"'Make-believe-magic things?’" Gef's mind reeled, and he rocked back on his heels, jaw opening and closing. Suddenly, it seemed very hard to breath. "You mean... you say you believe... but you... don't?"
The girl's face shifted from repentant anxiety to pure mischief. She nodded vigorously. "An' I fooled you, didn't I, Gef? You say, do you believe... and I say yes-I-believe, but I keep my fingers crossed like this..." And she showed him, fingers knotted together on both hands. "So's what I say doesn't count. It's a JOKE... see?"
Was this how the ancients felt, Gef wondered, when they had suddenly discovered that the magic they'd held to be fancy for so long was, in fact, the driving force of their world? In a breath, a handful of heartbeats, his entire existence had shifted... because, if he was to believe what the girl was saying... gods and deities, there should have been chaos long, long before this. Chaos or... nothingness.
"A joke." he repeated dully. His charge giggled at his expression, which he expected would be quite funny to a child of such spirit and wit. Her joke had worked. She'd fooled him.
He tried to pull up the last shreds of his dignity, and managed a wan smile. If nothing had happened yet, he reasoned, and this had been going on for some time, well, there was little reason to expect the world to fall apart at this very moment simply because the farce had been revealed.
"Yes, yes, of course. And you did fool me, you clever girl. But... Jenna, sweeting... tell me something. Don't you know about... Sleepers?"
At the sound of that word, the girl-child regarded him through a still, silent moment filled with the utmost seriousness, then nodded most solemnly. Then, spritelike, she lost her solemnity and giggled, dancing a quick circle about him before hop-stopping to a halt at his knees.
"Silly Gef!" Jenna's brown eyes crinkled around the edges, shining like warm honey syrup, and she flung her arms around her tutor in an impulsive bear-cub hug. "Scaredy-mage, you can't scare me like that. Joking's not naughty, and besides... Didn't your mummy ever tell you that there's no such thing as Sleepers?"