A New Year's Picnic

The Castle of Forests, the place Fingerkings hold their prisoners, is hardly a cheery setting for a picnic, and yet here we will find Illuyanka striding merrily along basket in hand. Serpents regard the figure suspiciously, but the woman pays them as much heed as you would a curious wild rabbit out in a field. She had come here before, and will again, always with the same purpose - to see an old friend, captive within innumerous coils.

&quotHolding up in there, old Dally?&quot

&quotI have told you countless times never to call me that.&quot

‘Dally’ - more properly named Dalianti - is a red bird-of-paradise, held indefinitely for various misdeeds, chief among them Theft and Mirror-Smuggling. He gave himself up to the serpents willingly, rewarded for his good behavior with a wooden perch. Coiled around its base was a carved snake, possessing gleaming jewelled eyes that appeared to watch you regardless of angle.

&quotThis place has withered you, my old feathered friend,&quot Illuyanka remarks, no less cheery than before. &quotBack in the Mirror-marches you’d say that with far less severity.&quot The bird mutters incomprehensibly. &quotSpeaking of which, I got you a present.&quot She puts a hand under the blanket covering the basket, rooting around.

&quotI require no - wait,&quot Dalianti tilts his head. &quotCherries?&quot

&quotRed as you are! Well, were. Will be?&quot Illuyanka shrugs, passing the fruit over to a much more amicable avian. &quotDon’t suppose the new year means much here, but I’ve brought along a little Broken Giant to bring it in regardless.&quot

Dalianti greedily consumes the cherries, not speaking for several minutes; Illuyanka sits down and sets up the glasses anyway, filling Dalianti’s cup near to the brim before serving herself. A snake slithers by, watching the pair intently. Illuyanka glances back, looks down at her cup of wine, and back to the snake. &quotDid you want some?&quot She angles her own glass invitingly.

The snake does not partake. Instead it wraps itself around her arm, like an especially fashionable bracelet. Finally, the bird speaks. &quotAre you not married? Why are you spending a holiday with me over…&quot Dalianti trails off, struggling to remember. &quot…your husband?&quot

&quotCharles is already asleep - never could stay up much past 10.&quot

&quotAh. Children? I recall you having those.&quot

&quotMy son is off overzee with his wife; my daughter just left on a voyage to the Surface.&quot Illuyanka sighs, &quotThey grow up so fast.&quot

&quotI would not know.&quot Dalianti remarks, almost bitterly.

Illuyanka taps her cheek, thoughtfully; the snake inspects her face. &quotAnything I can do to assist? It’d be my pleasure, really.&quot


&quotSo you claim. I know better than to press the matter with you.&quot Illuyanka shakes her head, frustrated. &quotThe last thing either of us need right now is a shouting match, not tonight.&quot

Dalianti tilts his head, eying her with a soft expression. After a long pause he speaks up again, quiet enough to force Illuyanka to press as close as she can to hear. &quotI do this to protect you. I cannot protect my kin, but I can you.&quot

&quotI appreciate the thought, but I’m a grown woman.&quot

&quotThe most aid you can provide me is your continuing company, no intrigue or obligation attached.&quot He looks away, either in thought or out of embarrassment. &quotIt is entirely singular.&quot

&quotHelping you wouldn’t change our friendship,&quot Illuyanka insists, spoken more softly than anything prior. &quotBut if it eases your mind I’ll stop asking.&quot

&quotThank you.&quot

&quotMoving onto more positive topics,&quot Illuyanka begins, taking a book out of her basket, &quotI’ve told you I had recently started up writing - weellll, I was just published!&quot

&quotAnd it wasn’t censored? I offer my sincere congratulations.&quot

She waggles her hand. &quotA couple parts, here and there. I still remember how they went; did you want me to read it to you?&quot

&quotI would be delighted.&quot

Illuyanka steps back through the mirror into her home, putting aside the basket; she glances at the grandfather clock, its face reading two in the morning. Charles was still heavily asleep, undisturbed by the viric display and birdsong. The forest within the mirror fades as she changes into a nightgown, gone entirely when she returns from putting the basket’s contents in their proper places.

As she settles in under the covers next to Charles she wonders about the rest of her family. Is Alex getting along nicely? When might she see Madison again? To say nothing of the rest of her kin over in the Chelonate; she has yet to write to them after all these years, first out out stubborn animosity and later out of awkwardness. She ponders how such a letter would go, drifting off to slumber before she feels the apologies adequate.

One last trail of thought passes through her mind before she departs the waking world: Perhaps it is better not to know.

edited by Sara Hysaro on 1/1/2018