|Written by Kathryn Yelinek / Artwork by Marge Simon
When, late in their lives, King Gregar and Queen Celene of Suthardy produced an heir, the
entire kingdom rejoiced. On Princess Elin's naming day, Gregar and Celene received dignitaries
amid fountains and honeysuckle in the queen’s garden. If the fountains flowed higher and the
honeysuckle smelled sweeter, well, that was to be expected. Gregar had invited every known
magician and sorceress, and they did love to impress. Then a man dressed all in red stepped to
the front of the receiving line.
Gregar, joking with an advisor, fell silent. To his right, Celene shuddered. Even the chattering
swifts overhead seemed to flee.
“Cousin Xander,” Gregar said finally, “we did not expect you.” While he spoke, he tightened his
arms around Elin and stepped between Celene and his cousin. “Please accept our condolences
on the death of your wife and daughter.”
“Why?” Xander, the infamous Red Duke, asked. "You cared nothing for them. You care only for
your new joy. But no longer.” He raised both scarlet arms. “I give your living daughter the gift
of three smiles. Three times may she smile. Then she will fall down dead."
He sliced the air with both hands. As the curse took hold, a crack like lightning filled the
Celene gasped. Gregar roared, and his guards leaped forward, but Xander vanished.
"Where’d he go?" Gregar demanded. "Where’d my infernal cousin go?"
At the base of the grand fountain, magicians erupted in outrage and threw one tracking sigil
after another in the air. Amid topiaries, royal hounds scrambled to their feet and nosed the
ground, but even the urgings of the kennel master and his towheaded son couldn’t make them
“Check his rooms,” Gregar snapped. “And his estate. Check any blasted place he might be.”
Celene touched his elbow. He whipped around.
"Calm yourself," she said, low, as she had so many times before. "You're scaring the baby."
Elin squirmed in his arms. He took a deep breath but pulled her closer when Celene made to
take her from him. Elin blinked, nuzzling against his doublet. Her mouth crooked into a smile.
A crack sounded.
Gregar paled. "Oh, no," Celene whispered.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the purple receiving carpet to the magicians. “Who
can break this spell?”
One by one they drew their hands into their sleeves and avoided his eyes. “Too powerful,” they
murmured. “Too deeply rooted.”
Finally they shoved one of their own in front of him. She wore the white cloak of a novice and
smelled of curdled milk.
"You can break this spell?"
She quivered. "No, Y-Your Majesty. I only just donned me cloak. It’s just…I haven’t given a
Gregar rounded on Ro, his chief magician. Elin’s gifts, everything from a sunny disposition to
the ability to remember faces, seemed useless now. "She can gift away curses?"
“No, sire,” Ro said, “only the Red Duke’s death will break this curse.” He squeezed the novice’s
thin shoulder. “Her gift, though, can buy us time.”
Celene’s breath warmed Gregar’s ear. "Let her try."
He shifted Elin so her face showed clearly. "Well?"
The novice bit her lip. She blinked and took a deep breath. Leaning forward, she tapped the
princess's right temple. "I give you pain, constant pain. May it swallow your smiles as long as
the Red Duke lives."
~ * ~
Two months past her eighteenth birthday, Princess Elin of Suthardy climbed the marble steps
to the grand fountain’s reflecting pool. Five thousand courtiers, burghers, and peasants flanked
the pool, silent in their darkest mourning clothes. The evening was hot, the air oppressive with
incense. She wanted only to retreat to the cool dimness of her bedroom. But songs had been
sung, her father’s eulogy delivered, and now she must release the slips of paper on which
thousands had written wishes for the repose of her mother’s soul.
With each step, pain flayed the bottom of her feet.
Her father, waiting at the top, frowned. “How bad?” he mouthed. The lines in his haggard face
“Not bad,” she lied. She refused to crumble onto the marble. If her father could spit in Xander’s
face by keeping her mother’s garden open, she could kick him in the ribs by seeing her mother
to her rest.
She scaled the final step and stood swaying, savoring this small victory.
Her father slid beside her, his left arm raised to offer support. “You’re all right?”
She nodded and squeezed the leather pouch sewn into a fold of her skirts. Squeezing it made
the pain almost bearable. That she was exhausted, worn through with weeping, only sharpened
her pain. But she would fulfill her role with the same dignity that had carried her mother
The magician Ro stepped forward, carrying a fringed pillow topped by a sphere. “My lady, you
“Of course.” She swallowed her annoyance at yet another well meant question and took the
sphere. About the size of a plum, it looked like glass but was soft in her hand. Inside, it held
the written wishes of her mother’s people.
She eyed the long rectangle of the pool and the silent, expectant throng around it. She had
exercised this throw dozens of times for departed magicians and courtiers. This time, though,
she could not miss.
At the front of the crowd, a young girl in a grey dress raised her hand. So many women and
girls made up the crowd, the men lost one-by-one in the unending quest to slay the Red Duke,
that she might have overlooked this one. Except the girl pressed her left fingertips to her lips,
the only substitute for an encouraging grin permitted by the king.
It was enough. Elin squared her stance, ignoring the pain razoring through her feet. She lifted
the ball high.
“For Celene.” Her voice carried into the silence. “Beloved mother, devoted queen, cherished
wife. Easy may she sleep.”
The crowd murmured, adding wishes for their own living and dead. So she wished for Krispin’s
She’d lain beside him a week ago. The grass had been cool in the apple orchard, and Krispin’s
hair had smelled of hound. Silently, he’d massaged her aching knuckles, slowly straightening
her constricted fingers. She’d wept for the lessening of pain, for his quiet ministrations devoid
of endless questions.
“Since you’re promised to whoever slays Xander,” he’d said, surprising her with words, “I’ll kill
him myself, and put an end to this. Then we can speak to your father.”
“Kill him twice, for good measure,” she’d said and tucked one of her leather pouches into his
palm. An absurd token, but only absurd trust could expect a young kennel master to defeat the
“Elin, it’s time.” Her father’s voice broke into her memories. He studied her, his white eyebrows
bent low. “Do you need me to throw?”
She’d paused too long. “No, I’m fine.” She limped forward, her eyes focused on the white plume
of the fountain.
She gritted her teeth and threw.
The crowd inhaled, and the sphere arched. High above the pool, it reflected the somber hues
below and the reddening sunset behind. Then it fell. Where it hit, wishes fanned across the
The crowd clapped. “Well done,” her father said.
She touched her lips, pleased at his praise and her own accomplishment. Then she saw Krispin.
She breathed his name and stepped forward, agony radiating up her shins. A quarter way down
the pool, he sliced a path to the edge of the crowd, his blond hair a beacon amid black
kerchiefs. As this miracle came towards her, pressure pinched her cheeks and her lips felt
Her father screamed. “Elin!”
A crack, sharp as lightning, sounded over the garden.
She froze. The crack echoed, a second tolling from the palace walls.
Someone in the crowd gasped. A woman shrieked, and cries quickly destroyed the silence. The
girl in the grey dress sobbed. Behind her, an old man collapsed.
Elin looked to Krispin and found a blond stranger gaping back. Not Krispin, but a man who
could have been his cousin, staring at her in gap-toothed horror.
She touched her face. As if it belonged to someone else, she traced the unfamiliar curve of her
lips. Bile stung the back of her throat, and she didn’t know which was worse—that Krispin hadn’
t returned or that she’d thrown away the second third of her life.
“Elin,” her father croaked.
She turned. He stared at her, all color drained from his face. He looked as if he’d shattered but
had not yet fallen. She reached for him but didn’t dare move closer.
“I’m all right,” she said, truthfully.
“You can’t—” He stopped, his eyes widening, his mouth stretching into an O. He clawed at his
chest, bunching the purple velvet. Then he crashed over onto the marble step.
“Papa!” She scrambled down beside him, pulling his head into her lap. His face was the color of
eggshells, his skin coated in sweat. “Papa!”
He didn’t answer.
“Get Lord Moon,” she called to a guard.
Lord Moon must already have been on his way. He knelt beside her, his dark eyes kind. “Are
you hurt, my lady?”
“No, not me—” She hunched over her father.
Lord Moon nodded, and one of his attendants drew her away. “Don’t fear, my lady. We’ll take
good care of him.”
It’s too late, she wanted to say. She stood aside, her hands pressed to her mouth, while Lord
Poole took her father’s pulse and listened to his heart.
Attendants transferred him onto a litter, and all she could think was that it should have been
Xander instead who lay senseless, dead to the world.
~ * ~
A little after midnight, Elin stole down to the palace stables. In her sturdiest dress, with a
travel bag on her back, she saddled her horse, careful that no one saw. Already contenders for
the throne were arriving, circling the king’s sickbed. Lord Moon had explained that extreme
emotion had struck a blow to her father’s heart. He might wake up. He might not.
Now she, the heir, was leaving. “Forgive me,” she whispered as she slipped her mare from the
stall. She couldn’t stay. Not with her mother gone, Krispin lost, and her father nearly so. A
lifetime devoid of smiles loomed before her. She would not let Xander make that her future.
Two mornings later, she rode out of pine trees into Xander’s Clearing. A burned patch of earth
about the size of a parade ground, it smelled of rot and was scattered with the bones of
horses. She pulled her mare up and sat, dirty, sore, and tired. Her father had learned early that
guards in the clearing died without apparent cause, so only the horses’ skulls stared up at her.
She was not welcome here.
"Then make me leave.” Her voice sounded small. The only sound came from the creak of her
saddle and thud of her feet as she hit the ground.
The door to Xander’s fortress hung in the air in the middle of the clearing. Attempts to smoke
him out had left the clearing scorched, but nothing ever came out of the door. Anyone who
went in did not return.
So she would call Xander out. She pulled three spheres from her bag, from among the two
dozen she’d brought, along with a dagger, bandages, and food. She was no sorceress or knight,
but she could throw, and Ro had filled the spheres with acid, boiling water, fire, and broken
glass. One hit could incapacitate a man.
Her back ached as if her mare had kicked her, but she stood tall. A sphere filled with acid sat
cold in her hand.
She eyed the battered door. “Xander! Come out.”
The wind stirred, hot and rancid. Her mare snorted.
What was he waiting for? “Xander!”
“Bastard.” Her mouth tasted of sour apples. Of course he’d prefer for her to come inside.
A tall man might have touched the door’s threshold, but she could not. She pressed her patient
mare into service one last time and, slinging her bag across her chest, climbed onto the saddle.
Soot and gouges marred the door. A dented knob jutted out on the right side, covered in dark
spots she hoped were rust. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her mare’s soft neck,
only to think better of it. She wasn't going to be afraid.
She grabbed the doorknob. A whip cracked across her palm, flaying the skin. She screamed,
snatching her hand back. There was no cut, no blood, though her palm burned, and her gut
This was defensive magic, not her curse. Well, pain would not discourage her.
She pulled her sleeve over her hand and seized the doorknob again. Agony raced from palm to
shoulder, and her wrist refused to twist. Undeterred, she shoved a leather sack between her
teeth. Gagging on old leather, she yanked, using her entire body to turn the knob. She nearly
lost her balance, and her arm felt mangled, as if teeth chewed her flesh from the inside. The
door banged open.
Breathing hard, clutching her mare’s mane, she stared inside. The doorway led to a musty
corridor lit by torches. It would have fit well in her father’s dungeons. She’d spent enough time
there as a child, seeking respite from her pain amid the cool, dark passageways. That didn’t
make this corridor feel welcoming, though. She spat out the leather pouch, shifted her bag
across her front, and climbed inside. The door clicked closed behind her.
She walked quickly, footsteps echoing off the walls. The stones were cold and damp and slick
with soot, the air thick with smoke. For a time she counted torches to mark her progress. Then
she found herself looking over her shoulder, convinced someone stalked her from behind.
Relax, she ordered herself. Eyes forward, shoulders back. Let Xander, however he watched,
overestimate her confidence. She fingered her sling of spheres and imagined them shattering
Instead she came upon a heap of bones held together by tattered black and gold cloth.
“Viscount Nero,” she whispered, recognizing the colors. He had tried for Xander when she was a
How sad to find him unburied, the black holes in his skull sending shivers down her spine. She
rallied her nerves and curtseyed before inching around the bones. The poor man deserved more
than horrified avoidance.
She scanned the floor, seeking clues to what had killed him. She turned a corner and came to
an ash field.
It ran for a hundred feet, massed piles of ash filling the corridor. She puzzled over it,
massaging her aching back, before noticing the bits of bone mixed into the mounds. The more
she looked, the more bone shards she saw, the more the mounds’ meaning came to her. She
sank to her knees. There were dozens of mounds, scores of them. All of these men had died for
her, burned for her, the burning so hot they left no colors to reveal their names. Maybe Krispin
had burned here.
She squeezed her eyes shut. No more. No matter the outcome, no one else would die for her.
She pressed her fingers to her lips in salute.
Then she stood. She must cross this death field, so she must learn what had devoured her
champions. She unclasped her cloak, bundled it, and tossed it into the densest cluster of ash.
The cloak’s edges fluttered, until it flopped down amid the dead. It burst into flames.
The light nearly blinded her. The fire hissed, and even twenty feet away heat pressed against
“Angels protect me.” Sweat trickled down her neck.
But she knew what she had to do. A barely perceptible line wove through the mounds to the
clear corridor beyond. At some distant time, footsteps might have cleared the path as a
champion tiptoed around the flames. She moved as close as she dared and tucked her kerchief
into a knot. When she dropped it on the line, it didn’t burn.
All right then. She had a tenuous way through the fire. She gathered her skirts, plucked up the
kerchief, and stepped into the fire field.
No flames, no heat. One step down, a hundred to go.
She walked step by step, dropping the kerchief before her. The bones watched. Something
seemed to brood inside their broken bits, something that resented her progress.
She pressed her skirts closer to her legs. Her mouth tasted of dust. The air smelled of burning
Her left boot grazed a column of charred bones. She froze, silently begging them not to fall.
The bones teetered, as if debating what to do, before clattering to the floor. A shaft of flame
erupted beside her.
She bolted. Sprinting down the line, slapping her feet on clear bits of floor, she raced towards
the open passageway. Heat baked her from behind, flames crackling in her ears, until she
realized her skirts were aflame, she trailed fire, and then something broke inside her. She
screamed as she ran, until she burst onto the open floor. She threw her bag down and rolled,
sobbing as she spun.
Finally the only flames came from torches overhead. She curled into a ball, feeling raw and
broken and reeking of smoke. Her left leg throbbed, and she wept, wishing she’d never come to
In time she sat up and wiped her eyes. Her skirts were burned away on her left side. Beneath,
her leg flamed red and painful.
She grimaced. More pain, more outrage to lay at the Red Duke’s feet.
Gingerly, she stood. Her leg screamed, and she rested her weight on it with trepidation. When
it held, she limped to her bag and dressed her burns. Then she pulled out a fire sphere.
“Xander! Come out! I passed.”
She squinted into the shadows between torches, breathing through her teeth to avoid the stink
of smoke and burned linen. A torch sputtered, she started, then all was quiet.
“Reluctant to face a girl?”
She turned, her arm quivering. In the wall to her right, a door opened. Bright light streamed
into the gloom.
Oh. She stared, not quite believing what she saw. When nothing emerged, she shaded her
eyes and limped closer. The small room on the other side was devoid of furnishings or
decorations. Its wooden walls gleamed spotless white. Curious, for the Red Duke.
She tossed her kerchief inside. When it didn’t burst into flames or fall through the floor, she
hobbled inside, her ears primed for sounds of attack.
Instead, a click made her turn. The door through which she’d come had vanished. Bones littered
the floor, this time mixed with shredded clothes and battered supplies. Above them, three
portraits were painted on the wall. She had a moment to notice them—a man dressed in red, a
woman with amber hair, an infant sleeping—before she saw what crowned them.
Above the triptych hung a wreath of fire. Within the flames a human heart beat. The flames
burned without smoke or sound, but the heart beat a steady rhythm.
Pressure built in her chest. The heart hung so close—easily in reach. Perhaps he had taken it
from his dead wife’s body. She doubted it, though, and pawed in her bag for her knife.
The equipment surrounding the dead gave her pause. Bits of burned blankets and canvas bags
and water skins mixed in with the bones and disintegrating cloth. So, too, did shattered swords
and pikes and daggers.
So the heart could not be smothered or doused or pierced. Could it be struck? She picked up a
belt buckle and threw. It bounced off the flames and dropped to the floor. Somehow, she wasn’
Beside the buckle lay a leather pouch. A familiar leather pouch.
She cried out and stumbled to the nearest bones, dreading what she would find.
A thin voice said, "Elin?"
Standing in the corner, where no one had been, was Krispin. He blinked at her, as if he’d been
drugged, his face fighting between joy and horror.
A trick, she told herself. A phantom conjured to torment her. But she could smell him, horse
and hound replaced by sweat and fear.
"You shouldn’t be here," he said.
His words barely registered. She felt herself beaming, her lips twitching, and she spun away,
clasping her hands over her mouth, biting the inside of her cheek.
“No! Fight it.”
Desperate, she kicked her throbbing left calf. Pain spiked, and she doubled over, retching. The
pain twisted like wires from ankle to stomach. She breathed, willing it to center her. When at
last she regained control, she wiped her mouth and straightened.
He’d stopped a few steps away, as if he’d just managed to keep from touching her. He hid his
hands behind him, but not quickly enough. All of his fingers had been broken.
She slammed her foot on the leather pouch. “I’ll kill him twice over.”
He shook his head. He was struggling to stay upright. “You can’t. The heart—”
“It’s Xander’s, isn’t it?”
“It’s indestructible. I tried—”
A flash of red caught the corner of her eye. Twisting, she threw a fire sphere.
It hit Xander in the thigh. He froze mid-step, grunting, and a mushroom of fire bloomed bigger
and hotter than she’d expected. She lobbed an acid sphere.
He’d stopped twenty feet away, much closer than the reflecting pool—an easy target. He barely
raised an arm before the sphere clipped his wrist and splattered on his chest. Black holes
sizzled down his sleeve and across his red doublet. He plucked at the fabric, frowning.
Even as she wondered why he didn’t scream or flail or beat his burning flesh, the fire sank into
his thigh. Undamaged skin rolled across the flames, showing through a plate-sized hole in his
“Commendable aim.” Fire danced in his mouth, his nostrils, and the corners of his eyes. It
rippled across his chest, swallowing acid.
“My gods.” She dropped her next sphere in her bag, useless.
Without a word, Krispin stepped between her and Xander.
It was the grandest and most foolish thing he could have done. So when Xander flicked a finger
and Krispin fell, she didn’t scream. She dropped beside him and pressed her hands to his
“You think you’re some great father, mourning your family?” she spat. “You’re a worm, a
“I’m your cousin, though the lot of you tend to forget it. I’ve waited eighteen years for this
moment.” He flexed his fingers. His heart, wreathed in fire, raced.
Krispin’s blood seeped over his face, down his ears, between her fingers. Its bitter smell filled
her nose. She pressed a bandage to his scalp, and still the blood flowed.
“Killing me won’t bring your daughter back.”
Flames licked the corners of Xander’s mouth. “No, it’s too late for that. But it will make me
“That’s absurd! You’ve killed a thousand men. How can anything make you happy?”
“For eighteen years you’ve thought of me. You, Ro, my sniveling cousin, all the widows and
orphans in this dismal kingdom. You thought of me, and so you thought of Alice and Meg. They’
ve never been forgotten.” He kissed his palm and held it, smoking, towards the portraits. “It
will be my pleasure to ensure your last thought is of me.”
She curled up, clutching her bag, one hand still pressed to Krispin’s wound. What she felt wasn’
t pain, though. Blackness hit her, a great invading darkness, as if Xander removed everything
that made her Elin and filled her with unending, unalterable sadness. It weighed on her limbs
and dulled her mind. She was sadness, always had been, always would be, and why not? She
should have died at birth. Her life had held nothing but pain, caused nothing but pain. She
should have perished in the womb and traded her life for Meg and Alice.
Tears leaked from her eyes. Her body seemed fused to the floor. As her mind sank into
inevitable despondency, the heart on the wall sped up.
Its beating echoed against white walls, and she thought of her father, his poor heart raced to
breaking. She opened her mind, welcoming the memory. Not one more moment would she
waste thinking of Xander.
Her mind skipped.
Heart. Raced to breaking.
She seized the thought—a dim hope. Though her arms seemed made of stone, she hurled an
acid sphere at the portraits.
It burst over the triptych, a magnificent throw she was too pained to appreciate. The acid ran
down, eating into Xander’s wife and daughter.
He screamed, and his heart quickened. In the moment her sadness eased, she hauled herself
up. She grabbed her knife.
“I’m sorry your family died. They didn’t deserve it. But you, I’m going to erase you.” She ground
her knife into his portrait. Xander swayed. The room shook, and his heart boomed. She braced
her feet, stabbing at the wood, chiseling out his eyes, anything to make his heart spasm. The
smell of acid burned in her throat. “We will ban your name.” She shaved off his painted nose.
“No bards will sing of you. I’ll have you struck from the annals.” And his mouth. “No one will
use your name, not even for a flea.”
The heart thundered, and her head pounded. Pain stabbed through her hand so she almost
dropped her knife. She wrapped her left around her right and kept chipping. Something smacked
her arm. A sword hilt. A bone crashed into her elbow. In a rush, the entire debris of a hundred
champions rained down.
She ducked her head, bracing against the wall as she was pummeled. The heart roared, and the
paint flaked, and she yelled. She must drive his heart harder, make it beat faster. “You’ll be
blacked out from the palace school rolls and struck from the mage tables.” She attacked the
rest of the paint, first in small bits, then larger and larger chunks, until she peeled off the
entire lower half of his painting with one satisfying rip.
It struck the floor in a cloud of dust. The room shook, and the frantic beating of his heart rang
in her ears. Overhead, the ceiling cracked. She hugged the wall as a piece crashed down across
her shoulders. Shaking, her back screaming, she tugged at his painted red hair.
“Your name will be chiseled off the tombstones of your wife and daughter—”
A loud crack, and the room fell silent.
Xander lay face down on the floor. On the wall, the flames of the wreath went out. Where they
had been, a shriveled bit of heart quivered. Already gray tinged its flesh.
Her own heart pounding, she rose on tiptoes. She had never killed anything in her life, and
stabbing a living heart gave her pause, but Xander left her no choice.
She buried her knife deep inside his heart.
A rush sounded, like of distant wind. The room disappeared, leaving her standing on nothing,
holding nothing, cocooned in nothing but white. Perhaps she’d fainted, though she felt alert
and buoyed in warm, thick air.
The white and heat vanished, and she was sprawled on barren ground. Her mouth tasted of
She pushed herself up. She was sitting in Xander’s Clearing, with a soldier staring down at her.
Behind him rode a column of his gawking comrades.
The soldier swung off his horse and knelt. “My lady, are you all right? You just appeared!”
She accepted his hand up. She felt strangely light, though she was firm on her feet. The
clearing looked as she’d left it, even if the sun rode a bit higher and the air smelled incredibly
of honeysuckle. A page stood frozen, caught midway through unsaddling her mare.
“The king woke just before we left,” the soldier said. “He insists he’s fine, and he’s come—”
Her father sat up on his litter. She ran to him, and he buried her in a hug. “You gave us such a
fright. I can’t believe—” He gasped. “Master Krispin! You’re alive.”
Krispin climbed to his feet with the help of the soldier.
“Apparently so.” He winced as he brushed his scalp, but his face regained its color as he met
her gaze. “Thanks to you, my lady.”
She felt her father stiffen in sudden understanding. She squeezed his hand. After a moment he
squeezed back. “Xander?” he asked.
“Dead.” She touched her temple. That strange lightness—it was the absence of pain. A curious,
glorious sensation. She turned to Krispin. “Dead and gone, thanks to all of us.” And she smiled.
Kathryn Yelinek lives in Pennsylvania, where she
works as a librarian. Her short fiction has appeared
in "Daily Science Fiction" and "Electric Spec," among
She's a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.