"What is this?"
"You're a big reader, aren't you? Or you used to be. You tell me."
She cast her eyes about the room, taking in the draped, heavy folds of fabric, all richly embroidered with vivid colors and threads of gold. There were two figures in the room, both humanoid and actually human, from what she could tell. Both were tall, dressed in clothing that matched the finery of the room. One was seated, her hands folded in her lap, dark eyes, framed by thick, worried eyebrows, cast downwards, while the other stood near the entrance to the room, head held tall and proud with a large and ornately decorated headdress upon his head. Both of them were frozen in their motions, faces captured with unmoving expressions.
Familiarity pricked down the back of Nita's neck, and she had a sudden flash of being seven and watching the ten-year anniversary of an old Disney movie, with copious singing and dancing and a cerulean wish granter who had made her laugh and laugh and laugh. Her surroundings did not perfectly match what she had seen on the TV way back when, but she felt like this might have been the live-remake if Disney had cared a little more about historical accuracy.
"Oh that's pretty close, but not quite."
The voice came from the farthest corner, where the shadows overcame the dim firelight, and the darkness seemed to run just a little deeper. There was no question there - she knew that voice.
"You could just tell me," she said to the Lone One.
Amusement flickered along the walls, seemingly vibrating the room. "Oh, but what fun would that be? Come on. You're a smart girl. You can figure this out."
Now a little annoyed, Nita turned back to the room and attempted to walk forward. To her surprise, she found that she could, though when she looked down at her body, it was wispy and transparent, as if she wasn't quite all there. She couldn't remember how she had gotten here, but it felt like a dream - too specific to be oracular, yet…
When she moved closer to the well-dressed woman, Nita noticed that she was holding something in the palm of one of her hands, nearly crumbled. She leaned in, peering at it. The curves were long and graceful and looked almost like the Speech, but not quite, and she couldn't put the individual letters together -
"Here," said the Lone One, magnanimously, "Let me help."
And she could see it now, almost as clear as English: The Fisherman and the Jinni.
Nita leaned back, frowning. She knew that name, knew it from her childhood, again, when her mother or father had read her fairy tales. What was it…
"A Thousand and One Nights."
Applause echoed from the corner, and Nita felt a shiver go running down her back. Claps couldn't sound malicious, but if they could…
"I knew you would get it."
"So, what now?" Nita asked, folding her arms across her chest. "Are we going to go to Beauty and the Beast next? The Little Mermaid? Rose Red?"
There was a chortle. "No, what fun would that be? I already went to all the trouble of making this - and besides, doesn't every kid want to be part of the fairy tales?"
The world went blurry, and then Nita was looking down at her hands - except they were darker than her own, and there was a crumbled piece of paper between them - The Fisherman and the Jinni. She lifted her head - it was heavy, her hair was so long, and the strand she could see out of the corner of her eye was jet black - and caught sight of movement at the other side. The man with the headpiece was now moving forward, and when their gazes caught, she knew.
"I guess it shouldn't surprise me," she said, and she was glad that her voice didn't waver. Perhaps, it was the idea that this was still a dream in her mind that gave her courage (even if she did know, so very personally, how truly real dreams could be). "You've always liked costumes, always liked playing roles. I guess eventually we would have to come to a literal fairy tale." She tracked the Lone Power, in the suit of a king, as he made his away across the room to stand in front of her. "You know Scheherazade wins in this one, right?"
The king - the Lone Power - flapped a hand. "Yes, but that's the happy ending. That's what I'm here to ruin." And there was that quick, angry smile, amused, but bitter to the point of crushing any feigned amusement that it might contain. "I thought I had created the perfect dynamic. Let the other Powers create a king who was fair and wise and kind and then crush his every hope and dream by having his wife, the love of his life, betray him." He let out a short bark of laughter. "Shahryār was so bitter afterwards he didn't even need my prompting. It really is something though - probably an argument as to why you people shouldn't be allowed monarchies - but then, they are better for me. One person is so much easier to take down than ten or 50 or 100 - though I can do that, too. And that is more satisfying, watching a so-called 'democracy' crumble."
As the Lone Power spoke, Nita looked throughout her mind, searching for the lines and connections that she always had in the real world. Kit - but there was nothing to suggest that he was even in the same universe as her - he might not be, I don't really know where I am! Is this really a dream? Why isn't it ending? Her manual, too, seemed to be just completely gone, no pocket, no space, no charm bracelet, nothing she could reach or touch or use.
"Can you believe how many people he killed by himself? He's created a gender imbalance in this country all by himself. And no one would dare to stop him!" The amusement seemed a little less forced, a little more real now, as the Lone Power fell into stride, letting the words build. "But then I suppose that's what happens when you give one mortal so much power. You can stop looking. You won't find anything."
Nita glared up at the Lone Power, straightening her back and getting to her feet. "Are you going to tell me what we're doing here, or do you want me to pretend to listen to your grandstanding some more?"
"It's not grandstanding, and you should really appreciate it. It's the only thing prolonging your life." The Lone Power threw out his arms, letting a wide, complacent grin stretch his face. "Now, Scheherazade bought her life by telling a thousand and one stories that Shahryār had never heard before, and Shahryār, that idiot, let his curiosity overpower his anger - terrible idiot, really - and so my promising minion, over the ridiculously long course of days, found himself falling in love with someone he had been prepared to kill less than 24 hours after his marriage to her." He clucked his tongue, clearly disapproving.
"Yes, sounds terrible," Nita replied dryly.
He shot her a withering look and continued on as if she had not spoken. "Well, I want to rewrite the story. I shall be the Shahryār to your Scheherazade, and in the morning, you die. Oh and Nita, when I say you die, this isn't going to be a dream death." The shadows reared upwards, going from complacent to threatening in the span of a breath. "You're not going to wake up and be perfectly fine in bed. When you die here, you die for real. And stories? Fairy tales? The Fisherman and the Jinni?" The king threw back his head and laughed, the sound slamming into the walls and ricocheting back into Nita's ears painfully. She wanted to cover them, but resisted, standing tall and glaring forward.
She wondered if there was any point in running. Without magic, she would not get far, certainly not with the literal piles of fabric that adorned her person and definitely not if there were any guards outside the door, which there most certainly were. Scheherazade had known that she would be unable to run, and so she had been smart, had thought of another way out of a deadly situation, but her solution wouldn't work for Nita.
The Lone Power knew the ending to every story she did - heck, They've probably written most of them! She had been afraid of Their fairy tale incarnations as a child, though she now understood that her fear had been far more than justified, and They ran in the undercurrent of everything she had read since then. No magic, no friends, no - anything!
Nita gritted her teeth and forced herself to stay calm. She could feel the king regarding her with the Lone Power's eyes, and she knew that fear would play right into what the Lone Power wanted.
"So what are you going to do?" The Lone One asked, after a beat. "You going to try anyways? Or are you going to surrender to your death gracefully? Or as gracefully as one of your kind can."
How do you surprise a Power? How do you surprise one of the beings that made the universe?!
Nita swallowed and then sat back down on the bed. She looked at the piece of paper in her hands again and then closed her fist around it tightly. "In the beginning, there was nothing, and then there was the One."
"Oh no," The Lone One cried with some delighted horror. "Really? We're going to go back to this one? You can't even try to be creative? Not that I blame you, since there aren't any new stories to tell, not really, but you aren't even going to try? I expected better from you, Nita, what with all the grief you've been causing the other versions of me."
"And the One decided to make the universe," Nita continued. Her heart sounded loudly in her ears, like a trumpet played a little too close. "And They made the Powers to help Them accomplish Their Work. And all the Powers did Their part, shaping the world and inventing new ideas - all, but one." And she swallowed again, throat imminently dry, because the Lone One's shadows were leaning in even closer now. It might have been a story well known, but she knew that it was also one of the Lone One's most hated ones. "That Power - the Lone Power - waited and watched and finally created something that no one had yet thought of - death. Entropy. And let it loose upon the world." She rubbed her fingers together anxiously, trying to keep her breath steady. "And the other Powers threw the Lone One out, leaving Them to skulk around the universes and trick all the rest of the world into accepting Their creation."
The Lone One faked a yawn, though Nita could see the twitch of the jaw that let her know how disingenuous the expression was. "Wow, very interesting. Very good. You're certainly going to buy yourself another day of life with that one." The king turned away, leaving Nita talking to his back.
She went on nonetheless.
"And the Lone One wandered and wandered and created conflict and misunderstanding and the basis of every story that we tell and knew them all, intimately, but what They did not know -" And the Lone One twitched at that. Nita wondered if it was at the idea that They might not know something and almost panic-laughed at that kind of pride. "- what They did not know was how the world felt about Them."
There was another movement from the king, and Nita was certain that he had turned a little, the left eye just visible and staring at her hard, fury in the look.
"They knew what to expect - the fear and the anger and the anxiety - and how that came out as actions and words, but They could never really see into the minds of the creatures They sold Their wares to. None of the Powers could, for as much as They had been given, as much as They could affect a person's thoughts, to steer them one way or another, They could not read them - not the ones beneath the surface, the deep ones, the ones that told wholly the truth and held no lies, not even to oneself." The paper in between her hands crunched as she clenched her fists.
The Lone One had turned completely now, eyes fixed upon her, head lifted proudly, but - was that just a bit of uncertainty there?
Nita grasped at it. "So that's what I'll tell you tomorrow," she finished. "Or maybe the next day. I'll tell you what I really think of you. What Kit thinks of you." She slowly shook her head from side to side. "I've met a lot of wizards, a lot of people, who have had a lot of opinions. You want to hear them, don't you?"
Almost imperceptibly, the king's head jerked up and down.
"Okay," she whispered. "I'll tell you tomorrow."