The keeper of the city keys
Puts shutters on the dreams
I wait outside the pilgrim’s door
With insufficient schemes
The black queen chants the funeral march
The cracked brass bells will ring
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king

King Crimson, In The Court of the Crimson King

It’s taking too long. Far too long.

I’m pacing outside in the long stone hallway, trying not to burn holes in the iron-banded door with my impatience. Trying not to fidget too much either, since the rough-hewn walls and floors of this corridor seem designed to amplify the sound of every move I make even while they swallow every flicker of light from the dripping torches punctuating their length.

Door, torch, door, torch, alcove, torch. Very medieval. You wouldn’t expect a place could still be so very Dark Ages, but then again we are very, very far from home.

And we should be heading back. Soon. Now.

My anxiety boils over and I rap on the door. Just a sigh and some rustling from the other side.

“Willa,” I say. My voice sounds foreign to me, too stretched with desperation. “We have to go.”

“I know,” she groans from the other side. “I’m coming.”

I’m impatient, but I can hardly blame her. The only reason I’m ambulatory is because I left when I did. The Lord Mayor stood up to sing the party into the other realms just after the King declared the meal finished, and after having a taste of that walk the other night I knew I couldn’t do it again and still get us out of here. I tried to drag Willa out too, but she was rapt, her eyes locked onto the Lord Mayor. I had to plug my ears and run.

I hope no one witnessed my rudeness. That could be bad.

But I couldn’t stay. A few bars of song and the room would melt away, replaced by a waking dream of such purity and beauty you’d weep to leave it. The realm-singing makes you want to draw the shutters closed around your mind and stay bathing in it forever. And after it ends, you’re left with a hell of a hangover.

Not exactly conducive to a daring escape.

Granted, it’s not so much an escape as trying to avoid being literally killed with kindness. We landed here pretty much on accident, and the people have been incredibly kind and welcoming. It’s just that their customs are…

Terrifying? I guess that’s the word?

We landed on the opening day of the royal tourney, and the things we’ve seen will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life. The celebrations have been bloodier than the fights. Music and dancing are entirely different beasts in the court of the Crimson King.

And today is supposed to be an auspicious day, when the Queen summons forth the Fire Witch. I’m not too sure what’s supposed to happen next, but based on the relative excitement levels amongst the palace dwellers, I absolutely 100% do not want to stick around to find out.

But our ship is berthed on the Third Moon, and there’s only one ferry today before it passes behind the Second again and becomes impossible to travel to or from. Thus imprisoning us here for another turn around the sun. And I don’t think my sanity would survive that. Another year here and I’d be begging that violet-robed choir to lullabye me into a gory end of my own.

Anxiety becomes panic and I shove through the door. Willa is sitting up on her rumpled bed, her hair a bird’s nest of tangles and her eyes clearly showing that the software update is still in progress. Crap. But at least she’s conscious.

“Come on,” I say, and start tossing everything I can find of hers on the bed. I uncover her empty bag, and start pushing clothes and toiletries into it.

“My boots,” she says. I pause and chuck the boots in my hand toward the floor near her feet rather than stuffing them into the bag.

“Do you have something to wear? Where’s your jacket?”

“Hanging on the door. I just need socks and a shirt.”

I shove the pile of clothes toward her and rush to the door, ripping her jacket down from the wooden peg on its back. I turn back to Willa, who’s managed to don one sock.

“Shirt,” I say tersely, then bend down to take care of the other sock and her boots. She struggles into it, then I stand her up and hand her the jacket while I bend back down to tie her laces.

“Okay,” I breathe a little easier. “Let’s finish packing you up, and–”

“My lords.”

My heart stops, then starts pounding like a piston as my brain clamors that I should drop everything and run straight out the tiny casement window and tread air until I hit the Third Moon. Willa’s eyes grow large, but the rest of her is still too anesthetized to react much.

Lord Mayor is framed by Willa’s open door, her chain of office glinting red in the torch light. She’s smiling, and her face is alive with pleasure and excitement.

“The summoning is about to begin, and the King and Queen request your attendance in the great hall.”

“That’s very kind,” I say slowly, “but I fear we must decline. We have to make the ferry to the Third Moon so we can depart before–”

“Ah, but there is no ferry today, my friends. The populace has gathered for the summoning. There will be no traveling today.”

Or for the next year. Merciful God.

“Please,” the Lord Mayor says, gesturing us from the room with her arm. I link arms with Willa and half-carry, half-escort her out the door. She mumbles a little as we go, and the Lord Mayor smiles.

“Too much singing for her, eh?” She winks conspiratorially when I nod. “But you slipped away. It’s wise for outlanders to excuse themselves that way. You build up a tolerance eventually, of course, but it takes awhile, and over-indulging can be dangerous as well as inconvenient.” She takes Willa’s other arm and we begin to move down the hallway much more quickly. “I think tonight you might take her with you so she has a chance to recover herself.”

I nod, but part of me wants to shrug and suggest that losing ourselves in the realm-singing might be the most restorative thing we can do after the summoning. I might never want to see the real world again. My shoulders creep up like there’s a drawstring running down the back of my neck. I am scared.

A little while later we’re safely seated in the great hall, up on the long dais with the royal family and the heads of state. Guests are highly esteemed here. The rest of the hall is thronged with people milling around and talking and generally creating a roar of noise that deadens me to everything but the fear that makes me feel like my brains are shivering. Willa is slumped in her chair, eyes unfocused. I wish bitterly for a similar mental state.

The roar dies away on a sibilant whisper as the crowd parts to allow the Queen into the center of the hall. She is garbed in black glass, the shards of her gown throwing stars of reflection around the marble walls and a gentle tinkling chime as she passes. With a wave of her arm a bevy of servants roll in massive racks of bells, cracked with age and covered with patina. They place them to the sides, and stand ready.

Then the Queen begins to sing.

It’s not singing the way I’d always known singing to be, but then none of the singing here has been normal. Sounds are coming from the Queen’s mouth, ostensibly created by her voice, but there are more sounds than it seems possible for one voice to make at once, and sounds that should not be possible for a human voice to create.

But who knows if these people are even fully human.

There are low buzzing hums and guttural barks, but then also a thin thread of something that sounds like a flute and on top of it all, a ribbon of melody that makes me feel like my blood is swirling through my veins backwards.

I’m in hell. It seems to go on forever. But at last the melody climbs to a tall peak and the Queen throws out her arms. The servants pick up their hammers and strike the cracked brass bells. Once. Twice. Thrice. Again.

I don’t know how I was expecting the Fire Witch to arrive, but it certainly wasn’t through the door.

She eases into the room and walks toward the Queen. They clasp hands and kiss. The Fire Witch looks to the King, who stands and bows to her, reverently. The Queen backs away to return to her throne, and the royal couple sit. The Fire Witch looks around the assembled crowd. Her garb is simple, a yellow robe belted at the waist, but her power is undeniable.

“What do you bring to me?” she asks.

She’s opened a gate. The crowd surges forward, screaming over one another in their haste to tell her, to touch her, to give their offerings. The chaos is overwhelming, and it’s a moment before I see what’s happening.

Bodies are falling now, flames licking from their eye sockets as they moan in painful ecstasy. Then the burning ones crawl away to the corners while still more throng to the Fire Witch. Soon the entire room is filled with burning bodies and their rapt screams. Even the King and Queen have left their places to set themselves alight. Soon Willa and I are alone on the dais, watching the horrifying ritual.

Then Willa gets up.

“What are you doing?” I hiss at her as she sways on her feet.

“I need to give this to her,” Willa replies, her eyes gone even dreamier as a beatific smile appears on her face.

“Give what to her? What are you talking about?”

“She’ll burn it away. I don’t want it anymore.” She starts to move toward the Fire Witch and I grab her arm.

“Willa, we are not like them. I don’t know what they’re doing or what’s going to happen after–” because it’s clear from the way the burning people are moving that it’s not killing them exactly– “but we don’t know what will happen to us.”

“I know,” she says, “it will be alright.”

“Like hell it will!” I clench her arm as tight as I can. “You are not going down there.”

But it doesn’t matter, because as we’ve spoken the Fire Witch has moved through the throng up to us. Her eyes too are burning, and she smells of cedar and smoke.

“Greetings, pilgrims. What do you bring to me?”

“I fear we bring no gift to you, my lady,” I say, easing back from her and trying to bring Willa with me. But she slips my grip.

“I bring you passivity and indecision,” Willa says. I stare at her, agape. The Fire Witch closes her burning eyes as if she is savoring Willa’s words.

“Oh yes,” she says. “These are good. I will take them.”

She lays her hand against my sister’s face and then Willa and I scream at the same time. Our pitches are the same, but mine carries my horror while hers carries… relief? Willa’s eyes are bright holes of flame, her face melting like candle wax. I shriek and try to scramble away, my head and heart yammering in fear. I have to get out of here. I sweep my eyes frantically around the hall, but I can’t remember where we came in and the sea of burning, writhing bodies before me obscures any other possible exit. I am trapped, and my panicked breath is so loud in my ears I don’t hear the Fire Witch at first.

“I say peace, pilgrim.” She reaches out to me and I cringe away. “What can you give to me that will bring you peace?”

“I just want to go home!” I don’t know when the tears started, but I can feel the wetness on my face evaporating in the heat of her.

“Look at me, pilgrim.” I don’t want to, but I do. She is terrible. She is beautiful. The screams around me are coalescing into a wave of sound that feels like it’s tugging on my soul. I stare into the dancing flame of her, gold and red and violet and black. I can feel something dark and ugly welling up in my throat like bile.

“Now, sweet one. What do you bring to me?” I open my mouth and the bile pours out as words.

“Fear. And prejudice.” The relief I feel is palpable, like I’ve taken off the millstone I had been wearing around my neck for years. The Fire Witch has closed her eyes to savor my offering.

“Yes, I have been waiting for these,” she says, and touches my lips with her finger.

And in the court of the Crimson King, I burst into flames.