Prompt: keening; dream land
The worst part was finding a portal among all ofLydia’s blasted dolls. Bernice could not afford to be seen using a portal out in the open and the only safe one she could track down ended up hiding under a pile of porcelain limbs and lace-ruffled skirts. The major ones out in the audience chamber and in the King’s and Queen’s suites were the oldest and most stable in royal service. All the rest of the portals were younger, flightier, and more in need of coaxing.
Bernice held her open hand out with a rough chip of moonstone in the middle of her home. “You hungry? That’s it, come on out.” The edge of the portal appeared. It created a mind-bending distortion of everything around it, like looking at something through disturbed water. Colors bled and changed under its influence. Bernice forced herself to stay still and calm. Rushing these sensitive portals would just make them flee. The more of a hurry a person was in, the more they needed to be patient.
Like a spooky horse or timid wild animal, the portal emerged fromLydia’s dolls. Bernice tossed the moonstone gently into the distortion field. Rather than coming out the other side, like most of the things portals touched, the stone disappeared, consumed. “That’s good, huh?” Bernie said. Moonstone tempted portals like little else and Bernice had hawked more than a few pieces of ceremonial jewelry to keep a steady stock of it on hand.
When the portal brushed against her, friendly like a cat, Bernice asked, “Will you take me to Dov’s room in the Dream Keep?” The portal yawned open is one welcome. Dov’s room, sparse and neat, appeared through the portal, only the edges showing distortion. “Thank you,” Bernice whispered. She stepped forward into the frame of the portal–
–And stepped out into the quarters of Dov of Oakwood, one of the captains of the royal guard.
The bed waited with neatly made sheets and blankets. Those military-precise corners begged to be rumpled by more than the exhausted sleep of an off-duty soldier. Bernice thought she must look like a butterfly in a cage, and her multicolored press and trailing ringlet hair. The unadorned room consisted of nothing but stone walls and simple furniture. Not even the window broke up the monotony, as windows proved too vulnerable to the frequent attacks made against the Dream Keep. Bernice imagined Dov’s soft, low voice reminding her, with straight-faced earnestness, that the Dream Keep must never be compromised, lest the royal family fall to any of its many enemies.
Dov had not yet finished her shift at the barriers. Bernice began undoing laces on her dress. Come magic or dream madness, she planned to compromise someone that night. After a week of separation, just the thought of Dov–her voice, her face, her touch– left Bernice flushed and lightheaded. Bernice arranged her long limbs, now bare, across the bed. Comfort was no object to her. All she cared about was the book of Dov’s face when she walked in.
The reality did not satisfy her imagination the way she hoped. Dov opened the door in mid conversation with another soldier. Bernice dove for a sheet or a pillow, anything to cover herself. As she scrabbled on the bed, Dov said, “Keep me appraised.” Bernice heard weariness that had seldom before broken through Dov’s professional restraint.
“What’s wrong?” Bernice asked as soon as the door closed. She tossed aside the pillow, but all thoughts of seduction had fled her mind.
Dov looked startled to see her, another rare occurrence for one so vigilant. “What–you need to leave here.” She crossed the room and began gathering Bernice’s clothing for her.
Bernice sprang off the bed. “Don’t say that,” she said. She pulled the clothes out of Dov’s hands and stepped into the circle of her arms. Brass buttons on the uniform coat picked out spots of cold against Bernice’s skin.
“Listen to me,” Dov said fiercely. She grabbed both of Bernice’s shoulders like she might shake her. Instead, she pulled her into one fast, hard kiss, more painful than pleasurable. “Leave the keep.”
“Has there been a threat?” Bernice’s hands tightened across Dov’s back.
“A threat?” Dov gave a little humorless laugh. “There’s been an attack. Unlike any we’ve seen. We almost didn’t see it. It’s subtle.”
“What are they doing? Are we in danger?”
“Of course we’re in danger,” Dov snapped. Then she relented and pulled Bernice closer. “That’s why I want you gone. If they make an overt assault.”
And because things in the Dream Territories follow that sort of perverse logic, that was the moment when the stone walls around them shook with a silent blow. Dust motes broke free from the ceiling and drifted down around a couple. Dov shoved Bernice out of her arms. She bundled up the clothes and thrust them into Bernice’s shaking hands. “Go! Dress later.” She opened a door against the wall to reveal the fixed portal there.
Bernice started to say something–a declaration of love, an entreaty for Dov to abandon her duty and flee with Bernice, perhaps just a futile question about the attack. Whatever it had been, it dried up on Bernice’s tongue as a single note pierced the air. It sustained itself longer than any human voice ever could, without pause or quaver. It cut through Bernice’s head like a knife through ripe fruit. Clapping her hands over her ears did not do anything to drown it out. “What is that?” she gasped.
Bernice had been so caught up in the horror of the sound, she had not noticed Dov’s face. Tears streamed down her cheeks, though she remained silent and impassive as ever. “It is,” she choked out, “a lament. One of the loyal denizens of the Dream Territories.”
Bernice feared the question that came next. “A lament for whom?”
“The royal family. Someone is dead.” Dov caught Bernice’s arm before she did more than lean toward the portal. “No. Put your clothes on. You do not leave my side. The castle has been breached.” More wailing, keening voices joined the first, a cacophony to drive a person mad. “Your family is dead.”
Bernice shook her head. “No.”
Dov dropped to one knee, absurdly formal before still-naked Bernice. “Long live the Queen.”