Then came The Willow King, a small root in his hand and no belief to glimmer at his weary eyes

She was writing on her hands again. Less efficiently than usual, letting the ink feather into her skin, making words of the feelings; she blackened her palms. She had seen the man and he had leapt and vanished before her eyes at least 10 dozen times, until it hurt to look at him.

 She had spoken hasty words with him and now she was alone to think of them and remember how his eyes had eaten of her form, barely resting on her face. He was lucky she was used to such attentions. She wrote: "Such is darkness born of night To darken thus all holy light If the daughter would make right The daughter must then surely fight" All lay still, and in the air no sounds but violins, and her hair like a fence to hold back her eyes. She had spoken to the Shifting Man and his guidance had been solitary, brittle, breakable. And yet, she knew, his words had been invaluable to her desperate cause. She stood, now, at the gate to Shifting Sands and now she closed it, allowing the cold copper from her fingers.

 She walked, now, back along the road to her own struggling land. Her thin, blue dress billowed in the winds that always blow between such impossible into her pockets, knowing any ally is better than no one, be they humble as a fallen star. She hummed the softest tune and her feet made gentle sounds upon the path, strung out in semi-precious stone like the bauble on some giant's throat. Her fingers, eyes, nose, lips and ears were delicate as paper, and her skin as pale. Her hair hung down in winding curls, some gold, some auburn brown. She moved as a princess, for so she was. The Princess Of Nowhere. 

The wind came in torrents like waves of freezing water, but she did not shiver. She was warm with a light her own, for her land was a place of survival, no matter whom the enemy. Nowhere must remain always or Somewhere would break down as well, and Anywhere would surely fall apart. Everywhere was nothing without the others they fed it, gave it life and hope and breath. Nowhere could not die. This was her belief. But why then must I fight? The words were echoes of the dreams, prophecies perhaps, that she had seen for many nights and that had woken all her solitary realm. 'Fight' meant there was something to fight for-something to lose. 

She walked on and now she shivered only just a little. She began to notice the stars in her pockets were crying out dirges-funeral songs she'd forgotten or only half remembered from when Nowhere had been a place of many, many mourning ones. She bit her lip. She walked slower now and she realized she could not fight this on her own. Once home, she lit herself a fire of the stars she had collected, who cried out in complaint that such as they be wasted so carelessly. She reminded them of who she was and their mouths no longer spoke as they warmed her with their bodies. There was a breathlessness here, a waiting endlessly for things to happen. Nowhere was a quiet place-it's brutality in it's lack of landscape and it's lack of usefulness. 

There was only she, The Well, and her dome of Stately Mirrors. The fallen stars fizzed and popped and slowly their light left them and their soft bodies burned to powder to be taken by the winds. She found paper and a ball-point pen and with her fragile, perfect hands she drew the faces of the ones she could remember. It was difficult sometimes, remembering all those things that had once been and were not anymore. Sometimes the easiest things are the most difficult to do and so it was with memories of love that once had been and was no more. Even so, she drew the hard lines of his face and the soft lines of his name amongst the rest. Perhaps he would still care for her enough to rescue her when she was most alone.

 The Flying Boy. The Small Dead Girl. The Willow King. Her fingers bent the pen against the paper, making whisper sounds and lion's breath. The Prisoner. She drew him with a scowl. Old Pantomime. It was all rounded corners under the black glare of the pen. The Dreaded Scars. They were difficult to make on paper, no matter the skill of the artist's wrists or the taper of her fingernails. The Dreaded Scars were never meant to be portrayed in such a way. Her list complete, The Princess of Nowhere brushed her hair until it was soft and straight as silk, pulled a drink from The Well Of Tears, drank deeply, solemnly (as one must always drink from The Well Of Tears) and, as seasons grew and died and Summer wound it's vines all 'round Nowhere, she slept. The princess woke with breathlessness. Emotions do not dream, and places only gently. 

The Princess of Nowhere was both those things and more and yet it had been long nights since she'd closed her eyes to anything but darkness. Tonight she had seen her little brother, The Sovereign of Somewhere, and he had spoken to her with his supple voice and she had listened, as always, with impatience. When she first had seen him, sanguine there on the dusty planks of some forgotten attic, he had been reciting from a list of words: "Expectorate, Aqueous, Snapdragon, Xenophile, Shiver, Adumbrate..." He had seen her then, lifted his domed head, tilted his shaped and pampered eyebrows in a joking way, and slid his slender lips to make an uncomfortable smile. "What are you doing?" She asked. 

"I must use these words and then all of the friendly men will then know I am smarter than the way my voice makes me." He was proud as he spoke, and yet his head hung at an angle that reminded her of the way a dog looks with it's tail between it's legs. "Why don't you use them when you speak with me?" She asked, gently. They had never spent much time together, as was the obligation of their office. This brother of hers, a king in his own, was no different than the penitent few who passed through her gate, often on their way to him. He giggled for a moment, a child's sound, and just as quickly he was standing and his mouth was straight and small. "I do not surely know the very meaning of the words, or of their worth, dear sister." "Does it matter to the friendly men, brother, what the words mean?" She had asked him then. "Most surely it is just that I do say them, sister, and with an intricate voice as well." 

"Do they know the meanings, brother?" "No." He frowned and she knew, then, that she had ruined his fun, taken his usefulness. "Learn them, brother, and you are better than those men and they look upon you with jealousy." He smiled, just a little, and his voice changed to a toneless drone. "Most surely, sister, it is now definitely time for you, sister, to leave Nowhere and to mass an army there to hope to save what you may of your land from the most terrifying thing." "What 'most terrifying thing'?" She had begun to ask, and then all had been black and emptiness. And so she had woken, breathless and uncomfortable. 

She packed her mirror, 17 small red and orange gummy bears, a rock that spoke in poems, and her flask of water from the Well. As she left, she passed a pale young man and woman, arms entwined like snakes, and told them they would have to walk the paths of Nowhere all alone for now and that she would come and find them when she finished. Their faces were thin and pretty, with a lackluster confidence and self-preparation in the way their mouths hung. She smelled kisses on their lips when they mumbled soft ‘thank-you’s and wished her luck on her journey. It was cold beyond the gate. She arrived gently, her naked feet murmuring a weak slap against the cobblestone. 

She paused a moment to fuss with the wrinkles, though little more than creases, in the pale vinegar tinge of her gown. There was nothing for the body to experience here, save for the feel of cobblestone and the tender scent of Coriander. In measured breath, she filled herself with that heavy air, lowered herself to her knees, dropped her head and outstretched her thin arms in a supplicating bend. With the hush of soft breeze through Autumn’s sallow branches, the space around and beneath her filled. The Princess of Nowhere stood, eyes as yet unopened for fear of punishment unaccounted. So it was, gown awash in the gentle motion of this new air, toes tickling at the soft-packed earth, eyes tightly shut, that she waited. 

This was the structure of her visits here, as it had always been. And yet, by now, the Willow King had always breathed his wheezing chuckle and accepted her into his home. Today, the only resonance that moved except the wind was a sharp, slow, pitiable moan. She waited still for several minutes. In her mind she puzzled at the words that she should speak. Finally, she spoke in gentle tones, her eyebrows furrowed and hands worrying at her gown. “My lord, is it bad that I am here?” There was silence for a moment, she still wishing for the right words to speak, and a sound of effort spent in straightening a crooked frame. 

“My dear, there is no better time for you than now. Enter, please, but expect no hospitality, for I am nothing but a beggar anymore.” Eyes opened to pale grasses soughing in an Autumn breeze. Before her stood an old and wrinkled man, the deep scarlet of his kingly robes now smudged with grass and dust, creased and furrowed in a way that reminded her of the tired lines of his face. His crown of gold and diamond lusterless, cocked, cobwebbed and forgotten. Again, her tongue hung useless in her mouth for words to speak. 

“My lord… what’s happened here?” There was a resignation in the shape his shoulders slumped. His eyes still wept in gentle streams across his mountain cheeks. “You have not seen the worst of it, my dear.” One fat and gnarled finger pointed past her worried face. “Look!’ Behind her, in a pool of fallen leaves, it’s branches thin as hair and motionless among the swaying grasses, was his Willow. Half of it lay in a tumble on the soil, the other half now stark and dying. The seat of his throne (which the Willow had been) had been shattered in the fall; it’s base still in place, its back and arms twisted in the mass on the ground. 

“Do you see, now, what has ruined me? Do you see I mourn my throne and so my kingship? For years I had this place and these,” he brought his hands down to caress the shivering grass, “my faithful subjects. This place was all of me.” The Princess of Nowhere waited in that almost-cold, trying but not knowing what it was the old king meant. “My lord, you still have your faithful subjects. The tall grasses remain.” The Willow King snorted, and shook his pallid head. “I am not your lord and neither theirs. 

Years I spent atop my throne and when I wished for my subjects to dance, they would move in such formations in the breeze! When I wished to hear their words they spoke to me in whispered voices. Now, devoid of that most important of all aspects of this place, I am no king.” “But, my lord, you still keep your kingly crown…” He smiled on her, then, and took her hand. His skin was soft and cold and he shook a little when he spoke. “Crowns are only baubles, keepsakes worn by aging kings to hide their growing frailty.” He chuckled, and the sound spun ‘round like Autumn leaves to die upon the careless earth. 

“No. I am no king. I cannot rule over anyone. My throne is dead and I have mourned it’s passing long enough. I think that soon I shall travel to the gates of your far realm, my dear, to beg entrance from you. I hope I won’t be too much trouble for you, dear.” Taken aback, the Princess stammered. “My lord, you need not come. I had come to ask your help, though I had not wanted it like this. My home will be in danger, lord, and I would fear for your protection.” He shook his wearied head, his crown tumbling to the dust at his feet. 

“I must. There is no other place for me. I will say what goodbyes I can and will journey there tomorrow. Leave me with my people now, my dear.” Wordless, she bowed deeply to the once-king and took her leave from him. Outside, in the nothingness, she shook her head and wrung her delicate hands. Whatever was to damage Nowhere had felled a tree and killed a king. Where was it next to go? Again she walked the placeless, hands clutching at the void. There were lights here that whirred like tape recorders and made shapes that looked like words that said ‘forget everything and stay a while’. She shook her head at these and carried on, though the air became thick as she moved toward her purpose.

 Breathing softly, the pale Princess made her way towards the Palace of The Prisoner. In this world in which you make your life, there are those who are not near as plain as looks prescribe. Nor are their situations quite so average as your own, assuming you, dear reader, are not one of them yourself. It was this way with The Prisoner. The Princess of Nowhere always felt small chills when visiting this place, for it is never proper to walk within the places that define you, as you may already be aware. And so it was with apprehension that she found herself outside the steel door of cell 17 within the Southern Island Penitentiary. 

The door stood open, The Prisoner within, his undersized frame misshapen by the folds of his own royal attire. A scowl hung ever over the faded orange jumpsuit, eyes always holding looks of shame and angst. Letting herself in (for his door does not have locks) The Princess kept her eyes a little higher than his face. “So, you still won’t look at me. As if your sins are any less than what I am!” He spoke with his accusing tone, his voice a unity of scorn. “This is the way the rules dictate, Prisoner.” She spoke without emotion, as was proper in this place. “And so it ought to be. So it will always be. So it has always been.” He spoke in sing-song fashion, mocking her, his thin lips curled. “I know the rules, girl. I wrote them myself.” “Prisoner, why do they keep you?” “Because I am a sick man and a sinner.” “What did you do for them to keep you here?” She’d asked him this the last time they had met, but she had been much younger then and had not understood the things he said. He had frightened her. 

“I don’t know. Besides, that’s not important. What matters is I’m cold and they won’t let me out of here.” “The door is open, Prisoner.” She’d mentioned this before as well, and he had closed his greasy eyes and shook his head at her, as if she’d never understand. “Quiet, girl. That’s not the purpose of all this. Why are you here?” “Prisoner, I've come to ask your help. There is something come to take away my home. It has already hurt The Willow King and I can’t stop it on my own. I thought a criminal might know how to steal its breath away.” His eyes grew large and he stood, as she spoke ‘criminal’. She struggled to keep her eyes away from him and struggled not to choke on his damp smell. He moved close to her and spat “I am not a criminal.” Disgraced by his proximity, The 

Princess of Nowhere clenched her gentle fists and turned her back to him. “Fine. I’ll leave you here, then. Do not expect fair lodging next you come to visit Nowhere.” She heard him mumble as she left “No one ever understands. I wish they’d bring the food. I haven’t eaten in a week.” With grace saved for finer hosts, she walked away from The Prisoner. As she moved down that long hall, she heard his voice a final time. “Why doesn't anyone shut the door on their way out?” After stepping from our Earth back onto the hidden path, the place between places, The Princess of Nowhere, frustrated and hungry, took the 17 small red and orange gummy bears from the bag she carried with her and chewed them carefully. 

She walked slowly, spending as much time as warrants gummy bears, for she walked in the direction of her once true love. Nervous, she found herself too soon at the simple door that opened to The Flying Boy. He was there, circling the empty air, as if he’d waited by the door for her arrival. His was a simple place. Islands in the ocean and a spattering of stars at night. He’d told her there was nothing more he wanted, save her here with him, but that had been long years ago. Frustrated, blinking back the fresh light reflected in the churning surf, The Princess of Nowhere wrung her hands in anticipation of what was surely to come. He said nothing, only falling just a little nearer her height. 

“Hello, Promise.” That was not his true name. That she had forgotten long ago. Now he was only Promise, The Flying Boy of the Isles of Wandering, the name she had given him. He had named her too. Now he spoke in his voice of boy-nor-man, his ever-almost-grown voice and he spoke with the authority of youth. “Hello, Truth. It’s good to see you… though not really.” “Why not really?” He had said he could not lie to her, and this she still believed. “It isn't fair to come here and act as if things are right with us. But I don’t imagine you would come here any other way. And why is that, in the end?” She shook her pale head, her hair a tangle in the ocean breeze, and rolled her eyes. “Oh, grow up.” 

He laughed a boy’s laugh. “And what would that bring? I could be like you, you know. I could. I could leave my feet on the ground and I could walk between places and I could pace when I’m nervous and frown when I’m mad and, oh! What games we’d play! We could play at chess or words. Write poetry that doesn't rhyme. We could cut open the sky to see the way the stars shine and all the while them bleeding on our hands until the sky is only clouds.

 “No. I leave those grown-up things to you, though it’s often that I wish you would have listened when I cried for you to stay.” She hadn't expected this much truth to come from him. Last time he had told her jokes that only made a little sense when she tried not to think about them. She tried to smile at him now, though it felt less than it used to. “I’d rather things had never changed but you know I can’t come back. Promise, I’m here to ask your help.” The Flying Boy crossed his arms over his chest. “I’d rather you’d pretend you still believed in anything.” Now her hands were on her hips and she slowly paced the sand, the spray of surf in measure with the howling of the gulls. “Fine. If I pretend will you at least listen to my problem?” He seemed not to hear. “I’d rather a foot race than a swimming match.

” She remembered how the games had been, before. She had loved them then. She had loved everything that happened here, for here was he, The Flying Boy, and she had loved him. Or so she thought. She remembered that his games would never last and thought it best to let him finish it before she carried on. He spoke again, this time a smirk against his face, his eyes turned toward the sky. “I’d rather pie than cake. I’d rather dusk than dawn.” He turned his eyes on her and for a moment their eyes met and she remembered why it was she’d stayed so long here; why she’d left Nowhere to rust and slowly fail until her untimely return. “I’d rather found than lost. It’s your turn now.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “That last one doesn't count. The sentence isn't whole. Doesn't make sense.” He stuck his tongue out at her, with the small points of a smile at his cheeks. “You’re stalling now. You never were much good at this. I’d rather find a slow, fat fish to play against than play with you.” The Princess of Nowhere giggled, then, in the thin breeze beneath a sky of afternoon and the slow tide dully aching up the shore to tickle at her toes. “I’d rather you would come stand on the ground than wallow in the air where I can’t go.” “I’d rather you would meet me in the air than stand down there complaining.”

 “I’m not complaining! I’d rather you would tell me if you’ll help instead of wasting all my time.” He made a wide circle in the air. “I’d rather waste your time than have you leave.” “But I can’t stay! I’d rather you’d stop thinking you could ever keep me here.” “That isn't fair! You have to say ‘instead’ or ‘than’! I’d rather you’d remember how things were than choose to think it’s all the same.” The Princess nodded. 

She saw a way to end his aimless game. “I’d rather you a man than a boy.” He stopped his spinning. "I'd rather you a girl than a woman." "So neither gets what either wants? It's never too late to grow up, you know." "It's never too late to come back home." He hovered just above the sand, his toes testing the salt water. And there were never any answers to be given for such talk. This is what he’d left her with before, all alone in the nothing place just beyond his small, chipped door. An invitation to return. An invitation to forget the way things never stayed the same, never left her anything but choices to be made.

 She closed her eyes; put in place the memories of choices she had made-memories of Nowhere and the prophecy, the sickly dreams, the chasing after those she felt much stronger than herself. Memories of the choices and the weight that was her duty and her homeland. Opening her eyes, she saw his feet upon the ground, his fingers supplicant to wrap around her own and so she took his hand and let the water coil and sputter at her ankles. He spoke. “You used to close your eyes for a very long time and when I’d ask you why you’d say that you were busy thinking, and it helped you think. But what you meant was that you could not dream with your eyes open. I never could agree with that. What I see is no different than what I dream and before, when you first came to visit and you stayed much longer than you’d planned, you were all my dreams, and never was I happier to sleep. “But now, if you dreamed as you see, as I do, all your dreaming would be nightmares. 

I see this. I am not so small as to ignore the things I see and I am not so childish as to forget them. I understand you close your eyes so you don’t have to dream the things you see.” The ocean at her knees, seaweed feathering her ankles, holding tight to the hand of the boy she had chosen to forget, The Princess of Nowhere hung her head so as not to see the way the sunlight played against his face. Once more he spoke, his voice a coloring of innocence to countenance the hissing of the surf. “And I will do my best to help you how I can.” She smiled in the afterglow, the place between places, and let her naked feet caress the wrinkled path. Her eyes wide, mouth moved in an extravagant loop, repeating like a prayer the last words they had exchanged. She had spoken with one hand wrapped around the warm and delicately sticky doorknob that led into the place that she now walked, the other still around his warm and delicately sticky hand.

 “Listen. This is the truth. We used to think that we’d always be together and things would never have to change. But always is an empty word. Forever always ends. I will see you when you come to save me. Let that be enough.” He had winked a crooked wink and weakly let go of her hand. “Honestly? All the truths you've told me are always just a little less than true.” And she had left, then, with his promise to protect her if he could. And so she was, feeling more trusting of his thoughts than her own as she ran them through her head and through her mouth and the path led ever onward toward The Abyss, the writhing, desperate dwelling of The Dreaded Scars. To give description to such a desecrated landscape, though place it was not, and to describe the roiling coils of reddish spewing steam that stunk of burning meat and afterbirth would be as difficult as to describe the moment of death. Just know, dear reader, that immediately upon crossing the stretched and shuddering boundary that drew her near The Dreaded Scars, the Princess Of Nowhere began to scream. Limbs made clumsy in the searing, uncontrollable cold of winter shadows, summer oven driving blood in churning currents away from her heart, away from her mind. Desperate for air, choking through the inescapable pain that was now master over all her smallest motions, the Princess screamed until her voice collapsed within her. Her eyes swam in shallow color, no light to give them focus, and it was then she realized she could not pull them open anymore. Feverish and twitching, breathing for a moment through the hurt, she understood, as memory played gently at her spine, that The Dreaded Scars lived nowhere but within her and there they’d always lived. In a puppet’s dance, marionette strings wrapped tight around her ligaments, her tongue twitched within her mouth. Someone spoke inside her. “Thank you. You had been so well for so long… we've had no chance to stretch our aching limbs in such a very long while.” Something ratcheted within her stomach and, blind and weeping, the Princess doubled over. Another voice spoke and it was as if all the skin were slowly unwinding from her delicate fingers. “But she’s not in need of us! She hasn't even wept in months, except the tears we just now gave her… perhaps we weren't right to show ourselves.” The first voice spoke again, in chills of dissonance all down her spine. “Hush! Maybe she’s realized how much she really needs us. Maybe we get to stay this time…” There was laughter and her ears began to bleed in gentle, sickly soft and sickly warm drops. “She can’t make us leave!” It was as if something kicked, brutally, at her knees. She fell, whimpering, against the soft and arid earth. “Look at her! She doesn't breathe unless it is our will that she should do so! And this is where she starts to understand how miserable that fragile strength, that hoping that they all do, really is.” With this new voice there was a new pain, a kind of quiet sorrow ebbing at the slow, weak tide of thought that told her now to clench her frail fingers, breathe a little, beat away the helplessness. And as this new voice spoke, she felt a unity within herself-a filthy, careless, miserable unison of voices, content in their one thought. And now they spoke as one. “Break at the heart that filters the mind. Break at the mind that swallows the thought. Break at the thought that nurtures the hope. Break at the hope that gives life to the heart.” It was with a desperate fervor that the words grew long and thick, the one-and-many-voices rising in a sick harmony to shatter at the now thinning walls of her endurance. And this they repeated to the war-drum of her heart until all her head was noise and all the things she felt were pain and terror. And, as the breath died slowly in her lungs, so slowly died the voices, ‘til there was nothing but the violent hum of broken eardrums and the empty feel of dirt in her twitching hands. In a mocking sing-song, the legion spoke. “Before we desecrate you, make you ugly beyond recognition, it is customary to give breath to one last thought-give you something to hold onto as we scar you ‘til you’re nothing.” The voice was simple in its arrogance as The Dreaded Scars offered their advice. “Most of them make pleas, confessions, lists of days wasted, regrets. A strong few try to struggle-lash out with old, pathetic dreams or moldering loves. There was a man who thanked us. Said we’d showed him more of himself than he’d ever seen before. We didn't enjoy him as much as the others. Take your time. This is the way you’ll be remembered.” Her ears, eyes, nose, fingertips bled in sticky trickles down her too-hot, too-cold, shivering flesh. Though it felt her bones were broken and no muscle left to lace herself together, The Princess of Nowhere drew herself to her sallow feet. Her voice was thin and caked with difficulty. “You've used me. Now it is my turn. I am more than what you've taken from me. I have more strength than you can squander. I am no thing to be beaten and ruined. I am the sovereign Princess of Nowhere and you will hang your heads before such royalty.” The voices faltered. “Forgive us Princess. We are so many things to so many. We did not know to whom we spoke…” New strength ached into her voice as new air into her crumpled lungs. “You used my body. Give it back to me. Take away the hurt you gave to me.” There was a jagged intake of breath as the Princess found her feet. Again, the ugly voice spoke through her trembling lips. “Princess… we thought you knew. There isn't anyone who can remove the scars from you. You carry your pains with you everywhere, forever.” Tears fell, muddying the caked blood, cool against the anger on her face. Betrayal, disappointment, worthlessness washed themselves in waves all up and down her spine. “You are mine, then, until you have repaid me for the hurt you made me feel. You will come to my aid when you are called to it.” There was a shudder and a struggle as the voices moved her lips. “We are yours, Princess.” And with one last muted trembling they were gone. The Princess of Nowhere gathered her now desiccated, now bloodied gown around her delicate form and straightened her chin. The twisting path, as incomplete and beautiful as ever, hung in silence and, it seemed, also in concern for the thinness of her breath. Without a word, only a quiet shaking of her head as if in disbelief, The Princess Of Nowhere continued on down the muted path toward the next name on her list. Sexless, Old Pantomime was all your actions never taken. It’s swollen fingers, many-colored, smudged with makeup and with blood and sweat and semen, trembled at the sound of her arrival. One eye, wide and crying, swiveled then to watch her. The other, deep in dreaming, spun and shook beneath a bruised and battered eyelid. It’s mouth was endless smiling. And, in a voice barely a whisper, Old Pantomime spoke. “I never told you but I always wanted to. You’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. How can you expect anyone to look at you?” The Princess nodded. To speak with Old Pantomime, one must expect riddles. It can only speak such words as you had never said but always meant to say. Old Pantomime was something like a mirror, except to show you only what you weren't but could have been. “Yes. I do wish my apologies, Sovereign. I had not meant to come here bloodied. I… came across my Dreaded Scars and I am told I cannot heal from their wounds.” Old pantomime blinked and caught it’s breath. “It’s ok. I’ll love you no matter what it means I have to lose. I promise.” The Princess Of Nowhere smiled, then, in memory. She had practiced those words until they were sing-song and soluble. And the day had come, her eyes caught up in the wild culture of his face and she had said instead that she was leaving, never to return. Now she straightened her chin and spoke with a purpose she’d forgotten, left for dead on that warm beach, her mind made up and her hand no longer holding onto the Flying Boy. “Sovereign, if you don’t mind, I’d like to know what I’d have said next, had I spoken my heart and not my head.” Old Pantomime shifted and shivered and drew forth the phantom, could-have-been conversation from somewhere deep within itself. It began slowly, with a watery burble, and grew to an almost chant, an incantation. Old Pantomime spoke in voices not unlike her own and that of Promise, the Flying Boy. “It’s ok. I’ll love you no matter what it means I have to lose. I promise.” “But what about your house? Won’t it get lonely without you?” “Nowhere is nothing without me… but I am nothing without you. Nowhere will survive, though only in decay. I’ll give it up for you.” “You’ll stay? And we’ll play new games and we’ll dance and hold hands and never ever fall asleep?” “I’ll stay. Promise, do you love me?” “I love your heart and your face and your jokes and your voice and I love the wrinkles in your dress.” Old Pantomime made a choking wheeze that must have stood for laughter. The Princess nodded. “I know what happens next. I’ve dreamt it a million times. Sovereign Pantomime, could I beg of you a favor?” Bones clacked and ligaments wound tighter as Old Pantomime frowned and shook it’s bulbous head. Again it spoke, this time in a quick, high timbered sing-song. “You always get whatever you want. Look around you! Can’t you see the glories? Can’t you see the way the whole world shines for you? And what’s left for me? Where’s my comfort? Where’s my salvation?” The Princess crossed her arms, now gently pock-marked and still pale beneath the fabric of dried blood left over from her Dreaded Scars. She would not be confused or be deceived. Not this way. Not as before, when she had come here seeking solace after losing all her love. “You have the decadence of my regrets. You have the endless plunder of each dull mistake I never made. You have the triumphs that I missed. The passions I never allowed. But most of all, you have still the love I lost and cannot find again. Sovereign Pantomime, you are in my debt.” It growled a gentle resignation and labored to it’s crooked feet. Arms wide, Old Pantomime bowed low before the Princess, it’s here-perfect, here-grotesque form shaking quiet earthquakes of effort to stay balanced and intact. “My friend… I’ve always been yours for the taking. You’ve always been too afraid to see me as you see me now. But now you see. Now you know for sure. I’m yours forever. I promise.” The Princess reached her slender fingers forth to thank Old Pantomime and as they touched it was like holding her own hand. She spoke once more before taking her leave from that polluted place. She said “I thank you for your help, Sovereign Pantomime. I do not wish upon you all the terrors you will feel once those terrors have been stricken from my land. But I call you forth to Nowhere, nonetheless.” And with those few cold words, she put her arms around herself as if to ward away the growing chill and stepped back through the gate into the nothing place. And so she stood before that final doorway, having used up all her list except for this, the weakest hope. The Small Dead Girl. They had called her Sara, all the times before the accident had come and beaten the breath from her body, bent her limbs and battered what little life she’d grown to cultivate. And her small empire was no bigger than a room and her form no more than pictures on the wall or pictures held so tight as to smother what was left of her in hands of family. Here she was princess and queen. In the small room, with no words spoken or motions made to let her from their minds, mother and father and cousins and uncles and aunts, grandparents and teachers and others who’d come just to notice what they’d never noticed before and to know a small girl that had died. And The Princess Of Nowhere now opened the door and took her place among the mourners, unnoticed. She expected no help. The Small Dead Girl was dead and could not even help herself. This place was for memory and for seeing all the world in shades of mourning, in all the colors of loss. And so she stood beside them and among them, inhaling their mumbled apologies, parading in the same sightless mask-looking through their faces and past the colored pictures on the walls. Looking inward until, at last, head hung and body trembling with that common hurt, that shared failure, The Princess Of Nowhere turned and walked away from what was left of Sara, The Small Dead Girl. Once more within the nothing between places, she realized there was something she had meant to do when visiting The Small Dead Girl except that now it seemed so meaningless as not to warrant memory. And so, with delicate and weighted steps, The Princess Of Nowhere made her way again towards her homeland and whatever nameless cruelty lay waiting for her there. All the world was grey and blue, the almost chill, the somber cold of dusk. The emptiness of Nowhere hung like a shoddy curtain only barely covering, it seemed, some new and wretched change. The Well of Tears still burbled in it’s salt-sweet voices. The Stately Mirror Dome still shone and doubled, tripled the emptiness of Nowhere. And she’d never felt a comfortable tension such as this.

Upon arrival, The Princess Of Nowhere had whispered a happy sound and danced a quiet dance of memory. Her bare feet, now travel worn and tempered by the broken path that led her home, had shivered at the marvel of Nowhere’s simple dirt. She walked a solemn solitude along the paths of Nowhere, feeling once again the sweet and solid loneliness of home. With a smile touching at her lips she found the pale young man and woman, arms still entwined with snaking graces, and told them it was time for them to leave. They said they hadn't known they were still here, thanked her for her hospitality and left in clumsy steps that made the Princess smile with jealousy. And they began to arrive. First came The Prisoner in chains he had to wrap and re-wrap, ever falling, never binding as his hands moved in self pitying shrugs. There was an uncomfortable smell, like sweat and anger, when he stood beside her, much too close. Then came The Willow King, a small root in his hand and no belief to glimmer at his weary eyes. He had lost his crown along the path and he hid his baldness as if it were obscene. Strange, she thought, the crown had never covered that before. His body shook as he bowed before her, as she had done in supplication, begging at his door. How easily we break, she thought. how quickly we are ruined. He dug the sterile soil of Nowhere and, whispering soft promises, he planted what was left of his willow in a delicate and reverent funeral. In a shrill and whining wheelchair, Old Pantomime made a slow and awkward entrance. It had lost both legs along the path, it said, inside someone else’s never-lived mistake. They shone improper and unnatural-pale stumps feathered with a sickly red that bled, it seemed, into its dirty tatters. At times it seemed to drown and others it would laugh and blush and turn its head away. Her brothers came, also. Young Somewhere, with his thick books of thin words and the ever injured eyes of someone almost forgotten. Brave and supple Anywhere, his dark lips laughing, tall arms dancing with each sure step, shaking the world with his laughter. He was her favorite. Then was Everywhere, his eyes hiding behind the shine of thick-rimmed glasses. He struggled always, it seemed, with where his hands should go, moving them awkwardly from pockets to clasped back to pockets again. His clothes never seemed to fit right and he tried his best to hide his weight behind layers of nondescript cloth. Sometimes she felt sorry for him. It was not his fault. Usually he just made her sad. Her Dreaded Scars boiled and grew within her, this time only threatening to menace her already desecrated body. They moved like cancer inside her, hungry, and yet she moved within them too, a form of control to cull their mindless murder from her bones. And still they shivered at her spine in reckless excitement. She made them swear their allegiance in their seven strained voices. She made them swear until she was sure of their intention and still she, now dominant with the quiet strength of Nowhere all around her, held them leashed and wound in circles ‘round themselves. Finally, with innocence untouched by travel or by time’s dull blade, stood Promise, The Flying Boy, with artful ignorance, spinning in small circles at the gate. He seemed uncomfortable so far from his small island in the sea. The Princess smiled and took his hands and pulled his floating, delicately sun burnt form into her solemn home. She saw his cheeks begin to blush and realized she ought to let go of his hands. He had brought her a shell in the shape of a heart and she took it and put it beside what was left of the stars she had burned before she left. Looking with new hope at all those brave enough to care for her, their worries like paint against their faces, The Princess Of Nowhere began to understand what it is to feel safe. And looking, it was then her eyes remembered something the Shifting Man had said. She had thought them random words; that he had spoken amongst his myriad spasms and twitches. He had said “friends aren’t just for fun, Princess.” And then, in silent terror, The Princess knew the thing that was to break her home. With a wrenching, gutless, sputtering inhalation all of Nowhere went dark then light again. And the sky began to fall like plaster and to sliver into shards that lay against the heaving ground like glass. Everywhere was terrible noise and all those gathered fell like jumbled masses, their mouths held wide and desperate in surprise. Nowhere was a cataclysmic, shelter skeeter tempest of noise and pain and a tearing open of the world and then Nowhere was nothing. She stood alone with no ground beneath her feet, no far horizon. No Stately Mirror Dome or Well Of Tears. No brothers. No friends. No noise to carry as she screamed, eyes wide but seeing nothing.For, dear reader, Nowhere is not Nowhere when surrounded by your friends.