The Moth Princess
by Emi Makanry
No one ever saw the moths change, but their arrival was as familiar as the turn of the seasons: a procession of rustling golden figures lit by fires held in uplifted palms, and the papery sound of laughter as night fell. As a princess, even a ten-year-old princess, Elsune had the privilege of meeting them in state with her father, watching as the human officials exchanged the year’s best candies for moth-spun silk—which only the moths, by their arts, could spin perfectly without causing death. Then there was a feast, where the humans were all far too formal, and then, finally, the moths retired to their communal sleeping hall, and Elsune was permitted to visit them.
Her nurse, the mage Kikara, went with her, but Elsune didn’t mind that; for all that Kikara looked like the other human courtiers—a figure on a scroll, drawn in ink on a pale page—she was very different. She never reprimanded Elsune about her studies, or her impatience, or the way she watched the sky, or anything else of that order; it was not, she said, her job. So she only laughed along with the moths when Elsune threw herself headlong into the queen’s arms, and she didn’t even try to straighten the princess’s carefully-chosen robes afterwards.
Queen Tatha (as she was called by the human court) laughed as much as the others, then said simply, “We were waiting for you. Now we will dance.”
“Yes, please,” said Elsune. She took Tatha’s hand, and together, they spun their way into the dance that to Elsune meant the true beginning of winter, as necessary as the crispness in the air and the tint of flame and heavy fabric—the dance that made her feel, for the first time in three seasons, at home in her own skin.
She always danced longer than Tatha did, on and on through the night, trying to make up for months of formal bows and the carefully rehearsed movements that were called dancing among her father’s people. This year, however, she danced with more energy than ever, because this year she had made a decision—she would never again watch the moths leave. This time, when they left, she would find a way to go with them.
Officially, Kikara had only one purpose: to protect the princess from the power she had inherited from her mother, the woman the human court had called Sesi, who had once been queen of the moths. If Elsune had been simply another mage, protecting her might have meant only pain, as her power broke against Kikara’s, but applied against the power of the moths—the power to walk through fire and feed on air, to see the past, at times to change forms—Kikara suspected it would mean much more. She watched the princess closely each year when autumn began to turn, and this year she saw the decision in her eyes almost before the girl had made it. That left Kikara sitting with Tatha, watching the princess dance and trying to think of ways to phrase an impossible question.
Tatha, also watching the dancers, made no move to break the silence. Kikara studied her covertly, wondering what she was thinking. Now in the fourth year of her reign, Tatha was facing the end of her life, but she seemed no more troubled by this than her mother had been before her. It wasn’t the only trait the women shared; having seen three generations of moths, Kikara now thought she could discern both family similarities and differences. All three of the latest moth queens had been small women, stocky after the fashion of their people, with large brown eyes set in round faces, and straight wood-brown hair. Sesi, though, had had a tint of gold in her skin, which the next queen, Tatha’s mother, had also possessed. Tatha was duskier, with a wider mouth and darker eyebrows and eyelashes. Like all her people, she wore a constant smile, which didn’t waver when Kikara finally requested her advice “on a matter of some delicacy.”
“Oh dear,” Tatha said lightly. “I hope we aren’t overstaying our welcome already.”
“Oh, no,” said Kikara. “Of course not. It’s about the princess.”
“She is growing into a fine young girl. She dances very well.”
“She works hard at it, but none of her masters understand your dances well enough to teach her much.”
“Just as well. She dances as a moth should dance. I hope she doesn’t work too hard at it.”
“No—well, yes, a little—but that’s almost what I wanted to talk to you about. She understands a great many things about your people intuitively, as I suppose she should, but I think she wants to understand them better. I think she might want to transform into a moth.”
Tatha’s face had never looked less human; she was still smiling, but her gleaming eyes seemed somehow farther apart than usual, the line of her mouth too long. “This year,” Kikara added. “Obviously this would not please her father, so on his behalf I’d like to ask your advice on how to avert it.”
The queen’s eyes shifted slowly to where Elsune was drifting into a new circle. “The transformation is a matter of instinct with us,” she said. “We have never tried to avert it—except one of us, perhaps.”
Kikara caught her breath. She didn’t have to ask whom Tatha meant. “She didn’t succeed, as you know,” the queen continued, “but I think she might have tried. It takes great power to change, but much greater power not to, if the time has come. I never thought it would matter to Elsune, though, and certainly not in my lifetime. She is very young, isn’t she, by your reckoning?”
Kikara nodded. “But she’s spent years seeing the moths come and go, and passing the other seasons alone. It doesn’t surprise me that she would want this; I just don’t know if it’s within her power yet.”
“Her mother was very great among us. It’s within her power to try, but I think—I think it will never be in her power to succeed.”
Despite the smile on her face, her voice was gentle. “Oh?” Kikara managed. “Why not?”
“Because she isn’t a moth,” Tatha said. “She’s only half, and I suspect that in this case half is not enough. You must understand, there is no precedent for this. I can only guess. Part of the change can be willed; she might master that part, but the rest she could not. Her human blood would fight it too strongly.”
“What do you think would happen?”
“She might transform partially. She might spend considerable power and achieve nothing. I would expect that she would experience some pain. The change is not even precisely comfortable for us. It is, of course, possible that she would hurt herself.”
Kikara tried to speak levelly. “Or die?”
“I would guess.” Tatha was silent a moment, her long fingers circling her cup of plum wine. Then she said, “Have you spoken to her about this?”
Kikara shook her head. “I can tell she’s thinking about it, but she hasn’t mentioned it to me. Can you recommend anything that might stop her?”
“I can’t. Only—” Tatha paused; as Kikara glanced at her, she asked, “Is she really alone, the seasons when we aren’t here?”
“Well, I’m with her. She has tutors also, and dance masters—”
“But no friends?”
“She outranks every other child here. And she looks so different; they find it off-putting, and I think it embarrasses her. She’s very shy with other children.”
“What about her father?”
“He spends most of the year attending to business in the rest of the kingdom. He doesn’t think it appropriate to take her with him.”
“She unsettles the adults as much as the children,” Tatha deduced. “Even here?”
“Yes,” Kikara admitted.
“But not you.”
The mage dipped her head. Tatha leaned back and said, “She will be their queen one day, and they cast a space around her. If I could, I would grant her a place among us; she might be a good queen of moths.”
Kikara didn’t know whether she found that comforting. “I don’t know that there is a solution,” Tatha went on. “I think she should be told the dangers, and then—perhaps if she had more reason to enjoy being human, she would wish to stay.”
Kikara looked out at the dance floor, and then at her plate. At the moment, seeing Elsune smiling for nearly the first time in a year, she could not think of any reason for her to enjoy being human.
Tatha answered her unspoken question softly. “Her father might be able to help with that. It was he, after all, who interested her mother in being human, and no one had ever done that before.”
“That could be as much a tribute to her as to the king,” Kikara pointed out.
Tatha tilted her cup slightly, as if in thanks, and, as Kikara kept gazing at her, said, “I will speak to Elsune, and see that she understands the risks.”
“I’ll talk to the king,” Kikara replied.
Her eyes drifted back to the dance floor, where a moth spun Elsune, shrieking with laughter, into the air. “Then again,” said Tatha, “she is half moth. Perhaps she will always want what she wants.”
The morning after the moths’ first banquet, Elsune was surprised by Kikara shaking her awake at what felt like close to dawn. Amidst a panoply of silks and combs and more water than seemed necessary, she gradually came to understand that her father wished to see her.
“What for?” she asked dumbly.
“You’re his daughter,” Kikara pointed out, head tilted critically as she held yet another comb over the princess’s hair.
“I know that. I mean what for?”
“He wants to spend the day with you. Get to know you, possibly. Talk to you about the kingdom.”
“The whole day? But there’s another banquet tonight. I have to rest.”
“There’s a whole season of banquets. You can be tired for one.”
“Are you coming?”
Fascinatingly, Kikara hesitated. Then, catching Elsune’s eye, she said, “I’ll escort you to the king’s presence, and I may stop by to see you once or twice, but beyond that, no.”
Elsune almost couldn’t imagine a day without Kikara hovering at her elbow. “What will you do?” she asked.
The mage’s mouth quirked. “Well, seeing as there is a banquet tonight, perhaps I’ll sleep,” she said, and over the princess’s loud complaints, finished her hair and escorted her to the king’s presence.
This was contained today in a small room furnished with a gold-inlaid table and silk pillows set over the floor mats. Kikara bowed, announced Elsune, and vanished, leaving the princess to contemplate her father.
He was like Kikara—like every other human Elsune had ever known: a figure that belonged on a scroll, with olive skin, black hair, and dark almond-shaped eyes. He was dressed today in bronze silk with gold and white peeking up underneath at his collar and sleeves. He beckoned the princess to a seat, and she, bowing, took it.
The food was very good. Elsune ate it absently, her palate still drenched in sugar from the night before, and studied the birds inlaid on the table while she waited for her father to speak. The birds were cranes, she knew, though she had never seen a live crane; they meant things like long life. She thought they looked very stately, but not terribly interesting. There was a bright orb over them in most scrolls, but not on the table—here they were set apart from the sky. She wondered if they were lonely.
“Do you like them?” the king asked suddenly.
She looked up, blinking. “They’re—very fine,” she mumbled, and looked back at her plate.
“It’s considered a blessing to be near them, even in pictures,” the king said. “They represent long life and fidelity. But you know that, I assume?”
Elsune nodded. “Of course, not one of them has ever taken human form to tell us if that symbolism is what they’d choose,” the king added.
His voice was toneless. Elsune wanted very much to look at him, but she didn’t dare. She ducked her chin still more and focused on her soup.
After breakfast, they went out onto the garden-viewing platform. With ornate braziers casting an artificial glow around them, they talked about the weather and the beauties and severities of the winter landscape. Then they went back indoors, and the king took out maps and showed Elsune the cities where he had palaces, where one day she would also be expected to go.
Elsune had always known that her father traveled, but hadn’t given much thought to what it would mean for her. “I’ll have to leave?” she asked now.
The king nodded. “But I’ll come back in the winter, won’t I?” Elsune persisted.
“That will be partially your choice,” the king said. “This place, however, is rather out of the way; that’s why I spend so little time here. You may find it more expedient to make your home elsewhere.”
Elsune, consulting the map, made no comment. The king added after a pause, “The moths could find you anywhere.”
This didn’t surprise Elsune; it matched what Kikara had told her. The king, watching her, observed, “You don’t mean to leave.”
Elsune had to fight the urge to fidget. She ventured, “This is more expedient for the moths.”
There was something briefly in her father’s eyes, like the flutter of a moth’s wings, but it disappeared again too quickly for her to read. He said, “What of your own people?”
“They are my own people,” she replied.
“Not to rule. Your obligations to your subjects go deeper than that. You should think of them first.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Elsune, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The king straightened, another something in his eyes, older than Elsune and impossible for her to decode. Slowly, as if the syllables pained him, he said, “Your mother used to get that look also. You have no intention of changing your mind.”
Elsune’s throat caught. No one had ever openly compared her to her mother before, or even to another moth. I knew it, she said to herself. I’m like them. I’m like her. The thought unfurled in her mind like fire, wrapping everything in light, and at the same time making her feel suddenly, for no reason that she could unravel, that the world was a very dangerous place.
“You should see more of your country. Perhaps you would like it,” the king went on. “This year, after the moths go, you will accompany me to the other palaces.”
The word came out as a squeak. The king raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”
All the light went out of Elsune’s mind at the calmness in his face. Fumbling for an answer, the princess found Kikara’s clear voice coming back to her in snatches. “I will live a long time—years and years. There will be time enough for that.”
The king’s eyes shifted back to the map. “I suppose so,” he said, and let the matter drop.
That night, as Elsune prepared for the moths’ banquet, she vigorously upbraided her mage.
“You promised you would stop by to see me!” she accused.
“I said I might,” Kikara corrected, brushing dust from her coat.
“Where were you?”
“Sleeping. Hold still.”
“I wanted you to be there.”
“You should have sent for me, then.”
“You’re a mage!”
Kikara’s lips pressed together in a line that meant she was half exasperated, but more than half smiling. “Yes,” she said. “I beg Your Highness’s forgiveness. One day perhaps I will learn to hear you whether or not you speak, but until then, words, spoken or written, will have to suffice. Shall we go?”
“It was awful,” Elsune said emphatically.
Kikara’s expression softened. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “The king was trying to reach out to you, I think, but he sees you very little. What did you talk about?”
“Cranes and weather and palaces. He wants me to go with him this year.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“Of course not. The moths are here.”
Kikara looked at her expectantly. Elsune clarified, “I know they only visit in winter, but they’re always here, in the woods.”
“Well, perhaps it might be good for you to go away, spend more time with your father’s people,” Kikara suggested. “You are half human.”
“I spend enough time with them. I spend most of the year with them.”
“But what about meeting other children, or—”
“I don’t want to go.”
Kikara, still watching her, nodded slowly. “Moths have great wisdom, in their way,” she said after a moment. “I think you have your share of that, along with your power; I suspect when the time comes to go, you’ll know it.”
“Will you stay here if I stay?” asked Elsune.
Kikara met her eyes with a quick smile. “Yes,” she said. “Now let’s go to the banquet.” And helping the princess to her feet, she ushered her off to the moths’ hall.
The moths spent very few days truly awake, but they often weren’t entirely asleep either. Elsune, who became nocturnal for their visits, liked to doze with them in the afternoons, in the half shadows of their shuttered hall. It was because of this, Kikara said, that winter to her smelled like wool and wood smoke, but Elsune refused to amend her ways. It was during these afternoons that she always had her best talks with the queen.
When the queen had been her cousin Isei, that had meant a lot of things. Isei had known Elsune’s mother, and had described her to the princess so many times that the words had formed their own memory, of a lovely dark woman dressed in leaf-patterned silk, with a smile Elsune now thought of as Tatha’s. Isei had also liked poetry, and trying to pronounce the names of cities, and looking at paintings of the robes made from moth silk for other seasons. She had enjoyed playing shadow puppets and arguing with Elsune about whether various animals were good or bad. Tatha also liked silks, but her shadow puppets weren’t as clever, and her pronunciation of city names was better. She was quiet, spending much of her time in the afternoons gazing dreamily at the shutters, but she could talk with great precision about the woods, and she liked it when Elsune described meals to her. It had taken Elsune the whole first winter to decide she could bear her, and the whole second winter to realize that this was a moth of superior understanding, whom she might actually learn to like. Tatha, for her part, seemed to regard Elsune as gravely as a moth regarded anyone. This was, after all, a girl who had seen her mother’s whole reign and part of the reign before that.
They were talking about this one afternoon when Elsune observed, “Kika says you can see the past, though, so couldn’t you see it too, and any other reign you wanted?”
Kikara, asleep on a pile of cushions, stirred vaguely and fell still. Tatha had her eyes fixed in their usual dreamy way on the shutters. “Kikara has told you also, I assume, that power to moths isn’t what it is to humans,” she said.
“Yes,” Elsune replied, waiting.
“In some things we spend it without meaning to, because it runs through us like blood—for example, our life spans. Our lives may seem short to you, but to us—five years is a very long time.”
Elsune bit her lip. I’ve never really understood the difference between four or five years, and sixty or seventy. Humans seem to live so slowly, Isei had said to her the year before she died; and It isn’t fair to ask why the mayfly gets a day and the cedar gets hundreds of thousands, Kikara had said, but Elsune, listening to Tatha’s gentle voice, would have asked that and many other questions if she had thought they would be answered. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to another queen.
“Some things we can choose, like walking through fire,” Tatha went on, adding wryly, “Equally, we can muddle those things. Then there are some things that are a bit of both, like the change.”
She fell silent. Elsune, trying to sound as unconcerned as a moth, said, “Which one is seeing the past?”
“It can be anything,” Tatha replied. “Some moths can’t help seeing the past; it comes to them in drifts, like something on the wind. Some can induce it, and some have enough control to fend it off, but not to summon it, or to summon it, but not to guide what they see. Those who can control it usually don’t use it.”
“Because your lives are short,” Elsune guessed. “You’d rather spend your time in the present.”
“Yes,” said Tatha.
Elsune, gazing up at Tatha’s familiar, untroubled face, asked abruptly, “Am I going to see you next year?”
There was another pause. We don’t see the future, Isei might have said, smiling; but her daughter only considered the shutters for a space and then answered, “I don’t think so.” She was silent again for a while; then, looking at Elsune, she said, “Are you sorry you asked?”
Elsune shook her head, though there was a knot in her throat that she couldn’t seem to untie. “I wish you lived longer, that’s all,” she said.
“I think you’ll like my daughter,” Tatha remarked. “She’s more like my mother than me. So I’m told.”
Elsune colored. “I like you.”
“I’m glad to hear it, but you were close to my mother, I know.”
“She remembered my mother. And she was my cousin.” Elsune, feeling the space between herself and the queen of the moths widening with years past and years ahead, blurted out, “I want to go with you this year, as a moth. I know I’m young in human years, but I must be old enough in moth years. Can you teach me to change?”
Tatha was very still. Elsune, her heart hammering, didn’t dare to look at her. Finally the soft voice said, “I can’t.”
Elsune schooled her own voice as best as she could, trying to keep disappointment and desperation out of it. “Why not?”
“Because it isn’t something we’re taught.”
“But you’re—you’re not like your mother. You think about things, and ask questions. You must’ve thought about this.”
“More than many moths have, but I’m still a moth, and I know when I look at some things that they aren’t for me to understand. The change is as I said, only half willed, and that half only says yes or no.
The transformation is in the rest.”
“I have power,” Elsune said, “and I say yes.”
“With your heart, and even with all your mind, perhaps,” Tatha replied, “but not with your blood.”
The princess wouldn’t look at her. In the back of her mind, something terrible surfaced. It had long dark hair and olive skin and almond-shaped eyes, like a picture on a scroll, and she wanted to tear it apart.
“Of the ones who see the past without willing it,” Tatha went on quietly, “some of them try not to. Even with all their power, they can’t prevent themselves, and eventually their minds unravel and the past is all they see, until they die or fly into the flames. I would not wish for something like that to happen to you with the change.”
Elsune remained silent for a long time. When she spoke, it was in a small but unwavering voice. “My mother fought it. Every year she stayed as long as she could, and she came back at times other than winter.”
“She had very great power, I was told, and she loved you and your father dearly,” Tatha responded. “I think the cost to her was great, though, in many ways.”
“I think sometimes you have to try,” Elsune replied.
Tatha let out a breath. “Some things there is no stopping. That every moth knows; but you are also human, and you can decide. Why not try a change of a different sort? I think they would love you, if you would be one of them.”
Elsune, hearing her dance masters’ criticisms in her mind, seeing their traded glances, smiled faintly and said, “My heart and all my mind might say yes, but not my blood. I shouldn’t have to stop being a moth for them.”
“Nor should you have to stop being human,” Tatha countered. “You are both. It is a tremendous miracle. Why do you think we stay here every winter? You are one of us, and you will always be, but you are also one of them.”
“They aren’t like you. They don’t allow both.”
“Then how do you explain Kikara?”
Elsune looked at where the mage lay on the cushions, her cheek resting on one hand like a child’s, her long hair orderly even in sleep. “I don’t,” she said. “How do you?”
Tatha laughed. “Mages are humans with feelers on their heads and fire in their fingers. But I would think of Kikara before you do anything. Whatever you may believe of your father’s people, she is one of them, and she would be sorry to lose you.”
It was something Elsune had never considered. She had known, somewhere inside her, that Kikara might not be able to follow her if she went with the moths, but she had thought it wouldn’t matter; she wouldn’t need Kikara then. It hadn’t occurred to her that Kikara might need her.
Distantly, she recalled a story of another queen leaving while a young princess and her father watched. In this story the queen came back. I will also come back, Elsune promised inwardly. But though her mind and her heart said, Yes, something deeper whispered, No.
Tatha told Kikara about her talk with Elsune, and Kikara, stumbling with weariness after weeks of night banquets and afternoon visits, told the king. He listened stoically, then said, “Can you stop her?”
“I—don’t know, my lord,” Kikara admitted.
“Then help her.”
Kikara started. “My lord?”
“You’ve told me there’s no way of stopping her, so help her. See her through the change, and see her back.”
Kikara stared. The king, his eyes on something behind her, said, “I will never have another child. The kingdom cannot afford to lose her. You have studied the moths’ magic for almost ten years now. You know more about the change than any other mage.”
“I don’t—I—the queen herself told me how dangerous it was. You’re asking me to do what even a moth can’t do. And as for bringing the princess back—I can’t decide that for her.”
“You aren’t,” the king replied. “I am. You will do as you are bidden, for your kingdom and your crown. This is your command. See to it.”
The words I can’t formed at the back of Kikara’s throat, but the king was raising his hand to dismiss her, so she simply bowed. As soon as she left the presence chamber, she went back to Tatha and reported her commission.
Tatha also listened stoically, for all that her set expression contained a smile. “Kikara,” she said when the mage was done, “do you feel you’ve lived a good life?”
Kikara blinked. “I’ve never thought about it. I suppose so, as far as it’s gone.”
“Then it seems the only thing to do is to die in the service of your crown, whichever one that is,” Tatha told her.
Kikara thought about that. Execution for disobeying the king—a magical death if she overdrew her powers trying to obey him— Finally, as Tatha watched her, she smiled wryly. “I know it should be easy,” she said. “I’ve watched over the princess for nearly her entire life, but there is a kingdom to consider, and a very muddled succession if she leaves. Civil war, possibly. But I think—I hope—she knows that. She’ll come back.”
“She is only a child,” Tatha pointed out.
“She is a princess with more of the past behind her than she realizes,” Kikara replied. “She must decide whether or not to be a queen, and I can’t make that choice for her. Neither can the king. I wish she didn’t have to make it now, but this is the time she’s chosen.”
“Choice,” Tatha mused. “You are such a miraculous people.”
Kikara was startled again. She said hesitantly, “Would you have chosen—if you could—”
Tatha shook her head, her eyes laughing. “I am a moth,” she said. “But I would advise you, if I may, to see if you can’t convince the princess to be a queen.”
“Me?” Kikara said blankly.
“You’re the only human she really knows, and the only servant,” Tatha replied. “If she is like her mother, there’s a great deal she would do for you.”
Kikara bowed, bemused, and promised she would try.
Winter was ending; the first of the moths began to go home. They took their leave of Elsune courteously in the evenings—danced with her, bowed to her when she sat at Tatha’s side, refilled her glass with mulled cider—and the next morning they were gone, taking gifts of grain and sugar and wool with them, so that the rustling in the great hall each afternoon grew progressively quieter.
“Can’t you stay longer?” Elsune asked Tatha, as they sat gazing at the shutters.
“I haven’t said anything about leaving yet,” Tatha replied. Her voice was hazy, soaked in snow-tinted sunlight. Elsune, resting on her cushions with moths dozing all around her, realized with a sudden pang in her chest that she felt entirely content.
Two mornings after that, Kikara showed her some new silks—the plums, roses, and creams that she would wear when the moths were gone. “And maybe,” the mage added, “we might go out into the woods to look for them; or if you like, you might begin to practice your moth powers. I can request some salves in case you burn your fingers.”
Elsune was so surprised she could only stare. She had always thought Kikara didn’t want her to use her magic. Kikara, meeting her eyes with a brief smile, said, “I never meant to forbid you from doing anything, Your Highness. It’s my job to keep you safe, and I will always try to do that.”
“Kika—” Elsune’s voice caught as the mage, smoothing a crease in the topmost bolt of silk, glanced back at her. The princess said, “You do sometimes forbid me from doing things.”
“There is a difference between the things you do as a child, and the things you do as a princess,” Kikara replied. “The things my princess asks of me, I should never refuse.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“It isn’t difficult. You always know it yourself, if you think about it.”
Elsune looked at her reflection in the mirror, the dark round face with its black eyes, the coarse brown hair around it. A moth’s face. “I could learn to walk through fire,” she said.
“That, I believe, I always told you.”
Kikara stood, carrying the silks back to the wardrobe. “Kika, how long do you mean by ‘always’?” Elsune asked.
The mage was opening the wardrobe door, and didn’t answer immediately. “Well,” she said at length, “when I say I’ll always try to keep you safe, I mean always—every day, in every instance, as long as I’m alive and it’s in my power to decide.”
“A day for a mayfly, centuries for a tree.”
“Yes. And for humans, somewhere in the order of decades, if we’re lucky.”
Not always, thought Elsune. There is no always. For the first time, she thought she understood what Isei had said about there being no difference between years and decades, while at the same time she wondered if the tree felt like that among generations of mayflies. But to be a weed among trees—and even Kikara could not be with her forever. There was no always, among either moths or humans, only two kinds of eternity.
She waited until only Tatha and a few of her closest nobles were left at court. Then, one night as the dancing drew toward its end, she slipped outside and opened her mind to wings.
The pain was worse than she had imagined. Every bone in her body melted, tried to bend into her skin; her head exploded in a cacophony of stars; she could taste the clearness of the night, and her own self burning. She tried to fight it off, to keep pushing forward, but she had lost all sense of direction, and finally her mind wrenched away, and sped desperately into the flames.
She was gone. Kikara realized it with a start as a moth noble called her attention away from some flaming sleight of hand with a honeyed wafer. The dance floor was empty, and Elsune was nowhere to be seen. The mage stood up sharply, and without a word of explanation rushed to the doors opening onto the veranda.
What was left of the princess lay outside, a heap of dark brown silk tangled around a twisted figure, twitching hands whose attenuated fingers were ridged and black, a face that looked as if it had been smashed, with long feathery feelers sticking out of it. With a muffled cry, the mage knelt at her side. She couldn’t find a pulse—her own hands were shaking nearly as badly as Elsune’s. She was breathing, though—Kikara could hear her breathing, shallow struggling gasps.
“Let us.” It was Tatha’s voice; Kikara looked up to find the queen and several of her courtiers framed in the light from the hall. She nodded numbly, lurched to her feet and backed away. The moths swept out into the night air, lifted the princess up, and carried her gently back inside.
Tatha let them pass, then motioned to Kikara. Still shaking, the mage followed her.
They laid Elsune on a pile of silk cushions, and as Tatha and Kikara watched, gathered water and cloths and so many candles that the room felt like it was swimming in fire. None of them were smiling now.
Elsune slowly stilled, her skin beaded with sweat, eyes—slipped partway down the sides of her face—moving erratically beneath closed lids. Kikara, twisting her hands together as she watched, felt Tatha’s fingertips brush her shoulder.
“We cannot make her better,” the queen said. “All we can do is try to make her comfortable. Do you understand?”
Kikara shook her head raggedly. “Is she—”
“She cannot survive long in this state,” Tatha replied.
Kikara looked helplessly at the princess. See her through the change, and see her back—only a human king would think it could be so simple. “Isn’t there something you can do—something to help her—” she began.
Tatha shook her head. “When a change goes wrong, it lies with the moth to right it. She must right it herself, if she has the power.”
Kikara heard her own voice, the stories she had told the princess about the moths, about her future. Tatha went on, “It is very rare for this to happen, but when it does, the moth almost always dies. I’m sorry.”
“No.” Kikara drew a quick breath, met Tatha’s eyes, and said, “There’s pain, isn’t there? Great pain.”
“Yes,” Tatha said cautiously.
“What else? It’s different, being a moth, isn’t it? Different senses—a different feel for the world.”
Kikara closed her eyes. “Is there something you can do?” Tatha asked.
“Oh, no,” Kikara said. “Not if you mean—I can’t change forms, hers or anyone else’s, any more than the rest of my people can, but I think I can do a little sleight of hand. How long does she have?”
“A few hours, perhaps,” Tatha said.
“All right,” said Kikara, and knelt at the princess’s side.
Soothing pain was something few mages could do; it was like handling fire with bare hands. Granting clarity to someone else’s senses was worse—it required the mage to transfer their own ability to perceive, and this ability could not always be recalled. The risk was greater the longer the transfer was in effect. Kikara didn’t hesitate. She took the princess’s hand and laid her power like salve over the battered nerves.
The last thing she thought before the world disintegrated was three hours.
It took a long time for the flames to pull back. When they did, Elsune was not where she expected to be.
She was in her room, but it wasn’t her room. None of her tables were there, or her bedclothes; only a woman in golden silk, sitting in front of the open door. A moth woman, Elsune thought—the brown hair and skin and serious black eyes were a moth’s, and the smile—and then she saw that the woman held a child, and she realized she was looking at her mother.
“Do you taste that?” her mother asked. “That’s the end of winter.”
The baby Elsune was sleeping; her mother went on, “I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ll try to come back—”
Her eyes were on the woods. After a while she tore them away and kissed her daughter. Ten-year-old Elsune, her heart in her throat, trying somehow to feel what the baby felt, caught the expression on her mother’s face and realized she was about to say something she had said many times before, perhaps every day.
“I love you,” her mother said. “But I am a moth, and I can’t decide. It never mattered to me until I met your father, and I’m not sorry for what I am, but I love you.”
She kissed the baby’s forehead again, her eyes already returning to the woods, already slipping back into their smile. “See how it is—that’s the last ice on the air, breaking apart,” she said. “There are going to be such feasts.”
Elsune, trying to swallow, found she couldn’t, and remembered the flames. Her mind struggled back vaguely. Her mother disappeared. As her eyes opened, a wash of gold met them, and somewhere in it, a new queen’s face.
There was something wrong with it—it was fragmented. No; it was multiplied. Elsune blinked, looked around, and found Kikara, also multiplied, at her side, bent over something that looked like a charred branch, except that it glistened.
The mage’s eyes were closed, perspiration bright on her pale forehead. From her, Elsune felt something else—thin, vaporous, like ice—and realized why she had gone to that moment in the past. It was Kikara’s power, cold as winter, standing between her and all the pain—there must be pain, because that charred branch moved with her, was part of her, was her hand.
The movement caught Tatha’s attention; Elsune lifted her eyes to find many copies of the queen watching her. “You have very little time,” she said, “and she has less.”
Her voice was strangely colored in Elsune’s ears, like lavender. She looked back at Kikara. She could feel the mage’s power cracking, thin cracks like a web printed in frost. It’s my job to keep you safe, and I will always try to do that, Kikara had promised. The best her own mother had been able to say was “I love you.” It was, she knew, the very most a moth could give, whatever she might try or wish to try; and here beside her, crumbling with an almost tangible taste of ash, was the most of humans.
She closed her eyes again, gathered her powers, and made her choice.
It took a long time for Elsune to recover. Tatha stayed for most of it, even after all her nobles had gone, but one evening, finally, she said, “I must leave tomorrow.”
“I know,” said Elsune, gravely. “Thank you for staying so long.”
There were scars on the sides of her forehead where the antennae had formed, and she thought she could still taste the air too clearly. Her voice hissed more than it had. Tatha had done what she could to guide her in undoing the transformation, but Elsune was young, had never used her powers before, and was doing what no moth had yet done—reversing a decision.
Tatha said, “I wanted to see you well,” while her voice said, “I would’ve liked it to be more complete.” Elsune smiled at her, a moth smile. She could accept what she was, for now, and maybe someday she could make it better.
She watched Tatha go the next day, a lone woman walking into the woods. When she had gone, Elsune said to Kikara, “We won’t see her again.”
The mage looked more than ever as if she had been painted on a scroll—the edges of her frame somehow too sharp, her skin translucent as paper, eyes swimming in her face like ink—but she seemed otherwise well. She bent her head solemnly. “I thought not.”
She is a very great queen, Elsune thought; and she wondered how great her daughter would be. It wasn’t enough to make her glad, but it was, she hoped, a different kind of miracle, having the chance to see so many of them, all different, and to remember them without magic.
To the mage, she said, “Do you think I’ll be better by summer?”
“You’re almost better now,” Kikara said. “But yes, by then you should be.”
Elsune was silent a moment. Then she said, “I’ll want the best silks, and something to read between cities. And lots of candles.”
Kikara had a sigh in her voice. “And salves and bandages, no doubt,” she said. “Yes, Highness.”
Elsune glanced at her. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled, and this time her smile was human.
Emi Makanry attended several creative writing classes at UC Irvine, where she had a story printed in the undergraduate literary journal. Abyss & Apex also published her story, “In Dust and Feathers,” in its July 2012 issue. She hopes you enjoy this story as well.