“You have entered now into the Great Illusion,” said the sorceress. “When you passed through the mirror, you left one world and entered another. Who’s to say what’s real?” She ran a hand through the fur of the lioness beside her, then waved languidly at the great hall, the four steel golems, all spikes and armor. “Did you know I’m a queen in my world?”
Naoko Furoshi stood with hand on her sword, feet apart, ready for instantaneous movement in any direction, precisely poised. Of course she knew the risks of chasing a highly magical being into a mirror, but she hadn’t realized Leyendra was actually this powerful. Furoshi traced a rune of revealing in the air with her left hand, the magical forces she employed leaving tracers behind her fingers.
Her eyes thus magically sharpened, the hall popped: the speckled black marble at her feet, Leyendra’s silky yellow outfit, the texture of the lion’s pink tongue when it yawned. There was magic here, spells of protection, of magical amplification, runes laid into the stones and woven into the tapestries. But the room itself did not waver; so far as she could tell, it was a real place, somewhere in the multiverse. She had been foolish to come here.
“I didn’t,” she finally answered. “Is it nice?”
“Have you never tried it?”
Furoshi laughed. “Being a queen? No, I can’t say it ever came up. Kinda thought you had to be born that way, or something.”
Leyendra smiled. “Not at all. You just have to be very, very persuasive. And I happen to be one of the most persuasive people you’ll ever meet. It only took me a few years to persuade the locals they should take my counsel on, you know, everything. In return I gave them lasting peace and an end to war.”
“How did you do that, exactly?”
“Well. It’s a bit of a state secret, but I’ll tell you. I found someone in charge who wanted to expand his rule – in this case a perfectly brutal king named Ekuthar – and told him that I could win any battle against his foes. So he went and did what kings will do, and then someone got tired of it and sent an army after him.
“We met them on the field of battle – understand these are medieval types, they love that sort of thing – and I summoned a mist up from the earth. It surrounded the troops, all these thousands of vainglorious hideously violent men, with their horses and shields and clanking swords and spears in legions and platoons, marching in actual battle formations, if you can believe it, only now they couldn’t see ten feet around them.
“Platoon got separated from platoon, squadron from squadron, and finally man from man. They would call to each other in the mist, countless voices, each shouting, ‘Where are you?’ and ‘I can’t see you!’ over and over in the gloom, but no matter how or where they ran, they couldn’t find their fellows once they were separated.
“And when the sun came up again, and the mist dissipated, they found themselves somewhere else, some unfamiliar and frequently inhospitable world. Even I don’t know where they all ended up.
“But. In this world, when the mist lifted, the men were simply gone. And so I rid the kingdom of two armies at once, and the causes of most of its strife – all those godawful nobles and knights and the poor saps willing to go along with their bullshit. Then I explained to everyone who stayed at home that peace was at hand, if they would just kneel to me and do as I say. Like I said: They’re medievals. They ate it up.”
Again Furoshi laughed. “You’re funny.” Also, clearly, way, way out there. “I’m not sure I totally believe you, but it’s a good story. Did you make everyone disappear though, or what? So far all I see are these robot-looking things and the lion. Though I admit, the lion’s pretty impressive.”
“I could get you one.”
The ninja-witch narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry, are you trying to be nice, or threatening? I can’t tell, and I’d feel more comfortable knowing one way or the other.”
“A little of both, obviously. You’ve been following me, and I’m a very hard act to follow, literally. So I need to know why. And if you won’t tell me, there’s a truly awful hole of a prison not far from here. I mean, it’s a literal hole, this giant stone-sided pit Ekuthar built. I’m told it’s very unpleasant and damp.”
Hand still on sword hilt, Furoshi asked, “What do you say to a drink and I’ll tell you about it?”
Leyendra blinked. “Certainly.” Lifting her bejeweled and gold-braceleted arms, she clapped once. Immediately two servants stepped out from behind the tapestries, holding wine and other beverages. “No, wait. Let’s move to the parlor if we’re to talk.” Not looking backing to see if Furoshi was following, she stepped down from her throne and strode out of the room.
The parlor was nice. It reminded her of some palaces she’d seen in Istanbul. Lot of inset marble, great rugs, low tables with fancy pillows around them, leafy houseplants in expensive pots. It suited her just fine. Sitting down, she took off her small backpack and set it beside her. “Wine?” offered Leyendra. “There also a kind of anise liquor that’s popular here. It’s white but it turns purple when you add water.”
From her bag Furoshi brought out a flask and a shot glass. “I brought my own. Happy to share.”
Leyendra’s lips curled. She really was stunning. Smooth dark skin, braids probably done by fucking specialized bodyservants, they were so complex, and that damn red mouth. Like a cat’s mouth as it’s toying with a mouse. “I’ll stick with wine, but thank you.” With a wave of her hand, the servants were dismissed.
“Cheers.” They each raised their glasses and drank. “So. You ever buy any slave children?”
Leyendra sat back, her orange eyes hardening. “This is about Melechim.”
“The slave market, yeah. You were there buying slaves.”
“I was there freeing slaves. Buying them and freeing them, so they wouldn’t be used by the demons.”
Furoshi sat back, considering. “Freeing them.”
“Freeing them where? Here in your palace? Are those them, pouring your drinks for you?”
“Freeing them is freeing them. They’re free to go where they wish. I even provided the mirrors for them to get there.”
“How can I believe you?”
Now Leyendra leaned forward. “Do you know why I do this? Partly it’s because – believe it or not – I’m a good person, and hate to see children harmed. But the other reason – the real reason – is to prevent the demons from getting them. Once a living child is taken to Hell, demons can wreak terrible suffering. I know enough of demons to want to starve them as much as possible. So I take those already in hell, on the auction block, and I help them escape.”
“Who else is buying? What demons really want children?”
The sorceress considered. “Vekis the Forlorn. Reekoro the Faceless. Zaraz, Eye of the Red Storm.”
Zaraz. It had to be him.
Leyendra smiled. “You’ve just learned something.”
“Yup. Very helpful, thanks.”
“Do you often do this sort of thing? Dive through magic mirrors to ask a clearly dangerous person where they were on such-and-such a day?”
“That’s the gig, pretty much. Do you often have people pursuing you through magic mirrors?”
“No. But now that’s it’s happened, I rather like it.” And each leaning far over on their cushions, they kissed.
Afterward, in the royal boudoir, Furoshi ran an idle hand along Leyendra’s hip and asked, “What was the bit about the Great Illusion, earlier?”
“You’re in it.”
“What does that mean? All this is perfectly real.” She waved at the silks and bedposts and whatnot.
“Yes, it is,” she insisted with some heat. “I can tell when someone’s casting an illusion. I learned that magic the hard way.”
“There’s always a greater magic,” said the sorceress.