Dolphin’s Ordeal

A crisis strikes just about all of us around our hundredth birthdays. Up to that point, a Star Mage is just a remarkably healthy, young-looking old person. But pass that hundredth year and it starts to feel unnatural, and the further past it you get, the more unnatural it feels. This is the first juncture where Star Mages run a real risk of giving up and dying. Most don’t. Most of us make it past the hundred-year crisis, and don’t face another serious one for several centuries more, or so I’m told. But it’s never easy.

Dolphin, being forty years my senior, naturally hit the wall sooner than I did. For her, it came when she was 102. That was the year her first daughter, the one she had with her first husband, died.

I was away from home when it happened, paying a diplomatic visit to the High Fae in Taniset, when I felt Dolphin’s soul crying out to me in pain. I had been gone several days, and she had repressed her crisis, keeping it away from my senses until this moment when it became too much to contain. I rushed home to find her curled up on the living room floor, sobbing. Her hair was a mess, her clothes were dirty and I could tell she hadn’t bathed recently. The carpet was torn. Cracks had appeared in the plaster, and a painting of mine that had hung on one wall had fallen to the floor and was now draped across the couch, its frame shattered but the painting itself unharmed. Three chairs and a coffee table lay in splinters.

I knelt beside her and held her. “What’s wrong?” She howled louder and clutched me.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered again.

“She’s gone, she’s dead, I haven’t even spoken to her in sixty years and now I never will again. She had no mother for most of her life and now she’s gone and I’ll never see her again.”

I held Dolphin tighter and stroked her hair.

“I’m horrible, Falcon. I’m such a bad mother. She was only twenty-one. I faked my death. She thought I was dead. She was twenty-one and she had no mother and it’s my fault. And now she’s dead.” Inarticulate sobbing followed as Dolphin shuddered and wailed and clung to me. Several more pieces of furniture trembled and I reached out with the Star’s power to prevent any further destruction.

I held her like that for about an hour until she calmed enough that I could run a bath for her and wash her hair. After that I dried her and put her on our bed while I made a stir fry and gave her some of it. She ate and then fell asleep.

When she woke, she dressed in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and came upstairs where I was painting in my studio. I put down my brush and went to her. She hugged me.

“Thank you.”

I kissed her. “It’s what I’m here for.”

She smiled. “I love you so much. But Falcon, I need – I need to go away for a while.”

“Why?”

She held me tighter. “She lived a long life.” She named her daughter, which I can’t do – odd, that. I can’t reveal Dolphin’s birth name, or the name of her first child, even now that the secrecy is over. I suppose it’s not because of the Star anymore but because of Dolphin herself, who is in some ways a very private person.

She named her daughter and said, “She was eighty-two years old. A long life. A good life. I have two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve never met any of them. It’s as if I planted a tree and then walked away from it and now it’s become a forest.” Her eyes misted, but she wiped them and went on. “Falcon – it’s just too much. I guess a normal mother can’t expect to be there when her daughter dies in her eighties, either, but for most of her life she didn’t even know I was alive. I feel like I should be dead myself. It’s just wrong that my daughter lived her whole life without a mother and now she’s dead and I’m still alive. And I feel an urge to pull on the Star and die. I know I could, and a part of me wants to do it. Falcon, if I stay here much longer, I will die. Everything around me makes me think of her, of how the world has changed and I feel so strange in it. I have to go. I’m so sorry.”

“Where will you go?”

She waved vaguely. “Out. Into Background. Somewhere, I don’t know. I’m going to wander, see places I haven’t seen before. Like Memnos did.”

“Will you come back?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. I want to, but – I just don’t know. And if I do, I don’t know when it will be. All I know is that I have to go. I have to go or I will die. Can you understand that?”

“No,” I said honestly.

She laughed. “I guess it does sound weird. I don’t know if I can explain it. But it’s true.” She kissed me. It started gentle, then became more passionate. “Make love to me before I go.”

I could not, of course, refuse that, but it was very odd. I almost felt like I was making love to a stranger for the first time, as intimately as I knew Dolphin, and as perfectly as we had always fit together, joined by years of telepathic bonding that preceded our becoming lovers. Something had changed in her. When she cried out in her sweet voice and clung to me, desperation hid there and tears started from her eyes once more.

“Oh, my love, I don’t want to leave you,” she said, “but I must.” She got out of bed and began to dress. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Falcon – if you find someone else while I’m gone – I’ll understand.”

She held me and kissed me once more. “I’m so sorry.” She disappeared.

Five years passed before she came home again.

***

I sent an email to everyone on Dolphin’s star.mage list letting them know that she had gone on vacation indefinitely and that I was assuming the duties of guardian while she was gone. Replies started to come in almost at once, some by email, some phone calls, some magic message, most of them just acknowledging the shift and saying, in effect, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Salamander popped over for a visit with a bottle of brandy about two weeks after Dolphin left. “Hi,” she said when I opened the balcony door. “Have any sorrows you need drowned?”

I laughed. “Come on in.”

I had repaired all the damage to the living room and bought some replacement furniture, so we retired there. I pulled a pair of snifters out of a cupboard and zapped away the accumulated dust; they hadn’t been used in literal decades.

Salamander looked good. She’d grown her hair out for some reason and it hung straight and blond to her shoulders. I had always thought her short hair looked butch, but she had never cared about that before, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. She’d also gotten a tan, and that looked great against her pale hair and bright blue eyes. Her body was nicely-muscled as usual, definitely not fashion-model svelte and she was not nearly as pretty as Dolphin in a conventional way (few women are), but healthy and down to earth and sexy. I seldom thought about her that way. Our brief affair had ended many years earlier with no hard feelings on either side. Maybe I was suffering some from two weeks of wife withdrawal.

I poured us each a glass and sat beside her on the couch. She gave me a peck on the cheek, clinked glasses, and took a sip.

“Reading between the lines,” she said, “Dolphin is in the grip of the Hundred Year Loopies.”

I cracked up. “The what?”

“You haven’t heard that term? Well, I guess not everyone calls it that. But everyone knows about it, or they do if they’re old enough.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It happens to every Star Mage around the time they get to their hundredth year of life. We all go a little insane. A few of us die and everyone is tempted to.”

“Really?”

“Everyone I’ve known. Want me to tell you about mine?”

“Please.”

“It was in nineteen twenty-five. I left Russia right after my initiation and moved to San Francisco. That was in nineteen oh-seven, the year after the big earthquake. It seemed like a good place to start a new life. You understand I was old when I became a Star Mage, not like you who were so young. I was eighty-four. My youth spells were good, but without the deep-tier power of course I was still old. I maybe looked like I was in my late sixties. Felt the same. Old woman, just not decrepit old. Then Leviathan paid me a visit. You never met him. He was the guardian before Dragon. He took me to this house, to Ajaccio, and introduced me to the Star. Oh, it was wonderful! I was young again! I was a young-old woman from Russia in glorious bawdy wild San Francisco just being rebuilt brand new after the terrible fire. The city was full of delectable young men all rough around the edges. I was like a child let loose in a candy factory. There I was, looking like a fresh young thing of twenty-five but with the mind of an old woman who knew every trick. Those boys didn’t stand a chance. It was heaven for a while. But of course, the problem was I couldn’t tell any of them what I really was. They were all mortals, those boys, and so I couldn’t make anything last with any of them. I would meet someone, seduce him, enjoy him for a year or two at most, usually much less, and then I’d just disappear. Pretty soon San Francisco became dotted here and there with my cast-offs, men who would jog my memories when I saw them, so I had to be careful who I let see me and who I didn’t.

“It all became too much eventually. It hit me in the Roaring Twenties, in the flapper time, the lawless time of Prohibition and Coolidge and hot dancing and craziness. I went out to the Presidio Club on my hundredth birthday dressed in my best and I danced and I danced and I danced. It was a great night, until I saw Caleb. Caleb was one of my conquests from about fifteen years before. I kept on with him for almost four years, and I loved him. I really fell in love with Caleb, he was just precious to me, and when it came time to leave him I cried for weeks. And there I was on the dance floor gyrating away doing the Charleston and surrounded by young lovelies, trying to decide which of them I was going to take home and celebrate my birthday with, when into the club walked Caleb. He came in with a woman on his arm and a beard on his chin and he sat down at a table and I just stared. He sat there and he stared back, and I looked at him with his fancy clothes and his wedding ring on his hand and his wife and the gray streaks starting in his hair. And I just stood there on the dance floor stock still while all around me people kept on dancing. Once in a while they would glance my way, wondering what was wrong, but then they would go back to dancing. And I just stood there and stared at this handsome aging man, this man in his forties that I had been in love with fifteen years before, and he was still very handsome but he was already marked with death. I knew death wouldn’t come for him most likely for many years, but the mark was already on him, he had aged past me and I was still the same young woman who had been his lover years before. And I looked around me and I saw my life just holding in place, like I was holding still right there on the dance floor, while all around me people moved and aged and died and only I remained. And something just snapped. I tried to go invisible but of course with Caleb staring at me I couldn’t do that, the Star wouldn’t let me. So I turned and walked off the dance floor, heading for the exit, not looking at Caleb anymore but just walking straight ahead. I could feel his eyes on my back and his wife’s eyes on my back, too, wondering who I was. And I walked out that door and down the street and down a side alley and as soon as no one was around I went right into the Background Realm and I didn’t come back to San Francisco or anywhere on Earth for six years.”

“Wow.”

“It was hard, Falcon. I had a very hard time adjusting to it. In Background I didn’t have to deal with mortality. That’s why I stayed there so long. I couldn’t stand the idea of returning to the mortal world.”

“What did you do? I mean, I’ve never stayed in Background more than a few days at a time.”

“One of the first things I did was to link up with a tribe of Wild Fae. Do you know about them?”

I shook my head. “I know the High Fae, and I’ve heard of their wild cousins, but I’ve never encountered them.”

“They’re splendid people, much simpler than the High Fae. They wander the Mythic Forest, hunting and fishing and eating wild fruits and vegetables from the trees and the fields. I stayed with them, oh, it must have been two years. But I only figured that out later. It was timeless. After that, I just wandered. I went to the White Waste and became a goddess for the Ice Trolls. I flew in eagle form to Mount Olympus and spoke with Zeus and Hera. I stepped off the Cliffs of Chaos and floated on the endless mists, manifesting brief universes from the well of my thoughts.” She shrugged. “There were many things I did. I thought sometimes about returning to my home in San Francisco, which I had completely abandoned, or to visit Leviathan or any of my other friends among the Star Mages. But for a long time, I just couldn’t bring myself to return to the physical plane.”

“What finally happened?”

“Leviathan sought me out after I’d been gone for six years. He understood what I was going through, and gave me enough time that he felt I would be able to pull myself together. We had a long talk, and I decided that if he could do it so could I, and I came back.”

“What happened to your house and all your things?”

“Sold for back taxes. No big deal. I started all over. But here’s what I really want you to take away from all this, Falcon. Dolphin will come back, but then again, she won’t. I was a changed person when I got over the loopies. I never again took a mortal lover. I became a much quieter person, much more reclusive and private.”

“Dolphin’s already like that.”

“Then she may go the other way. The point is that this crisis changes people. Nobody comes out of it the same way they went in. You should be prepared for that. When she comes back, she may want to resume your relationship or she may not. She may want to continue being the guardian or she may resign. It’s impossible to predict. And there’s one other thing. If she’s gone for any length of time, which she probably will be, it’s nearly certain she’ll take a lover. Or more than one.”

I frowned. “She said something like that, not about herself but about me – how if I found someone else while she was gone, she’d understand.”

“She knows what she’s going through. She knows that everything is in flux. She doesn’t want to hurt you, but there’s a good chance she will. It’s your life, Falcon, but what I would do if I were you is to let go. Just see this as a – temporary divorce, if there is such a thing. You’re single again, at least until she comes back. And you’ll both make a decision at that point about where things go.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready to do that yet.”

She smiled. “No, it’s probably too soon. But I wanted to talk to you about it because, well, I care about you, and about her, and I know what she’s going through.” She tossed off the last of her brandy. “Keep the bottle, my friend. You likely will need it more than I.” She stood up and stretched. She pulled me to my feet and hugged me. “If there’s anything you need, Falcon – anything I can do for you – let me know. You understand?”

“I – think so. I’m not ready to do anything like that yet, Salamander.”

She laughed in my ear. “I know. But it doesn’t hurt to offer, and when you’re ready the offer will still be good. I’m here for you.”

She kissed me lightly and headed for the door.

***

I heard from Dolphin about a month after that. She sent me a magical message asking if I were all right, and if we could meet at the Bottomless Waterfall, a place in Background that we’d visited a few times before. I said sure.

I got there a little before she did. The falls are called that because, standing at the top of them as I was, the bottom is too far away to see. Mists gather into clouds far down the cliff and obscure the lower half of the fall. I once took bird form and flew down to find the bottom, so I know that it does exist. But it’s a long way down.

I sat on a boulder and enjoyed the cool damp air and the sunshine and the sound of the falls. Dolphin popped in a few minutes after I arrived.

She had changed so much that at first I didn’t recognize her.

Her hair was dyed in streaks of magenta and gold alternating with her natural dark brown, and the temples were shaved, the rest gathered into braidlets and hanging to her shoulders like a bead curtain. A tattoo of an angel covered the right half of her face. She wore a skin-tight black suit of some elastic material and knee-high scarlet boots. I rose to my feet, startled, thinking I’d been discovered by some strange Background denizen, but then noticed that this woman was exactly Dolphin’s diminutive height and, finally, felt the familiar mind-touch and saw her smile. I smiled, too. She came forward and hugged me.

“How are you?” I asked. “You look – different.”

She laughed. “Do you like it?” She stepped back and did a pirouette. I saw that her top had a leaping dolphin embroidered on the back.

“I’m not sure. I think it might take a little getting used to.”

“Well, I’ll probably change it soon. I’m experimenting with different looks. I’ve looked the same for sixty years, Falcon! That’s so not me! When I was a singer, I changed my hair style, clothes, and jewelry all the time. I got several tattoos that I took off when I became a Star Mage – well, you’ve seen the old pictures.”

“Yes.”

“So this is fun. I feel like I’m young all over again. Oh – and I sang a concert! In Background! It was wild!”

She danced about the grassy space between the rocks and the swift river, doing moves I hadn’t seen before, sinuous, with motions like swimming. “I had an audience of Fae and part-humans and even goblins! I had an all-electronic backup band, really good musicians that I found in a high-tech part of Background. I sang new songs, ones I’ve written since I became a Star Mage.”

“How did it go?”

She frowned and shrugged. “I’m out of practice. I did all right, but I wasn’t at my best. And at first I was very nervous, until I started resonating telepathically with the audience. Then it got better. That’s how it always used to be, too. I’ll improve. But Falcon, the point is I’m having so much fun! I feel like I’ve been cooped up in a hole for years and now I’m finally out in the world, and it’s great. But oh, sometimes I feel guilty, Falcon. I’ve left everything on your shoulders. You have to be the guardian now. How is that going?”

“Fine. There haven’t been any real emergencies. I did have a couple of arguments to resolve, but nothing very serious.”

She nodded. “Have you taken a lover?” she went on very quietly.

I shook my head. “Have you?”

“No. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t. What would you do if I did?”

“Seems to me I owe you one.”

“Oh, because of Viviana. No, it doesn’t work like that. You don’t owe me anything.”

“I owe you my life, Dolphin.”

“No. It can’t be like that. Your life belongs to you. What I’m asking is, if I do, will you say it’s over between us? I want to know your feelings.”

I sighed. “I don’t ever want to say it’s over. I’ve loved you since I was twelve years old. I miss you and I want you to come back. That’s how I feel. I know you can’t come back yet, but I hope you do eventually.”

“I know this must feel very strange to you.”

“Not so much now. I’ve talked to some others that are past a hundred. I understand everyone goes through this.”

She nodded. “I’d heard that, too. But I didn’t really understand it until it happened to me. Now – I’m changing, Falcon, and I don’t know into what. It’s like I’m a caterpillar working out of a cocoon.” She sighed. “I don’t think we can make plans yet. I’m being very selfish even asking you that question. How can you know? You won’t even know if you want me back until you know who I am, will you?”

“I will always love you, Dolphin. No matter what you become. And – whatever happens while you’re going through all this, it won’t count when you come back.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I won’t let it count.”

She smiled and hugged me, saying nothing.

We made love on the grass with the waterfall in the background. I hadn’t planned on that, and I got the feeling she wasn’t planning anything, just playing it all by ear. But it seemed the right thing to do. Any link that could help hold us together through all this would be good.

Afterwards, we lay naked on the grass in the mists. She hummed a little tune. She stretched her arms over her head, making her breasts do interesting things above her muscles. Gods, but she was beautiful, even with the weird hair and the tattoo on her face.

“You know what I wish?” she said.

“No.”

She rolled over and faced me. She smiled. “I wish we could just run away together. I wish we could go here and there in the Background Realm and forget the planet Earth even exists. I miss you, Falcon. I wish you could come with me.”

“I can’t. You know that.”

She sighed. “Yes, I know. One of us has to be responsible. When you became my heir, I was so happy, but now I wish you weren’t. I wish I could just resign, put it all on someone else, and we could run away and pretend we were eloping. We could pretend my father didn’t approve of you and we were escaping to be together. It would be so romantic.”

I laughed. “Do you think your father would have approved of me?”

She laughed too. “Papa was cool. As long as I was happy he was happy.” She frowned. “He’s been dead for a long time, of course. And no, we can’t run away together. I know that. I’ll get over this eventually, Falcon. Everyone does. Then I’ll come back. But I won’t be the same. Do you think I’ll still want to be the guardian?”

“How could I know?”

“No, you can’t know. If I resign, would that be all right?”

“I’ll do what’s needed, Dolphin. If you resign, I’ll go on being guardian, that’s all.”

“Oh, you’re so good, Falcon. You’re so good, and I’m so – messed up. But I’m loving it, and that makes me feel guilty. I shouldn’t love this so much.” She paused. “Falcon, will you promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Years ago, before we met, you had visions of me. I never sent you those visions.”

“You told me.”

“But I think I must have unconsciously, because when I met you, it was like meeting an old friend. I knew you right down to the bones.”

“And I knew you, too. That’s why I trusted you so much.”

“We had a connection then, before we’d ever met. What I want to ask is this. I don’t ever want to lose that connection. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I’m becoming. When I come back, I may want to be the guardian again, and you may want me back as your wife. Or I may not. Or you may not. It’s so confusing. But Falcon, whatever happens, I want always to have that connection with you, mind to mind, heart to heart. I never want to leave you.”

I kissed her. “You never will. I promise. I won’t let you go.”

“Thank you.”

We said no more that day. She dressed and left, returning to her wildness, and I dressed and returned to my duties as acting guardian of the Star. I realized then, as I hadn’t fully understood before, that Salamander was right. I needed to let her go, not in the sense Dolphin meant – I would never do that – but let go of hope that our relationship would resume the same as before when she came back. It might resume or it might not, and she might go back to being the guardian or she might not, but it would certainly not be the same.

I’d more or less given her permission to fool around while she was gone, so I expected her to do that. I decided that I would, too.

I waited a day and then placed a call to Salamander. She came over that night. Salamander had never been an object of wild passion for me, not a Dolphin or a Karla, but she gave me comfort. In her arms I found a little peace. I needed that.

***

Dolphin and I stayed in contact intermittently over the next five years. I attended to the duties of the guardian, which were routine enough. With the Sword banished to its other world and the Crystal Order under Jaguar’s enlightened leadership, there wasn’t a lot to do. The nations of the world gradually coalesced towards a single government. I did have to send Star Mages to intervene once in order to head off a nasty trade war between the Union of Democratic States and the Asian-Oceanic League. I asked the Star about it.

“It would not be disastrous, Falcon,” she said, manifesting as a pixie with a green cap and tights and little dragonfly wings sitting on the edge of her altar, “but it would slow down the League’s development. China is finally on the verge of expanding its democratic revolution to the other, less-advanced member states, which would put the League in position to merge with the Union and complete the unification of the Earth.”

“How long will that take?”

“If this conflict is resolved, perhaps fifty years. If not, at least a hundred.”

“Ah. Worth doing, then.”

“I am patient, Falcon, but there is no sense in letting it take longer than necessary. We are very close now.”

So I sent my friend Anansi in charge of two other initiates to influence the trade negotiations. They handled it easily and well. The Star was pleased.

Other than that, and the training of a few new adepts and resolving maybe three or four quarrels a year among Star Mages that came to me for adjudication, I had nothing to do as acting guardian. It was the easiest job I ever held, but since it comes without pay I suppose that’s fair.

I painted many pictures and marketed them on the Internet. I kept my casual affair going with Salamander and resumed my earlier one with Viviana. I saw Dolphin from time to time and didn’t keep my girlfriends a secret from her, and learned that she, too, had begun seeing a Background being, the lord of a fantasy realm and a powerful wizard named Tolten Storm. She still talked as if she would want us back together when she returned, though, and as if the choice was mine. And when we saw each other, we always made love.

She removed the tattoo about six months after putting it on, and frequently changed her appearance in other ways. Her hair was short, long, curled, straight, dyed, natural, and just about every possibility except shaved bald – I was thankful there were some limits to her experimentation. She wore lacy dresses and tight leather, went Minoan-style topless with rouged nipples and concealed her form in Arabic dress complete with veil, sported rustic homespun and animal skins and high techno-punk. It became an adventure to see her each time and discover who she had become. Her personality seemed to vary as much as her clothes and hair style, sometimes demure, sometimes demonstrative as if she were performing for me.

I enjoyed it. I had to admit to myself that our relationship had grown a bit stale and our lives dull. There were sides of Dolphin that I had never seen, but I saw them now as she explored them.

Four years and eight months after she left home, a long silence fell. Month after month passed without a word. I sent her messages asking for news, asking to meet with her and talk. I received no reply. I sent seeker-birds and scouts of Star Mages and High Fae. I arrowed my concern across the telepathic connection that we had always had and felt it drop into nothingness like a stone into deep water. I could tell she still lived, but something was preventing her from answering my call, and I did not think it was her own will.

Five years to the day after she left home, I received a message, but not from Dolphin.

I was in the Background Realm, visiting the High Fae settlement in Faerie-Ajaccio that had been established after goblins ransacked the town, when a magical message-light floated into view. The message expanded into the image of a tall, powerfully-built man with coal-black hair and beard, dressed in a golden robe embroidered with dragons and lions, and armed with a scimitar. The man spoke:

“Falcon, I am Tolten Storm, the Eagle King. I am sure that Dolphin has told you of me, and that she has become my lover. She has chosen to remain with me in my realm, and to abdicate as the guardian of the Star. I understand that means the position falls to you. She has no desire to see you further, as she believes it would cause her pain. In this I support her completely, of course. I ask that you respect her wishes, and seek no further to contact Dolphin.”

The image disappeared.

“Well, what do you think of that?” asked Ranger Kalvin, the leader of the High Fae in Ajaccio.

“I think it’s a complete load of bullshit, of course,” I said. “If Dolphin made a decision like that, she would tell me so herself, not get her lover to do it. She’s being held prisoner.”

“I agree. What will you do?”

I summoned my katana and belted it on. I sent messages of my own to Angée, Memnos, Salamander, Redwood, Anansi, and Jaguar, asking them to come to Fae-Ajaccio for a council of war. I then turned to Kalvin and said, “Please summon the militia. We are going to pay Tolten Storm a visit. He will regret this.” I drew my sword and ran my thumb along the edge, feeling its sharpness. “He will regret it a great deal.”

The mages came, and the small High Fae militia gathered. I located the domain of the Eagle King by divination and we besieged his castle. That was a medieval-looking construct warded by strong spells, but no match for the combined power of the Star Order, the Crystal’s guardian, and the High Fae. At my back a raging storm of chaos waited, summoned by my fury. Our forces in place, thunder on the horizon, I sent a message of my own calling Tolten Storm to a parley.

He came, bringing Dolphin with him. She was dressed in a white gown and her wrists were bound with golden shackles. I looked into her eyes and she smiled at me. She looked at Tolten Storm, and outrage seized her face.

Tolten Storm was a foot taller than I am and looked very strong. I could feel the pulse of magic about him. Clearly he was a master of the Art, to be able to bind the Star’s guardian against her will. He stopped about fifty yards from me and pushed Dolphin to her knees.

“As you can see,” he said without greeting or preamble, “Dolphin is unharmed.”

“She is,” I said. “Release her, and it’s possible you won’t be harmed, either.”

He laughed and drew his blade, a big curved thing with a single edge marked with runes and humming with power. He placed the edge against Dolphin’s neck. “Remove this army from my realm or she dies. I would regret that; she has become my most cherished possession. But I think you would regret it more.”

“No, I would not. Longer, perhaps. But not more.”

I studied those golden shackles on Dolphin’s hands, knowing them for a mind-binding spell similar to what Dragon had once used on me, shutting her off from the power of the Star. I thought I could see a way to break the spell, but I would need an opportunity. I couldn’t do it with his blade at her throat.

“Listen to me, Eagle King,” I went on. “You have kidnapped and held prisoner the Star’s guardian, and so you have summoned your death. The only thing that will save you is if she shows you mercy, for you can be sure I will not. Release her and her will decides your fate. Keep her prisoner, or harm her in any way, and I will make the decision myself. I don’t know which of those you would like less. Perhaps you do. You have one hour.”

I said no more. I turned my back on Tolten Storm. He went back into the castle with Dolphin.

Half an hour later, she came out without him, minus her shackles. Her hair rose about her head in a gale of wrath. She fell into my arms and I stroked her gently, feeling her tremble with fury.

“I told Tolten Storm that your will would decide his fate if he let you go,” I said. “He did. What should we do about him?”

She released me and turned her eyes on the castle, and I’m very glad that she has never looked at me that way. A ball of blue-white fire came to her summons and flew to impact the castle wall, shattering stones and blackening a tower before fading out.

“Destroy him,” she said.

I nodded and called to my chaos storm, sending it against her enemy. The other mages and the Fae added their power to the spell. It turned the moat into scalding steam, shattered the gates, and shrieked through the Eagle King’s hold ripping stone from stone and sending the entire huge construction crashing down in ruin. Somewhere under all that the Eagle King lay buried. I did not think he would come out again, even if he was still alive.

I turned to Dolphin. “Are you ready to come home now?”

She nodded. “I’ve been ready for months, but Tolten tricked me, trapped me, and wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t even send you word, Falcon. I’m glad you came.” She embraced me again. “I’m so glad.”

“How could I not come? Leave you prisoner? You are more to me than my own breath.”

Dolphin came home and resumed her duties as the Star’s guardian, and we resumed our relationship, but things had changed. She spent more time in Background thereafter, giving me more to do as the guardian’s heir during the times she was gone. She often changed her appearance, and would sometimes go on musical tours in the dream world, performing before audiences ranging from intimate to enormous. Between these bouts of exuberant celebrity she would retreat into isolation, sometimes with me, sometimes entirely alone, pursuing mystical visions or other private experiences. She took up photography, and learned from me how to paint in oils and in pixels, and combined the two arts to produce interesting visual creations. She expanded her repertory of spells and shape-shifted forms. She searched the Background Realm for obscure texts of magical art and brought them back to enrich the Star’s library, whether the physical library we maintain in our home or the dream library in its Background mirror.

Dolphin encouraged me to go on seeing both Salamander and Viviana, which would have surprised me even more than it did if I hadn’t already gotten used to the idea that she was in some ways not the same person.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Of course I’m sure. I’ve known about your other lovers for years. If it didn’t bother me before, why would it bother me now?”

“You were gone. Now you’re back.”

She smiled. “It doesn’t matter. If you aren’t paying me enough attention, I’ll tell you.”

“It’s just that you’ve never been like that before. You always expected me to be faithful.”

“You are faithful. You are more faithful than anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve changed in a lot of ways, Falcon. My body has been immortal since I was forty-one, but in my mind I was still a mortal woman until my daughter died. I understand better now what it means to have centuries ahead of us.” She kissed me. “Jealousy is a lack of trust. I trust your love, Falcon. I have never trusted it more.”

“I’m not sure I really want to go on with my other lovers now that you’re back, though.”

She shrugged. “If you don’t want to, then don’t. It’s up to you.” She smiled again and stroked my face. “I’m sure I can keep you busy enough. Just don’t think you have to break it off with them. I’m not asking you to.”

Years later, I would think about this change in my wife in the context of what the Star told me the day of the global initiation. Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s classic conception, that involved a breaking of attachments to one’s own small identity and selfish desires. Perhaps Dolphin had grown in that direction over the five years of her transformation. Perhaps I needed to think about ways in which I needed to do the same. My furious reaction to the Eagle King’s imprisonment of Dolphin, however justified it was, fell far short of selfless bliss.

In the end, I went on seeing both Salamander and Viviana, although I spent less time with them and more with Dolphin, naturally. Things had changed between us because she had changed, but it was good. Everything went smoothly after that until I reached my own hundredth year.

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