“They keep getting younger.”
I did not open my eyes right away. I had plenty of sensations to process without examining my surroundings visually. A cool breeze skimmed my fever-hot skin. I smelled something herbal and sanitary, and I was reminded of a poultice my father had made me a few years back for a bee sting.
“Surely you aren’t implying,” said a second voice, “that she took this child to her bed.”
What I presumed to be the first voice made a sort of snorting sound. “And why not?” he asked derisively. “I don’t understand her motivations any more than I do yours or anyone else’s.” The voice was obviously that of a man, but it struck me as beautiful, musical—all the things a woman’s voice ought to be.
“You are being unreasonable,” said the second voice. The gender of this voice was not so readily apparent. It sounded somewhere between male and female, much like the voice of a child, but not.
I opened my eyes to find myself staring at what appeared to be a forest canopy. Light streamed through the leaves in jagged strips as I squinted up at the branches.
“I’m not being unreasonable,” said the first voice, something of a pout in his tone.
“Yes you are. She insulted you, and you’re flinging insults back at her even in her absence.”
“I think <i>you’re</i> being unreasonable.”
“Don’t be absurd.” The genderless voice paused. “He’s opened his eyes.”
A barest moment later, my view was occupied with the golden haired head of what I could only assume to be the first voice. His face, much like his voice, was beautiful and yet clearly masculine. He had high cheekbones, eyes the color of a storm-soaked sky, and hair that hung too long in ringlets about his face. “Well, good morrow there, wanderer,” he said.
“Excuse me,” I croaked. Once the words had been squeezed from my throat, my breath erupted into a coughing fit, and I rolled onto my side only to feel cold dew against my cheek. The earth beneath me was loamy and soft, so I hadn’t noticed until this precise moment that I was lying on the forest floor. “I’m sorry,” I managed to get out between wheezes.
The man looked at me as though I were insane. “What for? You aren’t going to bring those tiresome politics into this--<i>I’m sorry </i> this, and <i>please-and-thank-you</i> that, and meanwhile no one bothers to bring gifts or call people by their proper titles. It’s absurd!”
“He is apologizing,” said the second voice, “because he cannot talk.”
The owner of the genderless voice now appeared at the other corner of my vision. It looked much as it sounded, genderless. It appeared to be just below my own height, and was covered from head to toe in a fine blue fur. Its face was masked like a badger’s, strips of darker blue migrated down from its hairline to border the eyes.
“Still, no need to apologize,” said the man. “People ought to apologize for talking too <i>much</i>, not too little.”
“Can you move?” asked the badger-thing, completely ignoring the golden-haired man.
Once my coughing fit subsided, I nodded and pushed up first on my elbows and then until I was sitting up on the damp grass. “Where are we?” I whispered. Even unvoiced, the words stuck in my throat as though they were made of barbs and broken glass.
“Heart’s-Desire, of course,” replied the man, and the badger-creature only nodded its head.
I looked down at my body. Where there had been bloody black wool, there was only a dressing gown of crispest emerald green. It let quite a bit of the breeze through against my skin. There was no sign of blood at all, which was more confusing than alarming. I managed to tuck my feet beneath me and get to a standing position. "Heart's-Desire," I repeated, tasting the words as though they were the first thing to pass between my lips in my entire life. "I haven't heard of it. Is it in the country?"
The man laughed. "In a manner of speaking."
"It is quite pleasant," I replied, more out of politeness than anything else, because I thought the place might be the gentleman's house. Of course, though the words were spoken out of politeness, they were factually correct. The three of us now occupied a copse of trees whose branches stretched impossibly into the sky, raking their thorny fingers through clouds like milk blossoming in tea. Beyond the copse was a green meadow that rose steadily into a low hill upon which was seated a huge manor, the likes of which I had never seen. It was covered in beautiful stained glass windows, whose reflections made it seem that the sun radiated from the building itself.
"I should hope so," the gentleman replied. Now that we were all standing, I could see that my own garments were less out of the ordinary than they had originally struck me. The gentleman was naked from the waist up, and below the waist he wore a pair of trousers that looked almost to be made from a giant leaf. The fabric was waxy, green, and veiny. It looked exceedingly expensive.