Damozel Aetikë and the Halls of Alchemy
It has been known by wise men for a very long time, that there are more worlds than the one we see. Some think there is a world after death. Others, thinking along the same lines, suspect there must be a similar world before birth. Great scientists think there are worlds far, far away, and they point their telescopes at the sky to find them. And philosophers say there are worlds alongside ours, like neighbors you can’t see, because the walls of our houses keep us hidden from each other.
In one of these worlds–not very far from our own, but quite different–there was a great city, filled with streets and palaces, and people very much like our own. They walked and talked, ate and drank, lived and loved and generally carried on the way people do. The differences between them and us are many, but for the sake of this tale it is more important to remember how very like us they are. For all intents, they may as well be us, and you may freely imagine yourself, or your family, or your friends in the roles of the people you are about to meet.
This city, which we will call the Rainbow City (though that is not what its inhabitants called it), was home to a young girl named Aetikë. She was from a well regarded, though not important family. Those who knew her often remarked on how fair she was, but Aetikë often wondered if these compliments were offered more for her parents’ sake, than out of any actual admiration. For while she was fair, as her people considered such things, she lacked the signature distinction that was so important in the Rainbow City. Aetikë was not a princess.
I use the term “princess” loosely, as a convenient cultural touchstone, for though the Rainbow City was riddled with these princesses, not a one of them was the offspring of a king or queen. If I were to fabricate fanciful terminology for their position, I might call them arcenziels, from which you might take the meaning, “a maiden who is favored by the rainbows, and gifted with a touch of the magic of color from which the world was born.” Aetikë was not-a-princess, though she walked among them daily, and helped them in their tasks, and knew them all by name. Aetikë was a wonderful girl, but merely a girl; a plain maid, a damozel.
From her close work with the arcenziels, Not-a-princess Aetikë knew that there was a problem with the Cloud Kingdom of which the Rainbow City was the heart and capital. Despite their blessing and their grace and their magic, many of the princesses were cruel, and selfish, and consumed with their own plots. On the surface, life in the Rainbow City was peaceful, but beneath the surface was a twisted web of false friendships. Physical violence was regarded by all as vulgar and taboo, but conflicts of many sorts were never far from the minds of the Cloud Kingdom’s appointed protectors. Some wanted another’s position; others tricked and lied their way into confidences, which were then betrayed for further gain elsewhere.
In short, the princesses were not nice people, though they had every reason to be. What riches and power they could have, they had already, and all their polite battles amounted to nothing more than a wasteful hobby.
Damozel Aetikë saw all of this, day after day, and could do nothing to change it. Though some of the princesses deigned to speak with her, none could seriously be expected to truly listen to the concerns of a common girl.
“It’s so frustrating,” she complained to her darling donkey, Beramë. “The arcenziels are the finest, noblest, most blessed people in the world… and they spend their days in pointless backstabbing!” Beramë responded with a typical bray, and a stomp, which of course meant nothing to Aetikë. She knew her donkey was just a donkey, but talking to an animal was still better than talking to herself.
“Someone should do something about it. But who in the Cloud Kingdom can counsel the princesses? Who, for that matter, can even get their attention? They are the rulers, the protectors, and the great magicians, all in one. Who is more important than that? Should I write a letter to a dragon in a fairy tale? ‘Dear Master Dragon, could you please fly out of make-believe, and teach the princesses of the Rainbow City to behave a little better?’ That might actually be the best bet, but where would I send the letter? Or do I just seal it up, and close in a children’s book, and hope for the best?”
Aetikë slumped to the ground beside her donkey’s stall, and pouted. Normally, she was not the kind of damozel who pouted, or threw fits, or cried and stamped to get what she wanted, but she was as frustrated as she had ever been. For her, a slouch and a grumpy expression was a tantrum indeed.
That morning, she had delivered a golden basket of crystal wrens from one arcenziel to another. She had assumed it was a gift of some sort, or a peace offering, or a coded message for one intrigue or another. This was an error. The golden basket of crystal wrens was no gift, nor kindness, nor even a carefully concealed communication. It was a plain, open insult, for the princess to whom they were delivered had that very morning delighted in the hatching of a nest of young birds outside her bedroom window. Birds which she had fed, and to whom she sang magical songs of love and growth and taming. Birds which had been gone when she returned from a midday meal. Birds which had been stolen, and turned to sparkling crystal, and returned in the guise of a gift.
Unbeknownst to Aetikë, who had very nearly had a golden basket smashed on her head, as if she were the perpetrator of the unkind avian transformation. Luckily, arcenziels of the Cloud Kingdom do not lightly violate the laws against assault, and the innocent damozel escaped after receiving no more than a withering look, a whispered threat (not truly intended for her, she was sure), and a door slammed so loudly that people a hundred feet in every direction stopped what they were doing to see who could have possibly so insulted a princess.
“There must be someone who can make them see reason,” she said quietly to her boots, who said even less in response than the donkey. “Maybe Mom and Dad know of somebody.” So with a last hug goodnight for her beloved Beramë, Aetikë took herself inside, and washed up for dinner.