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Once My Name
The Princess ran.
She ran, her delicate legs churning the soil until the hem of her dress was black with mud. She ran until her legs screamed, tearing the combs from her hair and smearing the heavy makeup with the salt of her tears. She ran and she screamed and she raged, fleeing far from the city and the electric glow of its light, away from the thumping beat of the parties and the people and the life she thought she knew. She ran from the royal prison she lived in, from the regal, porcelain jailers whose empty eyes followed her every move, and from the sweaty palms of the monster who lurked in her shadow and pawed at her dreams.
And she ran from herself—from the fragile china doll who said all the right things at all the right times, from the golden haired corps who was rotting away inside its flawless shell. She took nothing and brought no one.
All she had left was her name.
So the princess ran. She ran far into the darkness, past the city wall and into the night. And as she ran, she left a trail of her memories. A broken ivory comb…a shredded sating ribbon…a stick of expensive red lipstick, lying in the mud. She ran, tearing these things away from her like leeches off her skin. She tore them away and flung them to the darkness, and the darkness swallowed them—until all that was left was her name.
She could not tear her name away.
Her name was burned into her skin, embroidered in her hair, and sketched under her eyelids. She fled as fast as she could, over a mountain and through an untamed forest until the brambles tore the lacy cloths from her flesh. They tore at her skin, and ripped the skin from her bones, but even the forest could not tear away her name.
She ran until the trees became bushes, and the bushes became rocks, and the rocks tore her feet and lay wast to her toes. And there on the rocks she stumbled and fell, bruised and bleeding, her cloths in tatters and her face streaked with tears. And there on the rocks she wept, letting the cold seep into her bones and waiting to die. But she didn’t die—and as she lay there, she came to realize that she lay at the mouth of a cave.
Slowly she got up, surrounded by darkness, and stared into the cavern. In the cave was an even greater darkness, and in the cave was a voice that called—the voice of darkness, of pain, of a despair so deep she could sink in it forever and never find its bottom. The voice was calling. The voice was calling her name. “That is not my name,” the girl whispered, but it was her name…and like a fish on a hook, the girl responded. She entered the cave. She followed the voice. And the voice led her, deep into the darkness and the earth.
It led her into a lightlessness so great that it sucked the life from her. It drained her until her skin turned an unnatural white, and her eyes grew wide and blind. She grew thin and calloused, and her cuts faded to scars—but still she followed the voice through the twisting caverns. Years passed upon the surface, and it seemed to the girl that she had wandered an eternity—until she came, finally, to the very deepest place in the entire earth. No deeper could she wander, no blacker caver could she find to drag her wasted body through. And there, in the deepest dark, she came upon the dragon.
The dragon’s presence washed over her skin. Its fetid breath invaded her lungs. Its terrible claws clicked against the stone. Her blindness lifted, and with an odd sense of calm she looked into the dragons giant, saucer sized eye. It wasn’t red, like one would suspect, but an incandescent opal. The dragon’s eye was deep—deeper than the ocean, and it glittered with the suggestion of secrets, secrets to the universe and so much more, so much more. And in that eye, the girl saw all that she was: from the day of her birth, all that she ever was, all she was now, all she would ever be, all tied together with scintillating lines of golden energy—bound to her name. And the girl saw her name, carved in crimson gashes on her neck; she saw her name, the name she had never escaped, all these years.
And the princess cried. She cried pearl white tears from her wide, misshapen eyes, eyes that could not see the beauty in the chains of her name. At the feet of the dragon, the princess cried; and the dragon looked down upon the girl with its lambent opal eyes. And then, the dragon spoke—its voice whisper soft, eyes hinting at intelligence beyond any human capability to understand.
“Why are you crying, princess?” the dragon whispered.
The princess squeaked and pulled away, frightened. But the dragon flicked out its longest claw and pulled the girl close. “If you tell me why you’re crying, I’ll tell you a secret,” it whispered, and its breath smelled of frost and honey as it brushed her face. The girl looked up, sniffling.
“I looked in you eyes and saw my name,” she whimpered, and the dragon sighed understandingly. This time its breath smelled of cinnamon and rice cakes. The girl shuddered, slowly relaxing in the curve of the dragon’s claw.
“Yeeesssssss,” the dragon murmured. “Ssso many mortals find that knowledge not to their liking. Ssssssomtimesss they perisssshhhh on the surface worlds, going sssslowly mad and fffadeing away. Other timesssss I find them crying, down here all alone in the dark. Sssssometimesss,” the dragon whispered, “I tell them sssssecretsss.” The dragon gazed at her speculatively, as if he were evaluating a potential meal. “Would you like to know a sssssecret?”
“What kind of secret?” the girl asked tentatively.
The dragon flicked out a long forked tongue the color of moss. “The sssssssecret of the universssssss,” it hissed, and its opal and golden eyes flickered mysteriously.
“Well, I guess so,” the princess mumbled. The dragon hissed softly with pleasure.
“Aaaahhhhh, but to know a sssssecret, you mussssst give me ssssomething in return,” it whispered slyly. “What will you give me, if I tell you a sssssecret?”
The girl said nothing for a long time, silently mulling this over. Finally she looked up, and there was a bitter note in the girls’ ragged voice. “Then I will never learn your secret. I have nothing to give.” At this the dragon hissed more deeply, and specks of foam caught of the girl’s gaunt cheeks.
“You have a name,” the beast whispered, and as the girl looked up it turned slightly to let her catch her reflection in its giant opal eye.
“I could give you…my name?” the girl breathed in awe.
“Yessssssssssssssssssssssss,” the dragon hissed softly, wickedly, and as the girl stared transfixed by the crimson letters around her neck. As she watched they turned to gold, morphing into a tiny golden necklace with a heart shaped locket; her name carved there in tiny golden letters. Slowly, the girl reached up to clasp the locket.
“My…name,” the princess whispered. Her fingers tightened, and the delicate gold chain tightened around her neck.
“Break it,” the dragon encouraged, its long tongue sweeping the cavern. “Give it to me, and I will tell you everything.” Its opal eyes glittered with barely concealed malice. The princess didn’t notice. The chain pulled tighter, drawing fine beads of blood.
“I can’t,” she cried, and this time her tears were dusky gold in the dim light. The dragon’s breath washed over her, smelling of damp earth and warm darkness as she pulled fruitlessly at the chain, her neck awash with blood. Falling to her knees before the dragon, the girl gave a plaintive cry. “Help me!”
Without a word the dragon flicked out its second longest claw and caught its tip in the end of the chain. Now the dragon was much stronger than the princess, and it pulled with such force that in only seconds it would surely snap—
“Wait!” the girl cried out, the beaten gold necklace digging so deep it touched her backbone. With pleading eyes she looked up at the dragon, which checked its claw just moments before the chain or the girl would have snapped. It blinked its two great eyes, and for a moment, it seemed the girl might break free—“…tell me the secret first,” she begged in a choked whisper, and the dragon flicked its tongue balefully at her.
Then it dipped its long muzzle down to level with the girl’s tiny ear, and it whispered, “The ssssssssssssssecret,” it hissed, and then its voice dropped so low and so sinuous that all but the girl and the dragon failed to hear. But that is just as well, for as the dragon whispered, the princesses eyes grew wide, and the deathly pallor of her skin took on a whiteness rarely seen in death. Then the dragon laughed a terrible laugh and gave a final jerk of its claw, and the necklace snapped. The girl screamed and made a wild gab, but the dragon was quicker: the locket vanished into the dragon’s claw, and the girl fell back onto the stones, howling.
Then the dragon turned its great eye towards the princess, and in its glassy depth the princess saw her reflection bursting free of its golden bonds—and then, fee at last and writhing in agony on the stony cave floor, the princesses wasted form began to drift slowly apart. It expanded, like mist, and then tore at the seams and dissipated into the stale air, leaving nothing but an echoing cry.
The dragon savored the cry, its terrible laugh mixing with its straining notes to form a fleeting, disturbed melody that fled with the mist a moment before. Then the dragon, too, began to fade, until all there was left was the glittering, mineral rich stone—soft in the darkness, waiting, and savoring its list of names.