He woke up, shaking. The scent of night-blooming jasmine and ocean sand was heavy in the air, and a small, cold hand was tucked into his.
His heart was pounding so hard that it made him sick. He knew he was dreaming but couldn't remember anything except that it terrified him. She took her hand from his and placed it on his chest. "What does it feel like?" she asked. "When your heart beats like that."
"I don't know," he said. "It hurts. I can't describe it."
She took his hand and laid it on her chest. Embarrassed, he tried to pull away, but her unnatural strength held it there. He couldn't feel a heartbeat. Her breast was soft and warm and rose and fell mechanically, as if it were an elegantly engineered machine. "Do you need to breathe?" he blurted out, and felt absurd.
"Probably not," she said. "I could try."
"Don't," he said. "Keep breathing." He tried to pull his hand away again, but she lifted her other hand and held his hand closely to her breast.
"Your hand is warm," she said. "I can feel your pulse. What do you call that, I wonder?"
"Let me go," he said, his voice tight.
She lowered her eyes. "He dreamed of you today. I think it was a good dream."
She said, "Do you think you would love me, if I was a real girl?"
"How should I know?" he said. It wasn't spoken in cruelty. He reached out and placed his hand on her head. Her hair was very fine and soft, sliding between his fingers coolly. It almost felt glasslike. "Yes. No. It's not important, is it?"
"I would like to be a real girl," she said.
The witch lives in a white tower. He doesn't quite like to go to where she lives because he feels his failures most sharply there, but it's the only place he can rest. He brings her things, not sure of what a witch would like. He has an idea of what to offer a princess but witches are probably different. He doesn't bring her paper or crayons or paint; he is afraid of disturbing her magic. So he brings her brightly colored flowers, peonies and lilies and roses. They lay on the table and the floor around her and eventually their color leeches away as if it never was. He doesn't know where the color goes. Perhaps she drains it away.
Once he remembered a long-ago story about a girl who was protected from the dark by white chalk and drew a circle around her as she slept in her chair. She stepped over the chalk circle directly, without even noticing it.
He comes in to see how her magic is working, bringing bright flame-staffs of gladioluses and blackberries like amethysts, picked from the ruined grounds of Hollow Bastion. He knows it better than anybody now. He spent a long time exploring the ruins, waiting for something to happen, for things to begin, and he has always been clever at finding things.
"Thank you," she says quietly. She doesn't look at him.
"You should eat," he says.
To humor him she picks up one of the blackberries and bites into it. The juice stains her mouth for a second and then sinks into her lips, like ink into blotting paper, and disappears.
"What does it taste like?" he says.
"Like summer," she says.
He wakes up almost like returning from the dead. His head is in her lap and she is stroking his hair. She is singing a song in a foreign language, her voice breathy and high.
"What language is that?" he says, too heavy to move.
"I don't know," she replies. "I just made it up." She is silent for a moment. "I think it's about summer," she adds.
He closes his eyes again.
"Come with me," he said, and took her hand in his own. It was very small and white in his black-gloved one. He led her through the paths of dark to a place he'd found.
"Is this the ocean?" she said. From somewhere far away a seagull shrieked. There was a steady wind, blowing the smell of salt towards them. The sand was a dull, gritty yellow-brown, with glints of life. It was a terrible day to be at the beach, he thought. There were clouds coming in and the shore itself was jagged and rocky. He could push her off one of them and follow her down and nobody would ever know.
"Yes," he said.
"It's not like your ocean, though, is it," she said. Her eyes were steady, very blue as they looked at him. Her fine white-blond hair was tangling in her face. A crab scuttled across her foot but she didn't flinch. "Not like the ones he remembers. During the summer, I mean."
"No," he said. He reached out and tucked the fine strands of hair behind her ears. "But it's the one I deserve."
He's not sure why but he reaches out and puts one hand on her breast, where he should be able to feel the steady thump of her heart. He has a feeling like if he stands here with her hands slowly curling over his hand, watching her closed eyes and the intense look of concentration on her face, she will take all of the warmth of his body and blood into herself. He's not frightened at the thought, or horrified. It seems to him that if they stand here long enough he will drain into her and slowly, slowly, he will begin to feel something like the beat of a heart in her breast.
He would like that, he thinks. It would be fitting. In any case, if she will take enough of him perhaps she will have the strength to finish her task.
He bends his head and kisses her softly on the mouth.