Cautiously, he opened his eyes. A long way above him, painted figures frolicked and danced on a vaulted ceiling. He couldn’t work out what exactly the figures might be, but he was dead certain that no such thing had ever appeared on any of the ceilings in his ramshackle rented house, or indeed on any ceilings he’d ever seen before. He thought that the figures might be moving very subtly, but he dismissed the notion immediately. Such a thing wasn’t possible, and he was too far away to discern it besides.
He stirred gingerly, not quite ready to attempt sitting up. He felt mildly sore, but was bothered by the vague inclination that he should be in much more pain after what must have been quite a fall, and argued with himself briefly about whether or not this was something that should really concern him. His thought processes weren’t what one might call transparent to begin with, and he currently rather suspected that his brain had been tossed into his pitifully underpowered dryer to tumble for a few hours. A slight motion caught his attention, and he turned his head to see Katrina standing nearby, twitching minutely. Her dingy coveralls had vanished, and instead, she wore an impeccably tailored suit of bright purple velvet, with long, flowing skirts and a pale pink blouse peeking out below the jacket. Silver buttons gleamed with reflected candlelight, and from his prone vantage point, Derek caught a glimpse of heeled silver boots. Her brown hair with its purple streak was still drawn back, but now coiled neatly at the nape of her neck.
She looked around, taking in her surroundings. He wasn’t sure if it was something about this girl in particular or just his general sense of discombobulation at the moment, but he found her expression very difficult to read. Dismay, certainly, combined with a vague disdain, and perhaps just the slightest bit of fear, although that could have been him projecting. Notably absent was the slightest trace of any sort of surprise. “Fuck,” she said decisively as she swept her gaze across the room. She must have rather liked the sound of it, the feel of the word across her tongue, for she said it again. “Fuck.” No malice, no frustration, just a simple declaration. She stepped lightly toward him, her natural agility entirely unhindered by the skirts, and plucked the device that was almost certainly not a smartphone out of Derek’s nerveless fingers. The pale skin of her face illuminated with its many flashing colors as she frowned over it. “Fuck!” she said again, this time with much more feeling.
Derek could feel his head starting to clear, and decided that perhaps he didn’t have a concussion after all. He pushed himself upright, and, emboldened by this small victory, blinked and looked around. Candelabra hung on the wall every few feet, twisted golden metal holding golden lengths of wax, most of them burned far down and dripping wax, topped with golden tongues of flame. Overwrought baroque frames hung on the creamy stone walls — somehow, in a way his eye couldn’t quite follow, they hung flat and square, despite the fact that the walls curved quite sharply. The room was a perfect circle, unbroken, he realized with a lurch of his stomach, by any sort of windows or doors. “Where are we?” he asked. His voice creaked as if from long disuse. He noticed his little flashlight on the ground beside him. Bemused, he turned it off and slipped it in his pocket.
She ignored him. He hoped that this wasn’t going to become a thing. Instead, she stalked the perimeter of the room, peering intently at the frames, occasionally glancing at the lights on her gadget. Each frame held a painting, mostly landscapes in rough, brushy strokes, implausible colors, and proportions that seemed more suited to a high school art class than the odd sort of gallery this appeared to be: a mountain scene in shades that might have been intended to be greyscale but just came off as really depressing, a patchwork sort of city presided over by a particularly needle-like silver castle, a generic forest that reminded him of one of those default desktop wallpapers, a walled garden with garishly-colored blobs that were presumably flowers.
Derek climbed cautiously to his feet, taking stock as he moved to reassure himself that he hadn’t sustained any permanent damage. Focusing on the state of his body, carefully flexing each muscle in turn, measuring each deliberate breath, all of this was preferable at the moment to trying to set his brain to figuring out what on earth had happened in the last, as far as he could tell, two minutes. While he didn’t have the slightest inkling what it was he’d gotten himself into, he was savvy enough to have realized that his brain wasn’t going to be pleased with the answers, and was best kept in the dark for as long as possible.
Having decided this, he did himself a disservice by turning his attention back to Katrina just in time to see her slip her gadget into her pocket with one hand and put the other through one of the canvases: a bucolic country scene depicting some misshapen animals frolicking in the bushes, with the chimney of a farmhouse smoking contentedly in the background. He sucked in his breath, waiting to hear the fabric rip and her hand smack sickeningly into the stone wall. The damage spectacularly failed to happen, as her arm disappeared through the frame up to the elbow. But then Derek’s brain set itself with gusto to gibbering in the corner, for she came back out of the painting clutching a rather lumpy brown rabbit by the scruff. It paddled its hind legs a bit, one of them reaching up to surreptitiously adjust the coral waistcoat it wore. Katrina held on to the painted folds of skin and fur securely, but the bunny resolutely remained two dimensional, painted by someone with only a passing acquaintance with lapine anatomy. “Oh, hello,” the rabbit said in a surprisingly deep voice with a quick, staccato inflection. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Long while. Wasn’t sure you were coming back.” Derek’s abused rational brain started weeping quietly.
“Likewise,” Katrina replied dryly. “I need to talk to Carter.”
The rabbit whistled through its buck teeth. “You and half of Relidran, kittycat,” it replied. It scratched at one of its long brown ears with a dangling leg, but otherwise seemed fairly content, or resigned, to Katrina’s grasp. “Carter, he’s a hard man to find under the best of circumstances. And these aren’t, hmm, what you would call the best of circumstances. Not by any means, no. Might be best to forget it.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Cordy,” she purred. “I have every confidence that you have the information I need.” An undercurrent of steel glinted through the warm velvet of her voice, a rich fabric sheath of a knife so sharp your finger would be off before you realized you’d been nicked.
The rabbit — Cordy — twitched its tail, a bunny sort of shrug. “No no, you know how this works. Something in return, yes? Something I need.”
“I imagine that you need those clever little lungs of yours. The journey’s made me a bit… peckish, you know?”
Cordy shifted slightly in her grip, but responded with a light enough tone. “You’d miss me, I think. Our fantastic conversations and all.”
Katrina just grinned, and waited. The rabbit scratched its flat nose. Derek’s brain was still whimpering quietly to itself, but it had calmed down enough to get the impression, watching them, of two sumo wrestlers pushing against each other, not visibly moving but exerting tremendous amounts of force. This was a rather strange impression to get from a tiny woman and a rabbit, but still the least odd thing he was currently trying to process. “We’ve had a hard autumn thus far,” the rabbit intoned at last. “Very hard. Winter will be harder. I have a family to feed, and there’s no food for my kits, no food at all. Something to get us through until spring would be worth… Well, almost anything, I would think. Certainly a fair trade for some, hmmm, information one seems to need rather pressingly?”
She stared daggers into her little captive, then let out an exasperated sigh. “Gods of all the faeries, you’re such a pain in the ass.” She shifted the painted rabbit into her other hand, and started foraging in her velvet suit. It seemed possessed of an astonishing number of pockets; her skirts could have easily housed the rabbit and its entire extended family, of course, but she dipped just as often into the tightly fitted jacket. After much searching, she produced an iridescent pearl the size of a ping-pong ball that shimmered softly in a light all its own. She held it in front of Cordy’s nose. “Bury this in your meadow under the next full moon,” she said solemnly. “It will see you through until spring in comfort, as long as you don’t get greedy.”
The rabbit bobbed its head the best it could in her grasp. “Oh yes, that will do nicely, very nicely indeed,” it said, sounding very pleased with itself. Katrina tucked the pearl into the pocket of its waistcoat, where it disappeared without any sort of telltale bulge. “Carter, yes. He’s expecting you, I gather? Still, not an easy task, so few who know the way. Such a journey, one step at a time, yes? You want the blind one who sees.”
Katrina whipped the rabbit around, and was suddenly holding it by the throat. “That’s it?” she growled. “Since when do you speak in riddles, rodent?”
“Things have changed since you left,” the rabbit said, its voice strained. “Precautions to be taken. You of all people should understand.”
Her amber eyes flashed, and Derek thought that she might tighten her grip and crush the little creature then and there. “Have a care I don’t come across you until after you’ve exhausted your ill-won bounty,” she said. There was still a bit of velvet disguising the hard, sharp steel of her voice, but it was thin and threadbare now.
Cordy sputtered indignantly. “I am a beast of honor!” it protested. “Such barters, they cannot always be equal, yes? Balance shifts. I am quite in your debt, my dear lady, quite so. You may be sure of my assistance again, yes indeed.”
Her rage subsided to a sneering irritation, and without another word, she tossed the rabbit back into its painting. It scampered a step or two before freezing in place again, fully part of the amateurish artwork once more. She glared at the framed surface for a moment, then started pacing in a tight loop, muttering angrily under her breath. The heels of her boots clicked on the stone floor, echoing and rebounding up to the ceiling and back like a pair of possessed castanets.