The castle was alive with music. Violins, lutes, harps and flutes spread a sea of delight through the crowd, sweetening even the most tired, bored attendants. The Fire King was holding a party, the instruments proclaimed. Laugh, sing, dance- the music was entrancing, demanding.

One foot in front of the other, the maid found herself stepping out of her lady's chambers and into the hallway. Her eyes were fixed on the shadows of the dancers below as the candlelight flickered to each and every breath, following a sweet melody of its own. She leaned over the banister and peered down into the great chamber; no one would notice her there, not while they danced and laughed and sang their pretty lives away.

A hush spread over the crowd, and at once the instruments grew silent. The thrill of expectation sang instead, filling everyone with complete, utter stillness.

And, with a loud trumpet flare, a single figure sprang in the air, from an alcove just below where the maid so precariously stared. His feet molded beneath him as he landed on the floor with a cat-like grace. The man stood up, and- with a single flick of his wrists- threw the candle flames into life, making them grow and grow until they nearly touched the ceiling.

Gasps of delight filled the air, and the trumpets began to play a fanfare as the man swept a bow.

The King had arrived.

Meanwhile, the maid still rested on the banister, clutching it with hands as white as death, trying to drink it all in. The nobles below gathered around the Fire King, praising him and chattering like a cluster of birds. Beautiful birds, at that. How the maid wished she could be one of them! But this would never be; a person as low born as herself could never be anything higher than the maid she was. And although she dreamed of dancing with the King every night, she could no more be a queen then a hen could be a swan.

Her pretty eyed thoughts were not missed. The head maid soon came to fetch her, and as she was lead away, the startlingly blue eyes of the Fire King might have glanced up and met hers. But in the dim candlelight, nothing was ever certain.

Later that night, after cleaning up her mistress and putting her to bed, the maid came back to the balcony that overlooked the lonely ballroom. She leaned against the railing and dreamed of the lords and ladies, dancing with their pretty gowns with blue raven feathers and sandstone beads. She dreamed of dancing with the King, swaying back and forth, leaping, turning, spinning and straining-

Her feet flew under her as she danced, and her plain dress swirled into the softest silk her fingers had ever touched. Her hair swung free of the severe braid, springing loose in soft curls that framed her face. Her black shoes molded into dancing slippers, and around her wrists hung gold bracelets. She danced along the balcony, and for just that moment, forgot about the real world.

A small laugh startled her from her trance. With a gasp, the maid turned to leave, trying to hide her red cheeks from the man's eyes, for this laugh had indeed been a man's.

"Wait!" the man said. His voice seemed to leap and crackle, like the flames of a new fire. She turned around to see the man who possessed such an odd voice, but she could not see him; she could only see his shadow, a vague outline in the doorway.

"Come here," the man said, his voice beckoning. The candlelight behind him shifted with his voice, revealing his face for a moment. Shinning black hair and blue eyes-

Wide eyed, she curtsied to the man in the doorway- the Fire King.

"Come here," he repeated. With no choice but to obey, the maid went to him. Whether it was her loyalty or his eyes that made her do it, she would never be sure.

He drew her into the room, a small library that was only dimly lit by a candle on the table. He sat down in the chair beside it, and offered her the one across from him.

She could feel the off stare of his eyes on her as she went to sit down. Her eyes stayed glued to the table. She was not acting humble; rather, she was afraid. This man had all the power of the great desert at his fingertips. He could destroy her simply by wishing for her death.

Clutching her trembling hands, the maid hid her fear as best she could.

"Will you dance for me?"

Her eyes flickered to his, startled, then lowered back to the table. "I-If it pleases you, your Majesty."

His eyes narrowed. "It would please me greatly."

Trembling, the maid stood up. She tried to picture the dance in her mind, her swirling skirts and gold bracelets, but she could not. The terrible black blanket of fear clouded her mind, leaving her as weak as a newborn kitten. She lowered her arms in defeat. "I cannot, your Majesty."

"I command you to."

She felt like crying, but when had crying ever helped her with anything? This is what you get for dancing on balconies, she told herself. Raising her chin slightly- and yet still looking at the ground- she said:

"I cannot."

She waited for the outrage, the blow that would surely follow her insolent words. Instead, a pair of arms grabbed hers, and readied her in a dance position.

"Very well," the voice was thoughtful now. "We shall dance together, then."

Stiff in his arms, the maid twirled about, trying not to stumble or step on the great man's shoes. The feel of his one hand firmly on the small of her back and his other hand wrapped around hers was not at all what she had imagined in her mind. In her dreams of the King, he had held her delicately, as if she were the prettiest of flowers.

Something died within her, telling her that she was nothing more than a daisy to him. He would throw her out, crush her and stamp on her in a heart beat.

"Relax," he ordered.

"How can I?" she whispered. "You are the King."

"I am a man," he insisted. He stopped twirling her, and his voice darkened to a soft ember. "And I would like to prove that to you."

Her brown eyes grew wide as he led her back down the hallway, through the maze of shadows and gold. Finally, they came to rest in front of his chamber, marked with a royal seal of a desert flower set aflame, surrounded by a halo of gold.

She could not hide her fear this time.

"Do not be afraid," he told her, his voice smothering still. "I shall not hurt you."

She stayed silent, eyes cast on the floor.

His door creaked open, rust making an eerie sound that echoed in the maid's ears.

He grabbed her hand, and kissed her lightly on the neck.

"What is your name?" he asked, pulling her inside.


A faint whisper, lost as the door closed shut behind her.