Why He Wanders

The gift granted to Jaime by the fairies at his birth was that the woman whom he asked to wed would not refuse him. He was made duly aware of this blessing and this burden as he grew up, and at the age of 17 declared, “I shall not rest until I find the loveliest maid in all the world to be my bride.”

And so he set forth, and went to one place and another, and tarried for long nights with this maiden and that, but none, it seemed to him, were quite the loveliest in the world. Some women made it known to him, in fashions ranging from the oblique to the profound, that they should not accept him, did he ask; from this he took the bitter certainty that their beauty was lacking. He had trained himself both in formal logic and in pride, and in this matter both provided the same assessment.

And everywhere he went, he asked this question: “Where might I find the most beautiful in this place?” Whatever his flaws might be, Jaime was admirably forthright.

In time, he came upon Elise, and spoke to her at length; and later said to himself, “She is not so lovely as Flora, whom I met before; or Sian; or Meredith; but she does have certain qualities worth my lingering.”

And so he did, for seventy days and seven. Then as he lay looking down at Elise’s side, he saw the breath of mist in the window, and its shape formed a woman; and he knew as he saw her that this was the loveliest maid in all the world. She wore a cloak of mist and there was a light in her eyes and she stood beside the bed and put her hand on Elise’s forehead. Elise, in blind and wracking pain, cried out.

“Hold,” said Jaime, and the woman looked up, and she drew back her hand.

“I wait,” she answered.

“Your eyes have stars in them,” he said, “and your breath is summer; so tell me, lady, are you the crafter of this world?”

“Not so,” she said. “I am not the architect but the stone, not the painted but the paint; this world was ripped from me, piece by piece, by the demiurge of its creation.”

“And why do you hurt her, then?”

“It is my way,” she said, “when I encounter those that I might love, to take them back into myself, and heal the smallest piece of all my wounds.”

“Do not,” he said.

“She is not yours,” the lady said. “You made your choice a year ago, when you declared that you should have the loveliest; and again, but eighty days ago, when you said it was not her. There are laws and rules that govern the agencies of the world, Jaime. Elise is mine.”

“Then marry me,” he said, “and give her to me as the brideprice.”

The lady hesitated. She rubbed at her shoulder.

“You cannot refuse,” he pointed out.

“I’ll grant you her,” the lady said. “But in three days time, her life will end; and nothing you nor I can do can change it.”

“And of her soul?”

“I shall not claim it while you remember her,” the lady said. “No further than that does your geas oblige me.”

“I see.”

The woman nodded and left, in mist as she had come, and three days later Elise was dead, crushed under a falling stone. And Jaime travels here and about, asking, “Where might I find the most beautiful in this place?”

And when the townsfolk point him this way or that, and show him to the beauties of their land, he looks on them, and then he goes away; for it is in this task, the regarding of beauty, that he best remembers Elise.

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