Nani swore when she realised what ailed her grandson. She should have seen it sooner.
“Where is your shadow?” she asked.
He had given it to a mysterious, beautiful girl he met at the Midsummer dance.
“Did she pay?” Nani asked.
“With a kiss.”
“You fool,” Nani shook her head. “Your shadow is your anchor in this world.”
No wonder the lad was growing vague and wan.
He had missed one chance of reclaiming it, at the autumn equinox. And now he was too far gone.
She sighed. “I’ll get it.”
The gates never quite close, but at the four balance points of the year they open widest.
So. She had until dawn tomorrow.
Nani packed a satchel, put on skis, and set off. The only gate she knew of was a mile away. She hoped it was the right one.
The gate was at a waterfall, a step out from the edge. Nani leaned her skis against a tree and saw a black cat watching her.
She looked at the stepping stones along the edge, the spray of icy cold water around them.
“Want a ride?” she asked the cat.
Cats, of course, go to any realm they please, but icy water is icy water. Nani held still as the cat jumped to her shoulder.
She stepped carefully along the edge to the middle of the waterfall. The cat jumped off her and was gone. Nani followed it.
She stepped into a spring meadow and halted. The cat jumped down and ran off, without looking back.
“Welcome to the Court.”
A beautiful person stood smiling by the gate. Nani bowed.
“I seek a shadow.”
She saw no shadows when she looked down
“Here?” The person laughed. “Let’s go ask the king. May I have your name?”
Nani knew that trick.
“You can call me… Nina.”
Everyone Nani saw was beautiful and wearing bright, colourful clothes. None of them, however, outshone the king. He smiled.
“Do you see shadows here?” the king said.
Nani squinted and looked around. There was a dark patch by- no, that was the cat.
“Nevertheless.” She opened her satchel. “I offer you this bread I baked.”
“Would you offer your youth?” the king countered.
“I have none,” Nani said. It stung. “I offer you these mittens I knitted.”
“Would you offer your beauty?” the king smiled.
“I have none,” Nani said. “I offer this stone with a hole in it, which reveals illusions.”
She held it up in front of her.
“Rude!” the court shouted.
Nani quickly put the stone back in her bag. Her look through it had only shown beautiful people.
“I am sorry,” she said.
The king frowned. “Nina, Nina,” he said.
Nani felt her name being pulled, but it stayed with her.
“No youth, no beauty? Then your health, wealth and titles,” the king said.
Nani stood as straight she could. “I have none.”
“I have no more to offer,” Nani said, “so I’ll go, taking nothing of your court, leaving nothing I have brought.”
As the king said those words, the black cat froze in place. Nani hurried there and lifted it by the scruff of the neck.
She shook the cat, and a woman fell out, leaving a shadow skin in Nani’s hand.
“I think you owe me a kiss,” the woman said.
Nani hesitated, then shook her head. “No. I gave you a ride.”
She turned, left the court, and headed home to her grandson.
This story was serialised in 25 daily tweets from MicroSFF, December 1st to 25th, 2019, tagged with #AdvenTale.