He had given it to a mysterious, beautiful girl he met at the Midsummer dance.
"Did she pay?" Nani asked.
"She kissed me."
"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, and the spray of icy water around them.
"Want a ride?" she asked the cat.
Cats, of course, wander realms as they please, but icy water is icy water. Nani was still as the cat jumped to her shoulder.
Careful steps took her to the middle. She could feel the cat get ready to leap, so Nani took one last step, over the edge.
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.
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