“You’re not eating,” the man says.
I dig my fingernails into my palms and feel no pain; I am dreaming again. The visions appear more frequently now, no longer waiting for the unbroken hours of nighttime sleep. They come every time I close my eyes.
“I’m not hungry,” I say.
I am unmoored in time and place, at the mercy of the whims of the universe. I blink my eyes and I am a child, looking up at a world that feels suddenly too large; I blink my eyes and I am old, and my joints ache with every step. I dream of vast deserts that burn with a violet flame, and underwater palaces made of coral and woven seaweed.
“You say that every time,” he says.
Every vision is different, save for one: the man at the feast. I have seen it many times now, and every time is the same. The room is vast and filled with snow; when I look up the ceiling I see only gray clouds and falling snowflakes. Twisted trees grow out from the cold stone walls, and between them are delicate bushes made of ice which glitters in the wan light.
We sit at a table in the center. It is made of heavy wood, like the intricately carved chairs we sit in, but still it groans under the weight of the feast. Crisp red apples, warm meat pies, rolls of bread glazed with egg yolk before baking. Sugar spun into the shape of horses. My nose fills with the scent of mulled cider.
“I cannot eat,” I say, “or I will be trapped in the dream-world.” I shiver and pull my furs tighter around my shoulders. Though my dress is long-sleeved — the better to cover the scars — it is not match for the icy breeze.
And now the dream should fade away, as it has so many times before — but it does not. The man smiles, takes an apple.
“Are you so sure you are dreaming?”
I frown. “Yes.”
“Because these places cannot be real! How can it snow indoors? How can I breathe underwater? How can I grow wings from my back and fly up to the stars? It is fantasy, nothing more.”
The man rolls the apple in his hands. It is a deep red, the same color as his jacket. The garment is embroidered with silver birds which flap their wings as he moves. “I ask you to consider something. Which world is bright and lovely? Which world spills over with sight and scent and sound?”
“This one,” I whisper.
“And which one is grey and dull? Which world tears at the pieces of your soul?”
I shake my head, and do not answer.
He jumps up, eyes darkening to solid black pools of ink. “Your world deserted you. Your world rejected you. My world welcomes you with open arms.”
I stand, then, and draw nearer. He presses the apple into my trembling hands.
“Eat it,” he says. “Stay here. Stay with me.”
What life to I have to go back to? A short life in a bitter world, that’s true enough. But bright colors don’t only mean euphoria — they mean danger, too.
I lift the apple to my lips and take a bite. Its juices course across my tongue, sweet and sharp. Blackness begins to encroach across my field of vision, creeping in from the edges. The trees reach their skeletal fingers toward me. I drop the apple; it is a bright red bloodstain on the clean white snow.
In the moments before I lose consciousness, I wonder where I will awake.