Lady Percivalia watched the young cinematographist’s hands as he set up his equipment. They were narrow and graceful, dusted with pale-colored hair. His limber fingers moved rapidly as he angled his screens and adjusted his projectors.

Beside Lady Percivalia, the Lady Harrah gave a dramatic sigh. She sank back in her chair, fluttering her lashes, her face arrayed to look attractively ill. Lady Harrah was well-known for feigning such attacks of faintness. They’d won her the attentions of several young men who, while not known for their intelligence, were smart enough to seize the opportunity for getting close to a distressed young woman with a heaving bosom. Unfortunately, Lady Harrah’s best efforts had failed to make any impression on the cinematographist.

Lady Harrah enjoyed a miraculous recovery from her faint. She leaned over to Lady Percivalia. “Watch this,” she whispered. “I’ll get his attention.”

She unpinned a dragonet brooch that adorned her ruffled bodice and tapped its head. The intricate gold carving blinked into a semblance of life. It stretched like a waking cat and flew brightly into the air, a whir of jeweled wings. It caught the cinematographist’s sleeve in its jaws and tugged politely.

The cinematographist looked chagrined as he turned toward the ladies. He disengaged the carved creature from his sleeve and gave a stiff bow.

Lady Percivalia felt a flush rise into her face. She ducked her head and looked at the floor. “Good evening, sir,” she mumbled.

She felt the cinematographist’s eyes leave her as soon as she finished speaking, and felt grateful to be allowed to blend into the background again. She preferred it when people didn’t pay too much attention to her, which was why she spent time with Lady Harrah who usually occupied everyone’s attention.

The jeweled dragonet leapt off of the cinematographist’s extended hand and flew back to Lady Harrah. It settled on the shoulder of her bodice and became inert again.

“You are so studious,” Lady Harrah complained. “Aren’t we more interesting than your screens?”

“You are very interesting,” said the cinematographist, speaking in a flat tone that made Lady Percivalia suspect he was lying. “However, you must excuse me. The king has sent notice that he may attend this evening’s viewing.”

In all honesty—the cinematographist reflected as he returned to adjusting gears and levers—he did not find the ladies interesting. Corsetted women reminded him unpleasantly of jessed hawks. He was aware that certain of the palace’s noblewomen had wagered on their ability to capture his romantic attentions. Such knowledge only strengthened his resolve to ignore them entirely.

He had enough legitimate concerns. His current patrons had made it clear that they no longer wished to support his work. No new patrons had stepped forward to replace them. Even worse, he’d heard rumors that the court magicians were petitioning to have him thrown out, even though he’d explained repeatedly that his invention had nothing to do with magic.

Months ago, when he’d been invited to the castle to give showings of his work during the long, dull winter evenings—an honor he’d hardly let himself hope for!—he’d known it was unlikely that the king would ever attend one of his viewings, let alone open the royal purse. Still, he’d hoped. Lately, amid so much indifference and hostility, he’d found his own passion waning. Nearly ten years of his life coming to nothing: it was a sobering thought.

Lady Harrah’s scoffing didn’t improve matters. She pursed her lips and gave a loud, false laugh. “Why should the king come to see your screens and lights? When he wants an illusion, the Lord Magician conjures him one, just like that.”

“It’s not the same,” interrupted Lady Percivalia.

Both Lady Harrah and the cinematographist shifted to look at her. She pressed her hand over her mouth, castigating herself for speaking. She hadn’t meant to say anything. She didn’t want Lady Harrah to realize that she hadn’t accompanied her here week after week because she was fascinated by the cinematographist’s good looks. She didn’t want to lure him into her bedchamber so that she could boast about it later to the other court ladies. She only wanted to watch the beautiful things he made.

Lady Harrah eyed her suspiciously. “What do you mean it’s not the same?”

Lady Percivalia kept her voice soft. “Illusions are manufactured. The screens show real dragons.”

Lady Harrah laughed. She gestured dismissively at the cinematographist’s equipment. “How can you compare this to magic? I agree with the Lord Magician. This may be an amusing diversion, but it will never replace sorcery.”

Lady Percivalia felt the heat intensify in her cheeks. She turned toward the cinematographist but couldn’t bring herself to look at his face. “You needn’t worry. I’ve attended all your viewings. Everything is always perfect.”

The cinematographist made another formal bow. “Nevertheless, I must do my part to ensure perfection. Good evening to you both.”

He turned back to his equipment, leaving Lady Harrah fuming and Lady Percivalia mortified.

Presently, dusk arrived. Servants passed through, drawing heavy brocade curtains over the windows and snuffing the magic lights that flickered in their lanterns. In the lingering light, the cinematographist looked longingly toward the entrance, but alas, he saw no approaching figure clad in royal red or purple, no line of attendants trailing their liege. Reluctantly, he initiated his machinery for yet another poorly attended show.

The screen images were blurry compared to the tangible sharpness of magical illusions, and of course they only occupied two dimensions. Nevertheless, the cinematographist felt a rush of excitement each time he beheld the enormous golden wings he’d chosen to begin his footage.

He remembered the moment when he’d caught that image: he’d been hiking through the northern mountains, which remained ice-tipped even in summer, when he glimpsed an enormous alpha male overhead, each wing as large as a warship, embarking on a rare solo flight between the peaks. He felt simultaneously terrified and awed, barely remembering to ready his camera. By the time his equipment was in order, the enormous male had almost disappeared over the horizon. He only captured a few moments of the dragon’s flight, but it was more than enough to show the creature’s strength and grace.

Lady Percivalia had seen the footage six times, once each week since the cinematographist arrived. The Lord Magician was a powerful influence at court, and no one liked risking his disapproval. Still, curiosity and boredom had driven a number of nobles to condescend to attend the first viewing. Few returned the second week, and even fewer the week after that. Now the only people who still came were predators like Lady Harrah, and scholars who cared more about trivia than their social standing.

And Lady Percivalia.

Lady Percivalia felt a flutter of rapture in her chest every time she watched the dragons take flight. There was something amazing, something unutterable, about watching dragons—real dragons—soaring above landscapes she would never visit. Ladies did not venture where dragons might be found. Even if chance brought her to the frozen peaks one day, she would still never glimpse one of the notoriously reclusive dragons, not with her own eyes.

Lady Percivalia loved dragons’ shining teeth, their gemlike eyes, their metal-hard scales. Illusionists always showed dragons preparing for battle. Lady Percivalia shivered when she considered that she might never have had the chance to behold the wonder of males grappling during their mating flights, or the strange awkward flapping of females’ mourning dances. She pitied the courtiers who’d never come to a viewing, and thus had never seen the elegance of a young dragon rising from the river after his first inundation, water cascading from his jade-colored hide like a waterfall.

If Percivalia loved the cinematographist in her chaste way—and she thought despite all propriety that the rising, fluttering, tremulous sensation she felt when she looked at him might be a kind of love—then she loved him because he had brought her the shapes and shadows of creatures that dwelled outside the confines of her life.

The last images fluttered across the screen: tiny gold yearlings dispersing from their mother’s nest. They rose up and vanished into the vast sky, and the camera moved upward, capturing a blinding flash of sunlight before the screen went dark.

The servants passed through again, sweeping open the brocade curtains to reveal a night punctured by stars. The audience stirred. Lady Percivalia sat motionless for as long as she could so that she could savor the thrill, hands folded demurely in her lap, breath caught in her throat.

Lady Harrah broke Lady Percivalia’s contemplation. “Come along. We can catch him if we hurry.”

Lady Percivalia’s skirts rustled as she followed Lady Harrah to the front of the room. The cinematographist stood by his machines as always, but he was not alone—a middle-aged man stood beside him, gray woven through his ginger hair. Lady Percivalia frowned. She didn’t recognize him. He could be a traveler visiting the court, she supposed, but travelers were rare this deep into the winter, and she didn’t remember hearing about one.

It was clear that the conversation wasn’t going well. The cinematographist leaned away from the ginger-haired man, trying to avoid his interlocutor’s gaze.

“How can you claim that your invention isn’t an assault on our trade?” demanded the ginger-haired man. “Your purpose is blatant. We will not be usurped.”

“No, no,” protested the cinematographist. “You misunderstand. My devices could never replace the art of illusion. That’s not what they’re for! They occupy a niche. They make permanent records for the purpose of study, like books do. That’s all.”

“Your argument is no more persuasive now than it was when you began. You are a liar and a charlatan.”

“I protest, sir. Your characterization is unfair—”

“It most emphatically is not.”

The ginger-haired man wavered like smoke before a fire. His image dropped like a discarded cloak, revealing a much older man who wore his floor-length grey beard in unmistakable braids.

Lady Percivalia’s heart tumbled. She watched the cinematographist’s baffled expression, and wished there was something she could do.

“My Lord Magician?” asked the cinematographist. “There was no need for this deception. You are always welcome at my viewings.”

“There was every need. Your hostility to my profession demanded it.” The Magician eyed the cinematographist with disdain. “After hearing my concerns, the king authorized me to dispatch this matter on his behalf. At his urging, I conceded to see your filth for myself, but I find myself unmoved from my initial convictions. You will withdraw from the palace in three days.”

“My Lord Magician, potential patrons are on their way from Liendo—”

“Three days!” repeated the Magician. “If you do not leave of your own accord, we’ll have you seized and exiled.”

The cinematographist stayed silent for a moment. The sparkle vanished from his eyes, leaving them blank and hollow-looking. “Yes, my Lord. I will be gone in three days.”

“See that you are.”

The Magician vanished in smoke and sparks, a more extravagant display of magic than he usually squandered on anyone who didn’t have royal blood. Lady Percivalia thought it a petty way for the Magician to make his point, but the other onlookers rumbled with surprised delight.

Lady Harrah was one of the few who did not look dazzled. “Couldn’t his Lord Magician have waited a week?” she grumbled. “We’ll never have a chance at him now.”

Lady Percivalia stepped away from her friend. The cinematographist stood close by, his eyes still blank. His hands moved steadily and rapidly across his machines as he prepared to pack them for the evening.

“Pardon, sir,” ventured Lady Percivalia.

Momentary annoyance marred the cinematographist’s expression. Lady Percivalia couldn’t fault him. He had no reason to suspect she was anything but another flighty court lady, making one final attempt.

She wanted to articulate all the wondrous things she’d experienced while viewing his work, but the words came out halting and inadequate. “Your film,” she managed. “It’s very beautiful.”

He looked surprised. He stood motionless for a moment, still poised over his machines. “I hope so,” he said at last.

“It is,” said Lady Percivalia—and although she knew that Lady Harrah would carry rumors back to the other noblewomen and they would spend all season mocking Percivalia for losing her heart to an out-of-favor artisan—she laid her hand across his. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ll ever see.”

The cinematographist looked down at the place where her fingers—long and pale from a lifetime indoors—crossed his darker skin. He didn’t know what to tell her. What words could contain the frustration of so many indifferent faces? Or the pain of having his life’s work destroyed by angry, fearful men who he’d never intended to harm? On the other side, what words could contain the amazement of capturing images of golden dragons as they winged through the blue, the wonder of transforming something ephemeral into to something that would endure?

Years later, when he was a wealthy and celebrated old man, the cinematographist would often think back on that moment when they touched hands. It was the moment that reaffirmed his dedication to his craft, that gave him the fortitude to persevere despite the opposition of magicians and kings. It became one of his most treasured memories—the intense, dizzying sensation of realizing that his work had made a profound impact on the life of a stranger.

He would have liked to have told her all of that, but in the moment, he had no words to describe his tumult. In the end, he simply met her smile with one of his own.

“Thank you,” he said.

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Rachel Swirsky has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines, including, Subterranean Magazine, Weird Tales, and Fantasy Magazine, and her stories have been collected in year's best volumes edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the VanderMeers. She wrote "Great, Golden Wings" as part of a writing exercise spurred by a friend's prompt, "cinema and high fantasy."

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