Author Archive

Cast of Wonders 270: Banned Books Week – Bibliopothecary

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Bibliopothecary

by Dani Atkinson

The Bibliopothecary was writing out the contraindications on the labels for the dystopian sci-fi when Gretchen stepped up to the counter on her first visit.

“Do not consume a second title in this genre less than three days after finishing,” the Bibliopothecary wrote in swooping black letters. “Do not take Orwell with Huxley. Recommended consume one work of optimistic space opera to alleviate possible side effects of hopelessness and fear of the future.” Gretchen waited for the Bibliopothecary to finish before clearing her throat.

The Bibliopothecary peered at Gretchen through red cat’s eye glasses. “What do you need?”

“I’m feeling sad,” Gretchen said.

(Continue Reading…)

Cast of Wonders 269: Banned Books Week – The Scent That Treason Brings

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


The Scent That Treason Brings

by Holly Schofield

 

Wings tightly closed, Scarp bustled around the printing workshop. With smooth, sure strokes, zie inked the wooden blocks of type. The new formulation made from snail mucus and oak bark spread on smoothly. One of zir pincher-like tarsi gripped the printing press’ lever while both zir mid legs slid a sheet of paper over the inked blocks. The large screw creaked as zie lowered the platen and then raised it, releasing the paper. Scarp gave a brief twitch of satisfaction at the clarity of the text, then re-inked the blocks for the next blank sheet.

Slowly the racks of printed and drying pages grew higher. But not fast enough. Every minute counted if a bound copy of the Tract was to accompany each Second Molter on their journey. And Beld had been no help at all in preparation for this molting season. The Head Printer just puttered about in the backroom, working on some special project. What could be more important than the annual printing of the Tract?

(Continue Reading…)

Cast of Wonders 268: Banned Books Week – Below the Serapeum

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Below the Serapeum

by Kelsey Dean

 

“Lift up your gown, Halena. We’ll settle these around your back and stomach so that you’re at the center of the scrolls.”

Aunt places a thin bandage around my waist and then helps me unroll the papyrus. We wind it back up around my body, covering the bandage like a stiff cocoon, or the crusty, left-behind exoskeleton of a sand beetle.

“It itches,” I say, but I don’t fidget. There is still a smoky film hanging over the whole city from yesterday, when the Epirians set the Great Library ablaze. It didn’t burn the way they wanted: too many scholars ran back inside, screeching war cries like eagles, slopping all the water they could carry over the shelves and cabinets. The ones who survived the fire are imprisoned in the Epirian ships, probably until their executions can be arranged. They were glorious, for a shining moment, but in the end, all they did was thicken the smoke and slow the destruction of our people’s history–it took hours rather than minutes.

(Continue Reading…)

Cast of Wonders 267: Banned Books Week – For

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


FOR

by Sandra M. Odell

 

Maggie Alvarez leaned against the counter of the dry goods store to get a better look inside John’s satchel.  Was that a book beneath the flap?  Had to be.  Dingy white cover, faded black letters along the cracked spine.  All her life she’d watched Lessonkeepers hurl books on the bonfires at purity rallies.  Books were illegal, filled with the lies that caused the crumble of the old world.

Her heart sank, then bounced back twice as high.  A real book!

She eased her weight off her knotted left foot, and shifted hold on her crutch.  “So, John, you planning on settling here for a time?”

He leaned against the other side of the wooden counter.  “Nah.  Pretty soon I’ll head east to the Missip river and winter over in Nuloreans.”

Maggie didn’t catch her disappointment in time to keep it from her face, and John was quick to add, “I’ll be here for a time yet.  People always need their knives sharpened.”

“Of course,” Maggie said, and smiled to hide her relief.  “And you’ll be needing supplies.”

Pink touched John’s tanned cheeks and he picked at the edge of the counter top.  “Of course.”

(Continue Reading…)

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 266: The Immobile God of Secrets

Show Notes

Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


The Immobile God of Secrets

by Jamie Lackey

 

Jun slogged through the rice paddy, muddy water swirling around her calves.  She glanced behind her, checking again to make sure that Reiko and her cronies hadn’t chased her.  The only figure in sight was a lone scarecrow, wearing a pointed straw hat and a tattered blue yukata.

Its face, two wide eyes and a softly smiling line for its mouth, was painted onto a rough woven sack, and its wooden pole tilted slightly to the left.  It looked like it could bounce away at any second–Jun couldn’t imagine a single crow braving it.

She bowed.  “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“You are welcome anytime.”

Jun started back and almost fell.  She looked around again, but saw nothing but green stalks, heavy with yellowing rice, and the occasional glint of water.  She walked around the scarecrow.  Even the water was still–the only ripples were from her own passing.  She remembered her manners and bowed again.  “Thank you.”

“If you would stay and keep me company, I will share a secret with you.”

Jun’s socks were soggy and the sun was sinking in the west.  If she was late for dinner, her mother would worry.  But she liked secrets, and she’d never met a talking scarecrow before.  Jun knew that he must be a spirit, or a god, but he seemed kind.  And lonely.  Jun understood loneliness.  “I’ll stay.”

“Thank you.  Tell me, child, what brings you to my field?”

“There’s a girl at school who hates me.  I ran away from her.”

“You must have run very fast to find this place.”

“I am fast.  That’s why she hates me–she used to be the fastest girl on the track team.”

“Maybe she only chases you because she wants to catch up.”

Jun remembered rocks whistling past her ears, and the sting of a stone clipping her calf.  “I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Maybe not.”

“I don’t know why it bothers her so much.  She’s better than me in every other way.  She’s pretty and has tons of friends and is top in our class and her parents buy her anything she wants.”

“I will tell you her secret, if you wish to know it.”

Jun hoped she could use the secret to stop Reiko from tormenting her.  “I do.”

“Her parents do not love her, and she knows it.”

“But they’re her parents.”

“Yes.”

Jun frowned.  She didn’t want to feel sorry for Reiko.  “How do you know that?”

“I know many things,” the scarecrow said.

“Do you know about me?”

“Yes, I know everything about you, Shuuichi Jun.  You love pork cutlets and math class and running makes you feel free.  You want to take care of your mother and you worry about your grades, but have a hard time making yourself study.”

“How do you know all that?”

“That is my secret, child.”

“I need to get home–my mother will be worried.”

“Yes.  And she made you your favorite dinner.”

“Will I be able to come back?” Jun asked.

“The future is always uncertain.  But it would please me to see you again.”

Jun bowed again.  “Thank you for the secret.”  She walked back toward the path.  When she turned around, the paddy was empty.

 


 

Jun had no idea how to use the scarecrow’s secret.  She couldn’t imagine her parents not loving her.  Had Reiko done something horrible?  Or had they not wanted a daughter in the first place?  If they didn’t love her, why did they buy her so many presents?  It didn’t make sense.  Maybe the scarecrow had lied.

But Jun didn’t think so.  She couldn’t help but trust the scarecrow.

Reiko glared at her during track practice, just like she always did.  Then she and Reiko raced, just like they always did.  The coach believed they pushed each other.

Jun won, like she always did.  “Good race,” she said.

Reiko’s expression darkened.  “Don’t patronize me.”

Jun tried to keep her pity off of her face.

Reiko’s hands tightened into fists.  “What is up with you today?”

Jun shrugged.  “Why does it bother you so much?”

“Why does what bother me?”

“That I’m faster.”

“You bother me because you’re ugly and stupid.  I don’t care about track.  I’m only here because my father made me join a team.”

“Is he going to come to any of the meets?”

“Don’t talk to me, Shuuichi.”  Reiko snapped, then stormed off.

Reiko wasn’t waiting to torment Jun after practice, and she couldn’t find the path to the scarecrow’s rice paddy.

 


 

Jun stared down at her homework, but she’d read the poem a dozen times and it still didn’t make sense.  She padded out to the kitchen, where her mother was washing dishes.  “Mom, do you know anything about poetry?”

Her mom paused and pushed her dark hair away from her face with a soapy wrist.  “No, I’m sorry, sweetie.  Have you tried asking one of your classmates for help?”

“Good idea,” Jun said.  She went back to her room and flopped onto the floor.  She pulled her phone out of her pocket and stared at it for a long time.  Reiko was top of their class.  She probably understood poetry.  What would she do if Jun asked for help?

She’d probably laugh and call Jun stupid again.  Jun scrolled through her classmates’ phone numbers.  She wasn’t really friends with any of them.

Jun climbed out the window and ran.  The packed dirt path was hard against her bare feet.

The scarecrow’s rice paddy was different in the moonlight.  Silver and black and clearly magical.  Cold mud oozed between her toes.

“Hello,” Jun said, bowing.

“It is good to see you, but it is dangerous here at night,” the scarecrow said.

“What will Reiko do if I ask her for help?”

“I do not know what the future holds, child.  I only know the now.”

“Well, what do you think she’d do?”

“She might help you.  Or she might lash out.  She is not a happy girl.”

“Why don’t her parents love her?”

“Do you think she would want you to know that, when she herself doesn’t?”

“No.  I suppose not.”

“I will tell you something else, instead.”

“Okay.”

“There is a monster hiding by your path home.”

Chills ran along Jun’s skin.  “A monster?”

“Yes.  It is an angry spirit, hungry for human life.  It is strong, but you are fast.”

“What will happen if it catches me?”

“I do not know the future.”

“What does it normally do when it catches someone?”

“It eats them.”

“I’ll run as fast as I can, then.”

“Good.  I hope to see you again, child.  In the daytime.”

Jun sprinted down the dark path.  The moonlight cast deep shadows, and she imagined figures lurking in each one.  Her bare foot caught on a rock, and pain spiked through her.  She felt hot breath on her neck, but heard no sounds but the pounding of her own heart, the rhythm of her feet hitting the path, and the ragged cadence of her breath.

A shadow engulfed hers and spread before her on the path.  It was huge, with two tapered horns.

Jun pumped her arms faster.  Icy claws ripped through her hair and sliced the back of her left arm.

She saw a streetlight ahead and managed one last burst of speed.

The shadow faded, and she burst onto the road.  She collided with someone and tumbled to the ground.

Jun stared up at the sky and panted.  Blood dripped down her elbow.

“What’s wrong with you?”  Reiko loomed above her, scowling.  “Do you run everywhere?”

Jun blinked up at her.  “Would you help me with my poetry homework?”

Reiko rolled her eyes.  “No.”

Jun sat up and winced.  Her whole arm ached, and it felt like she’d plunged it into an icy river.

“Are you bleeding?”

Jun nodded.

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.  Could you–could you help me home?”

Reiko rolled her eyes again, but gave Jun her hand and pulled her to her feet.  “Just don’t bleed on me, okay?  This is a new top.”

The cold spread up Jun’s arm and to her chest.  She started to shiver.

Reiko pulled Jun’s good arm over her shoulder.  The contact was warm and comforting, even through Reiko’s new top.  “There’s something really wrong with you, isn’t there?”

“I–I’ll be okay.”  It was difficult to speak through her chattering teeth.

Her tiny house looked like an oasis of light and warmth as Reiko dragged her to the front door.  Jun saw her mother’s worried face, then darkness took her.

 


 

She woke tucked into her futon with a clean bandage around her arm.  A hot water bottle was nestled into the crook of her elbow, and another warmed her feet.  Her arm hurt, but she felt warm all through.

Her mother had dragged her own futon in and was sleeping beside her.  “Mom?”

“Oh, thank goodness.  Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m feeling much better.”

“What happened?  Why were you out without your shoes?”

“I went to visit a friend,” Jun said.

“The girl who brought you back?  She seemed very worried.  She offered to bring your schoolwork by today.”

“No, I met her on my way home.”

“Was it a boy?  Did he hurt you?  You can tell me sweetie, I promise I won’t be mad.”

“No.  I–I was running from a monster.”

“A monster.”

“I found a rice paddy with a scarecrow, and he could talk, because he’s really a god, and he told me secrets, but it’s dangerous at night and then there was an angry spirit–“

Her mother pressed the back of her hand to Jun’s forehead.  “Why don’t you lie back down.  I’ll make some tea.”

Her mother didn’t ask what happened again, but she brought a steady stream of hot drinks and made more pork cutlets for dinner.

Reiko arrived with a stack of books just before dinner.  “I’m so sorry,” she said, bowing.  “I didn’t think–“

“Come on in, dear!” Jun’s mother said.  “I was hoping you’d get here in time to eat with us.  I made enough for everyone–I wanted to thank you for getting Jun home last night.  That is if your own family won’t miss you–“

“They won’t,” Reiko said.  “Thank you, Mrs. Shuuichi.”

“I do hope you like pork cutlets.  They’re Jun’s favorite.”

“They’re mine, too.  Thank you.”

After dinner, Reiko followed Jun to her bedroom.  “I’ll help you with your poetry, but only if you tell me what happened last night.”

“What if I tell you and you don’t believe me?”

“I’ll believe you.”

“My mother doesn’t believe me.”

“You appeared out of nowhere, and there was… something behind you.”

“You saw it?”

She shrugged.  “I saw something.”

“When I was running from you the other day, I found a rice paddy with a scarecrow.  The scarecrow can talk, and he knows things.”

“A scarecrow that knows things?  Like Kuebiko–the god in the stories?”

“I think so, but I didn’t ask–I thought it might be rude.  Anyway, I went back there last night, and then that monster chased me.”

“It must have been a pretty fast monster.”

“I guess.”

“It probably would have caught me.”

“The scarecrow told me not to come back again after dark.”

“Why did you go at night, anyway?  And without your shoes?” Reiko asked.

“I had a question.”

“What could be so important that you ran off without your shoes?” Reiko asked.

Jun shrugged.

“Don’t tell me you went to ask Kuebiko about our stupid poetry homework.”

“No, that isn’t what I asked.”

“Was it about me?”

Jun looked down at the floor.  “Yes.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He told me that your parents don’t love you.”

Tears welled in Reiko’s eyes.  “Oh.  That.”

“I’m sorry,” Jun said.

“Did he tell you why?”

“No.”  Jun reached out and took Reiko’s hands between hers. “Do you want to ask him?”

Reiko blinked and two tears slipped down her cheeks.  “Yes.”

“Let’s go tomorrow, right after school.”

“Okay.”

 


 

“We can only find the path if we run,” Jun said.  “Sometimes, I can’t find it at all.  Stay as close to me as you can.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Reiko said.  “You’re still recovering, and I don’t want to have to carry you again.”

“Let’s go.”

They ran.  The path opened up under her feet, and she splashed into the rice paddy with Reiko close behind.

“Hello, children.”

Jun bowed.

“The scarecrow really can talk,” Reiko said.

“I can.”  It sounded amused.

“Go ahead, ask your question,” Jun said.  “I won’t listen.”

She turned away and covered her ears.

After a while, Reiko tapped her shoulder.  Her eyes were red.  “I’m done.”

“Are you okay?” Jun asked.

Reiko shrugged.  “Thank you for bringing me here.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you.”

“It’s okay.”

“I didn’t mean to hit you with that rock.  We were trying to miss.  I won’t do anything like that again, I promise.”

“Yeah?  Okay.”

“I can keep helping you with your homework, if you want.”

“I’d like that.”

“It is safe to walk down the path now,” the scarecrow said.  “Your mother is finishing up your dinner.”

“Thank you.  We’ll be going.” Jun asked.

“Can we come back?” Reiko asked.

“I do not know what the future holds,” the scarecrow said.  “But I will never shut you out.”

“What is her mother making for dinner?” Reiko asked.

“A hot pot.”

“Is there enough for me?”

“Of course.”

Reiko grinned.  “Awesome.  Let’s go.”

They walked down the path together, then Jun stopped.  “Wait for me here just sec, okay?”

“Sure.”

Jun ran back up to the rice paddy and splashed out to the scarecrow.  “Did you plan all this?  Or did it just happen?”

The scarecrow chuckled.  “How can I control anything?  I cannot move from this spot.”

“Well, I just wanted to say thank you.”

“You are welcome, Shuuichi Jun.  You deserve to be happy.”

“And Reiko does too, right?”

“You’ve already answered that question.”

Jun bowed, then ran back to her friend.

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 265: A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

by M. Darusha Wehm

 

You have always been a princess.

When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother.

Ines twirls around and around until she nearly falls over, clutching you to stay upright. “Ooh, I’ll never get used to riding a magic carpet.”

You giggle and say, “That’s why I ride in a carriage pulled by eight golden ponies.”

“Can I come to the ball with you, then?” Ines sinks to the ground, her skirt billowing around her like a cloud.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Ines’s father says, his eyes crinkling.

“Yeah,” your mother says, “off in their own little world.”

“Come on,” Mr. Solano says, “that’s one of the great things about being a kid. All that imagination, all those dreams.” He looks at you then his eyes dart back to your mother. “They can be anything they want at this age. Might as well let them enjoy it.”

“You’re right,” your mother says, handing him an old ice cream bucket. “Thanks for taking them. I can really use the rest.”

“It’s no trouble,” he says, then kneels down to where you and Ines are sitting, playing with the material of her dress. “Come on, my two little princesses, let’s go get some candy.”

You get up and your mother adjusts the sash on your dress. “Only two pieces on the way home,” she says. “You want it to last until Christmas, okay?”

You nod, excited about the prospect of even two pieces of candy. It’s been forever since you’ve had candy.

Your family has been eating spaghetti with ketchup for days. You love spaghetti and ketchup, not realizing that it’s just what’s left at the end of the Food Bank hamper. You also don’t know that your mother lost her job, which is why she is there when you get home from school and has had time to make your costume. You know your father is working double shifts, though. That’s why he isn’t there to see you in your pretty dress. Your mom goes to take a photo as you and Ines stand together, grinning at each other while she fumbles with her old phone.

“Come on,” Ines says, grabbing your hand. “We need to hurry if we’re going to get to the ball on time.”

 


 

When you are nine, both your parents are working. You get the official Princess app for your birthday and each day after school you and Ines lie on the Lady Dawn Pink™ comforter she’s had on her bed since you were little, looking at the latest photoshoots and reading about the princesses.

“Did you see that Cheyenne just got back from a trip to New Zealand,” you say, paging through the latest updates. “They wouldn’t let her bring Wolf into the country with her. Isn’t that awful? It’s not as if he’s some ordinary dog. He’s, like, partially part of her.”

“It’s like last year,” Ines says, “when that one country wouldn’t let Princess Karima travel on her flying carpet within their border.”

“I know, how dumb. What’s airspace security anyway?” you say, rolling your eyes. You both go back to the pictures.

“I can’t decide if Karima or Cheyenne is my favourite,” Ines says a few minutes later.

“Rhona,” you say, your fingers tracing the flowing curls of her beautiful red hair.

“Rhona?! But she doesn’t even look like you. She’s so… pale.”

You don’t look like any of them, with your skinny legs and bitten fingernails. You shrug.

“She’s beautiful.”

“They’re all beautiful,” Ines says, her forehead wrinkling. “When I’m ten, mom says I can get my hair cut like Karima’s.” She holds up the ends of her long, black hair, effecting a makeshift bob. “She said no to the eyeliner, though.” Ines lets her hair fall back down. “How about you?”

You don’t know what to do with makeup. Your mother wears little, but one afternoon when both your parents were at work you spent an hour in the bathroom with her eyeshadow, blush and lipstick. The best you could do was make yourself look like a clown. You can tell that Ines would never look like a clown. But she’s pretty to begin with, everyone says so. You are clever. Or strong. Never pretty.

“My hair’s okay the way it is,” you say, running your fingers though the short cut. “I’d look dumb with long hair.”

Ines shrugs and the two of you look at pictures of her with with different haircuts until it’s time for you to go home.

At night, when you can’t sleep, you imagine you are Rhona, with a gown of green velvet, a mind sharp enough to trick a wizard, a face pretty enough to bewitch an entire kingdom and a long trail of flaming red hair.

 


 

When you are twelve, Ines gets weird. All she wants to talk about is romance. You think it’s because of Princess Mei Ling’s wedding last month.

“Don’t you think Cheyenne’s prince is better-looking than Mei Ling’s prince?” Ines asks. You don’t know what to say. You don’t care about the princes.

“I mean, I know he’s older,” she says, not waiting for you to answer, “but I think he looks distinguished. That silver hair at his temples makes him look, I dunno, classy, like one of those actors in a black and white movie.” She flicks through the images on her phone. She bought the Princes app with her first babysitting money and now you sit apart in her room, each looking at your own pictures on your own phones.

“Do you ever dream about your wedding? I think about it all the time. Mei Ling’s was so beautiful,” Ines says, not seeming to notice that you haven’t said a word, “I want gold leaf on my wedding cake. And a dress like hers, but with blue accents, not pink. And what did you think about her prince’s uniform? Guys look great in uniforms.” She stops talking and looks over at you. “Want to watch the video again on the big screen?”

The Solanos have a big tv in their living room, and you often go over to watch movies. You nod, even though you think the wedding was kind of boring. But all the Princesses were there and Rhona looked incredible in her formal gown. You watch it all again for the millionth time, impatiently sitting through the wedding part to get to the ball. When Mei Ling enters the main salon on a flying horse, you gasp with delight as if you’d never seen it before. When Rhona dances with her prince, time stops.

That night, you dream that instead of Rhona’s prince, it is you she dances with, your arm around her waist, her head on your shoulder. You twirl around the ballroom, your feet not quite touching the floor, her hair flying behind you both in a trail of auburn curls.

 


 

When you are seventeen, you work part-time in a bakery. Your alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, Rhona’s voice singing her theme song sweetly in your ear. It almost makes waking in the dark bearable. You spend two hours each morning decorating the elaborate fairy cakes that each cost more than you’ll be paid that week, then you go to school and try to stay awake in class.

Ines texts you in history:

> new p movie opens 2moro lets go!

You’ve been saving all your bakery money and summer job wages in a college fund. You know now that your parents can barely keep up with their debts and won’t be able to help, and you don’t have the grades for a scholarship. Your father has steady work in construction, but it was never enough when your mother couldn’t find work. Your mother went to college and she’s always told you that an education is the most important thing. “Wishing for something won’t make it so,” she says. “You have to put yourself out to get anywhere in this world.”

She says that it was her degree which got her the job she has now, assistant to a junior manager at a big firm downtown. “Who would you hire?” she asks you, “someone just out of high school or someone who’s been to college? You can’t just expect to get a good job without it anymore.” Sometimes you feel like you want to scream whenever you hear the word college.

But you know your mother is right. Your parents seem to work all the time–you can’t remember the last time the three of you did something together that wasn’t a hasty meal or a half hour in front of the second-hand, tiny tv. Between school and the bakery, it feels like you work all the time, too.

You text Ines back.

> k

You get to the theater two hours early and still barely get in. The audience is mostly teens and college age women, a few boyfriends and just a smattering of guys there of their own accord. But there are hardly any little kids–this isn’t one of those origin story films. It’s a grown-up story about post-princess life, featuring Bianca–the first of the princesses, a stately matron now–and Lianne, who became a princess when you were a kid. The story begins as Lianne arrives at Bianca’s castle in her carriage, glorious and shining with her footmen bustling about. She enters the Great Hall to find a table groaning under a feast of delights.

Ines elbows you and whispers, “Those are the fairy cakes you make.”

It’s true, the bakery where you work specializes in replica royal sweets. Being around such beautiful things is the main appeal of the job. You nod and shush her.

Over the next ninety minutes, you are transported to a magic world that you can barely believe exists in the same universe as your own life. Glorious silken gowns transformed from ordinary box-store dresses. Flying chariots whisking the princesses to fabulous balls or feasts laden with luscious food no one eats. Lives of glamour and leisure. For a moment, you wonder if it is even real.

Then comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Everyone has been talking about the rumour that a new princess would be revealed in the film. Your breath catches in your throat when you see her for the first time. You know it’s her: she is too radiant, too perfect to be working in some grimy urban store. Bianca and Lianne have gotten lost on their way back to Lianne’s château, and walk into a small Korean grocery in some nameless city, looking for directions. The girl behind the counter must be about your age, but her days of worrying about grades and college are over. The princesses recognize her true nature immediately and take her away with them. No one objects. It is as if it were ordained in the stars.

They say that the movie story is based on her real life, that she really was discovered in some store just like that last year. Seo-yeon, an urban princess, elevated from the streets to a castle in the clouds. Your eyes fill with tears. You can’t count the number of times you’ve wished for that moment. To have what you’ve known all your life finally be reflected in someone else’s eyes. That you, too, are more than you appear to be.

If Seo-yeon could be plucked like a flower from her life of toil, surely it could happen to anyone? Even to you?

 


 

When you are twenty-two, you pull a crumpled bill from your pocket. It’s enough for a draft beer at the campus bar and you’ve earned one. You are thirty thousand dollars in debt, you can’t remember the last time you slept more than five hours in a night, but tomorrow you will walk onstage with hundreds of other people and walk off with a degree.

The bartender slides the beer toward you and takes your money, her dark eyes lingering on you for a moment. You’re not in the mood to talk, so you take your beer to a quiet table near the back. You sip and look around. There aren’t as many people in the place as there would be on a Friday night, but at three in the afternoon on the day before graduation, it’s crowded enough. You recognize the students’ uniform of thrift store coats, broken book bags and five-year-old phones.

You notice a guy from your post-structural economics class a couple of tables over; he gives you the eye-contact-and-nod then goes back to his animated conversation. He’s wearing a pale yellow t-shirt with a faded image of Princess Bonita printed on it. You know he’s wearing it ironically, but you had that exact shirt when you were a kid.

You remember working with whatshisname–Charlie, Carl, something like that–on a class project. You made this infographic that showed how many people out of a hundred ever got out of the economic class where they were born. It was a good chart. You got an A minus.

Your phone buzzes and you flip it over. Ines. You haven’t seen her since Christmas, when you were both home and her engagement news overshadowed the holiday. She found her prince.

> going home after grad lets get 2gether

^ ill be back this wkend

^ coffee?

> yah

> wanna ask u about cakes!!!

You wonder how she and Mikhail can afford a fairy cake for their wedding. They are both going to be paying off their student loans as long as you are, and neither has a job lined up after graduation. Your mother told you that they think they will have to live with Ines’s parents after they get married.

“It’s no coincidence,” Carl or Charlie’s slurred voice interrupts your thoughts from across the bar. “We’re living in a new feudalism, ruled by unrealistic hopes to join an unattainable elite. Statistically, the rags to riches dream isn’t real, but we think if we just work hard enough, it’ll happen for us. We all think we’re kings in peasant’s clothes, but we’re just children playing make-believe. It’s time we decided to live in the real world.” Other voices rise to join his in belligerent agreement and you recognize arguments you’ve heard yourself make on other afternoons like this one.

Maybe Ines has it right–buy an expensive cake, have a fairytale wedding day. What’s another few thousand dollars? At least then you’d have something to remember, one moment when you were someone’s princess. But it’s so hard to let the dream go.

You don’t feel like a peasant, you never have. But you know if you keep pretending that one day you’ll meet your fairy godmother, she’ll wave her wand and suddenly everything will all be fine, that you’ll spend your life being a servant to a fantasy.

You finish your beer, thinking of those days when all it took for a magical transformation was a rolled up piece of cardboard and a pillowcase dress. You flick your finger over your phone, Rhona’s beautiful face filling the screen. Those blue eyes. That red hair. Can’t you live in your imagination with her just a little longer?

After all, you’ve always been a princess. Haven’t you?

Introducing our new associate editors!


Hello everyone! Please join us in welcoming some new faces at Cast of Wonders! They’re already hard at work at the slushface, excavating our future story diamonds. Welcome aboard everyone!

 

Tonya Bezpalko – Associate Editor

Tonya lives deep in the moose-infested wilds of Canada, where they are interested in everything but qualified for almost nothing. They are a sometime developer of MUDs, even in this day and age, and once released a Twine game about petting cats. One day, they’re going back to school for that linguistics degree, because they just love words that much. They’ve never seen an arts and crafts tutorial that didn’t make them want to do it too, no matter how impractical, and they will devour any book in front of them at an absolutely ludicrous speed. Give them the chance to, and they will pet your cat. Follow them on Twitter.

Alicia Caporaso – Associate Editor

Alicia is a marine archaeologist in New Orleans. Though she does not get to leave her desk too often, her technical specialty is using robots to investigate and study shipwrecks and other mysterious things in the deep sea. Most of her published writing is nonfiction, about North American archaeology and history, though her number of speculative fiction stories is slowly increasing. She lives with two little monsters who regularly take dog form and usually can be found, like most monsters, under her bed.

 

 

 

Trace Fontil – Associate Editor

Trace is a hopeful biologist that spends much of her time thinking about sentient trees and gods meddling in human lives. She is a university student, a speculative fiction writer, and a Florida(wo)man. You can find her buried under a stack of books and contemplating just how many ways the world can actually end, or alternatively, just shout into the air. You never know; she might be able to hear it.

 

 

William Heydt-Minor – Associate Editor

Will is a teacher and writer who currently resides in New York City at this stage in his peripatetic life. One day he will settle down in a self-sustaining earthship on a remote mountain top, but that day is not today. In his spare time, he enjoys walking, sleep, making risotto, and coffee. Follow him on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

Andrew K. Hoe – Associate Editor

Andrew teaches and practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and a college professor. His academic work in children’s literature can be found in The Looking Glass.

 

 

 

 

Shawn Proctor – Associate Editor

Shawn is a speculative fiction writer who earned his bachelors from Kutztown University and MFA from Rosemont College. He works and lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Hope, a dynamic duo of kids, and a clowder of cats. He is a member of Codex writers group and Critters, and adores weird pajamas. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, and Crab Orchard Review. Read more of his work at shawnproctor.com and follow him on Twitter @shawnproctor.

 

 

 

Rey O – Associate Editor

Rey works as an English teacher. She is recovering from gaslighting and C-PTSD, and is basically trying to learn how to be nice to herself full time. Her favorite indulgences are squeeing over cars and comics, collecting toys and second hand books, writing, learning languages, doing puzzles, and enjoying stand-up comedy. SFF and fairy tales are her favorite flavors. Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

Karissa Sluss – Associate Editor

Karissa lives with in North Carolina with her family and a hairy husky named Bonnie. Her favorite things are coffee, dark chocolate, Star Wars, and Princess Bride. By day she wrangles cases and hearing schedules for a small administrative court. At night, after cooking dinner, checking homework, and walking the dog, she writes and reads as much as possible. You can find out more about her writing online at karissalaurel.com, and she loves making friends on Twitter @karissalaurel.

 

 

Emma Smailes – Associate Editor

Emma hails from the banks of the not so coaley Tyne, which she loves as only a native Geordie Lass can. She enjoys fiction of almost all types, plotting, though never acting, to take over the world, and having sparkly fingernails. She does not have a cat, but does have a tiny cuddly toy hedgehog called Optic, who goes everywhere with her.

 

 

Cast of Wonders 264: Little Wonders 14 – Lyrical Beauty

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


The Best Busker in the World

by R.K. Duncan

 

“The best busker in the world never plays in the same place twice.  He is too busy searching.  But maybe, just maybe, you will hear him once.  If you hear him, you will have to see him, even if the first notes of his music drift to you from streets away, completely opposite from wherever you intended to go.  Once you hear a single note, it will draw you along like an invisible string, tugging at the knot in the center of your chest where you keep your secret fears and disappointments.  Wherever you find him— a dusty back street in a sleepy town, a bustling avenue in the rush-hour of a big city, a lonely campground haunted by only a few brave souls and stubborn wanderers— the sight will burn itself into your memory almost as deeply as the music.”  

(Continue Reading…)

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 263: A Coat For Aodh

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


A Coat for Aodh

by Ika Koeck

 

I have always hated the cold. It makes the simplest of tasks impossible. Trying to tighten the girth around a gelding that was holding his breath on purpose was already difficult with one weak hand and one bad leg. In the cold night, my numb hands simply refused to cooperate, and I was in the midst of heaving, puffing, and cursing the horse’s ancestors when Tipsy meowed and alerted me to a visitor.

I looked over my shoulder to see a young man of maybe fifteen summers, peeking from the side of the stall.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, removing his top hat. “I’m looking for Miss Callan.”

“She isn’t here,” I said, hopping on my good leg and clinging to the saddle when the gelding turned around to face the visitor. I had spent an entire day on my feet evicting a clan of swamp fairies from the city sewers; a nasty affair that necessitated some bloodshed and a very long debrief with Her Majesty’s Chief Constable. I was not in the mood to entertain anymore clients.

“Blasted horse! Stand still, will you?” I waved the young man away. “Whatever it is, come back in a month. She might be here then.”

“A month?” the visitor’s voice had scarcely matured into manhood. “I can’t …” He trailed off in a sigh and looked up at the sky. “I don’t have a month, sir. Miss Callan said I could come by anytime if I needed to see her.”

“And I’m certain she meant it, but it can’t be helped. She was called to a prior engagement.”

“Please, do you know where I can find her?”

I shrugged and continued pulling on the girth strap. One can never tell with Faun. Her cases often took her miles from town, and perhaps even into the fae realm. And the nature of our business meant that it was a rarity for the both of us to be at the same place at the same time. I could offer no other answer. The cold was beginning to send a dull ache through my bad leg, and I was fast losing my will to be civilized.

“May I, sir?” the boy said. Before I could protest, he stepped beside me and led the gelding outside the stall. I might have imagined it but there was amusement in his voice then.  “Does he always hold his breath?”

“Only when he wishes to compound my misery,” I said as I rubbed my knee. The young man walked my horse a few steps down the road and back to the stall until the four-legged imp gave up and released the breath he was holding.

“He reminds me of the horses in my uncle’s stable,” the boy said as he tightened the girth and handed the reins back to me. He quickly looked away when our eyes met, and I caught a whiff of something otherworldly about him. Tipsy gave me a pointed look, sure sign that she too had caught that smell.

“What is your name?” I asked.

He looked over his shoulder before responding. “Aodh.”

“Thank you, Aodh,” I said. “As I have mentioned, Miss Callan will return in a few weeks, perhaps. I suggest you come back then.” Tipsy meowed again and swatted my leg. Her marble-green eyes were steeped with disapproval. When I ignored her, the calico began to yowl, as loudly as she could.

“Gods be damned. Alright, alright!” I sighed. The yowling stopped the moment I offered my hand to the visitor. “Perhaps I may be of service, but for the sake of my sanity, let’s get out of this cold first.”

He hesitated, but shook my hand anyway. His grip was as weak as his voice was small. He would have been almost as tall as I was if he would just straighten his shoulders. Yet beneath his oversized greatcoat, the air of desperation clinging about him weighed him down so heavily that I wondered what could be plaguing a man so young. “I’m not certain you can help, sir,” he muttered.

“Let me be the judge of that,” I said. “I am Wolcroft.”

He looked up to squint at the sign painted above my establishment. “Of…Callan and Wolcroft?”

“The very same.” I bent over a little and turned my shoulder to let Tipsy have her usual perch. “Come, this way. You look like you could use a drink.”

 


 

Aodh’s nerves didn’t dissipate once we were nestled within the comforts of the tavern. If anything, its nondescript façade and shortage of patrons made him even more nervous, but I had been coming here for years and relied on its seclusion to conduct my business. Besides, it was the only establishment that served both a fine selection of rare liqueurs, and my favourite spiced tea.

Under the tavern lights, Aodh was a spectre of a thing. His eyes, which should have been bright with the vigour of youth, were sunken and watery.  He glanced over at the door every minute or so as though he was expecting trouble to hound him, his dark hair hanging like seaweed around his gaunt face.

“We’re safe here,” I assured him, setting a bowl of cream down on the table for Tipsy. “So, what are you?”

Aodh blinked at me in surprise. “How can you tell?”

“Your scent.” I stretched my bad leg towards the hearth beside us, glad for the warmth of the fire and the tea now swirling in my stomach. “Magic from the fae realm has a peculiar effect on the flesh, particularly when it has been mixed with the human bloodline. Gives away a certain, distinct smell, like charred flowers, or fresh cut salmon. It varies depending on what species the other half of the bloodline is.”

Aodh looked uncomfortable. “Oh. Begging your pardon, Mr. Wolcroft. I certainly hope I am not reeking of fish.”

“Not as bad as Tipsy here is,” I smiled and stroked the cat’s head. “It still doesn’t tell me what you are.”

The young man retreated into his seat, shoulders hunched until his neck almost disappeared. He gazed into his cup, as though the tea could provide the answers or courage he so desperately sought. Just a boy, I thought. A confused, terrified boy who, perhaps like most half-breeds in Sonning, had spent his whole life under the critical eye of one side of his family and rejected by the other. Further judgment on my part will only cause him to withdraw, and perhaps flee beyond any hope of help. I turned my attention to the plate of pastries on my table, and split one that had a fish filling to share with the cat.

“Would you like to know why I named her Tipsy?” I asked. Aodh looked up and gave a single nod.

“She walks like a drunk. A carriage trundled down the road and was turning a sharp corner and the wheel clipped her, just here,” I stroked the bones on her spine and the base of her tail. “She was just a kitten then, and she’s been walking funny ever since.”

“Oh,” he murmured. “Poor cat.”

“Indeed,” I said. “And would you like to know the secret of how I obtained my limp?”

Aodh’s nod was eager this time.

“I ran over a little calico kitten while riding a carriage,” I said. “Flipped the whole damn thing over and over on the road. Broke my leg in three places, that. I’ve been walking funny ever since.”

That drew snorts of laughter out of him, and the reservations on his face eased a fraction. I leaned back against my seat and smiled as the boy choked his laugh and cleared his throat. “Please forgive me, Mr. Wolcroft,” he said, breathless. “It’s very unbecoming to find amusement in another man’s misfortune.”

I waved the matter aside. He gathered himself and sat forward in his seat. Faun was right.  Tell someone your secret, and they might tell you theirs.

“My father died before I was born,” Aodh began. “I had always assumed that my mother left me to my uncle and aunt because I was often poorly, and that she couldn’t afford to pay for my care. It’s what my aunt always led me to believe, but something inside tells me otherwise. And a little over a year ago I began to suspect that I wasn’t entirely… human.”

I wiped crumbs from the side of my mouth and exchanged glances with Tipsy. “Our noses have already established that, but why do you think so?”

“I have always been drawn to the sea,” he said with a sigh of longing. “When I was a child, I used to sneak out of the family home for a swim, and often seek out the company of…” he paused to see if anyone around us was listening. Not that anyone was. The only other patron was seated on the far side of the room, slumped over his empty beer mug in sweet, blissful slumber. “Of seals. No matter how choppy the waters were, or how terrible the weather, I found more comfort being in the water with them than I did on land with my family.” He allowed himself to smile a little. “My aunt had to pay the harbour master to fish me out with a net once, when I refused to return home.”

That narrowed his origins down to a considerable degree, and exposed the gravity of his predicament. Small wonder why he was so desperate to see Faun. I set my cup down. “How long has it been since you last saw your seal coat, selkie?”

His eyes widened like saucers. “Years, sir!”

I scratched Tipsy between the ears as I considered this. “A human cannot remove a selkie’s coat without consent, much less hide it.”

He nodded. “When I confronted my aunt and uncle on the matter, they told me that it was my decision to be human. That I had given up my coat on my own free will when I was a child. A child! I was seven years old. How could anyone expect me to make a sound decision at that age?”

Whatever transpired in that moment when Aodh was forced to choose between a life of the fae folk or that of a human, I would never know. Yet it was a fairly common affair in Sonning, and every few weeks or so I would meet another half-breed who had been assimilated into human society and robbed of his or her ties to Kil-Varra, the fae realm. It would have been the more practical answer to the problem, for the journey to the fae realm is often treacherous. Half breeds lack the full capacity of their magical lineage to be able to make the crossing safely without any help. In removing his coat, Aodh’s uncle and aunt, however good their intentions were, have removed the boy from half of who he was.

I nodded in sympathy. I knew what it felt like to lose part of yourself. My leg’s poor state was a constant reminder of my limited faculties. “Can you still feel your coat?”

He leaned forward, his voice no more than a whisper. “That’s the trouble, Mr. Wolcroft. I have been removed from it for so long that I can’t feel its presence anymore. My mother might know how to find it, but I believe she’s in Kil-Varra. And I haven’t the slightest inclination if my coat has been hidden somewhere or,” he swallowed, as though his next thought was painful. “…or destroyed.”

The sound of Tipsy’s purring and the logs crackling in the fireplace accompanied the ensuing silence. I knew the course of my action, yet some part of me wished Faun were here. She had a more diplomatic touch, as I suspected would be more apropos.

“A selkie can’t thrive without his coat. I can’t bear it any longer,” Aodh sobbed and buried his face in his hands. True to her name, Tipsy wobbled like a drunk across the table to rub herself against the young man, and batted his fingers until the sobs subsided into a chuckle. I waited patiently while Aodh gathered himself, the cold forgotten, the pain in my leg dulled enough for me to feel eager about the new case.

“And what do you plan to do once you have your coat?” I asked once the young man relaxed in his seat. “Do you wish to travel to Kil-Varra and find your mother?”

He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his greatcoat, holding Tipsy against his chest. “I…I didn’t think that far. Must I leave Sonning if I have my coat?”

“You can’t live in both realms, Aodh,” I said. “There are laws in this kingdom that we must abide by, and if you choose the fae side of your lineage, your citizenship here will be revoked. You may stay as a visitor for a while, but as a permanent resident?” I shook my head. “Her Majesty’s constables will not take kindly to that.” The last thing I wanted was to end the business with Aodh the same way I ended it with the swamp fairies.

He thought about this a moment. It wasn’t a small decision. He would have to stand at a crossroads once more, another that would change the course of his life forever. But the uncertainty in Aodh’s eyes turned into resolve, and I knew there was no turning back. “I will travel to Kil-Varra when my coat has been returned to me,” he said, and I could just see a trace of the hale, self-assured young selkie that had been denied from him for so long.

“Good. Right then. The first thing we have to do is to see if your uncle has the coat hidden in his estate. I presume you live in Upper Sonning?”

Aodh nodded. “In the Red Brick estate with two green marble dragons at the front gate. Uncle Baltair has always had a flair for the ostentatious -”

“Baltair?” I stopped him, ice twisting my guts. “Lord Baltair Craith?”

The consternation on my face must have been obvious. Aodh quickly reached inside his coat and produced a coin purse.  “I assure you, I can pay for your services, Mr. Wolcroft,” he said and slid the purse over to me. “Please, consider this as the first payment. I can give you more when I return to the estate.”

That wasn’t the issue. I would rather deal with several clans of angry faeries than members of Sonning’s landed gentry, and for good reason. They viewed men like me with far more contempt than they did the fae folk, and their ties to the royal households meant that there would be political implications should I pursue the case. After all, what was more reprehensible than a human who knew the fae arts and ferried half breeds between realms for profit?

 


 

As it turned out, there was no need for me to make my way to Upper Sonning after all.  The very next morning, another visitor arrived at my office, this time by way of the front door, and not looking for Faun. I looked up from sharpening my climbing tools to the jingle of the bells that hung on the doorway. A whiff of citrus and jasmines, the blend of perfume not unlike the ones favoured by Sonning aristocracy this season, came in with the cold air, strong enough to make Tipsy sneeze. The visitor jumped at the sound, and I took that opportunity to slide a cloth over my tools.

“Oh!” she took several steps back as Tipsy bolted towards me and climbed on my shoulder. “Goodness, that thing frightened me!”

“You frightened her, from the looks of it,” I said, wiping my hands on my apron and silently cursing myself for not locking the door. “I’m afraid we’re closed, madam. I have a prior, pressing engagement.”

The lady turned from wrinkling her nose in contempt at Tipsy, to scowling at me. “If I might chance a guess at your engagement, it involves a young selkie, does it not?” she asked. At my puzzled frown, she removed her plumed hat and stepped forward. “Forgive me for being forward, Mr. Wolcroft. I am Lady Craith.”

I frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand –”

“Spare me the guile, Mr. Wolcroft! I had Aodh followed yesterday. I know he came to you.”

Of course. I stifled the urge to curse and instead gestured my good hand towards the chair by the hearth. “Will you have some tea, my lady?”

“I will not take up much of your time,” she said, her eyes sweeping across the room. The nervousness must have been something Aodh inherited from this side of the family. She was just as fidgety and pale as Aodh was, if more beautiful. The angled shape of her jaws gave her a truly noble air, her features complemented by the blue silk dress with its lace flower trimmings. But there was a constant tremor about her, barely palpable in my office’s poor lighting. I made a mental note to install more windows and lights. “I am here with the hope that we may come to a mutual agreement regarding Aodh’s best interests.”

It was my turn to be forward. “He needs his coat, my lady. You know how terrible it must be for him to live all these years without it.”

“Of course I know it!” she hissed. “I have had to live with him for years! Oh how he moans for the ocean. How he sits by the window each morning, sighing, wishing he was with his mother!” She drew a sharp breath, as if remembering herself, and her next words came with a touch less venom. “Duty to family comes above our personal needs. Lord Craith and I have not been blessed with an heir.”

“So Aodh stands to fill that position,” I said. “And he must be seen to be completely human, to be accepted among your peers.”

“To carry on our family name,” Lady Craith corrected. “Now do you see our predicament, Mr. Wolcroft? Aodh cannot be allowed to have his coat.”

“You should have destroyed it then,” I said, throwing my bait. “He wouldn’t be pining for his coat if you no longer have it.”

“Please,” she gave a delicate snort. “We’re not barbarians, to permanently rob the boy of his heritage. When he is much older, and has produced another heir to carry on the Craith name, then perhaps we will return his coat to him.” She pointed at me to emphasize her point. “Perhaps.”

Tipsy made an unpleasant sound that echoed my sentiments. The political implications that concerned me now reared their ugly head. Once again, I wished it were Faun here, in my stead. She would have devised a solution that would not require me to break the law.

“My lady, you are condemning the boy to a life he wants no part of,” I said. “He will come to resent you and Lord Craith, and this false life you have planned for him.”

“We have all been forced to make sacrifices at some point in our lives,” she said with a finality that brooked no arguments.  “What would the nobles have to say if they learn that the heir in the Craith lineage is a half-breed? Our efforts to build a position among the gentry will be all for naught! I will not see that happen. He will come to understand, once he is older.”

I stroked Tipsy’s chin when she gave a low, unsatisfied growl. Faced with the full force of the woman’s glare, there was little left for me to do but open the door. Lady Craith’s icy stare paled in comparison to Faun’s fury, but it made me uncomfortable just the same. “Good day, my lady.”

“Please, Mr. Wolcroft,” Lady Craith’s tone softened and she stepped closer to me. For a moment, I thought she would reach out to grab my hands, the cloying air of her perfume at odds with the smell of my old wooden furniture. “I am imploring the better part of your nature to consider my words here. I know how much work you and your associate Miss Callan have done for the well-being of the half-breeds and to preserve the peace between humans and the fae in Sonning, but this is a family matter. And we would prefer to keep it that way.” She gathered her skirts and headed for the door. “I will send a courier with double of what Aodh paid you. Stay out of this.”

Or else passed unspoken, but I heard that message as clearly as I would if she had shouted it at me. The door didn’t shut behind her fast enough to keep the cold out. I heaved a sigh and settled into my chair. “I hope you’re up for delivering a little message to our young selkie friend,” I told the cat and massaged my knee. “It’s going to be a long night.”

 


 

The good thing about being a cat is that you can be certain of your footing no matter how treacherous the terrain. The problem was, I wasn’t a cat. Attempting to traverse across an angled roof while sea winds lashed at you, with one bad leg and one weak hand, was suicide. And yet here I was, hanging from the side of a tall red brick wall, about thirty feet off the ground. Made me wonder how many bones I would break if I lost my footing. Gods, it was cold.

“Tip,” I whispered. “Slow down.”

One of the first lessons I learned when I entered into business with Tipsy was that, like all cats, she only listens when she wishes to. The sound she made was a combination of a disgruntled meow and a frustrated chirp. She paused to look over her shoulder, ears flat under the constant harassment of the wind, her crooked tail held low.

“If I hurry any more I’ll fall and break my neck!” I hissed and unhooked the spikes from beneath my boots. Tipsy trotted to the other side of the roof with enviable ease despite her old injuries, while I followed, lacking both speed and grace. Each hand and foothold required deliberate care, and I prayed to the Gods that the sound of the howling gusts and the waves crashing on the docks nearby would mute our break in.

I eased myself down onto the balcony waiting at the other side of the roof. Light flickered in the room I hoped was Aodh’s. He left his door unlocked, as instructed.

“Aodh?” I whispered into the warmth of the chamber. Empty. Tipsy led the way inside and licked her fur back in place while I closed the door behind me. That same otherworldly smell that lingered on Aodh was stronger here, and my suspicion that the Craiths have kept their nephew’s silk coat in the estate merely intensified.

Distant voices drew my attention to the hallway. There was no turning back now, and I hoped Aodh would seek me out at our second rendezvous point after tonight. I followed Tipsy out of the room and down a corridor lined with stained glass windows. The first flashes of lightning heralded the arrival of a storm I was hoping to avoid, but distant thunder failed to stifle the sounds of crying and a string of angry words echoing from below. The corridor opened into a balustrade, and Tipsy crept over the edge to peer curiously over the side.

“Tip, no,” I nodded down the corridor. “We have to keep going.”

I followed my nose while Tipsy walked drunkenly on her feet, guided by hers. Aodh told me that the servants only stayed until sunset, for his uncle and aunt trusted no one but the handful of guardsmen Tip and I had to scale the roof to avoid. We meandered through a series of chambers and hallways that would have been breathtaking during the day. Carpets woven from the finest threads silenced my limping steps. Statues carved in the likeness of seals and fantastical creatures stood proud on columns decked with gold leaves. In one of the chambers we passed stood a pair of massive wooden unicorns, the points of their horns touching as they reared on their hind legs.

The scent was strongest here. Tipsy’s ears twitched, and she sat down on a spot directly underneath where the two unicorn horns met. I shut the door behind me, my suspicions confirmed now. That tang of otherworldly magic, of the fae realms, wafted out from under the stone floors like the noxious fumes from a dragon’s breath. And threaded between that was the cloying smell of Lady Craith’s perfume. It permeated throughout the whole house, now that I thought about it – An attempt to hide the fae scent for those who could smell it, perhaps.

Years of being in the trade lent us both a sharp eye for magic, and Tipsy, more familiar to the workings of fae sorcery than I, began to touch her nose to the edges of the square stone block beneath the statues. It emitted a dull green glow, and as I knelt beside Tipsy, scripts written in fae began to appear on the stone.

Tipsy gave a low growl. I cursed. “How would the Craiths know this spell? They’re humans.”

I traced the fingers of my good hand over the stone floor and muttered the names of the letters that appeared in sequence around the stone. The spell keeping the stone in place unravelled like clockwork under my touch, and a portion of the floor slid aside to reveal a wide, deep compartment. Nestled within were three pure white seal coats.

“What in hell –”

I only had time to hear Tipsy’s startled meow and hiss, before something blunt and heavy thudded against the back of my head. Stars exploded in my vision, and my limbs went limp. I remember falling to my side, and seeing the startled faces of Aodh and Lord Craith, and the wide-eyed snarl of Lady Craith as she tossed aside the club she had used to strike me. Then everything went dark.

 


 

The sound of thunder brought me back from that darkness. Rain pelted my face in earnest, and I cracked one eye open to see my bound feet before me, leaving a trail on the sand as I was dragged down the beach towards the pier.

“Aunt Linna, please, I beg you! You can’t do this!” Aodh shouted over the rain, trailing after me and my captors with his hands clasped over his cloak. Even then he was denied his coat.

“I’m sorry, Aodh,” said the voice of the man dragging me. Lord Craith, I presumed. “We must .”

“The constables will pass it off as a drowning,” Lady Craith said from somewhere ahead of us. “No one will know.”

“Murder, more likely,” I said over the sound of the waves crashing against the docks. Lord Craith stopped and peered down at me, his face illuminated by the glow of his seal coat. He, at least, had the decency to look sorry. I lifted my bound hands. “The constables can’t pass this off as a drowning. This, and the lump that you have kindly placed on the back of my head, will scream murder.”

Lady Craith’s face came into view, her eyes wide with desperation and anger. “I warned you not to meddle, Mr. Wolcroft.” She was even more beautiful then, garbed in her soft seal coat and glowing with a vitality so common among the fae.

“Well if you’re going to murder me, at least tell me where my cat is,” I said.

“She slipped away, sir, don’t worry,” Aodh said.  That brought me some measure of relief. This wasn’t a lost cause yet.

Lord Craith continued to drag me down the pier. “I must applaud your success in avoiding the constables’ attention,” I said. “You must have spent years climbing your way up the aristocracy, carving your life out here as humans. Hiding your coat away to avoid discovery. You’re breaking the law, my lady. The fae cannot reside in Sonning, far less live as a member of its aristocracy.”

“Why did you do all this, aunty?” Aodh asked. The hurt in his voice and his face must have reached her, for Lady Craith reached out and held his shoulders.

“We cannot live in Kil-Varra, child!” she said. “The realm is on the cusp of a war that will destroy thousands of the fae folk. You will sooner find your death out there as a selkie than here as a human.”

“There’s been a threat of a war for centuries,” I snorted. “Skirmishes are common, perhaps, but a war? Any rebellion that size will be quashed by the fae alliance -”

“His father died fighting in those very skirmishes, Mr. Wolcroft,” Lady Craith said, wiping her cheeks. “I will not have Aodh suffer the same fate.” She clasped his face with her fingers, her touch gentle. “We were dirt poor in Kil-Varra. Our life is good here, Aodh. You will want for nothing as a member of Sonning’s landed gentry. You will learn to love it, if only you would try.”

The sorrow on the young man’s face made him appear so much older. He cast his eyes to the ground and nodded. “If that is your wish, aunty.”

“My good lad!” Lady Craith embraced him. Aodh’s eyes met mine, and at that very moment the sound of whistles pierced the night air, startling all of us.

“In the name of Her Majesty, I command you to stop!” came a shout.

Light beamed from lanterns now dotting the beach we had just traversed, and a handful of men garbed in the uniform of the constabulary dashed towards us, Tipsy bounding at the lead. Lord Craith tightened his grip around my vest and heaved me into the ocean.

I couldn’t swim even if my hands and feet weren’t tied, not with my bad leg and weak arm, so the very thought of drowning flooded me with a rare, primal fear. I kicked against the water, to no effect, and nearly missed the sight of another man diving into the water after me.

Aodh.

He had a seal coat wrapped around one arm and a knife between his teeth. He pursued me as I sank into the bottom of the sea, slipped the blade between the ropes, then wrapped his arm around my chest. Aodh, who was so meek and uncertain on land, was as nimble as a seal in the sea, even without his coat. We emerged sputtering out of the water, and he dragged me to the beach with the same surety that his uncle had while dragging me towards the sea. We both collapsed onto the sand, and Tipsy jumped on my chest, meowing with delight.

“Good work, Tip,” I said between breaths, scratching her ears. “You came just in time, as always.”

“Gods be damned, Raynard. I knew you were in trouble when Tipsy showed up on my windowsill. Are you still alive?” said a familiar voice. The Chief Constable’s face appeared above me, his moustache quivering.

“Just barely,” I said, then nodded at Aodh. “This young man saved my life.”

“My coat! He took my coat!” Lady Craith was shrieking as the constables restrained her. Lord Craith lay sprawled and groaning on the pier, one hand clasped around a stab wound on his thigh.

“You ingrate!” Lady Craith said as she was dragged past us. “You are a disgrace to the Craith name, Aodh! You’ve condemned us to the poorhouse in Kil-Varra! You’ve damned us all!”

But Aodh was beyond reproach now. He rose to his feet and helped me to mine, no longer a boy. No longer afraid. “Chief Constable, sir?” he said. “I would like to report a fraud, and an attempted murder.”

 


 

“The rules of this realm aren’t fair,” Aodh observed, hands clasped around a seal coat. His coat. We had retreated into the warmth of my favourite tavern once again. This time, I was nursing a glass of wine.

“It keeps the peace,” I said between sips. Though I did not disagree with him. “The laws were made in the best interest of Sonning and its populace. This realm belongs to the mortals.”

Without ceremony or hesitation, Aodh tossed his coat into the fire.

“Aodh!” I reached out, but he stood in my way. It crinkled quickly under the heat, and dissipated into a cloud of green smoke. Aodh winced and doubled over but only for a moment. Then, as if released from a spell, he drew a deep breath and straightened himself into his fullest height; the first time I’ve seen him do since we met. It wasn’t the outcome I was expecting, and neither did Aodh, judging by the look on his face.

“I was wrong about the coat, Mr. Wolcroft. Perhaps I can learn to thrive without it,” he said and sank into the seat across from mine, the darkness on his face slowly lifting. “I’m staying here. If my aunt and uncle could fool their way into the Sonning aristocracy, then perhaps there are others doing the same, or worse.”  Yet there was something else behind that decision. I could see it in his eyes. Aodh had found that missing part of himself in the water when he pulled me out. The magic was never in his coat.

I raised my cup at him in salute. “That, my lad, is the most courageous thing I have seen anyone do.”

For the first time since we met, the young man gave a contented smile. “Mr. Wolcroft, would you have room for an assistant? Someone to tighten the girth of your gelding, perhaps?”

I blinked for a moment to register his question, then chuckled and glanced down at the purring calico perched on my lap. “I believe we can make room for another man. Welcome to Callan and Wolcroft, Mr. Craith. And please, call me Raynard.”

Cast of Wonders 262: My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, age 7


• by David Tallerman
• Narrated by Marguerite Kenner
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Issue #30, August 2007)
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Show Notes

David Tallerman is the author of the YA fantasy series “The Black River Chronicles”, which began in late 2016 with Level One, the Tales of Easie Damasco series, and the Tor.com novella Patchwerk. His comics work includes the absurdist steampunk graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science and the Rosarium miniseries C21st Gods.

David’s short stories have appeared in around eighty markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy and horror stories (including this one) were included in his debut collection ‘The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.’ You can follow him online and on Twitter.

 


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


LINKS

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 261: Twice

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Twice

by Imaani Cain

 

In the beginning, there was a world and the world was Marya.

In every photograph littering my parents’ mantle, there are the two of us, smiling tightly under the heavy gaze of the camera. I am always standing just behind her, my hand cupping her shoulder. She is looking up at me, her own tiny hand reaching up to grasp at mine. Each of us is holding tight enough to be painful: afterwards, when we are finally allowed outside to play, we compare battle wounds. They faded almost instantly but we spent the night recreating them, stifling any winces we might’ve ordinarily made. We created a game out of it, racking up points for endurance and creativity.

“Minus five points if you flinch,” Marya would whisper under the covers, after we had faked being asleep so that our parents would not disturb us. She would cup her hands around one of mine and then bend my fingers gently backwards, watching my face intently for any changes. I wore a splint for the next few weeks but had not moved at all. Marya set it herself, her mouth curling with pleasure.

“Add five if you hold your breath,” I would say when we darted across the busy intersections, weaving around cars. I would make her do it twice, holding a plastic bottle of water captive until she made her way back to me, collapsing on the lawn with her chest heaving.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” the counselors asked her. They were all the same: terrified of Marya and what little they’d heard of her, and, to an extent, of me. This one, a solid-looking young woman with a stubby ponytail, would be no different.

“Doesn’t what,” she said, staring at her feet. A week ago, we had traded off pressing the tip of an iron to her ankle in hopes of recreating a tattoo of a daisy that an old babysitter had. We’d only managed four misshapen petals before being stopped, but it wasn’t the worst piece of artwork we had attempted to create.

“Your injuries,” said the counselor, sighing. In therapy, Marya was distracted more often than not, always picking at the scabbing flower or craning her neck to peer outside, where I would sit and wait for the session to be finished. I was not supposed to distract her, Marya had told me seriously, but she smiled every time I jumped in front of the window and waved at her.  “They must have hurt,” the counselor added, “Marya? Are you listening to me, Marya?”

Marya turned her face to the counselor, blank and polite. Her face was open but betrayed nothing. It was a look we had practiced in the mirror and then on each other, thinking of ways that we could convey disgust without being too apparent. We did not give anything away that was not to each other.

“I want to ask about Maryam,” the therapist said. She was the fourth and newest one, and sat through their sessions on the edge of her seat with a placid expression. She had denied the briefing packet from previous clinicians, insisting on starting fresh. This was the only differing aspect from Marya’s transcriptions that she made for me: since I was not allowed in their sessions, she detailed every aspect of them for me to memorize. As the two of them usually spent their time in silence, they were usually boring reports filled with doodles.

“Time’s up,” Marya said tightly, and would not say a word more.

 


 

“You’re a danger to yourself,” our parents told Marya sternly at dinner. I had managed to avoid the lecture by pretending to be ill, but Marya performed an accurate mimicry of their displeasure afterwards, harrumphing and pretending to swirl around wine inside her imaginary glass. She was not as adept at it as I was, because it was not an innate talent, but she tried her best.

“We worry, sweetheart,” she cooed at me from the top of the jungle gym. We had stopped going to school weeks ago–first, without anyone knowing, and then in a way that was more or less sanctioned. The only stipulation was that Marya was meant to see the counselor every week, an hour that sucked up time that could have been spent doing anything else. Marya’s time belonged to me in sections now, and it left me feeling pinched and anxious. To counter this, I ushered her towards the park, which we owned in all but name. All of it felt solidly ours, made better by our former classmates giving us a wide berth, their eyes watching us uneasily.

I laughed. “Do it again!”

Marya smiled hard enough for me to see the dimple in her chin. I grinned back at her, feeling the dimple in my own. “We worry, sweetheart,” she simpered, fluttering her eyelashes. She puckered her mouth in a moue of surprise and dismay, the way our mother often did when she was forced to speak to us.

“Again.”

“We WORRY,” Marya bellowed, puffing her chest out. “sweet-HEART!”

I clapped. “Bravo, bravo,” I said delightedly, and when I shoved her off the jungle gym, she laughed until the ambulance came.

 


 

The cast did not help. The plaster of it was a disturbing shade of neon green and there was no way to pry it off. Our parents spoke in quiet tones about admitting us to the local psychiatric hospital. “It’s like a vacation,” our father told us brightly, spreading out pamphlets on the dining table, “and you can come back any time, right when you’re ready.”

“Why are you always trying to get rid of me?” Marya howled, her face flushed with rage. I watched her from the top of the stairs, memorizing the shape of her shaking back. Marya, when she was truly upset, was a performance that I loved above all things. I was able to portray Marya’s moods brilliantly, but seeing her in a state of fury was rare enough that my mimicry was always slightly off.

“You are out of control,” our mother said quietly. “The burns, your behavior. You remember what you did to your old au pair? We should have sent you off then.”

Marya became unhappy and withdrawn in a way that I had not seen since the au pair disappeared. She would not move over when I slipped into her bed at night, instead jabbing her elbow in my stomach or chest when I tried to move closer to her. Her transcripts of her therapy sessions became boring for her to write down. She complained that scribbling constantly during the sessions made her hand hurt. Marya preferred talking to the counselor instead, who she called “Ann” in growing levels of fondness.

“Oh, she’s Ann now?” I said when she came outside. She had a sticker on the lapel of her coat, one presumably given to her by Ann, and a picture she’d drawn of the two of us. In it, my face–just like Marya’s, with its freckles and flared nostrils–was a hideous scribble of pencil. From my wrists sprouted things that might have been fingers but looked more like claws, all of them digging into Marya’s side. “What is this shit?”

“You and me,” Marya said, snatching it back. She folded it up and put it in her coat pocket. “Ann said I have talent.”

“Ann is a spaz,” I said desperately, “remember? You said last time, I remember. You definitely said you hated her.” I reached for her hand, feeling for the first time in ages that I needed permission to touch her.

“We’re too old for that,” Marya snapped. She did not look at me, but when I reached across to turn her chin towards me, she jerked away. I did not flinch. This was a new part of the game, I was sure, but I did not have the rules for it. She had done things like this before: created new aspects to our game without outwardly saying it. Instead of pinching or burning each other, she would ignore me, or only give me painful things to consider. Last night, she had walked home faster than I could, and locked the door to every room she had gone into.

“Says who,” I asked her, trying not to sound frantic. “Marya, says who?”

She rolled her eyes. “Nevermind. God, relax.” Sighing loudly, she slid off her glove and held my hand delicately, as if it was some disgusting thing she was too polite to recoil from.

It was impossible to relax. In our bed that night, I curled into her body like a comma, counting the ways that we matched. It was a comfort to realize we still looked the same, even as Marya tried to distance herself from me. She began to speak about returning to school, of trying out new programs that would allow her to “explore creativity”. She worked steadily at drawing, urged on by Ann and our thrilled parents. She mentioned wanting some sort of fading cream to cover up the scars on her ankle. She said she wanted to join a painting club.

In her sessions, she spoke about me. I crept inside the building and listened at the door, heard snatches of conversations that included my name. “What is Maryam like?” I heard Ann ask Marya, soft and slow.

“Just like me,” Marya told her. “She’s me, but different.”

“In what way?” Ann pressed. I could not see her but imagined her leaning forwards, her eyes beseechingly pathetic. “How did you meet Maryam?”

Marya’s voice was quieter than I had ever heard it before. “When I was really little, at the park. I was with the old babysitter, the one I told you about. The German one with the flower tattoo. Ulli.”

Behind the door, I made a fist. I thought of all the ways I would want to hit her when she came out, and then forced myself to move away from the anger. It was quiet for a moment, and then, Marya’s voice, in its trembling soprano, bleated, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

It seems unbalanced to realize that we would not have met without Ulli the German au pair. Ulli, soft and plump with her lilting German accent, here to study English and take care of Marya while our parents worked at their respective jobs. She liked taking Marya outside more than her other babysitters had, and was not overprotective. Ulli allowed Marya to paint her nails and watch cartoons past her bedtime. She let Marya roam the park and the surrounding wooded area by herself, as long as she was within shouting distance (but often times, not even then). She let Marya meet me.

I was more daring then, more given to doing things that were bizarrely out of character for Marya. I would bite other children on the playground, and make up fantastic lies. I threw fits. I methodically broke all of the vases my parents brought back from their business trips, and destroyed the art sets I was given. I even screamed at Ulli, who Marya had loved and listened to unquestioningly before I had arrived. It was natural for me to act this way when I was first introduced to her life: I was there only there to overwhelm her, to suffocate the parts of her that remained, burr-like, in everyone’s memories.

Marya was thrilled. I was her identical id, free to destroy and create as I wished. It was magnificent, and since she was still at the age where it was appropriate to have imaginary friends, and her parents sighed over her “acting out”, but did not interfere. Marya began to refer to me as her other half, as Marya Martz the Second, which eventually became “Maryam”. In this way, I was my own person–but not quite.

“Wouldn’t you want to be Maryam the First?” Marya asked me, burrowed deep in our huddle beneath blankets. I bit softly at her shoulder, and then sharper, as if I wanted to draw blood, although I had stopped genuinely trying to harm her after a week. I had not expected to love Marya in the way that I did: ferociously and completely, in a way that I had only ever loved myself before. I did not want to consume Marya’s life, the way I knew I should have. I wanted to be an extension of her.

Ulli loathed my existence. She could not distinguish between us, but knew that there was something not quite right about how Marya would go from being docile and grinning to a sulking terror. She would look at both of us with the same barely disguised disgust, and began washing her hands immediately after touching us, as if she might catch some devastating disease.

“Despicable thing,” she would whisper at me when we walked outside, smoothing a hand over my hair, as wiry and spiraling as Marya’s. “You think I don’t know about your kind? You think I don’t know what you’re trying to do?”

The measures she took became less calculated over time: Ulli would pretend to splash and play with us in the pool and then turn and hold one of us under water, desperately chanting prayers. She burned sage in all of the house’s corners, and pressed the tiny silver cross that she wore around her neck into the side of our cheeks as we slept. She phoned her grandmother in Bavaria to ask for guidance, spoke to priests and anyone else she thought might help.

“What if Ulli makes you disappear forever?” Marya asked me worriedly. “What if one day I turn around and you just went out like a birthday candle?”

“She can’t,” I told her. “Don’t worry.”

After her therapy session with Ann, Marya was more withdrawn than ever. She ignored me on our walk home, and stormed up to her room, her back tight and dangerous. “Marya, c’mon,” I pleaded with her, “talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”

“You want me to talk to you?” Marya sniped. “Why should I? Why should I even be around you, when you’re ruining my goddamn life? When you got rid of Ulli?”

My mouth opened and shut in a way I had never seen on Marya. I feel completely unbalanced: something I had not felt since she had first given me my name all those years ago. I felt entirely separate from Marya, my other half. Less of a facsimile and more of a shoddy replica, just a little bit off. “Ridiculous,” I sputtered. “You’re being absolutely ridiculous.”

Marya snorted. “You sound like Dad.”

“Fuck off,” I snapped, “don’t say that. I sound like you. I sound like you.” We were not playing the game anymore, but I wanted to hurt her. My god, I wanted to hurt her in a way I had not since we had first met on the outskirts of the park.

I had fought against so much of what I was for her. My first thought had been to consume her: a comfortable, natural thing to feel when faced with the original version of yourself. I had not destroyed primarily because of the wonder she had felt towards me, and the way love had seemed to spread through her body like roots. Like something healthy and strong.

The silence was thick. I looked at Marya, running through the list of things that made us the same: the spray of freckles covering our faces, the birthmarks behind our ears and our stiff, uncombed hair. I thought of how we had faint stretch marks behind the bends of our knees and an overbite that had not been entirely fixed by orthodontia. “I’d die for you,” I told her quietly.

Marya’s mouth tightened. “You’d kill for me,” she said. “It’s not the same thing.”

I tried to make peace with Marya, tried to show her all the ways I could be good. I copied the way she thanked strangers for opening doors for her, and the way she began to clean her paintbrushes methodically after using them. I did not speak to our parents at all, even when Marya reverted back referring to them as solely hers. I did not ask for impressions or for her to hold hands as we walked. It was supremely difficult, almost Herculean to do so.

“Have you thought about what we discussed last time?” Ann said to her, her voice pitched low and sweet the way Marya had mocked in past therapists. This time she didn’t laugh at all.

There was the sound of Marya scratching at the woolly fabric of her tights. “Yeah,” she said miserably, and then, much stronger: “Yes.”

“‘Yes’ what?” I asked her after therapy. I jammed my hands into my pockets the way Marya did, directed my gaze from her the way she did to me. “Marya. You owe me this much. What did you say yes to?”

“Tomorrow,” Marya said, giving me a smile that was as thin and as fragile as a violin string, “will you meet me at our woods by the park? Just us. Just the Marya Martzes.”

The one advantage to being a Marya Martz, even when you’re second, even when you are at best a copy, is that you know exactly how she thinks. I was not stupid because Marya was not stupid, and I could not command myself to be. I’m sure that, in a sense, I wanted to wait for Marya in the woods by the park in a way that sweet and lamblike, ready to be told that I had served well as an amusement over the years but that it was time for me to go. To disappear like the flame of a birthday candle, to cease to exist because there could not be two of us. It would only make sense for me to be the one to leave, I knew she would say, because I had come second. We looked exactly alike, moved alike and had not been told apart by anyone since Ulli, but it was clear to her that I was the imitation.

I had never loved anyone more than Marya, not even myself, and when I buried her beneath the beech tree where we had first met, I sobbed in a way that felt wholly myself.

I walked home with my hands in her coat pockets, left a voicemail in our parents’ voice for Ann cancelling the therapy sessions for the near future. “Nothing to worry about,” I said, in my father’s deep timbre, “Marya has benefitted an incredible amount from meeting with you. She’s better than ever.”

I went back to Marya’s school where I terrorized my classmates quietly and effectively, but took up with a group that was social enough. I burned the pictures Marya had drawn of me, began kissing my parents on the cheek before I went to bed. I told them art had been a phase. I rolled my eyes when they said my name in hesitant tones. “We should leave that all in the past” I entreated, and they acquiesced gratefully, forgetting the whole thing

Marya began to fade from the photographs and I took my rightful place: the second best, the copy reigning triumphant.

In the beginning there was a world, and the world was Maryam.

Genres:

Cast of Wonders 260: Contractual Obligations

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Contractual Obligations

by Jaime O. Mayer

 

Jiasi gripped the heavy skate, her eyes flicking first to the rust-spotted blade attached to the sole, then back to Emmaline, who watched her with a mischievous smile. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”

Emmaline rolled her eyes, a chuckle escaping her lips.

They sat on a lakeside bench while dozens of Valorie City’s citizens enjoyed the wintry morning. Children raced each other across the frozen surface, giving a wide berth to a pair of young men working on a broken down steamhorse midway through a sleigh ride. Jiasi recognized the Drayden coach by sound rather than sight; there was no mistaking the shrill, nasal whine of Lady Drayden as she barked orders at the men and criticized her daughter in the same breath. “Work faster! Allianne, stop waving your arms like a drunkard.”

Allianne’s response, voice light as her straw-colored hair, was inaudible as she wobbled around in a circle, arms held out for balance.

Emmaline’s lips quirked up in a smile. “A dance routine on ice? It’s an excellent idea.” She plucked the skate from Jiasi’s hands. “We just shouldn’t have said it where the Drayden Dragon could hear.”

“What if I fall?”

“Then you’ll get up and keep going,” Emmaline said, lacing the skates. She shook her head. “Two years in this kingdom and you’ve never been skating.”

Jiasi clambered upright. “How do you move in these things?”

Emmaline led her toward the ice with tiny steps. “You’ll get used to it. Doesn’t it snow in Tunsha?”

“It doesn’t freeze like this! You’re sure it’s safe?”

“See all the lovely people not drowning?”

How comforting, Jiasi thought.

“Just enjoy yourself. Promise?”

“Promise. Unless I fall.”

“Fair enough.”

They trundled around the lake, and with each subsequent lap Jiasi gained confidence. She even managed a quick wave at the Draydens, but feigned losing her balance to avoid stopping to chat.

“Time for your moment of bravery,” Emmaline said. “Leave the nest, my duckling.”

Jiasi pecked Emmaline on her wind-pinked cheek before skating away, miming flapping wings with her arms.

A performance on the ice with her dramatic long sleeves, perhaps it would be innovative enough to merit an invitation from Valorie’s Royal Theater at a mere eighteen years old. Perhaps.

A scream pierced the air, jerking her from the reverie, and throwing Jiasi off balance. Knees locking in panic, her feet slid out from underneath her. She smacked against the ice, grunting as an arc of pain shot up her backside and elbow.

“Jiasi!”

Emmaline rushed toward her, pointing to the side.

To Jiasi’s right, a metallic clunk and hiss of steam grew louder. The steamhorse, freed of its sleigh, rumbled toward her. It lacked one front hoof, and without the aid of its ice-studded shoe the mechanical beast careened across the lake.

Jiasi shoved against the ice, but her hands couldn’t gain traction. She tried to regain her feet, but her inexperience with the skates coupled with growing terror left her floundering.

She cringed, eyes frozen on the erratic hulk of metal. One moment it appeared as if the horse would strike her head, but a stride away its crippled leg skidded on the ice. The still-hooved foreleg smashed down on her right knee. She screamed, arms rising in futile defense. The steamhorse collapsed on her, and her head thudded against the ground.

 


 

The sharp, jarring pain from her legs being straightened roused her from unconsciousness. Emmaline’s teary face hovered in view, and Jiasi instinctively tried to comfort her, don’t cry, Emmy love, but she couldn’t make a sound aside from an awful moan.

Someone had placed her on a sled. It began to move, the grating motion bringing a fresh wave of pain. She didn’t try to fight the buzz of unconsciousness. Through closing eyes, Jiasi saw Lady Drayden standing several feet back, the only face in the crowd lacking any shock or grief.

 


 

Jiasi awoke in a room lit by a single turned-down lamp and filtered moonlight. Pillows cushioned her legs, and a floral-patterned quilt covered them. She recognized the hand-stitched flowers; Emmaline’s bedroom in House Tembury.

Reaching to remove the quilt, Jiasi cried out; it felt like she was being stabbed by a hundred small knives along her torso. She clutched her sides, attempting to lessen the pain, whimpering in between gasps.

A loud click sounded, like a large key turning in a lock, but a glance to the bedroom door confirmed no one had entered.

“Broken ribs, dearie,” an unctuous male voice said. “Allow me.”

Jiasi blinked in surprise as a child-sized man came out of the darkness. He pulled the quilt back with care, and Jiasi saw a glint of metal around his neck.

“Are you-”

“A Contractor, yes. A little light, I think, so you can understand why I’m here.” He went to the lamp and turned it up.

Her growing wakefulness also heightened the bright, harsh pain throbbing in her legs. Though her mind was processing at a sluggish pace, her memory returned. The lake. The broken steamhorse. The accident.

“My legs,” she whispered. Her legs burned not with the ache of fatigued muscles after a long routine, but with the fire of trauma, of breaking and tearing.

“Hence my arrival.” The Contractor gave a small bow. “The advent of steam machinery has given us quite the choice in work.”

Jiasi stared. Someone had tried to splint her bones, but noble doctors of the Major houses were too costly for the likes of her. The Tembury’s bearing as a Minor house must’ve earned Jiasi treatment, but she could see the harsh angles in her legs, feel how they remained wrong. Dried blood traced thick suture lines across her thighs, down both knees, and along her calves.

Tears welled in her eyes, and she began to sniffle, choking back sobs.

“Enough of that,” the Contractor huffed. “If you’re going to blubber then I’ll be on my way. Silly me, I thought,” he lingered on the word, “you might be interested in a contract.”

They locked eyes. She took in his long gray coat over pin-striped trousers. A silver-handled cane dangled from one hand, while the other fidgeted with one of the three dip pens hanging from a gold chain around his neck; the mark of a Contractor. Jiasi had heard of the strange deal-makers with their secret, magically binding contracts. In Tunsha they were called life gamblers, god-like creatures that appeared out of thin air with offers to change your life.

If you were desperate.

She gave her mangled legs a gentle caress with one finger, then glanced at the Contractor. “You can fix them? Make me whole again?”

You can fix them, dearie. As for permanency, well, that depends on if you fulfill your end of the bargain.” The Contractor sidled up to the bed, drawing back the left front of his coat to reveal an assortment of inkwells and curled rolls of parchment sewn inside. “Shall I draft us a contract?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“We don’t deal in money, dearie,” he scoffed.

“Then what do you get?” Sixteen lean years in rural Tunsha pierced the hope bubbling in her chest.

“We Contractors do love a gamble. Oh, and we take whatever is at stake in the contract should you fail. A contract must have its risks.”

Jiasi knew of only one successful contract, a kite-maker from her village. His daughter had been deathly ill, and no doctor in any of the surrounding villages able to cure her. The kite-maker had taken his strongest kite and flown with his daughter strapped to his back to a nearby mountain. He retur ned alone. Jiasi had been young herself, but she remembered the serene look on the kite-maker’s face as he’d landed. Days later left the village and she didn’t know what became of him, but his look remained. A worthwhile contract, whatever the cost.

“If I do my end I get my legs? No tricks?”

“Sure,” the Contractor said as he withdrew an inkwell and a roll of parchment. “Let’s see, ah!” The middle pen with a gold nib began to glow. The Contractor unclipped it from his neck, stubby fingers giving it a happy squeeze before he spread the parchment open across the foot of her bed.

Jiasi watched in fascination as the nib seemed to glide across the parchment. Though the Contractor held the pen, it appeared to move of its own volition.

“Here we are.” The Contractor straightened, wiping the nib on his sleeve before returning his writing tools to their respective places. “Concerning the dancer Jiasi, an offer of impermanent use of repaired legs in return for twenty-five performances sponsored by a noble house, to be completed within eighteen months. Fulfillment of the contract will result in restoration of the aforementioned legs. Subject to conditions of impermanency.”

“What does that last mean?”

“That would be the gamble. I can’t show you until the contract is sealed, but I will say that the legs have limitations. But! fulfill the contract and you will have earned your perfect legs. Fail, and they’ll be reclaimed.”

“Twenty-five dances?”

Sponsored by a member of the noble houses, no less. She’d started to make a name for herself before the accident, surely she had some goodwill built. But the cost–could she afford to lose her legs completely if she failed? Weren’t damaged ones better than none at all?

“Sponsorship by a Major noble house is worth five performances.” The Contractor gave her a wide smile, revealing pointed teeth.

She looked down at the ugly, thick sutures and thought of the scars they would become, indelible reminders of what she’d have lost without even trying. She remembered the kite-maker’s smile.

“Where do I sign?”

 


 

If one didn’t look closely, her legs appeared real. Jiasi gazed down at them, fingers running along their length, feeling the smooth, unblemished skin. They were real, yet they weren’t. Her “legs,” with gears for joints and metal-enhanced bone, felt stronger. When she danced, she felt powerful but controlled in a way her previous form never had. She couldn’t lose them.

“It feels wrong not to care for them,” Jiasi remarked as she unwrapped her dance slippers’ ribbon binding.

“So you keep saying,” Emmaline said. She sat at the small writing desk in their shared room at the local inn, the book of Jiasi’s commitments open in front of her.

“Should get used to it,” Jiasi whispered.

Emmaline heard. “You will not.” She snapped the book shut and went to sit next to Jiasi on the floor. “We’re so close, Jia. Five more-”

“In a week!” Jiasi threw the shoe across the room. “We’re out of sponsors.”

“There are plenty of nobles left in Valorie.” Emmaline frowned. “People love you, and they love parties.”

“The people may love my dancing, but the nobles don’t like sponsoring a ghost!”

A numbing sensation in her legs ended Jiasi’s tirade. “It’s time.”

Emmaline helped her up onto their narrow bed. She retrieved a tiny golden key scarcely larger than a sewing needle from inside her coat and handed it to Jiasi before returning to the desk and opening the scheduling book.

Jiasi turned the key over in her fingers, a weary sigh on her lips. “Impermanence.” I should’ve known. Tricky bastard.

When the Contractor had mentioned the term, she hadn’t anticipated her legs turning to metal from the knees down. Every night an hour before midnight without fail, the numbness preceded her transmutation.

Jiasi inserted the key into the keyhole that had appeared on her knee. The nightly maintenance nearly drove her to quit: fifty turns to reset the gears in each ankle, each knee. I should be grateful the contract doesn’t require toes. She didn’t understand how the legs came back to life every morning an hour before dawn, but she dared not risk breaking the frustratingly vague conditions of the contract.

It had made her return to dancing–and fulfilling the contract–unforeseeably difficult. With the support of Lord and Lady Tembury, they’d moved outside of Valorie City on the pretense of a need to recover, but lied about the severity of Jiasi’s injuries. Months were spent learning the enhanced strength and precision of her new legs, and a few more wasted performing in the background while lesser dancers had the spotlight. But her ability had garnered attention, and her appearances served to remind the nobility that she had returned to dancing with equal passion and grace.

She teetered on the cusp of earning the notice of the Theater, but the wretched impermanence of her legs threatened to ruin those aspirations.

“If I don’t make it,” she began, but Emmaline groaned.

“We’re not going over this again.”

“Promise me you’ll go on with your life.”

Emmaline’s hands clenched into fists, her head turning slightly to the side as if she was steeling herself to shout. But, Emmaline never shouted. The tension drained away as she exhaled and turned in her chair to fix Jiasi with a look.

“We’re operating a bit oddly, but it’ll be fine. Do you trust me?”

Jiasi sighed, but she gave a grim nod. If not for Emmaline’s loyalty and her brilliance at maneuvering through the social complexities of noble society, Jiasi’s return to performing would’ve guttered out like the promising stars who had flashed and died before her. Only Emmaline and her infectious good spirits could placate the bevy of displeased nobles Jiasi left in her wake when she disappeared after any evening performance. Instead of socializing with her sponsors into the wee hours, Jiasi fled to whatever private space they’d rented for the night to wind her legs.

I don’t deserve you. Jiasi no longer voiced the words. But so long as you have faith in me, I won’t–can’t–give up.

“Good, because I’ve promised at least a year’s worth of free dances with several houses once you’ve got your legs.”

“Whatever it takes.”

“I hear the Drayden Dragon is in town,” Emmaline said.

“Here to buy more appearances for her daughter, I presume?”

“Probably.” Emmaline made a note in the book. “I’ve a luncheon with the ladies of House Graf tomorrow. They should be good for at least two performances, and there’s talk of Lady Graf’s niece holding an impromptu summer party. The Dragon wouldn’t deign to dine with such lowly nobles as we, so I should avoid competing with her completely.”

“Lucky.” Jiasi ran a finger along the firm line of her metal foot. Being honest, from the few times Jiasi had performed with her, Allianne appeared to be developing into a capable dancer. The girl was timid, but having the Drayden Dragon for a mother probably had that effect.

Jiasi settled under the bed’s thin covers, the windings complete. Sliding a pillow under her metal legs, Jiasi tried to banish the nasal whine of Lady Drayden ringing in her head.

 


 

Leaping through the air, Jiasi landed with surety on one foot. She let her other leg unfurl in a steady line up and away from her body, the augmented joints of her Contracted limbs more fluid than when she was mere flesh and bone. She completed a pirouette, letting her ribbon-like sleeves flutter and drape around her body until they reached the floor.

Slow, deliberate applause sounded through the practice room, startling Jiasi so that she dropped to her feet with a thud.

“Court gossip is true, for once,” Lady Drayden said. She stood in the doorway, imperious in a burgundy velvet coatdress, her gray-streaked brown curls perfectly arranged beneath a fitted hat that matched her outfit. She tapped the closed tip of an ivory cloth parasol against her palm.

“I beg your pardon?” Jiasi dipped in a curtsy, acutely aware of her shabby practice wrap and threadbare tights.

“I’ve heard rumors of how wonderful your solos have been. Quite a surprise after such a horrible accident.” Lady Drayden stepped into the room, dark eyes intent on Jiasi’s legs.

“Truly, it wasn’t so serious,” Jiasi said in a rush. “Inconvenient, but I’ve been blessed to have generous patrons-”

“And a marvelous doctor.” Lady Drayden pointed at Jiasi’s legs with her parasol. “Why, it’s like magic.

Jiasi froze. What could the Drayden Dragon know? No one knows except Emmaline. Don’t act flustered.

“I’m grateful the Tembury’s know a lovely doctor in outer Valorie. Would you like his name?” Jiasi said, hoping her voice didn’t quaver.

“No,” Lady Drayden sniffed. “Unfortunately, a doctor can’t help my daughter. She isn’t broken, but lacking in talent.”

“Miss Allianne appeared well at the spring festival.”

Lady Drayden made a disgruntled noise. “She could do better. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to find you in this,” she glanced around the drab practice room, “charming place.”

Unsure of how to respond, Jiasi said nothing.

“I have a proposal for you, and let us be frank; my daughter is no beauty and she won’t secure a favorable husband with her face. She needs dance but her performances lack confidence. She’s not receiving many invitations, and we can hold only so many balls before it appears desperate.”

“Allianne isn’t ugly-”

“She’s plain, which might as well be the same thing in our circles.” Lady Drayden gave Jiasi a challenging look. “Don’t play coy with me.”

Jiasi stared, unsure of the proper response.

“House Drayden would like to sponsor you for a dance. My only request is that you allow my daughter to co-lead with you. Your performance of Ascension features two leads, does it not?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I’ve had Allianne practicing the roles for a month.”

“I-I must say,” Jiasi stammered. She felt heat flood her cheeks as Lady Drayden gave her an expectant stare. “This is unusual.”

“Nonsense. You are a rising star and I won’t deny that I want my daughter to benefit by association. Do you accept?”

Jiasi hesitated. Emmaline wouldn’t approve, and the prospect of having the Drayden Dragon watching over her every move left a sour taste in her mouth.

“I plan on holding the dance in five days. The invitations have already been sent. Be a dear and don’t cause me embarrassment,” Lady Drayden said.

Jiasi perked up; her contract would be complete! It was silent over the number of leads so long as she was one.

“I would be honored to accept.”

“Be at the manor tomorrow.” Lady Drayden swept from the room.

 


 

Peeking out the window of the steamcoach, Jiasi surveyed the Drayden estate. There was a cold aura to its elegance. Though her experience of Major houses was limited, Jiasi had been to several of the Minor estates for her dances, and what they lacked in overt wealth they made up for in character. House Drayden stood three stories high, with a trio of towers spaced along the rooftop. The main building was larger than many of the Minor houses Jiasi had seen, and House Drayden had two wings flanking each side connected by long passageways.

”They do seem to like their threes,” Emmaline said.

Rows of rose gardens spread out from the road leading up to the house, with a segment of manicured lawn separating each bed of flowers. The perfect symmetry struck Jiasi as imposing rather than beautiful. Nothing appeared out of place.

“I’m going to regret this,” Jiasi said, resting her head against the padded interior of their steamcoach. She would never enjoy coach rides, but their practicality had won out over her fear.

“Nonsense. Five dances for one performance, and paid for by the Dragon! We’ll make a businesswoman of you yet,” Emmaline said with a roguish wink.

“You probably shouldn’t call her that while we’re on her lands.”

Emmaline stuck out her tongue.

The coach came to a halt a few feet away from the main building. The door opened from the outside, revealing the steward and Lady Drayden herself.

“Miss Jiasi. Miss Emmaline,” the steward intoned as he helped them from the coach. “Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“It’s a lovely ride out here. Lady Drayden, your estate is stunning,” Emmaline said.

“Yes, stunning,” Jiasi echoed, nodding vigorously.

“Indeed. How kind of you to say,” Lady Drayden said. She wore a blue gown, and tapped the same ivory parasol Jiasi had seen earlier against her leg. “Come, I will show you to your rooms before we convene for dinner.”

“That’s generous of you, my lady, but surely you have more important duties to attend to,” Emmaline said, shooting Jiasi a questioning look.

“You are my honored guests. My steward will see to your things.”

Lady Drayden strode off toward the house, leaving no doubt that she expected to be obeyed. Jiasi shrugged at Emmaline, and the pair set off a few steps behind their hostess.

They entered through the main building’s wide doors, then followed Lady Drayden through a grand entrance hall. Servants hurried about the manor, cleaning artwork, polishing silverware, or carrying decorations of silk ribbons and vases of flowers. Whenever Lady Drayden approached, the serving people ceased in their tasks to bow or curtsy as she swept past. Jiasi thought the staff looked weary. Apparently, the sponsorship had been decided on more of a whim than Lady Drayden had let on.

Jiasi’s eyes lingered on the row of geared magnesium lamps that lined the walls. No simple candle flames in House Drayden. She couldn’t imagine the cost of such luxuries. The staff resumed their work, and given the sheer amount of decorations being toted past it appeared like they were preparing for a larger gathering than Jiasi had thought.

Lady Drayden paused as the hall split into multiple directions. Using her parasol for emphasis, she pointed at each hallway in turn.

“If you go left you’ll reach the dining hall. Forward, past the staircase to the guest towers, is the passageway that leads to the practice room and the performance hall. Your rooms will be this way.” Lady Drayden motioned for them to follow her through the open doors of the right-hand passageway. “I’ve heard you appreciate your privacy, Jiasi. This wing used to be our servants’ quarters before we moved them to separate housing near the rose garden. I’m afraid it’s a bit outdated, but you won’t be disturbed.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, my lady,” Jiasi said.

A set of wooden doors edged in tarnished silver barred their way. Lady Drayden withdrew a ring of keys from her pocket. “We lock the doors every evening. Here,” she handed Jiasi a single brass key. “This will enable you to reach the practice room at night if you wish.”

“Your estate is very secure,” Emmaline said, raising her eyebrows at Jiasi as they followed Lady Drayden into the former servants’ wing.

“Lord Drayden’s passing last winter upset me greatly. I was advised to take greater control over my affairs if I wished to ensure their outcomes.”

Jiasi and Emmaline exchanged bemused looks behind Lady Drayden’s back. Fortunately, she didn’t appear to expect a response.

When Lady Drayden opened the door to the attached building, Jiasi gasped in delight. A simple, one-level cottage opened out before them, furnished in a manner over a decade behind in fashion, and covered in a thick layer of dust. Jiasi saw only delicious privacy and more comfort than several inns she’d frequented.

“It’s lovely, Lady Drayden! You are too kind.”

“Not at all dear,” Lady Drayden said. “Dinner is within the hour. I’ll send a maid for you when it’s time.” She gave them a curt nod before walking back up the passageway.

 


 

Three days should’ve been an impossibly short amount of time to prepare Allianne for the dance, but Lady Drayden had been true to her word.

“You know Ascension well,” Jiasi commented after one morning practice session. They sat on a bench inside the large practice room, Jiasi trying not to covet the space with its line of wall-sized mirrors and magnesium lamps.

Allianne blushed, her fair skin going tomato red in a heartbeat. “Mother had my last teacher drill me on it.”

“How many teachers have you had?”

“You’re my sixth.”

Jiasi rushed to fill the awkward silence left by Allianne’s words. “Do you like this? I don’t mean to sound rude; you’re a good dancer-”

“I understand, people wonder, you know, because of Mother.” Allianne shrugged, a dreamy look stealing across her face. “But I do love to dance. To be the star, to hear all those people clapping just for you.”

Jiasi bit back a smile and nodded agreeably.

Allianne grinned at her. “It’s the best feeling ever.”

 


 

I’m almost going to miss this place. Jiasi mused as she prepared herself for the performance. Then she remembered Lady Drayden sitting in for most of the practice sessions, loudly tut-tutting at her daughter’s every move.

Almost.

“Maybe I should become a mentor,” Jiasi said as she adjusted a pin to secure the braid coiled around her head. “I’ve had fun here. Allianne’s shy, but she’s willing to learn. Her mother, however, urgh.”

“Hard to have much spirit with the Dragon around,” Emmaline said.

“I think Allianne’s nerves may get the better of her tonight. Lady Drayden hinted at lunch that she’d be counting the errors.”

“Dancing alongside you isn’t going to do much for her nerves, my starlet.” Emmaline shook her head. “I’m off to work the nobles. Just think, after tonight, we’re free!” Emmaline clasped Jiasi’s face and kissed her.

“Go on before you make me cry,” Jiasi said with a laugh.

Emmaline sashayed to the door and blew another kiss before disappearing down the passageway.

Jiasi watched her go, a warm feeling glowing in her chest. The weight of it all; the contract, the legs, Emmaline’s sacrifice, was lifting.

 


 

Jiasi finished applying her performance makeup, then went to the space she’d cleared at the front of the cottage. She could hear the random hiss and metallic clank of steamcoaches, and the sounds of arriving nobility made her jittery with nerves and excitement. Breathing in a steady rhythm, she focused on her warmup routine, banishing her anxiety. She tested the snap and flutter of her costume’s emerald sleeves, rising up on silken shoes dyed to match her flowing dress. Absorbed in her moves, she didn’t realize the lateness of the hour until the magnesium lamps outside the window flared to life.

Frowning, Jiasi lowered from her pose on one leg. Lady Drayden had said she’d send someone to usher her into the performance hall. It wasn’t a standard practice, but nothing about the impromptu show had been ordinary.

Jiasi glanced out the window, then to the cracked longcase clock by the door. The performance was set to begin in a quarter hour.

Apologies, Lady Dragon. Jiasi tossed her coat over her shoulders. “Rude” didn’t begin to cover arriving late to her own performance, and the contract was vague with regard to punctuality.

She rushed down the passageway, thankful to see the connecting doors closed to hide her flustered approach.

Seizing one handle, Jiasi was thrown off balance when she tried to yank it open and the door remained firmly shut. She pulled Lady Drayden’s key from her coat pocket and jammed it into the keyhole. But, the key would turn only a fraction, plaintive metal clicks sounding as its teeth slipped against the pins.

“No,” Jiasi moaned. Did she give me the wrong damned key? The doors had never been locked early before, and shouldn’t be now. Not on the performance night.

Sweat broke out across Jiasi’s palms, and she dashed it away on the front of her coat.

I will not be late.

Throwing the useless key away, Jiasi dashed back toward the servants’ wing, intent on the path through the garden.

The sight of the door ajar brought her to a halt. Her heart sank. The silvery scarf Emmaline had been wearing lay draped across the handle.

Jiasi peeked around the door.

“You certainly took your time, stupid girl.” Lady Drayden stood in the center of the warmup area. “Come in and close the door.”

Jiasi complied. “What is go-”

Lady Drayden stepped to the side. Slumped in one of the rickety wooden chairs from the small dining room, sat Emmaline’s motionless form, arms bound and a cloth stuffed in her mouth. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face.

Jiasi leapt forward. “You horrid bitch! You’ve killed her!”

Lady Drayden brayed a disdainful laugh. “Don’t be foolish. She’s just unconscious.” She lifted her parasol, withdrawing a thin dueling blade from the handle. Brandishing it with a flourish, she poked at Jiasi, forcing her back.

“I’ll wake her for you.” Lady Drayden reached out and slapped Emmaline across the face with her parasol.

Jiasi screamed, fingernails biting into her palms as Lady Drayden’s blade held her at bay. She breathed the slightest sigh of relief when she saw Emmaline twitch.

“Why? Why invite all those people only to hold us hostage?”

“Contractual obligations,” Lady Drayden said, a malicious gleam in her eyes. “A Contractor did advise me to take more control of the things that I wanted. I want my daughter to join the Royal Theater and win herself a husband, but a commoner from a rural backwater has been stealing all the attention. My Contractor whispered of the details for your bought legs.”

“You’d sacrifice my legs for a supposed husband?”

“Yes. I already sacrificed my husband and his financial security,” Lady Drayden said, her lip curling with disgust. “What was left of it. I want a son-in-law with the means to take care of the both of us, but wishing got me nowhere. A contract gave me control.”

Faint music drifted through the walls as the orchestra began to warm-up in the performance hall. Without her.

Jiasi tensed, legs quivering at the sound.

Lady Drayden made a tsk-tsk noise. “If you try to leave, I’ll skewer Miss Tembury.”

You wouldn’t dare. Would you? The Major houses got away with much in Valorie, but surely not murder.

Emmaline wriggled against the ropes, but another slap from Lady Drayden’s parasol quieted her.

“They won’t go on without me. Allianne won’t.”

“Hear the music? My steward has orders to direct them to perform without you, and my daughter will dance. She does love applause.” Lady Drayden chuckled to herself.

The dreamy look on Allianne’s face burned in Jiasi’s memory.

Ascension is a duet.”

“I’ve hired a wonderfully deplorable understudy,” Lady Drayden said. “All those noble houses here to see you, but my daughter will steal the show and you’ll have spited everyone. Not that it will matter after tonight.”

Jiasi could feel the onset of the numbness that preceded her legs turning to metal, but this time it bore a cold edge of finality.

No! she thought with ferocity, picturing the Contractor. I haven’t failed yet.

She took a step toward Lady Drayden, letting the blade’s tip prick her chest. “Why me? We both could’ve gotten into the Theater. You have the influence. What did I do that you’d get a contract against me?”

Lady Drayden smiled. “You got in my way. The contract ensures my daughter’s future if I remove her competition. That I get to remove a commoner from mingling with the nobility is a bonus.”

“Go!” Emmaline’s muffled voice sounded around the gag.

Lady Drayden scoffed. “Run along, trade her life for a contract.”

My contract.

Jiasi froze, mind racing over her memory of the parchment signed long ago with a nib that glowed gold. The key to her legs, given with precise terms. The numbing sensation paused, and she could hear the Contractor’s slippery voice in her head make an inquiring noise. The tingling in her legs didn’t retreat, but rather felt like it was waiting.

She met Emmaline’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”

Lady Drayden waggled the dueling blade. “What are you-”

Emmaline nodded.

Winding a fistful of material from each sleeve in her hands, Jiasi sprang at Lady Drayden, blocking the blade with her hands. The sharp metal tore at the fabric, but couldn’t prevent Jiasi from grabbing onto the blade, and Lady Drayden was no fencer.

With only her arms bound, Emmaline made an awkward lunge at Lady Drayden, sending them both and the chair tumbling to the ground with a crack as the wood splintered apart beneath them.

Jiasi loosened her grip as Lady Drayden went down, letting the sword slip free. She took a clumsy step forward, her partially numb legs jarring against the floor. She stamped on Lady Drayden’s hand and kicked the blade away as Emmaline pulled free of the weakened remnants of the chair. Together they pounced on Lady Drayden, pinning the woman to the ground, and trussed her.

“Have you any idea the trouble you’ll be in for this?” Lady Drayden snarled, a mess of once perfectly coiffed hair around her face. “If you kill me-”

“No one’s dying today. We’re not like you,” Jiasi said. “And don’t threaten us; you kidnapped a member of the nobility.”

“A Minor house.” Lady Drayden spat at them. “I’ll have the constable after you. How far do you think you’ll get dragging those metal legs?”

“My contract was specific,” Jiasi said, clearing a space in front of Lady Drayden. “And vague. Twenty-five sponsored dances. You’re my sponsor. The size of the audience is immaterial.”

Lady Drayden paled. “No, that can’t be.”

Jiasi backed up and swept one leg out in front of her. Arching her feet, she rose onto her toes. Shrugging out of her coat and handing it to Emmaline, Jiasi let her ribbon-like sleeves drape across her body. Springing lightly into the air, she began to dance for her legs.