The Penelope Qingdom
by Aidan Moher
It was during the particularly frozen-solid Prince George winter of ’91, a few days after the new neighbours had arrived, that I first stumbled into the Penelope Qingdom. (Continue Reading…)
It was during the particularly frozen-solid Prince George winter of ’91, a few days after the new neighbours had arrived, that I first stumbled into the Penelope Qingdom. (Continue Reading…)
Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Susie Rodriguez.
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. (Continue Reading…)
Genres: Science Fiction
After two hours of work, Daria got the space station’s recycler back online without Hugh there to help her. If he had just waited ten minutes while she tried resetting power. If he had let her double-check his gear before his spacewalk, like he was supposed to by all protocols.
If. If. If. (Continue Reading…)
Cyrus sat on the couch and crunched on a bowl of frosted wheat. Normally he would have sat at the table, but the table was currently covered with papers, folders and charts. His mom was finalizing her budget with her new business partner, Herman. There wasn’t much room in the one bedroom condo, so Cyrus was bumped to the couch.
He was sick to death of business plans and marketing and how much will it cost, so he put in his ear buds and switched his mp3 player on. He hit next to get a random song.
Can’t trust me but it’s not about trust
I make no sense, I am the walrus
Cyrus sprayed milk all over the coffee table.
He had been looking directly at Herman when that line played. He always though Herman looked like a walrus, with his droopy mustache and big belly.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
They ran. The path opened up under her feet, and she splashed into the rice paddy with Reiko close behind.
“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.”
“I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you.”
“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.”
“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?”
Reiko grinned. “Awesome. Let’s go.”
They walked down the path together, then Jun stopped. “Wait for me here just sec, okay?”
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.
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.
“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.
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
> 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?
Fishfinger is my bestest friend in the whole world. And she says I’m her bestest friend too, even though she doesn’t have any other friends, but I’m still the best anyway so that’s okay.
Her name isn’t really Fishfinger, that’s just what everybody at school calls her, because they say she smells like fish and she looks a bit like a fish as well. And she does too but I still like her and anyway they all smell too so there. My mommy says it’s mean and I should call her her proper name but Fishfinger says she doesn’t mind, she does when other kids call her it because they’re mean and they don’t like her but I’m nice she says and I’m her bestest friend so it’s okay. But really her real name is Samantha. (Continue Reading…)
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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-”
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.
There would be no snatching my laptop back from Diya. She slapped my hand every time I reached across the café table for it. I had been a keystroke away from deleting the amateur-hour comic panels cluttering up my hard drive–months of wasted effort that Diya was now inexplicably determined to keep reading. Her gaze remained glued to the screen as she shoveled forkfuls of salad from bowl to mouth.
“Tam, these are awesome,” she said, voice pitched at a chirpy, bird-like frequency. “It’s like George Romero meets Dostoyevsky meets Thelma and Louise meets an alien invasion flick.”
I shrugged. As much as I wanted to believe I had enough talent to create a successful webcomic, it was hard to take Diya’s encouragement seriously. I had seen her get equally excited over blueberry pancakes, after all.
“They’re nothing special,” I said, ninja-seizing my laptop before she could dribble dressing all over the keyboard. “Just drafts, really.”
Diya responded with a chiding wave of her fork. “You need to publish this shit,” she said–at least that’s what it sounded like through her mouthful of salad. Another bite, and she erupted into a violent coughing fit that sent bits of lettuce and tomato spraying across the table.
“Are you all right?” I asked, half standing. “Do I need to Heimlich you or something?”
Diya grabbed her water bottle and chugged. “I’m fine,” she said between gulps. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”
“Expecting what?” I studied her meal for possible culprits, only to end up with a case of lunch-buyer’s remorse instead. The scent of mango vinaigrette made me wish I hadn’t opted for the same chicken noodle soup I always bought. “Is there something wrong with your salad?”
“No, the salad’s great. But the guy who made it? Total scumbag. We’re talking shoots-stray-cats-with-a-BB-gun levels of scumbaggery.”
Out-of-the-blue segues like that were why I loved hanging out with Diya. She was random. Unpredictable. One of those people who seemed to walk on fairy dust with her big flowered hats and the sparkly nose ring that set off her brown skin. The one time I tried dressing like Diya, people looked at me like I was a Christmas tree on display in July. So I accepted my lot in life: I was doomed to remain boring old Tamsin, trailing one step behind in Diya’s glittery wake.
Diya stared toward the café counter, neck craned. “I should find out where this guy lives and report him.”
“How do you know he shoots cats?”
Diya’s eyes went wide, like a sparkly deer caught in headlights. “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that the cat thing caught me off guard and–“
“What are you talking about?”
Diya cringed. “If I tell you something, you have to promise not to make fun of me.”
Diya self-conscious? That was a first worth hearing more about. “I promise.”
“It was the salad. The romaine didn’t show me much–bad pickup lines at the bar, jerking off at the movies, that kind of crap.” With her fork, Diya pointed from one tomato to another, as if their positioning spelled out a secret code. “The really twisted stuff is in the tomatoes.”
She had to be messing with me. I had only known Diya for a couple months; we both belonged to the army of underemployed twenty-somethings slinging lattes down the street at the Bean There, Drank That Café. But it had been long enough for me to know that psychic salad visions were over the top, even for Diya.
“You know he shoots cats because of the tomatoes?” I said.
“I’m afraid to even touch the artichokes.” Diya downed more water. “Anyway, so I was telling my brother about that awesome ginger beer you made and–“
“Whoa, back up, I’m still on the salad and the cat shooting.”
Diya let out a dramatic sigh. “I see things about people, okay?”
“When you eat food?”
“Not just any food. Salad. Salad the person made.”
Definitely messing with me. But I decided to play along and see how far she was willing to take this new addition to her manic pixie dream girl routine. “So you knew seeing something awful about this guy was a risk, yet you ordered salad anyway?”
“He was hot. I wanted to find out if he was a decent guy.”
“Isn’t that kind of creepy stalker territory?”
Diya started to object, but snapped her mouth shut. Her face took on that pinched, tight-lipped look she got in the rare moments when someone got the upper hand on her. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s creepy. Lesson learned. But he’s a psycho, so in this case, I think it all evens out.”
I could have dropped the whole salad thing at that point; I had just scored a Diya concession, after all. How often did that happen? But no, I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “And you developed this power how? Exposure to a radioactive crouton?”
Diya shook her head in annoyance. “It’s a family thing, okay? Some people inherit blue eyes or curly hair. I got the psychic crap.”
“So does this family gift of yours work with pasta salad? Fruit salad? Or is this strictly a lettuce-based thing?”
“Great,” Diya snapped. “First I get the psycho cat-shooter salad, and now you’re making fun of me after promising not to. Thanks, Tam. Way to be a friend.”
Diya sank back in her chair. Instead of commanding the room with that larger-than-life way of hers, she looked deflated, her traffic-cone-orange jacket suddenly two sizes too big, her polka dotted scarf two feet too long. A sulky, Diya-style overreaction, sure, but she was right: I had broken my promise.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But most people would have prefaced this whole salad thing with something like, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…'”
Diya sniffed, shifted in her chair, glanced at everything but me. The café chatter became deafening in her silence, conversations about workplace drama and the latest episode of some hot new sitcom amplified beyond tolerance. But as I listened to those conversations–those normal conversations–my pity for Diya turned to annoyance. How did she expect me to react when everything she said and did was as outrageously kooky as possible? And this salad thing–play along with it, and I’d end up the butt of the joke, silly Tamsin blushing furiously as Diya burst into a fit of giggles. But call Diya on her bullshit, and she’d assault me with those wide, watery eyes, like she was a child and I had just taken her favorite toy away.
“Bring on the eyes,” I said.
Diya cocked her head to one side, on the receiving end of confusion for once. “What?”
“That puppy-dog eye thing you do. You’ll pout and give me that face until I say I believe you, and then you’ll be the one laughing at me.” I hated how harsh my tone sounded, yet the words kept spilling out. “I love you, Diya, but there’s only so much randomness you get to drop on a person before you lose the right to get snippy when they don’t believe you. I’m tired of playing the boring, gullible sidekick to your Princess Whimsy Pants.”
Diya straightened in her chair, mouth agape. “Princess Whimsy Pants?”
“Salad, for Christ’s sake. You’re making me mad at you over salad.”
Diya gathered up her vintage purse and the duck-shaped notebook she doodled in when she was bored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you mad. But if you feel boring next to me? That’s not my fault. That one’s on you.”
Diya stood and strode from the café.
This isn’t about me, I wanted to shout after her. You don’t get to be the righteous angry one! But then my gaze fell on my plain old soup sitting next to her half-eaten, cat-torture salad. The drab vs. the colorful. The perfect metaphor for our friendship.
Yet I still ordered the soup. Every. Damn. Time.
“Crap,” I said, burying my head in my hands. Coolest person I knew, and I had just driven her away with my own snarky insecurity. How the hell do I fix this?
When I showed up at her apartment the next morning, Diya promptly slammed the door in my face.
“That went well,” I muttered, then set to knocking again, another monotonous round of knuckles-to-wood.
“Please, Diya, just hear me out.”
More nothing. I pressed my ear against the door. Not a breath, not a rustle. Just lots and lots of nothing. Time for Phase 2.
I reached into my oversized messenger bag, pulled out a covered bowl, and held it up to the door’s peephole. I just had to hope Diya was still on the other side and not climbing out the fire escape–it wouldn’t be the first time she had avoided an unwanted visitor that way.
“I brought you a peace offering,” I said.
Still no response. Just a long, uncomfortable stretch of non-reaction that had me peering under the door for signs of movement, then looking up and down the hall out of fear that a neighbor would emerge and think me some kind of creepazoid stalker. Which I was kind of starting to feel like.
I could tell them about my cat-shooting habit and my BB gun named Diya. Yeah, that would smooth things over real nice.
Finally, the door opened. Diya regarded the bowl in my hands with narrowed eyes. “It’s salad, isn’t it?”
“I made it. Because I’m sorry I upset you, and I’m willing to believe you about the salad thing, but you have to cut me some slack and prove it.”
“Been there, done that. No one ever likes what they hear.”
“Well, there is absolutely nothing scandalous or even remotely interesting about my life to see, so bon appétit, girlfriend.”
Diya waved me inside, where I immediately felt like a dark splotch of normalcy intruding upon her magical world of pink beanbag chairs and cinnamon-scented incense. But that was my problem; Diya had been right about that. The only thing stopping me from wearing nose rings and sparkly feathered boas was my own self-consciousness.
I peeled the lid off the salad and handed the bowl to Diya. She didn’t bother getting a fork. Just grabbed a clump of lettuce and popped it into her mouth.
“You didn’t make this,” she said, chewing.
Diya barely finished swallowing before following up the lettuce with a slice of cucumber. “Yeah, this is from the deli on the corner. The chick with the bird tattoo made it. I just really wish she had washed her hands first.”
“Eeew,” I said, though a jolt of anticipatory excitement overshadowed the gross factor. I couldn’t verify the lack of hand washing, but the girl at the deli did have a mean-looking blue jay stamped on her right bicep. Still, Diya could have seen me in the deli earlier. Or it could have been a lucky guess.
I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out another container. “This one I really did make.”
“You sneaky little . . .”
I’m sure Diya was aiming for mad with the look she gave me, but there was no hiding the half-smile that snuck onto her lips. Perhaps I could salvage this friendship, after all.
Diya traded me the bowl for the new container. Apprehension quickly sent my brief moment of hope packing. If she wasn’t faking the psychic thing, then forget about whatever embarrassing slips of hygiene she might see. My dread stemmed from the vast amounts of boring restraint that had been my life to date. One leaf of lettuce might prove coma-inducing.
Diya frowned at the container’s contents. “No dressing?”
“Dry salad seemed about right to sum me up.”
Diya rolled her eyes. She plucked a cherry tomato from the salad and studied it as if it were a crystal ball. “Oooooo,” she intoned.
“Oh, would you just eat it already?”
Diya snickered, then slipped the tomato into her mouth. Instead of chewing, she pushed it from side to side with her tongue, making each cheek puff out in turn.
I glared; she smirked.
At last, Diya started to eat. First the tomato, then a sliver of carrot, next a clump of avocado. My stomach engaged in a series of somersaults as more and more bits of salad passed between Diya’s lips. Cucumbers, onions, olives, croutons. Her jaw moved up and down with careful, excruciating slowness, as if mastication were a sacred rite that had to be performed ever just so. Diya could have been dragging it out just to screw with me, yet with each swallow, I grew more certain and fearful that she simply hadn’t found anything of interest in her visions, for her expression remained an unchanging, blank-eyed look of veggie-inspired ennui.
“For the record,” Diya said, “it’s kind of insulting that you think I’d have spent all this time hanging out with a boring person. Granted, your social comfort zone is this teeny-tiny microscopic little thing that could use expanding, but boring people don’t teach themselves how to brew their own beer out of every random ingredient under the sun. They certainly don’t create comics about a badass lesbian couple fighting alien zombies in Russia.”
A slight smile found its way onto my lips. I didn’t sound nearly so dull when she put it like that. “So is that what you got from the salad?” I asked. “That I’m cool but insecure?”
“Screw the salad; this is me talking. I love you, Tam, and I don’t want you to be anyone but you. But sometimes I get the feeling that you won’t let you be you. Like you think you have to be me or something.”
Bam. Salad visions or not, Diya had nailed it. My obsessive coveting of her flashy style had sucked away every last bit of confidence I had in my own. But I didn’t need to wear sparkly clothes to be interesting. Hell, I didn’t even like sparkly clothes. What I did like was the would-be webcomic wasting away on my computer. I had the domain and the hosting secured, the site designed, at least six months’ worth of strips ready to publish–all I had to do was launch the damn site. But nope, I kept chickening out, convinced no one would be interested.
Diya chomped on a withered shred of iceberg lettuce. Her eyes widened and she squealed, pointing at the salad as if it held the cure for cancer. “Oh my god, this is exactly what I’m talking about!”
“Your comic! You’ve had the whole site ready to go for like months now. And Siberian Genome? You told me you didn’t even have a decent title, you liar. What the hell are you waiting for?”
“Whoa.” I gaped at Diya. I hadn’t shared those details with anyone, making me suddenly certain of two things: my friend really did have psychic salad powers, and I didn’t have a damn thing to lose. Because seriously, psychic salad powers? That was kind of mind blowing. That was the kind of thing that spends hours sinking in before the full impact of it slugs you like a brick-loaded boxing glove in the middle of the night. So if I could hold the interest of a person who received salad-based visions, then I sure as hell could get some eyeballs on my comic on a regular basis.
“What the hell am I waiting for?” With a little squeal of my own, I plopped onto a beanbag chair and whipped out my laptop. “Let’s get this puppy online already.”
“About damn time, girlfriend.” Diya squeezed onto the beanbag with me. “One suggestion, though?”
“I’m all ears.”
“Sparklier background on the web page. As in, it currently has no sparkles. Just purpleness.”
“You’re the sparkly one, salad girl.” I knocked Diya off the beanbag with a playful shove. “This is gonna be my thing, and my thing doesn’t include sparkles.”
• Content Warning: Grief
• Narrated by S. Qiouyi Lu
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Anathema Magazine (April 2017)
• Read along with the text of the story
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Listen above or download here.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
I’ll tell it like it never happened, Patrick. Like we were childhood besties swapping knock-knock jokes from the tip-top branches of our favorite climbing tree. That we donned towel capes and played at superheroes, that we took turns being sidekicks so nobody had to play the villain. That it went on like that forever. That we never entered the science fair, and my experiment with exothermic reaction never beat out your atomic clock. That you didn’t resent losing to a girl, because I was your best friend, and it shouldn’t have mattered.
And when The Agency recruited me young on the strength of my scientific promise, and I really got the cape and powers and sidekick, you withdrew into a mechanical exile of your own choosing, all wires and servos and circuit boards.
Narrated by Rikki LaCoste, Isis LaCoste and Fiona “Princess Scientist” Van Verth
Audio production by Rikki LaCoste
Originally published in Solaris’ The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9, and Tor.com (March 2015)
Listen above or download here.
Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.
We hope you enjoy audio producer Rikki LaCoste’s favorite story from 2015, Amicae Aeternum by Ellen Klages and narrated by Rikki LaCoste, Isis LaCoste, and Fiona “Princess Scientists” Van Verth. The story originally aired April 19, 2015 as Episode 164.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.