Cast of Wonders 293: The Final Strand
The Hugo Awards have these things they call nominations tallys but they are commonly referred to as The Long Lists. These include the top fifteen nominees, and show who just missed making the finals. For example, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Mothership Zeta all made the long list last year for Semiprozine.
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Want to know what sort of story makes it to this anthology? Go listen to episode 607 of Escape Pod and catch Red in Tooth and Cog by Cat Rambo. Been procrastinating picking up Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw or Run Time by Escape Pod’s S.B. Divya? This anthology will assuage your guilt. You can find The Long List Anthology Volume 3 at all the usual purveyors of books. If you’re already the proud owner of this book, become a subscribing supporter of Diabolical Plots which is also edited by David Steffen. Subscribing there puts you in line early for not only the ebooks of the original stories published in Diabolical Plots, but also gets you in line early for The Long List Anthology Volume 4. Go support this fantastically creative human being.
The Final Strand
by Mackenzi Newman
I hate this tower. It’s all busted up, from its crooked lean to its crumbling roof. It’s been four years, and still no prince has come. I’d prefer a princess, but whatever. I’d take anything to get out of this godforsaken tower. There’s nothing to do except brush my twenty-five-foot-long hair and clean. I know what you’re about to say, and I’ve said it too: Why not cut it? Well, I’m given supplies through the crack in the roof twice a month, and I am given nothing sharp. I guess my parents think I might commit suicide, if given the chance. They aren’t completely wrong–I’d probably at least try.
I pace the room, hair circling behind me, tying knots I’ll spend hours unfolding later. I scratch at my wrist, savoring the slight sting I receive. There are sores riddling my arms and abdomen, and I’m sure some of them are infected. But scratching gives me something to do. Scratching gives me an escape. I scratch and scratch at that same spot until I feel the rut forming around my fingertips. Blood oozes onto my flesh and clumps beneath my fingernails. The scent of rusty metal stings at my nostrils–it’s nice. Closing my eyes, I slump to the floor and bring just a touch of the crimson to my lips. Smearing it around, I pretend I’m five again, and playing with Mama’s lipstick. It dribbles down my chin and I can’t help but giggle. It reminds me of Daddy’s beard tickling my cheek.
Suddenly, I hate myself. This is my fault. I could be home right now–home, and courting a lovely prince that Mama loved and Daddy pretended to hate. I could be dining on the finest game and produce the kingdom had to offer. I could be dancing giddily through the Town Square at my wedding. But no. I had to fall in love with a commoner. That wasn’t really the problem, though. Had I only fallen in love with a commoner, he would’ve been beheaded and then it would’ve been over. No, the commoner part wasn’t the problem. The problem was a girl named Lyng.
I couldn’t help it, really. If you saw Lyng, you’d understand. She was so gorgeous. Fair, pale skin, though it tended to be lightly dusted with dirt. Her smile lit my heart up like no prince’s could. Not to mention her amazing cleaning ability. The instant I saw her, I knew I had to talk to her. It was so strange. When I saw Lyng, her almond eyes catching mine, sparkling with the reflection of the muddy water in her bucket, I felt something. I felt…light.
I immediately requested her as my personal servant, thus ridding myself of the old crone I’d suffered before. She was even more beautiful up close. I could feel the curve of her pink lips beckoning me, see the way her dark hair framed her sweet face. She crept into my room so gently, meek like a mouse. My tummy dropped when I saw her. I didn’t understand my feelings for her, but I didn’t have to. She was there, and that was enough.
“You called for me, Princess?” Her voice was like bells. My heart warmed.
“Yes,” I swallowed, “I…I uh, I need some help…” Words were lost on me. I saw her eyes searching for the answer in my face. It made my flesh burn. I motioned to my hair. She smiled.
“Brushing your hair? I’d be so lucky.”
Her dainty hand reached out to pick up my worn paddle brush, and she approached me. She practically floated across my room.
She combed through my hair, which was a bit shorter then. Still, she had to move with the hair to get the entire length of it. I could hear her breathing: slow, steady, methodical.
“Your hair is gorgeous,” she muttered.
My heart swelled with pride, and I couldn’t hold back as I whispered, “So are you.”
The look on her face could only be described as shocked. It was like I was watching the whole scene happen from outside my body. I stood, hair looping around myself and Lyng, closing the space between us slowly, slowly. I took her face in one hand, her wrist in the other. Our foreheads pressed together, she muttered, “Princess…”
I smiled against her. “Lyng.”
Now it was her turn to smile. “You know my name.”
And then we melted. Lips pressed together, bodies entangled, hearts breaking at the hopelessness of it all. I try to snap back from the memories, but I can’t seem to loosen my mind from the thought of her lips on mine. But with that memory come others. I remember my clothes thudding gently to the ground, Lyng lying next to me. A door opening, dishes clattering as my mother entered my chamber. I expected outrage, screaming, crying, executions…but none came. My mother’s upper lip quivered, with rage or hurt or both, but she stayed composed as she walked out of the room. Before I could say anything, to her or to Lyng, Lyng had jumped out of the bed, tossing on her dress and running after my mother, shrieking explanations and apologies. I did not follow. I only would’ve made things worse.
That was the last time I saw Lyng. Any time I asked, my parents would shrug and act indignant, as if they’d never even heard her name. But I found clues: the way her bucket, a little red stain on the side, was being used by some new middle-aged maid; her mother’s sad eyes as she served us lunch. And when I turned sixteen, I was taken away from everything I’ve ever known and brought here.
I let these memories simmer in my burned-out mind. Tears don’t come anymore, not even for Lyng. I long for my old paddle brush, however; that was one of my many things left at the castle.
I’m ripped away from my self-loathing by a yell from the window.
“Hello!” an obviously forced British accent calls from below.
I jump to my feet. It’s happening. In spite of myself, I find myself preening my hair, wiping away the crimson. Look pretty, I tell myself. Look damsel-esque. Looking out of the window, I see the perfectly stereotypical prince. Blond bowl cut, crystalline blue eyes, nice build. Older than me, but not by much. I force my biggest smile.
“Yes!” he exclaims. He pumps his fist in the air, jumping around a bit. “I knew I’d find one! I knew it! God, so many empty towers–you must be the only princess left unsaved!”
My face must give something away–disgust, surprise, hurt–because his face goes red as he exclaims, “Not that you aren’t a gorgeous girl. God, your hair is amazing. I’m Chauncey.”
I almost snort, but I manage only a small, princess-like chuckle. “I’m Everleigh. Have you come to save me?”
Acting like this makes me sick to my stomach. Is this going to be my life? Chauncey clears his throat.
“Yes. So…I think this is the part where you let down your hair.”
I can’t hold back a groan. “There are stairs.” I can tell he’s getting a bit confused.
“Oh…uh, which way are they, exactly?”
I motion to the left, and he scurries away, a puppy eager to please. He’s up in less than ten seconds and upon me. His hand grabs mine.
“Stop.” I don’t even realize I’ve said it until I see how stricken he looks.
He shakes it off. “Of course. For it is not true love until we share a kiss.” He laughs at my face. “But that’ll wait for our wedding night.”
My tummy lurches. This is happening, and I can’t stop it. Even if I run, I don’t know this guy, or what he’s willing to do for his happily ever after. The only way of escape I can possibly think of is out of the window to my death–and that’d make a pretty sucky ending to my life. His hand is entangled in my hair.
“My word.” He smiles, lifting it to his nose. “This is so gorgeous–”
“Okay. Stop with the fake British accent. Please,” I add, to prevent sounding rude.
He shrugs, dropping my hair. “I read princesses are into that. You’re an odd bird, aren’t you?”
I feel kind of bad. He’s trying so hard, and I keep shooting him down. Still…I can’t make him think this is who I am. I can’t pretend for the rest of my life. I can pretend long enough to get out, though. Probably.
He leads me out by my hand. His hand is smooth, not like Lyng’s at all. My heart breaks. “I’ll take you back to my kingdom,” Chauncey rambles, mostly to himself. “Oh, Mother will love you. She will love your hair. Father will obsess over your eyes. Oh, how the commoners will rejoice!”
We come to the door at the base of the tower, and suddenly I’m not sure I’m ready. I hesitate, chewing my bottom lip. Chauncey looks back.
“Are you okay?” His eyes wander. “My word, your arm!”
I pull away. “Nothing. It’s nothing, I just…nothing.”
Oblivious, Chauncey smiles and opens up the door. I step out, breath leaving my tired, bored body. The sun hits my head, and my hair trails behind me. It’s getting so dirty, so tangled. Normally, this would drive me insane, but today I don’t care. Today I am free.
Chauncey looks back and wiggles his brows. I feel the grass give beneath my feet, so green and soft. I want to cry, but that is not very princess-like, and I still have to pretend. For now.
“Right,” Chauncey clears his throat, “Well, we’ll be on our way, then.”
And we walk. And walk. And then, we walk some more.
After about three hours, I finally sigh, “Aren’t princes supposed to have a noble steed? Y’know, white horse, graceful mane, the whole spiel?”
Chauncey stops, places his hands on his hips and sighs. “No. My dad took away my pony privileges until I find a bride.”
I roll my eyes. “Pony privileges?”
He furrows his brow. “Yes, pony privileges. Did you not have them in your kingdom?”
He says this with a hint of pity and concern in his voice, as if the absence of pony privileges in my childhood is something that would be emotionally detrimental to a person. Maybe he’s on to something.
I smile good-naturedly. “No, but I’d love to learn.”
Chauncey’s chest swells with pride as he takes my hand. “Yes, well then, we should be on our way post-haste should we want to arrive to my kingdom before nightfall.”
“Does your kingdom have a name?”
Chauncey keeps walking as his head turns to face me. “It’s called Clamedia.”
I snort. “Like…like the disease?”
His face reddens. “Mom thought it sounded magical.”
I laugh for a solid minute before I stop long enough to say, “I am to be Everleigh, the princess of Clamedia!”
Chauncey mutters, “So funny.”
Evening light dribbles through a break in the tree line, and Chauncey whoops. “We’re almost to Clamedia! Just one more field!”
I couldn’t care less, but my feet shriek with joy. “Finally!”
Chauncey looks back at me triumphantly, a huge grin on his face. Looking at him now, he is very handsome. Classically so, anyway. Tall, tanned skin, and a glorious blond bowl cut. His broad shoulders are framed perfectly by his crushed velvet shirt, his tights hugging his muscles nicely. If I was into guys, I’d so be into him. But I’m not, and my mind starts wandering back to Lyng. To my family. I lost them, and it was the worst time of my life. I start thinking that maybe I could pretend forever. Maybe eventually, I wouldn’t even have to pretend. Chauncey’s family could be my family, and we could have bouncing babies and a thriving kingdom. Maybe I could even grow to love Chauncey, maybe I could grow to want to…
A shiver runs down my spine and I feel like retching. No. No, I couldn’t. Not even a little bit. Chauncey is not Lyng, or even close. His family is not mine, and no amount of pretending will change that.
We break through the tree line, and behind a tiny field infested with wildflowers lies a kingdom that can only be Clamedia. My belly sinks. It fits its name. If this kingdom were a color, it would be an ugly, filthy, infected brown. The castle’s tallest tower stands at a lean, gray and looming. It feels like home, and not in a good way. There is a certain gray about the air, and, upon walking up to the gate, I feel it filling up my lungs, heavy with desperation and loneliness. I take a breath, look to Chauncey.
Chauncey nods, and to my surprise and despair, he does it proudly.
“My good man,” Chauncey calls up to the guard on duty, “it is I, Chauncey, returned with my beautiful bride-to-be!”
The guard turns, eyes rolling as he opens up the gates. Chauncey takes my hand and practically skips me through the filthy, cracked streets. It’s sad. I see two dirty little boys wrestling over an orange peel.
“Can’t you help them?” I ask, horrified.
“Hmm?” Chauncey turns, and his eyes settle on the two boys. He narrows his eyes, annoyed.
“Yes, of course.” He saunters over to them, taking the orange peel and ripping it in half. He hands them each a half, pats their filthy little heads and walks back, wiping his hand on his stocking.
“Problem solved!” He snaps his fingers and gives me a cheeky smile.
He really thinks he’s helped; he really thinks he’s solved the problem. We continue walking, and I see three similar scenarios, but this time, I keep my mouth shut. Walking up to the castle, I think that the crumbling grey interior doesn’t bode well for the inside. The gates open wide, revealing a stunted woman with a huge bust and tiny waist. Her corset must be suffocating her. She shrieks and waddles towards us. A man walks behind, tall and graying with his kingdom. The woman is upon me. She smells like cigars and cheap wine.
“Oh, darling!” she cries. “How lovely!”
She cups my face in her pudgy hands, turning it at every angle. The man walks up behind her, examining me with a certain weariness, as if I will evaporate at any given second. When he seems positive I won’t, he embraces me in a big, fatherly hug.
It makes me feel safe. It makes me happy. I hug him back, a little voice screaming in the back of my mind, Don’t fall for it. It won’t be this way forever. It can’t. I pull away, and as I open my mouth to introduce myself, Chauncey breaks in.
“Mama, Papa, this is Everleigh.”
I furrow my brow, and open my mouth again, but the man in front of me interjects,
“Call us Mama and Papa. We are so pleased to have you here.” His smile is huge. He reaches for my hair. “What lovely locks.”
Mama reaches for a piece as well. “Yes, very. Pray tell, what conditioner do you use?”
I force a grimace-like smile. “Whatever my parents dropped off in my tower.”
The two share a look.
“Ah,” Papa sighs, “a tower girl. Chauncey will have his hands full, that’s for sure.” He laughs a hearty laugh, slapping Chauncey on the back. Chauncey places his arm around me and leads me into the big, gray monstrosity that is supposed to be my new home.
Walking in, I’m hit by the stench of mothballs and stale cigars. Faded red drapes hang on grand old windows, some boarded up and shattered. The floor is cold, stony and gray. The walls whisper the depressing story of a once-great kingdom, now crippled into near-nothingness. Gray, gray, gray–everything is gray. Two thrones sit at the back of the room, collecting dust. I’m led down a long, gloomy (gray!) corridor to a tall wooden door, creaky and termite-ridden.
“These will be your quarters for the night,” Chauncey says, and I’m suddenly very aware of how close he is to me.
“Oh, we hope you just love it here!” Mama sighs wistfully.
“Mmm,” I say, only to acknowledge her.
Papa places a hand on my shoulder. “A handmaiden will be in shortly with fresh clothes and a bath. Dinner will be in an hour and we will discuss the wedding plans!” He sweeps his hands about the room, as if to say the wedding will be a grand event. I know it won’t.
The door is opened to an old (gray!) room, but it’s surprisingly clean. A queen-sized bed sits in the center, an old red blanket folded at the foot of it. Two pillows rest on top. To my right is a boudoir, large and old and wooden. To my left are a small vanity, a tiny stool, and a paddle brush. I bite at my lip. It looks exactly like mine. I know it can’t be, but my heart still burns at the thought of Lyng’s fragile hand wrapping around its base, running it through my hair. I pick it up and hold it to my chest, sitting on the edge of bed. And for the first time in a year, I cry. I cry for Lyng, I cry for my parents, and I cry for myself. I’m scared. I’m terrified, really. I don’t know these people, and yet I’m expected to live the rest of my life with them. They’re so nice to me, and I can’t even love their son in return. I let the tears fall and plop down on the stone beneath me. They make little splatting sounds, and it calms me.
The door cracks open, and an old woman stands there. I sit up, wiping away my tears.
“Hello,” she says in a thick Russian accent. “Are you okay, Miss Princess?”
I sniff. “Yes, very. Thank you for asking.” I hold out my hand. “I’m Everleigh.”
She seems shocked by the gesture, but offers her hand anyway. It is rough and calloused.
“I am Pavvy, but the King calls me Pat.”
I furrow my brow. “Why?”
She smiles, shrugs. “He doesn’t remember my real name. Is okay, though. He does not, eh, hit me. Like other kings have in the past.”
“You’ve worked for other kings?” I’ve never heard of a servant working for multiple kings.
Pavvy shakes her head. “No, I have not. I used to be princess. But I loved common boy, and father beat me heavily. He beat me for years and years until I just, eh, ran away. I come here and now I work for His Highness.” She nods her head back to the door.
My heart hurts for Pavvy.
“I’m scared,” I admit. “I don’t…I don’t even…”
Pavvy places a rough hand on my cheek. “Love is fickle thing. Love get you in trouble. Even if you do not love the prince, this the best way, eh?”
I nod against her hand, and she leads me down the (gray!) hallway to a small chamber with a tub full of warm water. I undress and she begins to lather my hair.
“So beautiful,” she mutters.
I’m starting to grow uncomfortable with the amount of attention these people are paying my hair, so I change the subject.
“So, uh, will the whole kingdom be here for the wedding?”
Pavvy shakes her head. “Oh, no. Her Highness would never let, eh, commoners in her palace. Only royal family and relatives.”
She helps me up and we head back to my room, where a (gray!) and blue velvet dress awaits me.
“It was Her Highness’s,” Pavvy says. “Fifty pounds ago.”
I don’t laugh. Pavvy dresses me, and it’s a bit too large in the bust. She smiles knowingly, stuffs some tissue into my corset, and sits me down at the vanity. She picks up the paddle brush and drags it through my hair before braiding it.
“So lovely,” she murmurs.
After my hair is plaited and my lips painted red, I am left alone again. I sit, I sigh, I lie, I wait.
And then there’s a knock at the door. Before I can answer it, Mama bursts into the room.
“Oh! Oh!” she exclaims, so excited she jiggles. “How amazingly perfect for my Chauncey!”
She links her arm through mine and escorts me down the hallway.
“You know, I was a bit concerned,” she babbles, “what with you being a tower girl and all. They tend to be a bit…well, you know. But, you! Oh, you’re perfect, Evertree!”
“Everleigh,” I correct gently.
She nods as we take a sharp right turn, directly into a (gray!) dining area with a long, stretched out table. Chauncey sits at one end, an empty seat next to him. Mama takes a seat next to Papa, and I next to Chauncey. He laces his fingers through mine as soon as I sit.
“My, my, my,” Chauncey utters. “How lucky am I? I love your hair that way.”
The truth is, it’s giving me a headache. Pavvy braided it entirely too tight.
I smile. “Thank you.”
We are served our starting soup, and Mama clears her throat. “Ahem, yes, so the wedding is to be in two hours.”
My stomach drops. Yes, royal weddings tend to be quick, as princesses have a habit of changing their minds. But two hours? This is unheard of.
Chauncey grins. “So soon? Oh, Papa, the strings you must have pulled!”
Papa grins and pokes his chest out. “Yes, it wasn’t easy. But it is for my dear Chauncey, and his lovely bride-to-be, Beverly.”
“Everleigh,” I grumble.
But they don’t hear me. Papa gets lost in the duck he was just served, and Mama is too busy yakking about the dress.
“Ohh!” she exclaims. “We’ll have to cut dinner short tonight. The chefs are too busy preparing for later as it is.”
She toddles around the table, picking me up by my arm. “Come, now, dear, we must get you dressed!”
I’m whisked away into a grand old bedroom that I can only guess belongs to Mama and Papa. I’m put into a white gown, form-fitting and floor length. A veil is placed on me, and I am sat down to begin the extensive process of wedding makeup.
“PATTY!” Mama calls, “IT’S TIME TO DO CLEVERLEIGH’S MAKEUP!”
Pavvy hurries in. She gives Mama a quick “Yes ma’am,” then sets to work. My eyes are painted and lined, my cheeks are rouged, and my breasts are propped up to my neck.
I’m led away, back to the main room where I first entered this hellhole. Except now, the gray is gone. It is covered up with white and powdery pinks, the worn red drapes replaced with pink and blue lacy things. A runway of white sweeps between two aisles of chairs, leading to an altar. I feel sick. Mama leads me to a back room. “We’ll wait in here till everything is set up. I’m walking you out. Papa doesn’t want to.”
We sit in the room as Mama brews some tea on a rusty little (gray!) stove in the corner. She serves me a small teacup and warns me not to spill.
“It’s Earl Grey.” She smiles. Of course.
About thirty minutes pass, and we hear a trumpeting sound. Mama jumps up, spilling her tea onto the floor. She links her arm through mine and bursts through the door, revealing a room full of people dressed in purples and pinks and reds. Pavvy shoves a bunch of red roses in my hand, and Mama begins to walk me towards the altar, where a white-clothed Chauncey awaits. His face is red, and his hair combed back, like he’s been smoothing it down for a while. He grins so widely I think his face might split. A priest waits next to him, and a song I don’t know plays.
Mama begins tearing up, and I do, too, but for very different reasons. I suck it up and allow Chauncey to take my hand in his. As the priest recites the vows, I get an increasingly sick feeling. This should be me and Lyng. This should be me in a suit, Lyng in a dress, smiling up at me in that beautiful way she did. I can only hear the garble of voices around me now.
I snap out of it when I see an expectant look on Chauncey’s face.
“Well?” the priest asks.
“I…. I…” I mutter.
The priest exclaims, “I think we have a nervous bride!”
The crowd laughs, and the priest pulls me closer. “Trust me, love, you do.”
All at once, Chauncey’s lips are on mine. Dry, rough, boy-ish. Repulsive. I do my best to kiss him back, but I just…I can’t. Everything becomes too much at once, and I sob against his lips. He perceives it as a sigh of passion, placing his hand on the back of my neck. This kiss is taking forever, and the congregation won’t stop whooping, and everything around me is so loud.
Chauncey pulls away, bits of red on his lip. He smiles proudly, openly, wildly. He grabs my hand and lifts it in the air triumphantly as Papa stands up and declares, “Announcing the marriage of Chauncey and…” He looks back.
“Everleigh,” Chauncey says.
Papa turns back. “Everleigh!”
The crowd claps as Chauncey lifts me up and carries me away, away, away, back to the (gray!) hallway. I’m going to have an anxiety attack.
“Wh-what of the feast?” I suggest.
Chauncey shakes his head. “It is customary in Clamedia that the newlyweds share a night together before feasting with the celebrants.”
Chauncey kicks in the door to my room and sets me gingerly on the edge of the bed. He places a chair underneath the doorknob.
I can’t stop shaking. He sits next to me, placing a hand on the small of my back.
“You’re nervous,” he says against my hair, which he’s taken down from the braid.
“I-I am not! I am simply–”
“It’s okay,” Chauncey cuts me off. “I am, too.”
I can’t even bring myself to say anything else. I don’t want this. Any of this. I want my family, I want my Lyng. I want to go home. At this point, I’d even take my tower back. I just need away from here. I need away from the stench and the parents and the (gray!) hallways. Most of all, I need away from this room, from this situation, right now. But I can’t even eke out a syllable.
This inner turmoil lasts for all of ten minutes before Chauncey lies next to me, asleep.
My mind is racing, from Lyng to Chauncey to my parents, and it finally rests on me. On what I want. Not what my parents want, not what Chauncey wants, not even what Lyng would’ve wanted. And right now, I want to be alone. Maybe not forever, maybe not even for a long time. But I just need some time, to cope. Some time, not locked in a tower, and not locked in a marriage, either. I need time to be okay.
I stand, careful not to disturb Chauncey. He snorts and rolls over. I think I’m okay. I collect some clothes in a satchel, gathering a brush, lipstick, shoes.
A glint in the corner of the room grabs my attention. A pair of sharp, gray, symmetrical scissors lies on the top of the boudoir. My hand finds my hair, strokes it. I say my hair, but it isn’t, not really. Everyone else loves it–Mama, Papa, Chauncey. Lyng. But the more people that love it, the more I hate it. With every compliment I receive, the weight of it gets even heavier.
I don’t think twice as I reach for my freedom.
About the Author
Mackenzi Newman is a high school student from South Louisiana. “The Final Strand”, upcoming on Cast of Wonders, is her first professional publication. She has narrated stories for Cast of Wonders and PseudoPod, and would love to continue both writing and narrating in the future.
About the Narrator
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.