Alice In Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so VERY remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so VERY much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually TOOK A WATCH OUT OF ITS WAISTCOAT-POCKET, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again…

Note: This is just a placeholder story, as we open up submissions to get original, YA, science fiction and fantasy. Come back soon to see real Inscription Magazine stories! If you’re interested, though, you can read more of this story at Project Gutenberg.

The End

About Lewis Carroll

1832-1898

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

Note: This is just a placeholder story, as we open up submissions to get original, YA, science fiction and fantasy. Come back soon to see real Inscription Magazine stories! If you’re interested, though, you can read more of this story at Project Gutenberg.

The End

About L. Frank Baum

1856-1919

Spitting Up Frogs

My Great Aunt Angeline cursed me. She came from a long line of pure bloods from the old country and she was horrified when my dad mixed it up and married a woman from a new country she couldn’t pronounce properly. She refused to go to my parents’ wedding and refused all of their invitations after that day, so when I came into the world they didn’t invite her to my baby shower. Meanwhile, all my cousins’ parents married “right,” which to her meant white, and they didn’t think twice about sending baby invitations to Great Aunt Angeline. She came bearing grandiose gifts; when my cousins part their lips, out drop gold coins, diamonds or pearls.

They say Great Aunt Angeline flew into a rage and stormed uninvited into my parents’ house during my baby shower. She screamed that my parents were heretics, that I was an abomination, and with the magic of her words she cursed me. Since that day, every time I open my mouth to talk, a frog jumps out.

It’s not like spitting out a cherry pit or a pearl into a lacy handkerchief. For me, there’s a lot of gagging that crescendos into an explosive vomit of frog along with long thick strings of green slime. It’s not pretty for anyone, not even the frogs. They always look a bit squished when they first come out.

My earliest memories are of floors carpeted with frogs and my parents throwing my frogs into buckets, bottles and boxes strategically placed all over the house. I remember a lot of late night walks to the park with backpacks, bags and strollers, where my parents would discretely dump the frogs when no one was around. Over time, I learned to keep my lips locked, for all our sakes. I can communicate pretty well with just my eyes and hand gestures. Only now have the news stories about the frog overpopulation problem at the local park finally petered out.

Now I’m in grade eight. No one even knows I spit up frogs because I have not spoken at school…ever. And as you can guess, I don’t have many friends. Every year my mom goes to my school to talk about my “situation” with the principal and my teachers. I get a special learning plan and all the teachers know not to ask me to speak. But it doesn’t help, kids always sniff out whose different and then let you know about it. There are always bullies who like to taunt and hurt me, the instigators that snicker behind them and then the indifference of the rest of the kids who are just happy they aren’t the target.

That’s what I am dealing with right now. Elida Renarst, who puts the bull in bully, is saying over and over, “What’s wrong Freaky Fuyumi, cat’s got your tongue?”

She has been saying this stupid line to me every day since we learned this idiom, which is five months ago. Elida is slick as a toxic oil spill. She always knows to dump on me when no one can help me. She will push me down at recess when the duty monitors are out of sight. She will whisper insults to me when the teacher has her back turned. Or like now, she will wait until we have just left school property, so she knows she is safe from teachers. Elida is right in my face, pinching both my cheeks so hard that I can feel unwanted tears squeezing out. I just can’t take it anymore. My heart is beating mad in my head, my brain is screaming. Elida has kicked, hit and put me down for the last time.

I say, “Well, not so much a cat.”

I sound croaky and maybe no one can understand me because at the same time I am retching out a frog. It’s flying with flailing legs in wave of green gravy mucous. Time seems to slow down as I watch the frog land right on Elida’s nose. Her face drips with goop and she is shrieking like a girl about to die in a horror movie. Then time speeds up to its normal pace and Elida is running down the street, her hands desperately trying to flick off the long lines of mucous stuck to her face. All the kids who were laughing and crowded around earlier are now shooting off in any direction away from me.

All except one boy, Harvinder Gill. He’s holding the frog I just spit up. “Cool! It’s a Pacific tree frog!”

“How can you tell?” I ask. Another frog bursts out of my mouth, green slime splattering on Harvinder’s nice jeans and very white runners. I am waiting for Harvinder to start running away too.

Instead, he picks up the second frog, and sets it beside the other frog in his hand. “It’s because it’s, I mean, they’re bright green and have a black mask. See.” He brings them closer to me.

I nod my head and smile ever so slightly, with my lips closed. I do see. For the first time ever, I see my frogs as something different. As something maybe…interesting.

*

Harvinder invites me over to his house and I nod in agreement. He lives right across the street. His grandfather is wearing an orange turban and opens the door and ushers us in. He gets us up a plate of cookies and a glass of milk at the kitchen table. His grandpa isn’t talking much, just smiling and nodding at me a lot.

“My grandpa doesn’t speak any English,” Harvinder says.

I nod my head and beam my biggest smile at his grandpa, I know the feeling. He smiles back with warm wrinkly eyes and pats me on the shoulder.

Harvinder takes me to his room and he has an aquarium with two frogs just like the ones I spit up. “These are my Pacific tree frogs, Hilly and Billy. I can keep your two frogs for you in my tank until you go home.”

I’m shocked he thinks I’m going to keep them. I have always taken them to the park.

He gently puts the pair in the tank. “If you haven’t thought of any names for them yet, how about the names Willy and Nilly? They could be cousins with mine.”

I nod yes.

“Oh, I have something else I want to show you!”

Harvinder takes a huge book down from his book shelf. “I was thinking of doing my science fair project on something about frogs. What are you thinking of doing?”

My fingers run along the glossy green letters, “Frogs from Around the World.” I flip through the pages and I fall in love with the poison dart frogs from the Amazon rainforest. They light up the pages with their colors and are described brilliantly by the author as sapphire blue, strawberry red and golden yellow.

“I wonder if I can make those frogs?” I say and cough up a bright blue poison dart frog.

We both grin big. Then a thought dawns on me.

“It’s poisonous!” I say and spit out a golden poison dart frog.

“Are you okay? Did their poison come off in your mouth?”

I shrug my shoulders. I don’t feel any different. I point to the colorful frogs vigorously and make my eyes big. We can’t just leave deadly frogs to hop about his house; I really like Harvinder and his grandfather.

“Okay, you yell if you start feeling sick. I’ll get something to hold the frogs. I’ll be back!” he calls as he sprints down the hall.

He rushes back in with rubber dish gloves on; he’s holding a plastic bag and an empty ice cream bucket. He scoops up the frogs, puts them in the bucket and then stabs holes in the lid so the frogs can breathe. He is smiling, despite having deadly frogs in his house.

Oddly enough, I am too. I can make poison frogs just by thinking about it. What else can I do? Revenge plans flash in my mind, I could splat out poison dart frogs the next time I see Elida and her buddies. I could grow up and become an assassin and shoot out deadly frogs like I was a living semi-automatic frog machine gun. They’d call me the Frog Woman of Death.

But, I don’t really want to hurt people because then I’m just as much a jerk as any other bully. I want to be better than that. And I don’t want to make my frogs do bad things, it’s not their fault they’re poisonous.

I remember what else I read about poison dart frogs in Harvinder’s book, that it’s not their fault they are endangered. People keep cutting down their forests and there’s no one to speak up for them. “I have an idea for our science project!”

*

Harvinder and I are standing in front of the entire school. I’ve never received an award or this much attention. My hands are sweaty and I’m biting my tongue looking out at all the students and teachers. Harvinder smiles at me. I take some slow deep breaths.

I focus my attention back on Principal Sidhu’s words. “Fuyumi and Harvinder are the winners of the science fair championship for our school and will now go on to compete in the provincial science fair competition. Their project looks at ways to increase the population of endangered frog species and, especially, at the importance of speaking up and taking action to ensure habitats are protected here and around the world. Let’s give them all a big hand.”

The clapping echoes throughout the auditorium. I feel like I’m glowing, colorful and beautiful as a jewel-toned poison dart frog. It’s not just doing well at the science fair. It’s that me, all of me, including my frogs, can make a difference in the world.

The principal says, “Do you have any words you’d like to say?”

She moves so I can stand in front of the microphone. Harvinder and I each pick up the empty buckets that are at our feet and step forward.

“I do,” I say. Frogs rain from my mouth and I smile. And, more importantly, I keep on talking.

The End

About Miki Dare

Miki Dare lives on the West Coast of Canada, but is a wanderer at heart. From sipping yak tea in Tibet to being a favorite food for mosquitoes in the Amazon, she enjoys seeing what the world has to offer and vice versa. She also loves to travel to alternate universes and strange new worlds through reading and writing fiction. Her stories can be found here at Inscription and also in the upcoming December issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can visit her website at www.mikidare.com to find out what she’s up to and for free teaching materials to go with Spitting Up Frogs.

Salt Favor

Keisha plunged the rough, algae-covered sponge into her bucket and shook it, wringing soapy water out between her fists. She tackled her project again, frowning as she scrubbed the last layers of slimy green from the statue’s face.

At the base of the fountain, her sister Rochelle yawned and pulled her ear-buds out from under a curtain of thin braids, filling the humid air with the sounds of Common’s new album, rendered tinny and small in the tiny speakers. “This is boring. You do this every year and every year it’s as gross as before. I didn’t fly down from Chicago to clean. Let’s go to the beach.”

“Hold your horses.” Keisha scratched out a crease of gunk from the mermaid’s upturned face, then moved the sponge to the stone coils of hair, wrapped and twisted in seashells and starfish. Rochelle blew a gusty sigh and pulled out her phone, glittering turquoise nails clacking over the screen.

“Stupid.” She said it just loud enough that Keisha knew she wanted to be heard. Keisha gave the statue another hard scrub.

“Grandma likes it clean,” she said.

“Grandma can barely see,” Rochelle retorted. “And all she’ll do is rabbit on about salt favors and shit. I’m done”–she stood–“either you’re coming or you aren’t, but I’m not waiting around.”

Keisha slid off the mermaid’s rock where she had perched and sloshed ankle deep in the fountain’s reservoir, standing back to regard her handiwork. The mermaid loomed above her, stone face tilted toward the sky, arms raised to hold a conch shell aloft, water trickling down over her clean face. Her scales shone in the blazing Hilton Head sun, and where before a green slick had covered all the details, now Keisha could see every strand of hair. She could even see the carved, scalloped-edged shell around the mermaid’s neck. Her fingers found her own shell, running over ridges smoothed by the years.

A salt favor, Grandma had called it when she had found the shell–pink and round, with a hole perfect for string at the base–next to the mermaid’s tail seven years ago. You’ll want to hold onto that, darlin’, she said, looping the shell around Keisha’s neck. That’s a gift from the seafolk for doing something good. Guard it careful, and they’ll do something for you like you done for them.

Rochelle snapped her fingers under Keisha’s nose. They smelled of tanning oil and vanilla, and her dark skin gleamed as bright as the stone Keisha had just cleaned. “Come on. Let’s bounce.”

Keisha sighed, stuffed the shell back under her red tank top, and set the bucket and sponge on the porch, out of the sun. “Coming.”

Rochelle waited at the edge of the beach access path for her, then looped her arm through Keisha’s, dragging her along. “Maybe this year you’ll stop being a scaredy-cat and actually go in over your head.”

A hot flush covered Keisha’s cheeks and she stared down at her bare feet.

“Oh come on, don’t be chicken.” Rochelle flipped her braids over her shoulder. She had put in extensions before they left Chicago, green streaks shooting through the tight black rows. “You’re fourteen, girl, not four. And it’s not like you can’t swim–just think of it as a bigger pool.” She laughed.

“I know.” The ocean, dark blue and limned with golden sunlight, peeked into view and Keisha’s throat dried.

It didn’t feel right to say she was afraid. On the contrary, she loved it, had loved it since the first time her daddy set her down in the foamy shallows and called her his little minnow. Rochelle, two years older, hadn’t wanted anything to do with the sea, preferring to chase crabs up and down the beach, but Keisha had sat and splashed the whole afternoon. Her momma liked to tell how she howled the day they left Hilton Head, and didn’t shut up until her daddy filled the plastic splash pool in the backyard of their Hyde Park home. Even now, the desire to be close to the ocean felt like a physical ache. She swam for hours at the YMCA’s pool during the long, cold Midwestern winters, and counted the days until their next visit to Grandma.

But no matter how often she imagined swimming through the clear blue, or how many times she marched out into the shallows each year, the end result remained the same: she froze, panicked, fled back to the sand. Something, some preternatural fight-or-flight instinct, spurred her away despite her heart’s yearning. She swallowed the lump that filled her throat and clenched her fists. This year will be different.

Palm fronds rattled overhead, as if the trees themselves laughed at her.

#

Grandma sat under her red and white striped umbrella like a Nubian queen on a dais, straight-backed and regal, her wide-brimmed hat shading her wrinkled face as she scanned the surf. Keisha dropped down beside her, folding the towel beneath her dry swimsuit and leaving her legs, wet from the knees down, in the sun.

“How is it out there?” Grandma handed her sunscreen without looking at her, and Keisha took it without answer. “Rochelle seems to be having a good time.”

Keisha squinted through the glare of sun on sand, picked out the red parasail floating through the air over the water. Rochelle had taken off the moment they reached the beach, and now Keisha could hear the distant echo of her wild, adrenaline-fueled laughter.

“Quite the thrill-seeker, your sister,” Grandma said, rubbing sunscreen onto her forearms.

“She’s brave.” Keisha picked up a handful of gray sand, watched it trickle through her fingers.

“I don’t know about that.”

I do. If she were brave, she wouldn’t be sitting here, just like Rochelle wasn’t sitting here.

Grandma’s gnarled hand stroked Keisha’s wildly-curling hair, pushing it from her face. “Your confidence will come, darlin’. You been favored, after all.”

Keisha plucked the seashell around her neck, angry retorts bubbling on her lips. I’m too old for this, Grandma. Rochelle says you’re dotty and that it’s not true. If mermaids are real, and they like me, how come I’ve never seen them?

She sighed, pressed the seashell against her sternum, and stood. “I’m gonna try again. Back in a few.”

“That’s my girl.”

She trotted over the gritty sand, and warm foam licked her toes as she stopped at the edge. Waves patted the shore like gentle hands, tumbling small seashells and warming in tidal pools. Taking a deep breath, Keisha started walking.

The first few strides, her footing felt sure in the firm sand. The water cooled the further from the shore she walked, and waves broke over her knees, making them tingle. She held her breath as she watched the swirling tide. Five feet, ten, maybe this time I’ll do it!

She walked until she stood thigh-deep, and then the ground beneath her shifted. She flailed, arms windmilling as she struggled to find balance, and something stringy and cold wrapped around one ankle. She yelped and stumbled back. The sand slid away from her, shifting in the tidal pull, and when her foot crashed back down it landed on something sharp. She toppled back, and a wave rushed over her head.

For a moment, she could see tumbling brown darkness, hear a muted roar that spoke of depths and creatures she couldn’t see. Her throat squeezed, her ribs contracted around her desperate lungs, and Keisha clawed for the surface.

She popped up, one hand braced in the sand, and panted. Two feet. She had gotten swamped in a mere two feet of water. Nearby, a small boy floated on a boogie board, watching her with wide, blue eyes. She staggered to her feet, face burning. What is wrong with me?

She watched the undulating surface, tugging on her seashell. Grandma had said she should be careful with her salt favor, and only use it when she knew what she wanted. Didn’t conquering this fear count as a true desire? She imagined tossing the shell in, asking for help, imagined a mermaid appearing and coaxing her out of the shallows, all gentle smiles and flowing hair, like in the movies, like the statue. Maybe they could teach her to brave the ocean.

Her hand froze, just shy of yanking the seashell free. Tossing the salt favor would mean admitting she believed the mermaids existed. If Rochelle saw her, the humiliation would be endless.

Worse, if she tossed it and nothing happened, not only would the humiliation never end, but neither would the sense of loss. Her chest constricted again. Maybe that’s the problem. Keisha tucked the seashell under her swimsuit strap, forced a smile for the curious boy, and sloshed back toward the shore, shoulders hunched against the sparkling, calm blue. Maybe I’m afraid to go in because I’ll find nothing there.

#

“I’m going sailing,” Rochelle announced that evening. “You’re coming.”

They sat on the screened front porch, a brisk breeze blowing sand and salt through the air. Keisha groaned.

“Don’t whine.” Rochelle stood and dusted off her cutoff shorts. “You’ll be on the water, not in it. It’ll be fun.” Her brown eyes sparkled as she looked out over the harbor, where Grandma’s little catamaran bobbed in its slip. Keisha ignored the harbor, instead looking up at the sky. The sun struggled to peek through piles of dark, lumpy clouds and the breeze smelled damp.

“I don’t know . . .”

“Come on.” Rochelle tossed the words over her shoulder as she started toward the harbor. “I know what I’m doing. We’ll beat the storm if we go now.” She turned and walked backward, a smirk tugging her mouth upwards. “Or are you chicken?”

Keisha bristled, and her gaze slid to the harbor. The water slapped the docks, dark gray-green and docile. Are you chicken? The salt favor hung heavy around her neck.

“I’m not chicken.” Her voice sounded small, even to her ears, and Rochelle’s teeth glinted as she threw her head back and laughed.

“Prove it!” She spun on her toes and sprinted toward the docks.

Keisha glanced once more up at the low sky, sighed, and climbed to her feet. A gust of wind spun her hair into a wild afro, blowing into her face. This time, I’ll do it, she told herself, trudging after Rochelle. This time, I won’t be afraid.

She followed Rochelle down the dock, past the mermaid statue, and pulled on a black and blue life jacket. Rochelle scuttled over the boat, damp green top sticking to her back. Grandma’s boat looked tiny compared to others: just two long white hulls and a tarp stretched between them, a blue and white main sail and a small red jib sail. Keisha readied the jib sail, then leaned on one hull and watched Rochelle hoist the main sail with quick, efficient pulls. Rochelle looked like she belonged on the sea, climbing rigging and covered in salt. She checked the lines with a practiced eye, and then pointed at Keisha. “Get on the port side.”

“Which side is port?”

Rochelle sighed. “Left, dummy. Left.”

Keisha scurried to her place and Rochelle maneuvered the boat away from the dock, the main sail fluttering in small breaths of air.

The boat skimmed out toward open water, sails taut as Rochelle manned the tiller. Keisha peered out over the edge, seashell in one hand, scanning the horizon. Overhead, a low roll of thunder echoed. Keisha swallowed and looked down.

“Quit looking for mermaids, dope,” Rochelle said behind her.

“I’m not!”

“You’re totally looking for mermaids. It’s ridiculous. How old are you again? Five?” She rocked the tiller and the main sail bloomed with wind once more. “You don’t want people to think you’re tripping, girl.”

Keisha stared straight ahead as the boat skipped forward on the white caps. A gust of cold wind swelled the sails and the boat rocked. The gray-green sea cooled, turning a deep steely color.

“Rochelle . . .”

“I got this.” Rochelle waved her free hand. The sail caught another gust of wind and the catamaran bounded over the waves. Keisha slipped on the slick tarp and slid to the edge, head hanging over the hull. Dark water rushed and rolled inches from her nose, and she popped back onto her knees, heart fluttering in her throat. Behind her, Rochelle whooped and laughed, and when Keisha twisted to look at her, she could see Rochelle’s eyes sparkling with excitement.

“Isn’t this great?” She crowed. A wave buffeted the side of the boat and Keisha flattened herself onto the tarp.

“We need to go back,” she said. “You’re not going to beat this storm back to shore, you just aren’t.”

“So? I told you, I got–!” Rochelle bit off her own words as the boat swerved, almost yanking the main line out of her hands. The wind battered them harder now, bucking waves rocking the boat to and fro. Keisha trimmed the jib sail and Rochelle positioned the tiller again, so the boat leaped forward, this time heading back toward the harbor at a hard angle. Ahead of them, Keisha could see dark, angry clouds tumbling through the sky toward them.

A squall-wind hit the side of the boat so hard it lifted onto one hull, the other pointing toward the sky. Keisha grabbed the tarp’s metal frame and hung on as the world tilted away from her and the ocean reached toward their boat. Rochelle sawed the tiller, turning them into the wind and forcing the lifted hull back down with a wet smack. Keisha rolled toward the sail lines, slithering about the tarp as the wind and Rochelle fought for control of the sails. She lunged and caught the jib line, felt a brief tug at her neck. Behind her, she heard a snap and Rochelle swore. The main sail whipped free, the boat plunged into the wind, and the metal boom glinted as it rushed over Keisha’s head, carrying the sail into the wind. It slammed into Rochelle, catching her full in the chest and knocking her flat on her back, a bit of white rope fluttering in her fist. Her head made a terrible clank on the frame, and then Rochelle did not move.

Keisha clutched the mast, the boat rocking and spinning around her. The wind whipped them around again and the boom slashed back through the air. The horizon blurred, dark clouds and dark ocean spreading like an ink stain. A wave washed up over the side, dousing Keisha from head to toe. She coughed and spluttered, wiping the water from her eyes. Rochelle’s limp body slid, and one arm and leg dripped over the side. Keisha grabbed her other arm, dragging her back.

The ocean gaped, fathomless all around, and the wind seemed determined to toss the boat upside down. Keisha gripped Rochelle’s cold arm and tried to catch her breath. She pawed at her throat for the seashell’s comforting presence, but her fingers found nothing but air.

Where is it? She felt the inside of her life jacket, the straps of her bathing suit, then caught sight of the pink shell, cord tangled in the lines Rochelle had tried to fix. She clawed at the knots, belly to the tarp and one leg hooked over Rochelle’s midsection to keep her from sliding overboard. She yanked the shell free and tugged on the sail lines, trying to control the main sail’s violent blowing back and forth. The boat lifted onto one hull again, and Keisha clung tighter to the shell.

Save me, she thought, the edges biting into her sweating palm. I don’t want to die, and I’m afraid. Please, please, please . . .

Her hand stretched out over the rocking ocean, but her fingers refused her brain’s commands to unclench, to drop the salt favor and let it do its work. They remained a tight fist, the shell squeezed between them, the pink shocking bright. The boat heaved, and Keisha pitched forward, her face inches from the churning waves. For a brief instant, she saw her reflection: wide brown eyes surrounded by thick whites, hair blown into a cloud around her head, shoulders hunched near her ears like she was about to dive off the ten meter board.

The boat slammed back down on both hulls, knocking the breath out of her, and she rocked back, grabbing fistfuls of Rochelle’s sodden tank top. Her life jacket bunched under her chin. Rochelle had no life jacket.

“It’s a pool,” she said aloud, voice lost in the wind. “It’s just a big, dark, pool.” She scrabbled around, scanned the horizon until she picked up the flickering harbor lights. Half a mile, maybe a full one. At home, she could swim that without breaking a sweat. Keisha gathered Rochelle under the arms and levered her upright, so that Rochelle’s head lolled on her shoulder. Rochelle groaned, and the back of her head left a reddish stain on Keisha’s skin, washed away by spray. The boat careened around again and Keisha ducked, focusing on the lights in the distance and nothing else. Don’t worry about what’s there or not there. You can swim. You can save yourself.

A cold trickle slithered down her spine and she straightened. She could save herself. She glanced down at Rochelle, small and vulnerable without a life jacket or her usual, loud bravado. Keisha could carry her, but she would be heavy, and helpless to fight the waves if they got separated.

Guard it careful, Grandma had said. They’ll do something for you. Keisha cranked back the hand holding the seashell, as if she held a baseball. She knew what she wanted now, more than anything.

“Save Rochelle!” Her voice, ripped from her lips by the wind, roared over the sea. “If you’re really there, and I lose her, save Rochelle!”

She hurled the salt favor through the air and it vanished into the inky ocean. Another gust of wind smacked the boat, this time from behind, and Keisha felt the whole craft rise under the swell of a wave. Up and up and up the nose pointed, and Keisha hugged Rochelle with one arm, the other clinging to the mast. The wave crested, and the whole boat groaned like a stricken animal as the hulls tilted down. The left side–port, left is port–dug in, and the whole boat toppled, mast arcing through the air. Keisha felt the weightlessness, that leaning-forward moment the second before her feet would leave the ten meter board and she would plunge into chlorine stillness. She clutched Rochelle and her toes gripped the frame, ready to push and kick. The water sprawled beneath her, just water, nothing more. She could save herself, and she would save Rochelle too.

The wind pushed again, and something heavy knocked the side, spinning the boat like a ballerina on a pointe shoe. The ocean seethed with a roiling silver mass that forced the hull back down. Something erupted from the waves, cold and slick, throwing Keisha onto her back and yanking Rochelle from her grasp.

“No!” She rolled, hands grasping wet air, and lurched to her hands and knees.

Rochelle lay on her back on the tarp, half-lidded eyes still staring into nothingness. Draped over her, a muscular creature the color of polished silver regarded Keisha with cool, lidless black eyes. She gaped, taking in the sinuous, small-breasted torso, the smooth, bald head resolving to a heart-shaped face, the thick, scaled fish tail wrapped like a seatbelt over Rochelle’s body. Her gaze landed on the salt favor, cord wrapped thrice around a salt-crusted forearm, just above long web-fingered hands, and the air left her lungs in a rush.

The boat rocked and a flash below them pulled Keisha’s gaze down. Countless silver bodies sliced through the waves, around and under the boat, innumerable arms grabbed and pulled the hulls, guided the tiller, forced the boat’s nose around to the weak lights in the distance. The wind fought back, tearing at the main sail. Its line slapped against the mast, emitting a metallic tang-tang-tang that jerked Keisha back to herself. She grabbed the line and hauled on the main sail, watched the fabric crisp and straighten as it filled. The boom started to swing, and Keisha grabbed the mermaid’s shoulder, shoved them both down as the boom screamed overhead. Their gazes met and the mermaid reached over, squeezed Keisha’s shoulder with a cold but sure grip. The salt favor stood out like a scar on its flesh.

The silver tide under the boat carried it over the angry waves, and Keisha trimmed the sails like she had seen Rochelle do, holding her breath. She couldn’t look down at the long bodies knifing through the darkness, couldn’t look at the hands that held the boat steady though the wind tried to buffet them away. The sails commanded every bit of her concentration.

A wave rolled beneath them, and the air cracked with the echo of strong tails slapping the water as one. The boat launched forward, surfing on the wave’s crest, and hurtled toward the harbor. Keisha leaned back, tightening the main line, as the green and red lights marking the entrance to the harbor blinked past. The smooth lift that had cradled the boat dropped, and the catamaran rocked up and down on the waves. A splash echoed behind her, and Keisha reached back to grab Rochelle’s arm. “Almost there.”

The white blur of a yacht glided by, followed by another, and another. In the shelter of the harbor, the sea quieted, and the boat swayed, bow pointed toward the dock. On the edge, she could see flashing red and white lights, the smudged outline of an emergency vehicle.

As the boat nosed up to the dock, Keisha looked over her shoulder, just to be sure. Nothing, not even a silver scale, remained.

#

Grandma’s eyes followed her as she crossed to the porch door, Keisha could feel them burning the skin at her throat.

“Your sister should be home from the hospital in a bit,” she said. “She’ll want to thank you for yesterday.”

“I know.” Keisha paused, hand on the doorknob. “I have to…go look for something. I’ll be quick, promise.”

She had stepped through the threshold and closed the door when Grandma spoke again: “Did it work?”

Keisha turned, regarded Grandma through the screen. She sat with her veined hands folded, gazing at the mermaid statue over Keisha’s shoulder.

“I’ll be back, Grandma.”

She jogged toward the beach, and each step felt strange without the seashell’s familiar weight banging against her sternum. Her feet sank into the sand and she ran into the surf without stopping to take off her t-shirt. If she stopped, she might not start again.

The surf brushed her ankles, her knees, her thighs. It reached her hips and the ground shifted, but Keisha plowed on, her heart thumping in her throat. Waves lapped at her navel, her breasts. Keisha took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and shoved off the slithering ground.

Briny water closed over her head. Her arms found a breast stroke and her legs fluttered. It sounded different than she thought it would, larger and deeper. She swam, feeling silt through her fingers and toes, feeling the currents cradle her as if she belonged there. It didn’t feel cold or frightening; it felt like she had always hoped it would: like home, like she was as part of the sea as the salt. Her heart thrummed in her ears, and if she listened hard enough, she thought she could hear each individual muscle flexing and pumping her through the ocean.

A chill kissed the back of her neck and she tumbled, head over heels, spinning through a riptide. Don’t panic. She tried to kick free and a cold and threadlike sensation wisped against her face. Don’t. Panic. Strong hands grabbed her under the arms, jerking her to a stop, and the tide hissed in her ears. Keisha opened her eyes. All around her, strings of pearlescent bubbles floated through the darkness, and through the forest of wavering silver threads, she saw a pair of lidless, black eyes regarding her.

She broke through the surface, tossed without ceremony onto a sandbar jutting from the shore. Keisha scrabbled for purchase, gasping for breath. A lean, silver body breached and landed next to her, folding its arms. Out of the corner of her eye, Keisha caught sight of her salt favor.

“I wasn’t looking for you,” she said. “I mean, I kind of was, to thank you and your . . . your school, your friends, whatever you call them. For Rochelle, I mean. Yesterday. I didn’t know if I could use it for her . . .” stop rambling! She snapped her mouth closed and wiped her face. The mermaid gazed at her, solemn and silent. The setting sun gleamed on the smooth dome of its head.

“Thank you,” Keisha said. “For helping us. For…for that”–she gestured to the shell tied to the mermaid’s arm–“all those years ago.” Her throat ached, but she swallowed the feeling down. They were real. Even if she had used her favor, even if she wouldn’t ever them again, she knew now. She would swim in the sea, where she belonged, and know they were out there.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “For showing me you’re real.”

The mermaid’s lipless mouth pulled back, revealing small, pointed teeth in a sort-of smile. Its powerful tail struck the water, sending up a glistening rainbow spray. Then it prodded her side with one cold, hard finger and pointed to the distant strip of beach. Prodded Keisha again. Pointed again. The cold riptide tugged at Keisha’s ankles, trying to drag her out to sea.

“Oh!” Keisha clambered onto the sandbar, toes gripping the rough, damp sand. When she turned back, the mermaid had gone, leaving nothing but a pair of wet, webbed handprints, already dissolving in the sand.

She wandered back to the villa, stopping every few minutes to look back at the ocean. The sun hung low in the sky when she reached the harbor and the statue of a mermaid that looked nothing like the real thing stood bathed in copper light. She mounted the porch steps and opened the screen door. Rochelle, sat on the wicker couch, waiting. Her bruised face poked out through a thick blanket and sand caked her bare feet, crumbling onto the floor as it dried.

“How you feeling?” Keisha rocked in the doorway and fidgeted. Rochelle shrugged.

“Good enough.” Her eyes followed Keisha as Keisha crossed the porch and sat down on a stool opposite the couch. “Got a mild concussion, apparently, so I can’t sail anymore this week.” She rubbed the back of her head, nose wrinkled with irritation. “But the doctor said I only bruised my ribs. Could be worse.”

“It could.”

Rochelle leaned forward, wincing, and Keisha looked down at her knees so not to meet the probing brown gaze.

“Your shell is gone,” Rochelle said at last, voice neutral. Keisha nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. Rochelle opened her mouth as if to say something, then paused. She leaned forward, placed a small shell on the glass-top table between them. The coiled nautilus, dark gray and veined in purple, still had damp sand clinging to its edges. Time and the elements had worn it smooth and two matched holes bored through the top, perfect for a length of string. Keisha stared at it.

“I’m sorry your favor is gone,” Rochelle said, each word deliberate. Her eyes bored into Keisha’s face for a moment, then looked quickly down. “I wanted to find you a new one,” she finished, quieter now. She placed a length of thin, frayed white rope next to the shell.

“From the sails,” she said. She hesitated, then added, “thanks.”

Keisha looked up from the shell, and Rochelle’s mouth twisted into a rueful smile. She turned and limped toward the door, then looked over her shoulder, a trace of her usual spirit flickering across her swollen face. “Don’t tell Grandma I went walking.”

Keisha nodded, and the screen door clapped as Rochelle disappeared inside.

A gift, Grandma had called it then. Keisha picked up the shell. It felt warm in her palm. A gift for doing something good. She took the rope and pulled the frayed ends apart. It unraveled, and she pulled several strands free, winding them into a string and threading it through the shell.

She tied her salt favor around her neck.

The End

About Kate Hall

Kate Hall is a speculative fiction writer and graduate of the 2013 Odyssey Writing Workshop. She lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband, cats, lots of tea, and a great many books. As well as Inscription, her fiction has been featured in Penumbra eMagazine.

The Unladylike Education of Agatha Tremain

At the age of sixteen, Agatha Tremain let down her skirts, pinned up her hair, and set herself to running her father’s household. Her first step was to forge her father’s signature and dismiss her hated governess. Miss Blenheim left with her perfectly straight nose held high in the air, trailing bitter premonitions of disaster like wriggling serpents in her wake.

Agatha’s second step was to teach herself magic, using the books in her father’s library as her guides.

The first time Agatha entered the library to find an introductory text, her father looked up at her with vague approval from his customary seat by the fireplace. When Sir Jasper’s eyes focused on the book she took from the shelves, though, his normally mild face darkened into anger.

“Do take great care with that work, my dear. There are no fewer than five different points of contention in his arguments, and three outright fallacies. I should hate to see you taken in by such folly.”

“I’ll take care, Papa,” Agatha promised. She stepped off the wooden stepladder, brushing dust off her fingers. “I shan’t believe anything without proper evidence.”

“I’m very glad of it. But, I say…” Sir Jasper blinked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are you permitted to be in here at all” I thought that creature Blaggish–Blagmire–”

“Miss Blenheim?” Agatha waited for his nod. “I sent her packing this morning. I’m old enough to look after myself now.”

“What a relief. I never could abide that woman.” He began to subside back into his chair, but an expression of sudden surprise halted him mid-movement. “Good Lord, I am hungry. Have I missed luncheon, by any chance?”

“You’ve been in here for two days, Papa.” Agatha sighed. “I’ve ordered a hot supper for you. The servants should bring it shortly.”

“Oh, good. I was afraid I might have to leave.”

Her father settled happily back into his book. Agatha pulled up a second armchair beside him. Carelessly crushing her skirts beneath her, she set her booted feet upon the footstool in front of the fire and began to read with a feeling of vast contentment.

The Tremain land was set fifteen miles out of town and nearly three miles from their closest neighbors. As a young girl, left to the sole care of Miss Blenheim and her malevolent admirer, the butler Horwick, Agatha had frequently regretted the distance. Keen-eyed adults might have been salvation to her then.

As she grew into her own, however, free of Miss Blenheim and able at last to cow Horwick into a sullen form of near-submission, she realized that isolation had its benefits. With no irritating supervision or near neighbors to gossip, Agatha was free to forget all the oppressive rules of dress and proper maidenly demeanor. After all, what were such fripperies to her”

As Miss Blenheim had explained hundreds of times over the years, Agatha’s unfortunate nose, unnaturally red hair, and general lack of grace meant she would certainly never be capable of winning any man’s heart. Only her dowry could ever appeal to a potential husband…and Agatha refused to ever marry any man who took her on such terms.

She understood only too well what it was to live with one who scorned everything about her; she would never repeat the experience.

With no prying eyes upon the spacious lawns of Tremain House, Agatha was free to practice her spells in perfect ease, ignoring he irrational social law that deemed the practice of magic unladylike. The only people ever to be alarmed by her experiments were a few of the weaker-spirited maidservants, and by the time that they finally fled the house, Agatha was nearly seventeen. She had learned by then to summon and control her own helping spirits, who filled their places to a nicety.

Moreover, the sight of the dark spirits moving about the house, eerily silent and obedient, miraculously transformed Horwick’s complaints from snarls of contempt to mere unintelligible muttering underneath his breath, which suited Agatha far better.

By the time Agatha turned eighteen, she had become so accustomed to her freedom that she no longer feared to lose it. So when an imperious knock sounded on the front door of Tremain House one morning, it never even occurred to her that it might be the sound of approaching Doom.

In fact, engrossed in one of her more challenging experiments in her own private study, Agatha barely noticed the sounds of bustling arrival in the rest of the house. It was only when Horwick appeared, looming in her doorway, that she even remembered hearing the knock.

“Well, Horwick?” As she spoke, Agatha kept her commanding gaze fixed upon the inch-high imp who slouched on the desk before her.

This was her first attempt at multiple transformations and by far the most complex set of spells she had ever attempted to master. The imp, who was a startling bright blue and currently engaged in making horrible faces, had begun its life as a common field mouse. If Agatha spoke every word of the spell correctly, it would next become a housecat and remain one, too, a sensible and useful addition to the household. As Agatha hadn’t yet recited the second (and intimidatingly intricate) spell, though, the imp was still enjoying its first, highly dangerous transformation. She couldn’t afford to take her eyes off it for an instant.

“What is it?” she asked impatiently.

“A caller for you, Miss Agatha,” Horwick intoned. “A lady caller,” he added dolefully.

“Well, tell her I can’t attend on her, for heaven’s sake.” Agatha narrowed her eyes at the imp. It had far too mischievous a look on its blue face, almost as if it knew something she did not. Of course she did not believe that for an instant, but it made her uneasy nonetheless.

Agatha realized, with a sudden flash of irritation, that Horwick had not moved from his pose of ominous warning. “Tell whoever it is to go away,” she said. “I don’t have time to wait on some gossipy neighbor who wants to nose about the house. Get rid of her!”

“Now, my darling girl, you cannot possibly mean that.” A rich, velvety female voice spoke from the doorway, rippling with amusement. As Agatha half-turned, caught by surprise, a woman wrapped in floor-length furs swept past Horwick into the study.

“Dearest Agatha. Don’t you remember me” You were only a little tiny girl when I saw you last. I’m your aunt Clarisse, finally back from Vienna. Now, take off that silly gaping look from your face, my love, before it freezes there!”

Chuckling, she patted Agatha’s face, which was stiff with shock. “My goodness, I can see you have been in need of a proper woman’s influence, haven’t you, my poor child” Oh, I’ve worried so much about you! You wouldn’t believe how many sleepless nights I’ve spent agonizing over the injustice of your situation, a beautiful young girl like you trapped out here with my absurd brother for years on end with no season in Town or eligible suitors in sight.”

“I don’t–”

“No, of course you needn’t worry any longer, dear. I’m here now, and I shall take marvelous care of everything. I’ve come to live with you and your father and take all the burdens from your shoulders. Now, doesn’t that sound perfectly wonderful?”

Slim, scented arms closed around Agatha. Soft fur pressed into her face and covered her eyes. The imp leaped off the desk with a yip of glee and darted toward freedom and mischievous adventure. It would undoubtedly cause nightmarish catastrophes all throughout the household, and even more of the maidservants would resign their posts.

Agatha couldn’t bring herself to worry about any of that, though. She was too overwhelmed by the far greater and more terrifying disaster that had closed her in a loving auntly embrace.

#

“My dearest Jasper.” Clarisse swept into the library ten minutes later, still draped in furs despite the heat. Agatha trailed behind her, speechless with horror. “Aren’t you utterly delighted to see me?”

“Ah…” Sir Jasper blinked over his book. “I say, Clarisse. Is that you?”

“Of course it is, you absurd creature. Didn’t you read my letters” I told you I would arrive today.”

“Letters?” Agatha croaked.

As a matter of course, she read every letter that arrived for her father. It was a question of necessity rather than interference, as his post piled up on every available surface otherwise, ignored for years as their estate accounts languished. She had learned to pass on only those notes to which he was likely to pay attention: fat packets of argumentation from scholars in Germany and the Netherlands, written in spidery scrawls with every line crossed twice as they fiercely debated the most abstract theories of magic.

Estate management and personal gossip were both equally tedious to Sir Jasper, and Agatha had learned long ago that it was best to simply forge his signature on any cheques, business letters or notes of polite regret that had to be posted on his behalf.

“Oh, I sent piles of letters.” Aunt Clarisse smiled ruefully. “How could I help myself, missing home and family as I did all these long years?”

Agatha said, “They never arrived.”

“Those dreadful continental mail carriers.” Clarisse shook her head sadly. “But never mind that! I’m here now, at last. And of course our first order of business must be your social début.”

“My what?” said Agatha.

“But what else, my dear” Jasper, I am ashamed of you.” Her furs rippled as she made a mouë of disapproval at him. “It’s one thing to bury yourself down here for years on end, but to bury your young and�”–she looked Agatha up and down, managing to look both skeptical and kindly at the same time–“not entirely unattractive young daughter along with you” There is that nose of course–and that dreadful hair–but a multitude of sins can be concealed by her dowry. Still, how in Heaven’s name is she to find a husband and home of her own out here in the wilds?”

“This is my home,” said Agatha.

“Nonsense,” Clarisse said. “Every young girl dreams of an establishment of her own and a husband to give her status in Society. I shall launch you upon Town immediately. We must thank our blessings that the Season is not yet over. Jasper, all that I require from you is your chequebook–but if you don’t immediately surrender it to me, I promise I shall nag you unmercifully for weeks until you give in.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Agatha, “but this is absurd. I don’t wish to be launched into Society. I have no interest in going to dances or to London, and I certainly do not desire a husband. All I want is to stay here and study–just like you, Papa.”

“Just like my brother?” Clarisse let out a tinkling laugh. “My dear, haven’t you yet learned” You are a young lady now, not a child to be so willful. Your duty to the family is to marry, just as your grandmother, great-aunt and I all did before you–and I can tell you that studying is hardly required for that vocation. Gentlemen are none of them so very difficult to understand.”

“Papa!” Agatha said. “Pray tell my aunt that I do not need to be launched upon London!”

“Jasper,” said Clarisse, “do you really wish me to settle myself here in your hermit hole for the next full month, talking non-stop until you finally agree with me” You know it is my right to chaperone your daughter into matrimony. It was promised to me by our own parents, all those years ago.”

Clearly, the weapons had been drawn. Agatha pulled out her own most ruthless stratagem. “If I leave, Papa, who will take care of all the practicalities” Who will listen to the housekeeper’s complaints and deal with the estate manager” You will have no time to devote to your own studies.”

“Well…” Sir Jasper looked pained. “It is true that I shouldn’t like–”

“We will only be in Town for a matter of weeks,” Clarisse said. “A few months at the absolute most. That is the longest it could possibly take me to find our dear Agatha a fiancé. I am certain you can allow the practicalities to pile up that long, Jasper–indeed, I am more than certain that you have done so in the past. And our dear old Horwick may see to all the rest.”

“That is true,” Sir Jasper said, with obvious relief. His gaze lowered stealthily toward his book.

“Papa!” Agatha said, and snatched the book from his hands. “Aunt Clarisse means to marry me off. If she succeeds, I will be gone forever.”

“Have no fear,” said Clarisse, and smiled kindly. “I shall remain here, Jasper, to look after everything for you. It will be as if nothing had changed–except that you had done your duty to your daughter, and to me, at long last.”

“Oh, well,” said Sir Jasper. “That does make a difference, I suppose.”

Agatha stared at him. “Papa” Haven’t you heard a word I said?”

“Yes, yes, my dear,” Sir Jasper said peevishly. “Indeed, I haven’t been forced to listen to so much tedious debate in a very long time–not since Clarisse left the last time, I suppose.” He sighed. “You do not know how difficult your aunt can make it for a man to study, Agatha. And Clarisse is right–marriage is what young ladies are meant for, particularly in our family. If only you had been born a boy, it would have been different…but there are promises, you know, that must be kept, whether we care for them or not.”

“But–”

“You forget, my dear,” said Clarisse softly, “you are entirely in your father’s care until you find a husband. You must abide by his decisions–and I shall stand as your guardian in his absence.” She smiled warmly. “Have no fear. We shall make the decisions that are best for all of us, even if you are too young to understand them now. You will be grateful in later years, when you have a daughter of your own.”

Agatha fisted her hands and did not reply.

It might have been two years since she had finally escaped Miss Blenheim, but she had not forgotten how to fight. Her aunt would soon discover just how little Agatha Tremain could be cowed.

#

It did not take long to think of a plan. That night, supper was served in the dining room for the first time in years. Agatha allowed her aunt’s stream of scandalous continental gossip to pass over her unheard, while her father sat looking miserable and casting longing glances in the direction of the library.

There was no expecting Sir Jasper to stand against his sister, that much was clear…and unfortunately, Clarisse had the right of it: according to law as well as custom, Agatha was her father’s property, little though she might relish the reminder. She might be the heiress to his estate, but at the moment, her only legal possession was her dowry. Sizable though that was, she could not even touch it–that privilege belonged to her future husband.

Should her father and Clarisse desire her to be forced onto the marriage market, Agatha had no legal or financial means of resistance.

Fortunately, she had spent the last two years developing every magical recourse available. It was time to make clear to her fashionable aunt exactly what sort of young lady she really was.

The first shock of the evening came when she slipped out of her bedroom and down the corridor to her private study, which she’d left unlocked in the confusion of her aunt’s arrival.

The handle refused to budge…and her key, as she remembered only too clearly, sat inside upon the desk, beside a stack of unused candles and all of her notes.

“Blast,” Agatha muttered.

It was the imp at work, of course, causing trouble as she’d expected. She turned with a swish of her dressing gown and strode into the next room–a guest bedroom, never used–to give the bell-pull an imperious tug.

For once, Horwick did not make her wait. Indeed, he slipped through the servant’s door hidden in the tapestry as swiftly as if he had been waiting nearby for the summons.

“Yes, Miss?” His normally doleful tones sounded suspiciously self-satisfied. To Agatha’s shock, she saw the corners of his narrow lips twitching as if he were repressing a grin, the first she’d seen on his face in years.

She had poor memories of his grins. They had generally coincided with some new witticism Miss Blenheim had made at her expense, or a particularly humiliating punishment the two of them had devised for her.

Now Agatha scowled at him and reminded herself that she was a mature eighteen years of age. She was no longer a child to cringe before her old tormentor. “I require your assistance, Horwick,” she said.

“Indeed, Miss.” Horwick’s jaw moved convulsively; under Agatha’s disbelieving stare, he even rubbed his hands together in delight. “Always happy to be of assistance in any way I can, Miss.”

“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “If you would simply unlock my study using your copy of the key–”

“It can’t be done!” Horwick caroled the words with open glee. “No, I can’t do that, Miss.”

“Why on earth not?”

“Because I don’t have that key anymore. No, Miss, I don’t. Your aunt, Miss Clarisse as was, had it off me this evening.”

“But–”

“Every copy to be in her keeping,” he said happily. “That’s what she said, and that’s what she did. The key from the desk and the key from my ring, and I saw her lock the door herself. ‘Much better for all of us this way, eh, Horwick”’ she said. Oh, that Miss Clarisse. The memories she brings back…”

Chortling happily to himself, he backed away and closed the hidden door behind him while Agatha stood numb with shock.

Every note, every grimoire, every carefully-prepared brazier and specially-ordered candle she possessed sat behind that closed office door. Without them, she was as helpless as…

No. Agatha set her jaw. She might not have magic at her command anymore, but she was no longer a helpless child. Miss Blenheim and Horwick might have found a young, motherless girl an easy target, but Clarisse would not find the same.

She stalked down the corridor to her aunt’s room and threw open the door without a knock.

“My goodness.” Clarisse looked up with amazement from the dressing table where she sat. A maid stood with her back to Agatha, brushing Clarisse’s rippling, waist-length golden hair. Even dressed for bed, Agatha’s aunt was still draped in lush furs–this time, a lavishly fur-trimmed satin dressing gown in royal blue, with skirts that spread in draping folds around her chair.

A fire blazed in the hearth, raising the temperature in the room near boiling point. Clarisse’s maid stepped back, turning away discreetly as Clarisse shook her head in amused disdain.

“We really must work upon your manners, mustn’t we, dear” In polite society, you know, it is customary to knock before entering a lady’s bedroom. Or a man’s, for that matter, although perhaps we’ll wait until your wedding night to discuss such delicate questions.”

“In polite society,” said Agatha, with icy control, “it is customary not to steal other people’s keys. Or their homes, for that matter. I don’t know what may have brought you home now after all these years abroad, but if you think you can bundle me off like an unwelcome parcel just so that you can take my place–! Well, you do not know who you are tangling with.”

“Oh, don’t I?” Clarisse raised perfectly arched eyebrows. “What do you think, Blennie?”

The maid’s shining dark head tilted up. She turned to meet Agatha’s gaze.

Agatha’s breath stopped in her throat.

The maid was smiling with open amusement. The same expression was mirrored on her aunt’s face, but Agatha barely noticed it. All her attention was fixed on the maid’s glittering green eyes and her perfectly straight nose.

…Just as she remembered them.

“Oh, you are just as my dear Blennie had described to me,” Clarisse said. “I cannot begin to express how helpful it was, all those years, to have a faithful friend in my old home, keeping me apprised of everything that mattered. And of course she knew just where to come when you staged your childish little rebellion.”

“Blennie?” Agatha mouthed. But she couldn’t say the name out loud, not with Miss Blenheim grinning at her over her aunt’s fur-trimmed shoulder.

Agatha knew that grin, even after two years of freedom.

“Oh, you might be surprised at how well I know you already, my darling niece,” Clarisse said. “But never fear. Once we leave for London next week, you shall grow to understand me as well…and you may be surprised by just how much we have in common.”

Agatha couldn’t answer. All she could do was stagger out of the room before the strength in her legs deserted her.

The helping spirit who assisted her in lieu of a proper lady’s maid never made its appearance in her room that evening, but Agatha took no note of its absence. All that her senses could encompass was the sound of her aunt and Miss Blenheim’s mingled laughter, ringing in her ears all night long.

#

Many new visitors to London notice first the miasma in the air, a thick, dark substance pumped out from the thousands of chimneys and coal stoves that fill the capital. The unsavory pollution can stagger noses still accustomed to the more innocent countryside, especially in addition to the overwhelming and inescapable aroma of horse dung.

Other newcomers gasp first at the sheer size and variety of the crowds pressing about their carriage, from the pedestrian throng that chokes the streets to the peddlers who sell everything from eels to china, and the thin children who sweep the dung away and dart through the crowd in rags more fit for the Dark Ages than a supposed Age of Progress.

Clarisse, needless to say, ignored it all. She maintained a steady stream of chatter about the Great Exhibition that was taking place in the Crystal Palace, to show off the technological advancements of the age…and Agatha, with Miss Blenheim’s sardonic gaze resting upon her, sat silent and icy cold on her side of the carriage, numb to the press of humanity and the sights outside.

Over the past four days, she had come to understand the full extent of her aunt’s new dominion. The helping spirits Agatha had summoned so carefully over the years were all dismissed like smoke blown through the air; the grimoires she could have used to summon reinforcements were locked out of her reach; and worst of all, when she had stepped into her father’s library the day after Clarisse’s arrival, Sir Jasper had reacted with an embarrassed cough.

“I say…should you really be here, Agatha?”

Agatha stared at him. Her armchair still sat beside his in its regular position; her footstool stood prepared before it. “Why would I not be?”

He looked pained. “Well, as a young lady…that is, if any of those gossips got wind…I mean to say…well, it’s not quite the done thing, is it?”

Agatha folded her hands together to keep them from curving into claws. “Has my aunt Clarisse instructed you not to allow me in here anymore?”

“I wouldn’t say instructed,” said Sir Jasper. “But you know, if anyone in London did ever find out that you’d been practicing magic out here, as an unmarried female–well, if Clarisse hasn’t managed to snag you a husband first–that is–oh, blast it, Agatha, you simply can’t be here anymore! I cannot have Clarisse breathing down my collar for allowing it despite all the promises our parents made her. You have no notion of how she can discompose a fellow!”

“No?” Agatha asked, her spine rigidly straight. “You think not?”

But Sir Jasper had already turned back to his books…and Clarisse’s carriage took both ladies to London four days later.

When the carriage finally drew up in front of a row of red brick terraced houses in a relatively quiet London square, after eight full hours of travel, Agatha lunged for the door like a sailor reaching dry land after a year at sea.

“My, such undignified haste.” Clarisse clucked disapprovingly and pulled her furs tighter around herself. “You may wait for a footman to hand you down, dear. And don’t take too long about making your toilette; we must sally out once more as soon as possible, to visit the modistes at Cranbourne Street before the end of the day. Our first engagement is tomorrow evening, you know, and we cannot have you still looking like such a country yokel. Not when so many gentlemen are waiting to meet you there.”

Agatha felt, more than saw, the curl of Miss Blenheim’s upper lip and the quick flick of Miss Blenheim’s gaze cataloguing her features, no different now than they had been throughout her childhood.

She kept her mouth shut despite all temptation. She would not humiliate herself by protests that were clearly futile.

The next evening she entered Lady Sherington’s glittering drawing room in a new gown of deep golden silk, with a domed skirt that swept two full feet in either direction of her nipped-in waist, sustained underneath by uncomfortably thick and heavy horsehair petticoats. Her hair was, of course, still unmistakably copper, but it was also carefully teased into silly ringlets and puffed over her ears before rising to a chignon behind her head.

(“This is all useless anyway,” Miss Blenheim had muttered, as she’d held the hot curling tongs by Agatha’s face. “We can’t disguise the color, can we?”

And Clarisse had sighed in regretful agreement.)

The drawing room was richly lit by candles, and a dozen mirrors flung the candlelight’s reflection onto the velvets and silks of the assembled company. The reflected light flashed against the diamonds and garnets on the bare skin of the women and the ornamental dress swords strapped to the sides of the officers.

Agatha lifted her chin and glared defiantly at them all. She refused to duck her head to hide her nose or her hair. All the better to frighten off any would-be suitors and save her the trouble of refusing them.

“My dearest Clarisse!” Lady Sherington rustled toward Agatha’s aunt, emeralds and rubies glinting on her outstretched fingers. “How delightful to see you home at last. And this is your dear niece” Oh, yes.” She exchanged a conspiratorial glance with Clarisse, as Agatha’s back stiffened. “I do see what you mean. Well, I may tell you that every gentleman on your list is here tonight, and they are most impatient to make her acquaintance.” She turned a kind smile on Agatha. “You needn’t worry about being a wallflower tonight, my dear.”

“I wasn’t worrying,” Agatha said, through gritted teeth.

Lady Sherington’s eyes widened. Then she and Clarisse both burst into laughter as they linked arms and steered Agatha into the room.

Two hours later, Agatha took ignominious shelter in the lady’s retiring room. Thankfully, it was empty, but she could still hear the laughter and voices from the dance nearby ringing through the walls and grating against her ears. She tipped her head against the cool glass of the mirror and closed her eyes.

I am ice. I am stone. This cannot affect me.

“Oh, where has that foolish girl got to now?” Her aunt’s voice sounded through the door of the retiring room, and Agatha gave a start that rapped her head against the mirror. As she straightened with a jerk, her aunt continued, “Have no fear, Captain de Lacey. She shall be only too delighted to dance with you a second time–couldn’t you see how ecstatic she was to be noticed by you in the first place” Just let me….”

The door handle began to turn. Agatha spun around. Her gaze landed on the servant’s door hidden in the wall. She lunged for the crack in the wallpaper, slipped through into darkness–

–and bumped hard into another girl already hiding there.

“Oof!” Agatha’s breath knocked out of her.

“Quick!” hissed the other girl, and pushed the door shut just in time.

“Agatha?” Clarisse’s voice sounded in the retiring room. “You aren’t trying to hide somewhere in here, are you” Because you know there’s no use…ah well.” Her voice softened to wry amusement. “Probably gone to the library,” she murmured. “Not that that fool will care. All the better not to let her muck it up, anyway.”

Footsteps moved away. The door opened and shut. Agatha finally breathed again.

In the unlit, windowless corridor, she couldn’t make out any of the other girl’s features, only a general impression of warmth, soft breathing, and a shape a little smaller than her own. Their domed skirts were so bulky, they took up all the width in the narrow corridor, and Agatha could feel her silk skirts being crushed by the enclosing walls. Thinking of Clarisse’s irritation at the sight was her one consolation for the indignity of her position.

“Your mother?” the other girl asked sympathetically. From her matter-of-fact tone, it might have been a perfectly customary experience to have a casual social meeting in a darkened servant’s corridor.

“My aunt.” It came out as a growl from Agatha’s throat. “She’s determined to marry me off.”

“Aren’t they all” Well, apart from mine, anyway. She gave up on me ages ago.”

“Why?” asked Agatha. Then she realized, too late, all that the darkness might be hiding. She winced. Graceless as ever, Agatha. She could almost hear the amused, scornful words spoken in her ex-governess’s voice. This was why she was better off alone with her studies, not trying to make conversation with party guests. “I apologize,” she said stiffly. “You needn’t answer if–”

“Oh, I’m not deformed,” the other girl said cheerfully. “Only hopelessly poor, and not beautiful enough to make up for it. Worse yet, I’m bookish, to round it all off. In fact, I’m a naturalist, like Mr. Darwin.”

There was a pause as Agatha assimilated the news. An inexplicable feeling of warmth and ease was slipping through her, relaxing the muscles in her back for the first time in five days. The dark, narrow corridor felt seductively safe, the close air like a protective bubble that held the two of them separate from reality. She felt a dangerous urge to reveal all her own secrets in response to that warm, cheerfully open voice.

As she struggled with herself, the other girl spoke again, this time sounding subdued. “You probably think it’s unladylike or absurd to call myself a naturalist, don’t you” I shouldn’t have told you, I suppose.”

“No!” Startled, Agatha reached out. Her fingers found the other girl’s gloved hand. “I think it’s wonderful, actually.”

The other girl’s fingers felt warm and strong through the fabric of their gloves. The weight of their skirts seemed to push them closer together in the narrow corridor. Suddenly dizzy, Agatha said, “I practice magic. That’s not ladylike either.”

“Do you really?” The other girl sounded delighted. “I knew there was something about you! From the moment I saw you in that doorway…”

Agatha dropped her hand as if she’d been burned. “I know,” she said. Her shoulders hunched as her voice turned flat. “My features and my hair color and my deportment. You needn’t remind me of my appearance.”

“I beg your pardon?” Agatha could feel the other girl’s astonished stare, even though she couldn’t see it. “What are you talking about?”

Agatha gritted her teeth. “Large. Red. And awkward. That is what you meant, isn’t it” Believe me, I harbor no illusions about my lack of attractions, so you really needn’t–”

“That’s not what I meant at all. Who was ever mad enough to call you unattractive?” Warm fingers closed around Agatha’s gloved hand in the darkness. “But there is something about you, something different. I didn’t know what it was until now. It’s the magic, isn’t it” I can feel it sparking in your skin. It’s amazing.”

Agatha swallowed. Her throat was dry, her pulse oddly rapid. She could feel sparks, too, suddenly racing up and down her skin, but they didn’t feel like magic. They didn’t feel like anything she recognized. “That’s not how magic works,” she said. “Magic is all about using the proper grimoires, with exactly the right words in Greek. It has nothing to do with talent, only diligence, and using the right supplies. You can’t even use normal candles, they have to be specially prepared. They’re very expensive…”

Her voice trailed to a halt. The air in the servant’s corridor felt so hot, she was tingling and light-headed. She spoke almost at random as she finished: “My aunt stole all my grimoires and supplies, so I can’t do magic anymore.”

The other girl laughed, a shockingly intimate sound in the darkness. “Who told you that?”

Agatha blinked. “Everyone! All my father’s treatises say–”

“Well, isn’t that what gentlemen always say” And no wonder. If you need to mouth exactly the same Greek phrases some man came up with three hundred years ago, you’ll need money and education to get hold of the texts and make use of them, won’t you” And if you’ve been told you can’t even try it without expensive supplies…”

“The treatises all say it would be too dangerous,” said Agatha.

“Then that keeps women and the lower orders safely in their place, doesn’t it” Leaving the magic to the gentlemen who rule the empire.” The other girl snorted. “No wonder they don’t want anyone else sharing their power. They wouldn’t let me into university either, even though I’d taught myself Latin and Greek as well as any Eton student. But do you think I’m going to let them stop me?”

“No?” Agatha said. Somehow, they were standing even closer now. She could feel the other girl’s breath brush warm against her cheek. It felt like a warm breeze waking her at last from the icy chill of helplessness that had gripped her for the last five days. Every inch of her body tingled with reaction.

“Never,” said the girl. “If they won’t let me study at Cambridge with the gentlemen, I’ll simply teach myself. That’s the message of the Great Exhibition, isn’t it” Times are changing, at long last. And when I start publishing treatises about my discoveries, no one will care whether or not I ever sat in a university classroom with a whole crowd of wealthy idiots.”

“I believe you,” Agatha said. And she did. She felt wider awake than she had in days, and wild with curiosity. “What’s your name?”

There was a long pause. Then… “Isobel,” said the girl. “Isobel Cunningham. I’m Mrs. Wesley Stanhope’s companion, for my sins. She’s probably calling for me again by now.” She sighed, her fingers relaxing their warm grip around Agatha’s. “I should go. But thank you. It was lovely to meet you, whoever you are.”

“Agatha Tremain,” said Agatha. She moved forward when Isobel stepped back. “Wait,” she said. “Can I call on you tomorrow” If I can escape my aunt–”

“Mrs. Stanhope doesn’t like me to receive callers,” Isobel said.

“But–”

“We’ll be at the Tennants’ ball tomorrow,” said Isobel. “Who knows?” She moved closer, her voice lowering to a whisper. “Maybe you’ll find me in a servants’ corridor again, where no one else can see us.”

Her breath brushed against Agatha’s mouth. Agatha felt her heart begin to race. She held perfectly still, waiting for…for…

“Goodbye, Agatha,” said Isobel softly.

She opened the door and slipped swiftly into the retiring room, revealing only the back of her rich brown hair and her modest gray bombazine dress in the candlelit doorway. By the time Agatha forced herself out of her trance to push the door open again and search for more, Isobel had vanished from the room.

#

Agatha moved through the rest of the evening in a daze, dancing without protest with each gentlemen her aunt presented to her, but making only monosyllabic, distracted answers to the conversation that sounded like buzzing insects around her ears. No matter how she craned her head over her various partners’ shoulders, she couldn’t catch sight of that plain gray bombazine gown anywhere in the crowd.

All she lived for, in the endless hours that remained, was the moment when she would be allowed to return to her room in the rented townhouse, to turn over every memory of that brief, electric meeting in her mind. As she and her aunt rode back in their carriage, she let Clarisse’s icy stream of words wash over her, as harmless as rain against a sturdy umbrella.

The Tennants’ ball would be tomorrow. She would have another new gown by then, the modiste had promised. Not that appearances mattered in a servants’ corridor, of course. But still…

When she started down the corridor toward her bedroom, Clarisse’s hand shot out as quickly as a striking snake to fasten around her arm. “Oh, no, my dear. We have important matters still to discuss.”

Yanked out of her thoughts, Agatha pulled her arm free. “I’m sure tomorrow will be soon enough.”

“Tomorrow,” said Clarisse, “we shall announce the news of your betrothal. I will compose the notice to the newspapers tonight.”

“What?” Agatha stared at her. “But I haven’t–no one has even proposed to me yet.”

“Goodness, what a romantic you are. I had no idea of it!” Clarisse tittered as she walked gracefully into her own bedroom, her vast skirts and petticoats rustling and her Indian shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. “Your fiancé arranged it with me himself, of course, just as mine did with my own parents. You have nothing to do with the decision.”

“But…” Stopping short in the doorway, Agatha stumbled to a halt. Miss Blenheim stood at the dressing table, holding Clarisse’s fur-lined dressing gown. Under her ex-governess’s gleaming gaze, Agatha’s instinctive urge was to freeze or, better yet, retreat to safety.

She remembered Isobel’s words. “Do you think I’m going to let that stop me?”

No, Agatha told herself, and her shoulders straightened. “I believe,” she said coolly, “it is customary for a gentleman to ask a young lady’s consent as well.”

“Oh, well, in love matches, perhaps…” Clarisse waved a careless hand in dismissal.

Miss Blenheim tsk’ed compassionately. “Did you really expect someone to fall in love with your face, Miss?”

Even as Agatha started to shrink, she remembered that warm, delighted voice. “Who was mad enough to call you unattractive?”

Of course Isobel had only seen her for a moment in the doorway; the words meant nothing, really, not when she thought logically about them. Isobel might well change her mind in the light of day. But still…

Agatha’s chin lifted. “The law may not allow me to choose a husband without my father’s consent,” she said, “but you cannot force me to marry against my will. I will say no all the way to the altar itself.”

“Now, my darling girl.” Her aunt sank down in front of the blazing fire, as Miss Blenheim wrapped the dressing gown around her solicitously. Tucking her chin into the lush fur collar, Clarisse said, “I believe it is time for you to understand the truth about the women of our family.”

As Agatha saw her aunt shiver and lean into the fire, her newly-wakened senses grated at her.

“It’s as hot as a furnace in here,” she said. “Why are you wrapping yourself up so tightly?” She frowned, thinking back. “You always do, don’t you?”

Miss Blenheim’s lips curled as she leaned over to stoke the fire higher. “It took you this long to notice, Miss?”

“Now, Blennie. I told you she must be clever enough to put together the pieces eventually, did I not?” Clarisse gave her niece an unfriendly smile. “Well done, my dear. But I would attempt a bit more compassion, as you’ll be sharing my condition yourself soon enough.”

“What do you mean?”

Clarisse rolled her eyes. “Why do you think all your little magical experiments at Tremain House were so successful?”

Caught off guard, Agatha answered with involuntary honesty: “Because I had nothing and no one to distract me from my studies. They’re the only thing I’ve ever been good at.” Then she felt herself flush, as she realized the truth of it…and exactly who she’d said it to, as Miss Blenheim let out a soft snort of contempt.

Still, it was true, wasn’t it” And it had been all she’d wanted…or all that she’d allowed herself to want, at least. She frowned.

She had believed all that Miss Blenheim had told her about herself. She’d sworn never to be humiliated again by trying for anything she couldn’t have.

Agatha remembered again Isobel’s warm voice; the soft breath whispering across her mouth.

I can have more, she thought suddenly. I can believe what I want about myself. I don’t have to settle for less.

But her aunt regarded her with a jaundiced eye. “It is all that makes you valuable, I agree,” said Clarisse. “But then, you are a Tremain female, and that means you have an affinity for magic, just as I have, and my aunt and my grandmother before me. How do you think your great-grandfather acquired Tremain House and all his fortune in the first place” That is why you have a duty to the family to marry, for the sake of your older female relatives; it is why a particular sort of gentleman will pay so well for the privilege of having you to wife; and it is why you will marry, dear girl, whether you like it or not, and you will marry with some speed, too. It is your turn now to step into the breach, and I have waited quite long enough for a younger Tremain female to finally pay me back what I am owed.”

“For what?” Agatha gaped at her. “What have you ever done for me?”

“It is the sacrifice all the females in our family have to pay,” said Clarisse. “Magic ripples through our veins, you see. If you were a man, you could make use of it. As a woman, you were born to be a source of power, just as I was for far too many years to contemplate. But just think…” She gave Agatha a look of mock-sympathy. “Your husband may make marvelous advances for the British Empire using the power he draws from you. In return, he will give me what I need with the first magic he extracts. And then…” She sighed, leaning closer to the fire. “I shall never be cold again.”

Agatha’s head spun with more than the heat of the room now. She held still, refusing to retreat. “Why can’t you take for yourself what you need” Why do you need my future husband to do it?”

“Because those spells are never taught to women,” said Clarisse wearily. “You’ve never come across them in your father’s library, have you” No, Jasper may be the most useless and impractical creature ever born, but even he is not so careless as to allow any of those texts to be kept in public view on his shelves.

“But none of that matters now.” Clarisse shook her head dismissively. “All you need to understand, dear, is that my magic was drained out of me over and over again across the years while my husband rose ever higher in the Austro-Hungarian Court. Simply dismissing your creatures from Tremain House took nearly all that I had left.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Nearly…but not all.”

Slowly, sinuously, she rose to her feet, while Miss Blenheim smiled behind her, a smile of deep satisfaction.

“I have been waiting for this day for two long years, Miss,” said Miss Blenheim. “Did you really think you could dismiss me so easily” Knowing all that I do about you and your family?”

Agatha could only shake her head numbly.

“It was tremendously helpful of you to keep all your books and supplies so carefully organized in your little office,” Clarisse said. “When combined with the supplies that my dear Blennie found for me in Vienna, I am more than prepared to take on this last spell. And I think we can agree, can we not, that I am the only person in this room with both magical power and the spells and supplies that are needed for it?”

Agatha looked from her aunt to Miss Blenheim. Her chest tightened.

She had wanted so badly to believe herself free.

“What are you planning?” she asked, through dry lips.

“That,” said Clarisse, “is entirely up to you. If you are a good girl and follow your part in the plan like every Tremain girl has before you for the past hundred years, I won’t need to do a thing–and you may have your payment in return as soon as your own daughter is old enough to be sacrificed.

“If not, though…” She shrugged gently. “I have both the supplies and the spellbooks to make you mouth any words I wish until you are safely wed and drained. I could not care less which choice you make.”

Agatha stared at her aunt’s face, so similar in shape to her own father’s. “And you would really do that to me, after everything you went through yourself?”

Her aunt’s blue eyes were cold and hard as sapphires. “My darling niece,” she said. “I would do anything, and sacrifice anyone, only to be warm again. In twenty years, I daresay you will feel exactly the same.”

Bright, hard flames leaped in the fireplace, and Agatha tasted the bitterness of defeat. If only she had managed to salvage a single grimoire, a single sanctioned brazier…

Wait. She closed her eyes. Suddenly, with the flames shut out, she was in the darkness again. And in that darkness, she was not alone.

She heard Isobel’s laugh echoing in her ears. “Who told you that?”

Agatha had always believed she could do magic only by mouthing an expert’s words. But Clarisse said magic rippled in her veins…and unlike her aunt, great-aunt, or grandmother, she had been allowed to devote two full years to the uninterrupted study of her father’s grimoires. She understood the very essence of the spells she had performed, better than any Tremain girl before her.

Sparks ran up and down Agatha’s skin, and this time, she knew that Isobel had been right. The sparks were magic–her magic, sparking through her. Her own personal magic, which she had never believed in until tonight.

Her magic, which she would never allow anyone to take away from her again.

“This is an Age of Progress,” she said. “Things are changing for all of us, now. We don’t have to follow the old ways anymore.”

She opened her eyes and looked from her aunt to Miss Blenheim. “Do you know what the last spell was that I worked on, back at Tremain House?”

Clarisse frowned. “I can’t imagine that it would be relevant, dear.”

Miss Blenheim sneered. “Do you think we care about any of your little games, Miss?”

“No,” Agatha said. “But I’ll tell you anyway…”

She smiled as she finished: “Transformation.”

She lifted her arms and magic swept out from them, changing the world around her.

#

The Tennants’ ball was packed with ladies in sparkling diamond tiaras, ropes of pearls, and gowns that swirled across the crowded floor. Footmen bellowed out the names of each new arrival. Officers smiled down at admiring girls and black-coated gentlemen swept their dance partners around the room.

Agatha ignored them all. Whispers rustled around her as she forced her way, unchaperoned, through the crowd, but she barely even noticed.

Her hair was pinned into a plain bun with no ringlets or waves. It was all that she could manage without the help of a maid. Her corset was undoubtedly laced too loosely for an absolutely perfect waist; her new blue gown didn’t fit as well as it had in the modiste’s fitting room.

In the dark, though, none of that would matter. If only she was still in time…

She stepped into the ladies’ retiring room and forced herself to wait for the giggling, excited crowd of other girls to finish fixing their appearances. The moment the door to the main corridor closed behind them, she pressed her hand to the crack she had glimpsed in the flowered wallpaper. More female voices were coming down the corridor. She rushed headlong into the darkness before they could arrive.

Warm, ungloved hands caught her, and pressed the hidden door shut behind her.

“You came!” Isobel said.

“You waited,” said Agatha.

“I’ve been waiting for an hour,” Isobel said, so softly that Agatha could barely hear her. “I had to take off my gloves after the first half hour–it’s so hot in here. Mrs. Stanhope probably thinks I’ve run away by now. I suppose it was silly to hope you would really come, but…”

“I hope you will run away from Mrs. Stanhope,” Agatha said. “I mean…” She stopped, gathering her breath. Her corset laces might be loose, but she still felt light-headed. She was gasping for air. She could feel Isobel only inches away; could feel their heavy skirts brushing against each other.

She had never been so frightened in her life. But she couldn’t give up now.

“I’m going back to Tremain House,” she said. “I hoped…will you come with me” Please?”

There was a pause. Agatha couldn’t see Isobel’s face, couldn’t guess at her expression.

“When you say I should come with you,” Isobel finally said, “do you mean as a companion” As I am to Mrs. Stanhope?”

Agatha swallowed hard. “If you want,” she said. “That is, I could do with a friend, and a companion. I think I’ve spent too much time alone. But also…”

She closed her eyes in the darkness.

She had sworn never to humiliate herself by asking for what she couldn’t have. But she had also made a vow to never hide again.

Agatha leaned forward, holding her breath.

Isobel’s lips were soft and full.

Magic sparked between them.

A long time later, Agatha drew back. She was breathing quickly now, flushed with a warmth that left her unsteady. She wanted to laugh, or cry, or dance in the darkness. She forced herself to hold perfectly still instead as she waited for Isobel’s reaction.

“Well,” Isobel said consideringly, “in that case…” She laughed suddenly, and her voice was bright with joy. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes!”

“Really?” Agatha caught hold of the rough wall to support herself as her legs turned limp with relief. “You’ll really come” You really want to…”

“Well,” Isobel said teasingly, “as a committed naturalist, you know, I can’t take any of my first observations on faith. So perhaps…” Her warm, bare fingers curled around the nape of Agatha’s neck; her words whispered against Agatha’s lips. “Perhaps I ought to repeat the experiment one more time, for Science’s sake. And then again, and again, and again…”

#

Even Sir Jasper seemed pleased, in a vague sort of way, to learn that Agatha had brought Miss Cunningham home for good.

“Good for a young girl to have someone to talk to, isn’t it?” he said. “She seems like a very decent companion for you, my dear. Very quiet. Doesn’t bother a fellow in his library. Understands that it’s the right place for a man to take his meals.” He beamed, settling more comfortably into his armchair. “Thank goodness Clarisse gave up and took herself off, so we can all be comfortable again. Did she go back to Vienna, did you say” Or was it Paris this time?”

“Somewhere warm, I believe,” said Agatha. “I’m certain she’ll be happier now.”

“Yes, yes,” Sir Jasper said. “I’m sure you’re right, my dear. But you brought back a set of animals from London, too, you say” What on earth did you do that for?”

“Only two animals, Papa,” said Agatha, “and they won’t bother you, I promise.”

“Oh, no,” Sir Jasper said, falling back into his book with relief. “No, I am quite sure of that.”

Agatha closed the library door behind her and went, with a spring in her step, to find Isobel. Her dearest friend would be walking in the woods at this time of day, as she did every morning while Agatha worked on her own magical studies; the woods of the Tremain estate were apparently bursting with interesting animal life.

Agatha had finished her studies earlier than usual, though; something about the scent of her latest experiment had reminded her of Isobel.

A smile deepened on her face; she lifted up her skirts to run, and magic sparked in the air around her, carrying the sound of her laughter to the woods before her.

Isobel was waiting for her there…and they were both distracted from their work for the rest of that morning, in the most delightful manner possible.

The two animal additions to the household, as promised, disturbed Sir Jasper not a whit. The housecat, a sleek black creature with an oddly straight feline nose, kept to the kitchens, where her bad temper made her a perfect mouse-catcher and a useful addition to the household…

…and the elegant, golden-blonde cocker spaniel with her coat of thick, soft fur rarely moved from her preferred spot in front of the fireplace. As Miss Tremain had given explicit orders that a fire always be lit for the dog’s comfort, regardless of what heat might bake the house, she could be certain of at least one thing:

Clarisse would never be cold again.

The End

About Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales, surrounded by mountains, castles, and cake shops. Her trilogy of Regency fantasy adventures began with KAT, INCORRIGIBLE, which – under its UK title, A MOST IMPROPER MAGICK – won the 2011 Waverton Good Read award for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British writer. You can read the first three chapters of each of her books at her website: http://www.stephanieburgis.com

Sea of Strangers

There was a weird vibe in the halls before first period today. As I made my way towards homeroom, weaving between people with experienced ease, I picked up a thousand different emotions–everything you’d expect from a building packed to the gills with hormone-ridden teenagers and long-suffering adults–and something new, strange, and impossible to identify. A slippery, elusive, emotional flavor that tinted the rest without revealing itself. It poked at my subconscious, put me on edge, made me just a little careless. I bounced off a man-mountain wearing a football letter jacket, and got a snarled, “Watch it, lesbo,” for my troubles. The shove he gave me wasn’t gentle; I stutter-stepped away, trying to regain my balance.

It was going to be one of those days. Some people hate Mondays; this was proof that Tuesdays could be just as bad, given the opportunity.

Sometimes, it really sucks to be queer and out in high school. I blame the combination of pack and herd mentalities. Those who aren’t preying on the weak and different, are shunning those who don’t belong… and every group has a different idea of what’s appropriate. Unfortunately, when you draw a Venn diagram of “different” and “doesn’t belong,” the overlap tends to include people like me. The black-clad loner types with few friends and a thing for the same sex.

For what it’s worth, I hadn’t planned to come out for another year or two, until I was safely away at college. My secret origin involves a best friend, several drinks, a lot of mixed signals, and one disastrously ill-advised kiss. I was everyone’s new favorite dyke to pick on before we’d even sobered up, and there’s been lingering fallout ever since. Puxhill may be one of the most queer-friendly cities in the country, but the tolerance found in the area encompassing Caravan Street, the Gaslight District, and Tuesday University hasn’t quite penetrated the halls of Elijah Morrison High. I swear to God, some of the cheerleaders actually make the sign of the cross when I walk by, as if I’ll contaminate them with my mere presence. Ironically, they’d happily accept a vampire in their midst. Oh, Edward. Spare me.

I made it to homeroom with minutes to spare, slumping into my usual seat near the back. There were the usual greetings for the people with whom I was at least vaguely friendly, before we all quieted down so Mr. O’Rourke could take attendance. He went through the roster with an almost robotic monotone, barely even glancing up to see if we were actually present. That was weird; normally, he was more interactive, having a few pleasant words to spare for us. He was the kind of guy, still youngish in his mid-20’s, who thought he could connect with his students if he talked sports and popular shows. Not today, apparently.

“Audrey Martinez,” he said, and I allowed as how I was here. Another red flag: he knew I preferred to be called “Aud” (as in “Odd”). He went on. His aura had the same slippery undertone as everyone else’s. I frowned, making a mental note before putting the thought aside to finish the physics homework I’d blown off all weekend. He ran through the morning’s announcements as though working from a grocery list, his eyes glazed over when he even looked in our direction. Just another fine April day. In Zombieland.

Definitely weird. I kept my eyes open and my senses straining to pick up anything out of the ordinary as I followed my usual schedule.

By the end of the day, I was anxious, downright relieved to escape the building. I made a beeline for the nearby Blackbird Café, where I settled into a booth with a caramel latte and a head full of tangled thoughts. I’d been alternately shoved, insulted, ignored and overlooked all day long, in a drastic deviation from my usual routine of amicable neutrality. I scribbled my findings into the back pages of my English notebook, frowning all the while.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I was yanked from my thoughts by a honey-warm voice and a soft hand running over my shoulder. Blinking my way back to the real world, I tilted my head up for a quick kiss, unable to stop the smile inspired by my girlfriend’s arrival. Short and slender, with smooth light brown skin, huge dark eyes and short curly black hair, she was a welcome vision of cuteness. While a junior like me, she actually attended Alabaster Court, a private school not too far away, and she totally owned the khaki skirt and white shirt combo. I’d never had schoolgirl fantasies until I met her. It made my own jeans and black t-shirt seem uninspired, but she was the one with the fashion sense, not me.

“Just general weirdness,” I replied, shrugging. “Trying to figure out if I’ve reason to worry or not.”

Charmaine slid in across from me. One hand reached out to take mine, fingers intertwining, while her other hand stole my mostly-untouched drink for a sip. She paused. “Now I know something’s wrong. You scream bloody murder when I poach your elixir of life,” she teased.

My smile turned rueful. “Yeah. You know me too well, Charm.” When she’d discovered that I liked being called Odd, she demanded her own nickname. Charm it was. Mock at your own peril.

Charm’s brow furrowed. “It’s not… us, is it?”

My eyes widened. I gripped her hand tightly. “Oh, hell no.” Charm was beautiful, sassy, confident, and stronger than she looked, but terribly prone to fits of insecurity where our relationship was concerned. She’d been burned in the past, and my unconditional acceptance still seemed too good to be true some times. I could feel it in her aura even when she didn’t voice her concerns. I didn’t care that she was born Charlie and only become Charmaine when she hit high school. I didn’t care what other people said, or what they saw in her, whether they took her for a boyish girl or a feminine guy; I looked at Charm, and saw right down to her beautiful soul. Inside, she was all woman and she made my head spin.

She relaxed. So did I. “I’m glad you’re here. Let me fill you in.” Over caramel lattes and cinnamon rolls, I told her about the weird feelings I’d had all day. About the jocks acting more like a pride of lions. About the cheerleaders unable to even acknowledge anyone outside their social circle. About the teachers who treated us like names on a list. “It got stronger as the day went on. Mr. Vaughn only saw us as potential troublemakers. Miss Stein defined us by our grades, and wouldn’t even speak to anyone below an A average. Coach Murphy reduced people to their respective sports and positions on the team. I even went by the guidance office, and Framingham saw college choices instead of students.” I rubbed my temples, trying to banish a sudden headache. “It’s like… how can I explain it?”

“Like you’d lost your individuality, and become defined by your traits?” suggested Charm.

“Exactly,” I said. “Like we could no longer distinguish between one another on a personal level. By the end of the day, I couldn’t even tell the cheerleaders apart.”

“You mean you could before?”

“Shush. They may be a miniskirt-wearing hive mind, but I’ve never had trouble identifying people before. Everyone’s unique to me.” That was true. I had no idea where my powers came from, whether they were the result of a mutant gene or a fairy in the family tree, or even an alien ancestor. No one else in my family had ever displayed anything out of the ordinary, although a great-aunt on my father’s side was supposedly a bruja. There have always been stories of people with extra gifts, unusual powers, weird abilities, but most of the time, that’s all they are: stories. Urban legends, hoaxes, exaggerations. Most people want to disbelieve; anyone who makes too much commotion is written off as an attention-seeker, or called crazy, or ignored altogether.

Dig deep enough, listen hard enough, pay the right sort of attention, and you hear other tales. Especially in Puxhill, which seems to be a hotspot for the weird, just like New Orleans attracts ghost stories and Lily Dale harbors psychics. The Gaslight District takes on a mind of its own after dark, its streets twisting and turning in a labyrinthine fashion. No one talks about it too loudly, but everyone has an urban myth or a friend of a friend who’s encountered something inexplicable once upon a time. We all believe to some degree or another, even though most of us don’t want to. I guess it’s a coping mechanism. People are hard enough to understand without opening yourself up to the idea of vampires, werewolves, and faeries.

With my funky empathy and extranormal senses, I felt like another one of Puxhill’s odd little secrets. For obvious reason, I didn’t talk about it much, for fear I’d be laughed at, made into a curiosity… or worse, taken seriously by the wrong people. Charm knew; she’d known almost from the start, when I bumped into her at Bifrost Books and looked right down into her soul to see the lovely woman inside, like a butterfly in a chrysalis. Still in her early days of transitioning, she’d been blown away by my instant acceptance. Blown away… and suspicious, as though fearing I was leading her on. At that point, she still got a lot of stink-eye from random people who couldn’t see what I did, and reacted less than gracefully.

She had some pointed questions for me when she realized my interest was serious. I had some extremely complicated answers, most of which were met with healthy skepticism. It took a while for her to grow comfortable with me and accept my claims. Mainly, we just learned to accept each other for all our quirks. Even so, she sometimes gives me dubious looks, as though waiting to catch me out.

“So what do we do about this problem at your school?” she asked.

“We?”

“You don’t think I’d let you tackle this alone, do you?”

“What makes you think I’d do anything about it?”

“Because it worries you. Because it’s affecting you and you won’t stand for it. And because you may very well be the only one who’s even noticed there’s a problem. Take your pick.” Her eyes shone gleefully as she pointed out the things I’d already contemplated and begrudgingly accepted. “You play at being all antisocial and nonchalant, but you can’t resist meddling or fixing things.”

I nodded. “I guess I go back tomorrow and do more recon. Try to get a better handle on what’s going on. Try to find its source.”

“And I’ll do research,” Charm volunteered. “See if any of my contacts have any ideas.” She spent a lot of time online, on dozens of boards and forums. She’d started back when she was trying to figure out her identity and how to transition towards her true self, and it had snowballed from there. She frequented places I’d never even heard of, and even talked sometimes about the Dark Web, which I gathered to be the secret Internet or something. Give her a few days and she could track down anything you’d ever wanted to know. The NSA was going to visit her someday, I just knew it. (I’m not a fan of people online. It’s impossible for me to “read” them with my abilities, and I’ve grown too dependent on the extra layer of information. Hence, my minimalist Internet footprint.) She’d become one of my primary sources of information as well, as I tried to learn more about my quirks, maybe even find others like me.

Our plan made, we turned to lighter topics, like the junior prom. There was no question about it: I was taking her, come Hell or high water, and neither one of us was wearing a tux. My Dominican heritage had blessed me with curves and an ass, and I was going to wear a dress which rocked them. Charm had waited all her life to be a pretty princess, and even though she barely had any hips or boobs to speak of, she was determined to live her dream. We’re just a pair of big queer rebels, I know.

Eventually, we cleaned up our trash and left, parting outside with more kisses, ignoring the people who gave us exasperated looks. I could feel their auras; for each one who was genuinely upset, there was someone who merely missed being young and foolish and in love again. In other words, business as usual for the neighborhood. Whatever was affecting the halls of my school hadn’t escaped its confines yet.

Wednesday went much as Tuesday did, but the effect was rapidly gaining strength. Athletes, male and female alike, traveled in homogenous packs, identified by a certain confident swagger and general air of physical superiority. I strained to look past the muscles and letter jacket to see Justin McMannis, the quarterback who wrote surprisingly good poetry in Honors English. I squinted until I had a headache to remember that one rather tall girl wasn’t just a basketball player, she was Alice Matheson, a devout Catholic and one of the genuinely nicest people I’d ever met, who regularly volunteered at the Orange Street shelter and who always had a smile for me.

Those weren’t generic theatre geeks, band nerds, stoners, skaters, freaks or brains; they were kids I’d known for years, people I’d sat behind in class, copied homework from, had blistering arguments with, seen at parties, and yeah, even been bullied and insulted by. I walked through a school increasingly filled with anonymous strangers, drifting alone in a sea of teens that looked at me and only saw the lesbo who kissed her friend and became a laughingstock. I shivered. High school was bad enough when everyone knew your name; it became infinitely worse when you turned invisible.

At lunch, I tried an experiment. I walked right up to Sophie Olson, former best friend, surrounded by her new crowd of artsy theatre drones, and rapped on the table for attention. Conversation died away. As one, they stared in my direction, half a dozen blank faces struggling to identify me. I glared back defiantly, gaze locked on Sophie. I waited for the acid-filled response, a mixture of venom and fear, which had dominated her psyche ever since our ill-fated kiss. The emotions of her friends assaulted me as I opened myself up.

Loser.

Loner.

Freak.

Dyke.

Admiration/Envy/Desire/Attraction. This last, from a sophomore girl I barely knew, surprised me. She’d forgotten who I was, but still saw me as an idol, someone to look up to, someone… she wouldn’t mind becoming? I made a note to try and befriend her when this was all over, help her like no one had helped me.

From Sophie, nothing. Just a vagueness, which suddenly crystallized into shock/betrayal/rejection/repulsion. I’d never realized how profoundly the incident had affected her, driving her so far into close-minded homophobia that I’d become anathema, a living symbol of misguided childhood teachings. Something I’d never known about her, never realized. Her soul was a turmoil of contradictions and confusion. A mixture of guilt and pity struck me. Silently, I urged her to remember who I was, what I’d been to her. Come on, if you won’t be my friend, be my enemy, just know me.

I grew desperate, even as the silence became awkward. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Sophie sounded puzzled.

“How’re you?”

“What do you want?” Rising hostility. I became an intruder. A trespasser. An outsider.

“Do you know who I am?” I blurted, the desperation in my voice exposing a momentary weakness. The group stirred restlessly.

A pause. “You’re…” I could see the struggle in her features. The effort to put name to face. To make the essential connections. “You’re the dyke. The one that kissed me.” Her face turned ugly. “Freak. Get away from me.”

“Do you know my name?” I pressed on, despite the anger rising from Sophie and her friends. Their postures had turned aggressive, a hair away from launching into violence.

“No. And I don’t care.” With that, Sophie dismissed me from her presence and her thoughts; within seconds I’d ceased to matter altogether. Their conversation started back up again, and not even my erstwhile admirer seemed interested in me anymore. I got the hell away from them, my heart pounding.

Sophie was, once upon a time, the person closest to me. If she’d been affected so strongly, there was no doubt everyone else was just as far gone. Nevertheless, I repeated the experiment a dozen more times as the day wore on, with students and faculty alike. Once or twice, I thought I’d gotten through to someone, but the best I got was from the librarian, who remembered I was quiet and well-behaved and sometimes read “the classics.” She had no patience for fans of modern popular literature.

I left the library, seriously disturbed by my inability to connect with anyone. I headed for my locker to collect my stuff. Deep in thought, it took me a moment to register the scuffling of shoes, the thud and clang of flesh on metal, the sharp gasp of pain. I broke into a half-run, turning the corner to find one of my fears come true. A group of guys had cornered someone, shoved him up against a locker, crowded around like a pack of feral dogs. I had no idea who they were, who their victim was. They were a faceless mob of aggressors, united by some dominant trait–the wrestling team? The chess club? Their victim was smaller, weaker, an outsider. His eyes were wide with terror, face pale, clothes rumpled. His nose was bleeding. No one said anything.

There were six of them, and just one of me. No fighter, I turned, hauling ass to the nearest classroom. Empty. I tried the next few, but when I couldn’t find any help, I realized it was on me to do something. I ran back to where the pack was busy punching the other kid in the stomach. He took a blow that sent him to his knees, retching and crying.

“Back the fuck off, assholes!” I screamed, balling up my fists like I actually thought I could take them all on. Taking advantage of their momentary pause, I slipped through the pack to try and help their victim up. I grabbed his arm “Come on!” He shakily got to his feet. “We have to get out of here!”

Instead of running, he just looked at me, with a cold, distant expression. His erstwhile tormentors gathered around. They gave me the same look. I’d come to know it well. The hard eyes, the clenched fists, the intense focus–I didn’t even need to read them to understand. Now I was the outsider.

Worse. I was the prey.

They’d united against me.

I got the hell out of there, and didn’t stop running until I was blocks away from the school and a pain in my side made it impossible to continue. Only then did I sink down onto a bus stop bench, and cry. They were tears of frustration, and fury, and fear.

My thoughts churned sickeningly. The entire school had fallen to whatever malevolent power had seized it. What if this spread? What if it was contagious, and it followed us into the real world?? How long before someone got seriously hurt? How long before I stopped seeing Charm as my girlfriend, my best friend, my confidante, and looked on her with the eyes of a stranger?

This couldn’t go on.

#
Wednesday was new comics day, so Charm and I met at Jackpot Comics, the geek place of choice for the Caravan Street community, as well as neighboring Tuesday University, Usually, I loved the time we spent here, but the events of the day had upset me to my core; Sophie’s blank stare, the uncomprehending teachers, the way the fight in the hallway had gone so terribly wrong… I filled Charm in as we browsed, desperate for at least a little semblance of normality. I filled her in on the events of the day, from my lunchtime confrontation with Sophie to the incident in the hallway. “It’s like living with zombies. I mean, everyone goes to classes and teachers do their thing, and people hang out in their little cliques…”

“The wheel’s turning but the hamster’s missing?” supplied Charm.

“Exactly.” I flopped down into one of the comfy chairs dotting the landscape, unable to find any joy in the new arrivals shelf or the half-off bins. “It’s nearly impossible to pick one person out of the crowd. I spent most of last period trying to recall what made each person unique. Some–too many–were total blanks. I only identified Diana Malone because of the Guys and Dolls wardrobe malfunction of freshman year.” A busty raven-haired beauty I’d briefly crushed on, she was one of the darlings of the theatre department. I’d been roped into helping with stage crew for the spring musical. A loose nail, a misstep, and she’d nearly gone on stage sans an essential part of her costume. We’d worked impossibly fast miracles with safety pins and duct tape, with almost no one the wiser.

Charm’s eyebrow quirked magnificently. “Oh?” I picked up a mixture of curiosity and playful jealousy from her.

I smiled sheepishly. “I saw more than I expected. That was the moment I realized I positively, definitely, preferred girls.” Before it got any more awkward, I added, “But it took a memory of that magnitude to break through the fog. I’m afraid to go back tomorrow. Whatever’s happening is escalating quickly and I don’t think I can resist it much longer. Today was a nightmare.”

Charm took the chair next to mine, curling up with her legs tucked under. She smoothed her skirt into place, and I picked up the quiet joy she got from such a mundane action. Good. She was welcome to all the skirts. They bugged me. “It started recently. What changed at school?”

I shrugged. “Beats me. It’s been quiet. No new students or teachers. Sports teams won and lost like usual. A predictable assortment of hookups and breakups. Josh Grayson and Wendy Mackelson had their monthly screaming fit in the parking lot, and got back together in the girls’ locker room ten minutes later. I can’t wait until they graduate. The debate club won some important competition for the first time in many years and brought home a shiny…new…trophy.” My eyes widened.

“You think…?”

“Well, they were all quite impressed with their golden chalice of the silver tongue, or whatever they called it,” I allowed. “Installed it in an empty case, and I’m pretty sure they started worshipping it. Down on knees and everything. That was on Monday.”

Charm’s eyebrow shot up.

“Kidding,” I said, feeling a little bad as her expression turned disappointed. “But they did make a huge fuss and strutted about all pleased with themselves.”

“Well, this still gives us a lead. I need you to get back in there, and inspect the trophy as closely as possible. Really open yourself up to it, see what you feel,” Charm said excitedly.

“That might be a bad idea.”

We both jumped as a new voice inserted itself into the conversation. The owner drifted around to stand in our line of sight, looking sheepishly apologetic. “I mean, I couldn’t help but hear some of what you were saying and trust me, getting up close and personal with potentially cursed, possibly magical artifacts is never good.” It was Irene, Jackpot’s head manager. She was a perky, curvy brunette in her mid-twenties, with big blue eyes and a perpetual smile. She was prone to hippy-esque skirts and peasant blouses, rarely wore shoes, and she was definitely in some sort of relationship with Ramona, the owner. Though she was eminently likeable and several kinds of awesome, with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything in the store, I’d never been fully comfortable around her. For some reason, I just couldn’t pick up anything from her aura, as though she wasn’t entirely real. No wonder she was able to sneak up on us. Finding out who–or what–Irene was, was definitely on my To Do List. Someday.

Charm, who had a geek girl crush on Irene–which I usually found cute–nodded knowingly. “Makes sense.”

“So what’s this all about? If I can ask?” Irene shifted her weight as she watched us. Her body language screamed curiosity barely restrained by politeness.

“It’s an Alternate Reality Game,” explained Charm quickly.

“I love those things!” Irene chirped, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It doesn’t sound familiar. Tell me about it? Maybe I can give you a hand. I’ve had a lot of experience with games and puzzles.”

What else could we do? We weren’t exactly making a lot of progress otherwise. Charm and I took turns telling her what we knew, though we doctored the details for increased plausibility. Irene listened intently, her entire body at rest while she processed our story. When we finished, she nodded. “I think you’re on to something. And you know, I might have something which can help you.” A smile flashed across her face, clever and impish. For a split second, I could have sworn there were stars and static in her eyes. A trick of the light? “A clue. Or a solution. Give me your email address,” she told Charm. “Or–wait, you’re in the subscriber database, aren’t you? I thought so. Hold on.” She wandered back to the counter; a moment later, Charm’s phone bleeped to announce a new email.

Charm looked at the mail, brow furrowed, then held the phone over so I could see it as well. I read it out loud. “Use this file responsibly. It will auto-delete in two days. You won’t be able to save, copy, download, forward, or print it. Seriously, this thing has DRM like you wouldn’t believe. Technically I shouldn’t let it out into the wild at all but I think I can trust you girls. Tell me how the game turns out. –Irene.” There was one attachment, which Charm opened. “Alderman’s Rituals, Secrets, & Cunning Lore?” I read the title dubiously. “Sounds like a role-playing book.”

“Sounds perfectly legit to me!” Charm grinned. “Come on, let’s go back to my place where we can read this on a proper computer.”

We waved to Irene on our way out, and she gave us a faux-innocent look. As we exited, she was on the phone, telling someone, “I know lending Alderman’s out will annoy those jerks at the Library. But what can they do? I have access to their payroll…” I lost the rest as the door shut behind us.

Alderman’s Rituals turned out to be the digitized version of one of those Ye Olde Grimoires… packed full of folk remedies, curious anecdotes, charms and spells– a real hodgepodge of weird stuff. Cures for warts, antidotes for snake bites, love spells, you name it. Irene had helpfully placed electronic bookmarks in several sections to narrow down our search. As Charm paged through the document, I sprawled on her bed, marveling at the sheer amount of pink and glitter she’d packed into her personal space.

It was amazing, I thought, not for the first time. Charm’s parents had reacted amazingly well to her transition, accepting her without reservation (though I could always read their concern for her under the outpouring of love.) They’d welcomed me with open arms once they realized I cared for her with all my heart as well. By comparison, my parents did everything but put their hands over their ears and chant “Watermelon rutabaga” when the subject of my sexuality came up. Not disapproving, but they seemed happier living in denial. Charm confused them. A lot. I didn’t take her home much as a result. It was easier all around. Yet another reason why I couldn’t wait until college.

“Here we go.” Charm’s words brought me out of my funk. I rolled out of bed and went to look over her shoulder. “Protective charms and suggestions on how to deal with cursed or possessed artifacts. It looks as though this bit would keep you safe while you got close to the trophy, and this would undo whatever power it has. There’s some really interesting stuff in here. I wish I could keep it.” She sighed dramatically.

I arched an eyebrow, draping against the back of her chair, chin resting on her shoulder. “Think it’ll work? I mean… you actually believe this?”

She tilted her head back to smile at me. “Like we have so many alternatives to work with?” I arched an eyebrow. I waited. Finally, she admitted, “I’ve always felt like I was grasping for something just out of reach. This book makes things clearer. It’s the same feeling the first time I called myself Charmaine… at last, something right clicked into place.”

I stared at Charm. We’d shared a lot in our time together, but this was a whole new depth I’d never seen before. And yet, hadn’t I recognized some of this right from the beginning? Only now, we were both starting to understand it. This, this was part of Charm’s potential. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was a little frightening. Before the silence grew uncomfortable, I kissed her, telling her wordlessly that magic or no, I was still hers.

Once we’d worked that out of our systems, we put together a plan, utilizing some of the things Charm had found, items bookmarked by Irene as potentially useful and “mostly safe to use.” While Charm acted as emotional anchor and support, backed up by the spells in the book, I’d use my own abilities to unravel things at the source. We both knew we’d only have one shot at this.

We met in front of Elijah Morrison High the next morning. Hands linked in a blatant display of affection and shared strength, we marched up the front steps, through the doors, and down the hallways, making a beeline for the corridor housing the debate trophy. As we passed, clumps of people gazed at us with blank expressions. Their emotions were almost completely submerged under an ocean of slippery, oil-slick alienation. I looked, but couldn’t recognize any of them. A voice whispered in my head as my gaze swept the halls. Jock. Cheerleader. Nerd. Troublemaker. Fat. Crippled. Slut. Druggie. There was something hateful, painfully bitter, profoundly lonely in the murmured words. Teachers drifted through as faceless authority figures. I gripped Charm’s hand tightly until she gasped for mercy. Her presence centered me again. I saw flickers of the people I used to know, buried deep under the individuality-crushing miasma.

Outsider.

Stranger.

Trespasser.

Not one of us.

As we approached the trophy, waves of increasingly harsh emotions battered my psyche. The members of the debate team seemed to materialize out of thin air, surrounding us, blocking us in. Something that wasn’t them stared out of their eyes with desperate malevolence. They whispered as they walked, a hissing of poisonous slurs like a storm of prejudice leveled against Charm and me. I felt Charm next to me, valiantly holding steady against the taunts, the stereotypes, the ignorance.

I could see into their heads, though, and the hatred was a palpable, creeping ooze, reaching out for me along our link. I risked a glance sideways, and for a single heart-stopping moment, I no longer saw my girlfriend. I saw a boy in a dress, and he was wrong.

Then Charm put her foot down, uttering a single potent word of power which rippled through the air, breaking apart the onslaught, disrupting whatever they’d sent against us. She was glorious and magnificent, roaring with inner fire. She held my hand so the fire raged into me as well. The debate team broke apart, fell back. I knew them. Justin, Jenny, Edward, Marisol, Lindsay, Huan-yue, and the rest. Charm nodded to me. “Do your thing, sweetie. I’ve got this.”

I rested my hands against the glass case, and stared at the trophy. A battered silver cup on a wooden base, something passed from school to school for decades. Such a simple thing to cause so much trouble. “Okay, you fucker,” I growled. “Let’s dance.” With the fire inside of me, I threw caution to the wind, letting my power blaze free. And the trophy and I–we knew each other.

An old spirit. Lonely. Unhappy. Dead before their time. A former student? I got impressions of someone painfully shy. An outsider. Mocked. Shunned. Unappreciated. Misunderstood. Something happened. An accident? Nowhere to go, so they stayed here. Unseen, unfelt, unheard. Years passed. Then a rush of jubilation, and triumph. The trophy. The ghost without a voice found a new home in an artifact that honored clever speech and bold words.

“And you reached out,” I whispered. “You wanted everyone to know how you felt. Or maybe you were just looking for friends and something went wrong.” I felt sorry for the nameless spirit, twisted and warped into an elemental force by their long years in the dark. “It was an accident, but you couldn’t stop once the ball got rolling.” There were always those who slipped through the cracks. The ones no one heard until it was too late. A victim unrecognized for too long.

All around us, students gathered, a silent crowd watching without understanding. They mingled together, cliques interspersed, each one an island in a sea of strangers. My power, free and flowing, danced through the mass, tying them together in an intricate spider-web. Charm took my hand in hers, joining the network. Slowly, it spread to encompass the entire school, classes coming to a standstill. I never knew I had so much in me. I was operating on pure instinct and guesswork. I would have a lot to learn when all of this was over.

Together, Charm and I spoke the second word of power we’d memorized. It tolled like a bell, ponderous and ominous, sinking into the wood and stone and glass of the building. It resonated along the spider-web of emotional connections, plucking it taut. It echoed again and again, increasing in speed and pitch. And then… it was gone, taking with it an immense weight from the air. The spirit in the trophy shattered into a million pieces, leaving behind sorrow and gratitude.

I felt it sweep throughout the school, like a bright light burning away the shadows. It was beautiful… and it was surprising.

The jocks shrank before my eyes, much diminished. Without the alpha confidence, they seemed smaller, more human. The cheerleaders faded, no longer the plastic doll paragons of beauty and bitchery. Stripped of the traits that had so defined them, they were… individuals again. The same was for everyone else. They looked around them, expressions full of shock and wonder, as though truly seeing their classmates for the first time in ages. Charm and I took the opportunity to escape.

I wish I could say that we’d somehow ushered in a new age of peace, harmony, understanding, tolerance, and love. It lasted maybe five minutes, before things went back to normal… mostly. Things were a little more relaxed, as if the moment of empathy had rekindled some inner fire. There was a general unspoken agreement not to discuss whatever madness had gripped the school–and for that I was thankful. My plan remained the same: keep my head down until graduation, and let college determine who I’d ultimately become. True to her word, the text Irene “loaned” us deleted itself with no trace of its existence; without it, the words of power we’d used slipped right out of our heads, their job done. We told her what had happened, and she just nodded. We didn’t speak of it again. Charm plans to ask Irene if she knows anyone she can talk to about magic, now that the door’s been unlocked. I’m still not sure I’m ready to delve into my own depths quite yet.

I passed Sophie in the hall a few days later. When she met my eyes, she held the gaze for a second or two longer than necessary. I saw no hate or malice there, just regret and a little sadness. She still won’t talk to me if she doesn’t have to, but it’s a start. I’ve started chatting with that sophomore friend of hers, Martha. I’d like to be a friend, a held-out hand if she needs one.

Oh, and Charm and I are totally going to junior prom together. I’m going to rock my curves, and she’s going to be a pretty pretty princess. And if anyone gives us grief for it, I’ll hit them over the head with peace and tolerance and understanding.

Sometimes high school doesn’t suck after all.

The End

About Michael M. Jones

Michael M. Jones lives in Southwest Virginia, with spoiled cats, too many books, and a wife who knows how to program the remote control. He is a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and is the editor of Scheherazade’s Facade and the forthcoming Schoolbooks & Sorcery. His work has appeared in anthologies such as Clockwork Phoenix 3, A Chimerical World, and The Dragon Done It. For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com.

Lord of Time

The sky was purple here, with roiling clouds that never stopped moving. Liliya’s fellow novitiates told her that the winds of time kept the sky churned in a storm that only the Lord of Time could control. The others came from families that had served the Lord for generations. They’d grown up in the shadow of the temple and heard stories about the god at their nurses’ knees. Liliya, on the other hand, hadn’t even known the god’s name until two years ago.

There were thirty novitiates total, girls sixteen years of age, and they huddled outside a gate of twisted wrought iron as tall as five men. As it creaked open, the girl next to Liliya grabbed her arm, her eyes wide with fear.

“What are you afraid of?” Liliya asked. “Your family has served him for so long.”

The girl shivered. She was beautiful, like most of the priestesses the god favored. “He’s not cruel. But he is harsh with his punishments, should you disobey him.”

Liliya wondered what this girl, whose soft hands and smooth skin bore no sign of the ravages of war, considered a harsh punishment. Could it be worse than what Liliya’s village had already suffered? But there was a real fear in the girl’s eyes, and Liliya sensed she shouldn’t make light of it. She would be careful. She would stay safe.

The gate opened completely to reveal a woman. It was hard to tell her age–though the skin of her face was smooth, it was drawn tight over harsh cheekbones and a proud nose, features that spoke of age, wisdom, and command. The woman’s raven black hair was pulled atop her head in an elaborate braided coil, and the emblem of the High Priestess was embroidered in gold thread on her lavender robe. She carried a single incense stick that burned with a blue flame.

The pack of novitiates crowded closer together.

“Follow me,” said the Priestess. “Single file.”

The novitiates fell in line behind the priestess. As they entered, they filed past a group of young men still waiting to be allowed in. While the boys all wore the ceremonial tunics and nervous expressions of those entering the temple for the first time, one looked particularly awestruck by his surroundings, staring open mouthed at the sky, the gate, and the buildings across the wall. He caught Liliya watching him and grinned sheepishly. Liliya lowered her eyes and passed through the gate.

The Temple grounds were tranquil, quite unlike the clouds above. Stone walkways crisscrossed a green–gray lawn. Priestesses, novitiates, and the god’s male servants went about their tasks between simple stone and wood buildings. Liliya’s gaze was caught by a blue light in the center of the compound. It was too far away to see clearly, but the other novitiates’ eyes strayed in that direction as well.

“Eyes on me,” said the High Priestess.

She led them into a long wooden building with beds lined up on each side–one bed for each of them, with a chest at the foot. “For the next five years of your lives, you belong to the Lord of Time,” she said. “Most of you will never see him, but you will serve him. You will prepare his incense and his offerings. You will plant the gardens that feed the people of the temple and grow the herbs that comprise the incense. Every morning and evening, you will sing praises in his honor. You will remain in service for five years. After that time, you will return home and live your lives in his favor.”

#

Liliya’s new life in in the temple was simple. The novitiates spent their days doing mundane tasks–fetching water, preparing food, hoeing the gardens. It was modest work that Liliya knew well, and she was grateful for this. The god’s presence was far away, easy to ignore once she grew accustomed to the purple clouds.

The other girls fell naturally to their duties and to each other. In the evenings, they clustered together and spoke of their day, laughing and chattering. These girls shared a history of secrets passed down from their families, of incense breathed into their mothers’ wombs. Sometimes, one of them would beckon to Liliya, at which point she would sit on the outer edge of the circle and listen to them talk. Liliya was always silent, though she knew she should try and befriend the others. There was a liveliness to their interactions that Liliya could not grasp. The novitiates were by turns happy or nervous, angry at imagined slights or subdued at the High Priestess’s admonishments. Liliya could feel none of these things. If the others’ lives were boldly colored, Liliya lived in shades of gray, and she couldn’t bridge the difference.

The god whom they served resided in an old house in the center of the temple grounds. Liliya found it strange. Of all the places for a god to live, she might have expected a marble obelisk, or a grand palace. But this was a rickety wooden house, with slats askew and old cracked windows. Even the novitiates’ dormitory looked more stable. But then, the house wasn’t held together by things such as nails. It crackled with the same energy of the skies, and Liliya had the impression that if she raced toward the house, she would be thrown back by an invisible force. Perhaps that was why everyone gave it a wide berth. The only person ever seen to enter was the High Priestess, and even she entered with her head veiled and carefully bowed, with an offering of scented herbs held reverently in front of her.

Next to the house was a globe, the source of the blue light that had attracted Liliya’s attention the first day. It was as large as a man and held up by a stand made of boar tusks. Lightning arced in its center, and images appeared and melted into each other. When Liliya first gazed into it, passing by as she lugged a bucket of water for the kitchens, she’d seen a man hanging by a set of chains. His face was downcast, hidden in shadow. His muscles were contorted in agony. Veins popped under his skin, and there was a curious crescent-shaped birthmark at the base of his neck.

Liliya stopped, transfixed by the man’s pain. Was this the Lord of Time himself?

“It shows images of the future and the past,” said a voice at her ear.

Liliya blanched to see the High Priestess next to her. The woman hardly ever spoke directly to the novitiates. The priestess’ voice still had the cold, imperious air that Liliya remembered from her first day, but Liliya sensed no malice in it.

“He knows the future?” Liliya asked.

“He is the God of Time,” the priestess said with a faint smile.

“Who is that man?”

The priestess gazed into the ball. “I don’t recognize the image, so it is unlikely to be from the past. The future then, perhaps.”

A shadow crossed the window of the house. Liliya tried to look through the glass. She couldn’t make out features, but there was definitely something blocking the light, and a feeling of presence that froze her to the core.

The priestess gave her a sidelong glance. “What do you feel, child?”

“Nothing,” she lied.

“The Time Lord doesn’t favor everyone with his presence or attention,” she said. “But then, you are not like the others, are you?”

#

There was no greater honor and no greater mystery than to be chosen by the Lord of Time. He was one of five gods who held sway over the heart of civilization, and of the five, he was the most mysterious by far. But until recently, Liliya’s people had paid the gods no heed. The rice farmers of Asayi were far from the temple, and weeks of travel over swampy roads buffered them from the gods’ meddling.

Then Asayi was invaded–not by the gods’ servants, but by a savage warrior people from the north. The godless attackers left the village in flames, the rice paddies red with blood. Those who weren’t killed outright were left to face a long hard winter, as the invaders had taken their food stores. By spring, their village had dwindled to half its size, and the raids continued on.

Five long years later, the priestesses and their armies came from the south, enforcing their rule over both the invaders and the invaded alike. The Asayi farmers welcomed them with relief. Liliya’s mother buried her once-beautiful face in her hands and wept for joy.

So it was that a year after the gods took over, when the High Priestess came carried on a palanquin by six young men, the villagers bowed their heads in respectful welcome. Beautiful and severe, she stopped at the edge of the rice paddies and raised an imperious hand to the workers there.

“Line up. The Lord of Time wishes one of you in his service.”

At first, the workers didn’t move, uncertain about the woman’s words. But the palanquin bearers also carried spears and used them to herd the people to some semblance of a line. The priestess drew out a globe the size of her hand that flashed with blue lightning. A palanquin bearer, strong and graceful, came before the priestess and took it. When he passed in front of Liliya, the globe flashed bright. Murmurs ran through the crowd. The priestess looked at Liliya in a way that made Liliya all too aware of her mud soaked clothing, the dirt caked in her nails.

“Your name?”

“Liliya.” Her voice sounded timid, even to herself.

“How many years do you have?”

“Fifteen.”

“Report to the temple on the summer solstice of your sixteenth year.”

#

One moon cycle after she arrived at the temple, Liliya once again crossed paths with the boy who’d smiled at her by the temple gate. Liliya had been struggling with a weed in the temple garden–a coarse, grassy nuisance that grew in tangled clusters with roots spread wide to hold the dirt. Liliya braced her foot against the ground and pulled with all her strength. Her arms ached with the effort, and her palms were rubbed raw.

The boy came by and took a clump in his hands. He was a few years older than Liliya and on the cusp of manhood, with his shoulders broadening and his limbs becoming corded with muscle. Scars crisscrossed his arms, the only sign that he may not have had an easy childhood. There was a set to his jaws as he pulled the weeds out, but he showed no greater effort beyond that.

“Thank you,” Liliya said, as he handed the weeds back to her. As she stared at the dead grasses, her vision blurred, and she remembered a time when she’d been surrounded by similar weeds. Liliya had been ten when the barbarians invaded–not old enough to fully understand the attacks, but old enough to hear the screams of dying men and tortured women, to smell the acrid smoke of burning flesh. Old enough to stifle her sobs as her mother pushed her into the surrounding swamp grass and to know, as she huddled alone and terrified, that nothing would ever be the same. Days later, when most of the invaders had gone, she’d hobbled back to the village, dirty, thirsty and hungry. She’d found her father dead, and her mother forever broken.

“Are you unwell?” asked the boy.

The question brought Liliya back to herself, and she tore her eyes from the weeds in her hand. Words froze in her throat.

The boy looked uncertainly at her. “I am Dineas,” he finally said. As with all the Time Lord’s servants, he was beautiful, with sand colored hair and a charming smile. His eyes were friendly, and Liliya found herself able to smile back. The memory faded.

“Thank you, Dineas,” she said. She gave a polite bow and continued with her weeding.

#

Dineas was light hearted and cheerful. One day, he waved at Liliya from across the grounds, which struck her as bold. There was no prohibition against talking to the young men–occasionally her duties even required it. There was an unspoken rule, though, that the two groups otherwise stay apart. The novitiates were, of course, to stay pure to the Lord of Time while they were in his service. But when nobody reprimanded Dineas for his boldness that morning, Liliya worked up the courage to wave back.

The day after, he fell in step beside her on the way to the garden. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“Far from here,” she said.

“I know.” At her surprise, he explained. “You’re like me. I see you looking around at everything, taking it all in. It’s not normal for you, to live in a god’s shadow. You don’t act like the purple clouds aren’t there.”

“Are your people also new to the god’s service? Is this why you keep talking to me?” She imagined that Dineas might feel just as out of place amongst his fellow palanquin bearers as she did amongst the novitiates.

“That is one reason.” He gave an uncertain smile. “Also, you always look a little lost.”

Liliya dropped her eyes. “I do miss my village.” It was selfish to burden him with her troubles, but the offered ear was too tempting to refuse.

Dineas reached out and squeezed her hand. His grip was comforting, and Liliya noticed that her entire hand could fit inside his. “It’s only five years,” he said. “Then you can go back and live with the Time Lord’s blessing.”

The High Priestess walked by. Her eyes settled sharply on the two of them, and Dineas let go of Liliya’s hand. The two of them stepped away from each other in unspoken agreement and continued on their own way.

The High Priestess was waiting for Liliya at the gardens.

“Remember, Liliya,” she said. “The Lord of Time is possessive of his priestesses. You have not yet done anything to incur his wrath. Be careful to keep it that way.”

Liliya bowed her head, properly chastened. She knew the god’s strict demand for purity, though it hadn’t even occurred to her to think of Dineas as anything but a friend to talk to. It saddened her, but Liliya understood full well by now that few people had the luxury of living the way they wanted.

“I’m sorry, Blessed One,” she said. “I will be more careful.”

#

Two moon cycles after she arrived, it was Liliya’s turn to prepare the incense offering. It was a task she approached with trepidation. There were so many different herbs, so many different combinations for each occasion. A priestess guided her as she gingerly picked the correct portions and crumbled them into a clay bowl to soak in oil. When she finished, the priestess handed her a flint. Liliya struck it until a spark started the herbs smoldering.

The herbs secreted a thick, heavy scent that stuck in Liliya’s nostrils and made her dizzy. No one paid her any heed as she crossed the courtyard toward the incense holder in front of the Lord’s house. The smoke blew back in her face as she walked, and Liliya concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The ground became unsteady under her, yet she kept walking. How foolish the other novitiates would think her if she stumbled on this simple task. The Lord’s house drew closer, and the presence inside was stronger than she had felt before. Ten more steps to the incense holder. Now five more.

Liliya’s knees were weak when she finally placed the bowl on its stand. She prostrated herself before the offering and bowed three times–once for the past, once for the present, and once for the future. Then she climbed unsteadily to her feet. The smoke from the incense was curling up into the sky, forming wispy patterns that shouldn’t have lingered so long in the breeze. Its smell was still strong, and Liliya turned away. She swayed on her feet. A novice passing by reached toward her in alarm.

The blood rushed to Liliya’s head.

#

She awoke in a dim room with walls so aged and warped that they could only belong to one house. The presence that surrounded her confirmed it.

“You breathed too much incense, little one,” echoed a voice.

She said nothing. What could one say, when wrapped in the presence of a god? Surprisingly, Liliya felt no fear. It was as if the sense of the god around her drove out the last of her capacity to feel anything at all.

“Do you have questions?” There was a hint of amusement to the Time Lord’s utterance.

“Why am I here?”

“Your people interest me,” said the presence. “You intrigue me. Your past, your present, your future.”

As he spoke, she relived her childhood, both the good times and the horrors, but it was as though it happened to someone else, her feelings numbed by the god’s presence.

“You’ve been through much,” said the Time Lord.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And where will you go from here? You have the spark that all my servants carry, and so will your daughters, if you bear them. But perhaps you’re not ready. Will you try to avenge your people? Or will you let it go?”

She was confused by his words. Vengeance was beyond her reach. Her anger had long been beaten out of her, extinguished by necessity so she could live without going mad. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“You amuse me, little one. But mortals don’t always feel the eddies of the past around their ankles until they’re drawn under.”

For a moment, Liliya could sense streams of time around her. It seemed they propped her up when she swayed.

“I will let you determine your fate,” said the Time Lord. “But the choice you make is harsh. One that belies the timidity of your appearance.”

Was she timid? She was broken. Like the others in her village, she had picked up the pieces of herself and gone on living. She didn’t feel any hate. She felt nothing where those memories were concerned. They were numb, emptied out.

“All will come clear with time,” said the god. She saw a shadow in the corner of her eye, but there was no one there when she turned. The darkness closed in once again. When she opened her eyes, she was back on the ground by the incense offering.

#

Liliya relived the attacks that night. Once again, she raced into the swamp as the flames of her village roared behind her. Smoke filled her lungs and made her choke. Somewhere in the midst of battle, a child shrieked. The Time Lord’s presence was not there to dampen her fear, and she awoke with the full force of remembered terror in her chest and the sound of her own frantic gasps in her ears. Her fellow novitiates were asleep around her, their faces peaceful. Liliya put one bare foot on the ground, and then another.

The grass outside looked almost silver in the moonlight. No one else was awake, and the only movement was the arcing blue light from the Time Lord’s globe. Images flitted through it, first scenes from her past, and then the curious image of the man in pain. Liliya watched it, her eyes settling again on the crescent birthmark at the base of his neck. It was shaped like the moon overhead, though dark instead of brilliant white.

She could feel the Time Lord watching her.

“Are you all right?”

Liliya jumped. The voice was too young and too human to belong to the Time Lord. Dineas stood next to her, clad still in his sleeping tunic, his straw colored hair mussed by sleep.

Liliya took an alarmed glance toward the Time Lord’s house, the High Priestess’ warning flashing through her mind. But she sensed no anger from the dilapidated house, and Dineas’ voice was kind.

“Some memories came to me in a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

The boy nodded sagely. “It happens to me too. I come out here to clear my mind, when it happens.”

It was a relief to speak with someone who knew a life beyond the perfect routines of the god-ruled lands. “What was your home like?” she asked.

“We didn’t have a home,” he said.

“None at all?”

“We wandered,” he said. “We were warriors, and we followed our swords.”

“I thought there were no more wars,” she said.

“We don’t fight anymore. The priestesses put a stop to it. But I was raised by the sword. I was grappling by my fifth year, hunting game by my eighth, dueling before my tenth. After the gods came, we changed our ways, but my memories still linger.”

Liliya looked at the scars on his arms and imagined the blades that put them there.

“When I was twelve,” he said, “I was deemed ready to fight with the men. I was so proud. Our first battle was a raid. I remember rice paddies, many of them, surrounded by grassy swamp.” He paused, as if seeing the scene before him. “It was different from my training. Messier, but easier. The farmers couldn’t fight, and we cut them down easily. I earned my shield that day.”

Dineas gazed up at the moon, lost in thought, and Liliya was glad he was not looking at her. The burning rice paddies filled her vision, the screams of her people.

“It was the way of our people,” he said. “But I was sick afterward, secretly. It became easier after that, but now I think back on it and wonder. I still hear the screams.”

He was still talking, but she no longer listened. In front of her, the globe shifted. The man’s image became more crisp, and his face came out of shadow. There was a plaque underneath him, and Liliya could make out the words. “Thus are punished those who consort with the Time Lord’s priestesses.”

Dineas looked up at the house. As he moved, the collar of his tunic fell open and Liliya saw–as she knew she would–a mark shaped like a half moon. He was so beautiful. So deceptively innocent. Liliya looked at his hands, remembering how strong they’d felt around her own, and how she’d taken comfort in his touch. He was not much older than she was, and just as lost.

The Time Lord’s presence all around her, strong and watchful. She thought to take Dineas’s hands in hers, to squeeze them and tell him it would be all right, but her hand was slow to move. In her mind’s eye, Liliya saw her father’s charred body as she laid him to rest, the deadness of her mother’s gaze. Smoke from the remembered fire twined around her, wrapping her limbs and drawing her under. She couldn’t breathe.

The boy turned a tortured eye toward her. “What do you think? Will I pay for the pain I’ve caused?”

He reached for her arm, and she felt the warmth of his fingertips. She looked down and imagined them covered in blood.

Liliya placed her hand on his chest. The winds of time whipped around her, so strong that she could hardly stand. “Be at peace,” she said. “The gods are just.”

At the very last moment, Liliya thought to look at the globe again, to see if there was a woman being punished alongside the man. But she didn’t look. In the end, it didn’t matter.

And with that last thought, Liliya stood on her toes and slowly, deliberately, touched her lips to his.

The End

About Livia Blackburne

Livia Blackburne wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into peoples’ heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner. Her novel MIDNIGHT THIEF debuted with Disney-Hyperion in July 2014, and its sequel DAUGHTER OF DUSK is due out in Summer 2015.

Where Monsters Dance

A warning: This is one of the darker stories Inscription has published, including both swearing and violence that may be more suitable for older teens. Be warned also for abuse, transphobia, and mentions of drug abuse.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Red, but since this isn’t a fairytale, that’s a stupid way to begin.

Start here: You’re sitting with your girlfriend Ashley after dance practice and she says,

“They won’t let me join the girls’ dance team.”

You punch the grass. The hill isn’t bothered; its grass is more dead-brown than green, anyhow. “That’s bullshit.”

She shrugs and stares at her feet, toes digging into the ground. Her mascara is beginning to run, so you put an arm around her and pull her tight.

“It’s bullshit,” you say again, no less angry. You’ve seen her dance. She’s good. She should be on the team.

Dancing is how you met. It was the first party you went to in this town, because your aunt’s house was too suffocating in the quiet and you needed music blaring, a rhythmic beat in your chest. You needed to feel something. Ashley danced like a wild thing in the thumping strobe lights. You watched, entranced, and when she saw you, she beckoned. But you just shook your head. Maybe it was the longing in your eyes or your pixie cut or the party-vibe, but she swung her way over to you and asked if you wanted a drink. Watching Ashley dance was like finding an oxygen mask as the room filled with smoke.

(You haven’t danced with anyone since your monster went away.)

“Hey Ashton!” someone, a guy, shouts from the bottom of the hill. One of the mass of the interchangeable bullypack. He starts making lewd gestures at you both, laughing.

Ashley presses her face harder into your shoulder. You flip the idiot the finger.

Ashley takes deep breaths and squeezes your hand between hers. “I just have to wait ’til I can afford surgery and–” Her voice cracks.

You hug your girlfriend tighter. She should still be able to join the girls’ dance troupe. You have no one guilty nearby to punch out, so you hit the ground again.

I love you, Ash, is what you want to say, for support, because it’s true–but you can’t. Words have never been your domain. They belong to him.

You never told your mom you loved her, either. You don’t believe in happy endings anymore.

This isn’t a fairytale.

#

Once upon a time, when you were a kid, you fell into an old abandoned well in the woods. You should’ve broken your arm or your neck, but you didn’t. You landed on a monster instead.

“What are you doing here?” said a deep voice.

You looked up–and up and up–at the monster.

The monster was as big as your house (almost), covered in fluffy purple fur because purple was your favorite color. The monster had great big eyes and soft round ears like a teddy bear. When the monster smiled, you saw very, very big teeth.

“I ran away,” you told the monster. It was one of the Bad Days. Daddy was shouting at Mommy. It hurt your ears.

“Why?” asked Monster.

“I’m scared.” You pressed your face into Monster’s poofy fur. “Don’t wanna go back.”

Monster hugged you while you cried. You knew the shouting was your fault. You’d asked if you could take ballet lessons. Mommy said yes; Daddy said no.

“I’ll protect you,” Monster said.

“On Bad Days too?”

“Always,” said Monster. “That’s what monsters are for.”

You took Monster home and let Monster live under your bed so you wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

This was when you thought fairytales were real. Then maybe you’d be a princess in shining armor riding a palomino horse to save your stuffed animals from the evil king.

And besides, even when Bad Days happened, fairytales got happy endings.

Like this:

It was a Bad Day. Mommy was crying and saying “Stop, stop, please stop!” but Daddy kept hitting her.

So you got really mad. You ran up and kicked Daddy in the leg. Your shoes had hard toes because Monster was teaching you how to dance after bedtime. “Leave her alone!”

Daddy’s face went as red as your favorite hoodie. “You little bitch.”

You ran to your room and dove under the bed. “Help, Monster!”

Monster’s warm, furry arm wrapped around you. “You’re safe, Red.”

Then Daddy’s face appeared all scrunched up mad. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson in respect, you little brat.”

Monster growled.

“Go away or Monster will bite you,” you told him.

Daddy thrust both hands under the bed to grab you. You squirmed back into Monster’s protective fur.

Monster’s mouth opened wide and bit off both Daddy’s hands.

Daddy screamed and rolled around on the floor, hugging his arms to his chest.

Monster smiled with red teeth, and you smiled back.

But it was just a chapter ending, and the fairytale went on. (You didn’t know how dark most fairytales were, back when you were small.)

Daddy leaned in the doorway of your bedroom later. When he stayed outside the room, his hands came back. If he came inside the room, they disappeared, because Monster had bitten them off. He stopped hitting Mommy when you told him you would let Monster eat him all up if he didn’t.

(He didn’t, not really–he just made sure you didn’t see.)

You sat cross-legged on the floor playing Go-Fish with your favorite plush rabbit, Mr. Bunny. Monster watched from under the bed.

“I’m going to kill it,” Daddy said in his Normal Voice. “Your monster. I’m going kill all of them. Just you wait.”

“Go Fish,” you said to Mr. Bunny, but your hand quivered as you picked a card.

When Daddy walked away, you crawled under the bed and tugged Monster’s ear. “I don’t want Daddy to kill you.”

Monster pulled you close with one arm. “He can’t harm us in this world, Red. Don’t worry.”

You sniffed, relieved. “Can we dance, Monster?”

Monster smiled. “Whenever you wish.”

You bounced up and down with excitement, and pulled Monster by the hand into the ballroom. Under the bed was like a tent, full of space for your stuffed animals and toys. It even had a dance floor where Monster gave you lessons.

Monster took your hands and began to hum, a lullaby that had become your favorite music. You hummed along with Monster, your feet tapping to the beat.

You pulled Monster along to the music, spinning and dipping and leaping. Your feet hardly touched the ground. It was like the time Daddy took you to the amusement park and you got to ride the grown up roller-coaster, only a million billion times better. The music soared through you and you felt like you could fly.

The dance floor blurred around you, became an open glade full of trees and a bright sunny sky. It smelled like lilacs and cotton candy. You loved when Monster made it look like outside. You danced wildly, swept away in the movement and the music.

Letting go of Monster, you twirled faster and faster across the grass. You sprinted onto a fallen birch log and jumped into the air. Monster caught you and lifted you up, higher and higher until you thought you could peel the sky open with your fingertips.

The dance ended.

Monster set you down, back in the ballroom under your bed. You laughed, out of breath, and hugged Monster tight. “I love dancing!”

“It is something no one can ever take from you, Red,” Monster said.

(Daddy’s words were long forgotten by the time you went to bed.)

#

You don’t see Ashley after track practice on Friday. She texted you she’d meet you on the hill. You’re taking her to dinner (even if it’s just McDonald’s because you can’t afford much more) to celebrate the year you’ve been dating.

But she’s not there. Storm clouds roll in, a cold October wind kicking the trees into a gold-brown frenzy.

Your phone dings. Voicemail, although you don’t see any missed calls. You drop your duffle bag with your change of clothes and dial your voice mailbox to listen.

It’s Ashley’s voice.

“Red, it’s me–oh God, I don’t know what’s going on. There’s this–it’s huge, Red, some giant animal but it’s nothing–Jesus, let go of me!” Ashley’s screaming. “Let go! Help! It’s going for the woods–”

And the message stops. Your voicemail asks you in a monotone if you’d like to save, repeat, or delete the message.

You shove your phone in your pocket and run.

Someone–something–has kidnapped your girlfriend, and you’ve got to get her back.

For a moment you wish Monster was here. Monster could’ve carried you faster than you can run. You can’t swallow down the dry, crunchy fear that you won’t be able to help.

(Monster isn’t here. Monster never will be here again.)

Up ahead, the forest looms. It’s just the rumbling clouds, the lack of daylight. The woods aren’t some creepy, mystical landscape. You could get lost, sure. But your phone has GPS–your aunt insisted on it so you could always find your way home.

Wind moans through the treetops, and it sounds like desperate voices. At the corner of your eye, you notice a ribbon of gray in the trees, but it’s not a cloud or a bird. It’s a hole, as if you’re staring at a movie screen and a patch of static ripples across the picture.

It hurts your eyes to stare at the hole. You look away, shaking, and as soon as you do, the memory blurs, fuzzily distorting until you aren’t sure what you were just looking at.

One thing’s always clear, though: Ashley.

You wipe your sweaty palms on your jeans and step into the woods. There, not a yard inside the dark treeshadow, you see a glimmer of color. A red thread–it matches Ashley’s favorite wool sweater. It’s caught on a branch and unravels deeper into the woods.

She came this way. You follow it as it twists and spins through trees, a wobbling path stretching into the heart of the forest.

You’re almost running now, so you can’t stop when the ground disappears.

It’s a long way down into the dark river below.

#

You were thirteen when Mom OD’d and your step-dad–fuck, why’d you ever call him Daddy?–left. At first you thought thank God he’s gone, but at night, you lay awake trying not to panic that he would come back.

(He’d spoken in his Normal Voice when you called him at work, hardly able to speak, because Mom wasn’t breathing. “What did you do to your mother, girl?”)

You had this aunt, some relative you’d only met once, who took you in. You moved to some backwards little town in the middle of nowhere. At least there were woods around, so much forested land you weren’t allowed to wander too close in case you stepped off the trail and got lost.

You didn’t care about the goddamn trees at first. Your mom was dead. You were stuck here. Friends were hard to come by for the new girl from the cities, the one who liked other girls and loved to dance by herself to music no one else had on their iPods.

“Why didn’t you protect her too?” you asked. Monster sat on the bed next to you, no longer as big as a house, fur darker, magenta and sleek, not the poof-ball you remembered as a kid. “You could have saved her! She’s all the family I had!”

Monster looked down. “She didn’t believe in us.”

“You’re supposed to be my friend, Monster. You should have saved her!”

Monster sat silently as you pummeled your fists against the thick fur until your knuckles hurt and your face burned from tears. Blaming your monster was better than blaming yourself. You hadn’t seen Mom shoot up in months. You’d thought she was getting better, that the support group meetings were working, that the new job with the nice guy she’d gone out for drinks with were helping, that your step-dad being gone more and more was returning the world to normal.

(Nice lies, weren’t they.)

“I’m sorry, Red,” Monster said, wiping sticky hair from your face with one claw. “There was nothing I could do.”

That’s the thing about monsters. They’re real–of course they’re real. But you have to accept that before they can come out of the shadows.

“Well, if you can’t do anything, then I don’t need you.” You were so angry you felt like you were about to explode. You hoped you would. POOF and done. Then you could stop hurting inside. “Go away, Monster.”

Monster flinched. “Red…”

“I said go away!” You shoved Monster as hard as you could, and Monster flew off the bed and slammed into the wall. Cracks rippled along the sheetrock. You didn’t care if your aunt saw the damage. “I don’t want to see you again.”

Monster’s head bowed and Monster’s whole body shrunk until your monster disappeared altogether.

You flung yourself on the bed and screamed into the pillows.

#

You pull yourself from the river, shivering, hair plastered to your face. You’re not sure how far the current carried you. You’re good at track because it gives you an excuse to run, to move, to feel wind comb your hair–your legs are strong, and so are your lungs.

You’re still in the woods. Maybe this forest goes on forever. Except–there’s the thread of red wool, curling up from tangled deadwood and winding through the trees.

Ashley.

You brush mud from your hands and look up.

An immaculately dressed wolf sits on a sycamore branch, swinging his legs. His suit is rich burgundy, pinstriped with black. His fur is glossy gray, neatly combed, and he smiles as he hops down and offers you a courtly bow.

“Good evening,” says the wolf. “What brings you here?”

You’ve never been scared of monsters. And since this isn’t a fairytale, you have nothing to fear from a big bad wolf in the woods.

“My girlfriend was kidnapped,” you say. “I’m going to get her back.”

The wolf rubs a claw along the lapel of his suit. Some undefined light source gleams off the polished nails. “Are you, now?”

You fold your arms. “And no asshole in a cheap suit is going to stop me, either.”

“Do you like it?” The wolf smiles wider. “It was tailor-made. I made him sew it for me before I ate him.”

You’re not going to take this bullshit. You nurse the anger like a personal white dwarf star; maybe one day it will cool with nothing to fuel it, but now? Now it’s dense and bright and hot. “Get out of my way.”

The wolf glides around you and you turn to follow his gaze. “You must pay my toll to pass,” says the wolf.

You bet he doesn’t take plastic, and your wallet’s pretty empty as it is. What if he demands riddles or magic or games you can’t win? You throw at him the only thing you hope might work.

“I’ll pay you with a secret,” you say.

The wolf’s eyes glint like sequins. “And what kind of secret is worth safe passage into our land?”

You clench your hands to stop them trembling. This is a bad idea. But what else do you have? You can’t bring yourself to dance again, even with another monster. “It’s a secret I’ve never told anyone.”

The wolf’s ears prick towards you. “No one?”

“Ever.” You swallow hard. “Aren’t monsters supposed to like secrets?”

“The one I love is made from secrets and shadow,” the wolf says. “But what will you do if I do not like this secret?”

“Suck it up and deal,” you snap before you think better of it. You brace yourself, ready to run or fight back if the wolf attacks you.

But the wolf only throws back his head and howls with laughter. “I think I will like whatever you share with me,” the wolf says, smoothing his lapel again. “Very well. A secret for your safe passage.”

He leans close until you smell the river and hot sand and summer air after a rainstorm in his fur.

Words stick like toothpicks in your throat. You don’t want this secret and you don’t want anyone to ever know, but you already made a deal.

You take a deep breath, then whisper in the wolf’s ear.

#

Once upon a time, when you just started sixth grade, the cool girls cornered you and your best friend Terra by the lockers. Your heartbeat jumped, because you had a crush on Vanessa, the clique leader, and now she was speaking to you.

“Hey, Red. Want to hang out this weekend? I’m having a party Friday.”

She knew you existed. You blushed. “Yeah! I mean, I’d like–”

“Assuming,” Vanessa went on, “you’re not going to go on about ‘monsters’ again like a two-year-old. Terra says that’s all you ever talk about.”

You glanced at Terra. You’d told her about Monster, about dancing, and she hung on every word; you’d told her she could find a monster of her own, too, so she wouldn’t be scared all the time.

Vanessa tossed her hair. “Well? Is it true?”

You shrugged, looking at the floor. If you told the truth, Vanessa would mock you forever. You didn’t want school to be hell for another year in a row. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”

Vanessa leaned close. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Monsters aren’t real,” you said again, not expecting it to be that hard. “It’s just a bunch of bullshit for little kids.”

Vanessa smirked. “Obviously.”

Terra’s mouth hung open, shock in her eyes, but you ignored her and followed Vanessa and the other girls instead.

A week later, Terra’s family moved out of state unexpectedly, and you never saw her again. You never knew if she found her monster.

(Maybe she believed you that monsters aren’t real.)

#

The wolf sighs and half-shuts his eyes. “You carry so much pain in your heart.”

You shake your head, face burning, and remember where you are. You wish you could forget the shame of that secret as easily. “Let me pass.”

“I can do more than that,” the wolf says. “I know where your lady love has been taken.”

You stare hard at the wolf, trying to tell if he’s lying. His bright eyes and brighter teeth give nothing away. “Where’s that?”

“Ah,” he says with a smile. “Answers must be paid for.”

“What do you want in return for telling me?”

“Your help, lady knight.”

You realize in sudden panic that you’ve lost sight of the telltale thread. There’s nothing caught any longer among the branches.

If Monster were here now, Monster would know where to go, like the day Monster carried you out of the woods. (You can’t let yourself miss your monster. It’s always better to stay angry.)

“Enough,” you tell the wolf. “If you help me get my girlfriend back and let us get out of here, I’ll help you in return. Okay?”

The wolf bows. “Very well.”

“Where’s Ashley?”

“The Hall,” the wolf says. “Our home.”

“Who took her there?”

“Kin,” says the wolf. “At the bidding of the new king.”

The wolf grabs your elbow and tugs you sideways, off the path. You yank your arm free, about to curse him out, when he points at where you were standing.

“Look.”

There’s a hole in the air where you were. It’s the size of a baseball and there’s nothing on the other side. Not darkness, really, but an absence of anything that sends shooting pain up your neck and behind your eyes.

You retreat, bumping into the wolf. “I saw…” The recollection is still fuzzy. You frown and concentrate. “There was one by the woods in my world.”

The wolf snaps off a branch as thick as his arm, then pokes it through the hole. The branch disappears and the hole grows a half inch wider. It sits there, ragged edges flapping as if in a soft breeze. Up above you see more holes poking through the endless twilight-lit treetops.

You hug yourself. “What are they?”

The wolf sighs. “Emptiness. Entropy. An end. That is what the king is doing–he is destroying our world. And yours.”

They aren’t separate. You asked Monster about this, once. They co-exist beside each other, overlapping and easily crossed if you believe you can. Yours is not a nice world. But it’s still yours, and Ashley’s, and your aunt’s. The world of monsters is just as important. Without one, the other can’t exist.

You hunch your shoulders. Your step-dad left holes in your life you don’t know how to sew shut. Your mom’s death. The loss of your dance. You tried to dance again, after you and Ashley were dating for a few weeks, but as soon as you struck a pose and Ashley turned on a CD, your muscles locked and you started shaking. Monster isn’t here. You curled up on Ashley’s bed and hid your head under the pillows, refusing to move even though she promised she wouldn’t ask you to dance with her again. You didn’t have words to tell her it wasn’t her fault.

You can’t freeze up again. You won’t lose her the way you lost Terra or Monster.

“Show me where the Hall is,” you tell the wolf.

He offers his arm and you loop your elbow through his.

#

The forest grows darker as you walk alongside the big, not-so-bad wolf. He gracefully dodges the holes that appear faster among the treetops and in the ground, eating away the world.

“Who’s this king?” you ask. You try not to clutch the wolf’s arm harder than necessary. You’ve already asked how far the Hall is. The wolf said it was as far as it needed to be, and no more.

“A man self-titled so,” says the wolf. “He beguiled his way into the Hall; he spoke with such charm and smooth words, we let him join us. Many lost travelers may find their way in. Perhaps not all leave again.” His teeth gleam. “But he brought a weapon with him. It is a small knife made of all the words that have ever been used to harm another. It is power unlike any we can match.” The wolf points at a hole, but you don’t look at it too long. “With each cut, the false king destroys pieces of our world and our kin.”

“You can’t kick him out?” You want to run, to drag the wolf along behind you. Ashley can’t wait, not if there is a wicked king holding her prisoner.

The wolf’s ears droop. “The ones who tried are no more. The Queen is…gone. He will not stop, lady knight.”

And the wolf thinks you can help? Shit. The angry part of you wants to blow it off, take Ashley and go home, let the monsters deal with it. Isn’t that what they’re for? Monster lived under your bed and protected you. But the guilty part of you knows it wasn’t Monster’s fault you were hurt when your mom died. Monster would do anything for you, but there are some things even monsters can’t fix.

And you sent Monster away.

Right in front of you, huge arched doors shimmer into sight.

“Welcome to our home,” says the wolf.

The Hall is made of whispers and mirrors and filled with monsters. There are more than you can ever count. They dance to a haunting, unknown melody that grows slower and slower, perpetual motion winding down. Dusk hangs from the ceiling; dawn winds through the foundations. Only stars light this place.

“One of us ate the sun,” the wolf says, “and another ate the moon. But it’s impolite to remember who devoured which, now isn’t it?” And when he smiles, you can almost see sunlight glimmering at the back of his throat.

For a moment, you can’t breathe. This place is what you always believed (secretly) heaven was like.

The monsters are beautiful and terrible. Not one is alike. Some have glossy fur and coarse manes, some are covered in shimmering feathers and scales. Some have horns or claws or antlers or teeth. The monsters have bright eyes and some have no eyes. There are monsters made from shadow and monsters made from light. Smooth skin and armored pelts. Some monsters have skeletons, or exoskeletons, and some only pretend.

The dance floor stretches out in all directions to the horizon lines. You rub your eyes hard. This place feels like home.

“Here,” says the wolf, and offers you a dance card. “It never fills up, so you may dance until the world ends.”

You tuck the card in your pocket. You need to find Ashley first. “Where’s my girlfriend?”

The wolf points at a dais that floats above the monsters, luminescent stairs trailing down all six sides.

Ashley’s sitting there, hunched with her knees pulled against her chest. For a second, she’s all you can see. Ashley: quirky, smart, dedicated Ashely, who was the first to make you feel welcome in the new town, who’s going to be an EMT when she graduates, who takes care of her younger sisters while her single mom works three jobs. Her sweater is only a few threads tied around one wrist now. Her jeans are muddy and her make-up little more than messy streaks. Your heart lurches.

“Hurry,” the wolf murmurs. “Before the music stops.”

You weave your way towards the stairs. The dais is translucent at the edges, and a carpet made of a white material mutes the light near the middle. You can’t see anyone else on it. Just Ashley.

A monster made from metal angles, sharp and contrasted, sweeps by with a glass cougar in its embrace. Their bodies reflect the light in geometric patterns. A brilliantly painted girl made from ivy dances with a metallic velociraptor, and they smile at you as you pass.

Your breath comes faster. Your body longs to move, join the music and dance, but you can’t. You can’t lose sight of Ashley.

Closer now. You want to yell to your girlfriend to jump. You’ll catch her. But you don’t know who else is up there. You dash up the steps, hope thumping along with your heart. You stop short at the last step when you see what awaits you.

The king.

And Monster.

You gasp. Monster is thin, fur ragged and patchy. Monster’s eyes are dull and won’t look at you.

The king sits on a throne. A thick, heavy chain tied around Monster’s neck holds Monster down at the king’s feet. That’s blood matting Monster’s fur. Bones cover the dais: pale and dark and silver and translucent. But bones all the same.

You glare at the king, the asshole who married your mother then ran off to do this to your monsters.

He’s got his hands now, but they aren’t his–they look sawed from someone else and stapled on with undulating threads. He holds a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other. He points the gun at Ashley.

Your step-dad smirks. “Not so tough now, are you? I get your boyfriend and your freaks–” he kicks Monster and Monster flinches “–and what can you do?”

“Let Ashley go,” you say, but your voice cracks.

“Why?” He speaks in his Normal Voice, calm and confident and it makes you want to listen. Like when you were little, before the Bad Days, when he would read you stories and buy you presents and candy and make you laugh with funny faces. “I’m doing what I said I would. It’s your fault, girl. It has always been your fault.”

You shake your head. That’s bullshit.

“Don’t believe me?” The king leans forward. “Where were you when your mom killed herself?”

“It was an accident–”

“No.”

That one syllable is like a sledgehammer in your stomach. There is so much hatred in his voice, you can’t catch your breath.

“No, she did it on purpose. You might have gotten away with anything you wanted because of that beast you had.” He kicks Monster again. “She started getting ideas she could do the same, and we couldn’t have that, could we? I’m in charge. She had to learn that. If you hadn’t hidden behind your monsters, your mother wouldn’t have thought she needed to escape. We could have been a family.”

You stumble back a step. The realization sinks cold in your stomach. You usurped his power and he couldn’t bear it.

“I didn’t…” But you can’t go on.

“Don’t listen to him, Red,” Ashley shouts. “It’s not true!”

“One more word and you join my wife,” the king says, his finger on the trigger.

You stand there, shaking, trying not to think how much sense his words make.

The music–it’s softer now, weaker. And it’s coming from Monster’s throat.

Ashley locks her jaw and stares unblinking at you. Don’t listen.

You swallow hard. The melody drifts through your fingers and toes. It’s the lullaby Monster sang to you when you were very small.

If you believe the false king, he’ll win. He’ll take everything away, like he’s tried to do all your life. You can’t endure losing Ashley. And you can’t see Monster go away again.

You put a foot on the dais floor. A bone crunches under your shoe. Perhaps you can find a way to heal Monster, because you want your monster back so badly it hurts. You want to tell Monster you’re sorry, so sorry.

But how do you find your own words when the king owns so many? You couldn’t tell Ashley you loved her. You couldn’t tell your mom. You lied to Terra. And what if Monster doesn’t want you back?

You look at Ashley again.

You can’t fight the king. He has a gun and a knife. But with Monster at your side, you have a chance. If Monster will forgive you.

“Monster?” you breathe.

One of Monster’s ears twitch. Very slowly, Monster looks up and meets your eyes. You hold out your hands.

“Please come back,” you whisper. “I need you.”

“And now,” says the king, “let’s turn off this fucking music.”

You lunge forward–

The king shoots your monster in the head.

Monster’s body goes limp and the music dies.

#

Once upon a time, when you were very small, you fell off a skateboard and scraped both knees raw. Mommy was drinking, and Daddy wasn’t home, so you climbed on the sink in the bathroom and looked for Band-Aids all by yourself. But you couldn’t find any.

You tried not to cry when you crawled under the bed and told Monster.

Monster pulled two pieces of fur off one hand and made bright purple Band-Aids for you. You gave Monster a hug.

You sat together on a huge bean bag chair, which you couldn’t have in your room or Daddy would take it away.

“Do you ever get owies?” you asked.

Monster nodded. “We all do. But you know what makes them feel better?”

“Dancing?” you asked, because that was your favorite thing in the world and you were going to be a ballerina princess astronaut veterinarian when you grew up.

Monster smiled. “Yes, Red. We dance.”

#

You cradle Monster’s head, but Monster’s eyes remain closed. You keep shaking Monster, not caring that there is blood all over your hands and jeans. Monster’s body remains limp, so much lighter than you remember, and the chain remains dark and heavy around Monster’s neck.

The anger isn’t there now. It’s gone cold, like your white dwarf has burned out and turned into a black hole, sucking away everything inside you.

You felt like this at Mom’s funeral, and you remember punching one of the nameless mourners who showed up to pay useless respects. You don’t remember who that was, just a sudden crack as your fist met a nose, and then shouting, maybe you, maybe the idiot you punched–shouting for people to get the fuck away from you. Because you were alone, and everyone made it worse by pretending you weren’t.

The king laughs, jerking your attention up.

Ashley stares at you wide-eyed, a hand crammed against her mouth.

All around you, the Hall is still. None of the monsters are dancing any longer. In the starlight, holes appear above them.

You’re not sure when the wolf showed up, standing at one side of the throne. There’s a shadow-monster at the wolf’s side, wispy and long like a feathery snake. The wolf curls an arm around the shadow-monster.

You kiss Monster’s forehead, lay Monster’s head gently on the floor, and stand. You don’t know what to do. If this were a fairytale, a kiss would bring Monster back to life. All you get is the taste of fur.

You focus on what really matters–you focus on Ashley. You focus on the living monsters around you.

Dance takes away the pain, Monster said once.

You won’t let the king take any more of your monsters. You won’t let him hurt your family again.

You begin to hum softly, the same music Monster sang. You know this melody. It builds in your chest and fills your throat. You’ve never had a voice for singing, but it doesn’t matter. The music is there.

Your limbs are stiff and heavy at first, your feet clumsy. Like when you were first learning the steps and rhythm and how to let the music flow around you, become part of you. If the dance is what keeps the holes from devouring your worlds, then you will dance.

The king frowns. “What are you doing?”

You step over the bones but don’t avoid the blood. Your feet are red.

The holes grow wider. You feel the air being sucked up and out, a rush of wind that pulls your hair in all directions. It stirs Monster’s fur.

For a moment, you can’t see through tears. You want your monster back. You dance faster, harder, flinging yourself into the music with all your fury. It burns and you welcome the heat and the pain.

Nothing around you moves.

The king leaps to his feet. “Shut up!”

Then the wolf begins to hum along with you. The shadow-monster joins him.

The king aims the gun at the wolf’s head.

You kick off the dais and sail through the air. You aim for the king’s arm, but you spin too fast and suddenly you’re between him and the wolf.

You don’t hear the gunshot over the music. There’s a pain in your arm and it fades to nothing as you dance. Red ribbons of blood spin around you as the music swells.

You move like silk in the wind. Faster and faster you dance, your heartbeat the only rhythm you need. Your feet are weightless and sure. It is when you dance that you know you alive.

“Stop or I will kill him!” the king screams. He wields the knife above Ashley. The gun lies far from the throne, swept aside in your wake.

But the knife. Its blade glimmers, every horrible word you and Ashley have ever been called, and so many more, twisting inside the metal. It almost touches Ashley’s check, and you know what will happen if that goddamned blade even scrapes her skin. She’ll disappear.

Your steps falter.

A thick, rusty wire muzzle appears around the wolf’s face, and heavy chains coil about the shadow-monster, pulling it to the ground.

Agony flares in your arm.

All around you, the monsters waver and fall. Breath comes ragged in your lungs. You try to hold onto the song, but the music slips away as your body overwhelms you with pain.

“Bind her,” the king tells the wolf. Then, to you, “And if you take one more step, I will cut your boyfriend’s throat.”

You stare in numb shock at the blood spreading across your shirt. You crash to one knee.

Ashley’s expression hardens into fury. “You aren’t gonna hurt Red anymore.” Ashley twists away from the king and slams her heel into his crotch.

The king gasps and doubles over. Ashley rolls to the side as the knife comes down. The blade cuts into the floor. Bones pour into the tear in the world. Ashley scrambles backwards. In a blur, the wolf scoops the chained shadow-monster into his arms. You lurch on your hands and knees. The dais groans, bending at the edges. The whole structure will implode inward in minutes.

You grab Monster’s limp body and hold on. Ashley staggers towards you, her hair full of twigs and her face pale with shock. But she keeps her balance on the warping floor.

The king crawls to the gun and snatches it as bones cascade past him into the hole. The knife has fallen through, gone forever. He raises the gun at Ashley’s back.

“Ashley, look out!” you scream.

Glass explodes behind her. She whirls. The glass cougar crouches between Ashley and the king, one arm shattered by the bullet meant for her. You stare at the large shard of glass embedded in your leg.

Across the dais, the ivy girl vaults onto the platform beside the metallic velociraptor with glowing red eyes. A rainbow-colored tentacle monster heaves itself onto one corner of the dais. All along the edges, monsters climb and jump and fly onto the platform.

The king whirls, pointing the gun wildly, but it has no more bullets.

“Enough,” says the cougar. Translucent blood drips from its arm, glittering among the shards of glass. “You will not harm us any longer.”

Ashley clasps your good arm. “Come on,” she whispers. You can feel her shaking. “We need to stop this.”

The wolf crouches by your side. He still holds the shadow-monster in one arm; he easily picks up Monster in the other. “I will guard your friend.”

You don’t want to let go. But Ashley pulls you to your feet as the wolf holds Monster tight.

“Will you dance with me, Red?” Ashley asks.

“Yes,” you tell her. And before you can silence yourself, you add, “I love you, Ash.”

She grips your hands tight. Your words mean what you want them to; her smile in response is enough.

Together, you and your girlfriend hum the music once more.

The world is heavy. You struggle against the inexplicable weight, against the icy pain in your leg and the burning in your arm. Ashley holds you steady, holds you close.

You remember every time you danced with Monster. Every time you danced by yourself, wild and unchecked and free. Every time you wished you had the courage to dance with Ashley.

Faster and faster you move now. With the music, with the dance, you can pull closed the holes in the world.

“Dance with us!” you call to monsters. “The music is not over!”

Ashley laughs. The monsters roar.

Light blurs around you. There is a tremendous cracking sound, metal splitting and bursting, and the chains around the shadow monster burst into sparkling light. The wolf’s wire muzzle crumbles. The cougar’s glass ripples smooth into an unbroken mirror-shine; the shard vanishes from your leg.

The starlight catches the music and echoes it back. One by one, the holes crinkle and snap shut.

“You cannot do this!” the king screams, but he is alone and unarmed. His words go unheeded.

You whirl with Ashley in front of the throne. The king charges at you with fists raised. He gets no more than two steps.

“Enough,” says the wolf. He and the shadow-monster hold the king’s arms behind his back.

You pause, leaning on Ashley for support.

The wolf looks at you. “What, pray, shall we do with this one?”

The king looks around, his terror unmasked.

All the monsters watch you and wait.

“I never want to see him again,” you say to the wolf. “The rest is up to you.”

The wolf laughs and the shadow-monster purrs and shows very sharp teeth. They drag the false king away. You never see him again.

Pain flares sharp in your leg and arm. You stagger, and only with Ashley supporting you can you stay upright. You’re suddenly so tired.

“God,” Ashley says, “Red, you need to sit down, I–oh Jesus, I don’t even have my first aid kit with me.”

It doesn’t matter. Light shimmers along the floor, repairing the dais, and the most beautiful monster you have ever seen rises from it.

She’s covered in black and cobalt feathers, her face made of mirrors, and her eyes are dark like the sky. She’s taller and more terrible and more glorious than anything you’ve ever seen, and you know at once she’s a Queen.

“Thank you,” says the Queen of the monsters. “He chained me first with his poisoned words and so gained power, but you have freed us all. And you have begun the dance once more.”

“Red!” Ashley’s voice, so distant.

You think of bad cell reception and wonder if you still have your phone. You slip, falling backwards.

Strong arms catch you. “Red?” says a different voice, deeper and bigger than Ashley’s.

Monster is holding you.

Fur poofy and silky purple once more, grown to the size of a house (almost), Monster is just like you remember. And Monster is here.

“Monster?”

Monster smiles, holding you close in one arm. With the other hand, Monster pulls out tufts of fur and bandages your arm and leg.

Ashley kisses you and you pull her close.

Monster does not disappear. You throw your arms around Monster and Monster hugs you back and you know it will be okay.

For the first time in your life, it will be okay.

The Queen of the monsters tilts a hand and the gates appear. Through them, you see a path through the woods. At the edge of the woods stands the hill with its dead-brown grass, and the school beyond. There are no more holes in the October sky.

“Do we have to leave?” Ashley asks, wiping her face with the back of a hand.

You look between Monster and the Queen. You hate the stories where the heroes grow up and are banished, everything they grew to love ripped from them for no reason.

You fight to find your voice, and not let your words be muted again. “Please don’t send us away,” you whisper.

“You may always come and go as you please,” says the Queen. “You are forever welcomed here.”

Monster nods. “There will always be room for you in the dance.”

Ashley grins. You let your breath out at last. There’s cool, calm relief in your chest where the usual anger is. You lean back against Monster. You’ll have time to go back and call your aunt to reassure her you’re fine. There’s still time to take Ashley on a date for your anniversary.

Ashley rests her head on your shoulder. You squeeze your girlfriend’s hand, and Monster’s too. They hold you tight. The three of you watch as the monsters dance.

This isn’t a fairy tale. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy ending.

The End

About Merc Rustad

Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Vitality Magazine. When not buried in the homework mines or dayjobbery, Merc likes to play video games, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: http://amercrustad.com.