Saturday Storytime: Here Be Monsters

Usually, Saturday Storytime is a way of making sure I stop to read some fiction every now and again, no matter how busy I get. Today is a little bit different. This one, I wrote. In fact, this is my first published story.

“You good, Doc?”

“Oh, yes.” Andrews gave a little wriggle of anticipation.

Karee swallowed. No getting used to that. “Good night, then.”

With the last of the inmates ‘shelved and synched’, she signed out using her passkey. Her ward was quiet, with the exception of the occasional low moan. Time to leave her charges to the night staff and rejoin society.

There was no good reason to wash her hands at the end of her shift, but she always did. Her face too. The cool evening breeze found the spots around her ears she hadn’t quite dried. She shivered but felt much lighter than she had inside.

Then she saw the sign through the fence. Poster paper on a broom handle, it said simply: Here be monsters. It must be Thursday.

Keep reading.

Confidence

It’s Greg Laden‘s birthday. As has become tradition, Greg, you’re getting a story for your birthday. I hope you like it.

Confidence

Claude pasted a smile on his face before driving into the village square and kept it there while he unhitched and watered the horses. It was still there as he opened the back of his wagon and mounted the steps that folded out from the back. It was a calm and serene smile, despite his worries, never wavering as he waited under the awning for the villagers to become curious enough to gather round.

It didn’t take long. Quick glances gave way to pulled-aside curtains and whispered conferences. Children tried to pretend they weren’t looking at him while pushing their friends to approach him. Smothered giggles surrounded him.

Finally, a large man with his left arm bound up in splints and linen marched up to the wagon with a purposeful stride. Claude wondered, as he always did, whether he was finally about to be caught, but his smile stayed warm and easy. “Can I help you, friend?”

“I figured I’d better find out what you’re selling before someone dies of curiosity.” The tall man’s grin was broad and open.

Claude relaxed slightly. He raised his voice to carry. “Goodness, friend, if they’re dying, bring them here immediately! My partner and I trade in cures.”

“Ah. You’re magickers then?”

Claude bowed. “We are at your service.” He preferred to tell only the lies he had to.

The big man winced as he tried to lift his arm. “Do you have something that’ll take care of this?”

“We do indeed. Adele!” Claude turned to find her already standing next to him in the back of the wagon.

Adele frowned sympathetically at the big man’s arm. “Was it a bad break?”

“Was it bad?!” He twitched his arm and winced again. He went on more quietly. “It’s bad enough I haven’t been able to work for two weeks.”

“Oh, dear.” She clucked and shook her head.

The man leaned forward. “I don’t mind telling you, miss. I fainted dead away when they tugged it to straighten it out.”

“You poor thing.” She looked dismayed. “Stay right here. We have just the thing.”

Adele retreated into the shadows of the wagon, and the man turned to Claude. “Good to meet you, by the way. I’m Thierry, the carpenter.” He held out his good hand. “It’s good you came along. Not being able to work sure gets to a man.”

Claude shook it. “I’m Claude, and my partner is Miss Adele. It’s a pleasure to be able to help, Master Thierry.”

Adele returned quickly, holding out a clay bottle stoppered with a plug of wax. “This is what you want.” She handed it to him. “Rub some over the break every evening, then wrap it again in a clean cloth. It may itch, but try not to scratch it.”

Thierry turned the bottle in his hand. “How long will it take before I can work again?”

Adele sighed. “It’ll be another five or six days, I’m afraid, and the arm will be weak for a bit even then.”

“Another week beats another month or more, Miss Adele.” Thierry set the bottle on the floor of the wagon and pulled out his purse. “How much?”

“It’ll be three pence.” Real magickers’ potions would be worth about twice that price.

Thierry’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t mean to argue with a bargain, but are you sure?”

Claude’s smile got wider. “We can’t all be rich men, Master Thierry.”

“You’ll soon be a richer man than when you started.” He handed Adele three pennies and picked up his bottle. “I’ll go let the folks know you’re okay.” He marched off as purposefully as he’d arrived.

Claude winked at Adele. The soft sell had worked again.

The children gathered first, wide eyed at meeting magickers. Claude practiced a little slight of hand for their amusement.

Then came the adults, a couple at first and more as folks saw their neighbors gather. Claude moved down from the steps then, out from under the awning and out of earshot of the wagon. People were willing to tell Adele almost anything, even things they didn’t want their neighbors to hear. Claude enjoyed himself, keeping the crowd happy as they waited, telling blatantly modest stories about things he’d never done. He sent Adele another customer whenever she was ready.

As Claude watched Adele work, he was reminded how lucky he was to have found her. She’d started out timid. Customers standing right next to her used to ask her to speak up. She still couldn’t work a crowd the way he did, but she’d gotten much better. She had a knack of looking people in the eye and, to all appearances, really listening to what they said. She held hands and patted shoulders. He’d even seen tears in her eyes on occasion. No one could have played her part better.

“Well, that’s everyone from the village. I sent some of the kids to run out to the farms, so I hope you’re planning on staying for a bit.”

Claude turned to see Thierry. He pumped the man’s hand as though it had been a year since he’d seen his dear friend last. “We’re hoping to stay through the night, if no one minds. We’ll stay in the wagon.”

“In the wagon? There’s no need.” Thierry pointed across the square toward a handsome, two-story stone building with a thatched roof. “We’ve got a perfectly good public house, and you don’t need to be a rich man to stay there.”

Claude’s smile, which had never left his face, deepened. “I’m sure it’s lovely, and we’ll stop in for dinner, but there are some…” He dropped his voice. “…things that are better not left alone overnight.”

“I see.” Thierry shot a nervous glance at the wagon, as did several other villagers. Claude hadn’t caught anyone snooping in the wagon since he’d started using that line.

Thierry rubbed the palm of his good hand on his thigh and looked around. “So, uh, where are you heading off to tomorrow?”

“We’ve been mostly heading east. What’s the next village in that direction?”

“It’s Elder’s Ferry, but it’s not a village. It’s a good-sized town.”

Someone else said, “Hope you have enough medicine. Probably be plenty of sick folk for you to cure.”

Claude looked around him. “Well, you’re a hearty, healthy lot. I don’t think you’ll clean us out.”

Then he sent Adele another customer. He was as fully relaxed now as he ever got. Things couldn’t have gone better. He let his eyes twinkle at the crowd as he mentally counted his take.

***

Claude woke himself two hours before dawn. He threw on his clothes in the dark and opened the half door that led from his bunk to the wagon’s seat. Adele was sleeping on the floor, lying between the barrels of steeping “medicine” and the bags of dried berries and herbs they used for color and flavor. All they added was water and a little of the local hooch.

It wasn’t easy hitching sleepy horses to a wagon in the dark, but Claude had years of practice. Soon he was on the seat and ready to move.

South. He’d had no intention of heading east, but the news that there was a town there had confirmed his plans. They didn’t stop in large towns. Towns were big enough to hold garrisons. If and when his misdeeds caught up with him, he wanted a fighting chance to get away.

He shook the reins and clucked softly to the horses. There was barely enough starlight to show where the buildings were. They made a little noise crossing the square, but his experience said honest folk slept soundly this time of night.

Claude was just turning onto the southern road when he saw a tiny blur of motion cross in front of the wagon. The horses started. The rabbi
t or whatever it was had come from the right, and the wagon turned sharply back into the square. It picked up speed.

Claude braced his feet against the board and leaned back as hard as he could, pulling on the reins, but the horses were having none of it. They wanted to run.

He saw the fence in front of them just as the horses swerved to avoid it. The wagon didn’t make the turn as sharply as the animals did. He threw his hands up to shield his face when he heard the fence splinter.

Then he wished he’d been holding onto something. The wagon tipped, one of the front wheels coming up off the ground. As it came back down, Claude heard an ominous crack.

He was riding lower than he should be, even considering he was now sitting on the floor between the footboard and the seat. He heard something dragging, and the horses slowed. They came to rest in the middle of the road leading east.

As soon as the wagon stopped, Claude climbed back on the seat and opened the door behind him. “Adele, are you okay?”

There was no response. Then he heard a tiny annoyed voice. “Wha time’s it?”

“Never mind.” Mornings weren’t Adele’s best time. “Go back to sleep.”

He thought about climbing down, but it was too dark to see the damage. Instead, he waited for the villagers to arrive and tried to come up with a plausible explanation for leaving town so early. He looked at the road. At least they were pointed the right direction.

***

It was the axle, and that wasn’t the worst of Claude’s luck. Thierry, with his broken arm, was the only wainwright in the village, as well as its carpenter. The only good news was that the wagon had landed right outside Thierry’s shop.

Some of the villagers thought it would be better to send to Elder’s Ferry for help and hope that someone had an axle the right size or would be willing to travel to fix it. Others thought that was useless and the magickers ought to wait the few days it would take for Thierry’s arm to heal.

Waiting was, of course, out of the question. Those few days would be long enough for everyone to realize the medicine they’d bought was worthless. Claude tried not to show the panic he felt. He held onto his friendly, unconcerned smile, but only just. He couldn’t take any useful part in the discussion.

It was Adele who came up with the solution, once she’d had her morning tea. “Harvest hasn’t started, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t all be standing around like this.”

Sheepish grins showed the truth of her statement. She turned to Thierry. “How long do you think it would take you to make us an axle using other people’s hands?”

“You mean tell them what needs to be done?” Thierry’s eyes brightened at the prospect of work. “Three, maybe four days–assuming you’re not all complete oafs.” He turned to his fellow villagers.

There were friendly protests, but four of the young men accepted his challenge. They and most of the rest of the village, who’d found the accident a perfect excuse for a holiday, followed Thierry to pick out a properly sized and seasoned log from his stores.

Claude turned to Adele. “Is there anyone who’s expecting to be cured before the axle’s done?”

She was looking under the wagon at the broken axle. “I don’t think so.”

He looked around nervously. “Unless you have a way to speed things up, you might want to be sure.”

She stood up and faced him. “They like us here.” She shrugged. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Claude stared at her, his mouth hanging open, as she casually reclaimed her tea mug from the wagon’s seat and wandered across the square toward the public house. It wasn’t bad enough he had to worry about them being hung, now Adele was going crazy on him. He hoped he wasn’t going to have to find a new partner again.

His other partners in crime had been so…well, dishonest. Claire had been the first. She’d packed up and left with him when he’d passed through her town. She’d left him about a year later, but most of what she’d packed then wasn’t hers. He was lucky he’d been in the wagon when she left.

He’d avoided romantic entanglements in choosing his next partner, deciding they affected his judgment. It hadn’t helped much. Marc had turned him in to the mayor of a town they’d stopped in, probably hoping to take the wagon while Claude was occupied. Claude had just barely enough warning from the mayor’s daughter to escape–leaving Marc to his fate.

He’d been leery of taking on another partner after that, but he couldn’t really raise a crowd as effectively from inside the wagon. Adele had seemed so harmless, even if he got the odd impression from time to time that she looked down on him. She was perfect once she’d learned to speak up.

She’d made improvements to how they sold the medicine, too. Gone were the days when he just pulled the nearest bottle from the shelf, telling people it was a cure-all. Adele spent time in the wagon for each customer, and every one of them came away thinking she’d given them exactly what they needed.

She was the one who started telling people that the cures would take several days to work, an improvement Claude appreciated. It gave them a much better start before irate customers could come looking for them. Only now she was acting like she didn’t care about angry crowds.

He wanted to chase after Adele to yell at her, but he couldn’t do that here. He couldn’t wring an answer out of her either. He clenched his fists in frustration and kicked one of the wagon’s wheels.

Remembering Marc, Claude made himself a promise. No matter what trick she thought she was keeping in reserve, if Adele betrayed him, he’d make sure she went with him.

***

“Come on, boys, back to work!” Thierry frowned as he gestured with his left arm. He’d taken the splints off and had it resting in a sling, but he kept using it to talk.

Claude nodded at the arm. “Hurt much?”

Thierry looked down and grinned. “No, but it itches like you wouldn’t believe. Your partner was right. Mostly I can stand it, but when it rubs against the sling…” He patted it gently with his other hand. “Well, it’s all I can do to keep from taking off some skin.”

“You don’t want to do that, not when it’s healing so nicely.” Claude turned toward the young men back at work on the axle. He and Thierry were standing in the open doors to Thierry’s airy and barnlike shop. “What are they working on now?”

Thierry started in on the details of how they were shaping the log to make Claude’s axle, with lots of pauses to yell at the men as they worked. Claude smiled and nodded in the right places, but his attention was all for the arm.

He was awed and amused that Thierry had decided that the pain was itching, just because Adele had told him it would itch. Two days ago he couldn’t even move it splinted. Some people were so desperate to believe they were getting better that they’d convince themselves of anything.

At the same time, he was terrified that Thierry would gesture his arm right into something solid. It should be splinted for weeks yet. If Thierry jostled it hard enough, he’d be likely to pass out from the “itch.” Then where would Claude and Adele be? Not that he’d seen much of Adele in the last couple of days.

Claude noticed Thierry’s voice trail off. He was staring somewhere over Claude’s shoulder.

Claude turned around. Coming across the square were a woman and a girl of about seven. The girl, racing to keep up with the hurrying woman, was quite a sight in this tidy village.

Her curly straw-blond hair was pulling out of her braids and stuck out all over her head. The hem of her dress was torn and hanging down on one side. The dress had probably once been blue, but it was now the same light brown as her hands, feet and the big streak across one
cheek. She was carrying a rag doll in worse shape than she was. Obviously a child who liked mud.

The woman, who Claude assumed was the girl’s mother, was much neater. Her light brown hair was pulled back. Her dress and apron were clean and pressed, if obviously faded. Claude would have described her as pretty if she hadn’t looked so worn and worried.

When the two of them reached the shop, the little girl flopped down on the ground. The woman was winded too.

“Oh, good.” She sighed and relaxed very slightly. “You are still here. I…I need…” She blushed crimson and looked at the ground.

Thierry stepped forward. Claude thought he might be blushing too. It was going around. “Is there something I can help you with, Bernadette?”

Bernadette dropped a half curtsy to the blacksmith. “Thank you, but no. It’s just…”

“Are you looking for medicine, Mistress Bernadette?”

She looked up at Claude and opened her mouth. Nothing came out. Claude hadn’t thought it possible, but her blush deepened.

“My brother’s sick.” The little girl stood back up and patted her mother’s arm. Words came out through her gasps. “Coughing real hard…Aunt Mae says his color’s bad…says there’ll be one less mouth soon.”

Bernadette bit her lip and turned half away. “I can’t pay.” Her words were almost inaudible.

“The baby’s sick? Bernadette, I can–“

She shook her head. “No, Thierry, I can’t let you do that.”

Claude hadn’t heard her approach, but Adele was standing at his elbow. She held out a bottle. “You’ll be wanting this.”

Bernadette’s hands were clenched in fists at her side. She was still turned away from them. “I can’t pay.”

Claude stared at the woman. What was she doing? “Mistress Bernadette, if your son’s sick–“

“I can’t pay.”

“Here.” The little girl held out her doll. “Mama says we don’t take…anything we can’t pay for.”

“Sophie.” Bernadette held one hand out toward her daughter.

“It’s all right. You can have the medicine.” Part of Claude wanted to confess the stuff was worthless, just to make them go away. The combination of need and rigid honesty was making him edgy.

The little girl shook her head, still holding out the doll.

“But I don’t need your–“

“Claude, take the doll.”

Claude looked at Adele. She looked serious.

“They won’t take the medicine otherwise.” When he didn’t move, she turned to the girl and knelt down. “I’ve been looking for a good doll. What’s her name?”

“Elise.”

Adele shook the doll’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Elise.” She looked back at the girl. “Do you think we can trade?”

The girl nodded. She hugged Elise fiercely, rubbing her face against the doll’s. It was hard to say who ended up the dirtier for it. Claude was pretty sure the doll was wetter than it had been.

Then the exchange was made and Adele stood up. “Mistress Bernadette, rub some of that on your son’s chest when you get home, do it again morning and night. When he’s breathing easier, give him small sips instead for a week.”

Bernadette nodded, her eyes wet. “Thank you.”

The three of them watched mother and daughter out of sight. Thierry cleared his throat. “Well, I should see how that axle’s coming.” He wandered away without waiting for a response.

Claude shook his head. “There’s a story there.”

“There are stories everywhere, if you stop to hear them.” Adele was still looking after Bernadette and her daughter. She looked silly, hugging the ragged doll.

“What’s yours?”

Adele tilted her head and looked at him through narrowed eyes. “What do you mean?”

Claude decided there were too many ears too close by. He jerked his head to indicate that she should follow him to the other side of the wagon. Once there, he put his head close to hers. “Do you think that was wise?”

“What?”

“Taking the doll. Don’t you think they’ll have enough to hate us for when the baby dies?”

“But they wouldn’t have taken the medicine if I didn’t take the doll.” She looked confused.

“It’s not medicine.” Claude spit the words out. “It won’t help them.”

Adele looked at him for a long moment, opened her mouth and closed it again. Then she shrugged. “It won’t hurt.”

“Adele!” Claude was shocked at her callousness. She was so good it was easy to forget she was a fraud.

She snorted. “Don’t try to convince me that you’re growing a conscience. You were doing this long before I came around.” She stalked away.

Claude considered going after her, but she was right. What call did he have to talk to her like that? He turned opposite the direction she’d gone and started to walk. He didn’t really want to be alone with his thoughts, but he didn’t want to share them with anyone else either.

***

That night they held a dance in the square. Visitors seemed rare here, for all they were near a good-sized town. Or maybe it was just that they wanted to do something nice for the people who had helped them. Claude gritted his teeth at the thought. The morning was still bothering him.

Thierry was there. Claude talked to him for a while between dances. He saw him dancing with Adele once, a clumsy proceeding with his arm in a sling. Thierry kept watching over Adele’s shoulder as they moved. Bernadette wasn’t there.

All the young men and boys wanted to dance with Adele. She laughed and tried to refuse, but they wouldn’t let her. She seemed to be avoiding Claude.

When he danced, Claude confined himself to old women and girls under ten. No sense in making more trouble here than they were already in. Mostly he sat to one side and smiled. It was harder than usual. He was worried about how much time they had. The axle was coming along well, but any delay could still mean disaster.

It was odd. The longer Claude thought about it, the less disaster meant arrest or a public thrashing. Truth be told, he’d be sorry to disappoint these people. He didn’t want to see their faces when they discovered he was a fake.

Maybe he shouldn’t find it strange. After all, he’d gotten into this business because he wasn’t any good at anything but talking to people. He enjoyed his job, meeting people and being friendly. He enjoyed telling stories and watching kids’ eyes get big when he talked to them. He enjoyed having people look up to him, even if he wasn’t who they thought he was.

This was the first time he’d really had to face the fact that there was another part of his job. He knew he was a fraud, but he didn’t spend much time thinking about what that meant to anyone else. He’d never stuck around long enough to have to connect what he did with people being hurt. But now he knew these people, and he’d likely to have to watch what happened when they found out about him.

Claude wasn’t wearing his habitual smile when Thierry thumped him on the back and sat down next to him. “Not much of a dancer either, eh, magicker?”

Claude waved a hand vaguely. “It’s not that.”

“Oh, I understand.” Thierry smiled conspiratorially. “These small town entertainments, well, it’s nice to be neighborly, but you must be used to something more grand.”

“No, it’s not….” Claude didn’t want Thierry to keep guessing about what was bothering him. He changed the subject to the first thing he could think of. “How’s Mistress Bernadette’s baby?”

He wanted to take back the words the moment they left his mouth. The last thing he needed to do was to draw attention to his failings.

To his surprise, Thierry smiled. If he blushed too, well, Claude was getting used to that. “He’s doing real well. Sophie–that’s the little girl–she said he’s almost stopped coughing. Even Aunt Mae, old pessimist that she is, thinks he’ll make it. I can’t thank you enough.”

“D
on’t think anything of it.” Claude was trying to absorb the good news. He’d been expecting tragedy. He almost missed Thierry’s next remark. “What did you say?”

“I said it was right nice of Miss Adele to clean up the doll and ‘sell’ it to me. Sophie loves that thing, and I’ll find some way to get it back to her without bruising anyone’s pride.”

Claude murmured something noncommittal, but he was too perplexed to make conversation. Was Adele having an attack of conscience? It didn’t seem possible after her behavior that morning. Maybe she was trying to ingratiate herself with the villagers, plotting to shift the blame onto him. Or maybe….

Claude hardly noticed when Thierry left him to his own thoughts.

***

If Claude was confused the night of the dance, he was flummoxed by the afternoon they left.

The blow he’d been waiting for had never come. On the contrary, people had been coming up to him for the last day and a half to thank him for his help. A few more folks came to buy medicine. When the time finally came for them to leave, most of the village crowded around him and Adele, shaking hands and pounding backs. There were tears on some faces.

This time, they left in full daylight, and Adele sat beside him on the seat. It took all he had not to ask her immediately what was happening. Then, finally, they were out of earshot of the villagers. He tried to sound calm. “This is hardly the sendoff I was expecting.”

Adele hung off the edge of her seat, turned around to keep waving at the villagers. She chuckled. “Thought it would be something less ceremonious?”

“Less comfortable at least.” Claude realized Adele couldn’t avoid him anymore. “So what happened back there?”

Adele didn’t answer, just kept waving until they were around the first bend in the road. Then she turned around and settled in with a sigh.

“I asked you what happened back there.”

Adele tried to look blank. “What do you mean?”

“We were there plenty long enough for someone to realize that what we were selling wasn’t medicine. But everyone seems to think it worked.” He frowned. “We’re heroes. That was a grand goodbye. I haven’t paid for anything for two days, but we’ve got enough extra food in the wagon to last us more than a week. What happened?”

“They liked us?” Adele sounded hopeful.

“Adele, stop it!”

“I, uh, I need to get something from the wagon.” She reached for the door.

Claude leaned back against it. “You weren’t worried, so you know something about what was going on in the village. If you go into the wagon without telling me what that is, it’ll be to get your stuff. Then I’ll stop and let you off.”

Adele’s mouth squirmed as though it were trying to flee her face. She turned forward.

“Adele?”

She held up her hand. “Please. A minute. I’m not used to talking about this.”

He waited for almost a mile. Finally, she sighed. “It was magic.”

“Magic?” Claude was stunned.

She nodded. “I used magic to turn the potion you mix up into medicine. Everybody thought the cures worked because they did.”

“But I…but you….” Claude told himself to shut up. He took a deep breath. “How long?”

“Have I been doing this? Since the start.”

“Why?”

She frowned at him. “Why what? Help people?”

“No.” He thought about what he wanted most to know. “Why is a magicker like you staying with a fraud like me? Don’t you have a council somewhere you should be sitting on?” He had a sudden suspicion. “What do the magickers want with me?”

“Nothing as far as I know.” Adele grinned. “Why? What have you done to them?”

“Nothing as far as I know.” Claude hoped it was true. “Then why stay?”

Adele turned away. “Because the magickers don’t want anything to do with me either.”

Claude had traveled with Adele for three years. He couldn’t imagine her committing any crime bad enough that the council of magickers wouldn’t want her. Not with their reputation. “Why not?”

“I’m not very good.” There were tears in her voice.

Claude couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “For goodness sake, you just cured a whole village of what ailed them. How good do you have to be?”

Adele wiped her eyes before turning around. “I didn’t do all of it. You helped.”

“Me?” Claude stared at her. Then he closed his mouth and looked at his hands, holding the reins. They looked the same as they always had. He couldn’t see any magic. “What did I do?”

Adele smiled the tiniest of smiles. “Magic requires two things. I have the skills. I know what needs to be done.”

“Okay, I’ll agree with that. What’s the other part?”

“Belief.” Adele sighed and looked like she was going to cry again. “That’s the part I don’t have.”

“What do you mean?”

Adele looked at him. “People see you and hear you, and they believe in you. They want to. I…well, I’m not exactly inspiring.” She gestured at herself. “I’m not much to look at. I can’t carry on an interesting conversation. People just don’t look at me and believe I can help them.”

“But…” Claude stopped. He realized he was on the brink of saying something that could lose him the best partner he’d had. He wanted to think about what he was doing first.

Then he looked at Adele, twisting her skirt in her hands. She’d spent the last three years curing people. She’d stayed with a fraud so she could keep curing them. What had he done in that time?

There wasn’t anything to think about. “People believe in you.”

Adele stared at her hands. “You don’t have to be nice. I’m used to it.” Her expression said she lied.

He whooped with laughter. “Since when do you think I’m nice?”

She looked up with wide eyes. “You’re serious.”

“I’m serious.” He sighed. “I’ve been admiring your tricks, your way with people, for years. You have a skill I’ve never had.”

She frowned her question.

“Sincerity.” He shook his head. “You look at people, listen to them, and they can tell you care. They know–and I should have known, if I was paying any attention–that you’re there to help them. When you tell them what they need to take to get cured and how they need to take it, they believe in you. They believe in it.”

Adele looked stunned. Claude gave her some time to think.

He thought about the last three years. Nothing he’d done in that time had been what he thought it was. There were places he could go back to, people he could talk to again. They wouldn’t be looking to arrest him. They’d think he’d helped.

For that matter, he had helped them–with Adele’s assistance. From what she’d said, he’d supplied half of what they’d needed to make them better. Even if he hadn’t meant to at the time, it was nice to know the one thing he was good at had turned out to be good for something after all.

The sun had almost reached the horizon when Adele stirred next to him and spoke.

“There’s one more thing I should tell you.”

Claude braced himself. “What?”

He hoped Adele would stay. If she decided she didn’t need him anymore–and he wouldn’t blame her–he’d have to go back to being a fraud. Now that there was another option, he desperately wanted to be able to grab it.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you.” She rubbed her eyes and looked uncomfortable. “I was afraid that if I told you everything, you wouldn’t need me anymore.”

Claude didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“The magickers thought I was a novelty. It’s pretty rare for someone to have only half the talents needed to create magic. That’s how I got so much training before they made me leave. They were sure I’d develop the rest.”

When it sunk in, Claude stopped the horses and turned to face Adele. “You mean…” He couldn’t say
it.

She nodded, a little bit of humor peeking out from behind her nervousness. “If you can raise that much belief, you can probably learn to shape it.”

“I, uh…oh.” He blinked.

Adele grinned, definitely not the timid person he’d met three years before. “I could try to teach you, if you like.”

Claude tried to think about it, but he couldn’t give the idea the attention it deserved. On top of everything else, it was just too much. “Could you do me a favor?”

Adele scrunched her eyebrows together. “What?”

“I’m having enough trouble getting used to being legitimate.” He shook the reins to start the horses going again. “Ask me again in about a month.”

She looked at the wagon and horses then, finally, at him. “I will.”

He believed her.

Hope Visits Pandora

It’s Greg Laden‘s birthday. Last year, I gave him a story. He seemed to like it, so I thought I’d give him another this year. Happy birthday, Greg.

Hope Visits Pandora

Pandora heard the smallest of noises and lifted her head off the table. “Oh, you.” She didn’t bother to brush the tears off her cheeks, but she did scrub surreptitiously at her running nose. She glared through wet eyelashes. “What do you want?”

Apparently oblivious to Pandora’s disgust, Hope smiled. “I didn’t want you to be alone.”

“Alone!” Pandora snorted, then wiped her nose again. “I’m always alone.”

“I know.” Hope nodded. “That could change, though. Anytime, really. A friend, a lover, Epimetheus…”

“Stop it!” Pandora lifted her chin and stared steadily at Hope. “Epimetheus went to look for his brother, with more enthusiasm than preparation, as usual. Zeus won’t let Prometheus be found, and he certainly won’t let him go. Epimetheus won’t be coming back.” Her words sounded rehearsed.

“But he could.”

“Stop.” Pandora put out a hand to ward off Hope’s words. “Oh, please, just stop. I can’t think that right now.”

Hope tilted her head. “Or you could go look for him.”

Pandora laughed, a harsh sound that became harsher as she choked. “It’s Epimetheus. He could have gone anywhere. If he’s even still alive.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“Sure!” Pandora snorted. “Of course you’re sure. You’re always sure! Why can’t you just let me let go? I can’t wait forever. I can’t. I just…can’t.” She put her head back down and sobbed.

Hope seated her tiny self on the table. She reached out and began to awkwardly pat Pandora’s shoulder. Pat, pat. Pat, pat. On and on she went until Pandora shrugged her away. “Enough.”

Hope rested her hands in her lap and cocked her head again. “How goes fighting evil?”

This time, Pandora’s laugh was quieter. “Oh, I’m still fighting, if that’s what you mean.” She looked up. “I have no idea why, but I’m still fighting.”

“Surely you make a difference?”

“Do I? I don’t know how I’d even know anymore.” Pandora nodded toward a box–the box–sitting in the corner of the room. “It’s as empty as it was the day I let you go. All the evils are still free.”

Hope shrugged. “It hasn’t happened yet. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Maybe if you try harder?”

“Harder? How can I try harder?” Pandora looked incredulous, tears flowing freely again. “I’m so tired I can’t see straight. Every part of me hurts. I fell asleep sitting right here at the table last night. I was too tired to go to bed. There is no ‘harder.’ I’m not sure there’s even a ‘more.’ I’ve been fighting too long to have anything left.”

Hope nodded. “So you need a rest. Then you can try again.”

“Again and again and again! Always again! More and more and more you want from me! Why can’t you just let me be?!”

“Because if I leave you alone, nothing will happen.”

Pandora sniffed. “Nothing is happening now.”

Hope leaned forward until she was nearly nose to nose with Pandora. Her eyes burned with the implacable fire that Pandora somehow managed to forget between her visits. Her voice was calm and quiet and as undeniable as the light in her eyes. “But it might.”

After a long minute, Pandora managed to look away. Her eyes landed on the box. “I thought you were going to save us, but you’re the worst of the lot, aren’t you.”

“Yes.” Hope’s voice was still calm.

“I don’t know why I let you out.” Pandora shook her head. “Why didn’t I learn after the other evils escaped?”

“Because you needed me.”

Pandora looked back into those flaming eyes. She realized her own were clear. She’d stopped crying without noticing. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Tomorrow, then.”

Hope smiled. “Tomorrow.”

Bought

Tired of Valentine’s Day advertising? Or maybe sick of it, with it. I didn’t realize how sick of it I’d been until I found a little something I wrote a few years back.

What will I be doing on Valentine’s Day? Celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of my first, very noncommercial date with my now-husband in a very noncommercial way. I hope you enjoy yours.

I Bought My Love…

A fine meal of fine meats and fruits and spices picked with care under the cruel, hot sun. She smiled at me.

Scentless flowers raised in otherwise barren ground. She kissed me.

A fur coat pieced together from small mean creatures kept in wire cages. She slept with me.

A diamond ring, clear as refugees’ tears and hard as hearts. She married me.

A house furnished with rare woods, tiles glazed with poisonous paints. She sighed at me.

Rugs knotted over many years by tiny hands, paintings sold by nameless men in windowless rooms. She frowned at me.

A white tiger cub, servants with no legal existence. She laughed at me.

She told me she was leaving. She was bored, and I was cruel.

A square of dirt for eternity, marble walls behind lock and key.

For I bought my love, and she is mine.

Never Asked

Then it was time for me to repeat everything I’d told the officers. Having them hanging on my words had been heady, but facing a courtroom full of rapt listeners was almost too much. I’d never had so many people look at me at once. I wanted to hide. Only the knowledge the Carla had to listen to me for a change kept me talking.

A double dose of fiction this week. Get part two at Quiche Moraine.

Homecoming

In case you were curious, science fiction and fantasy aren’t the only kinds of fiction I write.

Homecoming

Mollie studied the table one more time, desperate that everything be perfect. She’d been waiting two years for Jeff to get out, and today was finally the day.

Her to do list was in the living room, but she knew it by heart. The table was set with her grandmother’s bone china and silver. The new cut-crystal tumblers looked good, even if Jeff would be expecting wine glasses. The tulips in the matching vase were fresh from the yard. The breadbasket was filled with buns from the bakery in town. Candles sat on the table for the first time since Jeff had been arrested, ready for him to light when he came home.

Mollie walked into the kitchen. She wasn’t sure it had been this clean when she and Jeff had bought the house almost twenty years before. The steaks, rubbed with oil and salt, were in the fridge next to a cucumber salad, which was waiting to be tossed. Sliced mushrooms were ready to be sauteed. Asparagus, picked from the garden this morning, sat in the steamer on the stove. The potatoes were pricked and in the oven.

Her strawberry-rhubarb pie had turned out well. It was cooling on the counter. Mollie turned the pie so the sugar on the crust caught the dull light from the window.

Mollie looked out at the grill, sitting on the deck. Its cover was already off, the fresh propane tank hooked up. She squinted at the clouds, dubious, but the weather looked like it would cooperate. The forecast said heavy rain before morning. She was hoping it would hold off a little longer.

She worried about the roses. If it rained hard tonight, it might be a couple of days before the ground was dry enough for planting. She turned reluctantly away from the window.

Upstairs, Mollie looked hard at the bedroom walls. She’d painted them a light yellow winter before last. They’d needed paint for years, and she’d decided not to wait anymore. She liked the color, but she wasn’t sure about Jeff’s reaction to the walls and matching bedclothes. At least everything was tidy.

She stopped in the hall outside Tony and CeCe’s bedrooms. CeCe’s was the cleaner of the two, but it still contrasted sharply with the rest of the house. Mollie had swept the dust and cobwebs from all the other unused corners of the house, but she hadn’t had the energy to tackle these rooms. She shut the doors and went back downstairs. Her footsteps on the wooden stairs rang hollowly.

Mollie hoped today would fix that. She was so tired of living in an empty house.

Stepping into the living room to pick up her purse, she froze. How could she forget the most important thing? She moved the hinged silver picture frame, polished to a soft glow, from the mantle to the buffet in the dining room. Jeff’s picture was in the center frame, and CeCe and Tony looked out at her from their seventh and ninth grade school pictures.

It was only right that the kids be there when their father came home, Mollie thought as she got into the car and pulled out of the garage. Without the pictures, it might never have happened.

She swatted at the thought, trying to bat it aside. She didn’t want memory to intrude today. She already had too much to deal with. Still it came, hard and sharp, pushing aside all her plans. Her knuckles went white against the steering wheel as she unwillingly relived the shock she’d had when she’d heard about the accident.

Jeff had been at his monthly poker night. He’d promised to bring the kids home from the last dance of the school year, using the Suburban to play chauffeur to a pile of teenagers from across the county. She’d gone to bed early, reveling in the decadence of a full evening of freedom and the sweet scent of chokecherry blossoms drifting in on the breeze.

The doorbell had dragged her into consciousness–but not for long. She’d opened the door to find two nervous uniformed deputies. When they told her why they were there, she passed out.

“Mrs. Curran? Mrs. Curran, please talk to me. Are you okay?” The voice came from far away.

The floor felt hard and cold as consciousness crept back to her, but that wasn’t why she shivered. Mollie resisted waking up.

“Mrs. Curran?”

The deputy sounded ridiculously young, almost as young as…. Mollie opened her eyes. “I’m–I’ll be all right.”

“Can we help you up?” Both deputies crowded over her, all anxious eyes.

Weren’t sheriff’s deputies supposed to be prepared for this? Mollie suppressed an urge to laugh at the pair of them. Laughing wouldn’t be right if…. She gasped for air. “Please.”

They helped her to the couch in the living room. “A glass of water?”

“No, thank you.” Mollie’s hands didn’t feel quite steady. She didn’t want to spill.

The deputies still looked ridiculously uncomfortable. She hoped they didn’t have to do this often. They fluttered their hands from belt to chin to behind the back, to holster, briefly folded, scratching at the head, and on, never settling for more than a moment. With British accents, she thought, they’d make a great Laurel and Hardy.

More to stop the laughter she was afraid would come than because she wanted to know, she clutched her robe around her and asked, “What happened?”

Laurel, the taller deputy, who’d stood back as his partner blurted the news, cleared his throat. “The Suburban went into a ditch off County 22. It rolled going down, and the passenger side was crushed.”

Hardy, almost as young as he sounded, stepped in gently. “We think the kids were killed instantly.”

Mollie felt that should mean something, but she was numb. She wondered whether the other parents getting this news tonight felt anything. “How many were in the truck?”

Laurel glanced at Hardy, who nodded briskly and trotted out. “There were two kids in the Suburban. Should there have been more?”

“I hope not.” She looked at the clock. It was almost two. “When did it happen?”

“A bit before one. We think.”

She sighed. “No. The dance was over at ten. That was plenty of time to drop off the other kids.”

“Your husband was giving rides to other kids?”

Something in his tone made Mollie look up. He had a notebook out and was frowning at her.

“Yes. Jeff was–” Mollie gasped. “Jeff! You said he’d be okay. What happened to him?”

“He’s resting comfortably in the hospital. It looks like he escaped with just a few cuts and bruises, but they’re keeping him for observation.”

Mollie stood up. “Can I see him?”

He started the dance of the hands again. The notebook and pen made it even more absurd “I don’t…uh…think that’s…uh…wise right now.”

“Why not? What’s wrong?”

“He’s…” He coughed. “He’s pretty well sedated right now.”

He wouldn’t look at her, and at last, Mollie felt something. A cold knot of suspicion formed just under her ribs. She had trouble sucking in enough air to ask the suddenly all-important question.

“How drunk was he?”

The look in the deputy’s eyes was far kinder than his words. “About twice the legal limit by the time we got him into the ambulance.”

It wasn’t enough to lose the kids. Jeff had…he had…. She felt light-headed again.

It was only the start of the nightmare. She had to come up with the names of children whose parents were about to get unpleasant midnight visits. Then she had to answer questions about Jeff’s drinking. Some of them were questions she knew she should have asked herself years before.

After that came the long trip to Lafayette, the county seat. Riding in the squad car, she fought to keep from hoping. It was harder than she could have dreamed. She reminded herself that if they weren’t her children waiting in the morgue, some other mother would have to live t
hrough this.

It was cold in the basement of the sheriff’s offices. Sitting in the observation room, she could hear sound echoing harshly from the hard surfaces on the other side of the window. Waiting, nothing felt like it could touch her, and Mollie blessed the thin film of unreality between her and the world.

They apologized before asking her to look at the bodies. It was CeCe and Tony, but they looked so horribly, horribly wrong. She fainted again.

They made her call someone to come get her. She couldn’t think of anyone but her mother, although she really didn’t want to face her right now.

Mom was decent, though, after the one habitual crack about how she’d always said Jeff wasn’t good enough. She stopped when Mollie didn’t argue. She was quiet through the drive back to Mollie’s to pick up a suitcase and on the long trip to Braselton, where Mollie had grown up. There, she made Mollie a cup of cloyingly sweet chamomile tea and dosed her with Ativan. Finally, Mollie slept.

Mom decided Mollie needed a hero, and she appointed herself. She didn’t look the part, with her constant cigarette and her teased hair an unnatural shade of dark red. She was remarkably effective, though.

She stood alone on the front step and berated the media who set up camp on her lawn. She called them vultures and ghouls, challenging them to go find some real news to report. This would only be news, she told them, if CeCe and Tony were to suddenly be available for interviews. Since her vocabulary was completely unsuited to either print or broadcast, they soon disappeared.

The sound of her voice drifted back to Mollie through the open windows, and Mollie was hit again with that horrible urge to laugh. She stifled the impulse, afraid laughing might open a door to other feelings. She squeezed her ribs with crossed arms and rocked, willing herself to hear nothing, understand nothing.

Daytime was easiest. Mollie could listen to the bustle of traffic going to work and returning, watch the sunlight travel the length of the room’s floor, and tell herself she’d survived another day.

The nights though…. Mollie tried not to be awake at night, but sometimes the drugs failed her. Then she lay alone in the timeless dark. She couldn’t set aside memory and feeling for later when night promised to go on forever. When it hurt more than she could stand, she buried her face deep in her pillow to scream. She didn’t want to wake her mother.

While Mollie huddled in the room that used to be her bedroom, Mom handled calls from the relatives who meant well but wanted to hear all the details. She made the funeral arrangements, only asking Mollie to sign the papers.

She refused to pass along the papers from the bail bondsmen that said Mollie agreed to put the house up as collateral to spring Jeff from jail. Jeff must have arranged his own way out, because she sent him away when he showed up. After that, the slamming of the phone, which had dropped off as the reporters gave up, became more frequent again.

Mom stuck tightly to Mollie’s side at the funeral, glaring at anyone who threatened to add to her daughter’s pain. Mollie drifted through the service and the brief reception afterward. She nodded at well wishers and briefly accepted hugs and condolences, not really noticing who she talked to.

Then Mom was suddenly tugging hard on her elbow, trying to steer her. Mollie didn’t have time to react before Jeff stood in front of her, determined to have his say. She resigned herself as he opened his mouth.

“Mollie, I have to talk to you. Please listen. I’m so sorry. I….”

Mollie looked at him and listened to his frantic words, but she couldn’t make them mean anything. She only knew that he was talking and the whole room was watching them. She couldn’t even make herself care about that.

Eventually Jeff must have seen that something was wrong, because Mollie realized he had stopped. She let her mother lead her away.

Mom told Mollie when Jeff pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter. Mollie decided against going to the sentencing hearing. She didn’t have anything to say that her absence wouldn’t say for her, and she was afraid to face the other parents whose children’s lives Jeff had risked. She didn’t think they’d direct their anger at her, but something told her it wouldn’t be good to spend much time in its presence.

She did go to court to finalize the divorce, since Jeff was in prison by then. He didn’t contest it, even though the lawyer Mom retained made an aggressive property division request. Mom said it was because Jeff knew he’d never find a sympathetic judge. Mollie wondered whether there might be more to it, something closer to remorse, but she didn’t suggest it.

Mollie didn’t know how long she would have been content to hide from the world if it hadn’t been for the check. Mom was so good at handling everything.

She walked into Mollie’s room one day and lay the check in front of her. Mollie didn’t understand what it was. She was too tired to want to puzzle it out, but Mom stood there, looking proud and waiting for Mollie to say something.

It was obviously a check, but it came from a company Mollie had never heard of. She couldn’t figure out why they’d make a check out to her, much less one for…. Mollie blinked. That was a ridiculous number of zeros. Numbers like that belonged on one of those big prop checks in the ads, not on little scraps of paper.

She looked up at her mother. “What’s this?”

“It’s your settlement check.” Mom beamed.

“Settlement check?”

Mom’s smile dimmed a little. “For the accident. Patrick Connors’ insurance company settled the wrongful death suit.”

“I don’t….” Mollie thought hard. She didn’t remember authorizing a suit, but Mom had asked her to sign a lot of things in the past few months. She’d explained most of them at the time, but Mollie usually hadn’t listened.

There could have been a suit. Pat was Jeff’s best friend, and the poker party had been at his house. That much made sense–or more sense than the number on the check.

Looking at the amount, Mollie felt nauseated. She didn’t want money. She wanted the whole thing to have never happened.

“Mollie, are you okay?” Mom looked worried.

Mollie was sorry for taking away her triumph. “I…I’m fine, Mom. Thank you. You’ve taken very good care of me.”

After that, Mollie read anything Mom brought for her signature. The simple act was terribly difficult. She felt that she’d stepped out of the world the night of the accident. It had flowed on without her. She couldn’t get up to speed, and stepping back in was bruising.

At least catching up gave her a goal. She started doing small things, taking walks and washing dishes.

There were still times when she just couldn’t keep up. She rocked in the day and screamed at night. But these occurred less frequently as Mollie discovered that she could do mundane, everyday tasks without allowing the whole world to crash in on her.

She waited until after Christmas to move back home. Mom fussed at her through the long drive, but Mollie wouldn’t let her do more than drop her off at the other end. An audience wouldn’t make this easier.

Mollie hyperventilated as she unlocked the front door, but stepping inside wasn’t as hard as she’d feared. The pile of shoes and jackets that she expected to see by the door, the clutter of her family life, wasn’t there. Someone had cleaned while she was gone. The place was so tidy it looked like someone else’s house.

Mollie hoped that whoever it was had gotten one of the thank you cards Mom had given her to sign. The strangeness of the clean house gave her the little distance she needed right now. The panic she felt when she approached certain parts of the house–the kids’ rooms, Jeff’s closet in the bedroom–told her how foolish she’d been to think she was ready to
come home. But now that she was here, she was staying.

Mollie debated going back to work at the bank, just to give herself time away, but she didn’t think she could face all those people who had known her before. They’d be as kind as they could, but they’d want to know how she was doing, and they’d have a thousand other questions she wasn’t ready to ask herself yet, much less answer.

She gave her notice instead. If she got tired of living off the settlement, she’d find a job where fewer people knew her. She hid upstairs when her manager dropped a box of her stuff off on the front step.

When she had to close her eyes to get down the hall, Mollie considered moving. She decided against it. If she wasn’t ready to face the accident, she wasn’t quite ready to leave all signs of her past life behind either.

The seed catalog came when Mollie needed it most. She didn’t know how she’d gotten on the mailing list, since she’d never had a garden. The yard was all lawn and trees. It had been Jeff’s domain. Still, she wasn’t going to question anything that promised an end to winter and a chance to spend time outside the house.

She wiled away the claustrophobic hours until spring planning a small bed and a tiny vegetable garden for the back yard. She bought graph paper and plotted out bed after bed. She never ordered plants, afraid she’d change her mind about what she wanted before they arrived.

On the first warm, dry day in March she was back in Lafayette, walking out of the garden center with a shiny new spade in her hand. She even had some new ideas after finally seeing the plants in person. She went home to tackle sod.

The next day she stayed in bed, her middle-aged back a mass of aches and twinges. Still, she thought when moving made her wince, strictly physical pain was a nice change. She was back outside two days later, digging up more of the turf that Jeff had worked so hard to establish.

Gardening saved her. She loved the quiet, the weirdly right smell of dirt and bug spray. The trees surrounding the back yard gave her plenty of privacy from the neighbors. She liked the imperfect symmetry of the annuals she finally planted.

In Lafayette, where no one recognized her as a local tragic figure, she was able to have long esoteric discussions with the garden center staff about the best types of edging and sprinklers and the right brand of compost for tomatoes. It almost felt like being human again.

One stormy afternoon in August, when she was stuck inside, she decided it was time to tackle the box from work. It was still sitting inside the front door, where she’d left it after Kara dropped it off, and it kept getting in the way. She felt that if she could reclaim two hundred square feet of yard from grass, she ought to be strong enough to clear out one simple box.

She wasn’t so sure when she opened it. Someone at work had packed it for her, so she wasn’t prepared for what was inside. Sitting at the top of the box were the pictures from her desk, one of Jeff and one of each of the kids. Family pictures were one of the things she’d avoided all winter, but these she saw before she could panic.

It was a bittersweet moment. They brought back memories of how she’d talked about her family at work, nearly bragged. She’d been so proud–of all three of them.

The panic stayed away.

She spent some time over each picture, refreshing every well-known detail–CeCe’s crooked smile and deep blue eyes, Tony’s strong chin and his cowlicks.

Then it was Jeff’s turn. She expected anger when she looked at him, but what she felt was more complex. Even the accident couldn’t entirely obliterate the feelings of seventeen years of marriage. There was anger, but it was jumbled up with too many other emotions to sort out.

She put the pictures in their tri-fold frame on the mantle. There wasn’t really anything else she wanted from the box, just logo gear from the bank, the extra nylons she’d left in her desk for emergencies, and a few cartoons that weren’t funny outside of work. She threw it all away.

She made herself look at the pictures every day when she came in from outside, when she felt strongest. It was good to see the kids, good to know she could look and remember without collapsing again. She couldn’t get them back, but she could at least start to reclaim the happier memories.

She started spending time with the photos, talking to the kids, discussing garden plans. It made the house feel less lonely, even at Christmas. Once or twice, she found herself waiting for answers. She had to remind herself they were never coming back.

It was spring again before she realized that, while CeCe and Tony were gone forever, Jeff didn’t have to be. Not unless she wanted him to.

She shoved the pictures back onto the mantle and all but ran outside. Her heart was pounding.

She walked over to one of the flowerbeds and, with shaking hands, started to weed. She slowly let herself think about the idea.

Why was it so frightening? He hurt us, he hurt them, he’ll hurt us, babbled a little voice in her head.

She pulled more weeds, took deep breaths and waited for the litany to stop. Doesn’t being alone hurt? He hurt us…

As she weeded, Mollie kept dropping questions into the well of her mind, each one creating the same rippling terror. Would it be better to be with someone who couldn’t understand what she’d been through? Would the kids want them to be apart? Would it help them if she kept him away? Had he meant to hurt his own children? To hurt her? Didn’t she have some responsibility for what had happened?

The answers were always the same: he hurt us, he hurt them, he’ll hurt us….

How? What did she have left that he could take away?

She almost laughed in the silence that followed, but it wasn’t that kind of victory.

Walking into the prison the first time was the hardest thing Mollie had ever done, harder than walking into the morgue. She was afraid the prison doors were going to slam behind her, telling her that what she was doing was criminal.

Jeff cried when he saw her, just put his head in his hands and bawled until their time ran out. Mollie realized she had to be positive she could follow through before coming back. Raising Jeff’s hopes, only to smash them by sending him away, would be crueler than she’d considered being even in the darkest moments after the accident.

She’d worked it out in the garden. She was expanding, putting in perennials and adding some taller flowers for contrast. She put in a row of sunflowers along one side of the vegetable garden, a clump of foxglove in the center of a new tiered bed, and a patch of delphiniums along the back fence. She enjoyed watching them grow and reach for the sky.

It was two months before she was sure enough. She still didn’t think he could hurt her, but she’d prepared herself for the possibility. She thought she knew what she was capable of, what she could and couldn’t live with. She’d even told her mother–and sat silently through the tirade that followed.

She had some hard words for herself over her decision too–she was afraid it was the weak thing to do, a surrender to loneliness–but it was made. The kids looked, if not approving, then at least accepting.

Jeff controlled himself on her second trip, making things easier. His desperation was visible, though. Mollie thought he was checking himself to avoid scaring her away again.

They didn’t have a lot to talk about. Jeff didn’t hear much from anyone outside, not even his family, and Mollie hadn’t seen anyone in so long she didn’t have any news.

Glancing nervously at the clock after a long silence, Jeff blurted out, “This reminds me of our first date.”

“What?” Mollie looked around at the sterile concrete walls, guards in dark uniforms, and the hunched shoulders of other prisoners. Off to her left, sh
e could hear a woman crying quietly. She couldn’t think of anything less like the amusement park they’d gone to.

“Don’t you remember all the standing in line we did, waiting? We had no idea what to say to each other.”

Mollie nodded as it slowly came back to her. “What I remember most is how neither of us was willing to admit we didn’t like roller coasters.”

Jeff smiled. “We went on that thing, what, five times?”

“Something like that. I still don’t know whether it was the roller coaster or the cotton candy that made me sick.”

That set the tone for future visits. They always talked about the distant past, good times while they’d been dating and their first couple of years as newlyweds.

They never talked about the future, and by an unspoken mutual agreement, they never talked about CeCe and Tony. The closest they came was at the end of each visit, when he told her he was sorry–not for what, only that he was sorry.

Mollie didn’t know why he kept silent aside from the apology, but whatever his reason, it suited her fine. She wasn’t ready to talk about the kids, not to Jeff.

Still, by Christmas, the idea of Jeff coming home had seemed natural. In March, the date of his parole had been set, and Mollie had started her serious preparations.

Now that the day was finally here, Mollie was nervous, even though everything was as ready as it could be. She told herself she was being silly. She’d known Jeff for almost twenty-five years, had spent more of her life with him than without him. She stayed nervous.

Jeff looked uncomfortable too, when she picked him up from the release center. They were both quiet on the ride home. Mollie wanted to say something, set the right tone, but she couldn’t think of anything.

It was Jeff who broke the silence once they were in the house. “Wow! This place looks great. I didn’t expect…well, it looks just great.”

He kept talking about how good the house looked and how nice it felt to be home. He complimented her on the yellow bedroom, the nicely made up dining room table, and the choice of food. When he walked out onto the porch to start the grill, he shouted her name.

Mollie ran out to find out what was wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong.” Jeff shook his head. “It’s the gardens. They’re amazing. You never told me you liked gardening.”

“I, uh, thanks.” Mollie caught her breath. It hadn’t occurred to her that Jeff might not like the gardens.

“What’s that?” Jeff pointed over the railing at the new raised bed, a neat twelve foot long oval of empty black dirt penned in by two tiers of green timbers, and the plants sitting in pots around it.

“It’s a rose garden.” She’d prepped it over the last week when she wasn’t cleaning. She’d dug and mixed compost and fishmeal deep into the soil. It had been a good substitute for thinking, but she could hardly tell Jeff that. “The roses came this morning. They were late.”

“Boy, you’ve been busy. You’ve hardly left me any grass to cut back here.”

All Mollie could think was that without the kids, they didn’t need a big lawn anymore. Again she kept silent. This might be harder than she’d expected, although Jeff seemed to be settling in.

Dinner was easier. Her grandmother’s china had been a wedding gift, and it set off another round of do-you-remembers. Jeff didn’t even ask about the lack of wine glasses on the table, although Mollie saw him look to where they sat in the buffet.

She never saw him look at the pictures.

He helped her with the dishes, drying them and putting them away. Then they moved into the living room. He took his usual chair and she curled up in her corner of the couch.

For the first seventeen years of their marriage, this had been their time, even after the kids were born. They’d talk over their days, complain about work, make plans for the future.

Mollie didn’t know what to say. There was too much to talk about and too many subjects to be avoided.

“Ah.” Jeff settled into his recliner. “This really is the most comfortable spot on earth.” He picked up the remote from the end table. “Just where I left it. Didn’t you watch any television while I was gone?”

“I put it back this morning.” She smiled. “You can watch if you want.”

He met Mollie’s eyes, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was. It would be better not to try too hard to entertain each other. Besides, watching television would make things feel more normal. He turned it on.

Mollie grabbed one of her catalogs. She wanted to try planting bulbs this fall, but she hadn’t decided what kind or how many. As she debated a front lawn peppered with grape hyacinths versus clumps of oriental lilies scattered among the perennial beds, she kept half an eye on Jeff.

The chair might be the most comfortable he’d ever sat in, but he was twitchy. He shifted every couple of minutes. He drummed his fingers on the armrest. He flipped channels faster than she’d ever seen him, and she didn’t think it was because almost three years in prison had made him a more discriminating viewer.

Her courage failing her, she pretended not to know what was making him edgy. She buried her nose further into the catalog, but she couldn’t concentrate.

After about the eighth time she caught Jeff out of the corner of her eye, looking at her mournfully, she gave up. “What’s the matter?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. He shook his head.

“Go ahead. Tell me.” She sighed. “You’re going to have to say it eventually.”

He looked startled. “I was, well, I was thinking…”

His eyes were wide, and Mollie realized that he must be almost as scared as she was. “Thinking what?” Her voice held a gentleness she didn’t entirely feel.

“I just, uh…. Do you know what would make this perfect?”

CeCe and Tony? She didn’t say it. “What?”

His mouth worked, but no sound came out. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out. He took another. Mollie was ready to scream with tension.

“A little glass of whiskey.” The words rushed out. “Just a tiny one, you know, like you used to fix me back when…before.” He opened his eyes and looked for her reaction.

She couldn’t face him. She closed the catalog in her lap and studied the cover, trying to think. She’d made her plans, but now that the moment she’d been half expecting, dreading, was here, she didn’t know what to do.

She wanted to scream, “Haven’t you learned anything? Didn’t prison and treatment and killing our children make any difference to you?! Are you really so ready to risk the one thing you have left?”

Instead, she tried to remind herself that she had no reason to be unprepared for this. She’d understood about Jeff and alcohol for most of their married life. She could hardly have forgotten about it since the accident. She’d told herself she was prepared to deal with this.

Forcing her emotions back down where they wouldn’t show, she stood up. “There’s a bottle of Windsor in the kitchen. Why don’t I pour you a drink?”

The walk to the cupboard seemed interminable. Part of her was yelling, telling her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. It wanted her to keep walking, go back and shake Jeff, anything but pour that drink. She ignored it.

She’d bought the whiskey last summer, but as a compromise with herself, she hadn’t decanted it for Jeff the way she used to. She opened the bottle and swirled the liquor inside before pouring three fingers into a lowball glass.

She held the glass up to the evening sunlight coming in through the window. The tawny liquid looked so harmless and inviting.

She carried it back and wordlessly set it next to Jeff. He was sweating. She wondered whether he’d also been thinking she might leave. Then she went back to her catalog.

“Whoo!” Jeff shook
his head after the first sip. “No matter how well you think you remember, that first sip always has more kick than you expect.”

Mollie smiled politely. She debated getting both hyacinths and lilies. Maybe some daffodils, too.

Jeff relaxed after a couple of swallows, looking cheerful as he settled on watching a baseball game. When he finished the first drink, Mollie got up without being asked and refilled the glass.

The first sign something was wrong was Jeff rubbing his eyes and squinting at the television. Mollie didn’t think it was the whiskey. Even after three years without it, she didn’t doubt Jeff could hold his liquor better than that. She’d never seen him do more than speak very precisely when he was drunk. She went back to the catalog.

When Jeff closed his eyes and leaned back, Mollie was relieved. She’d been hoping he would just drift off to sleep. It was the best possible end to the evening.

It wasn’t to be, though. Soon, Jeff was awake again.

“Mollie?” His voice was weak.

“It’s okay, Jeff.” Mollie didn’t want to look at him.

“Mollie, I don’t feel so good.” Jeff belched. “Think I’m gonna be sick.”

She grabbed the bucket she had standing by. Jeff fumbled at the handle of the recliner but didn’t have the strength to move it. She had to help. She put the bucket between his knees.

He leaned over and rested his forehead on the far edge of the bucket. “Mollie? My head hurts.”

She leaned down and smoothed his hair. “I know it does, dear.” She reached for his left wrist where it loosely gripped the bucket. His pulse was getting slow. “It’ll all be over soon.”

“I’m sorry, Mollie.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I didn’t mean to.”

Mollie sat back down on the couch. “I know, dear. You never did.”

In the end, he died as quietly as she could have hoped. She wasn’t even sure how long he’d been dead when she checked his pulse for the last time.

The sun had gone down, but she decided to wait a couple of hours just to be safe. She’d only worry about the body tonight. Even in loose dirt, that was plenty of digging.

The weather had cleared up enough that she’d wait until morning to plant the roses. She wanted to be able to read the tags and get everything in the right place. The border would be alternating Anthony Meillands and Saint Cecilias. In the middle, over the body, would be half a dozen Peace roses.

Then it would be time for more planning. It was really time she figured out what to plant where the foxgloves used to be.

She thought it should be something Jeff would approve of. She’d been so glad he’d liked the gardens.

Maid of Ice

ScienceWoman’s request for help with Disney princess stories belated reminded me that I have a princess story of my own. I don’t generally write those, since hereditary rulership doesn’t much do it for me. In fact, there’s an award-winning Young Adult author whose work I’m no longer interested in reading after she retold an old fairy tale without examining that piece of it. So this is a bit of a rarity.

Maid of Ice

Princess Gisela was everything I had dreamed of as a little boy playing at the feet of my father’s throne.

To say she was beautiful was to do both her and the word an injustice. Her most striking feature was her hair, proud black waves that cascaded from her high forehead to the floor behind her. Her bones were strong and graceful; her skin milky and almost as finely blue as her bright eyes. Her highly tinted lips curved in irresistible invitation.

She was vivacious, flirtatious and, just occasionally, a bit imperious. In short, she was perfect, a princess straight from the stories my tutor used to read to me. And she had promised to be mine.

Her father, however, had made no promises to me. He bluntly recognized his only daughter’s worth. He didn’t hesitate to tell me she was far too good for the youngest prince of a tiny country, even a bordering land that offered important trading alliances.

I’d done what I could to prove my worth. I’d won the challenges he set for me. I had vanquished my rivals in combat both symbolic and physical. I had earned Gisela’s affection and kept it. Still, he had one more task for me to accomplish before he would surrender her to me.

King Roland wanted me to find the Sword of Ice and bring it back to him. The tales said that the country that possessed the sword would enjoy a perfect protection. They also said that none who sought it ever returned.

Still, if it was the price of marrying Gisela, I had to go.

When I left a little past midsummer, only a few of King Roland’s court stood by to see me off. Gisela clung briefly to my hand as I sat astride my dappled gray gelding. Her bold blue eyes flashed, entreating me to come back–with the sword, of course. I smiled at her in reassurance, wishing we didn’t have to say our goodbyes in front of the others, and rode out the castle gates.

You don’t need the details of the dangers I encountered along the way. Their names were legend long before I passed through them, and I can’t claim to have untangled their snares.

Everywhere I went, I encountered strangely helpful men, some younger than me, some grayed and lined, living as close to these hazards as human needs permitted. One and all, they had the look of the palace-reared, although they now led simple lives. Some raised crops or animals, while others ran inns.

I owe my survival to these men. I never approached peril on the road without being hailed, warned, and told what I needed to do to survive.

I assumed these men were princes who had failed in their own quests for the sword and itched to know why they stayed instead of returning to their parents’ courts and their old lives. Still, there was a quiet pain in their faces, something more than a recognition of disappointment, that made me hesitant to pry further. Indulging my curiosity seemed a poor repayment for their help.

Before the leaves had left the trees, I stood at the base of the path that led through the mountains to the palace of the sword. Without hesitation, I had left my horse behind me when the last of the humble princes had told me the path was not fit for hooves.

Having come this far so easily, there were only two things that worried me about my task. All the men I’d met along the way had mentioned the Curse of Ice. Yet, while each of them had been quite specific in their descriptions of their own adopted hazard, they would only say of the curse that it was the last challenge and thus far unbeatable.

My second concern felt like a small thing, but it disturbed me all out of proportion to its relevance to my task. I had often caught a glimpse of a woman on the farms and at the hostelries where I’d received such helpful advice.

Her task changed from place to place: feeding hens, sweeping a courtyard, carrying milk or ale, but very little else about her varied. She was always blond and slight, with pale eyes and a sweet face. She never paid much attention to me, or to anyone but the failed hero.

It wasn’t really one woman, of course. There were differences in age and height and smaller details, but the similarities were pronounced enough to give me the vague feeling of being followed throughout my travels.

I tried not to dwell on the sensation as I crossed the mountains. The man who was stabling my horse–yet another prince living far from his kingdom, with yet another sweet-faced blond wife–had told me where to travel and find shelter and had provisioned me well. Still, I was crossing the mountains in autumn. I wanted all the concentration I could muster.

The track I climbed was narrow and uneven. There were frequent steep drops to one side or another. I had be alert for debris underfoot and prepared always to brace myself against the shifting winds. I was tempted once or twice to keep going after reaching my appointed shelter with daylight still to burn, but the advice I had received had served me too well up to this point.

The mountains were beautiful and treacherous. Occasionally I wished for the leisure to appreciate the vistas I passed through. Still, my task was yet ahead of me.

As my trek stretched on, adding to the weeks I had been gone, a third doubt began to grow. While I had never questioned Gisela’s devotion before, I knew well her tolerance for boredom. She needed to be entertained and admired. She had chosen me in part because I’d provided her with good company. That was difficult to do from my mountainside. I wished I’d sent her a last letter before tackling the climb.

The constant snows began two weeks before I reached the palace. By the time I arrived, I was heartily grateful for the directions, the furs and the pack food that had seemed sickeningly rich on flat ground. More than once in my journey, I had sheltered with leathery human remains, evidence of how other quests after the sword had ended.

Finally, amid the falling snow, I reached the palace gates. They were tall iron slabs set into a forbidding stone wall that looked to have risen up out of the mountain itself. I tugged on a ring set into one of the doors. Touching it nearly froze my hand solid, but the door didn’t budge. With the wind picking up, I pounded on the doors.

I waited a couple of minutes, longer than I liked to stand still in the weather that was brewing. I was about to knock again when a panel I had overlooked opened in the right-hand door.

“Stand away from the gates.” With the wind, I couldn’t be sure, but the voice sounded young.

I wasn’t going to be turned away that easily. I thought resolutely of Gisela’s hair and lips. The cold path I knew led back down the mountain helped as well. “I’ve come seeking the Sword of Ice.”

“Of course you have.” Heavy noises came from behind the door, and I heard a grunt of exertion. “That’s the only reason anyone ever comes this way. But when I unbar the gates, the wind may catch the doors. I’d think being brained before you reach the palace would be a silly end to a quest, but the choice is yours.”

I stepped back quickly. The winds weren’t quite strong enough yet to make the doors a danger, but they opened as soon as they were free. I helped wrestle them closed again. They were hung beautifully and moved at a touch, but the wind’s touch was almost as strong as ours.

I could see from the skirts she wore
that a woman had greeted me, but her face was covered against the cold. I guessed she was a servant of the palace. Instead of speaking over the wind, she plucked at my sleeve to indicate I should follow her.

As far as I could see through the snow, the palace that held the Sword of Ice was made of the same stone as the wall that surrounded it. I couldn’t tell whether it was similarly imposing, but I assumed it was.

The room I was led to was certainly impressive enough. Large fireplaces stood on either end of a long hall. Despite the climate, the ceilings were over three times my height, disappearing into shadows above us. The stone walls were bare of any hangings.

At either end of the hall, in front of the fireplaces, were low padded benches and cushioned chairs, covered in sumptuous fabrics and dyes. The colors were cool but rich. They invited guests to gather in comradeship in the warm parts of the room.

Still, when I had dropped my packs where the servant indicated and shaken the snow from my traveling furs, it was the large chunk of ice in the middle of the room that drew my attention.

The top of the ice was shaped into peaks and valleys, looking like the mountains I had just traversed. It was free of imperfection, clear as the mountain streams I had crossed, and in the center was a plain metal sword.

This could only be the Sword of Ice, although it looked a little small to be a thing of legend. The hilt and blade were both free of decoration. It was a good, solid sword. I could easily imagine swinging it in battle, as though the protection it offered were practical instead of magical. It seemed a prosaic thing with which to secure my future with Gisela. I reached one hand out to touch it.

Then I was rubbing my wrist where a strong hand had slapped it out of the way. “Don’t be a fool. If you touch that now, you’ll stick till thaw.”

I was cold and tired and frustrated at receiving a lecture instead of the target of my quest. I turned, meaning to warn the servant that it was wise to keep a civil tongue in her head when talking to royalty.

I received two distinct shocks in almost as many seconds.

The young woman in front of me was almost certainly not a servant. I didn’t know what she was. She wore good wool with little decoration, cut well, but I hardly noticed her clothes.

Her face had all my attention. It was formed from the same clear ice that encased the sword. Skin and hair, eyes and bone were all transparent. I could see the wall through her head, which was why it took me a moment to take in the second striking thing about her.

I had seen her before. She had no coloration to her features, of course, but otherwise, that face had recently become as familiar to me as my sisters’. It was the face I had seen so disturbingly repeated through my trip. Aside from being made of ice, she could have been the wife of any of the helpful princes I had met.

“Have you been following me?” I blushed immediately after saying it. It was silly, but I wasn’t at my best just then. I was thankful when she smiled.

“I think I was here first. I unlatched the door after all.” She put one finger to the side of her chin, her hands the same ice as the rest of her. “But that is original. Usually people just tell me I’m made of ice.”

“Um, yes. So I see.” Her calm helped ease my embarrassment, even as it fed the flame of my curiosity. “Would it be too trite to ask who you are?”

“Well, I suppose we would have to come to that question some time.” It was hard to read the expressions on a transparent face, but I thought her smile faded a little. “The simplest answer is that I’m the guardian of the sword.”

“Are you…,” I realized in time that asking whether she was real might be impolite, “…human?”

“My father thought so, but I think my nurse had doubts from time to time.” The smile was definitely wider now.

I returned it. Strange as she was to look at, she was very easy to talk to. “How did you end up here?”

“Ah, now that’s a long story.” She shook her head. Her hair was in a coronet braid, but a few strands hung free. In a most un-icy fashion, they swayed gently. “I think it’s time to talk about you. Obviously, you’re here for the sword. Prince, farmer, or swineherd?”

“Uh, prince.”

“Curse, princess, or sworn oath?”

I cleared my throat. “Princess.” I suddenly realized how many men had come before me in search of the sword. I’d met some who had failed and seen more who had died. “You said you were the guardian of the sword. What do you do?”

“You mean, how will I stop you from taking the sword? “She put her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. “Do you doubt I could?”

I’d been trained in swordwork from the time I was five, but she was a woman of ice. Despite the warmth of the room, she showed no signs of melting. “I don’t know.”

She threw her head back and laughed. It reminded me of my youngest sister’s laugh, hearty and unforced. “Good answer.

“I told you it isn’t safe for you to touch this now.” She patted the block of ice encasing the sword. “That is the extent of my duties to the sword. The ice protects it. I keep people from making silly mistakes about the ice.”

I considered asking about the Curse of Ice, but looking at her, I thought it might be too personal a question for our short acquaintance. “It isn’t safe to touch it now. When will it be safe?”

She ran one finger over the ice and cocked her head. “When the thaw comes.”

“I have to wait for spring?” Visions of Gisela stewing in her father’s castle for the winter assailed me. I hoped that her new maid was unusually entertaining. Otherwise, there were plenty of young men who would be happy to do their best.

“I think…” She held up her hand. “Listen.”

I was glad of the large fireplaces. Despite the thick walls, I could hear the wind raging outside. “I’d be here until spring anyway, wouldn’t I?”

She shrugged. “There’s always the possibility of a very mild winter, but I haven’t seen one yet.”

I didn’t ask her how long she’d been here. There’d be plenty of time for conversation. I held out my hand. “My name is Conradin, although my friends and family call me Con. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She avoided my hand and dropped into a light and graceful curtsey that would make my older sisters envious. “Likewise, Conradin. My name is Ludovica. Let me show you to your rooms.”

***

I discovered quickly that Ludovica and I were alone in the palace. I tended the fire in my room and my own night pot, but she saw to everything else.

Meals appeared at regular intervals–porridge and sausages in the mornings, simple dishes for nooning, and formal dinners. She served fresh fruit and vegetables, but as magic, fresh food in the dead of winter seemed feeble compared to the woman who served it.

We ate in the dining hall to begin with. It was nearly as big as the room I’d first seen, which turned out to be the main hall of the palace. Filling the dining hall was a table three times the size of any I’d seen, even at Gisela’s father’s court. Conversation would have been difficult across the width of the table, but Ludovica set places for us at opposite ends of its long length.

It was only in the evenings after dinner, when we came together in the main hall, that I had opportunity to talk to Ludovica. She spoke well and wittily, without flirtation. Her education had obviously been excellent, although she was out of touch with the affairs of the world.

“Conradin, tell me what goes on beyond the palace gates,” she demanded one night near midwinter. We didn’t keep close track of the calendar. She was leaning on the edge of a chair, her chin in her hands. “Have there been any great battles of late?”

I considered. “Harald of Terrant and Sophia of Dambes have spent the last th
ree years warring in the hills between them over which of them owns the sheep pastured there. Sophia was close to winning when I left, but I don’t know whether there are any sheep left. Actually, I’m not sure the land will still support sheep after the fighting.”

Ludovica snorted and frowned. I was getting better at reading her expressions, although firelight playing over and through ice was still distracting.

“I was thinking of something more heroic.” She shifted in her chair. “What about monsters? Has anyone awakened any dragons lately?”

She looked so eager for excitement, I was sorry to disappoint her. “It’s been so long since anyone has seen a dragon that many people believe they are only creatures of myth.”

She sat up. “No gryphons or basilisks either?”

I shook my head.

“But you believe in them, don’t you, Conradin?”

I felt sorry for this young woman, who must lead a very dull life alone here. I realized that even the novelty of being made of ice would have to pall in time. Still, it was hard to believe in something I had never seen. “I don’t know.”

“You’ve said that before.” She leaned back in her chair and looked at me skeptically.

Conversation lagged for a time. I felt that I had disappointed her, and it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. I might have worried over the consequences of disappointing Gisela, but I wasn’t sure I would have felt the fault so personally. I told myself it was because Gisela had half a court to cheer her, while Ludovica had only me.

Her voice shook me from my reverie. There was something in it I hadn’t heard before, a tension that made me wary. “Conradin, what part do women play in the world these days? Does Sophia fight her own battles, or does she rely on her men to fight them for her?”

I knew I was on untested ground. “I don’t believe that Sophia was ever taught to wield a sword,”–no women were in my experience, certainly no royal women–“so I doubt she risks herself in battle. Her people would miss her if she were to be killed or injured. From everything I hear, she is a fine ruler.”

Ludovica’s voice was demanding. “But Harald rides to battle?”

I laughed long and hard. I only stopped when I saw Ludovica’s face. “Harald must weigh upwards of three hundred pounds and has been known to hire manicurists away from his nobles. I don’t believe he’s been on a horse since he was a boy.”

It was Ludovica’s turn to laugh. The tension drained from the conversation. “Fair enough. Still, I suppose that fighting is still generally considered a man’s skill.”

I nodded. “I don’t know many women who would want to learn the sword.”

She tilted her head. “Do you know any?”

I discovered I did. “My youngest sister maybe, Adela. She’s never said as much, but she always wanted to know what I learned in my lessons.” I thought about it, surprised. “She might even be good at it. She learned to dance far more quickly than I did, and she has good reflexes.”

Ludovica smiled. “I’d like to meet Adela. I think I’d like her.”

“We all do, even Mother, who despairs of finding her a ‘proper’ husband when she’s of age.” I hesitated. I was still a bit in awe of the creature in front of me, although she’d never been anything but friendly. “And I think she’d like you. You remind me a little of her.”

That earned me the biggest smile I’d ever seen on Ludovica. “I think I like you too.”

It was shortly after that conversation that I persuaded Ludovica that we could take our meals in the main hall. There was a smaller table in one corner that, while it wouldn’t support all the trappings of a formal dinner, did allow us to talk over our meal.

By that time, I had thoroughly explored the palace. It was as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside, if not exactly designed for comfort. All the rooms were sized for small giants. There were books here and there, but it wasn’t in my nature to sit still for long. Aside from the architecture, there wasn’t much to occupy my days but dreaming about Gisela–and worrying. Meals and a pleasant companion were a welcome respite.

It took longer to get Ludovica to let me help with her tasks around the palace. The fires came first. I insisted. Watching her reach her icy hand into the flames made me wince. I could never get over the conviction that she would melt away before my eyes.

So I chopped and hauled wood and kept the palace warm. There was sweeping to do and scullery work. Ludovica had to teach me, but it was nice to have active work to keep me busy.

Sharing the chores of keeping the palace running gave us more time to talk. Remembering Ludovica’s hunger for the world outside, I exerted myself to be entertaining, putting to use skills I’d learned courting Gisela. Ludovica easily held up her end of the conversation. She’d read the books I’d scorned, and her discussion of the odd and amusing things she’d found in them made me wonder what I’d missed by not reading more.

I hadn’t forgotten about the sword or my reward for winning it, but the first signs of spring on the mountain didn’t make me as happy as they would have in the fall. I knew there had to be more to gaining the sword than waiting. I hadn’t forgotten about the curse.

There was also an unacknowledged question deep in my heart as to whether what I’d gain when I left with the sword would equal what I’d leave behind me. I’d spent much of the winter thinking about what Gisela was doing to pass the time without me. The never-ending parties, balls, games and flirtations had been easy to imagine.

Ludovica, on the other hand, constantly surprised me. She’d asked one day to borrow my sword. It was big for her, but she had wielded it proficiently. If we’d had another sword, she would have served quite well as a sparring partner to keep my skills honed. We caught each other looking at the Sword of Ice and laughed, knowing we’d both had the same thought.

In our rambling conversations, we often spoke of the business of ruling countries. Her perspective on the subject wasn’t always in line with my own, but once she explained her thoughts on something, I agreed with her at least as often as not. I found myself considering responsibilities that even my father hadn’t impressed on me.

This was how I discovered she was a princess. I’d suspected it for some time, but she finally confirmed it. In one of our discussions, she’d said something about “my father,” when she was obviously referring to a king. She hadn’t noticed her slip, and I hadn’t pointed it out.

She was still unwilling to talk about her past, changing the subject or quickly discovering something that needed to be done elsewhere in the palace whenever it came up. As I would rather talk with her about the color of the walls than lose her company, I didn’t press her.

Then came the day that the snow was gone from all but the most shadowed corners of the palace yards. The ground was mostly firm again, and we took a walk together after nooning to enjoy the air. I can’t say the walk was a success. I was preoccupied, thinking about Gisela, beautiful and shallow, and Ludovica, funny and wise–and cursed.

I don’t know what Ludovica was thinking, but she was as quiet as I during the walk. When we went back indoors, we separated by silent consent. I wanted to think.

I spent my time in the main hall, staring at the block of ice. I’d forgotten it for days at a time over the winter. It didn’t appear to be melting yet, but with spring having arrived outside, the appointed moment would have to arrive soon. I should be glad, impatient, but I only felt troubled. When it was time to build up the fire in the kitchen and help prepare dinner, I still hadn’t found the answer to my question.

Dinner was silent enough that we could have eaten at the long table. But when it was done and cleared and we sat before the fire again, Ludovica took a deep brea
th. “Conradin, there’s something I should have told you earlier.”

The sensations in my middle made me wish I hadn’t just eaten. I was wary, hopeful, elated, terrified. “What?”

Ludovica ignored the tremor in my voice, or maybe she didn’t hear it. “It’s about the Sword of Ice.” Another deep breath. “It…the thaw…it doesn’t happen just because it’s spring.”

My jaw dropped open, more at my own stupidity than at the revelation. Of course. If the ice simply melted every spring, there wouldn’t be any sword left for me to take back to Gisela. That was, assuming I still wanted to.

With that, another thought occurred to me that should have long before. “What happens to you?” I gestured vaguely toward the block. “I mean, when that ice melts…?”

She shrugged. I couldn’t read her expression. “The thaw is the thaw. All the ice melts together.”

I was horrified. I reached out and touched the back of her hand where it gripped the arm of her chair. “I–I don’t need the sword. I don’t want it. Is there anything I can–“

I pulled my fingers back and blinked at them. Ludovica was looking too. She’d been warm to the touch, but my fingers were cooling now. They were wet.

I didn’t know what to do. I stared at her with wide eyes. I’d seen her reach that hand into a fire, fire that had singed the hair off my knuckles, without damage. But a simple touch…. Had I done something wrong, or was it the thaw coming?

“Ludov–“

She jumped from the chair and fled the room. I wanted to follow her but thought I’d already done enough damage.

I went to look at the sword. As I watched the ice for any sign of melting, I knew I’d already made up my mind. Curse or no curse, even if I could never touch her again, it was Ludovica I wanted.

She was vital where Gisela was merely hungry. She’d taught me about the necessary traits for a good ruler and helped me find them in myself. She hadn’t once complained about the life she was forced to lead, no matter how it must have grated against her gregarious nature. If Gisela had been in her place….

I winced at the image. In that brief moment my eyes were closed, I heard the sound I’d been dreading–a splash. A drop of water had splattered across the floor. As I stared at it, another fell.

I had to find Ludovica. She shouldn’t be alone for this. And with so little time left, I wanted to spend it all with her.

I rushed for the door–and almost collided with her in the doorway. She still looked solid. There was no water on her collar or her skirt where she held it up as she hurried. Maybe there was still a chance. Maybe–please.

“Ludovica, I’m sorry.” I gasped out the words. “There has to be something I can do. Just tell me. I don’t want the sword. I don’t want Gisela. I just want you.”

She laughed then, the last thing I expected her to do, and threw her arms around my neck. “That was what I hoped you’d say.” Then she kissed me.

It was warm and cold and very, very wet. I don’t remember much else about it now, despite the fact that I spent most of it trying to brand every last second into my memory.

Eventually, I heard the sword clang onto the floor behind me. Ludovica was still solid in my arms. I opened my eyes.

The ice was gone. In its place was a lovely young woman. She wasn’t as breathtakingly beautiful as Gisela, but I didn’t want her to be. It was so much more than enough that she was still there.

I knew her features already, or thought I did, but color made a world of difference to her. Her eyes, which had looked so serene, were black and merry. Her skin was brown and rosy. Now that I wasn’t looking through her, I could tell that her mouth had a little quirk on one side that made it look as though she was always about to smile.

Her hair was a dark warm brown. It, like the rest of us both, was completely soaked.

“Like what you see?” She was smiling in earnest now.

“Like it? Ludovica, I–“

She put one hand to my lips. “Con, there is something we should get straight.” She dropped it and kissed me again. “My friends call me Dovi.”

I don’t see that it’s anyone’s business what happened for the next several minutes. Eventually, we found ourselves drying in front of the fire. Dovi–I liked the name; it said things about her that Ludovica only hinted at–was finally satisfying my curiosity about the curse.

“Mother never in her life considered even touching a sword, but somehow, she understood how I felt about it. Father just wanted me married and off his hands.

“I’ll never know how she did it, but she persuaded him to let me undertake a quest.” She smiled again. I didn’t think I’d ever tire of that smile. “It might have had something to do with the fact that I’d just scared off another bunch of suitors. In any case, I’d come all this way, past a haunted river, a dragon, three elves who thought they were funny, a couple of talking trees…well, you know.”

I did. They were all still there, except the dragon. I was terrifyingly glad she didn’t think I was too young for her.

“I expected to have to charm a magical guardian or solve an odd puzzle before I could get the charmed water I’d come for. Instead, I had to deal with a crotchety old wizard who was incensed that a ‘girl’ would come to him, expecting to take what a bunch of ‘men’ hadn’t.”

“I think he’d probably been turned down by a ‘girl’ and was just a little bitter.” She smiled and leaned her head on my shoulder. “He pointed at me and muttered. I don’t think all of it was spell casting. The next thing I knew, my sword was encased in a block of ice, the hut I’d been standing in was a monstrous palace, and I felt funny.”

Then it struck me. “That’s your sword?”

“Thought it was the ‘Sword of Ice,’ didn’t you?” Dovi snuggled closer. “I think that was the wizard’s joke. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be the Sword of Ice. He was so sure I was never going to melt. He really didn’t know much about ‘girls.'”

I spent some time then convincing her that I didn’t think she was remotely icy.

She came home to my father’s kingdom with me. The palace dwindled again to a stone hut as we stepped outside.

None of the failed princes recognized her when we passed though, but she knew them. The stories she told me about them made me understand why she’d never melted. They’d fallen in love with the romance of her situation, not with her. Looking at the substitutes they’d found for themselves, I knew they’d never even gotten to know her. I felt sorry for them. They seemed happy with their sweet-faced, sweet-tempered, ice-colored wives, but I had Dovi.

Dovi and Adela got along as well as I thought they would. The first sword lesson settled that.

And it may have been a wizard’s invention to keep men coming to the palace, but the prophesy about the Sword of Ice making a kingdom invincible came true. Two years after my father died, Gisela’s pretty husband decided to invade, to take by force what hadn’t been awarded to her by marriage.

Adela and Dovi came across the first scouting party while out riding. They fought the surprised group of men to a standstill and took their leader hostage. It was the warning we needed not to be overrun. Between that and the speech Dovi gave the men before the first battle, it was the shortest war I’ve ever heard tell of.

That suited us just fine. We had plenty else to do. We were busy living happily ever after.

Final Exam

What do you get for the guy who doesn’t like having a big deal made of his birthday? Well, when he’s an incorrigible teacher who enjoys stories, maybe you give him a story about teaching and learning. Well, I do anyway. No idea what you’re giving him.

Final Exam

As Serena approached the little wooden cottage on the edge of the school grounds where tests were always given, she saw Master Dominic sitting at a desk outside the door. He was scribbling something, as usual, with occasional pauses to tap his pen against his lips as he thought. Serena frowned and stopped humming her new tune.

She wished anyone but Dom-Dom were overseeing her final exam. She didn’t know why he didn’t like her, but he clearly didn’t. When he saw who was coming, his thick black brows drew close together. He slumped heavily into his chair, the wilting effect enhanced by his height. It didn’t make her nervous, exactly, but it didn’t improve her mood.

He sighed. “So, you think you’re ready for this?”

This was just too unfair. Worse than Dom-Dom’s dislike was his persistent belief that she was incompetent. No one else at the school seemed to think so. Her teachers consistently rated her highly, and other students often came to her for help. If she wasn’t ready, who was? She straightened her back. “I’ve always been one of the best students in this school, Master Dominic. I don’t see why that should change now.”

Master Dominic stared at her for a moment before grunting. “Perhaps.”

His admission was grudging. Serena knew she wouldn’t get a response if she asked him why. He’d just grunt again.

His long arm gestured toward the doorway beside him. “Instructions are on the table. Everything you need for the spell is there. Yell if you get into trouble.”

Serena walked past him into the cottage without a response. Trouble? She’d miss a lot about the school once she graduated. She would not miss Dom-Dom.

After closing the door, she leaned her back against it and tried to relax. He always had that effect on her.

Once the first burst of anger passed, she wondered whether it was part of the test. Spells required concentration, and her teachers had always warned her that once she left the school, there would be more distractions to deal with. Maybe they wanted to know she could handle them. Serena went to a window for one more look at the old school building while she gave her emotions a chance to settle. If everything went well, this was the last time she’d see it as a student.

It was a sturdy, sprawling thing, two stories of gray brick roofed with slate. The front, which she couldn’t see from here, held its only pretension to decoration, with sculpted stone pediments over the windows and door. The building was far too aware of its own dignity to be really inviting, but six years of happy memories made it beautiful to Serena.

The back consisted of two stark wings sheltering a large courtyard. Girls were in the wing closest to Serena and boys in the far wing. Serena thought the arrangement was intended to keep the students segregated after hours, but her theory wasn’t well supported by personal experience. If they wanted to keep students from sneaking around, they shouldn’t teach the spell of silence to third-years.

Smiling at memories of midnight parties that would have made her teachers shake their heads, Serena turned her back on the school. She calmly approached the broad blond wood table, the main feature in the cottage. It held a single large square of paper. There was no title, just a short list of ingredients and instructions roughly centered on the page. She read it through, stopping at the end to briefly decipher the key word.

Then she sat back and blinked in confusion. This was her final exam, the test that would determine her place in the world? Admittedly, from the length of the last word, it would require some power from her. She’d have to be precise and careful. But the spell seemed awfully simple.

She read it through again. It didn’t get any harder. Annoyed again despite her best intentions, she set herself to learning the key word. Even if the rest of the spell was simple, this could take some time.

It wasn’t that it was long, or even hard to pronounce. It contained at most six characters. (Serena carefully traced each character on the table, covering the rest with the fingers of her left hand as she worked. Yes, there were six.) But the language of magic contained more concentrated truth than most human brains could hold at once. It powered the spell and was liable to trip her up unless she treated it very cautiously.

Even here, the school had saved her some time. She wouldn’t have to write it out during the spell, since her instructions told her to use the paper it was written on. She’d only have to say it.

As she practiced under her breath, her mouth grew warm, as though she were eating the heavily gingered pears that were the specialty of the school’s cook. So she was right. The spell had to do with fire.

When Serena felt confident in the word, she memorized the rest of the spell. She suspected it would disturb a lot of the students to use the paper as part of the spell instead of having it next to them for reference, but she preferred to work from memory. The way she did it felt more magical, at least to her. And she could use her music.

Serena was a musician as well as a magician. She sang the old tunes and composed her own to share with friends. The choice between studying magic and music had been difficult. Left to herself, Serena might have chosen music. However, she’d only been thirteen when the time had come to choose, and her parents had considered magic the rarer and more valuable skill.

She hadn’t quite been able to abandon music, though. She practiced whenever she could spare time from her studies.

She sometimes wondered whether that was what irked Master Dominic. When she made her rare mistakes, he obviously relished telling her she’d chosen her field poorly. And he often railed against the school for allowing students to waste time on their “trifling hobbies” when they should be studying magic.

Still, if Dom-Dom was obsessed by magic to the exclusion of everything else, Serena didn’t see that she had to be. After all, she’d found a way for the music to help her learn the magic.

She assigned each ingredient of a spell a short line of melody based on her associations with it. The arrangement of the ingredients became simple harmonies. She turned every spell into a tune that would be complete only when all the elements were in their places. One piece flowed into another, making it nearly impossible for her to forget what came next.

Dominic was the only teacher who didn’t seem impressed by Serena’s memory. He was patient with other students who had to grope their way through remembering spells, but he seemed to resent her ready answers. He always asked her–and only her–questions from outside the lessons, and his criticism was harsh when she didn’t have answers.

It wasn’t just her studies where he held her to a ridiculous standard either. Just over a year ago, an hourglass she’d used in a spell had come apart in her hand as she was putting it away. It had, of course, happened under Dom-Dom’s ever-watchful eye. It had been the occasion of one of his periodic rants about taking care of materials and planning for adverse events. As though she could have planned for an hourglass nearly as old as the school itself choosing that exact time to disintegrate.

Serena shook her head and concentrated on converting the exam spell to music, setting aside her grievance with Dominic. The spell seemed simple, but the tune it suggested to her was unusual. Most of the spells she’d learned were very structural, balancing diverse elements to form something new.
The tunes she built from them tended to be lyrical and layered with complexity.

This spell was very straightforward. The tune had two main themes, repeated one after the other with slight variations when each new element came into play. It was almost a march. It definitely suggested a single purpose, building by repetition to the point where the key word would be inserted.

Serena didn’t know how the key word would fit into the music of the spell. She never did until she worked the spell. It was one of the things about the language of magic that still defied her understanding.

Curious now and eager to find out how her song would end, Serena moved away from the table. She turned her attention to the plain cupboards that lined the walls of the cottage. They contained nearly everything anyone could want for a spell. It was an embarrassment of riches for a student. She hummed her new tune as she collected what she would need.

She’d spent enough time here to know where some of the more common items were kept. The candle was easy to find, although she had to rummage for an orange one. It wasn’t a typical color for magic. The spices lined the bottom of a cupboard hung with bundles of dried herbs.

She let her hand linger over another drawer, this one a jumble of minerals, while she decided what size piece of copper seemed appropriate. The one she chose was already polished, suggesting she wasn’t the first student that day to think it looked promising. After pausing briefly to hope the first student had passed, she dug for a piece of pyrite about the same size.

Other items took more work. She had to take a knife to a log by the fireplace to get the bark she needed. She nearly cut herself trying to find the right piece of glass buried in the drawer full of cotton batting, although the batting that stuck to her hand in the process was enough for the spell.

She stopped to laugh over the neatly labeled bag of dandelion fluff, then carried a firmly clasped handful back to the table. She had everything. Reading the spell through one last time, she made sure she had the harmony fixed firmly in her mind. With a deep breath, she decided she was ready.

Serena knew which direction was which after six years at the school, but now was not the time to get overconfident. She sang out the magical word for east.

The word echoed back to her from the surfaces of the room, robbed in every case of one piece of its meaning or another. It lacked the nuances of unknown places, creeping shadow, or sun. From the direction she expected came no answer that she could comprehend, and she turned to face that way.

She hummed her song only in her mind now. Holding the tallow candle like a pen, blunt end to the paper, she drew a line from the magical word toward the east. Then she drew six more lines leading out from the word like rays, tracing the seventh line directly over the first.

The pyrite was the first piece she laid down, faceted gold at the end of the eastern ray. The bark went opposite, cut into thin strips and covering the length of the western ray.

She moved counterclockwise by one ray to prop three tiny orange dried peppers up on their bases. If she’d had any doubt that this spell was meant to draw fire, the sight would have convinced her otherwise. On their ends, even leaning, they already looked like flames, and she knew how they tasted.

She paired the dandelion fluff with the peppers, trying not to breathe on it. She arranged the bright chunk of copper and a line of batting. Then she set a lens, a beautiful, dark red piece of glass, carefully over the word. She stuck the remains of the candle to its center.

She was sweating now, whether from the spell or with concentration she didn’t know. It had been difficult to move slowly, to be as precise as she knew she needed to be. The simplicity of the spell and the compelling nature of the tune she’d created had tried to rush her along. Even now, as she was about to see the completion of her last spell at the school, she couldn’t pause to appreciate the moment.

She said the word. It rang in her mind like a bell and the candle blossomed into flame.

But there was a problem. The song didn’t end. Instead of dying off, the sound of the bell kept pulsing. Serena thought it was growing louder. She looked at the table.

The whole top of the candle was burning, not just the wick. As Serena watched, wax puddled at the base of the candle, split into three rivulets, and reached toward the edge of the lens. It was slow, but it showed no sign of stopping.

She didn’t want to think what would happen when it reached the edge of the paper. Spell paper was impervious to nearly anything, but as far as she knew, the table and the rest of the cottage were made of simple wood. It would burn beautifully.

She had to do something. She doubted that smothering the fire physically would work, not with the word still ringing in her head. She needed a counterspell.

Serena hesitated, knowing she didn’t have time for it. A counterspell meant asking Master Dominic for help and confirming his poor opinion of her. It might even mean failing, although she’d followed the spell exactly.

She’d never failed at a spell before, and the idea made her stomach ache. She couldn’t have rushed that badly, could she? She felt ill.

She bit her lip. The school had created the test. That meant there had to be something she could still do to pass. There had to be another choice besides getting Master Dominic’s help.

Wax continued to run down the candle as she thought. The bell continued to pulse in her mind’s ear. It was definitely louder.

She’d always built songs out of spells. Could she do the opposite? She had a fair grasp of what needed to happen musically to resolve this song. Could she create a spell from that? Creating spells wasn’t anything the school had taught them, but the teachers did keep telling them that real life was different from school. If nothing else, it gave her something to try before calling Master Dominic.

The first thing she needed was something to stop the belling from growing forever.

She remembered seeing dried lake weeds in her search for spell ingredients. They were the long rubbery weeds she hated when swimming. They felt so substantial wrapping around her legs, she was always afraid she’d be trapped. She hoped they could hold the spell she’d just performed.

She pulled the three most flexible leaves out of the cabinet where they hung next to the herbs and brought them back to the table. Tracing their fluted edges with her finger, she arranged them in a circle outside her diagram, the ends of the weeds overlapping.

That would give the fire something to do. The pulsing of the word should find an echo in the smaller rippling of the weed and should follow it around the circle. The march continued, but now it doubled back on itself. Its energy fed into moving rather than growing.

It would keep the fire from pressing on toward the edge of the paper, but how long would it hold? The wax was creeping down the three rays that she hadn’t covered. It had reached a third of the way, and the heat was already intense. She had to do something to make the weeds resist it.

She drummed her fingers on the table, impatient and frustrated.

She wanted something with a tie to the original spell. It would make a more pleasant song, and Serena often found that those indicated the most powerful spells. She’d found something green to counter the hot colors of the original spell, water to counter fire. What else did she need to counter?

Her eyes lit on the peppers. She headed back to the spice cabinet. She didn’t see anything obvious and she didn’t want to waste time digging. She moved to the next cabinet, which held bottled brews. There she found what she needed.

Back at the table, she poured a little peppermint
oil over her finger. She sniffed it, then touched it to her tongue. Bracingly cool, but not as strong as the peppers.

Again she traced the edges of the weeds, coating them liberally with the light green oil. She hoped quantity would make up for lack of intensity. In her mind, a cheerful little icy melody cut across the remaining sound of the word, competing with it, robbing it of its place of prominence.

That done, she looked at the remaining elements of the original spell. The wax was more than halfway out the rays. There was about a third of the candle left. She told herself to think faster.

The candle, bark, batting and fluff were all fuels. She could counter them with anything that wouldn’t burn.

How about the minerals? The pyrite would spark if struck with a knife. The copper conducted heat. The glass lens concentrated the light and heat of the sun.

So she wanted an opaque mineral, something that wouldn’t feed, create or transmit fire. Ideally, it would be something she could make a barrier from. Stopping the spell might not be enough if the fire kept burning on its own. If it had associations with water, all the better.

Serena grinned with relief and stepped away from the table. She was glad of Dom-Dom’s unfair lecture now. Without it, she might not have remembered. The black sand from the broken hourglass was just what she needed.

At the time, she’d swept the sand back into the hourglass and jammed the lid back on. She found it where she’d shoved it in the back of a cabinet, Dom-Dom’s words still ringing in her ears. The lid came off as easily as she remembered and she shot a dirty look at the cottage door in passing.

She poured the sand onto the table, circling the leaves and staying just inside the edge of the paper. Then she spread it out in an even layer. She pushed some of it under the leaves. Working quickly, she kept one eye on the shrinking candle. The sand created a variation on the theme of the other minerals, but this time the march shuffled its feet.

The bell was nearly buried in her new music. Now she just needed another key word to finish her counterspell. It needed to be something she knew. She didn’t have time to look something up and practice it. It should be the smallest change she could invoke. She didn’t have the energy to deal with more unintended consequences.

She thought of a word and traced it onto the bare table. She silently rehearsed the pronunciation, keeping one eye on the candle. Just before the flame reached the pooled wax on the lens, she wrote in the sand and said the word–hold.

It cut itself off in her mouth.

Then the last of the candle was gone. The flame covered the lens with a quiet whoosh and shot up into the air. It stopped just short of the ceiling. Then it raced down the six rays. When the fire reached the ends of the rays, it flared again. With a loud pop, the elements of the test spell that she had so carefully assembled had disappeared. There was only fire left, one large flame in the center and six hungry, reaching arms.

They quickly came to the weeds. There they paused. Tall flames lunged toward the leaves and retreated. Forward and back. Forward and back. Nearly dancing.

Then they turned. They followed the leaves, bobbing in synch with the rippled edges until there was a circle of dancing flames.

The song ended with a chord that resolved all the themes she had created.

Serena watched long enough to see that the fire was no longer growing, the weeds not blackening or shriveling. Then she closed her eyes in relief. Her legs shook.

She had told her spell to hold, using the word that meant to simply contain, embrace without smothering. It had held. She’d passed.

She opened the door to the cottage and walked around the desk. “Master Dominic, I’m done.”

Dom-Dom had been starting to get up, but he sat back down. He looked startled. “Already?”

Had it only felt like the test took forever? Serena nodded.

His expression was stern. “Fire properly started?”

“Quite.” Serena suppressed a smile.

He raised his eyebrows. “No damage to the cottage or the table?”

She blinked at his disbelief and reminded herself she wouldn’t have to deal with him again. She’d passed. She made her tone firm. “None.”

Master Dominic settled back into his chair, and it was Serena’s turn to be startled. He smiled at her for the first time in her six years at the school. “Congratulations.”

“I, uh,” Serena didn’t know what to say. “Thank you?”

He laughed and rubbed one earlobe. “I suppose I earned that.” He gestured at the chair next to her.

As much as she was in no condition to stand, she sat down gingerly. She wondered what was coming next. How many shocks could she handle in a day? She promptly got another.

“Serena, I owe you an apology.”

She blinked dumbly, and Dominic went on.

“You’re very bright but not the first bright student in this school.”

She frowned. “Of course not.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. All too often, I meet students who think being bright makes them incredibly special. It’s their ticket out of working as hard as the other students.” He smiled ruefully. “I thought you were one of those students.”

Dominic stood up and paced behind the desk. “You were always singing instead of studying. You knew what I told you to learn and not one word more. It bothered me that you were willing to be just as good as everyone else when you could have been much better.”

She took a deep breath. She’d never looked at it that way, but there was some uncomfortable truth to his words. “I–“

He held up a hand. “I told you, I owe you an apology. I misjudged you. We teachers are human too, you know. That’s part of the reason for this test.”

“I…what?”

“After six years of working with students, we know which of you can handle what level of magic. We see it every day.” Dominic sat back down.

“If that were all there was to magic, we could just send each of you out the door with a reasonably large spellbook of the right level. We want to know which of you have the capacity for more. That takes curiosity, which can’t be taught but can be learned. It’s also ridiculously difficult to measure in a classroom, when you’re all learning the basics.”

Serena didn’t understand. “The test measures curiosity?”

“In part. And a good thing, too.” Dominic ran one hand through his salted black hair. “If it had been up to me, I’d have said you’d never get curious enough to flip the paper over and read the counterspell on the back.”

The world wobbled a little. Serena clutched at the chair seat to steady herself. Her ears buzzed.

“Are you all right?”

She took a deep breath and looked at Master Dominic. “There’s a counterspell on the back?”

As the words sank in, Master Dominic was on his feet and in the cottage. It was several minutes before he came out. Serena had plenty of time to wonder what she could do with her life now.

“What did you do?” His words were very quiet.

I failed, she thought. It hurt as much as she’d thought it might. “I used another spell to hold the first one.”

“Where did you find it?”

“I made it up.” She might as well own up to the worst. “Master Dominic, you were right about me. I didn’t find it. I’ve never looked at a spellbook that wasn’t assigned. It never occurred to me to turn the paper over.” She bowed her head and waited for one of his famous lectures.

“You made it up?”

She nodded at the ground. He was being very gentle with her and she couldn’t stand it. “I’ve failed, haven’t I?”

“Well, I think we’d like you to stay at the school for a bit.”

Serena had never heard of a student being held back after a final exam. “You mean I’m not even ready to go out
and practice magic?”

“I don’t know that I’d say that.” Dominic sounded suspiciously cheerful.

Serena looked up to see him grinning. She wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign or a bad one. “What do you mean?”

“None of us know the spell you used in there.” He shook his head, his eyes wide, before focusing on Serena again. “And I think we’d all like to know how a student who,” he wagged his finger at her, but he was still grinning, “admittedly doesn’t study any harder than she has to managed to come up with such an elegant counterspell.”

She hadn’t failed? Serena let it sink in. She’d even done something Dominic wanted to analyze. She hadn’t failed. “I’ll stay if you think I have something to teach you.”

“And maybe something still to learn?” Dominic’s smile was softer now, more friendly.

Serena felt herself smiling back. She nodded.

They shook hands across the desk.

The Plan

Apropos of this post over at Greg’s, which made me think I really needed to pull this story out again, and yesterday’s music, which reminded me I hadn’t done it yet, here’s a little tale for you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The Plan

Lauren sat behind her big mahogany desk and let her hand linger over her mouse. Everything was ready. A simple three-sentence message sat on her screen. She was tempted to just press the button, but she’d been working toward this moment for the last twelve years. She wanted to savor her inevitable triumph just a moment longer.

The whole improbable thing had started one lovely spring day. She’d been skipping work. Twenty-seven years old, VP of Operations for one of the world’s largest research and development firms, and she’d been bored. It had been eight months since she’d taken over, and already she had things running well enough that the job didn’t need her personal direction for more than ten hours a week. Put the right people in the right places and let them do what you hired them to do. How simple could it be?

Okay. It was simple for her, which had been her ticket to success. She’d worked her way through a number of smaller companies until she reached the one she thought she’d wanted.

The problem was, she made it look easy, too. Coombs and Haggerty, CEO and President of Transvent LLC respectively, were starting to think they could replace her with one of those old fashioned, seat-in-chair, hold-lots-of-meetings types. She’d been out of the office too much lately. Any more and they were hinting they’d be forced to take notice.

But that spring she didn’t care. She was curled up in the big plush armchair in her living room, tea cooling on the table next to her and a tiny gray cat sleeping peacefully in her lap. She was deep into the latest biography of Stalin. It was much more compelling than a job that didn’t need her because she’d done it right the first time.

Finally, she finished and closed the book she’d bought the afternoon before. She stretched, displacing Meep, who grumbled and disappeared in search of whatever cats prowl for in the middle of the day. Probably a sunbeam. Lauren turned the book over and looked at Stalin’s picture on the cover.

“Fruit bat,” she said to the unsmiling face staring back at her.

She got up and put the book on the shelf with the other histories and biographies she collected. Mao, Attilla, Selim the Grim, Chandragupta, Genghis, Ahuitzotl, Hitler and so many more. She’d always been fascinated by these would-be world leaders, but she had to admit, as she looked at the shelf, that they were all fruit bats. Not a single sane one in the bunch.

Neurotics and paranoiacs, full of superstition and mystical thinking. At the very least, every person profiled on that shelf was arguably a megalomaniac, which probably explained why none of them had ever succeeded in their common goal of conquering the world. Imagine what the world would be like, she thought, if any one of them had been reasonably rational. Imagine….

Lauren drifted absently back to her chair and curled up in her favorite thinking pose. After staring into a corner of the ceiling for about half an hour, she grabbed the yellow legal pad that always sat on her end table and started taking notes. She could barely write fast enough to keep up with her thoughts.

Four hours later, Lauren discovered she was starving. It was seven thirty and she hadn’t eaten yet. There were papers all over her floor, her hand and neck hurt, and she had an ink stain on her middle finger where the pen had leaked. The plan needed some refinements, but it was essentially complete. She laughed at it and went to make dinner.

She went into work early the next day. There still wasn’t much needing her attention, and as she sat idle in her office, the plan drifted back into her mind. She dismissed it as soon as she realized she was thinking about it again. She thought of it as the imaginative equivalent of a hangover. The Stalin book really had been good. But with nothing else to keep her busy, the plan kept coming back.

When she got home, she went straight to the notepad, hoping she’d see a hopeless mess of confused ramblings. Instead, she read the plan through and added a couple of notes. “Oh, dear. This just might work.”

After that, Lauren was busier at work, although not necessarily with Transvent business. If Haggerty knew how many of her meetings and calls were with prospective investors, employees and clients, she’d have been out of a job. As it was, he was happy to see her working hard again. Her world ran smoothly, so he let it run with the minimum of attention from him. Between his lack of oversight and her control of Transvent’s shipping contracts, Transvent became one of Go Shipping’s first clients.

Lauren knew she needed some way to extend her influence to every part of the world, something that wouldn’t attract the wrong kind of attention. It had to give her an excuse to interact with the power structure of any country or region. She decided on a shipping company, but she wanted it to be more than just any shipping company. The competition was too fierce and the payoff too small.

Go Shipping was her answer. It would cater to clients who wanted to ship internationally, and it would be expensive. The expense would be justified by Go’s speed–and their willingness to guarantee they would ship anything safely anywhere.

It was a lot to promise, but it was necessary. Lauren had hired the people who could figure out how to deliver.

While she spent quite a bit of time on hooking investors and clients into her new business, and setting up the layers that hid her conflict of interest, the majority of her time in setting up Go was devoted to finding the right people to operate the business. She hired shipping experts first, and they told her what she really needed to know–who else she needed on her payroll.

Then she started interviewing in earnest. Former (and a few current) government officials, relatives close to seats of power, former intelligence and espionage agents, adventurers, rebels and criminals–she spoke to all of them personally.

This was her specialty, her edge. She could weed out the braggarts, looking to go back to glory days they’d never had, claiming influence that wasn’t theirs. She could cull the sadists, sometimes by passing them over and sometimes, if she felt they were too dangerous, by giving them tasks that set them against each other on an otherwise clear field. With persistence, she could also find the few who needed the challenges and rewards that she could offer like a junkie needed drugs.

In six months, Lauren quit Transvent. Go was already turning a profit, and the unadvertised portion of Go’s services needed her. Go was more than an excuse to extend her influence and attention globally. It let her people look at the things people considered important. If something was worth paying a high premium to guarantee it would get to its destination and nowhere else, she wanted to know about it. Intelligence, intellectual property, groundbreaking research all passed through her figurative hands on their journeys.

More important than what her people moved was the knowledge of who had shipped it. Within three years of starting up, Go’s customer list contained almost half the people and organizations that made big things happen. Patterns started to emerge in who sent what where. Lauren had a map of the world’s current hot spots.

Go Shipping was no longer her only venture, although it was her only public one. Even there, her only official title was the same one she’d held at Transvent. Knowing when and where to invest, throug
h those layers of carefully chosen fronts, more than happy to trade her anonymity for their certain profit, was lucrative. Knowing who had something they didn’t want known was priceless. She hired very good accountants to keep it all from being connected with her.

Lauren’s plan was moving forward, but she couldn’t repress a feeling of uneasiness. The possibility of outside interference, of losing the game, didn’t bother her nearly as much as that shelf of books. She tested herself frequently to make sure she was still rational–no dreams of grateful populations showering her with flowers, no new twitches, no delusions that humanity needed her or owed her.

It got harder to be sure the farther in she got, especially as she started gathering the pieces that would put her in power. She tried to keep the pain she caused other people to a minimum, but she knew people would get hurt. She tried to at least make sure they weren’t the good ones–when she felt she could tell the difference.

She couldn’t hide the fact that the work she was doing didn’t always stay on the right side of the law of every country she operated in. But she could and did make sure that every step she took had an apparent motive in addition to the place it played in her grander scheme. That motive was usually monetary, and she made a policy of always having enough reward built into any of her ventures that any official scrutiny could be met with offers to share that reward.

In most places this meant sharing directly with the officials involved, but Lauren was pleased to discover that in many countries, she could buy her way through by digging deeper into the local economy. This gave her more people interested in her well-being, a larger base from which to conduct her operations, and fewer things on her conscience.

Still, she kept her connection to even these operations as secret as she had her earlier investments. Very few people knew who she was, and none of them knew the extent of her influence. When she became the world’s richest person, the occasion passed without fanfare. She didn’t make a single list. But every day, more people in more parts of the world moved to her wishes.

Not all of Lauren’s life flowed as smoothly as her business plans, however. For example, her work was hell on her love life, although the rest her social life was better than ever. Meeting some of the highest caliber minds and most competent individuals alive was terribly stimulating. The least expected bonus of her global venture was meeting more challenging, exciting men than she would have dreamed possible.

Lauren met Jack at an embassy dance in Peru. She’d gone for business, of course, but that had been easily settled before the music began. She thought about leaving, but she recognized a couple of important faces in the crowd, people she really ought to meet.

Jack was the new assistant ambassador from Australia and one of the people on her list. A tall man, he was thin to a point just shy of being gaunt. Time in the sun had added golden brown highlights to his black hair. They caught the light distractingly as she paid him subtle attention until he asked her to dance.

He danced with enough confidence that she knew he enjoyed it, rather than considering it just a useful social skill, as most of the men at these functions did. His clasp on her waist was firm, stopping just short of being proprietary, and she’d never seen blue eyes look as warm as his did as the two of them eased from introductions into small talk.

She knew enough about him to be flattered by his attention, which excluded the rest of the room. He wasn’t ambassador, because he didn’t want the attention and uncertainty that comes with political appointment, but he was widely regarded as the power behind the throne in the embassy. Suddenly the appeal of idle chatter evaporated. Lauren wanted to know this man better.

“So,” she asked, stepping into a pause in the conversation and smiling up at him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Jack laughed, and Lauren was happy she’d asked, even if she didn’t get an answer. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then leaned forward. “Promise you won’t tell?”

She playfully widened her eyes and put a finger to her lips.

He leaned closer still, and Lauren’s heart raced. He murmured just loud enough for her to hear him over the music. “I’ve always dreamed of running a small bed and breakfast. Nothing grand, just a little place where people could relax and spend some happy time.” He stood back up. His smile seemed to mock itself. “Silly, isn’t it?”

“Not at all!” Lauren’s wanted to smooth the scorn off his face. It hurt to see. “It sounds like a lovely idea.”

“Well, I think so, sometimes at least.” He sighed. “And how about you?”

Lauren opened her mouth, then closed it again immediately. She’d almost told him.

Suddenly, she felt like Cinderella must have felt at the ball, trapped, with the clock striking midnight. She couldn’t afford to be unmasked, and she wanted nothing more than to run.

She remembered what the prince had done when Cinderella fled. She stayed.

And she simpered. “Oh, I guess I’m doing what I really want to do. International business is so fascinating, don’t you think? Why, just yesterday, I….” She blathered breathlessly about the most mundane details of her day-to-day business activities for the next three numbers.

When Jack politely excused himself, Lauren was sure he’d forget about her in all of fifteen minutes. It was the first time she regretted embarking on her plan.

She promised herself she was done with fascinating men. It might be different if she weren’t attracted to men like Jack, decent and altogether too competent, the kind of men who would be thoroughly motivated to stop her plan and who were likely to be successful. It was time to stop dating until she was done.

It wouldn’t be that much longer. Strings were starting to find their way into her hands from all over the world. Understanding what people wanted and feared was paying off. Her people were in a position to deliver a third of the world’s leaders to her through a combination of blackmail, extortion, and bribery–very little of it monetary. Difficult countries saw more suitable leaders put in place–by election, appointment, or revolution–with her help. Countries fell under the influence of their neighbors, who were already hers.

She had a moment of worry when she discovered that Jack was investigating her. She wondered whether her performance had been unconvincing or whether he had as much trouble forgetting about their encounter as she did. Fair enough; she’d investigated him. Apparently, she hadn’t left anything she didn’t want found, because nothing came of the investigation.

Eventually, all the strings she needed were hers, just waiting to be pulled. She didn’t kid herself that all her tactics were flawless, but she’d put contingency plans in place anywhere important or unstable enough that she felt she needed firm control right away. She expected a year or two would be needed to consolidate her position, even if almost everything went as anticipated. But it was ready.

Now, as she sat in front of her computer, waiting to push the button that would deliver the world into her hands, Lauren gave her mental health a final check. As far as she could tell, everything was still good. She still liked cats, but she didn’t demand that everyone else do the same. She still hired good people who could do what she needed. She still wanted to keep this as bloodless as possible. She hadn’t developed an evil laugh. She hadn’t confused herself with any gods lately. She still had no intent to make her status as world ruler known.

The last two were the ones she thought were most important. She was still terribly wary of megalomania, afraid that even the attempt to take over the world meant she was nuts. But she didn’t think she
was invincible. She still didn’t want strewn flowers and adoring crowds. She didn’t want to be recognized as the leader of the world, she just wanted to be the leader.

Heck, when it came down to it, who even wanted that? Maintaining all that power, the endless competition, responsibility for all the world’s problems? She didn’t….

Oh, hell.

Lauren pulled her hand away from the mouse. This was a mess, wasn’t it? Twelve years of work, all for something she’d never thought to ask herself whether she’d wanted. She was just lucky she’d never pressed Send.

She wanted to cry, wanted to laugh, wanted to hide under her desk. Instead, she deleted her message and started another. She had a lot to undo and plenty of people to keep in the dark while she did it. This could take years.

Fortunately, she liked complicated problems. And for this one, Lauren thought she’d have help. This was right up Jack’s alley. She hoped he’d still be happy to get her message, brief and oblique as it was. If he didn’t respond to this, well, she was sure she could get his attention somehow.

This time Lauren didn’t hesitate before pushing Send.

Position Wanted

DrugMonkey asked a question about fantasy races in the comments here that made me realize I’ve never really written that kind of fantasy. This story is, I think, the closest I’ve ever come to treating a standard fantasy race in a straightforward way. And even here, I mess with it a bit.

Position Wanted

Charlene stared at the man on the other side of her desk and swallowed hard to keep from drooling. Okay, so from what he was telling her, man wasn’t quite the right word, but it was close enough. The differences were only piling fuel on her already blazing hormones.

He was, well, he was perfect. He was tall, but not too tall. He had nicely developed muscles, without running over into the bulgy, veiny look so many men thought made them sexy. He wore his wavy, sooty black hair just long enough that it threatened to look unruly but never did. Even from across her desk, Charlene could see both green and a rich golden brown in his eyes, which were framed by lashes that went perfectly with the hair. His face, hands and wrists could have been molded by a skilled artist, although that artist would have to spend a fortune on materials to capture the living, warm amber of his skin.

He wore sex appeal like good cologne, just enough to be a constant undercurrent without knocking anyone over at ten paces. Human or not, he stood out against the backdrop of her sleek modern office of steel, leather and glass like a bonfire in a snowdrift.

“Right, so you’re, ah, looking for a job, you said?” Of course he was; why else would he be at a job placement agency? Charlene felt like an idiot, or a thirteen-year-old with a bad crush, for all the difference there was. “Well, um, what kind of, uh, experience do you have?”

The creature across from her smiled, a long slow smile that told her everything she needed to know about that experience–and maybe more than she was ready to deal with. She shivered, not unpleasantly, and noted with fascination that his teeth were pointed. She wondered what that would mean for…

“Look, we just don’t have what anyone would call ‘useful’ experience. That’s our problem.”

Charlene shook herself and turned gratefully to the woman, Danielle, who was sitting next to…oh, dear, she hadn’t really been paying attention when he told her his name. Tyrell, that was it. But Danielle was still talking.

“There’s only one thing we do really well. We were made for it and we’ve been doing it for centuries. But you humans have developed this sex-on-demand society that’s really cutting into our core business.”

“No offense, but I find that hard to believe.” Charlene gestured across the desk. “I mean, look at you.” Danielle was every bit as breathtaking as Tyrell, and Charlene was glad she didn’t go for women, or she’d have been completely incoherent dealing with the both of them. Well, there had been that one night in college, but she didn’t think it really counted if you were drunk.

Danielle smiled at her, a look very similar to the one Tyrell had just worn, and Charlene felt her cheeks getting warm. She hoped very hard that mind reading was not one of the secondary skills of a succubus.

“I won’t say we’re not worth it, but we’re expensive. How many people do you know who would trade their souls for sex these days,” Danielle’s smile got broader, “even really good sex, when sex is everywhere?” [Read more...]