Practice the Forms
Dancers put to movement what writers put to poems, what artists put to canvas, and what musicians put to instruments.
Madame Perla Boucher, Premier Maître de Ballet
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Changes began in small ways for Anna Henly one winter, though she failed to register the first signs. Her family occupied themselves in the cozy and worn family room of Henly House. Her mother and father sat snuggled on the only decent furniture they owned, a white couch, the day’s fatigue showed clearly on their faces. Both worked harder than Anna imagined necessary for two adults trying to raise three children. Her sister read a book on neuroanatomy in the recliner and her brother Mark painted figurines for his game, A Knight’s Quest at the table.
Snow gusted on frosted wind outside. Fog rolled thick from the Mississippi River, across the bike path, concealing the space between Henly House on East River Boulevard and the Hanson & Hanson’s Medical Device factory a mile up, situated off Highway 94 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Fog made it difficult to see more than a foot or two further outside the bay window.
Fissures broke the floral patterned wallpaper in the room. The carpet remained threadbare and stained. The old, Victorian mansion the Henlys called home needed repair.
Cold cut a path through the crevices between the frames of windows and doors to chill 15-year-old Anna. She shivered in the thin fabric of a leotard and tights, in the corner of the family room. Her attention was not on the weather outside or the other members of her family. The pages of “A Technical Manual for Classical Ballet in the French, Italian and Russian Traditions” lay open on the floor in front of her. Pages shuddered in her fingers as they turned. She hugged herself for warmth and read the French instructions first.
Illustrations of ballerinas stared Anna in the face, their arms and legs positioned in various steps, heads and torsos posed gracefully, long and slender compared to her squatter figure. It took most dancers many hours of work each day to build the fine lines of a ballerina. For Anna there were not enough hours to perfect the image of a dancer, so instead she worked on technique, perfecting skill and strength as best she could. It was a long shot, but she had a plan to audition for a company in Wales. Anna had talent to rival a principal dancer according to her private, virtual tutor, Madame Perla Bouchard.
Under each illustration, the author included the name of the position or step in French and gave the step variations from the Russian and Italian schools in English. The book had an alphabetical list in the front and in the back, choreographed notation for popular ballets.
Anna scanned the movements, ballet was a difficult form of dance requiring years of disciplined practice. The most dedicated understood the blood and sweat, the calluses and tears. The most disciplined knew the chances of a career were slim, but Anna dreamed.
Compared to her sister, Anna had to work twice as hard to succeed. Caitlyn, aged 17, read voraciously from a compendium on neuroanatomy and physiology. She planned to study the brain, understood math and science without much thought. It was akin to breathing, automatic for Caitlyn. Comparisons didn’t do much for Anna. A twinge of jealousy flared. Caitlyn had the figure and grace for ballet though she didn’t care for dance nearly as much as Anna.
Caitlyn was everything Anna wanted to be, tall, slender, and strikingly beautiful with big black eyes and dark shiny hair with tawny skin, darker than what some people called “olive”. She knew it did her no good to compare her own strange birthmark in the shape of lilacs, or her thick and squat features, to Caitlyn’s pristine beauty. Her sister continued to read, unaware of Anna or the differences in their physical weights and heights.
Untamed strands of silver and purplish orchid hair, escaped the hairpins holding them in place and fell into Anna’s eyes. The curls whipped her face and stuck in her nose. She blew the strands away. She hadn’t even started practice yet and the frizz was already winning.
No one else in her family had the frizz, or the orchid and silver hair, or the tattoo like birthmark running the length of her body and limbs, in the shape of lilacs. Mark resembled their father. Both had bearish features and blond hair. Mom had features like Caitlyn, just finely aged. When she was younger, Anna had questioned the differences, the birthmark, the hair, her brown to lavender eyes, and had never received a satisfactory response.
Ballet served not only as a refuge, but another kind of world. The dance featured stories from fairy tales and creatures straight from legends. In the movement, Anna belonged. Pulling herself up, Anna stretched and rolled her arms, warming her limbs. She slipped her earbuds in and clipped the small player to her leotard.
The world and the family room vanished. Winter did not exist outside. She swam en pointe as a mermaid and slept in a high tower awaiting her prince. Summer reigned in the pages of the book, fantasy and fairytale united. Pointe shoes beat as rapid as a bird’s wings in time to music for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy tantalized her arms and legs. She worked her feet and arms as light as air. Anna moved into attitude à terre, knees touching and then tiny foot work for pas de bourrée couru. The moment her feet rose on pointe, despite the worn and thread bare carpet under her feet, Anna transformed into a weightless and ethereal spirit, a sylph in a woodland glade.
The carpet rendered the movement a bit awkward and she tipped to the side, catching her balance. The spell of ballet broken, she started over. The family had an old wooden stage in the music room, but in the night she disliked practicing there. The cavernous space creeped her out in the dark. As much as she wanted to venture out, a part of Anna wanted the security of family close by. Henly House always felt haunted and mysterious. From the fourth floor and attic, which had always been barred from entry, to the artwork adorning each wall, nook and shelf.
No, Anna did not dance in the music room at night. Demonic figurines haunted the walls. Horned figures stood on the backs of broken angels, carved into columns. Once, her family had hosted parties in the music room. Now, visiting the space seemed like an invasion of a mausoleum. More than one hundred years of memory lived in the house.
Chills gathered at the nape of Anna’s neck. She hated to admit how much she depended on her family, despite the secrets and there were secrets in the house and within her family. Such as, what ever happened to their grandparents, did they have cousins, aunts and uncles? The fourth floor and attic were closed, dilapidated and condemned according to their father, who worked construction – as a builder. He had started his own business and their home existed in disrepair. Sure, they didn’t have money for renovations, but why live in a place a city inspector most assuredly would condemn?
Her mom worked as an administrator for a law office and wrote in her spare time. Romances she hoped to sell. The family had no money for the house. No one wanted to move either. Mom had inherited the place from her parents, but not the family fortune, assuming there was a fortune. Another mystery. Anna beat her feet and performed brisé, nearly hitting the recliner where Caitlyn sat. “Ope, sorry.” Caitlyn didn’t notice. Her sister slid a highlighter over a sentence and murmured.
On pointe, Anna plied, petit développé, and pas marched to the corner. She donned the cloak of imagination, oblivious to the British newscasters on the television and the scritch of Caitlyn’s highlighter. A principle dancer cut the trappings of reality from their minds and bodies, transformed into the flesh and reality of the character and breathed, born anew.
Mark dipped the brush in cerulean paint, Caitlyn shifted in the chair, kicking back and Dad changed the channel. Anna practiced pointe work, beating the flattened rug into the hard wood beneath. Her muscles burned, but she refused rest. The best companies holding auditions required hours of practice each day. Discipline mattered in dance. Anna lifted en pointe arabesque and turned. Freedom existed in the hammered strings of the celesta. Her spirit flew from the shackles of flesh riding violins and flutes. Anna soared, soul bursting and ready to collapse like the aftermath of a supernova.
Words crashed in and voices. Mom tapped her on the shoulder. “You’re shining.” Her dark brows raised, lips pursed. Mom loomed as an older version of Caitlyn. “Anna, time to relax, come back to center.” Mom breathed in and out, slowly. “Dim the shine.” She plucked the earbuds and music player from Anna.
Wide eyes darting, Dad was staring, Mark and Caitlyn stood next to him, worried. Anna glanced at her arms and legs. The glow radiated lavender light, the lines of her lilac birthmark shined as bright as a starry sky, purple luminescence. The strands of her purple and silver orchid hair warmed her shoulders, more wild than a lion’s mane with tight curls. “I never meant to shine.” Biting her lip, irritated and ashamed, Anna glared. She was not in public, never was exposed. Years of managing her shine kept her at home, away from prying eyes and cameras. The Henlys didn’t want Anna embarrassed on YourLife videos, dubbed a freak of nature, a side show attraction. No one wanted the invasion of privacy.
“Listen to your mother.” Dad tried to help. He always tried to help calm what he called her shine. His blue eyes dazzled from the depths of his bearish face. Dad was all height and blond, boxy and muscular. His arms wrapped her in a bear hug. “It’s okay. We’ll work through it together.”
Anna wiggled free. “I’m fine and we’re not in public.” The shine didn’t matter in the confines of their own home. Visitors didn’t come to East River Boulevard where they lived by the Mississippi River. The road was isolated except for one neighbor down the block.
The bike path near the river came to a dead end down by the bridge and the service road, East Lion’s, didn’t venture any further. No one was peeping; there wasn’t a prying eye for miles or a camera to capture her glow. She pouted, flexing her toes. “I don’t suppose Doctor Wagner has found a miraculous cure?” The sarcasm darted from her parted lips. She didn’t care.
Doctor Wagner had examined Anna one time when she was six, the first time the shine occurred, the first time her birthmark lit up and freaked her mother out. The doctor had taken one look and insisted they leave. Internal human lights were beyond his medical training. The man lacked the slightest bit of curiosity or imagination. Refused to test her. Still, once in a while her parents threatened to take her to see the doctor. As if he could or would help.
Mom and Dad exchanged abashed looks. “Snip all you want. Showing your shine to the world, you can’t.” Tears threatened to spill down her mother’s cheeks. Pain had her doubled over, leaning against her father.
Caitlyn rolled her eyes. “No one knows about Anna’s shine. Her birthmarks look like tattoos. You’re overly protective.”
Mark rested his hand on a wooden practice sword he kept sheathed on his belt. He kept an ear perked, taking in the argument as he stepped closer to Anna and Caitlyn. The Henly children squaring off with Mom and Dad. “If we had the training -.”
Mom and Dad shushed Mark. This often happened when Mark suggested they train as knights and take their oaths. Strange, his suggestions came when the family argued, usually about Anna, but sometimes about the house, and why they never moved if there was no money to renovate. “Enough. Anna it’s too risky. You must control your shine.”
“From what? The Bryces?” Their neighbors, the Bryces, knew of Anna, but they never mentioned her odd features as far as she knew. Not even Mark’s best friend Ephraim Bryce. The two attended school at Winding Heights Academy of Art and Science in the lower school. Always had – paid for from a family trust left by their grandparents. Caitlyn attended the upper campus with Ephraim’s brother Trenton. None of them made much of Anna’s shine or took videos.
Up East Lion’s Road, there was the Hanson & Hanson’s factory. Yet, the employees stayed clear of their little world. They had no reason to come this close. Anna was unseen in the world, a total unknown. “No one will see me, ever.” The glow in her birthmark subsided and her usual beige tones appeared.
“Consider it a good thing,” Mom leaned over the ballet book and picked up the brochures Anna had tucked inside. “What are these?” She held up the brochures. A folded advert with the name Fale Ffantasi Cymru in bold letters dangled from her fingers.
“Mine.” Anna snatched it and smoothed the page. The woman on the cover had painted lines on her skin much like the birthmark coursing its way down Anna’s arms and legs. She wore an elegant, faerie costume in green and trimmed in flowers. This was Anna’s biggest dream, auditioning for The Ballet Fantasy in Wales.
The talent there rivaled larger companies in places like New York, but didn’t quite have the worldwide reputation. At least Madame Perla claimed the company had great talent and a world famous benefactor; a woman named Dame Violet Aberdeen. A real dame! She willed her parents to let her go. Droplets stung at the edges of her eyes, a tear snaked down her cheek. “I plan to audition.”
“We’ve talked about this.” Mom whined, reaching for the flyer. “Wales is too far. Out of the question.” Dad stepped beside her, a united front against Anna. They clasped hands, grim expressions on their faces. “Perhaps it’s time to end your virtual instructions with Madame Perla Bouchard, Dad snapped.
“You can’t! It’s all I have.” She looked to Caitlyn and Mark, silently pleading for help. The two of them held her hands and for a moment, she felt lifted and understood. Dancing was not just a dream. It made her unordinary features acceptable. The oddities in her flesh seemed normal among the fae in a dance, an asset instead of a hindrance. One day she’d leave home and the ballet offered a place.
“You let us attend school.” Mark snapped.
Caitlyn bristled. “What will you do when Anna’s 18th birthday comes?”
“You can’t go to Wales,” Mom snapped. A determined light took hold of her, a tension like a coiled snake ready to strike and then she relaxed. Behind them the television announced the 10 o’ clock news. Dad and Mom whipped around and returned to the couch, “We will talk later.” Discussion over. Their rules triumphed, Anna’s desire set aside.
She blinked unshed tears away from her eyes and face. At least they knew her plans for the future. Relief and anger streamed through Anna. Caitlyn hugged her. “That went better than we planned.” She whispered. “They have several months to adjust.” As usual Caitlyn was right. The hard part was over.
She high-fived Mark. “Thank you both for supporting me.”
“I got you.” He slashed the air with the practice sword. Anna hadn’t noticed him unsheathe it, as if for battle – against their parents. She chuckled and ruffled his blond hair. Tension clung to her shoulders and back. Rolling her neck Anna returned her attention to the book, flyer for the ballet company in hand. She tucked it back between random pages.
Caitlyn returned to her studies and then the television altered. An alarm pinged a “Breaking Alert”. Anna studied the images, the words on the bottom of the screen. Red flashed and an annoying beep persisted. It caught the attention of all the Henlys.
A reporter came on the air, Lance Elbert for UK 5. Wind howled behind the man. Lightning flashed and water crashed against a rocky shoreline. It was not Minnesota. Mom stared transfixed to the screen, Dad equally engrossed. An opening split the space behind the man, hiding the landscape. A hole, dark and crackling. It swirled and pulsed with energy. Pebbles flew into the abyss, striking the reporter in the face. He struggled to keep hold of his microphone. His hair lay matted to his scalp. Lightning forked and flashed into the circle before separating.
Holding his trench coat closed, Lance Elbert bellowed in an English accent, “Right behind me, in the Strait of Gibraltar where the storm’s power is most concentrated, you can see -.” The camera vibrated under heavy winds. The reporter stooped lower to the ground as thunder rumbled and the clouds grew tighter and darker. Darts of lightning struck the water and the rocky heights. Tongues of energy flickered and struck the vortex. The bolts disappeared into the opening. “As you can see, a vortex of sorts has opened up behind the camera crew and myself. Objects have flown inside. It has swallowed electrical bolts and debris.” The reporter almost sang with excitement. Joy lit his eyes.
Red orbs appeared around the vortex’s median and merged with the lightless mass. Off camera someone screamed, another man shouted. “We have to move, Lance.”
Transfixed, a white light gleamed in her mother’s eyes. A radiant glow flared from her face and then subsided to a halo, an aura centered around her mom’s head. Anna started for the couch and froze. Mom’s head fell back, her eyes rolled up and closed. Dad took her by the arms, “Come on Ellen. I’ve got you. Shut it down.” Her head lolled, piles of brunette hair, silken and thick seemed slack and lackluster. Dad rocked Mom, humming a lullaby; a note in his song tickled memory and fled the second Mom’s eyes popped open. She gasped, clutching Dad’s beefy arms. The glow vanished.
Anna’s heart pounded. Caitlyn circled the couch, pacing and muttering about epilepsy or seizures. She flipped through her book and hurled it at the recliner. Clearly the answer didn’t exist there.
Mark’s lip trembled a sure sign he was ready to cry.
“Mom, Dad what happened?” Fear cracked in Caitlyn’s voice. Her hands clenched the couch cushions in a death grip, knuckles made pale from the effort.
“Nothing to worry you.” Mom leaned against Dad. She seemed okay.
The wind died down on the screen, but the news crew continued to retreat, rejoining teams from Spain and other nations across the continent and the United Kingdom. Lance faced the camera once again, his reedy figure bobbed on the shoreline. “You can’t see it, but below the surface of the water, there appears to be a radiant white light. Are you seeing this Anita?” The reporter spoke directly to his counterpart in the station’s studio. The camera panned across the water, but it was so dark and the lightning blinding. It was difficult to see if the lumens came from the water or the sky. Soon the blackened hole dissipated and the clouds cleared. Bewildered reporters snorted relief when a rainbow graced the landscape from the hill to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Dad turned off the television. “Caitlyn, Anna, Mark, it’s past time the three of you were off to bed. Please send Flora with tea if she is still awake. If not, brew some first, Caitlyn.” Gruff and tired, Dad lifted Mom into an upright position on the couch.
It was Friday, not a school night, but Anna knew better than to argue. She hoped Flora was awake, though she had no expectation. Flora served as the cook and housekeeper in Henly House, hired by her mom’s parents and paid from a trust. The driver and butler, Roger, had the same arrangement. Live-in help seemed odder still since the trust paid their wages and the family had nothing to renovate the old relic they called a home. Those details seemed superficial now.
Most of it resembled an ancient ruin rather than a home. The trust provided. Questioning their good fortune in Henly House, their education, and the trust to pay Flora and Roger was downright ungrateful. She smothered the feeling and picked up her book before following Mark up the back stairs of Henly House to her room.
“Did you see Mom’s eyes?” Anna made small talk.
Mark shrugged. “Did you hear the music?”
Anna stopped on the second floor landing. “The song Dad was humming?”
He shook his head. “No, from the TV, during Lance Elbert’s report.” He smacked the wall with his sword and dashed up the next flight to the third floor. He ran passed Anna’s bedroom door down the hall to his room.
She slunk inside her bedroom. Green wallpaper and a vast rose garden painted to frame her desk, window and bed, greeted her. She dropped the book on her desk. Bare oak tree branches, covered in snow, tapped the window pane in front of her desk. She opened the laptop to search for the video on YourLife, but no luck. Maybe after the news was done they’d load it online. Anna closed the device and waltzed into her bathroom to shower, praying her mother was okay and thinking of the song, the one Dad hummed, the one Mark insisted was on the news report, and the one in Anna’s soul, driving her to a future away from Henly House. She found sleep as elusive as her parents’ consent for her to audition in Wales. Change had come, completely unexpected and unexplored. Night swept Anna into dreams of a magical wood and starry eyes. The sound of wings flapping lifted her from the forest floor.
The Other Worlds
A secret hidden or suppressed surfaces whether awake or sleeping. Truth resides in the remnant of dreams.
“Dream and Memory” by Harper Ritardand
The Dreamer’s Glade, Asha Keshen
Stars lit the sky overhead as Caitlyn Henly stepped onto the cobbled street. Their brightness shined cold and distant from where she stood. The air smelled of seawater and wet wood. This was not home, nowhere near home. Docks lined the waterway to her right and to the left she noticed brick warehouses, devoid of life. She jerked at the sound of scratching claws scurrying over cobbles. The gloom made it difficult to see the source of the sound. Permanent moisture gathered in the hollows of the streets. Seawater lapped the lower edges of the port. She was in a city, a nighttime place, and all the buildings and streets looked dark. There were no streetlights along the docks, none of the windows glowed with activity.
A chill crept up Caitlyn’s spine and a light appeared ahead of her down an alley. How she came to this place mystified her. She rubbed her shoulders and moved along the line of buildings towards the lantern. As she drew near, she gasped, eyes darting around seeking observers. She reached out to a globe hovering several feet from the ground. Impossible and yet here the device floated in place casting illumination into the gloom.
The light fought the dark and the dark struck back. Odd how the shadows swept the port and rolled over the floating globe. The globe remained steadfast, a beacon, fierce and weak in intervals depending on the activity of the dark. The two phenomena played counter to the other. The oddity defied physics.
Footsteps echoed from the street behind her. She whipped around, not seeing anyone there. She tried the nearest door to hide and found it locked. The next one, didn’t budge. The click of heels drew nearer. With a twist, the next doorknob turned and she threw herself inside, gently closing the door. She crouched down among objects covered in dusty cloths, large shapes, furniture she thought. Caitlyn crawled between crates and two wrapped lamps, and tucked herself into the darkness between the wall and what felt like a large chest. The room smelled musty, as if mold had grown wild in the darkest places. The warehouse felt cavernous. As if, the darkness might swallow her whole. Caitlyn shuddered, inching towards the front to hide behind a wardrobe. The globe light outside barely differentiated between lightless space and the buildings. Why didn’t the light penetrate the dark? It appeared distant, despite being right there. Shadows threatened to overwhelm the globe, even as the glow resisted – penetrating the gloom.
A voice called out. “Bring him. He can show us where he found the artifact.” The speaker sounded like a man with a thick accent similar to Italians in New York or New Jersey, though unfamiliar inflections infused his words.
Caitlyn peered between the chest and the wall, leaning forward to see through the building’s window. Three men approached, wearing garb straight from an 1880s fashion catalog, Victorian suits and long coats. Their wide hats, nothing like Victorian men’s wear, slouched to the sides of their heads and ended in points. She crawled a little closer, hovering behind a bookcase just out of sight she thought. It was hard to tell if they had a view of her or not, but none of them looked in her direction. Thankfully.
Their garments created layers over slender figures. Two had better clothes, one of them short with blond hair and a manicured beard. The other tall and dark. The third man dangled between them, held up by his arms. The short man shook the captive, who dangled in his tattered clothes, moaning. “Don’t drain me, High One,” he rasped. The captive’s face drooped, covered with grime.
“Veticco, Let him go.” The dark man loomed like a crow over the other two. He was handsome for his age; probably 30 years give or take. The dirty man dropped out of sight and harrumphed in pain. “Well, did you find it?”
The captive cried, thin and reedy. “I am close, I know it. It’s within one of these warehouses. I will find it. Spare me, please.”
The blond, Veticco, turned to the warehouse and tapped the window. “Have you checked in here, Briz?” His gaze swept the room, foxlike and pointed attention. He roved the spaces, paused where Caitlyn huddled behind the bookcase, frozen. Terror ran up her spine. Veticco turned to the grimy man. “Well?” He kicked the man. “Don’t lie to me. I don’t have the patience and Rofallo has less.”
“Names, Veticco. Use my name again and I shall strike you hollow where you stand.” Rofallo lifted his hand, a vial swirled with a mesmerizing liquid, it shined similar to Anna’s birthmarks and it had a sound like soft music playing in another room. Caitlyn couldn’t quite understand the words. He pulled the stopper and Veticco back away. Rofallo returned the vial to his coat pocket.
Standing, the one called Briz bowed. “We might search it now. With your help -” Rofallo held up his hand in the man’s wrinkled and worn face. He still had the look of a hunted ferret, not strong enough to defend.
“Get your goons; we have spared you for now.” An icy edge entered the crow’s words. He shoved Veticco. “Go. This was a waste. Report to the highest. Send my regards.” He tipped his hat and stalked off into the night.”
The blond left the ferret man alone, choosing a direction opposite Rofallo. Caitlyn slunk further back into the darkness the moment she realized Briz intended to enter there now. She moved to the chest as soon as the door turned, opened and Briz entered. Her feet scuffed the floor. “Who goes there?” He crept around the furniture, leaving grease prints from his hands on the cloth covers.
She held her breath, closed her eyes and thought of another place far away, safe and warm and full of light. The room tilted, Caitlyn’s stomach heaved and her feet landed on soft, silky grass. Light warmed her face and she opened her eyes. Trees unlike any she’d ever seen formed a canopy over her head. They had wide trunks with thick leaves. Tiny bulbs dangled from the branches and glowed similar to the floating lights near the seaside dock. Flowers bloomed rich and a fragrance both addictive and sweet invaded her nose. Peace filled her and song; a thrum stirred her soul. It sent shivers down her spine and tingles in her mind. The hum vibrated through the air. A tiny creature appeared in front of her, screamed and darted away before she fully registered what it was. A leafy figure with wings? Caitlyn closed her eyes and thought of home.
* * *
The door to Anna’s room opened with a bang. Anna sat upright in bed, instantly awake. “What are you doing?” She tossed back her covers to greet Caitlyn. Her face was flushed, sweat streamed from her hairline. Caitlyn rarely sweated. She shuddered, mouth opened and closed. Working her jaw, she tried to speak and clutched Anna’s shoulders. “Come into the bathroom. Come now. Let’s get a drink of water.” She cooled her sister’s face and watched her drink. “What happened?”
Despite the sweat, Caitlyn’s suddenly sickly pale skin had never felt so cold. “I had this dream, well several dreams. They were so real. Maybe they weren’t dreams.” Caitlyn took the glass from Anna’s hand and gulped. “There was a place, I saw three men, but it was impossible and the floating lights. I had to hide in this storage place. Then I was ripped through a fissure in space and time.”
Anna took her hand to calm her sister’s nerves. “Slow down.” Anna rubbed her eyes, not fully awake. “What do you mean you dreamed it or maybe it wasn’t a dream?”
“You remember that weather report, the one with the hole that opened up in the storm behind the reporter?” Caitlyn’s teeth chattered, her hands shook as she sipped the water. “This dream or not dream was different than the storm, but it had a hole opening in reality. The trees sang with life, it was the most unreal part of it and I saw a flying leaf with wings. The other place was all dark and sinister, the trees with the tiny winged creature comforted me.”
The hole in the storm and in Caitlyn’s dream, Anna hadn’t found anything on YourLife about the weather report, not yet. Mark’s comment about the music didn’t seem quite as crucial as their sister’s experience. “Did you hear a song?” Might as well ask. Mark was young, but often had startling insight, at least about their family. His claim about the report felt honest.
Caitlyn started to shake her head and then paused. “Maybe.” She scrunched up her face, thinking. “I heard a melody of sorts, but I am not sure it was created by any instrument on Earth. I’m certain where I went wasn’t Earth at all.”
“Do you have any proof?” Caitlyn story rang with truth too, though incredible and unlikely. Holes didn’t appear in random spaces, opening into an endless abyss. Vortexes were not real, not on Earth. Right?
From the hall, Anna heard Roger Eyrton, the household butler and driver, calling in his Irish lilt. “Are you alright?” Footsteps padded towards Anna’s room. “I heard a shout.”
As Anna and Caitlyn left the bathroom, flame-red hair appeared first through the doorway, he had to crouch to enter. A giraffe folding in two. “I thought one of you shouted. Is everything okay?” A close-cropped beard framed his square face and concern marred his ruddy, freckle-splattered features. He still wore a suit, charcoal colored and cut from a fine material, the sort of thing designers called couture. Expensive fit Roger’s personality. The color turned his green eyes ashen.
“Did you just come in?” Anna ignored his questions.
“I was out with Stanley. It’s his birthday.” Stanley was Roger’s partner. They hoped to marry one day, when the law changed, but for now the two of them worked to save for their dream home. He cracked a smile, a bonfire of excitement ignited. “I took him to Silvan Horn’s Bavarian Bistro in downtown Saint Paul. It was amazing! The drinks, the food. Stanley held me tight when we danced. They had a jazz trio.” The Irish butler danced about the room. Anna laughed. The man had a bottomless stomach for food and never packed on extra pounds. Roger turned to Caitlyn and started. “Whoa, what happened?”
Tears trickled down Caitlyn’s face. “I’m going to be sick.” She ran into the bathroom and Anna stood next to Roger as her sister wretched. Time passed and the sounds subsided. Water turned on and then off. Caitlyn rejoined them. “Sorry, I just had the strangest dreams and then now this.” She waved her hands. “I’ll just go back to bed.”
Henly House was always weird, but with her mother’s reaction the news yesterday and now this. Anna twisted her curls with a finger. Roger and Flora had known their parents before the Henly kids were born. The two of them had known their grandparents. She watched Roger intently. The man was the kindest person, one of her only friends and yet, he had lived here a long time. He must know what happened with their grandparents and the money. Why their mother was so strange, the occurrences with Anna’s birthmarks.
Roger tended Caitlyn, helped wipe her sweat clear. In some senses he was like a second father to them. “Nonsense. Let’s drink up the rest of Flora’s tea. She left hot water on the stove.”
The three of them hobbled down the back stairs. Anna touched the painting of a small pixie hovering near the branches of a large tree. Thick leaves covered most of the branches and the wide trunk grew from a patch of silky looking grass, but the eyes of the creature drew her. The figure wore a gown of rose petals and a crown in her red hair.
The steps ended next to the backdoor, dawn was not far off and fatigue lingered in Anna’s body, down to the depths of her soul. She just wanted to sleep, but she shuffled after her sister and Roger. Caitlyn usually took care of Anna. Time to return the favor. Roger poured mugs of a lavender infusion, one of Anna’s favorites. The smell roused her spirits. They sat at the kitchen nook and Anna sipped the warm tea. Down the hall off of the garage, a light turned out. Flora had just gone to bed. Roger kept a room down there, when he was not staying at Stanley’s house.
Languid comfort seeped in and Anna felt calm. The tea returned some of her Caitlyn’s color and she spoke. She described the details of the dream from the hole opening, her snapping through the darkness and then appearing in another place. When she detailed the features of the men, she saw from the warehouse and the leafy creature, Anna thought about the painting on the stairway. No wonder Caitlyn had the dream. The house was full of artwork, both fantastical and impossible. Landscapes of other worlds and mythical beasts. Much of it scared Anna.
“It was real,” Caitlyn finished. A haunted look filled her black eyes; she slouched over her mug featuring a cartoon character raven from a movie titled, Phoenix in the Darkest Night. The producers adapted the feature from a famous novel; a favorite book from Caitlyn’s collection. Her sister lifted the raven mug and drank.
Roger patted her hand. “There are psychologists who say our minds speak to us in dreams. Philosophers say dreams are a window into our souls and there are those who say they act as doors to other worlds.” He cocked his head. “Perhaps write them down and date them, you may see a trend.”
Caitlyn nodded. She swayed, clearly tired and ready to fall asleep.
When the tea was gone, Roger went down the hall from the kitchen to his room and Anna followed Caitlyn back up stairs to their bedrooms. She paused at the painting. The artist Minersa Shan, rendered the image more like a portrait, as if she observed the tree and the winged figure in person, as if painting a piece of history, the Renaissance equivalent of a selfie. She assumed the artist rendered the piece long ago. The roses and the pixie drew Anna in, mesmerized she reached out to touch them, but halted, withdrawing. It was silly; they were not flesh and bone. She didn’t want to mess up the paint with the oils from her fingers, but curiously, the winged figure stared back, hand raised as if to reach out and touch her. Caitlyn mumbled and continued back to her own room. Anna studied the art for a time.
* * *
Camilla Bonavirez dangled above the warehouse docks in Feloria, secured within the crepuscule. The vaporous black substance cast out from her soul’s tone, hid Camilla from other people without limiting her view. To the north of the island city, she saw the main tower for the Wizard’s Trove. A spear to the true-night sky. Down below, she watched a girl with dark hair, strange clothes and brown skin struggle to open one of the doors. Men were approaching. Smart of her to hide. By Dai Ithran standards, the visitor was young, at least a few years younger than Camilla, maybe 60 years old at most, barely near maturation. Definitely pubescent.
She didn’t have the power to hear the Song, few did yet she sensed power in the girl’s tone, a certain vibration, the type to draw the animavillam like flies to honey. So far, the hunters hadn’t picked up her tonal scent. One of the doors opened in time to conceal the visitor before the familiar forms of Rofallo Huntorevarre appeared underneath the hover globe. Short Veticco Murienez joined him. The man had a gait to make a fox jealous, how he stepped both cautious and sift, deft and loping. A predator in a small body. She slid a stiletto from the sheath at her hip and waited. The girl, these men were not dead, marked and paid with heavy weight starions.
The blond, Veticco, dragged another person, a stranger, beneath the light. A ferret faced man with no more confidence than a sack of bildagers, the furry creatures liked to scurry in every direction from hunting vicero cats. The ferret man was a bildagers among vicero and non-magical in tone. He didn’t belong to one of the clans, but he was Dai Ithran. A commoner. What did two men from two different great clans want with him? To drain him for a spell? A weak spell.
The dagger spun in her hand as she flipped it around. Camilla disliked waiting. The moments an assassin spent before collecting the dead most often brought boredom, countless moments in silence and gloom. The men retreated, Rofallo in one direction, Veticco in another. Their quarry was free. He entered the warehouse where the girl hid. Camilla tensed for a moment and witnessed the man depart, unruffled, well not any more than the grime of the street or tatters of his clothes showed. He had no weapon, no bloody marks. The night remained quiet and unmolested. Though the girl did not exit the warehouse, Camilla felt confident she remained safe.
Footsteps clicked against the cobbles. Another person approached. Camilla felt in her pocket, lowered from the crepuscule towards the street and dropped a coin. Twin stiletto blades appeared face up on the side of a gold coin. It clattered, scaring the hooded figure who bent down to retrieve the coin. She pulled back her hood, revealing the face of Poltira Cirovarre. Poltira turned the coin in her hand and watched Camilla approach. “I am dead.”
Another dagger slid into her hand and she raised them. “Indeed.”
“May I ask who?”
It never hurt to tell the dead. “Ferrana Cirovarre High One.”
The older woman gave a short nod; a flicker of heartache crossed her features. Ferrana was her granddaughter. The commission pained Camilla. Still she struck with both blades at once, straight to the neck and heart. Sharpened metal sliced and plunged. Blood oozed and Poltira collapsed in a heap. Camilla left the coin in the High One’s still warm hand. The message was sent. She cleaned the blades and tucked them back into their homes, paused at the doorway to the warehouse and realized the entire building was empty. The crepuscule surrounded her once more and she skimmed the air all the way back home, to Kulnerais.
There is an ending to all things, the last note of a song, the last kiss goodbye and the last smile on a child’s face. And none are privileged to know when.
The Mourning Song by Fennel Major
Sidras, Maestro’s Moon, 5691
Piles of moss grew around a tumulus at the base of the Crystal Palace. Far above the angels flew, their faces turned to the heavens and the light of Berehan. Prince Antares Azarin knelt at the burial site, wings wilted. He collapsed, the weight in his tone dragging him down. Spindly moss squelched between his fingers as he grabbed a piece and howled. Tendons taut, neck strained, he wailed for what seemed a century. His mouth blubbered into the mound as he pressed further into the earth, praying to the Song for clemency.
A rounded stone lay at the other end, just out of sight, but Antares crawled, ignoring his grime sullied wings with each movement. Moisture filtered through his pants, dirt stained. A concentrated swamp grown in honor of his lost friend, Moss Spree. Reeds grew in abundance, moss, and velvet falanie tails named after the furry animal the plant resembled.
Six months had passed since the race. An angel with pink wings and olive skin descended and clicked their teeth. Disapproval as sharp as daggers radiated from the companion. “Come to die?” Cold fury struck Antares. A trumpet to herald Berehan’s host. “Fae never learn.” The angel flapped their wings, gusted higher on currents of air and disappeared from sight.
Fae loved racing the Crystal Palace, defying the crystal’s poisonous edges. Creatures of Chance, born of the Goddess Emria. Their tones added foolery to the Song. The race brought some fae respects, wealth enough to rival the economic standing of the Night Palace – the fae stronghold in the southwest. Still, Antares was not there to die or race. He had come to mourn.
Bundles of flowers decorated the mound and a single croaking toad stood sentry. The creature, sent from the Fiandi Waters to keep a vigil on behalf of all the Spree kin, croaked a mournful song, flicked its tongue to catch a buzzing insect and swallowed.
Antares traced the letters, Moss’ burial stone. A carver inscribed the fae’s name at the top, underneath the date of hatching and the day his tone went silent in the Song – 5690, Day 35, Harvest Moon. The inscription below the date read, “A fae of great daring lies here.” Moss Spree, a fae of great daring. No argument there.
Antares reached into his pocket and pulled out a brick, for a moment he traced the spotty spaces and a crack on the side, memorizing it. The first time he had seen Moss Spree was in the market of Sidry, the office buildings going up at the end of the square had attracted his attention.
Instead of trailing his mother, Queen Chriessa, and her retinue around the stalls, Antares went to investigate. The buildings dwarfed the other structures along Acorn and Rowan Avenue. Builders flew from the ground to the heights, carrying brick and stone and metal. Fae sprouting moss and fern darted around, a game of tag the swamp dweller, commenced before Antares’ eyes. He was a sprout then and taught not to trust the bog fae. They’re dirty and unkempt and didn’t know how to dress, so his tutors often said, but for the young prince, who had no friends, the game seemed like the most fun thing to do. And he had joined. The rest was history. Moss and he had become fast friends, inseparable despite their different lives.
He placed the brick next to the stone and drew himself up, wiped away as much mud as he could before snapping down to small form to streak back to Sidras. The angels of Hirtus loathed when the fae came, to race the Crystal Palace, to tempt Eresh, God of the Dead.
Antares didn’t blame them, not anymore.
In a flash, he snapped to small form and streaked towards Sidry, the fae capital, he watched the landscape below change as a blur of color and movement. Before he passed over the Yushrah Pass, Antares flew further south and slightly east towards a dense forest. Another series of memories lingered there. It was a dream of Moss’ to serve in the nexus as a guardian.
Only the chosen of Berehan served and all fae knew it, still Moss had prayed through the Song each day and night. He had wanted it more than Antares, who had always known he was born to rule summer. Antares dipped towards the forest. Proha trees appeared on the horizon, their thick trunks grew wider than many houses in Sidry, their branches plentiful with thick, lush leaves shaped like large flattened pears. Antares slowed to hover over a canopy. Globes of light dangled from each tree branch. Fae in small form hovered around the orbs or flew around the trees. The nexus guardians responded to their captain’s commands.
The nexus monitored the inhabited worlds of Aulei. Berehan’s creation. The chosen fae watched and protected the worlds from cataclysmic threats. Fae served as generators, powering the nexus as threads of golden light wove together from each orb to their physical planets. A single monitor kept watch. Special fae with their tones rooted in tel-cryn, plasma, and thermal energies, and a few rarer fae with the phantom particle – the Vofa, an energy so powerful it made traveling the cosmos instantaneous. Here the hub thrived in the proha forest, powered by the fae and protected. One of the most honorable professions among the fae. Moss once desired an assignment here.
Breaks in the foliage revealed familiar spring green hair and pink peony wings. Petals fell from his brother Prince Vasant as he darted from tree to tree, held out a flask of sorts, touched an orb and hummed. The light within dimmed slightly and the flask flashed brilliantly before the orb returned to its usual luminescence. The daystar made Vasant’s coat of fur along his arms and legs shiny. His companion, Carduus Thistle, fluttered next to him, another flask in his hands. Their behavior made no sense, neither of them served the nexus – only the chosen of Berehan defended and kept the world watch. Vasant, who was nearer in age to a sprout, hadn’t earned the favor and trust of the Creator.
Antares dipped down. “What are you two doing?”
“What care in Sidras have you?” Vasant snarled and preened. Pink peonies sprayed from his wings. A flutter of thistle sprang from Carduus. The two resembled kittens caught in the cream.
“By the looks of it, I’d say you were siphoning energy from those orbs. Has the captain on duty seen your activities?” He paced in the air, arms crossed, wings a burning gold color sparked and flared. “Does Father know?” Their father, King Comissros, consort to their mother the queen, commanded the Celestial Watch. Stealing from the worlds was a heinous crime for a race created to defend them, stealing from the nexus was a betrayal of their father. Rage bubbled within Antares. The audacity! Stealing from mortals. Sparks turned to columns of flame, a gust of stellar energy whipped Vasant.
Carduus flew towards Antares, a determined gleam in his eye, ready to strike, but Vasant waylaid him. “We’re done here.” Vasant pulled Carduus by the arm, thistle rained to the forest floor. The thieves added their flasks to a cart, a whole cart loaded with a milky substance. “We’ll be off then.”
The spiny seashells of Captain Cowrie Sand appeared below. He patrolled the forest path. Shells jutted from his beard and scalp, poking from layers of curled hair. Large spirals grew from his shoulders like two sentries from the sea. Thick muscles and fat spilled over the sides of the Captain’s uniform. “Captain,” Antares called. He lumbered with the gait of a volrus; the captain had a suspicious likeness to the blubbery sea creature, sans the tusks.
Captain Cowrie turned and flew up to the brothers. “Yes?”
Antares hesitated. The captain had the respect of the nexus, the entire Night Court. He was a legend, second only to Corundum Red.
“I don’t have all day, spit it out.”
Antares gulped. He hadn’t earned the admiration of the captain. Earning respect seemed nigh impossible here. All fae coveted respect. Respect was currency, an elevation in societal opinion. It mattered more than a crown and a kingdom. It was wealth in the bank for the few fae who had it. “Well, captain, it seems Vasant and his companion, have taken energy from the nexus in those bottles.” He pointed at the cart.
Spluttering, the captain zipped around the cart. “What is the meaning of this?” He roared a cry once more similar to the tusked volrus. “Guardians, to me.” Several nexus guards approached encircling Vasant and Carduus. “Take them to the palace, the dungeon, and hold them there. Summon the king.”
“Traitor.” Vasant whispered to Antares. “You just had to go and report me.”
Shock and fury seethed. Antares’ voice cracked like lightning. “I’d do it again! The energy belongs to the nexus, to the worlds of Aulei. It’s our duty as fae, the reason we exist!” Antares was shouting and flung his arms wide. “How can you be so selfish?” A haze fell over him, waves of stellar power shot from the center of his tone.
“You have no idea why I need this energy. We have important matters for spring to handle.” Vasant scowled and went with the guards.
Captain Cowrie took command of the bottles and barked at various fae in the forest. “Take these, return the energy back to the system.” Fae trembled and nodded, took up the vials and dashed to the trees. The nexus guardians fulfilled the captain’s bidding with aplomb and deep reverence for the captain.
A twinge of jealousy pierced Antares. The captain and Corundum Red earned reputations he had only sang through the Song to achieve. Antares greatest accomplishment was setting the great hall on fire accidentally during a flare. Cowrie and his contemporary had saved the universe twice, once during the Shadow War and once against the Sýking.
Soon orbs brightened and Antares felt safe enough to leave. He braced for the jump from stationary to light travel. “Not so fast.” The captain clapped him on the shoulder. Antares groaned. “You have our thanks for saving the orbs.” The captain wrung his hands looking at the leaves of the proha. “You’re in metamorphosis and you’re in mourning for your best friend, we understand this.”
Only friend. Antares knew where the Captain was headed.
“It’s best you didn’t return here. The unpredictable nature of fae puberty puts us all at risk.” The captain jiggled, but his eyes fastened onto Antares like fae to acorns. “I’ll have the commander testify to the king when she gets here.”
Jaw clenched tighter than a vice, Antares gave a short nod. Dismissed. Another fae, not just another fae, but Commander Corundum Red would report in his place. “Of course.” He blasted towards the sky and arced over the mountains, gaining speed and height, in moments he touched down outside the Night Palace.
The bustle of the palace bursting at the seams with guests, kept Antares rooted to the spot. The Sidras World Cup was upon them. The fashion competition, the flamboyant and pointless competition had come to Sidry, and guests from every major house had rooms in the palace. The hotels in downtown Sidry were overflowing. Great. Just great. He thumped across the lawn and popped into large form.
Orchesite stone and wethentium metal went into the construction of the palace, providing an effect similar to stars shining. The metal pulsed, the orchesite radiated. Spires rose among the rocky side of the Yushrah Mountain Pass. Ornate columns boasting bronze figurines and geometric patterned tiles formed arches and domes. Fae flew above the palace in small form, others walked in large form in groups dotting the vast lawn. A troupe of faeries from the Eirye rehearsed scenes from a popular play called, The Windositor and Melchisedek. Antares hated it, some humorous plot about an angel that found a windositor device to cool his paramour, but another angel trades for it and entices Forniah’s interest for most of the play, plying her with gifts, until Melchisedek finally proves how worthy he is of Forniah’s love. Antares slouched on his way to the entrance. The official Sidras Cup events started with performances from fae all over the world.
The palace scheduled a month for the occasion. A whole month of this. Antares circled the lawn, gasped in horror at the groups of performers, carts of fabric and display models for the couturiers, tailors buzzed about hemming garments among sprawling gardens, fountains served as platforms and makeshift construction sites. Blessed Berehan, save us all.
Chaos ruled inside the palace. Servants rushed in small form above hundreds of fae, jostling for a room or attention from an attendant. They took up space between pillars, leaned against tapestries and marred friezes with dings and scrapes from bolts of fabric or luggage. Antares pushed through, letting the flame along his arms spark. Golden fire sprayed and snapped out. Sighing, he continued to push through the crowd. The power never worked when he wanted it to. One day he’d grow into a full star, King of Summer, achieve his titles and have full control over his innate ability. One day. Now he struggled as much as the next fae, but his business was important. He had to find his mother and father before Vasant talked with them. Before he convinced them, he wasn’t stealing essence from the nexus.