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
One winter, cold winds shook the walls of Henly House, whistling transformation between boards and windowpanes. Snow gusted on frosted air and fog rolled thick from the Mississippi River, across the bike path parallel to the river and over the family’s sizeable yard. Sound struck the night with a musical quality. Fog shrouded the walled garden and the street out front, East River Boulevard. A melody of February cold cut through the old, freezing field and brush, it froze the surface of the river and formed icicles along the ridges of brick and stone. Currents of air shook the icicles. Rafters groaned and the floorboards creaked. A staccato rhythm unfolded.
Music from the family room, added to the din. Notes from Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy played from earbuds in Anna Henly’s ears. Her mother and father, Charles and Ellen Henly, sat snuggled on the only decent piece of furniture the family owned, a white plush couch. A crime drama blared from the television before them. The youngest Henly child, seven-year-old Mark, painted small figurines for his 3D tabletop game, A Knight’s Quest, at a small table between the couch and the fireplace. In the recliner, 17-year-old Caitlyn, the oldest, slid a highlighter over a page in her book about neuroanatomy. Each sound a note in the song of a Friday night, in Henly House.
The tone changed, though the Henlys did not notice at first notice. Energy gathered in the room and the air outside. It lay heavy and thick within the fog, a coiled lion ready to pounce on prey. Electric and potent. The small hairs on Anna’s arm lifted, the lines of her lilac birthmark glowed. She didn’t see or feel the shift along her arms and legs or torso. The glow pulsed so faintly the dim light of the family room outshined her birthmark’s radiance. She honed in on the letters printed in a book.
Anna rubbed her arms for warmth as she leaned over, “A Technical Manual for Classical Ballet in the French, Italian and Russian Traditions”. She rubbed her hands, breathed into them for heat and flipped a page, reading the instructions to perform the proper forms for brisé. She preferred to study the instructions, examine the illustrations provided in the text and read any applicable Italian and Russian variations – before practicing them. No matter how often she danced, perfection demanded more effort. She blew hot air against her fingers and rolled her shoulders. She beat her feet against the floor to keep her muscles warm.
Caitlyn arched a brow at her the moment Anna glanced in her direction, the scritch of her sister’s highlighter a sharp violation of the melody at play. A detective spoke her lines to her partner on TV and Mom yawned. Dad put his arm around Mom before the two adjusted for comfort. The day’s fatigue darkened their under eyes. Both worked harder than Anna imagined necessary for two adults trying to raise three children. Mark dipped the paintbrush in cerulean blue before applying it to a knight bedecked in silver armor. Anna turned up the volume on her earbuds and stretched her legs and back. Leaning forward she glanced about the room, holding the stretch and breathing.
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. Anna shivered in the thin fabric of a leotard and tights, in the corner of the family room. Her attention moved from the weather outside and the other members of her family to ballet. Her devotion to dance burned like the winter wind. It had taken root years ago and had become a singular ache, a need. Dance promised a future and a way out of Henly House. It wasn’t natural for children to live concealed from the world, isolated from any friends one might make and Anna had a plan to leave, assuming the audition went well in a few months.
Tendrils of her orchid purple and silver hair popped the hairpins holding them in a ballerina bun and struck her in the eye. Deft fingers, from years of practice, wound her wild kinky curls back into place. She stuck the pins back in place. From the book, 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, improving 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 Boucher. Envy burned in her heart. She hated the fact only Caitlyn had inherited their mother’s slender and tall features, tawny skin and bright brown eyes – a mix of Welsh and Indian heritage. Braids kept Caitlyn’s straight glossy brunette hair tamed over each shoulder.
Anna had none of those features. Instead of tawny, she had matte beige skin lined with a birthmark in the shape of lilacs. It sprawled over her torso and limbs. Instead of brown orbs, her eyes gleamed lavender and tan, never quite settling on a color. She had a squat figure, short and round. Her best chance at a career in ballet was perfection. Be the best dancer, the best principle. Anna breathed and stretched, and then stood to lose herself in a faraway place. A forest glade appeared in her mind, the walls of a garden, a lake to feed a swan, fairy tales and creatures from legend emerged.
The notes for “The Little Mermaid” prompted Anna’s limbs to move as an obedient marionette. 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 the next song, music for Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet”. Anna moved into attitude à terre, knees touching and then tiny footwork for pas de bourrée couru. 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. Bells, strings and chimes prompted her frolic.
The carpet rendered the movement a bit awkward and she tipped to the side, catching her balance. The spell of ballet broken, Anna stopped the player and started over. A carpeted floor was not ideal, but the family room included her parents and siblings. The stage in the music room, while beautiful and large, existed in a cavernous space full of demonic haunts, effigies on the walls and wood carved pillars. The room scared her at night too much to practice there alone. Goosebumps broke out on her skin and she shivered. Music for Sleeping Beauty started, “Rose Adagio Aurora”.
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. Among the stars, she floated, a dream clothed in song and music.
Voices crashed in and Anna’s eyes opened. She stared around to see Mark, Caitlyn, Mom and Dad examining her – alarmed. What did they want? She lowered her feet and arms, turned off the music.
“Your shine.” Mom’s dark eyes furrowed an owl’s disapproval clear on her face. “Time to center, relax and breathe.” Mom’s hands splayed to coach. “Dim the shine.”
A beacon of light radiated from her birthmark. The lines glowed a fierce, joyful lavender as bright as a signal fire. Purple luminescence, a starry sky. Strands of her silver and orchid hair fell about her face and down her shoulders. Curls as tight as rubber bands sprang against her skin. When this happened, her parents insisted she cease what they called the shine. As if she had control or understood this mystery. Mom and Dad didn’t understand it and they created her. Their fears and overprotective natures were stark raving mad – two lunatics running an asylum.
Anna had spent her life hidden in Henly House attending school at Winding Heights Academy of Art and Science’s virtual classroom while her brother and sister physically attended the lower and upper campuses for their respective grade levels.
She had no friends unless she counted Flora, the live-in housekeeper and cook or Roger, the household butler and driver. The two were like family, both having lived there for longer than the children were alive, but they were not Anna’s age. They didn’t understand her life. Not really. No one in the house allowed her outside except on foggy days or when the rose and lilac bushes surrounding the property were at their fullest. Her family didn’t want Anna embarrassed on YourLife videos and dubbed a sideshow attraction and no one wanted the invasion of privacy – camera crews on their lawn.
She welcomed the idea of paparazzi. The spectacle of media sprawled across the yard. A three ringed circus with Anna as the big star. Strangers coming to see her perform. She’d buy a ticket for the show. Step right up folks! See the amazing Glow Girl. No, she was not in danger of exposure on their quiet road.
East River Boulevard was discreet except for one neighbor, the Bryces. A family of two boys, a grandmother and whomever she had working over there. The youngest, Ephraim, was Mark’s best friend and as far as Anna knew, he had never revealed her oddities to a living soul, none of the Bryces squealed or took photos. A shame really.
“Good job, kid.” Dad’s 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. He was a larger, adult version of Mark.
Anna wriggled free, tears in her eyes. “I never meant to shine.” The distant stars called to her, the music of Sleeping Beauty played in her soul.
Mom glared. “You keep saying this, but think of your privacy, our privacy. The Internet -.”
“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 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. “I don’t suppose you found a doctor with a miraculous cure?” The sarcasm darted from her parted lips. She didn’t care. Anna arched a brow. “No, didn’t think so.” The way her parents behaved as if she had control over the shine.
Mom and Dad exchanged abashed looks. “Snip all you want. Showing your shine to the world will hurt you more than it hurts us.” Tears threatened to spill down her mother’s cheeks. Pain had her doubled over, leaning against her father. Her joints hurt most days; at least Mom claimed they ached sharp and persistent. Anna wondered. The pain came at certain times like this.
Caitlyn tapped her chin, deadpan as ever. “No one knows about Anna’s shine. Her birthmarks look like tattoos, her hair looks dyed, her eyes like contact lenses. You’re overly protective.” For as long as Anna could remember, Caitlyn had watched out for her. When she had bad dreams, she willingly crawled into bed with Anna to hum lullabies and sooth her fears, losing sleep. In some ways, she had more wisdom than their parents did.
Mark rested his hand on the wooden practice sword he kept sheathed at his side most days. His feet carried him to Anna’s side. He squared off with Mom and Dad, fingers at the ready, eyes ablaze for conflict. “Ephraim says we need to train and take the oaths.” Since Mark befriended Ephraim Bryce in preschool, the boy kept talking about training for their destiny and keeping an oath. He insisted on acting like a chivalrous knight, to defend the weak and champion just causes, exactly like the knights from his board game. Anna didn’t blame him for thinking make-believe would solve the problem. Her little brother had an unending faith and determination to help others.
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?” No. Ephraim never bothered her, neither did the older boy Trenton, he attended school with Caitlyn and as far as he was concerned the Henlys didn’t exist – much to her sister’s frustration – not that Caitlyn ever admitted it. The Bryce matriarch, their grandmother kept her own counsel. The household staff spoke with Flora and Roger from time to time, probably sharing news and camaraderie. Anna was not the type to intrude.
The employees at the Hanson & Hanson medical device factory, located a mile up East Lion’s, stayed clear of their little world. The workers clocked their eight hours and fled the parking lot as if the second coming was on their heels, traveling towards the frontage road and I-94 like a herd of panicked horses. 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 the pages. “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 cover reminded Anna of various paintings in their house, a particular mosaic in a first floor bathroom, once meant to impress guests, showed a similar winged woman. She had thought her mom might like the idea the ballet possessed similar elements. A secure place to hide when she grew up. Her throat tightened and she swallowed the ache, letting it settle in her chest.
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 planned to audition.”
“Wales is a world away. Out of the question.” Dad stepped beside Mom, 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 Boucher,” Dad snapped. “We work hard to protect you kids.” His voice rumbled, an angry swarm of bees and rock falling.
“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. Audiences might find her shine an asset to the performance rather than a point of embarrassment.
Outside the storm intensified. Wind whipped the windows, and snow fell rapid and slanted, as if to drive holes through the house. Flakes gathered against the walls, covered shrubbery and tree limbs. In the kitchen down the hall, a kettle whistled signaling the water’s temperature for Flora’s evening tea and distantly, Anna heard Roger’s voice rise and fall as he talked to his partner Stanley on the phone. Laughter burbled and his Irish accent amplified as he responded to some news, “wonderful to hear.” The music of Henly House, the dynamics of conflict and happiness. Clouds roiled above the old mansion and energy heightened. Anna trembled, a vibration gathered within her soul, as if it might burst through her body.
“You let us attend school.” Mark snapped. His words abated the storm to a degree. Anna’s spirit latched onto a melody and anchored. Wind speeds decreased. Tethered to her siblings and home, she leaned against the wall, afraid and panting. Whatever just transpired, she clung to her soul as if it might fly away.
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. Saliently feral, Mom’s brown eyes darkened. The tension increased and then like a storm departing, she relaxed. Behind them, the television announced the 10 o’ clock news. Dad and Mom whipped around startled and returned to the couch, “We have to see this.” Dad waved them away. Discussion over. Their rules triumphed, Anna’s desire set aside. Since she was little, Mom and Dad watched the news like religious devotees attending services, eyes glued to the station for World News, seven nights a week.
She blinked unshed tears and rubbed her 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. The motivation for practice dissipated, and while 10 was not late for a Friday night, Anna longed to sleep.
Before she had a chance to skulk out of the room, a breaking alert flashed across the screen. Mom and Dad leaned forward, stiff and alert. Caitlyn and Mark, both returned to their activities, looked over to the screen. The audible pulse grabbed their attention as the newscaster, a woman in a navy suit, faced the camera. “I am Anita Blake, coming to you live from the World News station. Storms have ravaged the European continent where our own Lance Elbert is broadcasting live off the coast of Spain.”
The camera panned to a rocky shoreline. Wind howled around a man dressed in a suit and trench coat. The sky thundered overhead and blackened clouds roiled like a witch’s cauldron. 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. The cavity seemed endless, sucking light and sound from the area around it.
Anna set her hand on the back of the couch and found Mark and Caitlyn next to her, mouths open. Both too stunned to speak or look away.
An odd expression of glee lit the reporters face. 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. Utterly crazy for him to stand there. The hole was now the size of a man and Lance’s coat flapped, the fabric fighting to loosen from his body.
An unearthly light beamed from the ocean towards the land. 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.”
Thumps distracted Anna from the screen. Her mother’s face radiated a white light. The glow expanded to a halo around her head. She fell back; eyes rolled up and then closed. Her body convulsed and arched, back distended. Dad took her by the arms, “Come on Ellen, fight it. I’ve got you.” Her head lolled, piles of brunette hair, silken and thick, went slack and lackluster. Dad rocked Mom, humming a lullaby. The notes tickled memory and fled. Power thrummed in the room. Anna swayed. Mom’s eyes popped open and she gasped body rigid as a board. Her nails dug into Dad’s beefy arms and then 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. But her sister liked to have the answers. She needed to resolve problems. Caitlyn was a fixer.
Mark’s lip trembled a sure sign he was ready to cry. His little hands gripped the wooden sword, back in its sheath. His eyes darted for an enemy to slay. Mark defended the weak and helpless, only now he needed a knight. Anna shuffled next to him and gave him a nudge and a quick hug.
“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 though wan and weakened.
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. “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. Though Flora lived and worked in Henly House, paid from the trust, she was no slave. It was past her scheduled hours. Anna hesitated to lope down the hall for the back stairs. She had questions. An unnatural storm and Mom’s simultaneous seizure or convulsion, needed an explanation. Anna retrieved her book and followed Mark upstairs.
“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?” Maybe Mark remembered the song too. The notes were so familiar like from a distant memory or dream.
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 and around the corner to his room.
She slunk inside her own room. 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 windowpane in front of her desk.
She opened the laptop to search for the video on YourLife, but no luck. World News hadn’t ended yet. They’d load it later to the platform. 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 other 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.
A change had come to the Henlys. She felt it in her bones, completely unexpected and inexplicable. The sensations she felt during the storm never happened before and while not as scary as Mom’s illness, certainly different like a parachute opened up inside of her, caught her up at a great height and pulled her far from the shores of her spirit. Night swept Anna into dreams of a magical wood and a set of starry eyes. The sound of wings flapped and arms lifted her from the forest floor. The smell of music and summer invaded Anna’s senses and comforted.
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.