The big city is no match for a blue-eyed farm girl with impressive Zung Pow skills and a flair for unconventional magic.  At least, that’s what Honaia tells herself when she’s unexpectedly assigned to a handsome city mage for apprenticeship.  The problem is, she never really expected double agents to be involved.  Or dragons.  Or crazy rips in the Space-Time continuum, for that matter.  But when it comes down to it, none of those things expected her either.

Flipped is the first book in the Fairytale Evolution series.

Contains: Language, violence, faeries.

Opportunity

 

Honaia stood back and surveyed the carnage, bouquet in hand.  A bloody axe rested its head deep in a stump.  Feathers, once white, now red, floated on the afternoon breeze.  Lifeless bodies of poultry, necks twisted haphazardly, legs missing entirely, flopped in the dirt at her feet.  She glanced in distaste from the corpses to the bouquet of orange, taloned bird feet clenched in her gloved fist.  It would have to do.  She shook off the sudden feeling of nausea and marched around the corner of her house, unaware that change, even now, was barreling toward her.

“Did you bring my bouquet?” Sashi, her older sister, hollered out the kitchen door of the weathered-but-tidy little cottage as she saw Honaia coming.

“Yes, I got it,” Honaia answered impatiently, tromping through the door in jeans, tee shirt, work boots, and heavy gloves.  She stopped at the empty vase at the table and stuffed the chicken feet in, leg side down.  A trickle of blood crawled down the inside of the vase.  Disgusting, she thought, but it was only a matter of personal preference, something along the lines of, “I can’t believe you like peas.”  She stood back and regarded the grotesque arrangement as though she might improve on it somehow.  Then she sighed and went to the sink.

“What a good dolly you are!” Sashi proclaimed, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek as Honaia tried to scrub her hands.  “You can have a picnic with Mr.  Bear later.”

Honaia smiled and wiped the kiss away with her shoulder.  Again with the fucking bear, she thought.

One of the smallest members of Sashi’s litter toddled in through the door, giggling.  “Bug,” he proclaimed proudly, holding up his prize.

Sashi grabbed the dishcloth from Honaia.  She bent down in front of the child and examined his cupped hand.  “Mmhm,” she said.  “It’s a big one.”  She carefully polished the dungbeetle’s shell.  “All set,” she proclaimed after a thorough inspection.  “Keep it in your pocket for Mommy’s collection.”  Little did the bug know, it would be in an itty bitty dress with matching heels—six of them—before night fell.

The boy stuck the unsuspecting bug obediently into the front pocket of his overalls and grinned up at his mother.  Sashi swept him off his feet and carried him, tucked under one arm and dangling upside down, out of the house.

Off to join the others, Honaia thought, a little relieved.  The chatter of female voices from the front yard told her that Tredi, Looree, Fransi, and Malka were walking the property again, mapping out the lawnplow racetrack of their dreams.  It never occurred to her that lawnplow racing was an odd hobby for a bunch of decidedly feminine, unusually beautiful women.  What she couldn’t understand was the appeal.  Then again, there wasn’t much else to do in Greenwood Glen.  If only they would map out courses at their own houses instead of hers, she thought she could overlook the entire thing.

“And in other news,” the radio on the counter suddenly sprang to life after a long stint of faded static and sputtering, “a South Grange griffon will be brought to trial for the murder of a man during a game of bloggerball.  Apparently the man was running down the field when…” Dysfunctional static seizures made it impossible to understand the rest.

“That radio was the sweetest gift ever,” Jemma, another sister, said as she flounced through the door, lacy skirt swaying.

Honaia had a lot of sisters, and truth be told, it was difficult to keep track of them all.  For the most part, she survived by thinking of them as a pack.  A single entity of overbearing warmth and quirkiness.  Jemma, however, could always be singled out by her excessive positivity.

“Deeter was so thoughtful to give it to you,” Jemma went on.  “And he’s so handsome.  I think he’s the handsomest man I’ve ever met.”  And Deeter’s hog was the handsomest hog she’d ever met.

Honaia punched the off button apathetically and set her jaw.  Breaking up was indeed hard to do.  Harder when your sisters desperately wanted you to get married.  And harder still when your fiance thought you could do no wrong.  But she had made her choice about Deeter, and she was sticking to it.  She looked around for something else to do.

“Oh, you forgot the table cloth,” Jemma lulled.  “A lovely day, a lovely lunch with your sisters… let’s get it all right, silly.”  She left the kitchen and headed for the linen closet.  “Too bad Gren isn’t here,” her voice floated back to the kitchen.  “It’s been so long since we’ve gotten together for lunch like this.”

Honaia counted the days on her fingers.  She couldn’t count very far, but she made it anyway.

A wild squeal of children shrieked past the door and shot toward the tire-swing laden tree on the hill.  Honaia laughed at the thought of all those sticky, chocolate-covered fingers as she watched Jemma spread the delicate white lace cloth over the table.  The fact that it was still perfectly white after all those years was a miracle Honaia could only attribute to the stacks of archaic “Housekeeping for Ladies” that her sisters referred to religiously.  Their whole world might have been taken from a page of the magazine, for that matter.  Well, except for the lawnplow racing.  That was a different magazine.  And then there were a few oddities that couldn’t possibly be explained by anything in print….

“Beautiful,” Jemma whispered as she set the vase back in the center of the table.  A gentle breeze from the doorway swayed the flowing fabric like a bride’s veil.  The chicken toes rustled eerily.

A timer sounded and Honaia grabbed some potholders.  “I think we’re about ready,” she said, taking the bread out of the oven.  A warm, yeasty aroma circulated through the kitchen.

“Can you just bring in a few apples?” Jemma requested, batting her long, thick eyelashes.  They were all eyelash-batters, Honaia’s sisters.

Honaia snatched a basket from the wall next to the door on her way out.  She swung it as she walked to the apple tree at the base of the hill, enjoying the sunshine and the wild, open smell of the grass.  Her other sisters were strolling together not far off, arm in arm, a canopy of lace parasols overhead.  They would only ever sacrifice their porcelain skin to the god of lawnplows.  “We’ll be ready to eat soon,” she called to them.  They whispered to each other and walked back toward her.

Honaia focused on the apples, pushing away this strange feeling that was creeping up on her.  Just impatience, she thought.  Just restlessness.  She could get through yet another lacy, ruffly lunch.  The key was to just take it one lunch at a time.  As she picked apples, the swarm of children headed down the hill toward the house.  Still perched in the tire swing on the hill, one of the little ones—Honaia could not distinguish which one—yelled indignantly as the others abandoned her.  Honaia stretched out her mind and amplified the insufficient motion of the swing into a proper push.  The child made a high-pitched noise of surprise and delight and looked her way with a huge grin.

“Really,” said Malka, giving Honaia a look, “you don’t want people to think you’re weird, dear.”

Honaia looked away, wondering just who there was to think she was weird.  She could not help but smile as the tinkling laughter of the swinging child carried down the hill to her.

Tredi—still another sister—came over and put an arm around her, looking at her with grave concern.  “You’re not going to wear that to lunch, are you?”

Glancing down at her work clothes, Honaia bit back her annoyance.  It wasn’t like any of them were hacking chickens apart to make bouquets.

They blinked at her from behind long eyelashes, looking perfect in their whirls of lace, their long gloves, their exquisitely done hair.

“I’ll go change,” Honaia said, and hoisted the basket of apples.  She wondered how many layers of ruffles it would take to make her sisters happy today.

“Put some perfume on too,” Tredi insisted, petting her hair as though she were a hopeless case.  “And fix these braids.  Remember, nice and tight.”

“Wouldn’t want those crazy curls of yours getting lose,” Malka chided.  Her own shiny black curls were an entirely different story, of course.  She was old enough to wear her hair like that.  Honaia wouldn’t be until she got married.  And that—much to all of Honaia’s sisters’ consternation—was looking like it would be a while.

A rising tide of children suddenly surrounded them.  Honaia stumbled to remain standing as little arms grabbed at her legs.  “Somebody’s coming down the road,” one of the children announced in squeaky excitement.  Honaia’s heart started beating faster, though she couldn’t say why.

There was only one road in Greenwood Glen; a long, narrow strip of dirt that seemed to be visiting from somewhere far away.  It grew bored about a mile past the cottage and petered out.  Greenwood Glen, in fact, was not even an authentic town, but a name that had been given to a scattered collection of neighboring farms so that the residents would have something to write on their return address labels.  There were no schools or stores.  There was no town hall.  There was certainly no reason to have visitors.

The sisters were on their feet now, on their toes, trying to see as far down the road as they could.  A stirring of brown dust raced along the horizon toward them.  Soon they could make out two riders and an empty steed in tow.  Before long the riders slowed to a halt at the edge of the cottage yard.  One was a hulking troll, green-skinned, pointy-toothed, nearly as large as the beast he rode in on.  The other, an attractive young man with an intense gaze and flowing crimson robes, brought his steed round to a halt.  The animal danced and tossed its head back, the sunshine reflecting warmly off dual opalescent horns spiraling from its forehead.  Dropping from the saddle with an easy grace, the young man strode toward them.

“Duocorns,” Tredi murmured, gawking at the two-horned equines as the troll fumbled to secure them to a fence post.  “Nobody drives duocorns around here.”  Greenwood Glen was in fact so removed from modern society that none of the local livestock was genetically altered.  The sisters had driven common unicorns to their gathering, and the surviving chickens that clucked around back bore feathers that would require plucking before they could become a meal.

“I think that one is Mrs.  Lawden,” Looree, yet another (slightly crazy) sister, whispered conspiratorially, regarding one of the duocorns with suspicion.

“Mrs.  Lawden’s dead,” Honaia said, crossing her arms.  Mrs.  Lawden had, in fact, been dead for so long that Honaia could not remember her.

“I know,” said Looree, eyeballing the steed.  “And I think that’s her.”

The sisters regarded the duocorns speculatively.

“Ladies,” the young man interrupted with a greeting.  He gave a small, straight-shouldered bow that reminded Honaia of Zung Pow Masters, her favorite Megadeck game.  “I’m Mage Onus, and this is my associate, Deez.”  He gestured over his shoulder as the troll ambled toward them.

Honaia eyed the both of them.  Onus didn’t look like a mage; at least not the ones she’d seen on holovision.  She would have cast him as a heartthrob hero in an action movie, had she been doing the directing.  He was lean and tall, with hair of a medium brown and dark eyes that were at once hard to meet and hard to look away from.  It only took that one moment of seeing him to form the impression that he was ready for anything and that it had damned well better be ready for him, too.  But then, there was something softer.  Youthful….  As for the troll, he was big even by trollish standards, but every bit of it seemed to be muscle.  His jagged-toothed grin, as he wiggled his greenish eyebrows at her, was both frightening and charming.  He stopped at the mage’s side with his feet shoulder-width apart and arms folded across his chest.  Something caught the sun and flashed on his chest—a heavy, gold, grinning skull on a thick chain.  His black track suit bore gold embroidery that proclaimed the high-end brand in a less-than-surreptitious way.  Well-to-do thug? Drug lord on holiday? Honaia didn’t think she wanted to piss him off.

“We’re here to speak with Miss Honaia,” Mage Onus said without any further delay.

A ripple of muttering passed through the sisters.  Honaia was as surprised as they were.  Of the lot of them, she was surely the least likely to have visitors.  An alarm went off somewhere in the back of her consciousness.  She forced herself to be still, to wait.  What could they possibly want with her?

“What do you want with Honaia?” Tredi suddenly demanded, echoing Honaia’s thoughts, but not the mage’s smooth tones.  She threw a protective arm around her little sister’s shoulders.  The mage’s eyes fixed on Honaia, registered something—surprise?

She clamped her jaw shut, once again biting back annoyance.  Somehow she had thought she could remain anonymous, if only for a moment longer.  Perhaps because, when she was in her sisters’ company, she always felt just that—anonymous.

Mage Onus, having looked her up and down, focused on her face.  “It’s crucial that we speak with you.  Is there somewhere more—?”

“We’re all family here,” Malka asserted defensively.  Honaia was sure she’d gotten the line from one of her daytime holovision dramas.  “Whatever you have to say can be said to all of us.”

The mage and troll exchanged uneasy glances.  Mage Onus hesitated, but the group of them stood there united in their unwavering indignity.  He sighed, then began calmly, “All right then.”  But he stopped looking at the sisters, which was no more complicated than to look straight at Honaia.  Only somehow, the way he did it dismissed them from the conversation.

Honaia felt the weight of his gaze, looked away at the meadow running into the distance.  Her mind was racing.

“You see, Honaia…” His voice tested the sound of her name without the prefix this time, relaxed into the rest of his words when her eyes flickered to him and met his gaze.  “Normally school-aged children are subjected to genetic profiling through the local education system, and if they’re found to have the marker that would indicate possible giftedness in the magical arts, they’re assigned to a licensed mage to undergo proper evaluation and training, if necessary.”  He paused a moment, fingers pressed thoughtfully together in front of him.  “However in rural communities like this one, where the task of education falls to the individual household, things can slip through the cracks.”

Honaia frowned.  She was thinking of school-aged children.  “These are my sisters’ kids,” she fumbled.  “If you want to test them you’ll have to take it up with them.”

Mage Onus’ mouth curled in a half-amused smile.  It was a good look for him.  “I’ve come because there has already been a test done… on you.”

“On me?” Honaia puzzled, somehow managing to digest the words despite her lack of focus.  Something jolted inside her, zeroing her in on the conversation.  “How could that be?” Again the alarms were going off.  She could feel her heart starting to race, and it had nothing to do with how very nice the mage was to look at.  Then such an odd sensation came over her that she was certain it was some distorted way of thinking she must have picked up from her sisters.  She felt herself standing on the head of a pin, and the whole world around her pivoted and clicked into its new place.  And that was that.  Changed.

“It’s actually kind of strange how it happened,” the mage admitted, oblivious to the fact that her entire world had just shifted.  “Apparently you participated in a blood drive.  Of course they run all the samples through a series of tests, and one of them picks up on some aspect of the Predisposition.  Normally those are ignored because they assume to have already identified most mage-type individuals through the school screening.  But your numbers were running fairly high, so they sent the sample on to a lab for secondary analysis and cross-reference with the databanks of registered mage-types.  The Council has very strict rules regarding magic, you know.  So when you didn’t appear in the registry, they immediately assigned you to me for apprenticeship.”

Honaia looked at him speechlessly.  As she began to recover from the vertigo of her spinning world, his words started to sink in.  She must have gone pale or something, because he reached out to steady her.

Malka moved between them.  “The blood drive was over a year ago,” she pointed out in exasperation, and she was right.  The one and only blood drive ever to have come to Greenwood Glen had been a tiny tent set up at the same lawnplow tourney that had been Sashi and Looree’s first win.

Mage Onus glanced at Malka.  “Yes, well, no one has claimed that the system moves with efficiency.”

“Boggin’ idiots if you ask me,” Malka said, flashing eyes like daggers.

The others mumbled their general agreement.

“I understand it may come as a shock,” Mage Onus soothed, stepping sideways to be able to see Honaia again, “but it’s a simple matter of law at this point.  Honaia will be required to return with us to Reliance to begin training right away.”

“The city!” Tredi cried.  “Are you insane?!”

Malka gave her a sour look and she plopped herself down on one of the benches to continue her sulking quietly.

Jemma, who had been standing in the back until now, pushed her way forward, radiating positivity.  “I think it’s wonderful,” she lulled, hooking her arm casually into Mage Onus’.  “Please, Mr.  Onus, won’t you come inside and talk with us about it.”

Onus allowed himself to be led to the house in what could only be the spirit of civilized conversation.  Jemma sat him down at the kitchen table in front of the vase of chicken feet and the others took chairs around the table.  Because of the company, Honaia ended up standing, which was fine with her as it was a much more convenient position to pace in.

“Just how long is this training going to take?” Malka asked, sounding more like she was conducting an interrogation than having a casual conversation.

“That’s a matter yet to be determined,” Onus answered, pulling his gaze away from the bloody display of poultry before him.  “The extent of training that will satisfy the Council is largely dependent on her aptitude for the subject.  Often times a year will suffice.”

“And if she doesn’t go?” inquired Malka.

“Doesn’t go?” the troll said quietly, breaking his previous silence.  “Oh hell no.”  Despite the softness of his tone, the room went quiet.

Onus cast him a sideways look but remained completely composed.

“Look,” Deez said, suddenly leaning forward and slamming his fist on the table, “this isn’t up for discussion.”

“Well I certainly want to discuss it,” Malka retorted, standing up and leaning across the table toward the troll.

“You wanna discuss the fact that it’s required by f’kin law?” Deez asked, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in his chair to gaze at her coolly.  “Don’t make the mistake of thinking we like this any better than you do.  We got a business to run, and playing babysitter to any kid who can wave a wand ain’t exactly convenient for us either.  But we suck it up, just like every other licensed magic op, ’cause that’s what the boggin’ regulations require.”

Honaia eyed the troll and his fist, and decided that he could have crumpled the whole table if he had not been so restrained.  And yet her sister, a tiny wisp of a thing in comparison, but all fire, was glaring menacingly at him from across the table.  She wondered which one of them would win if they had it out.

“I understand this is sudden news,” Mage Onus interjected in a calm voice, “but you have to see it as an opportunity for Honaia.”  He glanced around to find her, realizing she was not at the table and somehow he had ended up speaking to her sisters rather than dealing with her directly.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Jemma agreed.  “I think it may be the most wonderful opportunity ever.”

Onus turned sideways in his chair to address Honaia directly.  “With a little training many people will go on to pursue careers in the magical arts.  The demand for power suppliers alone is tremendous.  Enough to keep you in a well-paying job as long as you like, and the skills required are minimal.  Almost anyone with a genetic predisposition can achieve that level within a year of apprenticeship.”

Honaia stopped pacing to eyeball him.  “I’ve never been to the city,” she said.  Such a reasonable thing to say.  She heard herself saying it from a distance, felt herself, in a removed way, examining the idea of actually going there.  But she really thought, you turned everything upside down in one second. It seemed far less reasonable of a thing to say.

Mage Onus rose from his chair and closed the distance between them.  She liked the way he moved, fluid and feline, bringing her far-away thoughts back to the present moment.  It wasn’t just the impressive swish of the crimson robes.  In the back of her mind she was wondering if he ever played Megadeck.

“It’s not so bad,” he assured her, looking down at her with a slight smile that was oddly convincing.  “You’ll have everything you need.  My team will show you the ropes.”

Honaia smiled back at him, a sweet, childlike smile that, along with her dazzling blue eyes, had long been known to make the boys of Greenwood Glen go weak in the knees.  “What exactly is it that I would be doing?”

Onus seemed paralyzed for an instant, looking deep into her eyes.  Then emotion flickered across his face, ended in a blank expression.  He drew away.  “You’ll mostly be learning from me.  It’s a bit like school.”

Honaia had no frame of reference for school except holovision.  Her slight frown spurned him to go on.

“Of course, all my past apprentices have been children,” he said.  “The advantage of having slipped through the system for so long is that you’ll be able to gain some field experience as well.  I’ll have you tag along on some of my team’s assignments.  You’re lucky to have been placed with us actually.  We have a broad client base, and we don’t really specialize, so you’ll get a taste of everything—research, security, construction, entertainment—by the time you’ve met the requirements you’ll have a nice portfolio, and a good idea of what field you might like to pursue.”

Honaia pulled her gaze away and looked at her sisters expectantly.  They had always made the decisions for her.  And though she was strangely certain that this particular decision had already been made for all of them, she knew that they still had to go through the motions.

“Well,” said Tredi, clapping her hands.  “Won’t you please excuse us while we confer.”  She ushered the sisters hastily into the living room.

The six of them stood in a huddle in the middle of the room.  Honaia tried to sidle up to the edge to listen.  The others did not make room for her.

“She’s my dolly,” Sashi was complaining, sounding like a little girl.  “I don’t want to let him play with her.”

“She’s broken anyway,” Malka said, rolling her eyes.  “You said so yourself.  And you have other ‘dolls’ now.”

“But I had her as long as I can remember,” Sashi mumbled in protest, looking very sad.

Jemma patted her on the back.  “It’s OK Sash.  You have very nice dolls now.  I think they’re the nicest dolls ever.”

Sashi nodded reluctantly.

“Well, we don’t have to give her to him anyway,” Malka lulled conspiratorially, examining her finger nails.

“Do too,” said Fransi.

“The duocorn,” Looree chimed in as if it were very important.  “I’m pretty sure it’s Mrs.  Lawden.”

“Lawden.  The Law! They said it’s the law,” Tredi asserted.  “That means we have to let her go.”

Honaia thought that was a good point and opened her mouth to say so, but they were already moving on.

“No one will ever know the difference,” Malka said darkly, “if we feed them to the chickens.”  She raised her eyebrows and nodded slowly, looking at each of her sisters in turn.

There was a slight pause.

“I don’t think the chickens are that hungry,” Tredi speculated.

Boggin’ chickens again, thought Honaia.

“They’re surprisingly voracious,” Malka informed them.

“Yeah,” Tredi agreed, “but Honey just killed a bunch for the bouquet.  There’s not that many left, after Fransi’s birthday party last week.”

“Maybe we can borrow some more,” Malka plotted.  “Have them over for a party or someth—”

“My gods!” Honaia shrieked, having had enough.  She had heard the chicken conversation in its unusual variants a few too many times.  She managed to hush her voice to an intense whisper before continuing.  “You are not feeding them to the fucking chickens!”

They looked at her as if she were crazy.

“Honey,” Tredi scolded, “where did you learn to talk like that?”

“Holovision,” Honaia answered with a curt nod.  She could have said Deeter, but she didn’t want to get into the specifics of when and where.  Deeter was a gentleman of a farm boy.  He wouldn’t curse when he was angry.  He would yelp something like “Darnit!” or “Fudge!” if he smashed his finger with a hammer.  Speculation after that could get embarrassing.

Her sisters glared at her, then engaged in a group “hmph”.

“Honey is right,” Jemma finally said.  “We can’t feed him to the chickens.  He’s far too attractive.  Why, I think he’s the most attractive man I’ve ever seen.”  Him and Deeter.  And Deeter’s hog.  Jemma thought about it a second then said, “Maybe the troll.”

“That would still take a lot of chickens,” Tredi puzzled, truly bothered by the mathematics of the chicken-feeding problem.

Honaia groaned and wondered if they would feed her to the chickens too.  Please.

Thankfully, some gracious god—maybe it was the god of lawnplows—Honaia didn’t know—had mercy on her and got them off the subject of chickens.

“He is pretty impressive,” Malka mused, twirling a lock of jet black hair.  Of all the sisters she was the only one with dark hair, as if Nature had just known.  “… in that ‘watch out or I’ll zap you with a lightning bolt’ kind of way.”

Honaia considered briefly and came to the conclusion that it was not a quality she found herself looking for in a man.  It explained a few things about Malka’s husband though.

“Maybe he won’t scare so easily then,” Tredi said, throwing a meaningful look at Honaia and raising her eyebrows.

Honaia remained indignantly quiet.  She was certain that her sisters had no idea just how much work she had put into scaring Deeter—and the ones before him—off.  Good thing for her they didn’t.

“True,” Malka conceded.  “Very true.”

“I think he’s very brave.  And very handsome,” Jemma said breathlessly.  “And this is a wonderful opportunity.”

A wonderful opportunity, thought Honaia as they herded her into her room and tossed her an old cloth sack in which to pack her things, for lack of proper luggage.  Is that what it’s called when the world suddenly swallows you and spits you out again in the direction it thinks you should be going? She found herself taking deep, even breaths, focusing on the soft sound of air leaving her lungs.

“One pair of overalls is enough,” Tredi supervised, taking a billowing lace dress off a hanger.  She folded it gingerly and placed it in the sack.  “You’re going to the city,” she said.  “We can’t have you dressing like a heathen.”

“People in the city don’t dress like this, Tredi,” Honaia protested, unsure of why she even bothered.  She held one of her dresses against her, all whirls of lace, and ruffles, and poofs, and bows.

Tredi cast her a disapproving glance.  “Of course they do.”

Honaia shook her head doubtfully.  “Not people on holovision.”  Not even other people in Greenwood Glen.

“That’s holovision,” Tredi informed her.  “You don’t think it’s real, do you? ‘Housekeeping for Ladies’ is a far more reliable source of information.  It’s non-fiction, silly.”

From what Deeter had told Honaia, holovision was a fairly accurate representation of the world at large.  Having no personal experience to go on, she figured she would side with him, if only in her mind.  ‘Housekeeping for Ladies’ had come from Mrs.  Lawden, who had been ancient before she passed on to reincarnate as a rabbit, a duocorn, or whatever it would be next week.

Honaia smiled at Tredi as she folded the dress neatly in her lap.  “I think the sash that goes with this one is on the belt hook,” she said softly.

In the kitchen, she could hear her sisters fussing over their visitors.  She envisioned the full-on tea party, glad to be excused from it.  “I guess it’ll be a while ’til I have lunch with you all again,” she pondered absently.  There was a hint of sadness underlying the nonchalance.  A feeling that she was drifting away on a raft that she had no control of.

“Jemma’s right,” Tredi insisted, comparing two pairs of heels against a dress.  She opted with the pink pair with little rosettes near the toes.  Sashi’s favorite bug had a pair—or three, really—just like it.  “This is a wonderful opportunity.”

There was that phrase again.  Brushing a hand over the bright colors of her quilt, Honaia wondered again at the meaning of it.  A shining new career path? She scarcely imagined her sisters caring about such things.  More likely, it was the possibility of sending her off to find some new marriage prospects.  Deeter was the last in a long line of failed attempts.  She had effectively exhausted the supply of suitors in Greenwood Glen, and none of her sisters were happy about it.

All packed, Honaia had one last look at her cheerful, airy room.  She sighed, slung the bag over her shoulder, and headed into the kitchen.

The doting was worse than she thought.  The troll had been coerced into a bib, and Onus’ voice wavered on the edge of impatience as he said “Please, no more.  No.  No thank you.  I’m full.”

He appeared delighted to see her.  He was on his feet muttering impassive gratitude at record speed.  “All set?” he asked, giving her a broad smile and taking her bag as he moved toward the door.

“I think so,” she nodded, smiling back at him.  He was very handsome and not so intimidating when he smiled.  She turned back to her sisters, who mobbed her with hugs.

“Be a good girl,” Malka told her, kissing her cheek.  “And if anyone bothers you, remember the chickens.”

“I will,” she assured them.

“Be nice to Mrs.  Lawden,” said Looree.

“And don’t get dirty,” Sashi instructed.

Honaia continued to nod acquiescence.

“Remember,” said Jemma, glancing past her at the mage, “this is a wonderful opportunity.”

Honaia followed her gaze to Onus, who, thankfully engrossed in securing her bag to the duocorn’s saddle, did not seem to be paying them any attention.

Tredi gave her a solid yet affectionate shove out the door.  “And don’t come back ’til you’re married.”

Honaia clamped her jaw and walked to the duocorn, glancing back at her sisters once.  The creature stood taller than any of the unicorns she had previously ridden, a sturdy, graceful chestnut mare.  Mage Onus offered her his hand, but she had already mounted before she turned and saw that he had intended to help her.

She smiled down at him and shrugged.  His gaze lingered a brief moment before retreating again behind some barrier.

“He’s such a gentleman,” Jemma murmured to her sisters as they stood around waiting to see Honaia off.

Onus’ eyes flicked to Jemma, then he turned away and mounted his duocorn.  In only a moment, they were headed off down the road.

Honaia glanced back at the homey cottage and her sisters huddled in the yard.  They were making a good show of the sendoff, waving lace handkerchiefs and even shedding a few tears.  She waved at them, smiling dolefully, then dug her heels into the side of the duocorn and caught up with the magician and the troll.  A spatter of children in varying sizes trailed off behind them, unable to keep up with the duocorns.  They stood waving in the road.

“Thank the gods,” Deez remarked, looking quite relieved as they put some distance between themselves and the cottage.

A smile and sideways glance acknowledged the mage’s agreement.

The pathway, basically a groove of dirt worn out of the grass, grew rougher and less trodden a few miles down, once they passed Deeter’s Farm and Hog Wash.  They followed it on over a little hill into the expanse of countryside leading away from Greenwood Glen.

This was the farthest Honaia had ever been.  Turning in the saddle to look back the way they’d come, her heart made a little jump.  Everything she knew lay behind that small hill that was growing farther and farther away.  Funny, she thought, that she would be so fond of the place, come time to leave it.  They moved on, and with it, again, came the sensation of floating, drifting, being caught in a current that had a mind of its own.

The road now stretched out straight before them across a great grassy plain.  They urged their mounts to a faster pace.  The duocorns were remarkably enduring animals, sustaining a steady canter without strain.  They were the ideal transportation in these less-developed regions where the roads were too rough for pods.  The Council had banned “unclean” transportation such as the vehicles of two decades ago and roadwork had come to a halt.  While no means as efficient as the magically run Gyrotubes or “Tubes” that predominated city transportation, the duocorns did get the job done, without pollution.  Or at least without the non-biodegradable sort.

They ate sandwiches along the way which tasted a lot like Deeter’s cooking.  Honaia managed to eat hers anyway.  She had learned from her sisters a long time ago that most people were lacking in basic culinary skills, something that certainly was not neglected in her own at-home education.  Honaia was also well-versed in housekeeping, entertaining, and botany.  She knew how to accurately classify 52 types of dungbeetle (though she couldn’t count that high), and she could make her own cosmetics and home remedies, among other things.  Furthermore, she was a Zung Pow Master.  The latter skill she had learned from Deeter’s Megadeck, and it was, to date, her proudest achievement.

Those hours seemed endless to Honaia as they rode on through an unchanging forest.  Through chit-chat, she learned that Onus owned the magic company.  She amused herself by trying to form a full picture of him in her mind; he was a hard-working young entrepreneur, a start-up with a vision.  Surely he could still find some time to play Megadeck.

The afternoon gave way to a warm, dark, breezeless night.  A mesh of clouds blotted out the stars and the white moon Jaxar was only a sliver.  The glare of the hornlights was hypnotic.  Straining to see ahead, Honaia found herself blinking to stay awake, and soon her head was nodding.  She shook herself awake repeatedly.  Forcing her head up and squinting her eyes yet again, she noticed a glow ahead.  They had come out of the forest, she realized, and were again traversing a plain.  Directly in line with their course was a spot of light, small at first.  As they grew nearer, it dipped and twinkled and she grasped that it was many lights all together, not just one.

“What is that?” Honaia asked, pointing onward.  Curiosity had brought her fully awake.  She peered at the glimmer ahead, wondering if perhaps it were some making of the faerie folk.

That is where we’re going,” said Mage Onus, dropping back to ride beside her.  “Reliance at night.”  He smiled in amusement at her awe.  “Prepare to be overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed

Honaia had been overwhelmed the first time all of her sisters had left all of their offspring with her on the same day.  Another time, though in some ways similar to the first, all of Deeter’s hogs had knocked over a fence and escaped while Honaia was visiting him.  As she scrambled around in the fray, trying to help round them up, she was overwhelmed.  Those experiences were hardly qualitative to her first glimpse of Reliance.

The city was a convoluted nexus of moving, blinking, noise-making components, inhabited by creatures of every size and origin, some of whom were also moving, blinking, and making noise.  The buildings stretched up into the atmosphere in streaks of neon, plastered with images, and projecting holo ads into the sky and onto the sidewalk.  The air itself seemed abuzz with energy, and thick with the smell of unfamiliar cuisine.

Dodging three teenage gnomes bolting by in anti-grav shoes, the mage’s party brought their steeds up to the stables at the front of a gyrotube station.  One section of the building had flashing neon lights and what appeared to be self-service stalls.  A jingle was playing loudly in the background, singing “Rent-A-Corn, Rent-A-Corn, for all your travel needs.”  Patrons were sliding credit chips through scanners and taking various ‘corns out of stalls, or parking already-rented ‘corns by placing chips attached to the ‘corns reigns into receptacles in the stalls.  None of the ‘corns Honaia noticed in the stalls looked as nice as the ones the mage and troll had brought.  She dismounted along with the others and stretched.  Mage Onus and Deez were already handing the reigns of their steeds to a groom who had come around from a more tastefully sedated section of the stables.  He made a little bow as he took the reins of Honaia’s ‘corn, then headed back through what looked to be a private gate.

Mage Onus had liberated Honaia’s satchel from her steed without her noticing.  She went to take it from him but with a mind of its own, it flitted up over her head and hovered out of reach.

“I’ve got it,” he volunteered with a quick smile that made her heart skip a beat—or was it because of his uninhibited use of magic? Here, for the first time in her life, was someone like her.  “It gets annoyingly crowded in there.”  And he glanced toward the station entrance.

Honaia followed his gaze to a wide doorway with a steady flow of people in and out.  The building in which the doorway stood was oddly shaped, basically a dome, but it looked as though planes of the roof had been taken off in every direction.  From each open circular portal a faint glimmer traced the outside of a tube-shaped force-field off into the distance.  The force-fields emerged from every opening, twisting and bending around each other as necessary to accommodate them all.  Honaia was reminded of the crazy mess of slides Sashi’s husband had engineered on Greenwood Glen’s makeshift playground.  As she pondered the similarities, an elliptical silver capsule whooshed through the tube a couple of stories over their heads, disappearing into one of the portals.

“Let’s get on with it,” Deez insisted.  “I gotta be somewhere.”  He headed toward the door.

Honaia glanced at Mage Onus, ready to fall in behind him, but he gestured with one hand toward the station and said “Please, after you.”  She set off after the troll, only glancing back to check that her sack was following.

As Honaia entered the station she saw the huge troll on a ramp off to the right beckoning wildly at her.  “Over here, woman,” he bellowed, “unless you wanna wait for the next one.”

At the top of the ramp the silver capsule had a door open near each end, one loading and the other unloading passengers.  The three of them melted into the jumbled line of people shuffling slowly aboard.

The vessel was windowless and seamless inside except for the two doors.  A completely rounded interior kept the same capsule shape as the exterior.  The walls were affixed with thick padding upholstered in a wipe-clean navy vinyl that had apparently not been wiped in a while.  Glowstrips ran the length of the capsule.

The troll led them to an unoccupied spot at the center of the capsule and leaned back against the sloping interior.

“No buckles or anything, huh?” Honaia asked, placing herself against the wall next to Deez.

“Nope,” the troll answered factually.  “The centrifugal force holds you in, so they say.”  Then he leaned a little closer.  “But between you and me, I don’t think these things are as foolproof as they claim to be.”

“Don’t let him scare you,” Mage Onus laughed, settling into place on Honaia’s other side.  “There’ve been no injuries on the Tubes since the Council put the new safety regulations into effect four years ago.”

“What about the guy who lost his arm last month?” Deez asked, looking across Honaia at Mage Onus.  “It was all over the news.”

Honaia raised her eyebrows at Mage Onus.

“That was in a brawl with an ogre,” Mage Onus explained to her, then looked at the troll pointedly.  “I don’t think that counts.”

“Counts for the guy who lost his arm,” said Deez.   “Maybe they should regulate ogres.”

It turned out that the longest part of the journey was the loading and unloading of the vessel.  Once all the passengers were in place, the doors hissed shut.  “Launching in three… two… one…” said a computerized female voice.  Honaia felt herself immediately pushed back against the padded interior of the shuttle, arms and legs pinned to the walls heavily.  A strange feeling of pressure sank through her head and body, but she had no sensation of movement.  Quite briefly the pressure stopped and she felt normal again.

Deez clambered up from his seat.  The doors hissed slowly open.

“Is there something wrong?” Honaia asked, instinctively climbing to her feet to follow the troll.  She felt a little unsteady.

“No,” Mage Onus assured her, catching her by the elbow.  “These things move at amazing speeds.  We’re there.”  Assured that she had her footing, his hand left her arm like the soft stroke of a paintbrush.  He flicked a finger casually at her makeshift luggage, which promptly whisked itself up over their heads.

They oozed toward the exit door with the other passengers, eventually finding themselves on the platform squinting from the bright lights of the station.  A zigzagging ramp led them down three stories to the station lobby where they joined the flow of people out the front door.

The twelve-story tube station was dwarfed beside the surrounding skyscrapers.  An abundance of lights in all colors proclaimed restaurants, clubs, theaters, and various kinds of shops.

“This way,” declared Mage Onus, and set off down the street.  They walked a block to the right, passing a sidewalk café and a holotheater.  A holographic projection on the sidewalk in front of the ticket booth played and replayed a sequence in which a robot battled a gnome wielding an electric mace.  As they passed near it, hidden speakers all around them broadcasted crashes and crackles at full volume.

“Man, I heard the guy takes out half a city in this one,” Deez beamed.

A trace of a smile flitted briefly across Mage Onus’ face as he glanced back at the holo ad.  “Only half?”

“It’s s’posed to be the goriest one yet,” Deez informed him.  “Surprising they don’t censor that shit, huh?”

“Surprising,” the mage agreed.  The two of them glanced at Honaia as though expecting her to comment, but she said nothing.

At the corner of the street Onus led them up the stairs to a bridged walkway.  “Are you paying attention to this, Honaia?” he asked as they walked through the well-lit tunnel to the other side of the street.  “You’ll need to know your way around.”

Honaia nodded, glancing back down the tunnel to cement their path in her mind.  Try as she might to pick details out of it, everything was a huge, confusing blur of light and motion.

“One block right from the station, left, then two blocks down,” Mage Onus said, his words echoing through the enclosed walkway.

Once back on the street, the remaining walk was along a quieter avenue.  Many people were still about, but the flashing signs gave way to rows of oversized planters filled with small manicured trees and cascades of flowers.  Two blocks down, they turned into the entrance of a sleek glass-walled high rise with a sign printed in scrolling silver script.

Since Honaia could not read she had no idea what it said.  Nevertheless she fixed a picture of the building in her mind, noting the buildings on either side and across the street as well.  She had never seen anything even vaguely the scope of one city block, however she was determined that knowing her way ‘home’ would be vital.  The idea of getting lost in that ever-moving mess of lights and sounds and smells was terrifying.

“Awright,” Deez said, stopping at the front doors.  “I’m out.  Hot date ‘n’ all.”  He winked at them.

“Be safe, D,” Onus said, waving as the troll ambled away.

Onus and Honaia entered a tastefully decorated lobby and proceeded toward the elevators.  A stylish black plaque affixed to the marbled wall kept a directory that included business, accounting, and law offices as well as private consultants—not that Honaia could make any of that out.

Mage Onus touched one chain of bronze characters with the tip of his finger.  “That’s us.”

Honaia was horrified to see her reflection in the elevator’s full-length mirrored panels.  She scraped dried mud nervously from the toe of one boot with the toe of the other.  It was almost enough to take her mind off of the fact that she was being skyrocketed upward in a building that made giants seem like dwarfs.  But she would not panic.  She wouldn’t.

They disembarked on the twenty-seventh floor.  An expansive waiting room swept out before them.  Muted lighting cast tiny pools of luminescence in strategic places.  On a gorgeous, swirling wood-grained floor were three modern chairs and a small drum table bearing a single, glossy-covered magazine.  A curving wall swept away to a wide hall on one side, and an archway led down a corridor that also disappeared into a curve on the opposite side.  A single black desk, a slice of a sphere, looked more like a sculpture than something functional.  The combined effect of sophisticated art, fragrant tropical plants in full bloom, and the tinkling sound of water moving from not far away stopped Honaia at the threshold of the elevator.  Her eyes flitted around to take in a thousand tiny details that made everything fit together just perfectly.  The textured stone of a planter, the styling of the elevator panel, the way the light reflected in little sparkles here and there.

So much for the struggling entrepreneur impression.

Onus and Honaia took the hallway on the right, a long corridor hung with abstract paintings that stretched almost from floor to ceiling.

“The offices and conference rooms are in the other direction,” the mage explained as they traversed the hallway.  “This way is the kitchen, fitness room, and our individual apartments.  I’ll give you a better tour tomorrow.”

Honaia nodded, taking it all in, wondering what it could possibly be like to live in such a place.  She glanced backward and was relieved that her sack was still bobbing along quietly behind them.

Ahead, at a break in the hall, emerged a dark-haired man wearing blue pajamas and terrycloth slippers.  He glanced their way, saw them, and waited.  “Onus,” he said, barely masking a look of surprise, “who’s this?  I didn’t know you had a…date?”

Onus’ arm swept sideways to gesture at Honaia, though he didn’t look at her.   “This is my new apprentice.”   His words were impatient.   “Honaia.”

The man’s eyes flashed wider for a second, then his face settled into a more relaxed expression.   “Ah.”   His eyes swept to Honaia.   “Forgive me.   You aren’t exactly… what I was expecting.”

Honaia managed a small nod, studying him.   Up close, his slender, pointed ears and fine facial features identified him as an elf.  He was significantly older than Onus, with the tips of his sideburns just touched by silver.

“My partner,” Onus explained to her, his voice turning back to its smooth, gentle tones.  “Allow me to introduce Mage Fenn.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Honaia said with a polite smile.

“Yes,” agreed Mage Fenn.  “Welcome, and good luck.”

“Thanks,” Honaia replied, thinking she might need it.

“Daaaad,” came a whine from the room off of the adjoining corridor.  A girl of about sixteen emerged, looking unlike anything that Honaia had ever seen, holovision included.  Her pale elven skin contrasted sharply with dyed jet black hair which fell to her shoulders.  Blue eyes gazed defiantly out from behind long, jagged bangs, targeting her father with cold ire.  Low-slung black cargo pants slouched obstinately over black combat boots.  Her mini shirt, which was not long enough to cover her pierced belly button, was also black, but proclaimed in large white letters “piss off”, not that Honaia could read it, but somehow she got the idea anyway.  The thick chains that snaked around the girl’s neck jangled as she held up an empty bag and rattled it exasperatedly at her father.  “Did you eat the rest of my Krinkoes?” Overall, it wasn’t the appearance that made an impression on Honaia, so much as the overwhelming projection of darkness.

Mage Fenn looked sheepish, then said decidedly, “Well, if you’d manage to get home before—” He looked at his wrist, but his watch was not there.

“That’s so not fair,” she complained, rolling her eyes and heading back to where she’d come from.

“That,” said Mage Onus informatively to Honaia, “was Peloen.”

“Don’t worry,” Mage Fenn added.  “She’s not as scary as she looks.”

“I am too!” Peloen’s voice protested from down the corridor.

The mages shook their heads at Honaia reassuringly.

Onus and Honaia exchanged glances.  “Your room is down here,” he said, gesturing for her to go first.   “Excuse us,” he said to Mage Fenn.  Onus and Honaia continued down the hallway and stopped at a door on the left.

Mage Onus passed his hand over a scanner on the wall and made a few selections from the pop-up screen.  “OK,” he said, “go ahead and scan your hand so we can set it up for you.”

Honaia waved her hand over the scanner, which played a musical note.

“Again,” said Onus.

Honaia did so.  This time she could hear the sound of the lock disengaging.  The door moved slightly.  She pushed it open, thinking she had never had a lock on a door before and how it might have come in handy with her sisters.

The room inside was as large as her entire cottage in Greenwood Glen, an open bedroom with a sitting area and a kitchenette off to the left.  On the right-hand side was a door that led to the bathroom.  One large window occupied the wall next to the bed.  The décor was a tasteful range of neutrals, a generically pleasing palate.  The furniture was streamlined, clean and new.  Fresh flowers and a basket of fruit displayed themselves on a coffee table in the middle of the sitting area.  Multiple pillows and a feathery comforter in crisp white made the bed luxuriously inviting.  On a stand that could be seen from both the bed and sitting area was a holovision.

“A holovision,” Honaia murmured, running her fingers across the control panel.  She’d never had her own before.

“Watch a lot?” Onus mused.  He was lingering in the doorway, leaning on the door frame.

Honaia came out of her trance and shook her head.  “I didn’t have one,” she said with half a smile.  “Sometimes I’d watch with my sisters or my fi—my friend.”

“And here I thought you and your sisters were the only ones who lived in Greenwood Glen,” Onus teased.  “Oh, and what was that we passed? Deeter’s Hog Wash?” He frowned and thought about it.  “What is a hog wash anyway?”

“Don’t ask.   There’s actually a bunch of little farms,” she informed him, moving on, “but Deeter’s the friend I was talking about.”  Truth be told, Deeter had been her only friend.  She shrugged and looked at the holovision.  “You can only ever get three channels in Greenwood Glen.  I hear there’s a lot more in the city.”

Onus chuckled and shot her a smile.  “Prepare to be overwhelmed.”  Then he raised his eyebrows at her.  “Of course, no apprentice of mine is going to have much time to watch holovision.”

Honaia took a deep breath and nodded.  “Right,” she said.  “Lots of work.”  She was used to that.  Her sisters always had something for her to do.

Onus’ eyes lingered over her for a moment, then he looked away.  “Alright,” he said softly, “I should let you get some rest.”  He shut the door quietly behind him.

***

Mage Onus made his way back down the hallway.

Fenn was loitering around the split in the corridor.  He raised his eyebrows at Onus as he neared.  “Cute.”

Onus nodded agreement, squelching a smile as he came up next to his partner and looked back down the hall.  “Too cute?” he asked suddenly, grimacing and raising one eyebrow.

Fenn speculated.  “Never too cute,” he finally answered.  On further consideration he added “Then again, Nexa was cute.”

Onus visibly flinched.  He made no reply.

Fenn clapped him firmly on the shoulder.  “No one knew,” he said.  “Different times.”

Onus conceded a nod.  He finally pulled his eyes from the hallway and looked at his friend almost pleadingly.  “She’s not a plant…”

Fenn’s face looked briefly troubled, but he shrugged it off.  “Never underestimate them,” he said softly.  Then his eyes came back to Onus, filling with a reserved caution.  “Don’t freak.   It’s nothing we can’t deal with.   You should get some sleep.”

 

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