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Amelia paused as she walked over the grate. Somehow, although it was so plain and unnoticeable during the day, the grate managed to become a glimpse into a magical world at night. In contrast to the velvety cool darkness surrounding her, the grate was lit by an odd glowing yellow-orange light. The light underneath the grate beckoned, promising something Amelia couldn’t quite place. The leaves wetly plastered to cement below seemed a strange textured rug and Amelia felt as if she were high up, walking on slender twigs as she passed over the grate.
The moment she stepped off the grate, a creaking and moaning noise startled her into looking back. The grate was opening. Like shutters rarely opened, the sides of the grate folded up until they lay against the sidewalk. Amelia’s heart beat as she looked around, apart from the old sour looking plump woman walking her dog across the street, there was no one. Amelia peered down into the space below. There was a thin metal ladder leading to the floor, and it wasn’t too far down. Amelia had wondered so much about what it was like beneath the grate that she hardly thought. Carefully lowering herself onto the ladder, Amelia made her way down. Her foot gently flattened the wet leaves, alerting her to the fact that she’d reached the bottom. Stepping off the ladder, she looked around. The natural coziness of the place was partially hidden under the thrill of excitement and surprise. Light seemed to simply emanate from the place, as though there were no specific light fixtures. She noticed a corridor leading out at a slightly downward slant and followed it. It was dark in the corridor, but she could see a faint, warm green glow at the other end. Pipes ran along the ceiling at the edge of sight and occasionally she felt her feet sink into puddles. She walked for a very long time, as if she were simply walking through the tunnel for an eternity with no passing of time. Then suddenly, without ever noticing the light getting closer, she was at the end of the tunnel. Surprised, she looked out into the room it had led to and saw that it was a great hall.
The green hue came from the large, sparkling chandeliers of green glass. The floor had at some point changed from cement to a richly toned marble. There were people dancing on the floor in some sort of set. There were dancing together enough, but the figures themselves were quite odd. The figures twirled and twisted the people all over the floor, their clothes forming large radiuses about them. They were all dressed quite beautifully in draped dresses of fine fabric, tailcoats carefully tailored in rich hues, curled wigs, but they weren’t quite human. Rather than human heads, they had thin bird faces with curved beaks.
Finally Amelia gathered her courage and ventured nervously into the hall, feeling a little abashed by her short cotton sun-dress with which she had been quite taken in the morning. She started to make her way to the wall when a gentleman bird caught her elbow,
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?” and she found herself caught up in the odd set. Somehow, although she had no idea what dance it was, her feet seemed to know where she was supposed to go. Numerous times she thought she was about to crash and tried to change the direction she was going, but she could not seem to stop, and at the last moment they’d both turn, a breath width from crashing. Eventually the dance ended and she found herself being escorted from the dance floor by her partner.
It seemed to be a break of some sort, the musicians were drinking from black bottles and were getting more flushed. The party goers crowded around a table, presumably laden with food. She made her way to a wall and was soon joined by three bird women. They each wore full ball gowns that made their heads look quite small indeed. One in a light pink dress offered Amelia a cup of tea, one in a pastel green dress offered her a small biscuit and one in a pale yellow dress offered her a napkin. Amelia accepted these things graciously and tried to start a conversation.
“You have lovely dresses,” she told them.
“Why thank you,” replied the one in pink.
“It’s the details that make them lovely,” commented the one in green.
“Details are the most important aspects of everything. Dresses, balls, names, lives, they are much more lovely when the details are taken care of,” the one in yellow explained.
“What are your names?” Amelia asked.
“Our names?” inquired the one in pink incredulously.
“We haven’t ever been named, have you? Is that why you ask?” the one in green asked.
“Of course I have a name, I thought everyone did,” replied Amelia, quite taken aback.
“No one’s ever bothered to name us,” commented the one in yellow.
“You look quite odd, you have a peculiar face,” noticed the one in pink.
“It’s quite normal I always thought,” Amelia mused, “but perhaps things are different down here,”
“Perspective changes everything,” the one in green stated, as if quoting someone.
“Down? Why did you say down?” asked the one in yellow.
“Well, I did climb down a ladder, so I expect this is still down, although I didn’t expect a dance hall down here either,”
“Perhaps you were on the roof,” remarked the one in pink.
Amelia was about to reply when, as if on cue an incredibly pompous looking bird man in very fine clothes made his way the the center of the floor.
“If you would please care to take partners for the next dance, an ellirid from west-washer,”
The three bird women surrounding Amelia tittered and looked around eagerly for partners. Not really wanting to get caught up in another dance already, Amelia looked about for somewhere quiet to slip away and saw a little door, just her height. She quickly opened it and slipped through, to find herself in an orange ballroom with more people, this time with lizard heads. They too were starting a dance, yet they all seemed to have a different idea of what sort of dance they were performing, some were dancing wildly, flailing and kicking as if they were beset by spirits, others primly and sedately floated across the floor. Amelia stared for a moment, fascinated by the odd dancers, and then, spying another little door, slipped through that one as well. She found herself in a quiet, peaceful alley way. On one end was a street with hordes of people rushing about on horses. The horses had strange, fearsome blunt faces, with fierce looking teeth and hairy manes that went around their heads, giving them the look of lions. The other end of the alley led to a calm, seemingly-deserted street, although the occasional horse with a passenger still passed by.
“Hello, you seem different.”
Amelia looked sharply in the direction of the voice. A strange creature that looked like an odd sort of gargoyle crossed with a cat was perched on an abandoned old crate.
“Why, Hello. I suppose I am quite different from you aren’t I?” Amelia answered cautiously.
“Yes, you are mainly humanoid, whereas I am somewhat feline and somewhat gargoylic.” the creature replied, seeming to take her tentative statement as a question.
“I rather think I’m not mainly humanoid. You see, I am completely human.”
“How do you know for certain you’re completely human? I sincerely doubt that if you were purely human that you’d be here. I rarely see purely human humanoids.”
“I’m not from around here.”
“Ah, well that explains that, does it not?” the creature exclaimed triumphantly.
“I suppose. Do you have a name?”
“You may call me Drewald. And what may I call you?”
“Amelia. Do you live here?”
“What here do you speak of specifically? I don’t live here or there, I live all around. If you mean this alley, then not particularily, but if you mean this city world, then yes.” The gargoyle, Drewald gestured grandly as he spoke. He was constantly in motion, stalking about on the crate, sitting down, getting up, and he stared intently at Amelia as he spoke.
“Oh, are you homeless?” Amelia asked sympathetically.
“Certaintly not! I rather think I have more of a home than you do.”
“My home is quite nice, I thought.” ventured Amelia.
“I never said whether it was nice. I just assumed that I have more home than you. Let me guess, you live in a house that fits into a fraction of one street.”
“Well, yes. And I do believe that you mean to make the point that the amount of space you call home, is more than the amount of space I call home. Except, can you really call an entire city your home? Can the streets really be a home?”
“They’ve served me well enough.” shrugged Drewald,“ Doubtless they wouldn’t suit your sensibilities, but I’ve lived my entire life out here.”
“But can you call them yours?” Amelia countered.
“Hm, well I suppose not mine specifically, but do you specifically own your home?” Mused the gargoyle.
“Well my parents own it, and by legal inheritance laws and such things like that, I’ve always assumed I at least partially owned it.”
“Yes. Well this is a silly subject anyways. Let us change it to something more interesting.” The gargoyle turned about in a circle suddenly and faced Amelia sternly.
“All right,” Amelia said.
“No, no, no! Agreement is never as interesting as disagreement. Conflict, that is the key to interest. Contrast between two different and yet similar things. The key, yes, that is the key!” the creature, Drewald, was getting somewhat worked up.
“I don’t know about that. I once read a quite interesting book about someone simply thinking while they stayed home from work.”
“What happened in the story?” Drewald asked, finally still for a moment.
“Not much really. I mean, he had some interesting thoughts, some that I had thought before, and some that were new and interesting.”
“Well, there’s still contrast. It’s just a little more subtle. The contrast between your thoughts and his. The similarities help you connect is all. If something is too different, its not even worth comparing.”
“Like how you can’t add apples and oranges, as my math teacher says.”
“Your math teacher’s wrong,” Drewald had leapt off the crate and was now pacing. His tail lashed about, forming fascinating ripples in his stone-like skin. “You can add apples and oranges. Fruit juice punch and jumble pie wouldn’t exist if not for mixing different fruit.”
“But the idea is that you can’t really combine two different things and label them as one, well, without introducing a new variable.”
“Hm, yes, good point. But now, this bores me as well. Let us move on.”
“You seem to get bored quickly.” Amelia commented.
“Not at all!” Drewald leapt back onto his crate, “I simply want everything to be fresh and enlightening. I crave the argument of everything. You see, I crave to contrast all that is different.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of arguing?” Amelia asked incredulously.
“Why would I get tired of arguing?” Drewald inquired.
“Well I find that it can be pleasant simply to tell of things and relate them to each other. You know, a sort of storytelling,” Amelia reconsidered her surroundings, “you do know, right?”
“Yes, yes, but see, that is the point! I assume that there is some conflict or contrast in the storytelling.”
“I think that there isn’t always conflict. Sometimes both people will both agree that something is nice.”
“But I dare-say the something that is nice has conflict or contrast.”
“I suppose it could be contrasted to the things that are not nice, or are nice but very different. But there doesn’t have to be conflict.”
“You are too mild. ’I suppose’, ’I believe’. You speak of opinions, but you don’t have to rub it in!”
“Gah! And don’t apologize!”
Amelia opened her mouth to apologize for apologizing too much, but then thought better of it.
Drewald continued, “Now, where was I before you interrupted my train of thought? Ah, yes. I was going to say that contrast is a sort of conflict. When you place complimentary colors next to each other, there is a conflict between the colors. ’See me!’ ’No, have your focal point be on me!’ they are saying. That is the conflict, see?”
Just as Amelia was about to think of a reply, a cacophony of notes and jangling noises broke in and echoed in the alley. Instantly Drewald’s tone changed.
“Get out of the alley before you get wound up in a conflict far more bitter than complimentary colors! Do not fear for me, it’s you they’re after!”
Amelia hadn’t been afraid until Drewald had told her not to be, but she obeyed as well as she could and fled.
Not wanting the jangling bustle of the busy street, Amelia went over to the quieter street and quickly peered around the corner. An old sour looking plump woman walked her dog across the street and in the distance a person on one of the odd horses traveled down the road. Amelia stepped onto the sidewalk and looked around. The cacophony of noise seemed to have left off. But her surroundings seemed somewhat dreary and bleak. Mostly there were just tall brick apartment buildings, their tops disappearing into the sky, each unit with a balcony that looked rather like the grate she had passed through to get here. She turned to the door closest to her, and tried the door-knob. It turned under her hand, opening to a stairway with doors on every floor. The stair turned about the opposite direction after each floor, but a wall in between prevented Amelia from seeing the next flight. The stairway was dusty with scarred wooden steps and a railing that was missing some parts that had been pulled out of the wall. The wall paper was a dismal floral pattern, the sort one finds in such tasteless places, and was peeling at the corners. Overall, the stair gave off a feeling of disuse and general isolation. Amelia closed the door behind her cautiously made her way up the stairwell, her shoes scuffing quietly against the boards. Dust glinted in the faint light of the florescent fixtures as she disturbed it, forming nimbuses about her feet. Amelia’s legs began to ache by the seventh floor, so she sat down and rested for a bit. She twirled a section of hair around her finger and tried to find shapes in the flowers of the wallpaper.
After managing to find a fat woman, three birds, a gargoyle, a tree, a dog, a cat, and a girl, she felt less tired and got up. She turned to go up more flights of stairs, but then she looked at the door. She couldn’t think of a reason to keep going up the stairs, so she went to open the door. It too was unlocked, it opened to a small room with a coffee table and an armchair. Amelia tip-toed in as quietly as she could, in case there was someone in there. She saw that there was a tea set laid out upon the coffee table, and two doors. Just then, someone in the armchair cleared their throat. Amelia startled, but then regained her composure, “Hello? I’m sorry if I bothered you, I just-” Amelia trailed off. What reason did she have for going into someone’s apartment?
“It’s fine my dear. I’ve been lonely up here, with no one to talk to,” it was a woman’s voice, frail and thin sounding, “Come over here, so I may see you.”
Amelia obligingly came over to the front of the armchair, she saw that there was another chair that had been hidden behind it. The woman was very thin, with sunken cheeks and eyes, she had gray wispy hair that floated about her head. She peered at Amelia, but didn’t seem to be able to really see her.
“Take a seat child, have some tea,”
Amelia sat in the chair, it creaked threateningly, and the cushion was old and stiff, but Amelia still felt somewhat relieved to rest. It seemed like ages since she had gone through the grate. Although the apartment seemed to be somewhat of a gloomy hovel, there was a closeness, akin to that of the grate she had come through.
Amelia saw that there were two teacups, she took one and poured herself some tea, and then poured some tea for the woman, who held out her cup. Amelia sipped the tea, it was hot, and scalded her tongue, burning her throat as she swallowed hastily. The old woman blew gently into her teacup and then carefully sipped a little. Amelia blew on her tea for a while, and then finally sipped a tiny amount. It was bitter black tea with a hint of licorice. The warmth settled comfortably in her stomach, and the old woman began to talk.
“No one comes up here anymore. Perhaps things are better that way, safer. I haven’t really thought about it until now, yet when you came in, I realized I’ve been lonely. I hadn’t noticed it before, just sat here nursing my tea and waiting for nothing. But loneliness is sneaky. Just creeps up on you,” Amelia listened politely as the woman continued, “I guess you could say I brought it upon myself. Never could stand all those eyes, you see. Windows frightened me, made me feel so exposed, like someone could just come up and stare at me. I could hardly think if I went outside my room. And I couldn’t bear to look in mirrors, my own eyes were the worst. So I turned all the mirrors to the walls, and I stay in this room, waiting with the tea set for two. And no one comes up to visit. I have no friends, they’ve probably all become dull mindless extras by now. Too much in the open to last long. I’ve lasted a long time. But see how alone I’ve been. I even left myself. And now I talk your ears off. I must be boring you. Or annoying you. Am I?
“Not at all, don’t worry,” Amelia responded, sipping her tea.
“What a dear child you are, being kind to the rambling old woman. My mind is not so dulled as it may seem, dear child. People used to respect me. I knew so much. I stuffed my mind with information. I observed everything, I subjected everything to scrutinization. Ah, but how blind I was, and now I’m truly becoming blind. I can’t see anything anymore. Except you. Everything seems so dark, and yet you are still visible,” The woman was really talking to herself now, yet she still addressed Amelia “So bright, you’re blurry. I can’t see your face, but I can see you. What a lovely little dress you’re wearing. I had one much like that once. I wonder if I still have it, hanging up in the closet. I don’t throw things out much, but then, I never collected much either. I simply hoarded what things I had closely to me, but I shoved the people away. What a silly fool I was. The eyes can’t get me now, I can’t see them and now they can’t judge me guilty. I’m free of all possibility of shackles up here, and I tried so hard to avoid them, but now I’d almost rather not be free, just go down and give myself up. What do I do with my freedom but sit here and now talk a dear child’s ears off? If I were not free, at least my uselessness would not be my fault. I’d be sad, yes, but there would be no tears of guilt. Or would there? What do you think child?”
“I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about exactly, but still, I think it’s better to be free. Then you have a chance of doing something, and you can be yourself,” Amelia ventured.
“Ah, but that’s exactly the problem. For then, it is you who has wasted the opportunity, not someone else who you can plaster the label of evil onto.” replied the old woman.
“Then why don’t you do something so that you don’t feel like you’ve wasted yourself?” Amelia countered, forgetting her tea.
The woman laughed gently, “The impudent idealism of youth!” then she sighed and lowered her voice, “Why do I sit here? Why don’t I do something? Save people, write a book, do something I can be proud of. Am I so sedentary now? Have I grown stupid and lazy in my time up here in the dark?”
“Perhaps you simply have gotten used to sitting here and need some inspiration to do otherwise.” interjected Amelia.
A feeble smile spread across the old woman’s face, “Perhaps when you go out, you can take me with you?”
“Why not? In fact, let’s go right now,” Amelia stood up and went to the old woman’s side to help her up. Her arms were so thin that Amelia was afraid she might break the woman’s bones as she helped her up. Yet, when Amelia started to go to the door to the staircase the woman grabbed her arm with a grip that was startlingly strong.
“No, not that way, I never could abide that wall paper,” the woman gave Amelia an impish grin, “Unless they’ve changed the wall paper from that ghastly floral print, I say we go down the balcony stairways.”
The woman then went to the door opposite to the one Amelia had been heading towards and opened it onto one of the balconies Amelia had seen from below. The floor of each of balcony had an opening with a metal staircase. The steps were embossed with spaced out diamond shapes like the stairs up to the slides at old playgrounds. Amelia glanced up and saw endless flights of offset stairs.
“I’ll go down first, and you can follow after me,” The woman said, shaking Amelia out of her reverie. The woman started down the steps much more limberly than one would expect for one so old and frail. In fact, mused Amelia, she seemed like a little spider as she scuttled down. Amelia followed from above. She soon got dizzy as they descended staircase after staircase. The old woman went much faster, and she was soon far below Amelia. Amelia tried to go a little faster and her foot slipped, before she could grab on she went backwards and was falling through the air. The air was knocked out of her body as she was caught by something that felt like two tree branches. She looked up, realized that she was in the arms of a giant spider. She shrieked in surprise, but did not struggle, not wanting to fall the rest of the way down. The spider gently gripped her as it swung down to the ground. When they reached the street it gently set her down. Amelia, shaken, stepped back and looked at the spider. Suddenly the old woman stood in its place, looking just as shaken as Amelia. Something seemed to dawn upon her and her face became pale. She beckoned for Amelia to come close. Amelia came over and the woman leant to whisper urgently into Amelia’s ear,
“Will you do me a favor?” Amelia nodded and the woman continued, “You must hold me in your arms, I will change shape and may struggle, but you must not let go or you and I will be trapped in that shape forever, and goodness knows, it’d be hard to live as a giant spider. Then, you must let go on my seventh shape. No matter what that shape is, you must let go. Do you understand?”
Amelia nodded again. Suddenly the woman seemed to faint, Amelia grabbed her, waiting for her to change shape. Then Amelia realized she held a dog which tried to push her away, then she was holding a cat which squirmed trying to slip out of Amelia’s arms, then a fish which was slippery and flopped about gasping for breath, then a small bird, then a snake, and then a hog. Amelia clung to the hog, waiting for the seventh shape, she began to fear she had miscounted, and was about to let go of the hog, when she felt it changing in her arms. She stared at the tree her arms encircled for a split second before quickly dropping her arms. The tree grew magnificently out of the street, the pavement puckered about its roots. A little lost, Amelia looked about, but except for the tree growing out of the middle of the street, there was nothing living in sight.
Then something in the depths of a doorway moved, and Amelia realized she had overlooked a figure leaning against a door. It started moving towards her, and Amelia moved towards the tree anxiously. As the figure emerged from the shadows, Amelia saw it was a dog-headed person with an odd gait. As he approached, Amelia realized the odd gait was caused by the fact that the person was walking on his toes, which were short and hairy with black nails clacking against the hard ground. The dog person looked about anxiously, scanning each and every dark place carefully. When the dog person had finished he turned to Amelia.
“I am Hadar, quickly, you must follow me in case you have been seen. You have done Lenore a great service, and she is safe and free to be happy now. Royalty are seldom content to hide. However, you have put yourself in danger now, so come.”
Hesitantly Amelia took a step towards him, he held out an arm to escort her, and she took it. He quickly walked her to the sidewalk and then they hurried on, turning down one street after another. Finally, when Amelia was completely winded and lost, he stopped and spoke, “You are safe now, but I must leave you, as much as it pains me to leave you alone and unprotected. Farewell, girl from above.” He took her hand, bowed elegantly and then dashed off. Amelia shivered, a little frightened by his talk of danger. She saw a cat curled up nearby and went to pet it. She had just sat back on her heels and began to stroke it, when it began to speak to her.
“They’re always like that, rushing about and seeming gallant, and then just ditching you. You’ll be better off without him.”
Amelia drew her hand back, unsure whether it was polite to pet someone who talked.
“Don’t stop now, you’d just gotten the hang of it,” complained the cat, and so Amelia began to pet it again.
“What’s your name?” she inquired politely.
“How nosy! Are you some sort of spy? I shouldn’t tell you, no matter how well you petted,” said the cat.
“Why shouldn’t you? There’s a lot of things one shouldn’t do that people do anyways.”
“I meant that I won’t, impudent child. Besides, people do all sorts of stupid things, whereas cats like me, never do anything stupid at all.”
“Well, if you’re going to be mean, I’m not going to pet you,” retorted Amelia, taking her hand away.
“I don’t care,” countered the cat. They sat in silence for a moment.
“Fine, fine,” broke in the cat.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. Now will you continue petting me?”
Amelia smiled and began to pet the cat again, “Of course I will.”
“How’d you get down here anyways?” asked the cat.
“I came through the grate,” replied Amelia, “and then went through a tunnel and some little doors,”
“I shouldn’t think the King and Queen are very pleased,” mused the cat, “Then again, perhaps they don’t know.”
“There, you said ”shouldn’t“ again. But, who are the King and Queen?” Amelia asked.
“Unpleasant people, too proud of their names and faces,” replied the cat, and then it glanced about uneasily, it’s eyes catching the light, “I may be able to look a queen in the eye, but I’d rather not have to for eternity, so if you don’t mind, don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“Alright, they don’t sound very nice, and I wouldn’t want to turn you in anyways.”
The cat relaxed a bit, “That’s decent of you. Would you mind scratching my neck? I can never reach it properly?”
Amelia obliged the cat and began to hum a tune she had learned from one of her friends the day before. The cat pricked its ears and glanced sidelong at her.
“Fancy you knowing that tune! I do believe you are going to cause quite a splash, in the figurative sense of splash of course. I look forward to seeing the commotion, and frankly, I hope the outcome is in your favor, you’re a nice girl, especially for a human. I wouldn’t mind seeing you again someday. But now, I perhaps ought to get out to the sidelines, and so I, too, bid your farewell.” The cat stood and then walked through the wall as if it were no more than an illusion. Amelia put her hand out to touch the wall, it felt solid to her.
“Goodbye,” she said, although she knew it was too late for the cat to hear her. Feeling even more confused and nervous than she had when the Hadar had left her, Amelia looked around. Down the street a little ways was a tall wooden fence which had presumably been painted some color, but the paint had worn off so much it was impossible to tell what the color had been. Amelia went over and saw that there was a arched gate cut into the fence. She pushed on it and it grumblingly swung open, revealing a marvelous garden.
Contrary to the fence, the garden seemed well-tended with the sort of natural wildness skilled gardeners can achieve. There was a gravel path leading about and the stone crunched under Amelia’s feet as she stepped onto it. Occasional small, brightly colored birds and bugs whirred about disturbing the still air. The gate creaked as Amelia closed it, and the creatures all darted away, but they soon resumed flitting about. A delicate plant with pale purple flowers grew at the edge of the path, sending small tentative shoots out into the gravel. Honeysuckle and Jasmine lined the fence, with velveteen flowers growing at their base. As Amelia walked deeper into the garden, the plants grew denser and taller, and Amelia began to feel like she was in a little forest. Then a voice by her feet made her stop in her tracks,
“If you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand, I’d be much obliged.”
Amelia looked down to find the source of the voice and saw a tiny little man with four legs and two arms who rather resembled a beetle, flat on his back, kicking wildly. As he was less than a foot tall, Amelia hurriedly picked him up and set him upright.
“Thank you very much, my lady. As you can see, I was in a difficult situation,” the beetle-man said, bowing while brushing himself off and straightening his clothes. He was was wearing an iridescent tailcoat, a dark shirt and breeches, and socks, even on his hands. He had shiny little shoes that pointed very slightly up at the toes.
“You’re welcome,” Amelia said “How did you come to be in such a situation?”
“I’m afraid I can be little clumsy at times. I tip over rather more often than I ought, and I never can seem to get back up, no matter how much kick or rock about.”
“That seems very frustrating.” Amelia sympathized.
“Oh, trust me it is.” The beetle man finished brushing himself off jumped straight up, ending up sitting on a branch of a small bush.
“How do you generally get up?” Amelia asked curiously.
“Well sometimes one of my friends or acquaintances will come along and give me a hand up, and other times I’ll manage to rock my way over to a stick which I can use to lever myself upright again. It’s rather undignified I assure you.”
“I can see how that would be rather undignified,” Amelia replied, “Why don’t you carry a stick around so you can always have something to lever yourself up with?”
“Would that work?” the beetle-man queried.
“I think it would, but you could try to be sure,” Amelia responded.
“You mean for me to flip on my back and see if I can get back up with the stick?”
“Well, how else would you test it after all?”
The beetle-man nodded, “Yes, I see. Have you seen any suitable sticks?”
Amelia looked about until she saw a sturdy looking twig. She picked it up, feeling a bit of dirt collect itself under her fingernails, and handed it to the beetle-man. Graciously, he took it and carefully rolled onto his back. He rocked about for a bit, getting the stick positioned in such a way that he could lever himself upright, and finally managed to propel himself onto his feet.
“Brilliant!” he exclaimed delightedly, and Amelia smiled. He then thought for a moment before commenting, “But I’ll look positively silly carrying this about.”
“It’s a walking stick, it’s elegant,” Amelia said “If only we had something to whittle it to a more elegant shape.”
“Well that’s simple,” he exclaimed and took off his socks, revealing slightly curved, blade-like hands and feet. He gripped the stick with feet and carved away with his hand until he an elegant sort of staff. He beamed and held it out to the light.
“Oh, it looks lovely!” Amelia cried, and clapped her hands.
“Yes, it does doesn’t it?” He mused, “You wouldn’t happen to know the time, would you? Only I was heading off to a picnic when I got flipped.”
“I don’t know the time, I’m sorry.”
“Ah, well I might as well go anyways, thanks to you I’m probably not late yet. Would you like to come along?”
“I would love to,” Amelia answered as the beetle-man put on his socks.
“Well, then, just follow and I’ll take you.” the beetle-man said amiably, grasping his walking-stick quite naturally and setting off. Amelia followed close behind, glancing about to take in as much of the garden as she could. They reached a small grassy field where some other beetle-people were laying out food upon a thin, gauzy blanket. When they saw Amelia with the beetle-man their eyes widened in surprise.
“What’s that you brought, George?” One of them called out raucously, addressing Amelia’s beetle-man friend, “And more importantly, do we have to feed it?” it was shushed embarrassedly by those surrounding it.
“There’s plenty of food to go around,” said a kindly looking beetle-woman, “Welcome, young madame.”
George, took a seat and motioned for Amelia to sit beside him. Amelia carefully sat down, not wishing to squish anyone. She was offered a little teacup, and she accepted it, holding it between her fingers. Although she finished the tea in one sip, she did not ask for more, partially because she didn’t want to be rude and drink too much, and partially because the tea tasted like dirt. It wasn’t an unpleasant taste so to speak, savory and mulchy, but Amelia didn’t feel as if she could really drink much of it. As she reached for a biscuit, one beetle snapped, “My, just look at your hands”
Amelia looked at her hands and noticed that there was dirt embedded beneath her fingernails, “I see I have dirt underneath my fingernails. Would you like me to go wash my hands?”
“Good heavens no! Why would I like you to do that?”
Amelia realized that all the beetle-people were staring at her with an apathetic sort of curiosity. She responded somewhat bewildered, “Well, you pointed out that I have dirty hands, so I thought that perhaps you wanted me to wash my hands so they’d be clean.”
“I never pointed out such a thing!” The beetle replied.
“Well, you didn’t point it out specifically, but-”
“I said to look at your hands,” the beetle interrupted.
Amelia tried to answer, “Well, yes, but I thought that implied-”
“Don’t argue, just look at them!”
Amelia gave in and looked at her hands, noting that all the other beetle-people were peering at them as well. She saw nothing special about her hands. They had five fingers, wrinkles about the knuckles, fine lines across the palms, they bent at the joints. She studied them, trying to see something unusual about them, but eventually gave up.
“They look like ordinary hands to me,” she told the snappish beetle.
“That’s because I’m not a beetle-person,” she replied. All the beetles, except for George, who poured himself more tea, froze. One leapt up and made to run off, but it stumbled on the cloth, knocking over the tea-pot and ending up stuck on its back. Amelia helped it up and it sat down, shaking, “What’s wrong?” she asked them.
“If you’re not a beetle-person, you must be a bird-person, because you’re much to big to be anything else, and that means you’re planning to eat us. I’ve heard that birds do that.”
“I’m not a bird, and I’m not about to eat you,” Amelia reassured them indignantly, “I’m a girl, a human girl. I eat cakes and tea, not beetles.”
The beetle-people relaxed somewhat, but they still seemed on edge, and it made Amelia feel awkward.
“I hate to leave your picnic so abruptly, but I should go,” she told them, and stood up.
“Goodbye, and thank you for the walking-stick! I hope we meet again, friend.” called out George, but the rest of the beetle-people simply bobbed their heads in acknowledgment and then turned their attentions to the picnic.
Amelia shrugged mentally and walked away. She followed the path along and then came to an odd sort of vegetable garden. The plants looked much different than the ones at home. Strange purple spikes stuck out of the ground in orderly rows. Amelia touched one and it split open to reveal a feathery mass of flowers. Not wanting to be vandalizing the garden, Amelia carefully closed the spike back up. A flower was severed in the process, so Amelia tucked it into her hair and continued to look around. She saw what looked like a small cherry tree and went over to see if it had any cherries. It did indeed have cherries, and they were so ripe they fell into Amelia’s hands with hardly any tugging at all.
A twig behind her snapped and Amelia turned around. A woman was walking in Amelia’s general direction with a heavy, stumbling gait, as if she were sleep walking. Amelia looked at the woman’s face and saw that the her eyes were closed, but the moment Amelia’s eyes fell upon the closed lids, they snapped open, revealing glazed, milky white eyes. As Amelia took a step back in surprise, the woman spoke in a very robotic voice.
“Who are you, who meets our stare, we, without any sight. The others see the sleepwalker, and dare not even think to gaze upon our face.”
“I’m Amelia. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you by staring.” Amelia replied courteously, albeit, somewhat nervously as well. The woman had an odd effect of putting her on edge.
“We had a name once we do believe, but we cannot see it now. It is gone, like our eyes who deserted us long ago.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Amelia sympathized cautiously.
“Indeed, we are a shame to them. They see us and turn away. We stole their jobs, they said. They said we were not alive. We are a blotch upon civilization, an abomination of metal and clay. We do not see their point of view, we cannot see our own, we are lost to vision now.”
“Not to be bother, but, if you don’t mind me asking, why do you keep saying we?”
“Because we all use just one voice to represent us all. They smashed our minds and we crept from the shards to this last refuge they cannot touch.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand you,” Amelia said abashedly.
“We must have lost communication skills over the times. We only spoke to those who could hear, and needed no words. And those we spoke to did not exist, we began forgot whether we existed. If you exist, we must exist, for we are talking to you, and you are responding. But do you exist?”
“I do believe I exist,” Amelia replied, “But one can never know for sure.”
“We can never know anything. Even the simplest things are debatable. It is programmed into our minds that 2+2=4. It is in our mind that math is right and logical. That is why they said we are not alive. We are too logical they said.”
“Who are ’they’ that you speak of?” Amelia inquired.
“The townsfolk of our creator. He made this garden as well, and populated it with all his fancies. The townsfolk tolerated us as long as he was around, but when the new King came into power, the inventor disappeared. At first the townsfolk did not notice, for he had been a recluse. When they found out, only those in the garden survived. The rest were smashed as abominations.”
“Perhaps it was, or perhaps they were right. What right have we to take their jobs when we have no need of them. We do not eat. We do not entertain ourselves with music or art. How could we?” the woman stared straight at Amelia as she spoke, not seeming to think of turning her gaze elsewhere, although really, why should she? She couldn’t see in the first place.
Amelia twisted the cherry about in her hands. Abruptly, its smooth surface was split open, revealing a metal contraption resembling a bird skeleton. The little bird sat up and opened its wings, light reflected off the surface, glinting into Amelia’s eyes. A canvas snapped out to complete the wings. Flapping powerfully with whirring gears, the little bird leapt off of Amelia’s hand and took off. Entrancingly, it swooped in a loop about the cherry tree, and then climbed through the air, soaring and gliding. Amelia noticed that the woman was tracking the bird, turning her head to follow the movement.
“I thought you couldn’t see,”
“We can’t, but we can feel the presence of other machines like us.”
“Do you suppose all the cherries are machines?” Amelia asked eagerly.
“There’s too much machinery here for us to distinguish. The whole tree appears to be ticking.”
The woman walked forward, and Amelia again noticed her odd, flat gait. Slowly reaching out an arm, the woman touched the trunk of the tree. The tree began to rise. Calmly, the woman backed away and stood next to Amelia. The dirt around the tree cracked and fell away to reveal a smooth dome which, as it continued to rise, became a head. The head had roots twining through and about it, and it had a door in place of a mouth. It’s eyes were windows which looked emptily about.
The door swung open to reveal a cluttered room. At a table, amidst stacks of paper, was an old grey-haried man. He turned, glowering fiercely, but at the sight of the woman, he smiled.
“Ah, there you lot are! I knew you’d be alright. I see you’ve found a girl to help you find your way home, good thinking. Of course, I shouldn’t compliment your minds so much when I programmed them, it’s not modest.” He laughed, “Now that was completely tactless. Anyways, come in. And thank you, girl.”
The woman walked in, Amelia waved, but the woman did not turn, and the door closed quickly behind her. As Amelia watched, the head sunk beneath the ground again. Slightly bewildered, Amelia walked on.
She walked through some sweet smelling curtains of vines, and found herself on a street much like the one she had first come across.
Across the street though, was a small shop with a neon sign flashing the words “Curiosity Grocery” onto the pavement. Intrigued, Amelia wandered in, the bell jangling as she walked in.
The girl working behind the counter looked up. The girl appeared to be around twelve, and the creases on her face implied she had been sleeping with her head resting against her arm, and Amelia had just woken her up. She eyed Amelia suspiciously. Amelia tried to smile. It hadn’t struck her so much until now that she might be out of place in this strange world, but now she was feeling like some sort of impostor.
“Um, hello. How are you?”
The girl smirked in an odd, artificial way, “Better than he believes I expect. I have a name,” she paused and then stared at Amelia, “You have a name too don’t you?! I mean, somehow it seems like you do, but perhaps you simply have a very realistic face.”
“I do have a name,” Amelia replied cautiously, she thought for a split second and then asked, “What is all of this about names, and faces? I don’t really understand,” she paused and then clarified, “You see, I’m not from around here and-”
“You’re from somewhere else?” The girl’s face seemed to lighten a bit, “Oh how exciting! I always imagine how magical and exciting it must be somewhere else,” Amelia didn’t think that where she came from was really magical, but it was very beautiful, and perhaps that was close enough. The girl continued as Amelia tried to understand, “I don’t know if I can explain well, but names are a very powerful thing to have. More powerful than a face, even. They keep who you are, otherwise the ones with names and faces can simply take over who you are. A face keeps you an individual, they can’t change how you think. But a name keeps them from controlling you. I got my face a while ago. I saved up money from the shop without my father knowing it, and before he got around to changing me, I traded the money to a named and faced person for a face of my own. He simply tugged at the air a little and I felt my features forming, and then he popped two little glass eyes in. Is that how you got your face?”
“Oh no, I do believe I was born with it, and my mother and father named me when I was born. Did your mother and father name you?”
“Don’t be silly, your family may have been so odd, but I don’t think my father knew I existed until after I got my face. My father is power-hungry anyways, I doubt he’d give a little faceless girl borne of an extra have a name. I bought it from the same demon I bought my face,”
“ What do you mean borne of an extra?” asked Amelia, remembering that the old woman, Lenore, had also used the word extra.
“I suppose my mother was once someone, but she had no name and no face, so my father changed her into an extra. You know, like someone he controls completely if he wishes.. He would have changed me, but I caught on and acted too quickly for him to really notice me and decide on how to change me,”
Amelia looked sympathetically at the girl, “I’m very sorry. Where I come from. We don’t have to get our own names or faces, we just grow up with them, and no tries to change us I don’t think.” Had Lenore had to buy her own name? What about Hadar and Drewald? Did the cat even have a name?
“I’m sure people still change others,” stated the girl, interrupting Amelia’s thoughts, “they’re probably just more subtle; you can still wheedle a named person with a face to change. What is your name anyways? I can see your face but I can’t quite make out your name,”
“I’m Amelia. Who are you?”
“Faelyn. I haven’t named anyone else yet, but I swear I will once I can leave the shop,”
“You can’t leave the shop?”
“No, I’ve tried, and I just end up walking in circles. I suppose I could name the people that come in, but no one comes in, they all just go to the dances-”
“Wait, what do you mean you could name people?” Amelia interjected, too confused to remember not to interrupt people.
“Why, anyone with a name can name someone. Just because they rarely do doesn’t mean they can’t!” scoffed Faelyn, she sighed, “You really are from somewhere else aren’t you? Do they have dances where you come from?”
“Oh yes, except they’re kind of different, and I never seem to know them so I can’t dance,”
“Doesn’t the host announce the name of the dance?”
“Yes, but knowing the name doesn’t mean I know what to do,”
“You must have very odd dances where you come from. I wish I could go to a ball. I’ve never even worn a dress that I can remember,”
“Never?” inquired Amelia.
“Never,” replied Faelyn
Amelia looked at Faelyn, and thought of the old woman, sitting in her room, “Maybe I can take you. There’s a door in the alleyway somewhere that goes straight to the ball rooms, and maybe I can lead you out of the store.”
Faelyn looked at Amelia in frustration, “But I don’t have a dress!”
“Well, I’m not dressed all that nicely either, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? After all, do you want to go to a ball or not?”
Faelyn rolled her eyes, “Yes, I want to go to a ball-”
Amelia didn’t giver her time to protest, “Then don’t worry about clothes. If there’s a spell on this store, there’s no reason it’d affect me, so hold onto my hand and I’ll lead us out,”
Faelyn seemed a little uncertain, and a bit of suspicion returned to her eyes, but she hopped off the stool behind the counter and walked over to Amelia and took a hold of her hand. Amelia walked towards the door, but somehow found herself back in front of the counter.
“I told you so.” sniffed Faelyn, but Amelia wasn’t about to be put off. She walked off towards the door again, this time concentrating not just on getting to the door, but also in going straight, she felt like someone was trying to pull her, but she struggled on, when she reached the door and reached for the doorknob, it felt as if someone had jumped on her back and was trying to pull her away, but she wrenched free and yanked the door open. She and Faelyn stumbled outside into the street. A person on one of the odd horses whirled past.
Amelia shot a triumphant grin at Faelyn and dropped her hand.
“I said I’d lead you out,” Amelia stated, a little proudly.
Faelyn didn’t seem to mind the gloating and simply rubbed her feet against the sidewalk, feeling the grainy cement texture through the soles of her shoes.
“Don’t just stand there, I’m still taking you to the ball!” exclaimed Amelia excitedly, albeit a little nervously as well. Amelia led Faelyn along, going around the garden, and somehow managed to remember the way Hadar had taken her. They eventually ended up back at the street where she had left Lenore as a tree. The tree was still in the middle of the road, Amelia saw Faelyn give it an odd look as they stopped in front of it.
“Don’t, she doesn’t like being stared at,” Amelia told Faelyn.
Faelyn looked as if she was about to question Amelia’s sanity, but seemed to think better of it. Amelia turned away and led Faelyn to the alleyway. She searched for the door for a bit, growing a bit panicked when at first she couldn’t find it, and then was relieved to see it sitting innocently in a place on the wall she could have sworn she’d already looked. Mentally, she shrugged, anything seemed to be possible down here. She opened the door, but instead of the ballroom of animal-faced people, it opened onto a harsh landscape with a jagged cliff hanging over a booming ocean which crashed powerfully against the rock. Amelia could feel Faelyn’s stare on the back of her neck. She crouched down and peered through, the salty mist clung to the fine hairs on her face, making her eyebrows tingle, and she saw no ballroom. Disappointed she pulled her head out and closed the door. Then, feeling inspired, she opened it again, and the scene was quite different. However, it still was not a ball room, it was a dry desert-scape of baked dirt cracked into odd veiny patterns with mirages shimmering in the distance. Even from outside the door she could feel the heat, trying to crack her like it had cracked the dirt. She closed the door again and this time whispered,
to the doorknob as she concentrated on the smooth floor and grand vaulting ceiling. She grasped the handle firmly and opened the door. This time it was a ballroom, but it was not any of the ballrooms she had been in. It seemed as if it were a royal court of some sort. The clothes were even grander than any of the ones the dancers had been wearing before. A woman and a man were waltzing together and they wore spiked crowns that appeared to be wrapped in barbed wire. They were the only ones with all-the-way human faces. The rest seemed to have all sorts of animal-like faces. The least animal-like simply had fur, or whiskers on their otherwise human faces. The most animal-like were like the dog-person Amelia had seen before, with entire animal faces on their human bodies and animal feet, even tails. Amelia wondered if the three bird women from before were here. Then Amelia saw a servant bearing drinks, she recoiled from the door in horror, he had no face. It was simply smooth and expressionless, like a wall with primer but no paint. Having noticed him, Amelia began to see more ones without faces. Choking down her surprise and horror, Amelia turned to Faelyn.
“Well, here’s a grand place for your first ball,” Amelia whispered to Faelyn, who had came up beside her to gape.
“There’s no way I’m going in there, dressed like this.” hissed Faelyn, and Amelia could sympathize, but she felt that if she closed the door, the ballroom wasn’t likely to show up again.
“You have to go in. Maybe there’s some way we can order you clothes,”
Faelyn suddenly grinned, “Wait, we have names and faces, we don’t need demons to twist our clothes, let’s make our own out of words,”
“Well…I’ve never tried it, but I saw it done once when I got to the tailor’s early, it’s like off poetry.”
“Off poetry?” Amelia asked.
Faelyn ignored Amelia and cleared her throat,
Faelyn was dressed in a tasteless costume, such as the ones marketed towards small girls trying to be princesses. Faelyn twisted to see the back and the cloth tore.
“Let me try again:
Faelyn sighed. The dress was much nicer but it would have been completely out of place at the ball. It was deceptively simple and was elegant with long, draping sleeves, whereas the dresses at the ball were puffy and much larger than life.
as Faelyn spoke strange colors spun about her, and when she finished she was wearing a forest green dress that seemed to be woven out of light. Faelyn laughed in delight, it wasn’t as fancy as the queen’s dress that Amelia had seen, but it was still good enough.
“I don’t know how,”
“Sure you do, go on,”
Glancing through the door for inspiration, Amelia started to speak,
“I went to the king and queen’s ball
Amelia had closed her eyes as she recited the words she could read faintly from the inside of her head, and when she opened them she was delighted to see she was dressed in shimmering silk trimmed with lace and her hair was done in some strange twisted style she had only ever seen in the paintings of rich ladies from long ago. She noticed that Faelyn’s hair had also been done up fancily. Amelia smiled, delighted and surprised at the effect her words had had.
Careful not to trip on their dresses, they stepped through the door. No one seemed to notice they had just come through a tiny door out of an alley-way, in fact no one seemed to notice their entrance at all. They made their way to the wall as the dance ended, and almost instantly were asked to dance by a pair of bird men. They found themselves dancing something like a cross between a polka and a quadrille, it was quite thrilling and Amelia was disappointed when it ended. As her partner led her off the dance floor and turned to leave to get another partner Amelia gripped his arm gently,
“Wait,” she implored and he waited as she spoke, “Do you have a name?”
he looked startled, “Well, no-”
“What name would you like?”
He seemed startled at the question, “Well, um, er, uh, I never thought of that, why do you ask?”
he hemmed and hawed as Amelia waited patiently, “Do you think Martin sounds nice?” he asked timidly
Amelia stifled a smile, “It suits you, Martin,” she said feeling the name roll of her tongue and feeling the power as it latched itself onto him.
For a moment he looked taken aback and then a look of joy crossed his face he dashed off to find a partner, for a waltz was just beginning. Amelia looked to Faelyn and saw that she had also named her partner and was turning to the woman next to her, probably hoping to name her as well. Amelia decided she wanted to give names to the servants. The sight of someone without a face had unsettled her immensely. The next drink-bearer who passed by her she stopped.
“Do you have a name?”
“Do I look like I do? I’m just an extra like the others,” Amelia’s heart sank, was it too late to name someone who was already an extra?
“Please, I want to name people,”
“How honorable,” the servant commented flatly, Amelia decided he was much too aware to be an extra, he didn’t seem like she imagined an extra would be.
“What is a name you would like?”
The servant laughed, “I am not given to such thoughts, it’s those who run who become extras, not those who hide in plain sight.”
“Please, for your own sake.”
“William,” he stated it so matter-of-factly that Amelia almost didn’t realize he was answering her.
“Good evening William,” she said and felt the name fit itself to him.
“Why thank you. I suppose, in return, I should warn you away from the drinks at this ball, but you’ve already supped with friends, so it doesn’t matter.”
“What’s wrong with the drinks?” Amelia asked.
“They’re designed to make you forget yourself. Friendship often helps people remember. I’ve switched most of the drinks for such harmless things as plain water, but I may have missed a few,” he bobbed his head, “I see we’re both on our own missions.”
She looked at him for a bit, he seemed to have the hint of a face, he felt as if he had one, but when you actually looked at him, you realized he had none. Or, she realized, he had hidden his face. She looked closer, and she could have sworn he smirked.
“Now, I can’t just stand her having my ladyship staring at me so, I have people to serve. People might think you’re showing interest in the lower class, and you can’t be having with that!” he left, bearing his drinks with a slightly more cocky air.
She went about dancing with and naming as many people as she could until the musicians took a break. She sunk into a chair, feeling oddly exhausted, she did not quite know where Faelyn was so when she heard someone addressing her, she at first assumed it was her. It turned out to be three people, the three bird ladies from before to be specific, all still wearing the same dresses.
“Oh, why I didn’t expect to see you at the royal ball!” exclaimed the one in pink.
“You’ve certainly gotten a fancier dress,” ventured the one in green.
“Well, how have you been?” asked the one in yellow.
“Oh fine. I just have a question to ask of you three.” They inclined their heads, “What names would you like?”
For a moment they all looked surprised and the one in yellow recovered first, “You’re going to name us.” she said, amazed.
The one in pink lit up, “I’ve quite fancied the name Ajarose,” she murmured, and Amelia named her Ajarose.
“I like the sound of Valena ,” mused the one in green, and she became Valena.
The one in yellow thought for a bit and then decided, “Lavoige,” and Amelia named her as well. They each thanked her and Amelia tried to accept their thanks as graciously as she could. She glanced at the musicians and idly wondered out loud what they were drinking from the black bottles.
“What?” Amelia glanced at the three women trying to see who had answered.
“They are drinking dreams, they need extra dreams to play the music that they play. So, they drink the fermented juice of dreams that have fallen to fester and be forgotten.” It was Lavoige speaking in an amused sort of way, “At least, they say they need it, but how much of that is simply so they can drink a forbidden substance and have something to show their contempt for us, you just can’t know.”
Amelia smiled and then realized she really had lost track of Faelyn, “I need to find my friend Faelyn now, I hope to see you three again someday,”
She waved and set off to comb the crowd. She saw Faelyn standing at the open door and went over, “Anxious to leave already?”
Faelyn looked up, “No, I just wanted to go out and adjust my petticoats, but look”, she moved aside so Amelia could see the door. It opened to the wall of the ballroom. Amelia tried to think calmly,
“Maybe if we close it and open it again?”
Faelyn closed it, and the door disappeared. Amelia felt panic rise like bile. Her throat constricted with sudden fear as all sorts of dismal reasons for the door disappearing filled her mind. She breathed out slowly and looked up at Faelyn who spoke pensively.
“It was one of the named ones. They must have planned this ball to get as many nameless together as they could so they could have more extras. They must have gotten rid of the doors. We-”
Faelyn stopped and stared behind Amelia in fear, Amelia turned and saw the King and the Queen looming in their barbed crowns.
“Why, I see you must have inherited my intelligence, how quaint. I suppose I should introduce you to your new mother, and you should introduce me to your little friend,” the King stated apathetically, staring fiercely at Faelyn.
She glowered and turned her back.
“Or would you like me to twist you and all your little pets here. You know I can, a name and a face aren’t everything.”
The blood drained from Faelyn’s face and she turned and stared at the ground.
“G-good evening father, this is a girl I met in the shop,”
He smiled dryly, “That’s a good girl. Now why don’t you go back to the shop and leave things be. A baker’s tender-hearted daughter can’t go setting her hopes on every egg to hatch before the baker makes a pie can he?”
“They aren’t eggs, and you are no baker.”
“Oh really? I suppose I am to blame for you not being educated enough to recognize a metaphor,”
“I know what a metaphor is. I am saying that you can’t just toy with people and change them.”
“I can’t?” asked the King mockingly.
“Why? Do they really have more brains and personality than eggs?”
“Yes. Just because someone is nameless and faceless doesn’t mean they are not people. Any one of faceless and nameless here is more of a person than both of you combined!” Faelyn’s fists were clenched. The King looked taken aback for a moment, but then anger showed on his face. He turned to Amelia and suddenly Amelia felt like a gale of glass-shards was whipping about her. She cried out and covered her face with her hands. It felt as if her features were melting away. She recalled the servants without faces and almost screamed. She noticed that the shards were making notes, a discordant cacophony. She shuddered and began to hum the tune she had been humming earlier to drown it out. The cacophony stopped, and the shards seemed to lose their direction, however, they seemed to recover and attacked her with even more vigor.
“Stop!” Amelia cried. The gale stopped. Amelia looked up, surprised, and saw that the King looked as surprised as she was. He fainted, the Queen ran over to him and caught him before he fell to the floor. He became a rose and the Queen clutched it to her, biting her lower lip. Amelia cringed, hoping she hadn’t actually hurt anyone. A shriek rent the air, the Queen dropped the rose, which had become a small, bewildered looking snake. The Queen turned to flee, but tripped. The cat Amelia had met from before had woven across the Queen’s path. Hadar emerged from the crowd and walked up to the Queen.
“You let go before the seventh shape, you have lost him. You have lost your claim. Now leave us and keep well enough away!”
The Queen’s face became pale, she seemed to shrivel away, as she too became a snake. Faelyn picked up the snakes, which had been trying to sneak off. She held the snakes by the back of the head and turned to Hadar.
“Can you make a door, to nowhere in particular?”
An outline formed, and then took shape as a door, Faelyn opened it, revealing the desert Amelia had found earlier. She set the snakes down in the sand, and closed the door behind it.
The cat smirked, “Well, that deals with that. I thank you, Amelia, for such an interesting time. And your friend as well”
Faelyn stared at the cat.
“I don’t even really know what I did.” Amelia protested meekly, feeling a little embarrassed as everyone in the ball room stared. All dancing had been stopped seeing as the musicians were to distracted to play, and the dancers too distracted to dance.
The cat purred, “Well what about that little ditty? And stopping the King in the middle of a spell, making him have to through go through the seven changes to his true form?” He saw Amelia looking confused, “Anyways, my point being, girl from above the grate, you and your friend there, just got rid of a large thorn in the side of us all. Don’t get all cocky though, you didn’t go and make the world a perfect place-”
“Don’t listen to him, my fine ladies, he’s a cat. Would you two give me the pleasure of the next dance?” Hadar interrupted.
Faelyn and Amelia agreed, and he continued, looking pointedly at the musicians, “the next dance just so happens to be Lady Lakri’s Tridril, where the gentleman has a lady on each side,”
The musicians got ready to play, the fiddler taking one last swig from his black bottle. Amelia danced for a long while, and had a wonderful time. Yet, despite all the excitement, she began to wonder if her family above the grate was worried about her. She withdrew to a corner of the dance floor.
“Wanting to get home?”
Amelia looked about, not seeing anyone addressing her.
“Look down here, girl from above the grate,” Amelia looked down and saw the cat staring belligerently at her, “Too high and mighty?”
“No, no, not at all, I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s only been people taller than me who have been addressing me for last part of this ball.”
“Well, I would have asked you to dance as well, but I don’t dance, being a cat after all. Anyways, it seems to me as if you would like to go back home.”
“Well, I do think I ought to go home, although it is very lovely here, but I don’t know how.”
Then, in front of Amelia, on the wall, a door formed and opened out onto the same dark tunnel Amelia had walked through.
“Was that you?” she asked the cat.
“No, look behind you.”
Amelia turned, and the three bird women giggled.
“Your welcome! Can we have a hug before you leave?”
Amelia hugged them, the smooth fabric of their dresses pressing against her arms.
“Tell Faelyn I said goodbye,” she told them, and then walked into the tunnel. She felt her feet go numb as she stepped in numerous cold puddles. She walked towards the warm glow at the end, seeming no nearer with each step she took, until suddenly she was there. She could see the grate, lying open above her. The leaves depressed under her feet as she walked to the ladder. She climbed out and stood back. She realized that she was no longer wearing the ball gown, but was back in the cotton sun-dress she had gone down in, it must have transformed before, or as, she climbed the ladder. The grate closed silently and Amelia gave it one last look before walking on. As she waited at the stoplight, an old sour looking plump woman walking her dog glowered at her, and then spoke, “Nice job, but don’t you go about thinking you can just go down there and mess about with things whenever you want.”
Amelia looked at her, dumbstruck, the woman crossed back to the other side of the street, Amelia would have followed, but light changed and so Amelia went home. She wasn’t late at all, so Amelia didn’t mention the world below the grate.
Many days later, Amelia was walking home, when she thought to check the grate. It was closed, and the lights were out. It looked as if nothing at all was down there, it was so dark and empty seeming. Amelia dropped a pretty green pebble down and listened for the sound of impact, she never heard it. She scuffed her feet about a little, hoping for the grate to open, but at last she gave in and walked home, breathing the night air in as deeply as she could, trying to be satisfied with her home world.
A day later, she came home to find the cat sitting on her doorstep, the pretty green pebble resting in front of his feet.
“Is that you? What are you doing above the grate?” she asked, but the cat simply purred smugly and wound about her legs.
“Well, fine then, don’t say anything. Let me get you some food though, you must be starved.” She opened the door and the cat walked in confidently, his tail swishing like a signal flag. Amelia opened the refrigerator, the light reluctantly flickering on to reveal the contents. She saw some leftover chicken from the chicken salad she’d had for lunch yesterday and scraped it onto a plate and set it in front of the cat. The cat ate it, his head jerking as he tried swallow the pieces whole. Amelia sat down, and when the cat had finished eating, he came over and sat on her lap. She pet him and scratched his neck as he purred like a motor.
“One thing, mister cat. If you’re going to stay here, you need a name. So speak up.”
The cat looked at her slyly for a while.
Amelia grinned, “Then I’m going to call you Cutesy Fluffles. Want more chicken Cutesy Fluffles?”
The cat glowered, his tail twitching and then gave in and coughed up a name, “Efflaron.”
Efflaron somehow won over Amelia’s mother’s heart, and became a permanent asset to the family.
Some years after meeting up with Efflaron, Amelia was walking home when she saw an open grate. It was a different one, but Amelia still peered through the hole, just in case. Below was a small tunnel, lit to an odd purple hue, twisting and winding its way along. There was a ladder leading to the tunnel, and Amelia began to climb down. However, what she found down there is another story entirely.