Joan was radiating happiness as they left the party. She was on the arm of one of the most famous singers on the planet, who'd asked her out (finally!) after so many late night talks on campus, and he seemed to really like her! For once, she was on top of the world.
She drew in a heady breath, warm and redolent with the scent of warm earth. That's strange, she thought, we're in the middle of downtown, City Park's on the other side of the river....
He inhaled as well, and choked. The look on his face was fear, not puzzlement - where would the smell of early summer be coming in the middle of Midwinter?
He snarled an epithet, and turned down an alleyway. She giddily followed.
They emerged on the other side of a crystal-and filigree structure, like they had arrived in a different city. He seemed to relax, and hurried up the side of the street.
And again that whiff of summer, and another muttered expletive.
A voice, like echoes from the bottom of a well: "Don't bother, dearie, I have your scent now, there's nothing you can do."
And just like that, She was aside of them. Tall, slender, dressed in a gorgeous gown that would have cost her four years of hard labor to even think of affording; real jewels that glimmered from ears and wrists and peeked out of the soft pleated folds of the bodice, even one glittering point at the crown of her head in a frosted tiara.
She glanced and dismissed Joan from thought, and Joan bristled - this was HER night, and HER date, what right did this bit of rich fluff have to interfere? But She reached out an impossibly slim hand and gripped his chin, to force him to meet Her eyes - and it was obvious that he was not willing.
"Bait, or savior?" was all she asked.
He struggled, but the bits "ssah....ssay....vvuh" finally spilled from his lips.
"Mmm." And the more this thing stared at him, the more Joan got angry. She thought, go ruin someone else's night, don't I deserve this for once? She wanted to shout, to leap and rip that delicate lace from the sleeves-
And the Eyes locked on hers, and the world vanished.
Blue, blue, impossible blue - Joan floated in a world turned into an azure pearl, solid and as defined as the facets of a jewel. All thought, all emotion, her night's experience, drowned in solid blue. But a part of Joan, that analytical piece that wouldn't even let her alone in sleep, still protested - How can you breathe blue? How can you smell blue? How can you-
A voice, again (again?? blue!) from a bottom of a well: "Oh, dear, I am sorry..."
And the lapis pearl faded, to be slowly replaced with a street. The lady had a very strong grip on one arm, and he had the other, and they looked like they were trying to hold her upright out of sheer willpower.
Joan looked around, and saw they were standing in a small park. What?
The lady wouldn't look at her again, and now Joan knew why. She glanced over Her shoulder. "Ah, come here chair, that's a good lad-"
And with a small creak, the park bench waddled over and shifted behind Joan. The lady let go, and Joan's knees finally caught up with her, and she sank like a shot onto the solid slats.
The lady wafted down beside her. "Well, your taste is better, but you're still cutting it fine. Do you have a plan, or are you still just shoving unsuspecting naifs into battle with no preparation?"
He bridled, but the gaze locked on him again, and he slumped quickly. And nodded ever so slightly. Her lips thinned, but she seemed to accept it.
"This will never do." To Joan, still not looking at her, she said, "Dearie, I'm not here to steal your night or your date. He's far too young for me, both of you, even if my proclivities ran that way." She sniffed, and turned to him. "You have exactly two nights to convince her that you're not insane, or some twisted predator, and you go about this by walking her home at night without even an obvious stick for protection. Get in the game, lad, I play for keeps!"
"You heard me." He groaned, leaning back in the couch. "Look, just because some of the fairy tales are outlandish doesn't make them unreal."
"So, your name's no joke?"
"I wish. I've said before, never trust a guy with two first names."
"But, who would ever get Tam Lin out of Thomas Lynn?"
"Exactly. It's not like anyone believes in the old stories anymore."
"But..." she flapped her hands around exasperatedly. "This shouldn't be real!"
"Joan. My. Name. Is. Joan."
"But it is. Deadly, very real." He reached over, grabbed her hand. "I'm serious. She's serious. Look, all you need to do is hold onto me at the dance in two nights' time. Hold onto me, claim me, no matter what she throws at you. You've read the stories - hot, cold, spiky, slimy, venomous. It all goes away when time's up."
She was trained in the classics. Heck, she was in the same classes with him! "So, what's the catch?"
He raked fingers through his hair, and it trailed in spikes that drove the ladies wild. "For you, nothing. For me, it was find someone to take my place, or someone willing to fight for me."
"You have millions of groupies. I've seen them on your media feeds."
"Yeah, but...they're just fans. Young. Don't have two thoughts to rub together usually, unlike you."
"Flattering, but nonsense. Honestly, you really don't have much creativity, do you? I can think of five scenarios where you could use a handful of groupies to get your way, and their undying adoration."
"Yeah? Name one!"
"You tell them it's a dress up party for execs with more money than sense, and they're going to re-enact a fairy tale or two. You could have five different girls literally glued to you the whole night. Heck, they would take turns, in freaking shifts."
He was silent, thinking it over. "Oh."
"You're not a deep thinker, I'm assuming."
"Not really. It wasn't a gift I asked Her for."
"Let me guess - charisma, musical ability, popularity?"
"Yeah. Why, would you have done it differently?"
"Sure. Just because you're popular doesn't necessarily mean you've got natural talent. Or creativity."
"You make me sound shallow."
"Aren't you? Sounds like you struck up a friendship with me just to keep you out of fairyland forever after ten years here on the top of the charts."
"Uh hunh." She folded her arms. "So what's so bad about Fairyland that you don't want to stay?"
He stopped with a stricken look on his face. "It's...beautiful. Everything. So beautiful. And I'm not."
"Ah, Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."
"Never mind. All right, I'll do this for you."
"Thank you, Jane." But he was already scrolling through his insta-feed, looking for likes. She rolled her eyes, and pulled out her own phone - to do research.
Even though her rock star friend-turned-fellow-student was trying to "hide" on campus, word gets around. The ballroom was packed when they arrived. All their classmates, their friends, their enemies, and just about anyone from the regular campus population who could finagle an invite were there. Groupies, too, had gathered outside to scream and wave and stare at the freak on his arm.
Only, Joan decided this was going to be the night of her life. "Fight," "Night," what's the difference? Only a consonant. So she'd called in any and all favors she'd built up over the years - and they were considerable, since she'd done homework for a lot of classmates - and they delivered. Hair, nails, makeup, as much of a spa treatment as they could fit in the dorm, costumers, even higher-quality costume jewelry...
She. Looked. Stunning. Even Thomas was slack-jawed at her transformation. She just smiled demurely.
This is my fight, and I will fight it my way...
Ballroom dancing was one of the extracurricular classes, and she'd taken it for three years. Turns out, she had some decent skill - she only looked dowdy most of the time. Why bother, when you're not here to impress, but to learn? Nature had given her a bit of grace and agility, and though she was never really athletic, she'd kept fit through high school. She'd even sneak to the gym occasionally to get in a small workout.
So, on the dance floor, Thomas was amazed that she was as good as he was. Better, even. She could hear the sighs of envy as they swept around in perfect patterns.
Somewhere around the fifth magic left turn that she had to guide him through, in the same foxtrot - he found his voice. "Joan? Is this - really you?"
"What, did you think She snuck in as a transformed me?" She shook her head slightly, still smiling. "Thomas, you have a very narrow view of what women are actually capable of. You want to cast me as foil in your fairy tale. Well, I wanted Cinderella."
"That's the spirit, child!"
And She was there.
Suddenly the ballroom seemed twice as packed as before - impossible, without an extra dimensional portal - but there was space around Thomas, herself, and...Herself.
The Queen of Fairy was dressed in a very smart pantsuit, with her hair slicked back in a boyish cut. She smiled, and extended Her hand to Joan, but stared at the jewel on her forehead instead of her eyes. "May I have this dance? No, not to cheat, the contest starts later."
Joan didn't hesitate. And she was swept up in the Dance.
She knew how to dance. She was every inch the leading partner that can, and should, take that lead. She was so good at the patterns and intricacies of the movements that Joan could focus on her own legs, matching the steps of a proper foxtrot. Which segued into a mambo, then a pasodoble, a waltz, a samba, a rumba.
Joan was only human, but she did her best, and She was impressed.
"Child, you're good! Are you sure you don't want to trade places with him?"
Joan gave an impish grin. "Is that an option?"
"What?" The Fairy Queen was so startled that Her eyes flicked down to stare into Joan's eyes-
Blue again, unbelievable blue, a cerulean so real you could cut yourself on it and weep tears the color of the night sky, a cobalt with such depth you could smother and the air of your last breath would be as concentrated as sapphires-
"Oh, my dear, I didn't realize that you felt this way!"
"That you are the answer to my dreams? My prayers? All my life I felt I was born in the wrong body, the wrong time, that I always wanted to be a Queen's Bard. That all my training, all the classes I took, were leading to this? And now that all that I want is in my reach, that I'd give it up for...him?"
"But isn't that what human girls want?"
"Maybe some. Certainly his groupies. But not me. He's too busy on his phone to realize that I'm a better singer, songwriter, instrument player. He's okay to talk to, when he's not on the lookout for someone to admire him. I know I'm not pretty enough to be allowed to admire him."
"Glamour hides many superficial flaws. You seem to have done well with one tonight, in the laws of this world."
"And he didn't notice, except that I'm not an embarrassment to be seen on his arm. Not for my personality, my skills, or my mind."
"Well, he got what he wanted. Worship and adoration of millions."
"Even if you release him, how long can he keep it? How long before the next new boy comes along to take that place?"
"Indeed, he did not ask for the intelligence to...what is the phrase? 'Keep cranking out the hits'?"
"Exactly. As of tonight I will no longer be of any use to him, and though he'll be grateful for a day or two, it'll be gone by the end of the week. But staying in your kingdom? Learning from masters of the craft? Being able to hone my skills over centuries? I don't have to be the best. I don't have to be on top. I just want to be good."
"You....would take his place?"
"Is there a catch?"
"You lose your place in this world. No family, no friends can follow. And time moves differently. Days can be centuries, or just minutes, or neither."
"My parents should have never bred, so no love lost there. I've been teased for my looks or brains forever, and I'm queer to boot. You think I'd miss this place? For any reason?"
"I'll outlive them all, in a place where I'd find acceptance for being other. Thomas told me enough about his time in your world to know that the concept of 'strange' is irrelevant."
" Child, you are a jewel. This world should be celebrating your existence."
"Eh. Fame is fleeting. I hope you have a philosopher or two, I need someone to debate occasionally."
"And you will have it." The next swirl of the Viennese Waltz - hunh, when did that one start playing? - was over, and they finally gave the dance floor to other couples as She wafted her dance partner over to the corner, where Thomas stood miserably attended by groupies who couldn't seem to catch his attention. He could only stare at Her. She smiled, and lightly kissed his forehead. "You are free. Joan and I have an understanding. Enjoy your life on this side of the barrier, little mayfly."
Thomas looked....stricken. She smiled again. "No, little one, I will not fight for you. That's what these children are here for. Love them, revel in them! Pay attention to them, like I pay attention to all in My Court. Be free, and live well." She swirled around, Joan in the curve of Her arm, and returned to the dance floor. A hole magically opened up for them.
A lindy hop seemed like a perfect final dance with a perfect partner. Joan felt amazing, and she thrived in the center of this sparkling moment. The Queen smiled, and provided a bit more sparkle than could be accounted for by modern physics.
Joan almost felt sorry for Thomas. "I guess I shouldn't call him by that name anymore," she mused aloud. "What is his stage name? Justin? Liam? Joey? Donny?"
"You're asking me? I could never keep them straight, no matter if I win or lose the deal."
"I think you need to broaden your horizons. In the fairy tales, you always go for men. Why not try women for a change?"
"You make a valid point. Men seem to have gotten more vapid as time marches on in your world. I may need to change my...proclivities." A slight tilt of her perfect head indicated "Thomas" in the corner, as he was dancing with an ecstatic fan. "Do you think he'll take my advice?"
"I hope so, for his sake, but I doubt it. For him it was always about the fame, not the people behind it. And he doesn't have the imagination to make more music, to keep and hold their attention. He'll fade away quickly, like all the others."
"Sad. I gave him a chance. I always do." They had swanned out the door, were walking towards the river, surrounded by Her Court. There seemed to be more scales, feathers, limbs, and joints than could be accounted for by their amazing dresses, but no human even seemed to notice. And there was more light than the midwinter moon could give. "Come, let's see what you do with my gifts."
And they were swallowed by light.
About the author
Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.