Saturday Storytime: The Maiden Thief

There are stories I classify as retold fairy tales. This one from Melissa Marr is more of remix. I won’t tell you which tale, though, as that would spoil things.

As my sixteenth birthday draws near, I wait and watch like most of my classmates. He’s out there, studying us, thinking about who’s next. We’re all secretly whispering, “Not me.” We can’t meet each other’s eyes as the leaves start to drift to the ground.

Not ten minutes after I walk into the kitchen door, Karis tells me, “Today, at the market, I heard that Ella—the girl with the pretty voice and the red shoes—was late on Sunday, and her dad was going round to everyone thinking she was this year’s girl.”


“She twisted her ankle and couldn’t get home. She’s fine.”

“That’s good.” I drop my books on the table and go to the sink to wash my hands. It’s what Bastian used to do after classes, and I follow his routine.

When he was alive, my brother was my closest playmate. Our sisters were both much older than us, and the two babies after them but before us hadn’t lived past their second years. Karis, who was ten years older, was the “little mother,” while Amina, who was only two years younger than Karis, was the “big sister.” Bastian, of course, was the future, the one who would increase fortune and ease for our family. I was only the poppet, the plaything they indulged. I read every book Bastian had, and many of Father’s, too. Then, they smiled and laughed. Now, there is no laughter in our home.

The only brightness that remains is from Karis’ determined cheer.

As if she hears my thoughts, my sister takes up the song she was singing when I walked into the house, something about meadows and fields of forever. Her voice is sweet, and the words are familiar. Before Mother’s death, Karis sang more than she spoke.

Both of my sisters would make wonderful wives and mothers, but the money for their dowry is long gone. Mine went first, a peril of being the youngest. Only our household skills and presumed virtues remain as enticements to potential spouses.

Karis sets me tasks, and we work in quiet companionship. We are not petty with each other, not short of temper or ill of manner, not since we lost Mother and Bastian. We work together, and we are stronger for it. Our sister Amina draws forth the food that we sell for our money. Karis minds our home, cooking and cleaning. Once a week, she goes into town to sell what we can and buy what we need. I go to and from the school, learning so that I can figure a way to a better future. Ours is a quiet life with no friends, no outings, and little contact with the people in town. Being with my sisters fills me with peace.

But that peace is soon broken. My father comes in with something clutched in his hand. I can’t see the words on the parchment, but I know well enough what’s there. I wrote the words myself, gathered the facts, and called for action.

“Verena!” Father stops and levels me with a glare that makes me want to reach out to Karis. “What have you done?”

“Shared my findings,” I say with barely a quaver in my voice. I know he disapproves. Girls are to be seen, to be delicate, to be graceful, to be many things my sisters excel at, things I will never be—things I might not have even been if we’d kept our fortunes.

I straighten my spine and stare at my father. “It’s true. Every word of it is true.

“It’s shameful to say so.”

“It’s more shameful that no one is doing anything to catch the Maiden Thief,” I say, a tremor in my voice as I try to not look away from Father.

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Saturday Storytime: The Maiden Thief

Saturday Storytime: The Wolf and the Tower Unwoven

Sometimes being human is an awful lot of work. This is from Kelly Sandoval.

The wolf came back the next day, and the next, and the one after that. I made a point of sitting outside when he came, my fingers busy with stitching heat and calm into a tunic. After the fourth day, he stopped snarling.

“Why?” he asked, on the sixth day, his voice rough from all his useless howling.

“Ahh, see. That’s a boy. They don’t push creatures out of the Tower Unwoven without first forcing sense upon them. That much, at least, I’ll say for them.”

That, and no more.

“This is sense?” He rocked in place, a constant side–to–side motion that made me itchy for motion.

“Yes, Wolfling. Sense. No use fighting it. You are what you are now. Running about in the altogether and letting yourself starve won’t change what’s been done to you.”


“Forget why,” I said, not ready to speak of the Tower. “It happened. And here we are.”

“You aren’t my pack.” From him, it was an accusation.

“I’m no one’s pack.” And how long had it taken to make a truth of that statement? Wolves are not alone in their clinging.

“My ma said lone wolves are trouble.” The words were coming easier to him, the mind they’d forced on him rising to its use. Humanity is like that. You let it have a bit of your soul, and next thing you know, you forget to dream of flying.

“I’m sure she did,” I said. “And I’ve been trouble enough, in my time. But I’m too old to trouble now.”

He shrugged, a gesture that started in his shoulders and moved down his spine. “What about my pack?”

“Best not to dwell on them.” Best for both of us not to dwell on old packs. “I can’t give you answers, Wolf. What I can give you is a pair of trousers.”

He slept beside my woodpile that night, kept warm and restful by the embroidery on the clothes I’d made him. The next morning I brought him porridge, grateful for the start of a new routine. I had chosen solitude over a pack of my own with its wants, and its cruelties, and its love for me. Seeing him, wary and needing in the watery dawn light, gave shape to the quiet of my exile.

“Up with the sunrise, my boy. Come along, now. Sit.” I settled him on the porch in a relatively human posture. He snatched the bowl from my hands when I held it out, and dove into it face first, hunching possessively as if I might snatch it away.

“Easy, now,” I said. “You’ll not starve while I’ve got you.”

Now, old birds may like to talk but there’s song and there’s nattering on for the sake of the sound. Suffice it to say the wolf learned quickly. He came inside, he learned to hold a spoon, and, other than the issue of the bath, he never tried to bite me. I waited for him to speak of leaving, as those before him had. But wolves aren’t like cats or eagles. They don’t get restless in company.

I should have pushed him from the nest. It would have gone better if I had. But, selfish old thing that I am, I let him stay.

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Saturday Storytime: The Wolf and the Tower Unwoven

Saturday Storytime: Your Orisons May Be Recorded

Somehow I’d missed that Laurie Penny writes short fiction. I won’t make that mistake again.

They tell you not to fall for human beings because they always die. For me that’s part of it. That’s their beauty and their tragedy—everything is always rotting, puckering and falling apart under your hands, and you claw at them with your kisses to slow the tug of time but you can’t. The panic in their eyes when they reach the age when they realize that, yes, it’s happening to them too.

The way they swallow their breath at the point of orgasm.

I can’t get enough.

Some of us are perfectly happy counting dust motes in sunlight, or recording the little lives of the luminous creatures at the bottom of the ocean trenches who live and die and drift to the sea floor and know nothing but darkness.

Not me.

Loving humans is what got me demoted.

A long time ago, before the current system, when there were far fewer of them, it was our job to walk among men and women and all the other human creatures and teach them things they needed to know. Writing and calculus and basic food hygiene. We were allowed to give real advice, back then, and we taught them a lot. But they taught us things, too.

They taught us what it is to fear death and to nourish hope. They taught us about pleasure. And passion. And love. Love more than anything. I have always been drawn to the ones who burn with it, the ones who take their tiny lives in trembling hands and try to wring out all the juices before it’s too late.

I love fucking human men.

I love loving them, too, though if I’m honest, the fucking is quite a significant part of it. Nothing is ever just sex.

I loved a scientist, once, in Babylon, in the land between the two rivers. His beard was slight and his eyes were black and fronded with long, long lashes, and it was the eighth century after they killed the Nazarene, and he found me in a decorative jar in the market, where a witch whose son I had seduced kept me prisoner for a decade.

He took me home and broke the glass and out I blossomed, fully-formed and heavy-breasted, and he rushed for his notebooks.

He was tortured by the impulse to understand everything. A fatal condition in humans. He was full of rage at his own ignorance, and the more he eked out through his art and philosophy and mathematics—which in those days were all part of the same discipline—the more he discovered he did not know, and the more that knowledge consumed him.

I loved him for it, and he resented me. Even in our bed, he resented me. His fingertips would outline my contours as if I were drawn on a manuscript, searching for the secrets of my substance.

It hurt him to love me because I was a door to the wisdom of eons that he couldn’t unlock. I knew the names of all the stars, and I wouldn’t tell them to him. I couldn’t. It would have driven him mad, and he would have ended up wandering the streets with the beggars and the crazed soothsayers.

He told me that there were worse places to end.

He longed to know the names of the stars, the true names that they only tell each other, how they were born, the exact latitude of this or that red giant. I told him that I had walked on a star once and it was nothing special. After that he didn’t fuck me for weeks.

He liked me in feathers, though. One morning I found that he had plucked out all the filoplumes on my left side and was dissolving them in acid, trying to determine what I was made of.

So I took him walking on a star. He didn’t like it as much as he thought he would.

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Saturday Storytime: Your Orisons May Be Recorded

Saturday Storytime: The Angel of Divine Intent

It’s a good thing when a story makes you want to go back to an old idea and write fiction of your own. This from Tim Akers accomplishes that for me easily. I really need to make time to write that story one of these days.

The angel waited for her among the eight golden spires of the reliquary. Shredded wings of chain and feather brushed the air. Her body was gaunt and frail beneath the starlight robes, flesh the color of beaten silver, no more substantial than fog or memory. Haelice bowed, touching her forehead to the command icon, waiting there until she felt the nether-soft touch of the cathedral’s fallen host. Only then did she straighten her back to face the divine.”Your absence was noted, initiate,” the angel whispered. Her voice was the gentle chime of crystals, her eyes pierced through with sunlight.

“The choir sings without me, divine. The song to drive, the cathedral to carry, and your wisdom to guide,” Haelice answered. “I am barely needed.”

“The saints need you, child. I need you. Someone must give their will focus. Someone must inhabit the Vapor.” The angel hovered closer. “There must always be a pilot.”

“Yes, well . . .” Haelice kept her head dipped to shield her eyes from the angel’s brilliance. Vapor. Virtual Presence Rig, an awkward name for her bones and blood and biofield. The idea that she was nothing more than a host of the saints of old made her uncomfortable. But she’d left her body long ago, her mind transmitted to this distant ship by the church’s divine frequency, to accept her role as pilot to one of the divine. She was sealed into this cathedral, bound to travel the stars on the inscrutable business of the gods, far from the warm light of Sol and the empire. The creature raised a finger to Haelice’s chin, edging her face up. It was difficult to look into those eyes.

“The blink is unsettling,” Haelice confessed.

“It is a place devoid of your gods and your saints, a place where souls only gutter in the shadows . . . it should be unsettling, initiate. But you must be brave.”

“Next time,” Haelice said, pulling away from the goddess. “Now. Where have you brought us?”

She swiped her hands over the reliquary’s icons, drawing the displays into being, filling the room with brilliant vectors, trajectories, star phases and gravity wells. Haelice blinked up at the information.

“Where are we?”

“At the beck of our brother,” the angel answered. “He has called, and I have come.”

“Which brother?” Haelice knew the ranks of the host as well as any pilot, but none of them appeared on her scans. The only sacred icon on her screen was her own asteroid cathedral, Sanctuary of Divine Intent, named as much for its function as its occupant. “There are no cathedrals in this sector,” Haelice said. She swiped hard across the starmap, searching for anything that was familiar. “There are no cathedrals anywhere. How far have you taken us?”

“There are no cathedrals because there is no choir for this god,” the angel said. “No saints, no pilot, no ship to carry his will.”

“Did they die?” Haelice asked. She began drawing up other displays, trawling for the numinous trace lines of divine power that would leak from any member of the host of angels. It wasn’t common for the massive asteroid sanctuaries to break apart in the blink, but it did happen. She suppressed a shudder thinking of the unwinding blossom of dead saints, breaching into real space from the blink in an ever-expanding scream of final sacrament.

“No. They never were.” The angel settled into the spindles of her berth, drawing numinous light into her being. Very satisfied with herself, Haelice thought. “Our brother is feral. He is undiscovered.”

Haelice knit her brows together, trying to twist the angel’s words into meaning. She turned back to the displays, zooming in on the sacred lines that emanated from her own ship, arcs of purple light that defined the angel’s will. She followed them, slowly, until they crossed another.

A god, buried among the stars, waiting to be found.

“Wake the choir,” the angel whispered. “My brother is in need.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Angel of Divine Intent

Saturday Storytime: There’s Always a Nuclear Bomb at the End

I’m not entirely sure that this story by Jennifer Mason-Black is a story. At the same time, it’s all our stories.

Sometimes it belongs to terrorists, their lives devoted to this one thing, this one chance to blow up a city peopled entirely with women, children, frightened middle-aged cab drivers, young executives. They will detonate it whether their demands are met or not, because it’s never the demand that matters. Never. It is always the anger beneath the demand, or the greed, or the hatred.

Sometimes it belongs to the President, or the Army, or a secret council populated with secret councilors. People who are kept in a drawer, folded between sheets of paper, tidy, pressed, spotless, retrieved just for the scene where they say that there is no other choice, the city must be destroyed. They have no children, no spouses, no hobbies. They can almost be seen through, tissue-thin, would be if they stood in front of a bright window instead of a wall covered with a dark seal. Scene over, they are tucked away again, until the next time the bomb arises.

It is always a city as well. Buildings will collapse, people will scream. It is never a real wasteland. Never a place where the tap water can be lit with a match. Never a place where the trees have been stripped from hillside after hillside and the soil runs down the incline in waves, or where the air is silent from the death of the songbirds. Never a place where families pack their things into a beat-up car, an eviction notice on the door behind them.

No, it’s always a city, and the buildings always fall. There’s always a woman, somewhere. Someone will point her out, later, in reviews. See, a woman, they say. She might be a wife, a girlfriend, a sister. She will be beautiful.

Sometimes she suffers. Sometimes she ends up dead. If she does, it’s okay. Her cold corpse is as powerful as a nuclear bomb. Her lifeless body is the thing that turns the tide, forces the hand, sounds the alarm. She becomes a holy relic. She lives in the refrigerator, they all do, all these women waiting for their moment to prove evil is, well, evil.

Sometimes she’s something else. Sometimes she dressed in black. Sometimes she knows how to break men’s necks between her thighs. Sometimes she wears the highest of heels, but surprise! They are just part of her deadly tool set. See, she says, I am sexy for a reason. I am sexy because I’m clever, because I have a sense of the absurd, because this is a sly commentary on the sexism inherent in our culture.

She is sexy because someone dressed her in tight black leather and insisted it was right.

She doesn’t look like me. She doesn’t look like you either, even if you think she does. She doesn’t even look like herself, not when she wakes up, hair artfully tousled, not when she is bleeding, or hurt. Not when she is scared.

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Saturday Storytime: There’s Always a Nuclear Bomb at the End

Saturday Storytime: Grandpa’s Glasses

Sometimes we look at a story and think it has no plot because the stakes and the conflict are personal, as with this story from Carol Otte. Those are often my favorites.

For two weeks I did nothing. I held two thoughts in my head: that I could use the glasses to visit Grandpa whenever I wanted, and that the visions were just a fantasy. In reality the grief of his loss was too new and raw for me to poke at.

But one morning I woke with tears on my face yet also filled with a sense of warmth, a memory of his kindness. I had to be close to him. I picked another pair and found myself sharing the first bite of a juicy ripe peach.

After that, I used the glasses most mornings. The visions showed me primarily everyday moments, but the sort which are precious and treasured despite their ordinary nature. I sat with Grandpa at the family table while his father carved the Sunday roast. I watched a newborn foal take its first steps. I tussled with my brother on the winter’s first snowfall.

Then one morning I stumbled across a rougher part of Grandpa’s life. When he was young, he’d worked for two years as a coal miner. I joined him underground.

I crawl on hands and knees through a side tunnel to set an explosive charge. If the coal vein runs narrow, the tunnel runs narrow, and that’s just how things are. Only the coal gets pulled out of the mountain. No one’s going to blast away worthless rock just so miners can have room to walk upright. The weight of the mountain presses down on me, but as long as I stay focused, I’m fine.

A low boom shakes the earth, and my throat closes in raw panic. The tunnel vibrates as if an earthquake is shaking the ground, but more likely it’s a methane explosion. Pebbles strike my helmet. I have no room to turn, but I can’t stay here. I wriggle backwards as fast as I can. My friends (my Jason) could be dying, could be burned to a crisp and already gone.

I came back short of breath and unnerved. I knew mining was dangerous work, but Grandpa never said anything about being in an accident. I didn’t even recognize Jason’s name.

I had to find out more. By now I’d realized that each pair of glasses showed visions linked to the original owner. That first pair had actually belonged to my Uncle Albert, not to Grandpa. I put the same pair on again. I didn’t end up underground, though.

Sunlight filters gently through young spring leaves. After being underground so much, the fresh air feels heady as wine.

Jason (Janet) is with me. (No, Jason. It’s better if I think of him that way, so I don’t give him away. Besides, Jason says he’s a man at heart, even though he has a woman’s body underneath those floppy clothes.)

The trees shield us from prying eyes. Jason says, “Shall we have some fun?”

I nod, and he reaches for my zipper.

For a moment the sensations drew me along: Jason’s smell against the sharp tang of pine needles, the rich spring air, the sun on his hair as he bent down. But I didn’t want to feel those things, not in relation to my own grandfather and in truth, not at all. For the first time, my own sense of self broke through the vision before its natural completion. I tore the glasses from my face.

I sat there shaking from a strange mix of confusion and betrayal. In Grandpa’s time, coal mines wouldn’t hire women, but as I sorted through the leftover snatches of memory, I realized that Jason hadn’t merely been passing in order to find work. He’d thought of himself as male.

And Grandpa hadn’t cared. If Jason had been born a man, he still wouldn’t have cared. When Jason reached for him, he’d been thinking of other times.

Grandpa had touched men too.

If I’d known while he was still here, I would have been proud of him. Instead I felt a growing fury that he’d kept silent all his life and left me to face this all alone.

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Saturday Storytime: Grandpa’s Glasses

Saturday Storytime: Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass

Here’s one by Jeremiah Tolbert for all of us serial escapists.

The agency had placed Louisa with Dewem, Putnam, and Low, a small but venerable legal office downtown. The interview had been very brief, as temps were harder to find since rabbit holes. In the past six months, the calls had gotten more frequent; Louisa had developed a good reputation for dependability. She had little else to do with her time since the cancer had finished its relentless march through her mother’s bones.

“Do you have one?” asked the office supervisor, a stern-sounding woman named Catherine (absolutely never, ever to be called “Cathy,” she had instructed). Her name and voice conjured pictures of Catherine the Great, but in person, she was considerably shorter, wider, and balder than the Russian leader.


“The last girl we hired never bothered to come in. And the young man before that showed for three days. I’m sure it’s wonderful, frolicking with elves in the forest, but we here in the real world have work to do.” She said “real world” with a degree of bitterness that evoked considerable sympathy in Louisa. Perhaps she too had been passed over.

“I am dedicated to my work, don’t worry. What would you like me to do?” Of course, she didn’t say that if her rabbit hole did arrive, she wouldn’t be coming back. She still had to pay rent for the time being, after all.

Catherine waved at the paperwork threatening to topple from the side of her desk. “File these, to start.” Catherine dismissed Louisa by simply ignoring her in favor of the computer. It took a long moment before Louisa realized she was supposed to leave. She could appreciate a supervisor who didn’t expect her to spend hours chitchatting about television or current events, two things that held no interest for Louisa, unless you counted the rabbit holes as “current events.”

Louisa gathered up the paperwork and wandered in search of the filing room. Most of the offices were dark and empty. The few people she saw looked frazzled and weary, like people for whom sleep had dropped a few levels on the hierarchy of needs—kindred spirits, those. She had seen that exhaustion many times in the mirror during her mother’s long decline.

Many of the lawyers were nearly hidden behind stacks of paperwork as large as the one she was attempting to file, which, if nothing else, signaled job security. One young man looked up as she stopped to stare. He gave her a half-smile, raised an immaculately sculpted eyebrow.

Louisa blushed. “Um . . . which way to the filing room?”

He pointed down the hall. He opened his mouth to speak, but she turned and fast-walked away before he could make a sound. She didn’t know how to talk to attractive young men anymore, if she ever had. Best to avoid it as much as possible.

Instead, she went to work in the small, dimly lit room down the hall. The system was a standard, though slightly antiquated one, as promised. The room itself would have been unremarkable but for one of the ceiling-high wooden cabinets; it was padlocked with two fist-sized chrome locks and a heavy steel chain. A sticky note indicated that T to Th had been moved to the neighboring cabinet indefinitely, and pointed with marker-drawn arrow to the right. When Louisa pressed her ear to the drawer, harp music whispered from within.

Louisa rooted through her pockets for her notebook, flipped to the end of her list of “Types of Rabbit Holes” and wrote: FILING CABINETS in neat letters. She snapped it shut, tucked it away, and began to work.

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Saturday Storytime: Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass

Saturday Storytime: How the God Auzh-Aravik Brought Order to the World Outside the World

I do have a particular weakness for stories of making and unmaking like this from Arkady Martine.

The god Auzh-Aravik spat into her flayed palm and turned the saliva streaked with blood, out onto the earth. Where it struck it sizzled. The god was pleased by how the soil writhed and struggled, enlivened by her fluids; she smiled, skinless lips crawling back from skinless teeth, visible tendons straining.

Before it was stolen, the skin of Auzh-Aravik had been inscribed with all the laws of heaven. Tattooed on her calves were the equations for the orbits of stars; written across her belly was the commandment to increase; her shoulderblades were scalpels of poetry. All rules of obedience and desire made up her right cheek; all commandments of justice and prohibition made up her left. She was the proudest and the most accomplished of the gods. She was envied for her beauty and despised for her rigor; the other gods called her the Ornament of Heaven and did not mean it flatteringly.

Naked to the muscle, she stood at the edge of the world. It was a sheer cliff of uniform slate that encircled both the palaces of heaven and the dwellings on the earth. Before Auzh-Aravik had been flayed, she could have opened the world-outside-the-world with the touch of her left elbow, where all the words ever spoken for opening were recorded in pinpoints of black ink. Skinless, she was without most of her power. She had walked to the world’s edge on her feet like a human would, and left footprints of blood behind her.

Nevertheless, she spat again, and again mixed the spittle with her ever-welling blood. This time instead of watching it squirm in the dirt, she drew a door with it on the face of the cliff. She marked the door with the word for door, and told it what it was. It opened.

The world-outside-the-world roiled, clouds of ink lolling in dark water. Only one god dwelled there: Saam-Firuze, twin sister to Auzh-Aravik. It was not a place of names or words or laws. Auzh-Aravik stepped into it and was swallowed. Behind her the door that knew it was a door glowed red for blood and white for spit.

Auzh-Aravik landed on her hands and knees in darkness only made substantial by her landing on it. She called, “Sister-mine! Saam-Firuze! What have you done with my skin?”

The laughter of the god Saam-Firuze is liquid and enveloping. It welled out of the world-outside-the-world and lapped at the abdominal musculature of Auzh-Aravik. “Sister-mine,” she said, “have you lost yourself? You are much diminished since I saw you last.”

“I have been robbed,” said the god Auzh-Aravik. “Diminishment is not my problem.”

“How dreadful.”

“Where is my skin, sister-mine? Without my skin the laws of heaven will cease to be immutable.”

“Perhaps they should change a little,” mused Saam-Firuze. “They have been perfect for so very long. The scansion on your shoulderblades – ah! lovely. But so old-fashioned.”

For the third time, Auzh-Aravik asked her twin: “Where is my skin? Where have you hidden it? You were never so acquainted with scansion before now; you must have looked quite closely.”

“Oh,” said Saam-Firuze, smugly, “it is around here somewhere. But everything is so very dark. I am never sure exactly where I am, or you are, or anything else.”

Auzh-Aravik, incensed, stood up on the darkness – insisting with all her diminished power that the darkness was a thing on which to stand – and shouted. “You are a liar, Saam-Firuze!”

“Well, yes,” came the reply. “Of course. And – thank you for the door!”

Auzh-Aravik turned around and saw her sister scuttling up the inside wall of the slate cliff like a spider composed of the absence of light. She came to the red and white door and clambered through, folding up all of her many delicate limbs to fit into the mortal world. When she was on the other side, Auzh-Aravik saw the flash of her teeth as she smiled; the shine of the sun on her lips as she pursed them, wetted them with her tongue, and spat.

The door unbecame a door. The god Auzh-Aravik, Ornament of Heaven, keeper of righteousness and order and the orbits of the stars, was surrounded by the unformed dark, skinless, and all alone.

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Saturday Storytime: How the God Auzh-Aravik Brought Order to the World Outside the World

Saturday Storytime: The Sincerity Game

I’ll be right back. I just need to go read all of Brit Mandelo‘s stories.

Hiding in plain sight—that’s a version of the sincerity game.

Or, more accurately, it’s a motif.

The fairy–lights strung over the bar’s patio lit his face in pale blues and reds. I knew the line of the jaw, the abrupt bump of muscle between neck and shoulder that I had mouthed with mute passion two nights before in a cold backyard like a teenager. I threw back the last of the PBR I’d been sipping, ordered another, and watched him. He was alone, tense, leaning against the far end of the bar top, knee jiggling in a jerky pattern that didn’t match the music. His mouth was pressed into a tight line when it wasn’t wrapped around the neck of a bottle—some high–price IPA, I suspected, pegging him by his black–rimmed glasses and unsubtle air of agitation as someone a little more hip than the laughing man I’d fucked around with before.

I could do hip. I could handle that, palm it, pull it in where I wanted it to be.

I went over, half–smiling, holding my beer at waist level with my free thumb tucked through a belt loop. Casual, relaxed, open. Evens to his odds. As I approached his eyes cut over to me. He raised an eyebrow and watched the close of my approach, then said, “Fancy seeing you here.”

“I was about to suggest the same thing,” I said, turning my back to the bar and slouching against it a couple of inches from his perch. “I guess you left the party, the other night?”

“I did,” he said.

There was a moment’s silence. I sipped, he sipped. Our eyes roved. He looked good in the colored lights, lithe and fit, wearing nice slacks and a tight thin sweater. I wondered at the odds of seeing him again, counted them higher than usual—small groups of friends, moving in the same circles, going to the same watering holes. Of course I might run into him.

“I’d ask if you wanted another drink, but I’m cheap,” I said with an edge of a smirk, glancing from under lowered eyelashes. Rolling the dice.

“But you would like me to be drunker,” he said. His voice had taken on the high–tone of a joke, a ruse, a little game of one–upmanship.

I bit. “Oh, certainly. It’ll make me more palatable.”

Self–deprecating humor: the kids love it.

“Good,” he said. His grin flashed incongruously white; his eyes were a silver–grey that stole the breath right out of my chest when I met them stare for stare. His voice dropped, normal and soft and so suddenly unapproachable. “I do need help with that. Otherwise, I might get bored.”

I swallowed a mouthful of razor–cold beer, looked out across the patio.

And all I had to say was, “Touché.”

The sincerity game is a tactic, or so I like to think of it, for revealing significant information but in the process making the truth seem so outlandish, so comedic or harsh or impossible, that the listener skips straight past it without acknowledgement. Tell the truth; it comes out like a lie. Then tell a lie, tell it simple or awkward or stammering; it comes out like the truth. And it’s all a joke. We live in the age of post–postmodern irony—the new sincerity is no sincerity at all, I hear.

In short: I am a liar, but I am also quite sincere.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Sincerity Game

Saturday Storytime: The Spy Who Never Grew Up

If you’ve read here for any length of time, it will be no surprise to you that I love to see stories grow and change, like this from Sarah Rees Brennan.

The submarine drifted to a stop not far from the island, the periscope breaking the surface of the water like the lifted nose of an inquisitive pointer dog. After a few minutes, a man emerged from the submarine and got into a boat, one not at all like the children’s boats arrayed on the shore.

When the boat sliced through water to white sand, the man stepped out of it.

They had given him a number, and taken away his name. Unfortunately for him, his number was 69.

This was a subject of many tasteless jokes in the Service, but nobody would have known that from 69’s serious face and his extremely dapper black suit.

He took a few purposeful steps along the shore to the forest, then looked down. Under his feet, and under a layer of the black grease of age and filth were pebbles like jewels, and children’s toys, and human bones.

There was a barely perceptible shift in the air before his face, but the men and women in Her Majesty’s Secret Service are extremely highly trained. 69 looked up.

The boy before him was beautiful in a slightly terrible way, like a kiss with no innocence in it.

More to the point, he was holding a sword as if he knew how to use it, and floating about a yard above the ground.

“Dark and sinister suit,” said the boy. “Have at thee.”

“I am afraid I do not have time to indulge you,” 69 said. “I am here on a mission from her Majesty.”

“Ah,” said the boy, tilting his chin. “I know it well.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Majesty,” the boy said, waving his sword vaguely. “Belonging to… her. I know all about it.”

“Her Majesty the Queen,” 69 said with a trifle more emphasis than was necessary.

“I knew that,” the boy informed him.

“She feels that the Service has a need for a man—”

The boy hissed like a vampire exposed to the sunlight, lifting his free arm as if to protect himself from the word. Man.

“Excuse me. A boy of your special talents,” 69 said smoothly. He had been raised in diplomatic circles.

The boy spun around in a circle, like a ballerina with a sword in zero gravity.

“My talents are special! So awfully special!”

“Indeed,” said 69. His countenance remained unchanged. 69 was very highly trained, and also a gifted amateur poker player. “And the Queen needs—someone of such talents for a job.”

The boy started to laugh, a high lovely laugh that wavered between a baby’s gurgle and the peal of bells. It did not sound quite sane.

“A job?” he asked. “Make a man of me, will you? Oh no, oh no. You sailed your boat to the wrong shore.” He made a quick, deadly gesture with his small sword to the island around them, the dark stones and trees with branches like bared claws. “This is no place for men.”

“So I see,” said 69. “And I see there is nobody here who would be brave enough to risk all for her Her Majesty’s sake: nobody who is enough of a patriot to die for their country.”

Peter was not entirely sure what a patriot was, but he would have scorned to betray this fact. He did not even acknowledge it to himself, really: Peter’s thoughts always moved like a stone on water, skipping and skimming along the surface until they hit a certain spot.

69 had turned towards the sea, but he was not entirely surprised when a sword landed, light as a very sharp butterfly’s wing, on his shoulder.

He turned back to meet the sight of the lovely, terrible smile.

“To die for your country,” said Peter. “Would that be an awfully big adventure?”

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Spy Who Never Grew Up