Ian and the Fairy Godmother
by Anta Baku
Part 12 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (read part 1)
On the last day of Booker’s training period, he showed up to work in a car made out of a pumpkin. He was excited and ready to hop in and head to Fairyland for the day, but I was, as best, nonplussed. I had been through this before. Not that the pumpkin car itself was all that bad; they’re surprisingly comfortable, and way better than riding in an Uber with some guy trying to sell me a book about pirates. But they lead to Cinderella, and I had been to Cinderella. I tried to tell Booker that.
“We’ve already got a tower operating in Cinderella’s kingdom,” I said. “It was the first one I ever did. I know it’s fun to drive a pumpkin around in the real world—”
“Fun?” said Booker. “I got pulled over twice by Minneapolis PD.”
“But it’s only three blocks from here to the portal.”
“Don’t I know it. Look, I’ve been to Cinderella. That’s where I got the car. There’s definitely no cell service there, and the Prince could use our help.”
“I imagine he wants us to retake his kingdom. Last time I was there he had just been overthrown by a socialist revolution of various small rodents.”
“What?” said Booker. “This Prince is, like, a Prince. He lives in a castle. He runs the kingdom. And if there are any small rodents they must be living in the scullery like everywhere else. I didn’t see them.”
“Surely you saw them,” I said. “Almost everyone in the kingdom is a small rodent. There were only maybe two dozen humans.”
He looked at me in disbelief. “I think we’re talking about different Cinderellas,” he said. “Everyone in this kingdom is a human.”
So I went along with him, because the best way to figure out what was causing this cross talk was to go and see it in person. He had me drive in Minneapolis, and we didn’t have any more trouble with the police. I had him drive in Fairyland, to make sure we got to the right place.
I don’t know where we would have gotten with me driving, but the kingdom Booker took us to was not the one I expected. The first obvious difference was the vehicles: this kingdom had normal horses and carriages. The Cinderella I had been to before was full of pumpkin coaches; in this one we stood out just as much as we had in downtown Minneapolis.
The people driving them were humans, and so were the footmen and the passengers. There wasn’t a mouse, or an ocelot, or a badger to be seen. We drove through a small retail district, and the shops there were run by pigs, but that was just a normal Fairyland thing. All the customers were humans.
The castle was different, too, literally if not conceptually. It was still the very image of a magical castle, but it was wider and not as tall as the one I’d visited before, and the color scheme shifted more towards green than blue. Whatever was going on here, Booker was right; this wasn’t the Cinderella I’d been to before.
After talking to the Prince for a while, I wasn’t convinced it was Cinderella at all. Sure, he was searching for a bride, and had held a glorious ball in an attempt to meet the best dancer in the land. But his problem wasn’t that he’d been left holding an unidentified glass slipper. His problem was that the girl hadn’t shown up at all. And while the people of his kingdom were all humans, none of the women were excellent dancers. If a rightful bride had been there, the Prince couldn’t have missed her.
At least, that was what I thought, but Booker was interested in being more thorough. He asked the Prince to let us interview the castle staff, in hopes that one of them had noticed something about the ball that the Prince might have missed.
The butler in this kingdom wasn’t a polecat, but he was as close as you could get while actually being a human. He had dark, recessed eyes, a long nose, and no chin at all. But the perfection of his dress indicated his devotion to duty, as did the generally-organized state of the castle, even the day after a ball.
And he had seen something the Prince missed. Someone, in fact. He couldn’t tell us whether the young lady in question was an excellent dancer, because she had never danced, but he could identify her by her glass footwear, even if he had more to say about her attitude.
“Of course it is not my place to criticize the behavior of the guests,” he said. Taking the hint, I reassured him of our propriety with a couple pieces of fairy gold. It loosened his tongue quite satisfactorily.
“I didn’t talk to her myself,” he said. “But there was a young lady here wearing quite unusual glass slippers. She quite disturbed the staff.”
“She seems to have escaped the notice of the Prince,” I said.
“Oh, she certainly wouldn’t have talked to His Highness,” said the butler. “That wasn’t her style at all.”
“What was her style?” asked Booker.
“She didn’t come to dance. She came to bother the housemaids, and the footmen. We get such people from time to time, though usually not so well dressed.”
“Bother them how?” I asked. “Was she trying to get them into, um, compromising positions?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” said the butler. “We know how to handle that sort of thing, but no. This young woman was one of those revolutionaries. Wanted to tell the staff all about how they should stand up for their individual rights. She quite upset several of the footmen, and Mrs. Grimm the housekeeper had to interfere to keep them from throwing her out. Of course that ought to have been my job, but with the ball going on, perhaps we can forgive the indiscretion.”
“Why not throw her out, then, if she was being a pest?” I asked.
“One of His Highness’ guests? Certainly we could not. Most people who come here with such ideas are tradesmen or tramps, and can be dealt with in such a fashion. But this young woman had an invitation to the ball, even if she chose not to participate in it.”
I’d run into an egalitarian Cinderella before. In fact, even though this kingdom was clearly different, the story was starting to come to a similar place. I had to ask. “Was she a light brunette, about my height, with extremely-well-developed calves?”
“I don’t think so,” said the butler. He called in one of the housemaids who was working in the corridor outside.
“Oh, no, not at all,” she said. “This lady was tall, a head taller than you, and she had very dark hair. And those glass shoes seemed like they were too heavy for her.”
Well, that was a relief at least. The narrative might be going in a similar direction, but at least the Cinderella was different. I had some unresolved issues about the previous one. Just the thought of her possibly being here was stirring; meeting her again would definitely take my mind off of my job.
“Is that all you need, sir?” asked the housemaid. I realized I was woolgathering, thinking about Beth, and keeping the servants from their jobs. For some reason Booker hadn’t seen fit to interrupt.
We let them go after verifying that, as far as the staff knew, the young lady with revolutionary ideas had left while wearing both of her shoes. Without shoe-matching to find her, we’d have to come up with a way to lure her back to the palace. She didn’t seem likely to be a great match for a Prince, but it was the best chance we had.
And after all, the story had to be going somewhere. The last time I was in Cinderella it didn’t work out very well for the Prince, but I still got my cell phone tower. I wasn’t quite as ready to throw this Prince to the wolves, but even if he was nicer, he wasn’t my priority.
He offered us tea when we came back, and was ready to be very cooperative in holding another ball on very short notice. In fact he tried to keep us there much longer than we needed to be, and while his conversation was pleasant, there didn’t seem to be much reason behind it. I think he might just have been lonely for somebody to talk to.
Booker was willing to make excuses from whatever his Friday-night plans were and keep working, and I didn’t have anything to do except go home and watch Harp play games on the internet, so we stuck around for the ball. Well, I stuck around; Booker had to go somewhere with cell service in order to make his cancellations. He didn’t seem too unhappy about the idea. While he was gone I took a tour of the castle, and talked briefly to a few more of the servants, though setting up for the unexpected second ball didn’t leave them a lot of time for me. They didn’t seem to know much more anyway; the young woman had talked to several of them, but she seemed to be operating more from a script than from a deep knowledge of the philosophies and goals of the labor movement.
She hadn’t gotten through to the servants, of course. Roles are deeply ingrained in the people of Fairyland, or at least the humans. Animals seem to be more flexible, which might be why pigs control the commerce. But most people in Fairyland were created within their roles, rather than ending up in them through choice and chance and historical context, like people in the real world. You couldn’t leverage the childhood dreams of a chambermaid who never had a childhood. There’s no easy narrative to convince a footman that he could have been something other than a footman, when all he’s ever done is foot.
It’s probably not impossible to get through. But you’d need something more than slogans, some sort of method of getting personal with people who barely have personalities. Or at least protest songs.
I’m not in a position to promote a Bruce Springsteen concert in Fairyland, and my bosses probably wouldn’t like it anyway. They get a lot of benefit from people who are just people enough to want to own a smartphone. In either world.
And these servants, whatever their other qualities, were clearly outstanding servants. They whipped up a heck of a party on no notice and without electronic task management of any kind.
The ballroom wasn’t a room exactly, but an outdoor plaza sheltered by a large pergola, probably forty feet up, which in turn was covered in grape vines. At one end was the castle wall, with fancy doors into the main hallway and smaller doors that led to the kitchens. Off center on that wall was the castle clock tower, which wasn’t the tallest, but had been situated so it could be seen from all four directions. The pergola ended just far enough from the castle wall that people inside the plaza could see the clock. That would leave an inconvenient gap in the rain, but I suppose it never rains here when they’re having a ball, unless for some reason it’s dramatically necessary.
They probably never had overripe grapes fall on anyone’s head, either, though I couldn’t see any way for someone to harvest them from so high.
The other end of the plaza was open to the countryside, separated from it by a short, wide, striking set of stairs that was clearly the place Cinderella was supposed to lose her shoe.
The servants had set up tables around the outside edge of the plaza, leaving the central section open for dancing. The floor there was a mosaic of some sort, but with so many people dashing about decorating the place I couldn’t make out what the design was.
There were pigs there, too, working on the decorations. Most of the normal things, banners and streamers and tablecloths, were being done by the castle servants. But the Prince must have decided to order something extra special, because at two dozen or so places in the room there were pigs with knives and large blocks of ice, starting to shape them into sculptures. Right now they just looked like blocks with chunks taken out of them, but I made a mental note to check back and see what they were when they were finished.
Booker must have gone farther than the nearest cell service, because he came back in a tuxedo, tails and white tie and gloves and everything. I wasn’t sure if he had conjured it up out of Fairyland or maybe just had one at home. If he did, I could see why. If I went for men, or you know, my employees, I could have gone for Booker big-time in that outfit. He was the second-most-gorgeous man in the room.
The Prince, as I suppose was his right, outshone everyone. He was dressed in something like a nineteenth-century military uniform in red and brown, full of gold tassels and braiding. And he filled it out well, moving across the room like he owned the place, which I’ve found that surprisingly few people who actually own the place can pull off.
He dominated the dancing as well, though he seemed slightly embarrassed by it. He always had a partner waiting for him, and they were never quite up to his level. Only a few of the older women even kept him fully engaged in the dance. When he danced with women his own age, he was clearly doing it to humor them. Though the food and the atmosphere were excellent, the Prince’s disinterest took a toll on the party, as very few people felt able to enjoy it. It wasn’t a disaster. It would almost have been better if it were a disaster. This was just moderately cringeworthy, in a way that went on and on without anything anyone could do about it.
This kingdom needed Cinderella. Desperately.
Though she wasn’t at the dance, she had to be present by now. The narrative would have drawn her to the castle, even if she could fight it enough to keep away from the ballroom. Based on the previous event, she was probably somewhere haranguing the servants. I found Booker and we divided up the castle. He went upstairs toward the bedrooms, and I circled the dance floor and made my way to the kitchen.
The girl wasn’t easy to miss, especially in that context. Kitchens weren’t made for eight-foot-diameter skirts, or for high heels of any kind, much less glass ones. Cooks and servers were dodging around the girl, who looked like she was managing the maximum possible amount of being in the way. She was lecturing a fry cook, who seemed mostly interested in not spattering grease onto that ridiculous dress, or the exposed shoulders of the girl.
I couldn’t swear to it, but the dark red of her dress looked like it would perfectly match the Prince’s uniform. If we could ever get them together. Whatever else was going on here, her fairy godmother demonstrated excellent fashion sense. Even the large skirt accentuated her height without exaggerating it, and her black hair was done up in silver and garnets.
In retrospect she was clearly gorgeous, although at the time my first reaction was to be relieved that she wasn’t Beth, or some sort of alternate-timeline version of Beth. I had still been worried about that, no matter what the housemaid had said. I don’t know if no two Cinderellas are alike, like snowflakes, but these two certainly weren’t. Which left me without a lot of complicated past feelings to work through, and made it a lot easier to do my job.
But if my job was to get her to the Prince, it was going to be harder than you might expect. She wanted nothing to do with him. In fact she practically ignored me to go on haranguing the kitchen maids about the fundamental rights of the proletariat until one of them worked up the courage to tell her that she was just getting in the way. She was willing to leave, and she was even willing to leave with me, at least until she found out that I wanted to take her to the Prince. Then she balked. I managed to get her to agree to have a conversation with me in a private room, by looking as non-threatening as possible and pretending that I wanted to know what she thought about redistribution of resources. I wasn’t sure the Prince would really want to meet her anyway, but maybe he’d take it as a favor if I got her out of the way of the servants.
“You’re not a servant,” she said. “And you’re not a noble either. You’re not dressed well enough to be here for the ball,” which was probably true but more than a little rude to say to me anyway. “Who are you?”
“I’m a businessman,” I said, which was close enough. It didn’t seem like explaining the structure of a corporate sales department was worth the effort. And if I said I was a merchant she’d wonder why I wasn’t a pig. “I need to do a favor for the Prince, so that he’ll agree to do a business deal with me.”
“Isn’t that typical?” she said. “Royals and plutocrats conspiring against the common man! You’re exactly what I’m here to stop.”
Then I had another reason to be glad she wasn’t Beth, because this Cinderella was less interested in direct action. I was guarding against an attack, but she just stayed in her chair glaring at me.
“I’m not conspiring against anyone,” I said. “I just want permission to install some equipment in the castle. So people will be able to communicate better. Commoners, too.”
“And what do you want me for, if you’re not conspiring?”
“Well, what the Prince wants most of all is a wife,” I said. I thought she’d be angry, but her reaction was more baffled.
“And he wants me? Why? He’s never even met me.”
“I don’t know that he wants you, exactly,” I said. “But the narrative is set up to make him marry you. That’s why you have the fairy godmother, and the magical coach, and the glass shoes. It’s probably even why none of the other women in this kingdom can dance. You’re supposed to come to the ball, sweep the Prince off his feet, and vanish at the stroke of midnight.”
“And that will make him marry me?”
“He’ll have to hunt you down to find you. One of your shoes will fall off when you leave, and he’ll have to try it on the foot of every woman in the kingdom until he finds the one it fits.”
“That’s a weird story,” she said. “Though it is sometimes hard to keep the shoes on.”
“And then you’ll become a Princess and live happily ever after,” I said. Then I looked at her expression and added “That’s something young women are usually, you know. Expected to want.”
“Well, I don’t,” she said, and she was pretty firm about it. “I can’t go through my life ordering other people about, people who ought to have lives of their own, and not just exist to serve people they’ve been convinced are somehow their betters. I’m not anyone’s better, and definitely not because I’ve got glass shoes that don’t buckle securely. That’s ridiculous.”
“Lots of things are ridiculous that are real,” I said. “Didn’t your fairy godmother tell you to come here and dance at the ball with the Prince?”
“My fairy godmother told me that on no account was I ever to interact with the Prince.”
That was when Booker found us. He’d apparently been looking all over for me, when he was supposed to be looking all over for Cinderella, though I could hardly blame him for not having found her.
“Now he looks like a noble,” said Cinderella.
“I’m his assistant,” said Booker.
“Why does your assistant dress so much better than you?” she asked.
That was a complicated question, and one I had no idea how to answer. Fortunately, Booker noticed, and brought our actual goals back into the conversation.
“I need your help,” he said. “I found something in one of the high towers. Something worrisome.”
“Not Cinderella, though.” I said.
“I presume that’s her in the glass shoes.”
“Is there something more important than finding Cinderella?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. You should judge for yourself. In fact, both of you should come.”
Booker’s not usually a person to be coy about what he knows. If he wasn’t trying to keep Cinderella out of it, then it must be because he didn’t know how to explain what he had found. So all three of us went to look. It would have been faster without Cinderella, because those shoes weren’t any good on narrow spiral staircases, but once she had come along I could hardly disinvite her. And she was willing to go anywhere that didn’t involve the Prince. Presumably he was busy hosting his ball and wondering where we all had gotten to.
Booker led us to the top room in the castle’s highest tower, one that was so hard to get to it was clearly little-used. There was dust all over the place. Bits of elderly telescopes covered in spiderwebs might have indicated what the thing was originally built for, but after coming up all those stairs, I could understand why later generations who weren’t into astronomy would have let it go. I was thoroughly winded. Cinderella seemed to be fine in spite of the glass shoes, and Booker, though he had climbed the stairs up here twice now, still looked like he was prepared for a GQ cover shoot. That was totally unfair.
I also couldn’t figure out why he had brought us up so high, until he directed my attention upwards. The tower had a tall, conical roof, as befitted a fairy-tale castle. Tucked up underneath it was an old woman, tied up with ropes and gagged with a soft, pointy hat. Taken out of her mouth it might have had the same shape as the tower itself, and I briefly wondered if there was another, smaller fairy godmother inside of it.
Because that’s clearly what she was. She sparkled. Even staring at us mutely, pleadingly, there was still a twinkle in her eye. It seemed profoundly inappropriate, but I suppose she might not have been able to stop it. She was just round enough to be plump, just old enough to register as aunt-like, and she wore a loose and shapeless green dress from a world that had never heard of the concept of a sexy fairy godmother Halloween costume. Thankfully.
“I needed help getting her down,” said Booker.
He and I started trying to find ways to climb up into the peak of the tower. Cinderella just stayed on the floor watching us.
“Aren’t you going to help?” I said. “She’s your fairy godmother.”
“No she isn’t,” said Cinderella. “She’s nothing like my fairy godmother.”
That was unexpected. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything about Cinderella stories, but I was pretty sure that the ratio was one Cinderella story, one fairy godmother. Sleeping Beauty had three, I think, or maybe four, but Cinderella always has only the one. If this wasn’t Cinderella’s fairy godmother, where had she come from? And maybe more importantly, who had she come for? Maybe whoever had tied her up in the tower had a very good reason.
But Booker was confident that bringing her down and untying her was the right thing to do, and by this time I trusted him more than my own instincts. He was technically supposed to be my subordinate, at least for another few minutes, but over the three weeks of probation he’d shown that he was very, very good at this job. I was just glad we were on the same side.
When she got down and dusted herself off, she contradicted Cinderella right away. “Of course I’m her fairy godmother,” she said. “Who else’s fairy godmother would I be?”
“But I’ve never seen you before in my life,” said Cinderella.
“That’s because of that other young woman,” said the fairy godmother. “The one who tied me up and stole my wand.”
“Other young woman?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the godmother, looking Cinderella over. “She’s good with the wand, I see. That dress is nice, and I approve of the shoes. Have you agreed to marry the Prince yet? It can’t still be the night of the ball, I’ve been stuck up here for days.”
“I’m not here to marry the Prince,” said Cinderella. “I’m here to end his reign! To teach his subjects about the fundamental rights of man, and lead them out of subservience forever!”
“What?” said the fairy godmother.
“That’s what my real fairy godmother told me to do!” said Cinderella. “To liberate the proletariat and lead the nation into a brighter future!”
“I didn’t know you needed glass shoes for that,” said Booker aside to me.
“Maybe that’s what everyone else has been doing wrong,” I replied.
The fairy godmother was taken aback. “I’m your real fairy godmother,” she said. “The one you met is just a girl with a stolen wand, and apparently a book of political slogans.”
Cinderella set her lip, but I could tell that she was wavering. This fairy godmother had such an air of, well, fairy-godmother-ness about her that you couldn’t help but believe in her.
“What is it you think I was supposed to do?” she asked.
“You’re supposed to dance with the Prince,” said the fairy godmother. “Sweep him off his feet. Make him want to marry you. Then disappear so he has to search for you. Leave one of those shoes behind for evidence. That’s what they’re for.”
“I do like dancing,” she said.
“You’ve always liked dancing,” said the godmother. It’s the one thing that made cleaning up after your stepsisters for all those years tolerable. You could dance while you cleaned, and dance again on the clean floors afterward.”
“Yes…” said Cinderella, wavering.
“You never thought of yourself as a political leader before this week, did you?”
“You don’t have a lifelong passion for raising up the downtrodden. You don’t have conviction behind the words you’re saying. They’re just words.”
“She put this all in my head?” said Cinderella.
“She’s quite good,” said the godmother.
“But what do I do now?” whined Cinderella. I should give her a break because she’d just lost everything she thought she believed in, but without it she was whiny. That’s just how it was.
Fortunately I had an answer. “Let’s all go downstairs,” I said. “And you can dance at the ball.”
“You like dancing,” said the godmother. “If you dance you’ll be able to find yourself again.”
I don’t know if that was true or not, but Cinderella bought it. We all made our way down those long stairs, and while I certainly wasn’t in any condition to dance by the time we made it to the bottom, Cinderella still seemed fine. Booker had even contrived things, bringing the godmother down, so that I was the one with a suit full of dust and he still looked nearly immaculate. I didn’t worry about it too much, since neither of us would be dancing anyway.
Instead we stood in a corner with the fairy godmother, nursing drinks and watching as Cinderella took the dance floor, first with whatever partner she could get. Soon she established herself as the best female dancer in the room, and after that she consistently danced with the Prince. Their costumes matched perfectly, and so did their dancing, and everyone else got out of their way.
I remembered I wanted to look at the finished ice sculptures, but all of them were missing. I hadn’t noticed a hole in the decor, and if I hadn’t been there in the afternoon I would never have known there were supposed to be ice sculptures at all. But now I wondered where they had gone.
As the night got later she stopped by to ask the fairy godmother if the whole running off and losing a shoe thing was really necessary. After all we’d been through, the three of us agreed that we could let that part of the story go. I figured the Prince would be announcing their engagement before the end of the night, and we’d be able to go home with our contract in hand.
He hadn’t sealed the deal by midnight, though. When that fancy clock chimed I watched Cinderella, but her outfit didn’t turn back to rags or anything. They just kept dancing. Instead I nudged Booker. “You know what that means,” I said.
“I do?” he asked.
“It means you’re not my trainee anymore.”
“Does that mean I can go home?” he said.
“I think we can all go home,” I said. “Our work here is done, and I can come back for the contract on Monday.”
“My work isn’t done,” said the fairy godmother.
“It sure looks like she’s going to marry the Prince,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “that part seems to be done, and better for it. I’m just as glad not to have to do all that shoe-matching nonsense. But I need to find the girl who tied me up and took my place. And I need to get my wand back.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I could use some help,” she said.
I shouldn’t have asked the next question. I should have left well enough alone. I’m not here to fight identity theft, I’m here to negotiate cell phone towers. My job was done, and Booker was right that it was time to go home. But I was curious. I had to be curious.
“Well, what did she look like?” I asked. It didn’t seem like the riskiest question I’d ever come up with.
“About your height,” said the fairy godmother. “A little broader in the shoulders. Brunette, and very strong.”
And that was the point where I got a very bad feeling. The sort of bad feeling that involves Han Solo showing up in my head to tell me about it.
“Especially in the lower body?” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” said the fairy godmother. “Calves like tree trunks. I bet she could kick like a mule.”
Hell. Hell, hell, hell, hell, hell. Well, I was into this now, one way or another. I didn’t have to get Booker stuck in it, though. And if he was going home, there was one other person who ought to be involved that he could send back to me. Someone else who was as responsible as I was.
“Go on home,” I told him. “When you get back, call Angie. I don’t care if it’s after midnight. Tell her she needs to come find me.”
“How do I convince her to do that?” he asked.
“Tell her I found Beth.”
Part 13 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is The Stroke of Midnight.
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