Ian and the Glass Slipper
by Anta Baku
Part 1 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland
This was the first job I ever had where they sent a car for me on the first day. I guess it’s supposed to be a good sign, but I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t some new superstar coming in, or even getting a promotion, it was just a change of territory, and I’d never heard of anyone getting a car and driver for that before.
Then again I’d never heard of anyone getting a car made out of a pumpkin, either. And the driver seemed a little bit strange. But I figured he’d get me where I needed to go.
Two weeks before the pumpkin picked me up I was just one of a hundred negotiators working for your friendly mobile phone company. You know the one, it has a snappy mascot and a network almost as good as they claim it is on TV. It was my job to make that network better, and I did it pretty much like everyone else. We’d negotiate for rights to church steeples, water towers, roller coasters, anything high up. If you have something tall, we’ll give you a little bit of money to let us put a cellular node on it so people in your neighborhood get better reception on their phones.
It’s the sort of job you get if you’re in possession of both an undergraduate management degree and a total lack of ambition. I was good enough to keep it, and that was good enough for me. I figured I’d be doing the same thing, more or less, for the rest of my life.
Then the gates to Fairyland opened up. You might have heard about it. Like everything else these days, there were three days of media panic, the last two of which were mostly about trying to figure out how to exploit it for partisan politics. And then the networks picked up on something else and most people stopped paying attention. In the aftermath, scientists, and explorers, and entrepreneurs all started making their way into Fairyland to see what they could make of it.
Those are three groups who hardly ever agree on anything, but they all had the same first complaint about life in Fairyland: no cell phone service. So the company moved in, and someone had to get the brand new territory. There wasn’t a lot of competition for the job. In fact there was no competition. Nobody wanted it, including me, but when my boss made it clear the options were transfer or look for another job, I decided Fairyland was worth a shot.
There’s not really a formal government in Fairyland, but one thing they quickly found consensus on was a ban on building cell phone towers. Usually what I do just supplements the existing tower network. But this was going to be a whole new level, building out the network from scratch with only negotiated easements to work from. I was going to be responsible for whether there was a network in Fairyland at all.
No pressure. Maybe that’s why they sent the car.
It dropped me off in front of a castle, because of course it did. The walls were painted white, and the roofs were painted blue, and it shone in the sunlight as if somebody, or more likely some large number of people, had cleaned it just yesterday. It seemed like a lot of trouble, but most importantly, it was tall. Absolutely perfect spot for me to locate a node and get coverage for the surrounding countryside.
There were a couple of other pumpkin cars standing outside the door, with drivers who looked like they’d been up all night. Oh, and also they were mice. I didn’t notice that about my own driver until there were three of them, all chatting together. I had spent the last few days preparing to not bat an eye at weird things and just concentrate on getting the job done, so I only stared at them for a minute before heading into the castle.
One nice thing about Fairyland is a general lack of rigamarole. I’ve never tried to negotiate a castle easement with a Prince in the real world, since I’m from the United States, but my impression is that you have to go through appointments and interviews and a dozen levels of subordinates before you can ever talk to any sort of royalty. In Fairyland, I was escorted in to meet with the Prince before he’d even had his morning coffee. He was sitting in a big overstuffed chair in a receiving room that reminded me of my grandmother’s, overdecorated and with inadvisable plaids all over the furniture. He was just sitting there, staring at a shoe, and he didn’t invite me to sit down.
There isn’t like a Fairyland Manners Manual or anything, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to sit without being asked. I just waited patiently while he stayed focused on the shoe, and eventually a servant came in with the coffee. This one was a weasel of some sort. Maybe a stoat or a mink? Identifying weasels isn’t really my skillset. The Prince was human, I suppose I should say because I haven’t described him, or at least he looked human and wasn’t really awake until he’d had coffee, which is close enough, really.
The mink offered me coffee too, but I had stopped off at Caribou in the pumpkin because I understand needing coffee in the morning, and also I wanted to freak out a high school classmate who worked there. I put the photo of his face on my Instagram, you should check it out.
I thought the coffee would help the Prince get to the topic, but he didn’t want to talk about cell phones, he wanted to talk about shoes. To be fair, I could see why he was so interested in the shoe in front of him, even though neither of us would ever want to wear it. It was a women’s flat shoe, and would be way too small for either of us unless the Prince had incongruously tiny feet. I didn’t want to be rude by peeking.
It was made out of glass, and when I say that you probably think it’s clear and doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. But this wasn’t window glass, or tableware glass, it was art glass. The overall effect was a dark smoky grey, but there were streaks of bright blue and green running through it. It was very eye-catching. I might even have called it beautiful if it hadn’t been a shoe. My great-aunt has a collection of glass paperweights that always fascinated me as a kid, and it would have been the star of the show in her living room. If it weren’t a shoe.
The Prince handed it to me and it was surprisingly heavy. It was hard to imagine anybody actually wearing it, but that’s what he told me.
“We danced all through the night,” he said.
“In this shoe?”
“She must still have the other.”
“She must have great calves.”
“Be careful, sir,” said the Prince. “You’re talking about my future wife.”
“I’m sorry, your Highness.”
“But yes, she does have great calves.”
I quickly gathered that he thought she had great just about everything, except possibly her name, which he had never managed to get. I tried feeding him a line about if he had a cell phone they could have exchanged digits, but it didn’t go anywhere. Worth a shot.
And no, I didn’t tell him that planning to marry a girl who he’d known at one party and never found out her name or where she lived wasn’t a very good plan. I’m a cell node negotiator, not an advice columnist. Usually if a girl dances with you all night and leaves you without any way to find her, it means she’s more into dancing than she’s into you. But that was his problem.
Then he decided to make it my problem. In stories where kings give people impossible tasks, there’s never any leadup, and I always wondered how it even happened. When people want weird stuff in the regular world, they always come at it carefully and sideways in case you laugh at them. But I guess if you’re a Prince you don’t have to worry about that, because he just went right to it.
“Find me the woman who fits this shoe and you can have what you want.”
I went along with it. If I ever write a clickbait article about the ten weirdest things I ever had to do as a cell node negotiator, I wouldn’t even bother to consider shoe-matching.
This is the part where I could tell you that I searched the entire kingdom for someone who would fit the shoe, and it would sound like a lot of work, as long as I left out the part where ninety-nine percent of the Prince’s subjects were small mammals of one sort or another. There wasn’t a lot of fitting to do. Most of them didn’t even have the right shape of feet.
I wondered how the Prince wouldn’t know who the shoe belonged to from the beginning, once I figured out that there were only about forty humans in his kingdom. Half of them were male, and half of the rest were ruled out on the basis of age. But maybe he didn’t spend much time with his subjects.
Beyond that, the women of the first three houses I tried fully admitted that they had been at the previous night’s ball openly as themselves. I suppose being in the same place twice at the same time wouldn’t be beyond Fairyland, so I tried the shoe anyway, but it didn’t fit, and nobody even tried to pretend that it did. If anything, they made it extra clear that their feet were the wrong size.
The fourth house had three women of the appropriate age, and two of them were very haughty, well-dressed young ladies who both claimed they had been to the ball. Each of them tried quite hard to convince me that the shoe belonged to her. But neither one could make her feet convincing, and as I tried the shoe on I caught a glimpse of their poor, undeveloped calves.
They were both quite certain that the third young woman could not possibly have been to the ball. She was only their serving girl, and had been home all night cleaning the fireplaces. Besides, such shoes were more than she was worth, not to speak of a ball gown.
But I was running out of young ladies, and had heard that sort of thing before. I used to work primarily with churches, putting phone equipment in their bell towers and spires, and in a church if someone tells you something can’t possibly be true it pretty much always is. So I tried the shoe on her anyway.
Or rather, I tried to. This girl was having none of it. She wouldn’t let me at her feet, and after a minute of fighting over it she got up and ran out into the back yard. The other two told me to ignore her, surely one of them would do, even if the shoe didn’t quite fit. But the servant girl had kicked me pretty hard in an uncomfortable place, and I had a good idea that those were the calves I was looking for.
I limped after her into the back yard, where she was taking refuge with a middle-aged lady in a very unfortunate hot pink bedazzled outfit.
“This is my fairy godmother,” the girl shouted. “She can protect me against the Prince and she can protect me against you!”
“You don’t want to marry the Prince?” I said.
“You don’t want to marry the Prince?” said the fairy godmother. She sounded more upset about it than I was.
“No, of course I don’t want to marry the Prince,” she said. “He’s awful. He doesn’t care about the kingdom, just about sitting in his palace. And he’s a terrible dancer.”
“But Cinderella–” said the fairy godmother.
“My name is Beth.”
“OK, Beth,” she said, and I could see the script revisions dancing behind her eyes. I’ve had that expression a time or two myself in this business. “He’s rich. And powerful. You wouldn’t have to clean fireplaces ever again.”
“I’d rather clean fireplaces! I’d rather clean a thousand fireplaces than ever see him again! Even if I had liked him, he couldn’t even come himself, just sent this, this–”
“Ian,” I supplied.
“Ian, you can’t make me go! My fairy godmother made me a magic pumpkin car and a magic mouse driver and a magic dress to go to the ball, she can stop you!”
I stared at the fairy godmother, and she had the decency to look embarrassed, but she didn’t say anything. The look said it was my job to spoil it.
“Beth, everyone here has a pumpkin car and a mouse driver. There seems to be some sort of rodent-based caste system.”
“You mean they weren’t magic?”
“They were rentals,” said the fairy godmother.
“And where did the dress come from, then?”
“Nordstrom.” Beth looked confused, so the godmother went on. “It’s a store where I come from. They sell a lot of dresses.”
“I don’t think you’re a fairy godmother at all, are you?” I said.
“OK, I’m not a fairy godmother.”
“What are you then?”
“I’m a private investigator.”
“The Prince’s mother hired me to find him someone to marry. I thought she’d get caught up in the moment, and the glamor, and be glad for the move up in the world.”
“You want me to marry the Prince?” said Beth.
“I should have chosen one of your stepsisters,” said the fairy godmother.
“I don’t care what you two want, I’m not going to marry the Prince,” said Beth.
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t want you to marry the Prince. That’s her deal. I just offered to find you in exchange for putting an antenna in a high spot on the castle.”
“I was just doing it for money,” said the fairy godmother. “You’re sure you won’t? He’s rich.”
“You said that before,” I said.
“There’s nothing I can say to convince you?” said the fairy godmother.
“Never,” said Beth.
“OK, I guess I made a mess of this job. Good luck, kid. You’re not wrong about the dude.” And then she wandered off. Even though I knew she wasn’t a fairy godmother I kind of expected her to just vanish, but she had to let herself out the back gate and walk out through the alley.
Then it was just me and Beth, and she turned to me. “You really don’t want me to marry him?”
“Really I don’t.” I pulled out the glass slipper. “If nothing else, anyone who can dance all night in a pair of these deserves the right not to marry a man with two left feet.”
For the first time I saw her smile. The Prince wasn’t wrong about her, really, just aiming way above his station. “What happens if you go back and say you couldn’t find me?”
“Not much,” I said. “I have to find another way to make a deal with him. Or he’ll be mad at me and I’ll have to tell my boss I couldn’t. No big deal either way.”
“I’m sorry I kicked you,” she said.
“I have sisters,” I told her. “It’s happened before.”
“Still, I owe you something. And if the Prince doesn’t find me he’s just going to keep looking. If I go back with you and tell him no to his face, you’ve done your job, right?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I think I do, and not just for you.”
The stepsisters put up a fight, and I had to deal with it for twenty minutes while Beth cleaned up to go to the palace. I’d rather not reflect on that time, and anyway it was wiped clear from my mind when Beth came down the stairs, freshly showered, in a pair of cotton pants and a light, soft shirt, and smiled at me again. I found her incredibly attractive, and had to work to keep myself composed.
I get tongue-tied around girls I like, so I could barely talk to her on the drive back to the castle. But that turned out all right, as she was more interested in talking to the mouse driver anyway. It turned out that she had never been out of the house, except for going to the ball, so she had all sorts of questions about the mouse culture, why they all worked as servants, and whether any of them ever had other ambitions. It was interesting but way over my head. In her place I would probably have asked how the pumpkins worked.
At the palace she wasted no time making friends with the butler, who was a polecat, not a mink. The things you can find out if you just ask! We also learned a lot about the kingdom’s caste system, which was based on what kind of small mammal you are. Beth kept asking questions as we walked through the palace, but the spaces between them were getting longer.
Then the polecat escorted us in to see the Prince, whose eyes lit up when he saw us. He rose and came to embrace Beth, but she pushed him away. “Pay this man what you agreed on,” she said.
“My darling, I am so glad to see you again!” said the Prince. He tried to touch her again, and this time she backed out of the way.
“You told Ian if he found me, you would give him something,” she said. “I don’t quite understand what. But here I am. Pay what you owe.”
“There will be plenty of time for that later,” said the Prince. “First we must prepare for our wedding. You will be such a beautiful Princess, we should make you one as fast as we can manage.”
“I have no intention of marrying you,” she said.
“Your kingdom is a travesty,” said Beth. “Your people are oppressed and neglected. Your power is built on the backs of the downtrodden. And you’re a terrible dancer.”
I think he was most taken aback by the last comment, but he was a Prince, and he was determined to control the situation. “You will marry me,” he said. “I am the Prince, and you will marry me even if I have to call the guards and put you in chains. But it will be easier on you if you would try to love me.” And he tried to embrace her a third time.
This time she kicked him. She was wearing sensible shoes, not art glass, but it looked like it hurt a whole lot anyway. He lay curled up on the floor moaning while she went to a window and pulled the curtains off of their rod.
“Help me tie him up,” she told me.
I don’t think that sort of thing was in my contract, but was I going to say no to Beth? Of course not. I probably couldn’t have said no to anything she asked at that point, and not just because of the threat of kicking. She was so impressive. I just hoped she had a plan.
Once the Prince was immobilized she filled me in on her idea to free the small rodents and convert the kingdom to a more egalitarian society. Now, I come from a world where you can say that sort of thing, but actually doing it is pretty much impossible, because our entire culture might as well be made out of loose ends. Fairyland, it turns out, isn’t like that. It only took like an hour and a half. It helped that the guards we had been threatened with were a family of otters who were more than happy to dump their spears and go do something more creative.
By the time the sun was getting low in the sky, the kingdom had a new constitution, and Beth was the temporary executive until elections could be held. She used her new powers to sign the easement agreement with my company, and we set up an appointment for the installation team to come out the next week and set up our gear. I was due a hefty bonus on my first job for getting it done without the company even having to pay for it.
I couldn’t help myself, I tried to kiss her. I shouldn’t do that when I’m on the clock, and in this case I guess I shouldn’t have done it at all, because she ducked and said “don’t make me kick you again.”
I mean, really, awkward silence.
It was immensely awkward.
And then the polecat showed the fairy godmother in. Beth took him aside to explain to him that he didn’t have to do that anymore, while the fairy godmother came to talk to me.
“I talked to the Prince’s mother,” she said. “And she cut my fees, but she didn’t fire me. I’m still good as long as I can get the Prince married to somebody. That matters more to her than the kingdom.”
“You’re going to try again?”
“It’s the only way to get that Nordstrom dress onto my expense account, so you bet I am.”
So that’s how the three of us ended up back at Beth’s house at dusk, wrestling a struggling, trussed-up Prince out of the back of a car made out of a pumpkin. We left him on the doorstep and rang the bell, with the idea that the stepsisters could figure it out from there.
Beth drove us both home, which was an adventure, but she said she had to learn sometime. And it turns out pumpkins are made entirely of crumple zones. The fairy godmother told me her name was Angie, and invited me to come to dinner and meet her wife, but we both knew that was just politeness and it would never happen. In fact I wasn’t totally thrilled that she found out where I lived, when Beth dropped me off first. But doing it the other way, and riding alone with Beth, might have been embarrassing for both of us, so it was probably for the best.
I flopped down on the bed as soon as I got inside. If all days in Fairyland were like this, I was going to need more sleep, and more coffee. I’d also have to find someplace nice to display this shoe. I should call my great-aunt and ask her advice.
Part 2 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Beanstalk.
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