Ian and the Missing Spindle
by Anta Baku
part 18 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
I woke up before dawn, wondering why on earth I had set my alarm for such a ridiculous hour. I must have thought it was a good idea at the time, so I begrudgingly trusted my past self, got out of bed, and started my day. I was in the shower before I remembered that my boss had forced me into a competition for a promotion, and I had thought it would be best to get an early start. If I was honest, Booker was better than me at this job, and I needed every advantage I could get.
Beth was still asleep on the couch like a sensible person, and I wish I could have left her there, but I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to take the fairy godmother’s wand and return it by myself. She was the one responsible for it, after all. So I woke her as gently as I could, and when she got out of the bathroom I shoved a breakfast bar at her and headed out the door.
It was an absolute fire of a sunrise, the sky bright orange in the east, and downtown was still deserted. There were a few dog-walkers in my neighborhood, but compared to the daytime it was remarkably empty and remarkably pleasant. I told myself I should get up this early more often, but I knew I had no real chance of following through.
Somehow in Fairyland the sun was already well above the horizon. I’m not quite sure how time zones work there. Sometimes it seems like they’re synchronized with Minneapolis, sometimes I show up two or three hours later than I expected to.
It’s never inconvenient, though. Maybe Fairyland decided to bring us to a time when everyone we wanted to see was already awake.
If you’re looking for a fairy godmother, there are two standard places to look. We’d already been to Cinderella twice, and if you know anything about mythical numerology, you’ll understand why I was reluctant to visit a third time. Anyway, the fairy godmother had given us her schedule before she sent us off to look for the wand, and she was due to come back from her vacation any time now, and take a part in Sleeping Beauty.
So that’s where we went, to a castle with little crevices all over it, tiny holes that looked like they were made for briars to grow over them, as if the architect had been given a spec that included the entire population falling asleep for a hundred years. It must have been hell to maintain while they were waiting for the curse to fall, and who knew what they’d do with it after it was broken. Maybe tear it down and build something new; who knew what architectural styles would look like in a hundred years? Things like that used to be pretty static in Fairyland, but my world was steadily ruining it, and the portal had only been open for a few months.
This kingdom was at the beginning of its story, so the castle had years to wait for its covering of overgrowth. We were here for the christening of a Princess, her godmothers’ gifts, and a dramatic curse. We were just going to let it happen, though I thought with a little luck I might be able to negotiate a lease for a cellular node high up in the tower. The main point, though, was getting the wand we’d recovered back to its proper owner.
And since this Princess was a baby, Beth probably wasn’t going to try to convince her to overthrow her kingdom and turn it over to the peasants. I admired her dedication, but it hadn’t worked out very well for her, and I hoped she was ready for something of a break from trying to inspire it in others. I even told her so.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I don’t have a home here. If I’m stuck in your world, I don’t really know what to do there either. I can’t just live on your couch and read your books forever.”
“You’re welcome as long as you like,” I said. But she was right; it wasn’t a sustainable situation. I wouldn’t have minded having her staying with me and reading my books for a while, albeit not on the couch, but I didn’t know how to actually say that. And she was a very high-energy person; it wouldn’t have satisfied her for long.
“What would I be doing, if I had been born in your world?” she asked.
“Well, you’d be in school, probably.” I wasn’t quite sure how old she was, or if that really had any meaning in Fairyland, but for various reasons I really wanted to assume she wouldn’t still be a high-schooler. “In college, learning about something. Figuring out what you wanted to do with the rest of your life.”
“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life,” said Beth. “You mean there’s a place people go just to do that?”
“Well, they’re doing other things, too,” I said. “They spend four or five years learning a lot about a single subject, and a little bit about some others. And while they do that they try to figure out what they want to do with their lives. A lot of people find romantic partners that way, too.”
“Did you do that?” she asked.
“I did, yeah,” I said.
“You don’t have a romantic partner.”
“I had a few,” I said. “They didn’t last. I’d be glad to find another one.”
She didn’t jump at that. I hadn’t really expected her to, even if part of me was fantasizing about finding an empty room of the castle while we were waiting for the christening. I tried to suppress that image, with limited success.
“What was it you learned there?” she asked. “Did you find direction in your life?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I learned a lot about how businesses work, and how money works, and when I got out I got a job working for a telecom company, and I guess I’m pretty happy with it right now. I wouldn’t ever have met you without it. And this is definitely interesting work, even if it’s getting more dangerous than I originally signed up for. But I’m not sure I’m going to want to do it forever.”
“Could I study government?” she said. “Learn how to make people understand that they don’t need Princes and Nobles running their lives?”
“Sure,” I said. “Lots of people study politics, and law, and history. I’m not sure which one would be right for you, but you could figure it out.”
“How do we do this?”
“Well, probably the first thing to do is talk to my sister,” I said.
“No, Anna. You haven’t met her yet.”
“She’s the one married to Dave?” she asked.
“No, that’s Diana. Anna’s the eldest.”
“You have sisters named Diana and Anna?”
“And Pollyanna, though don’t ever call her that,” I said. “My parents liked the sound of it. I think they would have named me Ianna but thankfully they didn’t think they could get away with it.”
She just looked nonplussed at that.
“Anyway, Anna is a professor at the University,” I said. “She’s in English literature, not political science, but I’m sure she would know the right people to talk to. And how to get you accepted even though you haven’t been to an American high school.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll talk to her. Maybe that will be something I can do.”
“We’ll figure it out when we get back home,” I said. “For now let’s get rid of this wand.”
There were seven fairy godmothers all in a room waiting for the christening to begin, but none of them was the one we were looking for. They were dressed in every color of the rainbow, and chatting and drinking mimosas.
“Of course, we do this all the time, sweetie,” said the blue one to me. “Fairy godmother’s a cushy job. All you have to do is go to parties and give gifts, it’s great.”
“Unless you get chosen to be the evil one,” said the godmother in yellow.
“Oh, well, I never do that,” said Blue. “You need to take tests and get seniority, and I’m sure the pay is better but there’s so much work to do. I’m not even Cinderella-eligible, and I’m all right with that.”
“You’ll never get ahead that way,” said Green.
“Oh, but who wants to get ahead, dear?” said Blue. “Do you want to be the head of the Fairy Godmothers’ Guild? It just looks like you’re getting a headache to me.”
“I’d like to know who she assigned to be the evil fairy this time,” said Purple. “She’s late.”
“That’s the one we’re looking for,” said Beth. “She told us she’d meet us here.”
“Well, she’d better be here soon,” said Purple. “The christening is about to begin. It won’t be much good if we don’t have a curse to lay on the baby.”
“You want there to be a curse?” I asked.
“Well, of course, darling,” said Blue. “If we only gave our good gifts and there wasn’t a curse to counterbalance them, pretty soon Princesses would be too powerful.”
“You don’t want Princesses to be powerful?” asked Beth. She sounded hopeful.
“Oh, no, dear,” said Blue. “They would completely dominate the Princes.”
“What about the people?” said Beth.
“Oh, but they’re supposed to dominate the people,” said Blue. “They’re royalty.”
“And you never give gifts to anyone who isn’t royalty?”
“Well, I don’t,” said Blue. “Like I said, I’m not Cinderella qualified. You have to be more advanced to work with the poor. It looks so tiresome.”
“I see,” said Beth.
That would have been a good time for our fairy godmother to show up, but sometimes narrative convenience doesn’t work out, even in Fairyland. I tried to salvage the conversation by asking Purple a question.
“What happens if the last fairy godmother doesn’t show up?” I said.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” she said. “Sometimes one of the rainbow girls is missing, and we just work around that. But the evil fairy is senior, she’s supposed to be responsible. They’re usually the first ones to arrive.”
“I hope she gets here soon,” I said. “We’re supposed to be giving her wand back to her.”
“You have her wand?” said Purple. “Do you think you could lay a curse on the child? I know most people aren’t very comfortable with curses, but it’s absolutely necessary that someone do it.”
“The only thing I know how to do with it is change people into hedgehogs,” said Beth.
“Well, that doesn’t help,” said Green. “How is the whole castle supposed to go to sleep for a hundred years because the Princess is a hedgehog?”
“Maybe you could change her into a very boring hedgehog,” said Yellow.
“That won’t do,” said Purple. “We’re just going to have to hope our evil fairy shows up at the last minute.”
But she didn’t. We went through the christening and the party afterwards with no sign of our fairy godmother. All the rainbow fairies gave their gifts. Even Indigo, who was supposed to wait until after the curse was laid, got tired of waiting and blessed the child. I did manage to get one useful thing done, talking the tired and overwhelmed royal parents into signing a contract to put a node in their tower. But by the end of the party we still had the wand in our possession, and the rainbow fairies hauled us back to the green room.
“This is a disaster,” said Green. “It will never work out now.”
“The Princess got all her gifts,” said Beth. “I’m sure she’ll grow up smart and strong and powerful.”
“She will, but too soon,” said Purple. “The Prince who is her destiny won’t even be born for another 73 years.”
“And that’s way too much of an age gap, darlings,” said Blue. “Not like you two.”
I could feel myself blushing, but fortunately Beth was only looking at the fairies.
Green spoke next. “This castle has to go to sleep for a hundred years,” she said. “Or everything will fall apart. The evil fairy’s curse was supposed to make that happen.”
“And now that she’s gone it can’t,” said Yellow. “We’re going to be in so much trouble.”
“They can’t blame us, dear,” said Blue. “It’s not our fault.”
“That’s not going to matter,” said Yellow. “You know the Guild leaders. They’re not kind and forgiving. It’s hard to believe they were ever fairy godmothers themselves.”
“We just need some way to put them to sleep,” said Green. “That can’t be that hard, can it?”
“I have an idea,” I said.
So we left the fairies there to extend the party to exhausting extremes, because naturally the proud parents couldn’t go to bed while the godmothers were still drinking and chatting. Between that and a newborn I hoped they would survive. I reassured myself that their baby daughter was definitely going to sleep through the night. About thirty-six thousand nights in a row.
Beth and I left that kingdom and walked to the Sandman’s domain, which was easy enough to find even though neither of us had ever been there before. Navigating through Fairyland was easier with Beth traveling with me. I wasn’t sure if that was because she was a native, or because being with Beth made everything seem easier. Except for the things that seemed a lot, lot harder.
We found the dreamsand first, dunes and dunes of it, and I wanted to just grab some and go back to Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, and all that. It was unguarded, and the Sandman seemed to have plenty of it. But Beth wouldn’t let me.
“If you take dreamsand without the Sandman’s permission, you fall asleep forever,” she said.
“I might not mind sleeping forever next to you,” I said.
“That doesn’t even make any sense,” said Beth.
Look, I feel like a huge dork telling you this. I felt like a huge dork right after saying it, believe me. I have to admit there’s a good chance the reason for this is that I am a huge dork. This whole mission was turning out to be highly embarrassing, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. If I couldn’t stop thinking about her that way I could at least stop putting my foot in my mouth about it. Except somehow I couldn’t.
It’s not a huge ego-boost to learn that you can’t even stop saying stupid things to the one person you least want to be saying stupid things to. Even when she chooses to treat it like a bafflement instead of an insult. There were a lot worse responses she could have had, and I had set myself up for every one of them. I don’t even know what she might have said that was good. It was just a bad idea all around, and it ought to have been obvious.
I wish I could say it was Fairyland affecting my brain, but I’m pretty sure it was just me.
Anyway, we went on from there without trying to steal any of the sand. Eventually we topped a dune and saw a dramatic change in the scenery. It was all still sand, but here it was sculpted, animals and model buildings, human hands and faces. There was a steam train, and in the distance a huge cargo ship that might have been a life-size thousand-foot laker. Some of these might have originated in Fairyland but it was pretty clear there was influence from my world as well. I think I even saw Jabba the Hutt.
A lot of them were half-finished, though. You could tell what they were trying to be, but rather than being clear-edged and complete they just sort of faded out where you would have expected more sculpture from a professional job. And these were definitely professional jobs in the parts that had been completed. It was strange.
In the middle of all of this was a sand castle that was clearly being fitted with a new modern wing. The old one looked a lot like the Fairyland castles I had seen, in the sort of style that would make a modern person think it was a satisfactory medieval castle, even though it wasn’t much like any real ones. The new wing looked like it might have been designed by I.M. Pei. It took all the blockiness inherent to a sand castle and made it look like a style choice. All the angles worked somehow, but they sure weren’t Castle Standard.
Inside it we found the Sandman playing with a sandblaster. I suppose it makes sense, if you’re going to make modern technology available to Fairyland, that people there are going to use it for different things than we do. But I admire the salesperson who thought outside the box enough to sell the Sandman a construction tool. They’re probably pretty pleased with themselves too, because he absolutely loved the thing. He didn’t even let us introduce ourselves before he was gushing over it.
“Do you know how many people I can put to sleep at once with this thing?” he said. “It’s revolutionary. Absolutely revolutionary.”
I’d never thought of a sandblaster as an automatic weapon before. “You’re going to aim it at people?”
“Oh yes,” said the Sandman. “Dreamsand won’t hurt anyone, no matter how fast it goes. And I can get so much area coverage with this thing!”
“It might do weird things to their sleep,” said Beth.
“Maybe, maybe,” said the Sandman. “But we’ll test it. Say, would you like to be my test subjects? You look like you could use some sleep.”
“We’re up early today,” I said. “But I think we’ll pass. We need to ask you for some dreamsand so we can put an entire kingdom to sleep for a hundred years.”
“Oh, go right ahead,” said the Sandman. “There’s plenty. Unless you’d like me to come along and try out my sandblaster?”
“I think it’s best if we do this the traditional way,” I said.
“Oh, well, all right,” he said. “A whole kingdom might have been a good test. But like I said, there’s plenty of sand for everyone, and for every approach.”
“You don’t want anything in return for it?” I asked. Usually everything in Fairyland involves some sort of a trade.
“Well, I do have one problem that I’m having a hard time with,” said the Sandman. “I keep hiring the best sand sculptors from the World of Chaos to rebuild my castle, but halfway through their sculptures, they always fall asleep. Then I have to send them home.”
“I’m not sure what we could do about that,” I said.
“Oh, me either,” said the Sandman. “Just, think about it, and if you happen to have any ideas how to keep them awake, come back and tell me what they are.”
“We’ll keep our eyes open,” I said.
“That’s just what they can’t do,” said the Sandman.
We started to leave, but Beth turned around at the last moment. “There’s something we should warn you about,” she said. “The Pig Merchant’s Guild has a new leader, and he’s trying to take over all of Fairyland.”
“I’m sure I’m safe here,” said the Sandman. “If anyone sent an invading army, they’d all fall asleep.”
“Don’t underestimate Richard,” I said. “He’ll find some way to attack you.”
“Well, if he does,” said the Sandman, “I’ll just hide out in one of my bunkers.”
I got us out of there quickly after that. Beth and I stuffed our pockets full of dreamsand, and made our way back to Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom.
“I don’t think he took the threat of the pigs seriously enough,” said Beth.
“Maybe not,” I said. “We can’t really make anyone understand. We just have to hope someone will figure it out in time to stop them.”
“If he were to take over the Sandman’s kingdom, that would be a powerful weapon to use against everyone else.”
“Yeah. And there are lots of places like that in Fairyland.”
“What do we do about it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure there’s anything we can do. Hope someone more powerful will stop them?”
“Maybe find someone more powerful to stop them.”
“Worth a shot, I guess.”
“Not the Sandman, though.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
He might not be useful against the pigs, but his sand was good enough to put Sleeping Beauty’s whole kingdom to sleep. I could send our node installation team in with the signed contract, and they wouldn’t have to worry about anyone objecting. That would put me one ahead of Booker, who probably wasn’t even awake yet.
We left the fairy godmothers awake, of course. They would move on to whatever their next job was, and not worry about this kingdom until it was time to wake it up again. They were still worried about what had happened to their missing companion, though. They were still drinking together, though with their assigned job done they had switched to scotch.
“It’s not like a senior fairy godmother to just leave all of us without a leader,” said Purple. “Something terrible must have happened to her.”
“Oh, don’t say that, dear Purple,” said Blue. “I can’t stand to think of something horrible out there happening to fairy godmothers.”
“Well, you don’t have to,” said Yellow. “You can just go about your business. Those of us who are more responsible can worry about it.”
“Oh!” said Blue, and flounced out.
“She’s such a pain.” said Green.
“Well, she’s gone now,” said Purple. “The rest of us should come up with a schedule for checking in on this kingdom. That’s usually the Bad Fairy’s responsibility, but I think we can handle it.”
“Pop in occasionally, make sure everyone’s still asleep, and pop out again?” said Green. “I think we can manage that.”
“Make sure the vines are growing, too,” said Yellow. “It wouldn’t do if we didn’t have an overgrown castle to attract the Prince.”
“We should all meet back here in a hundred years,” said Purple. “Just to make sure it all goes all right.”
“Even Blue?” said Yellow.
“I think we can do without Blue,” said Green.
So we said our goodbyes and left the caretaking of the kingdom to the fairies. We still had our fairy godmother’s wand, and now had no idea how to get it back to her. It wasn’t until we were back at the portal to the real world that Beth noticed the flaw in the fairies’ plan.
“If everyone who’s asleep stays the same for a hundred years,” she said, “when the Prince shows up, won’t the Princess still be a week-old baby?”
“I suppose she will,” I said.
“Presumably he won’t want to marry her then.”
“Maybe he’ll adopt her instead.”
“I don’t think there’s a Prince in Fairyland I would trust to be a single parent,” said Beth.
“Good point.” I said. “Besides, her parents will still be alive.”
“I wonder what they’re going to do about it?”
“Not our problem,” I said. “But the fairies have a hundred years to figure it out.”
Part 19 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is There’s a New Beth in Town.
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