The Stroke of Midnight
by Anta Baku
Part 13 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (read Part 1)
It’s also a good idea to have read Part 12, Ian and the Fairy Godmother, before this one.
The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is also available in paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited from Amazon.com.
There was going to be a second ball. Beth overheard the news in the castle hallways, just in time. She had been ready to give up, after the debacle of the first one, and had sneaked into the castle so she could untie the fairy godmother. She didn’t have a plan, yet, for how to give the wand back without being turned into something unfortunate, but she thought she would be able to figure it out. Just leaving the old woman tied up in the high tower wasn’t an option.
But now there was a second chance. Cinderella may not have managed to do any good at the first ball, but they could treat that as a rehearsal. Beth wasn’t sure the girl would be able to get through to anyone the second time, either, but it was worth a shot. If only she could be taught to be more convincing. Beth had rehearsed her a dozen times, but Cinderella still lacked something, conviction or enthusiasm or even a true understanding of the cause. She knew she was just a tool, and she acted like it. People could tell.
Beth wasn’t sure what to do about that, but there wasn’t going to be time to teach Cinderella anything new anyway. The ball was going to be tonight, and the staff preparations were already beginning. That had made it easier for Beth to get into the castle without anyone noticing her, and it made it easier for her to get back out again. The fairy godmother could stay where she was for another night. Godmothers were robust, and Beth felt sure she’d be fine.
This Cinderella’s house wasn’t very much like hers had been. Of course, this Cinderella lived in a city full of humans, not one populated mostly by small rodents. When all the houses were human houses, living in one of the poorest ones meant a lot more. Not only didn’t you have voles to look down on, but to the rest of the population you were more or less the vole.
So instead of having a lovely two-story house with a private back yard to talk to her fairy godmother in, Cinderella lived in something of a shanty, with her stepmother and stepsisters all crammed into two rooms with dirt floors and low ceilings. That seemed like it must be a particular trial for Cinderella, who was a head taller than Beth and spent most of her life stooping. It backed directly onto the city dump, which meant not only that the smell was intrusive but that there was no good place to meet with a fairy godmother, even a fake one.
Beth hadn’t realized quite how well she had things at home. Sure, her stepsisters were selfish, thoughtless, and sometimes deliberately cruel. But the house she had to clean was at least a well-built one, and she had her own room and several changes of clothes.
It had made it easy to convince this Cinderella that something had to be done about poverty. Once Beth had figured out how to talk to her without standing in the dump, anyway. Cinderella was barely allowed out of the house by herself. The first time around, Beth had managed to get her alone for a few minutes on a market day, and then arrange a longer meeting when the girl could sneak away from her family. There wasn’t time for that now.
Instead, she just went into the shack without knocking. Cinderella was there, cleaning, and one stepsister was watching her from a chair, saying nasty things. They both were startled by Beth’s sudden entrance, and the stepsister was even more startled when Beth waved the fairy godmother’s wand and turned her into a hedgehog. Or maybe it was just that hedgehogs always look startled. She ran into the corner and rolled up in a ball, and Beth didn’t think any more about her. She had to get Cinderella ready, and fast.
The girl was willing, in the way that she had always been just a little too willing. At first Beth had been extremely worried about pulling off the fake fairy godmother act, especially because she hadn’t had very much time to practice with the wand. But Cinderella filled in the gaps for her. She was willing to believe in her fairy godmother, and do whatever her fairy godmother asked her to. Beth almost remembered what that was like, before she had found out her own fairy godmother was a fake, and reacted by overthrowing her kingdom. And then being exiled from it. That wasn’t a level of trust she could identify with anymore, and while it bothered her to be taking advantage of it, she told herself she was just teaching the girl about reality.
She was also teaching her about the principles of popular government and collective ownership of the means of production. That was more direct, and she had the assistance of a couple of books she had picked up during her time in the Empire, where they were more accommodating of extreme political views than most of Fairyland’s kingdoms. Being discovered disseminating those views here could land her in prison, at least if she failed to turn the arresting officers into hedgehogs. There was probably a punishment for turning people into hedgehogs, too, but she imagined it would be difficult to enforce.
Cinderella took to the political education just as she took to the ball gowns: willingly and directly, but with no real personal relationship to the material. With the aid of the magic wand Beth could make her look stunning in silk or taffeta, but Cinderella wore it like it was homespun, without flair or panache. And Beth could hand her the precepts of popular government, but Cinderella would repeat them without passion, or any ability to adapt them to the life experience of her audience. That had ruined her efforts at the first ball, and the girl felt bad about it, but Beth wasn’t sure she would be able to do any better the second time.
Still, it was worth a try.
The wand advised a burgundy-and-silver ensemble, based on what it knew the Prince was going to be wearing that night. It hadn’t quite adjusted itself to Beth’s goals yet. But she didn’t have time to come up with another ball gown, one that would clash. It didn’t matter, she wasn’t going to see the Prince anyway. They had successfully avoided him at the first ball, and they could do so again. So she went with what the wand recommended, mostly. She tried to get it to give the girl sensible shoes, but that was one thing it wouldn’t do.
In the coach on the way to the castle, she tried to coach Cinderella further on how to talk to the servants, to convince them that they deserved control over their own lives. She thought if they concentrated on one specific job, like kitchen staff, maybe the girl would be able to get past catchphrases and into relating to people. It couldn’t be that hard to convince someone that they deserved more than a life spent peeling potatoes. And it couldn’t be that much harder to teach someone else to do the convincing.
At least, that’s what Beth thought as she was criticizing herself for not doing a better job of it. She didn’t much like the idea of showing her own face, but maybe if she and the girl went in together they could accomplish something cooperatively. That was supposed to be the whole point, after all.
So they left their coach in a field behind the castle with the others, where the footman organizing things insisted they park far off by themselves in order to keep from getting bits of pumpkin on anyone else’s coach. And they went into the castle together, through the servants’ entrance.
However, there weren’t any servants there at the moment. Instead the back hallways of the castle were filled with pigs, hauling supplies here and there, unloading from their wagons, and creating a hullabaloo that they seemed to understand but Cinderella and Beth had a hard time staying out of the way of. They eventually found a corner to stand and watch, expecting that the pigs would clear out once their deliveries were complete.
And some of them did. They weren’t the easiest people to tell apart, but Beth was able to spot when the pigs bringing in fabrics and tapestries gradually faded out and went home for the day. The pigs bringing beef, fowl, and lamb into the cold room eventually hung up their last carcasses and retired. A particularly awkward young pig who had been bearing bushels of eggplants past their observation post stopped coming past, and Beth hoped it was because he had finished, rather than getting himself into some sort of accident.
It looked to be just bakery supply pigs left in the kitchen area, but the castle servants hadn’t come back yet. Things had cleared out enough to go looking for them, and Beth led Cinderella off toward the ball room, thinking perhaps to try their act out on a setup crew before coming back to the kitchens.
There were more pigs on the way there, and different pigs. These were hairier, bulkier, and moved differently than the delivery pigs around the kitchen. They were carrying large blocks of ice into the enclosed plaza that served as a ball room, but they looked like carrying heavy objects was just a small part of their job. Each pig had two long knives at his belt, and many of them had scars on their faces and bodies. Maybe that was all part of being ice carvers, but Beth didn’t like them at all. They seemed much more alert and nervous than the pigs in the kitchen had been, even though there was more space and less chance of crashing into anyone here.
There were a few footmen in the ball room, hanging festive cloth from the supports of the pergola, and helping the ice-carrying pigs find tables to put their ice blocks on. Beth prodded Cinderella, who accosted one of them. Beth made sure she was pointed at one of the cloth-hangers, so as not to annoy the hairy, dangerous-looking pigs.
“Who do you work for, young man?” said Cinderella.
“The Prince,” said the footman. “And I’m pretty sure I’m older than you, milady.”
“And for whom do you labor?” said Cinderella.
“The Prince,” said the footman. “And I’d like to go on about it, if you don’t mind.”
“Surely you would rather labor for the benefit of yourself and your fellow workers,” said Cinderella.
“Surely I’d rather get this done before the rest of the guests get here,” said the footman. “You’re very early, milady.”
“A fighter for the proletariat must rise before the oppressive forces of the bourgeoisie!” said Cinderella.
“Er, yes, milady,” said the footman. Beth doubted he even knew what those words meant.
“We must strike while the indolence of the hereditary nobility leaves them impotent in their beds!”
“I, um, I wouldn’t know anything about that, milady. I’m just doing the decorations.”
“The strong arm of the working classes will rise with the dawn and create a new morning of prosperity and freedom!”
“Oh, I see,” said the footman. “Early bird gets the worm and all that, right?”
“Will you join me to rise up and take the kingdom for the workers?”
“Well, you see, milady, I’ve got a bunch more of these to hang yet.”
“Will you throw off the shackles of servitude and make a new world for your fellow man?”
“Um, shackles?” he said. “I’ve only really got these ties to attach the cloth to the pergola. I don’t have any shackles. I’m not even sure where I would get some. If you want shackles you’d have to ask the butler, I think.”
“You could be free of this subservient labor!”
“I’d be free of it a lot faster if you’d let me finish, milady,” he said. He looked at Beth. “Do you think maybe the two of you could move along? I’m falling behind, here.”
Beth grabbed Cinderella by the shoulder and they retired to a section where the decorative cloth had already been hung. The footman looked relieved to be rid of them.
“I didn’t do that well at all, did I?” said Cinderella.
“You made your points,” said Beth. “And you didn’t get them wrong or anything. But I don’t think you really ever communicated with the man.”
“He probably doesn’t even know what the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are,” said Cinderella.
“Yes, you might want to use smaller words next time,” said Beth. “But you also need to think about what your audience wants to hear and not just what you want to say. How would the revolution help that man?”
“It would relieve him of subservience to the Prince!”
“Yes, but what does that mean to him?” said Beth. “What does that actually look like in his life? Most people need more than raw concepts to sign on to a massive societal change. They need to know how it will help them personally.”
“But I don’t know anything about that man,” said Cinderella.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” said Beth. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
Even as she had been instructing Cinderella, Beth had been watching the big hairy pigs move about the room, adjusting where their ice sculptures were located, and consulting each other. They seemed to care a lot about their relative position, and that made Beth suspicious. If they were only to be decorations, wouldn’t they just put them where they were told?
“So how do I know what to say?” said Cinderella. “Do I just guess what it is that would matter to him about the revolution?”
This was the wrong place to try to teach an oblivious young person how to listen to other people, and definitely the wrong time. Before they could even make a good start the dance would have begun. “Yeah, I guess,” said Beth. “Why don’t you try that a few times? Look, go back to the kitchens. You’ll probably guess better about the kitchen maids than about the footmen.”
“You’re not coming with me?” said Cinderella.
“I’ll catch up,” said Beth. “There’s something else I need to do first.”
She had hoped to follow one of the hairy pigs back to their wagon, but apparently all the ice blocks that were necessary had made it into the ball room by now. The pigs had their knives out and were beginning to work on chipping away the ice, turning the blocks into sculptures. Beth watched them for a few minutes, but saw no way to determine if they were simply legitimate ice sculptors or something more. It’s not like she had a solid idea of what an ice-sculpting pig was supposed to look like. If she’d run into one pig that looked like a gangster, she probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But two dozen of them who all looked like gangsters just didn’t seem right. There had to be something going on.
She tried to remember where they had first seen the sculptor pigs entering the palace, but only knew that it was somewhere between here and the kitchens. So she had to look into every doorway in between to make sure it wasn’t where the gangster pigs had set up their headquarters. If a headquarters even existed. If the whole thing wasn’t just her imagination.
She was careful opening doors and peering into rooms, not knowing when she might run into someone who knew she didn’t belong there. But she only interrupted one conversation, an argument between a couple of pigs and a dark-skinned young man in a very fancy tuxedo. They stopped up short when Beth came in the door, and for a moment she thought she had found what she was looking for, but these were clearly bakery-supply pigs, smaller and less intimidating than the ice sculptors. They shooed her out of the room so they could resume their argument. Beth listened at the door long enough to know it was something about flour and sugar, then continued her search.
She was outside the castle walls and among the parked delivery wagons when she found the boss of the hairy pigs, and he could hardly have been anything else. He was the largest pig Beth had ever seen, and also the hairiest. His back was distinctly hunched, and he had a mane of black, bristly hair running down it, something she had never seen in a merchant pig, though of course they were always wearing clothes. This one was bare-chested, possibly because it would have been hard to find a shirt that fit him. And he had tusks, not little vestigial tusks like the merchants were so vain about decorating, but long, threatening tusks which looked like they had seen practical use.
She managed to stay behind a wagon so that he couldn’t see her. He was the most intimidating person she’d ever seen in Fairyland. If the Big Bad Wolf came down a chimney to find this pig waiting for him, he would have scrambled right back up it. For the first time Beth’s confidence in her ability to kick just about anything wavered. She didn’t even know where to start with this pig. His skin looked inches thick, and he was wearing a large leather belt that protected his more vulnerable parts.
Maybe she wouldn’t have to fight him, if she could just find out what was going on. Maybe there would be a simpler solution, or at least a less-dangerous one. There was a large, enclosed wagon that he seemed to be guarding, or at least standing outside. She worked her way back out of sight of the intimidating pig, and then around through the parked wagons, trying to make her way to the one that looked to be his. Most of the rest of the wagons were open, and there were normal pigs coming out to them and starting to drive them away, so it was hard for Beth to stay under cover. But eventually she made it to the front of the enclosed wagon, and she didn’t think she’d been seen.
While it was built up with wood slats on the side and top of the cargo area, it wasn’t very well-sealed. Beth had options of where to look and listen through the sides of the wagon, and none of them seemed to have much risk of being noticed from inside. She found a good place to look, and found that the large pig had made his way inside the wagon, where he was talking to a smaller one. The smaller pig looked more like a regular merchant, not as hairy and tusky as the other ice sculptors, but it was working around the one block of ice that was still left in the wagon.
“I just can’t get the timer to work,” said the small pig.
“We can’t do without it,” said the large pig in a very deep voice.
“I know,” said the smaller one. “If it goes off before midnight, they might figure out what’s happening. And if it goes off after midnight it might be after the boars are out of the wagon.”
“The rest of them would do the job, though,” said the large pig.
“They would, but they need to be done before you all attack,” said the smaller pig. “The magic works the same on everyone.”
“So if one goes off when we’re in the castle, what happens?”
“The same thing as all the others,” said the smaller pig. “When they all go off at midnight, the castle guard won’t take orders from the Prince anymore. Neither will the nobles, if any of them have come to the ball armed. They’ll be completely disorganized and you’ll be able to take the castle easily.”
“Right,” said the big pig.
“But you need to stay out of the castle while it’s happening, because the same thing would happen to you and the boars. That’s why you’re all going to be here until the effect wears off. Otherwise they wouldn’t take your orders either, and who knows what would happen.”
“I could just duel the Prince personally,” said the big pig. “He can’t beat me.”
“Maybe not,” said the small pig. “But why risk it? And could you take and hold the rest of the castle by yourself? We’re supposed to take the kingdom, not just beat up the Prince.”
“So we have to be here until they all go off,” said the large pig.
“Exactly,” said the smaller one. “And if there’s one in there with a timer that doesn’t work, who knows when it would go off?”
“So we leave it here,” said the big pig. “Turn it off. We’ve got plenty in there already, and we’re running out of time to sculpt them.”
In fact at that point they were interrupted by the first of the sculptors coming back to the wagon. It sounded like the rest of them were nearly finished as well, and Beth backed away from the wagon. If there were going to be two dozen pigs here any minute, one of them would surely notice her eavesdropping. She had to find a safer place to think about what she had overheard.
It was getting dark as Beth moved away from the wagon, which made it easier to stay unseen by the ice sculptors, even though most of the wagons of the other merchant pigs were either gone or making their way out of the parking area. Crossing the gap back to the castle wasn’t going to be easy, but Beth wasn’t sure she needed to do that right away. She remembered where the ice sculptures in the ball room had been, and as long as they hadn’t been moved, she could use the wand to send them anywhere she wanted. She just had to figure out where that would be.
As she walked back towards the town, she thought about what she’d overheard. The pigs had some sort of magic in their ice sculptures, and it was set for the stroke of midnight. If she’d understood right, anyone around them would have their willingness to be subject to authority removed, and while the pigs might want it to neutralize the castle guards while they attempted a coup, Beth thought that might just be useful somewhere else. The Prince’s power, after all, wasn’t in the military capabilities of the castle guard, but in the people’s willingness to do what he told them. In the normal course of things the guard could stop a couple dozen pigs, even tough ones like the ice sculptors. But they couldn’t stop a few thousand citizens, all rising up together.
She had an opportunity to change things in this kingdom, one much better than getting Cinderella to convince people one at a time. And she was going to take it.
Finding the right places in town to put the ice sculptures so they would have maximum impact took a lot of time. She had to work her way through the squares and tenements one by one, trying to find the perfect place to put an ice sculpture in each. And that was made harder by the fact that she had no way to know the range of any of them. Fortunately these were a people who liked to stay up late, drinking in sidewalk cafes or watching street performers. The life of this town started late in the morning and went well past midnight, so she could count on many wakeful citizens when the proper moment came. The ice sculptures wouldn’t last very long in the warmth, but they didn’t have to.
The fairy godmother’s wand worked just fine for the task, and by a little after eleven she had moved all but two sculptures out of the ball room and into key locations in the town. There were a few more places she could have put one, but the coverage should be good the way it was, and she thought it was probably a good idea to do something about those pigs. There was still time to make it back to the castle by midnight, or at least to the place the wagons were parked.
She got there with ten minutes to spare, and a need to hurry. It might not be the worst thing in the world if those last two ice sculptures stayed where they were, but she was more worried about the pigs foiling her plan than the nobles and the castle guard. These nobles were just like the ones in her own kingdom. They had never faced opposition, and Beth was pretty sure they would crumble the moment they met any. But the ice sculptors looked like they had been in a brawl or two in their time, and it would be better to get them out of the way.
The loading and unloading area was quiet, and the big enclosed wagon of the hairy pigs was the only one left, standing on its own in the middle of the field. They must all be jammed into the wagon, laying low until it was time to make their attack. Beth took the direct approach, because there wasn’t time for anything else, and just hoped she wasn’t spotted. She made it to the side of the wagon without causing any commotion inside, and peered in, looking for a place she could put the ice sculptures.
It was jammed full of pigs, and at first it didn’t look like there was room to get a paperweight in there, much less two large ice sculptures. She’d left the smallest ones for this purpose, but they were still half the size of a person. Maybe only a third the size of the pigs, but even so, it wasn’t going to be easy to get them in, much less in a place they wouldn’t notice. She almost thought it wouldn’t be necessary, because they were packed together so closely they must have suffocated themselves inside the wagon. But there was enough movement to make it clear that they were still breathing.
She looked closer, and there was one spot that wasn’t full of pigs, because they would have a hard time even getting up there. On the top of the wagon there was a little area that overhung the driver’s seat, just a little bit of extra space to store something you wouldn’t need to get at in a hurry. You’d need the wagon to be empty to get anything in or out of it, and even then you’d probably need a stepladder. And while Beth could probably have curled up in there, it wasn’t big enough for a pig.
She wasn’t sure the sculptures would fit, but there couldn’t be more than a couple of minutes left until midnight. She was on the wrong side of the wagon to see the castle clock, but she expected it to start chiming any moment. So she waved the wand and moved the last sculptures out of the ball room.
She should have thought to turn them on their sides as they came into the wagon, if she could even have gotten the wand to do that. They were a little bit too tall for the crawlspace, and came in with a thumping and crashing sound. Beth backed away from the wagon, hoping that the pigs wouldn’t figure out what had happened until midnight had come and it was too late.
It was very close. The clock began to sound its midnight chime just as the door to the wagon opened and the very large pig climbed out. The rest of them were all jumbled up together and got in each other’s way, but the leader had been ready to exit and now only had eyes for Beth.
They were beady little eyes, but aggressive, and he moved much faster than she had expected anyone that bulky to be able to move. He was on her before she could even aim the wand at him, and all she could do was reflexively dodge out of the place where his colossal momentum was aimed. He bowled her over but that small move was enough that he couldn’t stay where she was, but went right on past and had to turn around. She stood back up hoping to use the wand on him while he recovered, but the wand was gone and he was charging again.
Beth feinted towards the castle, and the big pig bought it hard, building up speed as he came towards her. So when she lit out as fast as she could for the town, he ended up heading the wrong direction again. She just hoped she could get enough of a head start, because outrunning him wasn’t going to be easy.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to. When he saw that she was running headlong away from the castle, he stopped chasing her and went back to the wagon to collect his troops, who were still untangling themselves inside. Just before he got there the clock struck midnight.
They couldn’t have disarmed the ice sculptures in time, even if they figured out what she had done, so Beth figured the big pig would have more important things on his mind than chasing her. But she couldn’t stay to watch. She had things to do in the town.
The working people of the kingdom had been cowed by the threats of authority, and when it was removed they were excited to rise up and take governance for themselves. At least, that was what the books Beth found in the Empire had convinced her to expect. Reality was not quite so convenient. It turned out that the people who had wanted to spend their evening having a beer with their friends, once the authority of the nobility was removed, discovered a strong desire to have a beer with their friends. Most of the squares still had concerts going on, and the audiences looked pretty happy to stay there, though some of the bands seemed to be experiencing unexpected conflict between their members.
There were other little signs of change as well. Beth spotted a pair of town guards who had snuck off to do something that definitely wasn’t allowed on duty. In some of the sidewalk cafes the customers were having to go inside to get their own beer. The streets were more full of children than they would usually be at this time of night, and also mothers chasing after them trying to get them to go back to bed. But this was hardly the dawn of a proletarian utopia.
Beth stopped at a few cafes and tried to convince people to march on the castle with her, but they weren’t any more interested in her authority than anyone else’s. At least that’s what she told herself, but deep down she suspected she just wasn’t very convincing. After all, no one had listened to her before the ice sculptures either.
She was sure that she had the answer to a better life for these people, if only they would listen. But she was becoming just as sure that she would never be able to reach them. She wouldn’t have tried fairy godmother magic in the first place if talking to people had worked. And fairy godmother magic had gotten her nowhere, just as much as evil pig magic had. She wasn’t going to give up, but, well… maybe for the moment she was going to give up. She couldn’t think of anything else to do. And someone had to untie the fairy godmother sometime. Beth regretted not doing it when she could still give her wand back to her. She was probably going to be in even bigger trouble now.
After that she’d go somewhere else, even though she didn’t know where, and she’d try something else, even though she didn’t know what. There had to be some way, somewhere, to make people do what was best for them. But it wasn’t going to be here, and Beth should do what she could to erase all the changes she’d made here. The first thing was to find Cinderella, and see if she couldn’t come up with something for the girl to do besides haranguing indifferent servants about the fundamental rights of man. This was hard enough on Beth, and she felt bad for inflicting it on someone else. If nothing else there were a lot of cafes in town that were going to need new waitresses.
But when she got back to the castle she saw that Cinderella had managed the situation for herself. She wasn’t in the kitchen discoursing on political theory with the scullery maids. Instead she was in the ball room, dancing with the Prince while all the nobility of the country looked on. It seemed like Beth wasn’t needed here after all, even if she still suspected the girl would be better off as a waitress.
At least she could release the fairy godmother from her prison in the highest tower. Beth hadn’t worried too much about her, because fairy godmothers were tough. At least hers had been tough, but then again, hers hadn’t been a real fairy godmother either. Maybe she should have thought that through a little more. The higher she got up the tower stairs, the more she dreaded what she might find.
What she didn’t expect was that the fairy godmother would be gone completely. The ropes were still there, but the plump old woman was conspicuously absent. Had she found a way to magic herself out of the ropes? Had someone else let her go? Either way, why hadn’t she come looking for revenge on Beth? Maybe her first priority had been Cinderella, and now that the girl’s future had been assured, she would have time to turn to hunting down her captor.
Finding the right place to go to start the revolution suddenly became a lot less important. The key was to get out of here, as fast and as quiet as possible, and try to find somewhere that a fairy godmother wouldn’t be able to track her down. Because she wasn’t likely to take Beth’s actions lightly. Beth wasn’t sure what a fairy godmother could do without a wand, but she didn’t want to find out. She made her way down the narrow spiral stairs as fast as she dared.
At the bottom she ran headlong into a man about her size, and they ended up tumbling to the floor together. He wasn’t dressed like a noble or a servant, and Beth tried to figure out what was going on at the same time as they were both trying to separate themselves and stand back up. Someone offered her a hand, and she took it to raise herself from the floor before discovering that it was the hand of the fairy godmother. Next to her there was another woman helping the man she had run into to his feet, and she thought they both looked familiar, but right now she had to pay attention to the woman she had tied up in the tower. There was no avoiding her revenge now. Beth was probably a faster runner than any of the three, but now that the godmother knew where she was, fast feet were probably not going to be helpful. Maybe throwing herself on the godmother’s mercy would be better.
Strangely, nothing happened to her immediately. If the fairy godmother had been entertaining fantasies of turning Beth into a spider, one would think she would have done it right away. And if she hadn’t been entertaining fantasies of turning Beth into a spider, Beth didn’t know how to predict what she was thinking. That’s certainly what Beth would have been doing in her place.
“Are you all right?” said the godmother. “We didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Yet?” said Beth.
“What do you mean, yet?”
“You only mean to hurt me later.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you at all,” said the godmother. “I’m a fairy godmother, not a torturer.”
“You have to be pretty mad at me,” said Beth. “And I definitely deserve it. So tell me what you’re going to do to me and get it over with.”
“Well,” said the godmother. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I didn’t like being tied up in the tower, but punishing you wouldn’t help anything. You seem to already know it was a bad thing to do.”
“I, yes, I do,” said Beth. “I had good reasons, or at least I thought I had good reasons. They don’t look so good now. Nothing worked out at all, and it was all a waste. I’m sorry I tied you up. I’m sorry I came here at all.”
“All right, then,” said the godmother. “I’ll accept your apology as soon as you give me back my wand.”
For a brief moment Beth had thought she might actually get out of this without much more damage than she had done to herself. But of course the fairy godmother would want her wand back, and Beth couldn’t do that. “I lost it,” she said. “I’m sorry. It was taken by a giant pig.”
“Well,” said the godmother again, but the pause afterward was longer this time. Eventually she said “I think it would be appropriate for you to get it back for me.” Beth wondered if that was the sort of sentence that passed for anger in fairy godmothers.
In any case, she had had just about as much as she could handle. “I can’t,” she said, trying not to break down. “He’s huge and strong and mean and I can’t do any magic without the wand and there’s just no way I can get it back.” She wanted to stop there, but her mouth just kept going. “I couldn’t run my kingdom and I couldn’t make the Emperor keep his clothes on and I couldn’t marry the frog prince and I just can’t do anything right. I’m sorry, I can’t get your wand, I can’t do anything, I don’t know what to do.”
The fairy godmother was taken aback, and it was the other woman who stepped in and put an arm around Beth’s shoulders. “It’s all right,” she said. “We’ll help you get it back. Even a giant pig can’t beat all four of us.”
Beth recognized the voice, but couldn’t place it right away. It wasn’t until she looked the woman in the face that she realized who was talking to her. It was the one who had started all of this by pretending to be her fairy godmother in order to set her up with an odious Prince. And the one who had convinced the Emperor to go out among his people without any clothes on. Beth couldn’t remember her name, but she definitely wasn’t trustworthy, and Beth almost pushed her away before she reconsidered. After all, she wasn’t in a position to turn down any help at all, no matter how untrustworthy. The fairy godmother was being nice now, but if she didn’t get her wand back who knew what she would do?
The man she had run into was standing back with his hands in his pockets, trying not to look at her in embarrassment over her outburst. She realized that she knew him, too. He was the one who had gotten in the way of everything in her own kingdom, and made the whole thing spiral out of control. Which did at least keep her from having to marry the Prince, but he was the reason she was now spending her life bouncing from one place she didn’t belong to another.
But he might be useful against the pig, somehow. He wasn’t big and strong but maybe he had some other qualities. After all, he was from the World of Chaos, and who knew what he could do? She took a deep breath and resolved herself to working with them, at least for a little while.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I don’t remember your names.”
“I’m Angie,” said the woman. And then when the man seemed unable to open his mouth, she added “and he’s Ian.”
On the way to the delivery area they braced themselves for fighting the giant pig boss. Nobody had much of a plan. They just figured that there were four of them and one of him, and they’d be able to use that to their advantage. By the time they got there Ian had gotten over his weird inability to talk to her, though he still looked at her strangely.
But in the end it didn’t matter, because the enclosed wagon had vanished, and all of the pigs with it. With their ice sculpture plan in shards, the pig boss had gathered up his disobedient soldiers and abandoned the plan to take over the castle. And none of the four of them had any idea where the pigs would have gone.
“You,” said the fairy godmother, pointing at Beth, “owe me a magic wand.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Beth, not knowing what else to say.
“At least I don’t need it right now,” said the Godmother. “Thanks to your friends here Cinderella is going to marry the Prince, and I get to go on vacation.”
“But I worked so hard to get her not to marry the Prince,” said Cinderella. “I wanted her to reject hereditary authority and side with the workers.”
“Why?” said Ian.
“Because of the inherent evil of the monarchy, and the true quality of the working class,” said Beth. “If they had a leader they could rise up and overthrow him.” She thought about it a moment and added “I think. It didn’t quite work out that way.”
“This Prince seems perfectly nice to me,” said Ian. “Just cause he’s a monarch doesn’t mean you have to treat him like he’s Hitler.”
“Who’s Hitler?” asked Beth.
“A dictator from my world,” said Ian. “He murdered millions of people, and started a giant war. His name is a byword for evil. This guy may not be Prince Charming but he’s Prince fine enough I guess. And Cinderella seems to like him.”
“Besides, we know he’s not Hitler,” said Angie.
“Why’s that?” said Ian.
“Because the Prince has had two balls.”
Ian gave her a long, silent, pained look over that. Beth didn’t understand what was going on, so she went back to the original question.
“I still don’t think it’s right for her to marry him just because the story expects it.”
“Is it right for her to become a revolutionary leader just because you expect it?” asked Ian. “That didn’t even work out well for you.”
“That’s why I want her to do better.”
“She has to do what she wants,” said Angie. “Or she’ll always be unhappy.”
“And what about what I want?” said Beth. “There’s nowhere here I belong. They kicked me out of my own kingdom, and I can’t even go back anymore. When I tried I ended up here instead. I’ve been all over Fairyland and it’s all kingdoms and empires and things. There’s nowhere for a common woman to make a difference.”
“You were almost a Princess yourself, once,” said Ian.
“Before you came along.”
“We do have some responsibility for that,” said Angie.
“Some responsibility?” said Beth. “You’re the last person who should be criticizing me for pretending to be a fairy godmother.”
“Why’s that?” said the fairy godmother.
“She pretended to be mine,” said Beth. “That’s how this whole thing started. If you hadn’t done that I’d still be in my own kingdom.”
“And married to that nasty Prince,” said Ian.
“Well, all right, it’s not entirely bad,” said Beth. “But it’s still your fault.”
“She has a point,” said Angie. “She wouldn’t have this problem if not for us.”
“She’d have different problems,” said Ian.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility for this one,” said Angie. “Besides, it sounds like all she really wants is to go somewhere without nobility, where all of the people are equal.”
“That sounds wonderful,” said Beth.
“Well, we can take you to one easily,” said Angie.
“We can?” said Ian. “Everywhere I’ve been in Fairyland is under some sort of hereditary authority. Where were you thinking of taking her?”
“Not in Fairyland,” said Angie.
“Oh,” said Ian, nonplussed.
“She can come,” said Angie. “Remember when she drove us home before?”
“You want me to go into your world?” said Beth. “Into the World of Chaos?”
“The World of Chaos?” said Ian.
“I don’t know that it’s what I want,” said Angie. “But we don’t have kings and princes and emperors in our country, at least. It’s worth a try.”
“You say it’s somewhere everyone is equal?” said Beth.
“That’s one of the founding principles of our nation,” said Angie.
“We still need a lot of work before we’re any good at it, though,” said Ian.
“That’s all right,” said Beth. “It will give me something to do.”
Part 14 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Shape of Change.
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