Dance of Gramarye
Mirabel slipped into the sheltered cove, the surf loud in her ears. With quick, sure movements, she pulled off her shoes and stood lightly balanced on bare feet. The sand was coarse underfoot, quite different from the smooth practice halls in the academy. She'd rather be there, but this bit of beach was what she had, and if she went another day without dancing she thought she would go mad. She swatted sand flies, took a calming breath of briny air, and bent her body low in the primary gramarye position.
Behind her, a surge of magic pulsed.
She turned. “Who's there?”
She saw only lichen-covered boulders and pinkish-gray sand, blue sky reflected in a tidal pool. She frowned. In all the months since she'd been summoned home, this cove had been her refuge, the one spot where she could practice uninterrupted. She didn't need spies reporting to her brother.
Nothing moved. She padded forward, drawn by the lingering pulse of magic. This was high magic, like what she practiced in gramarye, not the everyday charms of folks in the village.
Beside the tidal pool, the air shimmered. It might have been sunlight off of sea glass, but she'd been trained in the ways of gramaryans. She knelt and touched the shimmering.
“Well met, Mirabel,” a voice rumbled from inside. “Forgive my intrusion. I would like to speak with you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Enter, and learn.”
The shimmering grew to the size of a door. Colors flecked its surface—pink, yellow, turquoise. Soft colors, welcoming colors.
She leaned back, deliberating. The voice was exceptionally deep, a man's voice. Not one of her teachers, or any visiting gramaryan she'd studied under. A master, though, and a guild member, based on his skill with the shimmering.
The teachings of the academy told her she must answer this summoning, and that the master would not harm her if she did. Even more, she was desperate for magical company. Still, she must be careful. She formed a ball of damp sand, murmured a spell over it, and tucked it in her pocket. This would be her way home, should the master prove dishonorable.
She retrieved her shoes, sank her sandy feet into them, and passed through the shimmering.
She emerged onto a tiled patio at night. To her right stretched the shadowy contours of a formal garden. Somewhere in the darkness, a fountain bubbled and a night bird sang. To her left was the open door to a palace whose wings extended in either direction as far as the starlight showed. Above were towers and dark windows. Candlelight seeped out of the open door to puddle at her feet. Beyond it, in a darkened patio corner, sat the figure of a man.
She bowed, breathing deeply. Her inhale confirmed her suspicion: the air held no scents. Wherever she was, this man had not brought her to another physical location. She had stepped into a bubble of magically constructed space, and a masterful one at that. She held her bow to acknowledge it. “Well met, master.”
“Please rise,” he said, clearly embarrassed. “I didn't bring you here to fawn.”
She straightened, amused. Masters often received a dose of pompousness along with their pendants. “Why did you then?”
“I would like to see you dance.”
“It would please me very much.”
She supposed it wasn't that odd of a request for a master to make, and he'd asked politely enough. If she wanted one day to join his ranks, she would be wise to humor him.
The patio was small, but it would do. She kicked off her shoes. To her shock, the tiles were warm, as if they'd baked in afternoon sun.
“By the tides!” she blurted, the implications washing over her. “This space, it's not just gardens. You have time and weather and—your power, it must be immense.”
Her eyes were adapting to the dark. She saw him nod. He must be a very large man, for the movement seemed to shift more shadow than necessary.
“But—this means you could have opened the shimmering anywhere. You could have gotten a dancer from—from Arkandala, or a whole different world. Why me?”
She was being impertinent. She closed her mouth and waited for him to send her back to the beach.
He sat very still, while the fountain murmured and the crickets sang and she twisted her hands in her skirts. He was not like most masters, who held forth at a moment's notice. He took as much care, it seemed, with words as with this garden.
“I sympathize with you,” he said at last. “I know how lonely it can be to be separated from your colleagues.”
“You know my history?”
“I know you were called home from the academy to care for your father when he fell ill. When your absence grew too long, the academy withdrew your scholarship.”
She nodded, a knot in her chest. The memory of the severance letter still stung. It had come on her namesake day, the day she turned seventeen.
“Since then you've acted with admirable perseverance. You wrote your old masters, seeking patronage. When they could not help, you accepted an invitation to perform next month at the harvest festival in Bonmer. No doubt you hope someone there will hire you, even without a diploma.”
She swallowed. “You know a lot about me.”
He waved a large hand. “Easy enough; little else of magical interest occurs here. But tell me, what will you do if you don't win a patron? If you can't dance?”
Spoken aloud, the questions made her shudder. “I think I might die.”
“Said with such passion. Perhaps I can help you avoid that fate.”
She barely believed her ears. “You want to help me?”
“Perhaps. First I would like to see you dance.”
An audition then. She padded to the outside edge of the patio. There was no time for nerves, no time to speculate on how the next few minutes might shape her future. She allowed herself a single, quick prayer.
She bent low then arched upwards, her hands palm out in front of her. As she rose, she drew a rainbow from the floor. She spun and jumped, weaving the rainbow into knots and circles and ribbons behind her. With a twist of her wrist, the rainbow shattered and she was wreathed in water. She spun, drawing the water into a column, then drew her arms in, spinning faster, impossibly fast, the water a swirling column around her, until it, too, shattered and she ended poised on her toes, her right leg angled before her, balancing a pair of water lilies on her open palms.
The muffled clapping seemed to come from a long way away. Her body responded, even as her mind didn't want to leave movement and magic. She drew the lilies back into herself and curtsied.
“You dance with heart,” he said. After the silence of dance, she was struck anew at the deep timbre of his voice. “Your technique needs work, but that can be taught. Heart cannot. If you permit, I should like to train you. Together, we shall create such a performance that any patron with half a mind will hire you.”
She was still giddy from the performance. The world had taken on the brighter, sharper quality it got when magic swirled through her veins. She wanted to shout for joy to the highest towers. Instead she studied this man who offered her her heart's desire. Her sharper vision picked out the gleam of his eyes, the contours of his massive head. She bent to pick up her shoes, and something glittered that might be teeth. A suspicion blossomed.
“Show yourself,” she said.
The gleam of his eyes blinked out. “You might prefer that I don't.”
It was rare, the gramaryan who transformed his or her own body and who could not change back. The results tended towards monstrous. “I need to see who I'm treating with.”
“That is fair.” He rolled his chair forward.
The first impression she had was of massive bulk. Standing, he must have reached near seven feet, with shoulders as broad as a blacksmith's and arm muscles that bunched beneath his white tunic like ropes. Only his legs looked too small for his size; they were hidden beneath a brocade lap robe.
She held her ground as he creaked forward. Of that she could be proud. Then she looked into his face. She had a dizzying view of tusks jutting from his lower jaw before her gaze skipped to the white dome of his bald head. She looked back down, saw skin like scales, and her stomach rebelled. She spun away, her hands clapped over her mouth.
The spell, she thought woozily. Whatever spell he was under wouldn't let her gaze at him.
The creaking of his chair stopped. Thank goodness for that. She couldn't bear for him to come closer.
He sighed, deep as the ocean. The chair creaked again. She shrieked. She jumped away, bumping into the patio balustrade. But he was retreating. Face averted, he backed his chair into the shadows beyond the open doorway. The darkness slid like a wall between them.
It was a relief that he had retreated. She breathed through her teeth, trying to calm her stomach. The night bird was silent. Even the fountain seemed hushed. Perhaps she should return to the beach. She'd find a patron elsewhere. Somehow. It would be better, surely, than looking at him again.
“Lest you doubt my gramarye,” he said from the shadows, “this is not of my doing. I am cursed.”
She turned, curious despite herself. She looked at one wheel of his chair. “It's forbidden to curse another.”
“Now, yes. Not so when the deed was done.”
Was he teasing her? “That ban is two hundred years old. You can't have been here that long.”
“I mentioned that I'm lonely.”
“But two hundred years! You'll have gone mad.”
He shifted. Perhaps he spread his hands, questioning his mental state.
She braced herself against the balustrade, trying to decide if she believed him. He should be raving mad after two hundred years. He said he understood how it felt to be separated from colleagues, but there was nothing similar between her circumstances and his. Yet for some reason he wanted to train her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“That's not a name.”
“It's the only name left to me.”
Which struck her as sad. Surely there was more than beast in the chair. “Well then, Beast, you offer to train me. What do you want in return? Will you tell me some horrible way to break your curse?”
“Telling you is impossible, as with all good curses. No, I must ask a question instead. Would you marry me?”
“No!” She couldn't keep the horror from her voice. She was grateful for the balustrade behind her.
He sighed. “No, I shouldn't suppose so.”
She flushed, realizing how ungraciously she'd answered. “I'm already pledged, understand. I pledged myself to gramarye when I entered the academy. It's the only husband I'll ever have.”
“The guild forces you to remain unwed now?” It was his turn for horror.
“No, no.” She waved that aside. “It was my decision. Marriage would interfere with my art.”
“Hmm. Perhaps you've not met the right man.”
She glared, felt woozy, and shut her eyes. Spots danced behind her eyelids. “I'm tired of people telling me that. You won't change my mind.”
“No? I respect your devotion.”
And with that, the last tiny hope she'd nursed shriveled. She stood. “Then I must bid you good evening. I need to get back to my father.”
“Of course. But tell me. If we could come to an agreement, would you let me train you?”
She studied his chair wheel. That, at least, she could look at. “If we could agree on a price, I'd take all the help I could get.”
He barked out a laugh. “Humility is rare in a gramaryan. I like you even more.” He tapped his fingers on his chair arm. “Roses grow in the provinces, but not in this space of mine. An oversight, that. Bring me a rose for each lesson, and I will have you ready for your harvest fair.”
“That doesn't seem an equal exchange.”
“Says the woman who walks by roses every day.” He breathed on his hand and held it, glowing, out to her. “Are we agreed?”
Hundreds of roses grew in the thickets behind her father's cottage, so abundant and convenient to offer in trade. How lonely he must be, to feel the same of his time and talent.
She breathed on her palm and sealed the deal.
No matter how she scrubbed her father's cottage, it smelled of rotten fish. The odor hit her as she opened the back door. Even worse, her brother Jemes was shouting in the kitchen.
“I don't need your help. Move your hands.”
“I'm just trying—” That was Braden, her brother's friend.
She sighed, the joy from dancing at the Beast's evaporating, and stepped into the stink. She didn't dare leave her father with Jemes for long.
In the kitchen, Jemes leaned over the table. His hair was pulled back in a club, his thumbs tucked into his leather belt. He frowned at a candle as if will alone could send it airborne. Beside him, her father nibbled bread, crumbs dribbling out of the slack corner of his mouth.
Braden spied her first. She raised a finger to shush him, but too late.
“Mirabel!” Braden beamed, half-rising from his bench. “You should see this. Pete the clam-digger has this new way of levitating things, and Jemes—”
Jemes knocked the candle over. It hit the floor, jarring loose from its holder. He stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the door to his room closed.
“Well, he almost got it.” Braden shrugged, a grin still on his handsome face. Neither winter storms nor sulking friends could dim that smile.
She wished the same could be said about Jemes.
At least he'd had the sense not to light the candle. She retrieved it from the floor, noting with annoyance that it was from the practice set in her room. As she stood, she planted a kiss on her father's head.
His eyes smiled up at her. He nudged his empty glass.
“Poppa, right hand.”
He scowled but obeyed.
“Well done.” Braden beamed, and she collected both their glasses.
“You shouldn't encourage Jemes,” she said to Braden as she poured cider. “It just sets him up for more disappointment.”
“It wasn't me. You know how he latches onto ideas like a barnacle. He's been trying the Pete way all week.”
“Has it worked?”
“For lots of people.”
“But not him.”
Braden shook his head. “It bothers him, you getting all the talent in the family.”
“Jemes has lots of talent.”
“But not, you know, magic.”
She did know. Her earliest memory was of Jemes crushing the flowers she'd so proudly grown from her palm. But, rot it, it wasn't her fault she'd been gifted with magic, or that their parents had trotted her out for guests to fuss over.
She bit her lip to clear the memory. If only she had Braden’s knack for cheerfulness. “Are you staying for dinner?” she asked him.
“Thought I might.” He jerked his thumb towards the counter. “Brought you those cod.”
They looked nice. “Was the catch good?”
“Jemes got the most.”
“He usually does.”
She retrieved the knives from the cupboard and set them to gutting and deboning the fish. While they worked, she wiped up her father's crumbs and straightened his collar. She'd have to do some mending for him that evening. Then she'd sit down with her books. Surely one of them held information about breaking curses.
“And I thought,” Braden said, while she piled potatoes in a pot, “that maybe you'd want to go with me to the harvest fair.”
“What do you mean?” She set the pot on the wood stove to boil. “You'll be working. You're in charge of entertainment, remember? You booked me.”
“Not for the whole time. The third day doesn’t have many acts.”
She shook her head. With the potatoes on, she turned back to the table. “I think—” She stopped, shocked to see her father grinning and tilting his head toward Braden.
"Poppa! Since when do you want me to go out with boys?”
Braden thumped his chest. “See. I'm a good catch.”
“But—” Her father had always been so proud of her commitment to gramarye. “You know I'll never marry.”
Braden dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. “You'll change your mind.”
“Course she will,” Jemes announced. He stalked back into the kitchen and sneered at the deboning knives. “Now the academy don't want her, the only dancing she’s like to do is with a mop and broom.” He flung an apron at her. “Get used to your new dancing clothes.”
Let the anger fuel your gramarye. So a master had once said.
Mirabel focused on the knot of fury in her throat and spun faster, the top of the Beast's fountain, the upper palace windows, and the branches of the garden's trees blurring. Behind her, her cape of flame burned bluer.
“Excellent!” the Beast called from below. “Now tip your left palm out, yes, and—”
The sky darkened overhead, a swath of black amid the blue. Fireworks exploded above the garden. Blue, green, red, and yellow lights crackled against the dark.
She whooped and landed, curtsying as she would onstage. The Beast clapped. As the final firework popped overhead, he waived forward a table with a glass of watered wine.
“Well done.” That day's rose, a white bloom, sat in the buttonhole of his jacket. “Care to tell me who you were scheming to roast alive up there?”
“Jemes.” She gulped the tart, scentless wine and wiped her forehead with a towel from the table. The Beast kept the outside temperatures comfortable for training, but gramarye always worked up a sweat. “He spread a rumor that my magic started the fire in Old Man Carew's bakehouse. Half the town demanded that Braden cancel my spot at the fair.”
“You still have it, though?”
“Yes, but hardly anyone looks at me now when I walk down the street. And I found this in my shoe this morning.” She held up a nail.
She'd gotten better at looking at the Beast, if she watched for short periods from the corner of her eye. Now she saw his lips curl back over his tusks. He growled. “Did you do a tracing?”
“It was too tangled to tell who put it there. I saw Jemes, but also my father.”
“Whom do you suspect?”
She rubbed the nail between her fingers. She couldn't believe Jemes had talked her father into planting it. She just couldn't. “Jemes got the nail from Poppa and planted it.”
“Monster,” the Beast snarled. “You know how to ward your shoes, right?”
“I've warded my whole room now.”
“Good. And since Jemes is incapable of acting as a brother, he might as well serve as artistic inspiration.”
She laughed, swallowed too soon, and choked on her wine. Glory, it felt good to laugh. “Don't say such things while I'm drinking.” She wiped her eyes.
“Sorry.” The amused curl of his lips said he wasn't too sorry. “Would you care to pretend-roast Jemes some more, or shall we move on to pretend-freezing him?”
She fanned her neck. In the two weeks they'd been training, she had added a mind-boggling level of difficulty to her routine. The fire tricks in particular she would never have attempted on her own.
But she had other things on her mind. “I want you to answer a question.”
He tilted his head. “If I can.”
She had prepared her questions at home, as she puzzled over what little information was in her books about curses. She had also written to her former masters, but their responses only added to her puzzlement. “How is it that you can manipulate the garden and the air when you're cursed, but you can't change your own appearance? It doesn't make sense.”
“Ah. I wondered when you would ask.” He smoothed the lap rug over his knees. In the weeks since they'd met, he'd grown lax in his arrangement of it. Now she could see how it hung loosely where his lower legs should be. “They are two separate spells. The curse changed my appearance. But this space, this is my spell.”
She puzzled it out. “You imprisoned yourself.”
He spread his hands. “One is not welcome when one looks like a beast.”
“But the power involved, for two hundred years. How on earth...?” Her gaze fell to the lap robe. The answer slid into place. “You gave up your legs for the spell.”
“I would have been killed if I'd stayed in the world. At least now I can do magic, if not gramarye proper.”
She groped for another glass of wine and gulped it down. “Surely there was something else to use.”
He shook his massive head. “High magic requires sacrifice. This was mine.” He tapped the rose in his buttonhole. “I think it worth it, since it's kept me alive to meet you. Don't you?”
By the tides, what was she supposed to say? The seconds passed until she knew she had to respond. “Beast, I'm flattered. I hope I'm proving to be a good student.”
“I could hardly ask for better.” He peered at her.
She peered back, keeping her gaze on the rose in his buttonhole. He'd slipped up; he was asking for more than she could give. She waited for him to acknowledge it and apologize, and was irritated when he didn't.
They needed a change in topic. She set her wine glass down and sat in the chair beside him. “You’re a good teacher,” she said, emphasizing the last word. “I wasn't going to say anything until later, but I’d like you to come see me perform at the fair. You could leave this place if it's of your own making.”
He raised his hand. For a moment she thought he meant to touch her. He tucked the hand under his arm instead. “Thank you, but no.”
“There's a little shed at the back of the fairgrounds. You could watch there. No one would see you.”
“It's too risky.”
“The performance is as much yours as mine.” She leaned towards him. “Please. You deserve to be there.”
He stared at her. She caught a glimpse of his eyes, strangely milky, as if there were no soul behind them. “Are you—have you changed your mind?”
She leaned back. “About you teaching me?”
“No. About your feelings. Towards me. Does this mean you might marry me?”
She scrambled up. “No. That's not what I meant.”
“Then why in the world ask this of me?”
She sputtered. “You are my teacher. I thought you’d like to see me.”
“Then we are both fools.” He plucked the rose from his buttonhole. “You ask too much.” He jerked the chair wheels, rolling into the palace. The glass door grew dark and disappeared into the wall, leaving blank stone staring at her.
The rose lay on the tiles. He'd rolled right over it, crushing the petals.
She drew in a wobbly breath. “You're wrong.”
Maybe she'd been wrong to press him, but he'd been wrong to speak first as he had. He'd said that he respected her devotion to her art. How dare he sully that? And how dare he throw away her rose?
She turned away from the castle, and gave herself over to the fire of her art.
The evening before the fair's opening night, Mirabel walked the newly erected stage, a triangular piece of glass in her hand.
“What are you doing?” Her father leaned against one of the support beams that created the stage's back. His speech slurred, and she had to focus to understand him. So often now, he did not speak unless he was alone with family.
“Recording the layout of the stage.” She pitched her voice over the hammering and shouting of the merchants, tradesmen, and farmers setting up their stalls. The air smelled of sawdust and beer. A few nasty looks slid her way, a reminder that rumors about Old Man Carew's bakehouse still lingered. “This will let me reproduce the stage, so I can spend these last few days tailoring my routine to fit the space.”
Actually, the Beast would reproduce the stage in his garden, but she held back that bit of information. She would be performing on the final, fourth night of the fair.
Her father shook his head. “I don't understand half of what you say. How can that record the stage?”
How to explain the properties of light and magic and the greater sum of the two to a man who knew water and fish?
Before she could answer, Braden popped his head around the back of the stage. “Everything good? You sure this space is big enough?”
“It will be fine.” This was the third time he had checked on her in the last ten minutes. She turned back to her glass. “I won't be much longer.”
“Take your time. Goody Purcell and her puppets can wait.” He lingered, but when she resumed her walk, he sauntered off with his measuring stick.
Her father stuck his cane in front of her. “Why are you making that poor boy wait?”
She looked back towards Braden. “Does he need the stage?”
Her father sighed, pinching his nose. “I mean the fair. Why won't you go to the fair with him?”
“Poppa, I've said—”
“Of course you're getting married. Don't talk foolish. And Braden has done everything but lay himself on a platter to get you to notice him.”
“I wish he'd stop.”
“That's not nice. Why do you think he volunteered to do entertainment? So he could ask you to perform.”
She felt cold. “I thought you suggested I perform. I thought you wanted to see me.”
“Wasn't me. But I saw the wisdom in it.” He grinned his half grin. “It seemed a good way to give you a little push.”
“I can't believe—Have you suddenly turned matchmaker?”
“I suddenly turned old.” He tapped his lame leg with his cane. “One more fit, and I'll be fish food. I want to see you settled before I go.”
“Poppa. I'm going to be a gramaryan.”
“You're almost eighteen. Time to stop dreaming. You have to focus on a real future.”
A knot of anger coiled in her throat. She tucked the glass in her pocket, before she did something foolish with it. “Jemes told you to say that, didn't he?”
“No,” her father said, a bit too forcefully.
“Not in those words, maybe, but all of these months, he's been speaking against me.”
Her father studied her. “You resent it, don't you? Coming back? You'd rather have stayed at the academy.”
She swallowed, picking her words carefully. Her heart thudded in her chest. “I was happy there. I had good friends, and good masters, and I was good, Poppa. Really, really good.”
“So we aren't good enough for you anymore?”
She stared at him. “What happened to you? You used to support me. You were so proud when I got my scholarship. I need that now. The baron will be here, and—”
“Stop your foolishness. You had your chance. It's gone.”
She felt like she'd been slapped. Finally, she said, “Jemes—”
“Yes,” her father interrupted. “Jemes has opened my mind to a good many things that I didn't see before.”
“He hates me.”
“Be reasonable. He worries about you.”
“He's jealous of me, always has been. The only reason he pulled me out of school was to ruin my life.”
“He brought you home to help care for me!”
“All right,” she admitted. “He needed help, and I don't resent coming home. Truly, I don't. But I didn't have to stay so long. I didn't have to lose my scholarship. Jemes took advantage of you to ruin my life.”
“So your life is ruined, and it's our fault?”
Yes, she wanted to say. However unfair, that's how she felt. But she wouldn't say it to him. That was too cruel.
She swung her arm out to encompass the stage. “I have a real chance to join the baron's corps de gramaryans. I just have to perform well.”
Her father wasn't listening. “I don't know who you are anymore. It was a mistake sending you away, but Jemes and I will help you make a life here. That starts with spending time with Braden. Unless,” he narrowed his eyes, “you've got another fellow we don't know about? You've been spending a lot of time away from home lately.”
She thought of the Beast, his back as he wheeled into the palace, and her heart sank lower. They hadn't spoken of their altercation, but it loomed over her lessons like a storm brewing offshore.
“I told you. I've been practicing.”
“So no other fellow?”
“Well.” He winked. “Then we'll see about you and Braden.”
All she saw were storm clouds building.
“I have a present for you,” the Beast said three nights later. The final rehearsal was done, and light from the setting sun glinted off the palace windows. From beneath the edge of his lap robe he produced a small gray box tied with a red ribbon.
“You've given me enough already.”
“Generosity doesn't have a limit.” He held out the box. “I would like you to have this.”
She untied the ribbon and set the box lid on the table beside her. Inside, nestled in a swath of white silk, was a gramaryan's pendant necklace.
“Of course you can accept it,” he said before she could speak.
“But this is yours, isn't it? And I haven't graduated or been hired yet.”
“How does that make you not a gramaryan? You have danced with more grace and power than half the wishful charmers who dance before the queen.” He held up his hands when she made to protest. “Wear it, please, with the confidence that comes from respecting your craft. And know that though I will not be there in person, I will be watching you tomorrow.”
She slid the necklace over her head, the pendant resting against her homespun bodice. “I don't feel like a gramaryan. I still feel like a bumbling student.”
“Then you are wise. If you ever feel you have mastered your art, it is time to give up your dancing.”
“What if no one hires me? I don't want to live my life doing nothing more magical than deboning fish.” She fingered the pendant. “I know,” she rushed on, “I could teach. I could perform at the fair. I could—”
“Come dance for me.”
She straightened at the thought. A simple solution, with so many complications underneath. She rolled the idea around like a strange, spiky fruit in her mouth. “You would hire me?”
He dipped his head. “If that is the arrangement you'd prefer.”
“I don't want your money.”
“As a student then. Or a friend. Or...” He let it trail off.
She tapped the pendant against her lips, weighing his trailing off. “For how long?”
“However long you wish to stay.”
“You'd honestly want me here?”
“Oh, Beast,” she said, because he would not, “I can't marry you. I won't.
“I've accepted that,” he said slowly. “I won't ask you again.”
“I wish you could tell me how to break the curse. I've looked in all my books, and written to every master I can, and experimented on so many mice that our poor cat is looking thin. I don't know what else to do.”
He gazed over the gardens. In the light of the setting sun, he looked weary. “I did tell you.”
She bolted up. “What? When?”
“When we first met.”
“You said you couldn't.”
“I didn't, not directly.”
“I don't—” She wracked her memory. “What did you say? Tell me again.”
“Freeing me is not in your nature. You can't see the lock, though I gave you the key. No, don't fret. It would change who you are to free me, and I don't want that. Your gramarye is more important.”
“Beast, you have to tell me again!”
“I can't.” He plucked that day's rose from his buttonhole and laid it on the table beside her. “Teaching you has given me the greatest joy of my long existence. I hope your every dream comes true tomorrow. If not, and you can find it within you, I'd be honored to make a place for you here.”
He rolled into the palace, and the doors sealed behind him.
She sank back against the table. So that was it. Her instruction was over. She would leave here and dance tomorrow to win her future. A life of gramarye was within her grasp.
She had not expected to feel so miserable.
When she arrived at the fairgrounds, she had to elbow her way through the crowd. Children squealed, sellers hawked their wares, and a prize pair of oxen bellowed. The air smelled of cider and fried dough. The sun was setting over the bay, and men lit torches around the fairground edges. Onstage, Goody Purcell's puppets snickered at their own lewd joke.
Braden and Jemes, lounging behind the stage, were chortling into their tankards. Braden swallowed his laughter and shot to his feet as soon as he saw her.
“Here,” he whispered. He shoved a bouquet at her. “How do gramaryans say good luck?”
He'd picked sunflowers for her, and a single red rose. She touched its petals, wishing again the Beast would come. “Usually you kiss the back of your right hand and say to the sun.”
He grinned. He kissed the back of his right hand. “To the sun.”
“Thanks.” He seemed the only one on this side of the shimmering who truly wished her well tonight. “Are we running on schedule?”
“Remarkably, yes. You must be my good luck charm.”
Jemes was staring at her. “Are you wearing that onstage?”
She wore a gray, square-necked dress with a high waist and full skirts. Her only adornment was her gramaryan necklace, which she had tucked under her bodice. Even her shoes she would kick off before stepping onstage.
He snorted. “Not very flashy for a gramaryan.”
“Doesn't have to be. If you stay, you'll see why.”
He sniffed, but Braden grabbed his arm. “He's staying. He's been here the whole day, helping backstage.”
She raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t truly believed he’d stay.
“Like hell,” Jemes said, confirming her expectation. He spat at her feet. “I hope you die.” He stormed off.
Braden's ears turned pink. For once, he didn’t grin. She turned away, hugging the bouquet close. She didn't want his sympathy, or his pity. She wanted to perform. She wanted to move and burn and feel her power flow. Then, she could face whatever she needed to face.
“Five minutes,” Braden whispered.
That was good. She didn't want to wait any longer. She was warmed up. She had checked her single prop, a piece of coal, before coming backstage. The coal she'd stashed high in the trees bordering the stage that morning. She would need it for the finale, which she and the Beast had invented together.
“Time,” Braden said.
She whispered a simple spell to magnify whatever she did onstage so those in the back could see. Then she left her bouquet with Braden, shed her shoes, and walked onstage.
It seemed the entire village was there, plus the countryside for miles around. Face after face stared up at her. Not one in twenty had seen gramarye before, she thought. Not her father, who stood in the front, looking up half in pride, half in nervousness. Did he worry she'd do too well?
Wordlessly, she padded to the center of the stage. No introductions, no patter. That wasn't the gramaryan way.
The baron stood to one side, aloof in a velvet coat with shiny buttons. The master of the gramarye hall in Ardonnes stood beside him, chewing his mustache. He'd been in the audience once at an academy recital three years before. He'd walked out halfway through. Did he remember her? Would that influence his judgment?
Where was the Beast? Though she skimmed the audience, she could see no shimmering.
She mustn't dwell on it. She had to focus.
She bent low, striking the traditional gramaryan opening pose. With a twist of her palm, her dress turned to snow. The audience gasped. A fanning of her fingers turned her hair to ice. She lowered eyelids fringed with frost. As the audience murmured, she stood still, letting them absorb the sight of her: ice, snow, frost. She was winter, quietude, death. She was an absence of life. The quiet before creation.
Slowly, oh, so slowly, she lifted her arms. The audience inhaled, and she knew she had them. From the snow on the underside of her left wrist came a single drop of water. A promise.
She turned her wrist. The droplet broke free. Where it fell on the stage, a tiny white blossom bloomed. She reached to pluck it. Someone in the audience, a child perhaps, cried, “No.” She paused. She lifted her head. A thousand eyes looked back. She loved this moment, when the audience let go and entered her spell.
She drew her hand back. She winked. Quick as a flash, she leapt, the snow melting around her, bringing forth flowers, until she was wreathed in petals.
The audience cheered, and she wove that into her dance, flying over the stage, relishing the movement, accompanied by the rustling of leaves and the rhythm of a thousand hands clapping. A wave of her fingers brought forth birds to flit amid greenery. A tree grew against the backdrop; a fawn peered out from behind its trunk. The stage was alive, and she leapt and twisted and flew amidst it, drawing the audience along her journey.
Magic thrummed in her veins. Her gaze grew sharper. Individual faces in the audience stood out even as she soared. Her father stood transfixed. The Ardonnes master, too. He'd stopped chewing the edge of his mustache to stand gaping. Beside him, the baron watched, his face lit with the kind of joy children expressed on their namesake days.
She imagined the Beast, too, watching with joy.
She spun, raising strawberries and dandelions from the stage. Fledgling birds fluttered from the tree, only to fly high and disappear into the darkening sky. A wave of her hand, and her dress blossomed into dozens of sunflowers.
This was the cue—the grand finale, a tribute to the ripeness of summer. She vaulted into the air. High above the stage was her coal, the one prop that would transform for her into a glowing ball of fire to rival the sun.
She grabbed the coal—and pain lanced through her hand. She cried out. A fish hook was embedded in her palm.
The shock hurt almost as much as the pain. Someone had climbed the tree to sabotage her. Jemes? It must've been, although Braden had watched her position the coal. Or her father, could he have encouraged such a scheme, as he had so much else?
Her focus shattered, and she fell.
She had time to think to maintain the illusions—her dress, the stage. Those must stay. Always maintain the illusion. Perception was everything.
Only then, as the stage rushed upward and a scream sounded in the audience, did she think how she might recover herself. What might she transform into a hammock, or a bale of hay, to cushion her landing?
Arms caught her, and she was floating eight feet off the stage, shielded from the audience by shoulders wide as a blacksmith's.
“You came,” she whispered. She felt the tension in his muscles as he worked to keep them hovering over the stage.
“For a little while.” The Beast bent his head over her, his back to the audience. He smelled, unexpectedly, of good, moist earth. “You must finish the dance.”
She wondered what they looked like, if the audience thought this part of the show. She could see only Braden backstage, hands over his mouth, a look of frozen horror on his face. She focused instead on the fish hook. A whisper and a touch of her fingers, and it became a feather, which she plucked from her palm. Then the tracing, which would tell her who planted it. She breathed on the feather, and a face appeared in her mind.
“Bastard,” she whispered, and she made a choice.
She restored the feather to the hook, all sharp barbs and glistening bone. She spat on it. “Return to your owner.”
Behind the stage, Jemes screamed.
She would deal with him later. Now she had a dance to complete and a teacher to make proud. She pulled a petal from her dress. It became a bandage around her hand. She nodded to the Beast. “All right.”
“To the sun,” he said. He tossed her, and she flew. High, higher than the tree.
She grabbed the coal. It blazed. It burned. It illuminated the entire fairgrounds. She was more than a gramaryan. She was a sapling emerging from ashes, a bird with a broken wing who flies again.
She hugged the sun and brought it down to the stage, where she curtsied to thunderous applause.
Later that night, she was folding her best dress in her trunk when her father walked into her room. Braden followed and closed the door.
“Well?” she asked, hugging her sweater close around her. “How's Jemes?”
Braden answered. He looked grim in the candlelight. “The surgeon says he'll lose the eye, and he'll have a nasty scar. But he'll live.”
A knot untied inside of her. “Good,” she said, eyeing her father. He leaned against her dresser, looking stunned. “That's good.”
“You should know,” Braden said. “I didn't have anything to do with that. I would never have let him.”
“I know. There was no hint of you in the tracing.”
He stood up straighter. “Good.” He gave a tiny grin. “You come back and perform for us again, right? You had the largest crowd ever.”
“All right. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you wanted otherwise.”
“Me, too.” He kissed her once on the cheek, as a brother ought to do. Then he walked out, giving her time alone with her father.
He was looking at her trunk, packed tightly with books, clothes, and candlesticks.
“So you're leaving with the baron?” he asked.
“In the morning. He's eager to get home. My first performance will be at a dinner in two weeks.”
He closed his eyes. He seemed older than he'd been even the night before.
He'll never forgive me, she thought, like a blow to the heart.
“No, stop.” He planted his cane on the floor. “You have nothing to apologize for. I was a foolish old man. Jemes filled my head with nonsense, and I'm ashamed I let him. But your performance was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen. I'm so proud of you I could burst.”
Tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Poppa!”
He wrapped her in a hug. She squeezed back.
“Go dance for the baron,” he said in her ear. “Go with my blessing.”
“I'll make you proud. And I'll find someone good to help here in the house. And I'll visit as often as I can.”
“I know.” He gave her a final squeeze. “Now, will you see Jemes?”
She’d already decided. “It would only turn ugly, and I won't put myself through that. But I do have a final visit to make.”
The sun was rising when she met the Beast in his garden. Mist hung in the air, as if the fountain wept.
She wiped her cheeks and willed her voice steady. “Thank you. You saved my life in more ways than one.”
The mist caught the sun, glinting golden on his shoulders. “Your dream’s coming true. I'm happy for you.”
“Are you really?” She knelt and put her hands on his wrist, feeling him tremble. “This isn’t how you wanted it to end.”
“No.” He sighed. “But I am well. I will be well. Go and live your life. You will be brilliant.”
She felt something crack inside of her, which would take a long time to heal. “Is this farewell?”
Gently he pulled his arm from her grip. He held out his hand. “Fare thee well, Mirabel. Go to the sun.”
Instead of a handshake, she gave him a present. She looked at him as long as she could and handed him a tiny rose bush in a woven basket. “Plant this in front of the palace, and tend it well. I couldn't break your curse, but I could bespell this bush. As long as it's growing here, you will have your legs back.”
He gasped. “I didn't think it possible.” He cradled the bush on his knees. “I am in your debt.”
“No, dear Beast.” She caught sight, before her gaze skipped away, of tears rolling down his cheeks. “Never. Just be good to yourself. And the next time you find someone special, don't let her go easily.”
Dance of Gramarye, fiction, Issue 32, September 1, 2015
Chasing the Cortilane, fiction, Issue 34, March 1, 2016
Kathryn Yelinek lives in Pennsylvania, where she works as a librarian. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, Lorelei Signals, Tales of the Talisman, and the anthologies Love, Time, Space, Magic and Triangulation: Lost Voices.
Visit her online at www.kathrynyelinek.com.
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