“Just a minute!” Gwendolyn called as she groggily pulled a silk nightgown over her head. The wave of cold as her bare feet touched her wooden floor washed the cobwebs out of her mind. Though an unpleasant sensation, the frigid floor was sufficient motivation for Gwendolyn to prance quickly across her home, the size of which she was regretting for the first time in her life.
As she passed through the main room, she stepped into her pink, fuzzy slippers without missing a beat, striding directly past her door. Four sharp knocks echoed through the house.
“Just a minute!” she repeated. “I just have to get…decent.”
“Ms. Bottlehelm, we just need to ask you a few questions.”
Gwendolyn arrived at last in her dressing room, which was on the opposite end of her house because her Life-Wellness Coach, a psychic eagle named Sharpwind, insisted the walk would help her wake up in the morning. The room contained a few wardrobes, each made of a different, expensive kind of wood (Cerulean, mahogany, and Blackwood, which was used in the construction of coffins many years ago and which Gwendolyn acquired by paying a mute, illiterate graverobber – the perfect crime). At the center of the room was a large vanity. Five wigs awaited her there, sitting on mannequin heads painstakingly created in Gwendolyn’s image.
She went with her usual. Short, curly, blonde, beautiful.
“May I help you?” Gwendolyn asked, opening her front door just before the two guards outside knocked for the third time.
“Sorry to disturb you so early, Ms. Bottlehelm,” one began.
“Gwendolyn,” she said.
“Yes, sorry to disturb you, Gwendolyn. Especially for such a…macabre occasion…”
“We need you to identify a body,” the other guard said.
Gwendolyn stared at each of them blankly for a long moment. “Oh,” she finally said. “May I get dressed first?”
“No!” her father replied. “We’re not going to be late so you can play dress up!”
“It’s not dress up!” Gwendolyn said. “I’m not going looking like this.”
The door to her room slammed open and she yelped. Her father towered there, flared and snarling. “You will listen to me,” he barked. Gwendolyn recoiled. He never hit her and he never would, but that was easy to forget when he got like this. “You’re thirteen, Gunther. It’s time to stop playing pretend.”
“My name is Gwendolyn,” she said, but already she was deflating. Her voice softened with impotence and fear.
“No, it isn’t,” he said, grabbing the ugly, homemade dress in Gwendolyn’s hands. She tried to resist him as he yanked it away, but to no avail. “This is going in the trash, and you will stop this foppery at once. Does your mother allow you to indulge these fantasies?”
Gwendolyn just stared, jaw set. She wanted to say that they weren’t fantasies. She wanted to say that her dad was a cruel monster. She wanted to ask why he didn’t believe her no matter how much she pleaded. But Gwendolyn just stared, jaw set, and watched him leave.
“The next time I see you, be dressed.”
A minute later, Gwendolyn stared at herself in the mirror. Blonde hair flat and uninteresting. Face boyish and fat. Abdomen curveless, alien, and uncertain.
It was abhorrent to look upon.
“Frosty damnation…what happened to him?” Gwendolyn asked, her face powder-white. In her white, ruffled top and smoky skirt, she must’ve looked ghostly in the morning’s grey light.
“You can confirm this is Cas Dol Peters?” one of the guards asked. There were five of them, milling about Dal Mo Café, investigating.
The half-elf’s body was on the floor in the otherwise untouched café. His body looked like it had lost twenty pounds and been left in a snowstorm overnight. Frost-bitten skin clung to veins that had frozen beneath his face, which was locked in a rigid, stupefied expression. If not for his long, braided hair, Gwendolyn might not have recognized him.
“The café owner found him like this this morning. The cause of death is…uncertain.”
“Must be that new guy,” another guard said. She looked both angry and assured. “Comes around and opens a magic shop, now weird magic stuff is killing people? Can’t be a coincidence.”
Gwendolyn wrinkled her nose and looked away. “Mister…guard”
“Yes. Doesn’t Cas have any family? Why me?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Orphan. Pless – the owner – said she thought he was an actor so…you were the first person who came to mind for verification.”
Gwendolyn nodded. “How awful. I just saw him last night, during rehearsal.”
The dwarf gestured to who appeared to be his assistant. They took out a paper and quill and began taking notes. “Any idea who would do this?”
She shook her head. “No. He was very…friendly. Quiet. Didn’t have much of a relationship with anyone, to be honest. But, you never can know people, can you?”
“Maybe not,” Drungan said. “But since you worked with him often, do you mind if we ask you a few more questions?”
“Shoot,” Gwendolyn’s father said. It was an overcast day in Skymoore, and he and Gwen were walking through the Sunlit Market, where people of all stripes came to sell their wares, be they food or clothes or toys. Gwendolyn’s father had bought her a caramel apple which grew from the hair of Sharla Darkholm, a local wealthy dryad. It was delicious.
“Why don’t you love mom?”
The question stopped her father in his tracks. “Where did that come from?” Gwen shrugged. “Well…it’s not so simple. We were together for a long time, happily, and then one day she just…changed. Or maybe I never really knew her. Or maybe you can never really know anyone the way you know yourself. You’re too young to understand all of it. I still love her, it’s just…hey, it all worked out, right? You spend the winters where it’s snowy and the summers up here with the best view of Sol anywhere in the world. What more could you want?”
Gwen chewed her apple with her mouth as she chewed her father’s words with her mind. After they’d walked all the way through the market, she worked up the courage to respond. “If you can never know anyone, how come you get to say who I am?”
She flinched when he put his hands on her shoulder. “Look Gunther, I don’t want to talk about that today, okay? I’m very sorry for the other day. I just lost my temper…you know how it is. Today is all about making up for that, alright?”
Gwendolyn forced a smile and nodded. “When will I find out where we’re going?”
“Well, it was supposed to be a secret, but if you must know…no, no, I could never tell.”
Now Gwen actually smiled. He always played this game with her when she was younger. It was stupid, but it made him laugh, so she played along. “Come on, tell me. Pleeeease?”
He shut his mouth tightly and looked away dramatically. Gwen tugged at his sleeve. “Alright, fine, fine. If you’re gonna torture it out of me, I’m taking you to a seamstress. If you’re going to wear a dress, it’s not going to be those rags you put together.”
Now, Gwen beamed. “Really?” He nodded. She threw her arms around him, getting some caramel stuck to the back of his shirt. “Dad, thank you so much. I will never ask for anything as long as I live. Thank you thank you thank you.”
Her father just smiled.
Their walk went on for some time, taking them through the shopping district and the government district and, much to Gwen’s surprise, all the way into the Mish Mash. Gwen stayed very close to her father here.
“Where’s this seamstress?” Gwen asked.
“We’re close. I know this neighborhood doesn’t have the best reputation, but you’d be surprised what you can find. Who you can find.”
Knowing full well that her father would never hurt her, Gwendolyn nodded.
“It’s just through here,” he said, opening a wooden gate leading into a narrow alley. Some rough-looking half-elves and dwarves loitered near the end of it, but they didn’t pay them any attention. “Priscilla operates out of her home. After you.”
The gate closed behind Gwendolyn with a sinister chunk and the clicking of a lock. One of the dwarves began approaching her slowly, not hiding its ill intent. Gwendolyn’s mind raced with fear and confusion as she turned to look at the gate. “Dad? Hello?” she asked nervously.
When her father replied, Gwen almost didn’t recognize his voice. “This man is going to attack you, Gunther. He won’t kill you, but he will hurt you, until you fight back.”
A sickening chill rippled through her. “What? I don’t understand. Let me out.”
“The world is not a place of fantasy and dalliance, son. Not even on Skymoore.” Gwendolyn began pulling frantically at the gate, but it remained closed. “For each of us there comes a day when we see the world for what it really is. Pain. Misfortunate. Chaos. Today is your day. You can fight through it, son. We all can. But these fantasies, they will only hurt you. You have to be a man if you’re going to survive.”
“Dad, this is stupid. This is crazy. Open the gate. Please!” Footsteps drew near. Gwendolyn started to cry.
“Tears don’t do any of us any good. This is the day you discover who you really are. You’ll thank me later. See you at dinner, Gunther.”
“My name is Gwendolyn!” she cried, but she was met only with silence. Silence, and the sound of an imposing dwarf approaching. Her mind racing with confusion, her throat filled with a building scream, Gwendolyn turned, and faced her horror.
The cast and crew of “The Red Moon’s Shadow” stared up at Gwendolyn, who stood on the stage of their middle-sized theater. Some of them had come in looking somber, one or two cried silently as she broke the news, and others looked only uncomfortable, as they didn’t know Cas very well. Delia Findlesmith was beside herself, something Gwendolyn would have thought impossible.
Gwen didn’t know what else to say. She could write a speech explaining what a loss this was and perform it with such passion that everyone felt it in their stomachs, but comforting them after? That wasn’t an area of Gwendolyn’s expertise.
Fortunately one of the stage hands, a halfling named Karessa Plunderton, broke the silence. “I hate to even bring this up,” she said. “But when are we gonna do the premiere?”
The silence returned for a moment, and it was palpable.
“Why, tonight,” Gwendolyn said.
Crewmembers exchanged glances. Some of them mumbled quietly. Delia Findlesmith’s face transitioned from sullen to shocked in that smooth way that elven faces did. “What?” she demanded with subtle indignation.
“We’ve made a commitment to performing tonight, and we’re going to perform tonight. Is that a problem?”
Everyone besides Delia bit their tongue. “Yes. That’s barbaric. Cas died today.”
Gwendolyn shrugged. “I’m sure many people died today. None of them are in this play.”
“You can’t do this play if I quit.”
“Doesn’t Ms. Plunderton know your lines?” Karessa just looked down at the floor.
“Lady Hatchet can’t be a halfling.”
“Oh, be open minded, Ms. Findlesmith. Now be warned, the show will continue whether or not you take this night off, but if you do, you will never act in Skymoore again.”
The sound of Delia’s teeth clenching was audible.
“So then, any other objections?” There weren’t. “You have half an hour to collect yourselves, and then we launch right into the final rehearsal. See you then.”
Relief swallowed Gwendolyn like a lover’s embrace when she collapsed into the fluffy pink chair she kept in her tiny office. Its singular window offered a view over the edge of Skymoore, and on clear days you could see the beginnings of The Remaining Sea. But it wasn’t a clear day. Rain trickled down the cloudy glass, its constant patter forming the perfect soundtrack to rumination.
There wasn’t much on which Gwendolyn could agree with Randall Bottlehelm II, the man who she once called her father. But he was right about one thing: the world was cruel. The only thing that mattered was that you kept going when all the hope ran out. It wasn’t the kind of philosophy that made one popular, but it had served Gwen well over the years, and she passed it on where she could. Some people called her cold, but that wasn’t quite right. She was chilly, but it was a constant chill. She never got too cold, and she only warmed up when it mattered most. There was a value in that consistency. There was value in knowing who you are.
At least, that’s what she told herself as the rain poured down before her, droplets gently splashing her face. It was getting dark, and Gwendolyn was sitting beneath the awning of an unmarked government building with her knees pressed against her chest. Her eye was blackened, her nose was bleeding, and she thought she might have broken a rib. Her knuckles throbbed and bled, and it hurt to breathe. She had gotten lost, too, which was just as well as she had no intention of going home. Whatever that was.
She was exhausted and deciding whether to spend the night beneath the awning when she saw the caravan.
It was a long, candy-colored covered wagon drawn by a pig that was nearly the size of a horse. Behind it was a smaller wagon carrying a bulbous load covered by a green tarp. Written on the main wagon, in bold, multi-colored letters, was “The Luminous Company.” Small, magical lights were tied to string that framed the wagon brilliantly. It was rounding the corner and heading toward Gwendolyn – a beautiful, bombastic oddity contrasting magnificently with the banal government district.
The pig stopped beside her and squealed happily. Gwen just sat there, open-mouthed, awestruck, and hurting too much to stand. She tried to reach out toward it, but her chest howled in pain. She simply stared.
A door opened on the other side of the wagon. Gwendolyn could just make out a pair of dark green boots from beneath the cart. There was no mistaking the elvish embroidery. Their owner walked around the corner with delicate steps that were inexplicably audible over the cacophony of rain.
Like her boots, the woman was of elvish make. Even with her ears covered by her hair, the paradoxical ancient youth was impossible to mistake. She could have been three or four centuries old, and still she was the most beautiful woman Gwen had ever seen. Her skin was like polished bronze and her hair was like a moonless night. Her eyes were soft, copper, and full of compassion. “You poor thing. Are you lost?”
“I don’t have a home,” Gwendolyn croaked automatically.
The elf frowned. “Well you can’t sleep out here in the rain. Paddick, Nestor, get out here.”
These steps were more frolicking and forceful. The woman was joined by a dandy gnome and charmingly disheveled halfling with a bushy beard. “Nestor, this child is hurt. Can you help?”
The gnome was by Gwen’s side at once. “Can a Trandemonian Gildsparrow mimic any sound it’s ever heard from memory?” he asked, placing a hand gently on her shoulder.
“I hope so,” the elf said.
Nestor’s palm was warm against her skin, and she could feel her body repairing itself. Her eye softened, her nose stopped throbbing, and her breaths came a little easier. She was still painfully stiff and sore, but she could stand. Paddick approached and placed a pleasantly warm blanket around her. It didn’t seem to get wet in the rain.
“I’m Desdemona,” the woman said as she helped Gwendolyn into their wagon. “We’ll take care of you tonight.”
“As many nights as you need!” Nestor added.
The inside was…compact. A rack of clothes, a curtained dressing station, a small bunk bed, a sleeping mat, a bookshelf, and a wooden stove all sat cramped within its walls. Gwendolyn took a seat on a small chair near the stove.
“Who are you?”
“Actors,” Paddick said. “Well, Desda and I anyway. Nestor’s the egineer.”
“We’re not interested in the elitism of the Sun Stage,” Desdemona explained. “There isn’t a place in Skymoore for artists to express themselves without engaging in the politics of the upper class. So we improvise.”
The idea fascinated Gwendolyn. Everything about them was almost too much to take in. Like a fairytale.
“Would you like to try something on?” Desdemona asked. Gwendolyn hadn’t noticed that she was staring at the clothes rack. She blushed, but the playfulness in the elf’s eyes indicated that she didn’t much mind. “Go on. Anything you’d like.”
Feeling emboldened, Gwendolyn examined the rack with an unbridled giddiness. Maybe she was just delirious from the events of the day, but she actually giggled out loud as she rifled through the clothes. In the end, she’d settled on two items – a puffy pink dress, the kind a noblewoman might wear, and a curly blonde wig.
Minutes later, staring at herself in the mirror, Gwendolyn could hardly recognize or believe what she saw. She was beautiful. The way the wig played off her crystal blue eyes, like a princess from a fairytale…it was like a dream. Minutes ago, she was a bruised, beaten, and boyish street urchin. Now, she was a brilliant, arresting, unmistakable young woman. Her father was right about one thing: Gwendolyn did find herself that day. She was standing there, on the other side of a mirror, and she was lovely.
Desdemona could see her joy, and took pleasure in it. “Well,” she said. “What do you think?”
All eyes were on her.
Her role in “The Red Moon’s Shadow” was small. A single scene in act II, in the Dol Belvargamar town square. She played Peyva Dul Crimsontide, an elvish princess who had a brief conversation with Lady Erelith Hatchet. All she did was respond to a simple question: “What do you think?”
It was euphoric. The beautiful sets and costumes, the attention of the people of Skymoore, the scintillating lights of the stage. It was ecstasy to Gwendolyn.
The stage was another world, and nothing outside of it mattered. Up here, she wasn’t a woman with a shattered childhood. Cas wasn’t dead. Delia Findlesmith wasn’t mourning his murder, because she wasn’t even Delia. The sky wasn’t cloudy, it was clear, and the painted moon hung beautifully and ominously above them.
In that moment, as Gwendolyn spoke her one sentence, the world ceased to be cruel. She didn’t have to push through because there was nothing to push against. She was free.
Warm, and free.