The headlights of a motorcycle cleaved the dark at the hive's lowest level. Gutter trash crept towards the beam when it drew to a halt, hands aquiver in an effort to touch it, and gave sounds of desperation when the engine's rumble died.
Light was a commodity now. The palace glowed throughout the night, a golden Pharos far in the distance. Down here, a lucky few had candles.
Alasandra Darkroot removed her helmet. A spell made her eyes glint with silver, letting her see the shrouded figures surrounding her. With a look of contempt, she said, "One of you touches the bike, I'll cut your stinger and slit the others' throats with it."
The downtrodden muttered curses at her, but pulled away when she passed. She was a stranger, but bees knew better than to mess with a sylph. She eased away the enhancement from her sight. It made navigating the dark streets easier, but let her see too much.
The hive housed the heart of an empire within its fetid womb. The queen's death had sentenced it to a slow end, and any semblance of peace would shatter once the emperor took his guard away. Revolution brewed beneath the grime and misery, an overture to a war between whores, gangs and the mafia.
They say honey doesn't spoil. The state of Bee-Zharia exposed that lie.
Alasandra passed decrepit houses to one of mere ostensible ruin. Light shone from within, through cracks in the walls missed by those who'd masked its wealth with rugs over windows. In a neighbourhood pockmarked by squalor and poverty, bartending was one of the few professions still sure to keep your purse hefty.
Silence made a round in the saloon, each table ceasing their chatter in turn when they noticed the newcomer. Alasandra was an oddity amongst her kin—black wings and silver skin never promised good—but the clientele commented more on her face and physique. She ignored them, save for the one who braved a touch, and leaned against the counter to address the bartender.
"Sorry, didn't catch that with the racket," said the portly bee in a beer-stained shirt. He looked past her, at the bee lying on the ground screaming. "What happened to him?"
"Broke a finger," Alasandra said. "Pint of lager, please. Hold the honey."
The bartender gave her a curious look and drew her drink. "What brings a fairy to Bee-Zharia?"
Alasandra dug her pocket for coins. "I'm a sylph, not a fairy." She snapped one against the counter and pushed it towards the bartender. He pushed it back when she lifted her finger.
"On the house. Apology for my slip."
Alasandra nodded and pocketed the coin, then turned to scan the crowd. Lowlives, the lot of them, but it made spotting her accomplices easier. That, and the fact bees couldn't afford conditioner. She stepped on the arm of the wounded bee on her way to the corner table.
"Damn, Frank. Your hair gets better every time I see you," Alasandra said, catching the attention of two butterflies in shoddy bee costumes. Both wore black-and-yellow headbands and coats with fake wings attached, folded real ones giving them hunchbacked appearances.
"Hello, Sandy. I was starting to worry something had gone wrong," said Frank, the lean and moustached butterfly. He turned to his companion. "Fresh Bobby, meet Alasandra Darkroot, our finest non-operative."
Alasandra shook their offered hands before sitting. "Sandy will do."
"Non-operative, huh," Fresh Bobby said. His arms were thrice as thick as Sandy's, and even sitting down she could tell he was a tall fellow. "Cop or private?"
She took a swig of beer. "I prefer private operative."
"Should you be drinking?" Frank asked warily, eyeing the pint.
"It's one beer, Frank. Let me in on the business instead of worrying about mine."
Frank and Fresh Bobby shared a look. Frank gestured for her to lean closer. "You heard about Princess Buttercup?"
"Well," Frank whispered, glanced around, and went on quieter, "she's not judging Switzerland's Kinders Kan Zing. She's here, in Bee-Zharia. Kidnapped."
"I figured as much. Royal Butterfly Guard sends their top boys into the capital of the enemy, they must've royally screwed up. Next time you have to cover a blunder, don't use a show everyone's watching as an alibi."
Frank spread his hands. "We panicked. Eleanor comes up with the good lies, but she's on a vacation."
"Right. We'll have to get the princess back before people figure out she's not on the show," Sandy said.
Frank nodded. "The next episode airs on Tuesday at eight p.m. Gives us less than seventy hours to complete the mission."
Sandy leaned back in her chair, folded her arms. "Where's she held?"
"The palace. Emperor Bee-Zhar is planning to marry her, to make Buttercup Kingdom a part of his empire."
Sandy frowned. "Buttercup Kingdom is a democracy. The princess is a hereditary mascot."
"Yes," Fresh Bobby said grimly, "but the emperor is a mad old bee, and mad old bees do mad things."
"His precariousness adds another layer of danger to the operation," Frank said. "Emperor Bee-Zhar declared war on Mothswana when the president pointed out what he called irony was actually a pun. If he realises the princess holds no power other than choosing what colour is 'in' this spring, he'll have her executed."
"We can't allow it to happen," Fresh Bobby said. "I have it on good authority it'll be blue this year. If the princess is killed, the nation will dress in mourning black all year." He slammed a fist on the table. "I won't have that! It's Fresh Bobby's chance to shine like the sky!"
"Keep your temper in check," Frank muttered, eyeing the crowd. "We all want the princess home safely. Rousing suspicion won't help."
"Yeah," Fresh Bobby with a sigh. "My wife's gone through too much trouble rearranging the wardrobe. I won't fail her."
"Which brings us to your role, Sandy," Frank said. "I'm the brains. Fresh Bobby's the brawn."
Sandy lifted a brow. She glanced around before pulling back her coat to reveal a hand cannon in the inside pocket. On the grip was etched 'Chaos Theory' in silver lettering.
She gave him a stern look. "I'm the brawn, Frank. I'm always the brawn."
Fresh Bobby leaned closer, tenting his fingers. "Let me be frank with you."
"Don't you fucking tell me I'm the girl, Fresh Bobby."
"No, no. Frank tells me you're eager to get back in action, but this is a delicate mission. We can't have you going around blasting bees. We need you for the discretion your presence provides." He hesitated. "What I'm trying to say is—"
"You suck at this," Sandy said with a sullen look. She turned to Frank.
He gave Fresh Bobby a sheepish shrug, tented his fingers and said to Sandy, "You're the magic."
Sandy grunted. "Magic? You need a fairy. I don't do magic anymore."
"We didn't have one with the experience," Frank said. "I know you're the brawn, and I know this isn't fair. That's why we're paying handsomely."
"Sugarwing Bart. You get him and a month-long cruise anywhere you want. He'll do anything, no questions asked."
Sandy arched her mouth. "Rats. You go straight for the throat."
"He won't." Frank placed a hand on hers. "We need you, Sandy. Buttercup Kingdom's fate hinges on your help. We can't get into the upper city looking like this. They have regulations against being drunk all day."
Sandy hummed, but before she could reply the door was kicked in. She spun in her seat to find a flight of guards storming in.
"Sit still, all! We've received a report of butterflies in the premises!" bellowed the shako-wearing captain. His bees spread around to question the clients.
Sandy faced the butterflies and began to weave her right hand's fingers in a circle. "I'm in. Operation Sylphinephrine is live," she whispered.
"Operation Rapunzel's Tower," Frank hissed, when sparkles surrounded the three of them. When a guard made it to their table, he found three perfectly regular—if dishevelled—bees.
"Ma'am, gentlemen," said the guard with a curt nod. "I'll need to see your papers."
Sandy shot a glare at Frank. He smiled at the guard and dug a pair of passports from his transfigured pocket. "Of course. I've got yours here, honey," he added to Sandy.
The guard inspected the documents, then Fresh Bobby's. "Everything seems to be in order. Ma'am, you must keep your papers on your personnel at all times."
"She does, officer," Frank said, "but she can be a klutz when drinking. I'd sooner hang onto them than have her forget them somewhere."
"I see." The guard eyed Sandy, then her drink. "That doesn't seem to have honey in it."
"I was in the mood for something exotic," she drawled.
"Is that right." He inspected them in silence, then said, "I can't drink such swill myself, but it's not a crime to lack taste. Have a good one."
The guards left, and before he followed his men, the captain yelled, "Finish your drinks and leave. The establishment will close in fifteen minutes."
The bartender gave a grunt of surprise, but managed a nod. "Yes, officer. I'll get everyone out."
Sandy observed the exchange with curiosity as she and the butterflies made to leave. "The mafia's got the guards bribed," Frank whispered. "The Don decided cards and cigars make a night, and this place has the best whiskey in town."
They followed the crowd outside and parted to a side alley to wait for the street to clear. Fresh Bobby stood at they alley's mouth while Sandy and Frank checked it for derelicts. Once he was satisfied it was safe to talk, Frank said, "I've arranged a rendezvous in the red light district with someone who can get us into the palace. She's got people in the kitchen staff. You'll meet them in order to disguise us so we can take their places."
"Right," Sandy said as they joined Fresh Bobby. "Let's move. My bike's parked down the street."
"You'll have to leave it. Too noticeable," Frank said.
"How am I supposed to get across the city?"
"You've got wings, don't you?" Fresh Bobby said and took flight.
Sandy watched his contour vanish into the dark, then turned to the abashed Frank. "Where's the rendezvous?"
"Sleazy Sally's brothel, crack of dawn. Ask anyone if you can't find it. She practically runs the area."
"There's a hostel across the street where you can stay, free of charge. Courtesy of Sally." Frank made to leave. "You could hang onto my feet."
"And that's not suspicious?" Sandy snorted. "I'll walk. It's fine."
"See you there."
Sandy let the disguise fade—with the butterflies gone, the bees didn't care that a sylph walked amongst them. She strode down avenues littered with homeless sleepers and climbed over the debris of fallen buildings where the crowd blocked the road.
Sandy stopped at the bridge connecting the halves of the lower hive. It had crumbled halfway through. She walked to the edge, watching the vast river flowing below, the lights from up high a shimmer on the waters.
She gave a quiet sigh at the murky waters. An ancient emperor had held a gathering for sylphs, pixies and fairies to fill the bottom of the hive after a human had cut it open while trimming branches. Sylphs had commanded winds to lift the waters pixies summoned, and fairies had fulfilled the emperor's wish and bound the stream in place.
The eternal river had been a symbol of peace and prosperity. It would be a swamp by the end of the year.
Sandy lifted her gaze to the far end of the bridge. For a while, she could only stare at the distance, then groaned upon noticing her breathing had quickened.
"Fuck's sake, Darkroot. You're stronger than this," she hissed, weaving her fingers in a circle. Sparkles rose from the concrete around her, but they were dim and hoary, dying fireflies. Her motions turned more forceful; the sparkles' lustre waned further. She let them wink into the dark that had birthed them, closed the coaxing fingers into a fist and slammed it against her thigh.
She took a deep breath, held it for a moment before easing it out. Off the edge hung a rope bridge attached onto the wiring on the other side.
"Could've done with something stronger than beer," she muttered, head pivoting along the trail she'd have to walk.
The north side of the hive was in better shape, and rather than following a path of broken dreams, she'd left behind a trail of broken arms of bees who'd accosted her with an appalling lack of respect. Maybe they'd mistaken her for a local. Maybe they'd rethink their tone the next time they greeted a lady, no matter where she sat on the spectrum of sin and grace.
She spotted two tall bees in miniskirts and revealing tops smoking at the mouth of an alley and approached them.
"Sorry, honey," said the taller one, who—Sandy realised only from the low voice—was a drone with an enviably delicate facial structure. "We don't do girls. Nothing wrong with it, just ain't our thing."
"Directions are enough," Sandy said levelly. "You know where I can find Sleazy Sally's?"
"Ooh, you looking for a job?" said the wigged drone, then nudged the worker. "Better watch out. Didn't you have the john with a thing for fairies?"
"I'm a sylph," Sandy grated.
The prostitutes gave each other unsure glances, then the worker cleared her throat. "Down the street. Turn left at the intersection."
"You'll see the old cathedral's bell tower a block away," added the drone. "Head towards it. The brothel's along the way."
They parted ways, and Sandy headed deeper into the district. The name was fitting. Darkness was disturbed by the red of billboards and bar signs, lanterns over doors and balconies. A window broke on a third floor as Sandy passed below. She watched a lamp arc down and glass follow, glittering like bleeding rain in the eerie glow.
At the intersection, Sandy found a more concrete rendition of her simile. Amber splashes on the street deepened to carmine under the lights, maquillage applied by the baseball bats of a street gang. Three battered bodies rested against a wall while the thugs palavered with the final victim. One of them noticed Sandy, grabbed the bat of his friend and stomped towards her. He stopped in the middle of the road and struck a pose, bat held high, neck lowered, free arm grasping the air between him and Sandy. Sternness petrified on his features as he wagged his fingers, taunting her.
Eyes locked with the bee's, Sandy stepped into the spotlight of a streetlamp and opened her coat. His gaze fell onto Sandy's chest, then onto Chaos Theory.
The bee remained a statue.
"I've walked across the city tonight. I won't strike a pose with aching legs." Sandy's tone hardened. "But I wouldn't mind stretching my trigger finger."
The bee grunted, lifted the back of his hand with fingers spread towards her and held it in place while he turned. A gang sign, of respect or an obscenity, depending on the group—but both carried the added meaning of "no beef." The sounds of a thorax being crushed accentuated Sandy's steps as she walked away.
She spotted the bell tower from around the corner. After a few turns, Sandy came upon the neon sign of Sleazy Sally's place. It was the first stretch where windows were intact and streets clear of battered cars and junk. The lack of debris somehow made the scene seem deserted.
She came to the hostel Frank had mentioned. The bee behind the desk leaned over a newspaper, tapping a pen against her mouth. She glanced up, but Sandy had already walked off.
Sandy crossed the street to Sleazy Sally's and gave a sound of surprise upon entering. The facade was as run-down as the rest of the district, but the interior could've belonged to a five-star hotel. Directly in front was an oval desk set between stairs leading up. To her right was a dimly lit Italian restaurant—not a gun shop as the sign outside claimed—where the most stunning worker bees she had seen murmured with drones. The clerk behind the desk—also quite attractive, and wearing a pantsuit that might've cost more than Sandy's bike—smiled all the way as Sandy walked up to her.
"Evening miss," said the clerk, sizing her up. "Wow, look at you. Chantal would be smitten. Shame she has a night off today." She smiled, folded her hands on the desk. "Not to worry. I'm sure we'll find someone just right for you."
"I'm, uh, not looking to meet anyone," Sandy said. "Not until tomorrow, anyway. I've a meeting with Sally. Thought I'd check the place before calling it a day."
"Ah! You're with—"
The clerk bit her tongue, smiled at a passing couple, and dropped her voice once they were gone. "It's good you came. The meeting's been moved up. The butterflies are already here."
"I'm afraid I can't say. The less I know, the better. I don't even know who you are—only that Madam is expecting you." She placed a sign reading "Smoke break" on the desk and gestured for Sandy to follow.
The illusions upon the butterflies had faded. Frank had covered himself with his duster, fedora resting over his eyes to block the red beam passing in through the cracked window. His legs sat atop one another on the seedy room's desk, between a coffee mug serving as an ashtray and a half-empty bottle of liquor.
Fresh Bobby smoked in the shadow beside the window, watching the street. He turned when the clerk cleared her throat.
"I'll fetch Madam," she said, curtsied and left.
"Hey, Sandy," Fresh Bobby said, closed the window and dropped the blinders. He'd let his hair down, and Sandy took note of its gloss before he wound it up in a bun.
He dumped the cigarette in the coffee mug. "Sleazy Sally's girls got back from the palace and brought bad news." He nudged Frank. "Wakey-wake. Sandy's here."
"'Oh, shoot' or 'code red' bad news?" Sandy said while Frank groaned himself awake.
Fresh Bobby gave a rumbling exhale and tented his fingers. "Let me be frank with you. We thought we had days for the mission, but it turns out that was an optimistic assumption. In reality we may have far less time than what would be optimal for a situation of this calibre."
Sandy gave him a flat stare and turned to Frank.
"Code red," he said.
"Thank you," Sandy said, leering at the abashed Fresh Bobby. "In what manner are we screwed?"
Fresh Bobby tented his fingers once more, and Sandy snapped, "Don't even bother."
"The wedding will be tonight," Fresh Bobby said with a sour undertone, folding his hands behind his back. "We don't have time for disguises. We need to infiltrate the palace and get the princess out ASAP."
"Rats. I could've done with a little sleep," Sandy muttered. "What's the new plan?"
"There is secret passage in the old cathedral," came a voice from the door. Sandy spun to find an elderly bee in an extravagant gown entering. She spoke with a heavy Italian accent and constantly twirled her sole remaining hand, as though weaving words. "One a my girls will show the way," the bee continued. "Is a bit tricky getting through sewers."
"I take it you're Slea—uh, Sally," Sandy said.
"Please, Sleazy Sally's fine. Is like a brand." Sally beckoned them along. "You gotta move, now. The princess is running out a time." She spat on the floor. "I am not a racist, but I don't want a butterfly to be my empress. You is okay as clients, maybe whores, but you let a butterfly run a country? Hah! We's already down the shitter. You think it can't be worse? Let a butterfly steer the boat and think again."
Fresh Bobby scowled. Frank patted him on the shoulder and shook his head.
Sandy and the butterflies followed Sally and their guide, Carmen, towards the ruined cathedral. Sally berated lepidoptera all the way.
"And I mean, look at you," she said to Sandy. "You's pretty as a bee's knees, but those wings! Is like a butterfly's!" She shook her head, tutting sadly. "I think God gave fairies wings like that to keep them humble. If you had bee wings, you'd get too prideful."
"I'm a damn sylph," Sandy groused. Sally gave her a glance and waved her hand.
"Ah, what's the difference? Pixies, fairies, sylphs, you all the same."
"We're not the same! Fairies are intangible—they're made of dreams and children's wishes. Sylphs have the biggest wings and are driven by wanderlust. Pixies are sprightly and twee, and tend to be involved with the occult. Usually because of stupidity more than malice." She grumbled to herself. "Those twee little bastards are to blame for half the things wrong with the world. Pandora was perfectly happy not knowing what was in the box and Ivan the Terrible was known as Ivan the Chill before pixies got involved. Hell, I once played cards with one and now I have a foot fetish. He decided to tell me only afterwards 'poker' meant poking a sleeping elder god to see what happens."
"Have you met Chantal?" Sally said, regarding Sandy with an inquisitive look and a smirk. "Is my niece, works the desk. Into foot stuff. You two would be cute together."
"You say that now," Carmen interjected, "but Chantal's face and ass are the reason I'm 'mostly straight.'"
"So," Frank said louder, to silence Fresh Bobby's sudden coughing fit. "We're here. Where's the passage?"
"In the cellar," Sally said, taking out a key ring as they stepped in. Soft snoring resounded in the ruins, and Sandy saw bees asleep under the broken ceiling in the hall ahead. "We don't go in there. Let them sleep," Sally said, guiding the group towards a stairwell to the left. Carmen took point with a flashlight and led them downstairs.
The gallery below was lined with dry, grey honeycombs, fitted with stone caskets. "Is heroes who came home from war without wings," Sally whispered. "Be quiet. Catacombs is ghost playground."
They walked in silence for a while until turning to a passage with smaller combs, and Sally said, "This is where we part. Carmen take you rest a the way."
"All right," Frank said and shook Sally's hand. "Thank you for your assistance, Sleazy Sally. Buttercup Kingdom is in your debt."
"Is nothing," Sally said with a wave. "You go now before you stink place up."
Frank gestured for Carmen to lead the way. Sandy glanced over her shoulder to find Sally lighting a lantern in front of a comb. "Hold up," she said, then jogged back to Sally.
"Hey," she said. Sally turned her head. "How come you're helping butterflies if you hate them so much?"
Sally hummed, turned back to the casket in the honeycomb. "I's lived long, sylph, longer than I had a right to. I seen butterflies end lives shorter than they ought to've been." She bowed her head. "But butterflies have big wings, and bigger hearts. They know heroes as well as we do, and respect them, even when they's the enemy. Sometimes they borrow wings to those who can't fly back home, so they can see what they died for."
Sandy said nothing. Sally gave a side-look to find her lip twisted.
"We's an old bee saying. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Means something like 'Butterflies is jabronis but if you gotta fight, fight a butterfly.' I don't have to like them to see what's going on isn't right. And I… owe them a small kindness, whether I like it or not." She smirked at Sandy's solemn air. "What, you's worried I'm about to double-cross you?"
Sally snorted. "Hurry up. You got a princess to save."
Carmen guided the group through a crack in the wall connecting the catacomb to the sewage system. "Says a lot about us," she remarked, "when soldiers rest beside a river of shit."
From there, they traversed the sewers to another tunnel and a rift that took them to an abandoned railway. "This'll get us to the edge of the upper hive," Carmen said at a ramp leading up. "Hope you got your papers with you. I need to skedaddle if we're stopped—they don't like hookers up here. If you got disguises ready, you'll want to put them on now."
"Sandy?" Frank said. She nodded and began to weave her sparkles into illusions.
Carmen watched in awe as three perfectly regular bees appeared before her. "Whoa. Nice touch with the suits. I'd let you snort coke off me any day."
The suburbs were another world compared to the lower hive. The dots of light Sandy had seen from the outskirts were like bonfires up close, driving the gloom out of yards. It was quiet on the street, but sounds of wine-coloured gatherings could be heard in the gardens beyond tall hedges.
"You'll have to find a way into the palace on your own," she whispered when a guard patrol turned towards them. "You'll get into the grounds if you claim you're headed for the new cathedral. They'll let you in even in the middle of the night, but you'll be guarded. Good luck."
She hurried off, jumped into flight when the guards yelled for her to stop. Three of the bees flew after her, while the remaining three confronted Sandy and the butterflies.
"Freeze!" ordered the captain. "Why did your companion flee?"
"She was a prostitute," Frank answered. Sandy and Fresh Bobby gave him wary looks. "She accosted us offering her services. I was just about to alert you when she broke off."
The captain's eyes narrowed. "Papers, please. What are you doing out at this hour?"
"We're headed to the cathedral. It's the anniversary of our sister's death. We're going to pray for her peace."
"And you can't wait until morning?"
"She preferred praying in solitude. I thought it would be nice to follow her ways."
The captain nodded. His severity eased as he went through the papers, and he returned them with a cordial nod. "I see. Everything seems to be in order. Have a good night, and bring my respects to your sister."
The guards flew off after the rest of the squad. Sandy and the butterflies carried on down the street, the palace's glow their beacon.
"It's sickening," Sandy muttered, pausing before a railed gate twice as tall as she. Through the railing she saw bees in masks and glittering attires gathered around a pool, the smell of hot nectar and sounds of giggles thick in the air. The whole yard bathed in light that would've blinded anyone below from sudden exposure. "They're… engorged. Thrice the size of anyone we saw on the way."
"Maybe they're just muscular," said Fresh Bobby, with a hint of indignation.
Sandy shook her head. "I didn't mean that. It's like they're trying to eat themselves to death before the hive dies, or maybe they're oblivious to it and this is how they've always lived. Both speak of deep unhappiness, only veiled better than in the lower city."
"The elite will have no place in the new Bee-Zharia," Frank said when they moved on. "Once the emperor's protection is gone, these yards will become mafia playground. Sleazy Sally and her girls will drive out the gangs of the red light district, and they won't take getting caught in the crossfire lightly. Gangs are already the weakest element of the underground, but they're not desperate. Without a home turf or the elite to fund their operations, they will be."
"I guess the question is whether they'll take revenge on those who took their business or those who took their ground," Sandy muttered.
"We're not here to solve the bees' problems," Fresh Bobby said. "No point worrying about it."
"Have you watched your people fall apart because of their leader, Fresh Bobby?" Sandy said, gaze on her feet and hands in her pockets.
Fresh Bobby gave her a glance, then grunted. "Shit. Sorry. You look pretty young."
"I am pretty young. I was a kid when King Sisylphus cursed us and sylphs started to scatter. My dad left with the wind in a pirate captain's sails." Her lips tightened and voice fell into a grumble. "Twee little bastards telling my king it's a good idea to tamper with the nature of his people. I'd like to tamper my foot up where their good ideas can go."
Fresh Bobby, after short consideration, only patted her shoulder.
"Not to say you aren't right," Sandy went on after the cloud passed. "We can't solve the bees' problems because the emperor is the centrepiece. With him in the lead, Bee-Zharia is doomed. The whole thing still hits too close to home."
After two more interrogations, they reached the palace wall. Signposts guided them off the street and onto a dirt path lined with topiary and primroses. Trees grew tall and thick beyond the wall. Guards armed with ornate lances and garbed in the hooded white robes of the priesthood stood in two pairs around a gate at the end of the path.
"Welcome," said one of the bees, her tone soft and hymnal. "Why've you come tonight, my children?"
"We ask to be allowed into the cathedral," Frank said, offering her their documents. "To mourn for our sister."
She scanned the papers quickly, gestured at the other priest-guards. The gate ground open and she stepped aside, bowing her head. "The Great Queen's blessing unto you, my children. Go in peace."
When Frank passed the others, one's arm shot out to grab his shoulder. The sleeve fell back to reveal an arm of moon-white skin.
Sandy grunted; the first guard gave an inquiring hum.
"What is it, Lady Tashandra?"
The priestess lowered her hood. Summer-green hair fell around a narrow face, set with silver-disc eyes.
"These are not bees," said the sylph, the silver sheen of illusion-breaking melting away, "but the butterflies you're looking for."
Even as she pulled out Chaos Theory, Sandy's elbow shot into the thorax of a priest-guard. Frank and Fresh Bobby, in the span of a second, threw her a shocked look, shared one, and shouldered the guards on each side against the wall. Sandy took aim on Tashandra, but was knocked down by a sudden burst of wind. She rolled to the side to dodge Tashandra's lance, spun and swept her off her feet.
Sandy jumped into motion to grab her dropped gun and whirled around—to find Tashandra in a low flight behind her. They collided, crashing in a flurry of punches. Tashandra landed on top, grabbed Sandy by the hair and smashed her head on the ground. Head swimming—though the impact was softened by grass—Sandy grabbed Chaos Theory and swung, and when Tashandra blocked, stamped down and toppled her to the side. Sandy smacked her temple with the gun, climbed onto one knee and pressed it against her throat. Tashandra gave a gurgle, eyes squeezed shut, and opened them to find herself staring inside the void of the hand cannon's barrel.
"I knew I should've made sure I snuffed you back in 1844," Sandy hissed, wiped blood off her nose and cocked the gun. "Oh well. Never too late to correct that. Say hi to your brother for me."
"Busy, Frank," she snapped—and flinched at the sound of a round of loading shotguns. She slowly turned her head to find the butterflies with hands in the air. The living statues surrounding them had become armed guards. Tashandra used the distraction to push Sandy off.
"Oh, Alasandra," Tashandra said with a smirk. "Falling for the old trick. Did you forget how good I am with illusions?"
"I didn't forget anything," Sandy spat, glowering at the guns on her. "I found out you're a player literally a minute ago. How was I supposed to prepare?"
Tashandra raised a brow, then pressed a hand to her chin. "Fair point. I guess I should gloat at the butterflies for missing my involvement."
"Who is she?" Fresh Bobby said to Frank. He only shook his head.
"Oh well. Take them away!" Tashandra said. "I'll report their capture to the emperor personally."
Sandy and the butterflies were taken into a side wing descending into a medieval-esque torture chamber and locked up in cells, Frank and Fresh Bobby in one and Sandy beside them.
"I guess this is one way to get into the palace," Fresh Bobby muttered.
"So," Frank said, leaning on the bars once the guards abandoned them to the dungeon's gloom. "Who was that?"
"That was Tassie," Sandy grumbled. "I should've known she'd be here. She has a thing for right-handing despots. Heard she used to be in cahoots with some moustached human back in the forties."
Frank and Fresh Bobby shared a grimace. "The German or the Russian?" Fresh Bobby said.
"Oh. It's hard to tell age with you guys."
"You should worry about how we're getting out instead," Sandy said. "Don't suppose either of you can pick the lock?"
They hushed when footsteps sounded from the stairwell. A guard bearing a tray of iced tea descended into the dungeon. The gang leered at him with suspicion as he set down glasses, filled them, then pushed them closer with a stick. He smiled at each in turn, frowned when they kept leering, then gave an "Ah!" and filled the last glass.
"It's not poisoned," he said before drinking. "Thought you could use a refresher."
"Thanks," Sandy said with a shifty eye at the tea. She sniffed the cup before taking a sip. "That's a lot of honey."
The guard only smiled, refilling his glass. "What brings you to Bee-Zharia?"
"Is this an interrogation?"
"Conversation. They don't really tell me much anything, so I don't know why I'm guarding ya."
"Wrong place at the wrong time," Frank said levelly.
The bee's mouth took a mournful arch. "Happens to the best of us." He gulped tea before going on. "You don't seem like bad folks to me. It's a shame you'll be executed."
Sandy grunted. "We will?"
The bee sniffed. "Breaks my heart. It's so barbaric." He gave a wry laugh. "Guess I'm just a big ol' softie. Used to work in the mortuary. Guard ain't much better, but there were no positions for nurses. Gotta love them larvae. They're the future, you know."
Sandy blinked, slowly pivoted to the butterflies. "Fresh Bobby," she said with a lilt, "you were asking about my tragic past."
Both he and the bee perked up. "I was?"
"Just before our new friend joined us."
Fresh Bobby cocked his head, then caught on. "Oh, that's right. About… um… your father leaving?"
"Why I couldn't fly before."
"Oh yeah! That was weird."
"Is it really sad?" the bee asked with a fidget.
Sandy gave a solemn nod. "Sylphs don't fly," she said quietly. "Our wings ain't made for it. We glide, with magic." She fell silent, looked down. "I was never good at it. Then I… got married, back when I thought I had a shot at a normal life. My husband was going to teach me flight, no matter what. In the end, I soared too high, couldn't keep up the spell, and fell. Broke both my wings and legs, fractured an arm from the elbow down, and…" Her voice trailed off. She blinked away tears. "I was pregnant."
The bee gasped, slamming both hands to his mouth. Frank rolled his eyes.
"He didn't listen when I said we should wait. Learn together with the kid or something." Sandy turned to Fresh Bobby with a sad chuckle. "But no, he wouldn't let it go. Know why?"
"Why?" Fresh Bobby said, voice hoarse.
She leaned her head back and laughed. "'Cause he thought the bike was dangerous! Can you believe it? I've been riding since I was a hundred and twenty."
"I'm sorry," Fresh Bobby mumbled.
Sandy brushed her nose. "Yeah, me too. He's not a bad guy, but we didn't last long after that. I don't think he really blamed me, but back then it sure felt like it. Didn't help that I blamed him, even though it was as much my fault. Should've been firmer."
"That's so sad," the guard wailed. Sandy found him sobbing into his fist, cheeks wet with tears. "Not the baby. You poor darling."
Sandy approached him with a smile. "I've come to terms with it. Come on, let me wipe those tears."
He nodded with a snivel. Sandy reached a hand past the bars, stroked his cheek. "There. All better."
She then grabbed his antennae and slammed his face against the bars. The guard dropped unconscious. Sandy snatched the key chained around his neck.
"Whoa. Brutal," Fresh Bobby said. He hesitated when Sandy let them out. "Hey, uh… I'm sorry. For your baby."
Sandy snorted. "I had my tubes tied when ruffs were in fashion. The sob story was just to trick him."
Fresh Bobby blinked. "Then… what was up with you not flying?"
"She failed to strike a pose during Operation Glitterstorm in 1992," Frank said drily. "Tried to use magic to make her hair sway but was too drunk to handle it. Killed fourteen civilians."
Fresh Bobby's eyes shot wide. "That's worse!"
"Eh, it is what it is. Life goes on," Sandy said, grabbed the guard's head and wrung his neck. "I'm more fussed by how my magic still doesn't come out right."
"Yes, your sprained ego is the true tragedy."
"No need to be snide, Frank," Sandy said sharply, stepping over the bee to fetch their gear. Chaos Theory in hand, she beckoned them along. "Now comes the hard part. We've got an army of bees ahead of us."
They ran through an empty palace, passing only two guards staring out the window and complaining about getting the short straw. "Ridiculous," said one while Sandy and the butterflies edged past along the wall. "Everyone gets the night off except for us."
"They didn't get off duty," said the other. "Word's going around we're leaving the city soon and they were released to prep for it."
"Heard that?" Sandy asked when they got around the corner and continued running.
"Yeah," Frank said. "And that, too. Let's hope they play the whole song."
From up ahead came the organ riff of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
They came to a great hall and ran upstairs. The carpet led to the threshold of ornate doors Sandy shoved open without slowing down.
She ground to a halt in the antechamber beyond. Frank and Fresh Bobby bumped into her, knocking her to her knees and earning a laugh from the sylph and two bees, a drone and a worker, awaiting them.
"Well, well," said Tashandra while Sandy gathered herself. "You still have two left feet, I see."
"Get out of the way, Tassie," Sandy snarled, brandishing Chaos Theory. Silver seeped into her darting eyes and was gone when they settled back on her rival. "No surprises this time. Step aside or I'll put a bullet—"
"You'll put nothing nowhere," Tashandra said, striding forward. Her left hand swam around like she directed an orchestra. Her priestly attire changed into a glittering black pantsuit. Rhinestone sunglasses appeared on the bees, and their guardly garbs became white suits with purple sashes. Tashandra stopped, thrust her hip to one side and snapped her fingers. "Except your foot down when I drop the bass."
"You want me to strike a pose?" Sandy hissed when the bees hit play on the boom box between them and a wobbling bass overwhelmed the wedding march.
"I demand it," Tashandra thundered, "by the ancestral laws that bind us!"
"Sandy, no!" Frank said when Sandy gritted her teeth. Chaos Theory shook in her hand until her grip gave. The clatter went unheard beneath the beat.
"I wish I could decline, Frank," Sandy grated, "but a challenge from a sylph is sacred." She raised her voice for Tashandra. "You first!"
The bees skipped a track ahead. Tashandra's body became like wet corn starch on a subwoofer, flowing with synthesiser arpeggios while the bees took her sides. Her sparkles wove the bees emerald wings, chiselled their features, sharpened their colours while they struck poses. She made the bees' expressions more dramatic, turned their bodies to glass, birthed twin suns behind each.
Fresh Bobby's mouth fell agape.
Tashandra's laughter rang bright over the tunes when she suddenly stopped. Only her hand danced, turning her body diamond-clear. Colour began to seep back in. Her wings took the emerald green of her minions. Her eyes turned gold, hair blazed with a ruby sheen. Her arms became amethysts, and all the while the glow of the suns intensified. She let deep blue run into her like an ocean swelling within, and when Frank hung his head in defeat, the bees jumped behind her.
A rainbow fell over Sandy.
And, when the bees raised their arms, rings of Tashandra's colours had taken hold in them.
"Triple rainbow," Fresh Bobby said, tears welling in his eyes. "It's… the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"Trust me," Sandy said, though even she could feel the ground pieces of her heart lifting with elation. Something clicked within her, as though a piece of something long missing had finally found its place.
The light vanished, leaving the room in an odd gloom despite the many chandeliers.
"Now," Tashandra laughed, chest heaving, "let's see what you have."
"We can't top that," Frank said, removing his fedora. His luscious golden mane cascaded onto his shoulders from the confines of the hat.
"The only thing we have is better hair," Fresh Bobby said, letting his bun down. Thick, wavy strands, the colour of autumn soil after rain, fell down his back. "But without perfect wind, it won't help."
Sandy wove her right hand's fingers as though dipping them in a spring. Frank gasped when she ran her free hand through her silver locks. They swayed in a gentle zephyr.
"Sandy," Frank said gravely. "Don't risk it. The throne room is packed with civilians, including the princess."
"Trust me," Sandy repeated before facing him. "I haven't had a drink in hours and shutting her down is the greatest motivator I could wish for. Strike your poses and strike them true. Leave the rest to me."
Frank held her in a stare when she stepped forward. "We demand Power Metal," Sandy proclaimed.
The bees turned to Tashandra. She sized Sandy up. "You place your faith in your hair? You're a fool, Alasandra."
"Maybe," Sandy said, taking a cassette tape out of her pocket. She tossed it to Tashandra. "But the laws bind you as well. Obey the wish or forfeit."
Tashandra caught the tape and spun it to read the label. "'Sandy's Boss Battle Megamix'?"
"Play the B-side. You're just a miniboss," Sandy drawled.
Tashandra snorted, but gave the mixtape to her bee. A mighty riff filled the room. When the drums began their gallop, Frank joined in on the singer's cry, then bounded forward. He jumped high in the air, kicked a split and let his fist swing when he landed. He carried on the motion to thrust it high in the air, and for a glimpse, his hair was perfect.
But, only for a glimpse.
"The brains!" Frank shouted, sweeping out his arm with his fist still raised.
Fresh Bobby took the cue to leap forward, knees bent back, and landed with a slide until he was parallel with Frank. He jumped up, stamped one foot out and flexed his muscles. He jerked up his head, and for a fleeting second, his hair was perfect.
But, the second fled.
"The brawn!" Fresh Bobby bellowed, reaching an arm towards Sandy as if to pull her over.
The song reached a furious solo, but Sandy walked forward with poise and grace. Only her fingers matched the frantic tempo of the song. White streams took shape around them, little slivers of condensed air. She raised them to her face, let them flutter her lashes and kiss her cheeks before she blew them out.
At first, nothing happened. Sandy stopped between the butterflies, who exchanged a nervous glance.
"What're you?" Tashandra sneered. "The mute?"
Sandy chuckled. Her slivers turned into gusts, making the bees cry out in awe.
The gales surrounded Frank, swirled playfully amidst his locks and pulled them back like a lover's brush. He gave into their sway, thrust out his hip and spread his arms behind him.
The gales swept over Fresh Bobby, lifted his strands in a way nothing else could, held them lofty and glorious. He winked at the worker bee, earning a squeak from her.
And last, the gales hoisted Sandy aloft, slowly, elegantly, her arms spread in a gesture of benevolence. It was a pose unlike any other, struck with the impact of a god's hammer when the wind caught her hair and caressed it into perfection.
Raising her chin, she yelled, "I'm the motherfucking magic!"
The music ended with a squealed harmonic. Sandy and the butterflies held the pose.
A shutter clicked in the sudden silence. Tashandra wheeled to find the worker lowering a camera with shaking hands.
"NO!" she screamed, falling to her knees. "YOU IMMORTALISED THEIR POSE!"
"I'm sorry, boss," said the guard, voice frail and on the verge of breaking. "I can't begin to guess what Chantal will do for this photo…" She pressed her eyes shut and whispered, "But it'll be so hot."
"Does anyone else think setting up Sandy and Chantal is starting to sound like a plan?" Fresh Bobby said. Sandy rolled her eyes, boots tapping on stone when her winds dissipated. She picked up Chaos Theory, walked up to Tashandra and stopped before the fallen foe.
"Say it," Sandy hissed.
Tashandra gave her a poison glare. "Don't twist the knife."
"Say it, Tassie."
Tashandra growled, rose to her feet. They stared at each other for a silent moment, until Tashandra's sneer set into a line. "That was…" She paused, grimaced, and spoke through gritted teeth. "That was the greatest pose I've ever seen, Alasandra."
Sandy inched closer until their noses touched. "You're goddamn right." She pulled away and, without taking her eyes off Tashandra's, said, "Take the boom box, Fresh Bobby."
Tashandra grunted and stepped away to let Sandy pass. The bees opened the doors for her. Beyond awaited a sea of murmuring bees in fine attires, parting off the red carpet. Past the crowd stood a minister, Princess Buttercup in a bride's dress, and the disgruntled Emperor Bee-Zhar in a ridiculous yellow outfit and a hat as tall as he.
"Finally," grumbled the emperor. "The organist refused to play with the hellish racket. We had to interrupt the ceremony!"
"Did you do the part where you ask for objections?" Sandy said, lifting the hand cannon. "Because I have this theory you'll want to consider mine."
"I have no appreciation for irony," groused Emperor Bee-Zhar, stepping off the platform. "You cannot stop me. Whether I marry the princess or not, Buttercup Kingdom will be mine!"
Sandy pulled the trigger. A bullet the size of her fist sped at the emperor, and diverged towards the organist. A squelch, a rain of viscera and the emperor's scream followed.
"Aah! He didn't play the best part yet!" he shrieked. "That does it. Tashandra! Unveil the plan."
Sandy grunted, pupils turning to silver. She now saw the windfield protecting the emperor…
And that the floor was, in fact, a giant robot.
She wheeled at the sound of snapped fingers to find Tashandra leaning against the doorframe, grinning wickedly.
"Oh, Alasandra," she chuckled. "I can't believe you fell for another—"
Gore spattered along the white stone. "Son of a whore," Sandy snarled, bonking her head with the smoking gun as Tashandra's headless corpse slumped down. "Dammit, Darkroot! There's always a giant robot!"
The emperor opened a hatch at his feet and jumped into the robot's cockpit. The illusion faded and the robot rose with a rumble. Bees flew around the room in panic and Sandy jumped backwards into the antechamber, but Princess Buttercup slid down the metal skin, falling to hang off a bolt.
"Frank! Fresh Bobby!" she cried. "They broke my wings! Help!"
"Bwahaa!" came the emperor's metallic laugh when the robot grabbed the princess and stuffed her inside a hatch. "Behold my giant beebot! This city can crumble—my armies are ready to swarm Buttercup Kingdom!"
He broke through the palace's ceiling and soared into the night within the hive. The butterflies flew after him, were disoriented for a second when Sandy zoomed past, then caught her slipstream.
"Not today, emperor!" Sandy yelled, conjuring up a magical storm cloud. "I've got my mojo back, and if there's one thing giant robots fear, it's—"
The cloud fizzled away.
"You fool," said the emperor. "I drained the power locked in the river to give my beebot anti-magic properties! Spells cannot withstand the might of science!"
"You—" Sandy stammered, then yelled, "You're the reason the city's dying!"
The beebot paused to hover. "Eh?"
"You can't undo fairy magic! It's made of hopes and dreams—by draining it, you did the same to your citizens near the river!"
The emperor was silent for a moment, then came an, "Oh."
"Yeah," Sandy shouted, spreading her arms. "So how about giving it back? You don't need Buttercup Kingdom if you can restore Bee-Zharia to its former glory."
The beebot's finger creaked against its metal chin. The emperor laughed. "I don't care. I'm a mad old bee, and mad old bees get to do mad things."
He swept an arm out and Sandy's lifting wind vanished. She shrieked and fell, but Frank caught her.
"We're going old school," Sandy growled, changing Chaos Theory's clip as the emperor soared away. "Be my wings, Frank. Fresh Bobby! Do you have the boom box?"
"Is the mixtape still in?"
Sandy's eyes narrowed. "Flip in the A-side."
A mighty riff resonated in the beehive's hollow. Backed by Speed Metal, the chase was on.
The emperor's giant robot burst out of the hive into the garden of one Patty Branson, who was celebrating her 84th birthday with a moonlight romp with her lover, Tim. The couple was so caught up in their lovemaking that neither noticed the robot nor the two butterflies and a sylph chasing it—although Tim did mutter something about "those damn kids and their rock music."
The beebot blasted the butterflies with missiles and lasers, chipping flowerpots and knocking over mailboxes as they flew over the sleeping city. The lights of the verdant lands of Oak Ridge Botanical Garden, home to Buttercup Kingdom, shone across the river.
"You cannot stop me," cried the emperor. "My army is endless! They will blacken the moon as they—" He bit his tongue, then screeched, "Aagh! I forgot to order the assault!"
He pulled to a halt, spun around and shot back towards the hive.
"Frank, drop me!" Sandy said when the beebot passed. Even as Frank let go, Sandy's sparkles surrounded her. The wind waned with a command from the emperor—but not before it had launched Sandy after him. Wings wrapped around her body, Sandy bulleted through the air and caught onto the beebot's leg.
She scaled the frame to the cockpit and popped up with a grin to face the emperor. The beebot stuttered when he jumped back in his seat.
Sandy smashed Chaos Theory through the window and grabbed the emperor by the collar. "Release Princess Buttercup and I might not break your legs," she growled.
"I can't!" the emperor said, struggling in her grip. "The robot needs to be powered off first. You need to let me land."
Sandy arched her mouth, nodding, then said, "Or I could do this."
She pressed the muzzle against the control panel and fired. The beebot went limp with a bzzziuw.
"Nooo!" shrieked the emperor, grabbing his antennae when the stolen magic began to flow towards Bee-Zharia as low-riding northern lights. "You bastard! My beautiful beebot!"
Sandy heard a hatch opening below and the cry of the princess. She dropped off and fell after her.
"Wait! I can't open my seatbelt now!" came the emperor's scream.
Sandy was too far to hear, weaving up a counter-wind to slow the princess' fall, then halt it completely. They floated in place until Frank and Fresh Bobby caught up. The beebot fell into the waves in the distance.
"Princess Buttercup!" Frank said. "Are you hurt?"
"No, thanks to Alasandra," the princess said, shaking but trying to put on a smile. "When we get home, I'll see to it you're all knighted."
She faced Sandy to find her staring towards where the beebot fell.
"Did anyone notice if the emperor made it out?" Sandy said with a frown.
"It was way too far to see—" Frank began, but Sandy was already halfway across the river.
She plunged into the water. The beebot had sunk out of sight.
Sandy swam until her lungs ached. When she was about to give up and turned, she noticed rising bubbles. The emperor swam towards her, arms flailing desperately… until they slowed, then ceased moving. Sandy kicked down, caught him and swam up, gasping for breath when she reached the surface.
The butterflies came to her in a solemn mood. The emperor lay still in her arms. Sandy made a hesitant sound, but before she came up with anything to say, the emperor began to splutter and cough out water. He drew breath, eyes opening to wander around until they settled on Sandy.
"You saved me," he whispered. "After all I've done, you saved me?"
Sandy chewed her lip, shot Frank a glance. "Um…"
"Awkward," Fresh Bobby said in a singsong tone.
"I actually wanted to confirm the kill," Sandy said.
"What?" the emperor said tonelessly.
"If you don't give the order to strike, the army stays on stand-by. One of your daughters becomes the empress, and none of them is a mad old bee. There will be no war."
The emperor's eyes widened at the click of Frank's gun.
Two weeks after Princess Buttercup had announced the winner of Switzerland's Kinders Kan Zing, a knock came on Sandy's motel room door.
"Nice getup," Sandy said as Frank entered. He'd replaced the scruffy duster and fedora with a sea-blue suit and a matching homburg hat.
"I'm on my way to a birthday party. Thought I'd drop the tickets on the way," Frank said, handing her an envelope. "A limo will pick you up tomorrow morning. Sugarwing Bart was a bit disappointed you didn't want him along."
Sandy shrugged. "Can't be helped. I've, uh, met someone."
Frank cocked a brow. "When?"
"While getting my bike back from Bee-Zharia."
"Ooh! A bee? How progressive!" Frank gushed, sitting on the bed. "Who is it? Do I know him?"
"I've learned," Sandy said slowly, "that I'm mostly straight."
Frank's face went blank.
"Don't tell Fresh Bobby."
Frank shook his head. "I'm already sick of his fan fiction. If he knew his ship's afloat, there'd be no end to it."
Sandy went back to packing, then noticed Frank hesitating. "Was there something else?"
Frank tented his fingers. "The princess wants you back in the Royal Butterfly Guard."
Sandy froze. "Uh, n-no thanks."
Frank got up. "Thought as much, but had to ask. Don't be a stranger, you hear?"
He closed the door. Sandy continued getting her things together, but after a moment closed her suitcase and slammed it with a fist. She ran out to find Frank turning to the street.
"Hey!" she called. Frank stopped. She chewed her lip walking up. "If you ever need me, I'll…" She swallowed hard, waved her hand in an insouciant gesture. "I'm okay being magic. I still prefer brawn but…" She shoved her hands in her pockets. "Fresh Bobby's got the muscles for a better pose. We make a good team."
Frank smiled. "Are you saying I'll see you at the office?"
Sandy bowed her head. A smile pushed through. "If I can scribble an honorary prefix of 'private' on my name tag."
Frank laughed, then offered a hand. "Heck, I'll scribble it myself. Welcome back, Operative Darkroot."
She returned to her room, hand lingering on the knob after she'd pulled the door shut. Heaving a sigh, she leaned against it.
"Back in the guard, huh," she muttered, watching the ceiling fan spin. "You did good, Darkroot. Try to stay still for five minutes this time."
Sandy went to the cassette player on the nightstand beside her bed and opened the slot. She listened to the ominous opening strings of Sandy's End Theme Compilation, stepped back and locked eyes with her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She slowly approached it in a dramatic fashion, maintained the stare while closing the door and turned off the light when the track ended.
This story originally appeared in The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror vol. 4.