From the author: Jay (who might be made of dust bunnies) is apprenticed to a craftswoman in small workshop at the crossroads of fiction where they create props for all your fictional needs.
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Bells chimed in the empty storefront that waited for us at the top of the stairs. The boss closed her eyes and tilted her head to assess their tone.
“Iron, pitched low, minimal tuning. It’s probably high fantasy up there.”
I shrugged over the collection of banshee skulls I was cleaning for a future wind-chime. “Cool.” I was her subordinate, and the fantasy upstairs would need a young apprentice to cast aside before she could make a grand entrance as some wizened old shopkeeper.
Were it the eerie insectoid hum of space-opera, I’d answer as the rookie, but the roles are pretty much the same.
I’ve been here for as long as I’ve had memories, and the boss insists she worked me up from an old tee shirt and some dust bunnies from underneath the cabinets, but it makes no difference where I came from. First calls in fantasy were for the apprentice. I snagged the cleanest skull off my table as I ascended the stairs.
“Wear a cloak,” called the boss. She never thinks I’m ready for fantasy in my grubby tee shirts and denim, that I need another eighty pounds of lace and an eye patch if I’m to meet any princesses. But it’s rarely princesses who come to the idea shop, and wizards are too absent-minded to ever mind my denim jeans.
I settled into a stiff, wool cloak, worn thin at the shoulders, and stepped out into the storefront looking like an urchin. Whatever my work clothes, the closet held some bland accessory for the narration to focus on. Something to guard against a full position in the story. Apprentices are always being whisked away into some wild adventure, but I liked my work here. Adventure would crowd my crafting time.
The floor was well worn rough-hewn planks, as heavy as the timbers that spanned the low ceiling. A few baubles stood ready on the shelves against the back wall; fairy hearts preserved in alcohol, werewolf teeth. I recognized the contraption I’d been building to hold my banshee skulls, its parts disassembled for visual interest, and I cursed that I’d have to reconfigure it when the scene was finished.
A displaced prince in too-fine fabric ran his too-clean fingers over my wind chime and I caught his attention with a cough. He looked up as though I’d insulted his mother.
“Boy,” he said, and I didn’t bother correcting him. “Where is your master?”
I grinned and presented my skull with just enough flourish to send a bit of air past its teeth. The thing shimmered with the threat of a scream, vibrating as I set it in his hands.
“Hold this a moment, please.” He’d soon find the magic sword I’d forged for him last week, and I figured the skull might be nice for ruminating. Maybe he’d get a metaphor out of it while I searched the back room for my ‘master.’
I stepped through the door and found a landing stocked with dried greens and oak barrels. From the prince’s position, the barrels hid the stairs that led down into the vast expanse beneath the idea shop where freeze dried mermaid song shared shelves with brass cogs that ground steam into magic. I closed the door behind me and called out for the boss. She told me off for interrupting her without looking up from her lathe.
“He wants someone older.”
“So find a statelier cloak,” she grumbled.
I should have. In truth I was capable of any role the displaced prince might ask of me, but in equal truth I liked to watch the boss work. Where I was capable, she was elegant. She slipped into dialects that matched any story’s feel. Her mannerisms quietly mirrored and elevated any character she spoke to. I could craft Objects of Import, but she could build Persons.
I gladly deferred all master roles to her. And I was not above lying to do so.
“I tried. I looked like a wolf impersonating a grandmother.”
The steady thrum of her lathe slowed to a stop. She set down her chisels and studied me for a moment with eyes narrowed and jaw set.
She pulled her hair up to a careless bun and threw a long wool jacket over her shoulders. Embroidered bats trailed along its edges in thread a shade darker than the fabric. I wanted to laugh at the frippery but the more I studied it, the prettier they became. I could see the careful hand that stitched them for no purpose outside of beauty. A pit opened in my stomach, a deep well of shame for the wind chime I had been crafting. It was clever, but it was not beautiful. I could do so much better than a wind chime made of banshee skulls.
The boss paused just before the landing and turned to study my costume. I winced as she clucked over the jeans under my cloak.
“We can rely on the suspension of disbelief, but there’s no reason to strain it.”
She took a pair of silver spectacles out of her pocket and fit the round frames to rest over my nose, then combed my hair back in a sweeping pompadour. The glasses felt right to my eyes, and I liked my face behind them, but I protested their presence.
“They’re not for the story,” said the boss. “They’re for you. You’re a little nearsighted.”
“Don’t go assigning me attributes.”
She winked and opened the door. The prince hurried to her. His face was ashen, his hands were shaking, and he looked for all the world like a man about to embark on a great quest to free his country from an unspeakable evil.
“You need a sword,” she said, and the prince shook his head.
“I have one.”
The boss grunted and glanced at me. I’d been insistent that last week’s shop time was devoted to an unbreakable sword forged from the iron drawn out of dragons’ blood. I held up my hands, sheepish, but unapologetic. Someone would find use for it.
The prince looked me over and seemed to calm. “I require a craftsman.” He crossed the floor and took my hands in his and I pulled away before he could reflect on the coolness of my fingers or the color of my skin.
“No you don’t,” I said. The boss’s eyebrows lifted, warning me off arguments. Behind her, I saw the wall shimmer and turn to heavy leaded glass. A street swirled into view, cobblestones and dark figures with brimmed hats pulled low over their faces.
The prince ran his fingers over the scruff at his chin. “They tell me you once built a helm that could make the wearer’s voice as unquestionable as a god’s.”
I stepped back from him. The boss was looking sheepish now, and she raised her hand to claim responsibility.
“You!” The prince sneered at her. “It has driven my kingdom mad. My own father exiled me to save me from his voice, my mother—”
“You’re a sequel,” she mused. “Do you want me for a cameo?”
The prince drew his sword and held its point at her throat. “I want you for a villain.”
“We do not swordfight in the idea shop!” Both stared at me as though they had forgotten I was there and I made note to celebrate my invisibility once we were out of mortal peril.
“They’re right,” said the boss. “We’re outside traditional narrative space for swordfights.”
“I don’t care about tradition!” screamed the prince, and I threw the banshee skull against the wall.
Air whistled through its teeth and the wail shattered his sword, the window, the lenses of my new pince-nez. Glass sprayed across my face but none cut deep. The prince’s sword was in pieces on the floor. And the boss was still standing. A faint pink line ran across her neck where a shard had grazed her.
“Get out.” My voice was deep with authority. The jeans darkened to match the cloak, my white shirt tailored to fit my shoulders, and the cloak reformed as a velvet jacket. I stuck my hands in the pockets and revelled for a moment in the stately wardrobe. The prince spat at my boss as he left.
“We’ll meet again.”
Expressionless, she watched him go.
“You were supposed to be my safety net,” said the boss. Her voice was soft and sorrowful. Her shoes were finely detailed, shiny and black, crossed with tiny scars at the edges of the leather. She kept them well-oiled but that didn’t mask the wear. A Betsy might wear such shoes, but they wouldn’t let her walk back into the storeroom
“It’s the apprentices who go off on adventures. Headstrong, know-nothing kids who meet transformative tribulations and have their whole world shaken. I am too old for world shaking!” Betsy stamped her feet against the deep grain of the floor. Her hands shook in fists at her side, but they were not old. Lined, yes, worked over with her years in the shop, stained wine dark at the end of her pinky. It could be mistaken for a birthmark but I knew it for apple poison which never rinsed fully clean. Those hands were barely past fifty, and not near old enough to forego an adventure.
“I’ll keep good care of the shop,” I said. “I’ve already got a few designs for next week’s meeting with the mermaids.”
“Merpeople,” she corrected. “You aren’t ready to handle this place on your own.”
But I was dressed for it, and I could make as well as her. I had her lists of story, all their intersections mapped, contingencies for new genres and potential props needed within.
“You can’t stay here. I think you’re meant to be his villain.”
Her eyes were tearing and I had never noticed how beautiful and deep they were before. Had they always been brown? She ran a hand over the silver strands of hair at her temple. I was so small in her story, barely a face that she was leaving behind. She had no choice.
“I won’t be his villain. He’s hurt, and he’s young, and he thinks killing me will solve his problems. Maybe I can just forge a new helm, or melt the first one down…”
“No one comes out of a story unchanged, Betsy,” I said. It was risky, naming her like that. I could feel a gentle pull on my tongue, an attempt at importance, but I was steadfastly tedious with my hands in my pockets.
She nodded, resigned, with eyes to the floor. My boss for countless years, I couldn’t let her leave this way. An ordinary character, thrown out of the idea shop to discover a world. I crossed the divide and I swept her up in a hug, and then set her down before proximity made me interesting. Then I held out an object to her and dropped it into her open hand.
“What does it do?”
“Nothing. It has no significant color, size, or density. It doesn’t fit into any locks, it holds no value, and it carries no magic.”
She smiled through her tears and slipped it into her pocket where no narration would find it. “To remember my tenure here.”
“You’ll always be at least one rock bigger than the story. And villains don’t carry pebbles in their pockets.”
Betsy managed to laugh. It was probably her last for a little while. The clouds were gathering outside the shop, the ditches were filling up with trash. I’d seen this scenery before. She’d be lucky to find any comic relief before chapter three.
“I never made you out of dust bunnies,” said Betsy. “I had an Object of Import due for a dark fantasy that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Searched all over the back room for inspiration, and found you in a cabinet fussing away at a seaweed crown. When you need one, your apprentice will appear.”
My apprentice. I already felt a little taller, a little wizened. I hunched my shoulders and bit my chapped lips before I started considering an eye patch. “I knew I wasn’t dust,” I said.
“Right, then.” Betsy’s hand was fidgeting in her pocket, running that pebble over her fingers. She turned, ready to step out, ready to face her grand adventure, and then she paused at the threshold. “Good luck, Jay.”
I gripped the counter, terrified as a sense of story washed over me, and when I regained my senses she was gone and I was in an empty room, back in my grubby jeans. My knees shook as I took the stairs back down into the storeroom and I sat behind the lathe. The boss had been spinning whalebone into an ornate spear, and I started up the lathe to continue her work.
This story originally appeared in Cast of Wonders.