Ted Finch admired the captain as he navigated the busy harbor of Theopolis. Theopolis was a mismatch of cities; to the east, mosques and minarets; to the west, castle turrets; to the north, tall metal boxes with windows; to the south, lush open pasture. In the harbor the boats were as varied, made of wood and metal, some with pillars of steam issuing from columns, some with crews of men rowing sturdy oars in unison, and some powered in ways Ted had never seen, but understood that some day man would see.
Ted hailed from the Age of Reason, a time of the reawakening of science and the arts in his country, England. Theopolis, a place in no country, showed the possible and the impossible, the dreams of science and the science of dreams. He was one of the few mortal men to see it, something he owed to Galen and his wandering troop of thespians. The journey to Theopolis was proof that the theatrical life was the best life.
How Galen had gained the attention or the permission of these muses Ted didn’t know, but he had expected there was more to Galen than seemed apparent under his Mediterranean mop of hair and beard. The troop planned to perform Romeo and Juliet for a luminary named Voltaire. Galen had alluded that Voltaire would change the nature of politics some time in the future.
“What do you think of it?” Galen asked him, expanding his arm over the scene. In scale, Galen was head and shoulders shorter than Ted, dark and muscular, and, Ted was certain, much older than he looked. Facing the brave new eighteenth century, Galen had tied his hair back and trimmed his beard, but his hair could not escape its heritage and curled out of captivity like Medusa’s snakes. Ted was clean-shaven and lithe, like both a cat and a good actor should be.
“I think,” said Ted, “that it is a pale copy of the real world. It tries too hard to do too much.”
“But,” said Galen, “it is the entirety of the world in one place. It is not copying. It is.”
“It is a city jumble stuffed into a trunk. However,” Ted looked back at the city, “we shall see if they like Shakespeare.”
Galen rolled a rack of swords to a strategic spot for one of the opening fight scenes, motioning to him with his free hand. Ted lobbed his cape over one shoulder. He strode to the edge of the curtain. “Full house?”
Galen peeked between the purple velvet. “All the boxes are full. There are citizens standing in the back. There,” Galen jabbed with a stubby finger, “in that box, Voltaire.”
“I thought the gods stayed away from politics.”
“Some say that politics make gods.” Galen shrugged. “If he falls asleep, we will write him off. Don’t make him fall asleep. I would never live that down.”
“Perish the thought.” Ted’s eyes continued to sweep the audience of muses, of sailors in port standing in the back, of the crème of musely society. His eyes lighted on two women in a box across from Voltaire. They were framed by intricate ivory trim surrounding them like solid lace.
“Ariadne is throwing one of her fits tonight,” Galen said. “She doesn’t know if she wants to do the balcony scene. I think it was easier before they let women back into the theater. Would you talk to her? She might listen to you, or take it as a challenge to her ego, or…something.”
Galen’s eyes followed Ted’s. “You aren’t even listening to me! I am the very glue which holds this theater together, and yet you are observing women. Do you care nothing for the production, for the troop?”
“Who are they?”
Galen glanced out again. “Oh,” he said, sounding disinterested. “Those are muses that only live in dreams.”
“Only in dreams?” Ted echoed.
“Which is why you’ve never seen their like. The one with the black hair is called Sister Night. The pale one is Sister Moon. Since you will not sooth our own savage beast with words,” his voice teased, “maybe I can get one of them to play the balcony scene. Which one do you like?”
Ted didn’t see Galen throw his hands in the air. Sister Night had sharp features like a bird’s, with straight hair as black as pitch. She wore a white jade comb, from which dangled resplendent metal seeds, in front of a topknot of waxed hair, and the rest of her mane cascaded over her honey colored shoulders and spilled onto green silk. Sister Moon glowed a pale white, like the reflection of stars on the snow in winter, her hair wrapped in silver ribbons and red jewels. She smiled slightly at a remark from her companion, a slight tip of pouty lips. Ted felt his world tilt slightly.
“Yes,” he said. “They are worth some poetry, I think.”
Galen drew a sword and handed it to him. “I don’t think so. I don’t think she would give you a moment’s notice. Either she. Here. You’ll need this for Ariadne.”
Ted held his sword at ready. “You know little of women. Tonight I am Romeo, and the world is full of possibility.”
Ted rapped on the door of Ariadne’s dressing room. Tea, Ariadne’s maid, opened the door and rolled her eyes meaningfully, indicating that now was not a good time. He could see Ariadne’s reflection in the wavy mirror, her beauty distorted. She was by most standards comely: pale skin, dark luxurious hair that bounced in ringlets, a regal nose, and high cheekbones. Her eyes and cheeks were red. There had been words with Galen and most likely a fit of anger after. Galen put up with her because she was brilliant and usually could be managed. However, some nights, she rode the razor’s edge of dismissal from the troop. Conversely, Galen could lose a gifted actress at any time if she decided to walk away on a whim. It was an uneasy truce which sometimes exploded.
“Did Galen send you?” she said with studied apathy.
Ted closed the door. “I wonder what I would do without Juliet tonight. As good as I am, they are not here to see Romeo. The love story is the important thing.”
“Of course I understand that! But you don’t understand what I’ve had to endure! He had”—Ted was sure that the infamous he had to be Galen—“he had the gall to suggest that among these women, I was plain. Plain!”
Ted scooped her into his arms. Galen was at times intuitively wise, and at other times ham fisted. “Shhh. Of course, that’s not true.”
“If he thinks they are so beautiful, he can just have one of them act! See what he thinks of me then!” Her bottom lip protruded. She was a heavy-eyed child who had lost candy or her favorite doll. Ted knew that he had to walk carefully, or she could turn on him in rage.
“There could be no other Juliet, not even here,” he soothed. “Paint your face, let Tea brush your hair, and let us give them a performance the like of which they’ve never seen.”
“You don’t care about me, or my feelings. You just care about getting me on stage!”
“Think, Ariadne! The audience you are performing in front of this evening are gods. What if you were to catch one of their fancies? Wouldn’t that be fitting, for you to be immortalized by them in love?”
She smiled. “Oooh, you’re good.”
He touched his hand to the brim of his cap. “I’ll see you on stage, Juliet.”
So far, the muses had received the play well. Ariadne was a stiff Juliet. Galen’s presence backstage reminded her that her vanity had been wounded, and each time on stage pitched her more strongly into opposing the balcony scene. When it was time, Ted noted her silhouette with some relief in the tower above. As he walked out of the wings, he realized the profile wasn’t hers. The lights dimmed, and the glow made him realize that his fellow performer was Sister Moon.
“Ariadne wouldn’t do it,” Galen whispered. “I talked your beloved into it.”
“Does she know the lines?” asked Ted voce sotto. “That’s what’s most important.”
“Muses have eidetic memory, my friend. I can not answer for her acting. She is slightly reticent.”
“You did this on purpose!”
“Of course I did! I was anxious to find anyone!”
Ted was on. He spoke the lines. “…She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that? Her eye discourses: I will answer it. I am too bold: ‘tis not to me she speaks.”
When Sister Moon stepped forward, the audience applauded. They knew their own. Sister Moon tried to cover her embarrassment with a slender hand. Ted almost stopped speaking. Her actions suited the lines perfectly. Was she acting? No, she was inspiring. It was what muses did. He let the joy of his craft wash over him.
Ariadne was a better actress. The lines were, however, delivered to great effect with a quiet sweetness. For the scene, Ted dared to think that she could feel for him. He rode the waves of emotion which came from that happy thought.
She spoke again. Her eyes, which were not blue or green or any color, cut through to his center. “…my bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep: the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite…”
She disappeared inside the balcony. He transformed into Romeo, longing for her. Ariadne returned to the balcony and Ted smirked. Jealous, no doubt. Galen had known what he was doing. The muses applauded. As Ted moved through the lines he knew well enough to speak without thought, he wondered if he would ever see Sister Moon again.
Ted exited into the wings as Michel began his lines. He followed Ariadne’s voice to a heated argument with Galen. Her brown curls tossed as she shook her head.
“No! I will not be replaced!”
Galen lowered his hands together. “You may wish to be quieter. You know the performance is on stage, not here.”
“You did that on purpose.”
“You deserved it! Maybe she’ll come with us, for the rest of the tour! I need actresses who act, not actresses who throw fits and walk away from their performances! What do you think of that?”
Ariadne’s eyes flashed, hot. Her hand moved to slap Galen’s face. Ted caught her wrist. “Not too hasty. We need Galen. To tear down the stage, if nothing else.”
“Don’t you dare make excuses for him! You were loving it! Saying your lines to her like you meant them!” Her eyes narrowed. “Did you?”
“It’s what I do,” said Ted. “I act. Convincingly and well.”
Her grin was impish. “So do I.” Suddenly, she kissed him deeply. He dropped her hand, surprised only for a moment. “Top that,” she said.
Ted scooped his arm around the small of her back, tipped her backwards, kissed her strongly, and stood her upright. Galen shook his head. “Done,” Ted said curtly. He headed for his dressing room.
Ariadne watched him go. “He loves me,” she said. She returned to the wings for her entrance.
“Oh,” said Galen, “that was a mistake.”
Xiao Ping glided down the grand marble hallway, and entered the room where Rumor sat, scribbling in a giant book with a quill. “Everyone missed you,” said Xiao Ping. “They wanted to congratulate you for your performance last night.”
Rumor’s voice shook. “You are teasing. I shouldn’t have done it. It was a mistake.” She put the quill down on a shelf and placed her hands in her lap.
Xiao Ping repeated, “Everyone missed you. They said, ‘Where is Sister Moon?’ or ‘Will Sister Moon become a traveling dramatist now, and what will you do in the dreaming all by yourself?’ Everyone wanted to congratulate you on your hidden talent.”
“It should have been you. You are so much better at that sort of thing.”
“I think Galen has an eye for acting ability. So I have heard. Besides, I would not have acted unless the role was Portia. I told him so.”
Rumor’s eyes scanned the page, ignoring Xiao Ping. “I prefer less public work.”
“You are quick to be helpful. It is to your merit.” Xiao Ping moved to the other side of the table, to be in view. “The actor, Romeo, he is asking about you too.”
“Is he?” Rumor took the quill and dipped its nib in a bottle of ink. The ink sparkled silver and blue as she shook a drop of it onto the blotter.
“Yes. He asked me your name, and where you could be found.”
Rumor’s eyes widened. “They often do that, after. You didn’t tell him?”
“Why?” There was a hint of playfulness in Xiao Ping’s voice.
“Because I—he—” Rumor pushed the sentence out. “I couldn’t see him again. I am a muse. He is a mortal. He might think he is in love with me, when he is merely inspired.”
“What more is love than inspiration?” said Xiao Ping. “The question isn’t how he feels about you. The question is how do you feel about him. I told him nothing, but I told him I would, only if you gave me permission.”
“No,” said Rumor. She returned to scribbling. “You know how I feel about taking advantage of mortals. It will only turn out badly.”
“As you will,” said Xiao Ping. “It was doomed to failure, as you say. He a mortal, you an immortal, never shall the two meet. I believe you have lectured me on this topic before.”
“I have. In the past. I wish you would have taken my advice.”
“It is as you say,” said Xiao Ping. “Mortals are nothing but difficulty and pain.”
“I know you feel I am too isolated, but I can not risk what you have before.”
“Yes,” said Xiao Ping. “Even though I have loved and lived, my heart has been broken.” She stopped at the doorway.
“You have cried before, but then again, you always go back to men. I don’t understand why you risk love again and again. For what?”
“I am a flawed creature,” said Xiao Ping. “Perhaps someone as flawed as I could comfort your Romeo? No, that would be too much to hope. Still, I will try, for his sake.”
Silence swelled between them. Xiao Ping counted to five. “Yes,” said Rumor. “I have changed my mind. Yes. I will see him.”
Xiao Ping smiled as she left the room, her silks rustling and Rumor’s quill scribbling.
Ted knew he was dreaming. He was moving his feet, and there should have been noise from the footsteps, but when he looked down, his feet weren’t quite on the ground. Then the ground disappeared altogether, confirming his suspicions.
Sister Night was waiting for him, wearing a gown woven of golden light. Her long hair was braided and ornamented with diamonds which twinkled red and blue. “Romeo,” she bowed, her hands tucked inside large sleeves, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance once more.”
“My name is Theodore Finch. My friends, among whom I hope I may number you, call me Ted. Sister Night, you are much more vivid than my usual dreams.”
“It is my humble duty to be more vivid than anything you have experienced,” she said. “I am a muse, one that men find inspirational in matters of love and poetry. Yet, I am not your muse today.
“You can visit my dreams?”
“We can all visit your dreams, Ted. It is what we do, whether those dreams are during the day or night. I trust you are not uncomfortable in my presence.”
“You are actually here?”
“I am. I can only exist in dreams. You can come to the muses, but we cannot come to the mortal realms.”
Interesting. Ted wondered if Sister Night and Sister Moon were real women. “Am I to look forward to this sort of visit every night?”
“You are a fortunate man, but you are not so fortunate as that. Before, you asked me of my friend, Sister Moon.”
“Yes I did.” Ted took a deep breath to calm himself. He didn’t want to appear too eager. “Will she see me again?”
“She thinks she will. However, she is my sister, and I will not have her used by you.”
“I would never mistreat a lady!”
“Oh? This is not your reputation. People in your profession are…looser by nature. I know artists. I know how passionately they love, and how fickle they can be. My friend is an innocent. She knows little of your waking world, frequenting the dreams of children mostly, and using my life as the measure of romantic success. You would be her first paramour. The price I would make you pay if harm came to her, I can tell you, would make you wish you’d never been born.” Clouds swirled up from the mist and the air cooled. Sister Night had a sense of the theatrical as well.
“Forgive me,” said Ted. “Obviously you value your friend. I have played at love. My true emotions, however, are not easily swayed. I promise you, I will do nothing to harm her, or make her feel sorrow in any way. Let me meet her just once.”
“It is her decision to make, and not mine, oh Romeo,” said Sister Night, “and she has made it. I will arrange for you to meet her. We shall see what we shall see.”
Ted woke to a hammering on his door. He slipped on his dressing robe. Ariadne, a vision in a pink silk gown, her dark brown curls dangling over one shoulder, slipped in and closed the door.
Ted raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What can I do for you?”
She slipped her arms about his neck. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” she purred. “I have come to you.”
He grabbed her wrists firmly, removing them, moving her back. “You…have come to me?”
“Oh yes.” She approached again.
“Ariadne, I am flattered by your interest. I am your friend, your fellow thespian, no more than that.”
“Then how do you explain that kiss?” she asked.
“That was your dare. I took you up on it.”
“I don’t believe you.” She stepped forward. She placed her hands on his chest, moving his robe aside, revealing bare skin underneath. She had soft, artistic hands. “You must want me.”
He brushed her hands away. “Why don’t you go back to your room?”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Contrary to what you believe, not every man you meet desires you. Not everyone is your puppet.”
He watched her face change, from shock to anger to storm. As she tried to strike him, he caught her hand. “You!” she yelled. “I know what you want, better than you do!”
“No,” he said. “I could do without you. You are a spoiled child who is adept at creating her own illusions, at seeing exactly what she wants to see, and only that. Could I love you? Only if the script called for it.”
Ariadne’s other hand swung up. She raked sharp nails across his cheek. “You’re hateful! How can you say such things?”
Ted grabbed both of her hands. “It’s time someone told you the truth. You are self-centered and contemptuous and cause grief to the entire company. This will stop now, or you will leave.”
“Leave?” Her face twisted. “I’ll leave, all right! Find yourself another Juliet! See how well you get along!”
“Replacing you is easy!” yelled Ted. “We proved that last week!”
“Hah!” shouted Ariadne. “So this is why! You want to replace me with her, your latest whore! You won’t get away with it! I’ll make you pay, I swear!” She wrenched her wrists free. Angry tears streamed down her flushed face. “I will make her pay too!” She slammed the door so hard, it bounced open again as she left.
Ted bounded out behind her. Her screaming had brought other company members into the hall, and they watched as Ted grabbed her around the waist and picked her up. She kicked. Ted whirled her to face him. “If you ever threaten her again, I swear I will—”
She laughed hysterically. “I will! Do you hear me? I will hurt her!”
Ted raised his hand. Suddenly, Galen was there, breaking Ted’s hold. “Enough!” his voice boomed. “ENOUGH!”
Ted glared at Galen. His look at Ariadne was acidic. He slammed the door on the way back to his room. Ariadne was replaced the next day.
One week later, Ted waited in a tree outside a house in a small village. He welcomed the fresh air of spring. Perched in the branches, he glanced at the darkened house where he knew she was. Crickets and frogs chorused him. He felt possibility in the night air. Certainly, it was all a dream, but it felt very real.
Rumor exited out of the house. The night rays glittered in her royal blue gown. Her hair fanned out behind her, shining like the moon against the dark sky. He slipped out of the tree and she saw him almost immediately. He waved a gloved hand. She waved a small hand in response.
“Hello, Sister Moon,” he said with a bow and flourish. “Hello.”
She brushed away a strand of hair which had fallen into her eyes. She smiled nervously at him. “My name is Rumor. Sister Night is only what they call me. Xiao Ping tells me your name is Theodore.”
Rumor? Xiao Ping? “Ted,” he answered. “My mother called me Theodore. It makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong to hear you use it. Unless being so informal makes you uncomfortable?”
“Decorum would dictate I call you Master Finch. That places you at a disadvantage, as I have no family name. Unless you prefer to call me Mistress Rumor?”
“What do you prefer?”
“Artists never waste formality on their muses of inspiration. I admit children never do either. Rumor is fine, Master Finch.”
“Then Ted is also allowable, I hope?”
“We shall try it and see,” said Rumor, nodding. “That is a very fine hat.”
“I thank you.”
“I like the red feather especially. You must be a wealthy thespian. Do all actors have such fine headwear?”
“Only those of us who have hopes of meeting beautiful women in the starlight.”
This was better. “Would you like it?”
“I would look ridiculous wearing your hat.”
“No, not you.” He offered it.
It drooped over her eyes and she looked like a child at play. “There. See?” She held it out. “As it does not suit me, you must take it back.”
“I insist you keep it. It might keep me in your mind a little longer.”
“But it is such a fine hat.”
“Galen will get another for the costumes, I assure you.”
“You mean, this is not even your hat?”
Ted shrugged. “Pity the poor actor for taking what advantage he can.”
“May I walk with you a little while?”
They listened to the crickets chirp. Ted thought about looping his arm through hers, but she had her hands clasped behind her back. “Have you acted before, Juliet?” he asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “I don’t pursue any art especially, although I do fancy myself a dancer, a little. Only when no one is looking.”
“I imagine you are a fine dancer.”
Her look was far away. “In dreams, it’s more like flying. The wind whistles and the light blurs, and the world becomes exactly as you wish.”
“I would like that,” said Ted.
“As to acting, I am no actress. I merely recited the lines.”
“It sounded as though you meant them. That is a mark of skill.”
She boldly took his hands. “It sounded as though you meant them. Muses reflect back. Do you understand what that means?”
“I don’t,” he confessed.
“It means that we are capable of our best when you are capable of yours. It means other things. It means that I know how strongly you feel about me. Maybe more than you know.”
Ted swallowed. “Oh?”
“Of course,” she dropped his hand, “one could argue, as philosophers have in the past, this means a muse can never love anyone, that all we receive are second hand emotions, and what I feel, now, is manufactured in the moment, the passion of an actor who thinks he is in love, and as a result, the passion of a muse who reflects his love.”
“What do you think of such things, Master Finch?”
Ted shook his head. At a moment like this, he didn’t want to follow any train of logic. “I think it hardly matters, if two people decide they fancy each other, and see where the fancy takes them.”
“Even if one of them is not a person?”
“You are a person,” Ted said with finality.
“I’m not,” Rumor said, voice steady. “I think I love you.”
“Well,” said Ted, “muse or not, that’s all we humans get anyway. The thought. We never know the truth of it, but we hope for the truth.”
“Now,” said Ted, “if this were a normal courtship, I would write you poetry, serenade you, sit outside your balcony window.”
“But I am a muse,” said Rumor. “Men have taken muses to their bed with very little preamble in the past, you know.”
He swallowed again. “Is that what you want?”
“I have never been in love before,” she said, “reflected or truthful. I would like to pretend to be human, and think you love me. I would like for you to treat me as your beloved.”
“This all seems very contractual.”
She pulled him toward her. “It is not. It is all based on your love for me, and it seems your love is not lust, but rather something more akin to—”
He stopped her with a kiss. The light within her brightened.They kissed again, her lips soft and tender, and he counted himself happy.
Xiao Ping heard her singing the next morning. She found Rumor in the large tub, bathing. “Well?” she asked.
“Oh,” said Rumor, “I believe he loves me!”
“No one knows better than you. That’s always how it is. Perhaps now you’ve experienced the reflection of his love, perhaps you think me a little less foolish now?”
Rumor threw an arm over the edge of the tub. “He loves me, not like your men seem to love you. They want your body first. He only kissed me.”
Xiao Ping crouched beside her. In the dreaming, her skirt would not get wet with bubbles or water. “Whereas this one wants your soul, and you haven’t one to give him. I wonder which kind of man is worse.”
“You are very harsh.”
Xiao Ping dipped a nearby pitcher of water into the tub. “We attract a very different kind of man. Be careful with this one. He thinks you are real, which can only lead to disappointment for both you and him.”
“In what way am I not real?”
“You see, you reflect his thoughts, not yours. There have been stories of muses who leave Theopolis to live in the mortal world, because they believed they were in love. What makes you is inspiration.” She handed the pitcher to Rumor. “Every day life removes inspiration, tarnishes it. What does it do to us?”
Rumor rinsed her hair. “You know as well as I do we can never leave the dreaming.”
“I thank the gods for it.” Xiao Ping rolled up one sleeve and picked up soap. “It keeps me from being a ruined woman, and it keeps you from becoming a fat housewife.”
Rumor threw both arms over the edge of the tub, twisting her body. Xiao Ping soaped her back, over the small curves, the bright skin. “To live with someone forever. Isn’t that a glorious dream?”
“Yes. It’s his glorious dream. Don’t forget that.”
Galen placed a tankard in front of Ted. “Say that again,” he said.
“I have to leave,” Ted said. “I need some time. I have some things I need to see to.”
“Why would you do that?” said Galen. He drank,a mustache of foam forming on top of his mustache. “You’re a great actor. Is it the money? Because I would give you more.”
“Would you?” The corners of Ted’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “If you talk me into staying I might take you up on it. But no, right now I have another pursuit.”
“It’s a bad idea,” said Galen.
“You don’t even know what I’m about.”
“Whatever it is,” said Galen. “it’s a bad pursuit. What I think is you’re going to try to make a life with Sister Moon, am I right?”
Ted drummed his hands on the sticky bar. Some beer swilled out of his tankard. “You are.”
“I don’t think you understand what’s at stake.”
“What’s to understand? I love her, she loves me.”
“That much I am willing to accede. You realize she can’t love you. At best, she is only a fantasy.”
Ted drained half his glass. “There’s got to be some way I can have her! We love each other, and we want to be together.”
Galen drained his mug, mulling and thinking. “You could find someone to take her place, I suppose.”
“If someone were to take her place in the dreaming, she could leave it. Come here, be with you, be your wife, have your children, that sort of thing.”
The group behind them in the bar began another more raucous song. Ted had an inspiration. “It’s a great pity Ariadne is gone. She’d love to become a muse, to be impossibly beautiful. She’s so vain she would think it all her due.”
“There is some appeal in that,” said Galen. “She hates you. What makes you think she would be at all interested in trading places with your lady love? Hardly an ideal life for her. It gets you something you want, which she’s sure to be against.”
“Do you know where she is?” said Ted.
“Tea told me she returned to her parents. The small town where I found her, where she used to be Mary Tompkins.”
Ted nearly spat out his ale. “Mary Tompkins?” he laughed. “My, how far beauty has fallen!” Ted replaced the empty tankard on the bar. “I’ll leave early tomorrow,” said Ted.
“She won’t do it,” said Galen.
“I am not entirely without resources,” said Ted. “I know how to get her to do what I want.”
Ted slid off the rough wooden bench of the wagon and jumped down to the dusty ground. He tossed the driver a piece of silver. An older woman stirred a large cauldron in the front yard, boiling sheets. Ariadne was scattering feed to chickens. Her hair was tucked under a scarf and she wore an apron. Pastoral, natural, and he dared to think it, much prettier than usual, even when she was in all her wigs and paints.
She saw him and headed into the house. The door slammed.
The older woman’s eyes tracked from Ted to the door, and back. She clutched the stick stoutly, knuckles whitening.
“Please do not be alarmed, madam,” said Ted with a small bow. He removed his hat. “I am a friend of your daughter’s.”
“Aye sir, I can see what impression you made,” she said. “Are you one of those actors?”
“I am. Theodore Finch. Has Ariadne—has Mary mentioned me?”
“Mary hasn’t mentioned anything since she came home, but I can see she was treated most ill.”
Ted tried not to smile in front of the woman. To imagine Ariadne as a wronged flower, as opposed to a yapping lap dog, was almost too much for his composure. “I am not certain of the reason for her dismissal, but as a friend I’ve come to apologize on the part of the company, and to offer my support.”
“Liar!” One of the shutters opened and Ariadne appeared, face red. “You liar! You had me dismissed!”
Her mother stirred the laundry. “Do you want me to fetch your father or Edward to escort this gentleman home?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Ariadne. “I can take care of the likes of Theodore Finch.”
“I am truly sorry for all that’s happened,” said Ted. “It was entirely my fault, as you say. I’ve had a chance to reconsider my actions, and I was wrong, terribly wrong.”
“Further, you were right. About a lot of things. I guess”—he paused for dramatic effect—“I guess that it’s too late, for everything now. I will regret my actions for the rest of my life. Pray, excuse me. I had to try.” He replaced his hat and started to walk away. She was an actress, and she should know better. But she was an actress, and that made her the most gullible of creatures, more likely to believe fantasy than the common man on the street. He imagined it would take a matter of minutes.
“Wait!” He turned to see her racing towards him, and she placed a soft hand on his arm. “You really didn’t know? About Galen?”
“And the muse?” she said. “What about her?”
“She means nothing to me,” he said. “She’s a fantasy. You, on the other hand—”
She placed a finger on his lips. “You do love me.”
“And I,” he said, “will admit I was interested for in the muse for a short time, but no longer. I don’t know, it felt like waking up. I regret everything I said, everything I did. I promise you I will intervene on your behalf, and we can try to get you back into the company. Regardless, I want to take care of you.”
Her smile was like daybreak. “I love you.”
“Get your things,” he said. “We can travel tonight, and meet up with the troupe tomorrow.”
Ariadne’s return performances only enhanced the reputation of the company, and as a woman in love, she proved to be somewhat more manageable than before. As Ted laid in bed beside her sleeping, he realized he was exhausted. His own acting took a toll on his reserves, and managing Ariadne used up what was left.
Her lovemaking was as passionate as her acting. She was experienced, and while he didn’t love her as he loved Rumor, he couldn’t think of anyone else while he was wrapped her in arms, entwined with her body. He had made a noble effort at first, to remain true to the love he meant to bring into the real world, but the intensity of the feelings Ariadne stirred within him made it impossible for him to pay attention or spare thoughts for anyone else. She laughed, cried, screamed, purred like a cat, and cooed like a baby. It was the best lovemaking he’d ever had, made more piquant by her fits and anger, her pouting and her forgiveness. He could never be content with only Ariadne. He could, however, be delighted and satisfied, like a cold summer’s rain after a sweltering day. She lacked the lovely innocence and devotion of Rumor. Rumor lacked the forwardness of Ariadne. Between the two of them, Ted was sure he’d found his ideal woman.
He heard a noise in the front room of their chamber. Pulling on his breeches, he left Ariadne. Rumor was standing by the window, gazing into the night. The apartment in his dream looked the same as it did in real life.
“I see,” she said. “This is what you want for us, and I can’t give it to you. You should have told me. I would have come to your bed.”
“No!” said Ted. “Don’t misunderstand this! This is for us!” He turned her toward him, pulling her closer.
“Oh?” she said, her tone angry. “How? How could this possible be about you and me, when you are making love to another woman?”
Ted blinked. Could Rumor mock him? Could a muse do that? “I want you here, with me, to raise a family.”
“Since you can’t raise a family with me, you intend to raise one with her?”
He tilted her head back. “Galen told me I can send Ariadne into the dreaming, and you can come here in her place. I’m trying to make that happen. She means nothing to me, but I have to make her trust me.”
Tears streaked down her cheeks. “This isn’t right. This isn’t the way to go about it. I feel so confused.”
“I would do anything to make you mine,” he said, his voice trembling. “Anything.”
“That frightens me most of all. To you, I am something to have. You don’t love me at all.”
He pressed his lips to hers, felt her breasts press against him through her dress, felt desire raise in him. Her despair made him want her. “I love you, more than life itself. More than reason.”
“You love yourself! How could you do this to me, to her?”
He kissed her hard, probably hard enough to bruise her lips, and she softened in his arms. She was a reflection of his own emotions. If he loved her, she would love him. “I love you,” he said. “If I have to prove it, I will.” His lips roamed her face and neck.
“No, please,” she said. “I want to know where we stand.”
He stopped. “You don’t want me?”
“Of course I want you! But I’m not her! I won’t be like her! And you will no longer want me. You will cast me aside.”
“I don’t want you to be like her,” he said. “I want the pleasure of your first time. I want you sweet, innocent, and unschooled. Because you are that, are you not, my Rumor?”
She kissed him shyly, and his hand stroked her dress. Her cheeks reddened. Sister Night’s words came back to him; Rumor was innocent and pure. He was tender and careful as he laid her on the floor, as he undressed her slowly and kissed away her tears, as he fondled and built her confidence in pleasure, as he entered her for the first time and she cried out in pain. She tasted sweet, but in the end he found himself a little bored, especially after his evening with Ariadne.
He awoke after they had finished and the last thing he remembered were Rumor’s eyes, realizing that he was indeed making a comparison between his two lovers. Ariadne stirred a little, but did not awaken. He stared at the ceiling. When he saw Rumor again, the next night, he would be more careful about what he thought. He wondered what Ariadne was dreaming of.
“I am no longer interested in Theodore Finch,” Rumor announced to Xiao Ping.
“I don’t wish to talk to your back,” said Xiao Ping. “Turn around and tell me what has happened.”
“He has taken a lover,” said Rumor, making an effort to face Xiao Ping. “A mortal lover.”
“I am sorry,” said Xiao Ping. “I admit to being mistaken about his character. The signs were present, but I let him convince me he would take care of you.”
Rumor’s face was contorted in pain. “He says he loves me, and he wants to trick this other woman into taking my place in the dreaming. But he thought of her, even when we were making love.”
“Oh? You made love?”
“I can not see what attracts you to it,” Rumor said, her voice bitter. “It is no great experience.”
“It can be in the hands of a man who imagines you a goddess,” Xiao Ping mused. “Apparently, Master Finch proves selfish, even in that. So, you no longer wish to have anything to do with him?”
“How can I?” Rumor despaired. “He wishes to replace me. Or for me to share him.”
“You should be done with him,” said Xiao Ping. “Move onto someone new. Their hopes and aspirations will fill you soon enough. You are lovely enough to enchant a dozen men at one time.”
“You know I can’t. He has no desire to let me go!”
“Would you like me to do something? I told him I would punish him if he didn’t do well by you. It strikes me that I must keep my word.”
“I can’t keep you from doing what you must anymore than you can keep me from doing so.”
“It’s true,” said Xiao Ping. “Fate is inevitable.”
Rumor took Xiao Ping’s hand. “I know you have always protected me. Please, help me now.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“I don’t know. He should be punished for what he’s done to me! I want to be free of him.”
“Why not give him everything he wants? Why not give him both of you? Do you not think she has been wronged, and do you not think she deserves vengeance as well?”
“Yes!” Rumor’s eyes glinted. “Get her away from him! He’ll forget her then, and I’ll have him back!”
“Not so hasty. Sometimes the best revenge is to give a mortal exactly what he wishes for.”
“Why would I wish to share him?”
“Do you love him?”
“I love him, and I hate him!”
“Hate is a powerful emotion.” Xiao Ping put her hands in her sleeves. “If his woman finds out what he is doing, you will have an ally in hate and love. Let us grant his wish. Cold, heartless men. They think they can manipulate the world as they want. In reality, we pluck the flowers. He wants everything. He shall have nothing.”
“I swear, Galen, you are all doom. I don’t remember ever agreeing to let you be my mother or my father.” Ted finished lashing Ariadne’s trunk onto the small wagon.
Galen frowned at Ted and Ariadne. “You know, I would beat both of you if I could. You’d deserve it for impudence. I am the only voice of reason you have, and I think this trip ill-advised.”
Ted leaped out of the wagon. “Tell me, oh great and mighty father of us all, how a trip away with my lady fair can be anything but paradise?” Ted squeezed Ariadne’s hand.
“We will be back tomorrow morning, bright and early for the afternoon performance. You’ll see.” Ariadne smiled broadly. “Besides, Galen, we are no great friends. I thought you would be happy to be parted from me.”
“There is your reputation to consider,” Galen grumbled, “as an actress in my company.”
“Since when,” Ted asked, “have you become the patron of virtue?”
“Since I started thinking about our company’s reputation. I would rather you didn’t trifle openly with our lead actress.”
“I am touched,” Ariadne teased, “by your concern. Fear nothing on my account. I am as safe with Ted as I wish to be.”
“Besides,” Ted lowered his voice, “You should be aware that as of yester eve, the proper nuptial knots have been tied.”
“Oh?” Galen’s eyebrows rose. “And what of your plans does this change?”
“It changes none of my plans,” he said. “It enriches all of them.”
“Well, congratulations! Make sure you come back,” said Galen. “Rose has understudied Ariadne, but I do not have anyone to substitute for your Richard the Third.”
“Can you not stick a pillow in your back and make do?”
“Hah,” said Galen. “We meet in Surrey, then. Do not be late.”
The simplest things about Ariadne delighted Ted. They stopped at a roadside, and Ariadne let him plait her curls, trying to tame them enough to intertwine her hair with daisies. It was the first good April day. “You smell like spring,” he said, nuzzling her head. A gentle breeze caressed them.
Ariadne leaned back into his strong arms. “This is perfect.” She turned to face him. “Let’s leave Galen. Let’s go back to my town, have a farm, raise children.”
“You? A housewife? Oh, you were meant for better things. I doubt you could do without the spotlight and the fine clothes.”
“True,” she purred. “I do so need many people to worship me. Unless, of course, you amplify your efforts?”
He laughed. “I will. I promise. I’m out of daisies.”
“I’ll get more,” she laughed. “If you can spare me.”
His arms tightened around her. “No, I don’t think I can.” He kissed her, hard, robbing her breath. The breeze tugged her hair out of the plaits.
When they finished, she stood and dusted the grass off her skirts. “I’ll be back soon. I promise you, I’ll make it worth your wait.” She kissed him, and he watched her disappear into the trees. Ted laid back on the grass.
The question was how long he could keep this up. Rumor was his ideal and he loved the way she looked at him. He wanted to make love to her again, to hold her innocence, to teach her. Yet he did not think he could do without Ariadne’s pleasures, her skill, and her confidence. She could make him beg for more, make him feel like no other lover ever had, and he’d had a few. He could no longer see any reason why he needed to send Ariadne away. The trick was to win Rumor’s approval to his new plan, and to keep Rumor a secret from Ariadne. How hard could it be? Rumor was influenced by his emotions and he could make her want what he wanted. He even wondered if he could make her want Ariadne herself.
The temperature had fallen just a little and he wasn’t sure how long ago he had drifted off. His first thought was for Rumor. Was she coming? He sat up.
The April day was overcast, the sky a pale gray and the wind penetrating when it blew. Xiao Ping crouched near him in the grass. “You have planned everything to masterful perfection,” she complimented. “I envy mortals. They are far more clever than we gods, especially humble minor gods like me and my sisters.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rumor is beside herself. She thinks you don’t love her, she thinks you do love her. She knows the truth of it, but begins to think that the truth of it is acceptable. Your mortal woman would make a fine muse, and I would take her, if you truly wanted my sweet little sister to be your wife. You don’t want that, though, otherwise you would not be troubling my innocent Rumor.”
“I do not mean to trouble her,” said Ted.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Do you remember when we first spoke, and you told me that you would not mistreat her? I informed you there would be consequences if you did, but you probably believe you can make me love you as well. I am a mere woman after all, and we are easily manipulated.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Ted. “I love Rumor.”
“Then all is well.” Xiao Ping stood. “I will take your wife to be my new sister, and I will deliver Rumor to you here, and all will be well. You will make up this mistreatment to her in time, with love and affection.” She glided away, toward the grove, after Ariadne.
“Wait!” said Ted. He scrambled, caught up to her. “I haven’t explained it to her yet. She needs to be told.”
“She is mine if you choose Rumor.”
“I—look, can you give me time?”
Xiao Ping stopped in the middle of the road. Thunder rumbled above them. “Time? For what? It is my understanding this was arranged even before your wife returned to your theatrical company. Isn’t that right?”
Ted floundered. “Are you sure this is what Rumor wants? I wouldn’t want to take her from the dreaming, if she is happiest there.”
“Oh,” said Xiao Ping. She weighed the matter. “Then, I understand you free Rumor, and she is allowed to go about her business, loving and being loved, inspiring other mortals.”
Heavens, no! “I—listen, this is really is no interest of yours, if Rumor finds it acceptable.”
“To be the toy, rather than the beloved or the inspiration of a man is hardly acceptable. It is demeaning to the nature of what muses are. I must be true to my word. You have spoiled Rumor for the work she was made for. Before, she was a caretaker of children. Now, she is no longer innocent. At whose feet must I lay the blame? Yours. I told you I was a muse in matters of love, that I was not your muse. Today, I am. Your story will be one of great tragedy, and I must collect it. If you can not choose, I will choose for you. Choose carefully.”
Ted’s mind raced. He had to buy time, to get Ariadne away from here, to think. “I want to see Rumor,” he said. “I want to see what she will choose.”
“That is what I expected you to say,” said Xiao Ping. “It is the answer of a man who will not choose. Mortal man, I have yet to meet one of you worth our time or our love. I would as soon destroy you as look at you.”
Ted’s eyes fluttered open. Fat raindrops fell on his face. It was paramount he find Ariadne before Xiao Ping found her. He sprinted across blades of wet grass which made water bead on his boots, and he saw Ariadne dancing near a fallen branch in the trees not far. She had gathered a bouquet of dandelions and tucked them in her belt. “What is it?”
“We have to go!”
“I won’t melt, you know. It’s only rain.”
“That’s not it.” He didn’t know, as he reflected, where they could go to escape a muse. He wasn’t sure what to tell her. He really couldn’t tell her anything.
Her face softened. “What, then. What is it?”
“I want to leave. I just want to go.”
In minutes they were back in the wagon. Ariadne held a piece of oilcloth above her head and the rain pounded off it. Her long hair was plastered to her face. Ted’s face was grim as water poured off the brim of his hat. “This isn’t going to work!” Ariadne yelled over the gush of the rain. “We’re going to drown!”
Ted didn’t answer. His jaw set, he was trying to figure out the puzzle. The only way Xiao Ping could hurt him or could take Ariadne was if they made the mistake of sleeping. Well, they could forestall sleep, but not inevitably. He had to find a way to kill Xiao Ping before he fell asleep again. He had to keep Ariadne from falling asleep as well. In order to do that, he had to tell her something.
“You remember Theopolis?” he began, shouting over the rain.
“What?” She pulled her hood over her sopping hair, her face small, her eyes large in the deluge.
“Romeo and Juliet,” Ted yelled. He whipped the reluctant horses and the pace picked up. In a few moments, the road would be muck.
“I remember. God, you were such an ass!”
“You remember Juliet? Remember her?”
“The blond one. One of the muses?” Ariadne laughed. “I was so jealous! I thought you wanted her!”
“Of course not.” He made for a copse of trees. They’d have to wait it out. The leaves guttered water into small streams. The horses snorted steam. Ariadne huddled further into her cloak. “But they thought so too.”
Ted reined the horses to a stop. “Sister Night. She believes I am suited for Sister Moon and not you. She visited me in my dream, and told me she wants to kill you.”
Ted’s lie was punctuated by a flash of lightning, and he waited for Ariadne to say something. In the seconds which followed, the sky rumbled. “What?” Ariadne said the word slowly, carefully, as though she wasn’t certain it was a real word.
“The muses want to kill you. They want to make me come to them.”
Wind shook the branches, dousing them in more water. “Well,” said Ariadne, huddling into her cloak. “Well, they can try to take you.”
“We can’t sleep,” said Ted. “That’s how they find you. In your sleep. In your dreams.”
“Bollocks!” said Ariadne. “We’re not going to hide from them! We’re going to kill them! We’d better take find them first, because if we don’t, they’ll have the advantage.”
Ted hadn’t envisioned her rage, not at all, but he should have. “What do you propose we do?” said Ted. “How do you propose we kill something that isn’t alive, isn’t real?”
“These are muses. They feed off inspiration, right? So, you would have to be able to will them out of your existence, right?” Light shined in her eyes. “Muses don’t have their own ideas. I know about these things. Galen talks and talks. You had to be interested in that muse, because that idea wouldn’t have come into their head alone, absolutely not.”
The rain let up, the sheets falling from the sky becoming separate drops. “You’ve been cheating on me, haven’t you?”
Ted wouldn’t answer her.
She smiled a dangerous smile. “You have. If not in deed, then in thought, most assuredly in thought. You’ve wanted the little blond woman, and she’s come to you. All you have to do is imagine her away. Imagine that you don’t like her. If you’re true to me, you can’t have her, and she won’t want you.”
“What is the harm in me wanting her?”
Ariadne slapped him. “How would you feel if I took another lover? Would that make you satisfied?” She slapped him again. “Is that what you want? How dare you suggest there is no harm in you wanting another woman!”
Ted grabbed her wrist. “Maybe I will trade you for her after all! Maybe I will!”
“Oh, so that was the plan? You’re using me? To bring that colorless girl into the world in my place? Do it, then. You think you have reasons not to sleep now? Send me into the dreaming world and I’ll haunt your sleep. How would that be?”
“Stop it,” Ted said. He grabbed her other wrist. “I’d rather face you here than face you there.”
“You won’t face me here. I’m leaving you. Leaving.”
“I guess I overreached myself,” said Ted. “I see that now. I can’t have you both.”
“You can’t have me at all!” She struggled, trying to pull her wrists out of his grip.
He smiled. “I gain nothing if you leave. If I am going to ingratiate myself into Xiao Ping’s good graces, and regain Rumor, I have to offer something in return. I have to offer my fidelity. I have to show her I am serious about my devotion. I have to get rid of you.”
Ariadne pulled. “Don’t you touch me!”
He lunged forward, hands wrapping around her neck, and she clawed and scratched at his hands, but they were too strong. The rain pattered on the wagon. Her hood fell back and her face reddened. She clutched at his hands, but he wouldn’t let go. She stopped struggling, her movements becoming feeble. Then her eyes rolled back, and her breathing stopped. Still, he squeezed until he was sure. He removed his hands and stared as ugly bruises blossomed on her neck. Her face was locked in a horrified grimace.
Bells tinkled as Xiao Ping floated from nowhere. “I thought you had decided not to give her to me,” she said.
Ted swiveled to see her and Rumor. His beloved’s eyes were cast down. “I’m not asleep!” he protested.
“You are far beyond such self knowledge,” said Xiao Ping. “We arrive in all states of altered consciousness. I would say your sanity is precarious at best right now.”
Ted looked beyond Xiao Ping’s cruel eyes toward Rumor. “I did it for you,” said Ted. “Believe me! I killed her because I loved you!”
“It’s not true,” said Rumor. “You have destroyed the man you were who could love me. I am no longer enough for you.”
“She is right,” said Xiao Ping. “You now belong to me.” Her eyes were cold. “You did this for me. It has ever been written I was your inspiration because of the man you are. Women are your toys. You believe you are the master, rather than the puppet, and your belief has destroyed you.”
Ted leaped from the wagon into the muck, stretching his hands out toward them. His hands passed through.
“You would kill us if you could,” said Rumor. “I can see it in your soul. How could I have ever trusted you, loved you?”
Xiao Ping petted Rumor’s hair. “Because he wanted you to,” she said. “Now that he belongs to me, he no longer affects you.”
Ted looked at his hands which had choked the life out of his wife moments before. “What have you made me do?”
“You give us much too much credit,” said Xiao Ping. “We only inspire what is already in a man. Rumor, please bring me our new sister. You, Theodore Finch, are the luckiest of men. You have what you have wished for. You have managed to keep both of the women you loved. A pity neither loves you. Perhaps you can find comfort in my bed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not.”Rumor walked past him, and his hand passed through her delicate form. The rain didn’t touch her. She floated to Ariadne’s body, took the hand of the dead woman, and lifted the beautiful Ariadne from her body, her brown hair a cloud of curls, her face bewildered and surprised.
“Now,” said Rumor, “you are destined for better things. It’s best to forget the past if you can.”
She looked at Ted. “He—I—I’m dead.”
“You are, but you are not,” said Xiao Ping. “You may go on to God if you like, but I think you would rather stay with us. Here, in Theodore Finch’s dreams.”
Once she grasped the idea, Ted could see that it pleased her. “Yes,” she said. “I would like to repay my husband’s kindness.”
“I am Sister Night,” said Xiao Ping. “Spurned by an emperor, I have made it my business to revenge women like you, ill used. This is Sister Moon, love’s innocence. She will be so, again and again, because men such as this find the likes of her irresistible, as they must find the likes of you, women who shine in perfection, perfect lovers, tempting mistresses. Will you come with us, Sister Rain?”
“Of course,” said Ariadne. “Goodbye, Ted. We’ll see you soon. Unless, of course, you can stay awake.” The three muses faded, Ted’s hands reaching through them like smoke.
Ted sank to the ground, crying. After some time, exhausted, he crawled out of the rain, under the branch, and huddled. Sleep found him, and in his sleep, he cried and despaired and screamed.
This story originally appeared in Needles and Bones .