From Iron Freed
(Content Warning: references to sexual assault)
The magician was scheduled to perform three nights in Venice. On the first night, he conjured the fae; on the second night, the fae escaped.
Gwen’s role as the magician’s assistant usually involved nothing more taxing than smiling, wearing diaphanous gowns, and pretending the magician’s advances were appreciated. Sometimes, when the summoned fae turned out to be a child, she was brought onstage to cradle it and elicit contented sighs from the audience.
For two years, she’d taken the magician at his word that the fae were happy to visit their realm for a few nights. If they looked haunted, or cried, it was only the shock of finding themselves in a strange world, he assured her. The iron cages were for their own protection. They were given every comfort during their visit, in exchange for participating in the magician’s performances.
Then Gwen returned to the theatre late one night. She’d misplaced her hotel key and retraced her steps to find it. All the gilded theatres they toured had ceased to look distinctive within a few short months, and their backstages more so: black caverns dangling thick ropes; curtains in velvet and spectral painted gauze; a maze of cages, glass boxes, and cabinets littered with blades and silk scarves. The incident could have happened in Paris or Vienna or London—but she remembered it was Paris because that was where the magician summoned the fae girl with gossamer sea-blue wings. Her wings spasmed in the dim light of the magician’s candle; Gwen remembered that, and her frantic glassy stare, and the magician’s hand clenched around both of her delicate wrists. Gwen had shut her eyes, but she still heard his harsh, gasping breath, her stifled sobs. She ran, key forgotten.
She ought to have done something. She ought to have seen the pattern, the way his advances tapered off whenever he summoned a fae lady, the way his temper flared when a male arrived instead. Gwen had assumed audiences simply preferred seeing a beautiful woman—that was primarily why she had her job, after all—but that night in Paris, the truth became horribly clear.
It was months before the magician managed to summon another female fae. Gwen endured his attentions through gritted teeth. Then, the relief, and the guilt: a fae woman appeared in Venice.
Gwen stayed at the theatre late, mending a costume. The magician left around midnight, tipping his hat as he departed. Gwen wasn’t fooled; he’d return later, with the key to the fae’s cage that resided always in his vest pocket. She could perhaps have stolen it, with time and planning—and more boldness than she possessed.
Instead, she slipped a blade from the knife-throwing act into the fae woman’s cage.
The fae’s dark eyes stared straight into Gwen, stripping bare her excuses without saying a word. She had vast ebony wings and a mass of shining black curls, and as Gwen left, mute with shame, the fae’s proud, hard face vanished beneath obsidian curls and feathers.
Maybe the magician didn’t return that night after all; maybe the fae was biding her time. Regardless, she chose to conceal the knife until the magician brought her onstage for the second night’s performance. What little Gwen saw from backstage was a blur: black wings unfurling, a splash of the magician’s blood, a flare of light that left them all blinded and screaming while the fae escaped.
The cut in the magician’s shoulder was deep, but he stormed into the night anyway, demanding aid, retribution, recompense. Gwen joined the search party without being asked, her meekness for once an asset. The magician saw her as nothing more than a pretty ornament, overlooking her as both a suspect and a source of help. Not that she planned to help him: she wanted to find the fae first.
Obviously the fae was trying to return home. She’d need a portal, like the one the magician had summoned her through. He used a shallow silver tub, rimmed with iron: silver to attract, water to reflect, iron to weaken once the prey was caught. Venice was a city that glittered; it wouldn’t be hard to find a reflective surface. Water was plentiful, too, of course. She could be anywhere.
Overhead, bells began to toll the hour, drawing Gwen’s gaze up to the golden crosses of the basilica that loomed over the theatre. The fae wouldn’t have gone that way: fae could not walk on consecrated ground, nor could they abide any human worship that wasn’t of them.
Gwen turned from the church and ran for the canals.
Like the theaters, the back alleys of Venice blurred together, indiscernible stretches of black water interrupted by low stone bridges or the occasional gondola. Gwen felt hopelessness weigh her down. The fae had wings; she could be over the Adriatic by now.
Then, suddenly, there she was, bringing Gwen to a halt under a weathered limestone bridge. The fae woman stood on the lowest step, her toes centimeters from the oily water, her dark wings tightly furled back from the cast-iron railings. She held the knife Gwen had left her out over the water and shook one shining drop of crimson from its tip.
A vortex spun to life on the water’s surface. The woman regarded Gwen coolly as emerald light shined through, lush and warm. Gwen could hear birdsong.
“Take me with you,” she whispered.
The magician’s shout reached them from the end of the alley. Gwen shrank against the shadows of the bridge. The fae held up the knife, as if to remind Gwen, or herself, how she’d gained it. Then she reached her free hand out from the mass of black feathers towards Gwen. Her gaze was no longer haughty; it was a small, sad smile of shared suffering and mutual endurance.
Shouts and torches bore down on them, but Gwen refused to look back. She stepped forward, took the fae’s warm hand, and leapt with her into a new, green life.
About the author:
Laura Duerr is a speculative fiction writer and freelancer whose work has appeared in Metaphorosis, Cast of Wonders, and Curiosities. A lifelong Pacific Northwest resident, she lives in Washougal, WA, with her husband, their rescue dog, and a pair of cats.