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Compass Rose, Episode 1: Once Upon a Time FINALE. May not be what you expect. :)

"You will note," said their once-upon rescuer, "that I am heroically refraining from saying I told you so."

"You will note," snarled Tom, "that I am refraining from punching you in the face a second time." Her knuckles were still sore and split from the last punch; who knew that faces could be so damn hard? She made a mental note to punch softer places should the occasion arise again.

Christopher said, "Um, could someone tell me what's going on? What are we doing?" He probably didn't mean to sound quite as plaintive as he did. The white sheet the Dean had given him for modesty was still draped around his shoulders.

Tom, the villain-prototype, and Christopher were sitting on white plastic garden chairs which looked as though they had been extruded from a Seventies orifice. Tom was drinking something that purported to be coffee from a plastic mug (white), Christopher was clutching his sheet and shivering, while their erstwhile betrayer was merely sitting with the tips of his fingers under his chin, looking villainous.

Although, come to think of it, he didn't have much choice when it came to the looking villainous department.

"Waiting for the Dean," said Tom into her mug of coffee.

"I'm not sure it's the Dean we're waiting for," muttered their pet villain.

"What on earth?" asked Christopher.

"You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited," said the saturnine man.

"Prohibited?" asked Tom. "Is this one of your programming things again?"

"We've lost our rights," he said, looking up at the ceiling. "We got rid of them."

Tom gave Christopher a bewildered look. Christopher stared back with all the comprehension of a cocker spaniel puppy attending an astrophysics lecture.

The face of their villain-type threatened to break into a smile, but failed at the last moment. "Once," he intoned, "I was a real turtle."

Christopher got to his feet. "I'll get the Dean," he said. "There's something wrong with him!"

Their long-ago guide heaved a deep sigh of obvious patience and folded his arms. "Neither of you has had any education at all, have you?"

"Time to go," the Dean said, walking past just quickly enough to indicate that hurry was called for.

"Where are we going?" asked Christopher, as they all stood up, drawn into the Dean's wake like so many ducklings.

"What's taking you so long?" asked the Dean, prying open what looked like a computer panel with a fetching old-fashioned tape-drive but which turned out to be a door to -- of course -- a long dark tunnel.

Tom sighed and followed. After a moment, she said to their guide, "Do you know where we're going?"

He replied, "I can guess. But I would prefer not to, given your friend."

It was much longer than Tom wanted to walk -- she rehearsed grumpy monologues in her head, mostly having to do with how much her feet hurt and how little the Dean said about where they were going -- before they reached a large, round room.

Christopher said, looking at the large metal pyramid (helpfully decorated with small blinking lights and some sort of controls near the bottom) which occupied the center of the room, "Is that Godmother?"

A pleasant female voice answered from mid-air, "Please input story, myth, fairy tale, parable, allegory, fiction, plot, or desired outcome."

Christopher recoiled. "Oh my God, it is!"

However, upon taking in the distinct lack of death-bots or murderous knights, he slowly uncoiled. "What are we doing here?"

The voice repeated, "Please input story, myth, fairy tale, parable, allegory, fiction, plot, or desired outcome."

"Um," said Christopher.

"Please input story, myth, fairy tale, parable, allegory, fiction, plot, or desired outcome."

"Dean," said Tom slowly, "What have you done?" Her arms were ridging with horror.

The Dean glanced at her briefly. "Nothing, in the sense you mean."

The once-and-future villain laughed. It started out as a hollow chuckle and escalated into a full-fledged mad-scientist whooping and cackling. Christopher and Tom stared at him in astonishment. The Dean eyed Godmother thoughtfully.

"What on Earth..." started Christopher, then stopped, perhaps remembering that they weren't.

"Are you--" started Tom.

"She's done nothing! Nothing!" He had to pause to get his breath back. "Nothing but show the eternal emptiness of existence, of course! Godmother is dead! Long live Godmother!"

Tom and Christopher stared at him some more.

"Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?" He burst into another cackle of laughter.

Tom looked at the Dean. "I don't..."

The Dean sighed. "AIs are notoriously unstable. It looks like this one died quite a while ago."

Christopher said, "Then what tried to kill us?"

The Dean said, "Automatic security measures. You'll notice they weren't very... efficient."

"And the story?" Christopher asked in a very small voice.

The Dean patted him gently on the shoulder. "Well, you have to understand that the people here don't have any other way of relating to outsiders."

Their once-betrayer leaned against the wall and mopped his forehead on his sleeve. "What the penny public want is plot, and plenty of it; surprises, and plenty of 'em; mystery, as thick as a November fog."

"Did you know about this?" demanded Tom.

He shrugged. "Make something unspeakable and you make it unthinkable."

The Dean gave him an opaque glance. "Well, it's certainly been an education for... Tom and Christopher," she said. "But we really must go."

The villain gave a short, brief nod. The Dean strode toward a small door on the opposite side of the room that Tom could have sworn had not been there before.

Tom paused and asked, "What are you going to do?"

He shrugged. "Practice measurement, practice the sign that means that really means a necessary betrayal, in showing that there is wearing."

She frowned. "What."

The smile which had been hovering for so long finally broke free. It did not make him any more good-looking. "You know, I never really understood Gertrude Stein, either."

Tom gave him an awkward smile and then turned to follow the Dean, who was standing and gesturing Christopher towards the door.

"Wait!" said Christopher. "What about -- shouldn't they know that it's all an illusion, that Godmother doesn't exist? What about that weird war between Godmother and the Merry Men? And, and, the Prince got killed and--"

"You can't solve people's problems for them," said the Dean.

"But can't you at least--"

"Do what? Raise the dead? Save the world? Rescue someone like a prince on a white horse?" The Dean leaned down towards him and said, very quietly, "Not in my mandate."

Christopher reeled back as if slapped.

"We're just going to... leave them here?" Christopher said after a moment.

"Yes," said the Dean. "We leave. They can stay. And wait for Godmother, if they like." And she shoved Christopher through the door.


Quotations used in this episode:

“You'd make me laugh if it wasn't prohibited,” "We've lost our rights," "We got rid of them," and "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?"
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

"Once, I was a real turtle."
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

"What the penny public want is plot, and plenty of it; surprises, and plenty of 'em; mystery, as thick as a November fog."
The Doctor's Wife, Mary Elizabeth Braddon

"Make something unspeakable and you make it unthinkable."
"What Can a Heroine Do?" Joanna Russ

"Practice measurement, practice the sign that means that really means a necessary betrayal, in showing that there is wearing."
"Tender Buttons [A Chair]," Gertrude Stein

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Still no heat in the little Victorian house that could, but that will hopefully change this afternoon. Meanwhile, enjoy.

Tom stared in fascination at the view from her former bird-eyes displayed on the screen. There were people on horseback everywhere. All the horses were white, and about half the people were wearing silver armor with blue bits on, and the other half were... assorted. She thought she recognized some of them from the hunt. The Witch-Queen had swung herself to the top of the fence, where she was balancing precariously in her froggy wellingtons and gesticulating wildly.

The Dean muttered something, yanked some wires out of the box she was holding, and pushed about half of them back in. The view jumped and swung as, presumably, the raven-robot turned its head. Suddenly sound was being transmitted from the mess Tom supposed she ought to call a battle.

Although it might have been a little over the top to call it a “battle,” as it mostly seemed to consist of people riding in circles, shouting, and only occasionally hitting one another.

“You! Call out my warriors!" the Witch-Queen shouted at her minions. "You! Fetch my staff! No, not the castle staff, you IDIOT, I mean my spellcasting staff!”

There was a lot of miscellaneous noise, and then Tom heard Christopher say, in an undertone designed to carry only to the raven he was doubtless still assuming was Tom, “Neither side looks very effective to me. This isn’t much like a storybook battle.” He sounded disappointed.

A number of tall figures (whether human or robot it was not possible to tell) in appropriately spiky black armor marched up just as a panting servant appeared with the Witch-Queen’s carved and jewel-encrusted black staff. She grabbed it and swung it, nearly pasting the servant in the face.

Colorful lines of sparks snaked along the ground, exploding when they hit a number of the knights in silver and blue (and, to be honest, a couple of the Witch-Queen’s hunters as well).

Christopher said, “That’s more like it.”

The black knights waded into battle. Tom thought armored knights looked rather silly, to be honest, but then there was blood and she felt sick.

The silver knights pulled apart -- like a dance move on stage, thought Tom -- and the silly Prince, mounted on a palomino the size of a Shire horse, rode through. He was wearing more expensive-looking armor and his helmet showed his face, which was pale but set. He pointed his sword at the Witch-Queen.

The black knights froze in place. A couple of wounded hunters and silver knights continued to moan, but the scene was quiet for a moment.

The Prince said, “I have been sent to retrieve the stag and the raven.”

The Witch-Queen responded, with an eyeroll, “Obviously.

“You may as well give them up,” said the Prince. “Good shall prevail.”

“Bullshit,” said the Witch-Queen. “And you know it.”

The Prince was silent for a moment, on the back of his impassive, massive steed. “I cannot stop,” he said, finally, and his voice sounded terribly young. “This is my only narrative.”

“Narrative sucks,” said the Witch-Queen, extending her staff at him.

The Prince’s horse took a pace forward, seemingly of itself. “I have no other story,” he said.

“Too bad,” said the Witch-Queen, but the hand holding the staff trembled.

The Prince’s horse paced forward a few more steps. He continued to point his sword at the Witch-Queen.

The Witch-Queen said, “Cat got your tongue?”

He replied, “I’m out of lines. I’m glad.”

“Oh,” she said, staring.

He raised the sword above his head, his face set, and dug his heels into the sides of the horse.

As the horse started to flow forward into a canter, the Witch-Queen threw her left arm across her eyes and pointed the staff. There was a flash of light and the usual explosion.

The Prince was flung from the horse to the ground like a doll and his right arm torn mostly off. Tom found herself thankful that his face was turned away from the bird’s vision. He didn’t seem to be breathing. His horse, part of its hide scorched from the blast to a suspiciously shiny undercoat, stood over him, lowered its head, and froze like a statue.

The Witch-Queen threw down her staff and vomited over it.

The Dean chose that moment to drop the control box and pull Christopher up and out of his coffin. She slapped him once, briskly, and he started coughing.

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We're coming up on the end of this first episode of Compass Rose, so I'll probably be alternating with Wonder City until we get to the last part.

As you may recall, the Witch Queen was bored...

Christopher was babbling out the story of the Terrible Roommate, the Cake Disaster, and the Unfortunate Sports Bar to the Witch-Queen, who was leaning over the fence like a cowpoke. Tom, who had heard this saga before, tuned him out and examined her near vicinity for anything that looked as though it might be used to pick a lock. Unfortunately, trees are conspicuously absent of useful lockpicking materiel.

She peered up at the roof of the cage, wondering if she could work a wire loose, while Christopher nattered on about rotten food and inexplicable fire escape incidents to an oddly fascinated Witch-Queen. Suddenly, Tom was struck by a wave of dizziness.

“And then, just to top it all off, we discovered that he was responsible for the constant toilet clogging! I don’t know if I should tell you that story, it’s kind of gross...”

Tom opened her beak, but before she could say anything to interrupt the flow of Christopher’s banal narrative, she toppled over onto her back.

Maybe the brain transfer is failing. Maybe I’m dying. Maybe I’m allergic to myself!

She felt as though she were drowning. She couldn’t make a sound because she couldn’t breathe.

“So she left the cake in the kitchen while we went out to get frosting for it. We really ought to have known better.”

Gray waves, like interference patterns, began to interfere with her vision.

I just wish I didn’t have to listen to this old story again.

As if in accordance with her wish, her hearing began to fuzz out, interrupted with bizarre bursts of white noise. She wondered if it was the blood rushing in her tiny bird skull.

“And when we came back, you wouldn't believe what we found in the kitchen...” But then she couldn’t hear Christopher’s voice at all. Her vision went black. She couldn’t breathe. She was drowning.

Then a hand grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up and out of some kind of fluid. She gasped and opened her eyes.

The Dean frowned, gave a small nod, and released Tom’s hair. Tom realized that she was sitting in a sort of glass coffin filled with blood-temperature goo, and that there were wires in some rather uncomfortable places. “What the--” she coughed.

“Give yourself a moment to breathe,” advised the Dean, and turned to another coffin. Predictably, it held Christopher. Tom noticed that he was wearing a minimum of clothing and looked down in a panic to discover the same was true of herself. She swung herself out of the water, ripping off electrodes as she did so, and looked around. Her clothes were neatly folded on a pillar nearby.

“I don’t want to know who undressed me, do I?” she asked, while she dressed with a rapidity worthy of someone who has just heard her lover’s parents pull into the driveway.

“Probably robots,” said the Dean, resting one hand on the open lid of Christopher’s coffin. “What was he doing just now? He’s very resistant to being woken.”

“Telling a story to the Witch-Queen,” said Tom, jamming her filthy sneakers onto her feet. “I should have thought of the Matrix solution, I just couldn’t parse being a bird.”

“That explains it,” said the Dean, sounding irritated. “Here, give me those,” she added, reaching for the wires which had been stuck to various parts of Tom’s body. She examined them, then put them into ports in the back of a boxlike object which Tom couldn’t help thinking looked rather like a console of some sort. The front of the box was hollow, and the Dean reached into it and began to manipulate something.

“What are you doing?” asked Tom, more diffidently than she had planned.

The Dean sighed. “Well, I had intended to create a distraction,” she said. “But it seems the distraction does not need my help.” She did something and a screen on the wall flickered to life, showing the scene in the garden or pen from the point of view of the bird-waldo Tom had so recently inhabited.

“Oh, bugger me with an angry porcupine,” said Tom, as she saw what was going on.

“...Quite,” said the Dean.

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Here's a Compass Rose episode! Next week, there won't be either a Wonder City or a Compass Rose episode, as I'll be traveling. Hopefully, Wonder City will return the following week! I'm sorry about all the inconsistency lately, and thank you for sticking with me all through it.

“No, seriously,” said Tom, stamping around on the floor of her cage until she could wedge her beak through the bars and get a better look at Christopher. “How do you think they did it?”

“Brain transplant?” asked Christopher listlessly. After trying to scrape the halter and collar off against the fence, the tree in the center of his enclosure, and his own front hooves, his face and neck were streaked with mud.

“Dumbass,” said Tom, poking at the lock on her cage more for something to do than because she thought she might miraculously get it open this time. It was shut with a padlock. Christopher was likewise chained and padlocked to the trunk of the tree her cage was hung in. “This bird probably weighs less than my entire brain.

Christopher gave the cage a very good side-eye, considering how big and dark and seductive his eyes were now. “I dunno about that.”

“Asshole,” said Tom, but without her usual verve.

“Well, it can’t be magic,” said Christopher, a little desperately, picking up his front hooves and examining them as though he’d never seen anything like them before. (And he probably hadn’t.) “You just can’t have magic in the same place as robots and AI. It doesn’t work!”

Tom snorted.

“No, seriously! It’s like, like, the paradigms cancel each other out! Like matter and antimatter!”

“Christopher, you are full of shit. Stop trying to make ANY of this make sense,” said Tom.

“It’s aliens!” wailed Christopher. “It’s always aliens!” He brightened up. “Hey, maybe this is some sort of alien tech.”

“Alien tech that can squeeze a hundred and fifty pound woman into a four and a half pound bird? I’d like to see that.”

“Maybe it’s something like a holodeck,” said Christopher hopefully.

“In that case,” said Tom, “Tell me why we can’t just walk through these bars and slash or chains.”

Christopher sulkily turned his rear end towards the tree in which hung Tom’s cage. “It just doesn’t work that way.” He rested his chin on the fence and an almost visible aura of gloom descended upon him.

It began to rain. Tom discovered that she didn’t mind this nearly as much as a bird as she would have as a human; she didn’t feel cold or damp or miserable. Small favors, she thought grumpily, and worried some more at the lock on her cage.

Christopher sat down like a dog and looked at the cage and the tree it was hung in. “You know, you really are golden, not just yellow. Your beak looks like it’s made of metal.”

Tom tapped the beak against the bars of the cage and it sounded a little metallic. “Put it down to alien technology," she said, sourly.

“And the tree is weird. The fruit is blue,” he said. Tom looked up and indeed, blue spheres were hanging here and there from the branches. She had assumed they were lanterns.

“I have ceased to be surprised by anything,” said Tom, hunching her shoulders. “Including you, horny boy.”

Christopher ignored her. “I think they’re pomegranates,” he said after a moment. “But pomegranates are supposed to be red. Why are they blue?”

“Because they’re poisonous,” said the Witch-Queen of d’Aulnoy, leaning on the white fence that surrounded their enclosure. She had added a long black cloak to her ensemble, along with a pair of green wellington boots with frogs printed on them. She was also carrying a black lace sunshade which was considerably the worse for water damage.

“Um, hi,” said Christopher. Tom hunched her shoulders further and said nothing.

“Nasty weather, isn’t it?” the Witch-Queen said conversationally. “Bodkins, I’d give my left foot for some sunshine around here.” She sneezed.

“It’s always like this?” asked Christopher.

“Well, it’s pretty much always cloudy, except around sunset,” said the Witch-Queen. “Apparently, sunshine is outlawed when there’s a Witch-Queen on the throne or something like that. So boring. And muddy.” She eyed Christopher. “Speaking of mud, I should send some minions out to clean you up before your rescuers get here.”

“Rescuers?” squawked Tom.

The Witch-Queen heaved a sigh heavy with ennui. “Yes, of course, what did you expect? Some tiresome prince or princess or sultana -- no, that’s a raisin, isn’t it? -- or something or other is bound to show up pretty soon for you.” She looked down at her purple fingernails and smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. In fact, it was exactly the kind of smile Tom remembered from locker rooms in high school.

“Of course, for once I’m not going to have to try to seduce anyone -- I suck at that -- or watch my armies be destroyed,” said the Witch-Queen.

“Oh?” said Christopher, swiveling his big ears toward her. He was still sitting down with his front hooves together, and looked ridiculously cute.

“Nope,” said the Witch-Queen with undisguised satisfaction. “Godmother said that I’m not to worry about that. I’m kind of looking forward to winning for a change.”

“I see,” said Christopher blankly, ears drooping.

“We’re really on the lookout for some kind of Unraveller or something. Someone who picks apart and hates stories.” The Witch-Queen worried at her thumbnail. “I kind of hate stories but apparently I don’t count.”

“Stories can be tiresome sometimes,” ventured Tom.

“They’re boring all the time,” said the Witch-Queen. “Anyway, apparently this person is going to try to rescue you? By disrupting the story? I’m looking forward to it, even if I do have to hand them over to Godmother.” She sighed, then leaned forward over the fence. “You two aren’t very good consolation prizes. You had better be more interesting soon.”

Christopher leaned back, his eyes going wide.

“I am so bored,” said the Witch-Queen.

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Here's the second Compass Rose episode this week. I hope you're enjoying Tom and Christopher's adventures!

Christopher raced across the suddenly open ground. “Watch out!” shrieked Tom, as a general warning against the hunters circling in from the left, the hounds closing in on his flanks, and any sudden gopher holes.

There was a lot of excited shouting behind them, along with the blowing of horns (Really, thought Tom, you’d think someone was filming this. Who can ride a horse and play a goddamn trumpet at the same time anyway?) and the barking of surprisingly large dogs. Christopher swerved -- he must’ve gotten sight of the hunters circling in and clearly a deer’s eyesight wasn’t a patch on that of whatever-kind-of-bird-Tom-was -- and paused to kick a dog that was leaping at his flanks. Poor thing, thought Tom, but whether it was about the dog or Christopher, who ordinarily would have regarded name-calling to be excessive cruelty to animals, she wasn’t sure.

“Why... aren’t... they... shooting... at us?” panted Christopher, as he darted from side to side in an increasingly futile attempt to shake off the dog pack and regain the shelter of the trees.

“Hell if I know,” said Tom, flapping her wings desperately as she was shaken from side to side. “Fuck! In front of you!”

A set of hunters on brown horses were racing to cut them off. Two of them were carrying something that Tom was able to pick out as the reason no one was shooting, with arrows or otherwise: a net.

“Crap!” said Christopher, and Tom shrieked, “To the left! YOUR OTHER LEFT!”

The net went over them as the hunters raced by in a move that looked like some sort of high-speed dressage event. Tom let go of Christopher’s antlers and made her second abortive attempt to fly, which ended much as the first had. As they rolled in the net together, Christopher kicked another dog that got too close. It rolled over, still barking, and then lay on its side, twitching, barking, and air-running in a repetitive loop. A red-hooded hunter reached down and fiddled with its collar, and it went still.

“Have it picked up by the wagon,” said one of the men on horseback. “That’s three for the repair shop, not too bad.”

The red-hooded hunter nodded, and fiddled with a control mechanism in his hands. The dogs left off circling Christopher and followed the hunter.

Several pairs of hands disentangled the net and presently they were trooping through the forest, Christopher haltered to two horses and Tom in a large birdcage.

“Where are we going?” asked Tom after Christopher had been stubbornly silent for a good quarter of an hour.

No one answered. Apparently, it was beneath them to discuss things with a bird, even one that asked reasonable questions. Tom wondered if the horses were animatronic too, like the dogs, but decided that even if the hunters had been answering her questions, they might not have understood the inquiry. Wait, she should be able to tell the difference by smell, right? Didn’t horses have a strong odor?

That’s funny, Tom thought after a few surreptitious deep breaths. I don’t smell anything. Not even outdoorsy smells. Don’t birds have a sense of smell?

After what Tom thought was some hours of travel (she fell asleep for a while, so had no way of knowing for sure), they arrived in -- of course -- a castle courtyard. Two of the horseback riders chivvied Christopher into the castle, while a third (a woman, Tom noted) carried Tom’s cage. They were carried to the throne room, where there was no one in residence but guards. The throne itself was very tall and had multiple points on the back pointing at the groin arches of the ceiling.

“Please tell Her Majesty that we have succeeded in capturing the stag and the raven,” said one of the hunters.

What, I’m not even a hawk? This sucks.

The guards looked at one another, obviously uncomfortable, and after a moment one of them said, “I’ll go, you went last time,” and exited the room via a side door.

There was a pause.

There was a sound of slamming doors, a crash not unlike crockery hitting a stone wall, and running feet. The guard re-entered the room, breathing quickly, and took up his former post.

There was another pause.

A very young woman stamped into the room. Her relative youth was somewhat underlined by the fact that she was wearing a black gown with the skirt mostly ripped off, torn black spiderweb stockings, a bodice which was rather obviously built for a much more mature figure, and black lipstick. Her black hair was curly and unbrushed.

She was also wearing bunny slippers. Pink bunny slippers.

She threw herself into the throne, swung one foot over the arm, and said, “What is it this time?”

One of the hunters cleared his throat. “We, ah, have succeeded in the quest you have given us, Your Majesty. Here are the white stag and the golden raven, as ordered.”

Tom said, “We have names, you know!”

The woman carrying her cage shook it and snapped, “Quiet, you! Silence in the presence of the Witch-Queen of d’Aulnoy!”

The Witch-Queen of d’Aulnoy paused to examine a purple-painted thumbnail, and worry it with her teeth. “Oh. That.”

There was another uncomfortable pause, and then the hunter who had spoken first said, “Your Majesty... What shall we do with them?”

The Witch-Queen sighed petulantly, examined the ends of her unbrushed hair, kicked off one of her bunny slippers, and finally said, “Oh, I don’t know. Why do I have to do all the work around here?”

The hunters looked at each other uncomfortably.

The Witch-Queen of d’Aulnoy frowned and stood up, her bare foot hunting absently for the bunny slipper she had kicked off (which was over on the right side of the throne). “You’re so lazy, all of you!” She pointed one finger at the ceiling, and the candles in the three enormous iron chandeliers burst with red sparks.

Everyone cringed. The Witch-Queen sighed, gave up the bunny slipper as lost, and kicked off the other one. She folded her arms and wandered over to the side of the throne room, peering out of one of the huge stained-glass windows. “I dunno, lock them up or something. I don’t care, even.”

The hunters bowed. “It shall be as you command, Your Majesty.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She flapped a hand at them without turning around and their captors hustled them from the room.

As they were being led (or carried) down a number of stone corridors, Christopher finally spoke up.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said.

Tom would have given a great deal to have been able to hit him over the head at that moment.

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My apologies for not having another Wonder City and for not posting this earlier. It's been a terrible week. I'll post a second episode of Compass Rose later this week. I hope your next couple of weeks (whether they're holidays for you or not) are excellent and low-stress.

”I still think I’ve got the worst of it,” said Christopher.

“Fuck you,” said Tom. “At least you can walk.

“It’s like being on all fours and strapped onto stilts,” complained Christopher.

Tom concentrated and tightened her toes where she was perched on Christopher’s gilded antlers. “Well, this is like having my arms chopped off and replaced with billboards. At least you’re used to being on all fours.”

Christopher angrily shook his head. “Screw you, at least I’m getting some, your last date was six months ago!”

“Quit it, I’m gonna hurl!” Tom helplessly flapped her wings as she was shaken back and forth.

Christopher abruptly stopped, his head and ears turning to catch a sound neither of them wanted to hear: a hunting horn.

“That’s what I think it is, isn’t it,” said Tom.

“Oh fuck, ohfuck ohfuckofuckohfuck,” said Christopher, his head alertly turning from side to side. “I can barely walk and now this!”

Tom flapped again, trying to keep her balance. She could hear the hunt with exquisite clarity, but it had a curiously far-off quality, as if she were hearing it through porous glass. “It’s over to your left,” she said.

“I know,” said Christopher, tossing his head a little and making her vision bounce.

“Settle down,” said Tom. “Let’s just take this easy...” She could hear the hunt moving nearer.

“Hang on,” said Christopher tersely.


Christopher leapt and was off. He managed all right for about twenty strides, leaping over obstacles and sliding through carpets of old wet leaves. Then he jumped over a fallen tree, discovered an unexpected gully on the other side, and went down ass over teakettle.

Tom blinked at the sky, wondering if she had been impaled by Christopher by accident. No, this appeared to be a rosebush. It was thornless, or else the thorns were too small to notice. She thrashed about in it, leaving behind a number of her golden feathers, until she emerged enough to look around for Christopher.

No Christopher, but a long muddy track down into the ditch suggested where he was. She completed disentangling herself and waddled (there really was no other word for the angry sort of stamping walk) down the track to peer at Christopher, who was lying in a boneless heap like an unhappy kitten with unusually long legs and antlers.

“Get up,” she said, listening with one (nonexistent) ear to the hunt, which was still getting closer.

Christopher opened his big brown eyes and looked at Tom meltingly. “I don’t know why I’m not bruised all to hell and back,” he groaned.

“I don’t know why you didn’t break your neck.”

He shook his antlers free from the embracing arms of another rosebush and stood up shakily. Then he lowered his head long enough for Tom to clamber onto the antlers, and stepped slowly and carefully out of the ditch.

“Enough running,” said Tom. “Let’s go slowly and carefully in a generally away direction.”

“Agreed,” said Christopher, his voice still shaking.

He ended up running in the end, of course.

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Okay, I suck, and couldn't get another Wonder City out this week. Here is another episode of the Dean, since I left you on rather a cliffhanger (or perhaps that was cliffplunger) two weeks ago.

Everything looked very strange. Tom blinked, and it was also very strange that she could hear herself blink. That was a branch. That was a tree. That was another tree. She seemed to be very high up...

She turned her head slowly and looked from side to side. Turning her head took an odd sort of effort, the way it did when she was very drunk. Yes. Bark. Leaves. Tree.

FUCK me, I am SITTING in a TREE!

What she had intended as an exclamation came out as a sort of... squawk.

Below her, something crashed. She looked down (still with the sort of conscious effort she usually associated with trying not to hurl, although thankfully she was not nauseated), and saw something white.

A white figure staggered into the clearing. It was... an animal. A big animal. A deer. It walked like it was drunk, or perhaps... drugged? The legs kept going in various unexpected directions, with unfortunate and sometimes comic results. Tom repressed an urge to giggle.

It couldn’t have been a newborn, although that might have excused how it staggered about. It was huge, and furthermore had horns. The horns were gold. Tom wondered distantly whether it came from some sort of stable and if someone had the job of painting it. Perhaps they had to drug it to get it to stay still and that was why it was staggering all over now...

The deer made a distressed honking noise and Tom giggled. Or, rather, she tried to giggle. It came out as a squawk, again. She shook her head impatiently and nearly fell off her tree branch, spreading her wings to keep balance.

Spreading her... what?

Tom shrieked, “What the FUCK!” and this time it came out almost coherently.

The white deer below her attempted to stand up on its hind legs, bellow, and dash off into the forest, all at the same time. It crashed sadly sideways into a blackberry bush.

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The holiday schedule explosion has begun early; that and one of our cats being urgently ill means that you get more Dean rather than more Wonder City. I hope no one minds too much.

“Don’t you think it’s a little dangerous to have him here?” asked Tom, jerking her chin at their guide-cum-attacker. “I mean, if this is the real movement against...”

Mor laughed. “Ach, lassie, as if Godmither daesn’t already knaw aboot us!”

Iona said, “Weel, aboot us twa at least. Ye’ll nootice that th’oothers are keeping a far distance in’the gloaming.”

Tom paused a moment to note that there really were people who said “gloaming,” and Christopher said, “So, it’s not secret, the... Web?”

“It’s aboot as secret as a Witches’ sabbat,” said Mor, “Which we resemble a bitty, no?”

All around them, people were slipping off into the woods in twos and threes, leaving the clearing darker and darker. The Dean said, “It’s not the sort of thing one likes to accuse one’s neighbor of being at, I see. Because then people will ask how you came by the information.”

“Och, aye,” said Iona. “And the President may have her suspeecions, but she’s but one pairson, after all. We’ve left ye some gear and we’ll discuss gettin’ ye to Wu or posseebly Burrton, they’ve got big movements there.”

“I don’t understand why you’re not more upset about him,” said Christopher. Their former guide sniffed in an offended manner.

“Laddie, we’ve got several cells of resistance made up of clones like him,” said Mor, kindly but a little sharply. “Mostly Villain-based like yerself,” nodding at him, “as well as Hags, o’course, and Step-sisters and -brothers, and a goodly parcel of Comic and Pathetic Sidekicks as well as some Romantics, not too many. We welcome all.”

With that, they left, and Tom and Christopher were faced with the task of putting together their camping gear, as the Dean was wandering around staring at things and their guide was sitting with his back against a tree having an existential crisis. Quite literally, it turned out.

“No, no, don’t mind me,” he said. “I’m just wondering whether I should continue to exist or not.”

Tom resisted the urge to kick him and unpacked what felt like blankets in the dark. It was a long and chilly wait until dawn, but she fell asleep eventually.

Tom was woken by a combinations of factors: cold, a tree root poking her in a way that reminded her unfortunately of her last one-night stand, what sounded like a party gone horribly wrong, and... galloping? Was that galloping? As she opened her eyes, the “party” resolved itself to the sound of dogs barking and, ridiculously, horn music. She could see the silhouette of the Dean next to the tree which was so uncomfortably intimate with her nether bits, and managed a “Wha?” which was remarkably coherent for her, pre-coffee.

The Dean glanced down. “My guess is that the story is continuing even though we have removed ourselves from it. I wonder how it’s been edited?”

This made little sense to Tom, so she turned and nudged Christopher, on the theory that if she had to be awake at this lovelorn hour in a horrible wood, freezing and listening to someone talk nonsense, so did he. Christopher grunted and she nudged him again, harder.

Christopher sat up, his hair standing on and and stuck through with leaves, like a hedgehog’s. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

“I wonder,” said the Dean. Then she added, quite calmly, “I think one of us, or all of us, might be the object of this hunt, you know.”

Tom startled up. “Shouldn’t we run?”

“They’ll be on horseback,” said the saturnine man, gloomily. “What good will running do you, or any of us?”

“I’ve been wondering,” said the Dean conversationally, “How Godmother manages these sorts of stories. It’s easy to produce the illusion of transformation from outside, but how do you produce the illusion when it’s the Guest who needs to be the protagonist? I can think of several ways but they don’t seem to mesh with--”

Several things happened at once. On the other side of the clearing, a whole troupe of people on horses (white horses, Tom noticed peripherally: of course) burst into view. They were all dressed in bright colors and accompanied by rather large brindled and white dogs. Several of them were carrying banners or horns. There was something so staged about the entire thing that Tom was completely unsurprised that the sun chose that moment to lift out of its dawn cloudbanks and flood the clearing with bright horizontal spears of light, made slightly unreal by the mist still clinging to the trees.

Their guide gave a hoarse cry. Tom turned in alarm, just in time to see him seize Christopher by the ankle. “No!” he said. “Don’t run!” Tom kicked him, freeing Christopher, and followed her friend in scampering back into the wood.

There was no hope of following the trail from the night before; they were running blindly. After a moment or two of panic, Tom had the thought Where’s the Dean? and looked back. The Dean was not following them. But she could hear horses behind, she was sure...

There was a crash ahead of her and she turned back just in time to see Christopher slip down a bank. She heard, “Oh SHII--” and a mighty splash.

Her momentum carried her up to the edge and would have carried her over, but she grabbed the branch of a tree, which just held her flying weight. “Christopher?” she called, looking at the rippling pond. There was no sign of him. “CHRIS, GODDAMMIT!”

The branch she was dangling from broke. There was just time for her to say, “Well, fuck m--” before she hit the water.

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Early post because I'm sure other folks need other things to think about today. I sure do.

“At least we didn’t have to be dunked,” said Christopher, examining the granite slabs that made up the walls.

“Shut up,” said Tom, seated on the stone floor of their prison, chin determinedly on her fists.

“Seriously,” said Christopher, accidentally nudging Tom with his foot as he squeezed past her. “Did you see what was in the wat--”

“SHUT UP,” said Tom. She swatted irritably at his leg.

“I suppose,” said their once-upon guide from his rickety wooden stool against the wall, “It would be in bad taste to say ‘I told you so,’ so I won’t.”

“It would,” said Tom. “And besides, you didn’t. And besides, coming here was your idea."

“I told you not to trust me.”

“No, you didn’t,” protested Christopher.

It was too dark now to see the saturnine man, but Tom could hear the rustle as he moved, and a sigh. “Well, I’m an OBVIOUS villain-prototype, if you chose to trust me, it’s your own fault. We’re not reliable, even with the best of intentions. Everyone knows that.”

“Did you stab the Dean just because you’re not reliable?” snapped Tom.

“No,” said their erstwhile guide, somewhat sadly. “I had an irresistible compulsion. It might have been that it’s been a while since I stabbed anyone in the back, but it came on so quickly that I’m more inclined to think it was Her.”

“Godmother?” whispered Christopher.

“Shhhh!” hissed the villain-prototype. “I have told you and told you that she has ways of listening!”

“Even here,” said Tom. “D’you think she’s the sword?”

“Almost undoubtedly,” said their long-ago guide dryly. “Or, rather, She is speaking through it, as a sort of telecommunication device.”

“It’s a cell phone?” asked Tom, bewildered.

“It’s a palantir?” asked Christopher, horrified.

“Your archaic language, while doubtless poetic, is of no use in the present conversation,” replied the almost-villain with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “It’s a sword that She is... able to use to listen and speak through. Is that clear? Given that the President seems to be in the habit of consulting it...”

“Does that mean these... freedom fighters are just another little scheme of hers?” Tom was surprised by how disappointed she was.

“That would seem to be the case, yes.”

Christopher said, plaintively, “What for?”

“I’m not as worried about that as about what’s likely to happen to the Dean,” said Tom.

“It does seem as though Herself has a particular animosity to your friend,” said the part-time villain.

“The Dean thought so too,” said Tom, just as the heavy wooden trapdoor which opened into their basement was lifted. Tom could see the flare of a torch.

A smoky voice with the broadest Scotch accent she had ever heard said, “Are any of ye doon there hurt?”

“No,” said Christopher. He was, to give him credit, at least a little wary.

“Gude. Hang on a wee minute.”

They stared at each other (as best they could in the dark) and then a rope ladder fell down from the beams surrounding the trapdoor. “Up ye get,” said the voice.

Tom seized the ladder. Climbing up was a lot more difficult than rope ladders look in the movies. She could hear Christopher complaining on this theme behind her and their once-guide hissing something impatient.

Above ground, it seemed to be very late. Only a few torches burned outside tents, and the air had the flat, chilly taste of the wee hours.

Their rescuer -- if rescuer she was, Tom thought -- hushed them and started to lead them away towards the edge of the camp. Tom thought about asking questions, but then considered: what could possibly be worse than sitting in a dark basement waiting for the President of the Wartime Republic to decide on their punishment?

When they had gone a little way into the woods, they met a small group of people. There was a mutter, and then someone opened up a lantern (it actually had a flame in it, Tom noted peripherally). Their rescuer stuck out a hand, “I’m Iona mac Cormaic, and I am weel pleased to meet ye. Come along, we’ve a safe place for ye.” Tom blinked.

“What about the Dean?” asked Christopher. “She wasn’t being kept with us, we need to rescue her too!”

“Och, aye. She’s the one told us where ye were.”

Tom, meanwhile had been examining their companions, who closely resembled the Merry Men and Women. “I’m pretty sure I saw you at the feast,” she said to a woman whose red hair was streaked with gray and bound in braids around her head.

“That you did. I’m Mor McKellan,” she replied, “But all you see here are safe bind, lassie. Come along and see fer yersel’.”

They followed their small group of rescuers into the woods, passing several points where their new friends had to exchange passwords with guards hidden in the shadows and behind trees. Finally, they emerged into a clearing where the grass had been trampled down, and perhaps a hundred people were sitting in a circle around the clearing, on blankets. Many had little candle lanterns, so the effect was of a midnight picnic.

As they approached the circle, a tall, familiar androgynous figure stood up and approached them. “Dean!” said Christopher.

“I see Iona and Mor got you out safely,” said the Dean.

“Och, weel, all it took was a wee dram to their guard,” said Iona. “‘Twas quick work.”

“He’s mickle young to be on his feet all night, that one,” said Mor. “He’ll naught tell of a pretty lassie and a cup of something, eh?” The two of them laughed and looked at a third, younger woman, who laughed as well.

Tom whispered to Christopher, "I thought we had some sort of instant-translator thing."

Christopher shrugged, wide-eyed. "Maybe it can't understand them either."

“Where are we?” asked Tom more loudly, trying not to be plaintive.

“That’s a thing,” said Mor. “Tis with us you are.”

Iona seemed to understand the implied question, and added, “This, then, is the true revolution, lassie. We call oorselves the Web. I’m mostly a Marxist; Mor here is a folloower of Freire, and I’m dommed if I can pronoounce it.”

Mor laughed. “You didn’t take the Republic seriously, did you?”

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I kind of like this leaping lightly from one cliffhanger to another.

“Well,” said President Arrowheart pleasantly, as she approached with a cadre of what looked like bruiser bodyguards but were probably a cabinet of ministers. Tom and Christopher, who had been staring, morbidly fascinated, into the water, looked up at her. “Shall we get this started? Best for all concerned, I think.” She stepped up onto the wooden platform which held the dunking stool and drew the black glove off her right hand, then drew her sword.

The Dean, who had put her coat on for the occasion, said, “Let’s not faff about. I’ll go first.”

The President seemed about to agree, but then set the sword blade down in front of her and put her palm on the pommel. There was a brief, awkward silence, and she said, “No. The young man goes first,” in a curiously flat voice.

Christopher shot the Dean a terrified look. The Dean frowned and stepped toward the platform. “There’s no reason,” she began.

“The Light of Freedom states that the young man should go first. Then the young woman. You, you will endure last,” said President Arrowheart, still in that flat, no-nonsense tone.

“What the hell is the Light of Freedom?” asked Tom of no one in particular. She cast another sideways look at the water. No one else seemed to find its contents surprising.

“Don’t you know?” murmured a woman in tattered leathers standing next to her. “That’s the miraculous speaking sword. The President carries it and interprets its wisdom to us.”

Tom went cold. “Dean!” she shouted. “It’s Her!”

The Dean, however, seemed already cognizant of this. She leapt for the platform and for the sword. For a few long moments, it seemed as though the sheer surprise and audacity of it would carry her through: she wrested the sword away from the President and seized Eleanor’s wrist. The Dean yanked Eleanor's hand around to display the pattern branded on the palm to the gathered crowd. The strange angular marks glittered in the sun.

They stood for a moment like that, staring at one another, the Dean gripping the sword in her off-hand, Eleanor glaring defiance at the Dean. Their black coats billowed in the morning wind.

Then the ministers closed on them, dragging the Dean away from Eleanor.

Eleanor Arrowheart pulled her black glove back on and turned her back on the crowd.

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Wonder City will be returning by November, because I'm mostly through my other work, and I'm missing the gang. If we're not done with the Dean by then, we will continue to run Compass Rose to the completion of this episode, posting on Fridays.

Daylight did not improve the encampment. It was clear that nobody bathed, except possibly Eleanor Arrowheart and definitely Fuki-no-tsurugi (how else did he keep that golden hair of his so clean?). Christopher and Tom were sitting on logs beside a smoky fire, bereft of breakfast, caffeine, and temper, when the Dean emerged from the low tent opposite theirs. She looked nearly immaculate, although she had not bothered with the tailcoat.

The Dean said, “Breakfast?” pleasantly enough to them.

“Porridge,” said Christopher, in a tone of voice usually reserved for “Stomach flu,” or “Finals.”

“I think perhaps not,” said the Dean, and walked briskly off. When she returned, she was followed by a rather dazed-looking young man, who set down his tray of mugs, gave her a slightly hostile look, and departed. The Dean sat down and picked one up. The fragrance of coffee drifted to Tom’s nostrils, and she snagged one.

“How do you do it, Dean?” asked Christopher, sighing luxuriously into his coffee.

“Common sense,” replied the Dean dryly. “Ah, here comes breakfast.” A young woman approached with a tray of something which definitely was not porridge.

“What do you suppose this ‘Trial’ thing is, anyway?” asked Tom, opening a small earthenware jar to discover that it contained some sort of jam.

“Well, it’s either trial by combat or trial by fire. Since they’re looking to see if any of us are, shall we say, contaminated, I’d guess it’s trial by fire,” said the Dean, putting a slice of bread on a stick and holding it hopefully over the smoky fire.

“I... don’t much like the sound of that,” confessed Christopher. “Do you think we can get away?”

“You’re perfectly safe,” said the Dean composedly. “It’s me they’re after.”

“What?!?” said Tom, nearly dropping her mug of coffee.

The Dean raised an eyebrow at her. Tom glared.

“No, wait, I don’t understand,” said Christopher. “How do you know? Dean, if you’re in danger, we should leave! Now!”

The Dean examined her toast, turned it, and held it over the fire again. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Besides, if we leave, you won’t get to find out what happens.”

Christopher looked deeply upset. “That’s not as important as keeping you safe!”

The Dean looked at him as though she would very much like to put him in his carrier and give him back to the shelter. “There is no such thing. Now eat your breakfast.”

The Trial was not by fire, but by water.

Whatever Tom had expected, a classic witches’ dunking stool had not been it. She was conscious of a slight disappointment -- it seemed relatively banal. It lacked panache. It was, in short, faintly ridiculous.

The crowd around the dunking stool did not help, as their ragged clothing and mud suggested a comedy sketch rather than a serious trial to Tom’s mind. Still, while she wasn’t relishing the idea of getting dunked, at least it didn’t look lethal. Uncomfortable, certainly. Still, it lacked the ruthless expertise of CIA interrogators and their forms of watery persuasion, right?

At least, it didn’t look lethal until she glanced down into the water.

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On time this week!

“It wasn’t his fault,” said the Dean, scratching absently under the clumsy bandages.

“Like hell it wasn’t,” Tom growled.

“No, your friend is right,” said President Arrowheart from her position at the head of the long set of tables set up in front of her tent. “Poor bastard’s just a construct, can’t help the way he’s wired.” She smiled at Tom and Tom’s ill mood relented just a little.

“What have you done with him?” asked Christopher, looking dubiously into the dark depths of his leather mug.

“He’s having a fine time being broody in the dungeon. Don’t look at me like that,” she added when the Dean raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s just a ruined basement. Really, quite his style and not damp at all.”

A tall, exceedingly blond young man dressed in brown and green leathers stood on the bench halfway down the first table and shouted, “I propose a toast!”

Eleanor Arrowheart put her chin in her hand and looked nearly as cynical as the Dean. “Here we go again.”

The very blond, very young man shouted, “Death to the fascist Puppet Master! Smash her circuits and take back our freedom!” There was a cheer after this toast -- not exactly half-hearted, but not exactly a full roar, either.

“What was that about?” asked the Dean.

“Oh, that’s Fuki-no-tsurugi. He’s bucking to be the next Hood. Elections are next month.”

“The next what?” asked Tom, while Christopher coughed at the eye-watering stuff in his flagon.

“The next Hood. We lost Gwynedd ap Hood a couple of weeks ago -- a raid gone wrong -- so campaigns are on just now. Fuki-no-tsurugi is up against Hakim al-Walid and Mor McKellan, but neither of them is campaigning as hard as he is. They’re both older and better known. And know better,” Eleanor added with a wink.

Tom asked, while Christopher blinked, “You elect Robin Hood?”

Eleanor Arrowheart, Wartime President of the Republic, said, “Of course. We want no inherited titles here. All our important positions are elective. Or decided via single combat, of course.”

“Of course,” said Christopher weakly.

A young woman wearing pale-blue silken pants, an embroidered coat which did not leave very much to the imagination, and a belt of silver disks, swayed up to the top of the table and whispered in Eleanor’s ear. The President nodded curtly, then stood up. “You must excuse me,” she said. “I have something I must see to. I shall be back shortly. Please, enjoy yourselves.” With that, she turned and vanished into her tent.

The young woman in blue silk and spangles mingled with people who were getting food and wine, and disappeared into the torchlit night.

“What was that all about, do you suppose?” Tom asked Christopher, who shrugged.

About twenty seats down, someone at their table started a rousing song about battle and honor and drinking beer. Tom put her head in her hands and sighed.

An hour or so later, when the song was about hedgehogs and she was seriously starting to consider joining their saturnine guide in his peaceful dungeon, President Arrowheart appeared again, leaping out of her tent, running to the table, and jumping upon it in a crash of crockery.

“Jeez, what is it with the jumping on tables--?” started Christopher, but was interrupted.

“My people!” shouted the President. “I have been vouchsafed a sign!”

The feast went silent, all faces turned to the woman in the long black leather coat. Tom noticed peripherally that her right sleeve had been rolled up nearly to the elbow, revealing a well-muscled arm, and her coat was unbuttoned just enough to show the top of some intriguing cleavage. Eleanor’s eyes glittered, and in one hand she held aloft her sword, pommel up. It glinted in the torchlight in a most improbable way.

“A vision!” She wasn’t shouting, but her voice was clear in the silence. “We must welcome these stranded Guests as our own. They will join us and fight for the victory of freedom!”

A pause. A few indrawn breaths, as though the audience were about to cheer, when Eleanor went on. “But first, they must be tested by the Trial, for one of them is choked round with Godmother’s foul wires! I have seen it! We must hold the Trial! I have spoken!”

She leapt down from the table (with fluid grace, of course) and stalked into her tent.

“The fuck?” inquired Christopher.

“I thought she was kind of normal,” said Tom, feeling unreasonably disappointed.

The Dean sighed and propped her head on her hand, elbow on the table. “Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your standards,” she drawled. Tom turned her head away and blushed.

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Sorry for the lateness. Viral bronchitis rattling my brains.

Everything was very muddy and all the women were showing rather a lot of bosom. A considerable percentage of the -- Tom couldn’t help thinking of them as the “ragtag band” -- were smoking something which did not smell of tobacco. Their rags still looked like renfaire clothing.

Christopher leaned as close to Tom as his ropes would allow and whispered, “Why do they all have English accents? Did you notice that?”

“Shut up, you,” growled one of their captors, and shook Christopher roughly. Tom bit her tongue.

They slogged through the ankle-deep mud of the central “road” of a very... heterogenous tent city composed mostly of muddy canvas and sheepskins. It smelled of woodsmoke and cowpats. Tom did not see any cows.

Women and men were sitting around sullen fires, cleaning swords and doing something obscure to arrows. They all paused on their work to stare at Tom, Christopher, the Dean, and their woebegone guide. Their captors did not pause but took them to the largest tent (white with red piping, but splattered with mud like the others) and shoved them inside without ceremony.

The inside was floored with dusty but expensive-looking carpets and there was a heavy oak table occupying the center of the tent, surrounded by benches and chairs. Tom had the irrelevant thought, If they move camp often, isn’t that a bitch to carry? and then had her attention arrested by the person sitting behind the table, who was lean, elegant, and dressed entirely in black leather from neck to high-booted foot.

The person behind the table removed her boots from said table and sat forward in her (naturally) thronelike chair. “What’s this, then?” she inquired.

“Spies of the Puppet Throne, boss,” said one of the Merry Men.

“Um, actually, we were guests,” said Christopher.

“Excuse me,” said their once-guide.

“And not on purpose!” added Tom hastily.

“Er,” said their guide.

“We kind of ended up there accidentally,” said Christopher.

“If I may say a word,” said their quondam guide.

“I guess it was my fault...” said Christopher.

“Not really,” said Tom. “It was Rosamund.”

The Dean cleared her throat. Tom and Christopher turned to look at her.

However, no one else did.

“Really,” drawled the Boss. “Well, I have to say you don’t look like very efficient spies to me.”

Their ersatz guide cleared his throat. Everyone ignored him as well.

“Untie them,” ordered the woman in black leather. “They can’t possibly be spies.” She stood up and dusted off her long jacket. “Welcome to the Republic of Sherwood. You can be our guests now.”

“Um, thank you,” said Tom, as one of their captors used a knife to cut her bonds (what was wrong with just untying them? waste of resources).

“My name is Eleanor Arrowheart,” said the woman in black without a trace of embarrassment. “I’m the elected Wartime President of our Republic. Please, sit down.” She sat back down herself and thumped the table with her fist. “Wine,” she ordered curtly, over her shoulder. “We’ll be having a communal meal tonight and you are welcome to join us.”

Tom sat down next to Christopher. The Dean remained standing, rubbing her long wrists thoughtfully. Tom wondered how she managed to keep her cuffs so clean.

Christopher asked, “How did the, um, Republic start?”

“Many years ago,” said President Arrowheart, staring off over their heads while one of the Merry Men arrived with an unlabeled bottle. “When the Park shut down, a number of Guests were stranded here. They were scattered all over the Kingdoms, of course, and a good many of them died, strangled in the web of Godmother’s stories. But there were a group of friends here who fled into the forest and founded the first band of freedom fighters, the Merry Men and Women. Soon, word spread, and humans all over the Lands started journeying to join us, despite the dangers set by Godmother in their path. And today, here we are, still fighting. And someday, we will defeat her!”

She threw back her pewter mug, drained it, refilled it, and stood, holding it aloft. “To Godmother’s downfall!”

All the Merry-makers echoed, “To Godmother’s downfall!”

Suddenly, their former guide cried out, “The enemy is within the gates!” He produced a knife from under his tunic and stabbed the Dean in the back.

There was a sudden scramble and flurry. Tom and Christopher knelt by the Dean, who looked rather surprised, while the Merry Freedom Fighters restrained their former guide and helper, who meekly submitted to their grasp.

“Dean, Dean, are you all right?” gasped Christopher. She turned a slightly irritated look on him.

Tom turned to their former guide. “How could you? What were you doing?”

He sighed. “And every tale condemns me for a villain. Although in my case, it does so for pretty good reason.”

Tom stood up, her hands automatically pushing up her sleeves.

The saturnine man hung limply in the grasp of his captors. “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul. I did try to warn you.”

Tom’s punch knocked him clean out of their grasp and onto the floor of the tent.

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Out of the frying pan...

“No,” said the Dean, climbing the ladder.

“But we don’t know if we’ve made it to Grimm yet!” said their erstwhile guide, wringing his long, bony hands in a melodramatic gesture.

“Who cares?” asked Christopher, following the Dean with an alacrity he usually reserved for less vertical activities. “I can’t wait to get out of here. I keep thinking I’m hearing... things.”

“Up you go,” said Tom, giving the saturnine man a toothy grin which was not really a smile. He looked for a moment as though he were going to argue, but then set his hands and feet on the ladder with shoulder-slumped resignation.

Tom waited at the foot of the ladder for everyone to get a decent way up. She glanced down the dark corridor, lit only by pale yellow and blue emergency lights near the floor.

Something was moving down there. After a moment, she could hear a distant whispering noise (feet? wheels?).

“Hey,” she said, a little more faintly than she had intended. The Dean went on climbing. Christopher stopped and their former guide bumped into him. “Do you mind?” the saturnine man hissed. “Why do I have to work with such complete incompetents...

The dark bulk moved closer. Then a woman’s voice announced pleasantly, “Guests are not permitted in the service corridors. We regret the inconvenience. Guests are not permitted--”

Tom yelled and leapt for the ladder. What happened next, she thought, would have been funny in a horrible Monty Python physical comedy sort of way, if it hadn’t been for the dreadful swiftness with which the metal thing rushed for the ladder. Tom was yelling, their former guide was bellowing something -- some kind of instructions? -- Christopher was panting and scrambling up the ladder and suddenly Tom’s foot had no support as the (death machine? repurposed repair bot?) swept away the bottom part of the ladder.

“We regret the inconvenience,” the woman’s voice said again.

Tom bellowed and smacked their guide on the ass. “Move it, you goddamn oversized character puppet! It nearly got my foot!”

A flood of sunlight suddenly blinded Tom as the Dean got the hatch at the top of the ladder open. A shadow blocked the sun for a moment and Christopher’s frantic babble ceased as he was lifted out.

The thing below made another pass and Tom felt something sharp go past her calf, although whether it was the machine or part of the ladder (more of which was suddenly missing below her) she couldn’t tell. Then the ladder above her was clear and she scrambled up and fell onto the grass. The voice below was still declaring its regrets.

They seemed to be in a pleasant little wood. Tom took a couple of deep, whooping breaths.

Their ersatz guide said, “You know, I think that was a very hurtful thing to say.”

Tom rolled up on one elbow to tell him just what she thought of that and found herself looking at the business end of an arrow, something she never thought she would see outside of a bad period film. It was, however, oddly convincing all the same.

The Dean said, “I think we have, in fact, made it to Grimm.”

“We don’t call it that,” said a voice behind Tom, and she heard the sound of someone spitting. “This is the Republic of Sherwood.”

“Oh, give me a break,” she said. “You mean, we’ve just been captured by terrorist Merry Men?”

Christopher said, in a voice which was only slightly wobbly, “I think they may prefer the term ‘freedom fighters.’”

wonder_city: (Default)
Did you think I'd leave you hanging like that? Of course not!

Tom’s first coherent thought was, That must be what a sock in the dryer feels like. Their carriage, she realized when she pulled her head out from under a blue velvet cushion and someone’s leg, was upside-down.

A pleasant woman’s voice was repeating over and over, “Please remain in the carriage until emergency services arrive. We regret any inconvenience. Please remain in your seats to avoid unpleasantness. Again, we regret the inconvenience.”

Christopher said, from too close nearby, “How the hell do they expect us to remain in our seats?”

Their guide was wedged up against a bent brass lamp in the central part of the roof (which had a narrow little clerestory not designed to hold human-shaped beings). He groaned dismally.

The Dean was already attempting to pull open the door, which appeared to be stuck.

The pleasant voice droned on: “...the inconvenience. Please remain in the carriage until emergency services arrive...”

Christopher said, wonderingly, “The electricity’s still on.”

Tom said, pushing up to a sitting position, “Does this system use a live rail?”

The Dean said nothing, just broke an arm off one of the lamps and pried at the door with it.

Their guide said, “It’s a mag-lev. I have no idea what you mean by a live rail, and I’m not sure that I want to know.” He started to pry himself out of his undignified position. “We got most of the way, I think, but...” Then he trailed off, a vaguely horrified look on his sallow face.

Tom said, “What?”

He said, “Listen.”

A faint thrum echoed through the railway car.

Christopher said, in the voice of one expecting very bad news, “What’s that?”

The saturnine man said, “That’s a train. On the track behind us.”

Tom said, through rising panic, “Could it be emergency services?” She pulled herself up the wall until she found footing, then reached down and hauled Christopher to his feet by the front of his shirt.

The pleasant woman’s voice said, “Please remain in your seats and everything will be taken care of.”

The Dean said, still working on the door, “If so, they’re going awfully fast.”

Christopher said, “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” He stared in the direction of the oncoming train as if he could see it.

The saturnine man said, “It’s times like this I wish my programming allowed me to swear.”

The pleasant voice said, “Remain in your seats and everything will be taken care of. We regret the inconvenience. Guests without proper ticketing are subject to sanctions up to and including fines, fees, expulsion, legal action, reprogramming, death, and dismemberment. Please remain in your seats. We regret the inconvenience.”

Tom hurled herself across the car towards the door to lend her fingers to the Dean’s slowly opening door. Christopher whimpered, “Oh, sweet skateboarding Christ,” and scrambled in that direction as well. The saturnine man wrenched his leg free of the brass lamp which had pinned it to the floor-once-ceiling and crawled on hands and knees to the door.

The distant hum was growing louder at an alarming rate.

The sliding door slowly yielded to the pressure of four sets of hands. The incessant voice continued to tell them to remain in their seats, “And everything will be taken care of. We regret the inconvenience.”

The hum rose to a tooth-throbbing roar just as the four of them tumbled out of the door and into a dark, dank corridor that smelled like subways everywhere. As luck would have it, there was a side passage directly in front of them and the Dean shoved them all down it.

Behind them, a brightly lit -- yet empty, Tom was able to glimpse through the blurred windows -- train slammed into their disabled train at what may have been a couple hundred miles per hour. The two of them shrieked down the corridor in a twisted mass of silver and gold metal.

“Yes,” said their guide while they all stared after the spark-showering, screaming trains for a couple of seconds. “I can definitely see the appeal of swearing now.”

wonder_city: (Default)
Am trying to hit a deadline, so there will be a bit more of Tom, Christopher, and the Dean for you in the near future. Hope you continue to enjoy our diversion!

It was a subway. It reminded Tom, who had grown up in Boston, of the MBTA, except that it was cleaner. Much cleaner. She marveled at how they could possibly keep something made of this much white tile, pale concrete, and bright, primary-colored trim this clean.

“This reminds me of IKEA for some reason,” said Christopher, staring around.

Tom restrained herself from scanning the tracks for rats.

The Dean looked at this bright, clean, glassy, empty subway station and its blazing fluorescent tubes with disfavor. “I suppose it’s no good asking where we’re going?”

“Grimm, of course,” said the saturnine man. “It’s the only place She can’t reach you.”

Tom, who had previously been skeptical about such florid literary devices as you could HEAR the capital letters in the way he pronounced the words, resignedly had to admit that yes, it was indeed possible to pronounce capital letters.

The Dean said, “If you think Godmother can’t reach--”

The black-clad man whirled around (his long and pointy sleeves floating dramatically behind him) and flung the Dean against the nearest glass-brick wall, one hand over her mouth. “Don’t even say that Name!”

Christopher gasped audibly. Even Tom waited for some sort of explosion.

The Dean reached up and removed the hand which was covering her mouth, all the while regarding the black-haired man as though he were committing lese majesty.

He was unaffected. "She has listening devices everywhere. She might even be able to listen through me. Do not say her name.”

For a moment Tom thought the Dean might roll her eyes. But she didn’t, merely eeled around her interlocutor (Tom admired her underdone pantomime regarding the man’s bad breath) and brushed herself off. “Very well,” she said after a silence which went on at least one hundred and fifty percent too long.

The saturnine man said, “As long as you understand me,” and pressed the top of a short pillar Tom had thought was decoration. A set of pastel holographic controls sprang into life and he selected some of them.

Christopher let out his breath. He and Tom looked at one another.

A train glided up, silently, brightly, and hissed open its doors in a most inviting manner.

Christopher looked at Tom. Tom looked at the Dean. The Dean, without looking at their quondam rescuer, marched aboard the train and sat down on one of the blue velvet seats, crossing her legs and folding her arms.

The inside of the train was panelled in wood (or fake wood?) and brass, with a sort-of Oriental carpeting. Elaborate Art Nouveau swirls bracketed the windows, which flickered not with the landscape, but with moving, silent advertisements in a language Tom could not read. The pictures were lovely, though.

Christopher, who sat next to Tom, across from the Dean, said nervously, “How long do you think it will take?”

“Not long,” said the saturnine man, gloomily, to an advertisement that wanted him to try a pastel-colored candy capable of transporting a young blond couple to the Alps, where they apparently broke into song, experienced spontaneous rains of flowers, and chased mountain goats and each other. One corner of his mouth turned down in an experienced sneer. “Thank... thank everything.”

The Dean tipped her head back and gazed at the roof of the carriage, which had brass-trimmed hanging chandeliers and a smaller set of animated advertisements. “Are all the trains in working order?”

“As far as I know. Why?” asked their guide, suspiciously. The advertisement beside him now thought he might enjoy pink wine and a hot tub.

“That’s a little surprising, given the situation in Grimm,” said the Dean. “Doesn’t Herself want to limit contact?”

“That,” said their guide, shooting a sideways glower at the advertisement, which changed instantly to a scene of puppies surrounded by fresh white towels, “is not an issue. The trains only operate when Guests are present.”

The Dean said, slowly, “So that means that if Herself notices that the trains are operating... which she cannot fail to do...”

Tom felt her face go cold with horror, even though she was not yet sure who “Herself” was. “She’ll know exactly where we are!”

Christopher gripped the armrests of his blue velvet seat and shot a pleading look at their guide. The window behind him was now displaying a beauty shot of a little Germanic village, with dancing citizens in green skirts and lederhosen.

“Well,” said the saturnine man resignedly. “that would be one of my fatal flaws. I never do think a plan through completely.”

That was the moment, naturally, when the train crashed.

wonder_city: (Default)
Okay, maybe not Wonder City this week. Hope you are continuing to enjoy this interlude!

The door of Christopher’s “guest suite” did not come with a key in the lock. The Dean made do with a comb jammed into the old-fashioned keyhole and a chair wedged under the handle.

"I'm not climbing a glass mountain for that asshole," said Christopher, with finality. "He’s a handsy bastard, too."

“He doesn’t even have the excuse of being drunk,” Tom said gloomily. “What the hell was that stuff anyway? It tasted like carbonated Kool-Aid.” She glanced sideways at the Dean, who was carefully examining the furniture in the room.

“Gross,” agreed Christopher absently, while he paced back and forth with his hands dramatically twisted in his hair. "Of course something had to go wrong. Something always goes wrong.” He had the satisfaction of a Cassandra in his voice, although, Tom thought, he hadn’t predicted anything going wrong at all.

Tom said, “Look, Christopher, I think they’re just trying to give you a nice story, it’s just that they’re not really equipped--”

Christopher flung himself on the canopy bed, which puffed out a huge cloud of dust and creaked alarmingly. He scrambled back off of it, sneezing and trying to dust himself off while saying, “No, no, it’s obvious there’s something wrong here, there’s ALWAYS something wrong, you know...”

The Dean gave Christopher a look which strongly suggested that any and all woe in their current situation could be traced back to a single source, consisting of him. She started opening the drawers in one of the large carved chests.

Tom said, “It just seems that they haven’t had much practice...”

Christopher said, “Why not? Who makes a big fairy tale theme park and staffs it and then lets it sit around?”

Tom said, “Maybe it’s the off season?”

Christopher gave her a look far more sarcastic than she deserved, in her opinion. But before she could reply, the Dean said, apparently to the contents of a small drawer, “It’s not staffed.”

“What?” asked Christopher. “Of course it’s staffed, we met--”

The Dean pulled the drawer completely out and dumped a pile of small bones onto the carpet. Christopher pulled a face. The Dean toed through the bones briefly and went on, “Those aren’t staff, if by staff you mean people who are hired and earn a wage. No, the people you have met are part of the park. Still, Christopher has a point. There’s a reason why we seem to be the only tourists.”

Tom said, “But, if they’re not staff... what are they?”

Christopher said, “They’re... animatronic?”

“Well, they’re probably wired,” said the Dean, investigating another drawer. “But there are certain things robots just don’t do very well, you know? Clones, probably.”

Tom returned to the subject that actually bothered her. “Why do you think we’re the only... tourists?”

“That,” said the Dean with only the slightest hint of exasperation, “is what I am trying to find out. Oh, I might have guessed.” She pulled a carved box out of a drawer and popped it open. Inside was what looked like a miniature scepter.

The Dean glanced briefly around the room and settled on the elaborate gold-framed mirror. She pointed the scepter at it and the mirror transformed, projecting brightly-colored boxes and lines of text Tom guessed were menus. She flicked the scepter back and forth, selecting options, until the mirror made several pleasant chiming sounds and filled with unintelligible text, white on black.

Christopher said, “Why isn’t it in English?”

The Dean said, “Why should it be?”

Suddenly, a pleasant woman’s voice said, “Guests are not permitted behind the scenes. Viewing the mechanism spoils the story. I shall escort you to a proper level.” The screen flickered, then returned to colorful boxes, animations, and menus.

The Dean said, “Damn,” and started working with the scepter again. The pleasant woman’s voice said, “Unauthorized use of codes can result in sanctions up to and including expulsion from the park. Expulsion from the park can result in sanctions up to and including unreturned luggage, lack of transportation, fines, fees, lack of joy, refusal of refund, unfinished stories, injury, or death. The management is not responsible for guests who have been expunged.”

The Dean paid no attention. The pleasant voice said, “There will be no further warning,” and the mirror abruptly turned back into a mirror. As though to emphasize the words, the mirror cracked right across.

Tom thought, of course.

The Dean tossed the scepter over her shoulder into a corner. Christopher said, “What the hell?”

The Dean didn't look like she was going to answer him, but in any case, she didn't get a chance. The tapestry which covered the far wall started to ripple. While Christopher and Tom stared at it, gape-mouthed, it split in the middle to reveal the edge of an opening door.

Standing in the doorway was the black-haired saturnine man from the feast. “Now you’ve gone and done it,” he said with gloomy satisfaction. “You’d better come with me if you want to live.”

Then he broke into a grin which was slightly too toothy for good looks. “I never get to say that. It’s a dog’s life being the villain, I tell you.”

wonder_city: (Default)
Wonder City will almost certainly return next week. I'm hoping. :)

The Prince was attempting to sit in Christopher’s lap.

Tom found this both fascinating and deeply worrying on a level she wasn’t sure she wanted to examine. The Dean was poking at her food and the brightly-dressed “nobles” around the table (two greybeards, three ladies of bosom, and a tall saturnine man whose face was somewhat different than the others) were chattering and eating as though this were a perfectly normal occurrence.

Tom couldn’t help it. She said to the overly-floral peasant woman who was acting as a waitress, “Does... the Prince usually act like this?”

“Oh, this one does,” she said, and refilled Tom’s wineglass with a vaguely purple substance.

This one?” asked Tom.

“Why, yes,” said the blue-eyed woman, looking blank and blue-eyed.

The Dean, staring at something on the end of her fork as though it had just made a remark not admissible in polite company, said, “I expect they’ve got several.”

She said, “But how did they know that this one--”

The Dean said, “Christopher made it fairly clear after the kissing incident.”

Tom didn't want to think about the kissing incident. It made her want to giggle madly.

One of the ladies of bosom turned to Tom and said, conversationally, “The Kingdom welcomes all equally, without discrimination as to race, gender, sexuality, religion, shape, feeding preferences, biostatus, or planet of origin.”

Further down the table, the Prince offered to feed Christopher slices of something in bright aniline colors... possibly crystallized fruit? Christopher looked dubious.

Tom said, “I’m glad it’s okay to be Takei here, but I’m still a little weirded out. Where are the other Princes?”

“What other Princes, dear?” asked one of the greybeards, around a mouthful of food. Tom noticed that he had dropped some on his velveteen tunic.

“Um, his--” she gestured at the Prince, who was batting his eyelashes at Christopher in a way which would have been over-the-top in a Bugs Bunny crossdressing scene, “...brothers?”

“There’s only one Prince at a time,” said the saturnine man, adding, under his breath, "Thank Godmother." Tom looked at his black hair and widow’s peak and decided that he usually played villains, or perhaps morally ambiguous viziers. Then she processed what he said, and had an uncomfortable image of a closet stocked with Princes, hanging on hooks, waiting to be taken down and used.

The Dean put down her fork, her face consumed with an expression that suggested all her worst expectations had been confirmed, just as the Prince crowed, “A kiss! A kiss! Now you must go on a quest for me!”

Christopher, to give him credit, looked more distressed than Tom had ever seen him look before. “It’s been lovely, but--” he started.

I think you must go to the Glass Mountain for me! And bring me back the Firebird!” said the Prince, standing with one foot on his chair and one on the dinner table, striking a pose. “And don’t you love my boots? They’re just smashing!” He kicked over a decanter, as though to illustrate the pun.

The other guests broke into polite applause. The saturnine man looked at the prince as though measuring him for concrete shoes. The prince bowed, simpering.

“Is this some kind of burlesque?” asked Christopher plaintively. “I have to tell you, I love camp, don’t get me wrong, but I’m really uncomfortable with this.”

“The Kingdom welcomes all equally, without discrimination as to race, gender, sexuality, religion, shape, feeding preferences, biostatus, or planet of origin,” said the Prince, as he sat down.

Tom sat up and put her goblet back on the table. “What?” she said.

The greybeard sitting next to her turned and repeated, “The Kingdom welcomes all equally, without discrimination as to race, gender, sexuality, religion, shape, feeding preferences, biostatus, or planet of origin.”

“Yes, please remember,” said the saturnine man, as he stood up, rearranging his black and silver tunic and very obviously checking to make sure the knife concealed beneath it was still there, “that the Kingdom welcomes all equally, without discrimination as to race, gender, sexuality, religion, shape, feeding preferences, biostatus, or planet of origin.” He bowed to the table, and left.

“Fuck me running,” said Christopher, his voice shaking.

“I adore horseback activities!” said the Prince.

wonder_city: (Default)
And apparently the freelancing gods have decreed that you get a third scene of Compass Rose this week. :) Sorry for the lateness; when I work over a weekend, I sometimes lose track of days of the week. We hope you're continuing to enjoy this little adventure!

“Here you go,” said the Dean, swinging open the small iron-bound door. “London station, everyone off, this train will NOT be continuing to the terminus!”

A flood of bright, sharp-edged sunlight poured in through the open door. Beyond was an eerie silence.

“That... doesn’t sound like London,” said Christopher, after a moment.

“No,” said their host, in no wise disconcerted. She exited and her sigh was audible even from beyond the doorway. ”Definitely not, I’d say, although I must repeat that you ought not to invoke happy endings in front of Rosamund.”

Tom followed her and found herself in the lee of a beautiful stone cottage. The cottage was at the bottom of a winding street dotted with similar cottages, each with a well-tended garden in a rainbow of colors. The street ascended a gentle hill, which was crowned (the word was definitely apropos) with a castle of many turrets in white stone. The countryside around was green and divided into meadows by low green hedges.

There was no one in sight.

Christopher, exiting after Tom stopped and ran his hand over the surface of the cottage they had just emerged from. “It’s real,” he said wonderingly.

The Dean didn’t even turn. “Of course it’s real.”

“No,” said Christopher. “I meant, it looks kind of like... well, like it ought to be made of plaster. Like a movie set. I feel as though we just wandered into Oz.”

“That road is dirt,” Tom pointed out.

“Tell me those cottages look right,” Christopher challenged her.

Tom looked and had to agree. It looked like an illustration in a children’s book... or one of those horrible photographic posters from the eighties (well before her time, but not before the time of some of her friends). The ones with photos of kittens captioned, “Hang in there!”, leaping dolphins under improbable rainbows ("Leap for the sky!"), and fairytale castles ("Dreams come true").

Tom took a few steps after the Dean. “Where are we?” she asked, trying not to be plaintive. “And... why does it feel so weird?”

“It’s partly the gravity, I expect,” said the Dean. “It’s almost Earth-normal, but--”

Christopher interrupted with a noise which Tom thought was better not described or remembered. It fell into the “squee” category, though.

The Dean favored him with a look Tom classified as “impossibly elegant Victorian scientist confronted with something uncouth under the microscope.” She raised one eyebrow as Christopher continued with the noise. “Have I inadvertently said something risque? Does ‘gravity’ mean something different in your dialect?”

Tom said, “No, I think he’s just... excited about being on a different planet.”

“Ah,” said the Dean. “Well, in any case, given the general artificiality of where we are, I think I can make a guess at the location. It’s one of a fairly small set.” She walked down the short garden path and swung open a little rustic gate which was made of branches tied together with rope.

Abruptly, the door of every cottage along the street swung open. People emerged, mostly young women, dressed in what Tom thought of a “Renfaire clothes.” About eighty percent of them were brilliantly blonde; the rest had curly brunette hair with auburn undertones. The nearest woman (one of the blondes) practically skipped up to the gate. She was wearing a blue dress and white flowers in her hair.

“Welcome, strangers!” she said in a lovely, musical voice. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Bettelheim!”

Tom became aware that Christopher had ceased making that... sound. The Dean stood quite still, holding the open gate in one hand. “And where, kind peasant,” said the Dean, eliciting a smile from the woman, “is Bettelheim? We have traveled long and weary miles and are not familiar with this road.”

The woman laughed. “Everyone knows Bettelheim! We are to the east of the fair Queendom of d’Aulnoy, to the West of the Barony of Orczy and the Great Heavenly Empire of Wu, South of the Empire of Lang, and North of the City-States of Aesop and the Caliphate of Burton. We are the center of the world!”

The Dean blinked once, then smiled again. “Of course,” she said. “But what of the Kingdom of Grimm?”

The woman’s face took on a stagy expression of fear. “Oh, stranger,” she said, “You must not mention that name here! Terrible things have happened in that kingdom, and we are forbidden even to mention its name.”

Another woman, this one with a brown dress and red flowers in her hair, stepped up to the gate, holding out both hands to Tom. “Please,” she said, “we would like to welcome you to our kingdom. The Prince would be glad to receive you at the castle.”

One of the rare brunettes batted her eyelashes at Christopher, causing him to take a half-step backwards. “Yes,” she cooed. “Do come.”

“Uh,” said Christopher. “Where are the guys?”

“In the background,” said the Dean, waving her free hand. Tom noticed several (mostly blond) men strolling along the street in suspiciously clean peasant attire. A male blacksmith (blond) had appeared as if out of nowhere and was making pleasant clinking noises from an open-fronted forge.

The three women (Tom privately named them Blue, Brown, and Green -- Christopher’s brunette was wearing a fetching pale-green number) who made up the Welcoming Committee smiled again. “Please come,” repeated Green. “The kingdom wants to welcome you properly.” Christopher took another step backwards.

Tom said, “Um, thanks, but I don’t think we have time. We have to go.”

Blue said, “I’ll run ahead and tell them to get a feast ready!” She skipped -- really, truly, skipped -- off down the road toward the castle.

Tom said, “Does anyone else get the feeling that they’re not really listening to us?”

Brown and Green continued to stare. Tom noticed that their eyes were both the exact same shade of sapphire blue, like those of Persian cats. Actually, their faces looked rather alike.

“Dean,” she said. “I don’t feel very happy about this.”

The Dean said, “I don’t think they’re dangerous.”

Tom repressed her first remark.

“It’s worse than that,” said Christopher from behind her.

“What?” she said, without turning around. She didn’t want to lose sight of the two women, both of whom were smiling alternately at the Dean and herself.

“The door to Rosamund is gone,” said Christopher, in a tone of mixed gloom and satisfaction.

wonder_city: (Default)
Here you go: another part of the Compass Rose episode. We're very glad you're enjoying it! I am currently swamped with freelancing and trying to finish up a story for a submission deadline, so we will see whether you'll have Wonder City next week or Part 3 of "Once Upon a Time".

"London," said Christopher.

"Why always London?" asked Tom in what she thought was a reasonable tone. "I mean, we have so many places to choose from..."

"Tom, don't whinge. London's traditional."

Tom resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose in imitation of their host.

"Sooner or later," their host said, an amused smile playing around her lips, "you will rue your invocation of tradition, mark my words."

Christopher looked at their host with the expression of a baby seal who doesn't know it's about to be clubbed. "Can we go to Victorian London? Please? Late Victorian? About the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing?"

Tom busied herself folding her napkin in order not to be consumed with vicarious embarrassment.

"Why not?" their host asked. "It matches the damn decor, Rosamund. Well, almost. ...I'm not exactly an expert--"

“Oh,” said Christopher, dropping the bread object he was holding and clasping his hands together like a Botticelli angel, which he did not otherwise resemble. “That’s like getting all the happy endings at once! I can’t believe it!”

Their host shot him a look not generally associated with happy endings; Tom thought it was almost fearful. “One should be careful--” she started, then stopped and turned her head, staring off into the middle distance, clearly listening to something Tom absolutely could not hear.

Tom felt like she was interrupting when she said, "Are we going now?"

"Almost immediately," said their host. "Which means I am going to put on something other than a quilted silk dressing-gown, which is not appropriate attire in at least ninety percent of the places Rosamund might open to us." She rose and went out one of the doors, leaving her guests to wander.

Tom was standing on the threshold of the library, frankly gawping at the massive collection of tomes, when their host appeared behind her, tugging absently at immaculate cuffs and saying, "Rosamund's got an affinity with libraries, it's rather charming in a way. I accused her once of using L-space and she never really denied it."

Tom replied, "I don't think we ever actually introduced ourselves." She hadn't intended to end there but the sight of their host in beautifully-tailored Victorian drag was a little distracting.

"No, you didn't," replied their host, walking past the archway into the library to where Christopher was examining an enormous, elaborate mirror.

Christopher froze as the image of their host appeared behind him in the mirror and said, "Um, I, um, I'm Christopher," to the mirror rather than to their host.

"Names are dangerous. Don't you read the books?" she asked, tapping him lightly on the shoulder and pointing down the hallway. She strode on ahead of him.

Tom trailed behind. "Um, I'm usually called Tom."

"That's better."

Christopher, visibly gathering courage, took a deep breath and said, "What should we call you? I mean, you are..." His voice trailed off as she turned to look at him and he had to take another deep breath in the face of her raised-eyebrows stare. "You are, um, like, a doctor, right?"

"What on earth gave you that idea?" She paused, her gaze tracking a little to the left as though she were listening to something neither of them could hear. "Very funny. No, I'm afraid if you fall ill, you are on your own."

Christopher turned a miserable red and looked at the floor. "What should we call you, then?" he mumbled.

He wasn't looking at her, so he didn't see their host's expression. Tom did. One side of her mouth curled up in a wicked grin, but only for the briefest moment. "You can call me the Dean, if you like." Her gaze flicked to Tom. "I've never been accused of having pretty feet, but it will do, for the moment."

When Tom tracked that reference down, it gave her the uncomfortable feeling that someone had been rummaging about in the library of her mind.


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