The Cost of the Revolution in Three Marvelous Confections
By R. K. Duncan
. . . Do you know what we really lost when Tarvagost’s corpse went over the railing and we got the republic?
I managed an invitation to the Spire that last night. I was out on the balcony when it started. You could see the whole city rise, the blue witchfire lights going out where the streetlamps toppled and the orange of the bonfires that replaced them.
They hurried us inside before the singing started in the streets and met us with pastries.
It was a nest of phyllo, full of hollow nuts, painted like robins’ eggs and filled with pepper-honey. They burst in my mouth like sweet fire, and the richness of the nut lingered, like the honeyed nuts the gleaners sell now but ten times more intense.
We all had to smile while Tarvagost watched us from his throne with its halo of gold and silver palm leaves. He had the guild leaders paraded up on a stage to pretend the city still supported him, and they all had to give speeches, and everyone clapped, because the whole of his guard was there.
They’d given up the streets already. If I’d been in our old room above the printer, I’d probably have gone out to try and steal a second court suit in the confusion.
It got so hot with everyone packed into the throne room clapping that they sent round iced wine and little tarts full of frozen berries. The cooks did it specially, drying them over a low fire and cooling them slow on a spelled stone so that the ice never burst the fruit. It stayed firm as fresh when it warmed in my mouth and twice as sweet. It chilled me down enough to shiver, but it tasted of spring and made me want to dance or fight or something.
I haven’t seen berries like that in the city since the revolution. I suppose they still pick them, but no one pays for fast horses and cold-spells to bring them in before they spoil.
I was barely watching when the Knight of Tears stepped out of thin air and put his sword through Tarvagost.
They’d just sent out the subtlety. Each of us got a little lemon-poppy cake shaped like a bird. They flew on wings of sugar glass, driven by sugar clockwork. It lasted just long enough to drop into our hands when it failed, and when we finished there was nothing left that we could not savor, just sweetness and light and the joy of how clever it was.
I hear one of Tarvagost’s chefs still has an eating-house in the city. It’s good food, but no one has the money for tricks like those birds.
That’s what we lost: not honor or majesty or any of the nonsense the legitimists are still preaching. We lost the wealth that paid for things that were perfectly useless and complex and beautiful. That’s what we traded for empty jails and everyone having enough.
By Jingly Bell, By Velvet Mouse
By KT Bryski
By jingly bell — by velvet mouse —
By shedding fur — by whiskered purr —
By ticking clock — by sweetest sun —
The cat weaves spells to call his human home.
Some nights, he’s left alone. Upstairs, footsteps fall quiet; darkness shrouds the apartment; his human does not return. On such nights, the cat readies his magic.
He arranges his toys in intricate patterns, yowling incantations over them. All through the night he works, until the rising sun blesses the whole. And then —
His human stumbles through the door, bleary-eyed and smelling of another human’s bed.
Every time, he casts his spells. Every time, she comes back. The magic always works.
Until it doesn’t.
For long hours, he crafts his sigils on the floor adjusting the angle between chirpy-bird and catnip pillow. With the dawn, he waits.
Sunlight drifts across the rug. The cat grooms and paces, his litter box full and belly empty. As twilight steals in, he tries again.
On the third day, the door opens. He bolts from beneath the bed, but it is only his human’s mother, caterwauling and leaking eye-water. Strange humans feed him, then stuff him in his carrier.
Sharp winter air rakes his fur, void of scent.
The cat crouches low. When they let him out, he’ll get the pattern right.
A new house. Terrible house, wrong house. White lilies choke the air. His human’s mother feeds him without speaking, her lap cold and hard.
The magic has always worked. As the weeks pass, the cat’s spells spring wild as twisting vines. New angles. New designs. New charms screamed until his human’s mother locks him in the bathroom.
Hunched on the tile, he wonders —
Did he ruin the magic? Unintentionally — catastrophically — misjudge some power and banish his human forever?
By scream — by sniff —
By rubber band — by foil ball —
By squishy-fish — by chewy-bear —
Again. Again. Again.
The cat grows old. Still, he works.
With shaking paws, he bats his toys into place. It’s harder now. His legs won’t jump right. Dulled scents barely stir his whiskers. The old cat aches to sleep, curled on the rug, arthritic bones warming in the sun.
But he has not found the proper spell.
By falling tooth — by failing sight —
Jingly bell and velvet mouse lie side by side. Pink dawn caresses them both. Something has caught, the old cat thinks. Something has almost worked.
He stretches beside his spell. Too tired. Too sore.
But then —
The door opens. The cat’s ears prick.
His human stumbles in, shining-eyed and smelling of summer skies.
She gathers him up, light streaming behind her. The cat twists like he hasn’t in years, jamming his head into her cheeks, her neck, her chest. His human kisses his nose.
“I missed you.”
With a rumbling purr, he settles in her arms. His human carries him out — into sunlight — into love — into —
A Thousand Points, the Sky
By Michelle Muenzler
“Fold faster,” Auntie says, her arthritic fingers tucking the wings of the paper balloon like she’s twenty years younger.
I struggle to keep up with her pace, the paper awkward in my shaking hands. Smears of red stain my skirt where I’ve wiped the paper cuts, best I can. Even so, most of my balloons are dabbed in red amidst the black ink and white paper.
It isn’t important the balloons be pretty, though. Only legible once unfolded.
“How much time?” I ask as I stare in dismay at the current book splayed between my legs. Half its spine is a desolate fringe, the other half clinging weakly to what pages remain.
At this rate, I’ll never finish the book.
Auntie glances over her shoulder through the great library’s smashed window, down at the ground two stories below. “Enough, child, enough.”
But even as she says it, I see the wrinkle in her lip and know it’s a lie.
“They’ve got the wood stacked now, don’t they?”
Her fingers pause their folding. Between us, a skeletal pile of desecrated books, knowledge ripped from them page by page. To the side, all the rare tomes still in need of saving. Her mouth tightens, and she nods.
As if to taunt us, the first whiff of smoke bleeds through the broken window. Auntie rips a new page free. Folds faster.
I stare at my latest pile of paper balloons, my lopsided creations waiting on that final breath of life. The book’s contents aren’t completely folded yet, but time is short, so I gather up what I have.
Better half a book than none.
At the window, I take each hurriedly folded paper balloon, find the small hole in the bottom, and blow just like Auntie showed me when we began our task late last night. One by one, the balloons inflate, filled not just with air but with our need to save them. With our aching wishes that their words live on. With a gentle kiss, I send each out the window, where against all improbability they bob skyward, propelled by our want. The horizon is dotted with similar such balloons, a thousand points of knowledge spreading in every direction.
From below the window, a wave of heat sweeps upward, bathing my face.
The air fills with the snap and crackle of wood.
The library’s massive front doors are barred, of course. From the inside. And though there’s still a faint chance in this moment of escaping before the fire consumes us both, we know we won’t. Not at the cost of the books.
Ignoring the flames below, I sit back down. Rip a fresh page free. “Can you help me with this one?” I ask, squinting my eyes tight. It wouldn’t do to get the paper wet, after all. “It was one of my favorites. I’d hate to see it burn.”
“Of course.” Auntie deftly sets her own book aside.
And together, we fold.
By Nathan Susnik
At seventeen, Ayumi walks through the rubble of her old neighborhood. The mere ridiculousness of a ship in the middle of the street makes her want to laugh. But when she reaches her old house, she is solemn and says a prayer. Although she has not seen her parents’ bodies, she is not in denial. It has been months since the wave.
Why then has she not yet cried?
As she turns to leave, she sees a telephone booth in the middle of the field down the street. It stands alone among the rubble, so she goes to it. In the booth is a phone that’s not hooked up, but she picks up the receiver and dials her parents’ number. There are voices on the other end. “Mom? Dad?” she says. “I miss you.”
And for the first time since the wave, Ayumi cries.
At university, Ayumi meets a man. He’s kind and understanding and tall, but not nearly as handsome as she had dreamed. Still, three out of four isn’t bad, she thinks. This could be it.
She asks Kaito if he would like to meet her parents. Together, they travel to her hometown. Many houses have been rebuilt, but the telephone booth still stands in the field. Ayumi picks up the receiver and dials. Her mother laughs and tells her that she would love to meet her boyfriend, but when Kaito takes the receiver, he frowns. “There’s no one there.”
They are married under a blue sky, surrounded by waving grass. The celebration is in a tent erected next to the phone booth. When the ceremony starts, Ayumi dials her parents’ number and leaves the phone off the hook.
When Mei is born, they buy a house in Ayumi’s hometown. She takes Mei to the field almost every day. Their giggles fill the telephone booth.
When Mei is fourteen, she refuses to go to the telephone booth. “But how will your grandparents ever get to know you?” says Ayumi.
“There’s no one there, Mom,” says Mei. “Stop being crazy.”
When Mei is seventeen years old, Ayumi sits in the telephone booth crying. She tells her parents that she is tired of fighting; she hasn’t spoken with her daughter in months. She has also taken her mother’s advice and seen the doctor about her stomach pain. She’s afraid to tell Kaito the test results.
Ayumi is in pain. She lies in bed, her body much too weak to get out. She sees Mei and Kaito. They tell her that it’s alright. There’s nothing to fear.
Today, Ayumi is better; today, she will go for a walk. The grass waves in the field, and the door to the telephone booth stands open. When she gets there, the telephone rings. She has never heard it ring before. It’s a pleasing little cling-a-ling. She smiles, picks up the receiver, and the voice on the other side is familiar.
“Mom,” it says. “I miss you.”
About the Authors
Michelle Muenzler is an author of the weird and sometimes poet with an especial love for flash fiction. At local science fiction and fantasy conventions, she is known as “The Cookie Lady”, and she writes things both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Her short fiction and poetry can be found in numerous magazines such as Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, and Liminality. For links to more of her work — and cookie recipes! — check out her website.
R. K. Duncan is an author mostly of fantasy, with a dash of sci-fi and horror thrown in. He writes about fairies and gods and ghosts from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford college. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, playwright, and podcaster. She has stories in many short fiction publications, including Lightspeed, Nightmare, Augur, and PodCastle.
She’s won the Parsec and the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, and she has been shortlisted for the Sunburst and Aurora. KT co-chairs ephemera, a speculative fiction reading series occurring monthly in Toronto (or YouTube, depending on COVID-19).
When she’s not writing, KT can be found frolicking through Toronto, enjoying choral music and craft beer.
Nathan is a medical writer and editor who lives near Hanover, Germany. In his free time, he writes fiction. His stories have been published by markets such as Cast of Wonders, Shoreline of Infinity, and Gallery of Curiosities. You can find out more about his stories by visiting his website, www.nathansusnik.wordpress.com, or following him on Twitter, @NathanSusnik
About the Narrators
New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the Books of the Order, The Chronicles of Art, The Shifted World series. She is also the co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series with her husband, Tee Morris. Philippa currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats.
Kai Hudson lives in sunny California where she writes, hikes, and spends entirely too much time daydreaming of far-off worlds. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, PseudoPod, Metaphorosis, and Anathema: Spec from the Margins, among others. You can visit her website at www.kaihudson.com.
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.