A/N: I'm somewhat debating writing one more story in this world. Anyone wanna recommend a pairing you'd like?
I try, over several weeks, to integrate myself into Snow White's friends, to know all of them and be their friend. I succeed, mostly, with everyone except Snowy herself.
To put it simply, she is not interested in me.
And I have no idea why, until one day when Snowy is ill, the name "Tink" comes up in a conversation, prompting many sighs and woeful glances towards the corner of Cin's room, where we are gathered.
"Tink?" I ask, and the girl named Rapunzel looks at me. Her blue eyes are shadowed and mournful.
"Tinkerbelle," she whispers, as if saying the name loudly will summon either Snow White or the person to whom the name is attached. "She was a fairy," she says, as though the word explains it all.
It does, in part.
I know what a city like Tyme Ago does to the fairies from the Outlands and the islands. The iron and filth in the city poison them, and the battering that the diseases that they have no immunity to does the rest. For any fairy, no matter how powerful, living in Tyme Ago for any longer than a few months is a death sentence.
And I have seen the sorrowful, longing glances Snowy gives fairies who wander through our town for a short period of time.
"Tinkerbelle," I say around a lump in my throat. "Was a fairy. And Snow White was in love with her?"
"They have the same sickness," Beauty says sotto voce. "It was consumption that put the final knife in Tink months ago, but it's affecting Snowy more slowly."
I knew. I suppose I'd always known, but now that someone had finally said it out loud, I knew what was wrong with the woman who'd caught my eye. A physical illness and another, more emotional one that ran deeper.
I can heal the consumption, I thought eagerly, but what of the wound in her heart? What of the longing she had for the dead fairy, Tinkerbelle?
I don't know if I can heal it. I want to try, even though she won't let me near her.
Cin has continued her affair with the Crown Princess, and one day I catch them. Not in the act, of course, but merely spending time together, which is odd for something that should be only sexual.
The Princess is warmer than I expect. Though the clothes she wears are those of the servant variety, her high cheekbones and the planes of her face speak for themselves, as well as the purple eyes. I can certainly see why Cin is attracted to her. I dare not say 'in love,' for I do not presume to know Cin's heart.
No commoner could have those eyes, or that presence of something otherworldly. There is, perhaps I, but I am an anomaly, and all friends with whom Cin considers herself close know of her relations with the Crown Princess.
They are in the apartment that Cin shares with Rapunzel when I come upon them. I have come to seek Cin's advice on Snow White, but when I see that her attention is otherwise distracted, I decide that it would be better to come back later.
Yet the Princess Kyria stays my wandering feet with a motion of her hand. "You are troubled," she says instead of a greeting. Her wine eyes unfocus, and her lids drop down.
Cin does not look worried, and the Princess stares at me with a half-drunken look. "You should not worry so," she says quietly. "I have met Snow White, and she is stronger than you think. She may yet come to you."
I shake my head. "I do not wish to make her forget things she would rather embrace." She half lives in the past, I want to say. She wanders through the days she spent with Tinkerbelle the fairy at her side, never wondering, never dreaming of what could be in her future.
Kyria just looks at me. "You both live too much in the past."
Her eyes unfocus, and only then do I bow in the presence of royalty, and am introduced to the Princess as myself. "Jeanette, Princess. She is a swan maiden."
I am shocked. "How did you know?" I ask. I have been careful around the girls. No one should have seen me change.
"There were rumors of a swan maiden during your first few weeks here, of a woman who is a swan on certain days of the month, specifically the dark of the moon," Cin explains. "Though you look like a boy--a young man at best--you vanish on the dark of the moon. And I've found swan feathers scattered in the streets about your flat."
"Do the others know?"
"No. None know. Snowy doesn't know," she says, though her emphasis on the name means that I should tell Snowy.
"And she shan't," I say firmly. "She won't until I tell her."
She nods, and the Princess nods. "A wise choice," she says. "There are those among my sorcerers who would sell part of their soul to possess you."
Despite that, I have to ask. "I am cursed to be a swan for a few days and nights a month. Is there any among your sorcerers who would know how to release me?"
"I do not know," she says. "And I dare not ask. I fear that rumors of your presence have reached even the ears of the highest-born sorcerers in my employ, and there are those that already would dearly love to acquire you."
Acquire. To acquire me, as though I am some interesting trinket or book.
"Do not tell them of me," I tell her. Even though she is the Princess, it is me who is at stake, and I feel that I am within my rights to demand this of a member of the royal family.
Kyria observes me seriously, and instead of calling her guards, she smiles. "I was not going to," she said. "You value your freedom and I value my own to come here to see Cin." She gazes almost lovingly at my friend.
Ah. So the Palace does not know that she comes here. It is as well, then. We do not need the presence of the Guard around us.
I say nothing, and soon I excuse myself.
It is barely a week later when we--Snowy, Briar Rose, Rapunzel, Beauty, and I--receive notes from Cin, telling us to meet her at the apartment.
When I arrive--for I am the last to arrive--I am greeted by the sight of a Princess with hacked-off hair and bright features paintless and dulled by powder, Cin with better clothes than she has ever worn, and both of them dressed to travel.
"We're leaving," Cin says bluntly as soon as I sit down on the cheap couch, between Snowy and Rapunzel.
"What?" Rapunzel sounds shocked. "Where-how--"
"Why?" I ask.
Kyria has stared only at the floor, and I can sense great grief emanating from her. Still, she does not speak.
"The King is dead," Cin says softly.
The Princess flinches.
"Do not call him that," Cin snaps. Then she looks regretful. "I don't mean to snap, but the King is--he was--" she pauses, almost searching for words. "Not a very nice man," she finally finishes, casting a worried glance at her lover.
"How?" I ask.
Then Kyria raises her eyes to meet mine. There is pain etched in her gaze. Not only loss, but something almost physical. Trauma. Heartache. Fear. And strangely enough, relief. "I killed him," she whispers. It is so quiet I can barely hear it.
Where has the strong, confident Princess who courted our Cin gone?
What I can feel from her is the same I feel from any girl on the streets who has been assaulted by a man. Had the King--was it possible that--
The answer in her eyes is all the answer I need, and suddenly I am glad that this man is dead.
"Where will you go?" Beauty asks.
"Somewhere far away," Cin says. "Somewhere we can start over, be safe from all of the filth in this city."
I nod, and I look over at Rapunzel. Terrible sadness shadows her eyes.
"We'll send some word of how to find us," Cin promises. "We just--we need to get away from Tyme Ago before someone figures out what happened, if anyone does."
She looks almost frantically at Princess Kyria, and it is then that I realize that Cin loves her. A whore in love with a Princess. It is almost laughable, but somehow, someway, it has happened. They love each other, and I believe that their romance will actually work out.
But now Kyria reaches under her cloak and pulls out a large, flat sack. Cin pulls out another smaller, rounder bag.
The Princess produces a sheet of paper, and a large, obviously wrapped cloth of some extraordinary, glowing hoary fabric, and Cin spills out her own, pouring out a stream of yellow gravel. It has a dull shine, and with a start, I realize that the gravel is gold. Tiny, dull nuggets of gold. Enough to keep us all in comfort for a very long time. But what is the cloth?
Kyria catches me looking, and a tiny smile quirks the corner of her mouth. It is the first I have seen from her. "It is of moonbeams," she says.
"Material such as this made one of the dresses of my mother's mother," she says. "Her name was Illyria, but before she married my grandfather she was known as Donkeyskin."
I nod gravely, though I have little idea of what she is talking about.
She sets the material down on the table next to the golden nuggets. Then she and Cin stand up. "We really must be gone," Cin says.
Kyria hands me the piece of paper that had been in the package with the moonbeam cloth. "Here," she says.
I scan it quickly. It seems to be the deed to a property. "A…building?" I guess. Kyria nods. "A brothel." Her face colors, and she raises her voice. "It is for all of you. You may do as you wish with it, or return it to its former business."
I look about the room and realize that this is not an issue that should be settled now. It cannot be settled now. Though the other women, I think, are all for turning the building back into a brothel, I am not sure that should be its only purpose. But that, as I said, was a discussion for another time.
Cin and Kyria leave from the flat. We had wanted to walk them to the edges of the city, but the Princess rightly pointed out that a group would be far more conspicuous than a pair traveling alone.
So we bid our farewells and watched the Princess and the whore set off down the street, turn the corner, and vanish.
And then the real discussion begins over what to do with the deed and the gold.
We eventually settle for utilizing the deed and not selling the property, and taking half the gold and setting it aside, leaving the rest to be divided up among the five of us. It comes out to a hefty amount, and then we begin making plans for the brothel.
But it will not be just a brothel, for I will operate my little business out of a room in the building, and it is there that my talents will be best used, I think. I will not even have to leave to tend to my friends.
And it is here that I finally am able to focus my attention on Snow White.
It begins when I heal her consumption. She has begun growing sicker at an accelerated rate, and I know that it is finally time for me to act upon what I know and what I think I can do, rather than watching the woman I have such affection for die like some common whore.
It almost takes too much out of me, burning the tiny bits of illness out of her and healing the raw flesh left behind.
When I awaken nearly a week later, I am told that I spent the better part of two days kneeling over Snowy in a trance, and then spent the rest of my time comatose and as pale as Snowy herself. She and the others then had to divide the labor of watching me among them, spooning broth into my mouth and cleaning me when I soiled myself. It was that last part that upset me the most. I do not like the thought of people--especially my friends--having to deal with my leavings and results of my own stupidity.
But it worked, and Snowy is healed.
It is the next week--the first dark of the moon in the brothel--when I decide to reveal to them my curse.
On the first night, I choose to only show Snowy. "I want you to see something," I tell her, drawing her into my rooms at the end of the night before the sun rises. "There is something you must know about me, and I can only hope that you do not hate me for hiding it."
She nods and follows me into my room. Into my bedroom! I nervously avoid looking at the bed, and make a serious attempt at ignoring Snowy when she sits on it.
"I am not sure how to explain this the best way," I say. "I do not think a show would make the best impression, but let me say that I have no control over this, and that I do not enjoy the effects of this curse."
She perks up a little, though she is still exhausted. "Curse?"
"Many years ago--decades ago, I think," I say, frowning, "I was cursed by a sorcerer named Vandermeer."
Vandermeer. She mouths the name.
"He decided on his own that I was unfaithful to men, and cursed me so that for a certain amount of time every month, I am… not myself."
Her eyes flick to the door, then back to me. "What do you mean?"
"I--er--" and now I fumble for words. Now, on the threshold of telling Snowy my darkest secret, and hoping that she will not fear the transformation that comes over me.
"I know you do not work for some three days of the month," she says, "and that you lock yourself away, and do not answer your door."
She eyes me. "Are you a Beast?"
"No." I have to laugh. I am not like Beauty's mysterious benefactor. He is under a curse as well; similar to mine, but different in that I believe his can be broken. "No, I am not a Beast."
"I am not horrible, but I am not wonderful, either."
And then the first rays of the setting sun set the thin drapes I have set over my window afire, and I have no time to speak. That rush of light comes over me, accompanied by the sound of feathers whipping past my ears.
Snowy is now much taller than me, and she though she is still on my bed, one hand is pressed to her mouth and she looks horrified. "Oh, Jeanette!"
I bow my head, ashamed of what I have become: a mere animal. Stranger than most, and certainly beautiful to look at; black feathers and a golden beak, with grey webbed feet. I am awkward when I walk about in this form, but if I sit--and I do--then I have a little more dignity.
My head lowers at an increasing angle until my beak touches the floor. I cannot stand to see the look in her eyes of fear, or worse, utter discomfort.
I hear a thud, and suddenly she is on her knees next to me, tentatively reaching out a pale hand. It settles along my back, sinking into the feathers. I look back, and it looks lovely among all the pure black. I follow the arm back up to her face, reluctantly, to see her eyes brimming over with tears.
"Jeanette, I am sorry that you did not tell me sooner."
Her tears fall against my feathers and slide off without soaking in. Slowly, I rest my head on her hand on my back, and suddenly she has gathered me into her arms. My legs dangle limply, and this is indeed an awkward position. I am not a small swan, and she is unused to holding any kind of animal. I push and struggle against her and around in her arms until she is sitting with her legs tailor style, and her arms loosely about me. I settle into the near-nest that her body makes, and it is comfortable.
And she does not hate me.
The other girls do not hate me either, though Beauty always looks at me oddly from that point forward. I find out why when, during the last time of the month I am a swan, she is sitting with Snowy and I in my room. Snowy is asleep on my bed, and Beauty and I are playing an odd game of chess.
She is quite the odd duck, Beauty is. For one thing, she can read, and actually enjoys it. I did, once, but since I left Vandermeer's manor, I have had to put that pastime aside.
But she is quite good at chess, which I am fond of, and we often play, even when I am a swan. I can still move the pieces with my beak, after all.
I have just taken her castle with my knight when she takes a long pull from her glass of wine, and a takes a longer sigh. "Jeanette," she says. "Have you ever thought about--have you ever tried erm--" she seems lost for words, and her face is red and growing moreso by the moment. "Did you ever consider--oh, damn--attempting to mate while in that form?"
I do not understand the question for a moment, and then I take in her neatly groomed appearance. Her hair is combed and her face painted. She does not have work tonight, I remember. Her bodice is low-cut, though it is more modest than those she wears for her "gentlemen callers". Beauty's lips part invitingly, and her pupils are large with desire. Desire for me. Oh, no. And worse, it is desire for my swan form. Oh, heavens! I shake my head, but Beauty either does not realize what I mean or does not care.
She stands slowly, steps over the board towards me even as I am waddling awkwardly backwards toward the bed and Snowy.
Beauty quickly catches up with me and is just reaching for me with trembling fingers, when I cannot stand it anymore. A musical whistle erupts from my beak, and she snatches her hand back.
Snowy shoots out of her dreams and looks accusingly at us. "What is it?"
I shuffle towards her as fast as I can, and hop up onto the bed.
She frowns at Beauty. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Beauty says. She smiles at me sadly. I think she will not try this again. "We just had a small argument, and I should get going." She makes for the door. "Good night."
"Good night," Snowy says.
Just like that, Beauty is gone, and Snowy looks at me questioningly. "What was that about?"
I am too heartsick and disgusted to answer her, and I shake my head. Wearily, I curl up on the bed, tucking my head under my wing.
The woman I love runs a hand along my back soothingly. "Sweet dreams, Jeanette."
It goes on for months, the almost-courting between Snowy and I, although I realize that she doesn't quite realize what we are doing.
Still, she continues to see her male customers and service them for money. Though it sickens me to watch her, I can do nothing but. We live in a brothel, and this is all she knows how to do.
During the days she cleans vigorously, something I suppose that she enjoys, since she often sings to herself while she mops the floors and washes the dirty laundry. And there is a lot of dirty laundry; there are the girls rooms, of course, but it was a unanimous decision to use the downstairs rooms for customers. The girls are all tired of remembering their customers in their rooms, while they try to sleep. That is why the "receiving rooms," though lavishly appointed and nicely furnished, are uniform and impersonalized as can be. They are just rooms. There is absolutely nothing special about them.
Really, nothing special until the unthinkable happens in one of them.
Azael Trowtheby was not out of the ordinary. Brown eyes, blonde hair, and a goatee. Completely unremarkable.
He is--was--Snowy's customer, and we had banned him from the brothel one month before for trying things that not only had he not paid for, things that we just didn't do.
I am in my room the night he returns, trying to sleep the last swan-night away. There is a nest of cloth in the corner of my room, and I am nestled inside it, nearly dozing.
It is Snowy's scream that jolts me out of an almost-dream of dancing at a strange masque.
But why is she screaming?
I only discover that Lord Trowtheby has returned when Snowy bursts into my room, slams the door behind her, and hurls herself at my bed.
I am standing in the middle of the room, alarmed, when hideous pounding sounds at my door. The slab of oak is a sturdy thing, meant to block out sounds or hold up against a prostitute's back being slammed up against it by a man's body.
The doorjamb, however, is not meant to hold anything more than that, and soon the wood around the lock begins to splinter.
Snowy is huddled on my bed in the farthest corner from the door. Her bodice is ripped, and her skirt is pulled down in the back, revealing her chemise.
She stares at me with wide frightened eyes, and mouths I'm sorry. I believe she has only just remembered that I am only a bird now, not a woman.
Not that Trowtheby would stop for a woman. Five of us certainly were barely able to restrain him, even with my small magicks dulling his strength. What chance have I?
Still, I must try.
The wood finally splinters apart and the door smashes open, slamming against the wall with a hard crack.
Trowtheby is standing there, silhouetted in the gaslight from the hallway. Somehow this makes him more terrifying than to see him in broad daylight. He is not a large man, but he is a very angry one.
"I. Paid. You. Whore." He grinds it out through clenched teeth.
Snowy whimpers. All I can do is hiss at Trowtheby. He doesn't even notice me.
"I paid you, damnit, and I will get what I paid for." He takes a step farther into the room. My room. Towards my Snowy.
"You will take it and you will like it," he said. "It's so tight but so good."
My prostitute hides her head, curling into a small ball.
The Lord stomps fully into my room, to the bed, and reaches down towards Snowy.
I am there first.
He sees me in front of him, hissing, spreading my wings, and just trying to seem larger and more intimidating than I am.
It works for about a second, and then he backhands me into the wall. Snowy shrieks her way out of shock and begins to beat at him with her fists and nails.
"Don't hurt her!" she screams. He grabs her wrists in one hand and slaps her with the other. "Please!"
I struggle to my webbed feet, dizzy. The world is tilting around me--no, that is me who is tilting. Or my vision.
I flap up to the bed, fully intent on pecking Trowtheby's eyes out.
He swats at me again, and I beat at him with my wings. I had heard that one sweep of a swan's wing can break a man's arm.
I learn the hard way that it is not true, when it barely seems to hurt him. He turns his full attention on me, grabs my long, thin neck, and begins to squeeze.
This is the end, then. This is where I will die, protecting the woman I love.
However there is magic, and at least I can take him with me. I begin to trigger the most offensive spell I have. It is one that will tie my life force to his, and kill him when I die.
But then--oh, then!--then there is a whooshing sound. Feathers fly about the room, battering everything and touching nothing. There is a pink light bathing everything with a weirdling glow, and even Trowtheby has frozen. Either that, or he has killed me and this is what Death looks like.
But I am not dead.
I can hear Snowy sobbing softly. Her eyes are squeezed shut and I just want to reach out and hold her. Trowtheby's grip on my neck suddenly relaxes, and he falls to the ground with a thud.
And then he bursts into chiming pink sparks, leaving nothing where his body should be. Snowy flinches as though she has been struck, though I am still standing, looking down at Trowtheby's corpse. He is dead and I do not know why. But… I am above him.
I am looking down. Down, not over. It suddenly registers that I am wearing the black shirt and trews I had been wearing before I transformed.
Odd attire, for a swan.
Less odd for a woman.
My legs are long and scaleless, and my fingers are no longer stretched out and fragile. I have teeth again, and space between my toes. Best of all, I do not have a tail that wags when I want to smile.
I have fingers, and hands, and an arm that can reach out.
I use it now to touch Snowy. She recoils from my hand, sobbing harder.
"Snowy," I breathe, barely daring to believe that I am me again, at a time when I should still be a swan. "Dearheart, look at me."
She raises her head, gazes at me through tears, and stands up abruptly. "You're alive!" she whispers.
"And you're not a swan…"
"Apparently not," I say.
"God," she whispers. "You're glowing."
Hmm? Indeed, I realize when I examine my arm. How strange. I am nearly crawling with magickal energy.
But what to do with it? I choose to seal it away for now, in the deepest part of my body until I am ready to use it. It is not time for that now.
Snowy feels exhausted. Something inside me is telling me that, and suddenly I know what to do with a little of the energy. I feed her a little, and she perks up. Her eyes are wide. "I feel--that is wonderful," she says. "What did you do--"
I stop her question with my mouth.
There is a quick gasp on her part, and then she closes her eyes, and her hands come up to my face. I hold the back of her head gently, palming her curly black hair. My tongue plays over her lips, and then flicks inside against her own. The world spins as the taste of her swirls inside me, strangely cool and sweet and a little like cinnamon.
Her hands rest on my chest as I pull away to say, "I love you." She shakes her head.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I should have been there with you, to protect you from him--"
She shakes her head faster. "You did what was right," she says. "You saved me." And then we are kissing again, hands everywhere, touching, wanting to know that this is real and that we are here and alive.
It is less than an hour later when Harriet shows up.
She appears silently in a swirl of black robes, glasses askew, to find me sitting with the other girls in the common room downstairs. We have dismissed all of the customers, so it is just us in the building.
Harriet's blonde hair was bright against the black silk of her robes, as was the silver embroidery. The girls are all startled by her sudden appearance, and though I am too, I hide it well.
"Jeanette," she says. "Well done. You have broken the Swanspell."
"Swanspell?" Rapunzel asks, gazing at Harriet. "That was what it was called?"
"Yes. Some sorcerers prefer to call it the Swansong."
"How?" I ask.
"How did I break it? I thought it couldn't be broken…"
"Oh, that," she says. "You needed to feel real, sacrificial love for another person."
"When--did you know that from the beginning?"
"No," she tells me. "I only discovered that in Vandermeer's notes a few months ago, and I couldn't find you."
"How did you find me just now then," I challenge her. I want her to be wrong. I want to blame someone for not breaking this sooner.
The sorceress gazes dryly at me, and then I realize that the girls are staring at me. I look down to find that I am glowing again. "Damn."
"Indeed." Harriet draws something with her finger and I stop glowing.
"Thank you," I say.
She brushes it off. "Now I've a proposition for you," she says.
I raise an eyebrow.
"I've been searching the world over for an apprentice," she says. "She must be female, and she must be powerful."
"And it must be you," she sighs. "Honestly, you're dense."
"Yes, you, of all the girls in the world."
I smile. "May I bring someone with me?"
Harriet truly smiles. "You may bring your entire household if you like," she says, encompassing the room with a sweeping gesture.
I meet each of the girls' eyes. Rapunzel's jade, Beauty's sapphire, Briar Rose's cerulean, and last of all the near-indigo of Snowy's gaze. "Will you come with me to a manor far from here, live with me in peace, and never have to do this again?"
We have my answer when they are packed within a half hour. There is little to pack, and less that I know anyone actually wants to bring.
I make one last trip out to find the woman named Lili, and bring her back with me. "Do you want this building?" I ask.
She looks troubled. "Are you leaving?" she asks in that dulcet voice.
I decide to be honest with her. "Yes. I am going very far away with my friends, and I do not know whether we will ever be back."
Her face crumples. "Never?" she whispers it as though reading aloud her own death sentence. I suppose, for her, it is.
And I decide that I cannot leave her like this, in a body not her own when I instinctively know that now, with the power and knowledge at my disposal, I can sculpt her body as I would form wet clay. "Come with me," I say. "Please. I will change you to be what you desire."
She looks joyous. "Truly?"
"I swear it," I say.
"There is nothing here for me," she says. "Take me away from this place."
My hand is small in hers, and that is the first thing I fix as we walk back to the brothel. Her hand shrinks a little, and the skin smoothes out. The fingers thin and the tips round. Lili feels me working and tightens her hand around mine.
Her transformation has begun.
"She is coming with us," I say as I step through the door. "There is no one else I would leave this place to."
Harriet draws a door on the wall and makes it real.
It opens upon a view of Eldrytch manor, revealing the night beyond, and the few swans who have stayed throughout the years. Katerina, Ellie, Tanya. I remember them all. Even Odile is back, I think, when I see the wink of silver upon one snowy breast.
Harriet leads us through the door, and I am one of the last to go though.
With Snowy's hand in one of mine and Lili's in the other, I walk through the door, towards our new, final happily ever after.