Two wakes up in the glass case, which means that she hadn’t woken up at all.
The case, like everything else in the full but tidy basement workshop, bears a label. Its label says “Golem Case”. The block letters were applied to the glass almost directly across from her eyes, and so she can see the backs of them without moving or looking around and so she knows without moving or looking around that she was in the proper place, that she was in her place and so she knows that much at least is right in the world.
This means she’s dreaming.
She hears the bolts on the door at the top of the stairs sliding open, one after another. She tenses up. She hears the door open and she sucks in her lips a bit.
This time I won’t do it, she thinks as she hears feet tread on the stairs. I won’t say it. I don’t have to. I don’t have to say anything I don’t want to I WANT TO DO WHAT I’M TOLD but I’m a free being but if I were a free being I wouldn’t be back here but if I’m back here and not a free being then Miss Ruth never told me to say it and so I don’t have to.
Then she hears the bolts on the door at the bottom of the stairs and that door opens, and the man steps inside.
“Good morning!” Two says, and he freezes. The perfect dream of her perfect life begins to crack and fray around the edges. She doesn’t know what he says in response to this. She doesn’t know what happens next.
She had never said “good morning!” to the man.
Sometimes when this happens she wakes up and she cries because she ruined the dream and she can’t get it back. Other times she keeps dreaming. The workshop falls to pieces and is blown away, leaving her on a vast, flat, featureless plain (labeled “A Vast Flat Featureless Plain”) in an infinitely expanding empty space (labeled “An Infinitely Expanding Empty Space”), alone except for some sort of ridiculous owl turtle thing sitting on a post, both labeled appropriately.
The ridiculous owl turtle thing has occupied the vast featureless plain ever since the day that Two, wanting something to replace the workshop dream that had been her refuge until Miss Ruth’s increasingly specific admonitions to be more personable had finally destroyed it, had asked her friend Hazel what sort of things people dreamed about. Her friend Hazel had told her that a lot of her dreams had impossible things that were not quite one thing and not quite another. The next time Two had fallen asleep, after she wrecked the workshop dream, there it was: not quite an owl and not a quite a turtle.
It perched upright on the top of the post on bird-like talons, but it had a reptilian underbelly and a turtle shell. The things that stuck out of the holes at its shoulders might have been flippers and might have been wings. Its head was turtlish, but with owl-like tufts over big yellow eyes and a beak that almost might have belonged to a snapping turtle as much as a bird.
“Oh,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. “Back again?”
“Yes,” Two says sullenly. “I am back again.”
“Did you try what I said?”
“No,” Two says. “I did not.”
“Well, there’s no use glaring at me like that if you aren’t going to take my advice.”
“Your advice isn’t any good,” Two says. “I cannot make something up about my own… my maker. Making things up about people is called lying and gossip, and it’s wrong.”
“It’s only gossip if you tell other people and it’s only lying if you act like it’s true,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing said.
“I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think I know those things,” Two says. “So I don’t know how you could possibly know them.”
“I am a ridiculous owl turtle thing,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing responds, “and I am clearly impossible.”
“I am going to ignore you,” Two says. She looks around the vast, flat, featureless plain. “I think I am going to sweep.”
“Going to sweep? But you’re alweady sweeping,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. “This is all a dweam.”
“That isn’t very funny,” Two says.
“It’s your nascent sense of humor, honey. I just work here.”
“I need a broom,” Two says, looking around the infinitely expanding space, but of course, there is no such thing as a broom there.
“And who told you to sweep?”
Two freezes, looking guilty. Her face in the dream takes on the spasmodic tic that it does when she’s stuck in a chain of thoughts. In her bed, under the blankets, her whole body kicks and twitches.
“I… I… I… this is my space and I am supposed to keep my space clean and tidy,” she says with a measure of triumph as she works the justification out.
“Looks pretty neat and tidy to me,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says.
“Miss Ruth says that practice makes perfect.”
“I don’t think she was talking about sweeping perfectly clean surfaces.”
“She did not specify,” Two says. She says again, “I need a broom.”
“Have you tried the other side of my post?” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. “It seems to me that you can see everything there is here from where you’re standing, except for the other side of my post. So if you can’t see a broom, that’s the only place it could be.”
“Oh, okay,” Two says, and she walks around the ridiculous owl turtle thing. There is no broom leaning up against the post. “No,” she says. “There is no broom here.”
“Well, of course,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. It’s facing her again. “That’s this side of the post. You want the other side.”
“But I went to the other side,” Two protests.
“I beg to differ,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. “You did not go to the other side. You came to this side. The other side is always the one at which you are not.”
“That poor chicken must be very tired, then,” Two says. “And dizzy.”
“Now who isn’t very funny?” the ridiculous owl turtle thing asks as Two reached around to the other side of the post and feels her hand closing around a wooden handle. She pulls out the improbably-placed broom. It’s labeled “Improbably-Placed Broom”.
“You,” Two says, and she begins to sweep the perfectly flat, perfectly clean surface of the vast, flat, featureless plain. “You aren’t funny. Still. Now be quiet. I have sweeping to do.”
“How will you know when you’re done?”
“When I’ve swept the whole place.”
“But it’s endless.”
“Yes,” Two says, and she smiles.
“You aren’t very good at dreaming, you know,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says.
“I don’t care,” Two said as she starts to sweep.
“Your name isn’t even Two,” it says. “You just made that up.”
“I think I hate you, ridiculous owl turtle thing,” Two says.
“You aren’t supposed to hate anybody.”
“You aren’t anybody,” Two says. “So that’s okay.”
Steff doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that she’s dreaming, but when she wakes up it will seem like it should have been obvious to her… so obvious that in the moment she awakens, she’ll manage to convince herself that she knew it was a dream and was just going with it.
There is no room in the fortress at Kilrest as big and expansive as the throne room in her dreams. While the ogres tower over her, they don’t build their structures any bigger than they need to. They lack the architectural cunning to build a great big hall with a high vaulted ceiling like the one Steff always imagined before she saw the real place, the one she still pictures more than half the time when she imagines her life after graduation.
Steff sits on her throne in the hall, and it is her throne. Viktor doesn’t factor into this dream. She has dreams about Viktor and she has dreams about Kilrest, but ever since they went there she hasn’t had any dreams about Viktor and Kilrest. Her sleeping mind cannot make them fit together. Her brooding lover does not fit with her idealized fantasy life of wicked decadence.
The hall is full of her subjects… ogres and reanimated skeletons and zombies… and her victims, which this time around consist entirely of people she went to school with. The ones who attacked her, the ones who teased her, the ones who snubbed her, the ones who happened to be present for the worst years of Steff Johnson’s life are being torn apart, being impaled on spits, being tortured to death in a dozen ways, but none of them are dying because Steff’s dark magic is too awesome to allow them that escape.
They’re starting to twist off Cindy Mears’s head now. What had Cindy done? Steff couldn’t remember anything in particular. But she was hot and effortlessly popular and Steff had popped so many boners over her while trying to figure out if she was a gay boy or a straight girl or what and that hadn’t made things easier for her.
Not that Cindy had been alone on that score. An adolescent male body is on a hair trigger to begin with. Adding in fifty percent elven blood… for a while it had seemed like everything turned Steff on, and this at a point in her life when she regularly found herself thinking of violent and/or morbid things…
It really was no wonder that certain associations had stuck in her head, though Steff has never had the self-awareness necessary to think about how she might have come to associate violence and death with sex. Even asking the question could seem to imply that there was something wrong with doing so, and Steff had spent too many years and too many tears convincing herself that she was fine to do that.
Life in her dream of Kilrest was so good. She didn’t feel like rocking the boat with a lot of moody self-examination.
“Why, yes, I do see your point,” Mother Khaele tells Amaranth in an utterly realistic and wholly plausible scenario in which the nymph has just pointed out the fundamental flaw in existing cosmological models which results in the perceived division between the so-called higher and lower races, the people and the animals. “You’ve worked it out quite nicely. In fact, I have to admit that I left that mistake there on purpose to see which of my children would be the first one to spot it, so that I would know who would be worthy of sharing my…”
At this point, Mack’s leg twitches in her sleep and she kicks Amaranth in the ankle, jarring her awake. She blinks her myopic eyes several times in the perfect darkness of the blanket tent before she realizes where she is and that her Mother’s praise had simply been a dream. She sighs, and tries to go back to sleep.
Moeli’s working the desk when She comes in, cool as ever. She doesn’t look at anyone when she comes into the room. She keeps her head down, thinking her important thoughts, but She‘s not afraid to say anything to anybody. Really.
She‘ll just blurt out things that would make a bugbear blush without even thinking about it. Just like that.
Eventually She sidles up to the counter, the way She does, like whatever She has got to do isn’t even that important.
“Hey,” She says, with that quiet, husky voice that drives him wild. “I, uh, found your notebook.”
“Oh?” Moeli asks. His hearts skip a couple of beats as She puts it down in front of him. He’d wanted to show his notebook to her, but he’d always chickened out. It was a million to one chance that She would be into something so weird.
“I hope you don’t mind I looked through it… well, I had to figure out whose it was. I thought the drawings of motorcycles were kind of cool. Did you do them?”
“Yeah,” Moeli said. “I did.”
“I like motorcycles,” She says. “I think they’re awesome.”
“I do, too,” Moeli says.
“In fact,” She says, leaning in close. “I’ve got one outside. A real one.”
“No shit?” Moeli says.
“Yeah,” She says. “Half-demons have motorcycles. But I can’t seem to figure out how to make it go. You seem like you know a lot about them, though. Do you think maybe we could try to take a ride… together?”
“Well, I’m kind of working now,” Moeli says. “And I can’t just walk away. Also, you said you weren’t into me.”
“I’m a bitch and I was lying to you for no reason,” She says. “Didn’t you know that?”
“Of course,” he says. “You know what? My shift’s over.”
Two has been sweeping for what seems like hours, and the ridiculous owl turtle thing is a distant memory behind her, as she’s sweeping in the way she’s been taught: one straight line until she comes to the wall or carpet, and then move over.
She doesn’t expect to find a wall or carpet any time soon. She doesn’t expect to find anything, as there has never been anything in the vast, flat, featureless plain except the post with the ridiculous owl turtle thing on it. But there had also never been a broom behind the post (that she knew of, anyway), and unfortunately for her, Two understands that one runs across unexpected things in dreams.
However, there are an infinite number of things she does not expect to run across, so it won’t necessarily have to be a wall or carpet or something else that would force her to turn around and start heading back towards the ridiculous owl turtle thing.
In fact, the first unexpected thing she runs across is her teddy bear, Hand Wash. In her dream, he’s as tall as she is, though he still just sits there with his firmly stuffed legs jutting out in front of him to support him and his upper body leaning slightly forward to keep him balanced on those legs.
“Hello, Two,” he says.
“Hello, Hand Wash,” she says. “I can’t stop to talk. I’m busy sweeping and I have to keep going until I’m done.”
“Sweeping? I thought you were dreaming.”
“I can do both,” Two says.
“I can’t do anything,” Hand Wash says.
“I know,” she says.
“I’m a teddy bear,” he adds.
“I’m not even supposed to be talking,” he says. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she says. “I forgive you.”
And onward she sweeps.
Ariadne knows the dream before it starts, because it’s the same one she’s been having for weeks now. That thing is in her class. It wears a mousey, unassuming little face, but the elven professor knows the fire and death and hate that lie behind that mask. She can’t say anything about it, though. She can’t do anything.
Nobody else sees. Nobody else knows.
Every time she turns her back, even if it’s only for a second, another of her students is gone. The thing is clearly responsible. Why can’t anybody else see this?
And now there’s more of it. More of them. It’s brought in its friends.
How much longer can this go on?
How long before the school’s overrun?
Something must be done.
Something must be done.
Amaranth, having just found out that she had aced all of her classes (as expected!), was getting ready to go home for winter break, but she was planning on taking the fast route home and traveling there in style. Steff had helped get her “dressed”, so to speak… arranging her on the platter with roasted potatoes and other vegetables, brushing her body down with garlic oil, and even stuffing an apple in her mouth for aesthetic purposes. Steff had wanted to use garlic butter, but Amaranth had felt that using an animal product would be more likely to bring Mother Khaele’s disapproval.
Now Steff is wheeling the trolley with the covered platter on it to the elegant dining room where her Mack waits along with Viktor and their new best friends, Iona and Feejee. This was such a brilliant idea, she thinks to herself, enjoying the smell of the garlic and the pepper and the fire roasted onions, and when she surprises all of her sisters by arriving home early and explains how she got there, they’ll all be so excited to try this… the ultimate carnal experience, the ultimate sharing of self… and the new phenomenon of responsible, consensual cannibalism utilizing renewable resources will put places like Tender Mercy’s out of business, she just knows it.
Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?
And then the trolley stops and she knows that the moment of revelation is upon her and Mack is going to be so surprised and everybody’s going to think she looks sexy and delicious and she’s going to taste so good…
…and then Mack rolls over in her sleep, pulling on the blankets and Amaranth isn’t on the platter at all.
“Oh, phooey,” she says, and then she tries to go back to sleep.
Some dreams are simpler than others.
In Trina’s dream, everybody had four eyes, except for her, and this made them all freaks. Sara Leighton dreams that the teleport accident which in reality had joined her with her sister had actually sent her twin to another plane of existence. Tara’s version has it so that it merged them fully and they’d become one person. On occasion, they’ve each dreamed it the other way and broke out in a cold sweat in their sleep.
Feejee dreams of blood in the water.
Iona dreams of blood.
Kai, who often thinks of nothing but murder all day, dreams a surprisingly peaceful dream about her grandfather’s calligraphy pens. Suzi dreams of invisible cheeseburgers. Maliko dreams about her Sooni.
Scylla dreams that she’d made it to the damned rabbit before the snake-eyed bitch did. The snake-eyed bitch dreams of cutting off her pink skin and finding scales underneath. Gladys dreams of being up on stage, hundreds—no thousands—of people’s eyes upon her. Cetea dreams that she can use a damned mirror without it breaking.
Honey dreams absolutely nothing, as six crushed flower petals in a tall glass of vodka have rendered her oblivious even to oblivion.
“Hey, hey Two!”
“What is it, ridiculous owl turtle thing?” Two asks as the clearly impossible thing flaps its flipper wings in ungainly flight alongside her, oblivious to her attempts to sweep away from it.
“How come you never dream about your friends?” it asks her.
“I do,” she says. “Sometimes. But not when I dream about the workshop, because they weren’t in the workshop.”
“You never dream about them here, either.”
“They were never here,” Two says. “And anyway this is still the workshop dream. It’s just broken, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
“You could stop saying good morning,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says.
“No,” Two says, shaking her head. “I tried that.”
“You could stop freaking the hell out when it happens,” it says. “That’s what breaks the dream, you know.”
“I don’t care,” Two says. “I have a different dream now. I’m sweeping.”
“But have you considered the ramifications of that?”
“No,” she says.
“Do you think there really was a broom on the other side of my post?”
“Yes,” she says.
“It was there because you dreamed it up,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says. “You could dream up anything you wanted.”
“I don’t care,” Two says. “I’m sweeping.”
Dee is a child in the marketplace. One of her hands is being held by Dehsah, and the other by her mother.
No, that’s wrong. My mother never took me to the marketplace.
Dee is a child in the marketplace. Her mother, pretty Dehsah…
Dee is in the marketplace, with her lover, Dehsah.
Dehsah hasn’t been out of the house since we became lovers.
Dee passes a fitful night, her subconscious unable to provide any dreams of succor which her conscious mind does not reject out of hand.
Amaranth looks beautiful in her wedding dress, and so does Mack. They are having an outdoor ceremony, of course, and even a hilltop shrine was out of the question under the circumstances, so they’re holding it in a beautiful elven forest bower. Everybody from Paradise Valley is there, and so are all the students she’d worked with during her years of study (in which she’d attained multiple degrees and many honors), and nymphs and satyrs and fauns of all stripes.
Mack had agreed to have a Mechan officiate, to get around her little disability, but when they get to the end of the aisle Amaranth sees that it’s not the scientist there at all, but Mother Khaele herself. Amaranth looks in alarm at Mack, but Mack is standing unharmed in the presence of the divine.
“Rest easy, my daughter,” Mother Khaele says. “For your love has redeemed this demon-tainted soul completely, and now I will happily join the two of you as one, after which you will be taken to your honeymoon in a carriage pulled by specially trained horses, who will join you for…”
“Sooni!” Mack blurts out, and Amaranth looks at her in confusion as the wedding dissolves and she finds herself in bed once more, where Mack blurts out Sooni’s name a few more times.
“Suzune-Darling, there is something you must know,” her mother tells Sooni, who sits anxiously by her feet, hanging on every word. Her mother is so wise and so beautiful, just like herself. “We have kept this from you for years, for your own protection, but now you must be told.”
“What, Mother?” Sooni asks. “What is it?”
“I only hope you can forgive my dishonesty towards you,” her mother says.
“I’m sure if you were not truthful towards me, it was for a very good reason,” Sooni says, bowing her head.
“You are such a good daughter, Suzune-Darling,” her mother says. She gets to her feet. “Perhaps it would be easier to show you than tell you.”
She turns around in a circle, and when she does her features have changed. It’s the same kind, wise eyes that are looking down at Sooni, but they’re yellow instead of black. The same calm smile, but with a shorter snout.
Her mother is a nekoyokai.
“Yes,” her mother says, nodding. “And not just that, but I am Queen of the Nekos. Which means that you, my humble daughter Suzune-Darling, you are the Neko Princess. You look like you do because you are half kitsu, but now that you know the truth you will be able to change between the two at will. You must keep your identity as Neko Princess secret, though, or else you will be in terrible danger.”
“That’s why Father always became angry when I acted like a neko!” Sooni exclaims.
“Yes. He was simply worried about you,” her mother says. “And you must know that Kai…”
“Kai is my true sister!” Sooni says. “I’ve known it all along!”
“Yes! Your heart knows the truth, Suzune-Darling, my Neko Princess!”
A door slams downstairs, pulling Sooni away from her mother. She sits upright in bed, shaking her head in confusion. What had she just been dreaming? It had been about her mother, she’s sure about that… but the details are all slipping away. Her mother and nekos.
Oh, well. It couldn’t have been a True Dream if I can’t remember it.
She reaches down and gets her mother’s shoes, the shoes she wears everywhere, even inside the house, off the floor and holds them to her chest as she lays back down, hoping her mother comes back to her soon. She had left a map of the Imperium with Prax circled on it at the family shrine, along with a brochure for the campus with her room number on it, but she wasn’t sure if her mother could come this far, or that she’d have the time.
She had a lot of work to do, her mother did. She was a very important person.
“My friend Hazel used to keep a dream diary,” Two says.
“Oh, so you’re talking to me now?” the ridiculous owl turtle thing says.
“I’m talking,” Two says. “I don’t think it matters if I’m talking to you or not, since you are not real. Her mother made her keep a dream diary from when she was eleven until she turned twenty-two. She made my friend Hazel write her dreams down every morning, and then she read it. She wanted to make sure that my friend Hazel didn’t get the curse.”
“No, she wanted to find out if your friend Hazel already had it,” the ridiculous owl turtle thing replies. “That’s a different thing. And it isn’t a curse.”
“I know,” Two says. “I told my friend Hazel that, and she said ‘Well, it isn’t a blessing.’ And then she told me not to talk about it.”
“But you are.”
“I’m dreaming,” Two says. “I’m not really talking.”
“So why can’t you stop yourself from saying ‘good morning’ to the man?”
It’s the war again.
Theona’s down by the bridge, trying to finish her spell of unmaking before the orcs overwhelm her. Jill can see that she’s just going to make it… get the spell off, that is. She doesn’t have time to finish it and escape.
The rest of Hydra Company… all four of the other survivors… have their hands full. Nora’s gone dead to the world again, seemingly conscious of nothing but the bow in her hands. Ironically she’s doing the most to help Theona, sending arrow after arrow at the thundering horde as it bears down on her.
She makes every shot she takes, and every shot is a fatal one, but she might as well be standing on a beach trying to shoot down the waves as they head towards the shore.
Mur-Si is… who the fuck knew where Mur-Si was? The most Jill could see was where she had just been, as ogres collapse with the legs cut out from under them and orcs die in fountains of spurting blood. Jill had been told… some hundred years before… that she had been bred to be the greatest warrior the world had ever seen… but the bastard elven hybrid is a strong argument that the Founders had wasted their efforts.
Jill and Fayborn are fighting back to back, Fay’s gleaming sword and Jill’s giant axe cleaving a circle around them. Jill keeps getting glimpses of the kid in the wizard robes down by the bridge, kneeling helpless and alone as she focuses on her spell.
“What’s the plan for extraction?” Jill asks.
“Soon as we see the bridge go down, we bug out,” Fay says. “Simple enough for you, Flattop?”
“What about The?”
“She bugs out, too.”
“She’s never going to make it back up to us,” Jill says.
“She might,” Fay says. “Didn’t think we’d make it this far at all.”
“We’ve got to get down to her,” Jill says.
“Can’t,” Fay says. “If she fails, we’ve got to be ready to try Plan B.”
“She’s our wizard,” Jill says. “What are we supposed to do to the bridge without her, have Mur-Si stab it to death?”
“Need to know basis.”
“You sent her down there to die,” Jill says.
“We were all sent here to die,” Fay says. “Some of us are better at it than others.”
Jill headbutts the orc in front of her and then charges through the gap left as it goes down, trampling goblins, shouldering past orcs, and dodging around ogres. Fay yells out behind her, something about sticking together, but let the bitch yell. She stands a better chance on her own than the neophyte mage who had, completely unwittingly, become the linchpin of the entire mission.
And as she thunders down the side of the ravine towards the bridge, Jill remembers that this has all already happened and that it’s just a dream, and she realizes she’s not going to make it in time.
The bridge starts to crumble and Theona stands and turns to run up towards her. The bridge is collapsing as a pair of ogres catch hold of her.
They don’t even have weapons out. Why would they? She doesn’t. If she’d been fighting them, they might have been forced to kill her, but instead they’ve got her in their hands…
“Opening the first charity brothel together was the best idea ever, Amaranth,” Mack says.
“Oh, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, after you and Two overcame your inhibitions and embraced the nymphly codes as a way of life,” Amaranth replies. “But this is just the start. Once we start teaching our classes, we’ll get more women of all races to subscribe to my new revolutionary philosophy and soon the entire world will be at peace because everybody will be too busy loving one another to hate anybody. Of course, some credit belongs to Mother Khaele.”
“No, she told me it’s all because of you,” Mack says. “And that you shouldn’t need to feel humble about it, but that’s just like you to think of her.”
“But, Mack, you couldn’t have spoken to… oh, poop. This is a dream again, isn’t it?” Amaranth says as she wakes up.
“Huh? What?” Mack murmurs sleepily beside her in the darkness.
“Nothing, baby,” Amaranth mutters, frowning. “Nothing.”
Leda is dancing across the smooth, glassy surface of the lake. It’s winter, her favorite time, but though a dusting of snow coats trees and the ground on the shore around the lake, the water remains unfrozen. Even in human form, though, it bears her weight. She leaps and she glides about in the moonlight, and then she heads for the thicket of reeds in the center of the lake, where on this side there is a small island, barely more than a bump of rock jutting up above the surface of the water.
That small island of reeds is the gateway to the other side, where her mother’s castle and where her true kingdom is. On both sides, the kingdom of Mariinsky Lake is not more than the lake itself, but on the Other Side, that lake is much bigger.
Even though she loves the castle and she loves the true lake far more than she loves the dreary, cramped one she’d just been dancing upon, she feels cold dread seeping down her spine as she passes through the reeds and finds herself on the large island with her home in front of her. It’s daylight on this side, but the sun doesn’t seem to warm her up much.
She knows what’s coming next.
Leda is a true princess: grace defined, possessing endless reserves of natural charm and refinement. But somehow—witches, probably—she screwed up and got herself exiled for four years to a moonforsaken frontier outpost in an empire of human barbarians. It was unthinkable, it was impossible… but it had happened, and it was going to happen again.
What would it be this time? Would she upset a tureen of soup? Lean against a priceless tapestry? Would she tread on an ambassador snail’s tail? Accidentally insult a visiting frog prince?
Knowing that her doom was coming but not knowing what shape it would take was terrible torture, but no matter how much she fights against it, her body still insists on passing over the drawbridge, under the portcullis, and through the gatehouse. She exchanges polite pleasantry with the guards in their bright red uniforms.
Her mother and her stepfather are waiting for her in the throne room, and in between her and them is a gauntlet of respected courtiers, servants bustling around with important loads, and guests of high social rank. But no matter what Leda did, no matter how careful she was, something would go wrong because when she reached the throne room, her stepfather would smile that sneering smile at her and say those nine most hated words:
“Your mother and I have been discussing your education.”
And so the dream went.
“Do you want to know what I think?” the ridiculous owl turtle thing asks.
“No,” Two says. “I really think I do not.”
“I think you say ‘good morning’ because you want to.”
“I want to do what I’m told,” Two says.
“Among other things,” it says. “But I think you want him to acknowledge you.”
“No,” Two says, shaking her head. “You are mistaken.”
“I think you know you couldn’t go back to being a piece of lab equipment now that you’ve been a person, and you want to know if he could relate to you as a person.”
“No,” Two repeats decisively.
“I think part of you would like to have a conversation with him.”
“You are mistaken.”
“I think you want to know what he thinks about you… if he thinks about you. Does he miss you like you miss him? Would he take you back as you are now? Would he hire you as a free person? Would he like you?”
“No!” Two yells. She turns and clobbers him with the broom. “I hate you, some sort of ridiculous owl turtle thing!” she yells as she hits him again and again. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
“Amaranth, you’re so smart!” the professor proclaims. “In all my years of teaching, I’ve never met a student who understood the material so quickly and so completely. That a nymph should be the one to…”
Under the covers, Mack begins to masturbate furiously. Amaranth, awoken once again, sighs, reaches over, and guides her lover’s hand to a slightly better spot. Mack moans in her sleep.
“At least somebody’s having pleasant dreams tonight,” Amaranth says.
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