Arsenic Waltz

Deep Freeze

"Well, no, I suppose I don't. Not right now."
"Then why not do away with it?"
She pauses for a moment, considering.
"I don't need my hair, but I keep it. I don't need my memories, but they're as much a part of me as anything. To discard them is to deny my fundamental nature."
"Hmph, I see. Sentimentality truly is your vice."
"It is my nature."
"Nature exists to be conquered."
"What a distressingly male view of the world." She grins to take the sting from her words, scuffing one delicately slippered foot at the snow that casts a muffling blanket over the Palace. "Besides. I'm not the only sentimental creature in the woods. Look."
"Oh my. I wonder if he realized that he was leaving those."
"Doubtful. Wolves so seldom do. On my birthday too - now that is grossly inappropriate sentiment."
"So you're just going to leave it?"
"Yes."
"And will you tell him about it?"
"Perhaps. This place is one of misery, and I am too happy to show him that now. If he asks, maybe."
"And if he does?"
She shrugs. "I'll show it to him, lock, stock, and barrel. I have nothing to hide. But in the mean time, I have no use for this place. Let it remain quiet."

Snow continues to fall from leaden clouds, wrapping her lands in a silence thick and comfortable as cotton wool.
Arsenic Waltz

Interlude: Steps

Touching him makes me feel alive. There is no better way to put it.
With his arms around me, I am safe even in motion. I am beautiful. I am kinetic. And part of me is eternally his.
But he, I am sure, sees me as nothing more than I am: a fumble-footed dance partner with queer and standoffish ways.

I weigh the task at hand against the desire to press my face against his, and-
Knowing what I know, of how my heart works, I choose the task at hand instead.

Art lives on eternally. Love, I find, does not.
Arsenic Waltz

Interlude: Ripples

There is a place in her spine that does not flex or bend like the rest of it, and it is there between the tips of her shoulderblades that she hides her grief. She has held it there so long that it has soaked through to the front, and her whole body curls protectively around it now like stunted flower petals. She closes her eyes against the pain, and shudders.

It has been like the falling of dominoes, followed by a tidal wave. The tiny slights and miscalculations adding up, the small issues multiplying into larger and larger ones, until with sudden and painful clarity she becomes aware of the magnitude of the mistake.

And there is nowhere to run. She must take the damage as it comes, and stand against it; or if she cannot stand against it, she must fall, but persevere and find the strength to crawl brokenly on.

Curled against herself, she braces for the water.
Arsenic Waltz

Old Habits

She has been staring into space for some lengthy period of time when the Mirror Girl clears her throat conspicuously.

"Well?"
"Well what?"
"What did you see?"
The girl is silent a moment, staring down now into nothingness.
"You found the source, didn't you? What was it?"
The girl remains silent, one fingertip tracing a curling spiking pattern against her inner wrist.
"That good, huh?"
"That good."
"So who was it?"
The girl shakes her head.
"My mother always said that... people like me... led lives full of disharmony and imbalance, and that the problem stemmed from-" she makes a choking sound, steadies herself, tries again "-from my evil-"
"From your 'proclivities', hm?"
"Yes."
"Do you believe her?"
A long pause.
"Sometimes."
"Why?"
"Because of things like this."
"Like what?" The Mirror Girl gestures widely. "There's a lot to choose from, you're going to have to be more specific."
The girl takes a deep breath, unclenching her fingers slowly.
"Once upon a time, I threw myself on the mercies of an older woman."
"Oh? You mean aside from this last one?"
"Yes. Although I didn't realize it, and if she did..."
"If she did?"
"If she did, then she is crueler and more selfish than I had ever imagined."
"Hindsight twenty-twenty?"
"Somewhat? I still don't know how- wait, I wasn't finished."
"Go on then. How?"
"When she cast me off, I took it... hard. I determined that I was unworthy, and that was why I had been rejected. I convinced myself that if I had been more circumspect, less in the way, more mature, more responsible, less..."
"...underfoot?"
"Sure. If I'd been all of those things, I convinced myself, she might have loved me, might have given me what I desired."
"Which was?"
She is silent a moment more.
"Love? Sex? Validation? I'm not sure anymore. But I realize now that that was the start. From then on, I was very, very careful never to... to take liberties. Get in the way. Be inconvenient. To assert myself."
"And therein lies the problem, hm? That to be happy you need a partner, but your way of presenting yourself to one leads to you getting walked on."
"Exactly. The furthest thing from partnership."
"And now what?"
"Now I need to clean my house, because this is not going to work if I'm going to tie myself to the Star and the Flame."
The Mirror Girl smiles wickedly. "Oh ARE you..."
The girl shrugs. "Maybe? My impulse is to say that it depends on what they want. That my plans figure next to nothing beside theirs with each other. But the Star had said that it would also-" she breaks off with a sound that is half-laugh, half-sob, "- she said that it would also depend... on what I wanted."
"Sounds... ideal."
"Only if I can figure out what I want."
"And that's a problem?"
"I want it all. I don't think that ever works. So maybe I don't. Or maybe I want part of it. And I'm worried they'll get bored, waiting."
"So it all depends-"
"-On me."
Arsenic Waltz

Precipice

"You should not push her."

There is an intensity to the Lord Shaper's words that belies his calm exterior. Desire looks sharply up, cigarette in hand forgotten. Nearby, a smudge of black taffeta mars a corner of the Great Hall's marble, and two figures stand attendance a few feet away. Death looks back at her siblings irritatedly, but Despair's lumpy form is intent on the girl, as a terrier with a kill in sight.

"Oh?" Desire's tone is calculatedly light.
"Indeed. I do not think she can take much more of this."
"Oh, but it does make the hours go by so much quicker, don't you think? Lends a little interest and drama to the wait?"
The ever-present furrows on Dream's forehead deepen. "You endanger all of your plans by it. For what? You are not welcome in her domain and yet she suffers you with equanimity. But you could be..."
"Shh-!" Desire turns, pointing.

Behind them, a cowled figure stares with blind eyes at the scene before him, a massive book held against one hip. Destiny pulls a quill from the middle distance, and very carefully notes something in the tome. A long moment passes, and he nods, fading into nothingness.

"Well that was unnecessary." Desire's petulant expression changes to disgust as the cigarette between those long white fingers burns out. "Oh for the love of-"
Loud footsteps interrupt the complaint, and a huge lumberjack of a man strides in, tracking red clay mud across the pale and glistening marble.
"Hullo sibs." He scratches his beard thoughtfully. "What have we here?"
"Oh, one of his projects, you know. She doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor."
Dream opens his mouth as if to speak but closes it again, a stormy expression on his face.
"Huh. She's lasted this long. I think she's made of sterner stuff than either of you realize."
Desire looks confused, Dream looks thoughtful.
"Besides, we wouldn't want to find out if he was wrong midway through, eh? Have to have a bit of a stress test to find out, first."
"We are endangering a very rare tool indeed."
"Even a broken tool can be repaired and put to use."
"But the stakes-"
"The stakes are only as high as he wants them to be. Couldn't let him get bored now, could we? No, no. This," Destruction gestures grandly, "all of this- you, me, her, them - is according to his plan."
"And if she breaks?"
"Then we delay, find another."
"What if she refuses?" Desire flicks a lighter, irritated.
"She won't refuse."
Dream turns back to look at the girl, curled and rocking in the corner of the grand room, tear-stained face held between hands marked with red crescents, hair limp and disheveled against dull black fabric and clacking beads.
"I pray you are correct, brother."

Why now? Why this? It should have been over months ago, why bring him back? And why for so short a time? What are you trying to prove? We've known for years that my heart is implacable - impractical, self-destructive. Why drive the lesson home now? Why? Answer me! Please! Please...
Arsenic Waltz

Endings

The new globe is still warm to the touch as she sets it down, the images inside churning and fluttering in their own maelstrom of nostalgia.

Yellow gingko leaves stick to the wet soles of his boots as he thumps up the wooden stairs...

Clean white sheets, and dappled sunlight on naked skin, a book fallen sideways in sleep...

Copper hair and freckles and a vine that ran just... so...

Tea and bathwater and roses, and the sound of guitars in the sweet June air...

A tiny christmas tree, and tiny lights against frosty air, and lonely tears...

Bitter weeping stretched on the floor in the cold and the dark...


Somewhere in the Palace, a door slams. And then it slams again. And a third time, as if for emphasis, and the girl closes her eyes wearily. Desire smirks over her shoulder into the display.

"I know. I know."
"I still think it's funny."
"That it took so long to realize it was her I was in love with? Or that it's she who plucks the feathers from my wings and sends me tumbling?"
"Both, I imagine."
"Well you needn't look so smug. It's not like I didn't suffer the same for the Elf."
"Ah, but the Elf still gave you hope. This one burns your city and dances on the ashes."
The girl purses her lips. "Yes, she would. It is her way."
"And what will you do?"
"Nothing, for the time being. There are more things depending on me than this ridiculous circus."
"And what of them?"
Her lip curls slightly as she closes the door of the display case. "Let them stew in it. I've said my piece. If they can live with themselves, they are not the people I built them up to be."
Arsenic Waltz

Interlude: The Pendant

"It changed, didn't it," he said, his voice tinged with a gently hurt wonder. "It changed right before my eyes."
His fingers were gentle on the hollow of her throat, but she jerked away anyway, as if burned.
"Why?" he breathed. "Why did you change it?"
Her lip trembled slightly as she turned from him, as if her expression could not decide between a sneer or a sob.
"How can you ask me that? You of all people." Her expression solidified to one of bitter self-reprimand. "I wanted to love. You told me I should. I did. And now I am here anyway, just the same as always."
She took a deep breath that ended in a sob, then stood a moment, steadying her breathing before continuing. "The black heart should tell you all you need to know. My wish was to love, but there is no place for that wish here. Not now, not with you. Perhaps not even then, though neither of us had eyes to see it."
"But I think..."
"But you think nothing. Your hopes and dreams are plotted out for you like the orbits of the planets; you need only find your way to them to fall into your perfect trajectory."
He reached out a hand toward her shoulder, but she deftly evaded. "I never wanted to hurt you. I never thought..."
"No, you didn't think. I wonder if you've thought much about it at all, beyond the tinsel and the afterglow. What you *want* would mean the effective end of all of my hopes and dreams. I want to love you-" her voice broke "-but I cannot do so at the expense of my self."
"Oh love..." he sighed, but stopped when she cringed as if struck.
She turned brimming eyes upon him then, squeezing them shut as if to block out some horrible sight. And perhaps she was: his face was stricken, both with hurt and regret.
"Please leave me my defenses, at least," she said between clenched teeth, "I think it will be better for both of us this way."

She puts the notebook down then, fingering the pendant at her neck now. The tears come quietly, because she knows that as eloquent as she can be on paper, she will never have this conversation with him. He will never know.
Arsenic Waltz

Seduction

She is walking by the arbor when she first notices it, and at first it doesn't even quite register. The smell of warm teak reminds her of ships, of the sea, of adventure and wind and the sun that her City never sees. And then she's upon it in her rambles; the tall arched door burnished to a dark gold, its hammered hinges the black of pine tar and the wrought-iron grille of a peephole shuttered loosely with tiny doors. The girl opens the tiny doors curiously, and peers out.

The Woods stare back at her, the same as they always have. It is only then that she realizes which corner of her Garden this door is in. Fog curls around the massive trunks, beckoning flirtatiously, and she can hear the forest's call in the back of her head: Give up, give it all up, come run with us in the moonlight...

She slams the tiny door shut against the sound, her heart hammering in her breast like something small and trapped. But over the smell of teak and pine she can still smell them: wolves. Why did it always have to be wolves?

Her back against the door, she surveys her surroundings with anguish. All she has built, and all she has created - the Palace, the Temple, her gardens, the myriad parlors and conservatories, grottoes and twisting passages filled with wonder, the Vault and the Gallery and the Hall of Faces - what does it mean, to any but herself? These wonders mean so much and yet so little. She heaves herself from the door and runs, petticoats rustling like storm-tossed leaves, back to her apartments in the Palace, to her sanctuary, her place of meditation.

And somewhere inside, the skeletal dancers of the Ballroom dance endlessly on.
Arsenic Waltz

Surfacing

The feeling is... strange. Like walking underwater, at double speed. There is a revelation in every movement, in every twanging muscle, in every darting glance, and then...

Tangled in her bedclothes, the girl sits up in the dark with a jerk and a gasp. There is something strange here too, she notes. The soft cotton that should have been under her palms is gone, and the faint starlight through her curtains falls into and is absorbed by something of a deep, dark color. It takes a moment for the slippery rustling beneath her fingers to make any sense, but yes, here it is - she lights the nearby candelabra with a thought - silk. Her bedclothes are silk. She swears softly to herself, rubbing her eyes. Eddie appears a moment later, an anonymous stoppered bottle held gently in one hand.

"No, no. No need" she waves him away, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. "Some things I need to see about. Has there been any word from the Watcher?"
He pauses a moment, looking thoughtful. "No missstressss. No breachesssss reported on any front. Issss sssssomething wrong?"
"Wrong?" it is her turn to look thoughtful. "I don't know. Wrong is perhaps a little strong a word. Something is... different."

Candle in one hand, and the tail of her kimono trailing behind her, she prowls the halls restlessly, searching high and low for the disturbance that rings in her mind like the echo of churchbells. Her steps draw her ever inward, deeper and deeper into the depths of the Palace, until she stands again before the curved door of the Chasm and the Heartstone, the hum of air across the lintel a constant and soothing sound. She opens the door, trembling. The room is bathed in the same pale sourceless light as always, but there is something amiss, something different and unseen here. Taking one step past the wrought-iron railings and out onto the void, she pauses, thoughtfully, and looks back.

She almost falls, almost drops her single candle into that depthless chasm, almost forgets who and where she is in her startlement and falls, herself.

Above the door of the Chasm stands a nook. In that nook, until now, stood a statue of Psyche, blindfolded. Now the statue stands, bare-eyed, with rivulets of golden honey pouring down her cheeks, sword in one hand and lamp in the other. The girl squeezes her eyes shut, taking deep breaths to quell the pressure rising through her.

Later, she sits in the Palace garden, head on palm on knee, staring out into the warm spring darkness and thinking. The wind shifts imperceptibly, bearing on it the faint sounds of the City outside the walls, but also something... She sits up, sniffing the air with surprise, then gets to her feet and strides to the far wall, hands outstretched. The bare, blasted alabaster stones are gone, completely obscured by trellised oranges in bloom, wound with sweet night-flowering jasmine and honeysuckle. Crickets sing in the foliage, and fireflies blink and hover gaily. She sits, for she does not know what else to do, taking deep breaths which explode like a waterfall from her in laughter.

"Am I? Oh goddess, healed? Now? Only when all hope is fled?"
She flings her arms wide into the night, her heart full to bursting. "Then let them come!"
Arsenic Waltz

Scorched and Torn

"I demand nothing." she said quietly. And then she turned her eyes away, lest they betray her. For what shone in them was not a demand, but a plea: "Please, give me permission, please let me love you."

Bust she would not say it.
She would never say it.

She demands nothing, not even her due.


"Why are you so satisfied with your misery?" Desire asked, toying with her sigil absently.
"Because... I could never please my mother," she takes a deep breath, exhales, "so I try to please everyone else."
"Ah. And get walked on. Tell me - do you think it makes them happy?"
She lowers her eyes. "It does not make them upset."
"Not the same thing."
"No."
"Did he scorch every last fiber of romance out of you?"
Her face is full of bitterness, and grief. "I don't know."
"And you won't try to find out."
"How could you know?" Her lip curls, revealing clenched teeth. "Near the end, every gesture, every touch, every thought of him was a short step closer to losing him. How could you understand what it is, to love and yet be ever more silent in your adoration? To love and hold it in? He may not have burnt it out, but he trained it out of me just as effectively."

Later, she stands on the rampart of the Tower, new-Called, and stares out into the vasty roiling emptiness of the City. An obligingly stiff wind springs up, pressing against the folds of her skirt, toying with escaped strands of hair, scraping gently over her outstretched palms. Scraps of paper explode into the air and hang there for a moment, suspended between one element and another. She watches them, a swarm of cream-colored butterflies as they swoop and dart and twirl, and are eventually lost out of sight, past the borders of her domain.
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