Axiom Thorne: The Crestbalm Fete

It was all my aunt’s idea, sending me in my mother’s wedding dress dyed with indigo I had collected from the riverbank. She proudly presented this plan to us while showing off one of three gowns she had just commissioned from The House of Raheem in Dragon’s Head.

The dress has been stored in her attic since my father had died — Mamma had asked her sister-in-law to take care of it, as we needed the extra closet space for my clothes now that they no longer fit in the little prayer chest at the foot of my bed. My aunt had grumbled and eventually obliged by shoving the dress in a crate. I can only assume that’s where it had spent nearly 12 years when she drew it from her wardrobe. In no way had the the wrinkled mess been hanging there for longer than a couple days.

“You’ve got the same stick-straight boy build as your mother,” she said, lifting the creased fabric up to me. “Just add some beads and use some of those flowers from behind the house to dye it, and it’ll be a whole new dress.”

“That should be fine, thank you,” Mamma said, our eyes locking as I dared her to laugh and she dared me to spit in her sister-in-law’s eye. Neither of us felt confident enough to do either, so we shoved as many scones from the tea tray into our pockets before gathering the dress and bidding my aunt farewell.

The Crestbalm Fete arrived a week later. Ansel arrived at the door in his oldest brother’s best suit, clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand. They had gone limp from the heat in the air and the sweat from his palms. As my mother hugged me goodbye, I saw the blueish-purple under her fingernails and remembered that it would likely be another three weeks before they were cleaned from the memory of late nights filled with stinky dye and strained eyesight.

Mamma’s alterations had turned her simple white wedding gown from a heavy bundle of wrinkled satin to an indigo dress so light that it almost floated. The four layers of skirts we removed were now blanketing our beds — a luxurious addition to our tiny boudoirs — and the final one hovered gently on the breeze, tickling my legs as Ansel took my hand in his and led me down the street toward the village square where the annual striped tent had been erected, its walls draped with vines and fragrant flowers.

Gardenia Smote and Louie Berenger met us at the mouth of the tent, inviting us to their table. I knew they liked Ansel and more-or-less tolerated me, but compared to the many others whom Ansel called friends, they were far more tolerable. Louie once threw a rock at the baker’s boy for calling me a slug when we were six, and Gardenia made a fuss over my dress and how she far preferred it to the fuchsia organza gown she had inherited from her sister.

We were hardly the only girls there in a hand-me-down or makeshift dress. In fact, those who had new gowns from the Dragon’s Head fashion houses or even Porfery’s Emporium in town were mocked behind their backs for their extravagance. Who would spend a single gold coin, let along fifty, on a dress for our tiny town’s annual fete? In this way, the Crestbalm Fete every year saw the same dresses, suits and robes swirling around different bodies.

Ansel had just returned to our table with two glasses of sparkling wine when the tent dimmed and the center of the room illuminated to reveal Mayoress Andreu in periwinkle taffeta that glistened against her red tiefling skin. She wasted no time in launching into the speech she likely gave every year.

“In Crestbalm we have a saying, ‘The fete is the future taking flight,'” her voice lilted, almost in song. Her gossamer wings unfolded, glowing in the magical spotlight. “And what a beautiful future, indeed!”

With one pump of her wings, she launched into the air and disappeared with a crack. The tent relit itself, and a band no one had noticed before began playing soft dinner music as waiters delivered platters of chicken, potatoes, carrots, greens, waffles, berries, scones, noodles, spare ribs, grapes, hollandaise-coated asparagus, salmon, quail eggs, and more. Dinner at the fete was traditionally donated, so each table received what their families had worked together to provide. Our table was ladened with Gardenia’s family’s brisket, arugula salad from the Berengers’ garden, corn pancakes cooked and salted butter churned on Ansel’s farm, and Mamma’s signature green tea cakes, and creme d’violete custards that almost matched my gown.

We stuffed ourselves silly, the sauce from the brisket staining our mouths and the green tea cakes crumbling into our laps as we licked the frosting from our fingers. The sparkling wine in our glasses magically replenished, though whether it was at the hand of our wizard mayor or stealth waiters, we weren’t sure and didn’t care to ask.

Doreena Cowl started the dancing by dragging her date to the middle of the floor, and the band took her lead by playing a louder, faster tune. I recognized her pale green dress as the one her sister had worn two years earlier — it was new, then, and those of us still too young to go to the fete had salivated at the notion of wearing something so fancy. Now there were hints of mud stains along the hem, and the left strap kept sliding down Doreena’s shoulder, but it was still as magnificent as the day we first saw it, glittering with the cut glass that encrusted the bodice.

“Pretty, how the light flashes off it,” said Ansel in my ear, and I turned to agree but found myself face-to-face with someone I hadn’t seen in a year.

He hadn’t changed, but the scarf had. When I saw him after my thirteenth birthday — weeks after visiting Hanso Jon in her swamp and almost losing my mother — he had already started creating a new scarf from the magic the stole from others. This one was almost twice as long now as the one hidden under my floorboards from anyone’s eyes and touch but mine. Every time I saw him, it seemed to get longer: Tonight it had four new stripes of burnt sienna, dark mauve, sky blue and light lavender: the same color as Mayoress Andreu’s gown.

“Of course, not as pretty as you,” he said, paternally patting me on the head with his long-fingered hand. “I see young Stephan’s totem came with you tonight, but not my scarf.”

I whipped around, looking for someone, anyone, to be staring at us. In a tent full of 18-year-olds, the grizzled Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes would surely stand out.

“They can’t see us or hear us, my dear,” he smirked. “But if it makes you feel better, we can step outside so I don’t feel like my ass is in your date’s face.”

Sure enough, Ansel was still sitting in his chair, drinking the sparkling wine while emphatically nodding to something Louie was saying. I rose from my place and walked toward the side flap of the tent and into the chilling night air.

“Do you have to appear at every major event of my life?” I asked.

“Only when you don’t bring me along. I see Stephan’s viper fang accompanied you tonight,” the Man with the Colored Scarf and Diamond Shoes tapped the gold totem hanging from my neck — a souvenir from watching Stephan burst into beetles five years before. “I feel dishonored, Axiom. Why not wear my gift, too?”

“It clashed with the dress,” I said dryly.

“Such is the foibles of fashionability,” he sighed, the gravel in his throat rattling ominously. “You’ve probably guessed by now that my gift to you was not given without expectations. I need an apprentice. I can provide the powers and direction, but this body of mine is no longer able to handle as — complicated — of deeds.”

“But I take it mine can?” I asked. In the dark I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his breath pouring from his mouth and into my face.

“There’s nothing holding you back, Axiom,” he rattled. “The fete means you’ve reached adulthood, independence. Your mother won’t expect you to stay in your little cottage with her any longer.”

“Ansel wants me to marry him,” I blurted.

“You and I both know that’s not true,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf scoffed. “He asked you to the fete; he didn’t propose. Don’t lie to me, Axiom. I always know when you are, and it makes me angry.”

The breath in my face was suddenly cool compared to the heat building around my neck. At first I thought it might be anger, but soon I felt a searing pain against my skin. Reflexively I snatched the viper fang from around my neck and tore it away. My hand stung with the burn even after I had tossed the necklace away into the grass.

“Now,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf said, his words deliberate. “I don’t want to ruin your evening even further. Tonight you should go and dance with your date, and tomorrow I will leave you a little reminder that great things are expected of you.”

And with that, I was alone.

I should have been more incensed that no one had noticed I was gone, but it was hard to feel anything but numb the rest of the night. Every bounce of the light off of a glittery shoe made me wonder if the Man with the Colorful Scarf had returned, and I started seeking out dresses and robes that matched the new stripes on his scarf, paranoid that I might be dancing beside one of his newest victims. Mayoress Andreu was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

To combat the cottonmouth feeling, I drank as much sparkling wine as I could — it peppered my mouth and reminded me that I was still alive, still 18, and still expected to have a good time.

When Ansel took me home, his fingers fidgeting between mine.

“I hope you had fun,” he said. “I’m not sure you did.”

“It was a wonderful night. I think I just drank too much sparkling wine, is all.” The words drunkenly tripped out of my mouth.

“Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, and suddenly every worry I’d had all evening melted away as I nodded and he took me in his arms.

Everything I had read in books about first kisses pointed to a spark that ignited in your chest, or a hook that pulled you up from your belly. I kept waiting for one of those things to happen — to assure me that this was what I wanted, what I’d been waiting for — but all I felt was warm, wet human lips against mine.

I closed my eyes, thinking maybe that was the issue. It changed nothing at first, and then it became the stuff of nightmares as my mind turned to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes, snarling on the inside of my eyelids.

Ansel pulled away gently, and I turned to open my front door. The curtain in the side window shifted just slightly, and I knew my mother was still awake.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Ansel,” I said.

“Tomorrow, Axiom,” he nodded, absentmindedly scratching his bottom lip with his thumb.

Mamma was up, but the lights were off, and I allowed her the pleasure of thinking she had gotten away with watching us from the window by running right past the tiny parlor and up the stairs to my bedroom. Hiking my dress up to my waist, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and started scratching the wood floor for the loose board. A moment later, I had found it.

There it was, the striped scarf. And on the end of it, a new stripe — tiny, barely a hem: Aquamarine, like Ansel’s eyes.

It wasn’t the only new stripe, either. One the color of a blueberry stain; another mahogany. In the years I had left the scarf under my bed, another two feet of material had grown on it, capturing the colors of the magic I had subconsciously stolen from people by accidentally brushing against them in the market or grazing their hand when giving them change or loaning them a quill.

My fingers caressed the tiny aquamarine strip at the end of it. I think I fell asleep praying that it wouldn’t get bigger, even though I knew that Ansel likely had no more magic to give.

The next morning I awoke, suffocating under the heavy satin fabric from Mamma’s wedding dress. The floorboards looked undisturbed, and I wondered whether I had put them back myself the night before — it was hard to recall everything I did with adrenaline and sparkling wine coursing through my veins. As I lifted myself out of bed, a headache pressing behind my eyes, the sun caught a glimmer of something on my bedside table: A golden viper fang on a chain.

Axiom Thorne: Seeking help from Hanso Jon

After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.

She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”

“Stephan—” I stuttered.

“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”

“But Mamma—”

“What, Axiom?”

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”

The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”

She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.

“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”

An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.

But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.

I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”

The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.

When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.

“Watch your step,” she said.

Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.

The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.

“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”

I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.

“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.

“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”

Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.

“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”

I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.

“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.

“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”

My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.

“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”

It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.

“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”

“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”

“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”

That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.

I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.

“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”

“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.

“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.

“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.

“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”

I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.

“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.

As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.

“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.

Axiom Thorne: Sweet, sweet thirteen

So it was my thirteenth birthday. “Unlucky thirteen,” my aunt — screw her soul — would have said. “Such a nasty age,” she’d warned me and my mother, who just squeezed my hand to assure me that it wasn’t true. “The ugly duckling phase and all that,” she’d sneered. Mamma pushed a piece of blond hair out of my face lovingly. As it fell back into place, I saw that her magic had turned it an iridescent purple.

That year my aunt decided to torture me by throwing me a birthday party at our small house with all her large friends. Women in unseasonable silks and men in brocade suits crushed into the front hall, exclaiming loudly, “My, such a quaint little foyer!” and being sure to pronounce it “foy-yay,” as if the pretentious syllables would sweep away the peeling wallpaper and tarnished wall sconces.

Mamma cooked all the food, though my aunt declared it would be her job to provide the cake. A few of the neighborhood kids — forever latchkey lifters and storm door slippers — had wormed into the house to nick pastries and meat pies almost as soon as they came out of the oven. Mamma was quick, though. She let them have their fill as long as they promised to stay for the festivities so we could at least pretend this was a 13-year-old’s party and not some story for her sister’s friends to tell over champagne and steak tartar.

Just when it seemed the party had started to dwindle and the gilded rabble was ready to go home, my aunt burst through the kitchen door with a cake on a platter. It was stood five tiered layers tall with icing the color of pond scum and pale pink sugar orchids winding their way up the sides.

“Every birthday girl gets her cake and eats it, too!” She crowed to her friends’ delighted tittering. She set it in front of me and snapped her fingers dramatically to light the thirteen candles sprouting from the grass-green icing.

I inhaled dramatically, my mind trying to pick a wish. A wheel spun in my head, ticking past all the unlikely wants that had stacked up over the last hour: An empty house, my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel next door, more (or just any) friends, fewer chores, bigger breasts, a cake that didn’t look like it might be poisoned…

But before I could exhale, my eye caught something — rather, someone — at the window. A man stood there, his face long and shoulders broad and adorned with a colorful scarf. The sun lit up the back of his charcoal hair like a halo, but his eyes remained shrouded by some mysterious source, as if he had brushed black dust across them. The gray pupils sparkled like jewels in the dirt.

The wheel in my head continued to spin, but every time my thoughts clicked onto one of its segments — my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel — the mental inscription on it changed to “the man’s colorful scarf” until every single option was just that: The bright knitting that encircled the stranger’s neck.

I closed my eyes and blew.

Only seven of the thirteen candles extinguished, but Mamma subtly wished the rest to go dark.

“Happy birthday, darling,” she whispered in my ear, collecting up the cake so she could cut it in the kitchen without having to listen to my aunt share the life story of the baker who had made it.

“His daughter…a clubbed foot, if you can pity her,” her voice seemed far away, and soon it was, because I had risen from my chair at the head of the table to walk past the enthralled strangers, through the “foy-yay,” and out the front door to meet the man with my birthday wish.

“Thirteen, eh?” He asked, his voice rattling like pebbles in a tin can — not at all matching how youthful he actually was, now that I was this close to him. “A lot can happen at thirteen.”

One of his dark-powdered eyes winked, and I looked down at the ground bashfully. That’s when I noticed his shoes, encrusted in shiny stones. I can’t imagine they were real diamonds, but they certainly sparkled bright enough to make lies starbursts pop in my vision when I finally looked back up.

“I believe I have a gift for you,” he croaked, and he began to unwind the colorful scarf around his neck.

“Do you know what this is?”

“A scarf?” I asked, trying not to sound mesmerized as the brilliant knitting caught the sun with each pass around his shoulders. It must have been ten feet long, for how many times he had to untwist it. As soon as he had enough to reach, he started draping it around my own neck, winding it there like a weaver shifting thread from one reel to the next — tethering us together during the transfer.

“It’s magic,” he said. “You want to do magic, don’t you, Axiom?”

I nodded, mouth agape as I felt it warm against my skin.

“Each stripe is a different kind of magic I’ve found,” he said. He nodded to the window. “Do you know the man in the purple jacquard duster lustfully eyeing your mother right now?” Sure enough, my aunt’s friend was practically drooling as my mother leaned over him to hand a plate of cake to another partygoer.

I snorted in disgust.

“He passed me on his way inside and dropped some magic on the way,” the man nearly whispered, though I knew he wasn’t telling the whole story. “That’s this new shiny purple bit on the end.”

He waggled the very end of the scarf, which indeed looked more vivid than the other stripes.

“A lot of magic in this scarf,” the man was nearly audible now as he almost finished putting it around my neck.

As he began to lift the last loop away from his neck, I saw it: A fresh puckered scar across his throat. As the knitting peeled away, the wound began to open again, like he was ripping it open.

“Stop!” I yelled, watching the blood start to drip into the yellowed collar of his shirt.

“You don’t want your birthday present?” He asked with a gurgle. A bubble of blood expanded and popped along his neck.

“Not if it’s going to do…that,” I gestured to his throat. “Not if you need it.”

“Sweet, sweet thirteen,” he cooed. “What an age.”

“What an age!” My aunt hooted. I was sitting back at the table. The man in the window was gone, and the guests were still here. The guest in the purple jacquard duster coat was still salivating over my mother as she came over to me with my own slice of cake.

She leaned down close so only I would hear her: “I know you hate chocolate, baby,” she said apologetically. Sure enough, the green icing had been hiding what I wanted least — a dark chocolate cake that looked like compacted mud.

“By the way,” she asked, running her hand along something across my shoulder. “Who gave you such a beautiful scarf?”