Thursday, October 10, 2013

Before Midnight

Ella Cinder is a trained thief who's broken her agency's explicit orders to not attend the ball where she comes under the feigned thrall of her Prince Charming.

Part two of my Bloody Fairy Tales. The first is Red.


by Sabrina Zbasnik

A chorus of strings slithered through the crowded ballroom as the lone gate crasher stood above them. Few heads turned at the late entrance, so caught up in their excess they cared little past convincing everyone else their hearts broke for saving the trees, or the whales, or homeless circus animals. Whatever charity the society slotted into place as an excuse to gild a ballroom until every nail, every fleck of dust glittered like the halls of Midas weighed heavily upon the bacchanalian minds.
Only the bare headed doorman held his hand out against the intruder. She didn't flinch at his indignation that she not belong, only smiled politely as she removed a tiny piece of expensive paper from her bulging handbag. The doorman, his suit straining from a recent weight gain, canvased the invitation with a spotted fingernail. Her borrowed name for the evening was done in gold pen, and not the kind the little "homeless" people got from a hobby store.
"Miss Cinder?"
"Please, refer to me as Ella. It is a party after all," she said, the smile fixed upon her lips never touching her eyes. But the doorman didn't notice. He only caught her contagious smile and passed the card back to her.
"I hope you enjoy your evening," he said, placing a guiding hand coated in sweat on the small of her back.
El stepped into the throngs of vipers untouchable by law or common sense if their decor was anything to go by. Her mask slipped in the rising heat of a thousand bodies swaying inelegantly to a string symphony humoring those who needed to appear classy. The whiskers snagged on her gloves, and she was thrown momentarily as she tried to right her disguise; a white mouse with black diamonds mimicking the creatures whiskers and satin for ears. It was outlandish beyond anyone's wildest dreams and was the first she picked out of storage. Anyone who spent a year of tuition to Harvard on a mouse mask was not a person about to be asked if she belonged.
One of the servants waddled by, his midsection cinched tight from a screaming cummerbund. Her thin fingers curled upon a crystal glass and she yanked it away without offering a word of thanks to the beleaguered man. She may have felt his pain, known what it was to grovel before someone whose boot was worth more than your own life; but if she were to blend she needed to erase that part of her life. This was where El belonged and if she forgot for a second her cover'd be blown; what little of it she'd tossed on along with this bloated dress.
Putting the glass to her gold lips she scanned the room. Most men had long lost or replaced their female escorts, drooling over new conquests, trying to trade up on wives, or just have a bit of fun for a night. Despite the prevalence of exotic oils harvested by sequestered monks high in the Himalayas expertly blended with the excretions of sperm whales, the room couldn't escape the rising funk of desperation. The pecking order of the rich was more cutthroat than the thieves dens she'd climbed out of.
A vague smile passed her lips as a pair of men almost past her grandfather's age assessed her form buried beneath enough silk to smother a factory of workers. She could barely make out their eyes beneath the sagging lids and above the puckered bags. El feared she was being obliging to a lecherous shar pei and wondered if she need find a stick to distract or whack them with. Thankfully, the pair of money changers moved on, leaving the mouse to return to her hunt. The throngs momentarily parted and she spied her cheese.
He was pudgy, but not as rotund as some of the other men who after a few million let themselves build to the size of parade floats. A green coat graced his shoulders with gold flecks hand sewn into the fabric to create the illusion of scales. The profile was near identical to the one she'd acquired, of course that printer always tinted too red but in this inebriated case it worked to her advantage. As he finished turning, a cruel smile took El's lips. He'd, or more likely some poor overworked peasant, pasted gold foil delicately cut into triangles all across the left side of his face. Painted into the edges was a green to match the putrid coat. For once his hide matched his cold blooded soul. But what caused Ella to break for a moment was the coup de grace, perched upon the top of his head sat a crown about as garish as something a child gets for a birthday but worth the net of the fast food chain. The man looked away from his companions, two men in tuxedoes ruefully holding up phantom of the opera masks and hating that they had to play the game. Ella felt the eyes fall upon her and she coyly smiled, tilted her head, then looked away.
Even with her gaze broken, she could sense the movement of her mark. His curiosity rising to "Who is that girl? Did she come with anyone?" He may ask a few of the others who continue to humor their boss in the hopes of a scrap. And soon he'd push past his underlings and intrude upon the woman who appeared to want nothing to do with him.
"Hark, what is such a lovely creature as yourself doing here alone?"
If she'd run into him on the street El would have let her skin visibly crawl, the goose pimples sambaing up her arms. But this was work, and she wasn't about to screw this one up. Her painted smile grew genuine, as genuine as she could fake, and she turned to the crowned frog, "Standing, I'm afraid."
The mark glanced about the room, the dance floor clearing as another waltz ended, sending more bodies flocking to the outskirts to let fresh blood in. "A beautiful..." he searched over her costume, "mouse such as yourself has yet to catch the eye of anyone else?"
"I am afraid not," Ella sighed, tilting her head and tapping her fingers against her mostly full glass along with the music.
Frog prince turned back out to the crowd, ignoring her obvious signs. She'd have crushed his hand in hers and drug him off herself if she could. This coquettish play grew dull almost immediately and she hadn't even entered the second act. After screwing up whatever courage a 50+ man needs to hit on a 20 year old, he leaned closer to her and asked, "Do you like dancing?"
She tried to bury the excitement at getting this thing moving. Appear too eager and they get bored, but too uninterested and they lose all confidence, the balance was key. El would have laughed at her instructor now if she were here. This was almost textbook. Who's too unstable to be let into the field now? Instead she dropped her eyes down to her glass and looked up through her glittering eyelashes, "Quite."
"Would you care to share this next dance?" he held his greased palm out to her.
Ella placed her glass upon one of the stools lining the dance floor. Taking his offered palm, they moved onto the floor. From the corner of her eye, she watched a servant yank up her discarded glass. Trash didn't exist long in the shadow of wealth. Frog Prince placed his robust arm around her cinched waist, pulling her closer than was proper; but El let the faux pas pass. She wanted this over quickly; thanks to a lost taxi dragging her through a pumpkin patch of all things, she needed this over quickly.
A minuet struck up as she ran her hand over the shoulder of his green jacket. Her feet copied his movements all of their own accord, trained when she was a child by a grandmother who couldn't pass much on to her brood but she'd share what she could. The old lady would be surprised how often El used the lessons anymore, gods rest her.
"Does the dainty mouse have a name?"
"Ella, Ella Cinder," she shouted into his ear above the music and rustling of skirts.
"A curious name."
She smiled, yes it was. Nowhere close to what she'd been born with, but the surname was a throwback to her previous profession. As for El, well, she'd always had an appreciation for a letter than when lowered could masquerade as an upper class I. It seemed appropriate given her new line of work.
"What about yours?" Ella asked as he turned her past a pair of cats who were trying to lick the makeup off each others faces.
"My what?" the mark wasn't going to make this easy.
"Your name...silly," she inserted some playfulness to cover her hasty tracks.
The man skittered on his feet, tapping into the side of her shoes but she quickly matched his fumble. She prayed it was an excess of alcohol and not a rising concern over his mysterious dance partner that caused it. "This is a ball of masks and incognitos. Proper names are improper."
El laughed at that; her high society titter that anyone who'd had a good bawdy crow would mark as false, but charmed the upper crust, "But what shall I call you if we are to become separated?"
"What makes you think I intend to let that happen?" he asked before tipping her back into a dip, his own face mercifully letting up as she got a deep breath that didn't reek of molding cigars and denture cream.
As El rose, her lips coming dangerously close to his before she demurely pulled back, he continued, "Charming."
"Beg pardon?" Ella gulped, burying down the rigid burning in her legs that he'd already caught onto her game and was about to drag her before a magister. Probably the fat man dressed like a pink pony in the corner.
"Call me Prince Charming," he laughed one of those golf laughs and swung her about as if she were a rag doll.
Old Ella would have made a gagging noise and stuck her finger down her throat, but this charming mouse only batted those bejeweled eyelashes some more and tried to not get her toes trod on by this rhythmless clod. This was far easier than she'd anticipated. What were her superiors so concerned with? She had this fool clutched in her palm. His hand moved lower down her back, cresting around where the skirt flared out.
She let her body be pulled closer even as the music wound down and he whispered into her ear, "If I were to lick your skin would it take like chocolate?"
A burst of notes from the symphony buried her internal scream as he eyed up her displayed flesh like the dessert tray. Thank whatever sits up in that big sky El thought as a paso doble roared from the symphony and her "prince charming" released his hold on her. Stepping back into the male fold, he tried to peacock about the room. She feigned mimicking his steps but mostly tried to scrub the idea of his tongue getting anywhere near her flesh from her mind. Okay, maybe Stepmother had a small point about her not being entirely prepared for the ball after all. The sisters and their rather brutish force could have handled the situation with no licking necessary. But, no, Ella could do this. Godmother believed in her, and Godmother was never wrong; her intel wouldn't allow it.
She fixed her smile, the mark huffing as his mass failed to account for the rising tempo. A few other dancers moved away from the pair sensing ill in the world but uncertain why. Charming looped an arm around her back, forcing her into a second dip so he could peruse her tray of décolletage. El skittered, her foot slipping out of her shoe as it dashed across unescorted the dance floor landing beside Little Bo Peep's rum stained skirt. This would be the proper time to employ a series of curse words ladies weren't supposed to know.
But Charming lowered her lopsided body to the ground, and after parting a few dresses snatched up her shoe. The crystal glistened under the expertly fractured glass, an illusion to make her feet visible but not. Godmother was insistent upon the glass slippers despite El threatening to break the things over the mark's head instead. Pinching would be preferable to what those monsters did to feet.
Her prince fondled the shoe as he would something people keep in locked nightstand drawers, his fingers massaging the lack of support in the sole while watching for censure from the side of his eyes. But Ella only smiled, and as he bent on one knee she lifted her foot into his waiting palm. The gasp of ecstasy as he held her tiny feet prickled her skin and regurgitated her humble meal, but she remained carefully balanced even as his oily ring finger circled around her ankle for too long.
Charming finally released her foot, and she folded it back under her voluminous skirts. Playing the tease was where Ella excelled, she just preferred to do it with money instead of her body. As another slow song rose up, something she'd never learned in those years of "beginning and finishing" school, her Prince swept her up closer yet to his body.
"Would it be improper of me to declare your toes worthy of any master sculptor?"
"I dunno, would it?" Ella stumbled, her feet catching as the stupid glass shoes slid across sweating skin. Whoever designed these things must have been a foot fetish sadist. If you didn't slip and shatter an ankle, you could overcompensate and shatter the shoe straight into your foot.
Charming stared at her queerly, his greened eyebrows rising at her inscrutable face before he tossed his head back and barked a laugh that decreed "whatever you said was a joke, regardless of what you think." El was glad to play along, her own bird titter matching an old screen door. Something of which a soul here had probably never seen before outside of grainy black and white photos they bought for millions of dollars and called art.
He whispered into her ear, the moist breath catching upon the blonde wig, "What demon must a man slay, what mountain a man climb, what promise a man make to see such a treasure again?"
Ella pulled her face back, away from the dull eyed faces of the besotted rich to the bloated eyes of her charmer raging in lust, "Are you propositioning me?" As if I wasn't trying to pry this out of you for the past half hour.
Charming gulped, all knock knees and teenage spots again as the object of his desire momentarily held all the power. He moved his hands higher, as if afraid a dance chaperone would order him to leave room for the holy ghost. Slowly, like drawing a breath from a dying man, he nodded his sheepish head and muttered his confession, "Yes."
El looked away from her mark, letting the embarrassment sink in as she oversaw the crowd. Most ignored her, only a few were curious about the dark woman amongst the milky sea, but her eyes landed upon the stylish clock propped above the golden fireplace. Only a half hour left. Lifting Charming's hand to her lips, she kissed it -- trying to not inhale the overwhelming garlic -- and in her best sultry voice said, "Then let us away to your room."
Her Prince parted the dancers with as much force as a teen on prom night, his fingers clawing into Ella's gloves as she trailed behind. Thankfully her abysmal shoes remained on even as she clattered up a gnarled marble staircase, down an abandoned hall sagging as much as its guests, and into the darkened bedroom rented out for the evening to the Duke of *redacted*. As Charming heroically held the door open for his paramour of the evening, he failed to see the rising smirk upon her cheeks in the dim light. Only a fireplace embered in the corner, highlighting a bed tall enough to break someone's hip should a dream or nightmare become too rough for the traveler.
El paused in the middle of the room, letting her skirts drop slowly from her hands as she tried to pierce the gloom. Her target was probably on a desk, or bundled up tight under the bed, somewhere out of the way but in easy reach. Charming used this distraction to sneak up behind her and place his wandering hands upon her drawn stomach. Thanks to the heavy folds of the dress Ella didn't have to suffer the Prince's questing "scepter," but he breathily whispered into her ear, "Shall you remove your outer trappings?" even as his fingers tried to fumble with the rows of buttons down her back.
She didn't turn, afraid she couldn't hide the disgust on her face even in the low light, but her voice dripped in sugar as she answered, "I have a better idea."
"Oh?" Charming slid away from her as she spun about, using the heavy boning in her corset to batter away his own.
This was no longer some parlor game where she played the unwitting guardian of her purity, the innocent angel at the mercy of a prowling wolf; the fly was in the web and the spider was happy to play. "Hold out your hands," Ella ordered Charming. Her voice would brook no refusal and his hands launched forward as she extracted a slip of black from her bottomless handbag.
She wound his palms together tight, making certain he couldn't escape or wiggle free should something go wrong. The Duke huffed into her ear something intelligible, he was too giddy to make any sense. Poor sod probably spent his entire life pretending all he wanted was one-position sex with blue blood women draped in pearls and dreamed of prostitutes branding him with fire irons. Lucky for her though. Anyone well adjusted would never have fallen for the mysterious stranger angling to get into his room.
As she tightened the last knot, he lifted his face to hers and leaned in for a kiss. El tried to toss it to her cheek but he was too quick, slobbering down her chin. She fought back her revulsion as she returned to her handbag, tossed upon the heavy bed that wasn't going to get any more action tonight. Using the momentary distance to clear the drool off her chin, she wrapped a second black band across his eyes, binding the lizard mask deep into his flesh. Charming gurgled some more, but acquiesced to her bondage. She'd yanked him out of the kiddie pool and up onto the diving board.
With a not-light-touch she pushed him to the ground where his backside met heavily with the floor. He muttered again but didn't fight, knowing when he was in the presence of a master. He just was uncertain exactly what she was master of.
El dug through her bag, trying to uncover a bit of light in this dark situation. Would it have killed the original owners to put in something other than whale lamps and decaying fireplaces? She'd tossed aside her lipstick and a vial of poison when a soft voice asked from beside her skirts brushing his face.
"Your shoe. May I...hold your shoe again?"
She rolled her eyes skyward, but lifted the glass monstrosity off her heel and deposited it into the questing hands of Charming. He gurgled happily as his bound fingers measured across every inch of his toy. As El leaned back, afraid what he might do next, her eyes caught a black case casting in the dancing firelight.
Inching away from the man in heaven over a sweaty shoe, she clopped towards the black plastic case. Her fingers searched for the break and, as she lifted open the lid, she did an internal jig. A screen flared out into the room, the warm blues of a desolate ocean retreat breaking the darkness. She'd been prepared to squeeze a password out of the old sot, but no prompt locked her out. He'd just snapped the lid down and headed off to a party after failing at the "Dress an Angry Cat" game. Too bad, she'd had some new drugs to test out.
El yanked off her gold bracelet and unhooked it, straightening out the ends until a familiar glint of silver metal sprung forth. While the computer searched for her USB jewelry, she dug through the files. Most of it was junk, strings of letters and numbers from image files off a camera. Possible blackmail for someone who was in that business, but she cared little for that petty game. Her prey was much juicier.
She gave up on this organized chaos and opened the search bar, typing in "Automated Uncanny Robot Or Realistic Android." Someone must have killed himself trying to come up with that acronym. Two text documents answered her hails and she quickly copied them over to her flashing bracelet.
"My exotic jungle cat," El didn't hid her shiver as the mark broke from his shoe stupor, aware of her sudden disappearance from the night's festivities.
"Yes...cheese wheel?"
Charming's lips turned down, the lizard makeup of his cheek smeared green across the thin sliver and all along the heel of her shoe. "What holds your attention so? You are not extricating your phone are you?"
Damn. El turned back to the screen, he must be able to see the light through the blindfold. She murmured noncommittal noises while watching the download icon run down the clock. When it hit zero she yanked out her bracelet, getting an error message from the angered laptop. "Of course not, cracker basket," El cooed while wrapping the filled USB back around her wrist. "I am preparing myself," she said as she ripped a hidden seam in the underside of her dress.
Charming wiggled at the sound of fabric splaying, but Ella didn't move towards him as a metal disc fell into her hands. She slipped the heavy magnet under the computer, closing the lid. It wouldn't wipe everything, but it wasn't supposed to. Let the police waste the next few weeks trying to figure out exactly what they were after rather than assume all was suspect.
With the data secure and the computer slipping into a magnetic coma, there was only one more piece of the puzzle for Ella to finish. She returned to her lover and, laying her fingers across his still bound ones, removed her shoe. He fumbled about after her, but failed to find purchase as she leaned away.
Deep within the throngs of the twisting rich a bong resonated through the ancient floorboards.
Bong. Shit! El cursed herself, it couldn't already be time, could it?
Bong. There was no time for the sleeping draughts to take effect. Only one choice left.
Bong. She removed a plastic cap clicked over top her heel, revealing a sharp point embedded deep inside her shoe.
Bong. Grabbing onto Charming's head she situated herself onto his lap. The smile returned which should have made her feel worse.
Bong. "I am sorry for this," she whispered to the man who would never be king.
Bong. "Sorry for what?" he asked. El slipped her left hand over his mouth then thrust the heel of her shoe through the blindfold and into his eye.
Bong. Charming struggled, screams gurgling from beneath her hand. Calmly, she pressed a switch and the spike lanced deep into his brain.
Bong. The body slumped to the floor, all fight cut loose as the brain oozed out around the hole. Ella stood, wiping any blood off her gloves onto the dress.
Bong. Ella yanked off her mask and tossed it into the sleeping fires, awoken with the expensive fuel. She unpinned her blonde wig and added it to the fire.
Bong. Grabbing her handbag, she pushed open the hefty iron windows, letting a blast of winter air into the dead room.
Bong. Taking one last glance to the deceased Prince Charming, Ella scurried out the window. Her cold fingers clung to the iron rungs of the fire ladder as she glanced below her dangling skirts. The ladder was a good story above the ground to discourage any acrobatic burglars, but a momentary salvation rattled below her.
Bong. With the final chime of the clock, Ella released her hands and tumbled on top of a carriage, the heavy fabric mercifully holding up her light form as the driver called his horses on. Whatever early bird couple huddled below her in the lacking heat never thought to peek their heads outside the cab. Perhaps they did not wish to know what almost fell atop their heads.
With the final chime of the midnight clock, Ella Cinder left the ball.

A half hour later a dark woman with her black hair cinched tight into a bun unearthed a small laptop from a station locker. She was wholly unremarkable, a pair of pants and wrinkled t-shirt hinted at a long night of travel before and behind her. Just an unnoticeable late night traveler all save for her feet. The clerk who took her ticket stub didn't notice, or didn't care to, only the other passenger to share her red eye rattle back to civilization glanced openly at the single shoe bouncing off her feet.
Somewhere along the winding coasts a fisherman was going to wake up to find a bedraggled party dress and a pair of gloves glistening in his nets. If he was wise he'd rip the seams apart and try to sell the bits of scrap and embedded gems. If he's unwise, he'd take it to the police. Not that it mattered, any prints or DNA they could get off it would match to a 75 year old woman who'd been executed by the state over a decade ago.
A smattering of glass trailed along the path down from the Estate that hosted an elegant annual New Years party soon to be put on the map of the nightly news. It was almost as if someone smashed a glass shoe's heel upon the back of the carriage while it rattled into the night, so she need not limp across uneven ground. El caught the eye of her fellow traveling companion and her face shifted, her brow grew heavy and darkened as she placed a single finger to her lip. The coquettish mouse lay in ashes, only a terror in black existed on this witching hour train. The man gasped and turned back to his window, making certain he never looked back.
El sighed and opened her company laptop. Entering in a half dozen passwords she finally got through to her contact, starting up a silly flash game where you have to save your designated princess once a day or she gets eaten by dragons, or krakens, or falls from very tall towers or pricks her finger upon spinning wheels coated in botulism. El let her die every time, she had no use for a princess who relied upon someone else to save her. Once she tried to give the princess her own sword, but the handful of pixels refused to take it. After that it'd been nothing but dragon entrées.
FG Has Joined Your Game
FG: Is it done?
El smiled, of course FG knew she'd accomplished her task and was on the last train out of town. If not, she'd never have logged on in the first place.
EL: Naturally.
FG: The data...
EL: All intact.
FG: Excellent. And you left nothing behind?
El tapped her fingers against her broken shoe whose companion rested inside the eye of a dead man. There were no true prints of hers upon them, no genetic match, and it was purchased across three black markets. The only way they could pin it back to her is by forcing every girl in the country to try it on to find the one it fit.
She smiled as she typed in her final communication with Godmother.
EL: No.

No comments: