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It was a November day that felt like one from December, dry but overcast with a strong cold breeze. That, combined with the usual Monday blahs, had driven Michiko Koyama—known to her friends as Michiko and her foes as the Monkey Queen—to ask her roommate and best friend, Beth McGill, to join her on a late afternoon trip to the Dew Droppin' Coffeehouse, the source of their favorite hot caffeinated drinks. Since Beth had never turned down a cup of coffee in her life, she quickly agreed, and the two were taking the short walk from their apartment to the coffeehouse.
"What are you getting?" Beth was asking. Even with the cold, she was wearing a Nimona t-shirt and, over that, her green army jacket, mostly because among the many enchantments on the jacket was one to keep her warm in cold weather.
"I was going to have an espresso," Michiko said, fidgeting with her yellow sweater. "They're yummy!"
"Really? I've never had one."
"I'll let you have a sip. But I always make mine a triple shot.".
Beth raised an eyebrow. "Am I going to have to pry you off the ceiling?"
"Maybe." Michiko grinned impishly as they reached the corner. They were across the street from the coffeehouse, and a woman with wild red hair and a purple dress who was toting a guitar case was in the crosswalk, walking towards them but not really looking where she was going. "Beth?" Michiko said. "Isn't that...?"
Beth looked at the redhead, stared past the surface using her second sight, and saw the purple butterfly-like wings that her seeming was concealing. "It is," she said. "Mandy! Hey!"
The pixie looked up and saw Beth and Michiko. She picked up her pace as she crossed the street to meet them on the corner. "Hi," she said softly.
"Hiiii!" Michiko said. "We were going to get some coffee! Want to join us?"
Beth glanced at Mandy's guitar case. "I think she's been there already," she said.
"Auditioning?" Michiko asked the pixie.
"Yeah," Mandy said.
"Did it go well?"
"No. Got turned down again."
"Awww. Sorry to hear that," Beth said. Michiko pouted.
"Thanks." Mandy shook her head. "I can't figure it out. The manager keeps saying I'm still missing something, but he can't tell me what it is, and if he can't tell me, how am I supposed to change it?"
Mandy stared at the sidewalk. "I can't play at Wonderland, even if I work there, because they only have music in the tavern, and I'm still two years too young to get in there. The faeries don't want me to perform at the encampment because I play the 'wrong kind' of music. There's no other Emigre place to play at, so I wind up auditioning at the human venues, and the only place that doesn't have a minimum age just turned me down again."
"Well, I think your music's really good!" Michiko said. "I'd love to see you play!"
"Thanks. I just wish more people felt like that." Mandy picked up her guitar case. "I should go. Mec was going to talk to Cog again."
"Hope it went well," Beth said.
"I doubt it." Mandy grimaced "Cog is such a sourpuss."
They said their goodbyes. As Mandy walked away, Michiko scowled. "I feel so bad for her!" she said. "She works so hard!"
"Sometimes," Beth said, "it's not enough."
"Yeah. Are we still getting coffee?"
Beth knew what Michiko meant, but she also knew that the coffeehouse had the best coffee anywhere near their apartment. "Yeah," she said. "But we won't leave a big tip this time." Michiko giggled again as they started across the street.
* * *
Mec stepped out of the back room, and as usual, his eyes had to adjust to the darkened store. It had been like that even before Mec had started working there—paper over the windows, dim lighting inside, disorganization and dust everywhere. And behind the long and cluttered counter was the gremlin who insisted on keeping things just the way they were.
Cog was an elderly gremlin, with a close-cut white beard that matched his bushy eyebrows. His face was wrinkled and compact, with beady eyes and a narrow jutting nose; it looked as if it had imploded while Cog had been sucking a particularly sour lemon. He had shown up on Earth as part of a wave of gremlin and pixie Emigres fifteen years ago, and had opened up a shop to sell and repair the gadgets that seemed to be ubiquitous among his kind. Four years ago, a promising young gremlin who had been born on Earth showed up at his door, and since then Cog and Mec had been master and apprentice.
It was an arrangement that barely worked, for they were opposites in more than just age and appearance, old versus young, light skin versus dark, short hair and beard versus long hair and clean-shaven. Cog seemed to have nothing but criticism for Mec, even when it was evident to everyone else that the younger gremlin had skill and talent to burn. And every time that Mec made a suggestion, be it about a new technique or making the shop a more pleasant place to visit, it would be rejected with the terse explanation "That's not how we've always done it."
Mec had bitten back every retort every time. He held out hope that he would get the shop when Cog retired, and he knew that many elderly gremlins preferred the old ways. Still, he thought of all the great inventors and innovators, on Faerie and on Earth, and how they would have rejected Cog's message without regrets, and he would quietly sigh and get back to work.
"Master Cog?" Mec said as he approached the counter. He was carrying a small box full of power crystals, the core of many a gremlin gadget. "I've finished sorting and checking the latest crystal shipment. These were the duds; I'll set them aside for return."
Cog nodded. "Make sure that you double-check them before sending them back. Returns are costly, apprentice."
"Yes, sir. If you have a moment before I go..."
"Well...I wanted to discuss the possibility of selling my work here." Cog raised an eyebrow, which Mec knew was a bad sign, but he continued, "On consignment, of course, and we split the proceeds. I have a few designs that I think—"
"No," Cog said. "There's no room here to display them."
"I can find room!"
"It's not your time yet."
"When, then?" Mec pushed down his disappointment, keeping his voice level. "Other gremlin apprentices have the right of consignment. I think I'm at that stage in my apprenticeship."
"And I think," Cog said, "that though you are progressing, you're not ready for that step yet. There are some things you must still learn, and one of them is patience. Someday, and perhaps it will be soon, it'll be your time."
Mec nodded. "Goodnight then, Master Cog."
"Goodnight, apprentice." Cog stared at the counter again. Mec left the shop, somehow managing not to slam the front door behind him.
* * *
The apartment was small and furnished in thrift shop chic. The couch sagged in the middle, the computer desk had scratches all over, and the television wasn't even Wi-Fi compatible. Next to the desk were several guitar cases lined up neatly against the wall and an electronic keyboard on a wobbly stand.
Mec was sitting on the couch, watching TV without really paying attention, when the front door opened. Mandy walked in, dropping her backpack by the door and carefully setting her guitar next to the others. "Hi," Mec said as she hurried over to the couch.
"Hi yourself." Mandy kissed her boyfriend. "So..."
"I'll go first. Got turned down again," Mandy said with a sigh.
"That sucks." Mec patted her back, between her wings. "You're good enough to play there, and I know you will someday."
"Thanks." Mandy mustered a smile. "You?"
"Shot down again." Mec shook his head. "The old sourpuss wouldn't even look at my work."
"Oh, sweetie." Mandy pouted and sat down next to Mec. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks." Mec grabbed the remote and turned off the television. "It's just the same thing over and over again, isn't it? For both of us."
"I know." Mandy took his arm. "It won't be this way forever. I know it won't."
"But when?" Mec scowled. "When do things change?" He jumped up from the couch. "Maybe in two years for you, when you can get club and bar gigs. But what about me? I'll still be stuck working for Cog, tuning up gadgets and checking crystals. No future."
"You'll get the shop someday," Mandy said.
"I don't even know about that. Cog might sell it to someone else out of spite. And then what happens to me? To us?"
"We'll get by." Mandy moved behind Mec and wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder. "We have before."
"And for what?" Mec growled. "A future lived day by day? No goals except saving for retirement and hoping there's something good on TV tonight?"
"Maybe I was meant for bigger things!" There was a gleam in the gremlin's eyes. "Maybe I could be the next Skyward, the next great inventor! But I'll never find out as long as I'm being held back! As long as there are people in my way!"
"Mec?" Mandy said in a small voice. "Am I holding you back? Am I in your way?"
Mec broke away from Mandy and spun towards her, his face twisted into a snarl by anger born from frustration. Mandy gasped and ran into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
The anger left Mec as he stared at the bedroom door. "Mandy," he said softly. Then, he grabbed his jacket and toolbelt and fled the apartment, possessed by a different anger, loathing directed at himself for hurting the girl he loved.
* * *
The shed deep in the woods that bordered the town on three sides was double-locked and booby-trapped. As Mec approached it, he pulled a remote control from a pocket and pushed a button. He walked inside the shed without any trouble and closed the door behind him, pushing the button again.
Inside the shed were shelves and cabinets and bins, filled with odds and ends, spare parts and experiments that Mec preferred to describe as "incomplete" instead of "failures". A huge workbench dominated the center of the room, attached to a rack loaded with tools. A large looming figure, covered by a dropcloth, stood by the back wall.
Mandy had always insisted on a neat apartment, not wanting to clean up incomplete experiments after long waitressing shifts, so Mec had found and claimed the empty shed. He jokingly called it his "secret laboratory," even though everyone knew where to find it. He used it for his special commission projects, including the gadgets he had made for Beth, and for his personal research. But that evening, he used it as a refuge, a place he could hide to get away from the problems of the day.
He knew that later, he'd have to face Mandy again, to explain and apologize. But here, all he had to face were his tools and materials, his ideas and inspirations, without any interruptions, anyone blocking his way. He grabbed an object from his workbench, a wooden rod with penciled patterns, and got to work.
* * *
It was dark in the cell. It had been built well below decks, and the corridors were only lit by torches, so what little light there was crept in through the cracks between the cell door and its frame. There was one prisoner there, a faerie, and she was shackled in place, arms chained to the wall and legs to the floor.
She had been sleeping when the door was unlocked and opened. A faerie walked in carrying a bucket of water. He stopped just inside the doorway and threw the bucket's contents at the prisoner, chortling as she woke up.
"Cantwick," she muttered, blinking as the light from outside hit her eyes. "How charming."
"Are you ready to talk, pirate?" Cantwick said.
"Perhaps," the prisoner said as she wiped water off her face. "But you wouldn't like what I'd have to say."
"Duke Wrexham wants answers, pirate. Where is your ship? Where are your cohorts?"
"Had I not been imprisoned in this cell for the last two days, I might actually have answers for you." The pirate half-smiled.
Cantwick stormed up to her and grabbed her by the collar. "You'll regret your smart tongue!" he shouted.
"Someday, perhaps," she responded. "But I know that Wrexham loves his show trials. He'll want to hold one for me, and my crewmate, before we swing from his gallows. And that's why you won't hurt us. You're a faithful little lapdog."
"Go to Hell!" Cantwick spat. He pushed the prisoner against the wall and stormed out of the cell, slamming the door behind him.
"At least the food would be better there," the prisoner muttered. She settled back in as best as she could and closed her eyes.
Copyright © 2015 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those covered by "fair use" laws. Cover art © 2015 by Willow and used with permission. http://willow-san.deviantart.com