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Dancing Up a Storm

Dancing Up a Storm
by Elana Gomel

I could not bury my wife.

The timestorm had hit and the name of the day had been lost in the phosphorescent darkness filled with residue of the past and the future: neighing of horses on an unknown battlefield, crying of unborn babies, gasps of the dying who had been dead for centuries. And when it abated and our old timemaster hobbled around to inspect the damage, my wife was dead.

Her body was reduced to a huddle of ragged flesh and bloody bones by the riptides of time. But her beauty was still real to me. I wanted to bury her with a full ceremony in the same cemetery where my mother and sister were buried. Both died in proper time, on a Dark-Princess Day. 

But the timemaster said no. My wife’s name was Maria-Lucia. She had been born on a Light-Princess day, and she had to be buried on a Light-Princess day too. 

“What is the problem?” I asked the timemaster. “It is an Esme-day tomorrow.”

He said that nobody knew what day it was. The timestorm had scrambled the orderly recurrence of six-day cycles and we were in a blank zone of chaos, which the King and his Princesses would have to hitch back to the rotation of Light and Dark days. But until these veiled majesties condescended to set time straight, we, ordinary folk, were stranded: without day-names, either light or dark, we could not plow or reap, rejoice or shed tears. And we could not bury our dead.

“Just dig a hole in the ground.”  The timemaster said. “Outside proper time, the body is nothing but carrion.”

My temper must have been tamed by grief because I only shoved him out the door. And then I put a shroud over my dead wife and went out, to the Palace Square.

Many people already gathered there, fearful of doing anything at all. Getting wed on a Dark-Princess day, Mara’s, or Leah’s, or Portia’s, would result in a lifetime of discord. But trying to conclude a business deal on a Light-Princess day, Adela’s or Lucia’s or Esme’s, would drag it on forever, as both sides made concessions to each other.         

Finally the bronze doors were thrown open and the King was carried out in the golden chair studded with rubies and black agates. The twelve Princesses followed in two rows of six as they always did. The King was veiled, of course, the heavy burgundy folds of brocade falling off his elaborate headdress and merging with the stiff velvet of his richly embroidered robe. When I was a child I had asked my mother, naively, how the King could see through the opaque fabric. She slapped me. Even asking about the King’s face was blasphemy, while talk about lifting the veil was sedition, punishable by death. 

The Princesses surrounded him in a double semicircle: the six named ones in front and the six nameless ones behind. They were all dressed in the same fashion: wide skirts rigidly supported by rectangular frames and tight bodices. The Light Princesses wore aquamarine, rose, and turquoise; the Dark Princesses – scarlet, maroon, and mustard. Their heads and faces were encased in magnificent helmets of gold and jet, whose upper parts were cunningly wrought in the shape of a lady’s braided tresses and adorned with a plume of a dove’s or crow’s feathers. Their face-masks were sculpted to represent the attribute of each Princess: the round-cheeked benevolence of Adela, the smiling joy of Lucia, and the peaceful contentment of Esme. I did not want to look at the terrible masks of the Dark Princesses.

Instead my eyes were drawn to the second row of the nameless Princesses-in-waiting, their heads bowed, their skirts of a drab navy blue; their face-masks – blank panes of jet. At each summer and winter solstice there was a great ball in the Time Hall and the Princesses exchanged places: the nameless ones taking on the names and powers of their sisters. This was done, so the timemasters taught, to enable them to rest and recover their strength. Ruling time was no easy task.  

One of the Dark Princesses stepped forward – it was Portia, the patroness of anger and pride, and spoke from behind her gaping mask. A groan went through the crowd as she said - her voice pure and metallic - that today was her day. Thus, time would cycle anew from a blighted beginning. People wailed: a Portia-day was the worst of the Dark-Princess days, and no rebuilding of the devastated city could be started, no wounded tended, no provisions brought to the market. And I could not bury my wife.

The King listened to his subjects’ remonstration as stiff and unbending as a marble pillar. And then he was taken back inside and the Princesses followed. The crowd dispersed. I had heard of rebellions in barbarian states that ruled space rather than time. But there had never been a rebellion against our sovereign and his twelve witchy daughters, got without a wife.

I waited, hiding in shadows. And when the Portia-night fell, cold and miserable, with no moon, even though before the timestorm the moon had shone bright in the Adela-sky, I snuck into the palace. There were no guards. Time is the one unconquerable enemy and whoever rules it has no need of human protection. Or so the King must have believed.

I made my way, undetected, through the splendor of the Palace. But even as I looked amazed at the gold and precious stones adorning every surface, I could not help but see patches of rust, sprinklings of dust, and signs of wear and tear. The Princesses were not doing their duty to the kingdom and they even failed to control time in their own abode. 

Suddenly I heard music from a big ballroom, bright light spilling through the half-opened doors. I peered in.

The Princesses were dancing. 

Holding hands, they whirled in a circle, the named and nameless together, their rigid skirts gliding over the floor, their white arms flashing. At the beginning their dance was slow and stately but as the music, whose source I could not see, gathered tempo, it became wild. They pirouetted, stomped, crashed into each other, and roughly grabbed each other’s hands. And I knew that outside another timestorm was raging: the past and the future colliding, days jumbled together like missteps, seasons snarled, life and death scattering randomly. 

Something was left of my childhood piety for I still waited for the King to walk in and discipline his unruly daughters. Bu then I saw him, slumped on the throne in the corner, a pile of rich clothes.

The music petered out in a screech of jagged noises. The Princesses faced each other in two rows and then each of them reached out and removed her partner’s mask. From where I stood I could see the faces of the Light Princesses: Lucia, who looked like my dead wife when she smiled at me at our wedding; Adela, who looked like my dead mother when she cradled me in her arms; Esme, who looked like my dead sister when we played in the garden together. And the faces of the Dark Princesses: Portia, who looked like my dead wife when she threatened to leave me; Mara, who looked like my dead mother when she slapped me; Leah, who looked like my dead sister when she came home stumbling from the drink that eventually killed her.

But I could also see the faces of the six unnamed Princesses; or rather, I could see the blankness where their faces should have been. There was nothing at all beneath their elaborate headpieces, just white ovals of unbroken skin, with no eyes, nose or mouth.

Each named princess lifted her hand to her unnamed sister’s blank visage and as she touched it ripples in the flesh began to appear, gradually shaping themselves into a semblance of humanity, sketchy at first and then flushing with color and animation. Each emerging face was an exact copy of her named sister’s face.

“Stop it!” I cried.

Twelve faces turned to me, six sets of twins, all images of my past, happy or sad, jubilant or depressing, but all alike, the future mirroring the past in a cycle of endless repetition, the Twelve Princesses’ circle dance, that had gripped time in its vortex. 

I strode into the ballroom. I knew they could obliterate me with a flick of eyelashes, make it so that I would have never been born. But I was not afraid anymore. 

They did not move, warily watching me as if expecting me to attack. But instead I went to the throne in the corner. As I lifted the King’s veil, his entire body collapsed into scratchy dust. He had been dead for a long time.

I tuned to the Princesses and addressed Lucia, with my bride’s radiant face.

“Your father is dead,” I said. “Go away, leave us alone.”

“He was not our father,” Portia answered, and her anger-flushed features – my wife’s features at their worst - were suddenly precious to me because I knew I would never see them again. “He ensnared us, spirits of days and seasons, and bound us to his will. And he forced us into the circle of dance, so the sisters of the future became mirrors of the sisters of the past and whatever was would be again. He thought to cheat death this way. But if we had to dance, we would at least dance to our own tune. Timestorms are our revenge on him and all the people of his miserable kingdom. A timestorm killed him but we are still bound by his magic. And we are bound by you.”   

 “We never did anything to you,” I said feebly but I knew it was not true. Did I not consider the burial of my dead wife more important than rebuilding my living city? Did I not chase my memories in a merry-go-round like the Princesses’ circle dance? 

“We will change,” I said. “I swear. Just go away, leave us, break the circle. Let your sisters of the future choose names for themselves.”

 They started at me intently, all twelve of them, and then I saw their faces melt like candle-wax, run and smooth out into blank unformed spaces. Twelve dummies stood before me, gorgeously dressed, the faces of the past forgotten and erased, the faces of the future not yet molded. They turned around and filed out of the ballroom.

I went back home. I found a shovel, dug a hole in the ground and put the dead body in. 

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Originally published in Timeless Tales Magazine, November 2014.

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Born in Ukraine and currently residing in California, Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, an award-winning writer, and a professional nomad. She has taught and researched in Israel, Italy, and the US, and is known in the academy for her (purely theoretical) interest in serial killers, alien invasions, and rebellious AIs. She is the author of more than a hundred stories, several novellas, and six novels of dark fantasy and science fiction. Her latest fiction publications are the dark fairy tale Nightwood and Girl of Light, a historical fantasy.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

World-building. We escape into fantasy worlds in search of wonder. Life can be hard, but it is also often boring. Daily routine can sap your spirit and deaden your imagination. And without the imagination, what are we? For me, fantasy opens a magic portal into worlds different from ours and provides us with a new perspective on things we so often take for granted, like survival, moral choice, love, and family.