Chapter 29: Preacher Man on the Rooftop Garden

If not for Graham Glass, I would be fast asleep in my cozy air-bed at home. If not for Graham, I never would have made the impulsive decision to drive up to the Outer Limits.

“Don’t blame Graham,” says Anjelica. “It’s your fault we’re stuck in this pit.”

Let me back up.

It’s like I told you. Anj and I have been living the Good Life, thanks to my miracle ability to wail on the guitar. So there we were, soaking in the plasma-jet tub at the club, chatting with some good friends of ours, when one off them brought up the topic of spirituality.

“I’m not saying you have to convert, like me,” my buddy was saying. “But you’ve gotta go listen to this devvo preacher at the rooftop garden. His name’s Graham Glass, and he changed my life.”

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I frowned. Nothing against religious types, but it’s just not my thing, you know? “What kind of stuff does he blast out?” I asked.

“Oh all kinds of things. But he’s got some interesting stories about his work with the Unregistereds.

“The Unregistereds?” Anj’s eyebrows flew up so high, they just about disappeared into her hairline. She’s got a thing for the Unreges. She watches this shallow TV show filled with all kinds of seedy, backwards folks who live in the Outer Limits. Mostly, they turn out to be thugs, thieves, and druggies, but sometimes, there are scandalous love affairs between a no-good Unreg and an upright, legal citizen. No doubt she was hoping to catch some of this drama in live-action.

So, long story short, Anj and I headed up to the rooftop garden at two o’clock and join the small flock that was gathered around this guy standing at a pulpit. He looked about my age, and was clean-cut and normal-looking in every way but one. Unlike the relaxed, no-anx expressions that define the faces of most peeps I know, this preacher guy had a fire blazing in his eyes as he spoke to us.

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“Are the Unregistereds animals, that we keep them locked in a cage outside of our boundaries?” He was saying. “Are we animals, that we deny them the privileges afforded every human being? Nutritious food? Decent shelter? Education for their children? They are human!” The fire in his eyes blazed brighter as he said this. “They may lack the genetic engineering that we have; the genetic mods that keep our skin from burning, and keep us healthy and strong. But they are every bit as human as we are.”

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I had never heard anyone speak with such conviction and compassion before. Especially about the Unregs, who most people regarded as unmodified Hill Trash. But Anj and I hung onto every word. Then, the next day, when she and I were in the car, about to head to the club, she grabbed my arm. “Can we go see them?”

“See who?” I asked. But I already knew. Anjelica wouldn’t rest until we had driven up into the hills, beyond the boundaries, to catch a close-up glimpse of some real, live Unregistereds. So what could I do? I drove. And what happened?

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The car broke down.

Right in the heart one of their backwards, ramshackle communities in the Outer Limits, my car ran out of juice. If I’d been at home, I could have easily gotten it charged up. But here, in No Man’s Land, there were no service stations that I could see. No extra fuel packs. No auto robots to give us a boost.

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Die-sel!” Anjelica’s voice takes on that shrill, whiny tone she gets whenever she’s frustrated, bored, or doesn’t get her way. “What are we supposed to do?”

I stare at the car, feeling useless. I check my phone, which, in these hills, is also useless. No service at all. “I could try walking down toward civilization. Maybe I’ll pick up a signal to call for help,” I suggest.

“But it’s getting dark!” says Anjelica, panic flooding her face. “You want to leave me here in this place in the dark?”

I’m tempted to remind her that coming up here was her brilliant idea. Instead, I march toward one of the ancient wooden houses nearby.

“Diesel! Where are you going?” says Anjelica, hurrying after me.

“To ask for help,” I say, and knock on the front door.

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Chapter 27: The Unregistereds in the Outer Limits

“What are you staring at?” asks Graham Glass’s wife, Hayden.

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Graham blinks. He isn’t sure how long he’s been sitting there, staring at the blank wall across from him. “I was just…thinking,” he says. He doesn’t bother to elaborate, as Hayden wouldn’t care to know what he’d been thinking about. So long as he pays the bills that keeps their family living in comfort, Hayden is content.

But Graham is not content. Not at all. As Hayden sits beside him on the sofa and turns on some brainless television show, he continues to think. About his life, his career, his family, everything.

What does it all mean?

He goes to work Monday through Thursday, just like everyone else. He likes his job okay – not that he used to dream of being a robotics specialist, or anything. But it pays well, and is somewhat interesting work.

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It doesn’t make sense, this feeling of restlessness, of emptiness. By all measures, he should be happy. Blissfully happy. His wife and two children live in a lovely home, filled with lovely things. His wife is still attractive, despite her age, and could even be nice, sometimes, when she was in the mood. Nobody’s perfect. And his children are both pretty good kids. They make decent grades, and know how to speak proper Englinish, not that ridiculous cyberslang the kids these days are into.

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Maybe, it occurs to him, he is discontent because everything comes too easy. Like all registered citizens, he and his family have free food, free health care, free extended education. Well, maybe free isn’t quite the right word, since they pay over half their income in taxes. Still, they have the peace of knowing that the government has their back. Registered citizens live long, healthy lives, and no one is required to work very hard anymore, unless they want to amass a greater amount of luxury goods, or travel to a space colony, or something uncovered like that.

“Family,” he announces after this revelation. “Let’s go camping.”

Camping out in The Cracks is not such an unusual thing to do. Many registered citizens venture out beyond the temperature-controlled, high security boundaries of their cities to get a taste of life in the outer limits. They make a holiday off it, cooking food the old-fashioned way instead of creating it instantly in a food replicator, and playing games together that do not require electricity.

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It is the next week that Graham has his second revelation. It was not enough to spend a weekend camping in The Cracks with his family. No…what he really needs to do is go there. To the actual outer limits. He needs to know what life is like for the unregistered citizens.

It is a risky thing to do, he knows. The Unregistereds have not been immunized against measles, influenza, cancer, or even Plague 2. They may be dangerous in other ways, too, since they are far less educated than registered citizens, and therefore, more likely to commit crimes.

Still, he makes the decision to go. Without telling his family or friends, Graham makes the drive. He leaves behind the security gates that surround his city, and climbs high into the Copper Hills, where a community of Unregistereds is known to exist. When he arrives, he at once feels out of place. His car is too new, his clothes too high-tech, his haircut too stylish.

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Still, when he meets two Unregistereds, Mikhail and Char, they turn out to be warm and friendly, setting him at ease. Neither of them has ever held a conversation with a registered citizen before, as most Registereds are too cowardly to venture to the outer limits.

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The three of them strike up an unlikely friendship. And several months later, Graham does the unthinkable. He invites his Unregistered friends to hang out with him back in the city. At first, Mikhail and Char protest. Neither of them has the microchips implanted in their hands. They will be unable to purchase anything or gain entry to any facilities.

“No anx,” says Graham. For the first time, he is thrilled with the skills he has learned on the job. Make a pair of portable microchip cards for two Unregistereds to carry discreetly in their pockets? No problem!

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Chapter 26: The Devvo Miracle of Diesel Novak

I didn’t used to believe in God. Or gods, or some mysterious force in the universe that moves around and stirs its mystical fingers in the pot of life. I didn’t believe in much of anything that I couldn’t see. But one day, when I was forty-six years old, something happened that really shook me up.

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I was no one special. Diesel Novak, an ordinary IoT technician, who used to work a night shift checking computer systems at a bunch of computer-automated supermarkets, and nightclubs, and stuff. My wife, Anjelica, used to paint toenails down at the Eastwood shopping center. We were just ordinary folks, you know? Living our lives, raising our three kids.

But then it happened.

I swear, I just woke up one day, and I just had to go to the downtown music shop. I walked in and swept right past the drums and trumpets and flutes, right up to the guitar section. “Excuse me,” I said to the shop bot, “can I try out one of those?” I pointed to one of the high-tech electric guitars hanging high on the wall. The shop bot got it down and gave it to me. And then…magic. It was like the ghost of some rock star had possessed my hands. Even though I had never had a single lesson, I could play the guitar. At first, I just strummed whatever came to mind, songs I had never heard before. Then, the shop bot suggested a sheet music app, and guess what? I could read it! Next thing you know, I was wailing on the guitar like I’d been playing it for years.

Needless to say, I spent up all our savings and left with the most devvo guitar in the shop.

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And now? Our family’s raking in the dough, thanks to my miracle music talent. Nobody can explain where my sudden prodigy came from, but the crowds sure appreciate it. Our lives went from ordinary to extraordinary overnight. Now, Anjelica, the kids, and me live on the nicest side of town, right by the water. You should see our house! It’s like nothing I’d ever imagined!

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Our kids are happy, because now they have all the latest gadgets and coolest stuff. Roxy is the most popular girl at her virtual high school, and even has kids over for RL (Real Life) parties sometimes. Xixi and Cole get homework tutoring from this group of supergeniuses in Korea, which costs a fortune. But it’s okay, because now we can afford it.

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Know what’s also devvo? Anjelica quit her toenail painting job and went to music training school for a couple of years. And now, we’re a husband and wife rockin’ duo. We pack houses for our concerts, every time.

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So now, I am a changed man. A convert. A believer. People don’t just wake up one day, down a cup of java, then suddenly know how to play guitar like a rock star. I figure it’s gotta be God, or the Force, or something. Hallelujah!

Chapter 25: Feet in My Wine

Now that the princess is able to talk, the king is a changed man. His cloud of depression has lifted, and he is in a perpetual good mood. “Thanks to the skill of my royal wizard,” the king announces to the court during dinner, “my daughter, Princess Lalia, has been offered in marriage to the young Prince Igor of Fallendale.”

The court cheers and raises their goblets. I lift mine, too, even though Prince Igor is barely old enough to grow facial hair and seems more interested in archery than women. But whatever, I guess.

After I’ve eaten, the king’s page seeks me out to deliver a message. I am to retrieve a bottle of His Majesty’s favorite wine from the cellar, then meet him in his chambers. So I wander down a steep set of stairs into a dimly lit cellar, whose stone walls are lined by racks and racks of wine and spirits. For a minute, I wonder if there’s any way for me to smuggle a bottle or two back to my own time, and if the wine would age well over hundreds of years. Then I am distracted by movement across the cellar.

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One of the maids is standing in a large wooden tub, stomping grapes in her bare feet. I know, I know. That’s how it was done in those days. But I shudder to imagine someone’s smelly feet dancing around in my glass of wine.

“Uh…greetings,” I say, suddenly unable to remember the proper way to greet people in this century. Salutations? Hola? Wassup?

The maid gasps. “I did not hear you coming,” she says, her voice thick with the accent of the land. She climbs out of the grape slush, her bare feet stained deep purple, and drops into a low curtsy. “Wizard, sir.”

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“It’s okay. No need to bow to —” I freeze. At that moment, the air blurs as the maid shifts, transforming to a familiar face. “Melissa!”

“Al?” Her face breaks into a grin. “Oh thank heavens! I was starting to fear that I’d be stuck in this hellhole forever.” She throws her arms around me. “Please tell me you’ve found Richard, so we can get out of here.”

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I groan. “Not yet. I’ve been trying to focus on him with every person I come into contact with, including the king himself. But no sign of Richard.”

She snorts. “Richard, the king? Ha! That’d be the day.”

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We chat for a few more minutes – turns out that life for a royal maid is not as much fun as a wizard’s life. Lots of manual scouring and chamber pot emptying. By candlelight. In a dress. Then I grab the bottle of wine she thrusts toward me, and I scurry off to the king’s chambers.

I’m expecting the king to discuss royal business – perhaps tell me to move in at court, or offer me another job to do. But to my surprise, he orders me to sit down and play a game of dominos with him and Jacko the Jester. As far as I can tell, the real Shadowhood has never played a game of dominos in his life. And the last time I’ve played was somewhere back in grade school, with a cheap, Star Wars themed set I’d gotten for Christmas then shoved into the back of a closet. But these dominoes are fancy, and probably carved from a real elephant’s tusk. Poor elephant.

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Jacko and the king are really serious about their dominoes, slamming them down against the wooden table and letting out whoops of glee when one of them gets ahead. I try to mimic them, but get beaten easily three times in a row. What a newb.

And then, it happens. Just as we are beginning a fresh round, Richard appears, this time, wearing the clothes of the jester. I am so taken aback, I burst into a fit of coughing.

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“Oh great – here comes the plague,” Richard jokes, in typical jester fashion. Then his eyes meet mine, and a look of understanding dawns on his face. Al? He mouths. I give a slight nod, relieved. We don’t say anything to tip off the king, instead focusing on the game, until at last the candles have burned down to a stub, and the wine bottle is empty.

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The second we’ve exited the chambers, Richard and I go in search of the maid. When I tell her that Richard is the jester, her face drains of blood. “You have got to be kidding me,” she says, dismayed.

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Richard waggles his eyebrows at her. “Whasss happenin’ hot stuff?” he says, voice slurring. Then he grabs her toward him and practically shoves his tongue down her throat.

Melissa grunts in protest, then shoves him away. “Ugh!” She wipes her mouth, then gives Richard an earful.

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“Look guys,” I say. “I don’t want to break up a lovers’ spat…” Melissa glares at me. “…but we’ve got a search to do.”

It takes us most of the night, traipsing up and down corridors and staircases. Richard and I have an especially tough time, since we are both still off balance from all the wine we’d drunk. But at last, we find the Holy Grail – the dusty old telephone booth-slash-time and space machine.

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“Know what guys?” Richard throws an arm around both Melissa’s and my neck. “I don’t know about you, but I had a blast this time. Do you know how much fun it is to be a jester?”

I have to smile – both at how plastered he is, and also because I get what he means. It was kind of cool being able to do real life magic spells, even if half the time, they ended in disaster. And when I really stop and think about it, it was also pretty fun being a kid again, and playing guitar in a rock band, and getting to play detective in the world’s creepiest town. Even though I am looking forward to getting my feet back on familiar soil, and sleeping in my own bed again, I’m starting to see that this adventuring stuff can be kind of fun.

Except when it’s not.

But I’ll save that for another story.

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Chapter 24: Wish Granted!

It is late at night when at last I am summoned before the king. “Your majesty.” I sweep into a bow. “This time, I am certain that I’ve managed to capture…er, conjure up a pleasant voice for her highness, the Princess Lalia.”

King Frederick gives me a steely-eyed stare. “Are you certain that this voice is better than the last few?”

“Uh…yes.” The truth is, I have no idea if this voice will be pleasant, or if it will make her croak like a frog, or chirp like a parakeet, or bellow like a foghorn. All I can do is hope.

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“If you fail this time,” says the king. “I will have no choice but to execute you.”

I gulp. Is he serious? “I won’t fail, your majesty.” I bow again, then scurry away in search of Princess Lalia.

I find her in her bedchambers, fast asleep. For a moment, I consider camping out on the floor until she awakens, but I dismiss the idea. Her chamber floor is cold and hard. Not to mention that her room is creepy, drenched in garish yellow. Did I ever mention how disturbing the color yellow is?

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I flourish my wand and mutter a charm that wakes her from her sleep. For a moment, she sits up in bed, rubbing her eyes. Then she notices my shadowy figure across the room and lets out a gasp.

“Do not be frightened,” I tell her. “Your father the king has sent me to give you a voice.” She folds her arms and looks at me, eyebrows furrowed in doubt. “It’s fine. I think I got it right this time,” I say.

Shoulders sagging, she gives a slow nod and climbs out of bed to dress. Then she holds up a finger indicating that I should wait a moment, opens a large wooden chest, and rifles through it. She produces an ancient-looking lamp of tarnished metal. It looks awfully familiar.

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“Wait – don’t!” I cry as the princess begins to polish the metal with her fingers. I’ve just remembered where I had seen that lamp before. Too late. A wisp of purplish smoke begins to pour from the lamp’s opening. Startled, the princess runs toward the stairs, still clutching the lamp, perhaps looking for someplace to throw it. I hurry after her, then duck behind the staircase just in the nick of time. My worst enemy has emerged from the opening of the lamp.

The Genie.

Even though I am fully aware that I am Al Becerra, and not the actual Shadowhood, I feel a shudder that vibrates to my bones. Genies despise wizards. If he senses my presence, he will kill me, and my own powers will not be strong enough to stop him. If he senses that the princess has been influenced by one of my spells, he may try to kill her, too.

The Genie is speaking, his voice echoing through the stairwell like thunder. “WHAT IS YOUR WISH?”

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The princess is trembling and pale, but to her credit, she does not faint. She doesn’t try to speak either, instead moving her lips without uttering a sound. I guess the Genie speaks mute, though, because he gives a sharp nod. “YOUR WISH IS GRANTED!” He brings his hands together in a clap that rattles the stone walls, then erupts with bright flashing lights, like a battery-operated children’s toy. Princess Lalia floats up in the air, then her body spasms and clenches forward.

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I must stop this, I think, afraid that whatever the Genie is doing is killing the princess. But then, it is over. The princess is leaning against the wall, breathing hard, her skin white and clammy. The Genie has disappeared, and so has the magic lamp. Too bad. I was halfway tempted to risk sudden death by asking him to send me back home. Along with Melissa, of course. Richard would be optional.

The princess clears her throat. Then, in a clear, sweet voice that is neither too loud nor too soft, she says, “Wizard, please take me to see my parents.”

And so, I do.

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Chapter 23: Magical Fails

“Hello, Father.” Princess Lalia’s voice is husky and rattling, like the croak of a bullfrog. The king and queen’s expressions match the horror I feel. Her voice, transferred to her by the magic spell I’d enacted, sounds worse than it had coming out of the village beggar. It sounds like the voice of a cartoon villain. “Oh no!” Lalia claps her hands over her mouth and looks at her father, who in turn looks at me, questioning.

“Uh…I’m afraid something went wrong with the spell,” I say, as though it’s not obvious.

The queen marches toward me and wags her finger in my face. “You were ordered to give our daughter a voice so that she can get married to an eligible prince,” she reminds me, eyes flashing. “With a voice like that, not even a shoemaker would marry her.”

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I bow down so low, I am practically kissing the floor. “Forgive me, your majesties,” I say, backing toward the door. “If you will allow me another chance, I am sure I can find a suitable voice for the princess.” Then I hightail it out of there, before the royals can order their guards to lock me in the dungeon, or whatever they do to failed wizards.

For the next week, I spend every waking moment trying to acquire the perfect voice for Princess Lalia. Instead of hunting among the dregs of society, I steal the clear, bell-like voice of a beautiful young lady. However, something goes wrong with that spell, too. The lady, who is now mute, also transforms into a hideous creature. Kind of like Shrek, but blue. If that isn’t bad enough, by the time I wave my wand and transfer the voice to the princess, it is no longer clear and bell-like. Unless you mean a cowbell.

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On the third attempt, the unfortunate woman whose voice I steal drops to the floor, fast asleep. But she doesn’t turn blue, and she doesn’t freeze into a statue of ice, so maybe my magic is improving.

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Or maybe not. This time, the princess gets a normal woman’s voice, but it is turned up to max volume. “I DON’T THINK THIS VOICE WILL WORK EITHER!” she bellows so loud, everyone claps their hands over their ears.

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The Jester is getting a huge kick out of the whole fiasco. “Hey, we have a whole herd of milk cows,” he tells me, snickering. “Maybe you can steal a voice from one of them! Surely the sound will be better than what you’ve produced.”

I glare at him, but he just makes a silly face and says, “Moo-oo-oo! Marry me! Moo-oo-oo!”

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The next day, I approach another woman in town and ask her for a bite of bread. “I have worked all night, and I am hungry,” I tell her.

“Of course.” The woman curtsies and starts to turn away. With a surge of guilt mixed with anger over so many failures, I point my wand at her and utter the magic words.

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The woman does not faint, or change colors, or anything really. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Startled, she grabs at her throat and tries to speak again. But like the princess, she is now voiceless. I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe the lack of side effects means that this time, the spell will work like a…um, like a charm.

It almost goes without a hitch, but then her husband appears, looking as mad as a hornet and shaking his fist at me. I wave my wand again and disappear in a puff of smoke. Thank goodness for magic.

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Chapter 22: A Voice for Princess Lalia

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When I arrive at Castle Allowyn, I am exhausted, not to mention drenched from the soaking rain we had during the night. A servant leads me to a small room with a bed about as cozy as a rock, where I crash until morning. The king doesn’t send for me, however, until I had paced around my room for a few hours. By then, my stomach is twisting with hunger. I’m so famished, I could eat a tofu dog. (In case you’ve never tried a tofu dog, well, don’t. Seriously. I’d say they taste like playdough, but playdough tastes better).

King Frederick the Sad is seated in the dining hall, waiting for me. Luckily, there are no tofu dogs on the table. Instead, there’s an enormous spread of meat pies, soups, sausages, and desserts.

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“Please, help yourself,” says the king, nodding toward the food.

The part of Shadowhood who is conscious remembers to sweep into a bow before sitting at the table and pigging out. I wish I could say it was a great meal, but it was surprisingly bland, like something you’d get at Hometown Buffet. I guess they didn’t have a lot of spices on hand back in…whatever century this is. Still, it’s food, so I shovel it in until I’m stuffed.

Of course, nothing is free. And as soon as I’ve cleared my plate, His Majesty names his price. “I want you to give my daughter a voice,” he says.

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I raise my eyebrows in mock-surprise. “What makes you think I can give your daughter a voice?”

The king presses his fingertips against the table and leans toward me. “I know of everything that goes on in my kingdom, Shadowhood.”

So, he’s heard of me, of what I can do. I nod. “My work does not come cheap, Your Majesty.”

A wry smile crosses his face. “Of course, there is nice purse in this for you. But if you do not succeed, then the usual laws for sorcery will apply.”

I gulp. Even though I know that the real Shadowhood is a talented sorcerer, I am worried that I, in my mostly-conscious state of being Al Becerra, might screw it up and get us both burned at the stake in the town hall. “I accept your terms, sire,” I say. “Your precious pearl shall have a voice by sundown tomorrow.”

“I certainly hope you are right,” says the king.

I hope that I am right, too.

I don’t delay. I set out at once into the village, in search of a voice for the princess. Shadowhood is confident within me, guiding my every step. But I feel queasy, thinking about what I must do in order to complete my quest.

There are many women in the village; some shopping at the marketplace, some hanging up their wash outside of small stone houses, others rocking fat infants on their porches. I scour the town until at last I find a woman who is alone, and apparently idle. I have seen her before. She is the village beggar, clad in rags, a stench like a piggery emanating from her as I approach. She does acknowledge my presence, continuing to pace back and forth, wringing her hands and muttering to herself in a deep voice as dry and husky as straw.

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I take a deep breath, then lift my wand, point it at the beggar woman, and mutter an incantation. The woman’s grimy face registers shock as the glowing rays shoot from the tip of my wand and strike her. “Noooo—” Her screams are cut short as, to my dismay, she freezes into a block of ice.

Darn it. I hate when that happens.

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My wand vibrates, and I know that I have successfully captured the beggar woman’s voice. I take one last, rueful glance at the statue of ice before mounting Styx and galloping back toward the castle.

The guards let me in and march me toward the throne room, where the king and queen await with their daughter.

“Your highness.” I swoop down low before Princess Lalia. Her beauty is even more breathtaking up close – her hair is long waves of brown sugar, her mouth like a plump pink rose. “If you are ready, I have your new voice.”

The princess glances at her parents, then nods at me. As I lift my wand, she squeezes her eyes shut, steeling herself. I recite the spell, waving my wand through the air, then aiming it at her. The impact of the magic beams knock her off balance, and she tumbles to the floor.

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“Lalia!” Her father rushes forward and reaches down to help her to her feet. “How do you feel? Can you speak?”

Lalia’s face is very pale. She focuses on the king and opens her mouth. “Hello, father,” she says.

The king drops his daughter’s hands and steps away, his face a mask of horror.