by Laura Anne Gilman
“It’s a beautiful tree.” Her brother came in from the garage, shaking the snow off his boots and dropping his overnight bag by the door.
“It is, isn’t it?” Mara was feeling decidedly pleased with herself. The tree was a solid 7-foot Spruce, with only a single bare spot, and that had been carefully concealed with strands of gold tinsel and carefully-hung ornaments. The tiny white lights wove their way in and out of the branches, making the tinsel and ornaments seem to glow from within. Behind the tree, the bay window showed a steady fall of snow, the season’s first, a perfect backdrop.
“You forgot the angel.”
Her mother’s voice from the sofa made Mara’s shoulders stiffen, but she didn’t turn around, and didn’t let the smile slip from her face, even though her mother could see only the back of her head.
“I thought I would let Phil put it up,” she said calmly, aware that her hands, resting at her side, were clenching so fiercely that she was leaving indentations in her palm.
“And here I am, just in time,” he said cheerfully. Mara could hear him walking across the room to drop a kiss on their mother’s head, probably adjusting the blanket more closely around her thin form, as though the house were too cold for her to bear.
As though he were the one who came by every week, making sure she had enough to eat, that the house was clean, that the bills were paid and the laundry done to her mother’s satisfaction.
“Where is she, still in the box?”
“Yes.” Mara saw his image, ghostly, reflected in the window as he knelt down to find the angel. Her big brother. She loved him, when she didn’t want to kill him.
“Okay,” he said. “Move over, let the prince do this thing.”
She rolled her eyes, but took several steps away so that he could pull the stepladder over and ascend the steps, carefully holding the angel in one hand. Made of a glittering, translucent blue plastic with gold filament wings, the angel had been in the family since their father was a boy, and it wasn’t Christmas until she was in her proper place atop the tree.
“That’s better,” her mother said, finally content. Mara turned, her smile firmly in place. “Phil, why don’t you put the empty boxes away, and I’ll get dinner ready.”
Mara had known this was coming, but asked anyway. “For what?”
Her brother slid into place on the sofa next to her, both aware and oblivious to how tightly she was holding her body as she flicked channels on the television. “Don’t be like that. I know, I should have come earlier and help you set up. And cook. And keep mom from driving you crazy.”
“Damn straight you should have.” But he never did. “Anyone would think you were the baby of the family, and I was the eldest,” she said, not quite grumbling. The truth was, he paid for the housekeeper who came in once a week, and it wasn’t his fault if their mother still wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t his fault that Mara, four years younger, had always taken care of everything, and everyone.
She was just so tired of…everything. Her father had died three years ago: it should be getting easier, not harder. But her job asked her to work ten hours a day, her social life seemed filled with casual dates but nothing lasting, and friends and family assumed that she had everything totally under control. And she did. That was the worst part of it all.
Phil rested his head on her shoulder, the way he used to when she was ten, and he had wanted to apologize for some thoughtless teenaged-boy behavior. “I brought you something.”
Mara smiled despite herself. “Of course you did. It’s Christmas.”
“Yeah, but this time I outdid myself.” He sounded like he was ten again, too, not closing in on thirty-three, and Mara turned to look at him, a surge of affection lightening her mood.
He mock-pouted. “Ask nice.”
Sibling tradition upheld, he reached to the floor and retrieved a long, rectangular box wrapped in metallic silver paper and tied with a bright red bow she knew he hadn’t done himself.
“Mine’s under the tree?”
“What can I say, I’m old-fashioned,” she replied, taking the box. It was heavier than she’d expected, and she placed it in her lap, waiting until Phil got up and went in search of his own gift before plucking at the ribbon.
It came apart in a way that confirmed her suspicion that it had been professionally tied. She slid a fingernail under the taped edge, easing the paper away. Habit; across the room, Phil was doing the same with his own gift, revealing a new chef’s knife. When she heard his quiet “yes!” she smiled, and continued opening her own gift.
The tissue unfolded under her touch, and her breath caught. “Oh.”
Across the room, her brother heard her. “You like?”
She lifted the doll out of the box, careful of how she held it. The finely-carved wooden figure was as long as her arm, handsomely painted to resemble an American soldier of the Revolutionary era – her favorite period of history.
“It’s a nutcracker,” he said, leaving his own gift to come over to watch her.
“I know. It’s wonderful!” She turned it around to examine the handle in back, working the jaw and laughing in sheer delight. “Where did you get it?”
“A crafts fair, couple-three nights ago. Saw it, and knew you’d love it.” He sounded shamefully proud of himself. It was a peace offering, for all the crap he always left for her to deal with, and she accepted it, because what else could she do?
It was beautiful, though, and when her mother came out of the bedroom, wrapped in the plush new robe and slippers Mara had bought her, to start their traditional after-dinner movie viewing, she proudly showed it off.
“That’s hand-made,” her mother said in appreciation, running her hands over the wooden body. “Very nice. I think we have walnuts in the pantry, go get them and we can try it out.”
And like that, it became a party, It’s A Wonderful Life playing in the background, the three of them cracking open walnuts in the nutcracker’s jaw, Mara and Phil tossing nutmeats at each other, trying to catch them in their mouths, her mother torn between watching the movie and laughing at them. For the first time in months, Mara felt herself relax, not having to worry about saying the wrong thing, or soothing over someone else’s misstep. The office was closed, her mother was happy, her brother was home and safe.
“Good Christmas?” Phil asked, stealing the blanket off her knees to wrap over his own, and she grinned at him, popping a bite of nutmeat into her mouth. “Best this year.”
As though on cue, she hear her mother’s soft, dismayed exhale. “Oh.”
They both looked up at where their mother was tucked into the armchair, and Mara winced. “Oh, no.” The nutcracker’s jaw was askew, and the look on her mother’s face was terrible, a mixture of shame and guilt.
“I broke it.” Her voice was soft, almost apologetic.
“No, I’m sure it’s okay,” Mara said, getting up from the couch and going over to her mother’s chair, taking the doll from her hands. The wood was still smooth, unsplintered, but the jaw was clearly off its hinge somehow. She felt a bitter surge of disappointment, but swallowed it down. Her mother felt bad enough already, and there was nothing to be done for it.
“Look,” and she reached over to the table and pulled the ribbon from the wrapping where it had been left, and tied it around the nutcracker’s jaw, making an impromptu bandage holding it in place. “That will hold it until we can get it repaired. I’m just going to put it away until then…” She looked around, and saw the glass-fronted cabinet. “There, with the other dolls, so it won’t be lonely.”
Her father had collected tin toy soldiers, and her mother had kept them all, locked behind glass. Mara got up and opened the door, carefully moving aside some of the smaller soldiers to make room for her nutcracker.
Twenty-two soldiers, neatly lined up in two rows. Each had a different uniform, a foot soldier from a different war.
“Never mind who rules: The soldier with his weapon, they’re the constant, honey,” she remembered her father saying, his large hands holding one of the figures tenderly. “They’re in every war, every lifetime, making sure things get done.”
“You stay here,” she told the nutcracker, placing it in the corner, leaning up against the back of the cabinet. “Just hang out and don’t get into trouble, okay?” The nutcracker barely fit upright, the top of its wooden cap brushing the shelf above, and Mara studied it for a moment, as though making sure it was comfortable. She realized what she was doing and laughed, touching a finger to the uninjured side of the nutcracker’s face. “I’m as bad as my dad,” she said, “almost thinking you’re alive.”
Under her finger, the wood suddenly felt warmer, softer, as though it was made of a more pliable material, and Mara jerked her hand back. No; still wood, unyielding and cool.
“You need to lay off the eggnog,” she told herself, and closed the cabinet door firmly, going back to the sofa where her mother and brother were now engrossed in the movie.
Hours later, Mara lay in her childhood bed, staring up at the ceiling. The mattress was too narrow, the room too small, and the pillow too flat, but none of that was why she couldn’t sleep. Despite the damage to her gift, it had been a surprisingly pleasant evening, and yet something pressed at her, making her feel itchy and uncomfortable, and her mind refused to shut down and turn off. In the living room, the mantle clock began to chime eleven o’clock; Mara counted off the strokes the way she used to as a child, holding her breath until the last chime sounded.
“Water,” she said into the then-quiet room. “I need some water.”
Pushing off the covers, she grabbed her robe off the back of the chair and belted it securely around her waist, then walked as quietly as she could manage down the hallway toward the kitchen. A lifetime of familiarity allowed her to move without turning on a light. She could hear Phil snoring from behind the closed door of his room, and her mother’s door, slightly ajar the way it had been when they were growing up, in case she needed to hear them in the night, was silent. Mara resisted the urge to look in, just to make sure everything was all right, and moved down the hallway.
The kitchen was on the other side of the living room, and as she entered, a shadow of something caught her eye. A tree branch moving in the wind outside the window, she thought, but it was against the wrong wall. Across from the mantel where the clock sat ticking. The glass cabinet where she had left the nutcracker.
Concerned that her gift had somehow slipped or been dislodged, Mara moved barefoot across the carpet, meaning to check on it. She reached the cabinet and placed a hand flat on the glass, leaning forward to peer inside.
There was a noise behind her, like the squeaking of tiny wheels against wood, and she turned her head instinctively, to try and find and silence the noise before it woke someone up.
She gasped in horror – shapes, three, then four, and then five, emerging from the chimney, moving low to the ground, towards the kitchen
Rats! There were rats in the house!
Instinctively trying to get away, she misjudged her balance, and her hand went straight through the glass of the cabinet. She pulled back instinctively, her hand somehow, miraculously, avoiding the jagged shards, pulling the door open as she went down to her knees in shock and pain.
The rats stopped and turned, drawn by the glass breaking, or the sound of her falling, their bodies now outlined by the moonlight coming in the window, glinting off the snow on the ground outside. She held her breath, irrationally fearing they would charge her, attack her with tiny teeth and claws. She should shout at them, wave her arms, something; but she was frozen, immobilized by shock and disgust.
The largest of the rats, almost the size of a guinea pig, rose up on its hind legs as though it was considering her. Before she could process that, it dropped back to all four legs and started across the room at a slow but steady pace.
Mara tried to scramble backward, to get away, but couldn’t move. And then she felt the air shift behind her, heard the scuffle of something on the shelves, and panicked, thinking that there were more rats behind her. That broke her paralysis, letting her scuttle sideways, her breath coming in a harsh gasp.
There were no rats behind her. The nutcracker had fallen…
No. Not fallen. Mara watched, disbelieving but unable to deny it as the nutcracker raised itself from a crouch – how did it crouch? When did it suddenly have legs, legs that bent and moved and let it walk on its own?
“Ware, my lady” a soft voice said, and the nutcracker drew its saber and held it at the ready, even as more scuffling noises came from the shelf. One by one, the toy soldiers dropped onto the carpet, picking themselves up and grimly forming up ranks behind their larger captain, drawing their own swords and unlimbering rifles, waiting for the command.
The largest rat and the nutcracker stared at each other, neither moving. Then, at some signal Mara could not see, or missed, they charged at each other, the nutcracker with his saber raised, the rat with claws and teeth bared. With a muffled scream, Mara scrambled for the sofa, getting as far away from the action as she could without actually losing sight of what was happening.
Twenty-two soldiers against barely half a dozen rats should have been an overwhelming victory, but the rats were fierce and bold, while the soldiers seemed to rely too much on orders and precision movement. The nutcracker shouted orders in that soft voice, wading into the fray and slashing and hacking at furry limbs and swishing tails, but he wasn’t enough to change the tide. All too soon the soldiers were down on the carpet, the rats bearing away their weapons, and only the nutcracker remained standing, his saber red with rat blood, the rats’ leader circling around him, whiskers lifted and tail lashing like a cat’s.
“You will die for this offense,” the nutcracker said, readying his saber. The rat just grinned at him, cocking its head and waiting, as though to say “come on and do it, then.”
The nutcracker waited, until even Mara started to lose patience and wanted to yell at him to do something, anything, when the rat-king finally charged, snarling. The saber came down hard, hitting the rat on the shoulder and making him yelp and turn. But in that turn he managed to lay a clawed hand on the nutcracker’s elbow, digging in deep enough to leave gouges in the varnished wood. The other rats, emboldened, circled around the two as they fought, their beady eyes intent on the nutcracker. Any moment now, they would swarm over him, and all would be lost.
Mara – desperate, unthinking – reached down for a weapon, and her fingers closed on something cold and hard. Without looking, she threw it at the rat-king, by sheer luck hitting him square at the back of his head and knocking him out.
Instantly, the rats changed direction, grabbing their leader and hoisting him up in an awkward carry. The nutcracker started after them, but two turned, snarling, to hold him at bay while the others escaped back into the cold fireplace, then they all disappeared into the shadows.
There was silence, then the nutcracker exhaled and lowered his saber, only then looking toward the sofa where Mara was hunched, still staring. He bent, and examined what she had thrown — her brother’s watch. He stepped forward, and presented it to her. Fingers numb, Mara let it fall back onto the table.
“My thanks, my lady,” the nutcracker said in a smooth, soft voice. “Might I beg your aid again, in seeing to my men?”
Beyond shock and into a dreamy sort of acceptance, Mara got down off the sofa and went toward the fallen soldiers, noting as she did so that they were no longer the size of her palm but rather the length of her arm, and the nutcracker himself was nearly as tall as she.
It was all impossible, so she accepted it without blinking, kneeling beside the first soldier, uncertain what to do. For the most part the soldiers were sitting up on their own, looking abashed at having failed, and being left weaponless.
“They were injured in defense of your household, my lady,” the nutcracker said, prompting her. “Speak kindly to them.”
She did so, afraid somehow of not meeting his expectations, although she felt foolish, especially when they bowed and stammered, like schoolboys meeting the queen.
“They are embarrassed to have failed you, my lady. Soldiers should not be rescued, but do the rescuing.”
She laughed. “I’m not a lady, or some fairy-tale princess to be rescued.” But it was nice, a sweet feeling, to be treated like one.
“You are my lady,” the nutcracker said, his dark brown eyes gentle when he looked at her. “I was given to you with an open heart and undying loyalty, and thus I remain.”
Mara felt herself blush as her self-appointed knight errant offered her the hilt of his saber. The hilt and blade were wooden, but heavier than she expected, and the pommel fit easily in her hand when she touched it, accepting his fealty.
“With your permission, sir,” the nearest soldier said, standing at attention, “we’ll retire to quarters.”
The nutcracker nodded, returning the Hussar’s salute. The tin soldier turned to Mara and made an elegant bow. On her knees, she wasn’t able to curtsey, but she did dip her head gravely, and that seemed to satisfy his dignity. He retreated, the other soldiers getting to their feet and following, and Mara shook her head.
“None of this is real. I’m dreaming, that’s all.” But she so rarely had such pleasantly exciting dreams. More often they were anxiety-filled, or stodgily pedestrian this-is-what’s-wrong-with-your-life reminders. “Or I fell, I’m in a coma, hallucinating this… or too much eggnog. Definitely too much eggnog.”
The nutcracker reached down and took her hand in his own, the fingers hard but flexible. “My lady, you misdoubt. May I show you what is real?”
She took a deep breath, smelling the scent of pine and wood smoke, and the familiar musty furnace-driven air of her mother’s house underneath. Just a dream. And if was a dream…then why not?
She made her voice as princess-regal as she could imagine, and allowed him to help her to her feet. “If you please, sir.”
And like that, the way things happen in a dream, the walls around them faded, and they were outside on the street. There, the lawn she had mowed all summer, the flowerboxes she had installed, dormant now for the season. Across the road, the row of four houses, broken by an empty lot where someone had planted roses, the bushes bare and brown now, gilded lightly with snow that glinted in the overhead… She frowned. Moonlight?
Mara looked up, and where there should have been streetlamps, only a single globe of light burned, cool and distant in the blue-black sky. Further-distant stars glinted, attendant on the moon like diamond chips to a pearl.
The air was cold, the smell of wood smoke and more snow on the way curling like perfume and frosting the inside of her nostrils, and yet her skin did not prickle or shiver, and her bare feet did not feel the damp, even as her toes curled downward into the scarce coating of snow on the ground. The branches of the trees surrounding the houses seemed thicker, taller than they were in daytime, the houses smaller, shrinking when she did not watch.
“This is not real,” she started to say, when a shadow of movement caught her eye, and she looked back to the empty lot.
Empty no longer: the bare shrubs glimmering with buds, shadows moving among them, long and lean shadows in wisps of gauzy color, summer-bright scarves washed pale by reflected moonlight. One by one, then in pairs, forming somewhere out of sight and then suddenly there, dancing among the moonlight roses, bowing and turning around each other, graceful and exotic.
“The Dancers,” the Nutcracker said, close by her side. “They are as real as you and I.”
She took a step to follow them, then stopped, aware of the dreary ordinariness of her robe, her pajamas underneath, her bare feet and her ungainly limbs.
“Come,” he said, and led her into the street, the gravel sand-soft under her soles, and they joined, somehow, in the dance.
And the scent of roses and wood smoke was real, and the houses were not, and then she was no longer on the half-familiar street but in a field of snow-covered grass, with walls of glittering white rising around them, and the Dancers were real, shadows becoming flesh, and sound came back into her world, the laughing clattering, discordant music of a party in everlasting swing.
In the better light she could see that the elegant-limbed, graceful forms around her wore masks: some of them leather, carved like the faces of foxes or birds, some of them silk and gauze, fanciful and sweet, hair the pale glitter of moonlight flowing down their backs, male and female. The masks covered their eyes and noses, leaving their mouths bare, but their lips did not move, for all that Mara could hear the sound of conversation, filling the air around them.
She turned to remark on it to her companion and stopped, her breath taken away in shock.
Gone was the wooden nutcracker, even the dreamlike one nearly her height. Her companion too wore a mask, a wooden one carved to cover his face, but she could see the firm jaw underneath, a dark red scar where it had been broken, and warm brown eyes looked at her through eyeholes large enough to show his lashes when he blinked. Tall, as tall as she was, and broad under his Revolutionary soldier’s uniform, and if he was not as graceful as the dancers around them, he moved with a strength that made her think he would hold her firmly, so that she would never break.
“Come, my lady,” her soldier said, sliding her arm into the crook of his, and leading her directly into the swirling chaos of dancers. Those figures parted for them, barely seeming to even notice, clearing a path across the ballroom to where seats waited. Silver and white, the chairs glinted, carved entirely of mother-of-pearl, and when Mara settled herself she half-expected to look down and see a gauzy ball gown covering her legs.
But no: still her terry robe and pajamas; still her bare toes curled against the parquet floor.
Those already seated did not seem to notice, not her humble clothing or her lack of mask or her sleep-frowsy hair. Instead, they greeted her as though she was indeed a lady, a princess almost, with soft lips touched to the back of her hand, and perfumed whispers in her ear, murmuring welcome. A frosted glass of something that bubbled like champagne and tasted like ginger was pushed into her hand, and her soldier lifted a bite of something creamy and tart to her lips, letting her take it from his fingers as though he was feeding a hummingbird, his expression still and almost reverent inside the music and chatter around them
“You are lovely, my lady,” he said. “Brave and lovely. How can such a combination exist?”
Mara blushed again, but managed not to look away, this time. Here, in this place, she could feel both brave and lovely, when he looked at her like that.
“Will you dance with me, my lady?”
“It would be my pleasure,” she said. She knew how to dance… or she thought she did, and somehow did not worry how her simple school-taught waltz might seem among these otherworldly Dancers, her terrycloth against their gauze. His hands were hard but warm holding her, and the music embraced them as they began to swirl.
Mara soon felt dizzy, faint as though she had been laughing so hard she forgot to breathe, her head foggy but her awareness crystal-clear. In the background she could still smell the snow and smoke, even through the perfumed air; could still see, distant, the framework of houses, smudged like watercolors. But the here and the now and the bright relief of the dancers in their masks and the bright cool moon overhead…
The last of the tension left her, and her feet moved within the flow of the dance, and she lifted her face to the music, and laughed.
They danced a single dance, or she might have been in his arms for hours. She could not say when the mood changed, or how. Nothing overtly noticeable, no jangle of sound warned her. A tightening of muscle, perhaps, in her soldier’s arms, although his hold on her waist remained smooth and supportive as they turned, or a subtle change in the burble of conversation from those seated, as though one by one they fell silent.
And then the Dancers around them slowed as well, turning one final time and stopping, although the music swirled on.
Five newcomers, standing together. No gauze here, no trim and bright uniforms; dark cloth, almost rough, for all the coats were tailored, the tall boots gleaming. Dark hair swept back from sharp features bare of masks, but hiding behind closely-trimmed beards and longer moustaches. Brothers, clearly, or close relatives, in appearance. And when they moved, their limbs were as graceful as the Dancers, if more feral. Rather than elegance, they hinted at danger, of sudden tearing death.
“Do not look at them,” her soldier whispered, his hand trying to turn her away. “They do not belong here. They should not be here.”
“Where,” someone else muttered, although it did not sound like a question, and slowly, almost reluctantly, the Dancers begin to dance once more, picking up the strains of music until only the soldier and Mara and the five newcomers remained static on the floor.
“Look at me, not them,” the soldier whispered, and Mara tried to comply, but the leader of the five — how she knew he was the leader was unclear to her, but he was — caught her eye with his own hot gaze. He raised his hand and inclined his head as though to salute her as a worthy opponent, although surely it must be her soldier he so greeted…
Her soldier, who turned her, and did not acknowledge the salute at all.
“Who are they?” Why do you seem so determined to ignore them, she did not ask, although she wanted to. There was, still, a fear of disappointing him, of losing that firm hold at her waist and fingers if she asked the wrong thing, or disturbed the dream with too much common sense.
“No one,” he responded, finally, even as one of the strangers placed a hand on his shoulder, firm enough to stop them both mid-step.
“You have a lovely partner,” the stranger said, and there was a mocking tone in his voice that should have cut through the music; Mara felt almost betrayed when it did not, when it blended and rang true as her soldier’s whisper. “I would dance with her.”
“She does not wish to dance with you.” Her soldier tossed back the words, secure in his answer, and although Mara had indeed no wish to dance with this stranger, still
something stirred within her, and it was almost as though both men could hear her silent, unformed protest.
“It is not yet yours to say,” the stranger said to her soldier, confident, and suddenly Mara knew who this is, knew where they had met before.
The Rat-king. Not where, the whisper she had heard, but were; changed from animal to man form.
Mara’s breath caught. Impossible, but no more unreal than anything else around her.
“She is her own woman, here and now,” the rat-king said, and his nose twitched sideways, making his moustache twitch as well. “You brought her here as a guest, not bound by vows or fealty, and so she retains her right to choose. Until the snow falls again, she is still free.”
Mara did not understand, but the rat-king’s words seemed to mean something to her soldier. He frowned, and his hold on her loosened and fell away, even as the rat-king stepped forward.
“Mara.” His voice was rough and deep, like sandpaper on wood. “Will you dance with me?”
He was not handsome, the way her soldier was; he had no dashing, rakish smile and his eyes, rather than looking at her, darted about, scanning the room constantly. And yet there was something in the tilt of his head, the curl of his silver whiskers, that softened Mara when she would have refused. Even as her soldier stepped away, she lifted her hand for the rat-king to take.
His hand was smoother than the soldier’s, if still calloused, and his hold was looser, more casual tug than formal lead, but they picked up the music in perfect step, and his movements met hers, swirling them in harmony until she felt the music in her bones as well as her ears.
“Does your head hurt,” she asked finally, feeling greatly daring.
He did not laugh, but his nose twitched again in a way she thought might indicate amusement. “You landed a worthy blow,” he said. “But I recovered, as you can see.”
His casual acceptance of the fight emboldened her. “What did you mean, that I might choose?”
His face did not change this time, but she thought she saw something shift in that steady regard. “He should have told you. Then again, I’m not sure I would have, either.”
She waited, impatient, resisting the urge to stomp on his foot.
“The winter’s first snow, and the summer’s first rain, each thins the veil between us, this world and yours. Allows us to move back and forth, to speak and to seek. This world, and yours.”
The rat-king spoke more than her soldier; Mara wasn’t sure he was speaking to her so much as thinking out loud, however. “It’s so rare, it was always rare, no matter what the stories say. We’ve forgotten how to risk, we’ve forgotten why to risk”
“Seek what? Risk what? What is at risk?”
The whiskers twitched this time, rather than his nose. “I can’t tell you. You have to find out for yourself.” His voice was hard, for all that his skin was soft.
Mara did stomp her foot in frustration this time, even as he turned her again in the dance, making her outburst seem almost choreographed, and that, impossibly, annoyed her even more. “How can I choose, if I don’t know what I’m choosing?”
“Who stays, and who goes,” he said. “What becomes of what was. It’s that simple. It’s always that simple.”
His expression told her there was nothing simple about it, but he would say nothing more. The dance ended, and her soldier was back, reclaiming her hand with a sense of relief, as though he were afraid she might have disappeared mid-step. The rat-king did not bow over her hand, or ask for another dance, but merely met her look with his own, smoothing his whiskers with two fingers, and backed away until he was swallowed by the crowd.
“I’m sorry.” Her soldier apologized, even as they moved into the dance once again. “The rules are firm: he has the right to ask, and I cannot protect you if you have not chosen.”
“He used the same word: chosen. Chosen what?” It was a test, to see if the soldier would say the same thing, the mysterious, still-unexplained explanation, or if he would give her more details, tell her what she was supposed to do. Mara knew that she should be frustrated, at least, possibly angry. She had been frustrated when she danced with the rat king, but now her soldier’s presence, the music and the dancing, seemed to coat that irritation until she was merely curious.
His hold on her tightened, until she could feel his fingers digging into the skin underneath her robe, and she nearly stumbled. He recovered, keeping her from looking clumsy, making his apologies to the Dancers around them even as he turned her in another elaborate figure. Out of the corner of her eye she could see there were-rats moving through the crowd, dark-clothed figures more solid than the others, never quite fitting into the dreamscape.
Did she fit, she wondered. Did they see her as an outsider, a solid and stolid figure against these graceful, fantastic creatures?
“Chosen to decide,” the soldier said. His injured jaw tightened, then relaxed, and he dipped her suddenly, making her giggle with the unexpected sense of flight. It was only when the music paused, and he led her back to the chairs and then excused himself to fetch her a glass of something to drink, that she realized he had never really answered her question. Decide what? Who stayed, and who went where? How could she pick such a thing? Why her?
She looked around the room, seeing the swirl and glitter, but looking deeper this time, trying to find the shadows of the real world underneath. The outlines of the houses, the sense of the field beyond… it was all gone. The floors and walls were solid, the Dancers real, the music in her ears and bones until she realized that even her thoughts were following the music, that even her breath was following in its beat. It was not unpleasant; she might even say it was pleasant, but something inside her revolted against it.
“That’s a girl.” A whisper, from behind her left ear, a warm breath from the unseen speaker. “Fight it. It’s the only way you’ll ever know.”
“Phil?” But when she turned, quick as she could, to see who spoke, the space behind her was empty.
When her soldier returned, a frosted glass of the fruity, bubbly liquid in his hands, her face was calm, but she was still deliberately breathing against the music, rather than letting it draw her in. With each contrary breath, the sense of a battle long-running came through the lovely surface. She might be a new player, but this scene had been played out before. Her brother’s voice — she had probably imagined it, had definitely imagined it, but it was a reminder nonetheless.
Mara was used to picking up small clues; used to decoding what was needed before it was asked for, to head off the inevitable complaints or unhappiness. But she knew her mother’s moods, knew her routines and habits, knew why she was being manipulated, and to what ends. Here, she was the stranger; she did not know the steps without someone to guide her, and – unlike the dance itself – her partners had both refused, giving her only cryptic hints.
The comfort she had taken in her soldier, the sense of safety in another’s grip, suddenly seemed less reassuring. Her earlier confidence seemed a pale shadow, now.
Winter’s first snow, between when it ended and began again. When the snow resumed, the veil would thicken once again? What would happen then? How could she make a choice, if she didn’t know what she was choosing?
What came out of her mouth was another question entirely. “Why me?”
Her soldier seemed startled, startled enough to answer without thought: “You were brave.”
“And bravery was needed?”
“Bravery is always needed.”
Her nutcracker was a hard nut to crack. The thought made her feel lightheaded, as though she had knocked back the punch rather than sipping at it. He smiled at her again, and she was soothed.
“I admire bravery,” he said. “It is a thing of value, especially when paired with an attractive face, and a quick mind.”
She had been told she was smart before. She had, less frequently, been told she was pretty. No one before had ever told her that she was brave.
She had never felt particularly brave.
“And what does the rat-king value?”
“I would not know.” Hs voice and his face were stiff again; the moment of lightness gone. He did not like the were-rat, at all, any more than the rat liked him.
“I’m supposed to decide between you two? Is that why you came to my house?”
“Your brother brought me to you,” her soldier said calmly. “The timing was such, of his gifting, and the first snowfall, and then you being who you were, to defend us so, that made you my lady. Mere chance that led the other to interfere… chance, and a sense of cruel mischief, that he might come between us, any way he might.”
His words rang true: her brother — she could scarce recall his face just then, but the sound of his voice whispering through the music, the feel of his head resting against her shoulder, remained true — had brought her the nutcracker, especially for her. So rare, that something was only for her…
And yet, the rat-king had come…by chance, to her house, that same night? And had danced with her…
Only to come between her and her solider? Mara frowned, hating the way it made her face feel.
It should be a simple decision, if she were supposed to choose between them. Charm and loyalty versus…what? The very fact of his being a rat should be warning enough.
“You called, lady?”
And then he stood there, dark and staring, brusque as though annoyed to be the subject of her thoughts. His long, sharp nose twitched, and she handed her glass back to the soldier and stood as well, their eyes meeting evenly.
“I have met my soldier’s men,” she said. “Let me meet yours.”
The weres were rough, awkward things, hanging at the edges of the swirling dancers, not partaking of the foods, although they clearly sniffed after it all, hungry for more than pastries. They had no smooth words or solemn looks, the way the tin soldiers had, no gratitude or admiration; when they stared at her it was with the same rough hunger they gave to the food, and the dancers; wanting, but not touching.
Not yet. Their hands flexed, and she could see claws, barely restrained. Only the king’s word kept them back, kept them from taking what they wanted. Only barely just.
And yet, they were restrained. They quivered with need, brushed aside and ignored with disdain by the others, but they did not break.
“You don’t belong here,” one of them said, with a sidelong look at his king, as though expecting to be slapped down. “You stay too long you’ll end up like them. Flittery and fluttery and pastel-useless.”
“Pastel is bad?” She supposed she should be nervous with this being, so rough and blunt, but found herself smiling, instead. After the delicacy around her, it was almost reassuring to know that some things were not smooth.
“You’re no more pastel than we are,” the were said, and that stung, to be reminded. She had almost forgotten that she wore only a terry robe, dark blue and belted, rather than a flowing gown of gauze, or that her feet were bare, and her skin not smooth and effortless in motion, but sprinkled with hairs and scars, her nails unpolished, her face showing lines and wear.
“I am here now,” she said, lifting her chin and daring the were to say anything more. Instead, it grinned at her, a feral smile, and made a mocking bow before leaving her alone.
The rat-kind stood a few feet away, watching. She looked away, unable now to bear his study
“Poor Mara,” one of the Dancers said, gliding past alone, a glass of the frothing refreshment held lightly in one slender hand, hearing her doubts, her fears, as though she had spoken them out loud. “You should have stayed in bed. Then you would have been safe. Dreams disappear on the waking, unless you dance among them too long.”
Mara had never liked riddles. “And what happens then?”
“Then you begin to think that you belong,” it said, and was gone.
Mara repeated that to her soldier, when he returned to claim her for another dance.
“Riddles,” he said, but his tone was amusement, not annoyance.
“Is all this a dream?”
“Why do you think that dreams aren’t real?”
She had no answer for that, not right away. “Do I belong here?”
“It’s simple to belong,” he said. “All you need to do is choose it.”
That word again. And when he said it, it seemed simple, and true. But then her eye was caught on a dark figure, sliding through the outskirts, and she wondered.
Mara was brave, maybe, and pretty, perhaps. But even surrounded by a dream, she knew one thing: she had never once heard of a choice that did not also have a cost.
“Who you are,” the rat king said when she asked him that question. “Who you are willing to be.” He shrugged, utterly inelegant, and turned her against the crowd, as though to see how she would react. “Some change with the wind, or whim, and see it no cost at all. Some wish to change, are willing to be molded, and some will never change at all.”
Mara glared at him, and he laughed, his silvery whiskers trembling.
“Your soldier, he is a brave, loyal beast. He sees things as he is. He sees you as he would have you be, and you will become that thing: strong and smooth, and petted, protected.”
She had never known how much she ached for those things, until he said them.
“And you?” she asked, as they turned again, this time going with the flow of Dancers.
“Me? Like his men, his grin was feral, too many teeth too sharp, and too obviously enjoying at a joke he did not invite her to share. “I am not good, I’m not clean, I’ll never be what you dream of me being.”
“You assume I dream of you at all,” she said, equally sharp.
“Of course you do, Mara dearling. Else why would I be here?”
“The nutcracker said that this is all real.”
The rat-king stopped, as though his feet were suddenly planted into the floor, and the dancers slid by them without hesitation.
“Everything is real, Mara. That makes it no less a dream.”
They stared at each other, might have done so indefinitely, but for the low snarl rising from somewhere in the room, a snarling matched by the hissing of wind over water, or steam in a kettle.
“And the dream, eventually, ends,” he said, suddenly alert, his eyes dark and fierce. “The snow falls again; the truce is over, the window closes. The time has come, Mara.”
She didn’t turn, didn’t see anyone move, but suddenly she was front and center to the snarl: a were had cornered a dancer, or been cornered by it — difficult to tell: they both were frozen in postures of dislike, shoulders back, necks extended, fingers twitching as though simply awaiting a signal from somewhere to attack, to rent and tear. And if the dancer in his silken clothing and soft-soled shoes looked unsuited for a fight, its fingers were tipped with nails as sharp as a were’s claws, and its teeth, when bared, were flat but hard, and promised a willingness to bite.
They could not exist together; would tear each other apart for merely being.
“Can’t you stop it?” she asked her companions, one at either side to her.
“No,” said the rat-king.
“Why?” asked the soldier.
“It is time,” the whisper in the music told her. “If you choose, the decision will be made, and one will stay, and one will leave.”
Mara did not bother asking ‘why her’ again. No one had ever been able to tell her why before, either. If it was all real, and all a dream, then the choice both mattered and did not. Or did dreams matter, as much as what was real?
“What is outside the dream?” she asked, snatching at a thought, under pressure.
Her soldier looked at her as though it was a foolish question, although not the most foolish he had ever heard. His hand slid into hers, firm and reassuring. “What is the dream? This is what is real: this, and us, here and now.”
She squeezed his hand, feeling the strength in it, then turned her head just enough to look at the man on her other side.
“How should I choose?”
His nose twitched, once, and he touched his whiskers, an instinctive grooming, as though her question had caused him distress, then he turned and looked at her, straight-on. “Yourself,” he said.
It was even less an answer that her soldier had given. Her free hand raised and she touched the silvery whiskers, stroking the side of his face like petting a cat. He did not turn into her caress, did not acknowledge it in any way, but kept his attention steady on her, never blinking, never turning aside.
Time to choose.
And suddenly, as easily as that, tissue unfolding under her fingers, the gift revealed, it was clear.
Choose what you will be.
“The dream ends,” she said.
Her leg was cramped. Mara winced, trying to stretch it out without moving too quickly and making it worse. Her body turned, and the sheets slid against her skin, like the feel of cool hands sliding down her arms…
And she was awake, sitting upright fast enough to make her leg muscles protest, and her head spin slightly.
She recognized the signs: she was dehydrated. Too much wine before dinner, not enough water. Except she distinctly remembered drinking a glass of water just before going to bed…
She looked at the table, where an empty glass sat, and then at her robe, still draped across the chair.
And she remembered. The Dancers, and the Nutcracker, and the Rat-King, swirling in her brain.
The dream ends. She had never been what they called a lucid dreamer, but telling yourself to wake up apparently worked, after all. If only the rest of it were that easy. She could still feel the touch of the soldier’s hand guiding her, the touch of the rat-king’s whiskers twitching under her hand, but they were fading already under the faint pain in her chest, the dread of facing the demands of another day.
“This is what’s real,” she reminded herself. Getting up, she reached for her robe, and belted it around her waist, and went down the hallway, pausing at the entrance to the living room.
It looked exactly as she had left it the night before, when the movie ended: the television off, the blankets neatly folded and stored, the cabinet locked, glass unbroken.
Her brother’s watch, placed neatly on the coffee table.
Her lips curved in a self-mocking smile, as though she had somehow hoped for something different, Mara went into the kitchen to make her mother breakfast.
“Oh. Are you making eggs? I had wanted French toast.”
Mara didn’t even pause as she scraped the eggs from the skillet to the plate.
“Tough luck for oversleeping then,” she said easily. “If you want French toast you’ll have to make it yourself.”
“Mara!” Her mother sounded scandalized, even as she took the plate Mara handed her.
“Toast should be ready in a jiff. I picked up some more marmalade at the store, the kind you like, it’s in the fridge. I love you mom, you know that. But I’m not your housekeeper. You are perfectly capable of making French toast for yourself if you want it. In fact, you could make it for me once in a while; that would be nice.”
The words fell out of her mouth and part of Mara was aghast, listening to them. Her mother made an odd noise, like something between a gasp and a sigh, but put the plate down on the table and went to the fridge to get the marmalade.
Was it really that easy?
Turning, Mara saw her brother standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. He looked like he hadn’t really woken up yet, but he was giving her a golf clap, fingers to palm, slow and silent, where their mother couldn’t see. Mara felt a grin, more honestly amused than her earlier smile, tug at her mouth.
Choose what you will be.
The clarity of that last moment of the dream — not a dream? — came back to her, as real as the cold floor under her feet, and the weight of the skillet in her hand.
“I’m going home tomorrow,” she said, before she could retreat, or rethink her decision.
“What? But you said that you’d stay all week, until New Year’s. Mara, I need you here.”
“No, mom, you really don’t. You’d like to have me here, and I like being here…but I have a home and a life, too. You were eager enough to kick me out after I graduated college! Let Phil take care of things, for a while. He’s willing.” She gave him a look under raised eyebrows, and he nodded, looking guilty.
“Absolutely. And there’s stuff I can do better — okay, easier — than Mara, anyway. Like fixing the garage door.”
Her mother’s voice was sulky. “The garage door is fine.”
She had spent a week on the phone telling Mara how the garage door wasn’t opening fast enough when she hit the button.
As though realizing that was weak, her mother tried again. “And what if it snows again?”
Mara looked out the tiny window over the sink, at the expanse of freshly-fallen white that covered everything. Another three inches, at least, must have fallen while she slept. “Were you going to go anywhere in a storm anyway, mom?”
“I might need to!”
Mara actually raised her voice, and her mother stopped, mid-complaint, then carefully shut her mouth and went back to eating her breakfast. A minute passed, then, “These eggs are quite good.”
Mara squashed the guilt she felt, yelling at her mother, and scraped out eggs onto a plate for herself.
Her mother behaved herself all Christmas Day, and Mara found the strength not to relent, forcing Phil to keep to his promise to stay though the week, in her place. Over dinner, he announced his plan to spend the next day getting her mother’s cable system set up so she could record shows easily, something Mara hadn’t been able to manage.
Mara had no illusions that this was going to break the cycle. But for now, let him be the good child. If they could pretend once… then eventually, maybe it would become real.
Guilt ate her, briefly, but it was less gnawing than the dread she had been feeling, and Mara decided she could live with it.
The next morning, to reassure her mother that she wasn’t abandoning the older woman, Mara left her toiletry kit in her old bedroom, as well as a pair of shoes. There was a madness to her method, a pattern to the dance; the trick was knowing it. To her mother, shoes meant permanence; she would look at them, and know that Mara would be back.
And a little of the gnawing went away.
The last thing she packed up was the Nutcracker. There was no reason she had waited until the last minute, as she kept passing the cabinet every time she went out to the car, but… her steps would slow, and then she would hear the faintest memory of music, and look over her shoulder at the fireplace, and speed up again. Finally, she couldn’t avoid it any longer.
The cabinet was locked, the dolls as they had been left the night before, the makeshift bandage having loosened and fallen off at some point, the way makeshift repairs often did. There was no need to make anything of that.
It had only been a dream, her mind telling her what she needed to hear. That was all.
“Hi,” she said to the tin soldiers, lined up in their orderly rows, as she reached in to take the Nutcracker out, and admitted, to herself, that she was relieved when nothing happened.
This was what was real.
Cradling the doll in one hand while she closed the case with the other, Mara knelt down to replace it in its box, wrapping the tissue around it carefully, and replacing the lid.
“Time to go,’ she said.
The plow had come by and cleared the street, so she had been able to park her car at the curb. She carried the box out and placed it on the back seat, making sure it was set well enough not to slide or be crushed by anything.
A man in a leather jacket was walking down the sidewalk — no, not walking. Waiting, as though he had stopped to watch a bird, or admire an icicle hanging from the eaves. In the city she might not even have noticed him, but here, in the suburbs, to see someone without a dog, walking along the sidewalk, mid-morning, that was odd. Especially on the day-after-a-holiday, although a lot of people had the week off, same as she did…
He noticed her noticing, and started walking toward her. His stride was cautious, but with purpose, like someone who wasn’t sure of the greeting they might get from an old friend. Someone from high school? Or…
The afternoon sun glinted on features a little too sharp to be handsome, the nose too long, the dark hair silvering, and Mara’s breath caught in her chest.
“I didn’t choose you.” It was inane, and possibly insane, but the words came out of her mouth anyway.
The rat-king smiled. Still sharp, but not quite so sardonic. Not quite so trapped.
“You chose,” he said. “You chose freedom.”
She looked, involuntarily, down at the Nutcracker. The box remained still, unchanged.
“I don’t understand. Who would stay and who had to go…” Understanding didn’t break suddenly, but seeped into her, the way it did in reality, not crystalline but slow, there all along.
Everything is real.
Who do you want to be?
She remembered, then, his turning her against the music, the Dancers moving past them, caught, content in the same steps… “You didn’t belong…but you couldn’t leave. Not unless I chose to leave, too? That was why you went out hunting, when the veil thinned. To find someone who would … leave the door open?
“But the Nutcracker found me first.”
Looking for a brave princess to serve, a graceful, beautiful partner for the dance.
“If I had chosen differently…”
He did not nod, did not smile, but merely stood there, still waiting.
Responsibility only went so far. You chose what you would become, not what others would do. Her brother might become responsible. Her mother might start living again. The nutcracker might find his princess.
She could not make them do anything, only see what they chose.
The rat-king had chosen to leave. “So why are you here, now?”
His gaze swept the street again, taking it all in, then came back to her. “I chose… risk,” he said. “I choose to live.”
Now it was her turn to wait, her heart beating slow, to a music all her own.
“I don’t want a pastel dancer, or a snowfall princess. I snap, and I occasionally bite, and I can’t promise to protect and support you — there are other obligations I need to deal with.”
His men. She knew, instinctively, that he would never abandon the weres, even if he was no longer their king.
“But I think you’ve got snap, too, and you’re not afraid of my bite. If you’re willing to dance with me…”
As offers went, Mara thought, amused, it wasn’t. No ballgown — but no terry robe, either, both of them dressed in denim and boots, surrounded not by music but the ordinary sounds of life around them, traffic on the road and someone shouting in a distant back yard. It was as far from the certainty, the freedom from stress she had wished for as she could imagine.
But when he held out his hand, smooth and calloused, she took it without hesitation.
©Laura Anne Gilman
If You Enjoyed Dance by Laura Anne Gilman
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