WOMEN OF THE YEAR
I arranged to meet the women of the Alliance for lunch at noon on Wednesday, but at ten the kraken was loose outside Seattle and at eleven-thirty there was the typhoon off Malaysia. While I was ordering tea, the Mermaid was calming water of unimaginable force, Cinderella was deflecting debris with one invulnerable hand, and Aurora and Palustris were knee-deep in mud, evacuating the coastal towns.
Aurora is still, in fact, knee-deep in mud as my tea arrives, but she's also sitting across from me, ankles delicately crossed. She doesn't appear to notice the mess. It's twelve-fifteen and the members of the Alliance have elected to use Princess Jasmine's hourglass to "replay" the last hour, rather than beg off the appointment with a nosy reporter. Jasmine colors when it's mentioned, and the Mermaid laughs. "It's the greatest invention," she says. "It's a good thing for everyone I didn't get it. I'm completely scatterbrained, I'd use it every morning just to get out of bed on time." As if in demonstration, she knocks over the salt.
They're nearly all here, seated around this little table, and it fills me with vertigo. The Mermaid kept Hawaii impossibly dry during last August's flood. Beast has solved a hundred and twenty-six murders in Paris alone. Aurora's first public act as a superhero was to take down a dragon. Princess Jasmine had been acclaimed for her diplomatic efforts long before she came out as a super in 2008. Palustris has regrown rainforest in six countries. Without Fa Mulan, we'd all be under the galactic thumb of Suspirus. And according to her Wiki, Cinderella's set every bar when it comes to saving the world.
They're formidable alone. It's almost frightening to think what they accomplish together.
Everyone at the table agrees, by the way: It's Mulan's fault.
After the Saturday fight with Jafar, the one that levels half of Agrabah the first three times around and the fourth time ends with him back in the bottle, Mulan says, "This is seriously getting ridiculous."
"I know," Jasmine agrees, settling back against Rajah to comb out her hair. "This is the second time this month. Fifteenth, if you count all of the replays."
"But, yes, this is what I'm talking about," Mulan says. "You have a giant time-reversing hourglass. It is giant, and it reverses time. If you need our help, you shouldn't have to text us in the middle of a fight."
"Yes, because I have plenty of other work cut out for me here," Jasmine protests. "You know that besides Jafar and that awful little Iago, I don't know what Ali's going to steal next--"
Snow White coughs, the kind she lets out only when she wants everyone to know that when she was a living girl, she was made of purity and kindness and charity, and did not take up with master criminals.
"Yes, but," Belle says, kindly circumventing the issue, "Mulan has a point. We do wonderful work for each other, but we never know when or where we're going to need it, and sometimes some of us are almost impossible to reach--"
"And then we're in Beijing in July, and we're fighting the Hawk, and we need someone who can talk to animals," Mulan says, pointedly. "And they're watching Vienna Teng live in concert."
Aurora looks up. She's got her dreamy, translating face on. "I'm sorry?" she says. "You know I have trouble listening and projecting."
"Exactly," Mulan says, turning to Belle. "And how are we supposed to find Ariel if we need her?"
She realizes halfway through her sentence, too late to stop saying it, that it would be so easy for Belle to say she doesn't have a lot of need for a mermaid in the middle of Paris, or for Jasmine to try to look politely away from all the sand. She waits for them to do that, for Aurora to fall asleep and the translation to collapse.
Instead, Jasmine frowns. She says, "It is ridiculous."
Belle claps her hands together. "I know," she says. "A collective!"
"Actually," Mulan admits, "I started as infantry. I guess Huā Mùlán had kind of a big effect on me."
Her namesake is a legendary Chinese warrior woman, and Fa Mulan grew up dreaming of following in her footsteps. But though the People's Liberation Army originated as a gender-neutral institution -- and Mulan's grandmother died as an officer of distinction -- Mulan's father was less than pleased about her ambitions. Had her superpowers not manifested at the age of eighteen, she was considering getting false papers in order to enlist.
Instead, she woke up one morning the fastest warrior in the world.
Now Mulan, under her given name, is the national defender and a superstar in her home country. She claims that her powers aren't a patch on careful training and self-discipline. It's easy to see that she's military; despite her casual, jokey air, her civilian clothes are pressed to within an inch of their lives and though she's boisterous she never spills a drop of her tea.
"In some ways, Mulan and I are better off," Jasmine admits. "[The Mermaid] Ariel and Snow White too. I know, I know--" this at a skeptical look from Palustris. "Our families are in danger! But my family was always going to be in danger. The hazards of royalty. This way, at least they know I can protect them. And my country needs more than just a masked defender."
Even with the openness of some of its members, the Alliance still has four public mysteries. From the look of annoyance on Palustris' face as I broach the topic, all too well-canvassed. She admits that she's from Louisiana, but won't narrow it down further for me. "It's good to have someone to speak French with," Beast says. Palustris is also teaching her Kréyol. "Aurora's translation is a blessing, but sometimes you want to speak in the language you think in."
And Cinderella? "I'm not in the habit of answering those questions."
Do they get tired of the speculation? Cinderella, at least, smiles. "Not really," she admits. "To tell you the truth, most of the rumors make me sound much more glamorous than I've ever been. I'm just a working girl."
The cloud of bats envelops Cinderella midflight and she lets herself be guided down into a descent by their leathery touch. They touch down blind onto a cliff, and Cinderella closes her eyes and listens to the whoosh of Snow coming back together. When she opens them, Snow is silhouetted against the starry night.
"Perfect timing," Cinderella says. "I still have an hour."
"An hour and twenty minutes, actually," Snow says. "Have you ever wondered why your ship's charger syncs up so well with Kansas midnight?"
"I leave the wondering to Belle," Cinderella says firmly. "And the mysterious announcements to you. What's going on?"
Snow hesitates, then glides over to her side, accompanying her down the clifftop path. "The girls want to start a league," she says. "A proper Round Table of heroism."
Cinderella thinks about this, about crimes that happen in broad daylight on the other side of her adopted world that she's powerless to fight with anything but lemon suds and her bare hands, about standing shoulder to shoulder with Tiana and Mulan the next time she's out of her depth. Well, shoulder to ankle, really. She must be smiling; Snow inclines her head a little, and says, "I told them it'd make as much work as they saved, but I see it's sold you already."
"If you think it's a bad idea," Cinderella says. She means it.
"No," Snow says. She sighs. "I'm just not used to there being more than one of me."
Cinderella tucks her arm through Snow's, rests her head against her shoulder. "I'm not used to liking other people, either," she says, ignoring Snow's little murmur of protest. "It'll keep them safe, you know."
"Yes," Snow says. "Us too."
"Do you have time for dinner?" Cinderella asks, hesitating at the bottom of the hill. "I know it's early still, but--"
Snow takes their tangled hands and pulls them close to her chest. "I'd love to," she says. "Where on Earth do you live?"
At sunset, I'm blindfolded, earplugged, and carried gently by Cinderella to the headquarters. Snow White is waiting for me, dinner already laid out, and after some silent communication between the two women Cinderella sits down to eat with us as well. They talk like old, easy friends, never cutting each other off or jockeying for the conversation but passing it back and forth between them like the rare steak. Watching them reminisce, it's not hard to see where the rumors come from.
Snow White is surprising. I'd expected something more like the vampires of Transylvania or Venice, dark and brooding, or austere as her public statements. Instead, she's a smiling host, wearing a dress that's less bride of Dracula, more bride of Don Draper. She doesn't drink -- anything -- but she pours out wine for me with a steady, graceful hand.
"Well, I was trained as a girl," she explains. "I grew up very wealthy, rather like our Jasmine."
She can't blush anymore, but she averts her eyes when I ask her about her betrothed. They lived very happily together when he could visit, she says, and gestures to a painting behind her of a handsome, gray-haired man. Since he was royalty, and she could bear no heirs, they were never married. She got along well with his wife, and eventually with his children.
She steadfastly refuses to name her kingdom. "I'm four hundred and forty-three years old. A girl must have some secrets after all that time."
Cinderella laughs. "I don't think any of the others would say you suffered from too few secrets."
"Well, it's not my fault that they're children," Snow White says. "It is rather like being the mother to a house full of unruly toddlers. Don't break this, don't break that, don't call the Atraxi on the emergency telephone, please don't wake the colossus of Rhodes."
"And then once you've settled them all into line there's the rest of the world to take care of," Cinderella sighs, and they share a look of mingled exasperation and affection over the salad.
Are they ever tempted to retire? Cinderella and Snow both laugh at that, in tandem. "Can you imagine?" Cinderella says, covering her mouth with one hand. "What would be the point?"
It's all part of growing up, is Snow White's opinion. She smiles. "After a certain amount of time," she tells me, "you stop waiting for someone to solve your problems, and start looking for problems to solve."