“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Edith frowned at her sister. Agnes, like she often did, wore a mischievous smile.
“But you never do anything fun.” Agnes’ smile morphed into a frown, but her brown eyes lost none of their light. Edith had similar eyes, and similar brown hair, but she rarely looked like she was chiding a misbehaving child, as Agnes appeared to.
“Do I look like I have time for fun?” She scowled at the finicky gears on the pendant watch her mother had asked her to repair. The gold chain pooled next to the open body of the watch, which Edith would get to obey her. Edith’s attic workshop was small, every inch of it covered in something metal and mechanical.
“Well, no, but that’s never stopped me. You make the time, if you want it. You work on all those clocks and watches, don’t you? You should be better at making time than anyone,” Agnes chirped, laughing merrily.
“You can afford to snatch time out of the air. People will fill in your blanks. I’m left to fill in my own.” Edith poked at the gear, and let out a small exclamation of triumph when it did what she wanted.
“You and your silly metaphors. It’s just one night at the ballet. It’s not like the city will grind to a halt if you’re not fiddling with those gears of yours.” Agnes laughed again, like she didn’t have a care in the world.
Edith put down the watch to look at her half-sister. “And you don’t mind being seen with a ‘daughter of passion’ during a respectable night out?”
“Honestly, Edith. You’re the only one who cares about that. Mother and I don’t. Father’s always away.” Agnes wrinkled her nose, and Edith didn’t know if she was judging their father’s absences or the fact Edith had to care what others thought.
“All of society cares, and you know it,” Edith muttered.
“Pfft, society means nothing.” Agnes waved a hand, the motion making her voluminous dress ripple.
“It means nothing to those who have its easy acceptance.” She gave Agnes a significant look, though she didn’t expect her to understand.
“I suppose you are right about that, but you should still come.” Agnes clasped her hands together, almost as if she were praying. She peered over at the watch Edith had put down. “It looks like it’s done?”
Now, Edith had to laugh. “As if you could tell when something’s fixed or not, but I did get it to behave.”
“Yes, I know I’m dreadfully ignorant. So you’ll come to the ballet?” She gave Edith her best pleading eyes.
“I have two tickets. I bought one just for you.” Agnes produced the tickets from somewhere inside her massive dress. They had a strange gold sheen to them.
“Without asking if I wanted to go? Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?” Edith frowned at her half-sister’s silliness.
“It’s not like I can’t afford to pay. We’ll be up on the balcony. Don’t you enjoy looking down on people?” She held out a ticket for Edith to take.
Edith grabbed it, seemingly against her own will. “Not my choice of hobby. Looking down on people is rude.”
“So is refusing to spend time with your sister. I’ll haunt this workshop until you agree. I can be most persuasive.” Agnes nodded to emphasize her point. She sounded serious in that way younger siblings often were when they wanted something badly enough.
It would be too much work to fight sisterly will, so Edith nodded. “Fine, but I am not wearing the dress that makes me look like an angry pumpkin again.”
“I’ll make sure you’re a cheery sort of pumpkin this time.”
“Berry hues are in this year,” Agnes said, both reading Edith’s mind and stating the obvious. “But enough about that. This show is supposed to be magical. Isn’t the theater grand?”
It was certainly cavernous. From up on the balcony, it was almost – but not quite – too far away from Edith to see properly, but she managed well enough. At the moment, a red velvet curtain covered the stage, so it wasn’t like there was much to see besides ornate gold trimming everywhere, and a precariously-hung chandelier in the ceiling.
She flipped through the flimsy program she’d been handed, noting with especial interest the spotlight on a dancer called Zylphia. They referred to her as the “lost princess of dance,” which Edith took to be more flowery description.
Before long, the lights dimmed in the theater, and Edith could no longer dwell on dancers with pretend royal pedigrees. Beside her, Agnes squeal in apparent anticipation before covering her hands with her mouth. Edith didn’t bother to admonish Agnes because little could stop her enthusiasm. Like other sisterly things, it wasn’t always worth the effort to scold her. Edith had learned long ago that Agnes could somehow get away with behavior she could not, but she didn’t fault her sister for that. Needless jealousy didn’t suit her.
The curtain drew back slowly, seeming to tease the audience, who overflowed with anticipation. Edith could hear others squealing and gasping; Agnes wasn’t the only one to indulge in such behavior.
Frantic music started playing, more chaotic than expected at a ballet. Three female dancers in primary-color dresses – one red, one yellow, one blue – whirled about on the stage, almost too fast for Edith to see. They became a blur of marvelous acrobatics and grace. The act ended almost too soon, segwaying into the next with a clanging chord of music. That one featured another trio of dancers, much like the first, only they wore pastels and moved to much slower music.
Each new act mesmerized both Edith and Agnes, though nothing compared to the final performance. Unlike the others, which had been done on a strikingly spare stage, this one involved a magnificent set. Edith could imagine all the gears turning to convert the stage from an abstract space to what appeared to be a bedroom with a mysterious indoor snowfall. Snowflakes of some sort fell onto the stage. They fell onto the audience as well. What magic that was, Edith wasn’t sure. She lifted her hand to catch a snowflake, finding out they were tiny scraps of paper. That paper seemed to glitter, though surely paper wasn’t supposed to sparkle when you held it close?
Of course, Edith didn’t spend too long examining mere paper. The single dancer onstage – Zylphia, the apparent “lost princess of dance – caught her attention immediately. Zylphia stood on a short round pedestal that somehow reminded Edith of a music box. She wore a blush-colored dress like you might find on a music-box doll, though her reddish hair wasn’t the usual color for such trinkets. Even the music that began playing seemed like something out of one of those device; it was an oddly eerie sound, but no less captivating for it.
Zylphia danced in a remarkably contained fashion, twirling like a doll in a music box and not leaving her pedestal despite an entire stage being open to her. She seemed moved by an outside force rather than her own will, as if she wanted to get off her pedestal but could not. Throughout the dance, Zylphia struggled to leave her pedestal. When she managed it, the orchestra played a sound like breaking glass and Zylphia leaped all across the stage, up and over the bedroom furniture. She even kicked the vanity table over, though something did not seem right to Edith. It was too far away to tell, but Edith felt like somehow the performance of liberation did not reach Zylphia’s eyes.
“Beautiful,” Agnes whispered.
Edith wanted to agree, but she did not. She stayed silent, entranced by the dance yet worried by its uncanny nature and what she imagined in Zylphia’s eyes. As the dance winded to a close, the music softening and slowing down, Zylphia returned to her pedestal among the debris onstage. That unsettled Edith even more.
She was the only one who appeared to have such a feeling of uneased. Zylphia’s dance, and the show as a whole, received a standing ovation. Edith couldn’t refuse to stand up, so she applauded along with everyone else.
When they left the theater, Agnes was far stiller and quieter than unusual. Edith could not get Zylphia out of her mind, and Agnes’ silence didn’t help matters.
In the morning, Edith would almost certainly have gone back to normal.
A few hours later, Agnes appeared in Edith’s workshop, again.
“I would have brought you that tea you like, but I had a better idea.” Agnes smiled.
“Depriving me is a better idea?” Edith didn’t bother to hide her skepticism, though she knew Agnes wasn’t being malicious.
“I would never deprive you; don’t be silly. I was thinking we could visit that new women’s tea shop in town? Their blends are said to be lovely.” She wasted no time with another one of her pleading expressions. Her curled hairstyle emphasized innocence Edith knew Agnes did not truly possess.
“You want to go out again?” Edith muttered, shaking her head.
“You make it sound like a chore to go outside. We do have people to keep house.” Agnes’ eyes lost none of their pleading quality.
“I have other work.” Edith gestured to the table she sat behind in her workshop. Equipment of all sorts was strewn about the place, showing clear signs the place was used.
“I’m well aware, but good tea will do wonders for your productivity.”
“That’s why I asked you to bring me some.”
Agnes giggled. “Yes, but I’m not going to bring you any, so you’ll have to come with me if you want tea. I bribed the servants to keep you from it.”
Edith’s jaw dropped. “You bribed the servants so I would go outside with you?”
“Yes,” Agnes said, like it was a small matter to manipulate servants for such a frivolous goal. To her, it probably was a small matter.
Edith wondered if the servants felt the same. Either way, she could not resist Agnes, even if she had been out just yesterday.
“Alright,” Edith sighed.
They were going to go to the tea shop. It was inevitable.
“Let’s find a seat.” It was less a suggestion and more a command because Agnes grabbed Edith and pulled her into a small time in a secluded corner.
Edith squinted at the teacups. None of them matched, which was a bit jarring to her often-orderly sensibilities.
“They’re mismatched on purpose,” Agnes said, seeming to read Edith’s mind once again.
“That is an… interesting choice.” Edith had never heard of such a thing, but maybe ordinary women of society liked mismatched teacups. “I suppose it would be easier to acquire teacups where you found them rather than troubling yourself to make sure they all matched.”
A young woman came to take their order. Not wanting to draw too much attention to herself, Edith let Agnes do the talking. The young woman disappeared after taking their orders, though, before she went, she gave a look to Edith like she suspected something wrong with her. Maybe the woman had heard of her origins, but Edith did not dwell on it.
Something else caught her attention: two women entering the tea shop. One moved with imperious grace and wore a day dress of materials even Edith could tell were refined. The blue-and-red dress was garish and a bit too for the daytime. In contrast, what hair she could see under her giant hat was quite mousy and clashed with the outfit. Perhaps Edith was using her befuddlement over many aspects of fashion to justify her instant dislike of the woman.
The other woman wore a dress too flimsy, short and low-cut for public. Despite her disinterest in fashion, Edith understood that gauzy baby blue, a neckline dipping that low, and a skirt that left the slippered feet visible were not proper, but the dress was not so risque that anyone did more than glance at her and mutter to themselves. The dress had long sleeves, at least, and the wearer’s hair was covered with a bonnet more carefully than the other’s hair was covered.
“Her necklace is rather odd, don’t you think?” Agnes frowned.
The woman wore a narrow, circular band of some dull metal around her neck, rather more like a collar than anything else. It did not appear to have any clasp or clap, being entirely unbroken.
“It is strange,” Edith murmured, frowning as well. “Do you think it’s some new fashion we haven’t seen yet?”
“If it is, it’s a rather unpleasant one. It looks like something for an animal, or a slave.”
“Agnes,” Edith hissed.
“Well, it does look that way; you cannot deny it. Don’t you think a slave collar and bonnet is an odd combination?” She looked over at the woman, trying to puzzle her out.
Edith had to admit to doing the same thing. She squinted at the woman and her imperious companion, unable to take her eyes away from them. The pair came closer, and Edith struggled to turn her gaze so she wouldn’t be caught staring.
“Come, pull up a chair for me, Zila,” the woman in blue and red muttered.
Zila nodded. “Yes, Mistress Dorothea.” She pulled up a chair at the table next to Edith and Agnes. Dorothea sat upon it without offering so much as a “thank you.”
Edith suppressed a shiver when Dorothea glanced over at her. Agnes offered both of them a cheery smile. Nobody made conversation, setting up a bizarrely tense situation.
Luckily, the serving woman returned with Edith’s tea and Agnes’ tea, breaking the stiff silence. She took Zila and Dorothea’s orders. Dorothea had a voice to match her unspoken attitude; Zila had a voice like muffled bells, musical but muted.
For a moment, Edith thought she knew Zila’s face from somewhere, but she dismissed the notion as a flight of fancy.
“Is there a reason you find us so fascinating?” Dorothea glared Edith.
She returned the glare with a steady, unintimidated gaze, though she did not feel unintimidated. “Your dress is lovely, ma’am. That’s all. I am terribly sorry if I… distressed you.” Edith thought she looked more angry than distressed but decided “distressed” was the more polite adjective.
“It’s quite colorful.” Agnes nodded, providing Edith with backup that didn’t seem to appease Dorothea.
Throughout their whole exchange, Zila remained silent, though she did look over at Edith. When their eyes met, Edith's brown to Zila's blue-gray, Edith experienced the strangest jolt. Agnes appeared to feel something similar; Edith saw her own eyes widen. Fortunately, Dorothea didn’t notice.
Less fortunately, she did notice when the serving woman returned with their tea and spilled it over Dorothea’s lap. With an ear-rending shriek, Dorothea leaped into the air. “You incompetent little sl–” She couldn’t finish whatever doubtlessly insulting word she’d intended. “Zila, stay here,” she snapped. “I am going to find the manager of this forsaken hole.” Giving both Zila and the serving woman a glare of pure poison, Dorothea stalked off.
The serving woman skittered away, clearly intimidated by Dorothea’s rage. When everyone but Zila, Agnes and Edith was gone, Edith let out a sigh of relief.
“She’ll be back soon,” Zila said in her muted-bell voice.
Agnes took the opportunity to peer at Zila’s unusual jewelry. “If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s quite the interesting necklace.”
Zila’s froze, except for her right hand which reached out to touch her necklace. “You can see it?”
“It’s not exactly invisible,” Agnes said.
“It’s supposed to be.” She adjusted her bonnet. That had the opposite of its intended effect, instead revealing her reddish hair.
Edith blinked at her. “...Zylphia?”
Zila nodded. “That is me, but… don’t tell Mistress Dorothea?”
“What are you doing in a women’s tea shop?” Edith boggled at the notion of seeing a famous dancer in a small out-of-the-way shop.
“It doesn’t matter. You can truly see my necklace?” Zila – Zylphia – stared at Edith and Agnes, as boggled by their ability to see her odd jewelry as they were to see her at all.
“What I want to know is why you’d think your jewelry was invisible in the first place.” Agnes sipped her tea as she examined Zylphia.
“I shouldn’t able to so much as talk to you, but I can. The necklace… it’s not of natural origin.” Zylphia did not look at either Agnes or Edith. “Mistress Dorothea crafted it of iron, to keep me loyal to her.”
“Iron?” Edith and Agnes spoke as one. Edith knew exactly what kind of being would be held captive with an iron collar.
“Like with the fae?” It was a ridiculous sort of thing to ask; Edith felt awkward stating that a woman was not human, but she couldn’t come to any other conclusion.
“Exactly.” Zylphia fingered her collar. “Mistress Dorothea found me on one of her expeditions to my realm. I was… young, for my kind, and being foolish by wandering about with no protection. My mistress overpowered me and forced me to wear her collar. I have to do whatever she says, though with you two, it is… different.”
“How?” Agnes’ voice rippled through the stillness that had come over their corner.
Zylphia frowned, pulling at her bonnet and further mussing her hair. More of it spilled from the covering; Edith couldn’t look away. She didn’t know how much of this she believed, only something about their conversation rang with undeniable truth. Maybe that was magic.
“There is one condition to break the collar and free me to return to my home,” Zylphia said. A faint blush crept onto her cheeks. “The collar will dissolve with ‘the touch of true love.’ Nobody but my true love is even supposed to know it’s there. Mistress Dorothea doesn’t allow me to mix with any men because of these things. She says if I see few men, I will never meet anyone who can share my heart.”
Of all things, Agnes laughed. “Does this Dorothea think love happens only when men are involved? That’s foolishness.” She got up from her seat and stepped closer to Zylphia. The air hummed with something. From the corner of her eye, Edith thought she saw sparkles like on the paper snow from the ballet.
Agnes’ mood changed from levity to seriousness. “Zylphia, may I… touch the collar? I want to see something.”
“You – may.” Zylphia trembled, but she spoke with conviction.
With a tiny smile and a cautious hand, Agnes reached for the collar. When she touched it, the metal glowed white for a moment but remained around Zylphia’s neck. The disappointment on Zylphia’s face crushed Edith’s heart. Without thinking, she reached for Zylphia’s collar as well, while Agnes still had her hand upon it.
The collar glowed again, brighter and more powerful. That brightness made Edith’s eyes water, but she didn’t take her hand away. The glow grew to encompass all three of them; it warmed Edith without burning her, going down to her soul. Soon, she knew nothing but the brightness and a sense that Agnes and Zylphia were with her.
When the word returned to normal illumination, Edith was no longer in the tea shop. Agnes and Zylphia stood next to her. For miles, rolling green hills spread in every direction, more vibrant than anything Edith had ever seen. The air was crisper and cleaner, with a scent Edith did not recognize.
This was not the human realm.
“Where are we?” Agnes breathed.
Zylphia smiled. Her bonnet and collar were gone, but Edith’s eyes focused on something else: the sparkling wings spread behind her. They contained all the colors of the rainbow and colors Edith could not find the words to describe. Those colors probably did not exist in the human world.
“Welcome to my home,” Zylphia said. “Though I can’t say I understand everything yet, it seems as if both of you are my true love. I don’t yet know what that means, but I cannot say otherwise.”
Edith could not begin to process this. “Agnes and I are sisters” was the first thing that found its way from her lips.
“Like I said, I do not understand everything, but perhaps we can all make a new destiny? I can send you home, if you don’t want to stay.” The expression on Zylphia’s face betrayed how much she hoped they would take that path.
The strangeness of the situation made it difficult for Edith to act, but she could have fallen into Zylphia’s eyes and did not want to leave. “I’ll stay,” she said. There was no reason to leave just yet. Somehow, Edith’s duties back in the human realm did not matter so much anymore.
“I will stay as well,” Agnes said.
Zylphia took the hands of both Edith and Agnes. Edith could feel the flutter of Zylphia’s wings.
Together, they walked into a new life.