The Unicorn of Sinsol: Part One

Hello there. If you’re reading this, you’re probably stuck at home during the pandemic looking for something to do. It’s wild times when that sentence is not itself a work of fiction. The world of Sinsol is one that has been 14 years in the making (seriously, ask my friends), but I am writing this story in real time, right now, to help you–and me–stay sane and entertained while quarantined. It hasn’t undergone much editing. It probably has too much exposition, or rambling run-on sentences, or other problems that would be cleaned up in the editorial process. Please forgive its ramshackle qualities, and enjoy it for what it is–a little piece of free serial fiction that you can use to escape momentarily from the chaos of our current global crisis.

And it is free! So before I get to this next part (and then let you get on to the damn story, yes), I want to reiterate that. If you’ve been cut off from your income and you’ve no idea when or how you will be able to pay your expenses, please enjoy this story for free, guilt free. Even if you’re not in that position and you just want to read the story for free, please do. But if you do have a few bucks to spare, if you have stable income or savings, any donations are welcome and appreciated.

My husband is a line-cook and his restaurant closed down last week, leaving him without a way to pay his $400+ per month out-of-pocket medication costs, without which he will go into some pretty nasty withdrawals (and I’ll be stuck in here with him while it’s happening). That also leaves me responsible for everything from rent (??) to utilities to food to internet so I can keep posting this story, to whatever. As a work-from-home freelancer, I am grateful to still be able to work, but even under the best of circumstances all that is a lot for me to take on by myself. And it’s not the best of circumstances. Media outlets are all focused on the pandemic, and even COVID-related pitches are being turned down because it’s so competitive right now. So if you like the story and have the means, please consider sending a small donation. I am $elizabethbrico on pretty much everything…

paypal.me/elizabethbrico  

venmo.com/elizabethbrico

cash.me/elizabethbrico

Alright, that’s my pitch. I will be posting segments of this story here weekly until it’s done, so if you like it, come back next Saturday for more.

The Unicorn of Sinsol
part I

The air felt thick and hot. Nelly regretted leaving her shoes at home. The flash storm hours earlier had soaked the thirsty, unready top soil so that now the ground squelched underfoot. It frightened Nelly to feel the softened earth squishing between her toes, but she was grateful for the deep trail of hoofprints to follow. Dew-angels hovered over them in shimmering, silver clumps, their soft, tremulous glow lending the trail an otherwordly cast. But above it was the scarlet evening sky, and the twinmoons moored darkly at the horizon, Niy gibbous and hungry with her painful darkness and Noy pale grey beside her, his friendly smiling face ever looking down, like a watchful, beloved grandfather. Beneath her regrettably bare feet was the blueblack soil, soft and too-familiar. It was Sinsol, definitely Sinsol. Not even Bella’s dew-angels could make Nelly forget that.

The longer Nelly trekked across the damp ground, the more laborious it became. Her feet felt heavy, and it was getting harder to pull them from the ground. The beauty of Sinsol biology was also the danger of it. The body is Sinsol as the soil is Sinsol as the story is Sinsol was repeated to them so often as children that Nelly sometimes felt she heard the incantation play on constant repeat in the back of her mind. Bella had never truly had to worry about losing herself, for obvious reasons, though she took the same lessons as a child with the rest of them. Nelly always envied the levity with which she conducted the exercises as children, how she sang and skipped and joked, with the joy and freedom of someone who was just playing around, even if everyone did quietly regard her as somewhat defective.

Nelly never had fun with it, not even when she grew older and the others shed their worry. She knew it was normal to feel the weight of the world beneath her, and she knew that others her age reveled in their dizzying connection to all and everything Sinsol. How many times had she been victim to the most precocious among them, who melded into trees or puddles, jumping out at opportune moments to startle cowards like Nelly? But for her, even the slightest vertigo put her on alert.

She turned her palms outward next to her thighs and extended her fingers so their tips brushed the tall, unkempt silvergrass as she walked. She focused her mind there, on that solid place where the borders of her body met the alien grass blades, and that made the walking easier. It was embarrassing, to still rely on such a childish trick, and she was grateful no one was around to see it.

Nelly wasn’t sure how long she walked exactly, but it was long enough that the dew-angels dispersed or dimmed, or whatever it was they did, leaving her to the darkness. Bella’s hoofprints were harder then to track. Being fifteen and still reliant on sight alone in Sinsol was another humiliation, but not one she was desperate enough to try and overcome. She wondered how much faster covering all this ground had been on four legs.

The hoofprints took her up a small slope where the silvergrass was no longer verdant. Patches sprung up here and there, but the ground was now covered with kissing moss; that coarse, aromatic vegetation that grew wild and stubborn everywhere in the Spiralock. Not quite grass, not quite shrub, and stubborn as a weed but less parasitic, it bore a deep magenta hue that left dark, sanguine blotches when crushed and rubbed between the fingers. It was Sinsol, like everything native, which meant Nelly couldn’t use it to ground herself.

Nelly recognized this as Kissing Hill, innocently named after the kissing moss that covered it, and less innocently co-opted by teenagers as a place to stage experimental, improvised theatre about taboo human passions, some of which took very non-theatrical turns. She didn’t come here often, or at all really, but she suspected Bella was far more familiar.

It was late enough that even the most debaucherous teens had fled to some form of bedtime. Everything was quiet and heavy and still. There was the occasional susurrus of moon sparrows coupling overhead, or a rue beetle creeching its warning, sometimes followed by the brief, scampering rustle of a scuffle in the brush. Then silence again, more terrible now with its implication of death and savage victory. Nelly felt like an intruder. At this late hour her world belonged to the wild things.

She spotted her sister at the crest of the hill. Bella stood on all fours in equine form, gazing fixedly at the twinmoon. Between her eyes, protruded the hard, bone-white nub of a young horn. Dew-angels streamed across her body in long, glittering ranks, more than Nelly had seen on her since the transformations began. They gave her body a silvery, luminescent quality, but Nelly could still see her dishwater coat beneath it. Just like Bella’s hair in her real form. Although, Nelly realized, tripping over her thoughts, maybe this was Bella’s real form now, too. Maybe one day it would be her only form. Panic welled in Nelly’s chest. They quarreled over silly things, sure, and not-so-silly things sometimes…but she didn’t want to lose her chatterbox, diva of a sister to the mute, hermetic existence of a unicorn. Or worse yet, lose her entirely to Dream.

“Bella,” Nelly called out. Her sister didn’t move. She was staring, unblinking (did unicorns blink? she couldn’t remember…) at Noy, whose patchwork face smiled gently back with eyes and mouth and nose composed from that famous constellation of Dream.

“Bella!” Nelly began to run. It was only a few feet, but Bella felt miles away. If she jumped through to Dream, she might never come back. Panic burst through Nelly like a shockwave. She forgot everything but her desire to reach Bella, even her ever-present fear of losing herself to Sinsol forever.

Her feet slid into the ground—no, that wasn’t the right way to describe it. They melded with it, with the soil and flora and magnetic, omnipresent being of Sinsol. In that union, there was no ground to cover between Nelly and her sister. She was the space between them, she was the soil and the grass and the bugs. She was the air, the atmosphere, the wild scarlet sky. Her body succumbed to the panic-born will to be near her sister, and dissolved into the sacred oneness of all Sinsol.

Then, in no time at all, as if it had all been a dizzy, half-completed imagining, she was Nelly again. Fearful Nelly, anxious Nelly, now a Nelly shocked by her brush with incorporation, but also grateful to be standing beside Bella. She threw her arms around Bella’s muscular equine neck, trembling with terror and shock and relief. A few stray dew-angels skittered onto Nelly’s arms before scurrying back to the safety of Bella’s body, zig-zagging and tumbling into one another, like they were combating the effects of a powerful, inebriating toxin.

Bella turned her gaze from the sky and nuzzled Nelly.

“Did you see that?” Nelly breathed. She shook her head in disbelief and buried her face in Bella’s coat. She still smelled like her sister. An almost floral musk, with a sharp, slightly metallic undertone, like the beginning of fermentation. Nelly breathed in that familiar scent, the one tied to so many games and fights and comforting nights spent huddled together under the covers, protecting each other from the threat of sleep and fun missed. Just as she began to relax, Bella jerked her body, pushing Nelly away. She was definitely still Bella.

“I incorporated here. Did you see it?”

Bella cocked her head. They didn’t need words to understand the language of sisters. She was toying with her—maybe she saw it, maybe she didn’t.

Nelly laughed. The trembling and shock was subsiding, and with it a small piece of the fear that had been haunting her as long as she could remember. In its place, a small, sapling of power was taking root.

She shook her head. “I did it and it wasn’t, it wasn’t scary like when we–” she paused and shot her sister a slight, sorry smile. “Like when I was a kid, you know, when I’d just fall into the void and it would feel like I was just gone. It wasn’t like that.” She looked around. Even the world around her seemed changed, charged, somehow more alive, maybe even sentient. Like it was looking back at her, experiencing her as much as she was experiencing it. “It was like that, sort of, like when I was a kid,” she corrected herself. “Like I didn’t exist as, as me, as Nelly alone anymore. But I was in control. I wasn’t gone, I was part of it, of the ground, of the space between us. It was like, to get here, standing here beside you, all I had to do was…” she thought for a moment,“…shake my foot instead of my hand. Does that make sense?”

Bella was staring at her. She puffed a small noisy woosh of air from her nostrils, then shook her neck, followed by her elegant, muscular body, so that her lovely mane whipped out in the wind, and the dew-angels leapt up, momentarily surrounding her in a beautiful flurry of silver sparks.

Nelly scowled. “Why are you always so jealous?” She ran her hand across Bella’s back and watched the dew-angels hurry away. “You have so many now. Dew-angels.”

Bella craned her neck and wiggled her shoulderblades to warn Nelly back.

“I know, I know I’m not supposed to touch a unicorn. But, I mean,” she struggled to find the words that wouldn’t offend her infamously oversensitive sister. “Are you really a unicorn? I mean do the same rules apply?”

Bella stomped her hooves, driving them hard and deep into the ground. Nelly’s stomach twisted.

“Well if you are, why can’t you talk? Don’t unicorns have, whatever, telepathatic powers or something? Dreamspeak.” She spat the word at Bella, knowing full well that even if everything they’d learned in school about unicorns was true, which she doubted, her sister still couldn’t speak in this form. As a unicorn, she was speechless. Which must have been a special sort of torture for someone as loud and bossy as Bella.

Still, Nelly didn’t understand how Bella could withstand assaults on Sinsol. She was, afterall, part Sinsol, wasn’t she? But growing up she’d tortured not just Nelly but all their friends. Twisting stems and popping off flowerbuds, digging her heels deep and hard into the dirt, yanking leaves from Sinsol trees, anything she could do to abuse the inherent connectivity of Sinsol. Nelly knew it was born from envy, that beneath her bravado and trickery and aggression, Bella always believed her lack of connectivity to Sinsol was a deep, irremediable flaw. Secretly, Nelly agreed.

But now…it was all starting to made a terrible sort of sense. Like a deep, volcanic secret that had been festering beneath them their whole lives was finally erupting for all the world to see, and feel, and be consumed by. It’s not that Mother had tried to sell Bella as wholly Sinsol. That would have been absurd. From the soft, unmanageable blonde hair, to the blue eyes that sometimes flashed silver or gold in the right kind of lighting, to that sharp odd scent she had, to her inability to engage with Sinsol. Nobody would have ever believed she was wholly Sinsol. But they both grew up thinking her father was one of the Fae. A rare coupling, but not unheard of.

Bella jabbed the ground again with her hoof.

“Stop!” Nelly locked eyes with her sister. Turns out unicorns could blink, because she did, almost tearfully Nelly thought, before turning her attention back to Noy.

“Stop!” This time Nelly’s cry was truly urgent. “Bella, stop. Don’t go to Dream. Don’t—don’t leave me.”

Bella looked again at Nelly. She sounded a small, amused neigh.

“Don’t laugh at me.” Nelly felt small and childish. She hated how naive her sister could make her feel sometimes, even though she was barely a year older. “You told me, remember? You told me after the first time you changed that you could hear the singing of the other unicorns in Dream. You told me it sounded like they were calling you. Did you make that up?”

Bella fixed Nelly with a long, somber stare. After a long moment, she shook her head and began walking toward home.

“Are you going back already?” Nelly asked, stumbling to keep up with Bella’s four-legged trot. “I came here because of Mother, oh, you won’t believe what I saw.”

Bella paused to glance at her sister.

“I walked in on her with a Guest.”

Bella snorted. Mother flaunted her profession. She was a renowned Lover, at least within the Spiralock. When the girls were younger, she would regularly introduce them to the more refined among her Guests, the sisters primped and costumed as perfect little Sinsol darlings. They knew better than to enter her quarters while she was working, but slip-ups happened. Both daughters had seen their mother entwined with a naked Guest more than once. It was nothing to send one running frantic into the night.

Nelly shook her head. “She was formed like a human.”

Bella stopped. She glared at Nelly, her eyes blazing. After a few moments, she snorted and rammed her head against Nelly’s shoulder.

“Were you trying to Dreamspeak?” Nelly asked, trying to pretend her shoulder didn’t smart where Bella had scuffed it. “It’s okay. I know what you’re thinking. Mother is a Lover, it’s her job to fantasy form to her Guest’s desires. But a human?” She lowered her voice. “I mean it’s not just illegal, it’s…I dunno, gross.”

Bella neighed softly and pawed the dirt with her hooves.

“And aren’t we here to lay low?” Nelly continued. As disconcerting and confusing as it was to have her sister transform into a unicorn once a month, it was nice to be able to get her thoughts out uninterrupted for once. “I mean, it’s hard to ‘lay low’ when your mom is famous, but I thought the whole point was no unnecessary attention. If she’s taking human form requests, that’s going to draw a lot of attention!” She didn’t mention that the Guest was a goblin, unmistakable by his tough, yellow-green flesh and his knotted backbone, bent over Mother’s voluptuous, human-formed body.

Bella nuzzled her damp nose against Nelly’s cheek. Nelly patted her snout. A giggle escaped her throat, despite herself. She was still really unused to having a sister with a snout.

“Is that what you wanted to say? That Mother shouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks? Good of you to finally think rationally, for once.”

Bella headbutted her again, gently this time. The dew-angels had all retreated from Bella’s crown. They were crowding on her neck, hopping in place and tumbling over each other, waiting, Nelly guessed, for Bella to stop touching her. They were brighter on Bella than those which had been lingering in her hoofprints. It hurt to look at them coalesced like that, but Nelly couldn’t help herself. By now, Nelly was somewhat used to seeing her sister in unicorn form. She was certain, at least, that she could pick her out from a lineup of unicorns (like she would ever encounter a line-up of unicorns). But she could not keep from marveling over the dew-angels, which increased in number during each transformation, and seemed to appear and gather on Bella-the-unicorn from nowhere.

“Any new intel on the dew-angels?” Nelly asked, knowing no response was coming, at least for now.

Dew-angels were one of the biggest mysteries about unicorns, which was saying a lot, because unicorns as a whole were mostly a mystery. What little was known about unicorn culture and biology came from a Fae anthropologist named Eiliana Fairgrove, who had trekked into Dream by dubious and probably illegal means that were not altogether public. Before her work, what was known of unicorns came from accounts of sightings, most of which came from humans, which were obviously not to be trusted. It was Fairgrove who discovered Dreamspeak, and Fairgrove who managed to capture that famous, glitchy recording of the unicorn mating song. But when Fairgrove trapped a small collection of the brilliant, droplet-sized creatures that skittered around on unicorn bodies, they all “died or dissipated or burnt out,” as she recorded in her spindly, black-inked font that would be photographed and copied repeatedly in schoolbooks for ages to come. After that, Fairgrove was unceremoniously dismissed from Dream. No Sinsol, human, or Fae had been invited back since, and unicorn sightings dwindled to none.

But that was obviously not true. As recently as seventeen years ago, at least one unicorn was not just seen, but apparently mated with a Sinsol.

Bella and Nelly walked back together in silence. Bella slowed her pace, but Nelly still had to double hers to keep up. She didn’t dare try another feat of incorporation, and there wasn’t that same urgency driving her now to allow her to do it by virtue of instinct. The thrill of that brief flirtation with her nature was wearing off. She didn’t want to show it, especially not to Bella, but the fear was returning, crushing and inescapable. When they descended the hill and began passing through the unkempt pasture where silvergrass grew wild and tall, she let her hands hang at her sides and turned out her palms to brush them again. She hoped Bella wouldn’t notice.

The air was cooler now, but still redolent with the scent of damp vegetation, a rich, verdant musk laced with the occasional sickly-sweetness, the latter of which Nelly knew came off of the transplanted silvergrass. They were closing in on home. Nelly could see the peak of their makeship marquee, a patchwork of tapestries, blankets, and tarpaulin spellcast against the effects of weather, which they had pulled together into a semi-permanent encampment. It was a playhouse, to anyone who asked, but really it was a place for Bella to sleep when she transformed. And it had become a sanctuary for both of them to escape from their Mother’s work when it took a noisy turn, which was often.

The walk seemed much shorter now. Nelly wasn’t sure if it was the company or the quicker pace. Either way, she was beginning to feel the aftermath of her panic as a deep fatigue settling, heavy and hypnotic, behind her eyes. She wanted to sleep, even if it would have to be in the makeshift marquee. She wasn’t going to leave her sister alone again, not tonight.

As they approached the house, Nelly noticed a figure puffing smoke on the stoop of the main house. It was perched in a peculiar manner, squatting on its haunches with thin, bony knees jutting up to its pointy chin. The girls stopped.

“Who is it?” Nelly whispered. Then, with more urgency, “Go into the tent Bella, you can’t be seen.”

It was true, it was too true. Whoever this was, whatever was happening, the most important thing of all was for Bella not to be seen in unicorn form. She knew this, and dashed into their little makeshift house without any show of resistance at being ordered by her little sister. Nelly hoped that whoever was in the yard hadn’t already spotted her.

Once Bella was safely in the marquee, Nelly steeled herself and walked toward the stranger. He wasn’t Sinsol, she could tell that already. If she were braver and more skilled, she could have used the yard’s flourishing Sinsol flora to spy on him without his knowledge. But she wasn’t going to try incorporating twice in one night. Nothing about the intruder’s relaxed demeanor made Nelly feel inclined to risk losing her identity forever.

As she grew closer, she recognized the figure as a goblin. She hadn’t seen his face earlier, when it had been buried between her Mother’s legs, but she was certain it was the Guest with a predilection for human women. She shivered with disgust.

He was dressed now, in a green three-piece suit of a hue so deep she almost mistook it for black. It fit slackly on his long, thin body, and the legs of the pants were raised to reveal knobby brownish ankles above glossy black shoes with hard rounded tips. Next to him, a boxed black hat sat gingerly at the edge of the stoop. Nelly didn’t remember ever seeing a goblin dressed that way. He smoked from a stubby, tubular pipe a substance that smelled to Nelly like excrement. That she recognized right away—she hadn’t seen a grown goblin without a similar pipe full of the foul stuff. The rest seemed like a motley, garish simulacrum of human formal attire, which only worsened her unease.

When he saw Nelly, he lowered his legs so they dangled over the stoop, long enough for his feet to plant on the ground. In a startling and undeniably human gesture, he lifted his hat, placed it atop his long, balding head and tipped it toward Nelly. She stopped, aghast.

He grinned, showing off a mouth crowded with pointed, browning teeth. “I take it you don’t share my passion for homosapiens?” he asked. “I’m an anglophile myself, though I dabble in a variety of their cultures.”

His diction was odd. He over-pronounced each word, hitting the hard syllables and stretching the long vowels with an almost lascivious relish. If he shared the sibilant accent she was used to hearing from the mouths of goblins, he hid it well.

Nelly didn’t really know what he was talking about. What was an anglophile? And what did he mean by “many cultures?” She had always imagined humans as one homogeneous species of violent brutes. How many permutations of culture did it take to behave badly? Wasn’t one enough?

He eyed her with a slight, bemused grin on his dry yellowed lips. His face was long and thin with thick, green skin. His eyes were large and black and sloping, and they glittered with a vaguely predatory mirth. His nose was elongated and exceptionally thin, placed in perfect symmetry to his oval face. He carried himself with the ease of someone who was either very handsome or very wealthy, but Nelly had no basis with which to judge. To her, he just looked like a weirdly dressed goblin, who were all horrible.

“You’re shocked to hear me declare a love for humans?” He stood. At his full height, he towered at least two feet over Nelly. He grinned down at her, exhaling another billow of stinking smoke. Looking at him from below, she could see clearly his triple-rows of small, pointed teeth nested in the roof of his mouth. She willed herself not to look scared, or sick, though she was overcome with feelings of both.

“I forget how you Sinsol fear the humans. We beasts of Fae don’t share your animosity toward them.” He winked and grinned, like he was in on the joke of his horrible appearance. “I’m surprised though. How does the daughter of such an open minded creature come to be so bigoted?” He sucked deeply from his pipe.

“We don’t fear them,” Nelly said, hoping she sounded righteously indignant and not just petulant. “We hate them. What is there to fear?”

He leaned down, bending his long skinny torso to meet her eyes. Wisps of smoke escaped his pursed mouth. The image of his knotted, naked back flashed through Nelly’s mind.

“There is much to fear,” he said, releasing a plume of smoke into Nelly’s face. She stepped back, nearly retching from the smell. The goblin’s pointed tongue flicked out and licked his chapped lips.

Nelly was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. She didn’t want this weird old goblin in her yard. She didn’t want to talk to him about humans. She wanted to sleep. She wanted her mother to come out and send him away and then she could sleep.

The goblin stepped back and resumed his perch on the stoop. He removed his hat, revealing a nearly bald head crowned with thick doughy wrinkles and a ringlet of wispy white hairs. He patted the empty stoop beside him.

Nelly didn’t move.

“Nothing to fear girl.” He laughed.

It was a jovial, booming laugh, accompanied by a wide, toothy smile. Welcoming. Hearing the goblin’s laughter changed Nelly’s perception of him entirely. What had seemed to be a lurid and subtly dangerous demeanor now struck her as friendly and whimsical. A little eccentric, a little taboo, but what is life without variance? The goblin’s laugh vanquished Nelly’s unease, replacing it with a sense of deep comfort, like she was conversing with a trusted friend.

Nelly smiled and sat beside him. He returned the smile with a nod.

“Hello there, mademoiselle. My name is Ryn-DuRyn-nuYyen, but you may call me Ryn.” He chortled.

“I’m Nelly.”

“Nelly, the firstborn daughter of Lael, the most ravishing Sinsol Lover in all of the Spiralock. Am I correct?” He laughed again.

“Second born.”

“Ah, second born. And where is the first born?” He let loose another note of laughter. His eyes glittered. Nelly felt very warm and comfortable, and drowsy. She wondered if it would be alright to lay down in Ryn’s lap and take a nap.

“She’s sleeping, I think.”

“In the marquee over yonder?”

“Yep!” Nelly felt uncharacteristically perky. She wanted nothing more than to charm and please her mother’s Guest.

Ryn laughed again. Nelly was beginning to see his handsomeness. Yes, it was clear now—his wide dashing smile and large, perceptive eyes. How could she not have noticed earlier? He was a truly fetching goblin. She reached out her small hand, timid but sure, and lifted his. He graciously conceded it to her attention. She examined it, the long, gnarled fingers with their thick, curling nails. The tough, dry skin, the knots of the knuckles and the deep crags between them. It was a very distinguished hand.

“Forgive me lady, for this fanciful inquiry,” he said, and laughed again. Nelly laughed too. She so wanted Ryn to like her. “I thought I saw you with a unicorn,” he exclaimed, wagging his face in hers and whooping with laughter.

“You did!” Nelly exclaimed. “That was my elder sister, mother’s firstborn!” She felt absolutely giddy.

Ryn stopped laughing and peered at her. “Don’t lie to me,” he said, punctuated with a single barking laugh.

“I’m not, I promise. We never knew she was a half unicorn,” Nelly blurted. Her glee was quickly turning frantic. She didn’t know why, but she knew she needed his approval, his mirth and his laughter and his love. “Mother must have, but we didn’t. She keeps changing her story, who knows. But we, we thought she was like you, maybe, half Fae, maybe a faery or a nymph, something pretty. She’s so pretty.” A sinkhole began to open within Nelly. She wanted to stop talking, but she couldn’t. Anything to please Ryn, anything to elicit that laughter she craved.

He chuckled. It was brief and harsh. Filling but not satisfying. And he was no longer smiling, just gazing at her with his head tilted and his lips parted, that sagittate tongue darting from side to side.

“She first transformed five months ago. That time it lasted a week and we weren’t sure it would ever stop.” Nelly hesitated. The unease she first felt when she saw Ryn was creeping back, wrestling for dominance with the feeling of giddy comfort.

Ryn broke his stare and threw his head back into a full-throated chortle. At hearing the music of his laughter again, Nelly’s joy returned. She laughed too. They leaned toward each other, heads bowing conspiratorially, both alight with laughter.

“It’s funny, huh?” she managed to eek between manic giggles.

“It is indeed,” Ryn retorted before releasing another burst of laughter.

“My sister is a unicorn!”

“That’s enough.” A harsh, stern voice cut through the reverie. Ryn and Nelly both snapped their heads to see who had interrupted their merrymaking. Mother Lael stood a few feet out the back door, arms akimbo, and eyes blazing fury. Ryn straightened and pulled back from Nelly. She reached for his hand again but he wormed it away.

“Now that’s funny, isn’t she funny?” Nelly chattered, reaching again for his hand.

But Ryn was no longer laughing. He clutched his hat to his head and stood. A gaping hollow opened within Nelly.

“Really, Rynduryn,” said Mother, her voice low and biting. “Getting my teenage daughter drunk on goblinmirth. I knew you were a perverse old fool but I didn’t expect this.”

“Oh it was innocent, just having some fun.” Ryn sloped his lips into a sheepish half-smile.

The happiness and ease Nelly had felt with Ryn was quickly fomenting into an angry, shame-laced depression. Goblinmirth. She should have known. The hypnotic, intoxicating power of goblin laughter. Equally useful for matchmaking and weaponry. And yet, even realizing the spell she’d been under, she still yearned for Ryn to look at her once more, laugh with her just one final time. But he would not concede even a single glance. His hungry eyes were full with Mother.

“I cannot imagine a single innocent use for goblinmirth from a cadaverous old lecher like you, much less on a teenager. And I thought I made it exceedingly clear that you were not allowed to explore my property.”

Ryn’s mouth twisted into a grimacing grin. He seemed about to say something, probably something perverted in response to Mother’s choice of words, but decided against it. Instead he bowed his head and tipped his hat.

“My apologies Madam.”

Mother glared at him, her expression stony and unflinching. Nelly wasn’t sure, but she thought she noticed Mother very slowly extending her stance over Ryn. They locked eyes like that for a long moment, during which Nelly felt her body shrink into itself. She was so ashamed. She wanted to cry. Or disappear. Her vision blurred, and dizziness spooled over her. She could sink away, away from her regret and the startling raw shame of how she felt just now about disgusting old Ryn.

But she’d told about Bella! She had to warn her sister. It was a small, bright flare of resolve, but it was enough. She felt for her hands, her legs, her toes, her body, her mouth. She thought of her name. Her family. Her secret, special reason for being, decided long ago by the two who made her—to be a sister to Bella, a task she was only beginning to fully understand. Like children do, she told herself the story of herself. And so, even in the mad desperate comedown of goblinmirth, Nelly did not incorporate into Sinsol.

Ryn lost the staring contest. He looked down, and shrugged one long, bony shoulder.

“It’s time to go now Ryn. You will not be invited back.”

“The loss is all mine,” Ryn rasped. He lifted his hat, then placed it back on his head, stealing one last wistful glace at Mother Lael before trotting out of the yard on his spindle-legs. His shoulders stayed slouched and his head bowed the whole time. He did not look back at Nelly.

She felt consumed by mourning. She sighed and gulped back tears. Crying could wait for the cover of she and Bella’s little makeshift home, away from Mother’s judgment. She turned toward the marquee. But then there were Mother’s arms around her, warm and synchronous. Mother had never been quick to affection, and Nelly couldn’t even remember the last time they’d touched long enough for any sort of blending. The sudden closeness startled Nelly, but it was comforting nonetheless. Here was somewhere she could let go of herself, let Mother hold her instead. This was, after all, the woman who had told the story of Nelly for the very first time.

Nelly let Mother’s embrace take hold of her. She cradled Nelly into her body.

“It’s okay,” she murmured. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Nelly breathed, wanting to admit to what she’d told Ryn. But she missed this closeness with Mother, their incorporeal bond. She could feel the machinations of Mother’s body as close and real as her own. She could feel Mother taking hold of her body, holding her up, not needing her to be strong anymore.

“That nasty Ryn is gone,” Mother whispered, her voice light and gentle. “You sleep now.”

Nelly let the dizziness overtake her, let herself fall into her Mother’s being. There was warmth there, and love, and power.

When she returned to herself, she lying on her cushion in the marquee. She saw the hump of her sister’s body across from her. Mother was whispering the story of Nelly, rote. How many times had she told it, while creating Nelly and after, when she had to teach her again and again who she was and how to stay herself? She tucked a blanket tight around Nelly’s body, in that way that usually made Nelly feel constricted, but tonight felt right and safe and good. She was so tired. It had been such a long night. The fang of a memory twanged her consciousness. Nelly had really told Ryn the goblin too much.

Nelly clutched at her mother.

“I have to tell you.”

“Not now, love. Now you sleep.”

For the first night in recent memory, Mother stayed at Nelly’s side until she closed her eyes, caressing and storytelling her dutifully to slumber.

***

to be continued…

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