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Witches of the Pinspecked Void


Between heaven and earth,
How like a bellows it is!
Empty and yet inexhaustible,
Moving and yet it pours out ever more.

-Tao Te Ching, Ellen Chen translation

On a tower by the sea, Princess Cataria Meerschaum said goodbye to her uncanny homeworld. Fingers gripping the white stone parapet, she leaned back and looked a hundred miles up at the opposite rim of the Scroll — a hundred miles down on pinwheel-ridged peaks and glacier tentacles verging into mist, and then the sea-sky that curved to meet the sky-sea behind her.

Down from the mountains, over deep crinkly canyons and grassy bluffs, down bronzing hills of garden forests to the dewy bottomlands and the windswept seaplain, she lowered her gaze. The same geography rolled out for thousands of miles to left and right, the Scroll's great trough vanishing curveless into the blue.

The sun, whose angle was capricious even this far eyeward, happened to torch the river at the stone bridge where the wedding army was crossing, a great caterpillar whose backprickles were the armaments of amory: painsabres and fuzzmuskets, throbcains and jangleduffs, plunderdrums and double-blow blissbombs. From the battlements, trembling defenders slung spizzdarts at their impudent enemy, and casualties exploded in compulsive dance that carried the whole garish regiment over the verge.

Cataria was the bride. Her dress was strip-layered billowy airsilk mimicking the short axis of the Scroll, blue sundress to green body to rocky pauldrons patched in white. On her feet were coral blue toe-curving pirate ship slippers, and her hat was an inverse mermaid, a cross-legged maiden with a seashell breastplate, two octopus arms, and the winking head of a shark.

Her face was pale and wide, with a crisp white scar from eyebrow to dimple. Her upturned nose was like the toe of a boot, and where the scar crossed the eye was a deep vertical slit pupil.

She would not be getting married.

Down from the turretsnail spire, across the great sunbleached circle of the palace roof, she bypassed the open staircase that coasted to the great atrium and the ceremony, and opened a little door at the seaward edge. There she whirled down spiral winders to the third floor landing, and through a low arch to the library.

"Not so fast, Princess!" Her black-haired cousin Shadrach stepped in her path, and pointed to her feet. "Not in those shoes — you'll slip on the carpet." He held out her boots. "Here. Let it be known that I aided your escape."

She slapped him so hard that he bounced off a table and knocked over a chainglobe. "What are you doing in my story?"

He bowed his head. "I, too, regret this crossing of our paths. But only such a high and subtle crime will carry me to the level of the dungeon where my treasure waits."

She stamped her foot. "Of course this is about her. I give notice, if you follow me into space, the law permits me to kill you both, and I'll do it. Now piss off."

She pointed to the far door and Shadrach slunk out. Then, finally, she kicked off her slippers, dropped her dress and hat, and put on the survival suit and boots that she had already laid out.

Behind her stood a long curve of bookcases, arranged by date of publication and going back so far that the oldest books were crumbly heaps that would be whisked off the shelves to rotate the cycloid and make room for shiny new volumes.

Below her, out the wide window, lay the delta where the old river met the sea. It was autumn, and the fleece ferns bloomed with purple spores while the wingnut trees turned from red to green as they reduced their ferrous burden and dropped their eponymous fruit, later harvested by magnets and forged into steel, except the most perfect specimens which the harvesters saved on strings around their necks and gifted in the misty uplands in spring.

From the oldest shelf, Cataria drew a book of fragments translated so many times that their meanings were lost in forgotten metaphor, and read: "The Captain gestured from the high window to the mirror in the hole."

From the newest shelf, she drew a book of trashy symmetric poetry, and read:

Lay it where horizon dreams to grey
Of shades from blank to black, from blue to white
To fades obscuring nascency of night
Of nascency obscuring fades to white
To blue from black, to blank from shades of grey
To dream's horizon where it lay

Then she lifted her pack and took the stair down to her little skiff among the reeds, and away.


In the atrium of the Barnacle Monolith Palace, on a balcony overlooking the assembled regiments, King Paracelsus Meerschaum stood in a cluttery costume of musselshells and bottlecaps, and began his speech.

"Birthdays and weddings — bring your changes, o Scroll, as we expose our sleep to the long years of this dream."

He put on his ceremonial hat, a quilted model of the palace, with fabric-sewn flames and dryer lint smoke billowing from the black windows, and a dark figure jumping. The young Queen nudged him and he looked up at it.

"Sorry, wrong hat!"

The new hat was divided into two great cones. One showed a grey road rising from a blue-white fringe through patches of green and yellow to a tree branch drooping with ripe fruit. The other cone was glittery black, tipped by a diamond trailing tinsel.

"My daughter, the Princess Cataria, was born 18 years ago, at midnight, directly under the eighth moon split by the shadow of the Scroll. With the same moon rising tonight, she has made her decision:

"Whether to merge with the Prince of the uplands, deepening our ancient alliance..." The crowd clucked like a flock of sunfowl. "Or whether to flee, to seek adventure in the outer dark." The crowd keened like a lance of moonbats.

"Of course she fled. It was all she ever talked about. 'I want to go to space,' and 'I want to dance with the nebulae in the field of time.' She said that when she was four. As a baby she turned away from her nursemaid's breast to play with her jangle-steel necklace. At the harvest festival, when other girls wore costumes of fruit, she was a knife.

"And then all the creepiest boys came after her." He waved to a few in the audience. "That's one thing she and her sister have in common.

"Anyway, you'll all be happy to know that the groom also has good reason to decline this marriage." Over in his family's gallery, the Prince beamed and kissed his boyfriend.

"It would have been really awkward if she had stayed. And by ancient law, with no wedding... there must still be a party!" The crowd roared and humptrumpets honked.

"But first, we have an anomaly. Another player has made a move."

The crowd stilled and murmured.

"The first son of my second sister, with full awareness and intention, trivially and unnecessarily aided the Princess, mortally insulting her competence and forever staining the purity of her flight. We think it's part of a scheme to free the wicked princess Pareidolia from the dungeon. But the law is unequivocal."

Two guards brought Shadrach out in chains and he grinned crookedly as the crowd hissed.

"Shadrach Schmerzgluck," the King roared, "you are exiled off the eyeward end of the Scroll to the Lonely Planet, your memories sealed, there to dwell in deathless pain until unaided rehabilitation.

"Or probably," he muttered, "escape."

Shadrach winked and exalted in the fury of the crowd.

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