She had always led an acoustic life—not the loud and musical kind, but rather the dull and somewhat muted sort, lacking in electricity or thrill. The kind of life in which parties are thrown but smiles and laughter are stifled behind gloved hands holding lace fans; each button was done, each layer of her many skirts remained in place and her corset pulled tight enough to suffocate thoughts of freedom from the mind. Even as breathless as she was, Song—though she wasn’t called Song at the time—dreamed of life free from such restrictions.
What sort of cruelty was it that she possessed a body with no curves in a society which found beauty in an hour-glass figure? Her mother insisted that over time she would fill out. But Song didn’t want curves. She wanted to remain the tall, narrow girl she’d always been.
“You’re seventeen,” her mother chastised one afternoon as she led her into a beauty parlor. “You should be budding into a beautiful flower! Everything you eat should be settling on your hips!” She turned to the woman standing at a glass countertop punching numbers into a register. “Tell her I’m right!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to wait your turn.” The lady returned to the customer she’d been helping.
Mrs. Gould glared on as Song gave a triumphant sigh. At least some people in this city still had the audacity to not get involved in the affairs of a Gould. Song sat on the nearest bench, leaning back as far as she could to get even a moment’s reprieve from her torturous, tightlaced corset.
“Tsingsei, what are you doing?” her mother gasped; Song did not respond. “Tsingsei, you sit up this instant or…” She thought for a worthy punishment, but Song interrupted her.
“Or what? You’ll cinch this contraption even tighter and let me suffocate to death?”
Mrs. Gould squeezed herself in beside Song so that she could not lean back any farther, then scooted closer to push her upright.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” her mother griped. “How am I supposed to find a man who would want such a skinny, unladylike brat for a wife?”
She sighed and stared at the ceiling. “Easy. Don’t.”
Song had never admitted to anyone—though to be fair, she’d never had anyone to admit to—that she had never wanted a husband. All her life her mother, father—when he even bothered to make an appearance—and any house staff or partygoer who engaged Song in conversation had always found a way to squeeze in something about men.
“Men love a nice skinny waist!”
“Oh, the boys will be lining up to dance with you!”
“Once you’ve filled out, we’ll have to fight the suitors off. Won’t that be delightful?”
And on it went. Day after day, every chance anyone got, for all seventeen years and five months of Song’s life. Boys, men, suitors, courting, wooing, marriage, and husband. But she wanted none of it. She never had, and she dared say that she never, ever would. And she never wanted to be told she was wrong for it.
But if Mrs. Gould ever found out, she would whisk her away to one of the strange people, who were both respected and feared, to have them ‘fix’ her. Because that’s what her mother thought of things that didn’t fit perfectly into her ideal world, where she was right and everyone else was wrong. It doesn’t fit and so it must be fixed.
Song didn’t want that. She didn’t want a Touched to speak kijæm over her, calling on powers that even the ones holding it did not understand—for no one understood kijæm. They only knew that one day it did not exist, then three-hundred years ago the skies darkened to a bloody hue and orange streaks clawed fissures across the heavens. The night sky became visible within these streaks, though it was the bright of day. As quickly as it had begun, it ended; the fissures closed, and the skies returned to their cheery blues. Over time, people who’d been ordinary one moment could bend the universe to their will in the next. Song didn’t think even they had the power to make her be the way her mother wanted, but she did not wish to find out.
“Tsingsei Gould?” A woman with a plain dress and extravagant makeup called Song into the back room.
This was the part Song hated most—the poking and prodding, the powders and pastes, the combing and curling, the plucking and pulling. All in the name of being beautiful for one short evening out with her father—if that even happened.
Elroy Gould was a busy man with a penchant for standing up his own daughter. She did not get involved in her father’s political business, but she knew he was both respected and feared among the masses. Her mother seemed to think that gave her permission to shriek at everyone who dared get in her way. Everything had to be Annie Gould’s way or no way at all. Which is why Song was being tortured for more than an hour, just in case her father kept his promise this time and spent the evening out with her.
When the women finished making Song over, she stumbled out to wait as her mother paid the receptionist. Once outside the parlor, Mrs. Gould sighed.
“You look so beautiful. If only your father could see you.”
“Father can’t make it,” Song stated in a bitter tone.
“I received this telegram just after they called you back.”
“Then why did you let me endure all that knowing full well it was for naught?” Song demanded.
“Because you look so lovely!” Mrs. Gould took Song by the chin, turning her head this way and that to observe the handiwork of the ladies.
Song sighed and stared at the cobblestones as they walked. Her mother hooked a finger and tugged her chin upward—a curt reminder to keep her head high lest others think her subordinate. But Song didn’t care what anyone else thought. She’d been stood up by her father—again.
“So we’re going home, then?” Song asked, eager to get behind closed doors where she might loosen the ties of her corset or wash all the colors from her face.
“Your father asked me to take you to pick out a doll.”
“Not only is he canceling our dinner, he’s canceling his apology for canceling?” Song stopped in her tracks, appalled. It wasn’t that she liked the dolls, on the contrary, she was sick of them. But when her father would bring the dolls to her room, it was almost the only father-daughter time they ever shared, if for only a few minutes while he reminded her that he is an important man with things to do and he can’t pause everything just to spend time with her.
“He sent this note for you, already signed. All you’ve got to do is fill in the price.”
“Then I’ll get the most expensive one.” Song snatched the note from her mother’s fingers and smashed it in her fist.
“A lady does not publicly display her displeasure, Tsingsei,” Mrs. Gould chided.
“I am not a lady. I am a daughter being ignored by her father.”
Mrs. Gould’s lips tightened as she stepped close to Song, her face just inches away. “You are a young lady and you will act like one.”
Song set her jaw and straightened. “Then let’s go get this damned doll and be done with our business in the city.”
Her mother’s eyes flashed a warning to mind her language before she turned and stomped toward the nearest antiques dealer. Song followed, her mood thoroughly soured. She stopped outside to eye a doll in the window holding a sign that read:
Anything from Armalinia was bound to be expensive.
“‘Scuse me, miss.” A boy about Song’s age stepped around the corner, his eyes scanning the area in a paranoid fashion. “Could you spare a quoine or two?”
“Why would I do such a thing?” Song sneered at his filthy clothes.
“You see, miss, I’m tryin’ to get somewhere on this here map.” He flashed a folded paper at her. “This here marks the spot of the legendary Lost Treasure of Balamora. I only need a little more quoine to have enough food for my trip. Just one quoine’ll do me.”
Song turned away, unable to look into his sad green eyes. “I haven’t any quoine, and if I had, I wouldn’t give it to you.”
She spun on her heel, stuck her nose in the air, and stomped into the shop. Inside, the air was heavy with a musky incense. Much of the merchandise in the store was of Armalinian make. Song took her time browsing the shelves of knickknacks and hooks with silk scarves, hangers with dresses and row after row of new and used books of every thickness.
“May I help you?” a woman with tanned skin and black hair asked. She had a welcoming smile and robes which wrapped around her waist and over a shoulder.
“I’m looking for the most expensive doll you’ve got,” Song said. “Perhaps that one in the window there?”
“Oh, that one is very pretty, but it is not the highest priced.” She held up her finger for Song to wait and stepped through a doorway draped with scarves and glass beads. She returned a moment later, holding a small wooden crate. “Come.”
Song followed the woman to the counter where she pried open the lid to reveal a doll with blonde hair. The porcelain face was not made up as most were, just pale with soft pink lips. Over the eyes was an intricate metal mask like those worn to masquerades; the white dress with golden embroidery matched.
“The mask is pure gold, and her necklace is real pearls. Her dress is silk. She’s the only one of her kind.” The woman explained with excitement. It was clear she was desperate to make the sale, but Song had been sold by the price.
Song wrote the numbers on the note from her father, adding two hundred to the sum. “I would like that extra given to me, please.”
The shopkeeper bowed, rang up the sale, then gave her a small pouch with the extra quoine tied within. Song stuffed the quoine into her bodice and accepted the sealed crate from the woman. Her mother—who had been perusing the various books for something worth a read—came forward to purchase a rather large volume with a title that Song associated with something taboo, which any respectable woman would never be caught reading. Mrs. Gould paid with her own quoine and accepted the shopkeeper’s offer to wrap the book in brown paper and twine. Every woman needs her guilty pleasure, Song supposed, whether it was reading naughty books in private or skimming from daddy’s accounts.
When Song exited the store, the boy was still standing there, worrying his fingers across the face of the supposed map. He gave Song a wry smile.
“Oh, come on, love, I know you got a bit to spare for old Altain.”
“I have nothing and you will get nothing,” Song insisted.
He stood close and spoke low, so only she could hear. “What about that bit o’ quoine you stuffed into your frock, there, miss?” His smell was something from a nightmare Song had never wanted to have.
“That is no one’s business but my own,” Song growled. “Now be off before I call the authorities for harassment, you smelly little street rat!”
“If you ever change your mind, miss, I’ll be right down here waitin’ for you!” Altain winked and then slunk off into a narrow alley alongside the shop.
“What sort of riff-raff are you associating yourself with, Tsingsei?” Mrs. Gould demanded.
“Nothing worse than usual,” she scoffed, eyeing her mother’s new book.
“I imagine you meant that as a jest.” Her mother’s face soured as she pulled the novel closer to her bosom. “I’m sure I did.”