I almost cried. I was having a stressful day. My eyes did maybe fill up a bit. I’m pretty sure the cover went blurrier than it already was. (This was a good thing, as was the coffee stain, and the torn corner. My early covers . . . well. Let me just say for the record that I have never, and will never, write a female character with pneumatic boobs, and that the purpose of leather clothing if you’ve reluctantly become a sword for hire is to cover you up. And the mad demon Flowerhair inadvertently took Doomblade away from was not iridescent purple and did not have four arms and twisty yellow horns.)
Hayley was holding the book out toward me so I lifted one hand and took it.
I stood staring at it. The blotchy cover went away and I was remembering the first time I had met Flowerhair—met used in the storyteller’s sense of that first jolt of fetching up against a character or a story with a life of its own that you might be able to use.
I was ten years old. I’d just been beat up by the neighborhood bully again. Bullying, like most things in New York, was compartmentalised. There were the playground bullies at school, who followed a strict class hierarchy, and I mostly hid out in the library anyway. But eventually I had to go home. I was beneath the notice of our building’s bullies, who were teenagers, but out on the street and on our block, unfortunately, there was a preteen bully, and he and his cronies totally had my name. Our janitor—this was years before building managers and doorpersons—would run them off if they hit me too near home and he noticed, but he was about ninety years old, mostly deaf and half blind. And one of the building teenagers took a kind of big-brother shine to me, but this was not actually so great, because my nemesis would hit me harder next time if his hero had been defending me. My mother had her Ghastlies, and my father thought you were supposed to stand up to bullies. That’s all very well if you’re at least as big as they are (which I wasn’t) and the odds were a little more in your favor (there were four of them and one of me). It was not a great time in my life.
This particular occasion, one of the gang somewhat imprudently punched me in the head. Skulls are hard, you know? And he hurt his hand. Poor baby. Ow, he said. But he’d hit me hard enough that I saw stars, and when he hit me again in the stomach (with his other hand) I fell down, and stayed down. That was usually their signal to run away (as long as I hadn’t fallen down too soon and spoiled their fun: there were rules about being bullied too), which they did. I sat up, cautiously, but didn’t try to get up immediately, because I was watching a fascinating movie in my head.
There was a young woman dressed in white, with flowers in her hair, seated on a high open carriage drawn by four horses: two black and two white. The carriage was very grand, gold and white; behind the young woman stood two guards dressed in black, leaning on their spears against the motion of the carriage, but looking very alert and dangerous for all of that. I wondered what—or who—it was that this young woman needed to be so carefully protected against: not that I knew any more about spear-carrying guards than Tolkien (or Robert E Howard) could teach me, but these didn’t look like honor guards to me.
The young woman looked brave. And she looked like she needed to be brave. She sat up very straight, although the bench she was on was backless, and her chin was a raised a little bit higher than if she had been on her way to a picnic or a prom. Her hands were quietly in her lap; she was wearing a ring that sparkled in the sunlight, and I glanced down at it. Which is when I saw that her hands were chained together. Chained. The shock was almost as great as if No Brain had come back and given me another punch in the stomach.
I’d been telling myself stories for as long as I could remember. Longer. My memory began with a story-telling habit already established. Sometimes I wrote my stories down. (Sometimes I burned them after I’d written them down.) But this one was different. I wasn’t making this one up. Whoever the young woman with the flowers in her hair and the chains round her wrists was, she existed.
It was at this point that our janitor found me, helped me up, brushed me off, and distracted me with some very colorful epithets concerning No Brain and his buds.
I shook myself and looked up. Hayley was watching me anxiously. I guessed that Sally didn’t know anything about Homeric Homes’ new client’s dubious means of earning a living, or that one of her employees was a fan. “Would you like me to sign it for you?” I said.
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