They call it a market, but really, it’s more like a carnival. Except pretty much everyone looks like a skeevy Carnie, even the people who come here to buy stuff.
There are acrobats, artisans, games of chance, clowns (who are utterly terrifying) and jugglers. There are those dudes on stilts, strong men, and bearded ladies. There are food stands and magical animal auctions (two angry trolls dressed like pixies, and one very confused goose that probably does not lay golden eggs) and of course, there’s a greased-warthog-catching contest. I mean, who can pass up the chance to try and grab a greased warthog?
Hawkers tell me I’d be getting the opportunity of a lifetime—three beans could grow you a palace in the sky—as I walk by. The air smells like fried dough and cotton candy when I get a lucky twist in the breeze, and like foot and ass when I don’t. There’s a lot of energy and glitter, but like any carnival that isn’t part of an entertainment park owned by a massive corporation, there is also the dinginess of poverty creeping up all the brightly striped tents and banners like mold. Actually, I think most of it is mold.
Harmless spells create the illusion of pomp and circumstance. Unicorns paw at the ground in front of gilded temples but turn the corner and you can see—in one glimpse out of a thousand—that it’s really just some sway backed nags in front of a tattered tent. Fireworks burst endlessly in the sky with no smoke or boom. Everything that is beautiful is magic, and magic is nothing but illusion. It's kind of sad, really.
And there aren’t any kids. That’s one of the weirdest things about Lucitopia. No babies, no children. I’m the youngest person here by far.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not baby-crazy or anything. I mean, I like babies. I used to babysit on the weekends for my neighbors, and they had this little boy who was kind of great because he used to laugh every time I blew raspberries on his cheek and he only cried when he had a wet diaper. His parents would leave for date night, we’d play ten minutes of peek-a-boo, I’d give him a bottle, a bath, and that kid was out like a light while I ate Doritos and read books on my phone until the ‘rents came home at midnight. I was basically getting paid to do what I would be doing on a Saturday night anyways, but without having to listen to my parents arguing in the background. Easy money.
I know babies can be really annoying. Except when there aren’t any. Just try to picture it. You look around and realize that you’re at a carnival, but there’s no one laughing or screaming because they’re so happy they can’t keep it in anymore. No one is jumping up and down in front of the glass blower because a person used fire to melt glass into syrup that became a dragon. There isn’t even anyone to run screaming from the terrifying clowns. That’s when you realize that kids are annoying, yes, but they are also supposed to be there. And there aren’t any here.
Lucitopia is dying.
Being the youngest person by an average of six decades does not mean that I don’t get harassed, by the way. Not in Lucitopia. Once, this dusty mummy of a dude tried to reverse whistle at me—you know, that type of whistle where they pretend you’re so hot that they got burned just looking at you and they suck the air in through their teeth? Yeah, well, while he was sucking in, his last tooth came out and he choked on it. I had to give him the Heimlich. Afterwards he asked me to marry him, which I though was decent of him, considering the unintentional intimacy of the maneuver.
“Buying or selling?” a thousand-year-old creep asks, right on cue. “Please tell me you’re selling.”
“Stow it Dracula, or I’ll plunk a stake in your heart,” I tell him.
I feign a British accent to fit in. Everyone here has a British accent. Don’t know why, exactly, except that British accents are pretty much required in these kinds of vaguely medieval magical epic fantasy stories. And if you think about it, how ridiculous would a movie about knights and sorcerers be if everyone had a Brooklyn accent?
Dracula laughs so hard he sends himself into a coughing fit. He has no idea what I’m talking about, of course. There is no Dracula in Lucitopia, I don’t think. He’s just having a laugh because I gave him some sass.
At this point I think the geezers at market just hassle me to see what I’ll say to them. We all sort of know each other by now—but only in a side-eyes sort of way, so sort of not at all, actually. I keep my hand on the dagger in my belt as I pass him, just in case, and quash a smile.
I shake my head at someone who’s paying a little too much attention to my satchel and when he abruptly abandons his attempted robbery I make my way down Fortune Alley, where all the old con-ladies flock together like a murder of crows.
“Come for your fortune, dearie?” cackles a fat woman with a sequins shawl, dyed black hair, and mawkishly painted-on lips.
“That’d be stupid,” I say bluntly. “There is no future here.”
She closes her mouth with a snap. Then she adjusts her shawl and sniffs, like she’s too good for me. Her eyes dart up to the golden circlet around my head.
“Why come down Fortune Alley, then princess?” she asks. “You won’t find anyone to kiss you here.”
I have to be careful, because one of the rules of being in Lucitopia is that I can’t let on to anyone that I’m from another world, or I’m stuck here forever. But if she already knows…
“You know how I have to be kissed by a real boy to get out of here?” I hazard.
“The Great Griselda sees all and knows all,” she intones.
“How fortuitous.” I get in her face. “Because I need to find Mother Maybe.”
“I know all, for a price,” Griselda corrects.
“Yeah,” I chuckle, pulling out my dagger. “But I bet you’ll tell all to save your life.” Her face goes blank. She’s not so sure she likes where this is headed anymore. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” I say.
I’m being a jerk, but so is she. Why can’t anyone here just give me directions or help me find someone or not try and take me for every cent if I ask them for the frigging time of day? Everyone in Lucitopia is a jerk, and I hate having to be one in return.
And let me be clear about something. I’m not going to hurt her. But here in Lucitopia if you haul out your purse like a gap-toothed bumpkin and say how much every time someone tells you it’s going to cost you they never give you want you want. They just keep finding new and interesting ways to take your money while they lead you on a merry jaunt across this rat-infested hell. I don’t have the time for that.
“Just take me to Mother Maybe,” I tell her, shrugging tiredly. “If you do, I’ll give you enough money to buy ten sparkly shawls. Okay?”
She nods hastily, never taking her eyes off my dagger. I do sort of have a reputation for being good with a dagger. To be honest, in the beginning I got lucky. Couple of bandits, a few well thrown knives that by some miracle hit a few tender bits, and word got around. Then I practiced. A lot. I don’t know if I could live up the reputation I’ve got now, but like I said—bunch of old people. When the majority of my opponents would sooner throw their backs out than throw a dagger, I probably don’t have to be all that good to be considered amazing.
“This way,” Griselda says with far less cackle in her voice than previously.
As she walks in front of me, I notice the rounding in her back eases away and the fat in her middle stretches out as she stands up taller. She is neither short nor fat. Nor is she all that old. Maybe in her fifties? Not young, but certainly not old and feeble. In fact, she looks quite hale.
Griselda leads me down a few switchback alleys behind the main drag. The tents here are made of less garish material, but they’re cleaner and they reek less. She comes to a small canvass tent that’s a basic olive-green color and stops at the opening flap.
“I’m not saying she’ll help you,” Griselda says. She actually has a beautiful voice. A soft alto. “But she’s been waiting for you. Too long, I think.”
I don’t know what to say. This Griselda is much different from the Great Griselda who tried to swindle me. She seems almost stately is the only word that comes to mind.
I take a step. I don’t know why I’m hesitating. I shake myself and reach for my purse. A deal’s a deal. Griselda holds up a hand.
“Please,” she says, refusing to take my money. “Mother Maybe is waiting.” She holds the tent flap open for me and follows me in. “She’s here,” Griselda calls out.
“Well, well, well,” says a sighing voice.
Mother Maybe looks the same as she did at the swap meet on Fairfax and Santa Monica. Like a tatty Stevie Nicks. She wears fringed, dream-gypsy clothes that are a little worse for wear. She has thick, long, curly blonde hair, an upturned nose, and just enough of a figure left to let you know she was smoking hot about twenty years ago. She comes out from behind a partition that runs the length of the tent carrying a mug of tea that says unicorns are a-holes in worn words on the side of it.
She gives me a look that’s normally accompanied by a tisking sound, and then goes back to stirring her tea. “Finally done waiting for Prince Charming to come and save you?”
I hate it when people say well, well, well. I also hate it when they trap me in dangerous fairy tales. I should give her a piece of my mind. Too bad I’m still hung up on that last thing she said about waiting to be saved.
“What do you even mean by that? You’re the one—you told me I had to get someone to kiss me!” I stammer.
“And you thought the best way to go about that was to climb a tower and sit on your ass?” She perches a fist on her hip. “No wonder everyone stops reading you. You’re passive. No one likes a passive character.”
“I…was…I’m trying to not get killed!”
She smirks at me. “And you think trying not to get killed is going to win you a huge fan base, do you?”
My mouth is hanging open. I shut it and try to look outraged. “You never told me it was going to be like this.”
She makes a face like she knows I know I’m lying. “You came to my table and start digging through my books. I asked you what you like to read.” She gestures around her. “Ta-da!”
“You made me get this stupid book—and by the way, you are a terrible used book saleswoman because I specifically said that I liked a strong romance in my epic fantasy. Where’s the romance?” I put a fist on my hip to match hers, but it’s really just a watered-down version of hers. Fists on hips only work if you’ve got some meat there to really land it. I recover and get back to picking the bone I have with her. “And I never thought it would be real.”
She smiles at me. “But you hoped with all of your heart that it would be. I told you to be careful, that you couldn’t take it back, and you went right ahead and said the words.”
I don’t have an answer for her because she’s right. Crap, I think I might cry.
“I misjudged you, that’s true,” she admits, nodding sadly. “I thought you could be the one.”
“Oh. Great. You’re disappointed in me, now?” I retort. Good old sarcasm. Saving me from yet another emotional moment. “I stayed alive. I didn’t want to die like a—a”
“Like a hero,” she finishes for me.
“I’m from Fresno. There are no heroes in Fresno!”
She turns away from me, heading for the partition. She’s going to leave. She’s going to leave and I’m going to be stuck in miserable Lucitopia forever.
“Wait!” I plead. “You have to help me.”
“I don’t know what you think I can do for you. You had a shot, and you blew it. Everyone stops reading when you go and hide.”
“Then send me back to the middle of the book, where there are still people reading,” I whisper. “Send me back before the battle on Knob Knoll. Please. I still have fifteen days.”
“Fourteen and a half,” she corrects sternly.
“Better than nothing.”
She smiles. “That’s the spirit.”
Then she looks me over. She’s got green eyes—that kind of green that can be mistaken for blue unless you’re looking right into them. And she smells like patchouli, but not in a head-shop way. She smells nice, actually. Damn, she’s got great skin. Lucitopia’s one perk. I haven’t had a pimple since I got here, but in the real world I have a face full of acne. Too bad I haven’t been able to enjoy my newly awesome complexion because I’ve been too busy avoiding rape and pillage.
Mother Maybe turns to Griselda. “What do you think?” she asks her.
Griselda narrows her eyes, considering. “She’s got some skills now, but skipping back that far?” She shakes her head.
Mother Maybe smiles at her. “You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t cautious,” she says, and then she turns to me. “Okay. I’ll send you back, but on one condition.”
I roll my eyes. “Anything. And, yes, please, give me a condition or a clue or something because I have no idea what the heck you want from me.”
Mother Maybe pushes back a panel of the partition and gestures for me to go behind it. “No more waiting around to be saved. Make your life the story you’d want to read.”