To Ethan, Veronica had never been more beautiful.
Across the room, he watched her sip her champagne and laugh as she touched her husband’s arm. Brian’s arm. She had a lyrical, crystalline laugh so unlike the booming false chuckles all too common in this sort of crowd. All these rich people he didn’t know, all the friends the couple made since leaving college. Ethan wondered why he’d agreed to attend…
Brian clinked his glass with a small serving fork, summoning the room’s attention. Veronica hugging in close. Her smile made Ethan ache all over again.
Clearing his throat, Brian said, “Welcome, welcome, old friends and new. Thank you so much for coming to our home. A toast to you all!” He raised his glass and the rest of the room followed suit.
“When Veronica and I married a year ago, I never knew that I would not only be getting to share my life with my best friend, but also that I would become close to so many of you,” he said, garnering a wave of applause from the room. Ethan downed his drink, scanned for another.
“Oh Brian, stop teasing. Let everyone know why we’ve invited them.” Veronica said.
“Right you are my dear. Well, as many of you know we have been blessed with remarkable fortune in the past year. And it’s all thanks to our D’Jinn, George Marid.” Ethan nearly spit out his refreshed champagne. He’d known Brian was loaded, but to be able to afford a D’Jinn? Damn. The reality distortion permit fees alone–let alone the costs involved to lease (or buy!) the thing–were more than Ethan made at the University in four years.
“I know it’s impolite to talk about money or magical means, but I’m telling you this because I want to assure you that all of tonight’s festivities will be completely safe. No back-alley hedge witchery for our nearest and dearest,” Brian said, culminating in that annoying, chin wagging, tooth flashing rich guy chuckle. “Ahahaha.”
“So without further ado, I’d like you to all join us at the dining table.”
Seated with the nineteen other guests, Ethan kept glancing back towards the door to the kitchen, wondering if he’d catch a flash of the D’Jinn. In what he could only surmise was yet another conspicuous display of wealth, Ethan noted that Brian had summoned Marble Tile Elementals to act as servants. The pink stone creatures stood at attention at the sides of room, each holding a covered silver tray.
Brian clapped twice and the Elementals lowered their platters to the table. Pulling back the lids they revealed endless varieties of foods with no discernible themes: tepid-limp french fries cooked three hours ago, clusters of grapes, ramekins of caviar, generic brand wheat crackers, fresh baked rosemary bread still steaming, and dozens of other dishes… many of which Ethan didn’t even recognize. Around the edges of the foodstuffs were little notes in calligraphic script that read Eat Me or Consume Me or Ingest Me. Of course, the Elementals then brought out pots full of tea.
‘Typical,’ Ethan thought. ‘When will everyone just stop trying to dig up Lewis Carrol’s corpse already?’
“Now everyone,” Veronica said, projecting her voice to be heard over the excited background murmur of the guests, “Please keep in mind that if a transformation doesn’t suit you, feel free to sip some tea. If you are unable to manipulate the cup yourself, the Elementals will respond to any psychic command you care to give. Now please, friends; enjoy.”
The guests reached for the dishes, fingers hesitant. A woman nibbled at a slice of white cheese, giggled as light began to arc around her in a halo of braided ringlets. A man took a fig into his mouth and grew four feet in a moment. And then everyone was joining in, taking a gulp of this or a chomp of that and they shrunk and transformed and distorted reality in a hundred different ways.
Ethan took a bite–to be polite–and felt distinctly polka dotty. Hurriedly, he slurped down some tea to right himself. This whole spectacle felt… improper somehow, extravagant and gauche. If he ever had money, he’d make sure he didn’t flaunt it for all to see. He excused himself, got up and moved towards where he thought the bathroom must be. Laughter drifted from behind as he stalked down the hallway.
Ethan must have taken a wrong turn because he ended up in the kitchen. He almost called out for help when he saw light from what looked like a fire dancing across the walls. But there was no smoke, or heat. He realized with a start that the glow came off the red orange skin of a D’Jinn. He nearly jumped when he recognized the creature.
The spirit rolled dough across a flat piece of wood, muttering to itself as it labored. Even though the D’Jinn spoke in a language unfamiliar to Ethan, he could have sworn the being was cursing as it worked.
The D’Jinn turned, narrowed its eyes at him. “Oh. So you’ve arrived.” The D’Jinn spoke with a voice like brown grass crackling into ash.
“What?” Ethan said, confused.
The bound spirit continued to stare at him.
“Uhh, sorry. Just looking for the restroom.” Ethan turned, hurried towards the exit.
“Wait,” said the D’Jinn. A shiver coursed down Ethan’s spine.
“You pine for another, the smell of it is nearly overpowering,” the D’Jinn said, sniffing, “Someone who is here yes?” As the creature spoke, Ethan turned and tried to face down the thing. Its eyes were like ancient fires cooking over bones.
“You’re obsessed over what could have been, what should have and would have been if only you were a little wiser, a little stronger, a little wealthier when you were wooing her; before Brian came along.” The spirit practically spat the name.
“I really must be going…” Ethan said, not moving.
“Hear me: I am bound to this house by the one who is both our enemies. He has hobbled my magics to only be used for the infusing of food. But he has not the craft, he is not as wealthy as he would have you all believe. The Master of this house cannot afford me in any state other than this.” The spirit grimaced, and Ethan wondered what it must be like to be so constrained.
“I ache to stretch, I ache for my freedom. And you can gain me my freedom, gaining your heart’s desire in the process.”
Ethan glanced towards the door, but knew he would stay until he heard the spirit out.
“Bound though I am, I can give you this.” The D’Jinn held out a single pomegranate seed. “Eat this, and you will find yourself as you were six years ago. Before Brian entered the picture, except with all you know now. With your knowledge, you will gain the lady’s favor and she will never wed Brian. You will have love, and I will never be summoned and bound as a wedding gift.”
The tiny fleck of red sat in the D’Jinn’s hand. Without thinking, Ethan walked over and shoved it into his pocket, his hand trembling. He turned, though not quickly enough to completely miss the entity’s sharp, too many toothed smile.
“I return to my labors and await whatever the morning will bring.”
Ethan scurried from the room as quick as he could.
Ethan returned to the party, did his best to make small talk. The fact that the rest of the guests were giddily oblivious over their endless mutations and warpings to really notice him allowed Ethan to slip back to his seat without comment. Later, after the drinking of tea and the serving of wine with that manifested mild, nostalgic hallucinations; Veronica came up to and tried to talk with him.
Ethan did his best to chat about his research, but kept finding himself distracted by how lovely she truly was.
At home, Ethan went over the possibilities for the eighth time. Obviously, the D’Jinn could be lying and the seed could do any number of (potentially) uncomfortable things. And even if the D’Jinn was telling the truth, the seed would be a powerful magical artifact and without a proper permit Ethan might well be subject to stiff existential fines at best or a prison sentence in one of the solipsistic cells of Underearth at worst.
No, he wouldn’t do it.
Veronica was happy now. He was happy. Best thing to do was put the seed on the night stand, go to sleep and turn the thing into the Department of Continuity in the morning. It was probably just a prank anyway…
Ethan lay in his bed for four hours, utterly unable to fall into unconsciousness. At 2 am, he rose, grabbed the seed, and popped it into his mouth.
He chewed once, wincing at the intense taste of cinnamon and soured causality as everything changed forever.
Veronica sipped her champagne, suppressing a sigh. A small circle had formed around the two of them as Ethan retold a story she’d heard a hundred times; one of a set of five Ethan had been endlessly recycling for the past four years…
″…so I tell the guy, that’s not my gnome!”
The assorted suck-ups chuckled dutifully and Veronica managed a thin-lipped smile. She drained her glass of champagne, her fifth that evening, and wandered off to be someplace where her husband wasn’t (re)telling tired old stories. Because the stories weren’t the problem, just a symptom: everything about her marriage to Ethan had become tired.
She’d begun to feel the same restless itch she’d felt six years ago, before Ethan had found his passion and started ‘playing the market’ as he’d called it. There was a moment, a moment where she’d just been so… bored with him. But then, it was as if someone had flicked a switch inside her then boyfriend and he’d been everything she wanted. He’d been passionate and romantic and he’d started making money and she’d thought ‘If this is the man Ethan is than this is the man I want to be with.’
But, maybe that version had only been a passing fad. Because now that passionate, smart, successful man that had appeared was gone.: The romance had fizzled months ago, shortly before the investing had. Now they lived off stored wealth and charity, quite unsustainably actually. She’d tried to bring this up with him, but Ethan just talked on and on about ‘the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to.’ She’d had to ask Daddy to borrow money four times, each pixie-gram more emberrassing than the last.
But that wasn’t the worst of it, the worst of it was this: Ethan didn’t really love her, just the version of her that lived on the pedestal in his mind.. If only she’d been able to realize this back before, when she would have had a chance to…
Lost in her thoughts, Veronica saw Brian and almost dropping her glass.
He stood somewhat apart from the crowd, drinking in the scene with the same quiet confidence she remembered and every bit as handsome besides. There had been something there for a moment, something between them: and while she was working up the courage to break it off with Ethan six years ago she’d often thought how she’d love to ask him out.
She approached without thinking.
“Brian!” She said, though she feared with too much obvious enthusiasm in her voice. She hugged him, splashing a bit of her refreshed drink onto the back of his sport’s coat.
“Veronica, hey! It’s been ages.” He replied. “How have you been?”
“Good, real good. How about you? What are you even doing here?”
“Great! I’m actually Cynthia’s plus one.” He waved a little, and Veronica turned to see Cynthia making a shy smile and a tiny wave in response. The flash of envy felt like a glass of cold water poured down her back.
“I didn’t actually know you two were dating…”
“Oh yeah! Not for too long, we hooked up for coffee when I returned to town from a tour of the Clockwork Lands and things have just kinda, well you know.”
“Oh, ok.. well.”
“I hate to gush but, it’s going really great. Really great. And I keep telling myself not to make too big a deal out of it but I feel like… well when you know you know right? I just imagine this is what it felt like for you and Ethan.”
Veronica smiled with all of her teeth, only the smallest tremor in the lowest part of her mouth betraying the fact that she was forcing it only with tremendous effort.
“So you said that you just got back from the Clockwork Lands?”
“Oh yes, it was great. I was just overseeing my firm’s expansion there. It’s great work really, I feel like it’s definitely going to make a difference in the lives of the apprentice classes.”
Cynthia walked over and intertwined her fingers with those of Brian’s free hand. “Oh hi, Veronica, thank you so much for having us,” she said, smiling her false female smile. “Come on Brian, there’s someone I want to introduce you to.”
“Sounds good, babe. I’ll talk with you later, Veronica,” he said as his date led him away.
Veronica stood alone, the champagne in her belly curdling with her mood.
Dinner inched along, and Veronica made small talk on autopilot. Despite her own best efforts, she kept sneaking peaks at Brian. She was sure that Ethan–busy playing host and more than a little drunk– didn’t notice, although the same certainly couldn’t be said for Cynthia. She cozied up closer to Brian, flashed her teeth at Veronica.
As for Brian, he had captivated the people sitting near him. He talked business and passion, literature and life. Honestly who couldn’t be entirely enrapt by him when he spoke? Who couldn’t help but falling in love with him… just a little.
Ethan meanwhile, continued to tell old stories and tried to make himself appear richer and more important than he actually was.
Veronica excused herself and left the table, secretly hoping that Brian would follow her.
After wandering her too-large house for fifteen minutes it became painfully obvious that Brian was in no way going to appear for a secret tryst. Even if there had been something, once, now there was Ethan and Cynthia and if nothing else Brian was a gentleman. When she’d pulled away from him all those years ago–when she’d been captivated by Ethan’s now-dwindled surge of passion and life–he’d bowed out and gone on with his life.
And now all she wanted was to be part of that life.
Somehow, she found herself walking past the storeroom at the back of the house. Blue liquid light like the moon reflected over a disquiet pond shone from underneath the door. Without thinking about it she opened the door to enter the closet.
The blue skinned D’Jinn, her D’Jinn, sat in its fountain chair staring up at her. “Oh, you’re here,” it said in a voice like a brook babbling.
The D’Jinn–Mary Ifrit– had been a wedding gift from Daddy. Ethan hadn’t wanted to keep it; he seemed mistrustful of all magic. But Veronica had insisted, for her father’s sake. They’d eventually compromised: they kept the D’Jinn but never asked anything of it, never used its magics for anything, and sealed it up in storage like an unwanted toaster.
It all seemed like such a colossal waste to Veronica.
“What, were you expecting me?” Veronica asked.
The spirit only smiled.
“You pine for one who is not yours, for a life you might have had. I desire my freedom. Tonight, with my help, you may choose to grant us both what we want.” It spoke quickly, a current of desperation flowing beneath its words.
Veronica scoffed. “Right, right, I just do what you say and whoopsie, you forgot to explain it will turn me into an octopus or something? I’m sorry you have nothing to do down here but don’t try to play your games with me.”
Mary Irfit shook her head, streams of water like braided hair shaking with her. “No games, no tricks. There is no way to keep D’Jinn from exuding magic… even if one’s Master commands that no active work be done. I have spent the last four years of my confinement collecting the excess magic that dews off of me. And I have shaped this.” The D’Jinn held aloft a single sea grape.
The lato glowed with promise, beautiful in the blue white light. Veronica couldn’t take her eyes off of it.
“What is it? I mean, what would that do?”
“If you eat this, you will awaken six years prior to this night. Back when you were planning on beginning a new life with Brian. Before Ethan reclaimed your love. You will be able to make the choices that you wish you had made then, you will have the life you’ve dreamed of…”
“And what’s in it for you exactly? I remember you saying something about your freedom.”
The D’Jinn licked its lips. “If you do not marry Ethan, then I will never be caught and bound as a wedding gift to you. I will be free.”
“Look, I’m sorry about, well this…” Veronica gestured to the claustrophobic walls of the storeroom, the boxes of things they didn’t care for but couldn’t bring themselves to part with. ”…but I need to go. I can’t help you.”
As she turned to go, the D’Jinn shot forward. The thinnest possible dribble of water stretched from its midsection to the fountain that bound it to its place. It reached out, fully extended, its hands barley touching Veronica’s. The D’Jinn put the Lato into Veronica’s palm, closed her fingers around it.
“Please, Veronica. Please. You do not have to make a decision now. Think on it. Sleep on it. If you decide you would rather not you may cast the thing aside. But I swear to you that my words are true: You will have the life you wish and I will have my freedom. This is all I wish.”
Veronica blinked at the thing’s sad eyes, didn’t know what to say. The D’Jinn sunk back, allowed itself to be drawn back towards the fountain.
“Now go, I await to see what the morning will bring.”
Somehow, Veronica soldiered through the rest of the evening, the sea grape clutched in her fist the entire time. She saw her guests out and retired to bed; still in her formal dress. Ethan stumbled in perhaps half an hour later, collapsed next to her. She kept her back to him and listened as his breathing devolved into snores.
Veronica lay in her bed for four hours, utterly unable to fall into unconsciousness. At 2 am, she stood and unclasped her fingers from around the sea grape. She considered, briefly, flushing it down the toilet; popped it into her mouth instead.
She chewed once, wincing at the intense taste of cinnamon and soured causality, as everything changed forever.