THE MIDNIGHT MARKET by Michael M. Jones

Tonight, we're in the Gaslight District of a city
somewhere in America. Not my favorite stop
on the Midnight Market's perpetual tour...
Night after night, I sit in my little corner of the Midnight Market and peddle my wares. Amidst the colorful stalls and gaudy tents, my ragged, threadbare blanket sticks out like a sore thumb. Compared to the enchanted trinkets and mouth-watering produce that some sell, my handwoven bracelets seem cheap and tawdry. Hours can go by without anyone showing interest in me; it gives me ample opportunity to study people without them noticing.

Tonight, as the moon hangs full and bloated overhead, we’re in the Gaslight District of a city with the charming name of Puxhill, somewhere in America. Not my favorite stop on the Market’s perpetual tour; it lacks the exotic beauty of Faerie, the salty charm of the Emerald Sea, the sickly-sweet decadence of Meridian. And yet, the people here, those who stumble in from the world of logic and reason, have a certain innocent appeal nonetheless. College students, inebriated tourists, sightseers who never grasp the Market’s true nature. As they pass, I hold up bracelets woven from colorful thread and silver hair. “For luck,” I tell them. “For faithfulness. For friendship.”

I know what they see when they look at me. Just another girl, her clothes tattered and dirty and disheveled. Dark hair unkempt, shadows under the eyes. They think me homeless, selling my cheap little goods to afford another meal, a fresh shirt, a place to sleep.

They’re not entirely wrong.

I just hate the pity in their eyes.

I can’t tell them why I have nowhere to live, nothing to truly call my own.

Father set the rules, after all. I have no choice.

Tonight, business is slow all around. The witch’s apprentice and the cobbler’s assistant make cow eyes at each other from their respective stalls. Young love. Euugh. I suppose I should be happy for them, but I find the whole idea of romance nauseating. Over in its own place, the Mirror of Truths silently waits for its next victim. That I can respect; it always charges dearly for its answers.

“If you keep making that face, it’ll stick that way,” says Madame Bellwether with a laugh as she passes by, heading back to her fortunetelling after a quick snack. “You’d attract more customers with a smile.”

I give her a smile I don’t mean, changing it to a grimace as soon as she’s past and no longer able to see. She lures them in with bells and baubles and cleavage I don’t possess and tells them their futures wrapped in sugar and lace. She gave up trying to help me once I made it clear I couldn’t, wouldn’t accept it. Still, she occasionally buys me a meal, so I can’t hate her. She’s made it clear that she’d find work for me if I ever wanted.

Too bad the rules forbid me from accepting that offer as well.

“How much?”

I blink back to reality. While I was staring at Madame Bellwether’s retreating back, customers snuck up on me. Curse me for a woolgathering fool. I take quick stock of them: a middle-aged couple, dressed well but not exceptionally. A date night for them, then. A stroll through the Gaslight District, perhaps after dinner and a movie. Their lives and dreams are banal, their secret worries dull.

I immediately paste on the same smile as before. “Whatever you think they’re worth,” I say in a shy, hopeful voice. “You might like these. They’re for true love and faithfulness.” I hold up two bracelets: golden hairs interwoven with pink and blue threads. From the way the two glance at each other, I know their relationship is solid but doubt exists in the margins. They want these tokens to tell themselves all is well.

The man whips out his wallet, prepares to give me a single bill—his companion stills him with a hand on his arm, and they hold an unspoken conversation. He offers me twice that—forty dollars—and I accept it with feigned gratitude. Freshly confidant in their charitable natures, they take their bracelets and leave me behind. They don’t see what I do, the subtle glimmer of glamour laced into their new souvenirs. They will find it hard indeed to cast the bracelets aside, giving the magic time to work.   I tuck the money away to dispose of later. Perhaps I’ll donate it to the Chapel of the Wanderer; they can always use the extra funds to take care of those who accidentally wind up in the Market and can’t find their way home.

Father would hate that. He loathes churches.

Good.

“Hey.” Another customer. Two in under an hour. What dark fortune is this? I look up to meet the curious eyes of a fresh-faced blonde in her late teens, clad in artfully-faded blue jeans and a new Tuesday University sweatshirt. An appropriate outfit for an autumn night. Immediately I look for her inevitable companions; girls like this never travel alone. Sure enough, I spot several more of her ilk scattered about the Market, sampling perfumes and holding up gauzy scarves and sniffing ripe fruits. They have the feel of something connecting them. A bond. Sports team? No. Sorority sisters? Yes. And the one in front of me… one of their youngest and most innocent. Oh, this could be good.

“Hey,” I offer. “You want to buy a bracelet? Or a necklace? I think I have one that represents sisterhood…”

To my surprise, she crouches down to put us almost on the same level. “Maybe,” she says. “But I wanted to talk a little.”

Of course she wants to talk. She’s a do-gooder, isn’t she. The other couple, they could assuage their guilt with money and a smile. This one needs a story. “Talk?” I say. “About what?”

“My name’s Chelsea,” she replies. “And I was wondering if you… if you needed help or anything. Like, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want.”

“This?” I ask, as if I’m not completely aware of the image I present.

Her gaze flicks over me and my blanket; she masks her revulsion well but I see it anyway. “My sisters and I can help you if you want. Whatever you need. A hot meal? Clean clothes? A place to stay?”

I smile inwardly at her awkwardness. She wants so hard to do something good for someone down on their luck, and I fall into her comfort zone. I’m not the dangerous kind of homeless. Why, she probably thinks, I could be one of her sisters if only I was clean and respectable. “Thanks,” I tell her, “but I’m doing okay for myself. I—this isn’t as bad as you must think. I can take care of myself.” I dip my head, wipe away a tear that doesn’t exist. “It’s better than the alternative.”

Her mouth opens a little as she considers this. “Did someone—were you—I’m sorry?”

I put on a brave face. “No, it’s not like that. Don’t worry. No one hurt me. It’s just that…” I swallow. “My father and I didn’t get along. He tried to control me, make me live by his rules. I refused. Finally he kicked me out.”

“Oh no!” Chelsea gasps, blue eyes wide with shock and sympathy. “That’s horrible! Didn’t you have anyone to stay with? Family or friends?”

I shake my head. “No. I never knew my mom, and I was never close to my siblings. And pretty much everyone I knew was afraid of my father… he’s really powerful and has a lot of influence. So…” I shrug and indicate my wares on the blanket in front of me. “Now I make my own way.”

The beauty is… everything I tell her is true.

Chelsea’s eyes gleam with unshed tears. “That sucks. I don’t know what I’d do if my dad was like that.”

“Yeah, well…” Another shrug, and I look down as if ashamed to meet her gaze any longer. “This isn’t so bad. The people here are nice, and they take care of me. Honestly, I don’t need that much.” I look up. “So, sisters, huh? I can’t imagine being part of a sorority. How do you all get along so well?”

Chelsea beams, and launches into an excited babble about how wonderful it all is to be part of something bigger than herself, and how they all take care of each other, and how much love is in the air. And I read between her words, where I see her desperation to belong, her need to prove herself, the tiny worm of ambition nestled deep in her heart. I encourage her with nods and the occasional question, and she prattles on about how it’s the best thing ever.

Meanwhile, her sisters have grown bored with the Midnight Market, and are clustering nearby, some with bags in their hands or wearing new accessories. Several look impatient, checking the time and wondering what bars are still open. One—a tall brunette with a no-nonsense demeanor—heads our way. “Chelsea? Are you finished? What are you evendoing?” she calls.

“Oh! I’m sorry, Madison!” Chelsea exclaims, startled by the intrusion. “I was just talking.”

“Well hurry up! I’d like to get back to the house before dawn!”

“Okay!” Chelsea gives me an apologetic smile. “I… It was nice chatting. Um. You said you had some sisterhood bracelets?”

“I enjoyed it also,” I say, which isn’t quite a lie. “And yeah. Here, try these.” I hand her several made from purple and orange threads wrapped around alabaster-white hairs. To my eyes only, they shimmer subtly as they exchange hands. These are some of my most potent. “Give one to whoever you admire the most in your sorority, and I promise it’ll work wonders.”

Chelsea beams, offering me way more money than these are worth, and I take it so she’ll feel like she’s done some good after all. She bounces to her feet with her new purchase. “I’ll see you again? Um, if you want, that is. I know you don’t need—”

“Come on, Chelsea,” Madison snaps. “We don’t have all night for you to flirt with the homeless chick. God, I thought you had standards.”

I’m pretty sure only I catch Chelsea’s moment of shame and resentment at Madison’s words. I know without a doubt she’ll give the sisterhood bracelet to Madison as a peace offering, and for a while, they’ll believe all is well. “Better go,” I tell her. “Maybe I’ll see you around. If not, take care.”

“You too. Um, I never got your name?”

“Lili,” I say.

Chelsea smiles. “That’s a pretty name. Um, g’night.” She waves and follows her sisters out of the Midnight Market.

I watch them go before settling back on my blanket, secretly hoping that’s the end of it for the night. I can only stand people for so long.

Meanwhile, the bracelets I’ve sold will whisper to their new owners. They’ll fan the flames of emotions, stoke the fires of jealousy and suspicion, encourage ambition, and perhaps even bring ruin. Chelsea—dear, sweet, innocent Chelsea—will wind up destroying either Madison or herself as their sisterhood crumbles.

I spread chaos in my wake, with none the wiser.

Just as my father commanded when he cast me out for my continuing defiance.

Forsake home and possessions and comfort. Claim nothing as my own. Tell no one the truth of my origins. Weave the hairs plucked from his beard into the things I create and sell them to the unsuspecting. Survive for seven years, and return to take up my name and inheritance, my power and privilege once again.

This I can do.

For I am the devil’s own daughter. 
Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who knows better than to make unwise deals at the crossroads. His word can be found in anthologies such as Clockwork Phoenix 3, E is for Evil, and Dark Luminous Wings. He is the editor of collections such as Scheherazade's Facade and Schoolbooks & Sorcery. For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff

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