February 27, 2016

Rain Issue of EC Submission Window Opens March 1

At 12 a.m., on March 1, the submissions window for the rain issue of Enchanted Conversation opens. That's Eastern Standard Time.

I beg of you, read the guidelines. And please, do not assume I will consider any submission unconnected to the guidelines. Rain may be on the foreground or background of the story, but it must be present. And just sticking it in the work so you meet the most basic level of the guidelines won't work. I will notice.

Want to raise your chances of having works elected? Read EC. Besides reading the guidelines, reading EC is essential.

I look forward to reading submissions. The window closes at 11:59 p.m., EDT, Z March 30.

Go here for guidelines:


Eye candy:

February 13, 2016

EC Valentine Issue Table of Contents

It is the loveliest of pleasures to present the EC Valentine Issue. In it, you will find true love, twisted love, magical love, and even a wonderful cat. One of the stories was good enough to get paste my hatred of love triangles! I'm so proud of these authors.

Here are the works. Just click on the title to read them. And please comment! It means so much to creators, and to me.

"The Bird Marriage," Elizabeth Twist

"Queen's Requiem," E.J. Hagadorn

"Pygmalion and Galatea," Ace G. Pilkington

"The Prince and the Cat," Enid Kassner

"I Give You My Heart," Gerri Leen

"The Heartless Haberdasher," C.Z. Wright

The Bird Marriage, By Elizabeth Twist, EC Valentine Issue

Edmund Osthaus

What do you want? Speak up, when you've caught your breath.

Never mind. I know what you want. You want to hear about the bird marriage. Yes. I'll tell you, since you climbed all the way up here to ask. Not quite sure how you managed that, by the way.

Technically, it's bird marriages. There was more than one. No one seems to remember that.

Let me guess. You want the story of the swans. It's always swans, isn't it? Romantic. Mate for life, don't they? Just so. 

The Swan Queen wasn't always the Swan Queen, but she became the Swan Queen, and searched for a mate. One day she found a secret pond in the midst of the darkest, most remote woods, all silver water and stillness. It was just after midwinter, and the thaw hadn't yet begun, and the fresh green of spring had yet to grow. The world was shadows and moss and new potential, waiting to burst from the earth. 

So long, she'd been seeking, she was tired in her body, and tired in her heart. She floated on the silver water and wondered if she should simply find a place on the narrow bank, lie down, and allow death to take her. 

Three days, she floated on the pond, and three nights she passed in loneliness. 

On the third day, she woke up and there he was, a beautiful white swan, proud in his bearing and strong of wing, and he looked at her, and she looked at him, and it was love. In that moment she knew she'd found what she'd sought, and he was her Swan King, and they ruled the bird kingdom for the rest of their lives. 

Next you're going to tell me that's too easy. Everyone says that. Oh, if only it could be so easy for me! As if it ever is. It wasn't easy for her. Or for them, in the end. 

Let me tell you something about swans. They don't live as long as you'd think. Nor as long as you'd like. 

Yes, they had their time, and that was beautiful. But you don't know how hard it was for her. This was just the end of her story, finding her King. Happily ever after. 

I know what you want to hear. You want to know how she did it. How she made it all happen.

If you want to get really technical about it, yeah. There was a spell. 

I'm not going to tell you the spell. Everyone asks and I never tell. I will say it involves items you would not expect. Candy hearts. Easter eggs, dyed in particular colors. Lots and lots of birdseed. But it's all in the incantation, and it's not very likely you'll find that. 

Oh. You found it, did you? Well, before you use it, you should know it doesn't do what you think. Or at least, not in the way that you think. 

First of all, she didn't become a swan right away. Before she was the Swan Queen, she was the Owl Wife, and believe me, you don't want to hear about that one, but I'll tell you anyway.

Owls are supposed to be wise. It seemed like a good idea to become one. That's all you need to know about why. 

When the Owl Wife became the Owl Wife, she was really burned out on relationships. You'll understand when I tell you about the first bird marriage, which you really need to hear about if you're thinking of using that spell. 

Before she was the Owl Wife, the Owl Wife thought that owls were largely solitary creatures, silent hunters in the night. She assumed that maybe they got together on a casual basis to make little owls, but she expected her life to be one of majestic night flights and not being bothered by anyone else.

At first, it seemed she was right. She flew through the dark each night, a hunting shadow. She ate and grew strong. She found a barn in which to roost. She kept herself to herself. She was whole. She was well.

The days spent sleeping in the barn were long and lonely, though. Soon, at night, the company of the moon was no longer enough. 

One day she woke up and he was there. Another owl. 

Let me tell you something about owls. They can be really loud. After a night of majestic gliding with the moon and majestic hunting, they fly back to their barns and in a dull stupor they cough and gag and regurgitate bones and fur all over the place.

And when they mate, well. It's out of some desperation that takes them over. The moon turned in the sky and the seasons changed and the next thing the Owl Wife knew, she was spinning off into some darkened field, except to her, with her owl vision, it wasn't dark at all. It was brilliant. It was a spectral rainbow landscape where she could hear every sound as if she were seeing it and feel every feather of her warm body caressed by the wind she generated as she glided and felt him beside her. 

Or so I've been told.

Then she woke up in the morning and he was there, regurgitating onto the barn floor, and she thought about how she was going to have to listen to that sound for the rest of her life. 

And so she left and later on became the Swan Queen. The end. 

Oh, you heard different, did you? 

Yes, okay. He disappeared. One night she came back from hunting and he was just gone. 

Yeah, you're right. That isn't quite true either. 

I don't know how you know as much as you do, but okay. She came back from hunting and there were feathers and blood all over the barn floor. A possum, probably. They do kill owls. 

She wished, for a while, that it had killed her instead. But it didn't. So she mourned. She thought about the Owl Husband and she missed him. After a time, she was left with a kind of dull ache, and a need to do something else. 

The thing she learned from being the Owl Wife was that she could love, and it could be wonderful. So you see, by the time she became the Swan Queen, she'd been through enough. Or I should say, a lot. There's always more you can go through.

But that explains some of it, doesn't it? You look at the Swan Queen and you think, what's the point of this story? It's too easy! 

It's never easy.

Maybe you think love came to her because she used that spell. So it was always a guarantee, from the beginning. That spell, it's a funny one. I'm guessing you think it's a love spell, because it says "Valentinus" at the top?  You think you're calling on some Roman martyr, who sacrificed it all in the name of uniting lovers?

There's more than one Saint Valentine. Some of them were never even human. You know how this goes. There's a tradition, a spirit, a shadow of the woods, a--what would they call it these days? an energy? It's been there since the beginning of time, and people have always known it. Then the church comes along, and people give it a new name. 

You do that spell, that's what you're summoning. One of its names is Valentinus, but it surely has other ones. It makes the plants grow in the spring, or so they say. And it helps the birds find their mates. 

You call that love? Well, I suppose it is a kind of love. Not exactly what the Owl Wife had in mind, before she was the Owl Wife. 

If I tell you that part, I might as well tell you about the first bird marriage. Yes, you'll have to hear the whole thing. 

First, there was the spell, with the candy hearts and the colored eggs in their basket, nestled on real grass. And fire. And the incantation. The very one you have there. 

And yes, she was expecting a thing shaped like a man. Why wouldn't she? A benevolent Saint figure, a midwinter Santa Claus. 

But it was a shadow, like the shadows of trees shifting in the wild winds of spring, before the weather turns warm. Birds followed it. Yes, right into her room. They ate the candy hearts and they broke the eggs with their beaks and claws and they roosted in the curtains and they crapped all over the living room, which is when she realized she should have followed the directions and done the ritual outside.

The shadow asked her what she wanted, and she told it she was lonely. The next thing she knew, she was the Parakeet Girl. 

When the woman, who was alone and tired of it, became a parakeet, she belonged to an elderly lady and lived in a cage. It was a really nice cage. Roomy. There was a bell and a mirror. She talked at the mirror. For a while, she thought maybe the image in the mirror was talking back. Parakeets are a bit limited in their cognitive powers. 

Sometimes, the lady let her out of the cage. The Parakeet Girl flew around the room, exercising her wings, which were still strange to her. She pretended the woman was a tree. When she landed in her white hair, her feet got caught in it.

She had an idea, that it wasn't quite supposed to be that way. She remembered a shadow, and telling the shadow that she was lonely, and that she needed company. She needed love. A lot of it. Those memories were dull, and seemed far away. 

One day, another parakeet appeared. He had beautiful blue feathers and a white face. He squawked at her and whistled. She bobbed her head and whistled back. 

Sometimes he groomed her, combing her feathers with his beak. Sometimes, when the elderly lady wasn't there to spritz them with a spray bottle, they had very brief naughty fun times together.

The Parakeet Girl wasn't lonely.

Then another parakeet came. And another.  And some more, until she couldn't count how many of them there were. They got a bigger cage. Everyone chattered and groomed and paired off and squabbled. Happy fun times abounded. There were nests and eggs and babies. Sometimes she was pretty certain she was making out with the mirror, but it didn't matter. It was fine. 

Everyone groomed everyone and everyone was friendly and the cage was loud with boisterous voices and even the night hours were full of soft cheeping. It never stopped, the grooming and fun times and endless ritual greetings. 

There was, in fact, no getting away from it. The Parakeet Girl took bad naps in the middle of the day. All her dreams were haunted by the sounds of screeching. 

She began to realize that being alone wasn't the worst thing in the world. In fact, the dim part of her that still remembered being alone began to long for it. Not in the human world. She'd done that. And she really enjoyed flying. But the perpetual orgy of contact and social time and the constant need to chatter was way too much. 

So she waited until it was her turn for exercise. The woman always let a few of them out at a time. The Parakeet Girl hid in the curtains. She waited until the woman left a window open, and out she flew. 

The shadow was waiting for her, moving with a sound like the rustling of trees in the night. When she wanted to become an Owl Wife, it helped her do just that. Later, when she wanted to love again, it turned her into the Swan Queen.

The shadow always seemed to wait for her. When she needed it, it was there. Even through the last change, after the Swan King died. 

She hasn't seen it since. Sometimes she wonders if she hears it, but since it sounds like the wind in the trees, it's easy to be mistaken.

You probably want to know what happened to her, in the end. After the Swan King, she thought she might have the strength to be human again. She isn't as afraid of being alone as she once was. 

Yes, well, you could say it all worked out, after a fashion. Which is probably the best one can really expect.

Look, friend, I'm saying the spell is not what you think. It isn't entirely bad. If you do the incantation, you call something that isn't quite Saint Valentine, although that is one of its names. And I can tell you, its heart, because I know it has one, is generous. 

Oh. You used the spell already? But you look just like a regular person, and not at all like a bird, so I'm guessing it didn't work for you. And somehow you found out who I was and where I am. 

Yes well, it is a bit obvious that I'm her, isn't it? Who else would care about the bird marriages? Who else would know those stories?

What do you mean, look closer? All right. I'm looking.

Your eyes. I see now. The shadows haven't gone out of them. And there is a sound when you speak. Ah! Like the shifting of the wind in trees.

You came here for me. Well. After all this time. Oh. Those are strong words for someone who is just newly human. I didn't think you could feel things that way. 

It's not that I'm not happy. And it isn't that I could never feel that way about you. It's just that people aren't birds. Our hearts take time. You'll see what I mean. 

Oh no, please don't cry. If I know anything, I know about big changes and how hard they can be. You'll need time. Lots of it. And you'll need some help, and that's okay. You helped me. You were always there to help me. No don't say that. It was help. You didn't break me. See? I'm here.  

Stay. There's plenty of room. There's tea. We can sit, and talk. Just like this.  

Tell me about what happens when you summon yourself and ask yourself for a favor. I see. Anything you wish? Well, that sounds grand. I suppose becoming human is a fine choice, if that's your thing.

What will the birds do, if you're not there to find them mates? What will the plants of spring do, if you're not there to teach them how to grow?

You're right. They probably do know how to do those things on their own. 


Elizabeth Twist is a speculative fiction writer living in Hamilton, Ontario. Her short fiction has appeared in Dark Faith: InvocationsSuction Cup DreamsEnchanted Conversation, and is collected in Six by Twist, available on Amazon. A story by Elizabeth also appeared in the anthology Krampusnacht. She blogs about fiction and weirdness at elizabethtwist.com. 

Queen's Requiem, By E.J. Hagadorn, EC Valentine Issue

Roses are red,
Snow is white.
They think me dead,
Lost in the night.

Upon the slopes,
I kneel in snow.
The water’s glass
Shows me my foe.

The Feast of Love
Sounds in my halls;
I watch her through
The mirror walls.

Carouse and jaunt
The whole night through.
She knows not love,
The little shrew.

Such passion is
A monstrous fate.
I know too well
All love ‘comes hate.

For on this day
Some years ago,
My love betrayed,
Fell into woe,

And down he fell,
His heart in hand.
The pig now rots,
His soul is damned.

The Feast of Love
Is full of lies.
As apples fall,
So all love dies.

I’ll leave her be,
No need to kill.
Yet I shall have
My vengeance still.

No apple needed,
Or huntsman’s glove;
The slowest poison
Is that of love.

E.J. Hagadorn is an independent author of fiction and poetry, whose works include Sing A "Song Of Yellowstone" and the award-winning "Spring-Heel'd Jack."  When not writing, he can occasionally be seen traversing mountains, lurking in graveyards, or sleeping at his desk.

Pygmalion and Galatea, By Ace G. Pilkington, EC Valentine Issue

Konstantin Makovsky

Note: Venus, Roman goddess of Love and mother of Cupid, answered Pygmalion's unspoken prayer and brought his statue to life.

Breathless precision of stone melts to the bliss of flesh;

The sculptor's rapture creates a lover's discovery,

While the slow sweep of his hand keeps in its singleness

Both blade that cuts away and smoothing gentleness.

Almost his touch is a search for dust of ivory;

Almost her jumping pulse is his workshop's purpose.

But the moth-soft mimicry of internal passageways

Is incomplete. The summer-sweet susurrus at her mouth,

Though sent by Venus, is a tremble of wordlessness,

Their alabaster couplings her sole success.

He will turn philosopher when he learns her selflessness.

Ace G. Pilkington has published over one hundred poems, articles, reviews, and short stories in five countries. He is co-editor (with Matthew Wilhelm Kapell) of The Fantastic Made Visible, and co-editor (with his wife, Olga) of Fairy Tales of the Russians and Other Slavs.

The Prince and the Cat: A Fable, By Enid Kassner, EC Valentine Issue

Twas a fine spring day as the Prince ambled through the forest. His mind feasted on thoughts and was active as the birds that flitted from branch to branch in search of grubs. Light were his feet, moving automatically over boulders, crunching through last autumn’s leaves, and fording springs a-rush in clear waters. But the weight of his head was heavy, though it be small, for its contents were as gold: shiny and valuable. So absorbed was he in calculating the relative masses of stars, their distance from his planet, and their ability to support solar systems capable of nurturing intelligent life, that he nearly trampled a small cat, resting herself in a tiny patch of sunlight, and placidly licking her paws.

“Pardon me,” said the cat, “I meant not to obstruct your journey, fine Prince. I should have been more careful in choosing a resting place.”

“Well,” replied the Prince, “there is no harm done, and it is good that I, too, stop for a spell, as my head has filled so bountifully with thoughts that I must momentarily rest it upon the earth.”

Brilliant as the Prince was, he realized not that the cat’s words were cunning. For she had, of course, positioned herself precisely where the Prince was sure to tread. “I have a balm for your head,” she said. “It has proven most effective in soothing those such as yourself who carry the weight of superior intellect. Take this small sliver of my heart, and do not mind the blood, for it pains me not to give it,” she assured him.

How primitive and distasteful, thought the Prince. I will not feast on cat’s heart in the forest. But before he knew what happened, she had used a sharp claw and sliced out a small section of heart, still pumping in her open paw, squeezing out tiny scarlet droplets. “Please, do not waste my offering,” she insisted, “for it is freely given.” And, despite his innate repulsion for consuming flesh or blood of any animal, the morsel slid easily down his throat. To his great surprise, the Prince found he derived satisfaction from this heart-medicine and, as promised, the weight of his head felt somewhat lighter, yet no less shiny and lofty.

“You should not give so freely and indiscriminately of your heart,” cautioned the Prince, “for you know me not. What if I were to develop a rapacious taste for your sweet heart and feed upon it until I bleed the very life from you?”

“Oh, fear not fine Prince,” purred the cat. “The heart of a cat is small, but it regenerates with surprising speed. The more of it I part with, the fuller it seems always to be.”

What a strange creature, thought the Prince, and instantly fell upon the earth, cushioned by a large patch of thick, soft moss, which the cat had placed at the ready for him. Deep into slumber he fell, and as he slept the cat rubbed her whiskers and the corners of her mouth against the Prince’s lips and nostrils. She used her tongue upon his face and neck and kneaded her paws into his curly locks of silver hair. She smoothed her furry neck along his limbs and slid the sides of her body along his torso.

At length the Prince awoke refreshed, jumping to his feet and bidding the cat farewell. “I must return to my deep thoughts,” said the Prince, “and to my quest for a Princess. For I have a fine castle and require a suitable consort. You may follow me, if you wish,” said the Prince to the cat, “and though I have naught to offer you, I will accept such slices of your fine heart as you choose to offer. Be warned though,” he continued, “you may not meow in my presence, for I do not tolerate discord.”

The cat was happy to comply with the Prince’s conditions, for her heart was badly in need of release. It had been some long years and she had found no mortal to whom she could give her heart-blood. Odd though it may seem, this had made her poor heart shrivel to a hard nut. With the first slice given to the Prince, already she felt more free and fulfilled, more completely cat-like and content.

And so some years unspooled through time and the cat came to depend upon the Prince to relieve the ache in her heart. And though he had forbade her, she did in fact meow from time to time when the Prince ventured too long in thought, ignoring her, or when he fell in love with Princesses for whom he joyously yearned, though they shunned him and would not be his bride.

And when the cat meowed the Prince banished her and she retreated to the barns and the fields, and the forests. “You said your heart-slices were freely given,” the Prince reminded her, “but you must remember that I am a Prince and you are a cat. I cannot love you as I would a Princess, though you seem to expect such from me.”

The cat grew fat and discontent and even when she gave niblets of heart, they had grown bitter on the Prince’s tongue. “I wish a large Tomcat would find you,” said the Prince, “and claim you as his mate. Surely you would be happier and I have no need of you."

Now we all know that cats do not shed tears, for it is not in their nature, but they are known to howl piteously when frustrated. And howl she did. She howled, and shrieked, and showed her claws, and when she retreated to the barn she chewed on her paws and licked at her fur and consumed mice and voles and even ate large rats, though they were tough and gave her indigestion.

A Tomcat indeed, thought the cat. What Tomcat could play sweet music as the Prince? What Tomcat thought deeply about stars? And, though the Prince seemed almost unaware that he did it, no Tomcat had hands that scratched under her chin, and petted the rolls of fat beneath the soft-as-velvet fur of her belly, as the Prince was prone to do. Oh, why do I crave these princely attentions, mused the cat? Why can I not be content to feed the Prince pieces of my heart and drops of my blood and praise his virtues and accept his instructions for my behavior? Why must I arch my back and raise my fur and render myself a nuisance?

For his part, the Prince had become known in the land and lauded by the people, for through the manly powers of his mind he had secured for them long life with productive vigor. And he made his princedom just and fair, with its riches shared equitably among all, and harmonious, in peaceful cooperation with neighboring princedoms. Yet he brooded, for he had not won the Princess of his dreams and he wondered if the cat was to blame. Had she placed some feline curse upon him? Had she hissed at the Princesses he wooed, left foul-smelling urine in their shoes, and spat fetid hairballs onto their favorite gowns?

Although the Prince and the cat had come to love each other – each according to their nature and ability – they both had grown weary of their struggles. For it seemed the turbulent changes in their affections cycled like the seasons. As winter sank to its coldest depth, they saw that Valentine’s Day was drawing nigh. “Let us not celebrate as we have in years past,” said the Prince. “Slice not your heart for me,” he continued, “but let us gaze into each other’s eyes and call upon Saint Valentine for a vision.”

And so her green cat eyes with their large glowing pupils joined his blue human ones like polished drops of ocean. And as they gazed the Prince realized that though his heavy head still shone with superior intellect – this alone had failed to bring him the love that all his life he’d sought. Well, the next damsel who doth truly love me shall be mine, he thought – even if she be a commoner of modest fortune and but serviceable mind.

And the cat thought, I shall attach myself to the old Crone cat and learn her ways, for she is wise and helpful to all, content within herself, though her fur be patchy and dull, her paws rough, and her whiskers many. What secrets does the old Crone know, wondered the cat?

Now as it happened, the eyes of Saint Valentine fell upon this oddly matched pair that seemed about to part ways, once and for all. No, no he mused, calling Cupid to his side. “We must help them find their way,” he said. Drawing two tiny arrows from his quiver, Cupid, with one shot, pierced the skin of both the Prince and the cat, and they fell into a trance where all was silent and still.

When they emerged, and we cannot know whether it was seconds or years, the Prince and the cat saw each other with new eyes. The cat indeed loved the Prince and understood his nature. She saw his warts and his virtues, his kindness and his meanness, his tenderness and his woodenness and she loved it all, though it was not as she had at first imagined. And she loved it not for her own need to slice out pieces of her heart and give them away, but as true love is: an open and airy space of atoms and particles circling around and inside each other and existing in all places at once and both needing and not needing each other.

And the Prince saw the cat not with the eyes of his mind but with the eyes of his heart, which had until then been blurred as though by milky cataracts. His brain-logic existed still, but in a different realm from the world of the heart. Why old cat, he thought, I never saw you as I stroked your fur and scratched your chin. How lovely and graceful you are dear cat, and how you’ve doted on me and fed me of your heart and all this time – how is it I did not see that you are me and I am you? Misled by your fur, I did not see that, all along, you were of my atoms and particles, your breath was my breath, your pulse my pulse, your mewling and hissing my own heart’s pain.

In that instant, there was no more Prince and no more cat, no more heart-blood and no more golden brain. There were only two sets of eyes, gazing so deeply inside each other that all they could see was truth. And they saw, of course, that truth was made of love.
Enid Kassner is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program. Her work has appeared in Elephant Journal, 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, and other publications and is forthcoming in Inscape. She writes and teaches yoga in Arlington, Virginia.

I Give You My Heart, By Gerri Leen, EC Valentine Issue

y lovely little Gallina.  How she shines at court.  Her dresses so perfect, magic making them never wrinkle if she sits too long beside my throne on her smaller but still commendable chair.  Her gowns never stain, either, no matter how much wine she might spill during an intimate dinner.

She does seem determined to let the finer points of etiquette elude her.

Oh, why do I lie?  The finer points are not even in question.  I'm lucky if she chooses to use a fork.

When I rescued her from the evil witch, I thought I was getting the princess who had been stolen. Lovely as a child when she was taken and surely just as graceful now, twenty years later.

She was five when the witch stole her from a court where the concept of eating with some measure of dignity was apparently taught at age six.

Gallina is a barbarian.  There, I have said it.  Or thought it, at any rate.  I wouldn't dare say it.  I'm convinced she has bewitched everything in our bedchambers, setting them to spy on me.  She holds onto me as tightly as the witch held onto her.  To say she is jealous is to underestimate the obsessive nature of her love.  A thousand questions await me after even a brief time away from the palace.

It is how she was raised.  I should not complain. My kingdom thrives. She has cured every sickness presented to her, and our people prosper and love her.  The kingdom's livestock give birth to fine young, and our crops grow straight and luscious.

She is beautiful and uninhibited in bed, and she kisses me sweetly even if she cannot seem to use a spoon without dribbling.

Genevieve, on the other hand, has lovely table manners.  Voluptuous creature that she is, she always jokes that she was made to be a concubine, and I would agree if she were actually better in bed than my savage queen.  In truth, I often wish Genevieve was a little more adventurous, that she could provide some lovely middle ground of wildness in bed and decorum at the table.

And on the dance floor.  Genevieve's dancing is lovely and not the almost seizure movements Gallina does.  Primal, Gallina told me her movements were when I offered to enlist a dancing master to teach her the modern steps.  The true dance, she said, and I was sure by the gleam in her eyes that she meant magic.

Do her steps draw out a spell?  An enchantment surrounding my court? Binding all in it to me or to us--or just to her?

She killed the witch, after all.  The people think I did it to free her, but she did it to be free, and that's quite a different thing, isn't it? I would just have been killing an evil witch who had the audacity and cruelty to kidnap a king's beloved child.  But Gallina killed the woman she thought of as her mother.

Gallina killed someone she loved.  All to move on to me--or perhaps more accurately to a better life.

Would her life be better without me here?  Is it wrong to admit that each time I spill my seed in her, I worry she will conceive, and that it will be a boy.

An heir.  Her role would be secured.  Queen Regent.  I would fear for my child if I were not much more frightened for myself.

It is why I should send Genevieve away from court.  She's too great a risk to take.  Until I fully understand the limits of my wife's power, I must be careful not to anger her.  I will send Genevieve away tomorrow, then.   Yes, that will be for the best.  Gallina already watches her with a knowing look.  Best to remove the temptation. At least until the mages figure out how to contain my bride.  I have all of the court wizards working on it.  The best in the land.

Only, last night I saw them dancing in Gallina's wake, eyes slack, mouths open in exhaustion. Maxwell, the strongest among them, was barely able to pull away, and he fell into a chair near the door, fanning himself as if she had nearly danced him to death.

Given his age, she might well have been trying.

I hear her steps outside the door, the tap-tapping of her heels.  She never wore shoes when she was the witch's daughter and apprentice, so one would think she would trip and fall occasionally as she becomes accustomed to the complicated court styles of dress, but she never does. I think she has bewitched her shoes the same way she has everything else.  Really, that would be a small magic, wouldn't it?  Compared to the crops and the animals and how even when I am lying in her arms and
feeling terror, she can make me rise, my manhood a snake and she the charmer.

Why, then, can she not bewitch the silverware?  I have never seen her wear silver, come to think of it.  She uses it with no seeming pain but perhaps there is something in it that resists her magic.  I shall have to tell Maxwell, if he still lives after his exertions from last night. To be honest, I have not had the heart to check on him.

The door opens.  For a moment, I catch my breath as always.  She is the loveliest thing I have ever seen.  But that thought slips away when I see the stark look in her eyes, the way she no longer smiles to please me, the way her laughter sends a shiver through me.

"Have you no idea what day it is?"  She is dancing and for once the steps look like something others might perform on the dance floor and not some kind of fit.  "It is Valentine's Day, my love."

I know this, of course.  Only men who do not fear their wives can afford to miss the important days: birthdays, anniversaries, and of course this cursed feast of love.

I thought I loved her, when I met her, when she smiled at me from the well outside the witch's house, and my horse, usually so fractious, settled under her gaze.  I felt a fire go through me, and she was all I desired.

Just another spell, I know now.  I was her way out.  She saw it long before I did.

And perhaps the witch did, too.  The old woman looked almost relieved as she burned, the fire starting inside her and then exploding in flames that scorched her but did not spread to anything else in her little house.  Gallina has never told me how she did it.  Perhaps it is best not to know.

I reach into my desk drawer and bring out a lovely silk bag.  "Will you be my Valentine, my lady?"  I try to make my smile sweet and silly, as if this is just a game, one of love and lust and things natural.

She opens the bag and pours out the necklace I had made for her by the best goldsmith in the land.  Her eyes meet mine, and she smiles.  "How beautiful.  Where did you get this?"

"Johannes, the Younger."

"So fine for me?"  She holds it to her nose and sniffs it as if it is a flower.  Her laughter cuts through our chambers.  "I think I smell Maxwell on this.  A little magic, perhaps?"

How can she do that?  Maxwell assured me she would never know the necklace was enchanted.

She puts it down, patting it gently, saying that she will wear it some other day, that it does not go with the gown she has on, but that is a lie.  It has no stones, is nothing but cunningly worked gold.  It will go with any color fabric.  By design.

She pours herself a glass of wine from my goblet.  The chalice is silver.  I wait for her to take too strong a drink, to choke on it or let some wine dribble out, but she sips it like a lady born to the palace.  "Have you never noticed that I only make mistakes when it's just us?  Are you so bored with me that you don't see I can make you proud at court dinners?  That I do it when we're alone to get a reaction--any reaction?"

I frown as I consider this.  I sit across from her when we dine in our chambers; I sit next to her at court dinners.  Truth to tell, I probably have not paid attention to how she does at those occasions, especially with that night's guest of honor at my other side, monopolizing my attention.

I am not sure what to say, so I say nothing.

"I brought you a present, too."  She claps and a man I do not recognize brings in a box.  He sets it heavily on my desk and then bows to her and, grudgingly I think, to me before walking out.

I force myself not to ask who he is.  It would show weakness and that I will not do.  "What is it?" I ask instead, touching the box.

"A heart.  Is that not the point of this holiday?  To give someone your heart?"  She smiles, and it is the one I first saw her wear, when I felt my own heart jump and dance at the idea that this beautiful creature might be mine.  "Open it."

It is a box from my favorite bakers.  Perhaps inside is a heart of chocolate or a rose-shaped wine-cake.  I push the top off and freeze.

A heart--a human heart--lies on a cake plate.  The heart is beating.

For a moment, I think it is hers.  That she has made a mistake, and I will crush the thing and have my life back.  "Yours?" I ask, and I realize she hears the hope in my voice when she frowns.

"No."  She leans in, running her finger over the heart and it beats faster at her touch.  "She's a pretty thing, your Genevieve. I quite like her.  I asked her how close you two were, and she told me her heart belonged to you.  What better Valentine could a man get but the heart of a woman who loves him--of the woman he loves back."  She leans down and kisses my neck, her lips close to my ear as she murmurs, "I'll keep the rest of her.  I may even share her with you on occasion. Or you can destroy the heart and set her free.  I'm looking forward to seeing which option you choose."

She touches the necklace again.  "This is truly a work of beauty.  Have Maxwell take the spell off it and give it to me again. Tonight."

She looks at me with a ferocity that is unnerving but also shocks me, because I see something lost in her eyes, a softness I do not expect. Does she love me?  Is this how she loves?  I can feel my manhood responding even as I am repelled.

I force myself to focus on the heart of my poor Genevieve.  "You have killed her.  Either way, you have killed her."

"No, I can put it back inside her if I want to.  The question is, can you make me want to?"  She looks at the necklace, and again there is a look I can't read on her face. "It really is beautiful.  Fix it so I can wear it."

"And if I don't have him remove the spell, will you force me to?  Will you work more of your damned magic on me?"

"I will not take your choice away.  I never have.  That day, at the well, you wanted me--I didn't make that happen, only what came later with...her."  For a moment there is something that might be grief in her eyes.

"Your mother."

"Yes.  The only one I could remember until you reminded me I'd had another.  My mother, who I killed for you."  She strokes my hair off my cheek where it has a habit of falling.  "Always for you." Her voice is wistful.  "I will see you later, my king."

And then she leans down and kisses me sweetly on the lips, entwining her fingers gently in my hair, doing things with her tongue I could never quite teach Genevieve.

I feel my heart leaping the way it did when I first saw her.  As she passes Genevieve's heart, it too speeds up.

"My dearest love," I whisper as Gallina closes the door.

I am slightly horrified to realize I'm not sure who I'm saying it to.


Gerri's bio: "In addition to work you've published in EC, I have stories at Daily Science FictionGrimdark, Escape Pod, Athena's Daughters II and others. I've also edited a speculative anthology, A Quiet Shelter There (Hadley Rille Books, 2015), that benefits an animal rescue in the Northern Virginia area.  You can see more at www.gerrileen.com.  It's a little out of date--one of my next tasks is to get it updated."

The Heartless Haberdasher, By C. Z. Wright, EC Valentine Issue

Once upon a time, there was a wooden man who owned a haberdashery. Every day, he measured and fit fine accessories to the people of his town. The local barrister sent his beautiful daughter, Gavenia, to the haberdashery every month to make purchases. Month after month, Gavenia gazed longingly at the wooden man, who not once noticed or returned her attention.

One day, an old woman, bent and gnarled, entered his shop and requested he fit her with something that shone.

As he worked, the woman noticed the haberdasher wore a beautiful coat with hearts embroidered in silver thread. "You wear your heart on your sleeve," the woman said. "Are you not afraid it will be stolen?"

The haberdasher shook his head. "No, my lady. Being made of wood, I do not have a heart and so, I do not fear."

When he was finished, the woman wore a bright band of silver ribbons in her white hair. "It is quite beautiful," the woman said. "I would like to repay you for your excellent work. If you are willing to perform a task for me, I will reward you with a heart."

The haberdasher considered the offer. He had lived his entire life without a heart. His business was good, but he often believed it could improve, could he only join his customers in their delight at his work. The woman added, "I have seen how the barrister's daughter looks at you, haberdasher." Her black eyes glittered. "How will you respond when she offers her heart to you if you possess none to return to her?" At last, he agreed.

The woman told him of a dark wood far from the haberdashery, in which sat a small, deep lake. If he approached the lake when the water was quite still and looked at its surface into the eyes of his reflection, the dweller of the lake would come forth for battle. She instructed him to train vigorously, for if the creature approached and the haberdasher had no training, he would surely die. Defeat the dweller of the lake, the woman said, and the heart would be his.

"But where shall I store this heart?" the haberdasher asked. "I am hollow." The woman peered about the shop and her gaze alighted on a small sewing box. She whispered to it and the haberdasher was sure he saw the box glow for a moment. She held out the box to him and he accepted it, setting it in the front of his chest.

"Do not forget: put the heart in this box as soon as you have it." With that, the woman stepped out of the shop and into the street, rose into the air and flew away with haste.

The haberdasher closed his shop and gathered what he needed for his journey. He ventured out of the town and onto the well-travelled road.

The wood lay three days' walk from the haberdashery, and he took the opportunity to train himself. He improved his agility by running, his senses by testing himself on what he could see and hear, and his strength with exercises every few miles on the road. He was unsure of but did not fear what would be required when he faced the dweller of the lake.

When he reached his destination, the wood soaked up the light in its leaves high above its trunks, leaving the ground below dim and dusky. The haberdasher walked deeper into the forest, fearing neither the dim light before him nor the looming blackness above him. Presently he arrived at the lake. Its surface mirrored the mottled darkness of the canopy above. The haberdasher knelt before the lake and slowly bent to peer in. The still, smooth glass of the surface reflected the haberdasher's face perfectly. There was his wooden skin, his dull eyes, his expressionless countenance.

He gazed into his own eyes and watched as his reflection lifted from the water's surface. It shifted. Now his reflection was the haberdasher; now it wore a horse's face and rose up and out of the lake to stand upon its surface. Now it was a shaggy man, with eyes black and wild, and it lunged for the haberdasher with a howl. The haberdasher's training stood up to the onslaught. He dodged the dweller's attacks, noticed it was stuck fast to the lake, and struck at it with such strength that before long, the shapeshifter lay dead.

An enormous raven glided into the clearing and landed upon a branch. It held a shiny thing in its beak. The haberdasher approached with caution. Once he stood beneath the branch, the raven dropped a gold heart into his outstretched hand. The raven fixed him with a black eye before it flew away.

The haberdasher placed the heart inside his coat pocket, having forgotten about the sewing box, and retraced his steps toward town. In the back of his mind, he feared to lose his prize, even though he did not recognize the sensation as fear.

By now, the sun hung on the horizon and the sky had darkened. Upon exiting the woods, the haberdasher gasped. He gazed at the sky, with its swathes of orange, rose, and red sunset opposed by dark blue and purple twilight on the other horizon. Tears stung his eyes as he felt a strange sensation wash over him. He placed his hand over his throat, feeling it constrict with the pressure of the feeling.

The pain he felt from observing the sunset did not ebb until halfway through his second day of travel. He did not recognize the sensation and it alarmed him. He hoped he would have the opportunity to confer with the old woman. The haberdasher approached a bridge and a sound interrupted his thoughts. A small dog sat upon the bridge yelping pitifully: its paw was caught in a broken board and the dog could not move. Upon seeing the state of the dog, the haberdasher raced toward the creature, tears again stinging his eyes at the thought of this creature alone and frightened for so long, and carefully freed the dog's paw. The dog covered the haberdasher's face in grateful licks and the haberdasher's face crumpled into sobs of joy.

By the third day of travel, the haberdasher’s concern at his behavior had grown. On the outskirts of the haberdasher's hometown on the third day, the strains of evening mass drifted on the wind, stopping the haberdasher in the road. He closed his eyes, curious and fearful of new sensations. As the voices of the choir rang out in majestic song, tears fell for the third time from the haberdasher's eyes and he felt a warming sensation throughout his body. He stood upon the street, weeping openly for the joyous beauty of the song until he could no longer bear it. Wracked, he hobbled home to his shop, his hands clenched into fists over the aching he could feel but not locate.

"Take it back," he pleaded to the empty shop, "for I cannot stand it!"

He fell forward on his counter, sobbing with grief and joy at once, and his attention fell upon the small pile of sewing implements. He remembered the sewing box and the old woman’s warning. With haste, he opened the box on his chest, which had grown warm. He retrieved the golden heart from his pocket and placed it inside the sewing box. He closed the box and was nearly overcome with a wave of heat that washed over his body.

The haberdasher breathed in, something he had never done. He hurried to a mirror and what he saw astonished him: his skin had bloomed into a warm color and no longer had the appearance of wood. His eyes were a rich brown, and in those eyes shone a light that had not been present before his journey. And although he could still hear the choir, although their song lifted his heart, he was no longer overwhelmed by its beauty.

It was at this moment that the door to his shop swung open, and the barrister's daughter entered the shop. She had not changed, but when the haberdasher's gaze fell upon her beauty and grace, he felt his heart leap for the first time.

Gavenia smiled shyly at the haberdasher. It took him a moment to recall the order she had placed but three days before, so struck was he by her beauty. He fetched her father's order and when he returned, she said, "I notice you wear your heart on your sleeve. Are you not afraid it will be stolen?"

The haberdasher lost himself in her eyes a moment before replying. "It cannot be stolen from me if I should offer it to you."

Gavenia's face broke into a radiant smile that set the haberdasher's heart afire. She accepted, they wed, and lived happily ever after.

CZ Wright is a podcaster with the Arcology Podcast and a freelance writer whose work has been published by Catalyst Game Labs. She lives in Wisconsin