The Spinning Talent
"Aria, you idiot!" Della shouted as her roommate walked in through the door, humming dreamily to herself. "What did you think you were doing down there?"
"I'm in love," Aria told her, falling happily onto her bed and staring up at the ceiling. "He promised he'd come back tomorrow, Delly! And I gave him Papa's old ring to remember me by —"
"That's what I meant," Della moaned, putting her head in her hands. "The headmistress will kill me when she finds out I let you give that away. It was enchanted to protect you from your birth-curse!"
"But who better to protect me than my true love?" Aria asked earnestly. "Besides, I don't believe I have a birth-curse. Papa's overprotective, that's all."
"This is supposed to be a school for the intelligent," Della groaned. "How did you even get in?"
"Daddy's rich," Aria shrugged, staring dreamily at the ceiling. "And I know I'm not as smart as you are, but nobody is, so there. Besides, he's my true love, and everyone knows true love conquers all!"
"Exactly how long have you known your 'true love'?" Della asked nastily.
"I've seen him from a distance before," Aria sighed happily. "But we've never spoken till now. Oh, Delly, wait till I tell you all about him! He's so handsome and brave and smart and witty, and he danced with me all night, and —"
"At the ball you went to after curfew," Della muttered.
"That's the one," Aria murmured. "And, oh, so handsome! I never realized from a distance just how handsome he is! Just wait till I tell you how we met —"
"I'm not interested in hearing how you met," Della snarled. "I don't even care who he is. Just make sure you get that ring back tomorrow, you hear?"
"Oh, Delly, you're so obsessed." Aria pouted. "His true love will protect me better than any old enchantment could. Just look at history."
"You're flunking history."
"Oh, don't bother me with lessons while I'm basking in true love's light!" Aria cried, flinging her arms out. "What do I need with school when I have him?"
Della groaned loudly, pinching out the candle by her bed. "Will you please promise to get your ring back from him the next time he drops by?"
"Oh, Delly!" Aria giggled uncontrollably. "You miss the point completely!"
* * *
To Della's fury, Aria spent the next three weeks sneaking out past curfew, chattering about her "true love" to every other girl who would listen, and evading every conversation about her ring. Her true love was apparently the second prince of the royal family, at least according to her horde of admiring classmates.
"Oh, he's so gorgeous," Lesias whispered, peeking just over the top of Della's dorm window to watch them. "Everyone says Havol's going to inherit the throne, but Tendar's the cutest. Aria's so lucky, I could just die!"
"Don't die," Della said sourly, "and get out of my room. Both of you."
"Oh, but I haven't had my turn yet!" Stellar cried, leaping up from Aria's bed. "Lessie, let me see! Please! Just one peek!"
"I don't suppose she's asked for her ring back yet?" Della muttered.
"OH, GOSH!" Lesias cried. "Stellar, look! They're kissing!"
That did it. Della slammed her textbook shut and stormed downstairs to the library. How could she expect to keep her scholarship if nobody would let her study?
* * *
Two weeks later, the headmistress called an all-school assembly about a truly horrifying prospect.
"King Jerold has announced a wish to find a new goldspinner," she informed the chattering crowd. "To facilitate this, we'll be holding tests for the spinning talent all day. Once you've been tested, you may have the rest of the day off, though normal classes will resume tomorrow."
Excited buzzing broke out among the crowds of girls.
"The spinning talent!" one of Aria's friends cried rapturously. "Imagine if I had it! Goldspinners don't have to worry about anything — they're in highest demand of anyone!"
"If I had the spinning talent, I wouldn't have to worry about marrying rich," another girl giggled, clapping her hands. "I could choose whatever cute husband I wanted, and make us both wealthy."
"I'd like to spin straw into gold," Stellar said dreamily. "Then Aria wouldn't be the only girl here with a chance at winning a prince."
Della listened in cold horror as the headmistress announced where the testing would take place and the order they'd be tested in. She didn't want to take a goldspinning test, didn't want to take the risk that she might pass it. Her grandfather had had that talent, and he'd been worked to an early grave as a result.
Besides, who wanted suitors who only liked you for your gold?
* * *
"It's fairly easy," the history mistress told Della, threading several long, thin straws through her wheel. "You spin this, chant the words, and see if anything happens. Are you enjoying that book about King Jerold's great-grandfather, by the way?"
"Oh . . . yes," Della said nervously. "Interesting man. He really used to be a beast before some princess kissed him?"
"Most historians suspect lycanthropy," the history mistress said. "Which means it may not have actually vanished. But it doesn't really matter as long as true love won, now does it?"
"Sure," Della muttered, her stomach tied in knots. She glanced across the room, where Aria was struggling to thread straws through the spokes of her wheel. The protocol mistress, looking exasperated, pulled the straws away from her and demonstrated how to use the wheel properly.
"Well, go on!" the history mistress smiled, patting Della on the shoulder. "Let's get this over with!"
Hands shaking, Della adjusted the spindle and twitched the straws into place. She'd used spinning wheels before, back home, but never for this — never to attempt this.
She squeezed her eyes shut and took hold of the wheel.
If I say the words wrong, there's no way it'll work.
"Straw into glunnnmmmb," she muttered. "Stlllmmmmm into gllllrrrd. Stlaaaa into . . ."
Della's eyes flew open. She jumped to her feet, knocking her wheel over.
Aria lay slumped across her own spinning wheel, its spindle clutched upside down in her hand. She didn't appear to be breathing.
Della ran to her fallen roommate.
"Aria!" she cried. "Aria! Wake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up, and breathe, you idiot!"
Aria gasped, and kept breathing. But her face remained still.
"I — I — I don't know what happened!" the geography mistress was babbling, near tears. "She just seized it, and it pricked her finger, and — and look what happened!"
A crowd of girls leapt up from their spinning wheels, clustering around Aria and murmuring excitedly.
"Out of the way!" a loud voice barked, pushing through them. Through a haze of tears, Della recognized the face of their headmistress.
"What happened here?" the headmistress demanded. "Was she starving herself? Does she need her corset loosened?"
A babble of excited theories sprang up from the crowd of girls around Aria.
"SHUSH!" the headmistress shouted, cutting them off. "Della, you're her roommate — do you know what caused this?"
"N-n-no," Della stammered, her whole body shaking. "I mean, she ate like a horse — she doesn't lace her corsets too tight — headmistress, I think it might have been her birth-curse!"
Gasps rang across the whole room.
"Didn't she have a ring to protect herself from that?" the headmistress demanded, her voice dangerous. "I recall her father saying she had to keep it on at all times."
"There's no ring on her fingers!" a girl called from the crowd.
Della gulped back a sob. "She — she gave it to a — a suitor, a few weeks ago."
"And you didn't inform me immediately?" the headmistress roared. "That neglect may have cost your roommate her life!"
Della burst into tears.
"You!" the headmistress shouted, pointing at the history mistress. "Find out who that boy was, and get it back!"
"I know who the boy was!" Lesias squeaked. "It's Tendar, our second prince! He's Aria's true love!"
"Prince?" The headmistress's voice sounded hoarse. "Prince of our kingdom? The king never answers inquiries. We'd never get through in time . . ."
Della shook all over.
My fault, she thought numbly. This is my fault. If I had just told the headmistress, instead of worrying I'd get her into trouble . . .
"We should send a message to the court anyway," the protocol mistress said shakily. "I'll figure out a way to make them listen to us. Surely nobody would argue when a girl's life is at stake."
"King Jerold is a stubborn man," the headmistress said hollowly. "And greedy. If he said he wants a new goldspinner, he's not going to listen till one arrives. He might not even listen after."
Della squeezed her eyes shut, stood on trembling legs, and forced herself to look up at the headmistress.
If this is my fault, she thought numbly, then I have to be the one to solve it.
"I might be able to speak with him," she croaked.
* * *
"You have the spinning talent?" Headmistress Riena demanded, her sharp eyes pinning Della.
"Not for sure!" Della shook her head, shaking. "I don't know for sure! But — my grandfather had it. Mom's kept that a secret since . . . since I was teensy . . ."
"How could you keep something like this from us?" the magic mistress squealed. "Why, even the possibility of such a rare
"Hush," the headmistress said, flicking a glare over at her. "Clearly Della didn't cherish the idea like you do."
"Yeah," Della said miserably. "Why can't the king just find an alchemist if he wants more gold?"
"Alchemy's notoriously unrealiable," the history mistress murmured. "No one's made a philosopher's stone in centuries."
"Besides, goldspinning has more mystique!" the magic mistress squeaked.
"Perhaps for a king," Della said bitterly. "Headmistress . . . how long do you think Aria's got before she dies from that spell?"
"Well . . ." The headmistress looked reluctant. "She's essentially in a coma, and she's very skinny. I don't think she'd digest anything but water. Perhaps . . . a week?"
"A week?" Della cried. "It's a three-day journey just to get to the castle from here!"
"All the more reason to run the test quickly!" the magic mistress cried, eyes gleaming. "There's no time to waste!"
"There's no call to rush her!" the headmistress barked. "We'll wait until she's ready."
Della took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and steeled her shoulders. "No. It's all right. If Aria's time is limited, the sooner we test me, the better. If I have the talent, I may have a chance to save her. If I don't . . . well, better to know quickly."
The magic mistress ran to fetch a spinning wheel. The headmistress picked up a pile of papers and shuffled through them, not seeming to want to look Della in the eye.
"A goldspinner . . ." she murmured. "I never dreamed we might have one in our midst."
* * *
It worked. Of course it worked. Three spins of the wheel, concentration, and a few magic words were all it took. Looking at the string of wire and the magic mistress's ecstacy, Della felt a wave of misery and relief.
I have a chance to save my roommate, she thought, closing her eyes. But at what cost to me?
* * *
"Goldspinner, goldspinner!" The fat king clapped his hands, his belly jiggling. "How fast are you? What high quality? Show me!"
Della fought to keep from glaring at him. "Fetch me a spinning wheel, sire, and I will do as you say."
The king waved his arms wildly at a pair of servants on the other end of the room. "Spinning wheel!" he hollered. "And lots of straw!"
Della scanned the room as thoroughly as she dared, but Prince Tendar was nowhere in sight. One snooty courtier stood in the corner, his arm around the waist of a sour-faced lady, but they looked like the crown prince and his newly-betrothed.
Where was Tendar? She had to find him as soon as possible. She had to get that ring back.
"So!" the king crowed, as four servants lugged in an enormous spinning wheel and six bales of hay, "prove your worth! Turn these all into gold!"
Della gaped at him. "All?"
"That's right!" The king rubbed his piggish hands together gleefully. "All of them!"
But that could take weeks! Della thought desperately. Goldspinning works one straw, one thread, at a time — how can he expect me to do it all at once?
Della's mind flew furiously, trying to think of an answer that wouldn't enrage the king.
"Have you ever seen a goldspinner in action, sire?" she burst out.
"Well." The king's brow wrinkled. "Not precisely."
"Well, that's because a . . . a goldspinner . . . needs privacy, sir." Della gulped. Would he buy it? Just one minute alone would let her sneak away and speak to Tendar . . . "We can't produce on demand without — um — while people are staring at us, and —"
"LOCK HER IN A DUNGEON!" the king howled. "If she can't produce gold from these by morning, kill her!"
"What?" Della gasped.
"Then you can prove you have the gift," the king leered. "See you in the morning!"
Della screamed and tried to run, but three of the king's servants grabbed her.
"And fill the dungeon with straw!" the king shouted. "I want to see all of it turned gold by morning!"
* * *
Della spun two long gold wires and then gave up in despair. Over an hour had passed, and the tiny threads looked worthless next to those giant mounds of straw. Besides, her fingers were sore and blistering.
Yesterday I was free, she thought, flinging a huge pile of straw at her spinning wheel. I chose to come here to save my roommate. Now all that's going to happen is that we'll both die for nothing.
"The universe is unfair!" Della shouted.
A shadow bubbled in front of her, and a hideous man slurped out of it.
"Agreed," he said.
"Who — what —?" Della gasped.
"A friend." The ugly man smirked. "Do you need help?"
"I don't — I can't — it's impossible!" Della gulped back tears that sprang to her eyes. "Even if you goldspin too, there's no way all this straw could turn by sunlight!"
"Sure there is." The man's face turned crafty. "Quite easily."
"How?" Della demanded, yanking a straw off her blouse and flinging it to the ground. "Even with a dozen goldspinners, this work would take weeks!"
The small man coughed. "Well, I am not, in fact, a goldspinner. But I am an alchemist. And I happen to have a philosopher's stone with me."
Della froze. "A philosopher's stone?" she whispered. "Aren't those nearly impossible to make?"
"Yes, nearly." The man smirked. "But I happen to be brilliant. Masterful. The greatest alchemist in hundreds of years —"
"Get to the point," Della muttered.
The man coughed. "Well. It so happens there's something you could do for me."
"I'm not marrying you," Della said flatly.
The man looked insulted. "Nothing like that. I just need a favor."
"I'm promising nothing about my first-born child!"
"Just a small favor!" the man shouted. "A teensy thing! You'll barely notice it!"
"What?" Della demanded.
"I . . . er . . ." The man coughed and looked away. "I'd rather not say . . . just yet."
"Then I'm not agreeing."
"Thankless, aren't you?" The ugly man eyed her. "Do you want your life saved or not?"
"Fine," the man said. "I'll just go back."
"All right!" Della shouted. "Help me!"
The man smirked. He reached into a shadow and pulled out a tiny gold ball. He tossed it in the air and caught it again.
"You get the straw," he told her. "I'll turn it. And let's hurry. We don't have much time left."
* * *
The king's fat jowls turned crimson at the sight of all the gold in the room. He wept with happiness as he flung himself into a huge pile of it.
His wife surveyed Della with a highly suspicious eye.
"None of that looks spun," she said, her mouth a thin line. "It's still shaped like straw."
"W-well, that can happen sometimes," Della stammered, her palms wet with fear as she held them behind her. "It — depends on the goldspinner, you see. Your majesties, may I . . . may I please see Prince Tendar? It's really urgent. You see —"
"Oh, certainly!" the king cried jubilantly, tossing handfuls of gold-straw in the air. "Whatever you wish!"
"No." The queen shot him an angry glance. "I don't like this. There's something wrong. Besides, if she can turn one room of straw into gold, why can't she do another?"
The king froze, seeming stunned by that idea.
"N-no!" Della stammered. "I was — I've — I can only do so much at once! The magic's exhausted for now!"
The queen smiled thinly. "Well, you'd better hope it finds its way back soon, hadn't you? Guards, lock her up again. Let her sleep and eat. Then kill her if she isn't finished making more gold in the morning."
* * *
Della stared at the mounting piles of straw with mounting despair.
"Won't you let me out, please?" she pleaded to one of the strong-armed servants, lugging in hay. "Even for one minute? I'll pay you all the gold you want. No one would notice —"
"Nah." The servant shrugged. "Gold's going to be worthless if the king spends any of this. And he's bound to. Doesn't know the first thing about how economy works."
"I'll find some other way to pay you, then!" Della said desperately.
"Can't pay me if I'm dead," the servant smirked. "Face it, goldspinner — you're stuck here."
"But Prince Tendar!" Della cried as he left. "At least bring him here! I just need to talk to him for a minute!"
The servant burst out laughing.
"You and half the kingdom, missy!" he called, waving. "But you're not nearly luscious enough for his taste!"
* * *
Della slumped in the corner, staring at the endless straw that towered to the ceiling.
"Need help again?"
Della gasped, spinning around. "You!"
The little man pulled his arm from the shadow with a slight slurp. "For another favor, I could save you again."
"No way." Della smacked a handful of straw, which went flying. "If I change all this tonight, I'll just get stuck with more tomorrow. If I do it long enough, gold will become worthless, and the king will blame me. I'm dead either way."
The man considered, looking at her. "That's pretty accurate," he admitted.
Della closed her eyes and breathed in slowly. "I — I don't suppose you can take people with you when you're shadow-walking?"
"Welllll," the little man said slowly. "Maybe . . ."
"Yes or no."
"I've never tried it," the man muttered.
"Then let's try it." Della opened her eyes. "Take me out of here. Or at least to Prince Tendar. I need to speak with him."
"Prince Tendar?" The man looked stunned. "Why him?"
"None of your business!" Della shot back.
"Then I won't help you!"
"Then I won't live to do your favor!"
The man seemed struck by this.
"I mean, you do have a reason to keep me alive, don't you?" Della asked.
"Fine." The man looked surly. "I'll take you to Prince Tendar, then out of here. But after that, you have to do my favor."
"Only if you say what it is," Della said peevishly.
"It's a small favor," the man muttered, looking angry. "Reasonable."
"Then tell me what it is!"
"Not till you've agreed!"
"That defeats the purpose!"
The man spun on his heel and folded his arms.
"Huh!" Della flopped onto the spinning wheel and sat there, waiting for him to change his mind.
Minutes passed. Silence.
Minutes more passed. Stony silence.
Every minute delayed is another minute lost of Aria's life, Della thought unwillingly.
"All right," she muttered. "You win. Once we leave, I'll do your favor."
"Promise?" the man asked eagerly.
"If I have to," Della muttered.
The man grinned and grabbed her arm. Della gasped as her body liquified. It felt like her whole self had turned into nausea.
They zipped up the wall outside the castle, around to a window, then right through it.
There, in a curtained bed, lay a beautiful prince. Asleep, he looked like an angel.
He's gorgeous, Della admitted, weak at the knees. But he likes Aria, she reminded herself quickly. And really, that doesn't say much for his taste.
"Here to give him a kiss?" the ugly man asked, smirking.
"Shut up," Della muttered. She walked over to the prince and put her hand on his mouth.
The prince's eyes flew open. "WHF—!"
He relaxed, catching sight of Della's face. She pulled her hand back slowly.
"Hel-lo, beautiful." The prince held out his arms. "Are you here for me?"
Outraged, Della smacked him.
"Ow!" the prince cried, clutching his jaw. "What was that for?"
"Aria's ring," Della hissed, checking over her shoulder for guards. One might arrive any minute. "Give it to me."
"What are you talking about?" The prince scrambled back, looking alarmed. "I don't have any ring!"
"Aria's ring!" Della hissed in a strangled shout. "Your true love's ring! She needs it to protect her from her birth-curse! Give it back!"
"I don't have a true love!" Prince Tendar scrambled back further, looking scared. "I've never had a true love! I don't want any ring!"
Della leaned forward. "Give — it — back," she hissed.
"GUARDS!" Tendar shouted, scrambling out of bed. "GUARDS! There are assassins in here! GUARDS!"
The door flew open. The ugly man lunged for Della, and they slurped into the shadows again.
Over walls. Through the doors. Faster, faster, away from the castle, through the forest, into wilds Della had never heard of before. Then, at last, they bubbled upwards again.
Della grasped a tree branch, dizzy. "That — has got to be — the most unpleasant way to travel," she gasped.
"But the fastest." The ugly man sat down. "If only at nighttime. You, ah . . . back there . . ."
"I — I failed." Della turned away, gripping the branch. "I totally failed. What's wrong with him? How could he pretend to have forgotten? She's spent the last few weeks obsessing!"
"Ah . . ." The ugly man sounded very awkward. "That . . . well, see, things . . ."
"I can't believe he's such a creep!" Della exploded. "He said she was his one-and-only! What a liar! What a creep!"
"He's . . . ah . . . well . . ." The man's voice fumbled. "You know . . . about that favor you said you'd do . . ."
"I've got to get that ring back," Della moaned. "I've got to get it back. But where's he hiding that thing?"
A lint-covered ring appeared under her nose. Della stared at it.
She turned around slowly.
"You?" she asked in a strangled voice. "You — you —"
"It was love at first sight!" the man cried piteously. "I'd never seen a maiden so enchanting!"
"SHE COULD DIE BECAUSE OF YOU!" Della shouted.
The man's eyes widened. "Die?"
"She's been in a coma for five days because she was missing that ring! She has a birth-curse! That was enchanted to protect her!"
"Here! Here!" The man dropped the ring in her hands. "Take it! Save her! She never said anything!"
Della snatched it. "How did you — why did you —"
"Just a whim." The small man looked away, his voice red. "I'm good at magic. Sometimes I want to look handsome. Desired. Popular. So I use illusion. Then I met Aria."
"And the favor?" Della snarled.
The man pawed the ground with his foot. "I just . . . wanted somebody . . . to tell her the truth. Slowly. So she'd accept me. You're her friend. Her roommate. I thought, if anybody . . ."
Della closed her eyes, sighing. "Aria's shallow. All the clever lead-ins, all the careful explaining, won't make her accept you. Her 'true love' was the prince you pretended to be."
"But if you just explain —" the man said desperately. "The real me —"
"She'd see nothing in the real you."
The man stumbled back. "But I'm brilliant!" he snarled. "I'm a genius! I invented shadow-walking! I created a philosopher's stone! I could give her anything —"
"EXCEPT POPULARITY!" Della shouted. "Brilliant magician you may be, but you're a dunce socially!"
The man's shoulders slumped. He turned away.
Della closed her eyes.
Harsh tongue, she thought. Harsh words. Mother would whip me.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "But it's the truth."
"I'll take you back," the man said dully, without turning around. "You save her. It's the least I can do, if she's dying."
* * *
Aria's eyes opened slowly, looking into Della's face and yawning widely.
"Hello, Delly," she chirped. "I feel marrrrrrvelously well-rested today!"
"I'm glad to hear it," Della muttered. "You almost died."
"Oh, don't be so dramatic!" Aria giggled, slapping her arm. "Delly, you think everything's life-or-death, seriously!"
"Ask anyone," Della snarled. "You've been asleep five and a half days. Your birth-curse nearly killed you. I had to get that ring back from your 'true love' in order to save you."
Aria stared at her blankly. She lifted her hand to her face and peered at the ring.
"Then where's Tendar?" she asked tremulously. "Why'd you wake me? He should have done it. He should have kissed me. Tendy?"
"Right here," a voice said dully.
Aria peered around her roommate's shoulder and screamed.
"MONSTER!" she shrieked. "MONSTER! DELLY!"
Della slapped her.
Aria gasped, clutching her cheek.
"He's the one you fell in love with," Della snarled. "He made himself look like Tendar so you'd fall for him, too. But he has plenty of other qualities. He's a genius —"
"Stop it!" Aria sobbed. "Stop lying! I don't want some stupid genius! I want Tendy!"
Della stood up, slowly, struggling with her fury.
"I wrecked my life for you," she said coldly. "The king will kill me if he ever finds me. I'll live in hiding for the rest of my life. And I did it for you. The least you can do is listen to him."
Aria hesitated and peeked over Della's shoulder again. She yelped, dove under her covers, and shook her head.
"Nooooo!" she cried. "No, no! He's too ugly!"
Della's face turned hot with fury.
"It's all right." The man's voice sounded wooden. "Everyone hates me. Everyone rejects me. Why should she be any different?"
"Because she claimed she loved you," Della snapped.
"Doesn't matter." The man's eyes looked dead. "It was based on lies anyway."
Something in his voice scared Della. He might do something drastic now, she realized.
"I don't care what you look like," she blurted out. "I mean, yes, you're hardly pretty. But I'm an outlaw too, you realize. That makes us equals."
Slowly, the man looked up at her.
"You're brilliant," Della said, swallowing. Oh, how ugly he looks. But that doesn't matter. Or at least it shouldn't. I can't let it matter. I can't. "All I ever wanted was an education. If we stayed together . . . would you teach me?"
The man stared at her. Fear and hope and anger flitted across his face.
"You feel sorry for me," he accused her.
Della looked down. She couldn't deny it.
"But I also feel sorry for me," she insisted. "I'm dead if the king finds me, and you're the only person who'd be able to keep me safe. As for you . . . well . . . I can't offer love, but I can offer companionship. Better than loneliness."
There was silence a long moment.
"You mean we could be friends."
"Yes," Della said quietly. "We could be friends."
Slowly, the man held out his hand.
"All right," he muttered. "Friends."
They slurped into the shadows. There was silence.
"Does this mean I need a new roommate, Delly?" Aria cried from under the sheet.
Available in print or e-book format through the Worlds of Wonder anthology.