by Dafydd McKimm
The Lady waits for the Duke in a body as fragile as sugar glass, resting her head against the cool marble of the colonnade that circles the Hall of the Nobles of Io. She watches the sparrows as they flirt and twitter between the shade and the sun, like socialites at a debutante ball, or starships popping in and out of visible space at the great port of Ganymede, so long ago and moons away that it seems now like nothing more than some childish fancy.
The body was a gift, made especially for her. The first time the Duke placed her inside its delicate flesh, he led her with sinister tenderness – Gently now. Gently – to the garden and bade her to sit, to wait for him a moment while he retrieved something from the house. As he disappeared through the doors of the manor, the Lady’s breath caught in her throat: the small side door to the gardens appeared to have been left unlocked. Like a bird who found its cage suddenly flung open, the Lady sprang towards the garden door, but the bones of that fragile body shattered under nothing more than the vigour of her movements and left her lying there, twitching like a crushed insect at the foot of the flower beds. The pounding of burst blood vessels and, louder even than that, the roaring laughter of the Duke filling her ears.
The Lady inhabits many bodies. The sugar-glass body is for travel, a failsafe against her escape. The body she dons as the Duke’s chief consort – a showpiece he wears on his arm at formal events – has features so exaggerated that her spine strains and her hips throb and her skinny thighs tremble under their weight. As the Duke’s etiquette coach, she occupies a basic demonstration dummy, plain and stripped of any distracting features, its skin coarse and worn and seldom repaired, so different from the skin she grew up in, as soft to the touch as the dresses her mother wore to full-Jupiter balls. The skin that, orphaned and desperate, stripped of everything by revolution and war, sold a copy of its neural network to a brain broker, condemning her, this version of her at least, to be forever imprisoned in bodies not her own.
With difficulty, for the muscles of the sugar-glass body are weak, the Lady holds out a hand to the sparrows. One hops into her open palm and bobs its head as if to say I’m listening.
She recalls a story, read by her governess, of a princess whose cruel husband forced her to work in the palace butchery. So she befriended a starling, taught it to speak, then sent it across the sea to her brother who came with his armies to wreak vengeance upon his sister’s captor.
Something resembling hope kindles within the Lady; if she tells the bird her sorrows, will it take her message to a rescuer, some distant Ionian relative with the power to set her free? With much effort, she lifts the bird to her lips and whispers her misery to its bobbing head. She tells it about the Duke, how he made his fortune from the war just as her family lost theirs, how he’d bought a title from a Jovian noble who valued a full belly more than his peerage and the Lady because he needed someone willing – or unable to refuse – to teach him the proper airs and graces, and how it wasn’t long before he discovered other uses for her, too.
Her lips tremble. No, she must tell it everything. She tells the bird about the other bodies, the ones she doesn’t like to think about – the fox body, the hind body, the boar body. How the Duke likes his game with a streak of humanity. How, with a flick of the wand he keeps at his belt, he unspools her from her human vessel and grafts her onto his quarry. She shudders to remember the horrible sounds she has made, the maddening grip of panic, the terror of the animal brain as it decides whether to flee or fight; the howling of the Duke’s hounds, the flash of their teeth, the warmth of her own blood and the creeping cold as life seeps from gaping wounds.
Footsteps approach. From the sound of his stride, the Lady knows the Duke is angry, and when the Duke is angry, he likes to hunt. She must release the sparrow now, but fear freezes her fingers.
“They dare to toy with me,” the Duke rages as he comes near. “Humiliate me because my blood is not blue.” He spits onto the marble. “Nobility! We’ll see how noble you are.” He turns his eyes on the Lady. “We’ll see how you like to be toyed with.” His mouth glistens with anticipation. “Come,” he says, reaching to take her arm.
The Lady starts as if waking from a terrible dream: She has no royal brother to save her from across the sea, no vengeful army that will come to her aid. She has only herself and the things she has learnt from her suffering – the cunning of a fox, the quickness of a hind, the daring of a boar – and the sparrow clutched in her hand.
“Wait,” she says. The Duke stays his arm for a moment, looming over her like a guillotine.
Like a firmly pushed garden door, her fingers open; the sparrow darts out, and then up, and as the Duke lifts his hands, the Lady lunges.
Her legs shatter; her paper-thin lungs tear open; her wasted muscles scream, but her hands close around the wand hanging at the Duke’s belt. And with a series of motions that break each of her pale fingers, she tears her mind from the sugar-glass body and hurls it towards the sparrow, flying now higher and higher to join its flock.
And as the rush of air fills her ears, the Duke’s roars echo through the colonnade, grow fainter, and fall silent.