Rebecca’s bored of her town. So when a mysterious fancy dress shop appears between Poundland and the Chemists, she’s first through the door. The costumes are out of this world and the proprietor something else, but Rebecca’s about to discover there’s more to fancy dress than princesses and knights.
She knew what it was. Rebecca had read about them in books. They always looked a little more fancy in her head, but still, there was no denying it.
The shop was nestled between Poundland and a chemists, in a space she knew hadn’t been there yesterday. The signage was black, lined with gold thread that somehow sparkled despite the grey thunderheads threatening to ruin her day. The shop was called
which was as bad a name for a fancy dress shop as she’d ever seen anywhere. But there was no irony in the twisting, spiraling font, nor the gloriously over the top window display with its princess’s dresses and suits of armour. At least the merchandise looked good.
So a shop mysteriously appears on the high street selling fancy dress costumes that aren’t so much fancy dress as the real thing. There was only one sensible explanation, which was magic. She could hear mum’s voice, calmly explaining that magic wasn’t a sensible explanation. She’d be right, too, except when compared to the other explanations, it was just as sensible.
Rebecca pulled a hair tie from her pocket, swept her shoulder length, straight brown hair back, and tied it up. Then she straightened her jeans, made sure the top button on her blouse was done up, and marched towards the shop.
She paused at the door. The window was so shiny it may as well have been a mirror. She didn’t mind mirrors, for the most part, so long as she’d had time to prepare herself and take a deep breath. With her hair pulled back, it wasn’t easy to ignore the nose she knew was just a little bit too big, or the eyes, whose colour had once generously been described as freshly turned soil. Dad had a way with words. She went for muddy, but soil made her feel at least a smidgen better.
She smiled at herself, which always helped, because she knew her lips were her best part, wide and full and not the least bit similar to anything connected with gardening or soil.
Did every customer stop to admire themselves? She bet they did, but she still blushed as she pushed the door open.
The clang of the bell made her jump, as did the door as it swung rapidly inwards, bounced off a rubber stopper with all the energy of a rabid squirrel, and came rushing back towards her face. She caught it only because her pride refused to bow before whoever ran the shop and had set this trap for her.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped in and eased the door silently closed. She was glad she’d tied her hair back. It was going to be that kind of shop.
She turned back from the door and gasped. She was surrounded. To her left a giant bear reared up, reaching for her with its long, deadly claws. To her right, a fearsome creature in a cape, proudly displaying some quite serious dentistry, was doing its level best to look like something out of a vampire movie, before vampires sparkled.
She tentatively tested the bear’s claws. Plastic. No, not quite, something else that felt heavier and less prone to bending after one too many drinks or ice creams, depending on the party. But they were neither sharp nor capable of tearing her head off, so that was a plus.
She wound her way down the narrow corridor to the back of the shop, where the cliche proudly continued. The desk was cluttered with novelties and oddments. Since the space behind the desk was empty – and there was a space. It wasn’t just that there was no one there, there was an actual space in which, had she tried really hard, she thought she could have seen someone – she explored the novelties.
Whoopee cushions. Fake blood. Fake teeth. Unicorn powder. Arrowroot. What did you use arrowroot for when dressing up.
‘A good healer, my lovely. Also handy as a stabiliser for pretty much any potion you want to make.’
Rebecca had never been called anyone’s lovely. It was, she knew beyond a doubt, a thoroughly sexist moniker and therefore not one she was keen on accepting. She prepared the necessary cut down when the speaker emerged from below the desk and stole the words from her mouth.
He was short, only a touch taller than her, and at least double her width. His face was the colour of beetroot just after it had been dug up, and his eyes twinkled above chubby cheeks, blue as an early sunny morning. It was his eyes she couldn’t stop looking at. They were another cliche, but in an entirely different way from the rest of the shop.
She’d read a hundred books, a thousand books, in which the hero’s or heroine’s eyes had been said to burn. This round little man’s eyes burned. Not like someone had set fire to them, but as though there was a fire behind them, shining through. She swore she could see flames, flashing and flickering behind the blue.
It was most disconcerting. So she looked at his hair instead, which helped. It had been red once, but was lined generously with white and grey strands, giving him the appearance of a tomato covered in salt and pepper. It was far more in keeping with the rest of the shop.
‘Now, my lovely, what can I do for you? Surely someone as remarkable as yourself didn’t come in for some plain old arrowroot.’
‘Where have you come from?’
‘I’ve been in Elinor for the last few months. Before that, some random little backwater in the Dwarven caves of Mishrak. Conversation a little lacking, I must say, but good business.’
‘Do dwarves go in for fancy dress, then?’
‘Do they? Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a full dwarven fancy dress party. There’s nothing like seeing a bunch of bearded short guys being princesses to liven up your day.’
Rebecca blinked, expecting to see her bedroom ceiling swim into focus at any moment. But she didn’t. Instead she saw the flames, leaping ever higher.
‘Why have you come here?’
‘I come where I am called. I would imagine you did the calling; it is often the first customer who calls.’
‘I didn’t call you.’
‘Humans often say that, which isn’t a surprise, really. It always takes a few tries before they start accepting the reality of the multiverse.’
‘So you’ve been on Earth before?’
‘Of course. Your reality, though none of you ignorant, mud-swilling heathens know it, is a centre, one of the twelve great conduits.’ He frowned and scrutinised her like he was wondering whether she really did all the things the salesman claimed. It was actually worse than being called My Lovely. ‘Do you really not know that? You’ve a remarkable level of power for someone with no grasp of the basics.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. If I hadn’t been next door yesterday buying aspirin, I’d think this was a load of utter rubbish. But you weren’t here yesterday and I know how planning permission works. Well, enough to know you couldn’t just turn up.’ And mother always taught Rebecca to trust her eyes and her instincts, instead of what the world told her was right. Come to think of it, that had been strange advice from an estate agent. Maybe mum knew more than she was letting on.
‘So, my lovely, let me ask you again, as time is pressing and I’ve much to be getting on with, what can I do for you?’
‘You know, it’s not generally considered polite to call a woman my lovely.’
‘Really? I thought they quite liked it.’
‘Maybe dwarven women do, but not us mud-swillers.’
He smiled and inclined his head just the smallest amount. ‘I see. In that case, what should I call you?’
She was about say Rebecca when she decided she wouldn’t. She wasn’t sure why, but the fires behind the blue eyes burned red, just the same as the shockingly slutty dress that hung from a rack behind the counter, and she wasn’t giving anything away, be it the top half of her breasts or her name.
‘You can call me Eliza.’
‘Eliza it is.’ Another incline of the head. He knew it wasn’t her real name.
‘What’s yours?’ she asked.
‘Your name? Should I just call you shop keeper?’
‘That will suffice. Would you like to try something on?’
She glanced around the shop at the wonderful costumes. Maybe she should. She had nothing to do today and she really did want to know what she’d look like in a suit of armour. She stepped away from the desk and browsed until she found a set of brown leather armour, covered in buckles and complete with the sort of belt batman would be jealous of.
It smelt of leather and just a tiny bit of sweat. But it was pleasant enough, as if the last woman who wore it had made an effort to keep herself relatively unsweaty.
She lifted it off the rack with a grunt of effort and took it back to the desk. ‘Where are the changing rooms, please?’
The shopkeeper frowned as he looked the costume up and down, then back at her. ‘Wouldn’t you rather something a little prettier? Maybe one of our famous princess dresses.’
‘No thanks, I like this.’
‘Well, I’m not sure we have it in your size, ac—’
‘I’ve checked the label. It’ll fit me perfectly.’
‘Oh.’ He looked nonplussed for a brief moment before rallying. ‘I’m not sure if our changing rooms are fully functional yet. The change of reality can often put things out of whack.’
‘It’s okay, I’m not fussy. As long as you can’t see me, I don’t mind.’
He glanced to one side and she followed his gaze to where a curtain hung on a pole. She hefted the costume and wandered over.
‘I’m really not sure you could afford to buy that costume, perhaps something else migh—’
‘I’m sure I’m not going to buy this costume. But I might like to rent it.’
She tugged the curtain aside before he could argue and winced as her jaw slammed into the floor. The space behind the curtain was far larger than the rest of the shop. The carpet changed from worn navy blue into a pale cream, the walls were lined with mirrors, and there were stools and loungers scattered liberally about. There was also a bottle of champagne cooling in one of those fancy metal buckets.
She turned back to the shopkeeper and saw in his face the same surprise that had her chest thumping. ‘It looks fine to me.’
He smiled sickly and gestured her in. ‘Doesn’t it just?’
She nipped through the narrow doorway and pulled the curtain closed. She hung up the leather armour and stepped back. Somehow, in between deciding how the hell she was supposed to get it on, and taking her own clothes off, a glass of fizz appeared in her hand. It tasted exquisite, which was bizarre for someone who drank only at the very worst of times, and sparingly even then.
The glass was finished by the time she pulled up the last zip and admired herself in the mirror. Her hair worked with this outfit. In fact, all of her worked with this outfit. She looked like Xena, only without the ludicrous bows to sexism that meant half of her flesh was exposed and vulnerable.
The leather fit like a glove and did its best with her hips, which she’d always thought were a bit narrow, and her boobs, which she knew were too small. Mum had told her small was better, particularly as you got older, but the boys in college thought quite the opposite and, as practically minded and entirely uncaring of the attention as Rebecca was, she also knew she would one day like to experience certain things that sounded both fun and exciting and she knew having boobs that caught the eye would go some way to helping that happen.
The leather made her boobs look good. The leather made all of her look good. She felt good, too. It even came with a fake sword that she lifted from the hook and— oww.
It wasn’t sheathed and the blade had just nicked her flesh. Not nicked it, actually, but sliced it neatly open. She sucked the blood off her thumb and inspected the blade. It was a sword, a real sword. The blade was sharp as anything, and the hilt or handle or whatever you called it, was worn and comfortable in her hand.
It all felt rather comfortable. It all felt very her. She rubbed her head and blinked. She wasn’t completely sure who ‘her’ was anymore. She was Rebecca, she knew that, but something was surfacing in her mind, like the kraken she’d seen off the shores of Lake Silence.
Except she hadn’t ever seen a kraken. But she could see it now, in her mind’s eye, as clear as day. She could remember the smell as well, of salt and rot, as out of place in that beautiful place as she had been in court for the last month.
She screamed and dropped to her knees as something cold and hard sliced into her back. She grabbed behind her with both hands, but there was nothing there. Sweat covered her forehead as she dragged herself upright. Where was this place? It reminded her of her dressing rooms, but it wasn’t. And what was the strange liquid bubbling in the glass?
Another blow struck her beneath the ribs and she howled. That was the killing blow, she knew it. She stumbled and collapsed across a lounger, gripping the back of it. She was dying. She squeezed her eyes closed against the tears. She was dying, and now Jack would die too, stuck forever in the Cage of Sisithus.
She lay for a moment, waiting for the light to dim. But of course, it didn’t, because there was no blade piercing her heart, not here. She was Rebecca, and the armour she’d donned wasn’t someone else’s skin, as much as it might feel like it. She could feel the wounds and the darkness that followed, but neither were hers.
She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. And saw something else. A round man with blue eyes stole in and, piece by piece, tore the armour from her body. As her naked corpse rolled across the carpet, he sniggered, shoved the armour into a sack, and vanished.
For a brief moment, Rebecca stood beneath a strange sun, with warm wind whipping sand through her hair. She stood before a huge temple, with the sign of the Hunter far above. For that brief moment, she was no longer Rebecca. She blinked and the desert vanished, replaced by the strange changing rooms she’d thought to be her chambers.
She was in a strange world, but there was a smell she recognised. She was on a Ship of Transference, and that meant she could return home. She took a step and stumbled as her vision darkened, before she straightened with a deep breath.
What the hell just happened? She couldn’t get over the changing room. It was like shopping for a wedding dress.
She would never marry. The Furies would never allow Jack even a moment of happiness.
Who the hell was Jack?
She dropped to one knee and pressed her hands to her head. She was going to explode. She was Rebecca. She was Davinia. She ground her teeth together, grabbing her hair and hauling on it until she felt it begin to tear from her scalp.
She fell forwards and slammed her hands into the carpet. Her sword swung at her waist and dug into the floor before her. It was her sword that brought her back. It was her sword that saved her, just as it had done so many times before. She stared into the steel, seeing her face and understanding, finally, what had happened.
She had been Davinia, but they killed her. Now she was Rebecca. And she would have her vengeance.
Rebecca rose, took a long swig of champagne, and grabbed the curtain. She whipped it aside and smiled at the shopkeeper. He wasn’t quite cowering, but it wasn’t far off.
‘I think I’ll take it. Oh, and while I’m about it, I’ll take the ship, too.’
His eyes widened before he burst out laughing. ‘You’re all the same, you sad little humans. You get such delusions of grandeur a—’
‘You stole her armour. This armour. You waited until I was dead and you stole it.’
‘Of course I did. Do you have any idea how much power resides in such garments?’
‘I do now. And I want it.’
‘I want it. This power. You don’t deserve it.’
‘Do you have any idea who I am? I’ve run this shop since before humans crawled from the swamps. I’ve run this shop since the Elves called one another Dave and thought bows and arrows were just for fun. I’ve ru—’
‘Blah blah blah. That sounds like you need a holiday.’
‘You can’t take it from me, it’s my birthright.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I’m the one with the sword.’ Rebecca stepped forward. She was trying to tell herself that the issue was being called ‘my lovely’. This guy was arrogant and sexist and almost certainly deserved to be chopped up and left in a dustbin somewhere.
But the truth was far more brutal. She wanted the power. Part of her wanted to it to wreck vengeance on those who had stabbed her in the back. But another part, the Rebecca part, wanted the freedom the shop could offer her. Because it was that or another two years of this crappy town followed by university and whatever came after it. She’d been excited about those things only a few hours ago. Now she knew what the Blackwood trees looked like on Carthia, and no amount of A levels or Freshers fairs would change that.
With this shop, she could see them all. With this shop, she could have her revenge on Artilus and save Jack.
The shopkeeper was fumbling with something beneath the counter, but she could barely see him. She wasn’t going to give him the time to prepare. He was sneaky, this one, and he’d survived far longer than most.
She leapt through the air, using muscles she didn’t know she had, dragging her sword from its loops with a skill she’d never earned. At the same moment, the Shopkeeper came out from under the counter brandishing the biggest shotgun she’d ever seen.
Not that she’d ever seen any shotguns. But this one was monstrous, longer than she was tall and with a barrel the size of her head. She landed and threw herself to one side just as it went off. A roar like thunder, inches from her ear, made her scream and curl up.
‘You foolish, pathetic child, how dare yo—’
The shopkeeper’s words were cut off as Rebecca surged to her feet, sword out before her. She watched in disbelief as the blade slid straight through the man’s enormous stomach and up between his ribs.
He returned her look with interest. She watched as the fires slowly went out. Then he toppled to the floor and made a long tortured hiss, like a punctured airship.
She stared at the sword in her hand, covered now, in slick, green blood. Then she looked down at the body. Rebecca frowned and rubbed her face. She’d need to dispose of it. She could toss it out between realities and leave it to hang in Between. First, she needed the key to the ship. Once she had that, she could begin to make her way back to Carthia.
It would take years, decades most likely, and Jack would be long dead. But Artilus wouldn’t have aged a day. She would have to be satisfied with him. She ducked behind the counter and knelt before the drive. She was about to start it up when the bell at the front of the shop tinkled merrily, followed by the slam of the door striking the rubber stopper. Seconds later, a cry of pain echoed through the shop.
Definitely decades, then.