Excerpt: Beauty & Cruelty

Cruelty worked two jobs and, when people bothered to ask, she made up stories about why. “I’m putting myself through college,” was her favorite, because it was easy and expected and thus utterly believable. Nobody questioned further when she mentioned college. College: the paving stone to greater things. The start on the journey of life. It wasn’t a waste to work in fast food if it was in the name of college. And who would want to see a pretty girl go to waste?

And she was a pretty girl. She’d been respected as a beauty back home, though it wasn’t the trait she was best known for. Her long, straight hair was too red be anything but from a bottle. Her skin was almost chalk-pale, her eyes a dark forest green. She was short, barely five feet tall; at work, this was a hindrance. She was expected to get down the same syrups and filters that taller men and women must also get down, though that only really became a problem when it was slow and others would notice the little things she did to get around inconveniences. She favored a men’s button-down shirt, slacks, bare feet, and when she had to wear shoes, chose ones she could slip off and on easily regardless. She was slim, with barely any curve to hip and breast; some older customers called her, in their amicably sexist and objectifying way, “a slip of a thing.” It wasn’t entirely untrue: she was a thing, and one that had slipped between the cracks of this and that.

“Welcome to Burger Village,” she said, smiling at the next customer with her mouth alone. “My name is Rue; can I take your order today?”

When Cruelty had time to expand on her reasons, she made up new stories: “I want to save up enough so I can take a year off and write,” a blatant lie; she was incapable of that sort of creation, always a reader but never a writer, “I want to move out of town to live with my boyfriend,” mostly good for the customers who wanted to see if she was available, and, when she needed tips, “My family’s in a bit of trouble, and I just want to be able to help,” but of course, she’d abandoned them long ago.

When she was being more honest, she just said, “It isn’t an easy world to live in.” That, at least, was completely true. “A girl has to eat”. Less true, though she could stretch it for the sake of metaphor. She did have expenses. Housing. The daily cost of living. It would never have been a problem back home, not for her, and when she let herself stop and thought about it, she found it a bit shameful that she’d come to this. But “home” was a lost cause, and she had always fancied herself as something resourceful, something unwilling to be driven into a corner. If something was a lost cause, it wasn’t a cause she’d take up. Her integrity had been put well aside. Even so, the bi-weekly paychecks didn’t go very far, and it seemed like once she’d come here, money mostly went into her hands to leave them. Daily costs went on endlessly, her future went on endlessly. If this was where she found herself, a girl in a reason-based world with people asking her to explain herself away, she would nevertheless always make the best of it. What was important was to keep living.

So she worked more often than she didn’t, and at the end of each day, she’d return to what wasn’t her home but was where she lived. The one-bedroom rented house was far enough out from the city center to be affordable, and it still ate up most of her paychecks. It was a little run-down, and a bit far from her jobs, in suburbs which had once been countryside before the city began to eat the country. But it gave her some privacy, had its own sense of charm and, most importantly, room for a garden. Each summer, she refreshed its paint as best she could to maintain it, but the roses which grew all over the walls tore at them and flaked the paint, and she would rather have her roses than any kind of well-maintained house.

She never invited any human being inside beyond what obligations she had as a tenant, and as a result, very few people but Cruelty herself ever entered her house. If they did, they’d see what she was saving money for. Books in bookcases, books on tables, books stacked on the floor, books in the kitchen cupboards, books in the (unplugged) fridge, books in the bathroom, books lining each step upstairs, making the climbing treacherous, books in the old attic, books discoloring where they sat in the windows. The bed was more a place to read than sleep, and it too was covered in books. There were shelves where shelves normally weren’t, overfilled and spilling out everywhere, and every flat surface turned into some kind of bookstand.

She kicked off her shoes as she entered the house, picking a book off the landing. There was a reason her food budget went into it, she thought bitterly. Books were her bread and butter. It wasn’t like she’d get what she needed anywhere else. It wasn’t that imagination was dead—the books were proof of that. But she knew as well as any that it was belief that was dying these days. Oh, some gods still had their followers—for now, she thought sharply and with a touch of schadenfreude, but they were probably next; thank you, humanity. But folktales, cautionary myths, fairy tales, transformations and spells and magic not personal but outside oneself… no, that belief was basically gone, barely hanging on in animated films and children’s imaginations.

No reasonable human being would stop and ask a fox why it has been following them, or listen to any voice from a well telling them to drink to gain wealth, or throw a frog into a wall and get a prince. They wouldn’t toss salt over their shoulder, hang a horseshoe over the door. She was pretty sure that even the people who’d heard of the evil eye didn’t know what the fig sign was. Just three months earlier, her coffee shop job had neglected to invite her to the annual work party, and when she mentioned it pointedly, all she’d gotten was an, “Oh, sorry, must have missed you. Want to come?” Like that was the problem here, like admitting they hadn’t paid attention would make amends. But even after that kind of dismissive snub, she couldn’t be bothered to show up. Not much point. She certainly couldn’t envision herself descending in a fury of wrath and curses. Even if she did, they’d probably just believe whatever followed was simply bad luck. That was the one quality humans could still point to outside themselves and blame for anything they couldn’t explain away: Chance, coincidence, circumstance.

And if for some reason, they did actually believe in some magical reason behind their circumstances, the next step would be science. Nothing wrong with science, of course; she enjoyed the rules and behavior of the natural world as much as the next person. But science placed in opposition to magic was… problematic. Mostly problematic for the Archetypes like her that found themselves in the middle of that opposition. It had happened to the Beast Enchantress over in Boston just last year; she lost her temper and turned a man into a pig, as one does. Cruelty recalled hearing she was tasered to subdue her, something like that. And after, she was carted off to be studied and people were presumably paid to not talk about it. One way or another, it was covered up, and no true belief was born of it. Cruelty certainly hadn’t noticed a rush of scientists coming to believe in the Archetypes, so all that really resulted from that whole show of temper was that one more of their people was missing. She’d received the Enchantress’s distress spells and request for aid, of course, but ignored them. No point going down with a sinking ship. No point joining a lost cause.

What was important was survival.

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