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The Evil Stepmother Business

by Geoff Hart

The Beautiful Princess, rosy complexioned and slightly breathless from her run up the thousand and one steps of the tower, entered the chamber in which her Evil Stepmother was working. She was a sight to make any authentic prince’s heart miss a beat, and her slightly dissheveled appearance and heaving bosom only added to the appeal.

“Mother, there’s a Hero riding up to the castle to rescue me!” she exclaimed between breaths. Her breathing swiftly returned to normal, for she was plainly in very good physical condition.

“So?” the Evil Stepmother replied, not looking up from her book. “He’s early, that’s all.”

The Beautiful Princess struck a pose. “But I’m not ready just yet, Mother. You haven’t finished explaining everything to me… not the Seven Paths of Marital Fidelity, nor the Two Rules of Nurturing Princelings. How am I to be a loyal and dutiful bride if I should be rescued before my education is complete?”

The crone looked up from her book and the two exchanged knowing glances. “Besides,” the princess added with a delightful moue, “this one’s different.”

“Hmm? How so?” A gnarled finger pressed down on the page, holding her place, and she pushed her reading glasses down her nose so she could better see her charge. In spite of her annoyance at the Hero’s premature arrival, the Evil Stepmother was intrigued by the disappointment on the Beautiful Princess’ face.

“Well for one thing, he lacks the traditional paraphernalia: no armor, and no enchanted weapons, unless you count that ridiculous staff he was leaning on. Finally, and most alarmingly, he looks rather old to be my Prince.” She pouted charmingly. “And he has the most disreputable beard.”

The Evil Stepmother rose from her work, the tome still in her hands, and looked out the window. “That's not right." She squinted at the stooped figure climbing the steep grade below the castle. "Huh. That fellow’s no Prince... 'less I miss my guess, he’s some sort of Wizard. This should prove interesting.” Wrinkled brows knit together briefly, then unknit with practiced ease. “Wait here in the tower, my dear. I’ll go see what he wants.”

Au contraire, Belle Mère. We’re in this together for a few more months yet.”

The Evil Stepmother's face lost all its former warmth. “We are indeed. But as you noted yourself just moments ago, you’re not ready yet.”

A measure of steel came into the Beautiful Princess’ eyes, and the Evil Stepmother took an involuntary step backwards. “My apologies, dear. You’re getting good... very good, and faster than I'd remembered.” A mite too fast, she reflected, never letting the thought rise to her eyes.

The young woman smiled warmly. “What if he kills you? You haven’t had time to arrange for transference yet.” Concern colored that beautiful voice, and the deep blue eyes widened slightly, but the steel hadn’t softened one bit.

The older woman smiled, but it was clearly forced. This one was going to be very good indeed, provided she mastered the urge to leave the nest too soon. It was never as easy as they expected when a Prince and Beautiful Princess locked horns over who was going to rule the roost. “Calm yourself, child, you’ll get prematurely wrinkled if you go about worrying like that." She paused to enjoy the effect of her words. A touch, I confess! "Leave him to me. Just this one last time, by my word.” Closing the grimoire with a puff of dust, the enchantress hiked up her skirt and began laboriously descending the tower steps.

As the Beautiful Princess followed, the crone smiled a secret grin, shook her head in resignation, and turned to put a hand on her protégé’s shoulder. “If you truly want your first real taste of messing with a man’s head, here’s your big chance. We’ll do it this way...” She pulled the younger woman’s head down so she could whisper in one shapely ear, and the gleeful laughter that echoed in the dusty stone stairwell briefly chased the shadows far away.

***

When the Wizard entered the castle, bypassing the warding spells with a deceptively casual gesture, his first thought was that things were going too easily. “After all,” he thought, “even if the wards had only been set to protect against Princes, they should have put up more of a fight. Then again,” he added aloud, reassured by the sound of his own voice and hating himself for it, “no mere Witch can match the strength of a Wizard who fights on the side of Good.”

Walking cautiously, his staff extended before him in the manner of a dowser, the Wizard proceeded through several unremarkable chambers until he came upon what was evidently the Witch’s workroom. There, he stopped and drew a sharp breath, outrage swelling his breast, at the sight that lay beyond the open door. Hanging from the wall in chains, clothing ripped and providing scarcely enough modesty for artistic purposes, was the Princess he’d come to rescue. Not far from this enchanting victim of foul play, a low pallet vibrated to the lusty snores of what could only be the Witch responsible for the Princess's sorry condition. At that moment, the Princess gazed at him with a look of hopeless longing that would have melted the heart of a monk.

The Wizard was not a monk.

Drawing upon a carefully hoarded spell, he transformed the Witch into an unusually large and ugly black spider, which he then—for he was, after all, a servant of Good—chased away from the pallet rather than squashing. It scuttled fearfully away from his prodding staff, and vanished off into the dim depths of the castle. “There,” he proclaimed aloud. “Now she can spend the rest of her natural life fulfilling some useful purpose.” With that, he wiped his sweating palms smartly upon his travel-stained robes and turned to the Princess, unconsciously tightening his abdominal muscles.
“Fear not, Milady, I have come to rescue you and return you to your betrothed.” The admiring look she bestowed upon her rescuer raised a disconcerting warmth in his veins. He blushed; the lush, rounded contours that her shabby garments accentuated more than hid were evoking some intensely unheroic thoughts.

Another simple spell, cast with something of a flourish now that her lustrous eyes were upon him, sprung her manacles, and another gave strength to his old arms as he eased her to the ground, where she sagged fetchingly against him. “Forgive me, Milady. You’ve undoubtedly been starved by that foul Witch, and hung there for days; I had not considered that your legs might be too weak to support you. Here,” he urged, proferring his staff somewhat belatedly as the warmth of her body reached him and further accelerated his pulse, “lean on this.” Then, noticing the modest blush that crept to her cheeks as she perceived where his gaze had come to rest, he wrenched his eyes aside, taking refuge in the mundane act of removing his travel cloak and sweeping it gallantly about her shoulders.

He covertly swept a few stray beads of sweat from his forehead before returning his hands carefully to his sides. “Please make yourself comfortable,” he went on. “I confess to a certain professional curiosity concerning the enchantment she was preparing.” With some relief, he turned his back upon her and pretended to inspect the grimoire that lay upon the table, beside a head-height candle thick as his arm, grateful for something less disturbing to focus his attention upon.

The book was, as tradition demanded, turned to a chapter on the induction of prolonged magical sleep. With the Princess out of sight and the world reassuringly as it ought to be, he took the opportunity to recite a mantra against lust he’d been forced to learn as an apprentice. The Beautiful Princess was having an altogether too invigorating effect on glands he’d half forgotten he possessed!

Some sixth sense—for all good Wizards possess one—alerted him to the presence of danger at his back. He whirled, taken briefly aback at the sight of the grinning crone wearing his cloak about her shoulders and the staff thrusting smoothly towards his midsection; well trained, he raised both arms hastily in an effort to mount a counterspell, but the Evil Stepmother was faster, and the butt of the staff took him square in the diaphragm, spoiling whatever spell he might have attempted. Before he could even finish expelling the last of the breath he'd mustered, the staff spun end over end and crashed against his skull, sending sparks of intense yet esthetic brilliance cascading before his eyes. Idly, he watched the sparks fade amidst the growing darkness that flooded his mind. His last thought before consciousness fled was that this wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen in a proper Faery Tale.

The Evil Stepmother stepped back, on guard, then grunted and relaxed as the Wizard crumpled slowly to the floor. “I knew that naginata symposium was going to come in useful some day.” With that, she tossed the staff casually into an empty umbrella stand by the door, restored the castle wards with a dismissive gesture, then went in search of the Beautiful Princess. She found her octopedal protegé lurking in a corner, a juicy fly clutched greedily in her chelicerae. The sorceress grinned, enjoying the situation for a moment longer than strictly necessary, then spoke the words of a counterspell.

The Beautiful Princess frowned, wrinkling her perfect brow for the second time that day, and spat copiously upon the floor. “You certainly took your time. Blech. Do you have any idea what I had in my mouth?”

“We all make sacrifices for the cause, my dear. You think it’s a picnick wearing this shell until your Prince comes?”

The Princess’s fierce gaze softened. “I’m sorry. But your turn will come.”

“It will indeed, and best you remember that. I rather enjoyed wearing young flesh again. Gets the juices flowing, it does. Why, I remember my first Prince...”

The Beautiful Princess cleared her throat, bored now. “Ahem. Don’t you have some other busines to attend to?”

“We do indeed. Will you be joining me?”

“I think not. I have a more unpleasant taste in my mouth than you can possibly imagine. I must go at once and find something with which to scour my palate.” She spun gracefully on her heel, stamped prettily with the other foot, and moved off, disgust plain in every line of her body.

“You do that, dear.” With that, the crone made her way back to the unconscious wizard, but a part of her thoughts still dwelled upon a certain lusty Prince she’d known in her youth. She looked forward to being young again, and not just because of the ache in her bones on cold, damp mornings. “Which,” the Evil Stepmother smirked to herself, “would probably shock the Powers That Be to their smarmy cores, and much good it would do them.”

***

Some time later, the Wizard opened his eyes, reluctantly deciding that the many and varied astrological signs dancing before him were the result of a severe blow rather than any self-induced mystical trance. He woke to find himself occupying the selfsame spot that “Milady” had occupied earlier, the cold metal shackles digging into the tender skin of his wrists. A few abortive efforts confirmed that the shackles were proof against any magic he could conjure in his present state, and that the ache in his wrists would not soon be relieved by any spell of levitation or unlocking.

A voice from the room’s entrance interrupted his doleful inspection of the situation. “Save your strength, Wizard. Those shackles were forged with essence of Saint Saltpeter, a sovereign remedy against male magics.” The Evil Stepmother chuckled somewhat smugly as she entered the room, allowing a melodramatic note of Evil Triumph to enter her voice.

“That would explain how you robbed me of my magic,” sighed the Wizard resignedly. “I’m no apprentice, though your ruse surely snared me as if I were. Yet I confess to astonishment: a Witch defeating a Wizard? Such has never been written!”

“ ‘There are more things under heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.’”

Horatio?”

“Never you mind... and let's get one thing straight before we go any further: I’m not a Witch, I’m an Evil Stepmother. Your nomenclature’s awfully shaky for a Wizard.”

“There’s a difference?” frowned the Wizard, nettled and trying to rally

“Of course. We Evil Stepmothers were the founding local of the Union for Dramatic Esthetics. Fairy Godmothers and Witches are Jennies-come-lately. In any event, don't fret yourself. You've got bigger worries.”

“You don’t mean to tell me you’ve got an actual union... some sort of organized, Evil Conspiracy, do you?” If the frown that knit the Wizard’s brows grew any deeper, the Evil Stepmother mused, she might have to attempt first aid, if not neurosurgery. “That would mean your leader is some sort of Fairy Godf-”

No!” bellowed the Evil Stepmother, and the Wizard shrank back against the wall. “I will not endure such an insult in my own workroom. I told them it was a mistake spreading those rumors about covens; I told them people assuming we’re led by a man would come back to haunt us! Our president is as female as the rest of us, and you can thank your lucky clovers you’re not talking to her. She’s not nearly as tolerant of male myopia. What she really needs is a night with a good Prin—” The Evil Stepmother paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

“Look, simpleton, it’s like this—how someone so slow on the uptake got to be a Wizard I’ll never know! We Evil Stepmothers have a good deal going. You men screw the world up so often that someone’s got to set things right. So we give a few of the more salvageable men the tools they need to fight Evil—enchanted swords, magic armor, mystical salves, and the like—and a tolerably challenging Evil to overcome. That’s me, in case you’re still not with the program. Without us, only the demagogues that think they run things would ever accomplish anything, and there’s something about a near-total lack of imagination that renders them immune to magic. Look at you—all set to fight Evil where there isn't any. What if you’d inadvertently hurt me? You’d have completely ruined the dramatic continuity for my protegé!”

There came a faintly audible cracking noise as the Wizard’s brows finally met in the middle. “Then what you’re saying is that there’s no Evil to fight here, at least not by the standard definition of the term.” He attempted a relieved smile, but failed. “I don’t suppose you know where some Evil might lurk that I could go and fight?”

“As it happens, I do. But you’ve heard a mite too much for us to simply release you to fight it hereabouts. Relax!” she frowned darkly at the alarm on the Wizard’s face. “The Evil part of the title’s just a professional courtesy. But you surely can’t stay here any longer. I’ll have to send you somewhere you can’t do any real harm.” She took a weighty tome, the spine gold-stamped Ye Booke of Worlds, down from a shelf.

The Wizard found his voice again. “That’s a tome for Wizards!” Wincing at the pain in his middle, he breathed more shallowly before continuing. “Unhand it immediately or I shall certainly file a protest with my lodge!” He struggled briefly, groaning and sagging back against the wall as the pounding in his head fought with the growing sense that his worldview had just become obsolete.

“You’re a realllllly slow learner, aren’t you? Your secret lodge could benefit from a little eye-opener someday. Maybe I’ll bring it up at the next annual meeting.” She thumbed through the book, reading glasses bobbing up and down in time with her voice as she muttered to herself. After a time, she paused, reread a page, clucked quietly to herself. “Hmm… now here’s a suitable world for you. Lots of good black and white archetypes, rings of power, all the elements a man could want. I assume that you’re reasonably competent with spells of fire?” The Wizard nodded cautiously, wincing and not daring to trust his voice.

“Good!” She took down a pair of ruby slippers from the mantelpiece and placed them on the Wizard’s feet. Remarkably, they seemed to fit, although they had plainly been designed for a Princess. “Non alibi sed domi, non alibi sed domi, non alibi sed domi!” she chanted, and with a deft motion clapped the wizard’s feet together. He vanished in a slight puff of orange smoke, leaving behind only a faint aroma of sulfur.

The Evil Stepmother coughed, waving a hand before her face in a vain attempt to clear the air. “I’ll have to remember to work on those pyrotechnics before we release that spell for general use,” she muttered, picking up the fallen slippers and replacing them on the mantle as the Princess entered, a bowl of peaches and cream in her shapely hands, her breath smelling strongly of mint.

“Where did you send him, Mother?”

“Where he’ll do no harm, and may possibly even do some good if the Little Folk can learn to tolerate him. He’s not a bad sort, really, for a Wizard, just frightfully ignorant. Now come along, dear. I feel a lecture coming on... Did we ever finish that discussion on fighting Evil at home instead of looking for someone else’s battles to fight? I thought not. Let’s discuss it in the garden.” With that, she took the Princess’s comely elbow firmly in her gnarled hand and, leading her past the potted nightshade, walked out into the late afternoon sun.

Author’s notes

First, thanks to Jane Lyle for assistance with Latin invocations. (“There’s no place like home”, in case it wasn’t clear from context.) This story is clearly me having far too much fun with the battle of the sexes and the sometimes-intertwined battle of the generations, implemented through the guise of fairy-tale archetypes. In structural terms, it’s perhaps more of a vignette than a true story, but it was still fun. The naginata is a Japanese polearm weapon, strikingly similar to its Western equivalent, the glaive. Traditionally, it was a woman’s weapon, and in skilled hands, capable of defeating a samurai—particularly one who got a might too cocky seeing the weapon wielded by a woman. Saltpeter was supposedly used by the military as an “anaphrodisiac” to keep randy male troops in line; though there’s no good scientific evidence that it was effective in this role, a friend who served as a Navy cook provided anecdotal evidence that it “sapped male vigor” and had various other unpleasant side-effects over which we’ll draw the veil of decency. Any resemblance of the Wizard to certain stars of stage and screen and 75-year-old British fantasy novels is, of course, entirely coincidental.

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