This is a birthday present for my Management, because Cobweb makes him laugh, and because he makes suggestions and then conveniently forgets that they weren’t all my own clever ideas, and is Suitably Impressed once they get to print.

Once upon a time, there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, a most disagreeable and ill-tempered woman. She had, from her first marriage, two daughters, in disposition like herself, and her husband also had a child, a daughter of unparalleled gentleness and good nature.

No sooner was the marriage ceremony over than the stepmother began to show her true nature. The good qualities of the pretty girl were unbearable to her, particularly because they made her own daughters appear the more hateful. So the stepmother employed her in the meanest tasks of the household, requiring her to scour the floors, wash the dishes, keep the chambers clean and airy, cook, and sew and scrub like the poorest drudge. Her own daughters had rooms of elegance with beds made to the latest mode and carpets from the exotic lands of the east and pier glasses in which they viewed themselves from head to foot each day.

The poor girl made no complaint and bore patiently with such cruelty. When she had finished her work, she used to sit in the chimney corner, surrounded by ashes and cinders, and it was in this account that her sisters, who resented her beauty, called her Cinderella.

But Cinderella had a Godmother who was one of the Fair Folk, and it happened that her Godmother made discovery of what had befallen the girl, and she would fain discover whether Cinderella was as good and as true as she was beautiful. So she made herself into the image of an old woman and she called at the castle, for she thought that if Cinderella could have pity on a beldame and offer her food and shelter, then she could use her faery powers to contrive some happiness for the girl.

But when she called, there was no sign of Cinderella in the castle.

And the Fairy Godmother was much bewildered to find that the girl was not to be seen, and she absented herself again and gave thought to what she could do. And then she came again to the castle, and this time when she knocked the door was opened to her, but it was not Cinderella but one of her sisters who stood within. So the Godmother said, expecting to be turned away, “Have pity on an old woman, and let me sit at your fire and warm myself, and if you had a little food, it would be a great charity.”

And the sister said, “Well, I suppose there would be no harm in it, and there is broth in the pot at the fire.” And the Godmother was somewhat amazed. Still, she ate of the broth and sat by the fire, but Cinderella was not to be seen. So the Godmother went away to her place of magic, and called up enchantments upon her mirror, and looked within its depths, and saw that Cinderella was again in the kitchen of the castle, and her sisters had her pinned to the table, and one of them had a long and limber switch, and the other had a belt of heavy oak-tanned harness leather, and they beat poor Cinderella, who wept piteously for mercy and found none. And the Godmother sat by her mirror, and gave herself up to deep contemplation.

It came about that the Prince, who was required to find himself a bride, gave a ball and invited to it all those of the Quality in the neighbourhood. Cinderella’s sisters were invited and made themselves busy in the choosing of sarcenets and laces, cloth of gold and ruffles. This made all the more work for Cinderella who had to act as their tiring woman and keep all the fine velvets and silks fit to wear. And as she worked her sisters made mock of her, saying, “Cinderella, would you not wish to go to the ball?”

But she would not answer them.

And when the day came, she saw her sisters ride in the fine carriage with their mother, and go to the palace, and she went back to her place among the cinders.

But then, the Fairy came to her in the kitchen, and said, “Cinderella, do not grieve. I am your Fairy Godmother, and I see that you are good and kind and virtuous. Cinderella, you shall go to the ball! I shall make you a carriage from the shell of a pumpkin, and you shall have horses transformed from the mice in your traps, and a transfigured rat shall be your coachman. Six lizards I shall make into your footmen, and they shall wear liveries of silver and gold, and I shall give you a dress made of cloth of gold and slippers of glass, that you may be as fine as any at the ball. And the Prince will fall in love with you and you shall wed him and be his True Love.”

And Cinderella said, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

And her Godmother said, “What?”

It was a handsome office, bright and clean and pleasantly furnished. It was also obviously new. There were no scratches on the filing cabinets, no papers in the elegant trays. The desk was dust-free and the only tea cup contained tea, rather than dried brown smudges and the remains of mutated life forms. The Magic Mirror was the very latest available and Cobweb viewed it with some suspicion, particularly since she had so totally failed to recognise any of the software. Godzilla? What was that? She prodded carefully at a key and her eyebrows went up. Fée-mail and web facilities. Right. What else was there? The usual selection of card games, which are religiously played using technology by people who would never play them using cards. She casually played three hands of Find The Lady, winning them all, which was not surprising for one who was the Lady’s votary and therefore expected to know at all times where the Lady was to be found.

Something to do would be nice, but the first days in a new job in Faery are little different to the first days in a new job in Reality. Despite everybody having known for two months that Nemesis and the Godmothers were to be amalgamated under Cobweb’s fairly strict command, nobody had seen fit to Do Anything About It until Cobweb herself had arrived. At that point everybody had blamed somebody else, and Cobweb, who had been rather nervous about taking over new duties, discovered happily that they were much the same as the old ones, and that the springy switch provided by Pommy and accompanied by a ‘You’ve Got A New Job!’ card could concentrate minds just the way such things always had.

Since then, nothing very much had happened. The Spank Fairies had gone about their business, and until the paperwork began to appear, she had nothing to do with them. The Godmothers, who were inclined to be touchy about her promotion, had also retired hurt. Cobweb sighed, mournfully. It would work in the end, she supposed, but at this stage there was no evidence of the Spank Fairies and the Godmothers combining. They were deeply suspicious of each other, and hints on her part about cross-disciplinary talents to discipline the cross were received without enthusiasm.

Something crackled, and a small space-time window – well, more like an inverted goldfish bowl – opened above her mirror.

“Madam? There’s a Godmother here asking to see you. Have you a space in your schedule?”

She gazed coldly at the face inside the bubble. “Verthandi, you know perfectly well what’s in my schedule. You’re looking after my schedule. That’s your job. By the way, I meant to ask earlier, where were you working last?”

“I was assisting Imhotep, in a secretarial role.”

“You were a doctor’s receptionist.”

“Um – yes. Of sorts.”

“Yes, well, things are different here. I don’t want you sending people away or stopping them from seeing me. If you want to be an Obstructive Old Bat, do it on your own time. If there are people I don’t want to see, I’ll tell you so. Who is this Godmother?”

“Actually, he’s a Godfather, but he’s very junior. His name’s Deadnettle. He’s a bit wet.”


“No, he’s just. . . well, he’s barely out of his teens and he’s panicking about the job.”

“Send him in.”

He was indeed barely out of his teens, or the nearest equivalent for Faery. And he was scared past bearing. Well, past the bearing of anyone who worked, at never mind how many removes, for the Mother. The Mother didn’t permit anybody to be that scared unless it was directly of Her.

“Verthandi? Tea, please. And are there any biscuits?”

There were biscuits. The tea cup rattled on the saucer, but the application of sugar served some useful purpose.

“Now, Deadnettle. Tell me why you needed to see Nemesis.”

He looked up, gave her a terrified grimace, and dropped his biscuit, which broke into pieces, on which he then trod.

“No, leave it. LEAVE IT, I said. Calm down. What’s the matter?”

He carefully set down his tea cup, gathered his courage and told her. And Cobweb said, “She said what?”

“I told her I was the Godmother, I asked her what she wanted and she said: nothing. That wasn’t what I was expecting. Is that how it’s supposed to go? When we did our training it didn’t go like that.”

“I’ll bet it bloody didn’t. No, it is not how it’s supposed to go. Somebody’s interfering with this. That’s not how the plot pans out at all. Somebody has been Meddling.”

She considered for a few moments. Then she breached time and space again.

“Verthandi? Can I have the full week’s scheduling, please? And the staff allocations. Thank you.”

“Is something the matter?”

“I believe we’ve got a slight problem with Interference. Somebody is putting in their fourpenceworth and trying to make things difficult for us.”

“That Trickster friend of yours, I suppose. His idea of a joke. Anything else you want?”

“Not at the moment, thank you.”

She sat back and considered. Deadnettle opened his mouth to speak and then was suddenly overtaken by an attack of intelligence and shut it again.

“Deadnettle, I think I need to see this. Have you got the contract reference? Thank you. Let’s look.”

They watched the grainy, CCTV style recording of Deadnettle at work. Cobweb marked him, mentally, at seven out of ten. He was obviously nervous, and inclined to speak too fast and too high, but those were minor faults and would probably sort themselves as he gained in experience. He wasn’t doing anything actually wrong, although his style was poor. Still, he was efficient enough and –

“Oh ho. Back, please, mirror. A little further. More. Stop. Right. I see. Come, Deadnettle. We’ll go and look at this.”

They Folded through to a romantic-looking castle, and Cobweb trod briskly down the steps to the kitchen door, and banged loudly on the panels.

“Fairy godmothers calling, anybody home? Good afternoon, I am Cobweb, I’m from the Nemesis Pay and Payback Office, I’m looking for Cinderella. That’s you, dear, is it? Excellent. Your name has come up in our Happy Ever After winter draw, and you are therefore entitled to a major happy ending. The prize this season is a visit to a Royal Wedding Planning Ball, complete with posh frock, unsuitable footwear, improbable staff and transport arrangements, introduction to a Royal spouse-elect, crossbow-speed arranged marriage, minimum of two children, no death in child-bed, and happiness ever after.”

Cinderella gazed blankly at Cobweb, and then turned to Deadnettle. “You were here before. I said I didn’t want to join.”

Deadnettle cast a panicked glance at Cobweb, who grinned, maliciously.

“I bet you don’t. Who sent you here?”

Cinderella hesitated. “I answered an advertisement. In a magazine. Staff wanted, it said.”

“And where did you get the magazine?”

“It just arrived one day in the post.”

“Thought so. Meddling. It’s definitely Meddling.”

“Miss Cobweb? I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand.”

“Look, Deadnettle. Cinderella, put your hands on the table. Deadnettle, what do you see?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary. What ought I to see?”

Cobweb sighed, and leaned forward, placing her own hands on the table beside Cinderella’s. “Now, do you see?”

Deadnettle stared blankly, and shook his head. Cobweb turned to Cinderella. “Take your shoes off.”

“Awww, please. . .”

Cobweb put on the Look, and the skivvy reluctantly kicked off the heavy sabots and stepped around the table.


The Godfather shook his head, turning down the corners of his mouth in disappointed confusion. He was beginning to look panicky again, worrying about not spotting what Cobweb meant. She bit down an impatient sigh. He was very young and he was doing his best. She stepped out of her own loafers and moved to stand next to Cinderella. Then she Shifted to male, and back.

“No, I still don’t see. . . except that she’s bigger than you and her hands are. . . her hands are. . . You’re a man! You’re a bloody man! You’re not the put-upon younger sister at all, you’re a sodding man!”

“Well done. I knew you would get there in the end. Cinderella, put the kettle on. You shan’t go to the Ball, not if you really don’t want to. I take it you don’t want to meet the handsome prince? Not your type of thing? What, precisely, is your orientation, if you don’t mind me asking?”


“And the frock?”

“I want to wear a dress. Is that a problem?”

“Not in the least. Probably just as well that we aren’t going through with this, though, because I don’t believe they make the glass slippers in any size bigger than a seven, and I’ve don’t hold with fur footwear, even if it is what was originally intended. I’ve already had to make the Gnome rewrite to get rid of my fur coat.”

“That’s discrimination, that is!”

“Sorry, what?”

 “No glass slippers in sensible sizes. Discrimination. Not that I could wear glass slippers with this sort of dress anyway.”

“No, silly idea. And think about it. There’ll be no flexibility in the instep, and no disguising any lack of shapeliness in the foot. And frankly, I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re too big to go for the Fairy Princess look. And. . . um. . . well, we’re neither of us twenty-one, are we? They do say that no woman over thirty should wear pink.”

“Do they?”

“Oh, yes, Cinderella, they do. Well, just look at Barbara Cartland. Now you would look well in browns and golds. Mind you, for domestic work – now, there is nothing you can tell me about domestic work. Nothing at all. That grey dress is good, although frankly trousers would be more practical, but that, presumably, isn’t what you’re here for. Housework, that’s why you’re here, yes?”

“Yes, and. . . and the rest.”

“And the sisters upstairs?”

“Are very well known indeed. Ruby and Florence. They arrange this sort of thing. Advertise in the clubs. Magazines. You know the sort of thing.”

“Ruby and Florence. . . Florence and Ruby? The Lashing Lasses? Ruby Facient and Pyroclastic Flo? You are moving in exalted circles. And you answered an ad for this?”

“So did they. I like the housework and the verbals, you know the sort of thing.”

“I do.”

“And they’re getting paid double rates.”

“Meddling. I said as much. Right. Nothing for us to do here, Deadnettle. The happy ending will happen for this Cinderella as soon as Pyroclastic Flo realises that she’s been sitting about drinking tea with visitors rather than getting on with the housework. By the way, Cinderella, I take it you have a full time job as well?”

“I’m a quantity surveyor. Why?”

“Oh, Deadnettle was having some trouble tracking you down in office hours, that’s all. No problem. Can you just sign – here – and – here – to show that you have been fully godmothered to the extent required by the Regulations and that you don’t require an introduction to Prince Charming. Lovely. Enjoy the rest of your contract. Pleasure to do business with you.”

They Folded back to the office and Cobweb gathered up the scattered paperwork, bouncing the wad of paper on the desk and sliding a treasury tag through the sheets.

“Look, Deadnettle, just file this. And I think. . . I think I would prefer you not to mention it for a little while. I think we can both see” (Deadnettle, who had seen nothing useful, swelled a little with this implication of equality, and nodded importantly) “that somebody has been doing something they shouldn’t. Now I have a couple of ideas about that, and you needn’t doubt that I shall Do Something About It. We people from Nemesis – I must find a proper name for us, mustn’t I? – we don’t stand for being messed around like that. But it would be a mistake to do anything precipitate. Don’t you think?”

Deadnettle, who had probably never thought in his life, nodded helpfully. “I won’t say anything. If anybody asks, Story just went a little off-side, because I was nervous about it, and I asked you to check it for me, and you said it was O.K.”

“Good boy. What’s your next?”

“Group therapy. Another Sleeping Beauty. I’m to give her a pretty lisp.”

Cobweb shuddered. After she sorted this out, she absolutely must look into the Gifts. But she smiled, and saw Deadnettle on his way, and went thoughtfully back to her desk. Verthandi came in with the filing.

“Everything sorted?”

“Think so, yes,” said Cobweb, absently.

“Your little sylvan friend, was it? He never was very reliable.”

“Mm,” said Cobweb, still absently, and started to look through some files. Her head was lowered, but she was watching Verthandi through her lashes in a way that the Gnome would have recognised as Artemisian, and later generations of the English as Diana-like. Same thing. That had been just one prod too many. She didn’t deny that the Gnome was a first class trouble maker. She was good enough herself at making trouble to recognise a real expert. But he took a pride in it and did it properly: he would, she had no doubt, make trouble for her, drop her in it from a great height, fall about laughing at her struggles, and submit gracefully when she lodged with Huw a not-very-serious complaint. She was fair game to his trouble-making, just as he submitted to her mothering with ostentatious but simulated complaint. Still, she hadn’t been the one to suffer this time: that had been Deadnettle, and she was far from convinced that the Gnome would have done that. A practical joke of that type played on an inexperienced godmother? She rather thought that the Gnome would view that as bullying, and his views on bullying tended to coincide with her own.

“Verthandi? I shall be out, probably for the rest of the afternoon. Close up at five if I’m not back and I’ll look at the forms in the morning.”

She walked briskly down the stairs and through the lobby, stopping outside the glass doors. Two godmothers and a spank fairy who had been leaning against the wall sidled away from her, looking for a corner to hide around.

“Don’t leave your cigarette butts lying around, please. You know that I’m hot on butts.”

They nodded, fervently. She stepped to the kerb and the cab drew up beside her.

“Barnabas, you’re just so good at that. You never keep me waiting. Darling, I’ve got a tiny problem.” She leaned forward, breathed on the glass of his windscreen, and with one finger, wrote ‘bug?’

The cab backfired. “You or me?”

“I don’t know. I may be wrong. I don’t think it’s me, but. . .” She breathed on the glass again and wrote ‘2 many pepl knw whr I am’.

“And you don’t like this?”

The finger again, on a side window this time. ‘Need 2 c Bossy w/o office knwing. Help?’

“Of course.”

The landscape melted around them – there was a four poster bed with some children on it on the next lane, and a large and over-ripe peach full of equally large insects behind it. The sky above them was darkening, and large square letters moving through it said something about a galaxy far away.

“We’re being followed.” It was barely a whisper, almost inaudible above the engine noise.

“Ah. Can you lose them?”

“I can do better. Let them follow me all afternoon, I don’t mind, and I’ll call up reinforcements. Listen, this is what you do. . .”

They twisted between a selection of tall buildings, stopping suddenly outside a railway station. A large family of red haired children was struggling with piles of luggage, hampered by several angry owls refusing to go into cages. Cobweb hopped out, slipped between the suitcases, and dragged open the door of another cab. Barnabas accelerated away, and a moment later a jogger wearing winged boots came rather faster than was reasonable around the corner, and followed him.

“Where to, Miss?”

“I’m looking for Trouble.”

“Any particular sort of Trouble?”

She gave him a Look.

“Surrey,” he said hastily. “I’ll take you to Surrey.”

“Is Surrey good for Trouble?”

“Well, I. . . It’s sort of. . . If I were. . . Yes.”

“Good. Find me some Trouble.”

It took him half an hour.

“Wait, please.”

Where there was trouble, of course, there was also Carabosse, that went without saying. Cobweb eased around a doorframe, looking for a wicked fairy. The Wicked Fairy.

“Heart! What are you doing here at this time?”

“Bossy, I need some help. I’m being set up, and somebody’s trying to make it out to be the Gnome’s fault.”

“Interesting. Tell me all about it. Tydeus can take over here for a bit. What’s happening?”

“I can’t get the Godmothers and the Spank Fairies to combine at all. Every time I suggest that somebody might do a little of both, I get the union rep in talking about demarcation. And somebody is meddling with Story so that we’ll look bad, and blaming the Gnome for it. I haven’t got anybody in my office that I can trust and I think there’s a Eye being cast over my mirror. I daren’t do anything with the paperwork.”

“So – well, what can I do to help?”

“I need a representative of Order who is wholly on my side and who knows something about technobabble. I want to know what’s on that system, and I want to be in control of it. Whoever’s taking the piss – let’s face it, it’s Sir Huon trying to get back at me for last year’s stuff, isn’t it? – has placed Verthandi in my office. I need a new secretary who actually knows about secrets, and about paperwork. I can’t think why anybody thought Verthandi would make a good PA. She just sits and knits half the day, and waters that damn pot plant. I don’t care if it is the World Tree, I don’t think an office is a good place for it. And she won’t just water it from the kitchen tap, either, she’s got the Urdarbrunnr coming up in the Ladies and it’s played Helgardh with the plumbing. She ought to be on my side, she’s Urth’s sister and Urth is a Mother in her own right, but she’s tangled up everything I’ve done so far, and I’m not having her bring Skuld in to cut me off from my work. So I thought of you, and since you said you wouldn’t be able to get home this week, I asked Barnabas to arrange to get me here. I’ve got a cab waiting. Darling, haven’t you got anybody who could help out a bit?”

Carabosse frowned, and swung the edge of his chiropteroid cloak. “Actually, I have. I’ve got somebody new signed up with me, who’s producing immaculate paperwork. He might be just what you need. But of course” and he gave her his Alan Rickman sneer, and her knees weakened “you’ll owe me.”

“Owe you what?” she sneered back. She wasn’t as good as him, but it was an impressive sneer nonetheless.

The cloak swung again, enclosing her within its depths. “Let’s talk about that, shall we? Upstairs. I fear he’ll be very expensive.”

The cab driver saw her start to walk across the car park (where the hell were they? He thought he knew all the places locally, but although he had known how to get here, and he thought he knew how to get back, he had, he was fairly sure, never seen this place before) and something about the way she moved suggested to him that it might be a good idea to recover that big fluffy blanket from the boot (why did he have a big fluffy blanket in the boot? He knew it was there, but he certainly hadn’t put it there and it hadn’t been there earlier) and fold it into a soft cushion for the seat.

“Where next, Miss?”

“My office, please. The back entrance, no suggestive remarks, and what’s the music?”

“Saint-Saëns. Rondo capriccioso in A minor. Opus 28 if you really want to know.”

“Mm. It would be good for strap work. A fairly heavy tawse.”

He agreed with her but it didn’t seem like a good idea to say so. He drove.

At the office, she dug to the bottom of her bag for her purse, and dragged out with it a neatly folded leaflet. “Here. That’s the list I’ve put you on. Just so that you know. If you find that you want a transfer to somebody else, just let me know. And if you want to have a word with Barnabas, we’ve got an account running with him for transport and I wouldn’t mind having a backstop for when he’s elsewhen. You can either sign up with my PA (but I’d leave that a day or two) or subcontract it through Barnabas, I don’t mind.”

He peered at the leaflet and gave her a slightly panicky look.

“What’s the matter?”

“Um – these two. Who are they?”

“The Peine twins. Forte and Dure. Usually I only allocate one fairy per human, but in your case, I think we might make an exception.”

“What have I done to get signed up?”

“You ought to know. Are all the links live on your website? Have you been wasting time on the internet? Did you pay the ISP bill on time? The system threw your name up, I didn’t bother with the detail.”

“Ahhhhhh. . .”

“Come on, out with it. What’s the problem?”

“Look, I’m sure they’re nice girls, but they aren’t exactly my type.”

Cobweb sighed, reached back for the leaflet and carefully turned it over. “Read this side, then. Do you like them any better like this? I always thought they were rather good-looking boys.”

He wheezed a little.

“They’ll do? Good. Watch yourself, then. Those two don’t mess around. If they visit you, you’ll know about it. Thanks for the ride.”

The next morning, Cobweb was halfway down her cup of tea and her post when all the lights went out. She heard Verthandi swear (she saw it too – the ivy on her windowsill shot upright, twisted around its support and began to put out leaves in a conciliatory manner). “’Thandi? What happened?”

“I don’t know, madam. Power failure of some sort. It’s all off, not just your office.”

“Right. You’ll maybe need to go down to Maintenance and speak to somebody.”

It was about half an hour later than the young man arrived.

“Morning, ladies, Techno support, here’s my I.D.” (it had taken Cobweb most of the evening to make convincing the card he flashed in front of Verthandi’s face), “we’ve got a small problem with the power. Heavy use by. . . well, I don’t tell them your business, so let’s just say, by some very important People. We’ve put a Protection on you now, so it won’t happen again, and I’ll just restore everything for you now, won’t take long, any chance of a cup of coffee? How many terminals have you got in here? I’ll need a look at them all, and then we’ll see about getting you back up, O.K.?”

Two hours later, Verthandi was signing off his worksheet, sighing pointedly as he gave her the big eye and a huge grin, and smiling herself as he took himself off. An hour after that, Cobweb met him in the park, and they walked down the towpath together.

“Your system is downloading all the data every night to a remote terminal. Give me a couple of hours and I’ll know where. All the staff allocations for the week came in from the same place. The ones you did last week were sent off into a dead file – I found them. They’re nearly but not quite the same, close enough that you probably wouldn’t notice. Then there was a small hex put on Story to give you the Cinderella effect. If the Godmother concerned hadn’t had the sense to come to you, the Story would just have come cumulatively undone – unravelled, I suppose – so that by the time the wedding got up to ‘just cause and impediment’ there would have been five or six people lining up at the back of the church to shout. Big scandal, I should think. I can find out who’s doing it if you. . .”

“I think I already know. Yes, I want to know, but start with these names.”

The young man glanced at the piece of paper she passed him and pursed his lips in a silent whistle. “You really think it’s. . . these people?”

“I do. And when I get hold of them, they are fried bread.”

“Um. . . toast.”


“Never mind. Carabosse said I was to do whatever you wanted, so I’ll follow it up. But if it’s. . . if it’s political, it might be as well to take a few precautions. Cover my tracks. That’ll take a bit longer. Say tomorrow morning?”

“Can you come to the Website with the information? Rather than to the office? Thank you. . . what is your name?”

“Branks. It’s a pleasure, and it will be even more of a pleasure if it allows me to negotiate a discount on what I’m currently due from Briony.”

“I’ll speak to her. Tomorrow. Breakfast time. Oh, that Sir Huon isn’t going to know what hit him. I’ll teach him to interfere with Story when My Staff are working.”

From her expression, Branks rather thought that she would teach him not to, but he took the point. He was interested, too, in her mention of her staff. Carabosse had implied that her relationship with the Godmothers was uneasy, but it was plain that she intended to fight for them as hard as she had always been known to fight for, and occasionally with, her Spank Fairies. It was a shame that the story was to be kept quiet, because a small bet on her to face down Sir Huon might be profitable. Still, that would be unprofessional, and even if he didn’t like his job in the Carabossieri, he had enough pride to do it properly.

By breakfast time he was wishing all the more that he could have placed a bet. He was hoarse and exhausted – Cobweb had taken one look at him and gone to make porridge, adding ginger and nutmeg and a handful of dried fruit, before permitting him to tell her what he had found. There had been no surprise on her face when he confirmed that Verthandi was Huon’s spy in her office, and that several Stories had been Altered to make life difficult for the new Godmothers.

“I didn’t find anything lodged against the Spank Fairies. It’s just the Godmothers.”

She nodded. “It’s because he didn’t want me to have them. They don’t mix with my old staff. He’s trying to keep them that way, divided and with the work under me going wrong. They don’t even think of themselves as being all one staff now.”

Branks thought about that while he ate his porridge. When, even to please Cobweb, he couldn’t manage to eat any more, he said suddenly, “Nemessaries.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Obviously they aren’t mixing, your Spank Fairies and the Godmothers. Give them a new name and a new identity. Nemessaries. People who work for Nemesis.”

“Nemessaries. Yes, I rather think I like that. Nemessaries. That has style. That’s a good idea. Now, my dear, I think you had best go about your unlawful occasions and know nothing about what I’m going to do. Then you can’t be blamed for it. You’ve been a great help.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to show them what happens when you Meddle with Story. I’m going to deal with a Cinderella myself and let them see why it isn’t a good idea to interfere. Run along, dear, and tell Bossy that I’m very grateful for your help.”

Once upon a time, there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, a most disagreeable and ill-tempered woman. She had, from her first marriage, two daughters, in disposition like herself, and her husband also had a child, a daughter of unparalleled gentleness and good nature, but unfortunately with nothing to recommend her in the way of good looks.

(There was a slight wrinkle in the fabric of Fabrication as this variation in Story made itself known.)

The wedding was scarce done when the new family began to settle itself into dysfunctionality. The father’s daughter was sent to the kitchen and told to occupy herself with housework. She washed dishes, scrubbed floors, made beds (because her carpentry skills were exceptional) and cooked for the entire household, while her step-mother and her sisters sat about eating chocolate and putting on weight.

The poor girl bore it all patiently, because her good nature was not matched by any particular excess of either spirit or brains, such not generally being required by Story, which has a depressing tendency to want to keep girls pretty, virtuous, uneducated, good natured, slightly stupid, and therefore unthreatening to men.

(Several major Characters found themselves fighting a faint sensation of unease as Story stretched in an unusual direction.)

The stupid mare unfortunate innocent bore uncomplainingly the caprices of her sisters and her step-mother, instead of going to see the Union Of Fairy Tale Characters and asking for an interview with the shop steward. When she had done her work, she would go to the chimney corner and sit among the cinders and ashes, and on account of that, her sisters would call her Cinderella.

It so happened that the King’s son gave a Ball, and invited all persons of quality to it. What quality was not actually known. The step-sisters were invited and took great pleasure in choosing clothes, trying them on, dropping them on the floor and leaving them for Cinderella to pick up, and she, not having the natural wit to leave everything as she found it, had her work doubled and trebled every day.

The sisters teased and cried every day. “Oh, Cinderella, would not you wish to go to the Ball and be dressed as fine as we shall be?”

“Alas,” she said, for she was pretentious in her speech (oh, all right, prettily old-fashioned. But the first ‘alack’ and she really will be fried bread). “Alas, you make mock of me; it is not for such as I am to go to amuse myself among the Great Folk.”

“What has a music festival got to do with anything?” asked one of the sisters, distracted. “Oh. Oh, I see. No, it is not for you: it would amuse the Prince, no doubt, to see a Cindergirl at a ball.”

Anyone with a spit of spirit would have refused to help the sisters dress and make themselves fine, but Cinderella fetched and carried, washed and ironed, polished shoes and glossed jewellery, and when the happy day came and the two abominable airheads – for neither one had an ambition higher than a good marriage (moron and oxymoron) – went to the Court, Cinderella looked after them until the coach was out of sight and then fell to weeping.

She was startled from her wet hennery by a sharp rap at the door. On the step was an old wo. . . a woman in the prime of her life. Just carrying a bit of extra weight, perhaps, but still looking good. Fairly good.

“Right, Cinders, I am your Fairy Godmother. I’m here to make all well again, whether you like it or not. For a start, you’ve got to stop sitting in the fireplace. It’s against Elf and Safety regulations, and even somebody as intellectually underprovided as you should be able to see that it’s dangerous. It’s plain dim too, it gets your clothes filthy. Don’t do it, there’s a good girl. If you don’t want people to call you names, you’ve got to apply some intellect towards not giving them an opening. Now, I can see you’ve been whinging, because you’ve cried all down a dirty face. Most unattractive. Go and wash your face and then we’ll talk.”

(In another part of Faery, Sir Huon was saying to an adviser, “Can’t you feel it? There’s a fairy tale being stretched, and it isn’t the one I set up. Go and find out about it. Take Spenser with you, I don’t want to hear any more of his damn verse.”)

“Now, girl, what’s your name?”


“No, dear. You have a real name. I just know you do.”

“Yes, but it’s Dymphna. I think I like Cinderella better.”

“Good grief! I should think you do. O.K., Cinderella it is.”

(The adviser fell off his horse. “Dymphna? Dymphna? There aren’t any fairy tale heroines called Dymphna, are there?”

Spenser shrugged. “Don’t think so. There’s a saint, is that any good? Patron saint of mental illness, nervous diseases, incest victims and runaways.”

“Cobweb won’t stand for that.”

“Why not?”

“She doesn’t think any of those are suitable for a Tops and Bottoms relationship. Too great an imbalance of power, too great a risk of plain abuse.”

“So explain to me again why Sir Huon doesn’t like her? She sounds very sensible to me.”)

“Right, Cinderella, what are you crying about?”

“I wish I could. . . I wish I could. . .”

“Go and ball the Prince, yes?”

“No, I don’t think so. All those words but not in that order.”

“Ye-es. Have you actually seen the Prince? Even if you can’t think of anything better to do than marry a man who hasn’t got the originality to think of anything better than a Ball as a means of meeting women, I think you could do better than that.”

“How? How am I ever to do better than an introduction to a prince?”

“What about an introduction to a bank manager?”


“Have you got a pad of paper? And a pen? And a calculator? Now, let me explain to you about the current difficulty of obtaining reliable and honest cleaning staff. And the mark-up that an efficient domestic staffing organisation could put on labour costs. And about profit margins, cash-flow forecasts, budgets, annual percentage rates, payback periods, first year and capital allowances, and internal rates of return. In short, let me explain to you about being a Small Business. This is the sort of thing that Fairy Godmothers are supposed to do.”

(“No, it isn’t,” shouted Sir Huon. “No, it bloody isn’t. You’re supposed to make sure that the limp girl marries the brainless boy and they breed a new generation of fairy tales!”)

And the Fairy Godmother said, “Now, run out to the garden and bring me a pumpkin.”

“Don’t be daft,” said Cinderella. “For one thing it’s the wrong time of year, and for another we don’t grow them. It’s too cold here.”

“Good girl,” approved the Godmother. “If you had gone obediently outside to look for it, it would have been there and we would have been sprung back into the original which is not where we want to be.”

(A sharp-eared listener might have heard the slow sigh of Story warping out of True.)

“What about an imported courgette?”

“We’ve got one of those in the fridge.”

“Right. Take it outside and let’s see about transport. Watch: I dig out the insides, which we carefully put aside for soup, and I touch it with my wand, and it’s a Vauxhall Senator. Can you drive?”

“No, miss. Ma’am.”

“How are you with rodents and amphibians? Mice? Rats? Lizards?”

“I’m not enthusiastic about any of them, particularly, but I haven’t had much to do with them.”

“Have you got mice and rats in traps around the place?”

“Certainly not! I have a Hygiene certificate for this kitchen! No mice here.”

“Lizards at the bottom of the garden?”

“I should think it would be too cold; at least I’ve never seen any.”

“Excellent. You’re getting the feel for this! Let’s try something more sensible.” She started to retrieve things from her bag, finally producing a mobile phone and stuffing all the other rubbish back.

“Hello? Forte? This is. . . Yes, oh hell, it’s her. Forte, you really need to work on your telephone manner. Listen, you know that new client I gave you? I need him. Here. Now. Get him for me, there’s a dear. No, there’s nothing wrong. No! I’m not taking him back. For Goddess’ sake, Forte, just send him here. I need him to drive a car. You can. . . what? Well, when will he be able to sit down? Oh, for. . . look, take him into a temporal loop until his welts go down. Then deliver him here Right This Minute before I decide that you need a refresher course and come over there to teach it!”

There was a rap at the door and the Surrey cab driver stepped inside. He was breathing rather hard and. . . should there have been a comma after ‘breathing’? Perhaps not: it was conjecture, not conjuring. Cobweb eyed him up and down and did something brisk with her wand. “Uniform. You can’t be a businesswoman’s driver without a uniform. Smart.” For some reason that remark seemed to have an unfortunate effect on him (perhaps he heard it as a threat), but there was no denying that he looked well – although rather surprised – in the silver grey suit and the pale blue brocade waistcoat.

“Right, Cinderella, you’ve got a car and a driver, and he’s going to take you to the bank. I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, or more likely, wherein a timely blow will get you a loan. Have you got your business plan?”

“Oh, yes,” cried she, “but must I go thither as I am, in these nasty rags?”

“Well, it’s your own fault. You would sit in the fireplace and it’s ruinous on your clothes. But there, I suppose I could do something about it. Let me think. Right. Now you’ve got to look as if you probably could find the money yourself but you don’t want to be put to the inconvenience. So. . .”

The Godmother touched her lightly with her – well, this being a fairy tale, it must have been a wand, although the young man from Surrey would have been more inclined to call it a switch. In an instant, her ragged clothes were turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. “Bugger,” said the Godmother, tersely. “That’s Story trying to enforce itself, and I’m not having it.” She repeated the gesture, and looked at the results. “Givenchy. I don’t think it’s really you. Try again. Helmut Lang, I think, not the look we want. Yves Saint Laurent, generally sound but not for your body type. Gaultier, no, he’s fishtail skirts this season, very unflattering for any woman under seven feet tall or over five stone. Worth, now Worth. . . Yes, now this is good. It actually looks like real clothes, not like an explosion in the dressing up box. Let’s go with that, shall we? Now, shoes.”

She shut her eyes for a moment and concentrated, and a pair of shoes popped into existence, and winked at them all from the floor.

“Sodding glass slippers. You are absolutely not wearing those. They’ll spring us back into tradition the minute your foot touches them. Wait a minute.”

In fact it took nearly twenty minutes of solid work to produce a pair of plain brown Italian leather shoes and a matching briefcase, and the Godmother was beginning to look both incensed and haggard by the time it was done.

“Now, let this gentleman take you to the bank, and don’t stay past midni. . . Goddess, it nearly got me there! You’re not in the same timeline as your sisters, it’s only just past lunchtime here, and it’s ten o’clock at night where they are. Stay as long as you need to. I’ll stay here and just keep the whole thing from unravelling.”

It was nearly dark when the girl came back, and by then even her weakened intellect could comprehend that the Godmother was exhausted, and holding the tale intact by an extreme exercise of will and regular input of a particularly solid Merlot recommended by woodgnomes.

“How did you get on?”

“The bank manager conducted me to the most honourable seat, and served me with a fine collation – well, tea and biscuits – and offered me every civility.”

“And offered you. . .”

“£25000 at 1.25% above bank base rate for five years with an option to renew if all payments have been made on time. Interest calculated quarterly, compound, key worker insurance required but I don’t have to take it through them, he wants to see management accounts twice a year and audited accounts within 3 months of the year end.”

“And you closed with that?”

“Yes. And I hope you don’t mind, but I got what’shisname to drive me round by the middle of town and we stopped at three of the recruitment agencies so that I could place ads for cleaning staff.”

“Well done.”

“One of the agencies said they had someone on their books already. . . hang on, they gave me a c.v. . . Another Cinderella, they said. . .”

“I wouldn’t. I think that might be just too complicated. And I don’t think Deadnettle would be able to cope. Now, you’re O.K., are you?”

“I think so. Oh, Fairy Godmother, thank you so much!”

“There, don’t make a fuss. I’ll come by in the morning just to make sure that nothing goes wrong. Here, did the cab wait? I’m too tired to Fold.”

“What’s she doing? What’s she doing?” bellowed Sir Huon. “She’s never going to be able to make it come out right. The glass slippers exist in this Version and she can’t get rid of them but she hasn’t left room for them in the Plot. If she doesn’t find a use for them, the whole bloody lot’s going to. . . to. . . She can’t have excess magical artefacts just lying about, it’s make the whole Narrative go wrong. What’s she bloody doing? Somebody get her out of there and reset Story, for the love of whatever god you like.”

“Can’t,” said a rather amused enchanter. “She’s warded it. I wouldn’t have expected her to know how, that’s. . . oh, she’s Order, isn’t she? That’s how she knows how to ward. But I haven’t the faintest idea of how she’s done it. I’ve never seen wards like those before, and I’ve been around since we were drawing mortals into the hollow hills just to feed off the temporal abnormality. The wards are different every time I look.”

“She’s learned it from that. . . that. . . Woodgnome!” spat Sir Huon, temporarily unable to find a more satisfying epithet. “They’ve combined Order and Chaos until even parts of the Pantheon don’t know how it works. She’s got Time fucked five ways to Friday, and if you ask Him about it He just gives this huge grin, and says He can’t remember the last Him He had so much fun. She’s done something to Space but we can’t find out what, although apparently the Big Bang was less theory and more practice that anybody previously thought. . . Why am I talking about this? Fucking do something about it!”

He’s losing it, thought the enchanter, and besides I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.)

The Fairy Godmother turned up just before lunch to find Cinderella mustering a cleaning squad of five, armed with dusters and air fresheners, and her sisters whining from the top of the stairs about not being able to find their nipple clamps or Rabbit vibrators. She was just in time to go herself to answer a positively tidal crash at the front door.



“What about him?”


“What do you expect me to do about it?”


“Excuse me?”


“Why are you shouting?”


“Would you like a new one?”


“If you would like to go down those stairs, you will find at the bottom a lady who is currently recruiting. Good salary, interesting benefit package including elf insurance, flexible hours, no shouting unless desired.”

“Down this way?”

“Through the green door at the bottom. You’re welcome.”

Then she waited. A moment later a rather willowy young man made his elegant way to the door.

“Excuse me? Have you seen my equerry? Loud man with a trumpet and a roll of parchment?”

“No,” said the Fairy Godmother, uncompromisingly, and with only the faintest flinch at the thought of what Carabosse was likely to say about such a barefaced lie. “Did you want something?”

“I wish for all maidens of marriageable age to try on this glass slipper.”


He frowned, slowly. “You know, I don’t think I can quite remember. Where did it come from anyway? I have a vague notion that I danced with a girl who was wearing it, and she ran away. But I didn’t dance with anybody in siliceous footwear last night. I know I didn’t. So why do I think I did? I need to find her.”



“If she ran away, presumably she didn’t want to talk to you. It would be ungentlemanly to force yourself on her. No true prince would do such a thing.”

“Ah. Yes. Obviously. Indeed. But about the maidens and the glass slipper. . .”

“I have the other glass slipper here. I take it you do have adequate funding? Sufficient capital for this venture?”

“This. . .”

“‘The Royal Foot-Man’. Shoes, slippers and boots for the discerning. Now at the Sign of the Glass Slipper. It’s taken me some time to produce these advertising items for you, and frankly I have no particular hope of being paid, but I’m damned if I see them go to waste.”

“Glass slippers?”

“They don’t have to be glass. You could have fur if you preferred, it’s just a matter of choosing your translator.”

“I like shoes.”

“I know you do, darling, that’s why you’re going to run a shoe shop.”

“A shoe shop?”

“Dear Goddess, even for the aristocracy, you’re slow. Let’s try it again, shall we? Do you know who I am?”

“You look Godmotherish to me. Are you my Godmother?”

“Only by association, but yes. You’re due some sort of happy ending.”

“Don’t I get to marry the girl? I always understood that I got to marry the girl.”

“And you think that would make you happy?”

“Wouldn’t it?”

“She won’t allow you to wear her clothes. She won’t particularly approve of you wearing women’s clothes at all. She certainly won’t allow you to wear her shoes, because your feet are four sizes larger than hers if for no other reason. She will certainly not approve of your assortment of spike heels, flare heels and Cuban heels. Your three drawers full of stockings with and without lace tops will give her a funny turn. And if you allow her to see your corsetry collection, she will scream and bolt.”


“On the other hand, if you are reasonable about pricing, and about finding suppliers who produce shoes in all sizes from a narrow 3 to an extra wide 14, I think you may count upon considerable support from a consumer base throughout Faery.”

“Right. And I can keep these glass tango shoes?”

“I do believe that if you try them on, you will find that, being magic, they fit you.”

“I’ll need to look into male order mail order.”

“I have the name of an alternative Cinderella who will be pleased to receive your first catalogue.”

(“Get me an appointment with the Mother! As soon as possible.”

“Yes, Sir Huon.”)


“Madam, I can’t get the mirror to boot! I can’t get in to. . .”

“No, that’s because I’ve changed all the magic words. Except this one: you’re fired.”


“Ask Sir Huon to pay you for your time to date. Leave your keys, please. Take your name off the carriage park space. Take your pot plant with you. Goodbye.”

“But madam!”

“But nothing. But if you aren’t out of here in no time flat, we will investigate if a Norn has a butt. You may be Necessity, but you aren’t a necessity here. Go away. Hop it. Get lost.”

She lasted an hour.

“I can’t find anything! Where has that stupid bitch put the files? What on earth sort of system was she using? And why isn’t there any milk?”

“I’ve brought some.”

Cobweb nearly screamed.

“Branks! What are you doing here?”

“Um. . . Mother said I had to come.”

“Your mother? Do I know your mother?”

“Not my mother, The Mother.”

The Mother. She sent you here.”

“She said you needed a new PA. And she said I was never going to be any use as a wicked fairy. She said I just hadn’t got it.”

“So. . .”

“So I gave in my notice to Carabosse and I came over here.”

“Should you not be working your notice period?”

“Ahhhh, well. Yes. But he said he would speak to you about it later.”

“He would speak to me.”

“Well, rather, I think: he would Speak to you.”

“Oh,” said Cobweb faintly. She had been Spoken to by Carabosse before. She tended to Speak herself afterwards. Loudly, and using only variations on ‘Ow’.

“So I’ll get the kettle on, shall I? Tea, is it, or coffee?”

“Tea. Indian. I don’t like China. And then. . .”

“The files. The daily reports. The staffing allocations. I’ll have the budgets by lunchtime.”

“You can do budgets?”

“Oh yes. And perhaps after that I’ll be able to make up a template for the quarterly returns. And one for the timesheets. And. . . sorry, Miss Cobweb, that’s the phone. Hello, Nemessaries, how may we help you?”

The tea arrived within five minutes, and the paperwork within ten.

“Branks? Have we got – ”

“On the left of your desk.”

“Oh, thanks. And is there a copy of – ”

“In the top tray. It’s pink.”

“Great. And has – ”

“Not yet, I’m going to call him, he won’t be off the job yet. Give him ten minutes, and then I’ll mention the paperwork.”

“Branks? Are you actually going to leave me any work to do?”

“Well, I just thought that there are a couple of Stories which would be improved by having some personal attention from the Bitch With The Switch, so if I kept the office straight. . . And nobody need actually know that you were out on the floor rather than in here doing admin. Because I can be dead fierce, Miss Cobweb. And when I say that I won’t interrupt you for trivialities, people will blame me for not interrupting rather than you for not being there. Are you in to Sir Huon?”


“Are you in to the Woodgnome?”

“Yes. Oh, and pay the cab driver, and pay Barnabas.”

“It’s done. And I’ve got paperwork from Briony on my own account. For leaving my job without working my notice.”

“Leave it on my desk and I’ll sign it. After lunch. Call the Woodgnome and ask if he wants to meet me for lunch. And book somewhere for us.”

“Lord Carabosse has just come in downstairs.”

“Book somewhere with thick cushions. . .”

Idris the Dragon

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