“Good morning, Branks, what have we got today?”
“There’s a Rapunzel, Miss Cobweb, which I think could do with a check. It came up on the system under the standard appointments, just because it hasn’t been looked at lately, and I went through the file. There’s nothing actually wrong that I can see, but it feels odd. Can you have a look?”
“Surely. I don’t care for Rapunzel, I admit. I like more intelligence in my Stories. Show me.”
Once upon an Otherwhen, there lived a woman and her husband, who had no more sense than to wish for a child, but for a long time they wished in vain.
(“Miss Cobweb? I don’t remember it going like this when I heard it before.”
“I’m a feminist. That means I – look, just roll with it. I have to keep more or less to the Rules of Story, but I’m allowed to make whatever changes I think fit in order to make the Godmothering work.")
These people bought a bijou residence, for about a thousand more than the house our little house –
("No, sorry, that’s a song, isn’t it? Sorry, Branks, that’s because it’s me. It’s just that I like quotations. Carabosse always says that it’s evidence that I haven’t had an original idea in about three centuries.")
The couple had a tiny house overlooking somebody else’s garden, which was untouched by the hand of television gardeners, and in which, as a result, several things actually grew, and decking was noticeably absent. Nonetheless, the garden was surrounded by high walls and electric fencing.
("No, the high walls aren’t compatible with the house overlooking the garden, but Story writes itself and we just work with what we have.")
The garden was owned by a Witch of great puissance and wickedness. One of the Carabossieri, and a senior one at that. Well, one day, the woman was looking into the garden and she saw that a corner of the vegetable bed grew rampion.
(“Miss Cobweb? What is rampion?”
“Campanula rapunculus. I believe it’s got roots like parsnips, and leaves like baby spinach.”)
The woman, who had the brains of a parsnip herself, decided that she had to have the rampion or she would die.
(“Ooh, I don’t think we like that, do we?”
“Damn right we don’t. There is quite a lot here to irritate the Fairy Godmother, starting with, well, why did she not go and buy some? Or failing that, grow her own, since the local soil and climate were obviously suitable for it?”)
But no, the lazy cow just continued to moon out of the window – no, not that sort of mooning, that’s rugby players – until her husband noticed that she was upset.
“What troubles you, beloved?” he asked her.
“Woe is me!” she cried. “If I cannot have some of that rampion I shall die.”
And her husband, who was another one without the sense the Goddess gave geese, thought: Rather than allow my adored wife to die, I shall fetch her rampion from the garden. Dozy twit didn’t think: funny cravings, wonder if she might be knocked up, take her to see the doctor and go via the greengrocer. No, no, straight to breaking and entering.
And he got away with it! But of course that’s never enough, is it? So she made a salad, and dressed it with walnut oil and balsamic vinegar and cracked black pepper and garlic, and ate the lot. And the next day, she gazed over the garden again and said to her husband, “I shall die, oh husband, I shall die if you do not fetch me some more of that rampion.” And he, too foolish to say: get it yourself, climbed a second time over the wall and tiptoed through the garden and started to pull the rampion. And the Witch said, “What the solitary fuck are you doing in my garden? That’s my rampion, that is, and my mediaeval herb garden with which I fully expect to take the prize in the Harpicultural Society Annual Show.”
The man was greatly surprised, and fell trembling to his knees, which is the first sensible thing anybody in this Story has done, and also rather sexy if you like that sort of thing. “Have mercy on me!” he cried. “My wife saw your rampion and a great longing came upon her to taste of it, and she was like to die if she could not have it.”
“And that makes it right for you to climb into my garden and pinch stuff? I don’t think so. And I shall have payment for it. Your wife is plainly in the pudding club if she is craving such things as rampion, it’s probably the folic acid she needs, and I will give you herbs for her, but you in exchange will give me the child she bears. All will go well, I guarantee it, and I will be as a mother to the child, but I will have it.”
(“What sort of inadequate parent agrees to this sort of deal? Without even asking why the Witch should want the baby?”)
But the gormless nitwit did agree, and sure enough, when the baby was born the Witch claimed her, gave her the name Rapunzel, and took her away. Rapunzel, after the rampion.
(“Why not just call her Cabbage and have done with it?”
“Preaching to the Vestals, Branks. I think that’s another Story. Rose Red and Cabbage White.”)
Rapunzel grew up to be very beautiful (it was in her job description) and when she was twelve years old the Witch shut her up in a tower.
(“Subtle it is not. Twelve years old probably means the menarche, and we know that blood magic is very strong. What? Oh. Well, I know that blood magic is very strong. Oh, for pity’s sake, Branks, don’t look so squeamish. All right, I’ll call it women’s magic if you like, but blood magic is what it is. And the tower? Look, it stood in a forest and had neither stairs nor door, and only one little window at the top. Draw the picture for yourself. What does it represent? Precisely. Sex magic as well as blood magic.”
When the Witch wanted to enter the tower, she stood beneath the window and called, “Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your golden hair.”
And the girl, who had long and beautiful hair, would undo her plaits and her hair would fall down twenty ells.
(“What? Well, an ell is 45 inches, so that would be. . .ummm. . . 75 feet. Just under 23 metres. I mean, likely? At that age? At any age? Anyway, the Witch would climb up the hair, which frankly must have hurt like buggery. Goddess, don’t tell Huw I said that, he’ll think I meant it and the Gnome will be in trouble for the Herne thing again.”)
And when a few years had passed away, it came to pass that the King’s son was riding through the wood, and ventured to pass the tower. Inside the tower, Rapunzel was singing, and the sweetness of her voice called to him. He wished to climb the tower and see the girl within but there was no way into the tower. So he watched and he waited, and one day he saw the Witch, and he saw how she called to Rapunzel, and how Rapunzel let down her hair, and how the Witch climbed the tresses. And the prince came the next day, and called, “Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your golden hair,” and he climbed the hair. Rapunzel was frightened, for she had never seen a man before, but the Prince spoke lovingly to her, and told her that her singing had so moved his heart that he had no peace unless he saw her. He can’t have been very old himself, and you know what teenage hormones are like. So Rapunzel lost her terror, and presumably other things, for she said to him, “I cannot descend the tower on my own hair, so when you visit me, you must bring me each time a skein of silk and I will weave a ladder, and when it is complete I will come down by it and you shall take me away on your horse.”
Then they agreed that they would never meet except in the evening, because the Witch came during the day. And one day the Princess, who frankly was not overburdened in the intellect department, asked the Witch:
“How does it come about that it is so much harder for me to pull you up than the Prince?”
“Wicked child!” cried the Witch. “You have deceived me! I had you hidden from the world and you have betrayed me!”
Her rage was such that she seized Rapunzel by the hair, wound it around her hand, and snatching a pair of scissors, sheared away the beautiful gold tresses. Then, with her magic, she carried Rapunzel off to a new tower in a desert wilderness and left her to live in misery and despair.
But the Witch returned to the tower and lay in wait for the Prince, making a trap by fastening Rapunzel’s plaits to the window frame. And in the evening, the Prince came, and called out:
“Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your golden hair!”
and she let down the plaits, and the Prince climbed up and found only the Witch, who mocked him and cried:
“Your bird is flown! The cat hath caught your bird and now will scratch you too, and you will never see Rapunzel more!”
And in his despair the Prince threw himself from the tower, and he fell among thorns which scratched his eyes out. And he wandered in blind misery throughout the forest, eating wild plants and lamenting the loss of Rapunzel. But one day he heard a woman sing, and he knew Rapunzel’s voice and drew near to it, and Rapunzel knew him and leaned on his breast and wept. And when her tears touched his eyes, they became clear once more and he saw his bride and the world around her. And he led her to his kingdom where they were received with great rejoicing and they lived happily ever after.
(“No, I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. Let’s see what we can do with that. Well done, Branks, you’re quite right, this does need something done to it. I think I’ll do it myself, too. I can see a couple of places it needs a shove. I’ll go in at the middle, after she’s met the Prince and before the Witch cuts her hair. But what I don’t understand is why it’s on our books at all – there isn’t a Fairy Godmother in this one. Do you know? Is there anything on the file?”
“Nothing that I can find. It doesn’t appear to have been covered by the old system either, but then the filing was a bit Grimm.”
“I’ll just wing it, then. I’m a fairy, I know about wings.”
But one day, the cry came from below:
“Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your golden hair.”
And Rapunzel let her hair down from the window, and thought as she waited that the Witch must have been putting on weight, for she seemed very heavy on the plaits. And then the Witch climbed in through the window and turned to look at Rapunzel who was much astonished, for it was not the Witch at all. It was a strange woman with purple hair and long earrings, who said: “Now you aren’t seriously entitled to a Fairy Godmother, but I’ve got a call to this Story so we’ll just get things started and see if we can work out who’s supposed to be on my books. I know it isn’t you, but you’re here so let’s get going.”
And Rapunzel backed away from the window in fear, and said, “But I live here with the Witch and I wish to escape with the Prince.”
“Yes, dear, I know, and I’m all in favour of happy endings, but I don’t think we need to go all round the houses for it. Now, first thing, you need a haircut. I can’t do that properly myself, I don’t know how, and until we’ve managed to break Story out of its mould and reset it, I can’t Fold you out, but we can take it all off just below your shoulder-blades and then when we get you out we’ll go and look for somebody who knows what they’re doing, to get you a proper style.”
And Rapunzel said, “What?”
“Next, we’ll put a couple of knots in the end of this dead plait, and tie it to the hook until the Prince appears. Goddess, there doesn’t seem to be much to do around here, does there? What would you normally do to pass the time?”
“I sing. I have a voice like a nightingale.”
“What, high pitched and only four phrases?”
“Never mind. Sing.”
And Rapunzel sang, and the strange woman grinned a grin and said, “I can do something with that.”
Presently the Prince came and called to Rapunzel, and Rapunzel let down the golden plait, ignoring everything the strange woman said about the desirability of Prusik knots, mainly because she didn’t understand what was being said to her.
(“Me neither, Miss Cobweb. What’s a Prusik knot?”
“It’s a Lark’s Head knot done twice.”
And the Prince climbed up and said, “Who on earth are you?”
“I am the Fairy Godmother.”
“I don’t have a Fairy Godmother.”
“No, and neither does Rapunzel, which makes me wonder what I’m doing here. But I’ve checked it twice, and anyway, Branks doesn’t make that sort of mistake, so this is where I’m supposed to be, Godmothering, and I’m going to Godmother, O.K.?”
“But we don’t want to be Godmothered. We’re going to run away together and get married. And I am Prince now, but when I am King, she shall be my Queen.”
“Ye-es. Queen. Prince. About that. I think I can. . . Tell me, Prince, can you sing?”
“I have had the education appropriate to my class and station.”
“Oh. Oh dear. So you can’t do anything.”
“I can! I can! I can fight with the epée, the broadsword, the scimitar, the claymore, the rapier, the katana and wakizashi, the stirling backsword, the mace and poleaxe, the morningstar. . .”
“Yes, dear, but have you got any real skills?”
His lip began to protrude in a manner that would normally have earned him at least a slap from any discerning spank fairy. “I don’t know what you mean,” he sulked.
“Can you sing, I asked?”
“I – yes. Not very well. I was taught but I have no particular talent for it.”
“Hmm. What about playing an instrument? Can you do that?”
“I can play the lute, yes.”
“Now that’s what I call a skill. O.K. Tell me about your father.”
“What about him?”
“How old is he? And how is his health?”
“Not yet forty, my Sire is. And his health is excellent, praise the Goddess.”
“Right. So your promotion prospects aren’t anything to write home about? Honey, you need a job. You’re going to be a minstrel.”
“I’m going to. . .”
“In my position as Fairy Godmother, I shall make the appropriate assets and equipment available to you. And so, you will want. . . this.”
“What on earth is it?”
“It’s a. . . it’s a lute.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s a special sort of lute. Very magical. It’s a Fender Powerhouse Stratocaster Deluxe. Rosewood fingerboard. And you’ll need one of these. It’s an amplifier.”
“What does it do?”
“This is good?”
“This is loud. See the magic word on the front? Marshall. Very magic word indeed.”
“But madam, a minstrel must both sing and play, and although I can play most. . . how many frets does this thing have?”
“Twenty-one medium jumbo. Whatever that means. I know, I know, you can’t sing. But Rapunzel can, and she can play the lute too, so once you’ve mastered that one we’ll see about getting her a bass. I think she could manage the Fender American Deluxe Precision, and we’ll match her fingerboard to yours. Now all we need is a drummer.”
Rapunzel, who had been listening to this with increasing disquietude, interrupted.
“But I do not wish to be a minstrel. He promised me that I would be a Queen.”
“You could be in Queen. Or a Queen tribute band. Frankly, my dear, I think your prospects will be better that way. And the clothes will be more exciting, too. Royalty these days doesn’t get to wear anything interesting, but rock chicks can wear whatever they like.”
Rapunzel thought about this for a moment. “Show me,” she said shrewdly.
The Godmother concentrated, and moving pictures appeared on a stretch of whitewashed wall. Rapunzel watched.
“Why does that woman have a moustache?”
“Not a woman. Why does that man have a bosom?”
“I’m not sure that we want to go there. Let’s try a different track. Hang on. Concentrate on the clothes.”
“I like the white cloak thing. And. . . how does he get his eyes to look like that?”
“Black kohl eyeliner.”
“I’ll get you some. You would be better with blue.”
“Would I have to wear that thing like a skinny vest? I don’t think I would want to reveal so much of my chest.”
The Prince made a strangled noise.
“It isn’t compulsory, but I think you would find that you liked the effect it would have on other people. The tight trousers are good too, you’ve got the figure for them.”
“So what do we do now?”
“What indeed?” interjected a new voice. The Godmother looked round.
“Ah, excellent, you’re here. We’re just setting up an alternative Happy Ending. Do you by any chance know whose Fairy Godmother I’m supposed to be?”
The Witch shook her head. “I would have presumed, the babies’. What am I saying? Begone, hag! I curse you by the long road, the short road, the straight road, the winding road, by rain, by wind, by sun, by moon, by light, by dark, by day, by night, by fire, by air, by –”
“Don’t do that, there’s a good girl. You know that it won’t stick. I know you’re good with curses, you always have been, and you know that on me they’re no more permanent than chocolate spread on a rugby player. But if you leave a loose curse lying about in a Story when I’m trying to change it, it will make the edges fray and something horrible will happen.”
“Yes, but making something horrible happen is supposed to be my job!”
“I know, darling, but not that. Now. Tell me what you meant about the baby.”
“Babies. Plural. Rapunzel’s babies.”
Cobweb cast a furious look, first at Chokepear, and then at Rapunzel, before striding across the room to place a hand on the girl’s belly. “She isn’t, you know. She’s not a virgin, but she isn’t knocked up either.”
“Well, she ought to be.”
“By whose rules?”
Cobweb cast her mind back over the basic Story she had reviewed before she left he office.
“Are you sure? It isn’t in the file.”
Chokepear nodded. “Doesn’t always happen, but it’s a standard variation. Twins, born after I’ve blinded the Prince.”
There was a squeak of horror from the corner. Chokepear sneered. Not as well as Carabosse, but it was a good sneer nonetheless. “Oh, don’t be so wet! It doesn’t last. Now that I know you’ve been playing Shove Ha’penny with Rapunzel, I take her away to another tower – Cobweb, if you’ve got any influence with Anybody higher up, do something about getting this variation outlawed. There isn’t a Doorless Tower to be had on short term rental anywhere around here. I had to buy, and I honestly can’t afford it. With no tax relief on the mortgage any more, the monthly payments are just beyond me. And I’m paying two lots of council tax, and I had to take something Needing Work, and I’m no good at plastering, and then there will be Capital Gains Tax when I sell the thing, and I just don’t know. . .”
“Chokepear? Calm down. Calm down. What do you do with the tower when you aren’t using it?”
“Nothing. It isn’t fit to live in for the long term, it hasn’t any winter heating.”
“Hmm. Really, yes, I agree with you, this variation is unnecessarily complicated. Do you live in this tower then?”
“No, I can’t live with Rapunzel, it isn’t in the Script, but the other one isn’t fit.”
“There was something. . . damn it all, why can’t I remember? Chokepear, there’s a grant. You can get funding from Broceliande for restoration of a magic tower. Is it magic?”
“No doors? Fit to hold a maiden in? Of course it is.”
“Well, then, I’ll look into it. If nothing else, we’ll use one of the search engines; Goblin would find it if it’s there to be found. You shouldn’t have to do this yourself, you know; if you’re working for the Carabossieri, provision of equipment is. . . did you see those sparks? Something I just said connected with the system. Why would the Godmothering be interested in your towers? Just come over here a minute, will you? Tell me, Chokepear: are you happy in your work?”
“Well, sure, but. . . it’s just sometimes I would like a change, you know? Just once in a while, I think: I could simply scream, and throw things and hit somebody.”
“Hmmm. Or something? Hit something?”
“Because for some reason which I do not fully understand, it appears that the one I should be Godmothering is you. If I were to provide a Yamaha Maple Custom Fusion Kit, how would you feel about hitting that?”
“I’ve no idea: what is it?”
“It’s a drum kit. Very satisfying to hit. Very loud.”
“I like it already. But I don’t see how this works.”
“Neither, to tell the truth, do I. I’m damned if I know why you’re coming up on the system; you work for Carabosse, not me, so your job satisfaction is his business, not mine. And frankly, if I steal away any more of his staff, I won’t sit down in a month, so we’d better be bloody sure this is all going to work before we commit on it. Is there anything we’re missing? Any bits of Plot unaccounted for?”
“I’m not letting her have the babies. She’s too young to be wanting to settle down. I’ll get her an appointment at the Mother’s clinic and she can see about contraception.”
“Blinding the Prince?”
The Prince, who had been watching with the (default male) expression of a man who hadn’t any idea at all what was going on, flinched and whined again.
“I don’t think we need to. You said yourself that it was a variation, not a standard. We’ll get him some really good mirror shades and leave it at that. If we put you in for three months’ touring, then the pair of them can write the songs for the next album while you fill in your Carabossieri work. I’ll talk to Bossy about getting your contract changed. You owe me. You owe me big time. He’s replaced the wing-rib, as I know to my cost. You can rehearse in here, you have no neighbours so there won’t be complaints about the noise, I’ll talk to Barnabas about getting you a road crew – those Cinderella mice and lizards might do it, they haven’t worked lately – and if I can get hold of Echo, her nymphs know everything about sound systems. You’ll need a lighting engineer, but any storm godlet should be able to cover that, we’ll see who’s available. Give some thought to merchandising. Gepetto should be able to give you models of the band; Penelope might be persuaded to weave promotional tee-shirts. I’d recommend Bragi for your souvenir programmes, he does the best runes. Annapurna is the best caterer I know for a stadium event – don’t forget you’ve got to arrange to feed the crew as well as the audience. You’ll want Rambut Sedana to look after the finance side of things, if we can get her. Let me know if you think of anything else, because what with my own people and Bossy’s people, and the Gnome’s connections, we can find somebody to do most things. I’ll just leave you to get on with it, shall I?”
“Branks? Can you just come in here for a moment?”
“Is something wrong?”
He hadn’t realised that Cobweb could move quite so fast. Nor that she was quite that strong. He could feel the edge of a file cover digging into his cheek, and his nose was flattened against the desk top.
“Now explain to me why you did it. And bear in mind that I am prepared to be betrayed by my own staff once, but not a second time. So make it convincing: how did Huon get you to act for him, and what are you supposed to be doing?”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“No? Then tell me what is was like.”
“We want to get a place together!”
She hadn’t expected that. She released the back of his neck, and he straightened, tentatively, half expecting to be forced back across the desk.
“Chokepear and me. We’ve been. . . we’re serious about each other. We want to move in together. But I’m still living with my family, and Chokepear’s still in rented and it’s going to be years and. . . and I know this is a good job, and it pays well, but I haven’t been working a full year yet, I haven’t any savings and Chokepear’s money is all sunk in those damned towers and all I could think of was to get her Godmothered so that she could get something better and. . .”
“Branks? Breathe. Stop talking for a moment and breathe. In and out, and keep doing it, there’s a good boy. It didn’t occur to you to say to me: this is how things are, have you any ideas?”
Plainly it hadn’t. She sighed, and forced herself to remember that he might be a grade one technogeek, but his wings were barely dry. Asking for help is not something the very young do: every mother, or representative of the Mother, knows the blind terror induced by the infant claim of ‘I can do it mine own self!’. “Right. I should have been a great deal more suspicious when She sent you to me, shouldn’t I? She wanted me to Mother you.”
He looked thoroughly cowed and subdued. She let him suffer for another minute while she sorted the file into order and replaced it on the desk. Then she relented.
“I’ve done it. And the next time you try to manipulate me that way, I will put you out of here and you and Verthandi can set up a typing agency together. Got that?”
His eyes were the size of. . . no, not cartwheels, that’s not sensible. Traditional, but not sensible. He nodded. She glanced towards the corner of the room. “Pick one.”
He trailed obediently enough to the umbrella stand, in which there was not a single umbrella, but a selection of crops and switches sufficient to keep the average archivist happy for a month. Cobweb, he admitted, three minutes later, when he had recovered the power of speech, hadn’t lost her touch at all.
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