We are too old for pranks now, me just fifteen and him a year past that, nearly ready to take his initial trials. But the way his jaw sets as he suggests it, the way he makes his voice sound off-hand and won’t meet my eyes; instead gazing out over the garden as if he only cares that the rows of crabapple trees are pruned just right and the petunias haven’t overgrown their boxes.
“A last lark while we’re children, Ginny.”
Sitting with my corset pressing my ribs together, I know better than to think I am still a child. They’ve already stained my lips with spell-dye so all will know my words are power.
Varro’s, too, of course. He turns to me. The black on his lips suits his face in a way it never will mine. His hair twists in ropes like black snakes around flat, foreign cheekbones the color of burnished gold, and his up-turned eyes are as black as his hair. As if Nature knew what he would be and said: Let this Varro be born in two tones, gold and black, so that when the mage-artist paints his lips it will be the finishing touch on my own perfect work.
His parents had been foreign magicians, here on ambassadorial business with the council. The whole family had come for dinner at our country house, and I remember the vibrant colors embroidered into their robes; orange fish and teal ocean waters; cool mountains and black branches heavy with pink and scarlet blossoms. Mother had said much of their magic was in their clothing; woven into the threads, telling stories if you knew how to read them. None of their lips were dyed, but instead their hair curled with elaborate braids and thick black snakes. The father even had copper and silver wires twisted in his to make it flare out behind him like a rooster’s crest.
I’d been most impressed with Varro, just my size and smiling all the time. He led me on a merry chase through my own house after I’d discovered him hiding under the dining table chalking magic into the wood so that all the food would turn to dust. While I’d been down there, chastising him, Mrs. Antigone had entered and caught us both. We’d fled, my hand in Varro’s, until my heart raced and I could barely breath from running and terrified laughter. I’d flung my arms around him and danced deep into the orchard, only compounding our punishment by making us so very late for supper. When we appeared in the sitting room through one of the several secret passageways, waiting there with our backs straight on Mother’s favorite ruby settee and our hands clasps in our laps, they’d not been able to force the truth from either one of us. “Miss Genevieve introduced me to the house,” Varro said, meeting all their eyes. I was less of a liar, and glanced demurely at the rose-patterned carpet. “Yes, Father, I’m certain we must have passed where you were looking several times. Just missing each other.”
We had, of course, been sent to our rooms hungry, with only ashes to eat for our unkind joke.
“Why the unicorn?” I ask him, reaching up to tease at the curl fallen down my neck. I wrap it around my finger so tightly the tip turns pink.
He leaps to his feet, whirls around to face me. “Because nothing in this house is innocent.”
I shrink from his ferocity, pushing my shoulder blades back against the wrought-iron vines of the bench. Immediately, Varro kneels, taking my hands. His pulse pounds in the hollow of his palms, and I clutch at him, feeling my face draw down into fear. “Varro,” I say, pulling him closer, and attempting to regain control of my expression, “What has happened to you?”
Instead of answering, he turns one of my hands over and traces the heart line creasing my palm. “Do you know, when I arrived here, your Mother set a spell into my teeth so always she might know where I am if she looks?”
Grasping his head, I stare past his black lips as he pull them back into a snarl. I can’t look at his eyes as I reach through one of the slits in my heavy skirts to find the inner pocket. Bringing out my stylus, I tap the tip of the thin crystal to his front tooth; once, twice, and on the third beat, black spell-writing swims up over the ivory of his teeth, fading in and out against itself and weaving around his gums.
Slowly I raise my eyes to his and he lets his black lips close over the evidence of imprisonment. “How did you discover it?”
Without blinking, Varro tells me he went into the bathroom to set a potion in the copper tub. He drew a circle on the tiles and bit into an enchanted fig. “I was treating it with butterfly dandruff to make the taste hold to your tongue for hours.” There he blinks. Figs are my favorite. “The mirror caught the reflection of the spell words when magic touched magic.”
Varro’s parents died in the Promethean Killing Fire that destroyed a quarter of the capitol, including all the ambassadorial suites in the palace. Varro had been with us, and so he stayed. But his smiles dimmed and for long weeks all he did was stare dry-eyed through the skylight in his room. Father arranged with the new ambassadors to keep Varro on as an apprentice, in a complicated cultural exchange I didn’t understand at the time. All I knew was that Varro wouldn’t leave us. I remember Mother lifting him onto the settee beside her and kissing his temple and finally, finally saw him cry. She held him for hours, cooing and comforting and promising her love.
I did not understand how she could have laid such a spell into his teeth.
“Maybe – maybe it is a standard spell, Varro.”
“For all magic children?”
“To temper our power as it passes through our teeth? While we are so young we might not control it properly.” I say it firmly, as if perhaps certainty might transform the words into truth. But I saw the marks on his teeth, even as they drifted; far-sight and mirror-magic, not dampening or control circles.
Varro waits for me to draw my own conclusions, not arguing because he knows I’ll come around to the only possible answer. He sees it gather on my face, and opens his mouth to speak, but I hold up a hand and say, “Wait, there’s one way to know for sure.” I part my lips, breathing in the cool taste of the garden air. And I close my eyes.
His finger rubs over my bottom lip, and I open my mouth more for him as my innards melt into warm honey and pool in the bowl of my hips. His stylus taps against my teeth. Once, twice, a third time. I wait. My fingers beg to curl in the folds of my skirts, but I hold them flat and rigid against the iron bench.
“Nothing,” Varro murmurs and I snap my eyes open just in time to catch the fading note of disappointment before he offers a ferocious smile. “Aren’t I the lucky one.”
Mother and Father kept their unicorn in the tower, in a room made of marble. Tapestries depicting wild forests and untended gardens gave the walls the feel of a deep, dark storyland. There were no windows, so the only light came from the enchanted globe hanging against the ceiling like the moon.
Varro tightened his hand around mine as I closed the door behind us, shutting out the loud, shining afternoon.
It had been easy to pick Father’s locks. He was teaching both of us magic, after all, and I took after him in my talent for intricate diagrams. Using my stylus, I’d redirected three tiny lines from sunwise to widdershins and the spiraling ninepoint lock shifted from glowing purple to a quiet blue.
“Do you see it?” Varro whispered, letting go of me to walk across the thick green rugs. There was no one to hear, but I felt the same urge to whisper when I replied, “No, perhaps she’s behind the pillars.”
We moved through the room, silver light and shadows teasing at my vision. The wires in Varro’s hair glimmered. I took the left side, and trailed my hand around the pillar. There were seven in all, made to look like the trunks of royal oaks. The stone bark was rough under my fingers, and smelled of pine trees. The entire room smelled like a pine forest, perhaps it had been on the side of a mountain where Mother had met the unicorn, and caught it with her magic.
“Here,” Varro called.
I joined him where a dozen feather pillows made a thick nest. There rested the unicorn, half buried under the pillows. Its velvet nose twitched and it lifted its delicate head to peer at us. The creamy fur glowed dully in the false moonlight, scratchy and thick looking like a mountain goat’s. It had solid gray eyes as smooth and empty as river rock. Although it reclined, I knew that if it stood, I would once again marvel at the tiny cloven hooves and bird-bone legs. The unicorn was made of magic, generations ago, supposedly to capture the most lovely features of a half-dozen animals. Perhaps the first had been glorious, but this, our unicorn, was gangly and strange.
But the horn.
The horn burst from between its eyes, striped in thin lines of black and white. The black was magic-dye, like on our lips, stained there for the same reason: to warn us that it was not an animal, but magic.
After the artists dyed my lips, leaving them swollen and hot, they put obsidian stylus against Varro’s. He kept his eyes open and watched the woman’s furrowed brow. I couldn’t help staring, watching and knowing he was feeling the same burn I had, as the stylus pressed against his skin. My mouth throbbed, and I sucked on the sliver of ice I’d been given, knowing this marked me in my path forever: an Anaximander, a wizard of shapes.
The artist left us alone when she finished, and I took the bowl of ice to Varro. I offered it, nodding so he knew it had helped me.
Instead of taking the bowl, he put his hands on my neck and kissed me with his too-hot lips. They sucked the cold from mine, and everything between us fell into balance.
“My mouth is stained for you,” he said. “Will you help me braid my hair into the forms of my family?”
I did, of course, fingers shaking. We braided and twisted, using thin copper wire from Father’s workroom, and barrettes of silver and crystal, until his long black hair swallowed itself in a miasma of coils and ropes.
“Get up, unicorn,” Varro said, dragging a velvet pillow from its back.
The unicorn flicked its white lion’s tail.
I knelt and held my hand to the creature. It lipped at my palm, searching for something sweet. “Come away with us,” I said, “and we will give you figs.”
It sighed. The warm breath tickled up my wrist, raising the hairs on my arms.
Varro dashed back to the tower door and flung it open. “Here, unicorn! The door is open! Your mountain awaits.”
Rolling its river-rock eyes toward him, the unicorn shook its head. White mane, thin as spider-silk, caught the moonlight. But it didn’t move.
“Freedom!” Varro’s voice cracked. I pushed off the carpet and went to him. His wide eyes stared past me, and I could see the white glow of the horn reflected there. “Go, you bastard, go,” he said.
“We can get one of the silver chains and lead it, and perhaps when it sees the sky it will run,” I pinched the lapel of Varro’s jacket, smoothing my thumb against the material to rub chalk dust away. “Perhaps it doesn’t understand it’s trapped.”
He looked down at me. “Perhaps she doesn’t.” His hand came up and he brushed his fingers along my mouth. “Sometimes the signs aren’t obvious.”
“Why the unicorn?” I ask him again, outside in the garden where we stand, hand in hand, looking at the tower.
“I want to know what it will do when the door is open.” Varro shakes his head. “I’m not as good at locks as you. Will you help me?”
I contemplate breaking into Father’s tower without him noticing. It will be grand. “Yes.”
Together we go to steal the unicorn.
image by Luminis Kanto via Flickr Creative Commons