No Hero Manual Included

by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/152692.html)

The problem in most fairy tales is real estate. I’m being serious here. The story of the Three Little Pigs? Real estate problem. Goldilocks? Real estate. Little Red Riding Hood? Clearly, the only reason why an elderly woman would live alone in the woods is because all the good spots in town were taken. The problem of housing and location drives us as deep as food and sex, and I knew this well because my humble little musical instrument shop happened to be across the street from Hero’s Square, where all the returning heroes paraded around after their victories, drawing crowds and vendors and chubby-cheeked babies.

I knew immediately when renting the property that it’d be trouble. I’d tried to ask for a shop on South Street instead, or even tucked in the corner of the Nook where burly men with very large knobby clubs tended to patrol. Anything other than Hero’s Square. But nope, this was the only property available that met my specifications, and I was told I should have been glad for it. It was prime real estate.

With a prime view of the square as the Queen’s Hero returned home.

My assistant Annette smiled as she looked out the window. She was behind the counter, balancing her elbows on the wood as she watched the Queen’s Hero ride into the square on his black stallion. I wanted to tell Annette to get back to work, but the truth was she was so efficient there wasn’t any work. We were both just lingering around, staring dreamily. Me at the dust motes on the floor, Annette at the bulging muscles of the Queen’s Hero.

“What do you think it would feel like to cup those muscles in your hands?” Annette asked. “To have them holding you down as he thrusts into you over and over again? Do you believe that rumour about him and Snow White?”

I choked and accidentally stomped my foot. The dust motes flew away. “Annette,” I said, “I am going to pretend I never heard you say that.” Then I added, viciously, “Snow White could do better than him.”

She swirled to look at me. “Clean your mouth with soap, sonny.”

“I’m your boss,” I endeavored to complain.

“That’s no reason to speak ill of the Queen’s Hero,” Annette said, and she was laughing at me now, I could tell. So I gave her my sharpest, brightest smile, the one that I turned on indecisive customers who waffled between buying the lute with fifteen strings or the one with twenty-four.

“Think about it,” I said reasonably. “The man spends all his time roaming the countryside fighting dragons and saving princesses. He has no other life. He must be so, so boring behind those straight white teeth.”

“Actually,” Annette said, “I heard he plays competitive chess in his spare time.”

“That is a lie,” I said. “A filthy, filthy lie.”

We were both distracted by a sudden cheer from the square. A lady in pastel pink fainted because she was unable to handle the glory. The Queen’s Hero stopped and dismounted. He slipped a hand under her and picked her up. The crowd went wild, and the entire first row of onlookers rushed forward for autographs.

“Amazing,” said Annette.

“I’ll be in the back room,” I said.

“Does that mean you’re not going to the party being thrown for his victory tonight?” she asked. “It’s in Fox Scratch Square. Everybody’s invited. Princesses and paupers alike.”

“I think I have to cut my nails tonight,” I replied.

“There’s going to be free ale,” she said.

“Damn,” I said.

:::

I comforted myself with the knowledge that it was going to be such a huge party that surely the entire city would turn up, and therefore there would be no reason for me and the Queen’s Hero to ever cross paths. I told Annette this and she laughed at me once more before taking me upstairs to my room, riffling through my wardrobe, and throwing my blue doublet at me, saying, “Wear this. It suits you best.”

I eyed the doublet like it was a piece of meat about to grow maggots. “I haven’t worn this for years,” I said. “The last time I wore this, I was an evil sorcerer.”

“Um, excuse me,” said Annette. “You were an evil sorcerer’s apprentice. Not the same thing.”

“I regret telling you anything at all,” I said grandly.

“Besides, you’re reformed now and so are your clothes,” she said. “Piper, are you sulking? Are you actually sulking? I’ve seen you dazzle customers so hard that they would have bought pianofortes with tentacles coming out of them! How can a party distress you so much?”

I picked at the doublet and didn’t answer her. It was true; if you went a party and looked for the guy tumbling over the barrels, too drunk to do anything but sing at the top of his lungs and earnestly shake everyone’s hand like he was the High Priest of Fairy, that was me. I met Annette for the first time that way, when I accidentally mistook her for a keg of beer and fixed my lips to her throat in an attempt to suck her dry. Annette, being the paragon of patience that she was, did not proceed to punch me in the balls and leave me on the ground trembling. Instead she shook me off, introduced herself, and dumped water over my head so that I could be properly sober when I offered her employment. Thank you, Annette.

It was because I loved her dearly, and also because she wanted to use me to make the local baker jealous, that I put on the doublet and went with her to the party at Fox Scratch Square. I was right. It was huge and it was packed, and I zeroed in immediately on the free ale. Annette tried to grab me by the collar and whisper “down, boy” in my ear, but she was no match for a formerly evil sorcerer and a minor slipping spell that had me sliding through the crowd and towards blessed alcoholic amnesia.

I was happily tipsy and on my way towards being ecstatically drunk when I heard the excitement through the crowd that announced the Queen’s Hero’s arrival.

“I hope he ditched the horse,” I told one of my companions, who was lying beneath the barrel and grinning up at me. “The horse is really rather tacky.”

Luckily, my companion appreciated my brilliance. “Horse! Tack! Great joke, buddy!” he bellowed.

“I know!” I said. Or rather, I yelled it at the top of my lungs, and at that moment there was a shuffle in the crowd. A tall man with an astoundingly large hat stepped aside, and I got a view of the Queen’s Hero. He was mind-bogglingly handsome like all the other celebrated heroes of yore. The sad truth of the matter is that you don’t get to be popular without being handsome, even if you’ve single-wrestled tens of hundreds of trolls like old Cricket down at the tavern. The Queen’s Hero had thick blond hair, a lush bow of a mouth, blue eyes that crinkled when he smiled, and abs that you could grate goat cheese on.

Oops. Did I just say abs? I meant, uh, teeth. He had very flat and hard…teeth. The Queen’s Hero, like most members of the royal retinue, generally went about clothed. So there was no way I would know the condition of his abs! Right!

Goldilocks take it, I was drunk.

And yelling at the top of my lungs, apparently, because just as Tall Hat Man stepped aside and I looked at the hero, the hero looked back.

I yelped. Then I toppled off the barrels. My body made an inelegant sprawl as it hit the ground, and I banged my elbow against the dirt. There was a shout, and when I opened my eyes I saw that the Queen’s Hero was at my side, helping me up. Oh no, I thought. No, no, no, go away. I think I said that out loud, but the hero’s eyes were a study in gentle concern as he examined the rip at my sleeve.

“Are you all right?” he asked me, his breath hot in my ear, sending my booze-drenched veins jumping against my heart.

The fall had knocked some sense back into me, but I pretended to be thoroughly, thoroughly confused as I put my hands against his chest and shoved him backwards. “What’s going on? Who am I?” I blabbered, and some people in the crowd laughed while others who knew me from other debaucheries rolled their eyes. “I’ve got to go!” I shrieked, climbing to my feet and stumbling away as fast as I could in the opposite direction, pushing through other revelers like they were cards.

I didn’t know if he would come after me.

He didn’t.

Except sometimes we have the tendency to forget that heroes can be tricky. Cleverness and subterfuge are the weapons of the villain, of Snow White’s stepmother, of the wolf hiding in Grandma’s nightgown. But heroes can surprise you too, and I was surprised by one of my very own when I was lurching my way home at the crack of dawn, Annette having gone off with her baker friend. Friend, she called him, as if I couldn’t see his hand sliding down, down, down, where no friend’s hand should be. I was still drunk but mostly listless, and I was fumbling with the key to my shop when the Queen’s Hero swooped down and put his hand on my shoulder.

I like to think that I did not scream. Former evil sorcerers were not screamers.

But I probably did.

“Mirror on the wall!” I screeched, backing away from him and reflexively shooting a hex. The spell was supposed to turn him into a frog, but I missed and the flowerpot on the ledge next door turned into a biscuit. I never claimed that I had been a good evil sorcerer, all right. Stop mocking me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be at your party, or did you not notice the big banner that had your name all over it! The cake too!”

“Um,” said the Queen’s Hero, shuffling his large, shapely feet. “I didn’t think you would be there. At the party.”

“What, I’m not allowed to go to parties anymore?” I scoffed.

“No! That’s not what I mean,” he said. “I just didn’t think you would be there. At my party.”

I waved my hand airily, nearly poking my eye out in the process. “You slayed the Dragon of Westermere. How is that not an excuse to party? Congratulations, by the way. I’m sure it was a very exciting battle. Lots of heaving chests and swords of righteousness, that sort of thing.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Piper,” he said.

Two could play this game. “Henry,” I said.

He looked at the sign hanging above us. “This is your shop, right?” he asked. “You’re the owner?”

“Yes,” I said, drawing the syllable out. “I am a fine purveyor of musical instruments, catering both to the amateur musician and the professional. Whether you want a lute for thirty silvers or a hand-made harp that will cost thousands, we at Piper’s Pipes are glad to service you.”

“And all of your customers survive the experience?”

“Most do,” I replied sweetly. “I play them quite tenderly. There are rarely complaints.” I saw him blush. Then I shouldered my way past him into the shop. He hesitated, clearly wondering if he was allowed to follow me inside my private property. I have to admit, watching him trying to struggle between his base instincts and his chivalrous training made me grin. “It’s good to see you again, Henry,” I said. “And now I must bid you adieu.” I closed the door on his face. Me, Piper of Piper’s Pipes, scrawny nobody, slightly shit sorcerer. I closed the door on Henry’s face.

Wait.

Henry’s face.

There was a poster of Henry’s face pinned to the back of the door. I stared at it in blank confusion, so I opened the door a crack. Henry was still standing there, looking constipated and dense and utterly gorgeous. I closed the door. I looked at the poster. Constipated and dense and utterly gorgeous; that was about right.

“Annette!” I screamed. “I’m going to get you for this!”

I tried to blast the poster off the door. It turned into an octopus.

:::

I think I’ve been going about this story all wrong. I didn’t even start it with ‘once upon a time’, which in the Royal City was cause for treason. We all knew our stories, our eligible princesses, our evil dragons, our dashing heroes. It was as ingrained in us as the numbers on a businessman’s ledger. So I’ve been naughty. I’m like that a lot.

Let me try again. I’ll be good. My parole officer will weep diamonds, and I won’t even try to steal them and sell them on the black market.

Once upon a time.

There was a boy on a farm. Are you surprised? I’m sure you must think me quite the city sophisticate, what with the drunkenness and yelling and running around trying to grab a surprisingly sneaky octopus. But no, there was a boy on a farm, the youngest of eight siblings. He had a happy family and even though he was skinny and runty, he helped out the best he could, usually by staying in the house with his mother and stirring the pots on his stove. It was obvious from a young age that the boy wasn’t like the others. He would chase butterflies, stare at clouds for hours, and attempt to make conversation with the coat rack. No one was surprised when the boy turned out to like other boys; rather they all rolled their eyes and went back to talking about cow reproductive cycles.

They were surprised, however, when it turned out he had magic.

“Is being one minority not enough for my son?” his mother had raged when a black-clad sorcerer had paid a visit to their farm and demanded to take him away.

“He needs to learn to control his powers,” said the sorcerer, and as if to prove his point it suddenly started raining inside the house. “He’ll be a menace if he doesn’t.”

It was actually quite a reasonable argument, and it wasn’t the fault of the boys’ parents that they didn’t recognize the sorcerer as being part of the league of evil sorcerers. There was a handbook to help with these things, but the boy’s father had used the handbook for kindling one year. So they packed the boy with food and clothes, and they sent him off to be apprenticed to the sorcerer in his high castle above the sea.

“Do you know why I picked you?” the evil sorcerer asked the boy during their first day of lessons. “You are hardly the only boy with some magical talent in the Eight Kingdoms. You’re hardly even the most… adept.” He eyed the butterflies crowning the boy’s head and winced. “I picked you because of the prophecy.”

Ah yes, the prophecy.

It had been uttered by the Mirror of St. Claire, by the talking prophetess in the glass, who had divined that one day the King of the Land of Snow would be brought down and his dynasty ended by a boy piper. In response, the king had banished all the pipers in his land, especially the young ones, and he forbade all pipe music within his borders. This was the cause of some dismay, but was generally considered more decent than the king who had banished spindles. At least you could get by with other instruments. You couldn’t really spin cloth or make clothes without spindles.

“But I,” said the evil sorcerer, “have realized that it is not a boy who happens to be a piper who will be the key to his downfall. It will be a boy who bears the name of piper, and that boy is you.”

“I don’t really want to be the downfall of kingdoms,” the boy replied sadly.

“Nonsense,” said the evil sorcerer, and that was that. That was the next seven years of his life spent learning magic, proper villain etiquette, and show tunes. Despite the exciting lessons and the tendency of shrubbery to explode in flames, the boy’s heart was never truly into this enterprise. So when the troops finally rallied against the evil sorcerer and the Queen’s Hero came to duel, the boy, now a man, did not put as much effort into the fight as he strictly could have.

In trying to summon a bolt of lightning to strike the hero if not dead, then at least temporarily incapacitated, he accidentally bound them together. They discovered this when he tried to take more than five steps away from the hero and felt a force snap them back, banging their heads together.

That ended the fight fairly quickly, as the royal sorcerers rushed forward and attempted to undo the spell. Meanwhile, the evil sorcerer fled in the background. But apparently the sorcerer’s apprentice had a knack for binding spells, and his was so tight that it was decided he and the hero must travel to the Witch of the Woods for help.

So they traveled.

For five months, constantly waylaid by side quests, vengeful elves, and a singing teapot. The former sorcerer’s apprentice and the Queen’s Hero, side by side, the most absurd duo in the world. The best and worst experience of my life.

:::

Here were a list of adjectives to describe Henry:

Handsome
Brave
Talented
Famous
Totally, blisteringly awkward

It was almost disturbing how socially awkward a man who spent most of his time in the public eye could be. There was a reason why the vast majority of Henry’s public appearances were limited to him riding his stupid horse, smiling, and shaking hands. That was because if he actually opened his mouth, his adoring fans would see just how much of a smooth operator he was not. I had found it vaguely adorable during the first few months of our forced travel. Now I just found it annoying as he entered my shop the next morning and immediately banged his head on the wall.

“Ugh, why is that there?” he said.

“The wall?” I asked, smiling through my pounding hangover. “Presumably for structural support. So that the roof doesn’t fall down on us.”

“I know that,” Henry said. “I just…oh! Is that an octopus on the counter?”

“I’m calling him Leroy,” I said.

“After your father.”

“My father’s name is Jack,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I could have sworn it was Leroy.”

“I think I know my own father’s name,” I replied.

And then because I could not take a second more of this ridiculous exchange, I asked, in my shopkeeper’s voice, “What can I do for you, sir? Are you looking to purchase an instrument? I have a new shipment of drums from Antika that you might find pleasing.”

“Yes, drums,” Henry said. “I like drums.”

I waited, not so patiently.

“Ah!” said Henry. “But I’m not here for drums.”

“No?” I asked.

“I’m here because… well, you know Snow White, don’t you? Er, not personally, I imagine, because she lives so far away and is a princess.”

“Are you saying that I don’t have the means to travel?” I asked, my voice airy and poisonous. “Or that it’s beyond my worth to make the acquaintance of princesses?” Sometimes, I admit, I enjoyed seeing Henry squirm. And squirm he did, so beautifully, with his shoulders hunched up to his ears and his eyes so blue that they looked like the stained glass imprints of Bell Tower Castle.

“Her wedding is in a month,” Henry said. “I’m invited. Because of the whole… kissing her when she was in the glass coffin business. Did I ever mention that I’m glad she decided she didn’t want to marry me in the end? The man she chose is so much better for her, and a prince at that. I think that’s great!” I gave him my most withering look, so he bumbled onwards to say, “In any case, I need to give her a wedding gift and I know she likes music, so I thought I might commission a harp from you. Ladies like harps, don’t they?”

Annette walked out from the back room, stared, and then walked back.

I tried not to contain my astonishment and glee. On one hand, yes, this was Henry and he would probably break the harp on the way to the Land of Snow because he got distracted by a wailing maiden or some other such nonsense. But to have an instrument that I had made gracing the milk pale hands of Snow White herself! I tried not to swoon. I tried very hard not to swoon. Business at my little shop was decent. I made enough to pay Annette, live comfortably, and still order the rounds at the tavern every Market Eve. But fame! I may have no longer been an evil sorcerer — sorry, evil sorcerer’s apprentice — but I still twitched at the prospect of fame.

I turned towards Henry. I batted a languid eye. Butterflies did not come and roost in my hair but it was a damn near miss. “Pay me up front and I’ll do anything you want,” I said.

He gaped at me.

“Damn it, not like that!” I said. “Now get out!”

:::

He returned the next day when I was tuning a customer’s fiddle. I saw him linger at the entrance of the shop with his hands stuffed into his pockets, and it was Annette who finally took pity on him and invited him inside. I purposefully did not look at either of them until I was finished with little Susie Thimble, who was ten years old and played her fiddle so beautifully that I knew she was going to be either a musician for the history books or a dread sorceress. Her mother smiled at me when I was done, and then turned around and said, “Is that…?”

“Yes,” I said. I raised my voice to Henry. “It’s only been one day. Even fairies can’t make you a harp that quickly.”

“I know,” Henry said. He gave Susie and Mrs. Thimble a clean bow and then strode up to the counter where a plank of wood was all that separated us. I leaned back reflexively and busied myself with sorting the boxes of reeds on the shelves behind me. A busy shopkeeper and all that. “I just wanted to ask about its colour. I forgot to mention yesterday but Snow really likes white. With accents of red.”

“Consider me stunned,” I said. “And duly noted. The harp will be so snow white and blood red that if she ever needs to, she can hide behind it and camouflage. Excellent during military takeovers, you know.”

Henry gave me the fish eye. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. I saw Annette take an interest, though when I glanced at her, she quickly went back to sweeping the floorboards. “I didn’t mean actually make it magic,” Henry said, and I thought it was sort of dear and hopeless that he thought my being a sorcerer was a secret that he needed to keep. “Not like that. The other spells you talked about, the ones that will make the harp unbreakable, those are good. But no, ah, eccentricities, all right? Snow is a friend.”

“And that’s why you felt the need to lean down and plant a wet one on her lips when you thought she was dead,” I said brightly. “Because that’s just what friends do, engage in casual necrophilia.”

“I hate you sometimes,” Henry complained. “You’re the only person who doesn’t think–”

“Aside from the Sea Witch’s hired thugs,” I interrupted, because it was a common fact that the Sea Witch’s giant anemones had been chasing Henry for years.

“Aside from the Sea Witch’s hired thugs,” Henry repeated dutifully, “you’re the only person who doesn’t like what I do. What’s so bad about it, Piper? I save people, don’t I?” In anyone else I would have sneered at such a drippy line, but that was the problem with Henry. He was so bloody earnest that he thought irony was an adjective to describe the taste of his sword when he licked it. So I sighed.

“What you do is fantastic,” I said, “but you’re the Queen’s Hero. Surely you don’t need me to tell you that?”

Henry smiled slightly. Then he pointed to the shelves. “What’s that?”

“There’s a label. Read it yourself.”

“Piper.”

“It’s a lyre,” I said. “It’s similar to a harp. It comes from the Pelagia Islands.”

“And that?”

It was my turn to give him the fish eye. “That’s my pipe. You’ve seen it a million times before.”

“That’s your pipe? Really?” Henry peered closer. “It looks so different when it’s…not covered in mud.” He raised his hands in armistice before I could dig into him. “It’s been a while, is what I mean. Two years almost?”

Two years and three months and fifteen days, but I wasn’t self-loathing enough to say it out loud.

He smiled at me again. A softer smile, one that didn’t pinch his lips the way it did sometimes in the portraits of him that were sold down by the docks. “I’ve always meant to ask if you’re all right. Living like this, I mean. I know it’s not what you’re used to,” he said. The moment he finished, however, I felt a pressure stretch in my chest like an invisible barb. It wasn’t true. If Henry had really meant to ask after me, he could have done it a lot sooner than two years, three months, and fifteen days. I lived and worked right across from Hero’s Square, for crying out loud. It wouldn’t have been difficult for him to come and visit after one of his grand homecomings. Difficult was scaling a mountain. Difficult was feeling a pea under a pancake stack of mattresses. Difficult was figuring out which was the cat and which was the master. Difficult was not popping across the street and saying hello to a man you’d traveled half the continent with.

Henry cocked his head at me. He was socially awkward but not socially obtuse; he could tell something was wrong. But I pushed it back in, down to the place where I kept the remains of my magic, and I said, “What else did you want to ask me?”

:::

I sketched out the harp. I didn’t use the good paper, just the spare rolls of butcher paper Annette brought me from her home, but it was good enough. I pressed the nub of my pencil to the paper and I stroked out a series of lines, curving them against the 45 degree beam where the harpist would place her shoulder. There were variations on the shape that I could have chosen, but for a princess I knew that it would need to be a classical concert harp, as conservative and as beautiful as they came. To that effect, I kept out the many curlicues and designs that I might otherwise have put in, the flamboyant touches that characterized a harp from Piper’s Pipes. It was still noticeably my design — light, playful, brilliant if I might be allowed to claim that — but more subdued. A Piper dressed for formal company rather than the cabaret stage.

After I finished the initial sketch, I placed it in front of me and stared at it for a long time. I sat in my room above the shop, straining my eyes with the smudge of oil that I’d used for light. Then I made a few changes to the sketch. I always did this, as I was rarely satisfied the first time. I removed the red accents from the base of the harp and put them near the top, so that they could contrast against the harpist’s skin. I slimmed the base so that it could look more delicate, and then conversely I hardened the lines of the crossbar because delicate didn’t mean soft, and a princess who could survive in the woods and make her own life among dwarfs was a princess to be reckoned with.

Then I thought about the wood I would use to make the harp, the gut I would use to make the strings, the metal of the pins, and the mechanism of the pedals. I thought about it until I was dizzy with happiness, and then I smoothed my thumb over my drawing and I thought about magic.

A harp like this deserved some magic. The spells I had mentioned to Henry were the basic set of spells that I included in all my high-end commissioned instruments: the spells to ward against breaking, the spells to ward against cold, the spells to ward against an out of tune twang. I was admittedly a mediocre sorcerer, and Leroy swimming in a bowl on the ground was ample evidence of how often I mixed up my spells and made it rain porridge instead of money. But there were two areas of magic I was good at: binding spells and fine instruments. And they had each brought me the best of what I had in my life. At least, that was what I used to think.

Instruments are a lot easier to understand than people. You love them, they love you back.

:::

“How are you here again?” I asked.

Henry rocked on his heels sheepishly. “I forgot one more request. I need you to inscribe a message from me on the harp. A tasteful message!” he added when he saw my grimace. “I was thinking about it last night, and I decided on this: May your years together be music.”

“That’s lovely,” Annette said.

“Thank you,” Henry told her, his voice rising in good cheer.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’ll go and drown myself in a river before I write anything like that on a harp that I’ve made.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “Just write a letter to go with it, if you want to say it so badly.”

Henry frowned. Annette did too.

Then Henry said, “All right. You’re the expert. I defer to your judgment.”

I resisted the urge to cackle evilly. If there’s one thing that I’ve discovered, it’s that nothing reveals your morally dubious roots as much as an evil cackle. I couldn’t help it sometimes; after all the years the evil sorcerer had spent training me on the proper etiquette of the cackle, forcing me to practice it over and over again until it thrummed with the right malice, it was difficult not to use it. Technically I suppose it was all right because there was only Henry and Annette in the shop, and both of them had heard the cackle before. But I resisted. For the principle of it.

“Oh, look at the way Piper’s twisting up his face. He’s trying not to cackle,” Annette said.

“You don’t need to hide anything from us,” Henry said gently. “We respect you for who you are.”

“You’re among friends!” Annette chimed, and I turned my back on both of those bastards, but not quickly enough to avoid seeing Annette lean towards Henry in laughter and him sliding a hand on her back to keep her balance. Henry was such a gentleman, and I bet Annette didn’t mind it either, the feel of a hero’s warm, strong palm holding her upright. It was a good thing that a customer walked in just then, and I had the opportunity to turn back around and dial up the charm, being as glittering as I knew I could be. So that by the end of it, the customer — who had only come in to ask for directions, oops — didn’t know who to look at more: Henry the Queen’s Hero or Piper the charismatic shopkeeper, and that was just the way I liked it.

What I didn’t like: Henry’s eyes on me the whole while, knowing.

Or Annette sidling up to me afterward and saying, “You’re being quite obvious, you know. And Henry is very cute. I thought he would be much more obnoxious in person, but he has the most adorable stutter when he’s flustered.”

“What are you suggesting?” I asked, walking over to the door and flipping the wooden sign from open to closed. The sun was setting outside and I could see the bruised shadows that were starting to stripe over Hero’s Square.

Annette cocked her hip. “Well, butterfly boy–”

“Because I have rules,” I said. “I don’t cackle in public, I don’t wear purple and yellow together, I don’t drink from the public fountain, and I don’t swoon after heroes. Besides, darling, you’ve never met his father and his grandfather. If you did, you’d know that he’s going to go horribly bald one day.” I spread my palms and shrugged smoothly. “What can you do? I have standards.”

:::

The next few days, I worked on the harp. I went to the usual dealers and purchased what wood, gut, metal, and assortment that I could get with the money Henry had given me. It was gratifying to know that a hero actually got paid in currency other than virtue and kisses, because I wanted the best in materials, and the best was what I got. Even if it meant a shouting match with Thomas the Tinkerer over whether morningwood or eveningwood was more flexible, a conversation that I considered a success because I managed to keep a straight face throughout. It didn’t matter anyway because Thomas saw me as the son he never had, except swishier, and he gave me boughs of both types of wood, which was what I wanted in the first place.

I set up my materials in the back room of my shop, where I stayed for the next few days, appearing in the front only to help Annette if she had questions or if there was a particularly tricky customer. Annette by now was learning how to tune and fix instruments on her own, so she didn’t need me to constantly monitor her. When I’d first started teaching Annette, I’d had the usual bout of anxiety, filled mostly with visions of me wearing lots of black and becoming my own ex-mentor. But Annette was a better student than I ever was, and she puttered about the shop whistling in between jobs.

Henry didn’t show up for a week. I found out from Cricket at the tavern that he’d been called to handle a pesky infestation of fire-breathing rats in a town north of the Glimmering Banks. “That sounds awfully familiar,” I said, bent over my flagon protectively. In fact, this was a lie. The town was called Hamelin and I knew it very well.

But Cricket seemed happy to go into the story for me, and if Cricket was happy, he tipped the barkeep extra, which made the barkeep happy. And if the barkeep is happy in a tavern, all’s well with the world.

So I let Cricket launch into the whole tale. Town of Hamelin, blah blah, huge rat problem, blah blah, mysterious piper, blah blah, piping away the children, blah blah. I didn’t have the heart to tell Cricket that it’d been a mistake. When I’d cast the spell to summon kids, it was because Henry at the time had confessed to never eating goat before, and I was bound and determined to correct his ignorant ways. When I was growing up, goat was all the rage in my family. I was only trying to share a part of my childhood with Henry. How was I supposed to know that kids in Hamelin was slang for children? I’m not a damn linguist.

“And then, as the piper was about to lead the children into the underworld–”

I smiled at Cricket and took a deep, deep swallow of my drink.

“–out came the Queen’s Hero with his shield and broadsword, and he cried, ‘Foul miscreant, that you would do such deeds of evil against such innocent lambs!'”

Goats, not lambs, remember. And the only foul miscreant at the time had been Henry himself for tumbling off Rapunzel’s tower while wrestling with the witch, breaking his arm in the process and losing his coin purse. Thus forcing me to be our money maker for the next three weeks of our travels. I had suggested selling my nubile young body, just to see his horrified expression and chivalrous reflexes kick in. But in the end even a mediocre sorcerer has ways of feeding him and his lug of a hero companion, and the goats that Hamelin eventually gave us fetched a neat price at the next marketplace we wandered into.

I realized my polite smile of interest was turning dopey.

“Uh, this is the sad part,” Cricket said. “Even though the Queen’s Hero defeated the evil piper — no insult to you, my friend, for sharing that name –, the children were never seen again.”

Not true! Just a tourist gimmick. But I made the appropriate sad face and Cricket pounded me on the back in sympathy. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You said this story happened in the past. Are the rats back then?”

“Back and bigger than ever,” Cricket said knowledgeably.

I tried to digest that. Probably it was just Hamelin being pouty that their reputation as the town of missing children wasn’t drawing in enough money. However, if Cricket was right and Henry had really set out to investigate, it might be deeper than that. Henry wouldn’t go to Hamelin unless he thought there was something serious; he didn’t have the time to waste on frivolities. But thinking about it made my brain slosh around in my head. What did I care, I thought haughtily. My time in Hamelin was over. I got rid of the first bout of rats and I returned the children. What more could anyone ask of me?

“There’s one last part to the story,” Cricket said. “Sometimes still, when the night is dark and the wind is right, the people of the town can still hear the piper playing, his song a twisted vine of anger and defeat.”

“Indeed,” I drawled.

:::

I realized there might be something to this whole Hamelin business when Annette threw a letter at my head and said, “The post man brought this for you.”

“Really?” I perked up. Our post man, Jack — formerly of bean stalk fame — had the roundest, most luscious behind in the entire Royal City. It was too bad that he was happily shacked up with the Goose Girl. I had missed my chance there.

“It smells,” Annette complained. I stopped sanding the harp and, after wiping my dusty hands on my pants, lifted the envelope to my nose. She was right. It had the distinct whiff of droppings, which made my stomach flip over because I knew who this was from. There was only one person I knew who constantly carried with him the whiff of rat droppings.

The Other Piper.

Remember the prophecy? Well, there’s one more detail I should have mentioned. After it turned out that I wasn’t the wizard of awe and might that my ex-mentor had hoped I would be, he decided that he had made a mistake. He didn’t kick me out, oh no. He had too much pride for that. But he went and scoured the world for another boy named Piper, and voila, Other Piper. Five years my junior, five times my size, and five times more likely to chase me around the castle trying to punch my kidneys out. Not the best years of my life.

As far as I knew, the Other Piper was still the apple of our mentor’s eye and still doing his evil bidding. He sent me the occasional indecipherable letter when whimsy struck him, or the occasional mysterious apple core or piece of a woman’s corset. I never knew what to do with any of it, so I kept them in a drawer under my bed. It’d occurred to me to hand them over to a proper sorcerer who could then run a tracking spell, but I never did this for two reasons. One, the Other Piper was actually a brilliant sorcerer and could probably fend off any tracking spell cast on him. Two, it wasn’t like he and our mentor were inconspicuous. They had returned to living in a big honking castle by the sea. Anyone could find it. No one dared.

I’d entertained fantasies of storming that castle and hexing them both to oblivion, but more likely my spells would just turn the curtains paisley. Which was awful. I hated paisley.

So I opened the letter from the Other Piper.

Dear P,

I hope you sell bells. Wedding bells, that is!

Boss says he misses you. Just passing the message along.

xxx

(please choke on a fish bone and die)

“I had the chance to push him down the stairs,” I said. “Why oh why didn’t I take it?”

Annette overheard me. “Because deep down, you know you’re a hero too.”

I laughed outright.

“A sidekick at the very least,” she said. “Or one of those crafty talking animals. Don’t object. You know it’s true!”

“I’m going back to work on the harp,” I announced, and I threw the letter onto the counter and tried not to think about it too much. I would have to ask Henry when he got back. Who knew when that would be, even.

:::

Two days later, as it turned out. I was in the back room and Henry had apparently gotten over his shyness about standing outside the door until invited in, either that or Annette had gotten presumptuous, because he walked into the back room as I was taking a break from the harp to play my pipe.

I didn’t play my pipe often anymore. Not for any melodramatic reasons. Not because it reminded me of my questionable past or made me fear for the peril of my soul, or whatever hogwash the Marquis de Carabas liked to spout when he visited me in the spring with his creepy cat. I didn’t play because I was too busy most of the time, what with trying to earn an honest living, and sometimes after spending all day with music, I needed a break. But today I felt like making music, and so I was playing a simple little melody about encouraging vegetables to grow fat and juicy that my mother had taught me. That was when Henry walked in.

“Oh,” he said.

I lowered the pipe.

“Please, don’t,” Henry said hoarsely. His voice sounded strange, like he’d caught a cold except Henry was one of those hardy he-male types whose bodies simply did not understand the meaning of disease. Broken bones were heroic. Runny noses and dry coughs were not. “I miss your music,” he added in that strange voice, and I flinched.

“No you don’t,” I said. “Remember all those times my pipe accidentally lured in gadflies and roaches? You said you never realized how dangerous music could be until you met me.”

“That’s true,” Henry said. “But you’re forgetting that I also said–”

That was the moment the sea anemones broke into the shop.

:::

Henry unsheathed his sword in a line of glittering steel, and I felt my traitorous knees go a bit wobbly. My hands clenched the counter until my knuckles were flour white, and it was a mixture of fear — because let no one tell you that giant sea anemones aren’t frightening, they totally are — and desire. Annette stood beside me with her broom at the ready, and I had no doubt that she could take on anyone who dared approach us because in her youth Annette had been the terror of the high seas, giving up piracy only to come home and look after her ailing mother. And I forget where I am going with this.

Oh yes. Henry’s sword.

He unsheathed it and swung it at the first giant anemone, cutting it in half before he did a neat pivot and took down the second. There was a high-pitched screechy sound from the third as it lunged its spindly body towards Henry. Henry dodged and sliced through it coolly.

Not many people ever got to see him in action. Most of the time they hid while he slayed the dragon or tamed the wild beast, and they returned when he was done and wiping the blood off his sword. But thanks to the binding spell, I had been forced to spend a great deal of time trailing him as he sliced, cut, and proved himself near invincible. I knew as much about swordsmanship as could fill Thumbelina’s teacup but even I could recognize that Henry’s was a talent that came only once a generation. They said that when he was born, in a cabin in the woods, all the animals came and knelt for him in recognition of their ultimate predator.

In my opinion, that story was total poppycock. But it didn’t conceal the truth of Henry’s prowess, because prowess he had in spades, and I remembered the way he used to hold my wrists down as he slid into me and groaned in my ear, all the while we–

I yelped as an anemone got too close to comfort, but Annette bashed it with her broomstick before Henry stuck his sword in it. And then the anemones were taken care of, the Sea Witch was thwarted for yet another day, and I realized that pieces of my shelves were lying in ruins all over the floor. “My shop!” I yelled. “Look what you did to my shop! There’s goo all over the floor!”

Henry whirled around on me. Sweat stuck his bangs to his forehead and his eyes blazed like the djinni in the lamp. “What do you mean, what the hell did I do your shop? I just saved your life! Again!”

“Excuse me, sweetheart, Annette and I could have taken care of it on our own,” I said. “And they wouldn’t have attacked at all if it weren’t for you!” I saw the lyre in pieces and I wanted to weep.

“You are really…” Henry choked on his words. “You are really a fucking piece of work, Piper.”

I went cold. For one prolonged moment, I went perfectly cold. My body felt like that time when I was still an apprentice and I had to climb into the Snow Queen’s castle to steal a lock of her hair for a spell. My palms went numb and my head went clear, and then I blinked and the moment was over. The lyre was still broken but Henry was looking at me with real anger darkening the shades of blue in his eyes. Henry never got angry at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last. “Thank you for saving us.”

Henry took a step towards me but I took a step back. “Can I borrow your broom, Annette?” I asked. “We’ve got to close the shop for the day, of course, and get to cleaning this mess.”

Annette handed me the broom wordlessly.

“I can pay for the damage,” Henry said. “I can go to the Pelagia Islands and get you another lyre. I can get you ten of them if you’d like.”

“Don’t be absurd,” I said slowly. “The anemones did most of the damage anyway. It wasn’t you.”

“Why do I always feel worse when you act nice?” Henry said. He bit down on his lip. Then his eyes lit up. “I know! You can come with me to Snow White’s wedding. I need to bring company and this way you can see the look on her face when we give her the harp. Not to mention all the networking opportunities. Everybody will be begging you to make harps for them when we’re done.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Annette said, and I gazed at them, both so decent and hardworking that it hurt. It took my mind briefly off the damage and the unmistakable smell of anemone goo, which, like rat droppings were the Other Piper’s signature, was quickly becoming Henry’s.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go to the wedding.”

:::

When I finished the harp, I allowed myself an evil cackle. Come on, some occasions were worth it, and the finished harp was my masterpiece, a beautiful swan of white and red, its strings fanning out like wings. My magic lived within each knot and peg. Annette whistled when she saw it and then she hugged me. “Have I ever told you that I’m glad I met you?” she asked. I snuggled my head into her shoulder and said that no, she should tell me more often.

Instead she used my vulnerability to pry, tricksy lady that she was. “You and Henry used to screw, right?”

Repeatedly and creatively, in every position imaginable. On the road, in the inns, behind the screens. It was like we couldn’t get enough of each other. At first I’d thought it was a side effect of the binding spell, but when the Witch of the Woods broke the spell with a snap of her fingers, I looked at Henry and all I felt was a crushing sense of despair that it was over.

To Annette I said, “Help me load it into the cart. Henry will be here with the horses any minute.”

I should have thought before I spoke. Henry showed up an hour later leading his stallion with the cart hitched on. Just the one horse. When he realized his mistake, he went red. “Um. I forgot. Because we used to–”

“Because the binding spell made it easier to share a horse, yes, I know,” I said.

“Let me go back and get another,” he offered, but I cut him off.

“I’m a big boy,” I said. “I’ll survive.”

Which I did. We put the wrapped harp on the cart, along with my bags, and then I climbed onto the stallion behind Henry. I slid my arms around his flat chest, and I smelled his familiar musk of leather, oil, and anemone goo. Annette waved, so I blew her a kiss and reminded her to take care of Leroy before Henry urged his stallion forward. Then we were off on yet another journey. May I add that I had just as much trouble trying to stop my boner from poking Henry in the back as I did the first time around, which only convinced me that life is cruel and goes in circles. But I hadn’t left the city since because I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed back. I realized how much I had missed when the wind whipped my face and a butterfly landed on my nose.

We made camp after we crossed the river. Henry actually put his hands on my hips and lifted me off the horse. I couldn’t bring myself to mind. Henry was watching me with a canny expression, and I was wary of him when he got like this; when he let his brains overpower his muscles, he was even more fearsome. I went and started the fire while Henry spread out our blankets. When I looked up, he smiled at me and said, “Brings back a lot of memories, doesn’t it?”

For some reason, maybe because I had always been the most inappropriate boy in all the land, I said, “Yeah, I remember how you used to climb over me on top of those blankets and fuck me until I couldn’t stand.”

“That’s… not what I was referring to,” Henry said, twitching.

“Oh?” I asked politely.

“Do… do you still think about it though?”

“What, your references?” I drawled.

“You know what I mean,” Henry said, starting to sound frustrated. He ran his hands through his glorious blond hair. “But you’re going to make me say it, aren’t you? Fine. Sex. When we had sex.”

“Do I still think about when we had sex?” I mused, though inside my heart was jumping leapfrog. “Does it really matter? We finished that journey. You dropped me off at the citizen registration office and you said ‘see you around.'” It had taken all of my self-control not to whip a hex at his jaunty wave and departure, but he didn’t need to know how close he’d been to turning into a decorative souvenir.

“Is that all you wanted to ask?” I said when the silence had stretched on too long.

“Not really,” Henry admitted, “but we’re tired and we’ve got a long day of travel tomorrow. Sleep. We should get some sleep.” He stretched out on his blankets and removed his boots. Classic avoidance technique, I thought, but I followed suit, wriggling out of my dirty socks and undoing the ribbon at the knot of my hair. Henry made a sound, but I laid down and closed my eyes. I’d thought it would be distracting to sleep this close to Henry again, when I could hear the anxious rustle of his breath and remember how his arms once felt around me, but I was wrong. I fell asleep easily.

:::

Traveling with Henry was never boring. Sure, the conversational opportunities were limited when we had villains and victims jumping out at us from every roseberry bush, but I could have had conversation anywhere. I could have gone down to the tavern and talked my tongue off with Cricket if I’d wanted to. Only with Henry could I get the second round of the sea anemones, the strangely amorous trees, and the old woman who sat at the gap in the road with her walking stick balanced on her knee.

“Three riddles, kind sirs, and then you shall pass,” she said.

I’d never come across this before, though I’d heard of it. Henry, who was an old pro at roadside surprises, simply nodded and dismounted. He helped me off. Again. I swear the old woman smirked at us before she straightened her face back into its mysterious expression.

“The first riddle,” she said. “What goes around and around the wood, but never gets to the wood?”

“This one is easy,” I grinned. “The bark of a tree.”

“Correct, young man,” she said, shifting the balance of the walking stick to her thighs. “The second riddle is this: what is put on the table and cut, but never eaten?”

Henry opened his mouth, but I interrupted him. “A deck of cards,” I said. I was beginning to enjoy this. When I was an apprentice, riddles were part of my daily education. My master had wanted to keep my wits sharp; that was the one thing I knew he didn’t like about the Other Piper, that the Other Piper was… well, let’s be generous and say that he wasn’t the best shuffled deck of cards on the table.

The woman smiled. “I see you will have no problems getting by me,” she said. “Very well. As a courtesy, the third riddle: what is as round as a dishpan, as deep as a tub, and still the oceans could not fill it up?”

I laughed. “Henry’s head,” I answered immediately, and Henry scowled at me.

“Thanks,” he said.

But the old woman’s expression clouded over. “That is incorrect. You shall not pass.”

I held up my hands. “It was just a joke. I didn’t mean anything by it,” I protested. “Here, here, I’ll give you the real answer!” However, she was already rising from the stump that she was sitting on, and I saw that her walking stick had turned into a witch’s staff. Henry unsheathed his sword, but the woman spoke and the sky crackled with lightning. “Oh balls,” I muttered under my breath, and who knew that people took riddles this seriously? Henry was grabbing my wrist and pulling me towards him for safety, but then the old woman swung her staff and that was that. Lesson of the day: we should have gone the long way around.

:::

We woke up in a pit. My back ached something awful and I was lying on a bed of dead leaves with my limbs sprawled every which way. My head had the good fortune to be pillowed on Henry’s stomach, and I heard the deep vibration of his groan as he came to consciousness at the same time I did. He shifted his body into sitting position, dislodging my head. I blinked and looked up at the intense glimmer of sky that intruded where the hole met the rim of the earth. “It was just a joke,” I said. “Just a joke.”

“It’s the first rule of travel,” Henry said irritably. “When you meet an old woman with a staff who asks you riddles, you don’t joke. It’s practically written in the rule book!”

“What rule book?” I scoffed. “The one they gave you at Hero Academy?”

“For the last time, there’s no such thing as Hero Academy,” Henry said, and I refused to believe him because heroes didn’t get as polished and as trained as Henry without higher education. No one should be able to stride manfully across windy moors and have their hair artfully tousled while claiming no prior practice. But this was a debate we’d been having since the second day we met, so I let it go and rolled over onto my belly.

“By the way,” Henry continued, because being at the bottom of a pit was apparently loosening his tongue like a bottle of good aged wine. “I’m not stupid. I could have answered those riddles too. It’s not just you’re the brains and I’m the brawn. It’s not as simple as that.”

I peered up at him. Looking at Henry was a good way to avoid thinking about the imminent problem of being thrown to the bottom of a hole where we didn’t even know what magics were involved or what the old woman had intended. “I know you’re not stupid,” I said, syrupy. “You play competitive chess with the Queen’s chief strategy officer, okay. You don’t have to prove it to me. I just like riddles. And I don’t like you getting all the fun.”

“You’re out of your mind if you think this is fun,” Henry said.

“I don’t know,” I smirked. “You seemed to enjoy helping that princess climb that tree to find her golden ball. I’m sure looking up her skirt had no appeal.”

Henry sputtered. “I did not… why would I even… I think you of all people would know that I have very little interest in women. In that way.” He stood up and brushed the leaves off his pants. “Why are we even talking about this again? We should be on our way out.”

I waved my hand lazily. “Got rope?”

“Better,” said Henry. “I have a sorcerer.”

I was afraid he was going to say that. As I’m sure everybody has come to realize by now, my precision with object-oriented spells was nearly non-existent. I told Henry so. I reminded him of that time two years ago when I’d tried to summon a dog whistle and summoned a pianoforte instead, and it had almost landed on his head and knocked him out. But Henry gave me the same look that he must give the up and coming heroes who went to him for advice, the look that said, I know you’re capable so stop being such a slacker.

It was a very good look. I withered under it. “I’ll try my best,” I said, unwinding my pipe from the small packet that I kept in my coat. The old woman had been kind enough, or forgetful enough, not to take it from me. I put the pipe to my mouth, positioned my fingers, and I focused my mind on my one objective. Rope, rope, rope, I thought, and then I played a note and felt the magic throb inside of me.

“Well, it’s a rope,” Henry said when I was done. “But it’s the flimsiest rope I’ve ever seen.”

“Don’t complain. If it’s in the family of long, twisty things, that’s the best you can ask of me,” I said. “You’re just lucky I didn’t end up summoning a snake.”

Henry sighed. “I suppose I don’t deserve to be called a hero if I don’t take risks.” He picked up the coil of rope, which looked perfectly adequate to me, and he said, “Can you attach the end of the rope to the top of the hole? Using magic, I mean. I don’t expect you to climb up and do it, because if you did, that would defeat the entire purpose of this venture. I mean.” He shook his head. “I’ll just stop talking now.”

“Okay,” I said agreeably, and binding things to other things was my specialty so I made the end of the rope stick to a tree that was hovering by the hole. It was easy. I felt rather proud of myself.

Henry tugged on the rope, muttered a prayer — how obnoxious, I thought, because I still didn’t know what he was talking about when he said it was flimsy — and started climbing.

Ah, okay. So that’s what he meant.

The rope trembled under his weight, and I started biting my nails as I watched him progress. The rope stretched and bent and parts of it started to fray. I began slithering around, arranging the leaves in a soft pile so that Henry could have a cushion when he fell. It was the least I could do. But he strained and pushed and proved his hero’s worth when he made his way up to the top and swung himself over the edge of the hole. I breathed in relief. Then I panicked. “Wait, now you expect me to climb the rope?” I asked. “I’m not athletic at all!”

“Unless you can manage to magically transport yourself out of the hole, then yeah. I don’t see what choice you have,” Henry said, the useless lout.

“I wish I was Merlin. I wish I was Merlin,” I said. I swallowed the lump of salt in my throat. I’d just seen Henry shimmy up the rope, so I knew it could be done. But parts of the rope looked awfully thin now, like they were about to unravel, and I hated heights. One of the reasons why I had been so happy to leave the evil sorcerer and travel with Henry — not that I had had a choice at the time, binding spell and all, but in retrospect — was because the castle had been on a hill, and I had hated walking that path every day and looking down at the endless drop. I stood there anxiously, sweat dripping down my collar, and then Henry leaned over. His expression was tender.

“I won’t let you fall,” he said.

“Sweetheart, what exactly can you do about it?” I snapped.

“If you can’t make it, I’ll come back down and carry you up,” Henry said. “I promise.”

“Why can’t you do that now?” I said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this but I rather like being carried in your strong, capable arms.”

“Piper,” he said. “You’ve got to try.”

And sometimes Henry was just too good at what he did, because I did try. I closed my eyes and evened out my breath, reminding myself that even a less than superb sorcerer was still a sorcerer, and I’d already prepared the cushiony leaves in advance. So I wrapped my hands around the rope and I pulled myself up. It was difficult. My arms immediately felt like they were burning, and the rope cut into my soft palms. I gasped. But Henry said my name, and I listened to his voice as I edged myself just a little bit further. Then a bit more. And a bit more. I let my mind go deep into my magic, and I thought of all the difficult tasks the evil sorcerer had once made me do: count all the grains of sand on the beach, bring him a unicorn horn, iron his wrinkled pants. In contrast, this was nothing.

Henry grabbed me when I was in sight and hauled me over. “You did good,” he said, burying his face in my hair. “I’m so proud of you. You did good.”

“Of course I did good,” I said imperiously, though my hands were still shaking. “Now where’s that old woman? I’m going to flood her house with so many vengeful octopuses, you can’t even fathom it.”

“Sieve,” Henry said.

“What?”

“The answer to her last riddle. What is as round as a dishpan, as deep as a tub, and still the oceans could not fill it up? It’s a sieve.”

“So it is,” I said.

“I’d rather not go on a revenge spree,” Henry said. “We’re on our way to a wedding. It wouldn’t feel right.”

I seethed. So he grabbed my hand and put his thumb in the middle of my palm, where it felt like a burning brand. How was he always so warm? He must have had a furnace for a heart. He was always so warm. Henry looked deep in my eyes. “Please, Piper, let’s just move on,” he said, and I looked at the hole, and then the sky, and then at his meaningful expression. The magic deflated within me. I sagged with the effort. Then I nodded.

:::

Not all of our adventures on the road were quite so dramatic. As we approached the Glimmering Banks, we ran into our old friend Theodore.

“Ribbit!” he said. “Hey guys, it’s me!”

“Theodore!” I said, scrambling off the horse. I bent down to scoop him up from the dust of the road. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d become a prince again!” He was wet and slimy in my hands, but he wriggled happily.

“Nah, I’m going through a divorce,” Theodore said.

“That’s too bad,” I sympathized.

“It’s all right. We weren’t working out for each other,” he replied. “But hey, what do you know. No more kissing means no more human body, so I’m a frog again!”

“I’m always willing to kiss you,” I said.

“And I’m sure you’re a great kisser,” Theodore said. “I hear stories about your kissing skill from here to the Purple Sea. But I kind of need it to be a lady. Just the way the spell runs, unfortunately.” He ribbited. “Hi Henry. Glad to see you too.”

“Hi,” Henry said cautiously. I suppose when I’d called Theodore our friend, I was exaggerating a tad. Henry had never quite liked Theodore for whatever unknown reason. I suspected Henry had a deep-seated prejudice against amphibians, because Theodore was delightful. Always a riot at the pubs.

“So!” Theodore continued. “I’m glad you two came along because I was needing a ride to Hamelin.”

“What’s your business at Hamelin?” I asked.

“The ladies, of course!” Theodore said. “The kissing! The romance!”

I wrinkled my nose. “Just a warning, Theo. They’re not exactly brimming with joy over at Hamelin.”

“Just because you’ve been burned by the town doesn’t mean I will,” Theodore said optimistically. He jumped into my coat pocket. “Let’s ride, boys!”

Henry rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome, Theo.”

Traveling with Theodore was different than just traveling with Henry. With Henry and me, we were mostly quiet as we rode. Every now and then Henry would make some asinine comment on the weather, or the state of his boots, but I mostly ignored him and entertained myself with fantasies about how Snow White was going to raise me above all the instrument makers in the land when she saw my harp. It was a good fantasy. I especially liked the bit at the end where the entire court knelt and kissed my feet, proclaiming my genius.

With Theodore around, it was hard to withdraw into my head because Theodore always pulled me out. He liked to chat, but the thing was, he was actually good at chatting. He told us stories about his divorce, about his kingdom up north, about the baker and the baker’s wife he’d run into at his last town, and how he had wriggled into the baker’s underpants and gave him a fright. Henry frowned at the mischief, but I laughed and stroked Theodore absently. At night he crawled into my blankets with me and curled his webbed feet right over my heart.

Henry always looked like he wanted to say something about that. I silently dared him to. But when he spoke, all he said was, “It looks like it’s going to rain.”

“Yep,” I said. “That it is.”

“I’m going to do my sword exercises over in that clearing,” he said.

“Duly noted,” I replied.

“Call me if you need anything.”

“I will,” I said, and off he went with his sword and his thighs and his perfect ass.

It would be easier, I thought, if Theodore liked men. Because if he liked men, he would probably like me; he’d told me before that if I had a bosom, I’d be exactly his type. If I imagined a relationship with Theodore, I could see how simple it’d be. He could abdicate his throne, which he’d never cared much about anyway, and come to live with me above the music shop. We would talk a lot, laugh a lot, and go down to the tavern every Market Eve to drink merrily and gossip about our neighbours. At night, he would curl up against me with his hand right over my heart. It would be so easy and so good.

Nothing was easy with Henry. If there was anything at all to begin with, which I doubted, because ‘see you around’ weren’t exactly the parting words of an epic romance.

I wished I could have had embarrassing wet dreams about Theodore. Theodore in his human body, that was, because I wasn’t really into the whole frog thing. But Theodore as a prince, with his shock of red hair and his charming freckles and his laughing, open mouth. I liked redheads. I liked freckles. I could enjoy such a dream.

Instead I dreamed about Henry. About his palm resting on my stomach as he worked his mouth between my legs, drawing my prick deep inside and lavishing attention to it with his tongue. I don’t know where Henry learned to suck cock, but I suspect Hero Academy had advanced courses on the subject because the first time in real life that Henry had gone down on me, I had screamed. He was so good at it, so talented and detail-oriented, running his tongue up the veins of my prick, tightening his cheeks to create deeper pressure, bobbing his head in the most fluid, musical rhythm that I could imagine. In my dream we were lying in the open field, on top of a checkered blanket, and I was staring up at the sky until it hurt. My legs were spread wide, and Henry was taking me in so filthily. I stuffed my fist into my mouth to keep from making a sound, but then he lifted his head and said, “I want to hear you.”

I came with a wail, the sound escaping from between the ridges of my fist, and Henry drank me in.

I woke from the dream with a mangled gasp. Theodore stirred beside me and opened one froggy eye. He flicked his gaze down at the wetness spreading in my pants. “Aw, don’t be embarrassed, Pipes,” he said. “It happens to the best of us. I bet even Henry gets the nighttime jollies.”

“Shhhh,” I hissed. I looked over at Henry’s side of the campfire, but he was still asleep with his hand curled protectively around the hilt of his sword. I thought about that hand and how it had once gripped my hips to keep me in place as he ate me out. I shuddered and climbed out of my blankets in search of a wiping cloth.

:::

We reached Hamelin in good time. There was a sign above the town gates: Help Us Find Our Children (Donkey Rides Half Price!).

“This is truly the happiest place on earth,” I said. “Now direct me towards the bar and let’s be done with it.”

“Agreed,” said Theodore, but Henry shook his head.

“I was here recently. They’ve been having problems with giant rats again,” he said.

“Did you get rid of them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Then I don’t see the problem,” I said. Being in Hamelin again was making me morose, as the last time I was here the townspeople had chased me out with pitchforks and bleating goats. “Come on, Theo. Let’s find you some lovely, willing ladies to kiss you back into manhood, and then we’ll get the hell out of here.” I rummaged through my bags and pulled out my cloak with the heavy hood. “I’ll wear this just in case people recognize me. I think they’re still touchy about the kids incident, though why should they be? I made them into a legend.”

“Gratitude is so hard to find these days,” Theodore agreed, while Henry looked at us as if he wanted dearly to throw us over a cliff. But he followed us anyway as we headed for the main square, a gloomy place with only a handful of townsfolk who had set up stalls selling pieces of iron and string and apples. I borrowed an empty crate from one of them, upturned it, and put Theodore on top. Then I started drumming the wood.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” I shouted. “Boys and girls! What I have for you today is a wonder!”

I got a few curious glances, so I plunged onwards.

“Look at my friend here! He may seem an ordinary frog, but in actuality he is a prince of a foreign land, blessed with riches! In trying to save a drowning girl, he was cursed by an evil sorcerer to forever take the form of a frog, unless a fair maiden realizes the purity of his heart and kisses him with love so true!”

“Pssst,” Theodore said. “Knock it off with the love so true bit. Ladies don’t like it when you’re that intense.”

“Love so true, or a heart that is true!” I corrected. “Who in Hamelin can match that description? Who in Hamelin can release this prince from his torturous spell?”

Silence.

Henry snickered.

So I made him pay for it. “Today we are having a special offer!” I said with a dramatic flourish. “Kiss the fair prince and in turn you may receive a kiss from the Queen’s Hero, who longs for nothing more than his friend to be released from the shackles of the evil sorcerer’s ways!”

Henry turned white.

“Come on, pal,” Theodore pleaded. “Just a closed-mouthed kiss. Totally chaste. Do it for me.”

“I don’t even like you,” Henry protested.

“Then do it for Piper,” Theodore said, and I smiled winningly.

“And what Piper really wants is for me to go around kissing fair maidens?” Henry asked pointedly. “I wasn’t aware Piper had such strong opinions on what I do with my mouth.” As he spoke, my smirk started slipping. He sounded wounded and I was regretting my decision already.

“Never mind,” I said. “No kisses from the Queen’s Hero.”

“Aw, man,” Theodore said. “I’m never going to turn back into a human at this rate.”

Henry patted him on the back. Of course, his hand was so large and Theodore was so small that he made Theodore shake with every pat, so he stopped. “One day you’ll find a nice girl who doesn’t mind the taste of slime,” Henry said. “There’s someone out there for everyone.”

“In the meantime, there’s cheap beer,” I said. I pointed at the pub across the square. “Fellas, today it’s on me.”

:::

When I was properly souped up and that passed for courage, I leaned over the counter and put my hand on Henry’s thigh. “Hello,” I said, and he looked at me with his big clear eyes. He smiled slightly, his lips pressed over his teeth.

“Hello,” he said. “Piper, you’re drunk.”

“Am I?” I asked flirtily. “I’d like to think of it as being in a higher plane of existence! You know, what they preach at the Temple of the Golden Egg. Have you ever been there? The Temple of the Golden Egg?”

“Yes,” he said. “The Queen likes to visit.”

“And you’re friends with the Queen of the Land of Bells. Our queen. I never forget,” I said. I stuck my finger into my mouth to suck out the last bit of salt, and then I ran it over his cheek. Henry went very still. “If you’re friends with the Queen and Snow White and all those important people, why do you hang out with us? Me, Annette, Theo…we’re nobodies.”

“Hey!” Theodore said. “I’m a prince!”

“A technicality,” I said.

“I’ll technicality you!” Theodore said, trying to jump from the stool at me, but he fell off and tumbled to the floor. We ignored him, and I patted Henry’s thigh companionably. He was still very quiet and immobile, like he had turned into a piece of stone in a sorcerer’s garden, but maybe that made it easier for me to say what I wanted to say.

“I’m sorry I treat you badly sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry I can act like you’re just a hunk of meat. I know what that’s like. Believe me. I know. I’m a bastard.”

“Yeah, sometimes you are,” Henry said. He peered at me and smiled again. “Then again, sometimes so am I.”

“Like when?” I demanded.

“Like…” He lowered his voice and brought our faces close together. I could feel the thrilling tickle of his breath, thick with alcohol. I wasn’t the only one drunk, though with Henry it was hard to tell because he didn’t get rowdy when he was drunk. Rather, he slowed down so that everything was precise and purposeful. I had never understood that. “I didn’t forget to bring two horses. I meant it,” he confessed.

I stared at him.

“So there you go,” Henry said.

I sensed that this was potentially an important moment in a series of important moments, but my head was compromised with butterfly liquor and my hand was still stroking his thigh. So all I could do was gape and then say, somewhat coquettishly, “It must be so hard to be a hero all the time.”

Henry bumped our foreheads together gently. His smile had broadened a shade fuller and richer. Then he stood up suddenly and grabbed my hand. “It’s so stuffy in here,” he announced. “Let’s go outside.”

“I don’t want to go outside,” I said, but Henry was already tugging me off the stool.

“Bye guys, don’t leave town without me!” Theodore said. I swiveled to give him a response but Henry chose that precise moment to scoop me into his arms, princess style. I squealed in surprise, flinging my arms around his neck for balance, and he laughed as he bounded up the stairs and then down again on the other side, bringing us into the cool Hamelin night.

“What are you doing?” I wanted to know. He didn’t answer me. His arms tightened around the backs of my legs as he carried me through the square and past the twisty roads of the houses, the roads I had once walked as I charmed away rats and children. After a while I stopped trying to figure out his destination and instead I let myself enjoy the ride. We were in the north, so nighttime was chilly on my heated cheeks. I could smell the tang of Henry’s sweat. He was still smiling, his face lit up with smooth moonlight, and I remembered how much of a wreck I had been, seeing him walk away from me that first time.

He stopped when we reached the lake, the same lake where I’d reversed the spell and sent the children home. The nostalgia factor was beginning to confuse me, was making me wonder if this was past or present. He let me down carefully, and then he started taking off his shirt.

“What?” I asked stupidly.

“Cast a warmth spell on us and let’s go swimming,” Henry said, and he was half naked in the moonlight now, with a grin that could melt cities.

I tilted my head. “I’m so drunk, I’m having trouble understanding this,” I said, but Henry reached out his hands and fiddled with the hem of my cloak. His hands slipped upwards and he started undoing the silver deer clasp, sliding the cloak off my shoulders. “No, really, what’s going on?” I whined as the pads of Henry’s fingers brushed the skin of my arm and every hair prickled to attention.

“Stop thinking about it,” Henry said. “You think too much.”

“Excuse me, who got us past the riddles?” I said.

“We didn’t get past the riddles,” Henry reminded me. “We were thrown into a pit.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. I let Henry trail his fingers over the sensitive hollow of my throat, where he kissed me. So softly, so briefly; the moment his lips left my throat, I wondered if I had imagined it all. As anyone can tell you, I was ace when it came to the imagination department. Henry smiled at me crookedly, and then he let go of me and was striding towards the water. I allowed myself a moment of silent wonder before I shucked off my shirt and followed him.

:::

We were all much more relaxed in the morning. We booked a room in the inn and we spent most of the morning lazing around eating kippers and eggs while Theodore tried to convince us that he’d gotten lucky last night, though his still being a frog pointed otherwise. “I’m serious!” he said. “She picked me up and put me right in her bosom, and then she took me to her house where she told me her husband was on a business trip!”

“Yeah, yeah, dream on,” I said, spearing my kipper and sharing a smile with Henry. My head ached and I was rather blurry on the details of last night, though I did remember floating lazily in the cold water and then splashing Henry and trying to dunk him under. It’d been a good night. Hamelin, as it turned out, did have its charms when it wasn’t being infested with giant rats and psychotic villagers.

I stretched out on my bed and curled my toes. Henry watched my movements with heavy-lidded eyes, and I knew that something was different between us now, though I couldn’t say what that was. He’d kissed my throat last night, if I had not imagined that, but nothing else. We hadn’t kissed again, and even after we’d finished swimming and returned to the inn where I’d shaken so hard with cold that he crawled into my bed to warm me up, it’d been chaste. Which was bizarre to me, because when it came to Henry, I wasn’t used to chaste. If we’d woken up naked with me sprawled over his chest, I might have known what to do. Waking up fully clothed with him innocently tucked beside me left me floundering.

I tried not to think about it. Especially as Theodore finished his story and the innkeeper came to knock on our door. I threw my cloak on for proper disguise when I answered the door. The innkeeper said to me, “Sir, a letter came for you last night.”

“Thank you,” I said. I took the letter and I closed the door behind him.

“Who could that be from?” Theodore wondered, but I smelled the rat droppings and I sighed. Opening the letter, I saw that there weren’t any words inside, just a doodle of the Other Piper sticking me with pins. At least, I assumed that the badly drawn lump of flesh was supposed to be me, and the crowning, obnoxious equally badly drawn lump of flesh was him.

“The Other Piper is up to something. I think he’s going to try and cause havoc at Snow White’s wedding,” I said. “I should have told you before, Henry, but I guess it slipped my mind up until now.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “I already suspected that he’s on the move.”

“How?”

“Giant rats returning to Hamelin?” he said. “It has his style written all over it.”

“Right, he does like his rats,” I replied. “It’s sort of a specialty of his master’s, I’m afraid to say. We shouldn’t worry too much though. The Other Piper might be a great sorcerer but he’s a dimwit. His idea of a devious plan is to make everyone itch in their pants. Hardly red alert worthy.” I paused. “It’s only if his master gets involved that we should start packing our swords, but that’s not going to happen until the conditions of the prophecy are met.”

“Prophecy?” Theodore asked.

“A bunch of mumbo jumbo about the alignment of the moon, pipers, and the size of hoop skirts at court,” I said. “Trust me. He’s biding his time, but it won’t happen for a while. What I imagine is going to happen is that the Other Piper will show up at the wedding, probably in disguise. We can deal with him then.” I grinned. “Maybe Snow White will even give us a reward. You know, for keeping her wedding villain free.”

“No,” Henry said, and both Theodore and I immediately started complaining, but Henry put on his stoic hero face and kept saying no until time came to leave Hamelin and continue the journey. You had to admire him for his patience. That man had patience in spades. As we piled our things back onto the cart and he put the bridle on his stallion, he looked at me thoughtfully. My pulse went tight and fierce in response. He was waiting for something, I could tell, but come to think of it, so was I.

:::

Snow White’s castle was an architectural marvel, a labyrinth of towers so delicate and spindly that I didn’t know how it stayed together if it wasn’t magic. “Hmmph,” said Theodore as we rode through the main gate, “my castle is better.” But this was obviously a jealous lie, and Henry turned around and beamed like this was what he had waited to show us all along. The castle guards bowed without exception when they saw him, and when we announced our arrival to the herald at the door, the herald went in search of the princess without putting us in his handy dandy leather bound appointment book. That was power, I thought. That was real power right there, when you didn’t have to be in the appointment book.

Snow White kissed Henry on both cheeks when she came to greet us. “I’m glad you made the journey safely,” she said. “I’ve heard rumours, so I was worried.” Her voice was huskier than I had expected, but it only improved on her already extraordinary beauty. Her eyes were dark against the perfection of her skin. Henry had saved this woman, I recalled. Or rather, he had woken her up, and I could imagine it right now: her eyelashes fluttering as his lips moved over her mouth, his arms braced over the sides of her glass coffin, his muscles straining.

“Ugh,” I said, and Henry elbowed me in the gut. “Oof.”

“This is Prince Theodore of the Land of the Setting Sun,” Henry said, pointing at Theodore.

“Ah, Prince Theodore. I’ve always wanted to meet you,” Snow White replied, and Theodore ribbited in such excitement that it echoed through the halls. We all knew he was already scheming to have her kiss him, and I made a mental note to tell him that it was a nice dream but totally not going to happen.

“And this is Piper,” Henry said.

“Piper,” Snow White repeated, and then she did something odd. She threw her head back and laughed. I was not exactly happy with that. I may not have been a prince or a hero; however, I didn’t deserve derision either. Snow White shook my hand, her skin cool and majestic in my grasp, and she said, “This is the Piper that you’re so in love with, Henry? The one that got away?”

“Eh?” I said, dropping her hand like the proverbial hot potato. I hoped no one was going to guillotine me for improper etiquette with the princess’ body, but that was just an afterthought.

“What… what…” Henry sputtered. He flailed his hands in a jazzy motion that I’d never seen him do before.

“Pretty much,” said Theodore. “You can see what I had to put up with.”

Snow White grinned at all of us. She picked up the train of her hoop skirt — which I noted was still a size too small to fit the conditions of the prophecy — and said, “Come. I’ll show you all your rooms.”

I had to forcibly restrain myself from leaping head first onto the bed she showed me and humping it to completion, because damn that was a fine bed. I wasn’t used to nice things. I was a farmer’s son, and then the apprentice of an evil and financially austere sorcerer, and finally a lowly businessman who blew most of his money on drinks. The hedonist in me took in the lavish bed and then supplied an image of me on it, rolling around, and the optimist in me supplied an image of Henry joining me on that bed, Henry of the golden thighs and the crooked smile.

“I’m glad you like it,” said Snow White.

“Ah yes,” I said, remembering that I had company. “Thank you, your highness. I love it.”

“You’ll be rooming beside the Count of Carlisle,” she said. “I think he’s in right now. Why don’t I introduce you two? I hear he is also a passionate lover of music.” She brought me over to the next door and knocked on it with her fist. When it opened, I expected to see a flash count whose clothes I could mimic and whose habits I could mock. Instead a young man with a broad face and grey eyes opened the door, and he smiled when he saw me.

“Hello Piper,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you to arrive. You sure took your sweet time about it.”

“Oh, you two have already met?” Snow White asked.

“A long time ago,” I replied, and a part of me was glad because this meant I didn’t have to search the entire wedding party for the Other Piper. I had already found him.

:::

I let myself have half an hour to frolic on the bed, and then I went in search of Henry. His room was in other wing, and as I gathered it was his permanent room in the castle, as he was a friend of the princess’ and a constant visitor. I tried not to think too much about the implications of Henry’s intimate friendship with Snow White. I knew that he wasn’t into women in that way, but still, it was freaking Snow White; even I wanted to tap that, just a bit. When I reached Henry’s room, I threw open the door without warning, and it was a sign of how little Henry had changed because he still didn’t lock his doors behind him. He’d never had an evil sorcerer mentor to drill that particular paranoia into his head.

“Henry!” I said. “I found him!” Then I paused because Henry’s hand was hovering a razor over his legs. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you were shaving,” I said sweetly. I looked over at the packages on the dresser. “Or waxing,” I said. “I’ll, ah, come back later.”

Henry’s face was red. “No, stay,” he said.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” I said. “I do realize that you don’t come by your smooth hairless legs naturally.”

“Oh, just shut up,” Henry said. He put the razor down and rolled his pants over his bare legs, which was a shame because every eligible maiden and otherwise inclined bachelor at home would have wanted a glimpse of those legs. “So what were you saying? You found the Other Piper?”

“He’s next door to me masquerading as the Count of Carlisle,” I announced. “I think he has an illusion spell on him, one that’s fooling Snow White.”

“What should we do then?” Henry said.

“I was thinking we — or, let’s be honest, you — should go over to his room right now and whack him over the head,” I suggested helpfully. “Then we can put him in chains and enjoy the rest of this wedding.”

“I do like that idea,” said Henry. “But won’t he be expecting us — I mean, me — now? Since he knows that we’re onto him.”

“Please, are you kidding me? The Other Piper is such a showman, he probably won’t make a move until he knows that we’re watching him,” I said.

“All right,” Henry said, picking up his sword and his shield. I had that tingling sensation again, the one I used to have when we were bound together, for better or worse. I removed my pipe from where I always kept it on me. Even though I really meant for Henry to scare the living daylights out of the Other Piper, as he was the one with the talents in that regard, I wasn’t going to let him go without backup either. So we marched — him with his weapons and me with mine — to the Count of Carlisle’s room. Henry objected to kicking down the door when no one answered, but I managed to convince him otherwise, and to tell him that it didn’t matter. He was so beloved that no one would care if he kicked down the entire west wing. So, he kicked down the door, but the room was empty.

What a disappointment, I thought. Henry took it better and shrugged. “There’s a masquerade ball tonight. Everybody is going to be there. We’ll find him then,” he said, and I was forced to settle for that.

:::

Okay, that was a bit of a lie. I loved parties. There was no settling involved. The prospect of beating the Other Piper and doing it in a beautiful black domino and a frock coat with scarlet trim was happy-making beyond description. I was standing in front of my mirror and adjusting the angle of my lapels when there was an awkward knock on the door that could only be Henry. I went and unlocked the door, and yep, it was Henry all right, resplendent in a peacock blue mask of his own with feathers and gems that prickled around his eyes like stars. “Are you ready?” he asked me. I patted my pocket where my pipe rested, and I grinned at him with my wolfish teeth.

Theodore was bouncing on the stairs. I thought about letting him ride in my pocket as well, but then a lovely woman in a dress of ice silk came and swept him away. I whistled in admiration. So Theodore wasn’t all talk; he really did have a way with the ladies. Who knew. He might even be a man again by the end of the masquerade ball. I wished my friend all the best and moved on.

Snow White and her prince held court at the centre of the ball. I knew even then we could get close to them if we wanted to; Henry could pull those strings. But I wasn’t here tonight for her, and Henry seemed perfectly content at my side rather than at the hostess’, so we stood by the towering display of wines and kept an eye out for the Other Piper.

“We could dance,” Henry suggested after a while, and I lifted my face up to his. We weren’t the only pair of men at the ball. There were duets of women as well, and other configurations that I honestly hadn’t expected at a royal party. But as Henry had informed me earlier, the court of Snow White was one of the freest in the Eight Kingdoms, which was why he liked it here. Why he would risk life and limb for her to take the throne from her stepmother up further north.

“We could,” I said. “I’d like that.”

I would have held my hand out for him to take; I would have let him lead me onto the dance floor without a catty remark, except then there was the sudden strain of a pipe over the rest of the orchestra, and my entire body froze. I knew what this was. Pipes were forbidden in the Land of Snow. Even me just carrying one in my coat was a risk. If that did not make the pipe music immediately noteworthy, I also recognized that particular lilt, heavy with magic. I had been trained in this spell, though I’d never taken to it because lust magic wasn’t my forte. To be honest, it wasn’t the Other Piper’s forte either, but clearly he had practiced because the spell was perfect, and I knew it was perfect because my body froze and then was reborn, alive and burning, and my prick hardened inside my pants. I gasped and gripped Henry’s hand as desire sliced through me, blade sharp. I looked up at him and saw the way he was clenching his jaw. I looked beyond him and noticed the confused silence that had overtaken the entire room.

And then, and then…

I don’t need to explain what an orgy is, do I?

I knew better, but I didn’t want to. I took off my mask and then I took off his. He let me. I regarded him for one long second, the breath before the chaos. Then I threw myself at Henry and kissed him like I had been dreaming of it for years, which was true, and he kissed me back just the same, and I didn’t know if that was true, but I stopped wondering as I bit down on his lip and listened to him groan. Around us, other couples and trios and groups larger than that were doing the same, and I could hear the wet sounds of desire fill the room; I could see, in the corner of my eye, Snow White and her prince rubbing against each other desperately. Then I couldn’t see them anymore because Henry was filling my entire vision, and he was kissing me so hard that I was sure I would bruise. I wanted it. I bucked my hips against his and said, “There’s an alcove in the corner. We can get there before anyone else.” He nodded.

It wasn’t elegant. With me and Henry, it rarely was. Once we got to the alcove, there was a convenient curtain attached and I pulled it behind us with more force than was strictly necessary before I pushed Henry against the wall and tried to climb his entire body. His torso was the rope and his mouth was the sky; I kept on reaching for it, hungry, kissing him and tonguing him until his hands gripped my hips and pushed me aside.

“Piper,” he said, and he sounded like he was in pain. His pupils were blown and his cheeks were red. Sweat beaded on his forehead so I licked it for him, my tongue a languid swoop over his drum tight skin. “Piper, I don’t think… I don’t think I can wait,” he said helplessly.

“Me neither,” I said, and this was going to be the shortest reunion sex ever. The next time, we would do it properly. If there was a next time, even. Then I would spread him on my beautiful new bed and ride him so slowly and meaningfully that he would beg me for it. Not this time. This time, I slid my mouth over his mouth, and then his jaw, and then his neck, and then his shoulders as I fiddled with the buttons of his coat, those damn tricky buttons that kept confusing my fingers until Henry brought those fingers to his mouth and licked them, one by one.

“I want to fuck you,” he said breathlessly. “Can I fuck you?”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” I said, and he laughed as he got with the program and slithered out of his coat. I did the same with mine, and then I was opening the flap of his breeches and palming his long, hardy cock, growing dizzy already at the prospect of having it inside me again. Henry was nuzzling my neck and leaving little bites and bruises as I took his cock in hand and gave it a few jerks. He groaned when I dug my nail slightly into its tip. “Does that hurt?” I asked pleasantly. He thrust against me and shuddered.

I got to my knees. Henry wasn’t the only champion cocksucker in the room. I shifted to a comfortable position and eyed his cock with appreciation before I took it into my mouth and started sucking. No warning, no little games of press and pull; just his cock filling my mouth and making me want. Henry seemed to grow even larger on my tongue, and I groaned with pleasure as I took it in. He started moving his hips against me, little increments at first, but longer and deeper when he saw that I wasn’t complaining. I sucked in his rhythm enthusiastically, my blood hot with magic and truth.

Then I was rising and kicking off the remains of my pants. There was a miniature bottle inside my pocket, tucked next to my pipe; I uncapped it and squeezed small amounts of oil over my fingers. “I can’t believe you had that with you,” Henry said, and I grinned at him wickedly before reaching down and inserting two slick fingers into my ass. Henry’s eyes narrowed and I leaned over to kiss him again as I pumped those fingers within me, squelching the liquid generously inside. I made myself moan when my fingers brushed a pleasurable spot. Henry growled and said, “Let me.”

His fingers were thick and nubby. I ground myself against them.

“You are such a fucking piece of work,” Henry said, awed. He kissed me openly and deeply, and I ran my tongue around the inside of his mouth. “You are so fucking beautiful,” he confessed when we pulled apart, whispering it to the left of my ear like it was a secret I wasn’t meant to know. That was the last thing I heard before he turned me around and pushed his cock inside of me so deep that I had to stand on my toes.

I pressed my cheek against the wall and panted as Henry started thrusting. He wasn’t kind. He wasn’t gentle. His hands were vises on my hips as he worked me hard and good, his cock pumping into me with all the muscular strength that he was capable of. It was amazing; I saw sparks behind my eyes as he angled himself properly and started hitting my deep spot, making my legs shake. I would have fallen over if not for him, but he kept me steady and receptive, like I had no choice but to take him again and again, except that I did. This was what I wanted, and his teeth scraped the sweat on my neck as he rode me furiously.

“Please,” I gasped. “Please.” I didn’t even know what I was asking for. One of Henry’s hands let go of me and wrapped around my cock, and the feel of his callouses made me whine at the same time his prick bottomed in me again. “I can take more,” I said as he started jerking me off. My entire body felt stretched and filled, like a balloon on a hot summer day. “I can take more, please.”

“Then I’ll give you more,” Henry promised, and he did. He was slamming me against the wall with each stroke, but his hand was there on my prick to cradle me, to give me a hot space to thrust into. At the same time he was stretching my ass so that there was a burning edge every time he thrust. It was so good that I sobbed. I felt like a wreck, and even when I came embarrassingly soon, spurting into Henry’s hand and all over the mosaics of the alcove, it didn’t end. Henry fucked me through my orgasm, strong and merciless, and I sobbed with pleasure. It was like the very first time he’d fucked me, two months into our binding spell when I’d taunted him with my magic. He’d made me eat that taunt when he’d stretched me over the nearest flat surface and corkscrewed me until I couldn’t remember my own name. He was doing that now, just going at it, and at it, and at it.

When he came, finally, it was in a streaky mess of semen that filled my ass and dribbled out onto my thighs. He pressed his lips to my cheek and heaved a shaky breath.

“I know,” I said nonsensically, still trying to gather my bearings. “I know.”

“The Other Piper,” he said. “We need to–”

I closed my eyes. “Just give me a moment,” I pleaded. The magic was receding in my blood but I still felt dazed. A part of me wanted Henry to slide back in me and do it all over again. It was the only thing that was important to me right now. But there was still the party and there was still the princess, and so I moved, slowly and dreamily, my legs still trembling.

We didn’t need to go far. The Other Piper was waiting right outside of the alcove, his face contorted in a comical expression of disbelief. “You and him?” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

“What kind of spell was it?” I asked sharply. “A lust spell, I can tell for sure, but what kind?”

This was the thing about the Other Piper: he had been trained to respond to authority, and he had been trained well. “A lust spell that acts on genuine, requited emotions,” he spat. “I thought for sure hero boy here and the princess were going to start knocking boots, but I guess not.”

“And that was your big plan to ruin the wedding, darling?” I scoffed.

“Well, your hero is supposed to be a force to be reckoned with!” the Other Piper said. “Master said it was a good plan! He said that it’d make people question loyalties and tear the kingdom apart!”

I laughed in his face.

He struck me with an invisible force. My body was thrown back and I fell to the floor, my ankle bearing the brunt of the weight. Pain jammed through me; it felt like a valve opening. Henry leaped forward with his sword at the ready, but I scrambled to my feet gingerly and yelled, “Don’t!” The languidness in my body was gone, replaced by a sudden furious anger. Did I really think I was going to let Henry take care of the Other Piper? What a fool I had been. This was my history, my problem to deal with, and the Other Piper must have realized my intentions because there was a flicker of fear in his eye.

Did I cause that? I wondered. Is he actually afraid of me?

It didn’t make any sense. His magic was ten times greater than mine. But at this moment, I didn’t care about numbers and common sense. I’d just had sex with the man I sort of loved. I didn’t have time for the Other Piper. I wanted him gone and done with, him and his stupid letters and annoying pranks and his infuriating loyalty to a master who didn’t deserve it. I took out my pipe, watching as he did the same.

Henry called my name in a strangled voice, but I blew a series of notes on the pipe and felt my own invisible force rise from my body. It collected itself into a thin whip and lashed out towards the Other Piper. Synchronized, his unwound towards me. Our magic met in the space between us, as oppressive as thunder. I felt the heat prickle my skin as I played another series of notes and pushed my magic as hard as I could, hoping that it would cooperate with me this time, hoping that my training was worth something after all.

You are Piper. You are the Piper. You were the first. You are the only one that deserves the title.

And maybe the evil sorcerer had been right that one time, because I felt the faltering note in the Other Piper’s song, so I broke through it with a series of fluttering trills, as fast and as high as I could make them. There was a rolling sound like rain about to pour. I blew until my cheeks hurt, and thought of Henry.

Pop!

The Other Piper disappeared and in his place was an octopus.

“How nice,” I said, lowering my pipe and swaying on my feet, exhausted. “Now Leroy will have a friend.”

:::

Two days later, I watched Snow White marry that man that she loved, and I clapped and hooted as loudly as anyone else at the party. We were all smiling, and I marveled how lucky we were that Snow White’s court was the type to handle an orgy and not be embarrassed about it. I couldn’t say that about most courts on the continent, and I didn’t want to think we’d traveled all this way for a wedding that wasn’t going to happen.

When Snow White unwrapped the harp at the reception, she actually gasped and put her hands to her mouth. “It’s amazing,” she said, looking at Henry and me. “Thank you so much.” I smiled some more, preening in the admiration of the rest of the court, especially as Henry pointed at me and made it very clear that I was the creator and that I would be open for commissions. Always nice to get a little recognition for one’s work.

As Snow White moved onto the less interesting gifts, Henry took my hand and led me into the garden down the steps. My ankle was twisted but he waited for me as I worked the steps slowly, holding onto him for stability. We passed Theodore on the way, and he waved his very human hand. Don’t tell me you’re surprised. If you can’t get kissed at an orgy, then you’ve got no hope. I waved back and blew him a kiss of goodwill as Henry led me under a canopied tree where he said, “Um, I think we should talk about the… you know.”

“The hard and furious fucking?” I supplied.

He winced. “Must you always do that?”

“I enjoy making you work for it,” I said, because I did. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, making Henry work for it would be number two on that list, right after making Henry come. “Look,” I said, because I figured that at this point he knew my song and there was nothing I could do about it except play. “You broke my heart, okay. When you said ‘see you around’ and you never came to visit me, I cried. For real.”

“B-but that’s what I thought you wanted!” Henry said. “Er, not to cry. But you said ‘see you around’ too!”

“I had your come still splattered across my thighs!” I said. Several heads at the party turned towards us, but my glare sent them hurriedly back to their business. Being known as the sorcerer who defeated another sorcerer had its perks. “Yes, I said ‘see you around’ but only because you said it first, and in any case it was a please-please-let’s-do-this-again ‘see you around’! You dolt!”

“How was I supposed to know that?” Henry said. He pulled me to him and started smiling, a bit tentatively. I smiled back and put my hands around his neck where my nails rested against his soft hair. “I mean it, Piper. How was I supposed to know that?”

“Well, now you do,” I said. “So no excuses.”

“None,” he agreed, and I stood on my toes to kiss him. The wedding fireworks went off behind us, perfect timing, and I heard the delighted peals of the guests as they watched the entertainment. No one was looking at me or Henry anymore, which suited us fine. To be honest, there were probably more important tasks for us to do than stand around kissing. My old mentor was still out there waiting for the fulfillment of his prophecy and the downfall of this court, and maybe it was my duty to defeat him. The very thought of it made me quake. But the prospect of it was just that: a prospect. Right now Henry’s mouth was warm and hopeful under mine, his hands were safe around mine, and I thought, This isn’t a happy ending, but it’s as good a beginning as we’ll get.

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4 thoughts on “No Hero Manual Included

  1. I just wanted to say that years later this has always been a story I just couldn’t help but read and reread. I want to know everything about Piper and Henry. I always wished there had been a prequel that went into detail about their original quest together and I love to imagine their future! So thank you for bringing these characters into my life and please continue writing in general because you have a real talent!

  2. in 2018 i’m making an effort to write back to creators whose creations i’ve enjoyed:
    thank you for this amazing story. it remains my all-time favourite of yours and of ssbb. i also thoroughly enjoyed ‘where you have yet to go’ and ‘UFO’ by you. seeing your name on the list of contributors for an issue always makes me excited. good luck to all your endeavours in 2018!

  3. this was the first story I ever read on this site and I picked it because it was at number one. that doesn’t always mean a story is a good one though but in this case it definitely did! Loved your characters!

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