Award-winning, bestselling writer Kristine Grayson won the RT Reviewer's Choice award for best paranormal romance for her first novel, Utterly Charming. Of course, it wasn't a first novel for the person behind the pen name, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, but it did encourage her to write many more Grayson novels. Find out all about them at kristinegrayson.com.
THE CHARMING WAY
by Kristine Grayson
The very words of the sign filled Mellie with loathing. Book Fair indeed. More like Book Unfair.
Every time someone wrote something down, they got it wrong. She’d learned that in her exceptionally long life.
Not that she was old—not by any stretch. In fact, by the standards of her people, she was in early middle age. She’d been in early middle age, it seemed, for most of her adult life. Of course that wasn’t true. She’d only been in early middle age for her life in the public eye—two very different things.
And now she was paying for it.
She stood with her hands on her hips (which hadn’t expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) and looked at the pavilion, with the banner strung across its multitude of doors.
The Largest Book Fair in the World!, the banner proclaimed in bright red letters. The largest book fair with the largest number of publishers, writers, readers and moguls—movie and gaming and every other type the entertainment industry had come up with.
It probably should be called Mogul Fair (Mogul Unfair?). But they weren’t pitching Moguls (although someone probably should; it was her experience that anyone with a shred of power [present company included] should be pitched across a room [or down a staircase] every now and then); they were pitching books.
This season’s books, next season’s books, books for every race, creed, and constituency, large books, small books and the all-important evergreen books which were not, as she once believed, books about evergreens, but books that never went out of style, like Little Women or anything by Jane Austen or, dammit, that villain Hans Christian Anderson.
Not that he started it all. He didn’t. It was those Grimm brothers, two better named individuals she had never met.
It didn’t matter that Mellie had set them straight. By then, their “tales” were already on the market, poisoning the well, so to speak. (Or the apple. Those boys did love their poisons. It would have been so much better for all concerned if they had turned their attention to crime fiction. They could have invented the entire category. But noooo. They had to focus on what they called “fairies” as misnamed as their little “tales.”) She made herself breathe. Even alone with her own thoughts, she couldn’t help going on a bit of a rant about those creepy little men.
She made herself turn away from the pavilion and walk to the back of her minivan. With the push of a button, the hatchback unlocked (now that was magic) and she pulled the thing open.
Fifty signs and placards leaned haphazardly against each other. Last time, she’d only needed twenty. She hoped she would use all fifty this time.
She glanced at her watch. One hour until the Book Unfair opened.
Half an hour until her group showed up.
Mellie turned her attention to the pavilion again. Impossible to tell where she’d get the most media exposure. Certainly not at those doors, with the handicapped ramp blocking access along one side.
Once someone else arrived to help her hand out the placards, she could leave for a few minutes and reconnoiter.
She wanted the maximum amount of airtime for the minimum amount of exposure. She’d learned long ago that if you gave the media too much time in the beginning, they’d distort everything you said.
Better to parcel out information bit by bit.
The Book Unfair was only her first salvo.
But, she knew, it would be the most important.
He parked his silver Mercedes at the far end of the massive parking lot. He did it not so that he wouldn’t be recognized—he wouldn’t anyway—but because he’d learned long ago that if he parked his Mercedes anywhere near the front, the car would either end up with door dings, key scratches, or would go missing.
He reached into the glove box and removed his prized purple bookseller’s badge. He had worked two years to acquire that thing. Not that he minded. It still amazed him that no one at the palace had thought of opening a bookstore on the grounds.
He could still hear his father’s initial objection: We are not shopkeepers! he’d said in that tone that meant shopkeepers were lower than scullery maids. In fact, shopkeepers had become his father’s favorite epithet in the past few decades, scullery maid being both politically and familially incorrect.
It took some convincing—the resident scholars had to prove to his father’s satisfaction that true shopkeepers made a living at what they did, and in no way would a bookstore on the palace grounds provide anyone’s living—but the bookstore finally happened.
With it came a myriad of book catalogues and discounts and advanced reading copies and a little bit of bookish swag.
He’d been in heaven. Particularly when he realized he could attend every single book fair in the Greater World and get free books.
Not that he couldn’t pay for his own books—he could, as well as books for each person in the entire kingdom (which he did last year, to much complaint: it seemed everyone thought they would be tested on the contents of said gift book. Not everyone loved reading as much as he did, more’s the pity).
Books had been his retreat since boyhood. He loved hiding in imaginary worlds. Back then, books were harder to come by, often hidden in monasteries (and going to those had caused some consternation for his parents until they realized he was reading, not practicing for his future profession). Once the printing press caught on, he bought his own books—he now devoted the entire winter palace to his collection—but it still wasn’t enough.
If he could, he would read every single book ever written—or at least scan them, trying to get a sense of them. Even with the unusually long life granted to people of the Third Kingdom—especially when compared with people in the Greater World (the world that had provided his Mercedes and this quite exciting book fair)—he would never achieve it. There were simply too many existing books in too many languages, with too many more being written all the time.
He felt overwhelmed when he thought of all the books he hadn’t read, all the books he wanted to read, and all the books he would want to read. Not to mention all the books that he hadn’t heard of.
Those dismayed him the most.
Hence, the book fair.
He was told to come early. There was a breakfast for booksellers—coffee and donuts, the website said, free of charge. He loved this idea of free as an enticement. He wondered if he could use it for anything back home.
The morning was clear with the promise of great heat. A smog bank had started to form over the city, and he couldn’t see the ocean, although the brochures assured him it was somewhere nearby. The parking lot looked like a city all by itself. It went on for blocks, delineated only by signs that labeled the rows with double letters.
The only other car in this part of the lot wasn’t a car at all but one of those minivans built so that families could take their possessions and their entertainment systems with them.
The attractive black-haired woman unloading a passel of signs from the van looked familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen her before.
He wasn’t about to go ask her either. His divorce had left him feeling very insecure, especially around women. Whenever he saw a pretty woman, the words of his ex-wife rose in his head.
She had screamed them at him in that very last fight, the horrible unforgettable fight when she took the glass slipper—the thing that defined all that was good and pure in their relationship—and heaved it against the wall above his head.
Not so charming now, are you, asshole? Nope, not charming at all.
He had to concede she had a point—although he never would have conceded it to her. Still, those formerly dulcet tones echoed in his brain whenever he looked in the mirror and saw not the square-jawed hero who saved her from a life of poverty, but a balding, paunchy middle-aged man who would never achieve his full potential—not without killing his father, and that was a different story entirely.
Charming squared his shoulders and pinned his precious name badge to his shirt. The name badge did not use his real name. It used his nom de plum—which sounded a lot more romantic than The Name He Used Because His Real Name Was Stupid.
He called himself Dave. Dave Encanto, for those who required last names. His family didn’t even have a last name—that’s how long they’d been around—and even though he knew Prince was now considered a last name, he couldn’t bring himself to use it.
He couldn’t bring himself to use any name, really. He still thought of himself as Charming even though he knew his ex was right—he wasn’t “charming” any more. Not that he didn’t try. It was just that charming used to come easily to him, when he had a head full of black black hair, and an unwrinkled face, and the squarest of square jaws.
Prince Charming was a young man’s name, in truth, and then only the name of an arrogant young man. To use that name now would seem like wish fulfillment or a really bad joke. He couldn’t go with P.C. because the initials had been usurped, and people would catch the double irony of a prince trying to be p.c. with his own name change.
And as for Prince—that name was overused. In addition to the musician, princes abounded. People named their horses Prince, for heaven’s sake, and their dogs, and their surrogate children. In other words, only the nutty named a human being Prince these days, and much as Charming resented his father, he couldn’t put either of his parents in the nutty category.
So he told people to call him Dave, which was emphatically not a family name. Too many family names had been co-opted as well—Edward, George, Louis, Philippe, even Harry not just by another prince, but by some potter’s kid as well.
Dave, not David, a man who could go anywhere incognito any time he liked. Gone were the days when people would do a double-take, and some would say, Aren’t you…? or You know you look just like that prince—whatsisname?—Charming.
Now they nodded and looked past him, hoping to see someone more important. Which was why he preferred the Greater World to the Third Kingdom. In the Greater World, they knew he wasn’t the Prince Charming. To them, the Prince Charming was a man in a fairy tale, a creature of unattainable perfection, or—more accurately (he believed) a cartoon character, an animated hero.
He was none of those things. True, he had a longer than usual life, but that caused longer than usual problems—like waiting for his father, who also had a longer than usual life, to kick the proverbial bucket (which in the Third Kingdom, wasn’t as proverbial as you might think).
But as for magical powers, Charming had none. Besides that all-encompassing charm, which Ella had told him in no uncertain terms was gone now. Ella, who got his estates, half of his money, and custody of their two daughters because—true to form—his father wouldn’t let him contest the divorce over girls.
He sighed and started across the monstrous parking lot. Several other cars were pouring into the first entrance, way up front, near the doors. The parking there, he knew from the e-mails he had gotten, was reserved for booksellers and the disabled—or the differently abled, as he had been bidden to say. The e-mails claimed he would need the close-in parking for the hundreds of pounds of books he would lug back to his car at regular intervals. But he had lugged chain mail and two injured companions over a hundred miles. He figured he could handle a few books.
The attractive woman had pulled out the last sign. He saw the initials—PETA—and felt a surge of disappointment. He’d seen what those animal rights lovers had done to his mother’s favorite fur coat the one and only time he had taken her to the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan. His mother had been horribly traumatized, although not so badly that she didn’t implore him to bring the entire cast of the Met to the Third Kingdom at the end of every opera season.
He walked around the woman, and headed toward the pavilion, ready for coffee, donuts, and some insight into this season’s bestsellers.
Mellie watched the well dressed man walk the length of the parking lot. He wore what was known as business casual—a long-sleeved shirt and dark pants (no suit coat, no tie) but he still looked elegant. Some of that was the clothing itself; there was nothing casual about it. It was tailored to fit—and fit it did, over a well-muscled back, broad shoulders, and a nice tight—
She shook her head and looked away. If she really thought about it, she had to acknowledge that men were the source of her troubles. From her know-it-all first husband who had left her a young widow with two extremely young daughters to her beloved second husband who stupidly introduced her as a fait accompli to his own daughter, starting a resentment that continued to this day, men had been the root cause of her dilemmas from the moment she hit the public eye.
Of course, she had handled things badly. She always thought that any publicity was good publicity. Little did she realize that once someone had defined you to the media, then it didn’t matter how many charities you gave to or how many advanced degrees you had, you would always be the evil stepmother, the wicked witch, or worse, the aging malignant crone.
At least she had avoided that last category—for now, anyway. She felt it hovering around her, like the flying monkeys from the stupid Hollywood version of the Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West. Now that was a misunderstood woman.
She turned. The man behind her was exceptionally attractive. He also left a trail of wet footprints heading west. He was a selkie whose real name she did not (of course) know. He carried his pelt over his right arm and this time he wore human clothing.
He had actually stopped their first protest earlier this year by pulling off his pelt and having nothing suitable on underneath it. (Although she could see why the human storytellers had felt threatened by these creatures from the sea; not only were they preternaturally good-looking, they were also very well endowed.)
“As people show up, will you hand out signs?” she asked. “I need to figure out where we’ll stage our protest.”
She shoved the last pile of signs at him, not giving him a chance to say anything, and then she hurried along the parking lot.
Midway there, she realized she was trying to catch that ever-so-elegant man and she slowed her steps.
She had sworn off men decades ago.
She wasn’t about to let one distract her now.
The coffee was bitter and only the inedible coconut-covered donuts were left. He should have arrived earlier. Still he poured himself a cup, grabbed one of the few remaining paper plates, and found a maple bar crammed against the back of the donut box. Then he settled into a chair at the back of the room.
The panel was already talking about social media and whether or not it meant the death of the book, a topic that always broke his heart. He understood the importance of stories—he’d been raised on stories. Bards had come to his father’s court before Charming could even read. But the best stories were the ones he accessed privately—and a screen never really felt private to him.
Still, he listened politely, getting more and more discouraged, until he finished his maple bar and fled the room.
The doors to the main exhibition hall were locked, with guards standing out front. The guards didn’t look that formidable—two fat security guards in uniform, and several bookish types with their arms crossed, trying to look tough.
He sighed and decided to explore. He knew from his convention packet that there were side rooms, meeting rooms, conference rooms, and the all-important media room where the famous people, from the writers to the politicians/actors/musicians who loaned their names to books, gave interviews about whatever seemed important at the time.
The hallways were unbelievably wide so that they could accommodate crowds and wheelchairs, and yet he was the only person in them, except for the occasional publishing house salesman scrambling to put the finishing touches on a booth. From a distance, he caught the scent of cafeteria food, and remembered that they would all be able to buy lunch here if they were so inclined.
He was inclined, especially after that maple bar. There were no restaurants close, and he didn’t want to lose his parking space.
The media wasn’t a room; it was an entire wing, with smaller rooms designated as green rooms, and larger rooms with actual mini studios, all set up to record certain kinds of programming. Surprisingly, these rooms were unlocked, but they were filled with young attractive people who all looked important and busy.
He peered in one, only to feel someone against his back.
He turned. The attractive woman from the parking lot stood there. She was tall and thin and exceedingly familiar. Her eyes were filled with intelligence, accented by her very good bone structure. This was a woman who had been a pretty young girl and had become striking in middle age. She would be lovely even into old age, so long as she didn’t let that mouth of hers remain twisted like that.
“Charming, right?” she said. “The question is which one?”
He leaned against the door jam, feeling startled. Not just that she had recognized him, but that she knew there was more than one Prince Charming.
Which meant she wasn’t a native of the Greater World. She came from one of the Kingdoms. But again, the question was which one.
“My name is Dave,” he said as dismissively as he could.
“Yeah, I see that.” She grabbed his prized purple badge, looked at it, and then dropped it against his shirt. “Dave Encanto. You’re not fooling anyone, ‘Dave.’ Why are you here? To shut me down?”
He frowned at her. Clearly they’d met but he couldn’t remember when and he certainly didn’t understand her comment. He didn’t have the power to shut down anyone. Not in the Greater World, anyway.
“Listen,” he said, “I know everyone has a right to their opinion, but I do think tossing paint on little old ladies going into the opera takes things a bit too far. When I said I would shut you all down, it was only because I was angry, and it was, after all, my mother’s fur coat that you ruined—”
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” the woman said.
“No-oo,” he said. “Just that you’re with that animal rights group.”
“Clearly we need a new acronym,” she said more to herself than to him. Then she sighed. “P. E. T. A. which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Archetypes, not animals. We had the acronym long before those animal people stole it from us. They were just better at getting press coverage. Like everyone else on the planet, including you, ‘Dave.’ You know everyone wants to find their Prince Charming. Everyone—women, gay guys. Even real men, they want what Prince Charming has. You don’t need a publicist. You just need to bask in your princely charmingness.”
He studied her, too stunned to say much. He was always stunned in the face of bitterness, although these days he was beginning to understand it. Bitterness and the feeling that no one else knew exactly what you were going through.
He could have given her his litany—the paunch that wouldn’t go away no matter how much he exercised, the increasing irrelevance, the fact that he hadn’t seen his girls in nearly a year—but he didn’t. Instead, he frowned.
“You’re not one of the fairy godmothers,” he said. “They were always unbelievably happy for no apparent reason. Disney got that right at least. Bippity Boppity Boo and all that.”
She tilted her head at him, obviously intrigued.
“You can’t be one of the old crones either, because they do look like the witches in MacBeth—Shakespeare had clearly been to one of the Kingdoms, maybe more than once.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“And you’re beautiful, more beautiful now than you probably ever were as a girl.” He wasn’t coming on to her; it just wasn’t in his nature. He was stating a fact. “So you’re probably one of the stepmothers. I would guess Snow White’s. Which means we met at a party, gosh, a century or two ago, when someone decided we should clear up the Charming mess and the stepmothers gossip and see if we could take care of those Brothers Grimm.”
“I thought,” she said. “It wasn’t someone. It was me. I hosted that party.”
He nodded, remembering now. It was one of the first large scale events ever held in the Greater World. There had been too many arguments about which kingdom would host so someone—this woman maybe?—decided to rent a castle in Germany of all places, that white one with the towers along the Rhine that Disney later used in one of its films—for the three-day catered affair.
Nothing had gotten settled, and in fact, he could point to the entire event as the beginning of the end of his marriage. Ella met the wives of the other Charmings, and they started talking about their marriages, and things got said. The other Charmings apparently treated their wives like princesses. Not that he hadn’t. But he also expected her to think for herself, and do something other than spend the King’s gold.
He’d said that more than once, and he’d made the mistake of saying it in front of his father, who then harped on it forever. Apparently—at least according to Charming’s ex-wife, the other Charmings never said anything bad about their wives.
Charming thought that was just one-upsmanship. People—charming or not—said things they regretted. Maybe the other wives just hadn’t been as sensitive to slights as Ella had been. Either way, Ella had been dissatisfied with the relationship ever since.
Charming looked at the attractive woman, who continued to stare at him. She really was beautiful. He remembered noticing that in Germany all those years ago. He had noticed and thought she had gotten a bad rep, considering everything. All she and the other stepmothers wanted was a little respect.
“You never answered me,” he said. “Are you Snow White’s stepmother?”
“Are you Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Charming?” she asked, apparently not willing to show him hers until he showed her his. But in asking the question, he got his answer. She was Snow White’s stepmother.
“I married Ella,” he said. “The fairy tales still call her CinderElla, which really isn’t fair. She never was covered in dirt, not even when I first met her.”
“Thin and shapely and beautiful and oh, so, young.” That bitterness again. “Why is it that men like you always go for women like her?”
“I was a boy,” he said. “And she was a girl, not a woman. We weren’t really old enough to commit to anything.”
The woman let out a small “huh” of surprise. “So all three Charmings have divorced now.”
That news made him grunt with surprise. He hadn’t known that. He thought the other Charmings lived in perpetual wedded bliss. Happily ever after and all that.
The woman didn’t seem to notice his surprise. She was saying, “Isn’t that just the way of things? I suppose you blame the women’s movement as well?”
The other Princes Charming had blamed the Greater World’s women’s movement? Seriously?
He knew where the fault in his marriage was, and it wasn’t with some amorphous movement in another world.
“Ella and I weren’t compatible from the beginning,” he said. “She’s very into the social whirl, the dresses, the dancing, and me, well…”
He grabbed his badge. He was going to shake it ruefully. Instead, his fingers closed protectively around it.
“I’m bookish,” he said. “Quiet. A bit of—what do they call it here in the Greater World?—a nerd.”
“A nerd,” the woman repeated, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.
“And,” he said, mostly to cover the blush he could feel warming his cheeks, “I’m certain my father didn’t help any. He wanted sons, and he blamed Ella when we didn’t have any. There was no explaining genetics to him. X and Y chromosomes are beyond him. He’d been urging me to throw her off after our first daughter was born. But then, he also wanted me to use the old-fashioned King Henry the Eighth method.”
“Divorce,” the woman said.
“No,” Charming said, trying to be circumspect. He was conscious of the fact that the number of people around them was beginning to grow. “Henry’s other method of disposing of his wives.”
“Oh, my,” she said. “He really is the tyrant, isn’t he?”
Charming nodded, a bit uncomfortably. He tried not to look at his father’s deeds—or misdeeds. Not that they were illegal. Whatever the King did was legal; that was the law of the land. But he didn’t have to like it.
“I prefer it here,” he said. “In the Greater World.”
With books, books and more books being created all the time. Not to mention movies and television and games. He was even beginning to like Twitter novels, even though that panel this morning had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. He didn’t want the book to die. He wanted it to live, in its lovely hand-held form, for the rest of his (exceptionally long) life.
“Of course you prefer it here,” she said. “The Greater World loves you. You’re an ideal. Everyone wants to be you or have you or marry you. You’re not considered a bitter, witchy woman past her sell-by-date who’s jealous of younger women and can’t come to terms with her lost potential.”
Well, they had the bitterness spot on, he thought, but didn’t say. Still, he really didn’t care about charming her. She had made up her mind about him on very little evidence—mostly on what other people thought—so he knew better than to try to change her mind.
Although, he couldn’t prevent himself from saying, “Aren’t you jealous, though? I mean, really?”
Her eyes widened. Had no one spoken to her like this before?
“Look,” he said, holding out his hands. “You’re the one who made the comment about me marrying a girl who was ‘thin, shapely, and oh so young.’ That’s sounds a little bitter and jealous to me.”
“Of course it would to you,” she snapped. “I suppose you think I tried to kill Snow White, like the fairy tales say.”
“No, I don’t,” he said. If she had tried, she would have been imprisoned when Snow White married the other Charming. Imprisoned or beheaded.
“People like you believe in the fairy tales. Why shouldn’t you? You live one.” Her tone got even more strident.
He sighed. He didn’t think divorce was part of the fairy tale, but he couldn’t get a word in. She hadn’t stopped talking.
“People like you don’t understand people like me. You have everything in life, and you don’t understand people who have to fight for every scrap—”
“You’re right,” he said flatly.
She stopped, as if she was surprised at his words. Apparently, she didn’t expect him to admit anything.
But he wasn’t going to say what he really thought. He hated it when conversations veered in this direction. He was in a damned if he did and damned if he didn’t situation. If he said he understood, he’d have to prove it, with life experience that she might or might not believe. And if he said he didn’t understand, then she’d try to convince him. So he gave her his standard answer.
“I don’t understand people who like to fight,” he said. “I never have. So have a good book fair, and I’ll see you around.”
He slipped past her into the hallway, feeling unsettled and somewhat disappointed. He had liked her at first, anyway, and it wasn’t often that he found a woman attractive any more. Most women his age had given up or had snared the right man and weren’t interested in meeting anyone new.
Technically, he should marry a younger woman and give his father the heir that his father was clamoring for, but he’d already married a young woman, and that hadn’t gotten him anywhere. And besides, he had children. Two lovely, intelligent daughters whom he didn’t see enough.
And who was to say that a girl couldn’t inherit? If his father died before Charming did, he’d make a decree that his daughters could take over.
It was the least he could do.
The doors to the main exhibition hall were opening as he walked past, and his heart took a small leap. He was still unsettled—he really hadn’t expected to find someone from the kingdoms here—but he was getting past that. And considering how big this place was, he probably wouldn’t see her again.
Which bothered him a little bit more than he was willing to admit.
Okay, so she had been unfair. She launched into her rant without thinking about who she was talking to.
Not that she could convince a Charming that Archetypes needed protecting. His archetype—handsome, heroic, perfect—was desirable.
Still, she leaned against the door to the main media screening room, hoping her heart would stop pounding. She hadn’t meant to yell at him. She’d learned over the years that no one responded well to the whole “you don’t understand” thing, even if they didn’t understand.
But she had years—no, decades—of unfairness trapped inside her, and it wanted to flood out. And she wasn’t about to go into therapy. That would just be buying into another version of the stereotype.
It took her a moment to gather herself. She always said things she regretted later. No amount of living or practical experience could change that about her.
And she did regret yelling at him.
Maybe if she saw him later in the weekend, she would apologize.
But first, she had a group of protesters to organize.
This hallway was big enough, and it wasn’t roped off. It was perfect. It would give her all the media attention she needed. She might even be able to stage an interruption on one of the panels being held in the studios.
She ran her hands over her hair (still naturally black, except for a Cruella de Ville white streak that she had to color so that she wouldn’t look like her properly infamous cousin), and headed back down the hallway.
Time to gather the troops.
She had a book unfair to interrupt—
And she was going to do it with style.
He was beginning to understand the thinking behind parking close. He had already made four heavily laden trips back to the car, and it wasn’t even noon yet. The day promised to be one of the hottest of the year so far, and if he didn’t get some Gatorade, he might just perish—long life or no long life.
He carefully avoided the van, even though he saw no one around it. During one of his trips, he’d seen a motley gathering of people—some looking a little less human than others. He was pretty convinced he saw Rumplestiltskin there. The canny old dwarf had convinced most people he could spin straw into gold, but really his major skill was turning nothing into something—which wasn’t that far from Charming’s skill.
Not that Charming had ever used it.
But he wasn’t going to think about PETA. Or anyone from the kingdoms. He had enough reading material in the car to last him the entire trip plus some, and he still hadn’t gone through the first aisle in the first exhibition hall.
If he felt overwhelmed by the number of books before, he felt worse now. Booth after booth after booth, representing publisher after publisher after publisher, filled with book after book after book, all of them for this season’s list or next season’s. No one had back stock, except in the catalogue, although some of the evergreen books did have backers deeper in the pavilion—at least that was what his program said.
His program also gave him listings of panels. He could get into all of them with his lovely purple badge.
He was torn between listening to writers or picking up their wares. He wished he could do both. And in some cases, he could, since some of the panels were being filmed for—well, maybe not for posterity, but for people who hadn’t attended at all.
Even with two more days of this, he doubted he would see much of it. Not just the panels, but the books, the related materials, the third and fourth exhibition halls. He was actually despairing of getting through the entire thing, even though another book dealer, seeing his sadness, commiserated.
Don’t worry, chum, the other dealer said. I’ve been coming for twenty years, and I’ve never once left the main exhibition area.
As if that made him feel better.
For the first time in his life, he wished he had magic so that he had could explore every single one of the nooks and crannies. But even he knew that wasn’t how magic worked. He’d have to pay some horrible price for that wish, and he wasn’t willing to do it.
He’d already paid price enough when he married Ella.
He was just coming back into the hall when he saw her—that woman—Snow White’s stepmother. What was her name? He didn’t know for sure, which wasn’t that unusual. In the kingdoms, names had power, especially to the magical.
And if his memory was right (and he wasn’t sure it was), she had some magical powers.
How could anyone with magic be bitter? He wouldn’t have been. Of course, he didn’t understand how anyone with magic could be a failure either, but a bunch of them were.
More than a bunch, really. Most of them.
Still, he found her strangely compelling and just a little sad. He actually understood her rant—a little, anyway. He’d seen the way that his father and others had treated Ella’s stepmother, who hadn’t been a bad woman. She had just been desperate. Her husband had died, leaving her with a stepdaughter she hadn’t known about, a house that wasn’t paid for, and two daughters of her own.
Sure she struggled, and yes, she had been verbally abusive to Ella—by Greater World parlance. In the Third Kingdom, she had been kind. She hadn’t turned Ella out of the house. She’d fed her, clothed her (if poorly), and had given her a roof over her head, when she’d been within her legal right to abandon her.
As a wedding present to Ella, his father had imprisoned her stepmother, and Ella thought that just punishment. She’d been gleeful about it, which had disturbed Charming then even though he was besotted with her.
Now he was appalled—and a bit suspicious. He had a hunch the fact that the stepsisters got blinded at the reception by a pack of out-of-control birds had more to do with magic of the paid-for variety than the bad luck everyone had attributed it to.
He shuddered. Then he shoved the overstuffed bags in his car and headed back to the pavilion.
Halfway there, he saw one of the woman’s PETA companions, who was—unless Charming missed the guess—a flying monkey. Only he had stuffed his wings into a 1960s Sergeant Pepper’s coat and put on a hat, a fake ZZ-Top beard and sunglasses. He looked human enough, until you peered and realized that bluish fur covered not only the skin around his eyes and his forehead, but also his hands and forearms.
He carried two signs, and Charming gasped when he saw them:
Book Unfair! Destroy the Lies!
As he got closer, he could smell the scent of fresh Magic Marker. The flying monkey loped ahead of him.
“Excuse me,” Charming said. “Are you with PETA?”
He said it the way the animal rights group did—pee-tah—and the monkey’s mouth tightened into a little frown.
“I’m with P.E.T.A.,” he snapped. “People for the Ethical Treatment—”
“Of Archetypes, I know,” Charming said. “What’s this about unfair books?”
The monkey stopped. “You read these things?”
“Books?” Charming asked. “Of course. Why else would I be here?”
“You’re being brainwashed,” the monkey said. “You don’t understand the evil being perpetrated by these horrible fairy tales.”
“Fairy tales,” Charming repeated. He knew that “fairy tales” were how the Greater World absorbed the history of the kingdoms. Some of the tales were wrong, and some were not quite as wrong. They were about as accurate as the dime novels from the old Wild West, just a lot more popular.
“That’s right,” the monkey said. “They’re lies. Damn lies. And they’ve got to be stopped.”
“The fairy tales have to be stopped,” Charming repeated because he didn’t entirely understand this. “Fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years.”
“That’s hundreds of years too long,” the monkey said. “We’ve got to put an end to this madness.”
“By protesting a book fair?” Charming couldn’t keep the incredulousness out of his voice.
“We have to start somewhere,” the monkey said, and loped even faster, so that he got ahead of Charming.
Charming watched him go. He was confused. They thought they could—what? Stop the spread of fairy tales? Make fantastic literature go away?
To what end?
He needed to go back to the exhibition hall, but he found himself following the monkey instead.
Mellie ended up with fifty-one protesters, fifty-two if she counted herself.
The problem was that they were the bottom of the barrel. The selkie no one had heard of, a few flying monkeys, Rumplestiltskin (who liked to be part of any kind of political action), and Bluebeard, of all people. None of the other stepmothers, none of the witches, none of the crones. The magical fish had sent their regrets, claiming they would take part if she held the next protest on the Santa Monica Pier—as if she believed that, which she didn’t.
It seemed like every time she tried to rally the troops, the troops scattered to the wind.
Still, she decided to go through this, although she decided to shorten the protest to only a few hours for one day, instead of several hours over the life of the conference. Maybe she could get an interview—or better yet, some face time with some of the publishers and movie moguls. They would understand.
Forty-five of her protestors were already marching through the hall, shouting Death to Fairy Tales! The rest were handing out flyers explaining PETA’s position on fairy tales and why they were evil, along with the URL of the website she had started back when she first conceived of the protest idea.
So far, all the TV people had done when the marching started was shut the doors to the studios, so the sound of the protests didn’t drown out the panels. Once the flying monkey got back with the two extra signs she’d asked him to draw for her, she’d change the tone of the protest a little. She’d have the entire group yelling Book Unfair! which was bound to get someone’s attention.
The hallway seemed smaller with fifty bodies in it, even if all fifty were of varying (and often smaller) sizes. She kept peering around the corner, waiting for that damn monkey, and she heaved a sigh of relief when she finally saw him.
Although the relief turned to dread when she saw who was following the monkey. Charming. Looking…angry?
For some reason she didn’t think any of the Charmings got angry.
The monkey stopped when he saw her and handed her one of the signs. He started to go into an explanation of his lack of artistry—he really couldn’t do proper calligraphy with Magic Markers—but she didn’t care.
Instead, she stepped past him and right in front of Charming.
“You want to ban books?” he said, his voice strained. “Are you kidding me?”
“Not ban them, exactly,” she said, hoping she sounded calm. “Just reduce the lies a bit.”
“You think fairy tales are lies?” he said.
“Well, you clearly don’t because—”
“Oh,” he snapped, “don’t start that ‘people like you’ crap again. People like me know that happily ever after is a crock. I’m divorced, remember?”
She bit her lower lip. She really hadn’t put that together.
“You know what your problem is?” he said, his voice getting louder. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
His arrogance took her breath away. “Lucky?”
“Lucky,” he said. “You’re beautiful, you’re smart, you’re successful enough to travel the Greater World, for heaven’s sake, and all you care about is what people think of you.”
“I do not,” she said.
“You do too.” He swept an arm toward the protestors. “Are you really an Archetype? Nowadays? Maybe a century ago, when women didn’t have as many opportunities. And maybe when you couldn’t choose your own identity. But who in this world knows who you are unless you point it out to them? And when you do, they think you’re crazy.”
“You don’t know—”
“I do know!” He was yelling now. “Of course I know. Do you know what some officious little American government prick did when I told him my real name after I passed my driving test? Do you?”
She swallowed. “No.”
“He laughed.” Charming lowered his voice. “He laughed and said my parents ought to be shot.”
She smiled. She couldn’t help herself. She could picture that. She, at least, didn’t have to go around introducing herself as the Evil Stepmother because that wasn’t her real name. Never had been.
“Go ahead,” he said, with some heat. “Laugh. But it’s not fun. I actually prefer Dave. No one laughs when I say my name is Dave.”
“Hey!” A door opened near Mellie. A man peered out. “Can you people pipe down? We’re taping in here.”
The nearest flying monkey—whose name she always forgot—raised his sign and waved it in the man’s face. “This book fair is unfair!” the monkey said. “It’s—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the man said. “Someone is always publishing something someone else objects to. Whoopee ding dong do.”
Then he slammed the door closed.
Mellie stared at it for a moment. Her heart sank. All this planning, to be dismissed with a single whoopee ding dong do.
The protestors had stopped marching and shouting.
“What do you want us to do, Mellie?” the selkie asked.
She didn’t know. She had no idea any more.
So she shrugged. “Take a lunch break.”
They set their signs down and bolted out of the hallway. She wondered if she’d ever see them again.
She didn’t want to look at Charming. He would be laughing. He would gloat. Or he would be gone already.
But she couldn’t help herself.
He had an expression of compassion on his face. “It really bothers you what they think, doesn’t it?” he said softly.
Her lower lip trembled, and she bit it. Hard. Evil stepmothers weren’t supposed to cry. Nor were they supposed to care about the opinion of a Charming.
But here she was, on the verge of tears, in front of a Charming who actually appealed to her.
“Back when I was thin and shapely and beautiful and oh, so young, I didn’t care,” she said. “But then more thin and shapely and beautiful and oh, so young things showed up and I stopped being important, and I would say something a little sarcastic, and I suddenly got called old and bitter and jealous, and it just went downhill, no matter what I did. Words hurt, Charming. Words hurt.”
He nodded. “So you thought you could control the words.”
“Isn’t that what you do with that golden voice of yours and that marvelously soothing manner? Don’t you control the words?”
He gave her a rueful smile. “If I did, don’t you think I would have ended up with custody of my daughters?”
Mellie looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. He was very handsome. Elegant, not quite as trim as he could be, and just a hint of a bald spot that he might not even know about. A few lines around the eyes.
Not as young as he used to be either.
Only no one called him old and bitter and jealous.
But he had called himself a nerd.
“What are you doing here in the Greater World?” she asked.
“Me?” his voice squeaked just a little. “Getting books. I told you. I read a lot.”
She picked up his badge. It was purple, not for royalty, like she’d initially thought, but for booksellers. “You got an illegal badge?”
“No,” he said. “I sell books back home.”
“You’re a merchant?” She couldn’t quite keep the incredulousness from her tone.
He straightened his shoulders as if by making himself taller he would become more powerful. “It’s an honorable profession.”
He was being defensive. That surprised her. “I just thought being prince was profession enough.”
“Maybe in the Greater World,” he said. “Here princes have to give speeches and do good works and have meetings with other princes. Back home, all I do is wait for my father to die.”
He flushed a dark red.
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he said.
“I know what you mean,” she said. “You like it better here.”
He waved his badge at her. “People don’t have any expectations of Dave the Bookseller. Except one.”
“What’s that?” she asked, actually curious.
“They expect him to know a lot about books.”
And as he said that, he suddenly knew how to solve her problem. He held out his hand.
“Come with me,” he said.
She frowned at him, then she looked down at his hand as if she expected him to be holding a dagger. “Why?”
“Because you’re going about this wrong,” he said.
“Going about what wrong?” she asked.
“Getting them to think better of you,” he said.
“They need to know that we’re not evil. We’re just people, doing the best we could with a bad hand—”
“I know,” he said. “I know what the perception is, and I know how wrong it is. But you can’t change it by telling people they’re wrong. That whole ‘people like you’ thing—”
“I’m sorry I said that,” she said. “It’s rude.”
“So are these placards,” he said. “They insult book people.”
“They do?” she asked.
“But I know another way to convince them,” he said.
“A Charming way?” she asked.
“Exactly,” he said, and grabbed her hand. “Come on.”
He dragged her to the exhibition hall. She had only walked past it; she hadn’t looked inside. But she did now.
It was bigger than any castle audience hall she had ever seen, and it was crammed full of booths and books and people. More people than she could ever imagine.
One of the security guards looked for her badge, but somehow Charming got her past him. Something about an assistant. She didn’t listen closely. She was too awed by the size of this hall.
She had no idea how many books there were.
“What do you think of vampires?” Charming asked as they hurried down an aisle.
It was such a non sequetor that she actually stopped. “Vampires?” she said.
“Or werewolves,” he said. “Or zombies.”
She shrugged. “Zombies don’t exist,” she said.
“Okay, then. Vampires. Werewolves. Creatures of the night. You think they’re misunderstood?”
“I think they’re scary,” she said. “The handful I’ve met anyway. Predators. Real predators who think of us as prey.”
“Yet they’re half human, right?”
“Werewolves are,” she said. “Technically vampires used to be human, and they have some vestiges—”
“So that’s a yes,” Charming said. “They care about their reputation too. About the time we started dealing with those Grimm people, they had to deal with someone named Stoker. He let the Great World know about them—”
“So?” she said.
“And the Greater World heard how evil they are,” Charming said.
“And you think that’s bad?” she asked. She didn’t think so. Vampires scared her more than werewolves who were, at least, predictable.
“What I think is irrelevant,” Charming said. “But what the Greater World thinks, now that matters.”
He swept his arm toward a wall of books.
“Behold,” he said.
She looked at what he was pointing at. Book after book after book about vampires. Not about how evil they were or how dangerous. But how sexy they were. There was even a movie magazine dedicated to the rise of the sexy vampire, and movie posters with the vampires looking longingly at young women—not like they were going to eat the women, but like they were in love with them.
“You’re kidding, right?” she said.
“No,” Charming said. “Vampires are all the rage now. Teenagers dress up like them. Prince Charming is passé. Now they all want to fall in love with Edward.”
“Edward?” she asked.
“Long story,” he said. “Suffice to say that the vampires used to be as angry about their own image as you are.”
“So what did they do?” she asked.
“They started writing.”
She blinked at him. Writing? Seriously?
He must have seen her shock, because he said, “You can’t defeat the power of the book. But you can make it work for you.”
“You think I should write about being an evil stepmother?”
“Why not? It worked for the Wicked Witch of the West.” He grabbed a book off the shelf with a green witch on the cover. “She’s got her own sympathetic Broadway play now and it’s going to be a movie or so I hear, and she has her own soundtrack, not that horrible thing from the Wizard of Oz, and—”
“Me?” she said. “Write?”
“If you can’t,” he said, “I’m sure there are a lot of writers here who’ll write the book for you.”
“They’d do that?” she asked.
“For the right amount of money,” he said.
“You’re playing some kind of joke on me, right?’
“No,” he said. “Ask anyone.”
So she did. She started walking down the hall, asking people about vampires. She got a lot of opinions. Older people thought they were evil, but the younger ones talked about how sexy they were, and some even tried to shove vampire novels in her hands.
After a while, Charming showed up beside her with cloth bags covered in logos. As people shoved books at her, he took them and put them in the bags.
“Study materials,” he said to her very softly.
“They give this stuff away?” she asked.
“Only to people they consider influential,” he said. “Like me.”
“So they know you’re a Charming?” she asked.
He waved the badge at her. “I’m a bookseller. We’re more important than any prince.”
She tilted her head at him. “I really don’t understand this place.”
“I know,” he said. “Why don’t you let me show it to you?”
He slung the book bags over his shoulder and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. Together they walked through the exhibition hall. She saw vampires, vampires, and more vampires, followed by werewolves and even a few zombies as romantic leads, no matter how fictitious they were.
And she saw people talking about books and arguing about them. Occasionally Charming would join them. He didn’t seem like a prince. More like a really nice man.
A man who didn’t believe in happily ever after.
But then again, neither did she.
Although she did like learning a thing or two.
And he had a lot to teach her about the Greater World. And books. And transforming wicked stepmothers into romantic heroines.
Women who deserved their own princes charming, even if those princes were a little older, a little balder, and a whole lot nerdier than expected.
Copyright © 2010 by Kristine Grayson.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.