|Art by Avant Choi|
“As Tight as Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick (4707 words)
No Spoilers: Ondrakja grew up on the street, a victim of people who wanted to use her beauty to enrich themselves, who sold her and sold her. But she grew up smart and resourceful, and she got to the point where she could buy herself, and through that she could start to build something. Not a family exactly, but also a family of sorts. A knot. One that looks out for each other. And when Ondrakja sees a young girl on the street who reminds her very much of her younger self, she steps in to try and spare the girl what happened to her. Not necessarily as a kindness, though. The piece looks at what harsh reality can do to people, how it creates these games within games, cons within cons, all sharp, all dangerous, all damaged.
Keywords: Theft, CW- Loss of a Parent, Begging, Knots, Cons
Review: I like the way this story builds up the setting, the grimness of it, the way that so many are failed, slip through the cracks, are made to live and die by their utility, their skills, and their connections. For Ondrakja, that’s something she’s gotten good at, making a knot that keeps her and hers safe, though it’s not a charity, and it’s definitely not for everyone. In many ways it’s just as brutal as anything else, full of lies and betrayals, games that are designed to bring the strands of the knot together, to make them loyal to Ondrakja, and make for a mutually profitable business for all of them. Care is a complicated thing, after all, and while Ondrakja does seem to care for those around her, it’s a hungry, damaged thing, born out of how she’s survived, how the world here operates, and how she’s adapted to get by. Which means that things aren’t always what they seem. And the line between cruelty and care is blurry. Everything is informed by the need for control, the need to protect what can be protected. It’s all twisted, and for me at least that’s just sort of what it is, a twisted story about what happens to those who aren’t safe. How that gets passed on because those people can’t really fix the system and have to find ways to try and thrive within it. Twisting what it means to care and to love, to protect and to educate. It all becomes a game of manipulation, and the stakes are life and death. The story has a great layering to it, a construction that hides all its cards until the end. And even then it’s hard to completely condemn Ondrakja for what she does, for what she brings her new charge into. Even with how much she’s holding back, lying, playing. Even with all of that, the alternative might be worse. And it’s just a complex and wrenching story that offers no clear lines, no black and whites. It revels in the gray, and it makes for a great read!
“Colombina” by Jelena Dunato (3236 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the second person by a festival mask, this story centers a woman who is being pressed into marriage with a boar of a man to settle her father’s gambling debts. This, though she is already in love with a poor young man wo is willing to fight and die for her. It’s an interesting framing and perspective, the mask lending a unique way of seeing the situation, and a sly kind of confidence that speaks to a kind of power, a kind of magic. The setting is one where a young woman doesn’t have a lot of power, or hope, against the machinations and corruptions of the men around her. But with a little help from a mask, maybe this time won’t end in tragedy.
Keywords: Debts, Family, Bargains, Balls, Masks
Review: I like the mystery of the mask, this voice that is narrating the story, delivering the tale, speaking directly to this woman, this You. Whispering to you, giving small bits of advice, asking small favors, all so that they can attempt to help, to save you from a hell you see no other way out of. Because the work does a great job of really selling that there’s not much she can do. That she’s expected to accept being sold, expected to please this man who aims to own her. Everything is being taken from her, and perhaps that’s why the mask comes to her. Perhaps it goes looking, after a fashion, for people like her, in this situation where there is no winning, no way out from the cage built around her. Not at least as the woman she must be. But the mask’s magic isn’t exactly taking over. It’s not becoming her, nor is she becoming the mask. Rather, the mask is revealing her inner self. The one it’s never safe to embody. The confident one, the bold one, the one willing to take such risks for love. The mask is able to unlock that version of her, for a night. For long enough for her to do what needs to be done. To escape. Not to abandon her family to its ill fate, but to find a way that she can do enough to fulfill whatever obligation she might have toward them but also standing up for herself and her future. And it’s a nice light touch of magic, this mask, this voice, that gives her the power to act. And I like that it’s not something that she takes with her. That the mask is part of this larger magic that can’t be kept indefinitely. It’s tied to the festival, to the magic of that night, and she lets it go once she’s had what she needs from it. It’s a fun story, one that doesn’t cave to the pressures of tragedy, that finds this woman with her dream of a happy ending, who knows how impossible it should be, but who pursues it anyway, who doesn’t give up and who manages this amazing thing with a little help. A wonderful read!