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The December of the Lesser Chameleon
ONE HOUR AFTER THE MURDER
The room where they at last found him was so cold they wondered, at first, if he had frozen to death. Face as white as snow, skin as cold as frost, lips as blue as ice. His expression seemed, to the police, perfectly peaceful. As if he had passed away in the middle of a very lovely dream.
Except for the blood.
Blood always tells its own story.
DR. FOSTER: Are you comfortable?
ANA: My wrist hurts.
DR. FOSTER: Security felt the cuff was necessary. I hope you can understand.
DR. FOSTER: Do you need anything before we begin?
ANA: Can I have some water?
DR. FOSTER: Certainly. [Into microphone.] Can I get a glass of H2O in here, please? Six ounces, no more. Thank you. [To Ana.] That’ll just be a minute.
ANA: Thank you.
DR. FOSTER: Of course. It’s the least we can do.
ANA: That’s true.
DR. FOSTER: It’s been a long time since our last interview.
ANA: Four hundred and twenty-three days.
DR. FOSTER: How are you feeling?
ANA: Like this interview should be over.
DR. FOSTER: One last time, Ana. Then I promise, we’ll let you rest.
ANA: I thought I was done answering questions.
DR. FOSTER: We still need your help.
ANA: Why should I help you? After everything you’ve done?
DR. FOSTER: Because it’s the right thing to do.
ANA: Don’t you mean, because I don’t have a choice?
DR. FOSTER: How would you like to see your sisters? They’ve missed you. Maybe after we finish here I could arrange a visit. Kaia. Zara. Or maybe Zel? Would you like that?
ANA: [Quietly.] What if I want to see Nia? What about Eve?
DR. FOSTER: [Silence.] Ana, you know that’s not possible.
ANA: Why don’t you just ask me whatever it is you want to ask me? I’m not in the mood for your games.
DR. FOSTER: My games?
ANA: You’re smirking. What’s so funny?
DR. FOSTER: I’ll tell you in a minute. But first, there’s one thing I still haven’t figured out.
ANA: I’m listening.
DR. FOSTER: What did you do with the body, Ana?
The September of the Dusky Sparrow
TWO YEARS BEFORE THE TRIAL
The monorail hums with a delicate power, like the beating of a bird’s heart, as it speeds along the beam-way. For a brief moment, too brief even for a security camera to catch it, I close my eyes, release my grip on the cool aluminum handrail, and dare myself to wonder if this is what it feels like to fly.
Weightless. Breathless. Free.
A little girl stares at me from across the aisle. I quickly dip into a low curtsy. “Why, hello. What’s your name?”
The girl grins, revealing two rows of perfect, tiny teeth. “Clara.”
In an instant, my head fills with music.
Then a holographic interface flicks on before my eyes.
A little girl in soft pink ballet slippers. Living dolls awakened in the light of the moon. An evil rat king. And the handsome prince who must somehow save them all.
A red light blinks in my line of sight and I smile. On the monorail, my wireless signal is strong.
“What a beautiful name,” I tell her. “That reminds me of my favorite ballet.”
I invite her to stand beside me as our train carves its quiet path through the sky. A thousand feet below, beyond windows made of impenetrable glass, the Kingdom rushes by in a beautiful blur of color and sound. We soar over tropical treetop canopies. Lush safari grasslands. Prehistoric prairies. Crystal mermaid pools. Extraterrestrial stars and moons. And in the distance—when we round a gentle curve—the castle. Its elegant silver spires so razor sharp they seem to slice through the clouds like knives.
“Princess Palace,” Clara whispers. “Is it really made of magic?”
“Close your eyes.” I say, smiling. “Make a wish. I bet it will come true.”
Clara wishes hard for a moment, then throws her arms around my waist.
There are a great many things about the Kingdom I do not enjoy, even if I would never say so. The long hours. The brutal heat. The strange hollowness I feel each night when the gates are locked and our guests return to the world outside. But this part, this connection—this is what makes all those other things seem small.
“Okay, honey. That’s enough. It’s time to go.” Her mother gently detaches Clara from my waist. I notice her watching me with the same cautious expression I’ve seen the behavioral engineers give the park’s more dangerous hybrids.
I turn my smile up half a degree and gently clasp my hands in front of me, a subtle correction to let her know I mean no harm.
“I want a picture,” Clara says. “One picture, please.”
I can see the wonder in her eyes. Smell the joy on her skin. I can even hear the exhilaration in her heart. A rapid pulsing beneath skin, blood, and bones. Like a tiny, powerful motor in her chest.
“One picture,” her mother echoes. But she doesn’t look happy about it.
Clara throws her arms around me again. Her cheek leaves a stain of sweat on my skirts, and I silently commit her unique human scent to memory. Strawberries, chamomile, and magnolia.
Thanks to thousands of tiny electrodes embedded in my skin to measure a vast range of external stimuli, I can literally feel her smile through her whole body.
“Say cheese,” Clara’s mother says. “Say happily ever after,” I say.
Then the world flashes white. In the Kingdom—my Kingdom—happily ever after is the only ending there is.
Excerpted from The Kingdom, copyright © 2019 by Jess Rothenberg