It’s ten past midnight and the moons are high and bright, washing everything in faint blue-silver. It had been mid-afternoon, and it looks like it still is where the curve of South America is distantly illuminated.

I haven’t dreamt this place in years, and this doesn’t feel like a dream. Everything’s too solid, and I’m still wearing the clothes I was when I laid down for my nap. If I knew this was where I’d end up, I’d have dressed better today. It’s always been a contingency plan that, if I knew I were going to another world, I’d dress as much as I could like local nobility. Arriving alone here instead of accompanied by a prince, it would have stood me in good stead.

Basic check: I exist, and am the same species I was before I went to sleep. I am on Gaea, I gather from the sky. I am alone, and on a gently pitched roof. Where am I in intermediate terms? The night air is humid and cool without being cold, so probably a temperate zone. There are imminent mountains in a rough semicircle around the sprawl of buildings, and the lights cut in too clean a line on the side away from the mountains. Asturia, then.

It’s been too long since I watched the series. All I remember are allusions to Venice and a great number of blonde princesses. Merchant cities, though, those I can deal with. Better here than the heart of the evil empire, since totalitarian ideology and I don’t tend to get along.

What do I have with me? No shoes, which I’ll need to correct. I do have my messenger bag, though, and that makes me grin. I emptied it recently, so not a ton of supplies, but unless something has gone terribly wrong, I have all the tools I need.

I have always wanted to fly.

To further this cause, I look for an easy way down, then check the drop from the edge of the roof. It makes me swallow hard. I swing my bag over my shoulder and strap it tight and then let myself over the edge feet-first. Once my hips are over the edge, the gap feels huge, but I let myself down until I am holding by my fingertips. I let go, because I don’t have the upper body strength to go back now. Air rushes up past me, and then everything hurts and I roll a few feet across the cobblestones.

I pick myself up and dust myself off and look around. I’d landed on a tavern. Bar or club is a too thoroughly modern way to refer to it, I confirm as I sashay into the smoky, convivial darkness. A hand grabs my ass, and I whirl elbow-first. The man I elbow in the head has disconcertingly mole-like features. “There was no need to do that!”

“I did not give you permission to touch me,” I say.

A man dripping smug and money drapes an arm around the smaller man’s shoulders. “Have you offended the lady already, Mole-man?”

His eyes are sharp on mine, but I’m not reading him as a threat. I crinkle the corners of my eyes and lift the corners of my lips. “I might have overreacted. I’m not from around here.”

“A tourist! And what brings you to our fair shores?” He lets the mole-man duck away to his beer, and I congratulate myself on finding a guide to the city. Next on my list: shoes, then secure accommodation. Then trouble.

“I’m from the Mystic Moon. This just happens to be where I landed.”

“I see. Then we should give you a warm Gaean welcome to celebrate your visit.”

He gestures to the barkeeper and moments later a waiter brings over something that smells of alcohol and honey. I’ve joined him at his table, with him as buffer between me and the mole-man. “So what do you know of the wonders of Gaea?”

“I’d love to see a guymelef in action. We don’t have them on the Mystic Moon.”

He takes my hand and kisses the knuckles. “I will see what I can do. It is likely nothing can be done until the morning, though. How can I keep you entertained until then?” He makes eyes at me over the hand he’s still clasping.

I smile crookedly at him. “It would be wonderful if you could explain the origins of the music the band is playing. Maybe show me how one dances here?”

He leads me awkwardly through a few dances. After the first few, either I pick up on the steps or I’ve had enough to drink, as they’re no longer awkward. It helps that someone sees my lack and hands me a pair of worn red dancing slippers.

I keep dancing – with other partners, once I know the steps. As the night’s drawing to the time when people are usually retiring to someone’s bed, I drift back to the gentleman who’s bought my drinks. I have nowhere to go, and novelty apparently amuses him.

“A seaside market town must have a market at dawn.”

“Of course, my lady. Mostly fishmongers and those who sell to the later tradesmen, but I would be most happy to show it to you.”

“Can we go now and walk along the waterfront?”

“Of course, my lady. I would benefit greatly from a few hours sleep, though, if you wouldn’t mind. We could then see the later market, which has many attractions other than raw fish. Have you anywhere to go?”

“No.”

There’s a pause.

“My room has a chaise. Hardly fit accommodations for a visitor from the Mystic Moon, but it has grown rather late to make appropriate arrangements.”

I nod, and find myself catnapping on a brocade-upholstered chaise longue under the light of strange stars.

When I wake, the morning sun is casting long shadows. I have no frame of reference for how early it is. I know I’m up before my companion: I always am.

I dig in my bag for my hairbrush and rebraid my hair. I could almost leave it down, but if I get into all the trouble I want, loose hair will just get in the way. I read for a bit as the sun rises higher.

Eventually, he emerges, fresh-scrubbed and clean-shaven, and looks surprised that I’m awake.

“Can we go now?” I ask.

“Yes, my lady. Let me just get a runner to take these messages out.” He ducks his head into the hall and shouts for a boy with big sad beagle eyes and a swooshing tail and hands him the messages and some coins.

We set off for the market, and the city is different in daylight: smaller and dirtier. Seagulls turn overhead. The market is interesting, and reminds me of the one outside Leeds except with more fish. As we meander the stalls, runners periodically approach my companion with missives that he reads and replies to with quick scrawls on the page.

I am aware of his eyes on me, but I’ll get what I want out of this, so it’s okay.

The Earth trinkets I see sprinkled in with Gaean merchandise are few and far between, but they’re here. A Mickey Mouse watch with a blank digital face being sold as a bracelet. A MetroPass with sixty-three cents still on it billed as a holy relic. I have him buy me coffee and something like baklava and eat it as I walk before sucking the honey off my fingers.

The sun is waxing noon when he grabs my arm. “My Lady, we’ve been invited to the Palace for luncheon and a demonstration of guymelefs. We should probably proceed there directly.”

“Sure.”

The walk to the Palace doesn’t take long once we pick up the pace from a lazy stroll. Once there, the guards usher us in without so much as an introduction. The dining room we’re escorted to is open and airy and occupied by a squat round king and what looks like a dehydrated weasel but turns out to be my companion’s father, another merchant prince.

“Ah, our visitor from the Mystic Moon! Tell me your name, child.” The King is expansive in his welcome.

I hesitate a moment. I don’t remember name magic here. “You may call me Eileen.”

“Lady Eileen, you must come sit by me and tell me all about the Mystic Moon. It’s a shame the Fanelian King had business outside the city: he’s been on a state visit after his own encounter with a girl from the Mystic Moon. They say she had magic powers of divination. Is that true of all of you?”

I sit, and a footman pushes in my chair for me. I wish vaguely for a long skirt to smooth rather than practical black pants. I smile at him, not bothering to let it reach my eyes. “I have a tarot deck with me. Would you like to judge for yourself?”

“After lunch, I would be delighted.”

The older of the merchant princes has a voice like oil. “Such a rarity! I am sure most of Gaea would be entranced to meet someone from the Mystic Moon.”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” I say, warning flags going up.

He has a smile I’d like to punch. “We must try to persuade you, then.”

The sheer volume of guards stationed around the room suddenly strikes me as menacing and claustrophobic. But overt displays of force wouldn’t do them any good: as far as they know, I’m completely in their power with or without ostentatious armed guards. It’s overkill if it’s meant to contain me, and silliness if this is standard.

Lunch is served, and we converse over our plates. The weasel only references putting me on display once more before his son sends him a sharp look. I ask them to explain Gaea’s geography just to have a concrete topic.

When lunch is over and the table cleared except for our glasses, I dig out my cards. It’s a mini pack, wrapped in a plastic bag because the box is ragged and the cards fall out. I shuffle three times before proffering the deck to the King. “Would you cut the deck, please?”

He lifts part of the deck away and I tuck it in at the bottom before laying out the Celtic Cross spread. I look up the cards in the little guide that came with the pack as I go. My memory is shoddy, and intuition rather than perfect memorization is what lets me spin the narrative.

“Let’s see – you’re in the middle of unexpected events, with new enterprises and new gains on the horizon. This leads to eventual success and financial gain, coming from a disastrous affair in the recent past and chaos and failure before. In the immediate future, though, you are going to make a very foolish choice.” I glance ahead in the reading, already suspicious of what it will hold. Oops, yeah, there’s the Queen of Swords. As if I needed confirmation.

“Greed is a motivating factor, but will be countered by a woman. The financial victory will be hollow and unsatisfying, and you’ll feel alone.”

I smooth my face before I meet the King’s eyes. He looks mildly perturbed but thoughtful. “Most interesting. Now, Dryden informs me that you are fascinated with our guymelefs, so I have put together a display for you.”

It occurs to me as we all rise and follow the King that I am as tall or taller than most of the people here, including the guards. We pass through courtyards and airy hallways to an amphitheatre with arched entryways the size of McMansions. There are chairs set up on either side of the throne, and on the opposite side Escaflowne observes the proceedings from a plinth built into the edge of the gladiatorial pit.

We seat ourselves, and two mecha that look like pirates assembled from spare parts emerge and go through a staged sort of duel. The one with a bullwhip as thick around at the widest part as my wait disarms the one with the cutlass, then turns and bows to the King. As he rises, he reaches forward and grabs me, chair and all.

I’m frozen. I can’t even scream, because this is a wholly unexpected tack. As I rise in the air, the chair falls far, far down to splinter on the sand, and I close my eyes and cling to his metal thumb. I really, really hate heights. The next few minutes are not going to be fun at all.

He turns his hand to cup me in his palm and brings me close to the faceplate and leers. “Handing you over to Myden in a cage is going to get me a bag full of gold, girlie.”

I fumble in my bag while maintaining eye contact and grab a packet of Emergen-C. They’ve got the little indents where you’re supposed to tear, so it’s easy to glare at him while I rip it open.

“I know exactly what I’m worth, and you were underpaid.” I toss the contents of the packet at his eyes and slide free of the guymelef’s hand as it convulses reflexively.

I don’t have time to climb down carefully, but I will likely break a lot of bones that I am quite attached to if I freefall from this height. I wish I’d put on my mountain biking gloves. They’d protect my hands, at least. I grab the edge of one of the plates on his arm and swing myself more towards the guymelef’s torso. I realize that I’m letting out a litany of giddy swearing only as it stops when I slam into its torso chest-first.

Someone near the King is roaring outrage, but I have no time for any of them, because there’s really not that much in a packet of Emergen-C and he’s going to grab me again in a minute. I’m still falling, but the ground is approaching way too quickly. I manage to land in an instructor-approved fall position, and no white-hot spikes of agony rear up to tell me I did it wrong.

I run windedly for Escaflowne.

It’s supposed to only respond to the blood of a Fanelian king, but fuck that noise: I’m PK. I dig in my bag for my fork with a hand that’s already shaking. There are steps up the side of the plinth where Escaflowne sits, and I take them two at a time. The pilot of the guymelef has realized where I am, and he’s coming for me. I reach Escaflowne’s thigh and run atop it to where the energy core sits dormantly red.

I take a deep breath. I look behind me. I stab myself in the base of my thumb with a questionably clean fork. Tears well in my eyes and I squeak a bit, but I jam the fork in my pocket and stick my bloody hand over the energy core. It lights gold-purple, which is probably not a good sign, but the cockpit opens.

Go me.

I slide in and put my bag in my lap and grab for the controls. The cockpit closes up with me in it, and I worry for a moment that it’ll crush me to death. But it rises as I will it and the sword swings with my arm and there is lots of shouted panic.

The bullwhip falls to the ground, severed near the hand. I don’t want to keep fighting, though. I want to disengage and go see what this thing can do.

I duck into the guymelef-sized doorway that seems to face the sea most directly. It opens to a hangar where unmanned guymelefs who have not earned pride of place sit waiting, but the far door is lit like freedom. It opens to a cliffside road, but I head straight out over the cliff.

Once in freefall, Escaflowne stretches and rearranges. Plates slide and the leg controls retract and it reshapes itself around me until I am riding the dragon out over the sea. The afternoon sun sparkles on the ocean and I am free, free, free above it.

I throw my head back and laugh, then direct my attention to steering with my abused hands.

The first hour is like the first hour sailing: hyper-awareness of the controls and nervousness that I’ll end up in the water under a great lot of machinery. From the second hour on I’m trying to remember if anyone but Fanelia and Zaibach had flying guymelefs, and contemplating how likely anyone is to have anti-aircraft guns. But I’m contemplating while driving a mostly-mechanical [i]dragon[/i], so I’m pretty okay with that.

As the sun sets, I head up towards the mountains. I want to keep watching the sunset as long as I can, and if I can gain elevation at the right pace I could maybe drag it out for hours. It’s getting chilly and the trees are thinning and I’m thinking this may be as long a sunset as I can manage when Escaflowne goes into a dead drop.

A scream boils up and I try desperately to regain control, but Escaflowne is headed straight down into trees. I brace for impact, in full awareness that I am probably going to die.

Escaflowne hits the ground and rolls and I am flung clear.

I lay very still and stare up. Slowly, and listening for crepitus, I turn to look at Escaflowne. It’s mecha-shaped again, kneeling in front of – I squint – a kid in a red tank top with floppy hair all over his face. I turn again to stare straight up.

Booted footsteps approach and there’s a sching of steel, and a sword is levelled at my throat.

“What were you doing with the Escaflowne?”

“Hello, your Majesty. I was escaping Asturia.”

“I see,” says Van Fanel, King of Fanelia and hero of my favourite cartoon. “How did you pilot the Escaflowne?”

I proffer my still-bloody hand. It’s not all that much bloodier than the rest of me, which is annoying, but the tine-marks are still clearly visible. This shirt is probably a write-off. He looks at my hand, then puts his sword away. “Interesting. Come sit by the fire.”

He asks no questions beyond, “Would you like some?” as he offers me a skewer of some kind of barbecued meat.

I volunteer, after a while, because he should probably know that Escaflowne recognized its true master when it crashed me here. I also don’t want him to think I’m an absurdly awful pilot, because it’d be nice if I could take it out again, this time with permission.

In the flickering firelight, eventually I drift to sleep on the ground.

*

I wake in sunlight, and determine quickly that I’m on the roof of my condo building.

Back in the real world, I take the inside elevator back down to my floor.
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