A Beauty's Bargain: A Short Story

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A Beauty's Bargain

A cold nose pressed against Merry Coyne's calf, slick and familiar. She looked down from the kitchen counter, where she'd been counting the number of bread slices left for the week. Three more until the ration cart came by—though last week their stony-hearted government, Legalia, had barely given the denizens anything besides near-rotten potatoes and powdered oat flakes.

"Damn Winter Solstice," Merry cursed, breaking off a moldy piece of crust to feed her dog, Dixon, who took it gently from her bony fingers. The floating citadel that soared over Merry's dilapidated town had been celebrating for several weeks already, with the nobility's noisy airships and chugging zeppelins blotting out the sun when it decided to shine, a rarity in December. "Scram," Merry said to Dixon, who usually managed to keep himself fed with squirrels and birds roosting on the outskirts of the denizens' urbs, near the giant generators that kept all residents of Shinery, on the ground and in the air, from freezing to death in their sleep. Merry couldn't understand why Legalia kept the denizens warm, however, if they were just going to take the food restrictions to new extremes this winter. Researching various ways to torture them all, perhaps. A reminder of who was in charge.

"Merry?" a breathy voice called from the musty, shadowed living room, where Merry's elderly mother and father normally slept. They could barely walk further than the seven paces from their prospective couches to the restroom, though her father was able to putter around like a defective clockwork doll when absolutely necessary.

Merry's parents didn't have her until they were in their forties, right before King Aero's succession as the new head of Legalia. Denizen conditions had reportedly been decent for a while back then, and as a whole they'd become strong—but nowhere near strong enough to take their government down.

Merry was three years old when her eldest brother Clarence disappeared, the Coyne's middle son Ernest being gunned down in a surprise air raid shortly after. Her father had taken up with the denizen rebellion then, fighting Legalia's military during the height of the Defection.

Merry's mother spoke of those who fought in the Defection like they were gods; Merry would nod her head and hum, screaming the exact opposite in her mind. Those denizens sixteen years ago had been trigger-happy idiots, stupid to think they might make the smallest dent in the behemoth that was Legalia's armed forces. By ten years old Merry stood unswaying in her belief that the world was only populated by senseless men; violent, reckless, emotional. Weak. She couldn't stand a one of them besides her father, and would still often wrestle with condemning thoughts about his younger self; why hadn't he protected her brothers? Why had he acted only after they'd both been lost forever? Merry would do anything for the people she loved, and she wondered whether it was a trait that had developed due to the fact her parents hadn't.

"Yes, Papa?" Merry brought two chipped ceramic plates into the living room, noting that the quilt she'd sewn years ago had fallen away from her mother's gnarled, yellow-nailed feet. She set the food down on a rickety end table and adjusted it, folding the blankets more securely around both of her parents.

"I don't want to hear about any funny stuff happening at that place today," her father, Elias Coyne, said while reaching a hand out from his covers to accept the offered bread slice. "That man tries anything, you tell him that you aren't ever coming back."

Merry quirked a brow in amusement, fixing a strand of her mother's chestnut hair. "Of course, Papa. You know I stand up for myself."

"Thanks honey," Merry's mother Edith croaked, in much worse condition than Elias. She'd recently begun exhibiting signs of conphoid: organ failure and fevers due to prolonged starvation. Merry hadn't eaten more than a few crackers since the weekend before, giving Edith her share of that day's meal. It didn't seem to be helping.

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