Lie – Natalia Jaster

Once upon a time, there lived a liar. In the Kingdom of Autumn, she’d been crafted from the trees and had a nut-shaped heart. She was conceited. She was mean. And yes, she told lies. A hell of a lot. Why would this girl deserve a fairytale of her own? Girls like her didn’t merit their own stories, much less earn happy endings. They neither reaped the glory, nor enticed the honest, noble knight. They weren’t meek enough, or gentle enough, to be rewarded. To be desired. To be loved. That’s what fairytales wanted the world to think. Because usually, fairytales were stupid. But not this one. This tale was different.

As different as the girl herself. The timber girl made of trees. It started like this: Before there lived a timber girl, there lived a woodland. Someplace special among the towering oaks, a poor animal got its limb stuck in a trap. It was a rare creature, valued for its tuft instead of its life. But before a trapper could discover his catch, a poor lumberjack happened upon the animal. Hungry, the lumberjack could have sold it and put food on the table. Instead, the logger set the creature free, mending its leg and then nursing it back to health, offering the last of some acorn rations. The animal feasted on all but three nuts from the pile, then nuzzled its savior, grateful for having its life restored. The stranger had been generous to nature, so nature did the same for the stranger.

As a reward for this kindly deed, the almighty Season of Autumn blessed the trio of leftovers, turning them into treasures of the land. Each acorn would give life to whomever possessed it. And each in a distinct way. The first one, a happy life. The second one, a new life. The third one, a restored life. The first acorn was given to the animal’s rescuer. The other two were swept up by the wind, landing someplace unknown within the kingdom’s endless forests, fields, and orchards, waiting to be found by the next worthy souls. People got sick and grew old. Couples yearned for children.

These rare acorns sounded like sweet deals. One would be able to recognize them from the unique groove marked on the shell: a fringe of lines, resembling the tassel of a plume. No one knew for sure what woodland dweller had been trapped, but the groove suggested it might have been a land bird. Throughout the century, people hunted the woodlands, searching for the remaining acorns, but trudged home empty-handed. Eventually, they gave up looking. Then a woodworker stumbled upon the second acorn while harvesting forest supplies for her craft. Realizing what she’d uncovered, the carpenter had an idea and brought the prize home for her latest creation: a puppet with a hollow in its chest. That night, she used the acorn to fill in that hollow—the hole where the heart should have been. She attached it to this wooden figure, which she’d been carving for her own sake. Because she’d been lonely and wanted company…and oh, did she get it.

As the acorn snapped into place, the puppet’s eyes flipped open. And that wooden body became flouncing curves. And those lips became a deceitful smirk. And that acorn became a hard pulse. And that mind became a liar’s nest, not needing a sappy ending, not wanting a noble knight, and not bothering with the boring truth. Not when I could have much more fun. Not when I could do such brilliant damage. Yes. Those eyes were mine. That girl was me.

1 Honesty From this distance, the maiden on strings looked almost real. The eyes, the mouth—and especially the nose, which tilted upward, mocking the angle of my sword buried within her chest, as though I had failed to stab her correctly. I yanked the blade out, wishing to run her through again, a truly black thought for a knight of honor. My comrades clapped, brothers-and-sisters-in-arms filling the training yard with the clank and clash of armored gloves. As the discordant noise resounded through my bones, I saw the girl in her truest form: a large puppet dangling from the branch of a tree, hanging at eye level, with an X painted on its chest. She was an unreal thing, a false thing, of course. Of course, she was. What else could she be? She, it, was merely a puppet. I would do well to focus on the task at hand, not to dwell upon infernal fairytales. Dawn crested the horizon, a luminous crown of sun.

Outside the citadel and lower town, the burnished sky touched the harvest fields of our kingdom, tinting the corn and oat stalks. I stepped backward, spinning my sword. The blade sliced the air—the whispers of a sharpened edge—as I twirled it once, plunging it into my scabbard. When I was a boy, I wished for a horse. When I was an older boy, I wished for a sword to go with that horse. When I was a much older boy, I wished for a knighthood to use both sword and horse. My tale was simple. In the land of falling leaves, there lived a knight who believed in only three things: chivalry, bravery, and honesty. The last one, most of all. Truth, the life’s blood of honor.

The almighty Seasons—nature itself governing over the Kingdoms of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter—never lied. As such, their subjects shouldn’t, either. Untruths belonged in an untrue world, meant to collect dust within the pages of fanciful, slandering books. Fairytales were lies that belittled children, vilified women, disgraced men, and glorified shallow desires. Mothers and fathers betrayed their offspring, husbands and wives manipulated one another, princes kissed sleeping princesses without asking permission, and princesses married them anyway. Fairytales indeed scorned vices like jealousy and greed, but still: lies. Lies that awarded dimwits for their dimwittedness, whereas in the flesh-and-blood world, real villains were not always punished, and the truly good didn’t always live happily ever after. They didn’t always live at all. I glanced toward the birch-filled graveyard beyond the citadel, where nobles buried their loved ones. As I stared in that direction, my thumb brushed the ring around my finger, the metallic band scuffed with age.

Fairytales made false promises. I knew this well. Let others, but not me, subscribe to stories and fables, those campfire tales borne of my home’s history, here in Mista, the Kingdom of Autumn. The tale about acorns, I spurned the most. My fingers traveled from my ring to the hilt of my weapon. I knocked my chin, summoning the next squire, who gulped the length of his beanstalk throat. As the lad raised his blade, my eyes strayed to the target, its genderless face. What had inspired me to assume it was a female? Perhaps the puppet’s expression had misled me to idiocy. Perhaps that crinkled, cautionary tale of a nose had provoked me to envision a life for its owner, one that fled the boundaries of reality, thusly testing my own boundaries. In the land of falling leaves, there lived a knight….

The squire thrust but missed the puppet’s heart. In that moment, relief—mysterious relief— coursed through my veins, the shame of it heating my skin, stinging like the slap of a traitor. I cupped the lad’s elbow and urged him to the side, silencing the hoots around us. My sword hissed from its sheath once more. My body rotated, piercing the wooden neck with a clean backhanded force that beheaded the figure. “Like that,” I instructed. Applause followed. Our group burned the pieces, my gaze averted as I slid my hands—slid my ringed finger—into leather gloves. Smoke trailed through the morning air, the puppet crumbling to ash. We rewarded ourselves with pints while sitting around a fire, sharing brew and stories of the week, the month, the year.

These were real narratives of real people, accounts of comely admirers and daily politics, debates about foolishness and madness, comparisons of weaponry craftsmanship, arguments about which mill produced the finest grain and which tavern served the finest froth, and which had the finest looking barmaids or barmen. This was knights’ talk, sealed with lessons, lectures, and laughter. The Royals would summon me for a conference soon. The castle, of walnut-painted masonry and windows framed in shutters of a deep beet red, presided peacefully behind us. A female soldier jostled another, and everything was normal. Everything should have been well, except the early light shifted, blasting through the lawn. A breeze woke the treetops of Autumn’s distant woodlands, the copper and crimson leaves clapping not in praise, but in premonition. They sounded like the flapping pages of a manuscript. The other soldiers often ribbed the Seasons out of me, accusing me of clairvoyance and of having a seer’s mind, though such beings did not exist. Be that as it may, I sensed a twist, an unexpected lurch in the air, borne of anticipation and change.

In the land of falling leaves, there lived a knight… I surged to my feet, signaling the end of our rest. My chainmail glittered like water, dragging my shoulders down as we strode back to the stronghold, heading to the armory. The reek of burnt lumber trailed after me. Unable to help myself, I craned my head over my shoulder one more time, peering at the training yard, at the pit’s cindered remains. No, the body on strings had not been real. No, I did not believe it ever had been. Maidens made of wood did not come to life, nor smirk, nor enchant. Certainly, puppets did not deceive. Indeed, only a real person could do so. Even then, only a wicked soul would toy with a noble one.

Only a liar would do something like that. 2 Fantasy “Of course, it’s not dangerous,” I promised. Sugar and spice coated those words, a teaspoon of sincerity, a tablespoon of amusement. A dishonest taste. One that pinched the fucking tongue. Standing outside the citadel walls, the stonemason’s son hesitated. “Are you sure?” I narrowed my eyes and flicked a stray leaf from my charcoal gray pocket skirt, the bolts of my knuckles knocking together. “Am I hearing things, or does it sound like you’re doubting my word?” “No,” the boy hastened. “No, I mean—” “It sounds like he doubts me.” I tilted my head, rallying the faces to my left, then the ones to my right.

A half dozen boys and girls agreed, nodding and murmuring, their arms loosely crossed. Served the buck right for having the nerve to question me. “Or maybe you’ve changed your mind. Maybe you don’t want to be part of my circle. Maybe you’ve found a better one to join.” I cocked my head, making sure the Autumn sun struck my cheekbones, carved to perfection. “Or you’re a coward.” “I’m no such thing,” the boy protested. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” The stonemason’s son obeyed.

“Nobody calls me a coward. If you do, it’s a lie.” Actually, no. I knew the difference between lies and mere observations. For eighteen years, I’d learned the difference between lies and everything but. In fact, my nose had taught me that difference; the appendage tended to shift in size because of the distinction. But I knew how to control that. Leaning forward, I whispered, “It’s fine to admit you’re afraid.” “I’ve got nothing to admit.” “What a relief.

The problem is, I have standards—” “I’ll do it.” That was more like it. Initiations took planning and scheming. I’d given a basic task, the first in a haystack of requirements before accepting the lad into my circle. If he couldn’t perform this simple one, a beginner’s stint, he wouldn’t get further with me. A grin of satisfaction. I inclined my head toward the wall, beyond which rose the castle, the apple seed of the Autumn Kingdom. The fortress had dozens of balconies and flat-topped towers, vantage points from which to see and be seen. The boy got going. I lifted my hand to the side, and one of my minions placed a feather hat onto my palm.

Perching the headpiece atop my head, I tilted it at a jaunty angle and murmured to the group, “Wait for me.” But not for him. He wasn’t coming back. I stepped forward, my boot heels crushing stray dead leaves. I bypassed him, expecting the lad to follow. We hiked along the moat until we reached a cluster of beech trees. My finger bounced between each thick trunk. “Eeny, meeny, miny—” I aimed a digit at the left tree “—moe.” The boy shuffled as I withdrew a stick from my pocket, shaped at warped angles and jagged along one side, the top forked just so. I placed the stick against the trunk, letting it slip into a gap camouflaged within the bark.

Twisting my wrist, the stomach of the beech unlatched, cracking into a door. Log rungs led deep into a tunnel of ancient wood that shone even below ground, making it easy to see. It dug through the soil like a mole burrow, with tree roots dangling from the ceiling. Plenty of secret passages led into the castle. I’d found out about this one after fondling the locksmith’s apprentice. This particular latch could only be opened by a stick of the correct intricate shape. A replica would have been impossible to craft—if the trespasser weren’t me. I guided the lad along the passage beneath the moat, then climbed into the daylight through the crusted womb of another tree. I peeked and guided the hopeful out onto a lane, closing the door behind me. Courtyards surrounded the castle, some separated by gated archways.

The beech trunk had dropped us just outside the enclosed vendor quad, where nobles and servants milled about, too busy or self-absorbed to notice us. I could relate. Not much interested me unless I benefited from it. Without looking back, I crooked my finger for the lad to follow, sashaying toward one of the gates. “Now,” I said, pointing through the latticework toward a cart smelling of charred sweetness. “Hop this gate and fetch me a dozen of those.” “The m-merchant’s right there,” the boy objected. “Then distract him. Intimidate him or coquette him into a hard-on. Pinch his ass with one hand and take with the other.

If you can’t handle one basic manipulation, what am I going to do with you? I don’t just befriend anybody.”

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