To his recollection, our favorite imp had not felt anything like this in recent or not-so-recent memory. The woman traveling with him accepted Rumpelstiltskin in a manner unlike any he had experienced, save the affection Sir Death had shown him throughout the last two centuries. Almost every stranger—even after warming up to the imp’s mannerisms—never approached the level of comfort that Circe accomplished with ease. The sorceress had never judged Rumpelstiltskin, had never avoided his touch, never stared at him like a freshly-shorn rodent.
Instead, the witch had laughed at his antics and sang with him as they frolicked along dirt roads. After meeting Gwen—Circe’s magical friend and owner of a partially-eaten, angel-cake cottage—Rumpelstiltskin had been forced to confront the idea that witches may not be so tolerant of a foolish imp, but Circe had recognized something within the cursed boy. In the months since, the raven-haired sorceress had gone out of her way to show Rumpelstiltskin a good time, to provide the kinds of experiences the imp wished for on a more-than-daily basis.
They had become fast friends and the best of companions.
Now, Rumpelstiltskin looked up from his swinging hand and the delicate fingers weaved between his gnarled digits to find the devilish smile on Circe’s face. Her dark hair shrouded the eye furthest from him, but Rumpelstiltskin felt gleeful after catching sight of the innocuous fang catching on the soft flesh of her bottom lip. Her wild, green eyes told Rumpelstiltskin that another story was about to begin, and the imp’s smile stretched wider as he quickly turned to face the road ahead of them.
Contrary to the adventure Rumpelstiltskin had been sure was waiting for them, the imp instead saw an empty meadow in a circle of slender beech trees. Rumpelstiltskin was about to raise the issue when he heard Circe snap the fingers of her free hand. When she nodded her head at the empty meadow, Rumpelstiltskin jerked back his gaze and his face filled with wonder.
Fading into existence with a dreamlike shimmer was a pleasant house with Victorian architecture that would not become popular for a half-millennium, but Rumpelstiltskin had no way to know that. All he saw was the lavender color of the wooden exterior, the spirals of shingles rising to metal fingers which Rumpelstiltskin had to assume would conduct the stars of the night sky. There was a set of rocking chairs on the porch in front of the house, and the imp wriggled out of Circe’s grip and sprinted to the still-appearing abode. Once he reached the steps, Rumpelstiltskin jumped up to the third, only realizing once he was midair that he might fall directly onto his face.
However, the steps were solid, and Rumpelstiltskin’s midair wavering forced the imp to catch himself on the fourth step and try to expend the rest of his momentum by scrabbling up the remaining steps until he could rest on the porch itself. Of course, it was a fool’s errand, and Rumpelstiltskin’s head knocked right into the last step and almost forced him to tumble off the staircase and back to the meadow underneath.
Except that Circe was behind him, catching his shoulders and keeping Rumpelstiltskin from further harm. As affectionate as she was when the imp made upside-down eye contact with her, he was still greeted with that mischievous glint in her eye.
“Careful, kiddo. I’m not always gonna be here to catch you,” she said, drawing a laugh out of the imp as he twisted out of her grip and then crawled up to the porch.
“I would have been fine,” Rumpelstiltskin said, brushing himself off and unleashing a cloud of dirt before walking over to the rocking chair, which was the first time he had seen such a device. Behind him, Circe scowled at the cloud still drifting to the planks of her pristine abode.
“No manners when it comes to you, huh, Rumpelstiltskin?” she asked, causing the imp to turn around and see the results of his not-thinking. “I bring this house out of the ether and the first thing you do is put dirt on my porch?”
“Sorry, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, wringing his hands as he looked away, “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Rumpelstiltskin knew his manners had plenty of room for development, but he knew dirt wasn’t supposed to be on nice houses. The imp looked so pitiful that Circe realized he was not in on the joke, and after scoffing, the witch approached her small friend and crouched down to put her hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, stop that,” she said, lightly slapping the imp’s leathery face and pulling him out of his shame spiral.
At once, Rumpelstiltskin was confused, but then he saw the smile on Circe’s face and realized this was all one big misunderstanding.
“Oh, it was a joke?” he exclaimed, grateful until Circe wagged a finger in front of his face.
“Only half of one. You really do need to work on those manners.”
“I try,” Rumpelstiltskin said, pouting as he looked around the lavender surrounding him. “There’s just so many things that need manners! There’s so many of them, I just don’t even know which ones are important or which ones people just make up!”
“You think people make them up?”
“Don’t they?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, so exasperated that it prompted a giggle from the friendly witch.
“People want me to drink tea with one hand and wipe the crumbs from my cookies with my other and then I just don’t know what to do with my feet and it seems like I’m not supposed to do anything with them until I don’t do something with them and then I just have to remember what people are saying all the time but they keep changing their mind every time I enter a new village and I just don’t—”
“That’s enough, kiddo,” Circe interrupted, a pleasant smile on her face as she recovered from her giggling. “You’re right. There’s a lot of manners and they change from place to place, but there are some basics you should learn, and if you follow those, I’m sure people will forgive you for not knowing the rest.”
“Well, not every time,” Circe admitted with a shrug. “Some terrible people are going to stay terrible people, but there’s a good amount of social customs that’ll make you seem friendly to anyone worth knowing.”
“But I thought I was already being friendly,” Rumpelstiltskin whined, but Circe shook her head and stood up straight, extending her right hand.
“With that face of yours, you’re just gonna have to work harder for people to know that. But here’s lesson one: the handshake,” she said, nodding at her fingers and waiting for the imp to take the cue. However, Rumpelstiltskin saw Circe’s hand as some kind of magic, and peered at it from both side before looking up at the witch expectantly.
“Well… are you going to shake it?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, earning a groan. Leaning forward, Circe grabbed the imp’s right hand and threw it into her other before shaking their arms twice. Once their hands fell for the second time, Circe released Rumpelstiltskin’s fingers and stood back, cocking out her hip and resting her right hand on it.
“You were supposed to shake it,” Circe said, entertained by the imp’s ignorance. “When you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands as a show of… mutual respect. It’s how you make strangers into something else, whatever that something else may be.”
“So, if I want to make friends,” Rumpelstiltskin said, placing the tips of his index fingers against each other as if he was solving an equation. “So if I want to make friends, I just have to grab their hand and shake it for a while?”
“And maybe if I shake it more than that, then we’ll be even better friends?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, all smiles and shine in his black eyes, and Circe could not deny a cursed boy his simple pleasures.
“Sure, if you want to think of it like that,” she surrendered, laughing as she adopted a crooked smile. “As long as you make it obvious that you’re not there to hurt anybody.”
“Why would I want to hurt anybody?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, watching as Circe walked over to the closest rocking chair and helping herself into the space between the armrests. Once her rear met the frame, she motioned to the chair beside her and set her own to rocking.
“You just make sure you keep that innocence, kiddo, and you’ll be fine,” she said, Rumpelstiltskin following her instructions all the while. It wasn’t easy to clamber up into the rocking chair, but once his knees were on the seat and the chair was rocking beneath him, he grabbed onto the back of the construct and gaped over at his friend.
“This is fun.”
“And it’ll be more fun when you sit in it the right way,” Circe commented, prompting Rumpelstiltskin to twist until he could plop down onto the seat and set his limbs along armrests the height of his shoulders.
Once he was situated, Rumpelstiltskin gave Circe a smile filled with crooked teeth.
“It feels like a throne,” he said, setting Circe off into a low chuckle as she turned to look at the horizon beyond the meadow.
“Well, then. Let’s make you a kingdom,” she said, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as ethereal particles flowed from her open hand and spread into the air in front of her lavender house. Once the sparkling stream reached the empty air forty feet away from the porch, Rumpelstiltskin’s mouth went slack. The ground fell away into nothingness, the trees drifted to shadow, and it wasn’t long before Rumpelstiltskin and Circe were adrift in a sea of darkness, their ship a lavender house designed with an aesthetic purely unfit for seafaring.
“What kind of kingdom lies in the darkness?” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, but Circe already had something planned for her young friend.
“Whatever kingdom a golden soul could want,” she said, and Rumpelstiltskin watched the glimmer of a thousand new stars blooming into multicolored brilliance. Those lights unfurled and burst, the birth pains of each supernova streaming from the far-off reaches of their shared imagination and into the glimmers of their eyes. Rumpelstiltskin watched as rivers formed from that ocean, running and rushing along the boundaries his mind formed to create some sense of depth. A cosmic tapestry of celestial bodies wove together just for Rumpelstiltskin, Circe guiding them to the sensibilities of an insane boy’s subconscious.
“It’s beautiful,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured. He was so filled with wonder that he was surprised by the warmth of Circe’s touch, and he only looked away from the display for a moment, seeing the love on the witch’s face. This show, this spectacle, was meant for him. Rumpelstiltskin did not know why he deserved it—could not remember the pain and loneliness of his life before this woman—but Circe could not and would not forget.
In the moment she had met our imp within that angel-cake cottage, Circe had known exactly what lay within Rumpelstiltskin’s cursed heart. She had known just how little he deserved his fate, how he had been meant to be the simple son of a simple miller, meant to enjoy a simple life in the sunlight. That life had been taken from him, but his innocence had remained, and while Rumpelstiltskin had promised her it was not all bad—that a man who had named himself Sir Death was looking out for him—Circe had promised to the universe or the gods responsible for his malady that this imp would not face the world alone. Whenever it was within her power, Circe would make the world better for this golden soul.
Squeezing Rumpelstiltskin’s fingers against the wood beneath his hand, Circe nodded back to the display and the world she was making for him. The imp’s twisted visage stretched ever wider in his glee, as the blanket of stars along the horizon rose and fell into rolling hills and Circe’s porch became a balcony for their castle. The blossoms of far-off nebulas shifted and became the backdrop of tiny villages peppering the starscape, sunrises and sunsets and auroras forming concurrently and without respect to any earthly reality. However, reality was no substitute for what an imp deserved, and Circe allowed Rumpelstiltskin’s kingdom whatever nonsense he desired, even if he had no idea that he was responsible for the vision before him.
“Why are you doing this for me?” he asked under his breath, just barely daring the question into existence.
Circe looked from her labors to find Rumpelstiltskin’s beady eyes filled with tears. Immediately, Circe feared that she had made some mistake and given the boy sadness, but it wasn’t long before the witch saw the truth of the matter.
The imp did not feel like he deserved such a gift.
“Kiddo…” Circe squeaked, tears falling down her porcelain cheeks before she threw herself from her chair and then rushed over to the enduring, twisted boy sitting on her rocking chair. Taking Rumpelstiltskin’s small frame into her arms, Circe squeezed him tight, burying her face into the rough fabric of his tunic.
“I just don’t know why,” Rumpelstiltskin tried to explain, and when Circe drew back to see the imp’s confusion, she could not believe what he was thinking. “I know we’re friends and everything, but this… how can you do this just for me?”
“Do you really not see it, Rumpelstiltskin?” Circe asked, to the shaking of the imp’s head. “This world is so rotten. I’ve seen it for so many years, how humanity corrupts itself, how it can corrupt…”
She paused, knowing she could not continue explaining what the world did to the imp in her arms. It would be too cruel, whether he would remember it or not. To utter it, for Rumpelstiltskin to know it for a second, would be to drive a blade into a boy who did not deserve it.
However, Rumpelstiltskin did not know why she had paused, and he surprised her by raising a leathery hand to the witch’s delicate face.
“You don’t look old enough to know that much corruption,” he said, swallowing down his uncertainty and wiping the tears from both of their cheeks with a burlap sleeve. Circe knew Rumpelstiltskin did not know what he was talking about, but she forced herself not to laugh and let the boy continue.
“If it’s… if you were doing this just because I’m your friend, Circe, I just don’t know what I can give you in return,” he stressed, breaking eye contact and wriggling out of Circe’s grip. Still floating in space, Rumpelstiltskin walked over to the porch railing and gripped the edge with gnarled fingers. “Friends are supposed to be even. You’ve given me something so… so great, that I’ll never be able to repay you.”
“Just telling me about handshakes was enough, but you’ve given me my own stars—my own kingdom—and the only thing I have is stories,” Rumpelstiltskin said, the stars reflecting off his black eyes before he turned back to the witch propped up on her knees. Seeing the woman there—so sorrowful in her beauty, so trapped within mortality—Rumpelstiltskin was forced to realize there would be a day without her. She would be another friend for him to lose, and he did not want her to have a day of misery when he was still right next to her.
“I don’t have enough stories to make up for this, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin puffed up, sniffing back tears for the final goodbye that had yet to happen, “but I promise that I’ll keep trying. I’ll help you with whatever spells or learn whatever manners you want to teach me. I’ll never pat off the dirt from my clothes onto your porch again and I promise that I won’t crash your next broomstick…”
“Kiddo,” Circe said, and Rumpelstiltskin halted his promises to see the witch offering him a knowing smile. After rubbing the space between her nose and right eye, Circe rose to her feet and then walked over so she could set her hands on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulders. “You don’t ever have to worry about dirt on my porch.”
“You do not,” Circe said, lifting her head and waving at the cosmic fantasy happening behind the imp.
“Just look at all that, Rumpelstiltskin. If my house can fly among the stars, do you really think I can’t keep it clean with another spell?”
“Oh,” Rumpelstiltskin surrendered, turning to look at the expanse beyond the porch. His hands were wrapped around the railing as Circe’s hands were pressed against his shoulders. “So you were joking back then?”
“No, you still need to learn some manners,” she said, looking down at Rumpelstiltskin as he craned his neck to make eye contact with her. “You just don’t need them around me.”
“That’s good,” he said as his attention drifted back to the rolling hillsides of the stars. “I would probably forget them unless we had company.”
“Well, let’s go inside and try to teach you some more,” Circe replied, slapping the imp’s shoulders before walking over to the doorway by the staircase. Although he would have liked to look out on the stars a bit longer, Rumpelstiltskin turned and followed, only somewhat surprised when Circe opened the door and there was a comforting wooden interior welcoming them inside. After what Rumpelstiltskin had witnessed outside the house, something so normal was considerably out of place.
“What kind of manners are you going to teach me first?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as the door closed behind them, and he could see Circe ponder the question with a tilt of her head.
“Hmm, I’m not sure.” They walked through the hallway leading to the back of the house, the witch turning around to walk backward as they neared the opening to what must be some sort of parlor. “We could start with dining etiquette. Too often I have seen you eating with your hands.”
“Isn’t that what they’re for?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his earnest nature earning a laugh.
“Outside—and, more specifically, outside polite company—absolutely, but if you’re not careful in certain countries, you could get in trouble just for using the wrong fork.”
“What’s a fork?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but Circe was not the one to laugh at his ignorance this time.
“Seems like you have your work cut out for you, Circe.”
Rumpelstiltskin watched as the happiness on Circe’s face was replaced with rage. The witch turned slowly to glare at the people already inside her house, but Rumpelstiltskin ran forward so he could look beyond the entrance to the other room.
It would have been a cozy parlor, filled with armchairs and bookcases and tables for drinks Rumpelstiltskin would hope he wouldn’t knock over onto those very nice rugs, but the three women situated in front of the hearth made the room feel considerably less cozy.
One was sitting down in a tall, mauve recliner, most of her greying hair stuffed into an ancient bonnet and her body covered in a simple, black dress. The woman would have looked more severe, but she was in the process of lifting a teacup from the saucer in her other hand, and the act was enough to make Rumpelstiltskin feel less threatened.
Standing by the hearth itself was a blonde witch in brown clothing, and once he realized the woman was smiling at Circe, Rumpelstiltskin recognized Gwen, the owner of the angel-cake cottage he had mistakenly undermined with his eating habits. Now knowing that all three of these women were witches, Rumpelstiltskin was not surprised when the third woman by the bookcase closed the tome in her hand with an abrupt clap, only to have it float into the air and into the empty slot where she had initially withdrawn the text.
However magical these women might be, Rumpelstiltskin was most surprised by the scowl on Circe’s face and the growl emanating from her throat.
“What are you doing here?” Circe’s words tore through the air, her fists clenching at the intrusion. “What are you doing in my house?”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” Gwen asked, crossing her arms and cocking her head at Circe. “Aren’t friends supposed to make house calls from time to time?”
“Usually the owner is already in the house,” Circe replied, her eyes darting to each woman. “And you know full well this house doesn’t take kindly to unsolicited visitors.”
“Yes, we did have to negate some of those charms, dear,” the older woman said from the chair, taking her time to swallow down a sip of tea. “Nasty ones, some of them. You even put an enchantment on the teapot.”
“Yes, Hazel,” Circe answered, almost spitting from her anger. “It’s almost as if I didn’t want anyone using it while I wasn’t here.”
“You really must do something about your hospitality, Circe,” the witch by the bookcase said as she sauntered over to the other high-backed chair and set fingers with long nails over the top. Rumpelstiltskin saw something vicious in those nails, and the way Circe reacted let him realize he was on the right track.
“Tell me why you’re here,” Circe snipped, refusing to look at her and instead staring right at the older woman. “I don’t need the High Council meddling in my affairs, and I certainly don’t need Shiba looking through my spell books.”
“If you freely shared, my dear, I’m sure Shiba would not steal that knowledge.” Hazel set the teacup onto its saucer and then placed both on the table in front of her. After clasping her hands together and leaning back, she sighed. “Gwen told us about that little treasure of yours.”
“Treasure? What treasure?”
“Don’t be coy,” Shiba said, puncturing the upholstery of the other chair with her long nails. “You know full well we are speaking about that cursed boy.”
“Cursed boy?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, seeing from Circe’s reaction that she would have wished for his silence in the matter. “Why would they want me?”
“This is grown-up talk, kiddo,” Circe replied, but a laugh from the fireplace stole her attention.
“Doesn’t he understand, Circe?” Gwen asked, nodding at the imp on the other side of the room. “Hasn’t he questioned why a woman like you is spending any time on a monster like him?”
“He is not a monster.” Circe growled, her voice wavering from emotion. “He’s just a boy.”
“Perhaps you should think of him as a monster, my dear,” Hazel commented, waving away Circe’s emotions as if it was an understood triviality. “It will be easier when we take him away and put that soul to good use.”
“Take him away? What makes you think I’ll let that happen?” Circe asked, her legs spreading wider and her fists opening up to menacing, splayed fingers. The display brought a smile to the older witch’s face, but an answer was not required from Hazel.
“You are being visited by members of the High Council and the Grand Sorceress, herself,” Shiba stressed, motioning toward the ancient witch in the center of the room. “Unless you want a war with the coven providing you shelter in these harrowing times, you will rethink your… posture.”
“I’ve never quite needed your protection or shelter, missy,” Circe replied, looking from one witch to the other, clearly analyzing her chances. It was a tense moment as she sized up her opponents, but eventually a wry smile twisted her features. “And if you recall, I was not present at the Hollow during Hazel’s election ceremony. Who knows what would have happened if I was nominated…”
“You are playing a dangerous game, Circe,” Hazel replied, all niceties abandoned. “It is one soul, unworthy of the risk. Just what are you planning on doing with this boy, that you would strike out against your friends and colleagues?”
“That’s a funny choice of words, Hazel,” Circe replied, looking to her left and seeing Rumpelstiltskin’s face full of worry. Softening at the sight, Circe breathed in deep before resuming the verbal match with the Grand Sorceress. “I’ve never quite thought of any of you as colleagues, and very rarely friends.”
“Oh, what does that make me?” Gwen said from the fireplace, but Circe didn’t even look at the woman.
“I said rarely, Gwen, and you lost that status as soon as you ran back to Mother Hen, here,” Circe said, satisfied when the old sorceress bristled at the epithet. Standing up just a little straighter, but ready for any attack coming her way, Circe chuckled one last time.
“The fact is, Hazel’s words were absolutely profound. You assumed that we were friends, but this is what a friend actually does,” Circe said while pointing at the front door, which burst open and flew back on its hinges so hard that it slammed against the exterior wall. “A friend protects the people they love, the people who mean something to them.”
“Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin began, but the witch’s tear-brimmed eyes stole the protests from him.
“I have one friend on this Earth, ladies,” Circe said, nodding at the imp, “and the only thing I plan to do with his soul is to keep it safe.”
“You fool,” Shiba glowered as she dug her nails further into the armchair, to which Circe merely shrugged.
“He’s a little contagious like that,” Circe commented before throwing an open palm toward Rumpelstiltskin and sending out some sort of telekinetic force that sent him down the hallway.
As he was propelled out of the house, Circe wore her best attempt at a smile.
Then Rumpelstiltskin was across the threshold of the lavender house, hitting the ground hard and bouncing along the grass in a backward somersault. While his eyes were forced shut by the maneuver, Rumpelstiltskin wondered why a field full of stars should still feel like a summertime meadow. Once he was on his back, the imp propped himself up on his elbows and found himself in a summertime meadow and thought himself quite foolish. Whatever magic Circe had used to send Rumpelstiltskin hurtling through space and into an imaginary, star-crossed kingdom had now run its course.
“Goodbye, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said, but he tried to hold onto the hope that this was not the last goodbye. Rumpelstiltskin had a way of finding his friends again, but he did not know if Circe could contend with the three crones who had come for the imp’s soul. Rumpelstiltskin felt guilty for his part in that, how he had become a prize, but there was little he could do to help Circe from this meadow across the universe.
After picking himself up, the imp patted off his once-again dirt-covered tunic, knowing that he was in full keeping with manners as he was nowhere near any sort of inside. With a heavy heart, Rumpelstiltskin picked a direction, perhaps northwest, but he could not tell since he did not know what time it was. All he knew was that when he encountered his next stranger, he would offer his hand and vigorously shake their arm once that stranger took hold.
Even if he could no longer travel with Circe, Rumpelstiltskin would, at the very least, make sure her lessons did not go to waste.