Ten Years
by for Talia.




Jenny is bored.

"There are still games we haven't played," Julian says, but she's lost interest in games now, however clever or thrilling he tries to make them. His games are huge, elaborate, fantastical, but lately they've been feeling empty and uninspired.

She's been feeling empty and uninspired.

"We can play another type of game," he suggests, his expression darkening with hunger. But they've already played plenty of those games as well, with canes and leather restraints and elaborate sets that Julian builds especially for that purpose. She's bored with them too.

What happens if you have an eternity to do anything, but you can only spend it with one other person? Who's not even really a person.

Jenny's thinks she might be going stir-crazy; maybe just plain crazy. It's been years, no a decade, since she last saw - much less spoken to - another person. All she knows is every changeable detail of this paper house, from her ridiculous room of clothes and dresses to the sumptuous dining room with its candelabras and silverware. Julian has made the house beautiful, breath-taking. But there's nothing she can actually do.

At the beginning Jenny had said she wanted to travel, and Julian had recreated Shadow cities for her. But the cities are ghost towns, empty husks without their inhabitants, and no amount of painstakingly recreated gothic arches can disguise it. The streets are unnaturally silent and lifeless, and so only sounds that can be heard are her lone footsteps echoing on the sidewalk and Julian's lilting voice. Somewhere beyond the veil, the real versions are bustling with tourists and locals. At least, she hopes that's still the case.

Jenny avoids visiting Shadow cities if she can help it.

The games were better. At least she was doing something then. And then she would be trekking through strange, surreal environments like fields of purple ice or a maze of otherworldly flowers, and she would be so focused on her goal of winning that she could forget for a couple of days or weeks. That had worked, for a little while.

Julian is sitting cross-legged beside Jenny on her giant bed amongst the thousands of colourful cushions and pillows. She's been laying there since she woke up many hours ago. There just hasn't been a reason to get up yet.

It's like the worst cabin fever times a million.

"You're not sick," says Julian. "You can't get sick here, I made sure of that."

"It's not my body. I think my soul is sick."

He scoffs. "Your soul is fine. I'd know."

She rolls on her side to look at him. "I'm not an animal, Julian. I'm human. You can't just feed and clothe me and expect me to be happy because you've met my basic survival needs," she says. "I need people, friends. I need to interact with other humans like me."

It's a conversation they've had before. Julian looks at her impassively through his heavy lashes. There's no real understanding there. The jury's still out on his compassion.

Jenny makes a frustrated sound and rolls on her back again. She feels like crying, but she's already cried more times she can count. Crying is not going top make her feel better.

"What about some books? Or a film?"

She almost laughs. At her request, Julian has been reluctantly bringing her best-sellers and new releases from the real world. Once he even got her a pizza, warm and steaming in its box, although Jenny doesn't know whether it's something he made by his magic or if it's been taken from a real pizza shop. The idea of Julian doing either is amusing to think about though.

But there were only so many trashy books and movies you could read and watch. Living in the Shadow World is like being on an extended holiday, except you're not on holiday from anything and you're more than ready to get back to your real life, only this is your real life now.

"Something quick then - chess or checkers?"

The problem, Jenny thinks, is that she knows her opponent too well.

Hmm.

"More players?" Julian repeats skeptically when she voices her idea. "You know the rules, Jenny."

"Players must agree to play the game voluntarily, in full knowledge of the risks, and must swear the oath," she recites, ticking off the requirements on her fingers. "I'm sure you can find some drunk college students to swear the stupid oath."

Or some sober, self-absorbed teenagers at a birthday party.

"It's not that easy."

"Let's make it a game," Jenny proposes, sitting up. Like she predicts, his eyes spark with interest. "The first one who can lure a new player, wins."

Julian raises an eyebrow. "Doesn't sound like much of a game if you're here."

She shrugs. "So I don't have to be here."

"Jenny..." he warns.

"You can put a time limit on it. A week - no, a day," she corrects when she sees him frown. "It's not like I can escape, right?" She holds up her hand with the poesy ring.

She's become good at reading his facial expressions. He's uncertain, but more importantly, he wants to play.

"You're up to something," he says finally.

She doesn't confirm our deny it.

Then, after another pause, "What are the stakes?"

Jenny's theory is that it's there's not much point in locking a princess in a tower unless there's a risk she might escape. Otherwise, why have a lock at all?

She takes a breath. "A week in the real world if I win."

"And if you lose?"

She needs to come up with something that he really wants, an equivalent temptation. Despite the poesy ring, despite everything, there are still rules in the Shadow World. Julian doesn't own her; he can't make her do anything.

"My memories," she says, "but only for a year."

"Ten years of my choosing," he bargains, and Jenny knows exactly what or who he wants erased from her mind and forgotten.

Ten years is a long time. A memory is a part of a person. If Jenny loses ten years then tomorrow she might wake up as a different person. It feels like she's betraying her friends and her past life. But what did it really matter if she remembers them or not? Maybe they've forgotten her too.

"Ten years," she agrees and she knows she's making a bargain with the devil.

*

Jenny is bored.

"How about a game?" Julian asks. "There's still a few we haven't played."

She's tired of games. She's been living in the Shadow World for years, no decades now, and she's been slowly going crazy. They've traversed almost all of the Shadow Europe Julian created, but she's never seen another soul.

She needs people. She needs to talk to someone who isn't Julian. But it's not like he's just going to let her have a holiday in the real world to see her friends again. Even if it was for a day.

Now there's an idea.

I thought you were tired of games," he says, not without a hint of amusement. "Are you sure? They say that memories are irreplaceable."

"Only if I lose."

"You seem pretty confident," he says. "Ten years is a long time."

Jenny shrugs. It might be better if she forgets about her old life and her old friends. Then she wouldn't know anything different.

He's quiet as he considers the offer. "A week in the real world."

She holds up the poesy ring. "It's not like I can escape, right?"

"No," Julian murmurs, "I suppose not."



Fin.



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