THE MAGE’S HARLEQUINADE
PUBLISHED BY ELLYSHA CHIN ON Shakespir
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When the rest of the Stahlbaum family retired to bed on Christmas Eve, everyone fell asleep soundly except one: Clarice. While her younger siblings snored away in the nursery next door, Clarice listened to the slow ticking of the clock on her wall. She flipped and flailed in a tangle of sheets, then sat bolt upright, as though was expecting something bad to happen.
Clarice glanced over at her bedside table, thoughts and blurred images of the day’s events dancing around in her mind. The only image in her mind that wasn’t blurry was the Christmas party which ended hours ago. Her parents invited everybody – including her granduncle Drosselmeyer, the resident nutcase who also happened to be a robotics genius and toymaker. This time Drosselmeyer had brought an entire collection of engineering projects to show off at dinner. By the time the party ended, everyone left the Stahlbaum house either ranting or raving about what they saw: a little slice of the future.
Clarice got out of bed and took the torch on her bedside table. She tiptoed across the wooden floor, creaked the door open and headed downstairs to the lounge to look for the Nutcracker doll Drosselmeyer had given her at the party earlier as a gift. When Clarice found him in the living room, he was right where she left him: sitting on the mantelpiece with a visible crack around his neck from where her stupid brother Fritz broke him. She had then proceeded take the Nutcracker back to her room, until she heard a gruff voice emerge from the darkness.
‘Don’t touch him!’
Clarice opened her mouth to scream, but a gloved hand covering her face prevented her from making any noise. She turned around to see a silver-haired man standing behind her; instantly recognising his pinstripe waistcoat, pendant watch and the white medical eyepatch over his left eye.
‘Uncle Drosselmeyer?’ she squeaked. ‘What are you doing here? It’s five minutes to midnight!’
‘I should be asking what you are doing out of bed at this hour,’ said Drosselmeyer. He waved a finger in her face. ‘Naughty, naughty! You should have been fast asleep hours ago.’
‘You scared me half to death!’
Drosselmeyer ignored her protest and pointed to the Nutcracker doll in her arms. ‘Put him back where you found him,’ he said.
‘He hasn’t been fixed yet.’
‘I just wanted to check—’
‘Now is not a good time to check on anything.’
‘But you said he was—’
‘Clarice, put him back.’
‘But Uncle Dross, please—’
‘I promise he’ll be fixed in no time,’ Drosselmeyer said. ‘Now be a good girl and go back to bed. Off you go.’
Clarice hesitated and looked down at the Nutcracker in her arms. She shook her head at herself and placed him under the tree, trying to ignore the feeling of goose-bumps prickling her spine. When she placed him down and looked back at him, The Nutcracker’s eyes were glowing as though they were alive… as if he knew what she was thinking.
Maybe Uncle Dross had a point. Her bedtime was hours ago, and she was supposed to be tired. So she turned on her heel to face Drosselmeyer and bid him goodnight – only to find he had disappeared from the room.
Harlequin the Porcelain Doll peeked from behind the pine leaves of the Christmas tree. There was only one time when dolls like him could become alive – and that was when the clock stroked midnight on Christmas Eve, if the missing Phantom Queen was lucid.
He watched the girl in the middle of the room, rocking on her feet with her face in her knees. She then looked up, scrambled to her knees and cowered backwards, looking back at the shell of the Nutcracker sitting next to him.
‘Don’t look at me like that!’ she said to the wooden soldier. ‘You’re just a toy!’
Harlequin followed the girl as she ran around the room, trapped within his setting. The only girl in the room wasn’t just any girl. He’d be able to recognise her face anywhere. She had eyes blue as the moon; blonde hair in ringlets around her shoulders. Her movements were graceful, like a snowflake in the breeze.
The Phantom Queen was back. From seven years of dead.
He watched her gaze turned from puzzled to a mix of fear and awe as she then shuffled to the left. Right. Then she stood up on her tiptoes, craning her neck as the Christmas tree grew taller and taller in the light of her torch.
Harlequin got to his knees and crawled to the corner to find his female counterpart, Columbine. It took a moment to realise Columbine’s whereabouts until he looked up and saw her on the other side of the room, brandishing one of the soldier’s revolver guns at the little rat scrambling across the floor.
Harlequin struggled to his feet and ran across the room towards Columbine, grabbing the gun from her hands just as the trigger fired a blank.
‘What are you doing?’ he whispered. ‘Don’t kill the—’
Harlequin looked down at the floor and felt the warmth of a light beam prickling his silicone skin, shining on his face mask and lighting up his blonde-streaked hair. The couple turned to face the light beam, and there stood the girl he was watching a moment ago.
‘If you’ll excuse us, your highness—’
‘Your highness?’ Clarice said. ‘What are you talking about? My name is Clarice.’
‘If I must reintroduce myself,’ said Harlequin. ‘My name is Harlequin and that’s Columbine.’ He bent forward in a grand bow, nudging Columbine out of the way. ‘Don’t mind Columbine’s terrible attempt at pest control. And I see you’ve grown taller.’
Clarice raised an eyebrow, baffled. ‘Have me met?’
Columbine then slapped Harlequin’s shoulder with a gloved hand. ‘You’re a madman,’ she said. ‘See, Harlequin? She clearly doesn’t understand what the heck you’re talking about.’
‘I know the Phantom Queen when I see her,’ said Harlequin. ‘I watching her with my own eyes before I saw you with that gun!’
‘Watching whom? Me?’
‘And now you’re confusing people again,’ said Columbine. ‘First of all, The Phantom Queen died seven years ago. This girl looks perfectly ordinary and rats are vermin to most humans.’
‘Vermin!’ said Harlequin. ‘She’s the one The Rat King is after. That’s why I told you not to touch him!’
‘Rat King?’ echoed Clarice. ‘What Rat King?’
‘And that’s exactly what I mean when I say this one is a madman,’ Columbine said, shaking her head at Harlequin. ‘Don’t listen to him. He’s clearly insane.’ She extends a hand. ‘I’m Columbine.’
‘Insane?’ said Harlequin. ‘I’m telling you the tru—’
The owl clock on the mantelpiece began to sing the midnight chorus. Its voice resonated through the room like a warning siren:
Ting! Ting! Ting! Ting! Ting!
They froze in their positions, still as sculptures through the ringing. Clarice’s eyes floated to the base of the giant Christmas tree, where the life-sized Nutcracker stirred from his hyper-sleep.
That was the moment the window flung open and the Rat King burst into the house like a snowstorm.
Columbine went to the window where the Rat King had entered and pulled the panels shut against the blizzard. But at the moment she closed the window, she could see the falling snowflakes hanging in midair. Outside, it was as if someone had pressed a pause button on the night. And yet, inside, everything else had either grown larger or kept moving.
‘I told you so!’ said Harlequin. ‘See? I wasn’t fibbing. You should think twice before you grab a gun and call me a madman when I take it away from you.’
Columbine punched Harlequin in the arm. ‘You should think twice talking before talking about things that sound ridiculous assuming people know what you mean when they don’t.’
‘You were the one who picked up a gun and—’
‘Shoot that rat!’
Columbine turned around, taking several moments to register whom the voice belonged in the crowd behind her. Her thoughts were quickly interrupted by the sound of the soldiers’ cannons firing one bomb after the next.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Columbine searched the crowd and found her standing up on the sofa near the mantelpiece, smacking the mice underneath her ineffectively with a cushion while Harlequin was at the other end battling with the soldiers, almost getting squashed by the mob.
She raced back into the centre of the room to find Harlequin, crawling past the giant presents between pine leaves to avoid being seen. On the wall in the light of the torch, The Nutcracker Prince slashed back and forth at the Rat King. As they fought, the shadows cast on the wall grew and grew.
Columbine shuddered. They both looked like monsters.
She then cast her eyes back to Clarice.
‘Strike the march, loyal vassal drummer!’ called The Nutcracker.
The drummer then pounded so loudly that the ornaments on the mantelpiece were trembling as if an earthquake was shaking beneath it. The mice surrounded the Nutcracker and the soldiers continued to break out the artillery; gunshots and bombs exploding one by one like fireworks.
The Rat King then turned away from the swordfight, grabbing Clarice by the hem of her dress.
‘Why did you do make me do this?’ he said.
‘Let me go!’ said Clarice. ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about!’
‘Don’t play dumb!’ said the Rat. ‘You know Mages are not allowed to use their powers to kill or hurt others yet you bent the rules to allow this Nutcracker Mage Prince to become a terrorist and drive himself insane.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘I’m not ridiculous,’ said the Rat to the girl. ‘That Nutcracker you love so much made a mess of himself and I’ve come here to stop him. And it’s all because of you, The Phantom Queen who made a royal mistake.’
‘If your five-year-old mind knew common sense and hadn’t awarded him higher powers because you loved him, none of this would have happened. That wooden soldier would still be a human, he would still have his sanity and I wouldn’t be here tearing time apart searching for The Queen who disappeared seven years ago.’
‘You must be mistaken,’ said Clarice. ‘I’m not a queen. I’m Clarice. I’m twelve years old and I’m an ordinary girl. I’m going to go back to bed like Uncle Dross had told me to and I’ll wake up from this nightmare…’
‘Then I shall prove to you the guilt I live with for killing him on your orders.’
‘You’re just a rat!’
Clarice removed her slipper from her right foot and with all her might flung it across the room. The shoe flew through the air, landing with a smack in the Rat King’s face
The Rat King froze, staring at Clarice eye to eye. His eyes widened in shock for a moment, then fell to the ground.
A memory flashed in the back of her mind – half-dim, half-bright. The Phantom Queen. The Mage Prince. The Rat King. Time-stopping. Killing. Insanity.
Clarice stopped in her tracks. Her cheeks went cold.
The next moment she opened her eyes, she was watching the little Phantom Queen she used to be, dancing among the snowflakes.
Harlequin and Columbine had arrived just in time to catch Clarice as she fell gently without a sound.
The Mage's Harlequinade is a modern retelling of ETA Hoffann's classic fairytale, The Nutcracker. It tells the story of Clarice Stahlbaum, a seemingly ordinary girl. On Christmas Eve at a few minutes to midnight she sits up in bed while her siblings snore away in the nursery next door, as if she were expecting something bad to happen. The Nutcracker's magic leads her to the loungeroom, where she is greeted by Harlequin and Columbine - a pair of dolls who seem to remember a past being whom she doesn't remember.