The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly

Edited by L. D. Lewis

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

July 2020

Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:

To the parents or guardians of Miss Coraline Connelly:

Right now you’re thinking, Where is she? because this is what every parent thinks when they find an empty crib and a raven with a scroll in its beak. I have stolen enough children to know.

Your question is easily answered: Miss Connelly is toddling through the obsidian halls of my palace in the world-below like a misplaced sunbeam, all golden curls and freckles, pestering the troll-guard and chattering with the ravens. She’s in no distress, I assure you, beyond a few requests for a gentleman named Daniel Tiger.

Now you’re thinking, How do I get her back?

Here you’re in luck! Simply read my name three times into any mirror or other reflective surface and I will return her to you for the extremely reasonable tithe of nine (9) years of your life. Should you fail to fulfill the terms of this contract within the next seven (7) moonsets, she will remain forever in my keeping.

In cordial expectation of your call,

Queen Jaref the Third, Empress of the Black Realms


Dear madam,

I am concerned that you did not receive my previous missive, although my raven reports that you took the letter and appeared to read it. He says afterward your eyes were empty and dark as dry wells, that you stared for a very long time at the rumpled sheets where your child had been so recently asleep. (Or not-asleep; when I arrived at the stroke of midnight on the equinox — when the price for passing without invitation is most affordable — I found her as wide-eyed and wakeful as a lightning-struck pixie. She has shown no signs of weariness yet.)

Most parents respond with rather more alacrity to my terms and, I must say, I wonder what sort of mother would do otherwise.

I am accustomed to my solitude — having outlived most of my wives and husbands and quarreled with the rest, and never having had an heir of my own — and my patience is wearing thin. I have had to send a raven out to search for Mr. Tiger, as it is apparently a matter of some urgency.

Queen Jaref the Third


Dear madam,

Nine is such a lot of years, isn’t it? Nearly a decade! I am willing to reduce my tithe to a mere seven (7) years, at no small cost to myself — changing the terms of a contract is a terrible expense, particularly in these degenerate days when even queens are reduced to ransoming children for a few meager years-worth of power.

In light of Miss Connelly’s long stay, I have had to waive the usual contractual obligations surrounding the consumption of fairy food. She has eaten well in her time at the Night Court. (Until this morning, when I gave her nectar in a cup that was — apparently — insufficiently purple and instigated an entirely disproportionate response. I was forced to offer her a quite extravagant number of witch-cakes in recompense.)

My attendant still has not returned with the elusive Mr. Tiger.

Queen Jaref the Third


Dear madam,

Perhaps you are not a mortal mother after all but an ancient enemy seeking to destroy me by unleashing your hellspawn in my court.

The witch-cakes had some unforeseen effects on Miss Connelly (flight, invisibility, minor prophecy, et cetera). She escaped my attendants and went rollicking through the Black Realms for several hours, during which time she perpetrated unspeakable acts against the pixies and instigated a border-war with the Tartaran trolls.

She’s sleeping now, although still slightly translucent and hovering several inches above the bed, looking improbably innocent. That’s the wrong word — innocence implies the existence of sin, and we don’t believe in sin down here. I mean, she looks small and fragile but somehow infinite. Like a rosebud or an apple-seed, something with ten thousand futures folded neatly inside it.

I suppose she is probably not an agent of my ancient enemies after all but merely a child. I wouldn’t know, as I never had

In consideration of Coraline’s temperament and your own (I’m sure considerable) distress, I am prepared to waive the tithe altogether.

Jaref


Madam,

I couldn’t sleep last night. What, I wondered, could prevent a mother from claiming her daughter?

I sent my spiders to investigate. They found you lying atop an unmade bed, awake, wearing a blue apron with “How May I Help You” embroidered in yellow thread across the chest. Your lips were chapped and bitten, your hair unwashed. You clutched a stuffed tiger tight in your right hand, as if it were precious.

They found any number of curious objects scattered across your floors — bills with red lettering, a purple cup with an entirely inaccurate depiction of a unicorn on its side, a tattered-looking pamphlet featuring a maniacally happy woman holding a placid baby beneath the words Beating the Baby Blues! — but no curses or demons, no impediments or injuries. Nothing at all preventing you from calling me.

I confess I cannot imagine the good fortune of having a child like Coraline (canny as a crow and twice as wild, imperious, unmanageable, stubborn as stones — all the qualities, in short, which I would have hoped to find in my own heir) only to abandon her. I wish I believed in sin, so I would have a name for such wicked wastefulness.

Perhaps it would be better if you did not speak my name. Perhaps it would be better for Coraline to remain with the woman who took her rather than the woman who let her go.

Queen Jaref the Third, Empress of the Black Realms


Dear Miss Connelly,

I owe you an explanation.

I tried for centuries to have a child of my own. Those things which are rare in your world (witching and wish-granting, alchemy and augury) are common here, and what is easy for your kind (birth, death, democracy) is quite difficult for mine.

I squandered all my power on it, and it wasn’t enough. Now I spend my days scheming and pilfering, stealing mortal children and pretending, for an hour or two, that they are mine.

To think that you would forsake the very thing I wanted so badly…. I’m afraid I lost my temper. I should not judge you so harshly. I should know better than anyone: we do not all get to choose whether or not we are mothers.

But now you do.

Whatever you decide, you should know that she still asks for you. She has forgotten much of the world above, as mortals tend to, but not you. I suspect that, even if she spends eternity in the Night Court, she will still pause sometimes and frown, as if she has misplaced something very dear to her.

It is the seventh night. When the moon sets, the time for choosing will be over. But until then — if you call, I must answer.

Jaref


Dear Miss Connelly,

I had convinced myself that you wouldn’t do it. I had begun to believe I would wake to find Corrie’s bird-nest curls still beside me.

But you called my name three times in a voice like dust and heartache, even though you are young and alone and tired, even though you are poor and it cost you dearly. Because you love her more than you love yourself.

You called and I came and Coraline leapt from my arms so fast I didn’t have time to say goodbye or to consider not letting her go. (Would I have done it? Would I have used the last of my power to break our contract? Perhaps. Perhaps I, too, love her more than myself.)

I wish you hadn’t called. I’m glad you did. Perhaps you could call again, now and then.

There was a moment just before I vanished when she looked at me with something fervent and fierce in her face, something precious— Well. I would not want her to forget me.

J


My dear Constance,

I never thought to hear from you so soon! I’m touched that Coraline would launch such a drastic and effective campaign on my behalf, and unspeakably grateful for the solution you proposed.

I have drawn up a new contract — not the first of its kind, but perhaps the first on such agreeable terms — outlining everything we discussed: shared custody, exceptions for Christmas and Beltane, joint expenditures, et cetera. When she comes of age, she may either inherit the Black Realms as my lawful heir or pursue her undergraduate degree (an expense I will, of course, defray — although you should raise the issue with your local ministers, as it seems exorbitant).

Should you find the terms to your liking, tell Coraline to eat the enclosed six (6) pomegranate pips. Expect me at midnight on the next equinox.

J

P.S. I would be obliged if you would pack the purple cup and Mr. Tiger, this time.

© 2020 Alix E. Harrow

About the author

Alix E. Harrow

A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. In 2019, she won a Hugo Award for her short fiction and published her first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with Orbit/Redhook Books. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.