QSFer Kim Fielding has a new MM sci-fi/fairy tale retelling: Once Upon a Dance.
Dom is an aging house-android, toiling away for the cruel and ungrateful owners of an inn. He secretly dreams of freedom, friendship, and love. When an inn guest offers him the chance to attend a grand masquerade ball, Dom jumps at the opportunity. For a few precious hours he enjoys a level of independence he had never imagined—and the company of a handsome and kind prince of industry.
Until the clock strikes midnight.
“I apologize for the poor condition of our domus, Per Afrane.” Per Bolet, the inn’s owner, spoke in his most unctuous tone. “He’s original to the house, and we kept him for authenticity’s sake. But it’s so hard to find anyone who repairs these old androids.”
That was a lie, Dom thought as he hefted Per Afrane’s heavy suitcases out of the transfer pod parked in the courtyard. There were a lot of people on this moon who knew how to work on antique equipment, but because they charged more than Bolet was willing to pay, Dom had been gradually decaying. For now, most of the damage was cosmetic. But he was also slower and weaker, and his joints ached, and sooner or later he’d simply be too worn out to operate at all.
Per Afrane, her silver hair shining in the light of the twin suns, was an older woman whose maturity sat as comfortably on her as a ruler’s stole. She looked Dom up and down. “In my experience, a domus holds up quite well over time if he’s properly cared for.”
Bolet looked somewhat uncomfortable and gave a little sniff. “Well, we inherited this one when we purchased the property. Can’t be responsible for what previous owners have done.”
While not exactly a lie, it was a misdirection. Dom’s previous master had cared for him well—until the end, anyway—and it wasn’t until Bolet and his family took over that the neglect began in earnest.
“I certainly hope my rooms are in better condition,” said Per Afrane, looking at the grand structure in front of them.
“Oh, tip-top, I assure you.”
Only years of discipline prevented Dom from rolling his eyes.
The inn had once been among the finest houses in Mainport, but like Dom, it was showing the consequences of age, limited finances, and negligence. That wasn’t entirely Per Bolet’s fault. Dom’s previous master had lost a lot of money due to unwise investments, and afterward his health had suffered. Eventually his mind had weakened as well, and he’d let the house slip out of his hands for far less than it was worth. If he’d been stronger, he’d never have subjected Dom to Bolet and his family.
But here Dom was.
The pod hatch closed with a tiny whoosh, and the pod rose smoothly to cruising altitude. Within seconds it had disappeared behind the rooftops.
“Let me show you to your quarters.” Bolet gestured toward the front door.
They all set off, with Dom in the rear managing the luggage. Pers Afrane and Bolet walked side-by-side as Bolet droned on about the inn’s various amenities. He made them sound much more luxurious than they were, and Dom suspected from the set of Per Afrane’s shoulders that she knew it. She was doubtless accustomed to a much higher-class lodging. But she’d made her reservations late, when the fancy inns of Mainport were already booked solid. Dom had overheard one of Bolet’s sons comment that guests had come from as far as six worm-jumps away to attend the Betucom masquerade gala. Dom couldn’t fathom those kinds of distances.
When they reached Per Afrane’s suite, Dom set down the heavy bags with some relief. His shoulders and back ached, but he forced himself to stand straight as Afrane looked around.
“See?” said Bolet. “Deluxe accommodations.”
Per Afrane sniffed but didn’t say anything, apparently leading Bolet to conclude that she was satisfied enough. He rubbed his hands together. “Well, I must see about dinner arrangements. Please let the domus know if you need anything. He doesn’t look pretty, but he can handle whatever tasks you require.” He scurried out of the room, probably to go count the credits that Per Afrane had just shifted to his account.
While Dom stood silently, Per Afrane spent several minutes inspecting the rooms. She peered out windows and into cupboards and ran her finger along furniture tops and windowsills. Finally she turned and regarded Dom. “Well, once upon a time I suppose they were deluxe.”
For some odd reason, Dom was pleased to hear her say so. He gave her a small smile. “Yes, per. For several generations this suite was for the head of the family.”
The three spacious rooms—bedroom, sitting area, and bath—all had big windows overlooking what had once been lovely gardens but had more recently been paved over. The enormous shelving unit was made of real oak imported long ago from Old Earth. Per Bolet likely would have sold it if he could have removed it without damage.
“Everything is of the finest quality,” said Per Afrane. “Most people would consider it dated, I suppose, and it’s all a bit worn. But antiques have charm and character you’ll never find in newer things. And everything’s very clean. I’m assuming that’s your responsibility. Well done.”
At the praise, a warm feeling bloomed in Dom’s processors. “Thank you,” he said, ducking his head. “Is there anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable?”
“No, I’m fine. I’ve business to attend to before the gala and won’t be here much anyway.”
“Of course. Just call if you need anything.”
She tilted her head and looked at him carefully. “What’s your name?”
The circuits that permitted him to blush had failed long ago, but he could still feel shame. “I’m just the domus. Dom for short, if you like.”
Kim Fielding is very pleased every time someone calls her eclectic.
Winner of the 2021 BookLife Prize for Fiction, a Lambda Award
finalist and three-time Foreword INDIE finalist, she has migrated
back and forth across the western two-thirds of the United States
and currently lives in California, where she long ago ran out of bookshelf
She’s a university professor who dreams of being able to
travel and write full time. She also dreams of having two daughters
who fully appreciate her, a husband who isn’t obsessed with football,
and a house that cleans itself. Some dreams are more easily
obtained than others.