That’s how folks describe 16-year-old Snow White, who is more interested in studying insects than her own beautiful, anemic face. When her bipolar stepmother sets a price on her heart, which she’d like served with baby potatoes and Chianti, Snow White has no choice – she must outwit every studly huntsman, assassin, city guard and robber baron sent to bring her back, preferably dead, before she reaches Lapland.
20-year-old Aein is a one-winged cripple from another planet. Passionate, ridiculed, headstrong, and considered hideous in his gossamer, aerial world, he desires nothing more than to prove to his royal family that flight and beauty are overrated. He gets his one chance when he is selected to go to Earth, disguised as a ‘Crawler’ – who appears to us as a phenomenally handsome human youth. His mission: to pave our world for colonization and, later . . . annihilation.
Snow White and Aein must choose their allegiances, and fight a forbidden, growing love for each other before their worlds explosively collide. Set in the enchanted forests of the Brothers Grimm, Snow White & The Alien is a Tangled-meets-The-Day-the-Earth-Stood-Still collision of opposing personalities, cultures, armies, and ideas of what constitutes beauty.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away (well, actually, it was Bavaria), there lived a princess with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony. And that was where the fairytale ended.
Snow White sat cross-legged on the conservatory’s stone floor, swiping glue with a tiny paintbrush onto matchsticks. Her hair stood up in sticky tufts. She had run her gummy fingers impatiently through it many times.
Her minder, Tom Cherry, sat across from her and tried to interrupt: “Excuse me, but – ”
“Ssssh!” Snow White held a stern finger up. “This is an extremely delicate procedure and I’d rather you be silent for an hour. Preferably two.”
Tom looked irritated, and then resigned, but Snow White took no notice. She never did. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, and although her legs felt like they had merged with the diseased tree in the cracked flowerpot beside her, she persisted. Two hours straight and she hadn’t so much as taken a sip of water. Her neck muscles protested with a cramp.
A troop of large black ants waited as she laid a sticky matchstick on the floor. Six ants lifted it and scurried off in an assembly line to a small structure in the middle of the conservatory. It was a matchstick model of a building replete with chambers, passageways, stairs, windows, doors. Ants crawled around it, embedding matchsticks, while dragonflies, crickets and bees fanned the drying glue with their wings.
“Snow White,” Tom said, and before she could lambast him again, he hurriedly went on, “I’m supposed to be keeping you clean. No smudges on your face and the like, and your hands have to be lily white, like a lady’s. Last time I failed to keep you clean, Ma clobbered me in my right ear.” He pointed to it. “Still feels like it’s been dipped in molasses.”
For the first time that afternoon, Snow White peered down at herself. She wore a man’s tunic and leggings, hand-me-downs from Kurt Cherry, Tom’s older brother. Her bare toes squelched in the cold. Her hands were encrusted in grime, and her nails were chewed into a pattern that resembled the serrated edge of a saw.
“Oh,” she said airily, “it isn’t so bad. Nothing hot water wouldn’t scrub away.”
Tom stole a glance at the door.
“It isn’t scrubbing you need as much as excision.” Tom was fifteen. Although common, he took lessons along with Snow White to keep her company, a chore he looked forward to with a mixture of trepidation (because of Snow White) and relish (because he loved reading). Now and then, he proudly peppered his vocabulary with what he considered scholarly words: ‘Excision’, ‘Adhesion’, ‘Remonstration’.
Snow White sighed. “Oh, all right. The things I do for you.”
She jumped to her feet, the suddenness of the movement startling Tom, and swung to look around the chamber. Insects of all types swarmed the conservatory, mingling in a harmonious spirit rarely seen in any species, let alone families of species. Vines crept everywhere, strangling small trees.
Snow White loped to an easel where a flip chart hung.
“Back to the plan.” She tapped the first sheet with a branch. Her movements were quick, brushed with impatience – an aristocrat used to being obeyed, cajoled. Her face with all its angelic perfection was not soft.
“So,” she said, “do you think we should call it the University for Arthropod Appreciation or merely UAA?”
Tom had trouble straightening his legs. “We’ve been through this. Most people can’t pronounce ‘arthropod’, let alone know what it means. We’re better off calling it the University of Bug Appreciation. Or UBA,” he added helpfully.
“The University of Arthropod Appreciation,” Snow White went on as if she hadn’t heard, “shall have a grand entrance hall where our mission statement shall greet everyone who cares to be greeted. The layman’s motto again, Tom.”
Tom sighed and repeated by rote: “Insects are not adversaries to be quashed under the shoe of someone bigger.”
“From the entrance,” Snow White turned to the second page, “we enter the termite chamber, where the mastery of termite architecture shall stun the world.”
In another section of the conservatory, several tall structures resembling castles had been erected from soil. Termites scurried all over them.
Footsteps sounded outside the conservatory. Tom’s eyes rounded in fear. “I can’t remember if I’d locked the door.”
Glaring at him as if she’d like to quash him under her shoe, Snow White hissed: “Amscray Alarm One, everyone!”
The insects swarmed to hide themselves under leaves, pots, cactus arms, anything they could think of. It was a fascinating creepy-crawly hive of activity, followed by absolute stillness. From the ceiling and windows, the afternoon sun flooded in to light the entire room into a hegemony of colors and silence.
The conservatory door creaked upon. Hanna Cherry, a corpulent woman with three chins, a huge bosom that sank down to her waist, and a pathological fear of cockroaches, peeked in. Tom shrank back in fright. Snow White hid her hands, as filthy as any gravedigger’s, demurely behind her back. But her face, one that should be immortalized in paintings and hung in art galleries, was only slightly cleaner than a pig’s.
Hanna Cherry’s shriek compressed the air like a battering ram. Tom wilted, the color draining from his body onto the checkered floor, and clapped his hands to his ears. A good thing too because his mother strode across the room to box his left ear. (It was out of love that she did so because she remembered what she’d done to his right.)
“I told her so!” Tom whimpered as he cringed, cupping his left ear. He was as tall as his mother, but beside her, he was a mushroom next to a stampeding elephant. “But she wouldn’t listen. She never listens. She’s a strange one, she is. She – ”
Ignoring him, Hanna Cherry turned her ample breasts to Snow White.
“Your highness,” she said in a voice dripping with acid-laced honey. “Her Majesty has asked you for tea. But you aren’t properly dressed.”
An unfamiliar flush rose to Snow White’s cheeks. Suddenly, she seemed uncertain, much younger than her age – the five-year-old princess standing with red roses before her stepmother, who wore a puff of a wedding gown that rivaled the clouds. “She asked for me?”
“Yes, you. Come along now and we’ll get you cleaned up.”
“But she hasn’t asked for me since . . . ” Snow White racked her brains to remember. “Or do you think she read the dissertation I wrote in the Journal of Entomology where I was comparing the characteristics of different stick insects?”
Tom rolled his eyes.
With three strides, Hanna Cherry crossed the divide and grabbed Snow White’s hand, wincing when she found that it stuck.
“I can come by myself, thank you.” With difficulty, Snow White wrenched her hand away. In a gesture she imagined that was more regal than the Queen herself, she straightened her shoulders, flung back her hair – which was thankfully black enough to mask the grime – and marched out of the conservatory, passing a reproachful Tom Cherry who was still nursing his ear.
His expression clearly said: If they weren’t paying me to mind you, I’d rather be eating boiled toenails.
It was too late to do anything but hastily fling water onto her face and scrub whatever part of her body that wouldn’t be covered by her yellow dress. Snow White floated in a dandelion puff of taffeta. Hanna Cherry emptied a whole bottle of Egyptian perfume on her as Snow White rushed to the royal parlor, almost tripping over the hem of her dress as the vapors stung her eyes.
“Don’t be yourself!” Hanna Cherry called after her.
Snow White felt like sticking an appendage to her nanny, but the dress corseted her in.
If there was one person in the kingdom she hero-worshipped, it was her stepmother. Queen Isobel commanded respect and armies in equal measure. But Snow White saw her rarely, so her stepmother’s mystery grew with her stature and empire.
Snow White remembered standing as a child on top of the castle’s sweeping entrance when the victorious Bavarian armies marched through the city gates.
“Hungary has fallen!” cried the crowd, and Snow White beamed.
But now, she hesitated outside the parlor door. She pictured the Queen’s eyes glazing over in boredom. Oh, oh, oh, she thought, her ears thundering with her own heartbeat, what if I have nothing interesting to say?
She entered the parlor, aware that her toenails within her shoes were caked with soil. Inside, silver teapots mingled with dainty china teacups on a table. A triple-tiered silver tray groaned with iced cakes and finger sandwiches.
Queen Isobel turned to the door. “Ah, the child enters. A whole hour late, I might add.”
Snow White winced. “I was preoccupied in the conservatory, Your Majesty.”
The Queen’s turbulent blue eyes studied Snow White’s face with unsettling intensity. Snow White hung back, uncertain. It was to her chagrin that she could lord it over Tom Cherry and everyone else, but before the Queen, she was eternally that five-year-old orphaned princess.
The Queen finally spoke: “You’re far lovelier than I expected. Isn’t she, Wolfsbane?”
For the first time, Snow White noticed the other guest: a handsome man in his late thirties. Rugged with a five o’ clock shadow, he had dark brown hair and eyes. He wore a leather jerkin over his white tunic, and when Snow White peered under the table, she saw that his boots were scuffed with mud.
So much for dressing up.
“I thought you said she was a child,” drawled Wolfsbane. He had a languid air, as though nothing that happened was of much consequence to him. “She’s fairly well grown.”
The Queen shot him a sharp look. “She’s a child.”
“I’m sixteen,” Snow White retorted.
She wanted to add: ‘I don’t care to be spoken of as though I’m not in the room’, but she bit her tongue back. Disappointment made her shoulders droop. Am I expecting too much from her? Did I distort her into being someone she’s not?
“Are you really now?” said the Queen. “Which birthday did we celebrate, the one in which you asked for a cake shaped like a dung beetle?”
“That was five years ago. And it was a horned beetle.”
“She’s beautiful,” Wolfsbane murmured. “Quite a prize.”
A fleeting annoyance came over the Queen’s face. Her eyes appraised Snow White, taking in the girl’s lush lips, the fairy whiteness of her skin against the contrast of dark hair. She shot another look at Wolfsbane, who leaned back in his chair to grin. He had a predatory air that made Snow White think of female praying mantises.
“That will be all for today, Snow White,” the Queen said.
Huh? Once again, surprise made Snow White clasp the back of a chair. “But I just got here,” she said, her voice faltering.
“And?” the Queen inquired politely.
Her cheeks flaming, Snow White turned heel. With her head held high, she padded out of the parlor, the Queen’s eyes burning a hole in her back. Snow White’s heart pounded with every step – thop, thop, thop – a lead ball being struck by a mallet into the depths of her shoes.
She passed Tom Cherry, who opened his mouth to say something, but she silenced him with a palm like an exorcist warding off a demon.
“Bah!” he called after her in an injured tone. “You were always rude and spoilt but now you’re getting worse!”
His truthful remark ringing in her ears, she fled to her bedchamber, her pulse drumming up such a beat that she forced herself to slow down. As always, after a frenetic run, she gasped in lungfuls of air. Bright green stars zigzagged across her eyes.
She burst into her bedroom at the top of the East Tower. The walls and bed were covered with layers of red beads mottled with tiny black spots.
“Code Seven,” she said. The layers dissipated, breaking apart into thousands of ladybugs. They spilled onto the floor to reveal an elaborate corkboard map of Europe on a wall. Green darts covered massive areas of it, Hungary and Austria included. At the bottom right corner was a symbol of the Bavarian crown.
Snow White grabbed several darts off her dresser and hurled them into the map. Thuck! One struck Bavaria. Thuck! Another struck the crown, dead center.
“Arggh!” Snow White cried and flung herself onto the bed. The ladybugs scattered before her bulk could quash them against the green and purple coverlet.
She clasped her knees to her chest and rocked herself slowly, the way she used to do as a child. She mumbled, “I’m such a disappointment.”
Then she buried her head between her knees. “I’m awful, awful! It’s no wonder nobody likes me!”
After a while, she poked her head out and said with more heat: “People are such a disappointment.”
Her eyes softened as she laid her upturned palm on the bedspread. Several ladybugs climbed onto it. “That’s why I far prefer your company,” she said.
Outside, the ball of sun sank into green and yellow foothills of the only home she’d ever known. The sun’s rays lighted up a large gold beetle on her bedside table.
“Scarab, little scarab,” Snow White murmured. She gently picked it up. It was the size of her palm. Its bright wings were beaten gold wafers realistically structured with veins, and it smelled of metal and forge embers. Its multifaceted eyes stared into Snow White’s.
“It was my real mother’s,” Snow White said to the curious ladybugs. Her heart swelled with unaccustomed emotion. She felt all soft and bruised inside, an apple fallen off a cart. “There’s a curious story attached to it. See this?”
She fingered the beetle’s little stinger, a short, sharp golden needle. “This stung her, and her blood fell onto the snow as she sat by the window which had an ebony wood frame. I don’t know whether to believe if this golden beetle was alive once.”
A trail of black ants climbed from the floor to her bedspread.
“Oh, hello,” she said, a little surprised. Ants weren’t usually as forthcoming as ladybugs. They tended to be absorbed in their tasks, pretty much like herself. “Do you have something to tell me?”
The ants moved as though her bed was heated. She noticed a large cluster of them on her floor – a spectacle that would have sent Hanna Cherry leaping to the top of a closet. Her gaze followed them to where they massed, almost dripping off, on her ebony-framed, body-length mirror. The ants were avidly trying to form an image on the glass. Since the surface was smooth, some had difficulty clinging on and fell off.
“Mirror,” Snow White remarked. “That’s what you’re trying to tell me, right? Something to do with a mirror.”
From the floor, ants climbed to the corkboard map. They circled the crown symbol.
“Crown mirror.” Snow White frowned. “You’re losing me. What’s a mirror got to do with – ?” She paused. “Oh. I wonder . . . I just wonder . . . ”
She sank back into her pillows. The ants and ladybugs scurried out of her way. Her eyes wore a faraway look.
“I wonder if I shall do a little sleuthing.”
One of the stars that hung in the deep blue bowl of Bavarian sky was a sun to a planet called Spora.
Its surface was rocky, pitted and harsh, but pockmarked with a dazzling array of golden buildings which resembled silos. One such silo housed a very important chamber called the Redwood Room. It hosted the most precious commodity in the planet: a cut slice of a massive redwood tree.
Aein lay on his belly in the tight crawlspace of the Redwood Room’s air vent. Trepidation roiled in his belly as he raised the irregular piece of pink Rearndt crystal, as rare as trees on his barren home planet. It immortalized images frozen in time – people, places, life and laughter, sorrow and contempt.
Contempt was what he aimed for today.
He intended to immortalize the four perfectly formed Sporadeans who sat around the Table. Their wings beat in a slow, almost lazy tempo, and their bodies were blood red and perfectly muscled. The segments on their abdomen glistened, and they waved three pairs of strong, elegantly serrated legs as they rolled around in mirth. If anyone from Earth were to look upon them, they would have resembled winged insects. They were at least a head taller than a grown man.
Three of the four had no right to be there.
“Come on now,” Aein murmured softly, “nicely does it. Don’t move, you critters.”
One for the road, he thought in satisfaction as he tapped the crystal’s side. The crystal misted like the pupil of an eye clouding over, and turned ruby red. An image imprinted forever.
Desecration of the Redwood Table had its price: public flogging. It was on that very dare that these Sporadeans, Aein believed, casually placed their lowermost limbs on the Table, a major insult to everything it represented. The crystal was evidence, but Aein did not intend to use it that way.
Dimynedon, his much hated cousin, was among the four.
Aein shifted from his prone position, taking care not to make a sound. If they knew he was up here, making images . . .
Dimynedon was a magnificent creature, with a wingspan far larger than Aein was long. Green, gold and red veins ran shimmering through his translucent wings. It was so unfair. Aein gripped the crystal so tightly that it bit into his flesh.
“And they’re sending,” Dimynedon said to his companions, “a cripple to the Blue Planet. A cripple, would you believe?”
His companions laughed, their wings shaking back and forth. Aein’s mandibles clenched. His own single wing lay curled behind his back, drab and grey in contrast, malformed since the day he was born.
“Just because he’s a Prince of the Blood.” The sneer was unmistakable in Dimynedon’s voice.
“He can’t even fly,” one of the companions agreed.
“He’s a Crawler,” said another. “Once a Crawler, always a Crawler.”
Every inch of Aein’s body fought to claw out of the vent and rip into these vermin. Crawler was the basest insult one could give a Sporadean, who were aerial beings for as long as there had been science. Keep calm, he told himself, trying to slow down his thundering heart. They’re jealous because they’re not one of the chosen Five.
“Hey,” Dimynedon said, “did you hear something?”
Aein held his breath. It wasn’t just about sound. Dimynedon had uncanny scent perception, the best among all the Sporadeans. Dimynedon was the best in everything – the aerial fighting arts, the races, the sky acrobatics – all which Aein could only watch longingly from the sidelines.
“I daresay,” Dimynedon said, confirming Aein’s worst fears, “that we have an eavesdropper, and there’s only one place his stench is coming from.”
Aein tried to crawl backwards but the Sporadeans in the chamber were far more agile. They leaped up and tore off the gold mesh that covered the vent. He flailed as they grabbed hold of his upper limbs. Aein tried to hook the duct walls with his lowermost feet, but Dimynedon wrapped a limb around his neck and pulled him out as one would extract a thorn. Aein struggled in their grasp, kicking, but they were four and he was a wingless cripple. The crystal scuttled to the floor.
“Oh look,” Dimynedon said, picking up the crystal. “He was planning on tattling.”
“You have no right to bring your goons to the Redwood Table,” Aein said hotly.
Dimynedon leaned close to his face. Aein saw himself magnified a dozen times over in his cousin’s multifaceted eyes.
“I’m a Knight of the Table,” his cousin said with an unmistakable edge, “something you never will be. How does it feel to be the only one in a long line of royals who didn’t make it to the Table?”
“If I had your wings, I would be a Knight,” Aein shot back.
Aein braced himself for pain as they threw him sprawling onto the Table. His carapace was as hard as theirs, but even he could feel his muscles juddering beneath it. Three of his captors pinned him down while Dimynedon sprang up with one beat of his majestic wings to hover above him.
“The last time we caught you like the Crawler you are,” his cousin said, “we hung you from the Emerald Spire. Took them a whole day to find you.”
Aein strained all his limbs, and it took his captors every effort to hold him down. “You were going to rape that poor Karsissian slave.”
“It was none of your business.” With a graceful movement that belied its strength, Dimynedon struck Aein’s face. “If you weren’t a Prince of the Blood and my aunt’s youngest son, I would have killed you.”
“I dare you to kill me now.” Aein tasted blood in his mouth.
“Foolhardy, aren’t you, Crawler? But you don’t want to die. You want to scurry on your six legs to that Blue Planet of yours, the world of the creepy crawlies.” Dimynedon turned to his companions. “The dominant creatures there walk upright on two legs, can you believe? It will suit our friend Aein here to debase himself. He’s had plenty of practice all his life.”
“Where I’m going,” Aein said evenly, “has nothing to do with flight. Duty awaits those who have been born unto the privilege.”
It was Dimynedon’s turn to flinch. Dimynedon was not First Family and no amount of furious wing beats would ever make him so. As envious as Aein was of Dimynedon, his handsome cousin was more envious of him, especially on the eve of this journey.
If he survived today.
Gritting his mandibles, Dimynedon struck Aein. Again. And again. Aein tuned himself out. I can survive this, he thought, letting the pain flow through him into the redwood. When that didn’t work, he tried to think of everything else but this.
The waves of dizziness that washed over him were so profound that he only half-heard the hiss at the door: “The Supreme Commander’s coming! Quickly, we have to go!”
His fleshy manacles vanished so suddenly that he barely noticed them. Aein opened his eyes. He was alone, cut up and bleeding on the Redwood Table. The wood scent filled his sensory spores with a sickly sweet smell.
Thulrika. Not good. She was Supreme Commander of the Hive armies. He would be forced to explain, and he was so phenomenally bad at explaining.
The door swung open. He glimpsed the airiness of the Hive walls outside.
“What is the meaning of this?” he heard Thulrika’s thundering voice. “What are you doing here?”
Aein shook his head to clear his swimming brain. He crawled onto his belly, his natural position. The Supreme Commander’s wingspan was larger than everyone else’s. She hovered above the floor, imposing in her height.
“It’s nothing,” Aein muttered, “I was just – ”
Again, he was tongue-tied. Lying was something as difficult for him as nibbling the far end, pointy tip of his abdomen.
“Whatever it is, I’m not interested, because we have far more important things to discuss.” Right to the point, as always, without niceties. Thulrika was a severe-looking female. Unwed. More butch than the whole Sporadean army put together. “I’m not sure you’re up to the journey tomorrow,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m beat up,” Aein argued, “I’ll be metamorphosing in the new carapace anyway, and – ”
“Yes. Let’s talk about the world you’re going to. The Blue Planet.” She paused for effect. (Though Aein had never known Thulrika to pause for anything but effect.) “Rich with trees, vegetation, spices, wood, everything we need.”
A moment passed between them. Aein nodded.
“It doesn’t matter what the Laws passed down from Fytenach the Fair say, and it doesn’t matter what the Council says,” Thulrika went on. “You have to make a choice for the greater good. We need this world, this place the natives call Earth, and every vote . . . your vote . . . counts.”
Again, his conscience prickled. The subtle request from the Supreme Commander, the most important personage in Spora after his mother – to go against the sacred laws he had pledged to uphold. To sacrifice his honor and credibility.
For the greater good.
“Pass swiftly through this land. Mingle with the natives if you must,” Thulrika said, “or mingle with them not at all. But should any native discover who you are, kill it immediately. Do your duty for Spora, and I’ll see to it that you’ll become a Knight at this Table. Isn’t that what you’ve always dreamed of?”
Aein hesitated, his mind a whirlwind of emotions. He gazed at the Redwood Table, remembering everything it stood for.
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