Against all odds, our Skoda wheezes to the top of the mountain.
“Idi ti!” Uncle Branko says as he waves me toward the ruin of the Koznik Castle. “Go explore your glorious heritage.”
“You’re not coming?” I ask.
Branko pokes at his cell phone’s filthy screen. “I have no interest in this bullshit.”
“So, you drove three hours up a mountain just to ditch me?”
“My mother will curse me from her grave if I break my promise.”
I emerge from a cloud of Branko’s second-hand smoke. “Tell me again about your opinions on bullshit.”
Branko leans his grizzled mug across the console. “Spare me your famous temper, Vladana. There’s bullshit, and then there’s bullshit. But, believe me, Violet Eyes, Grandma’s magic is real.”
Branko returns to his phone. He is planning his next blackjack failure despite his stunning loss last weekend and all the ones that came before.
I consider the ruin. Apparently, our family used to own this dump back in the good old days when they beheaded folks for kicks. As per Grandma, it used to be a real dazzler.
Branko grins unevenly and I wonder, fleetingly, if he will ever connect with a dentist. “Poker Masters is a go if we can be back to Belgrade by eight!” he yells through the cracked windshield.
Fifty-three years old, living in government housing, forced to raise his jerk-sister’s orphan, and the loser still won’t accept that the world is a giant joke that will screw us over at every turn.
“Goddamn you, Mama,” I mutter as I trudge toward the rubble. “I hope you rot at the bottom of that gorge.”
A perfectly iced pink cupcake is not what I expect to find atop the rockpile, but there it is. I am too hungry to care that it is clearly some sort of trick. I drive my thumb into the cake’s center and separate half for Branko. The guy is šupak, but he is likely as hungry as I am.
I realize somebody must have spiked the icing with better drugs than I’ve ever tried because before I pass out, I see several miniature hot air balloons drifting downward from the mountain’s peak.
I awake to find myself wrapped in tinsel and held at arrow point by a crowd of irritable-looking elves.
I struggle, but meet with surprising resistance.
“Another dud,” says the shortest elf. “The strings of cowardice hold her fast.”
Another elf blinds me with a small torch. “Look at the eyes, Dušan. Petra’s violet!”
“We have seen this hue thirteen times in as many centuries, but their souls are always mucked. Remember the last one? Drove herself off a cliff the very next day! And the grandmother? Her spite could melt Skuta! The royal line has become a stain. We will never find our new queen!”
“Hey, jerk-off,” I say. “Are you talking crap about my family?”
A human figure hobbles from the rubble. She looks older than the mountain itself, but beneath a crater of wrinkles, she peers out with what look to be my own eyes. The elves step backward.
“Queen Petra,” they sigh.
The queen raises her palm. “Give me the torch.”
Petra slowly circles me and passes her swollen fingers across my chest. “The look is right. But the heart is in question.” The queen shakes her head. “No. Dušan is correct. Give her the wish and be done with her.”
“Every failed queen gets a parting wish. Name it now.”
The smell of Malborough Reds drifts through the air and I think of Uncle Branko, still back in the Skoda planning his future failures, oblivious to this latest nightmare unfolding.
“Wishes are for fools,” I say.
Something ignites itself behind Petra’s eyes, but I soldier forward.
“Give mine to Branko. Let him win his precious Danube Masters.”
Dušan snorts. “Bah. They all ask for money. He will burn through it in a second. And then what?”
“Then he will have been truly happy for one minute of his shit life.”
“Selfless,” whispers Petra. “I may have underestimated you.”
“Not selfless,” I say. “Just a realist. Probably malignantly depressed, hallucinating, and utterly incapable of joy.”
“You fear joy, is what you mean,” Petra says as she draws closer. “That was your mother’s failure too.”
“Eyes of violet, heart pristine, soul of fire, there stands your Queen!” chants Dušan. “They are always missing something! Banish her without a wish. She is a waste of our magic.”
Suddenly, my limbs lurch upward of their own accord, and I break through the tinsel bonds.
“You owe me a wish!”
I am blown backward as fireworks explode from my fingertips, and then Branko’s voice cuts through the smoke.
“Get your goddamn hands off my Vladana!” he cries and bounds to the center of the clearing.
“Shit,” Branko says as he takes in the scene. “Maybe my sister wasn’t luda after all.”
I rise from the ground and realize all the green creatures have fallen to their knees.
“The rage of Petra,” they whisper irreverently.
Petra bellows, “restrain the toothless one!”
My mind struggles to catch up to reality. “What?”
“We can bring him. However, he is unlikely to come willingly.”
“To your kingdom beyond the mountain where there is more gold than he will know what to do with. I have been queening for longer than is natural. I have grown weak. The elves have become almost feral, but I see you have the strength to refine them. Do you know what your mother wished for, Vladana?”
“For all her strength to be given to you.”
I watch Branko crumble as the elves fire their arrows of tinsel. “Get this shit off me and give me my Vladana!” he cries. “You want gold, you govnari? I will win The Masters this time for sure. You can have it all!”
A strange warmth rises in my throat.
“Don’t be afraid,” Petra says as my laughter threatens. “Let it come.”